Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sunday Morning

It's Saturday afternoon, and I'm thinking back to last Sunday.  I'm getting prepared, and making notes, and praying and resting.

And I'm thinking back to almost a week ago.

The morning began with 8:30 Bible study.  We've been watching videos and having discussions all summer, and we had planned to begin a new study this week, but the materials didn't arrive in time.  So I did a "low-tech", old-fashioned Bible study.  The theme was children in the Bible.  We discussed Isaac and Miriam, Samuel (before he was a judge) and David (before he was a king).  We did not get through the whole list, but we learned a little about the gifts and the stories of the children in the Bible.

I suppose I coud lament the small number of participants (there were only about 8 of us) but what I remember is this:  one man said, at the close, "You can do this any time you want.  This was very interesting."

Good old low-tech, old-fashioned Bible study.  I love it.

At worship, we had to tell the congregation that we were behind on our budget, due to a few factors (at least one of them a hurricane which canceled worship).  Our speaker was gracious and reminded us that the reason we give is to share the mission of Grace.  We honored one of our college students with a scholarship.  The children tried to figure out how big the love of God was (hint:  bigger than 70 X 7.  Bigger than a HUGE container of  M&Ms).

I preached.

I remember seeing a dad and daughter that I hadn't seen for several weeks.  They are regular visitors, but hadn't been at worship lately.  Also a young woman and  her little son came and sat right up in the front, where she smiled at me during the whole service.  I smiled back.  For the longest time I thought they were first-time visitors, and then, at the end, I discovered that they were part of a family who had moved away.  They were moving back!

For the past several weeks we have had a mysterious visitor.  We only know his first name.  He comes and sits in the back and says gracious words to us at the end of every service.  Several people have spoken to him and welcomed him.  For some reason, he has become a sign of grace to me.

After worship, we held acolyte training for three young people.  We haven't had acolytes here for awhile, so it was great to teach them how to light the candles and help with worship.  They are getting to be friends.

And after that, when I went over to the fellowship hall, I had a wonderful conversation with a young woman who is getting married this winter.

First-time visitors were also there, which I consider to be an act of courage.  It is harder to go into the fellowship hall with strangers than it is to worship with strangers!  They were having a lively conversation with my husband and a couple of other people at the church.  One thing I discovered:  They had seen a short video I made on the morning of the hurricane.  And, they said, that's why they showed up that morning.

Sunday morning is only a small sliver of the week, but for me it is the culmination of everything I do.   And, sometimes, I'll admit it:  I wonder if I should keep on doing it.  Is this still my calling?   And then, on Sunday morning, there were the kind words of strangers, the voices of the children, the people who just showed up, and sang, and prayed, and who I know will go back out.

What I know is that, somehow, I found a blessing on that morning.  Or perhaps, a blessing found me.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 15: Shining in the Gift of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

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

            Just the other day, I was doing some over-due straightening in my office and I came across an old notebook, from before my time. 
            It was the two words on the cover that got me:  “Experience Grace”, they read.
            I didn’t know what was inside the large notebook, but those two words got me thinking – that’s the point, isn’t it? 
            It is to experience Grace, ourselves, and for others to experience Grace through us. 

            Where, When, in whom do you “experience Grace”?

            I’m thinking about these two words today in part because of the parable before us, the parable which we often call “The unforgiving Servant.”   
            And to me, reading the parable, it’s pretty clear that this servant did NOT experience Grace.
             Or at least that’s what it seems like.  This story is troubling in so many ways. 
            The behavior of the servant is shocking and cruel, especially after his master forgives him so much.    
            And it might not be clear from our translation just how much the servant is forgiven.  What did we just hear?   
            The servant owed the master 10,000 talents.  That seems like a large amount of money – but do you know how much one talent is worth? 
            One talent is about 15 year’s worth of wages for a common laborer.  Think about that.
            And what the slave initially says to the master is, “be patient with me, and I will pay everything back.” 
            And, let’s be honest here, there’s no hope that he will be able to do that.  Unless he wins the lottery, which they didn’t have at Jesus’ time. 
            So he asks for patience, and he gets something much more – his master forgives him the whole enormous debt. 

            He gets grace. 

            But it seems like he doesn’t really “get it”.

