Friday, December 21, 2018

Holding Hands with Jesus

It doesn't seem so long ago that I was in their living room, praying and talking.  It was a difficult diagnosis.  Terminal cancer.  Three to six months, was what the doctor said.

They had had other plans for the future.  He wanted to build a house for his wife and their teenage daughter.  But he thought he had more time.

It wasn't so long ago that I was in their living room, talking about how they were going to spend the next three to six months, hoping to find a treatment that would give them just a little more time, and just a little less pain.  Time to have friends help them finish a house -- their dream.  Time to see children and grandchildren.  Time to be alive.

And then this week I was there again, because he had decided to stop treatment, and go on hospice. We talked, and shared communion.  He was on hospice, but he still had time.

Yesterday I was back.  He was no longer talking.  We prayed with him, and sang to him, and read scripture.  Romans 8.  Isaiah 43.  John 10.  "My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me," we read.  "As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul length after thee," we sang.

His wife pointed out one of his hands.  It was outstretched, and clenched, as if he was holding someone's hand.  With one hand, he would hold on to us.  But with his other hand, he was holding on to Jesus.  Or Jesus was holding onto him.

It is December 21st.  Just three days until we light the candles, and sing Silent Night in the dark.  Just four days until the Feast of the Nativity, December 25, when the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.  I think about what I learned in Greek class about the word "dwelt", and that it meant "tabernacle".  It was a reference to the Old Testament, when God lived in a tent, a tabernacle, a temporary shelter.  In Jesus, God tabernacled with us, in a temporary shelter, human flesh, like ours.

I think about this man who was dying, and his savior, who also wore our mortal flesh.  He is a Savior we can hold hands with.  That is what the incarnation means.  It is about the baby in the manger, the baby we can hold, and it is about the one who holds us, really and truly.

It is so close to Christmas I can feel its breath, I can almost see the flickering flames of the candles that we hold while we sing.  It is so close to Christmas, so close that I can almost reach out and hold hands with Jesus.  I can feel his small fingers around my finger, I can see his hands touch a blind man, I can see his hand grasp the hand of a dying man -- and hang on.

Maybe this is all we can do in life:  hold hands.  Hold hands with one another.  and hold hands with Jesus.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Letter To Scout, the Dog

We had to put down our 13 1/2 year old golden retriever mix, Scout, yesterday.  I wanted to tell her what she meant to me.  So I wrote this:

Dear Scout,

I met you because of my work.  You were just a tiny puppy.  I was a pastor, visiting a shut in.  You were at Redeemer Residence Nursing Home in South Minneapolis, because a nurse had brought your mom (a golden retriever) and all eight of you puppies to work with her.  You were all in a crate together, and you attracted a LOT of attention.

The shut in and I visited that day, and each of us held a puppy in our hands.  I don't know if you were one of those puppies.  But later on, someone called and said that one of the puppies was available.  Would I like one?  You were 'almost' free.  You had no pedigree.  Golden, Husky, and "something else", was what they said.

Well, I would like one.  I wanted one desperately.  But I had never had a dog before.  I knew you would be a lot of work.  Previously I had been a cat person.  My family had a dog once, so I knew just a little bit about dogs.  Like, dogs are a lot of work.  And, you have to house train them.

I knew you would be a lot of work, but I wanted you.  I wanted something to love.  Truthfully, this was partly because I always wanted children, and I knew I would not have children of my own.  I do have two stepsons that I love with all my heart (and Scout, I know that you did too) but I wanted a baby.  A dog baby.  And yes, I knew you were a puppy and not a human, but I knew also that you would need a lot of care, and I wanted to give you a lot of care.

So we brought you home.  You were just short of 7 weeks old.  We had studied and asked questions but truthfully, we had no idea.  I apologize for that.  You never really liked the crate.  For some dogs it is a comfort, but it never was for you.

I took you home and the first couple of weeks were very hard, taking you out in the middle of the night (both of us surprised when a raccoon jumped out of the garbage can).  There was sleep deprivation and running back and forth from church, and then taking time off so I could stay home to train you.  And then you started getting sick in the middle of the night, and we couldn't find the right food for you, and you started getting possessive of strange things -- growling over a paper towel (for example) or a sock you found on the ground, and scaring us.  I realized that I was in over my head in dog training, and I took you to the Animal Humane Society for testing and advice.  You had been sick the night before and were skinny and I brought a can of bland food for the test.  They did some tests and said you were a "confident puppy".  But then they put a little food in the food bowl and had you start eating and when they put the plastic hand in to take away the food you went ballistic!  They told me you were "aggressive" and that you would need special training but that there were no guarantees that the training would work.  You were about 10 weeks old then.  I took you home and cried all the way.

