Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 8: "God is For You"

A Sermon for the Confirmation of Victoria Shatro
            For most everyone here today, this is an ordinary Sunday morning, just like every other Sunday morning we come to church. 
            But for Torie – this is a special day – it is the day she will confirm her faith.  It is her confirmation day. 
            It is a day that means many different things – and just one.  Confirmation Day is a day when a young person, in some ways, becomes an adult in the eyes of the church.
             In that way, it is a little like your Quinceanera last March, Torie, because at that time you vowed that you would be a Christian young woman,
            you received encouragement and prayers from the people who gathered, and – I remember this – you changed from wearing flat shoes to wearing heels – a sign that you are growing up.

            Confirmation, too, is a sign of growing up. 
            Today you will make promises to be a follower of Jesus, to “confirm” the faith given to you when you were baptized, the faith so many people have shared with you throughout the years. 
            But confirmation isn’t JUST a sign of growing up. 
            And it’s not just a day to MAKE promises to God – but it’s a day to remember the promises God has given to us.

            Promises like this:  “the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness… because we don’t know how to pray but the Holy Spirit prays for us….”
            Promises like this… “All things work together for Good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
            Promises like this…. “If God is for us, who is against us?” 
            Or promises like this…. “Can anything separate us from the love of God?  No, I am convinced that neither life nor death, nor anything else in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
            Today these are promises for you, Torie, for this day when you will make promises of your own,
            promises to be faithful to God as God has already been faithful to you, promises to worship and serve and share and shine your light in the world…..

            The most important thing to remember is that God’s promises come before ours. 
            That everything we do and everything we are is a response to God who has given us such a firm foundation. 
            Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.  Nothing. 
            God is for us.  God is for US,  and not because we’re so perfect, or have dotted all of the I’s or crossed all of the t’s. 
            God is for us, because the one who created us, sees beneath the flaws and the failures, the sees beneath the regrets and the sorrows, sees one for whom Christ lived, and died and rose.  
            God is for US – and God is FOR us – and I don’t mean that God will make sure that nothing bad ever happens to us, or that we will live a charmed life. 
            God is for us means that in the midst of everything that will happen to us – good and bad, success and failure, life and death – God will not desert you.  

            I remember once using this scripture reading at a funeral. 
            And the person who was to read brought a different version of the scripture, and when she read it, it made me sit up straight, because here is what she read,
            “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?  Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?”  
            The answer to these questions is “No.”    
            Whatever happens to us, whatever our life looks like on the outside, whether we’re having hard times or good times:  God is for us.  God is for you. 
            Nothing in all creation can separate you from God’s love.

            You may not know this today, but you will experience it some days – that there are things in the world that try to separate us from the love of God.,
            try to convince you that God is NOT for you, that God doesn’t care about you. 
            I remember reading a memoir this past year, and there was this memorable little story in it. 
            The boy grew up up very poor in a sort of chaotic household. 
            And he relates a day that he turns to his grandmother, in the midst of some family crisis or another, and says to her, “Does God love us?”         That broke my heart.  The circumstances of his life caused him to doubt the love of God for him. 

            But that brings me to one other thing I want to say today. 
            We have this foundation, this unshakeable foundation – this gift of God’s love that never leaves us or fails us. 
            You have it Torie – you received it when you were baptized – and everyone else here has it too – but we also have a calling.  And this day is about both of those things – this gift and this calling. 

            And “God is for you” means that too. 
            God is for you means that God has called you to be his person in the world, that God has said, “I want Torie to be one of my people, not just to experience my gifts and my love.
            But also I want Torie to be one of my people to share that love with the world.    

            I remember the agony of getting chosen, or not getting chosen, for things when I was in high school.  Mostly sports. 
            We used to divide up the class into two teams to play softball, or basketball, and I always worried about whether I would be chosen, because I wasn’t very good. 
            And then one day I remember getting to be one of the first ones chosen – for basketball. 
            To this day I have no idea why my classmate chosen me – but you know what – I LOVE basketball. 