            Because after receiving this incredible news, this unbelievable blessing, that his whole unpayable debt is gone and he is free – he goes out and shakes down the first servant who owes him one hundred denarius (and one denarius was about a day’s wage
             He even has the other servant thrown in prison. 

            It’s impossible to know what was going through this servant’s mind. 
            Could he still be trying to pay back that impossible debt, even though it’s gone?
             Or could he be thinking that now that he’s free and clear, now is the time for him to get a little ahead.  Or something else entirely?
             This servant has been given Grace --  which is extravagant forgiveness – but he somehow doesn’t get it.

            Where – or when  -- or how have you experienced Grace?

            I think that this story is also troubling because what the servant should do in this case is so obvious – it’s so clear – that it doesn’t seem possible that anyone would react this way. 
            How could anyone be forgiven millions of dollars in debt – and not be transformed by this experience? 

            Of course, you receive forgiveness, and you pass that forgiveness along.

            But in truth, we know, that this parable is a story.  It tells us the truth, but we also know that forgiveness is not always so easy or obvious, that some offenses are not just a hundred denarius.    
            I will always remember one Sunday morning in my first congregation. 

            I remember that the gospel reading was on Forgiveness – and I had, sometime during the week, decided that I was going to preach on one of the other lessons, because (for some reason) I didn’t want to preach on forgiveness. 
            I don’t even remember why I thought that. 

            And there I was, with my fine sermon in front of me, and I got up in the pulpit and in front of me sat a mom whose young son had been beaten up for $2.00. 
            Two bucks he had to buy treats for the 4th of July. 
            His leg had been broken in 3 places and he had to spend the rest of the summer in a cast.  And the other boys – there were 2 or three – none of them had called to even say “I’m sorry.” 
            All of this happened in rural South Dakota.   Should she forgive them?  What would you do? 

            So forgiveness is not so easy to practice.  Is it?  It’s complicated and messy, and even though we know we have been forgiven, it is not automatic.

            But this parable does tell us some truths about forgiveness.  And the first truth this parable tells us is that forgiveness is a gift.  And that the gift of forgiveness  -- of grace – from God is a gift almost unfathomable in its depth and breadth and height ….
             Wait – not “almost”  according to the parable,
            it’s like being forgiven millions of dollars, it’s a gap that can never ever be closed. 
            Do we even think this way? 
            That there is a uncloseable gap between God and us – and that Jesus has closed it by his death and resurrection.  And there’s no way we can pay it back. 
            Don’t even try.   Don’t even try.

            There’s no way we can pay it back.  But you know what – we can pay it forward.   Forgiven people – forgive people.
             Loved people – serve people.
             That’s another truth of the parable – that the King who forgives the slave – expects that slave to pay it forward – expects the slave who has experienced grace – to help other people to experience it too.

            When, where, in whom have you experienced -- Grace? 

            A number of years ago I was visiting at the hospital. 
            Somehow I had gotten my car into a small space, and when I tried to leave the parking ramp, the space was even smaller than I remembered.
             So I was having some difficulty trying to get out.  And as I was moving inch by inch I happened to bump another car.  While I had my head on the steering wheel in despair, I saw that the driver was in that car. 
            He actually helped me get out of the jam, and afterwards we exchanged numbers and I said that I would pay for any damage to his car. 
            But after a couple of weeks, I realized that he never called me.  “I think he forgave you,” was one opinion.

            When where, in whom have you experienced – Grace?

            Have you received a smile in return for a harsh word, an unexpected gift, a hand up when you were down?  Have you seen something beautiful in the darkness? 
            Have you been welcomed when you never thought you would be?  Have you been forgiven when you did not deserve it?   
            Have you come to the table and had the bread of life put into your hands, your open hands, and heard the words, “The body of Christ is given for YOU?” 

            When, where, in whom – have you experienced Grace?

            Because Forgiveness is a gift that we have been given – but like every other gift from heaven – it is a gift meant to be shared. 

            And again, this is stewardship –stewardship of forgiveness – (because it was never ours to begin with) -- to take that grace we have experienced and to pass it along – to the weary and the hard-hearted, to the down and out and the up and coming, to the young and the old, to everyone who needs it.  70 X 7….

            It is not easy – O brothers and sisters – it is not easy – it’s not any easier than loosening our grip on our pocketbook –and we will fail a lot just like we fail at everything else that we practice. 
            But God picks us up and keeps pouring that Grace into our hearts, every single day.  

