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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011

Christmas Eve 2011 Gospel: Luke 2:1-20 1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96 2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14

Long ago, when God created the heavens and the earth he wanted all living things to be family. That’s why he made Eve from Adam’s rib. Adam got the idea. He said, “This one is at last flesh of my flesh.” There was relationship. There was family. And because God wanted Adam to regard all of creation as family, God allowed the first humans to name all the animals. That way humankind would learn to respect and love nature. To name something is to give it value. And humankind was charged with caring for the land and cultivating it and caring for it so that it would continue to thrive and support life, both human and animal. All the earth was created to be family.

But we soon forgot we were family. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. Cain slew his brother Abel. Violence, jealousy, and hatred are part of our human story, too, as we well know and have experienced.

God tried everything to get us to understand that we are family. God brought foreigners into our midst to show us different points of view and that we are all loved in God’s eyes and have something of value to contribute. God sent messengers to remind the people of what was most important, prophets who threatened and promised and shared visions of what God really had in mind. God allowed the chosen people to be taken into captivity to show us how important it is to be family and then released them to start again on this quest to be family.

We just weren’t getting it.

So God decided to come down here and show us what it meant to be family. But first God needed to find a suitable family for the Christ child. God sent an angel to find the perfect family for his son.

The little angel was nervous. This was a big job, to find a good family for God to grow up in. The angel had never been part of a family, but he wanted to do his job well, so he went off to do some research and find out what family was.
First he came to a family of penguins huddling close in the cold. One penguin parent protected their young while their spouse took a long trip to find food and bring it back to them. The angel asked them, “What does family mean to you?” The penguins replied, “It means sharing responsibilities. We’d never make it if we didn’t share the work load, huddling to keep out the cold and taking turns going out to get food.” The angel was very impressed. As he watched, a penguin mate brought food for the family and the penguin that had remained, prepared to take the long journey to the edge of the ice where fish could be found. The angel thanked them for their help and went on his way. He would be sure to look for a family that shared responsibilities.

Next the angel came upon a family of monkeys high up in a rainforest canopy. They were swinging among the branches and making faces at one another. One had made himself a hat out of leaves and was showing off to the other monkeys. Another was trying to snatch that hat right off his head. The angel watched them for a few minutes and then asked them the same question, “What does family mean to you?” They answered, “Being playful! We all have work to do, food to gather, nits to pick off each other, danger to watch out for. But we always make time for play and laughter together. That’s what family is for.” The angel saw how much fun they were having and decided he would look for a family that knew how to be playful and have fun.

As the angel traveled, looking for just the right family, he came upon an ant hill. The ants were very busy traveling here and there, carrying bits of plant matter and food. The angel stopped to watch them, impressed with their industriousness. He said to them, “I’m looking for the ultimate family. What does family mean to you ants?” They said to him, without hesitation, “Working together! We are small and it might not seem that we can do much. But together we put away enough food for winter. We break down leaves and plants and carry them piece by piece to feed our colony. We fight off attackers many times our size—all because we work together.” The angel watched them a little longer scurrying this way and that. As the angel went on his way, he knew he would need to find a family that worked together.

As the angel traveled on, he came to a family of humans. One of the young ones kneeled in prayer at her bedside. The angel listened to her prayer. She thanked God for all her blessings. “Thank you for mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and Fluffy and Spot. Thank you for food and toys. Thank you for my teacher and for popsicles.” This really touched the angel. The angel decided that a grateful heart would be something that he would look for in a family for the Christ child.

When the angel returned to the heavens to share what he had learned, he told God that he had found many wonderful families and learned a great deal about what it meant to be a family. He wondered how God could possibly choose when there were so many great families on earth.

And when the angel went out into the night sky that Christmas Eve to sing, he was full of anticipation to see what family God chose. As he sang the words of praise at our Savior’s birth, “Glory to God in the heavens and on earth peace and goodwill to humankind,” he remembered the words of Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.” And he heard the angel of the Lord say to the shepherds, “to you is born this day a Savior who is the Messiah.” And he saw the child among the cows, horses, people and sheep in the manger. And he saw the magi, still a long way off coming to worship the child. And he saw the hay cushioning the child and the bands of cloth wrapping him. And he knew that God had found the perfect family, that the child was for all of us, we are all his brothers and sisters, we are all children of God, we are all one family with each other, people of all kinds, and even plants and animals.

And because of that family relationship that we all have with each other, we share the responsibility with all people. We take offerings that benefit people throughout the world to help them through earthquakes and famines and natural disasters and we get together and make quilts or do service projects that benefit people in need. We stop and talk and laugh playfully with lonely widows in the store and wish them a Merry Christmas. We work together with people we barely know to feed the hungry bringing food to the blue barrel in the entryway and distribute it to our brothers and sisters close by. We give thanks for our blessings and live lives of thankfulness. Christmas is about God making us all family with God and with each other and living like family throughout the year.

