Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shining in the Gift of Service/Thanksgiving

Matthew 25:14-30

            It’s been many years ago now but I remember going to the high school basketball games in my first communities – and how much I enjoyed them – and how good they were some years!  In fact one year, one of our tiny towns was on the way to the State Championship. 
            And I decided to go up to one of the play off games to cheer for them
             Usually I would find people from my churches to sit with, but the gym was just packed and I ended up by myself, but with two gentlemen sitting behind me who provided running commentary and their own advice for the players. 
            It was a close game all the way through – the two high school teams trading one or two point leads – and at the very end – we were ahead, but maybe just by 2 or even one point. 
            Every second counts in basketball and there were just a couple of seconds to spare when our team had the ball and was at center court.        One of the high school girls was there – getting ready to try for a three point basket.
            “Don’t do it!  Don’t do it!”  the two men behind me advised. 
            She didn’t hear them.  She took the shot anyway.
            And …. She made it!  The crowd was wild!  We won!
            “She shouldn’t have done it!”  the men behind me said.

            Well.  They knew.  Right?  She should have played it safe.  That was their opinion.  Play it safe.  Because if she had missed – the other team would have gotten an opportunity, and we might have lost.

            Don’t do it.  Play it safe. 

            That’s what I think about when I think of that third slave in the parable today – the parable of the talents. 
            Don’t do it.  Play it safe. 
            That’s what he wanted to do.  Because – he might lose everything.  So he buried the talent in the ground
            I’ve thought a lot about what this parable means, over the years.  Ever since I was a teenager, actually. 
            Maybe it was that word, “talent” – that got me going.  Because I wanted to be talented at something.
            And I wasn’t sure what that was. 
            This worried me.
            Maybe it was the scary judgment at the end. 
            Because, like Luther, I feared God’s judgment – I feared that if I had a talent, even just one, I might squander it somehow. 
            I was sure I was the third servant, because if I had a talent, I only had one.  I was sure. 
            Other people might have a lot, but not me.  I just had one little talent. 

            I used to think that this parable was about talents – the gifts we have – and about the judgment of not using them for God.  But now I am thinking that this parable is more about what kind of God you believe in – what kind of God you trust – or don’t trust.  

            For one thing, I learned that the word “talent” really was a unit of money.   
             And even though I still think that it’s important to use my talents for God (whatever they are), it’s important to know that a talent is money and here’s why:  a talent is a lot of money. 
            Even one. 
            So it’s not a case of the first and second servants getting a lot and the third servant getting a measly amount. 
            A talent was worth about 15 or 20 years wages.  It was a ridiculous amount of money.  For ALL the servants.

            So the first thing to notice in the parable is abundance – there is abundance given to all the servants. 
            There is no scarcity anywhere.   What the landowner gives is not “measly.”  
            This makes it a good story for Thanksgiving, which we are celebrating this week – and today with the huge pot luck meal after our worship service.   
            Thanksgiving is about this abundance – that God has given to us – and how we share it. 
            The reading from Deuteronomy makes it clear that one of the pitfalls of wealth is forgetting where it came from – forgetting where YOU came from. 
            Your story.  It’s a story about God’s goodness to you, about how God led you through the wilderness and gave you this good land, how God has provided and provides abundance for you.  Who are we?  What’s our story? 
            Our “talents” – whether we mean talents to be actual literal money – or the things we are good at – our talents --are abundant, whether we’ve been given five, or two, or one.
            And they are given to us to share

            But the next thing I notice in the parable is that third servant – and what he believes about God. 
            The first two servants – we don’t know about them, except that – they just go out and multiply their talent. 
            But the third servant – we know he’s worried about losing what he has. 
            He’s worried about “not making the basket.”  He’s worried about what his master will do to him if he loses it.  He KNOWS that the master is a harsh master who will punish him. 
            And it is what he believes about the master that causes him to bury his talent.   He believes in the master, but he doesn’t trust him. 

            There’s one scenario that we don’t know about because it doesn’t exist.  What if one of the three servants risked what the master gave them, and lost it all? 
            What if they blew the wad …. And failed?  What if that young woman took the shot – and missed? 
            What would happen then?
            We don’t know. 
            But what if losing it all isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you?  What if losing the game isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you?  What if even losing your life – isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you? 
            The third servant believes in a master who is harsh and unforgiving – and that’s just what he gets. 
            But is that what we believe about God --?   
            Do we believe in a God who is just waiting for us to fail? 
            Do we believe in a God who is like Lucy in the old Peanuts cartoon – holding the football for us to kick and then – just at the last minute – pulling it away just when we were getting ready to kick? 
            Do we believe in a God who is harsh and unforgiving?

