Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent, Day 2: Wondering and Wandering, again

Today I must admit, I did not wander, much.  I didn't wander as much as I do on a normal day off, when we are flitting around getting errands done and pursuing fun.  We try to do some of each on a day off.

Today I laid pretty low, surrounded by mounds of kleenex, blowing my nose and sneezing and drinking tea.  I did go out, briefly, but knitted and napped mostly.

It rained and rained and rained all day, a cold cold rain, which I hear will freeze sometime tonight.  I did go out, briefly, to meet a grieving family and to plan a funeral.  We shared memories of a woman who loved to make hand-made gifts, who advocated for children in her school system, who teased her husband relentlessly, and who died too soon.

And today I wondered this:  I wonder what it means for our lives, for how we live our lives to know the truth that nothing will separate us from the love of God.  I wonder what it means for how we live to know that love is stronger than death -- which means as well that love is stronger than hate, and love is stronger than injustice, and love is stronger than prejudice. 

What does it mean for us to believe this?

One thing it means:  we sing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent, Day 1: Wandering and Wondering

This year our congregation has taken our midweek Advent theme from the carol, "I Wonder as I Wander."  Every week we will offer a reflection based one, "I wonder about...."  This Wednesday, we will wonder about hope.  Next Wednesday, we wonder about love, and for the third week, we will wonder about joy.  (I know, there is a 4th Wednesday this year, but we will just have 3 advent services, as usual.)

During the days of Advent, I thought I would try to reflect, as much as possible, on the theme.  I won't promise you every day (though I'd like to), but I will reflection on where I wandered on this Advent Day, and what I wondered about. 

Today I wandered over to my mom's house, as I took vacation days over Thanksgiving.  My mom and I went to her church together, St. Barnabas Lutheran in Plymouth.  It's a great congregation. 

I drove up the highway this morning, taking a much different route than usual on a Sunday morning.  I am usually presiding or preaching right in my own neighborhood.  But today I got out on the road, listening to the radio station that someone else had tuned in the other day. 

There was Christmas music on, already.  I am usually opposed to such things, but I kept the station on, and my eyes got blurry, a little, as I listened to a piece by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, based on Pachelbel's Canon.  I remembered that my dad and I sang Christmas carols on Thanksgiving this year, because it seemed he knew the words to more Christmas carols than Thanksgiving hymns. 

I enjoyed everything about the service this morning, singing with my mom (even with my stuffed-up nose), listening to the sermon, hearing the "witness moment", and how the choir came from the congregation to the choir loft as part of the offering, sang their piece, and returned to their seats. 

After church my mom and I made lefse all afternoon.  She had prepared it beforehand, so when I say that we "made lefse", she had done most of the work, although we worked as a team on the rolling and the flipping of the lefse.  She could do it by herself, if she wanted to, but she'd rather have me there with her.

I wondered a little whether that is the way it is with God, as well.  God has done most of the work, and, to be truthful, I suppose that God could do it all without our help, if God wanted to.  But that's not what God wants.  God wants us on the team, partners in doing justice, showing mercy, making the world more beautiful.   It's not an imposition, it's a privilege, working side by side with God, helping people know Jesus, know God's love, believe they are God's children, and walk in that light.  It's a privilege, not an imposition.

If I thought I had to make the lefse by myself, I would probably be depressed.  If I thought I had to shine God's light in the world by myself, I would give up.  But I don't.  You don't. 

And the best part?  Somehow, the light shines in us.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Every two years since just before we were married, we've been able to spend Thanksgiving with my husband's sister and her family in Chicago.  This year, for the first time, we are not able to go.  There are just too many conflicting schedules to juggle.

The first time we went down, someone in the family asked me to give the blessing.  (I suspect this may have been because I'm a pastor.)

In order to take a little of the heat off of myself, I decided to ask everyone to name something they were thankful for in the past year, and then design a prayer around our real "thanksgivings."

This year, here are some of mine:

-I'm thankful for my family.  I'm especially thankful that my dad can be with us at Thanksgiving.  My mom is taking him home from the nursing home for dinner.
-I'm thankful that my husband didn't break his wrist when he fell on the ice on Sunday.
-I'm thankful for all the talented people in my family:  especially my nephew the musician, my stepsons who both are talented musicians, my sister the artist, my niece who draws manga and plays the violin
-I'm thankful for people in my congregation who get what it means to be part of the body of Christ, who pray for one another, weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, and dream big dreams
-I'm thankful for the hope we have in the gospel, especially when I have to preach a funeral sermon
-I'm thankful for singing, and for the songs that we sing
-I'm thankful for chicken chili, popcorn, old movies, artichoke pizza, blueberries
-I'm thankful for babies who babble during the worship service
-I'm thankful for my beautiful, sweet, lovely dog Scout
-I'm thankful that I saw someone from my office wear the scarf I made for her last year. 
-I'm thankful for grace. 
-I'm thankful for these smells:  cardamom, cinnamon, peppermint, garlic, ginger, balsam fir.
-I'm thankful the broken sewer pipe finally got fixed.