This night is about God making us God’s family and us becoming family of each other in the process. It is like any family. There are disagreements. Some family members seem to have it all together while the black sheep still seem to cause trouble. There are know-it-alls and ne’er-do-wells. There those that are successful and those barely making it. There are those who are miserable and those that are happy. Whoever we are, we still need each other, we’ve all got something to offer, and we’re all the apple of our Father’s eye. So let’s take after our father and be generous and grateful and forgiving and show love to each other because that’s what it means to be family.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon for October 23

October 23, 2011 Aimee Bruno Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46 Psalm 1
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

I almost wish it was Valentine’s Day, today, because we have here in the readings a series of love letters. We’ve got Paul’s love letter to the Thessalonians. Even though we didn’t read it, we’ve got in Leviticus God’s love letter to the Israelites showing them how to love each other. And in the Gospel, we have an invitation to pour out our heart to God and to our neighbor and to ourselves in love.

I remember being a kid at Valentine’s Day and having to fill out a valentine for every kid in class. Sometimes it was a stretch to think of something nice to say about every single person, but a good exercise to remember that each person had their good qualities. Of course my best friends always got the cuter valentines—there was a Valentine hierarchy, but everyone was included.

Paul is giving the best Valentine to the Thessalonians. He even complains a little about the Philippians there, although you wouldn’t know from reading his letter to the Philippians that there was a problem. It probably is not a good idea in your love letters to each other and loving interactions with each other to drag in some complaint about someone else. We call that triangulation. Nowadays we know that if someone comes to us like this, the proper thing to say is “Paul, maybe you want to talk to the Philippians about that.” Otherwise we end up participating in gossip and it never gets resolved.

Paul is speaking so tenderly to the Thessalonians. He cares so much for them that he wants to continue to share the Gospel with them and encourage them and feels they will be receptive. He is confident in their relationship. He urges them to share what they’ve learned with others and take that love to another level. He has given to them of his own self, just as Christ gave of himself, and expects them also to give of themselves to others.

He uses images of a wet nurse, a strikingly feminine image to show how deep his feelings go just like the deep bond between a mother and child, including the giving of one’s very body, a physical connection and sharing life. Maybe preaching about breast feeding might make some people squirm, but I sure have been reading a lot about it lately trying to prepare myself. It is the most amazing process in that the mother makes the exact nutrition that the baby needs from the early nutrient rich colostrum that gives an immunity boost, to a transitional milk, and then the more watery milk that is the right mixture of sugars and vitamins and fats to nourish the baby as it grows bigger. As the baby’s needs change, the mother’s milk production changes. Then there is the physical connection, the eye contact, the getting to know and trust each other, the mother being available when she’s needed and the baby having that security. All this creates such a strong bond and a good, healthy beginning to life until the baby can get its nutritional and physical needs met in a different way. Maybe we could look at that mother’s milk as a love letter to her child. Paul uses this image to show how he and the Thessalonians have a mutual relationship in which he provides what they need to start out in their ministry and how they will grow and develop and maybe even someday provide that healthy start for another new life that will grow and thrive and share the good news of God’s love.

Then we come to the Gospel. We are still in the section of Matthew after he’s cleared out the temple and made everyone really mad and they are still trying to catch him in a trap. He confronts their malice with a picture of love. They are being less than loving. They are trying to trick God. Their whole lives are based on selfishness and greed rather than loving their neighbor. Jesus is reminding them about love being at the center of it all. He says to love God with every part of their being. Jesus says we should love God with the entirety of the heart, without holding anything back, giving all attention and feeling to God. Jesus says we should love God spiritually, with all our soul, not holding anything back, giving all our spiritual life to God’s purpose. And he says we should love God with the entirety of our mind. Loving God and using our brains are not mutually exclusive.

But it can’t just be about loving God—it has to come through and be shown in the love of our neighbor, too, and in our love of ourselves. Love should be reflected in every area of our lives. It can be a feeling we have toward another, although we are to be loving regardless of how we feel. Love ought to be reflected in our actions toward ourselves and others. Love ought to be a key part of our spiritual lives, our physical lives, our work and our play. It is at the root of everything we do.

Sometimes the hardest thing can be to love ourselves. We are taught to give of ourselves, make sacrifices, disregard our own needs. But look how Jesus loved himself. He loved himself so that he never compromised who he was for others. He was self-assured and centered in love. He used his brain and his gifts and he didn’t hide any of that. He took breaks when he needed it, going to pray by himself and to rest. He took care of himself and even took time to go and be with family and go to parties and weddings. Those of us who would rather give, give, give and never care for ourselves, can’t find any backing in scripture to do that. I would encourage you to find that love to take care of your own needs and don’t put them off. When we’ve cared for ourselves, that equips us better to care for others. Who can know what it means to love a neighbor without knowing what it means to love ourselves, too?