But we took you to a behavioral veterinarian and we took you to a special trainer who specialized in aggression.  I took you to the dog park almost every day when you were a puppy, to try to deal with some of that excess energy.  We took you to classes in dog obedience.  You never got very good at coming when called, but you really got good at "drop it" and "leave it."  You sat like a pro, but "stay" was hard.  You were not a perfect dog, but you were a good dog.  I know this because of you.

Because of you, I took walks.  I have never been good at regular exercise.  I'm one of those people who likes reading and writing and thinking way too much.  I tried to walk, because I like walking, but until you came along I was never very consistent.  But I took you for walks every single day.  Even when it was dark and cold.  Sometimes, of course, they were shorter walks, but I took walks, and sometimes long walks in the summer.  Because of you I was not afraid to take walks in the dark, because you were with me.  Because of you I took walks because you needed the exercise too.

Because of you, I learned a new language:  dog.  When we went to the behavioral veterinarian, she said, "Scout doesn't know English.  Think of her as if she was a German exchange student."  So I studied, and tried to learn dog.  I learned how to read your bows and your growls and the way you turned your head to the side.  I learned to notice when your tail was up or your tail was down.  and I learned to stand straight and speak low when I wanted you to take me seriously.  I read the book Culture Clash and The Other End of the Leash, and learned to respect your species, and not try to make you into a human.  I still remember the day I learned what it meant when you dropped one of your toys by the kitchen table while we were eating:  you wanted to trade!  (sorry:  you did not get table scraps.)

Because of you, I learned to be less materialistic.  Because sometimes you destroyed things that I loved.  Like (for example) books.  Or a nice pair of shoes.  But I knew you didn't do it on purpose, like some people would.  You just didn't understand the value that humans put on "things".  So I learned to let go of things -- some things -- that I really loved -- because they are just things -- they are not creatures with hearts that beat, and are alive.  (I also learned -- at least most of the time -- to put things where you could not get them).

Because of you, I learned what the word "good" really means.  Because you were a good girl.  You were always a good girl.  Even when you chewed up books, and even when you unwrapped packages, and even when you ate the raisin cookies (and I had to take you to the vet).  Despite all of those things, you were always a good girl.  Even when you growled and snapped as a puppy, and made us afraid, it was because you were trying to tell us something.   You bit me once, and then I knew I had to get really serious about understanding you, and making you understand me, too.  And finally we learned, and you lived for 13 1/2 years, and you were a good girl.   Because you know what, "Good girl, Scout" really means?

It means, "I love you."  No matter what.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Ministry of Presence

So last week we had homeless families staying in our church overnight every night.  People come and prepare the dinners every evening.  Some prepare breakfasts.  Some help them with their evening activities.  I was asked to stay overnight with the families one evening.

It's not a hard job.  It does not require any particular skill set, just being willing to sleep on an air mattress.  It's always possible that there will be a middle-of-the-night emergency, but it hasn't happened yet.

So what I do is come over and meet the families, and talk with them, and, at some point, go to sleep on an air mattress in a room nearby.  That's it.

This was a particularly easy week.  There were just two moms and two babies.  One of the babies was teething, and this required a little extra rocking and singing, which is something that I can do, although I claim no special skill at rocking and singing.  I do know this one Swedish song that my grandfather sang to me when I was a little girl.

Then on Saturday morning, I got up and went home.

When I got home, my husband told me "There's more bad news."  It does seem like there has been a lot of bad news lately, but this morning there had been an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Tree of Life.  We watched in horror, as the news unfolded.

Later on I went to visit a shut in couple from our congregation.  She had just broken her ankle.  Their daughter was staying with them over the weekend, helping them out.  We all sat down for conversation and communion.  I found out their daughter was active in a small Baptist church with a large children's ministry.  She worked with third graders; some of them came from "tough backgrounds".  I could tell that she loved working with the children and giving them a firm foundation.  They decided that despite their size, they could somehow make an impact on the children in their community.

We had all been watching the news, too, about the synagogue.  We talked about how it was the older people who were there that morning.  How many of our churches are filled with older people?

The daughter asked me about something she had heard on the news.  "They said it was Shabbat," she said.  "What is Shabbat?"

It is the Sabbath, I answered.  It was their Saturday morning worship service.

We read the gospel, prayed together, shared Holy Communion.

All this week, I've been thinking about that widow, the one who gave her last two copper coins.  Like they would do any good, compared with the enormity of the world's tragedy.  Why did she give them?  Other than as a sermon illustration, what good would they do?