What are you thankful for?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon: "A Different Kind of King"

A couple of years ago on this day – Christ the King Sunday – the end of the church year – I had the children’s sermon.
I had some of the children come up, and I asked them to think about what they knew about kings.
What do kings look like?
What would a king have?
Kings rule, so they thought first of all, that kings must have a kind of a staff for ruling, called a scepter.
So we got out a scepter, and we had someone carry it.
Then they thought they had seen pictures of kings that were wearing beautiful, and plush robes.
So, of course, we had to get out a robe of our own, and have someone wear that as well.
Finally, we thought that kings should have crowns.
Luckily, we also had a crown available, and we had someone put that on, too.
Then we had a real king standing in front of us! All dressed up and ready to lead his people.
What a good way to begin Christ the King Sunday!

Except for two things: That king didn’t remind us very much of Jesus.
And of course, we had to admit, no one had seen anyone dressed up like that lately, with a robe, and a scepter and a crown.

The main problem with this day – “Christ the King” – is really that we don’t have that much experience with kings
– real kings, that is.
There are a few modern kings, we may know about them vaguely – except in the case of one (possible) king – Prince William, who has recently gotten engaged, I hear, and who will someday be King of England.
I think he will wear the robe and crown and scepter then, but only on special occasions.
So what does it mean for us to say that Jesus is a king, that he reigns in our lives, or in the world?
What difference does it make?
We could try being more modern by trying to say “Christ the President”
– but  as soon as I say it, you know that wouldn’t be right.

Of course, there was a time long ago when everyone had kings.
All the best countries had kings, which was why Israel – God’s people – wanted one too.
They wanted a king, just like all the other nations!
The wanted a king, because having a king meant that you were and Important Nation.
Kings provided security for the people.
Kings fought battles (although they were usually the ones giving the orders, not the ones fighting and dying).
Kings made decisions.
Kings made you important. Kings were powerful.

And then you have Jesus.
We say he is a King.
We believe that he reigns.
But if you really pay attention, you will see that he’s a different kind of king
– a different kind of king than the modern figureheads we know
– a different kind of king than the those in ancient times
He doesn’t wear a robe, or a crown, or have a scepter in the Bible stories – except when people are making fun of him.
He says impractical things like “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”
He does provide a certain kind of security, but not the kind we usually think of, or prize.
He provides the security of knowing that our lives are in God’s hands, but not the security of knowing that we will win every battle.
And of course, if it’s a feeling of Being Important that you want, you might want to check out Jesus, down on his knees, washing his disciples feet.
Doing the dirty work.

So today – on this last Sunday of the church year – and on the Sunday when we are also going to have our annual meeting
We have the story of Jesus on the cross, between two thieves.
People are calling him a king, but they’re making fun of him.
Except for one person, and I think this is really remarkable.

There is one person who recognizes that Jesus is a king, a different kind of king and who wants to live in his kingdom.
It’s that second thief.
He says to Jesus, the king hanging on the cross,
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
He says to Jesus, “When you are king, and where you reign – that’s where I want to be.”
I wonder why. Why does he say, “Jesus, remember me...”

I can’t help wondering if it’s because he heard Jesus’ other words from the cross, those other strange, unusual words Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus said these words to the soldiers who were crucifying him.
“Father forgive them, forgive them.... for they don’t know.”
To be forgiven, to forgive – is not so common in this world.
It’s more common to hold grudges, to keep score, to get even.
A friend of mine told me long ago, “I’ll forgive someone once, but after that... forget it.”

But what would a world (a kingdom) be like where forgiveness was abundant, where mercy ruled, where kings washed feet, where the hungry were fed, where captives were set free?
What would the world be like?
No wonder he said, “Jesus remember me,”

“Jesus, remember me.” Can this be our prayer too, on Christ the King Sunday? “Jesus remember us, because we have tried to manage the world and our lives and most of the time, we just made a bigger mess. But Jesus, remember us.
Remember us when we die, and remember us right now, in the middle of our messed up lives. Help us to see your kingdom, among us.
Help us to love our enemies, and our neighbors, and to be your people
Even – especially – in the middle of our annual meeting, because we want to be your people, your disciples.
Jesus, remember us, when you come into your kingdom.

One Sunday I told the children, “Jesus was a king.”
But then I asked them: did he have a crown?” “No!” They answered. “Did Jesus have a robe?” No! They answered.
Did Jesus have a scepter? “No!” they answered.

What did Jesus have? I asked.

“Love,” one child answered.

I was going to say a cross.

But I liked their answer, better.


What You Missed

For the second week in a row, we have had Winter Weather Issues here in the upper midwest.  Last night and this morning it was freezing rain.  In the middle of the night, one of my stepsons was unfortunate enough to be out driving, watching cars who couldn't get off the freeway ramps because of the ice, and many many accidents.

As you might imagine, church this morning was a smaller crowd than usual.  We had a few adult children call their parents and tell them not to come to church.  But enough people ventured out to have worship, a few more at ten than at 8:45.

Here's what you missed:

1.  The hymns.  We sang a lot of good hyms, including Lift High the Cross, My Song is Love Unknown, Just as I am, and Jesus Shall Reign.  I love the third verse of "Jesus Shall Reign."