            I don’t know what God will call you to do, Torie –
            I know you have a heart for children, and a strong spirit.  I know that you are a pretty good public speaker. 
            Maybe someday you’ll help build a well in Africa.  Maybe you’ll advocate for those who are weak and vulnerable in the world. 
            Maybe you’ll tell a small boy somewhere, that God does too love him – and that Jesus died for him. 
            Maybe you’ll cook food for homeless people.  Maybe you’ll walk alongside people who are grieving. 
            Maybe you’ll bring communion to shut-ins. 
            Because God calls us in our whole life, not just one part of them, to know that God is for us.

            This is no ordinary day.  not just for Torie – but for all of us.
             It is the day of Torie’s confirmation, but it is also a day for us to re-affirm our faith, to stand on that firm foundation once again and put our trust in the one who promises to never leave us or forsake us.  
             It’s a day for all of us to delight in the grace of God, the gifts of God, and our calling to be an instrument of that love in the world.   

            Because nothing can separate us from the love of God. 
            Not the things you can imagine, and the things you can’t imagine.  Not the past, not the future.  Not poverty – or even riches. 
            Not grief or joy or struggle or success.  God is for you --- and has called you to live with him – not just in heaven, but in every day, and in everything you do.



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 7: "Wheat or Weeds?"

Dear friends in Christ, dear people of Grace, grace to you and peace from God our creator…

            I’ll confess – one of the things I love to do in a Bible study is to discover and point out the way God confounds our expectations
            – the ways that God acts totally differently than we would act.  So I love the parable of the sower which you heard last week, and how the sower sows seeds EVERYONE, even on the path and places where seeds can’t possibly sprout. 
            We would never do that, would we?
             It just shows how generous, how extravagant, God is.  So different than us….   “God’s ways are not our ways….”

            And I remember sitting down at a Bible study with today’s parable and a group of farmer’s wives one day. 
            We read the parable together and I said what I thought:  isn’t it weird that the farmer would tell the workers to leave the weeds alone?             We would pull the weeds wouldn’t we?  We would want to get RID of those evil weeds, because (I knew this from experience) if you didn’t pull the weeds they would take over the field.  
             This does not make any sense!  The ways of God – so different than ours.

            And my farmers wives told me that I was wrong.
             This made absolute sense to them.
             In fact, this was the way it was for farmers back before there were chemicals to kill the weeds. 
            You see – they told me patiently – unlike corn, wheat is not a row crop.  You can’t get between the rows and get rid of the weeds. 
            You had to sort it out at the harvest.  That was the way it was done.

            In the parable, the master is concerned that not one stalk of wheat be lost. 
            For some reason for the longest time I did not notice this.
             I was thinking about the weeds, and the idea that the weeds would endanger the field. 
            But the farmer is concerned that he might lose a few stalks of wheat if he pulls the weeds to early.  
            In our lives, there is such a thing as collateral damage.  It’s the idea that in the pursuit of good, sometimes we make mistakes and some people are hurt, even lost.  It’s inevitable. 
            Because we are human.  But in the kingdom of heaven.  No collateral damage.

            I think back to the prophet Isaiah, and one way he describes the Messiah, “A bruised weed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” 
            In other words, he’s going to protect the weak, and not throw away someone or something when it’s broken. 
            And lately I’ve been thinking – there’s one way that God is so much different than we are.

            Maybe this is because we are moving and we are doing so much sorting right now. 
            We have done so much sorting – which is really what this parable is about. 
            It’s not a huge statement about why there is evil in the world – although it’s true, there is evil in the world. 
            Also in the church.  The church is God’s creation, and yet with all of the grace and goodness and abundance, in the church there is also sin and grieving and conflict too.  We are God’s field, but there are weeds.     And sometimes we are tempting to do some sorting – who’s in and who’s out. 
            To try to figure out who and what has value and who doesn’t.