And yet it was her whole life.  So small.

You sleep overnight with the homeless families, or you make them a meal.  You visit shut-ins, and you give them just a little piece of bread, an a sip of wine.  You make someone a meal, or you just sit there while someone cries, because, what else can you do? You go to worship, like you always do.  You go for God, and you go for the other people who will be there.  You are present, and you are giving your whole life.

All God asks is for us to be present to Him, which means to be present to one another.  Be there.  Be the widow with her two copper coins.  Or, at least SEE the widow with her two copper coins.

All God asks is our whole life.  No special skills are needed.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sermon for All saints: The Hope of the Saints

John 11:32-44
Rev. 21:1-6

            “What is heaven like?”  They said it in unison – just as the pastor walked in the door.  
            They were two daughters, and they were standing at their mother’s bedside.  99 years old.  And this was their question.  “What is heaven like?”  
            Well – what would the pastor say?  
            What could the pastor say?  
            To be truthful, there is not much description of heaven in the Bible.  There are a few images in the Revelation of the saints worshipping at the throne of the Lamb, and the one who will wipe away every tear from our lives. 
            There is the apostle Paul, struggling to describe our resurrected bodies, which will be bodies, but imperishable, immortal, changed – in the twinkling of an eye.  
            There is Paul’s conviction that if we hope for this life ONLY, we are most to be pitied.  There is more to life than this life.  
            But about heaven – we do not know much.  So what would the pastor say?  “What is heaven like?”  

            Well, she said, finally, I think heaven is like a great banquet  -- -like those holiday meals that we get together for – when everyone is happy to see each other – and no one is fighting – and there is a place for everyone at the table – and there is enough for everyone, too.  
            And then the sisters remembered the holiday meals in their own family, at Christmas or Thanksgiving or at Easter.   
            They remembered the feasts and the fancy tablecloths, and the care their mother took to welcome everyone home.  
            And they remembered with hope – hope for their mother and hope for themselves.  When someone you love is dying, you need to have something to hope for.  

            And that is part of what All Saints Day is about.  It is about the hope of the saints – our hope.  “What is heaven like?  What do you hope for?”

            In a book by Barbara Kingsolver, “Animal Dreams”, two sisters are separated when one of them decides to go to Nicaragua to live and work.  
            Her sister can’t understand her decision – thinks she’s crazy.  
            In one of her letters home, she tries to explain.  She writes: 
            “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for.  And the most you can do is live inside that hope.  
            Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.  What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it:  elementary kindness.  Enough to eat, enough to go around…. That’s about it.  
            Right now I’m living inside that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides. I can’t tell you how good it feels.” 

             That’s it.  The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for.  
            What do you hope for? 
            Eternal life -- The hope of the saints –– but what does that mean?  “What is heaven like?”  
            And what does it mean to live inside this hope every single day – while we live?

            When I think about the gospel for today – and the hope of Mary and Martha – I first think of Mary’s words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  
            Their hope is for their brother’s life – their hope is they not be separated.  
            Their hope is to sit down once more at the table with him, eating and talking and sharing – life. Life.  
            That’s the hope of the saints – is that life – goes on – and that we share it together with those we love.  
            It is the question from the old gospel song, “Will the circle be unbroken?” and the hope that the answer is a resounding “No!”   
            The hope of the saints -- is the hope that  life, not death will have the last word, hope that we will be together – again –to sit at the table and eat and talk and share.  
            The hope of the saints is the hope of the great reunion, where death and crying and pain will be no more and where we will be together – again.

            I can’t help thinking right now about Oscar Romero – who was martyred back in El Salvador in 1980 but who just became a saint.  
            He was murdered while he was saying Mass in a small chapel.  
            He had not been a radical priest by any means.  
            He was quiet and bookish, and he had a deeply traditional faith.    When someone told him that there were two churches – the church of the poor and the church of the rich, he answered, 
            “No, there is only one church, the church which Christ preached, the church which adores the living God.” 
            “Will the circle be unbroken?” 

            But he loved the people, the poor who were hungry, those who were longing to be free.  
            And so he spoke on behalf of them,  spoke up for the violence to stop, spoke on behalf of their hunger.  
            Because the hope of the saints is not just for that great reunion after we die.  
            The hope of the saints is also for a reconciliation of all the things that divide us.  
            It is the vision of the reunion of the living and the dead, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the outcast. 

            What is heaven like?  
             It is a great reunion, where death will be no more.  It is the unbroken circle with those we love
             It is the banquet table where there will be enough, where we will sit down and eat and share.   
             It is the unbroken circle with those God loves.  And it is wider than we imagine.  