People and realms of ev'ry tonge dwell on his love with sweetest song;
and infant voices shall proclaim their early blessings on his name.

(there was a young couple with their 10 month old baby at the Saturday evening service.  The baby sang along, appropriately, during this verse.  And here's one thing I love about being a pastor:  during that verse, I caught the eye of the young father, and he caught my eye, at the same time, and we both smiled.)

2.  At 10:00, one of our older elementary students read the lesson from Colossians.

3.  The children's message, where all of the children present got Burger King Crowns.  Since there was no Sunday School today, several of them wore their crowns when they came up for communion.  I got to bless them by saying.  "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is your king."

4.  Even though it was a small crowd at 10:00 a.m., the worship felt lively and life-giving to me.  There were people of every age group present, from little kids to teenagers to parents and grandparents.  During one part of my sermon, our talented pianist played "Jesus, Remember Me" softly underneath.

5.  In that small, eclectic crowd this morning were my mom and mother-in-law, who ventured out, and two of my former confirmation students (one of them lives in Shakopee now).

6.  You missed my sermon too.  I'll post that a little later....

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Five: Unexpected Thanks Edition

Jan over at Revgalblogpals has this Friday Five for us:

With the American holiday of Thanksgiving being less than a week away, I tried to think of some questions for Friday Five that could be connected to this, but in a new way. So here is my one try:

Name five things that were unexpected in your life that you are now grateful for.
1.  My husband.  After 41 (or so, but who's counting) years of singlehood, I got married.  Very unexpected.  But very good. 

2.  Our Dog Scout.  Before Scout, I was a cat person.  I was the kind of cat person who let my cat sleep on the bed at night.  And I had a cat who loved to curl up in my lap.  But, the first thing that happened was that my husband was allergic to cats.  The second thing that happened was that we met Scout.  Now, we are Totally Bonded.  And I am Very Grateful.

3.  Being a Pastor.  When I was a little girl, women could not be pastors.  I am surprised and grateful that women can be pastors, that God called me, and that a congregation also called me to be their pastor.

4.  New friends.  I am grateful for Fran, Terri, Lindy, Marsha, Stephanie, Jan, Amy (Dogblogger), Robin, etc. etc.  Some of you I have met.  Some of you I still hope to meet someday.  I never imagined that I could be good friends with people I have never met (or met just once).  (sorry no links right now, maybe a little later....)

5.  Knitting.   I've known how to knit since the 7th grade, but I've never made any progress - until the past year.  I'm surprised at myself, and grateful, because my progress is due to patient people willing to work backwards with a left-hander.

What do you do with a Sunday called "Christ the King?"

I ask you.

I'm supposed to preach on the last Sunday of the church year, called "Christ the King Sunday" in our lectionary.

I'm supposed to keep it short, too.  Because our annual meeting is on Sunday, and so is an Important Football Game.  So we hope to have a short annual meeting, with information, a little voting, a good feeling, and an adjournment.  (Also, prayer.  We will begin and end with prayer.)

So, what do you do with a Sunday called "Christ the King?"

I'd like to give a practical message, that applies to our daily lives, but the word "King" does not, in general, apply to our daily lives.  We don't have kings.  In fact, we fought a war a couple hundred years ago or so, just so we would not have kings.

Oh, we keep an eye on the celebrity Royalty of Great Britian, and I'll bet everyone knows that Prince William is engaged -- and to a commoner!

The the words "Practical" and "King" very rarely go together in the same sentence.  For the most part, our knowledge of kings comes from fairy tales, where there are kings and queens, and elves and fairies, and magic wands. 

Of course, there was a time when everyone had kings.  All the best countries had kings, which was why Israel wanted one too.  They wanted a king, just like all the other nations!  They wanted a king, because having a king meant that you were important, and kings provided security for the people.  Kings fought battles (although they were usually the ones giving the orders, not the ones fighting and dying).  Kings made decisions.  Kings made you Important.  Kings were powerful.

At the time, it was a matter of practical necessity to have a king.  Or so people thought.  Now, not so much.

And then you have Jesus.  We say he is a king.  We believe that he reigns.  But if you really paid attention, you will see that he is not the most practical kind of king to have.  He doesn't wear a robe, or a crown, or have a scepter, except when people are making fun of him.  He says impractical things like, "Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you."  He does provide a certain kind of security, but not the kind we usually think of, or prize.  He provides the security of knowing that our lives are in God's hands, but not the security of knowing that we will win every battle.  And of course, if it's a feeling of Being Important you want, you might want to check out Jesus, washing his disciples' feet.  Just like a servant. 

And there he is, on a cross, of all places.  This is not the place you would expect to find a King, even if we thought we needed one. 

and yet, some of us find ourselves singing, or humming to ourselves, "Jesus, Remember me, when you come into your kingdom."    Some of us find ourselves longing to hear the words he said to those who crucified him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  We have the sneaking suspicion that we are the ones who don't know what we are doing, that in all of our practical attempts to manage our own lives (and the world) we have botched it up royally. 