            That’s what we have been doing during the past couple of years, and even more so in the past couple of weeks, and it’s hard.
             I’m sure there have been a few times we have thrown out things that we will end up regretting, and there are times we will say ‘why did we keep this?” when we unload the truck.   

            There have been times we have found things that we thought we had lost – (I’m sure that’s another parable!), and there are times I have thrown away something just because it was broken It made the decision easier. 

            But God’s ways are not our ways, and God does not throw something away just because it’s broken. 
             God does not cut off the plant just because it’s weak.  God doesn’t want to lose even one precious stalk of wheat.   
            That’s one message of the parable.   God doesn’t want to lose any wheat.  At all.  Even if you’re bruised.  Even if you are broken.

            But what if you are not sure whether you are weed or whether you are wheat? 
            You know, sometimes, because of the things that have happened to us in life, or even because of the things we have done, we aren’t sure.  Am I one of the beloved ones, or am I a weed?
             In the parable the weed is a very specific one – it’s called ‘darnell’ and it actually resembles wheat, especially when it is young. 
            You can’t always tell by looking what is a useless weed and what is a useful stalk of wheat.  You really do have to wait

            Oh, sometimes you can tell..  Sometimes it’s obvious. 
            A few years ago I found this in my yard. 
            It’s very obvious that this did not belong there! 
            So, we cut it down.  Then we found out – who knows what this is?  It is milkweed – and even though the name says “weed” in it – it is a home to butterflies, not to be thrown away, but to be preserved and protected and valued.

            Like you.  Like me.

            God’s ways are not our ways. 
            We like to sort, and sometimes we think we know who is valuable and who is not, who to welcome and who to turn away. 
            But we don’t.  Only God knows. 
            And God does not want to lose even one of us.  God will not lose even one of us.
             I think that is one of the reasons that Grace put in our new mission statement that we welcome everyone, no exceptions.
             Because we know that, right?  God does not want to lose even one of us. 

            A few years ago I remember reading about the crisis with immigrant children coming here unaccompanied. 
            They were fleeing violence in their own countries, and some of their desperate parents were sending them on their own, which was creating all kinds of crises for us, too.
              What to do with them.  How we should treat them.  Who they even were.  And I remember reading that someone called them “refugees” and another person commented back:  “They are not refugees.  They are criminals.”
             And at the time, I wondered, “But how do you know?  How do you know?”

            God’s ways are not our ways.  We like to sort, and sometimes we think we know who is valuable and who is not.  But we don’t. 
            After all, it was us who put Jesus on trial, judged him and sentenced him to death. 
            But God said no, He was the  Holy one, the one through him we are all saved, all preserved, all named “worthy”, all saved.
            Thanks be to God.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

What is it about Books?

I have moved, and I am moving.  Two years ago I began the process by saying "yes" to a call to serve a congregation just north of Houston, Texas.  At that time I knew I would be living temporarily in a small apartment while my husband completed his work and was able to move with me, and so I took a few of the things I thought I were the most important -- including books.

Books.  What is it about books?

Now we are completing the process, two years later, and we are packing and sorting the rest of our things, deciding what is most important and necessary and what is not.  We are taking things to thrift stores (God help us) and throwing things away and packing and labeling.  We are trying to figure out what is most important, and it's not always easy.  Especially about the books.

Books.  What is it about books?

I find the number of books I own sort of alarming, and I find that I truly do want to downsize.  i want to live a lighter life, and books are one of the heavy things.  I want to be more portable, to travel and to be available to go.  I don't want to feel weighed down with things.  And all of this is theoretical when I look at each individual book.