            So that the world – so that our neighbors – so that we – may experience Grace.






Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 14: Let Your Light Shine

            “YOU are the light of the world.  A city build on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your father in heaven.”

            Dear friends in Christ, dear people of Grace, grace to you and peace…

            Long ago, many of us were expected to learn Bible verses by heart.  Sometines by Sunday School teachers and sometimes with gold stars attached. 
            That practice has perhaps fallen by the wayside, but sometimes I still think it’s a good idea.  And there’s one verse I would like us all to know this fall, so let’s say it now—a little at a time:
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

            This verse was given to each of us at our baptism – whether we were three weeks old or 80 when we were baptized – we were given a light – a candle – and a mission, and it was this –
             Let your light so shine before others/ that they may see your good works/ and give glory to your father in heaven. 
            And this fall we are going to hold this verse up to the light and look at all of its facets, and look at all of the ways that God calls us to shine.

            So  -- today the first thing I want to do is show you something.        This is big – and it was expensive.  And it was on the list.     Everyone told us that you had to have one of these in order to be prepared.  Water.  Food.  Flashlights.  Candles and matches. 
            So we went out looking for all the things on the list and we ended up with this pretty big, and pretty impressive flashlight. 
            And then you know what – we couldn’t find any D batteries ANYWHERE. 
            As far as I could tell there were no D batteries anywhere in Conroe or Montgomery. 
            We have batteries NOW – but – too late.
             It doesn’t do any good to have an impressive flashlight if it doesn’t work – right?  The flashlight is not as important as the light it brings.

            It made me think more about that verse, our theme verse.  And what it means.
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

            I’m thinking about why the flashlight was on the list of things to have in our “hurricane kit” and of course that is in case it’s dark, and the electricity goes out, and we need to see. 
            That’s what it’s for FIRST. 
            The first thing we do is make sure we are okay, or at least as okay as we can be. 
            But the light doesn’t end there, does it? 
            One thing I’ve learned about since I’ve come here is that the our synod encourages us to be “72 hour Lutherans”, which is to say we should have supplies to last for at least 72 hours in case of a storm.
             But the next thing that I noticed is that the provision is not jUSt for us. 
            If we are prepared for ourselves, then we are prepared to help others.  And that’s what I heard that people from Grace were doing right after the storm. 
            They were out there helping their neighbors when the water started coming into their houses.
             They helped neighbors move furniture.  They were letting friends stay with them.  They were volunteering their time. 
            They were helping evacuate their neighbors.  They had their lights – not just for their own safety – but for others.

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

            The next thing I notice is this:  Jesus says, Let YOUR light shine before others, and you know what, He doesn’t just mean your individual “Little light.”
             IT’s hard to notice in English, (Unless you say ‘all y’all), but when Jesus says YOU are the light of the world, he is really saying YOU all are the light of the world.
             He’s not just saying “Jennifer is the light of the world” individual by herself, or “Darryl is the light of the world” or that “Jaxson” or “Ava” or Connor
            – is the light of the world – although our individual actions matter – but that Grace is the light of the world – that together we are the light of the world. 
             We actually CAN’T do it ourselves. 
            We need each other – like that small lovely verse in Matthew 18:  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of you.” 
            Where two or three or forty or one hundred are gathered – YOU ALL are the light of the world.
             We need each other.     
            We need each other for the encouragement we give, and we need each other for the gifts we share, and we need each other just because that’s the way God planned it. 
            YOU ALL are the light of the world. 

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

            Jesus doesn’t say “You should be” – he says “You are.” 
            He says that ‘You all are” because “I am.”  
            It is his light that is our light.

            So, I have a confession to make. 
            This is a stewardship sermon, and there was a point where I was going to say that our resources – the resources that we give – are like the batteries – and that the light can’t shine without them.
              But that’s not true. 
            It’s true that the resources that we give – our finances, our talents, our time – are all important and necessary – but they aren’t the battieries.
             And they aren’t the matches. 
            The batteries and the matches and the light – that’s the power of the Holy Spirit – that’s the love of Jesus. 
            That’s the grace of God.
             Maybe the resources are sort of lke the flashlight that we put the batteries into – or like the candle that the matches light – or like the mirror – but the image – the image is the image of God. 
            And that’s a gift, and that’s a promise. 
            You are the light of the world.  You were made in the image of God.  How do you – you all – reflect God?  How are we going to reflect God – here at Grace?