            Once in awhile we catch a glimpse of it.  

            I remember once long ago – we went up to a concert where someone we loved was playing in a band.  
            We went up to hear him pay even though the event he was playing was somewhat unusual:  a tattoo convention. 
             I remember wandering around the smoke-filled room, hearing the bands, watching people get tattoos, and thinking, “these are not my people.”  
            And then as soon as I had that thought, I saw a display, “Bikers for Jesus.”  and I thought,  “hmmm. Maybe they Are my people.”  

            “What is heaven like?” 
            Close your eyes and imagine the banquet table, the great reunion, that the circle is unbroken.  
            Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, Oscar Romero the poor of El Salvador,  bikers for Jesus,  your father, your uncle, your son – people you love, people you don’t know, people you don't love, friends, strangers, all, beloved by God.
            A place for everyone. And there is enough.

            The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
            “What is heaven like?”



Thursday, November 1, 2018

Healing the Blind Man (Not Bartimaeus)

Growing up in the church, I always knew that Jesus healed blind people, but the stories sort of ran together.  Then, when I became a serious student of Scripture, they became more distinct.  In John, Jesus healed a man blind from birth, which ignited a firestorm of controversy.  In Matthew, Jesus heals two blind men at the same time.  And then there is Mark.  There is a blind man in Mark who has a name.  His name is Bartimaeus.  That by itself is unusual.  How many of the names do we know, of all the people Jesus healed?  Lazarus?  But for some reason we know that one blind man named Bartimaeus.  And we also know the question Jesus asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?"

It is a question which resonates throughout the ages.

What do you want me to do for you?  He answered, "Rabbi, I want to see."

But there's another blind man in Mark, and I'm not sure how I got through all the years of my childhood and four years of seminary and several years in the parish without ever noticing him.  I read all of the gospels and never really noticed him.  He's a couple of chapters before Bartimaeus and, like most everyone else, we don't know his name.  Just that several people begged Jesus to heal him, and so Jesus did.

Except it was not so simple as that.

The first time Jesus lays his hands on him and heals him, he can see people, but they look like "trees walking."  Everything is fuzzy.  It is like Jesus has done a 'half-miracle.'  He has only sort of healed the man.  I'm used to Jesus doing everything perfectly the first time, so this seems odd.  It's so odd, in fact, that only Mark tells the story.  It's as if Matthew and Luke took a look at it and said, 'nah.  Nobody is going to believe this.'

On the other hand, how many times have you experienced an instantaneous and miraculous healing?  I have heard of them, but, truth be told, I have never experienced one.  Gradual healing is much more in my experience.  I take the medicine and I start to feel better, but I'm not all the way healed.  I have to keep taking it.

I love the story of the blind man Jesus healed, the one who was not Bartimaeus.  I imagine myself not in Bartimaeus who was totally healed, but in the nameless man who knows he was touched by Jesus, but still has a way to go.

I'd love to have the total clarity of Bartimaeus.  This is true of both my ministry and my life.  I'm leading my congregation and I think I know the path ahead but it turns out that I'm a little nearsighted, and some of the details are fuzzy.  Which means that I have to ask Jesus for sight -- again.  According to Mark, chapter 8, that is all right.  I can come to Jesus, again and again.  I have to keep taking the medicine.

Gospel medicine.

When I wonder just what the gospel medicine is, I can't help noticing what happens between Mark chapter 8 and Mark chapter 10.  Jesus predicts his death and resurrection.  Three times.  What becomes clearer is the necessity of suffering.  It is the cross which provides he medicine.

"What do you want me to do for you?"  It's such a simple question, but sometimes, I have to admit, I'd rather see trees walking than the sharp reality of the cross.  Perhaps that's why the healing is more often gradual.  Maybe it's easier to bear that way.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Katherine von Bora: A Reformation Life

            I am glad to be here today -- I have to say that I was quite surprised when I arrived to see the word “Lutheran” – in your name. Since Martin always said we should not call ourselves ‘Lutheran.”  We are followers of Christ – not Luther, he said.    But “Grace”!  I like that! You have a good name!    We do – live – by grace – and only by the grace of God.

            Oh!  I forgot to tell you – my name is Katherina – or “Katie” as my husband calls me, “Katie” – my rib, he would say, reminding me of the story from the Bible, from Genesis. I don’t know if you have heard of me, but I’m sure you know my husband, Martin Luther.    

