Saturday, October 29, 2016

This Little Light

Every Wednesday I arrive early, so that I can be ready to lead the pre-school chapel that morning.  I come early because in the summer I need to make sure the air conditioning is functioning.  Sometimes I need to make sure I have my soft globe, or a stuffed animal, or some smooth stones (that David used to kill Goliath), a baby doll or construction paper hearts.

Sometimes I don't want to get up early.  There are weeks when I am not sure what I should do for chapel, with the fifty or so children who gather.  What should we sing?  How should I tell the story?

There are some routines that we have settled into every week, though.  Every week I begin with the same song, an old song that I may have learned in my pre-school Sunday School Days.  "Into My Heart, Into my Heart, Come into my Heart, Lord Jesus," I sing.  They sing along.  We sing two or three more songs and then I ask them what we do next.

"Light the candles!"  They all shout.  So I light the candles on the altar, and tell them the same thing every week, that we light the candles to remind us that God is here, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is the light of the world.  And then I tell them that that light shines in them, too, and we sing, "This little light of mine."

After that, I ask them what we do next, and they all shout, "Pray!"  And so we pray a simple prayer.

After that we sing a couple more songs (with or without hand motions).  I tell a story.  I sometimes ask them who or what they want to pray for.  They all have prayer requests.  We pray and then say the Lord's prayer together.

And we often sing once more.

This is our simple liturgy, although I don't use the word.  But that is what it is.  It is the same thing, week after week, and they don't seem to mind.  In fact, when I ask them what we do next, they shout it out, "Light the candles!"  they say.  There are times that remembering their voices, saying those words, comforts me.

"Light the candles!" I hear them say, and I remember that Jesus is the light of the world, again, which is something I admit I need to remember more often than not.  Sometimes it is this election season, falling to new lows, that does it.  It is the way we are treating one another.  It is the way fears and hatreds are being stirred up.  Sometimes it is other news of the world, local and world tragedies, that cause me to lose heart.  And then I hear the children shout, "Light the candles!", and I remember again the promise of Jesus to be with us always.

That's a promise, but it's a challenge too.  There are some days I don't remember that I am called to be a bearer of the light.  There are some days that I don't remember that Jesus is here not just to make me feel safe, but to walk through danger with me.  And then I hear the children say their simple liturgy, "Light the candles!"  and I remember.

That's what liturgy is for, after all.  The things we hear and the things we say in liturgy are not supposed to be mindless repetition.  They are supposed to be the children's shouts, "Light the Candles!"  They are supposed to be words getting so deep down inside us that we become what they are:  "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit."   They are supposed to make us light, bursting into flames.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Not Your Average Reformation Sermon

This Sunday is Reformation Sunday.  I am preaching.  We are also in the middle of Stewardship season here, and coincidentally, it is the Sunday that we will receive our congregation's Estimates of Giving.

My first thought upon considering this was to have receive our congregation's Estimates of Giving on Another Sunday.

But, I did the math, looked at the calendar, and Reformation Sunday it was.  I could do not other.

My second thought was a sort of perverse one:  that financial stewardship and the Reformation are like oil and water, the Reformation being kicked off by a sort-of fund-raising event of sorts.  Those indulgences were sold in order to renovate the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome.  So yeah.  It feels weird to talk about financial stewardship on Reformation Sunday, the Sunday on which you make sure that everyone knows that God's love is a FREE GIFT.

So, we don't want to sell indulgences for financial stewardship.  We don't want to manipulate people into giving.  We also don't want people to give to "the church's budget."  We want people to give freely, understanding that everything they have has first been given freely to them.   Everything you have is on loan from God anyway.  That's the stewardship message.  The tithe is not a requirement, but it is a discipline, like daily exercise, and although it hurts sometimes, in the end, it is good for you.  You loosen your grip on material things and find the place where true life begins.  That's the way it is supposed to work.

But sometimes, even though it's true, it still feels manipulative to me.  Give!  It's good for you!  I say. It's true.  Everything you have is on loan from God anyway.

But since this Sunday is Reformation Sunday, and I'm thinking about Martin Luther, I started thinking about it another way.  One of Luther's most famous essays is called "The Freedom of a Christian".  Its simple premise is that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are free.  We are free from the requirements of 'the law.'  There is nothing that we have to earn.  Salvation has been given to us.  There is NOTHING that we have to do.  There is nothing that we HAVE to do.

Luther applied this thinking to 'good works', those things that medieval Christians were compelled to do.  He said that God doesn't need your good works.  But then he said something else.

He said, Your neighbor does.

I think that this applies to giving as well.  God doesn't need our offerings.   But our neighbor does.  The church does.  Not for itself, but for sharing the mission of God with our neighbors.  And some of our neighbors are sitting right next to us in church, and some of our neighbors are down the street, and some of our neighbors are around the world.

Make no mistake, God loves it when we give.  Not just because he loves us, and knows that when we give, our money will lose some of its power over us.  But just also because God loves our neighbor, and wants them to be fed, and sheltered, and know they are loved.  

And when we offer up our tithes and our offerings to God in worship, what we are really doing is offering ourselves, and what we are really saying is this:  God -- use these gifts -- use us -- to make your love known -- to shine light in the darkness -- to be instruments of peace.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Why Read the Bible

I am reading a book right now about faith practices, and it is making me think about my faith practices.  The book is about deepening faith commitment, and it makes the case for 'stepping up' with greater resolve in several areas of our lives, including, prayer, Bible reading, worship and witness.

