Monday, May 22, 2017

Sermon for Easter 6: The Gift of Purpose

Easter 6:  “The Gift of Purpose”

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, Our Rock and our Redeemer.  AMEN

            What do you want to be when you grow up?  … How many heard this question when they were children? 
            How many of you had an answer then?  A doctor, a fireman, a ballerina… a teacher…. There were a lot of answers. 
            How many of you ended up doing what you said you wanted to do when you were five? 
            I know a few people who knew what they wanted to be when they were five years old … and went out and did it!  I know that almost as soon as I knew how to read and write – I said I wanted to be a writer. 
            For awhile people encouraged me, but when I got older, they started to say, well, that’s nice, but what are you going to do for a LIVING?
            What do you want to be when you grow up? 
            If anyone thinks that this question goes away when you are 18, or 22, or maybe 25, or when you get married,  I asked this question on my facebook page this week. 
            What do you want to be when you grow up? I asked.  I got some interesting responses.
            One of my friends said, simply “Queen.” 
            Another one said, “A back-up singer.”
            Another person said, “A widely read author.” 
            Another said, “A theatre director for kids.”
            Someone else said, “FAMOUS!”
            Another said, “ME.  Who I am.”
            One person said, “still trying to figure it out.”  And another person said, “Not sure yet!”  Someone else said, “Grow up!  Who wants to do that?”

            What do you want to be when you grow up?
            Perhaps that’s another way to ask this question:  “What am I here for?  What’s the purpose of my life?  What’s the purpose of our lives?” 
            In some way or another, that question doesn’t go away. 
            When I thought I wanted to be a writer, I was sure that was going to be the purpose of my life – God put me here to write and tell stories.    At this point it’s likely God has something else in mind.

            At first glance, the gospel reading for today is not about these concerns. 
            Jesus doesn’t speak directly to the idea of our purpose in life.  He is speaking to his disciples on the evening before his crucifixion, and he is trying to cram a lot of teaching in. 
            So right here, in this passage, he introduces the Holy Spirit, whom he calls the “Advocate.” 
            We may know the Holy Spirit by other names, the Comforter, or the Helper, or the Counselor. 
            Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Truth”… who guides us into all the truth. 
            So I would think that if you want to know what your purpose in life is, you would ask the Holy Spirit.

            The Holy Spirit is the presence of God – up close and personal – with us every day and also in us.  
            Every Wednesday morning in chapel we sing a few songs and then I ask the children a question, “What do we do next?”  And they all shout, “Light the candles!” 
            And when I light the candles, I say, what do the candles remind us of?  And they say “God!” 
            And sometimes they remember or sometimes I tell them that the candles remind them that God is here, and that God is with them, and that God is even in them. 
            Then we sing, ‘This little light of mine.” 

            That’s the Holy Spirit. 
            The nearness of God.  With us, and among us, and in us.  
            And we often think of this Holy Spirit as a comforting presence, to re-assure us when life is hard, when terrible things happen, when it seems like we have no strength left. 
            The Holy Spirit is called the comforter, after all.  The Spirit is the one who is with us always, even to the end of the ages. 

            But the Spirit isn’t only a Comforter. 
            The Spirit gives us strength when we are weak, that’s sure.  But the spirit gives us strength for the mission of God, for our purpose in life – which is not something we have to go find out – it is something that is given to us.  It’s a gift. 
            Just like the presence of Jesus, the community of faith, and our identity in Christ. 
            It’s true, that God wants us to use our gifts and our abilities out in the world, and use them for good – for his glory.
             But there are a lot of ways we can do that. 

            But whatever we do, our purpose is given. 
            It is not something we have to look for. 
            Our purpose is to love God and to love others.  
             It is to shine the light.   
            Our purpose is to freely give to others the grace we have been given, through both our words and our actions.

            Back when I was first deciding to come here, one of the things I loved was the name of our congregation, “Grace Lutheran Church.” 
            I loved that you had a pre-school, I loved that you participated in ministries to homeless families, I loved that you worshipped in a variety of music styles. 
            But I always came back to the word:  “Grace.” 
            Grace is the gift and grace is our purpose in life.  Whatever we do.  Whoever we want to be when we “grow up”. 

            And while I was thinking and praying, I saw this piece of art.  “We are agents of Grace for one another”  And  I asked the artist for a copy and when I came down here it was the first thing I put in my office.  “We are agents of Grace for one another.”  That’s who I want to be when I grow up, and every day.  I want to be an agent of Grace for other people. 