            And I am here today with you because of him, because of what he did – on October 31, 1517, when he nailed 95 statements to a door in Wittenburg Germany – and then later, as he wrote about the gospel, and taught people about the Bible – translated all of the scriptures into German – the language of the people – and taught people that they were free in the grace of God 

            In one way, Martin and I were alike – we were both brought up in a monastic life. Martin chose to be a monk – he believed that God was calling him to a religious life – but me – at six years old my family sent me to a convent.  I don’t know why they did it – but I tried my best to follow God – I prayed and earned to serve God and I finally took my vows.  

            It’s true.  I was a nun.  

            But there came a time when we started hearing about the teachings of Luther – even in our convent, there were whispers about this new teaching.    We were taught that there were two kinds of life – and that if you wanted to pray and serve God, you had to do it in a monastery.  That was a religious life.  And that those who were not in convents or monasteries lived secular lives.   But the new teaching of Martin Luther was that you did not have to live in a convent to serve Christ.  Our ordinary lives were service to God.  And Martin Luther told us that we had freedom – freedom to read Scripture for ourselves – freedom to pray – freedom to be confident in our salvation and confident in the love of God for us.  It was Jesus in his death and resurrection that set us free.  Nothing else was necessary.

            So – I decided that I wanted to escape, to go and live in the world, to serve God in the world, and not in the convent.  But I will tell you – it was not just me – there were twelve of us in all who wanted to leave the convent.  And we wrote to our families, and we wrote to Martin Luther, asking him to help us.

            Dr. Luther agreed to help us in whatever way he could – and so we decided to make our escape.  It was on the Vigil of Easter– because on that evening we were up later than usual – and so after the worship and when it was dark – we made our escape --  we waited in the darkness for the sound of the wagon – and when we heard the crack of the whip – we knew it was time.   On Easter, we were going to be free.    But what would freedom be like? 

            Well – even when we were free – we all needed to find a place to go.   Most of us quickly found husbands.  But – as for me – it looked like there would not be a husband for me, at first.  Dr. Luther found one – who I turned down. And I remember that I happened to say, “I would rather have Luther than that man!”

            And that is what happened.  It is true that at first we were not ‘in love’, like so many of you are now.  But we grew to love one another – and – even more important – we respected and grew to like one another – and I believe we helped one another fulfill God’s calling for us.  We lived in a great, old, drafty monastery called “The Black Cloister”, where we raised children, hosted so many students and guests, cooked and gardened and taught the Bible and – yes – brewed beer.  

            It was a good life, although not always an easy life.  We had such joy and laughter, but also hardship and sorrow.  We rejoiced at the birth of children in our home – Hans and Elizabeth and Magdalene, Paul and Martin – and finally Margarete.  We grieved at the loss of children, Elizabeth who was just a baby, and Magdalene – when she was thirteen years old.  And of course there were always those who hated us because of Martin’s work – because of they thought he was turning the world upside down.

            Well – maybe he was – and maybe the world needed to be turned upside down.  Maybe it still does.  You can tell me what you think about your world today.  Do people know that they are free – free to serve God in everything they do?  Do they know how much God loves them – so much that he sent his son to die?  Do they know that it is not only the great and the wise and the important that are important to God?  But it is each and every one of us who are important?  Do they know that the work of changing a baby’s diaper is every bit as important as inventing the internet?  (someone told me you invented the internet.)  

            In whatever we do – we sing God’s praises.  We tell of his goodness.  In so many ways – my life was extraordinary.  But in so many ways my life was ordinary – just like yours. And – just like you – I live and serve God by grace alone.

            May my life – and yours – give him praise.



Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sunday Sermon: Living Generously, Part II:Beyond our Fear

Luke 12:13-35

            One of my earliest memories – as a very small child – is going to visit my grandma Mary in the Good Samaritan nursing home in Jackson Minnesota.  
            Grandma Mary was not my grandma – she was my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandma, and I must have been just four or five years old when we visited.  
            I remember going with my grandpa and my mom and visiting her in her small room in the nursing home. 
            She was sitting in a wheelchair, a small, frail woman with a warm smile.   
            There were no other children around – I was grandma Mary’s only great-grandchild – and I don’t remember so much about our visits, but I do remember that every time I came – she would open up a drawer and give me something to take home.  
            Maybe a handkerchief, maybe a small stuffed animal.  But she always found something for me to take home.  

            It was like she was slowly giving her life away, and she chose to give a small piece of it to me. And I don’t remember the items any more – but what I remember is the act of giving.  