I won't lie.  Some of them are easy, and it's a relief.  Some of them I hadn't seen in a long time, and I had forgotten that I even had them.  Some I rescued, and put in a stack "to keep", for one reason or another.  And not all of the reasons are logical.  I have saved most of the children's books, even though I do not have children.  They are beautiful.  There are some old books I have put in the 'save' pile simply because they have beautifully designed covers.  I have decided to donate or sell books that I have loved, reasoning to myself that I will learn to love again the public library.  I have tried with some success to read some more on Kindle or Nook.  I am reading H is for Hawk on a Reading Device right now, and I love it, but when I saw some used copies in a bookstore I still had to stop and stare.

Books.  What is it about books?

It's about relationships, I tell myself.  I want to value people more than things.  I don't want to spend more time on things than I do on people.  But then I consider how I want to buy many copies of a certain book of creative prayer, and give them to all of my friends.

There is something for me about the whole book, the entire experience, that is not the same reading electronically.  There is something about the marriage of the words and the pages and the weight of it in my hands, how the whole thing is put together.  A book is a work of art.

I took a couple of book-making classes where we cut the pages and sewed the bindings and learned a little of the terminology of the making of books.

When I was a child, I  could lose myself in a book, and forget where I was for awhile.  I could lose my sense of hearing while I reading about Alice or Lucy, abut Laura or Betsy.  People would call me and I was somewhere else, because I was reading.

So books and reading are sort of a spiritual experience for me.  Not just the Bible and the prayer books, but those too.  I have caught glimpses of God, and the more acquainted I am with the Book, the more I catch sight of God in books.  (And in other places too.)

Books.  What is it about books?

The other day we were in a used bookstore, selling some books.  And while we were there waiting for the verdict, I wandered the aisles and stared at the books.  I saw a new book for young adults, a historical novel set during the Revolutionary War, told from the point of view of two young slaves, yearning for freedom.  I saw a prayer book for soldiers written during World War II.  I saw a locally published book of stories written by the students at one of our middle schools.

I know it is not this way for everyone.  Some people struggle with reading, and do not love books.  There are many paths to knowledge, and transformation.  Relationships are more important than things.

And yet:  Books.  What is it about books?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 5: "Rest and Restlessness"

            “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens….”
            Come.  It’s an invitation, isn’t it?
             I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.
             But it’s an invitation.  But it’s not an invitation to a party. 
            It’s not an invitation to join a group. 
            It’s not an invitation to a club. 
             But it’s an invitation.  “Come.” 

            It’s possible that I am hearing this invitation in a new way since spending some time back in Minneapolis last week where we were cleaning up and getting packed up and discarding things and giving them away. 
            And in the midst of all of this we do what most families do:  we find the old pictures of our ancestors, and we sit down and remember what we know about their sea journey long ago.
             My Swedish grandparents came through Ellis Island back in the early 20th century.  

            We found pictures of them and their parents and the names of their brothers and sisters.  They got on a boat and they came.
             They heard an invitation, too, I suppose, in some way or another.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” and they said, “That’s me.”
              They were tired, they were poor, they were longing…. For something.  Opportunity?  Space?  Adventure? 
            You know, I never asked them.    I don’ t really know why they came.  But they heard an invitation, and they came.  They knew it was for them.

            “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 
            And in this short passage of scripture, Jesus is inviting us, as well. 
            Or at least, he is inviting those who are weary, and who are carrying heavy burdens…. Whoever they are.  Is it you?  Do you find this invitation irresistible?

            One year during Lent, a Catholic church in Tulsa, Oklahoma ran an advertisement to invite people to “come home, to return to the church.”   The invitation that year extended a special welcome to “single, twice-divorced, under 30, gay, filthy rich, black and proud, poor as dirt, can’t sing, no habla ingles, married with pets, older than God, more Catholic than the Pope, workaholic, bad speller, screaming babies, three-times divorced, passive aggressive, obsessive-compulsive, tourists, seekers, doubters, bleeding hearts….
            Oh, and you.”
             “Come to me, all you who are weary….” And who isn’t? …the ad seems to say. 
            Which of us can honestly say that we aren’t sometimes bone-tired, that we aren’t carrying some kind of burden we’d like to lose?