            That was a gift. 
            I didn’t have to figure it out. 
            But here’s what I do have to figure out, every day:  how to do it.  How, exactly, God wants me to do it. 
           
            And the Spirit, the Advocate, comes along side us, to help us to pay attention, to help us to know, every day, where to go, what action to take, who to reach out to, what to say. 
             The Spirit comes alongside us, to enlighten us, to give us the wisdom to know, every day, in each moment, how we can be an agent of Grace, an agent of his love, an agent of Forgiveness.

            So it’s important what you decide to be, or do, when you grow up.  God wants us to use the gifts he has given us. 
             But the most important part is not something you have to figure out – it’s something that is given to you.
             Because whether you are a ballerina or a doctor, or a mother or a teacher, whether you scrub floors or take temperatures or sit at a computer, whether you hug children or walk dogs or make quilts, your purpose in life is this:  to be an agent of Grace. 
            To shine the light.  To give glory to God. 

            I know a congregation who put a mirror in the entry of the church.  And on the mirror were these words:  “How do you reflect God?” 
            For the people going out into the world, after worship, that was the thought, that was the question, that was the challenge.  “How do you reflect God?” 
            Because you do, you know.  The only question, every day, every moment, is  “How?” 

            And the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the spirit of truth --- will help you – will help us  -- answer that question.  
             The Holy Spirit will help us to shine the light of mercy, of grace, of compassion, where it is needed, when it is needed.

            This little light of mine.
            Let it shine.
            AMEN



Friday, May 19, 2017

The Power of One Word

This week my congregation's pre-school held graduation ceremonies for those who are leaving to attend public school Kindergarten, as well as those students who attended our Kindergarten, and will be attending first grade.

Lat year at this time I was not in town for the graduation ceremonies.  My husband had been in a car accident in Minnesota, and I was caring for him.  So I looked at the pictures and felt regret as I saw the students who were leaving our school.

This year I made sure I was there.  I got to give the opening prayer, and tell the parents how much I enjoyed being with their children every week in chapel, singing songs and praying and telling stories from the Bible.  But all of the important things happened after I sat back down.

The children marched to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance.  They recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer.  They sang one of their chapel songs.  And then, one at a time, they came forward to receive a Bible.  Each Bible contained a note from our congregation.

But that was not all they received.  They also received a Word.

Each student received a special word from their teachers.  The teachers prayed and agonized over each word.  You can tell that they want more than anything for that one word to be the Right Word, to be a True word.  And then, on graduation day, the teachers revealed the Word.  Tenacious.  Spunky.  Compassionate.  Spontaneous.  Energetic.  Inspirational.  Courageous.   Ambitious.  Every word was a gift.  Every word revealed depth.  Every word was one both to embrace and to live into.  Every word revealed teachers who both knew and loved their students.

There was something so powerful about this:  to be given a word, your word.  The word is like a mirror, but it is also a challenge.

Here.  This is who you are.  This is what I see in you.  It is not everything, but it is something.  It is your reflection in my eyes.  It is something you can take with you, and use, and add to.

I loved how the teachers didn't worry about whether the children could understand the word they chose of not.  They said "Tenacious", for example, which might not be a word that most five year old would understand.  But the words were not just for now:  they were words to grow into.

Every word was different.  But behind each word there was one:  Beloved.  Every single child in that school was beloved.

That's the power of One Word.  It is the word behind it, underneath it, the word Beloved.

It seems to me that this is the power behind all of our words.  It is the word "Beloved" that gives them power.  If we cannot speak the truth in love, then all of our words are worthless.  They can destroy, but they can't create anything.

But with the word "beloved" behind it, One Word can do anything:  it can send us out into the world.

I can't imagine what all of these tenacious, ambitious, wise, energetic, charismatic, courageous, beloved children will do.  Maybe change the world.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Sermon for Easter 5: The Gift of Identity

1 Peter 2:2-10

            When I was a little girl, there was a pretty solid line between the kinds of toys boys got to play with the toys girls got – for example, my brother got trucks – we got dolls – we got the Easy Bake Oven, he got the chemistry seat.  But every once in awhile, my brother got something that I kind of envied, that I wished someone had gotten for me, instead.  One of those presents was something called a “Rock Tumbler.”   This was a contraption, or a machine that promised to make plain ordinary stones into beautiful shiny agates.  You just put the rocks into the machine – more than one at a time, of course, and you put in something called ‘grit’ – and you turned on the machine and the rocks went round and round  --and when they came out – magic!  -- they were changed, they were beautiful, they were something you might want to put on a necklace and hang around your neck.