            What a contrast to the rich man in Jesus’ parable today.  He had a green thumb.  His fields produced abundantly.  
            He was rich!  And then he had a problem – although I guess he didn’t think of it as a problem – he didn’t know what to do with his abundance! And only thing he could think of was to tear down his barns and build bigger ones.  
            Now he did not think he had anything to fear.  Now he didn’t have anything to worry about.  
            Now he possessed everything he needed – in fact more than he needed.  At least – that’s what it looked like.  What more could he need?

            What makes the difference between my great-grandma and the rich man and his bigger barns?  

            Sometimes I think it was just her age – sometimes you gain wisdom when you reach a certain number of years – that makes you feel differently about your life.  
            When there is more behind you than in front of you – some things seem more important – and other things seem less important.  My great-grandmother had already pared down from a farmhouse to a room at a nursing home. 
            She knew  that “you can’t take it with you” – so she was starting early, giving away the things she still had left, little by little.  

            But I think there’s something else as well.  I think that perhaps the rich man with his barns – and my great-grandmother
             – that they had different ideas of just what is valuable in the first place – they had different ideas about where their true treasure was –       and so they feared different things, and they placed their trust in different things. 

            Think about it.  
            The rich man was rich in property – and he was blessed in goods.  But you know what he didn’t have?  He didn’t have anyone to share it with.  
            He didn’t have relationships – either with God – or with a family or friends.  At the harvest, he didn’t think of having a banquet and inviting people to share it.  
            He didn’t have children with whom to divide it.  He didn’t have a partner to share his joy.  This doesn’t seem to bother him, though.   

            But my great-grandmother – well, I don’t know – because I only knew her a little, and I was very small – but I imagine.  
            She was a mother to my grandpa, and a grandmother to my mom, and a great-grandma to me.  
            And I imagine in my mind that those relationships were more important to her than any wealth she could have accumulated. 
             She had a son – and a grand-daughter – and she even had a great-granddaughter now.  
            Her legacy was not in things, but in relationships.  These were her treasures.  WE were her treasures.

            When Jesus tells us not to worry about our lives, but to seek first the Kingdom – I think that God is also thinking about relationships.        The ravens and the lilies receive what they need – but what we need most of all – more than barns and more than grain and more than a large investment portfolio – are relationships.   That's what they discovered when people studied children in orphanages.  they discovered that -- as much as they needed food and clothing and shelter-- they only thrived when they received touch -- when they were loved. 
             So when Jesus tells us to Seek first the Kingdom of heaven – I think he is telling us to seek this particular network of relationships – beginning with our relationship with God.   
            I remember once hearing a story about a young child who was on her way to visit her grandparents. “We’re going to grandma’s!’”  
            She said.  She didn’t say, “We’re going to “Bismarck” or “We’re going to “Conroe”. 
             Perhaps heaven is not so much a place as it is a face. THAT is the treasure.  

            For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  

            I remember a stewardship program once which the title “Where your heart is.,…”  it’s an attractive idea.  
            Where you put your heart – your love – there you will invest your treasure.  
            It makes sense.  If I love something,  I will invest in it.  But Jesus says it the other way.  
            And it’s not quite the same thing.  “Where your treasure is – there your heart will be….”  Where you make your investment of time, or finances, of work – that’s where you will find your heart.  
            So, Jesus says, invest in the Kingdom.  Invest in the kingdom of heaven.  
            Invest in that network of relationships, starting with your relationship with God.  
            And Invest in the values of the kingdom of heaven –  where the hungry are fed, the homeless are given shelter, the poor and the brokenhearted are lifted up. 
             Invest there – and your heart will follow….  Invest outside yourself – where people are hurting, or hungry or lonely or doubting --- where people are thirsty for grace and to know they matter – 

            Stewardship is investing in the kingdom of heaven – investing in relationships 
            – including the relationships here – and in our neighborhood.  And your congregation – Grace – is a part of that.  
            When you give to Grace – you are investing in relationships – relationships that show the face of God in Christ, relationships that bring the bread of life to the hungry, relationships that show compassion to the lonely.  

            When I think of my great-grandmother giving away her things – to me – I think maybe she saw the future in my face.  The fourth generation.  
            She wouldn’t live to see me grow up, but she trusted the future.  That was her legacy to me.  
            And I hope that my hands can be as open as hers were.  

            As for us – we see the future in the face of Christ,  the one who died and rose, the one who gave himself for us.  
            Do not be afraid, little flock.  Open your hands and receive true treasure.  The kingdom of heaven is yours.  

            It is yours – to share.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sunday Sermon: Living Generously, Part 1: Greater than our Grief

based on Mark 10:17-31

            I recently heard a riddle that I could not figure out the answer to.  It had me stumped!  Here it is: “What’s better than God, worse than the devil?  Rich men want it, poor men have it, and if you eat it, you'll die?"
       What’s the answer?