            Or do we believe in a God who led us out of slavery into the promised land? 
            Do we believe in a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? 
            Do we believe in a God who forgave his enemies – who raised Jesus from the dead
            Do we trust that God will – even and especially if we fail – will raise us up again and again to new life? 

            Today we are celebrating Thanksgiving here – which is to say we are remembering our story, and the abundance of God. 
            And we will sit around tables together after church and we will feast – which is a part of giving thanks. 
            But what if a part of giving thanks is also this:  to take what God has given us – and throw it up in the air like that basketball – take a risk that God will use it – will use us – no matter us
            Maybe we’ll make that basket – maybe not – but either way – either way – trust that God will use our lives for his glory. 
            Trust that God will use this congregation – for his Glory. 
            Trust that God will use our hands our feet, our songs, our quilts, our muscles, everything – even our failures…. For his glory. 

            And give thanks.  Give thanks for the abundance of God.  Give thanks for the promise of the gospel.   Live the Grace of God.

            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Looking for God

I stopped in at the pre-school yesterday afternoon.  I actually spent some quality time in a class of three-year-olds, long enough to hear them sing "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God" to me, long enough to find out how they feed their brains so that they can grow strong, long enough to get some hugs, and hear a few declarations of upcoming birthdays.

The teacher told me that beside everything else they learn, they also are learning to look for God.  They are learning to look for God everywhere.  The teacher illustrated this by asking the children, "When you get up in the morning, who are you looking for?"  "GOD!"  the children shouted.  "And when you are in the car, who are you looking for?"  "GOD!"  "And when you are in school, who are you looking for?"  "GOD!"

They are always looking for God.

I remembered in my former congregation, that I wanted my congregation to practice "God-sightings."  "Tell me where you saw God today," I asked them one Wednesday evening at an informal worship service.  They were eerily silent.

So I was impressed that the teacher was already teaching her students to look for God.  She said they learned that birds don't just say "tweet tweet", that they praise God, and that the trees praise God too.

It did my heart good to be there, for the hugs, for the songs, and for the reminder to always look for God.

It's not so easy as it looks.

I don't know what the trees and the birds were doing on Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs.  I know that God was there, even in the presence of the evil, because I know that God does not abandon us.   But sometimes God is really really hard to find.   Sometimes God is impossible to find.

I keep thinking of the children:  the children in Sutherland Springs, worshipping with the parents and grandparents.  I keep thinking of the children who hugged my legs and told me they were looking for God everywhere.

Me too.  Me too.

There's something about being around pre-school children.  They remind me both of the simplicity and the impossibility of faith.  Look for God in the birds and the flower petals.  Stay close to the ground.  Pay attention to the small things.  Keep looking for God.  Don't give up.

There are days when it is easy to see God, when I see the flash of a cardinal, or hear a baby laugh, or witness a small act of mercy.   And then there are days when I close my eyes and I imagine what is promised:  a day when there is no more mourning and no more death, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  I close my eyes and I imagine the city where the Lamb is the light, where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.  I close my eyes and I tell myself that evil does not have the last word, will not have the last word, and I believe in the God I cannot see.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sermon for All Saints 2017

“Shining in the gift of our family”

            I remember:  There were just a handful of people at the visitation and at this particular funeral
            Two of them were adults with Downs’ syndrome.  One was a member of our congregation who was 101 years old.
             Just a handful of people, and her family was small, just her son and daughter and their children and grandchildren. 
            But her children told me some things I didn’t know (it’s always like this) – that she had actually borne five children.  One was a daughter borne with cerebral palsy.  Another was a son born with a hole in his heart.  He died when he was 9 months old.  Another was a little boy who had Downs syndrome.  Her daughter remembered that he was often sick and died when he was very young. 

            So much grieving in her life.  I think of her today, on All Saints Sunday, when I think about that small gathering.  She is one of the people I remember.  But not just her. 

            I remember my friend Melissa’s son, lost in the Mississippi River.  I remember my dad, who had Parkinsons. 
            And I remember Charles, who was a music teacher and who had Alzheimers and lost the ability to speak. 
            I remember Al Weddle and Sharla Biehl and Janet Faraone, and I remember my grandmothers Emma and Judy, and my father-in-law George, and how
             – when he invited us out to dinner, always said, “Order whatever you like!” 
            I remember Ella Brekke  and her well-worn Bible, and how her family drove through a blizzard to get to her funeral.