            This is a stewardship sermon, which means that it’s about how we will use all of the resources God has entrusted to us – to serve God – to reflect God.
             It’s about how Grace will gather in Grace, will grow in Grace and will Go in Grace in the next year.   
            It’s about how we will reflect the light, which is a gift in the first place, and how we will recognize all of the gifts around us – the wisdom of the elder, the wonder of the child,
             the gifts of our strengths and our weaknesses, our wealth and our poverty. 

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

            We saw – in the midst of so much devastation in the past two weeks – we saw that light too – didn’t we? 
            We saw people pulling together.
             We saw people giving their time, their skills and yes, even their reosurces because they knew – even if just for a moment – that we belong to each other.

            Even more – we belong to God.  It is the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection that shines this truth.  We belong to God because Jesus died for each and every precious one of us. 

            How do you reflect God?

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

            You ARE the light of the world.
            YOU are.  YOU ALL are.
            Oh, what love he can shine in us…



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Listen to the Children

So, I do a children's message on Sundays, usually.  I know that, in some circles, this is a controversial statement.  I know that children's messages are not universally beloved, or esteemed, and that they are not always well-done.  I won't even claim that I am particularly good at them.  But I know that there is something I enjoy about being able to gather with the children for a few minutes, to interact with them, to listen to them.

So, even though there are risks, I have a children's message.  And on Sunday, after Hurricane Harvey, the gospel, and the children's message, told the story after Peter's confession.  So I began by trying to use a hula hoop (something I am spectacularly bad at) and then asking the children if I should give up because I am not good at the hula hoop.  They all thought that giving up was a bad idea, and most of them could not even envision that there would be something hard for them.  They could play all the sports.  They could play musical instruments!

I asked them if there was anything that had been hard for them in the storm last week.  At least one little boy thought that the hardest thing was to stay inside for a long time.  But a couple of the other children thought that other people did hard things during the hurricane.

Then I said.  In today's gospel reading, Jesus had to tell Peter a hard thing.  He told Peter that he was going to die.

And then something happened.

As soon as I said that, a little girl gasped.

Maybe more than one little girl, but one for sure, and so loudly that (I was told later) they could hear her all the way in the balcony.

Jesus tells his friends that he is going to die.  And even more than that, he tells them that he is going to be crucified, a particularly cruel and shameful means of death.  And we who have been coming to church all of our lives and hearing these words may not really hear them any more, may not really know what they mean.

We needed that gasp.  We needed that gasp to remind us that Jesus' death was not simply a religious reality -- it was a real thing.

We needed that gasp -- and you know what?  We need the children.

We don't need them because they are "the future of the church".  We don't need them because somehow their presence ensures our future.

We need them because they see and hear differently than we do, and we need all the ears and eyes and voices, to grow deeply in faith.  They have different failings and different strengths, and we learn to share our faith and trust God together.

Jesus will die on the cross -- and a little girl -- hearing the terrible news purely -- gasps.  And our hearts break into pieces.

This is the life of the church.  Sighs too deep for words.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Pentecost 13: "Hold Fast to What is Good"

“Hold Fast to What is Good”

            Dear friends in Christ, dear people of Grace, grace to you and peace….

            “Let love be genuine.  Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”  A long time ago, at least it seems like a long time ago, I had decided was going to preach on this passage.  And why not?  It’s such a lovely passage, and a college friend of mine even wrote a song about it, a song that I can still remember, just a little, and that shows the power of singing that we can remember what we sing …

            Let love be genuine… hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good.
            Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor,
            Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the spirit, serve, yes serve the Lord….

            Well, you see what I mean.  I can almost sing the whole passage of scripture, even after all these years.  And singing them, the verses seem beautiful, not so impossible.

            Like I said, that was my plan:  preach on Romans 12,  the marks of Christian discipleship. 

            It seems like so long ago, I had that plan. 
            That was before hurricane Harvey, the deluge, the planning, trying to get out of our apartment and into our house and have the supplies, trying not to be afraid, seeing pictures of strangers and people I knew deluged by rain,
             feeling helpless, feeling like I would much rather be hunkered down in a blizzard than experience this. 