            You wouldn’t think it would be so hard!  Right? Nothing is better than God, nothing is worse than the devil, rich people want nothing – and poor people have it. If you eat nothing you’ll die.” There you go.   

            Except that, according to the gospel reading today, it’s not exactly true.  
            The rich young man – as it turns out – he did want something.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  
             it’s an odd question, if you think about it.  I mean, what do you DO to inherit anything?  
            Nevertheless, there is something that the rich man feels that he lacks – and Jesus begins by reminding him of the commandments. 
            He has kept the commandments, since his youth, he says.  And Jesus must sense that this is not bragging but a sincere answer – so he looks at the young man with love and says, 
            “Well all right. There’s one more thing.  Sell, all of your belongings, and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”  

            You wouldn’t think it would be so hard!  
            In fact, it should be easy, shouldn’t it?  
            That’s what I told my dad once.  He was sitting in his wheelchair at the nursing home, and was suddenly worried about salvation.  Eternal life. What if he wasn’t good enough? He thought.
            Dad, do you trust Jesus? I asked.
            Yes, he answered.
            Well…. “You mean it’s that simple?”

            That’s what I told my dad.  
            But Jesus told the rich man, “Go, sell all of your belongings, and give the proceeds to the poor)
            And then, follow me. And the young man went away grieving, because he had many possessions.  
            And you know what? I think I know how he felt.

            And it makes me think back – to when I went to be a missionary in Japan.  
            And no one said that I had to sell everything I had and give the proceeds to the poor, but, truthfully, I could fit everything into two suitcases and one trunk that I sent ahead.  
            It was easier to go, because I didn’t have so much.  
            And after I graduated from seminary, and was called out to rural South Dakota – two farmers came up to my mom and dad’s house with their pick ups and hauled everything I owned to the parsonage. 
             It was more than I took to Japan, but it was still not a lot of stuff.

            This last move though – this one was hard 
            A whole house full of stuff.  A whole office full of books.  
            And even though no one told me I had to give up everything, I knew I couldn’t take everything. And I grieved.

            You wouldn’t think it would be so hard!    

            Trust Jesus!  They said.  It’s so simple!  They said. 
            But the truth is, when you follow Jesus, when you trust Jesus, there is grieving involved.

            There’s something else as well.  
            I think perhaps the young man thought he could follow Jesus – but just sort of keep all of his possessions on the side for when they returned from the journey.             
            Selling it all and giving it to the poor – that’s so permanent.             There’s no security in case things don’t turn out the way you planned.   
            There’s nothing to go back to if you have sold everything and given it to the poor.  
            It’s just like that old camp song we used to sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus…. no turning back, no turning back.”  

            And it’s an invitation to journey with Jesus, an invitation to life, an invitation to trust him –but don’t kid yourself that there’s no grieving involved.   
            Because trusting Jesus involves trusting him with – everything.                 Trusting Jesus involves trusting him with your soul and trusting him with your work, and trusting him with your relationships, and trusting him with your …. Finances.  Your wealth.    
            And you wouldn’t think it would be so hard. 

            There’s another side to Jesus’ hard saying.  
            When he tells the rich young man to sell everything, and give the proceeds to the poor – Jesus it not only inviting him to transform his life – he’s inviting him to transform the lives of the poor too.
            And he is creating a connection between them, between his future and their futures,  his life and their lives.    
            And that is what “eternal life” is about – it’s not simply about a secure future “after you die” – but it is a life worth living, right here and now, a life where we are walking with Jesus, and where 
            – whatever we have left behind – we have gained in a wider and more abundant community, a life of purpose, and where we have eternal value.  
            It’s the promise of Jesus to his disciples, who have given up everything.  
            Jesus promises that whatever they have given up – they will receive back 100 fold – in the abundance of family and relationships and the abundance of wealth.   What kind of wealth?  
            Well, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that it is the wealth that comes from belonging to a community of believers with a shared mission of transforming the world around them. 
            That’s treasure in heaven.