            Who do you remember?  That’s what All Saints Sunday is for.  It is for remembering.  Isn’t it? 
             All saints Sunday.  Every year we gather and we light candles and say names and we remember. 
            And that is what we mean by “All Saints Sunday.” 
            It is a day when we remember the saints among us, the saints who are no longer among us.   But even saying that, it seems odd.  Saint. 
            it’s an odd word to say.  What is a saint?  Are YOU a saint? 

            I asked this question at the Assisted Living Center on Wednesday.  And you know what? 
            No one there thought that they were saints. 
            Maybe because they thought that a saint had to be a lot holier than they were. 
            Maybe because they thought that you could only be a saint after you die.  But for whatever reason, they didn’t think they were saints.   

            What is a saint?   And what does it mean to be blessed?

             I think of the list in our gospel reading from Matthew.  
            The word ‘saint’ doesn’t appear anywhere in this passage, but we read it often on All Saints Sunday, and some have come to believe that these passages somehow describe saints. 
            “Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the merciful.”  
            Blessed.  This word appears over and over.   Blessed.  
            And the word blessed is used with some pretty odd statements, if you think about it.    Would we ever – for example – say that someone who is grieving is blessed? 
            How about those meek?  How are they ‘blessed”? 
            And poor in spirit—I’ll confess that even after all these years of studying I’m still not exactly sure what it means to be poor in spirit. 
            But it doesn’t sound like a positive thing.
             “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” 
            It’s sort of like saying, “Blessed are the failures.”  Blessed are those with low self-esteem.  Blesssed are the needy. 
            Those would not be the blessings of our culture.  
            We would say instead, blessed are the successful who had made it on their own! 
            Blessed are the popular!  Blessed are those who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from! 
            Not “blessed are the needy.” 

            But what is a saint?  We remember them today.  Maybe we want to be a saint. 
            Maybe we are sure that we are the farthest from sainthood.  Martin Luther said that we were both. 
            Both saints and sinners at the same time.    And blessed.  We are blessed.  And so we remember.

            Today is a day for remembering.  It is a day for remembering the saints, famous or ordinary, holy and imperfect.
            It is a day for remembering the stories of people in our lives, those who lived long lives, those who died too soon. 
            And it is a day to know that we too are saints, we too are blessed, we are the needy and the poor in spirit – we are the ones who mourn and need comfort. 
            We are God’s imperfect holy ones, saint and sinner at the same time, called to reflect the mercy of God, called to reflect the grace of God. 

            Today is a day for remembering – not just the people, and not just the stories, but the promises too. 
            Today is a day for remembering the promises of God that those who grieve will be comforted, that the meek will inherit the earth, that the merciful will receive mercy. 
            Today is a day to remember the promises of God that the poor will be lifted up, and the dead will be raised, and the hungry will be fed.          Today is a day to remember that we live by those promises.  That’s what it means to be a saint.  
            To trust God’s promises.  
            To trust God’s goodness, rather than your own.  To know that the light you shine is the light of Christ.

            All of the people I named before:  I saw the light of Christ in them.            I saw the light of Christ in my dad, and my father-in-law, in Emma and Judy, in Al and Janet and Sharla. 
            I saw the light of God  in Jean and in Jan, in Melissa’s son Chris, in Charles  and in Ella and in so many others.
             I saw the light of Christ in them, not in their perfection, but in their humanity, in their weakness, in their need. 
            In whom has the light of Christ shined for you? 
            Who showed you Jesus?   Who showed you the wideness of the love of God, the depth of the grace of God, the breadth of the compassion of God?

            Esther.  That was her name.  the one with the small family.
             At her funeral there were just a handful of people.
             Just her two adult children, and their children and grandchildren.           And two adults with Downs Syndrome, and a member of the church who was 101 years old.  After all,  She had a small family.  But she showed me Jesus.
            She showed me Jesus and she showed me that despite what I could see – she did not have a small family. 
            That is another thing we remember on All Saints Sunday. 
            We remember the stories and we remember the promises, and we remember that by those promises of God, we have been given a gift – the gift of one another. 
            We have been given the gift of all of those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us, all of those who are here, and all of those who are not here – all of those claimed by the promise, living in the Grace of the crucified one.   

            See what love the father has given us
            That we should be called children of God.
            And that is what we are.
            That is what we are.