            “Come to him, a living stone… and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house….”

            During this season of Easter, we’ve been contemplating some of the gifts of the Resurrection –- the gift of Jesus’ presence with us, the gift of the community.  This week the gift is:  identity.  Who are we?  Who are you?   There are many answers to that question –the answer last week would have been that we are sheep, for example.   We are sheep, and Jesus is our shepherd.  Or in Ephesians, Paul writes that we are no longer strangers, but we are citizens, and part of the household of God.
              But today, Peter says that we are – stones. “living stones” – but still ‘stones.’ We are stones – and Jesus is the cornerstone.  But, what does he mean?  How can it be a gift to be a stone? 
           
            Perhaps to begin to answer that question, we need to look at places where there are stones in the Bible.  And yes – there are actually many references to stones in the scriptures.
             I did a whole Bible study once, and learned a lot of stories about stones.  For example, there’s the story of Jacob, fleeing from his twin brother Esau.  He has stolen the birthright and the blessing that belongs to his brother, and now he’s on the run.  When he stops for the night, he uses a stone for a pillow.  Can you imagine anything more uncomfortable?  I can’t. But during the night he dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels descending and ascending.           .And God made a covenant there with him.  God promised to be with him and to bless his family.
             So in the morning Jacob took that stone pillow, and he poured oil over it, and he called the place “Bethel”  - the house of God, and he says, “surely God is in this place, and I didn’t even know it.”

            A stone is the house of God.

            There are many other stories about stones in the Bible.  There is the shepherd boy David and his five smooth stones, only one of which he needed to kill Goliath.  There is “Ebenezer” – (ever wonder about that word?) the “stone of help” that the Israelites put down after a victory in battle, to remind them of God’s help to them.  There is the way the Psalmist always talks about God as the “rock of our salvation.”    There are stones all over the Bible, one at a time, or in groups.        

            There is this story from the book of Joshua about the Israelites going into the promised land, and how each tribe took a stone from the wilderness across the river into the promised land.  Twelve stones to remember where they had been – to take to the place they were going.

            And then there is the stone that the builders rejected – Jesus – the one who became the cornerstone.   There is the stone that no one recognized, that one that was tossed aside  -- but chosen and precious in God’s eyes.We are stones, and Jesus is our cornerstone.  But what does this mean?

            Well,  for one thing it means is that we are precious. 
            We are precious to God – even if we are not great in the world.   We are chosen by God – and set apart by God – for a particular purpose.         We may look ordinary, we may look  plain – but God sees something in us  --

            When my niece Rachel was a little girl I used to watch her pick up rocks in the yard.  She was fascinated by stones, but I could never figure out how she decided which were her favorite ones.  A few of them were shiny, but many of them just looked ordinary and plain.  She would pick them up and then line them all up, her treasures, especially chosen and precious.  And  that is that way it is between us and God.  For some mysterious reason, God has picked us up and has made us a part of the spiritual house. 
            Beth-el.  The house of God. 

            Who are you?  Who are we? 
            What is your basic identity?  There are so many ways we can answer that question, if we want to.  And to be truthful, there are many who would be eager to answer that question for us.   In the Old Testament, the Egyptians told the Hebrew people that they were slaves – but God kept telling them that they were free – and then he set them free.  Who are you?  You are consumers, only driven by your greed.  You are poor, you are rich,  you are defined by your past, and you can’t escape.  You are a bleeding-heart, you are idealistic, and your compassion makes you weak.  You are only one person, and you can’t make a difference.

            But God says, no.  God tells you who you are, and it is a gift. 
            You are flawed and forgiven person, a sign a God, a stone of help, a sign of the presence of God, reminders of the presence of God, even in the wilderness.   
            And despite all appearance to the contrary, you are strong, but not in the way you might think.

            One thing about rock:  it’s strong.
             If you have a house made of rock, it is going to last.  Right? 
            Think about that old folk tale, the three little pigs.  And how when the wolf got to the third house, made of brick, he couldn’t destroy it.  Because it was strong.