            But there’s grieving involved.  
            Whether you turn away, like the rich man, or whether you are all in with Jesus, there is grieving involved.  
            The grieving involves realizing that everything you thought you owned – was never yours to begin with.  
            The grieving involves leaving behind things you thought were important.
            Because Jesus is looking at each of us with love, and every single day he makes the invitation, “Follow me.”  
            He makes that invitation to us as individuals – and he also makes that invitation to us as a congregation.
            He makes an invitation to us as individuals to be all in – to trust him and to follow him with our whole lives.
            And he is making an invitation to our congregation to do the same.  Feed the hungry. Give Shelter to the homeless.  Give hope to those who are on the edge.  Nurture the children.  
            Share the Grace of God in our community. 
             “Trust Jesus.”  That’s an invitation to stewardship – which is to entrust our WHOLE lives to him – the one who loves you so fully that he went to the cross for you. 
            At Grace we’re a small part of God’s BIG mission – and so every October we ask you consider your gift to Grace as a small part of your total commitment to following Jesus.  
            Because through this congregation you have experienced the Grace of God – and because through your giving, we can continue to embody the love of Jesus, and share his invitation with others, so that they can see his love and follow him as well.
            And what do we want our neighbors – our community – the world – to know – through our lives – and through our giving?
             The answer to the riddle – “Nothing” – that “Nothing” can separate us from the love of our generous God – in Christ Jesus our Lord.



Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Finding Vida Nueva

It was last year at just about this time when we arrived in Lima, Peru.  There were just a few of us.  We were there to meet our mission partners, to find out more about the work the churches were doing, to meet some of the people and hear their stories.  There were just a few of us, and we had only been in Peru for about a day and a half when we set out to find a church called "Vida Nueva."  New Life.

We spent the morning in a nearby market, and then we were to set out.  We knew that the church was quite a distance away, out in the hills -- the outskirts of Lima.  The church boasted a landmark -- a large statue of of Jesus with arms outstretched.  The idea was to get to the church, meet some of the members who were waiting for us, and then climb the steps up to the Jesus with Outstretched Arms.

You can't miss him.  Jesus, that is.

And it was true.  When we neared the area, we could see the statue off in the distance.  We knew we were close, and we began to ascend into the hills, up narrow and winding gravel roads, past small businesses and houses.

And as we ascended we lost sight of Jesus.  The statue that is.  The one with outstretched arms.

We were sure we were close.  We had GPS, but it didn't seem to do any good.  We called the church, but the women there did not know exactly where we were, and did not know how to tell us what direction to go to get to the church.

We opened the windows on our van, and fearlessly questioned anyone walking by.  "Have you heard of Vida Nueva?" we asked.  Some had heard of the church, but they weren't sure exactly where it was.  Some pointed us in a certain direction.  Some had not heard of Vida Nueva.  It seemed like we were going in circles.  There were several dead ends.  It was getting later in the afternoon, and we knew if we didn't find the church soon, we would have to return home in defeat.

Then someone in the car shouted and pointed, "There it is!"  We spied the statue in the distance again.  At the same time we saw a young woman walking down the street.  "Do you know where to find Vida Nueva?" we asked again.  She used to go there, she said, so she knew exactly where it was.  She got in the van and took us there, and we were so close, but we had been driving around in circles.

Once we got to the church it was too late to make the pilgrimage up to the status of Jesus with Outstretched Arms.  But we got a tour of the small church, and learned a little bit about their ministry with children.  Then my husband pulled out his guitar and we sang a few songs together.  We sang in Spanish, a language I barely knew, and we sang songs I had been struggling to learn.  We sang "You have Come Down to the Lakeshore" in Spanish, and when the little group of women began the refrain, with the word, "SeƱor!", it was as if the Jesus with Outstretched Arms had come down to us.   I had sung this song many times before, and, truth be told, I was singing it for the first time that afternoon, with a lump in my throat and gratitude for the community.

We were so lost, and then we were found.

It has been a year since that journey, and suddenly the image of the Jesus with Outstretched Arms appeared again, and I remembered.  I remembered the winding dusty roads and the feeling of futility. I remembered our guide rolling down the windows and asking everyone she met for directions.  I remembered the ramshackle houses, and the vivid colors, and I remembered the glimpse of Jesus, and I remembered how our voices were raised together, theirs carrying mine.  I remembered the shaft of light in the small chapel.

We drive in circles most of the time.  At least I know I do.  The GPS that is supposed to tell me exactly where to go -- doesn't always work the way I would like.  Even when I know what I'm looking for (which isn't always the case).  "Vida Nueva."  New Life.   The Jesus with Outstretched Arms.

I know that is the case for my congregation as well.  Sometimes we drive around in circles.  The path to new life, it seems, should be clear, and I should be able to lead them there on a straight path.  But maybe part of the point is getting lost, rolling down the windows and asking for directions.  Maybe part of the point is the hard humility gained by going around and around in circles, until you really learn to see what is around you, what you have been missing:  the sound of the singing, the outstretched arms, the vivid colors, the hunger.

And then, and then -- Vida Nueva will find you.  The Jesus with Outstretched Arms.