            Everything seems so different now. 

            I am lucky.  We were lucky.  We are okay. 
            I keep telling people that. 
            But I know people who have lost everything.  I know people who have to burn their furniture. 
            I know people who put all of their furniture upstairs, I know people who had to leave their home, who were evacuated.
             I know churches that were filled with water.
             I talked to a woman who was homeless and just drove around looking for high ground until she ended up in Conroe.  Parts of our communities have been devastated.

            And I know people who helped, too. 
            I know people who helped evacuate their neighbors, who let people stay in their home, who brought food to shut ins, who waded through waist-deep water to check on neighbors. 
            I know people who helped their neighbors tear out old dry wall out of their houses, who sorted clothes and food and gave donations and talked to people.
            I saw pictures of people forming human chains to rescue neighbors.  They would not leave someone behind.

            Everything seems so different now.

            So, now, I am thinking of the gospel reading, the one from Matthew, and how Peter, who was so smart last week (although we weren’t here last week were we?) 
            Peter seemed so smart and he Knew, he just KNEW that Jesus was the Messiah, but all of a sudden, this week, he is satan, the adversary.  Because he doesn’t think Jesus, the MESSIAH, should suffer. 
            And we are so used to Jesus crucifixion predictions that maybe we don’t hear how offensive it is. 
            Crucifiixion was a means of torture and it was used on CRIMINALS.  Respectable people did not get crucified. 

            Jesus did not come to be respectable.  He came to save us. 
            He came into the storm, into the hurricane, not to the people who were above it all, but to those down in the water, down in the muck, in the middle of it all, afraid. 

            And then he says, “Follow me.” 

            And that’s so hard, it’s so impossible, because you know, I want to be respectable. 
            But Jesus wants us to go where people need him, where people are dying, because that’s what he did. 
            That’s what the Messiah does.  He is in the hurricane. 

            It’s about what it means that Jesus takes up his cross – that he goes the distance for us.

            Everything seems different now.

            Someone sent me an email this week about the fulfillment of prophecy – the end of times, because of the eclipse, and the rain, and all of the signs – and I think those signs are around us all of the time
            – but once in awhile there is an urgency that perhaps clears our eyes
            – that makes us realize what is really important – or at least I hope so – and it’s not the somehow we are okay
            – it's that we are all together – in this  -- in this world – and in this life
            – and that every single one of us in worthy in the eyes of God…       That we are all worth wading through the flood waters for – that we are all worth forming a human chain to rescue –

            And the invitation to take up the cross – also becomes more real – and harder – but also more necessary – because everybody needs to know their beauty and their worth

            “Let love be genuine.  Hate what is evil.  Hold fast to what is good. 
            I can sing that whole song, and there are so many words, and it can be overwhelming.  I mean, I could preach a whole month on these words from Paul, what it means to “Extend Hospitality to strangers”, or to “be constant in prayer” or to feed your enemy when he is hungry. 

            Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

            But those first few words – that’s all I need today.  “Let love be genuine.  Hate what is evil.  Hold Fast to what is good.” 

            You know what genuine love is – at least the love that Paul is talking about? 
            It’s not a feelling. 
            Genuine love is not the way you feel – it’s the way you act.  It’s what you do.  It’s praying with someone you don’t even really know. 
            It’s going to help muck out a house for a neighbor, it’s making that human chain. 
            It’s wading through the water to get to a neighbor.
            It’s sorting clothes and giving out food and looking into people’s eyes.
            It’s getting hot and sweaty and tired.
            Genuine love is being willing to not be respectable, in order that people know the love of God.

            Take up your cross, Jesus says.  It’s not an athletic competition, to show how strong you are.   It’s genuine love.  It’s what Jesus did for this whole world, this whole messy, screwed up, sweaty, sinful, beautiful world. 

            He took up his cross.  For us.  For you.
             For all of the people. 
            For all of the people standing in line to receive free food. 
            For all of the people who drowned trying to escape.  For all of the people who lost their homes. 
            For all of us who were able to come here today.  For all of us. 

            Let love be genuine.  Hate what is evil.  Hold fast to what is good.
            Hold fast to what is good.
            Let it be in our hands and in our lips and in our feet today.  Let His Spirit come and live in us anew.  Let his life be part of ours.