            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Fifth Sola

For a long time I only thought there were three "solas."  Three Reformation rallying cries:  "Sola Gratia!  Sola Fide! Sola Scriptura!"

Grace alone.  Faith alone. Scripture alone.

It didn't seem to me that you could add to these.

But somewhere along the line I learned that there were two more: Solus Christus (Christ alone) and Soli Gloria Dei (To the glory of God alone.)

Tonight I am consider that fifth "sola."  To the glory of God alone.

What does it mean to live "for the glory of God alone"?

I'm tempted to get a picture of a particularly religious life, because there is a part of my unconscious brain where I think that of course, a particularly religious life gives glory to God.  And that could be the particularly religious life of someone who is a clergy person or an educator, someone who lives in a monastery and prays without ceasing, literally.  Or it could be the particularly religious life of someone who has goes to Bible studies all of the time, or volunteers at the church, or sings Christian songs, or works for justice.

But then I think about it some more.  And while I think that singing Christian songs and praying and working for justice are all important things, and while I even admire those who live in monasteries where they pray and make delicious soup (I imagine) and pray and welcome visitors, I don't think that's what it means to live for the glory of God alone.

And I'm not so sure that I'm very good at it.

I am thinking about Jesus words in Matthew 6, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear."  I am thinking about how Jesus encourages us to look at the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.  The lilies and the birds live for the glory of God without thinking about it, just by being what they are.  They fly and they feed their young; they wave in the wind, they bloom and they fade.

They just live.

I've been thinking lately that to live for the glory of God alone is something like this -- it is not so noble or self-conscious.  It is to glory in the God who created us, and the world.  It is to notice things, small things, the tiniest flowers in the yard (which are weeds), the way the sun feels on a cool day, to look up at the stars on a dark night.

I'm not very good at it.

Instead, I confess, I'm anxious.  My worst times are Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, as I am getting ready for church.  I'm worried about all of the things that could go wrong, whether my voice will squeak on the high notes or whether anyone will show up,  mostly things I can't do anything about.  I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't fall asleep because I'm anxious, and I think, "It should not be this way.  I love worship.  I love worshipping.  Why am I feeling this way?"

Maybe next time I feel this way in the middle of the night I should go out in the dark and look up at the stars.

I live just north of Houston, and one of the surprises in this new house is that it is just like living in the country.  When it's clear, I can look up and see the stars.

I have not seen the stars for many years.

To live for the glory of God alone.  What does it look like?

I remember once having a conversation with women from one of my churches.  They were not sure whether fifth graders should have Holy Communion.  Their proof?  They had overheard a conversation between two girls after they had received the sacrament.  "It was good!" the girls said to one another.  The woman thought they were not taking communion seriously enough.  But I thought the girls were right.  It was good!  They were tasting the bread, and they were glorying in it.

Maybe that's what it looks like:  to live for the glory of God.

Maybe it looks like wonder, and maybe it looks like laughter.  Maybe it looks like the tears you let stream down your face when you are overwhelmed by sorrow, or joy.  Maybe it looks like singing at the top of your lungs, even when your voice squeaks.  Maybe it looks like hitting bottom, maybe it looks like being raised up.  Maybe it looks like tasting bread, and knowing it's good.

 That fifth sola.  It's our whole lives, lived in God, with God, from God.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon For Reformation 2017

“Shining in the gift of faith”
A sermon for Reformation 500, 2017

           All fall we have been learning these words, this verse:
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

            And it’s been good.  All fall we have been living into the promise of God that we are the light- - that we have been given the light of Christ to shine –  and today
            – I want to pause, and acknowledge that we are also in a special time and a special day as this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
            We’ve talked a little about that here.
             During Lent we studied Luther’s Small Catechism. 
            Hannah Alfred from our church shared the significance of her trip to Germany this spring, and what she learned about Luther and the Reformation.   
            There have been events all over our Synod and in fact, all over the country and all over the world commemorating this year and this day.            Last Sunday night some of us got together and watched a movie about Martin Luther’s life, and its significance. 

            In two days it will be October 31, 2017, exactly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the University church door in Wittenberg.   
            He didn’t mean to change the world.  He just wanted to have a conversation.
             He was concerned about a particular practice in the church of his time – the practice of selling forgiveness through indulgences
            And He was beginning to experience God – the grace of God – to know God in a different way than he had before – and he wanted to make sure that this message got out clearly.
             So he nailed those 95 statements to the door – meaning to start a conversation – and instead started a revolution. 