            Some of you have been praying for a friend of mine, Melissa.  She is a pastor in Minneapolis.   She serves a bilingual congregation, and a couple of weeks ago, her son, a senior at the University of Minnesota, was swept into the Mississsippi River.  His friend was sitting with him and somehow got out. They searched and searched and hoped and hoped, but finally they found his body.  And it has been heartbreaking. 
And she has been writing and sharing her pain and her faith with her church and the wider community who surrounds her, and people keep saying she is strong, and she keeps saying she is not.

            But she is strong. 
           
            She is strong because she is only leaning on Jesus, and she is clinging to the promise that she and her son are both children of God, and that is what makes her strong.  She is strong because she knows who she is, and she knows that both she and her son belong to God.   She is strong because Jesus is all she’s got.  And he’s got her, and he’s got her son.

            Who are you?   
            You are the house of God, a sign of God’s presence, even in the wilderness. 
            You are precious and chosen, made beautiful in the rock tumbler of pain and forgiveness.  And Jesus is your cornerstone.

            AMEN


Saturday, May 13, 2017

How I Learned Japanese

I have been thinking a lot lately about my time as a missionary in Japan long ago.  I am not sure exactly why.   My memories of that time are hazy, but lately one of my missionary friends has been posting pictures of those days.  So that might be the reason.  Or it might be that as a Minnesotan living and pastoring in Texas, I feel some sort of culture shock again.  I am remembering what it was like to be a missionary.  What was it like being a missionary?  How is it like or not like being a pastor in a new place?

My actual job description was to teach English to Junior and Senior High School boys.  So even if they spoke Japanese to me, I always spoke in English to them.  A fair amount of the adults I knew also could speak some English.   In some ways we used English as a strategy to preach the gospel.  During the evenings we would host English Bible studies with groups of interested people.

We did learn a little bit of Japanese before we began our work.  We learned some basic sentence structure and key words.  But (I'm not proud to admit this) it was easy to avoid using Japanese in many cases.  Many people were eager to practice their English with us.  I was shy and self-conscious about making mistakes.

Except that if I didn't learn Japanese, I couldn't talk to the children.

Not my students, the little ones at the yochien (pre-school) that was connected to the church.  As far as I knew, none of those children were Christian, but their parents thought Christian pre-school was a good idea.

I wanted to talk to the children.  

So I learned Japanese.

I wanted to know the things that only the children could tell me:  about their lives, whether they had a dog, what was the picture they were drawing.  I wanted to know what they were learning in pre-school, who they were mad it, who they loved best.  I wanted to know what was their favorite color, if they had a dog, whether they were afraid of the dark.

You know, all the important things.

So I learned Japanese.

It wasn't like my English Bible Studies.  There wasn't an agenda.  I just wanted to know them, to talk with them, to learn about their lives.  I was curious.

I don't think I have ever known how to be a pastor without the children.  It's not that I don't think it can be done:  after all, there are plenty of good chaplains in nursing homes.  But in the same way that I learned Japanese from the children, I have learned how to be a pastor from children as well.

I have learned to be curious.  I have learned to listen.  I have learned to laugh.

I still have a few gifts I received from the children.  Hand-made things.  It's been a long time, so I no longer remember their names.   I don't even remember their stories.  I'm sad about that.  But I remember sitting down with them at the low Japanese tables, eating sweets and chattering together.  

I wouldn't have learned Japanese without them.

And for some reason or another, I can't be a pastor, or a missionary, without them either.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sermon for Easter 4: The Gift of Community

Acts 2:42-47/John 10:1-10

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

            Back when I was living in Japan, my parents came to visit me. They spent three weeks with me, sightseeing and traveling around.
             We also toured the school where I taught and we met some people who gave them an idea of the mission of the Japanese Lutheran Churches. 
            I remember one day they met a man who wove hand-made baskets for a living.   
            What I remember about him was that he made these beautiful handmade baskets (My parents bought one – or maybe he gave them one), that he was disabled, and that he had a Christian testimony that he shared with them.
             If I remember right (and it has been many years now) someone gave him a Bible.
             He started reading the Bible, and he believed in Jesus and became a Christian just because of what he read. 
            That was amazing to me.
             Much as I believe that the Word of God has power, it is amazing that he came to Christ just by sitting in his room and reading it .
             He also said that for many years he had no way to get to church and didn’t know of any churches, so on Sundays he would read the Bible and pray in his house.