Jesus, remember us. 
Jesus, forgive us.

And the prayer, "Jesus, remember me" isn't just a prayer for security when we die.  It's really a prayer that somehow, in the middle of our botched-up lives, we will see God's kingdom,  We will see that impractical, necessary kingdom where the Kings kneel and serve, where the poor are lifted up, the dying are raised -- and where forgiveness is the best, the most precious treasure there is.

On Christ the King Sunday, I pray that even in our annual meeting, we'll serve the impractical King.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Politics is the new Religion

(My husband wanted me to post this, after a short conversation this morning.)

Sometimes I think we confuse faith and politics. 

Faith is about ultimate concerns, and high ideals.  It is about holding fast and not compromising.  Faith is a matter of life and death (although it also gets us through the day).  Faith is "blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

Politics is practical, down-to-earth.  It's not about perfection, but it is about improvement, in one way or another.  In politics, there has to be compromise, making deals, getting hands dirty. 

Lately it seems that faith has become practical and politics more ideological.  I'll bet if you go back a century or so, you won't find many sermons that are "practical, and relate to our daily life," as is common now.  Back in the 18th Century, the sermons were called, "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God," (for example) not "8 Ways to have a Happy Marriage."   

Now politics is about ultimate concerns, a matter of life and death.  I'm right and you're wrong.  We can't work together.  No compromising.  In some cases, our political commitments have become our religion. 

I have a friend who proselytizes for the free market.  If he were as zealous for Jesus, I think the whole world would be Christian (or at least his neighborhood.)  He is Very Suspicious of the Social Justice Christians, who, to be fair, are probably Very Suspicious of him.

Practical, down-to-earth, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-things-down.  That's politics.  It's down to earth, humble, sometimes-your-hands-get-dirty work.

A lot of people have observed that Americans hate politics.  There may be a lot of reasons for this, but I suspect this is one of them:  that politics has become the new religion, where people draw lines in the sand and declare those who disagree not only Wrong, but Unrighteous.  Those who disagree are The Enemy.  If you are Liberal, conservatives are commmonly called "Idiots."  Or is it the other way around?  If you are Conservative, liberals are commonly called "idiots."  Or, Hitler.

Don't get me wrong, I think politics is important, and is part of making the world a better place.  A better place, but not a perfect place.  But politicians are not Messiahs, whether the politician is Barack Obama talking about "Hope" or Sarah Palin's with her "Mama Grizzlies" or even Ronald Reagan's "It's morning in America."    If you doubt, imagine even one politician, even the most honorable ,respectable, politician you like best, saying something like "Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you."   Especially in an election year.

So I pray for all of us, politicians, pastors, people who hate politics, to roll up their sleeves and get things done, to make the world better, if not perfect.  And then I pray that the vision of God's reign of love keeps burning in my heart.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Winter's On the Way Friday Five

Singing Owl over at Revgalblogpals gives us this Friday Five:

The picture is of my back deck after the first heavy snow last winter. I am looking at the weather forecast with a sigh of resignation. You see, our glorious unseasonable stretch of sunny days is ending and rain mixed with snow is in the forecast. The weather guy actually said, "This is probably the last nice day till spring, folks..." So, I am trying to plan ahead. Help me out, please. When it is cold outside.

1. What is your favorite movie for watching when curled up under a wooly blanket?
I'm curled up right now, and for some reason I'm thinking of the movie "Roman Holiday."  Don't ask me why.
2. Likewise, what book?
Any GOOD mystery.  I'm liking the Chet and Bernie (Dog On it) mysteries right now, as well as Maisie Dobbs and Clare Ferguson.  Always looking for a new series.

3. What foods do you tend to cook/eat when it gets cold?
Soups and stews.  I love to make Tortellini Soup and Chicken Chili when it gets cold. 
4. What do you like to do if you get a "snow day" (or if you don't get snow days, what if you did)?
We don't get snow days here (we're so used to snow), but when I did, out in rural South Dakota, I liked to watch movies, eat popcorn and pizza, and read.  I didn't like to, but I also used the time to catch up on paperwork.

5. Do you like winter sports or outdoor activities, or are you more likely to be inside playing a board game? Do you have a favorite (indoors or out)?
My favorite sport is really swimming, which is not a great cold-weather sport.  I skate a little, but I'm not a great cold-weather sports person.  Too bad, because this is a great cold-weather sport state.  My favorite board game is Scrabble.  I like to work puzzles.  That would be a great "snow day" activity, I think.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Few Small, Good Things

In the midst of disappointments, I'm not one to put my head in the sand and give up.  But I do think it's all right to take a moment and consider some simple pleasures:

1.  I finally finished the cable shawl.  Well, I haven't tucked the edges in yet, but I have finished everything else.  Aaah!
2.  I swam tonight -- 10 laps!  The fitness coordinator said it's actually better if I can swim earlier in the day, but I say, you have to take it where you can get it.   I don't know why this is, but swimming does seem to reduce my stress level.
3.  It was almost 70 degrees again today.
4.  Mark Ritchie is still the Secretary of State of Minnesota.  I love listening to him talk about how his loves his job and how he loves our state and our tradition of civic involvement.  I don't know where he grew up, but you can just tell he loves the electoral process.
5.  I am looking forward to attending a church "house meeting" tomorrow night with a group of amazing women.  I got some great feedback from the first one.
6.  Our confirmation  lesson tonight was the feeding of the 5,000.  At the end of the worksheet, there was a crossword puzzle.  Most of the answers were pretty easy, but I have to admit, there were a couple of clues that mystified even me:  1.  strange meal where rice and whipped cream may be served in the same bowl; 2. Jesus didn't serve this with the bread and the fish.  As I was leaving church tonight, one of my seventh grade boys came running up to me and said:  "I know the answers!  I know the answers!  'potluck' and 'beverage'."
And 7. (the number of perfection) the boys had their best prayer time ever, tonight.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ministering to My Dad

I went to visit my dad the other day.  My mom is out of town for a few days, visiting my niece, on the occasion of her 18th birthday.  So I wanted to make a point to visit him while she was gone.

The first thing I noticed when I got there was that his hair looked kind of funny.  He has naturally curly hair, and it looked kind of fly-away, like he was a mad scientist.  He was sitting with two aides, and when I said something about it, they both got to work re-combing his hair so that it would look better.  It occurred to me that there is more than one reason for a nursing home resident to need regular visitors.  It's good for the workers to know that people will be coming by.

So, they wheeled my dad over to a table with me, and we got re-acquainted.  He asked about people, how they were doing.  He was a little bummed that he couldn't go and visit my neice.  (She's 18; he's 81.  "You have something in common," I said.) I tried to call my sister but she wasn't home.  (He probably couldn't have heard her, but I thought it would still seem like a good connection.)  I had brought my old copy of "Youth's Favorite Songs", which was really his songbook from when he was in Youth Group.  We sang some of those together, including, "Living for Jesus."  I also sang "Children Of the Heavenly Father." 

There was a lady sitting by the window near us, talking to herself.  At one point she started saying, "Sing a little louder!"  I said I was singing with my dad, and she said, "Still, I wish you would sing a little louder."

As often happens, we got into a little theological conversation.  My dad opined that he might die soon.  "You look okay to me," I told him.  "So you think I should keep going?" he said.  I said I thought that was okay.  "Everybody will die someday, but I think you still have some good years."

He expressed some doubts about his worthiness.  He seemed concerned that he was not good enough to be a Christian.  I read some familiar passages from Romans.  "All have sinned and fall short, but they are now justified by his grace as a gift."

"Do you trust Jesus?" I asked him.  "Yes," he said. 

"Well, then, that's all there is to it," I answered.

"You mean it's that simple?"

Sometimes I do try to make things complicated.  I mean, living for Jesus and all that.  I know it's not all about going to heaven when you die.  Living for Jesus means a lot of things for our life right now.

But actually, when I think about it, it really is that simple -- whether you're 18 or 81, whether you're living or dying, doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly...

"Do you trust Jesus?"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Some Fragments of an old All Saints' Sermon

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us...looking to esus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him eudred the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."

A few years ago on a wednesday in early November twelve confirmation students were wandering around in a cemetery at dusk.  It was pretty spooky, as you can imagine -- their pastor had forgotten when she scheduled the field trip that daylight saving time would be over and it would already be pretty dark.  So what in the world were they doing there?  Why did they come?

Well, first of all they came because their pastor made them.  They also came because their parents drove them.

But most of all, they were there because it was All Saints Day -- and they were there to remember some saints, and to help their congregations remember them as well.  They came to the cemetery with flashlights, of course -- it was a good thing they had them along -- but they also came to the cemetery with crayons and big sheets of butcher paper.  They were going to find some interesting grave markers at the cemetery and make rubbings.

As their pastor had imagined it, they would find an interesting name or a Bible verse, or maybe even an interesting picture, and then hold the paper over the stone and rub with the crayon until the name and the verse and the picture came through on the paper.

They wandered around in the dark that night in search of saints.  It was so cold they could see their breath.  They held flashlights for one another, did their work and remembered some of the saints among them. 

The next Sunday they intended to display their rubbings on the walls of the churches they attended, so that the whole congregation could remember with them on All Saints Sunday.

...The author of Hebrews spoke of a specific cloud of witnesses from the Old Testament:  Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Samson and David, all who lived and died believing in God's promises, but not yet seeing Jesus.  Although he remmebers the stories of many famous people, he also mentioned the many who kept the faith but whose names we don't remember, whose stories we don't know.  They too are part of the cloud of witnesses.  When the early church first began the practice of celebrating an "All Saints Day", it recognized this reality:  that there are so many faithful ones, too many to receive their own day, too many for us to name.  The cloud of witnesses is too many to count, even too many for us to remember.  But they all deserve to be remembered, don't they?  Even ordinary saints deserve to be remembered.

....Here's one reason to remember the saints -- their stories tell of God's faithfulness, God's mercy, God's wisdom, God's love.  Their stories tell about how God sustained them on a long sea voyage, thorugh a dusty depression, during times of scarcity and times of abundance, through both companionship and loneliness.  Their lives, whether long or brief, tell of God's tender mercy and love toward them -- and toward us.  their witness says to us -- keep running, it is worth it.

