Saturday, November 25, 2017

What the World Needs Now

There's a moment from yesterday that I keep coming back to.  I'm not sure exactly why.

We were going on a short break after Thanksgiving.  Most of our vacation this year was taken up with moving out of our home in Minnesota.  The first time I went back, we made sure to see a few people but by the beginning of July it was clear that we would not get things done unless we put blinders on and worked non-stop.

So yesterday, we decided to take a one-night overnight, a real although short get-away out of town.  Friends from our congregation agreed to take care of our dog, Scout, for one night while we were gone.

And this moment -- it's not from the time away -- not exactly -- but we were on the way to the church to drop Scout off with our friends, who would meet us there.

When we got to the church, the door to the sanctuary was open, and they were both inside, getting some things ready for Sunday.  Scout saw them right away.  I let go of her leash and she ran down the middle aisle, where the husband greeted, and petted and patted and scratched her ears.

There was my twelve-year-old dog, who stumbles sometimes now on walks, running like a puppy.

I keep coming back to this moment.

And what I see is Joy.

My dog isn't perfect, as everyone who knows her will attest.  She has taken to destroying books lately, something that breaks our hearts, a little (or a lot, depending on the book).  The latest book of mine to be marred is one that my father gave me while I was living in Japan.  Usually I just throw the book away but with this one, I have kept it (so far) even though I'm not sure it's salvageable.

Lately when we come home and open the door, we wonder what we will find.  Sometimes everything is fine.  Sometimes there is a book with its cover ripped off and teeth marks and the spine destroyed.

Truthfully I can't hate her.  I know that what is happening has as much to do as our own early deficiencies in training as it does with her quirks in personality.  It's complicated.

But here's what is not complicated:  watching my old dog run down the center aisle of the sanctuary.


It doesn't fix anything, but it's necessary, you know?  It's necessary.  In the midst of hard work, and fear, and changing what you can change, and figuring out what you can't -- there's Joy.

There is a lot that is not joy in the world, but it's there if you look for it, it's there:  a child opening a small gift and waving it in the air.  There's the joy of hearing an old song after a long time, or the joy of seeing someone you love, who loves you, despite everything.  There's a lightness in joy, a feeling that perhaps you could leap up, even fly.

I remember from last year now -- a Sunday when a little girl came into church while I was standing and giving the announcements.  She ran up to me and hugged my legs.  And I don't know what she was feeling, but I felt Joy.

There is serious work to be done in the world.

And then there's joy.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shining in the Gift of Service/Thanksgiving

Matthew 25:14-30

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

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

            Don’t do it.  Play it safe. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Looking for God

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

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

They are always looking for God.

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

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

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

It's not so easy as it looks.

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

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

Me too.  Me too.

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sermon for All Saints 2017

“Shining in the gift of our family”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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