            The invitation requires us though to be honest, to admit that we have burdens, to admit that we don’t have it all together, that we “are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”, as the old confession used to say. 
            The invitation requires us to look into our hearts and say, “that’s me.” 
            I’m not really satisfied where I am. 
            My life isn’t like a glossy magazine advertisement.  I’m not “all that”. 
            The invitation requires us to identify ourselves with all the other needy who have found this irresistible, for one reason or another.

            I think of immigrants now and immigrants then – my own ancestors, and those who hear the irresistible invitation to “come.” 
            And I imagine that they have things in common.  I don’t know exactly what they are, since I never bothered to ask my grandmother or my grandfather why they came. 
             But I know that they were poor, I know that my grandfather came from a seafaring family in which there were 11 children. 
            I imagine that they were restless.  I imagine that they were carrying heavy burdens. 
            And I imagine that immigrants now are the same – restless, searching for a better life, whatever that looks like, admitting that the life they are living now is no great shakes. 

            It’s an invitation to sinners – that’s what Jesus’ words are.
             It’s an invitation to all who are weary from from trying to be righteous on their own – from carrying the burden of trying to save themselves.  
            Just put it down.  Come to Jesus.  And he will give you rest.

            And then Jesus says something odd. 
            After promising rest, he tells us, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” 
            I don’t know how many of us have a picture when we think of the word yoke – but for me, it conjures up something just the opposite of the word “rest.” 
            A ‘yoke’ means not rest but work. 
            My first picture when I think of a yoke is of two oxen who are yoked together to plow the fields.  
            However, in ancient times people captured in battle were also yoked as slaves to those who had won. 

            After promising us rest, Jesus offers us a yoke. 
            What is this, a great bait-and-switch?  First Jesus promises rest.  Then he offers us a yoke, his yoke, saying:  my yoke is easy. 

            Well, maybe it’s as simple as this:  As Bob Dylan once famously said, “you gotta serve somebody”. 
            We are bound to be yoked to something or someone in this life.      We can be yoked to our own fears and desires, we can be yoked to the power of sin in our lives, or we can be yoked to Jesus. 
            And his yoke is easy because we can trust him – because his promises are true – because when Jesus says “you are forgiven” – you are forgiven.  

            Bible scholars have noted that a yoke is “easy” when it fits, when it is the right one which does not chafe.
             If it is true, as we prayed earlier, that God has made us for himself, that the yoke of Jesus fits us – it is the one that is right for us, that directs us, but does not chafe or burn.  
            And the yoke is easy because it is shared. 
            Think about the oxen, traveling together.  That is the way it is with disciples.  We are meant to go together.  We are meant to share the load with one another.  

            I’ve been thinking a lot about the story about the Gard baby – that little boy who is – probably – terminally ill, and the burden that his parents have, wanting to care for him with the most love and respect.        Both Pope Francis and President Trump have reached out, saying they want to help the parents in some way. 
            What is it that makes us – in cases like this – so much wanting to help bear that burden?
             And what is it that makes our hearts harden to others who have burdens to bear -- the poor, the elderly, the stranger, the immigrant?
            All I know is that Jesus’ burden is light because it is shared.  And that is the yoke we are called to take up.

            Finally, Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light simply because it means we are traveling with him. 
            Wherever we go, through whatever difficulties, he shares the burdens with us, he shares his life with us. 
            We get to be with HIM, and somehow that eases our restless hearts. 
            I remember once a little girl asking her mother, “Mom, will I have to do dishes in heaven?”  Her mother thought about it for a moment, and then said, “Yes…. But you’ll like it!”
             What a great answer! 
            Simply because you are with Jesus, traveling with him, you know that whatever you do, you will share with him.  
             And because you are traveling with Jesus, yoked with him, you know that wherever you go… you will share his abundant and eternal life.