....Finally, we remember especially those saints who have died because they remind us of the place we are running toward, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice and mercy that they hoped for, that God has promised.  They remind us of the hope of the resurrection, the hope we have of a joyful reunion with those we love -- in the presence of Jesus.

...Gerhard Frost once saw a scene at an airport of a young family headed on a trip.  The father held the older child's hand, and the child was bursting with excitement.  "Where are we going?" he asked.  "To grandma's," she replied.  She didn't say, "To Fargo," or "To Billings."  To her, they were going to a person and the place hardly mattered.  Perhaps, Frost thought, heaven is not so much a place as a face.  Of this our saints remind us, for we confess that they are now at home with their savior, and that they see him face to face.  While we work in the dark with flashlights, they worship the Lamb in eternal light.

Those twelve confirmation students who walked in a dark cemetery one night remembered well.  So when the light of Sunday morning dawned, we were surrounded, in those little churches, by the names of those wih whom we had worshiped.  As we sang and prayed together, we remembered the grandparents who had died within a year of one another, the beloved daughter and aunt who died of cancer, the bachelor farmer who was always generous with his family of faith.  We remembvered the invalid who wrote poetry, the older sister who couldn't get to the hospital because of a blizzard, the Sunday School teacher who never had children, but who introduced many to Jesus.  We remembered the handicapped son who never spoke, a gracious mother, a secret giver.  We saw, for a little while at least, a small part of the cloud of witnesses that encourage us.  We gave thanks for their lives.  But most of all, we gave thanks for God's faithfulness to them, God's love which kept them going -- and that keeps us going as well.

So keep running, you saints of God's faithfulness and love surround you as certainly as this cloud of witnesses surrounds you.  God remembers you, and in the end, God will bring you out of the darkness into the presence of his Son, to celebrate together with the saints in light.  Amen

Saturday, November 6, 2010

"To Be Blessed" -- All Saints' Sermon

I have only ever known one person named “Beatta.” – have you?
It’s sort of an old-fashioned name, but unlike some of the old-fashioned names, it’s not experiencing a great come-back of popularity.
I know quite a few “Emmas” these days, and all of them are little girls, but before that the only “Emma” I knew was my grandmother “Emma.”
But Beatta – I haven’t heard so much
– and this particular “Beatta” was an older woman at one of my churches, a woman that I went to visit, and to give communion often.
And, I’m not proud to admit, either, that it took me awhile before I realized the significance of her name – what “Beatta” means.

Beatta means “Blessed.” So this woman was named “Blessed,” which I think is very wonderful thing to call a child. “Blessed.”
But of course, this also got me to thinking about two things this week and one is our gospel reading, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are you poor. Blessed are you who are weeping, blessed are you who are hungry.”
Then again I also considered the day – All Saints Sunday – and I realized that the word “Beata” also means to be a saint.
So today we gather to hear Jesus words of blessing to us, and to hear the names of the saints, the blessed ones, from among us who have died.

But Jesus’ words to us today, on All Saints Sunday, are not just comforting, are they?
They are also challenging.
Jesus blesses the poor, but then he goes on to say, “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are laughing. Woe to you who are full.”
What could he possibly mean?
Jesus gives a promise, a blessing to the down and out, to the poor, to the suffering – but why does he say those words of woe?

It’s tempting to read the beatitudes, and to consider them as a job description, or a litmus test, for saints.
If you want to be a saint, here’s what to do, and here’s what not to do
– just like in our world today, there is certainly no lack of advise for those who want to be rich, for those who want to be successful, for those who want to be happy.
“Here is what you should do,” the lists say. “Here is what a successful, happy, prosperous person looks like.”
And certainly, read this way, the Blessings and Woes of Jesus can’t be anything but puzzling.
And I can tell you this as well: based on these particular blessings, there would be very few people standing in line to be saints.
Blessed are you when people persecute you and speak falsely about you. What’s going on here?

But what if Jesus is doing something much different in his sermon?
What if he is not saying, “this is a job description for saints,”
but instead what if he is assuring people that their status before God is not based on appearances, not based on what their life looks like right now, whether good or bad.
So, if you are mourning, if you are hungry, if you are poor, that is not the final verdict that God is against you.
And if you are rich, if you are doing well right now – that is also not the final verdict of your status before God.
In Jesus’ day it would have been assumed that if someone was rich, they were blessed by God, they were righteous.
If someone was not, that was evidence that they did not have God’s favor.
In other words, you could tell by looking at someone, you could tell by looking at someone’s life whether they were righteous, whether they were “blessed,” whether they were saints, or not.

A colleague of mine recently told me that one of his parish members invited him to go a rally with him.
The rally featured a very famous preacher who I won’t name, but who says, among other things,
that if we are in God’s favor, we WILL have material abundance.
So my colleague went to the rally.
Afterwards, the man from his parish looked at him and said,
“Well, God must really hate me, because my business went bankrupt and my daughter died.”.