            That is a particular vision of what it means to be a Christian. 
            It is about our individual relationship with Christ. 
            It is about our own private devotion to Jesus.
             But it is not the vision that we have in Acts 2.  In this reading – which follows directly after Pentecost – one of the basic elements of being a Christian is being together. 
            And it is being a community in simple, but very particular ways.  They are:  devotion to the apostles teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  
            The church that formed on Pentecost found these the basic building blocks, the foundation, of their lives.  And it was a life together.

            So on Pentecost  the Spirit descended on the disciples who were gathered.  
            They spoke about God’s love and mighty acts in many languages.  Peter preached a powerful sermon.
             And on that day 3,000 people were baptized.  3,000!  
            So when I talk about Christian community as authentic community, please know that I am not necessarily talking about a small group.   
            But it is a group that sees devotion to Jesus as being about devotion to one another. 
            The community was one of true caring, learning and growing in Christ together, sharing their lives with one another, sharing meals – including Holy Communion – with one another –
             and praying with – and for – each other. 
            This community was not about ‘friendliness’ --- but about real friendship. 
            And one of the ways I see this manifested at Grace is in the fact that it is not just me that is willing to go and visit shut-ins and go to the hospital, but that we have a small group of visitors here who also go out with communion, with prayers and with friendship to visit. 
            One woman said this, after visitors from her congregation came to visit, “I wasn’t able to come to church, so the church came to me!” 

            Exactly. 
            That’s what community looks like. 

            In our Sunday morning class, we’ve been studying the Apostles Creed. 
            Last week we talked about the church.
             We might hear the word ‘church’ and immediately think about a building – this building – what a ‘church’ looks like to us. 
            But the word ‘church’ in Greek – the word is ‘ekklesia’ – really means a gathered people. 
            It is the people who have been called out and who have been gathered together. 
            It is the people who have heard their shepherd’s voice and who have been called together in community
            – to devote themselves to teaching, to share each other’s lives in deep commitment, to break bread together, and to pray – to experience the presence of God – and to share that with one another.   
            They are called out and they are called together, to share the mission of God, to share the love of God.

            And this – authentic community – is something that people are hungry for. 
            People want to be known.  Don’t get me wrong.  It is a little frightening to be known. 
            It’s vulnerable.  There is a downside.  We can be hurt, and we can hurt each other. 
            That’s why forgiveness is also essential for communities. 
            But there is also something powerful in this – in people who are willing to surround you with love in the middle of a crisis, -- in people who are willing to listen to you and pray with you,
            in people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and go out to serve with you
             – in people who are willing to crack open God’s word with you, and even admit that they don’t understand everything about it. 
            It’s powerful.  It’s life-giving.

            And there are two things that happen when we practice community – the first is that we become more generous. 
            Because we see that we belong to one another, and this is our community and we want to pool our resources so that we can do more things together. 
            We become generous with our time, and our gifts and our resources, so that everyone here – and people who are around us – can experience God’s generosity – God’s abundance.

            The second thing that happens is that we grow.  It’s true.  The early church grew.  The community was contagious.  People wanted to be a part of it. 

            Where have you experienced true community?  At Grace?  Somewhere else?
            How has it changed your life?
            How has this community been a gift to you?
            (write on an index card anonymously and put them in  the offering basket)
           
           
            The man my parents and I met in Japan – the one who became a Christian all alone by reading the Bible –his story has stuck with me in part I think because it seemed so unusual. 
            I can’t imagine coming to faith without people – witnesses – surrounding me, showing me the love of God, making those Bible stories real in my life. 
            But that’s what happened to him. 
            But of course, that’s not the end of his story.  When we met him, he was no longer alone.
             No, somehow a group of Christians found him – Lutherans from a place called Kosa Church. 
            They had a ministry to people who were disabled, and somehow they found him and invited him to come to church and worship with them. 
            They even offered to pick him up. 
            Of course he was eager to go and worship and study and pray with other Christians. 
            He became a member of Kosa Church – he was baptized there (even though he believed in Jesus he had never been baptized.) 
            The church often shared meals after worship on Sunday, and, just like that New Testament Church, they prayed together. 
            He met the woman who would become his wife.
             He continued to make his bamboo baskets, and he gave much of the proceeds of his work to the mission of his congregation. 
             He wanted people just like him to know the love of Jesus and not be alone. 

            In this world of isolation, in this world where we are so encouraged to go it alone and make it on our own – true community, authentic community – is a gift.
             It is a gift of the resurrection.  It is a gift of life – abundant life – life together. 

            And it is ours – to share.

            Amen

      Image by Vonda Drees.  Used by permission.