            And at the heart of this revolution was Freedom. 
            You might be surprised to hear that. 
            You have perhaps have heard that it was the grace of God, or about faith – or you might have heard that it was about the Word of God, and its center in our life.
            And all of that would be true.  But all of these things – grace and faith and the word of God – brought freedom to Martin Luther.
             It was about, as the Gospel reading from John tells us “the truth that sets us free.”

            In this short passage from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking with some of the Jewish people who had followed him.  “If you continue in my Word,” he tells him, You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
             Seems simple doesn’t it?   First the promise of knowing the truth, and then the promise that this truth has the power to make us free. 
            But it’s interesting – instead of meeting Jesus’ words with joy – or gratitude – or anything positive at all
            – they say, “Wait a minute! What do you mean ‘free’?  We aren’t slaves!  We have never been slaves

            It’s an interesting response by people who tell a particular story as a part of their history – the story about how they were slaves in Egypt, and how God delivered them with a mighty hand and brought them into the promised land. 
            That’s the story of Jewish People.  Passover.  That tells him who they are.   
            And that’s not even the only time they were slaves.  They were slaves of the Babylonians, and of the Persians, and even now – they were living under Roman rule. 

            (Denial.  It’s not just a river in Egypt.)

            But that’s one of the truths that will set us free, one of the truths that Martin Luther found in the Scriptures – not the only one, the truth about us. 
            The truth is that we are captive to sin – not just Peter who betrayed Jesus, and not just the other disciples, and not just the soldiers who put him to death ….
            The truth about us is that we are slaves.  The truth is that we miss the mark, that we fail, that we fall down, that we hurt one another, sometimes without meaning to, sometimes intentionally. 
            The truth is that we are broken, flawed,  imperfect.  And we’re not that good at admitting it.

            It’s like the popular song, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” 
            You know that one?  And there was one time that I found an old bulletin with the words to Amazing Grace printed on it, and someone had crossed out the word “wretch”.  Because you know, that seems sort of harsh, right? 

            It’s hard to admit, but it’s also the truth behind the very first of Luther’s 95 theses – “that when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “repent”, he willed for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
            I don’t think Luther means that we need to spend our whole lives beating ourselves up – but he does mean that we need to be able to tell the truth about ourselves – that there are things we need to repent of.       That there are things about us that need to change.  It’s one of the reasons we confess our sins and hear the promise of forgiveness every single Sunday.  It’s part of the truth that sets us free. 

            But it’s not the only truth.   It’s not just the truth about us that we need to know.
             It’s also the truth about God, the truth about Jesus.

            Those of you who were at the Luther movie on Sunday night – there this very powerful moment in it when Luther’s confessor turns to him and says, You are not being honest with yourself, Martin. 
            God isn’t angry with you.  You are angry with God.  
            Think about that for a moment.  And what Luther’s confessor is saying to him.  “God isn’t angry with you.” 
            The truth about God – the truth about the God we know in Jesus is that he loves you
            – and he loves you in all over your messy imperfect humanity – so much that he went to the cross –- and he rose to new life – for YOU. 
            The truth about Jesus is that through his death and resurrection he has imprinted his life and love on us and in our hearts, that he has given us his light to shine in our hearts and in our community,
             and that there is nothing that we can do to make him love us less.   We can’t earn this love, or this salvation.   
            We can’t MAKE God love us, and we can’t stop God from loving us.

            Like a friend of our family once said to me, a long time ago, during a time when I was sort of down and discouraged with life in general and myself in particular.
            I love you, kid.  He said.  And there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. –( Okay – he used somewhat stronger language than this.)
            I love you – and there’s not ONE THING you can do about it
             THAT’s the truth that sets us free. 
            He loves you – YOU – and you the way you really are, not you with the photo touch ups or the you you post about on Facebook, or the you that you put in the resume
             And this truth sets us free – there is nothing we HAVE to do to earn God’s love.  
            There is nothing we HAVE to do – but there  are plenty of things that we are FREE to do. 
            We don’t worship because we have to.  We don’t pray because we have to 
            We don’t read the Bible because we have to. 
            We don’t serve because we have to. 
            We do it because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.   

            If the Son has set us free, we are free indeed.  Free to see ourselves as we really are, free to trust God in death – to trust God with our lives.  Free to love our neighbor, to serve freely those who most need it.  Free for another 500 years --– to let God re-form and re-new us as the people of God and to shine that light for the sake of the world God loves