But even though I believe in deepening our faith commitments, and even though I think it is positive to resolve to spend more time in the prayer, Bible reading, worship and witness, I do, on occasion, find myself talking back to this book.

Take, for example, reading the Bible.  I am all for reading the Bible more often, just as the the author of this book commends.  There is a wonderful opening story in this book about a successful mountain climber who happens to be blind.  He is successful because he has learn to listen.

So, listening.  Reading the Bible is listening to God.  So far, so good.

But, when we listen to the Bible, what do we hear?  What do we expect to hear?  That's my question.

The writer of the book sounds as if he believes that by reading the Bible, he will find wisdom to help him live a Better Life.  He will find commandments to obey, he will find Good Advice.  And it's true, he will find these things.  He can read the Ten Commandments and the Book of Proverbs and James, and find what he is looking for.

But I have to say:  that's not the main reason that I read the Bible.

Why read the Bible?  I mean, really:  it's a huge book with small print, and many kinds of writing.  There are stories and laws and advice and genealogies.  There is history and there is prophecy.  Some of it is exciting and some of it is puzzling and some of it is downright troubling, if you are honest.  Reading the Bible is all kinds of comforting sometimes, but it also opens you up to all kinds of questions.

I have heard the Bible in church since I was a little girl.  I also learned wonderful stories in Sunday School:  David and Goliath, Abraham and Sarah, Noah's ark.  I learned how Jesus fed 5,000 people, how Moses led the people out of slavery, how Jesus healed those who were blind or deaf or lame.  I heard the stories of the prodigal son and the good shepherd.

The first time I tried to read the Bible without help, I was in high school.  Church camp had made of me an enthusiastic believer, so I cracked open my Bible and resolved to read the whole thing, starting with Genesis.  By the middle of Leviticus I had given up, disappointed in myself.

Why read the Bible?  It's a huge book with small print, and if you are honest at all, it is going to raise as many questions as it answers.  You are going to find out about the Walls of Jericho, and how they came tumbling down, but you are also going to find out about how the armies went in and killed every single person after that.  You are going to learn about how Jesus fed 5,000 people, but somewhere along the line you might wonder about all of the people who are hungry now.  You are going to hear words like:  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son," (John 3:16), and you are going to hear words like "Love your enemy, and do good to those who persecute you."

Why read the Bible?  Why listen to these words, these stories, even this advice?

It's not a self-improvement project, at least not for me.

The Bible is this great big book, and it's about God, and it's about us.   It's about a God so in love with us, God's people, that he is willing to do anything -- including, in the end, to come and be among us.

Inside the Word, this complicated, messy, confusing book -- is the Word, Jesus.  The heart of God.   The one who tells us who we are.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Effective Ministry

I got an email last week from a woman whose wedding I officiated almost ten years ago.  I hear from her or husband occasionally.  We have kept in touch, even though they moved to New York (where he lived) right after their wedding.

I had known the bride for a few years before she got married.  She was a regular at our Saturday night chapel service.  The service was small, and filled mostly with retired people, so I couldn't help noticing her when she first started attending.  One of her best friends from church was an eighty year old woman who still volunteered regularly in the church office.   She also participated in a couple of Bible studies and went to a community organizing meeting with me, once.

At some point this young man started attending the Saturday night service with her.  All of the widows who attended our chapel service had a front row seat for their courtship.  Of course, they got married in the chapel, right before the Saturday evening service.

They invited us to come and visit us in New York sometime.  My husband and I took them up on it.  We went to a jazz club, Central Park, The Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then, on Sunday, to church.

When their son was born, I sent them a piece of art with a scripture passage from Isaiah,  "I have called you by name... you are mine."

The email I got last week said they would be in Texas because they were adopting a little girl.  How far away was I?  Actually, as it turned out, I was pretty far away from where they were, but they wanted to get together, if possible.

So, on Thursday night, they drove all the way over to where I am to meet me at my church, with their new daughter.  We had a tour of our fellowship hall, sanctuary and pre-school.   In the sanctuary, they walked into our chancel and asked if I would say a prayer for their daughter.

We did.

We spent some time catching up after that.  They told me about their community and congregation, and asked questions about my move and the congregation I serve now.  They are now attending a large congregation of another denomination but they would be Lutheran again, in a heartbeat -- if they could find a place to worship nearer them.

What is it that you miss?  I asked.

The liturgy, they said.  They love the liturgy.

I asked about their daughter.  They said she was a miracle -- the agency calling and asking them if they could get on a plane the next day, the flight being available, that they were here, right now.   We talked some more about their lives,  taking our time.

We finally said goodbye, grateful for the conversation, grateful for the prayers.  They returned home with their new daughter.

They are not members of my church any more.  They haven't been for many years.  They have another pastor.  But once in awhile, we share these small fragments of each others' lives, and we are grateful for it.  I know I am.  I'm grateful to see how they are a blessing in the place where they live:  in their congregation, in their community.  I am grateful to know that they are growing in faith, and in love.

One of my friends says that this relationship is a sign of my effective ministry.  I will tell you honestly that I am not sure exactly what that means.  I keep thinking that effective ministry is about big and flashy things:  transformative community and social ministries, starting new organizations, things like that.  But I also know that effective ministry is about relationships.  It's about our relationship with God, and our relationships with one another, and how they change us.  From one degree of glory into another.  In ways that we often cannot see.

But for a moment, this week, the veil was pulled back, and I caught a glimpse of it.  It was the kingdom of heaven, while were were sitting on the steps of the chancel, surrounding a tiny girl with prayer.

A miracle.