And Jesus looks straight into the eyes of this man, and every one of us who grieves,
every one of us who struggles,
every one of us who is down and out, every one of us who is weak,
everyone who has nowhere else to go and says, “Blessed are you... blessed are you....”
do not judge by what you see.
Judge by my word, my promises to you. Do not judge by your failure, and don’t judge by your success either.
“Blessed are you....not because you are happy now, or just because your circumstances happen to be good.
That is temporary.
Know that you are blessed because God has claimed you and holds your life, and has called you by name.
“Blessed are you....”

Recently I heard a story about Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.
On All Saints Day they too had the tradition of naming those in their community who had died during the past year.
They named both those who had died, and also they started to name those who had disappeared, the people whose fate they didn’t know.
And they had one more tradition: After each name was spoken, the community would say, “Presente.” “Present.”
We do not see them, but we believe that they are present among us, we are united in the Love of Christ.
We do not see them, but we trust and believe that we are united by God’s promise to us.
We cannot see it, but we believe that they are now worshiping at the throne of the Lamb of God, just as we are worshiping here this morning.
And we cannot see it, but we trust and believe that we too are called “blessed,” called “saints”– for Jesus’ sake called righteous
– and that someday we will worship together in the new world that God is creating
– the new world where the poor will have enough, and the hungry will be filled, and where the grieving will laugh, because we will be reunited, and we will see the faces of those we name today
– and we will see our Savior’s face.

“Nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 8.
Not life or death, not powers nor principalities, not poverty or hunger.
Nothing can separate us.

We are called blessed – and our faith is not based on something we can see, but on God’s word, God’s promise to us.
You can’t tell if someone is a “saint” or not by looking at them.
Only God knows, and our God is merciful.
Some of the saints we name today are well known to us, and some of the saints are not as well known,
but we place all of them in God’s hand, trusting his word, the mystery of his love.

I want to tell you a little more about Beatta, the blessed one, the saint that I used to visit.
She lived with her elderly father, and they took care of each other.
I’m not sure though, who took care of whom. She had a chronic disease, and he needed to care for her as much as she needed to take care of him.
She had never married, never had children, and I’m not sure that she ever held down a job.
So many of the things that we consider are a part of a “blessed” life, she never had.

And yet she was called, “Beatta”: “blessed.” St. Beatta.
And so she was blessed, not because of any specific accomplishment in her life, but simply because her parents named her, and loved her and believed in her.
And, brothers and sisters in Christ, it is the same with us.
Blessed are you who are poor, who trust not what you see, but the promise of Christ, the riches of Christ, the love of Christ – for now and for eternity.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Revgalblogpals Friday Five: It is Well With My Soul Edition

Kathrynzj at Revgalblogpals has this great Friday Five for us:

We lead privileged lives.

True, some are more privileged than others but the fact that we are communicating right now via technological devices puts us in the privileged category.

There are many perks in my life for which I give thanks and then there are some that make everything right in the world during the moment I am enjoying them. I'm wondering what a few of those things - five to be specific - are for you.

To help you along here are just three of mine that I will write more about on my blog: drinking coffee out of a real mug, walking into my home after the domestic goddess has been there, participating in the RevGalBlogPals Big Events.

Here are five "perks" that I can think of, though I'm not sure they make everything right with the world. 

1.  Knitting.  There is so much in my life and in my work that never seems finished.  I preach, and then I preach again.  I visit a shut-in and then I visit again.  I go to the hospital.  And when I think about the justice work I do in my congregation, this is even more true.  We are never "there."  We're always "on the way."  So it does my soul good to see a pair of socks, or a scarf, or a pair of mittens that I made.  Something, at least, is finished.  And, even if it is not perfect, it is beautiful, to me.

2.  Wearing my Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services T-shirt.  It has a small Statue of Liberty flame on the front, and on the back, all of the countries that refugees have come from, starting in 1939 and continuing today.  I love this t-shirt, and feel proud whenever I wear it.

3.  Though I love my computer, writing with one of my good pens, real cursive writing, makes me feel grounded and sastisfied.  Even if it is just a grocery list.  Or a list of names.  Or the hope of a poem.

4.  Having a dog, even a neurotic dog with golden retriever big brown eyes and a curly husky tail and an independent streak, makes me feel grateful beyond measure. 

And this one is just one week old, but:
5.  Our membership at the "Y", which means that now we can go swimming a few times a week.  I have noticed that I already feel calmer.

Finally (and I know, this is more than 5), I feel grateful for all the ways I can connect with friends, so that we can keep each other going.  That means email, facebook, blogging, as well as going out for coffee, lunches, and those essential meetings with co-conspirators/friends who have not given up on trying to make the world a better, more godly, more compassionate, and just place.

Fear Itself

You can't reason with a dog.

During the past couple of weeks, there has been an odd development in Scout's temperament.  She's always been a little skittish when there are thunderstorms or fireworks.  But for the past couple of weeks of so, she has suddenly grown fearful about walking down our block.

It started when we crossed the street one day, on the way to our favorite pond.  We were going along nicely up the street, but there was some construction work going on around the corner, and as we got closer, Scout started to do her famous "walking backwards" dance, which signals not just stubborn "I don't want to go where you want to go"-ness, but actual fear.

You can't reason with a dog.

I know, I've tried.  I get her to stop walking backwards and just sit.  That does work sometimes, but even if I talk to her in a nice, bright, soft voice, and tell her there is nothing to fear around the corner, or just past that car that is running, or past that group of children that is shouting -- even if I tell her all these things -- she doesn't believe me.

In the past couple of weeks, she has started walking backwards a couple of times on our block, which is so disheartening.  I don't want her to become like one of those people who is afraid of everything, who hides in their house.  And though there is no sign of this happening, I certainly don't want her to become one of those dogs who growls and snaps at people because she is afraid.

You can't reason with a dog.

I'm working with her a little bit each day, not trying to force her to go where she doesn't want to go, but trying to increase her comfort, even if we just go a few more steps.  We're working on broadening her circle just a little bit, and hoping that she discovers that she will not get hurt.

You can't reason with a dog.

It starts me thinking about how fear can be irrational, which is not the same as saying that there is nothing to fear.  I certainly think there are plenty of things to fear in the world today.  It's not the great depression, but the economic situation is frightening, and the deficits are frightening, and the both the wars and the terrorists threats are frightening.

To be perfectly honest, though, I'm more frightened about the people running around, calling people they don't agree with "Nazis" or "Marxists" or "Communists."  I'm more frightened of some of the people who are afraid. 

I read a conversation between two conservatives.  One of them interviews the other, saying, "I don't agree with President Obama's policies and I wouldn't vote for him.  But I don't believe it's accurate to call him a communist or a socialist.  Why do you do it?"  The other one says that he's going to keep saying the same thing, because, of course, there's more than one way to understand the word "socialist".   (By some understandings, Medicare is socialist.  Perhaps by some understandings, Public Education is also socialist.)

But the words "Socialism," and "Communism," of course, elicit fear.   And fear can cause us to do many things, including snarl and bite.  You can intentionally make a dog afraid, and then set him loose on a victim.

A long while ago President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.  I don't think he meant that there was nothing to be afraid of.  There were plenty of things to be afraid of during those depression years.  But if you really want to be afraid, check out what scared, desperate people are capable of.  Over in Germany, someone used a whole nation's fear and desperation to rise to power, to create scapegoats and to murder people.  

In the meantime, I'm going to take a deep breath and admit that I'm afraid, too.  I'm afraid of the fear I hear and see, and the consequences it might have.  But I am trying hard not to snarl or growl, and not to start walking backwards either.   Instead, I tell myself that I have hope -- I believe in the love of God for every person.  I believe that in the end, Love wins.  I believe that hope is greater than fear. 

And I just go a few more steps forward, every day.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

For All the Saints

Last weekend we celebrated Reformation Day on October 31st.  The children dressed up in the Halloween costumes, but Martin Luther came, dressed as a monk, and we had drama as well as preaching and singing and praying. 

Even though we were one day away from All Saints Day, we made Sunday Reformation Day. "Here I Stand" was our theme.  The radical freedom of the grace and love of God was our theme, that grace that allows us to say "Here I Stand" in the midst of great fear.  After all, wasn't it Peter who said, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life."  "Here I stand.  I can do no other."

This weekend we will remember all the Saints, especially those who from their labors rest.  I'm thinking about that already, trying to sift out all the things I want to say, thinking about the funerals I have had in the past year.  I'm thinking of baby Thor who never lived outside his mother's womb, and I'm thinking of K, who died too soon of a terrible disease, but who caught all of our hearts with her trust in God.  I'm thinking of those who we lost to cancer or Alzheimers or simply old age.  For all the saints....

Last weekend on Sunday we pulled out all the stops, and had a rip-roaring Reformation celebration.  At our small Saturday service, the mood was simpler.  There were not costumes and no decorations.  Though the theme was still "Here I Stand" I preached a sermon which referenced the story from Daniel of the three men in the fiery furnace.  When I asked the small gathering who those three men were, they all knew:  Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego. 

At 5:00 p.m., they are small, but they are mighty.

I compared the three men who stood up to the powers that be, who stood up to idols and kings, to Martin Luther standing up to the religious and political leaders of his age.  "Here I Stand."  The three men said, whether we live or whether we die, we will worship the True God.  Martin Luther said, "Whether I live or whether I die, I will place my life in God's hands.  I will trust God's word of life, of love, of pardon."

I asked the small crowd on Saturday if they knew what happened to the three men in the fiery furnace.

"They were not burned," one man said. 

And what did the observers see?  They saw a fourth man, walking around in the fire, walking in the flames with them.  Who could it be?  Who could that be?  It was our God, our gracious God who does not meet us half way, but comes all the way down to be with us, in the fire, in the fights, in the hard times.

After the service an elderly woman approached me.  She has been fighting cancer off and on for several years.

She clasped my hand and looked me in the eye and said, "He's with me every day."

In the fire.

For all the saints....

This year, I want to remember the saints who have gone before us, and the saints who are among us.  We do not often recognize them.  But they still shine.