So now to loving our neighbor: This can also have its own difficulties and pitfalls. It isn’t always clear what is the loving thing to do. In order to love someone, do you have to like them? What about tough love? Where do you draw the line with helping a friend or family member? Should you let people walk all over you and take advantage of you because of this commandment to love? We didn’t read from Leviticus this morning, but I’d like to encourage you to take it home and read it. It gives some hints about what is the loving thing to do. It talks about being fair and impartial. It reminds us not to speak ill of our neighbor or to lie or kill. It reminds us not to harbor hatred for others. It advises us to warn our neighbor in a loving way when they are causing problems. It reminds us to forgive and not to judge.

We miss part of the context here because we don’t live in that day and time, but I get to look this stuff up and tell you about it. Not being partial to the poor or deferring to the great means that we put everyone on equal ground. Justice means that we all start out the same with all the same resources, so it does mean feeding the poor and providing housing for the homeless and sheltering the widow and the orphan. It means equalizing us. It was a little like socialism.

The main thing Leviticus reminds us of is that we are not in charge, but that God is our LORD. God at the center means that love is at the center. We’re going to have to decide for ourselves how we live out this love. What love looks like from one day to the next may not be exactly the same thing. We learn through trial and error what loving really is. We never write the perfect love letter, but are always in the process of composing it and decorating it with glitter and lipstick kisses. But we don’t hold that letter back because it is imperfect. We keep on giving it and receiving them in return until God enfolds us in God’s most perfect love.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon for October 16, 2011

October 16, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22 Psalm 96:1-13
1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7 2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Really all of October has been Stewardship Month. We snuck it in on you, without you really knowing it. On the 2nd, we blessed the pets and thanked God for all of God’s creation. We talked and prayed about taking care of the earth and the animals that are gifts from God to borrow for a little while. Last week, we used the word “Rejoice” a lot and thought more about what it means to give thanks to God as a way of life. Today is commitment Sunday where we make out our estimate of giving cards and let the church know about how much we each intend to give in the coming year so we can make a realistic budget.

Stewardship has to do with God being in charge and us being stewards. It is about how we use what God has made and let us borrow. It is about God entrusting so much to us, and how we use and share and manage all that.

Let me go through the readings one by one and see what they each have to say about Stewardship. The first reading from Isaiah has the novel concept that God is the only God. The first commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” It kind of sounds like there could be other gods, but Yahweh is the supreme. Here, God is saying that’s it—there is only one God.

Some scholars believe that the devil or Satan represents another god. It can be hard to answer the question about why bad things happen if you only have one God who is good. Some people answer that by explaining evil forces with the concept of the devil. Here in Isaiah, God claims responsibility for both the good and the bad, the light and the darkness, the prosperity and the woe. It can all be attributed to God.

I usually attribute all the good to God and all the bad to humankind. But who is to say what is good or bad since almost everything has some good and bad. And God can make good out of a bad situation. Even a victim of molestation can come through life as a survivor and help others in a similar situation. Joseph in the Old Testament said to his brothers, “What you intended for bad (selling him into slavery) God intended for good.” God used the evil hatred of the brothers to save a whole generation of people from starvation. It is no good to tell someone in the midst of a horrible situation that God intends it for good. However, looking for the good in any situation, or understanding that something good may come out of it later can be a helpful way to get yourself through something horrific. I also don’t believe that just because God makes something good out of it that God caused it in the first place. God gives free will and we choose evil sometimes, but God can make something good out of it.

So if there is only one God, who created everything, then everything belongs to God. That is our stewardship implication here. It is all God’s.

In the second lesson the major stewardship implication has to do with turning “to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” Of course one of the major idols we serve can be our money. It is a false god and we put our trust in our money more than anything else. We think it can make us secure. We rely on it. We try to get more of it. We are nice to people who have more of it. We use it to get people to do what we want. And we put a lot of trust in our possessions. The more money we have the more possessions we can get. We gather more junk around us than we can possibly use and we get caught up in storing it and keeping it up and acquiring new and better stuff and we get distracted. But also the more disposable money we have, the more people we can help and the more good we can do in our neighborhood and around the world. We can’t use it as an idol that we worship because then it controls us. Instead if we see it as a tool we can use for good, then we control it and hopefully make a better world from it.

Now we come to the Gospel. This is right after Jesus cleansed the temple and got everyone all worked up and determined to arrest him. The Pharisees and Herodians are trying to catch him in a trap. They ask him if they should pay taxes or not. This is sure to get him! If he says pay taxes, he is telling them to honor Caesar who is oppressing the Israelites and claiming to be god. If he says don’t pay taxes, he is telling them all to commit treason and rebel against Rome which will then attack Israel and destroy it.

Instead, Jesus puts them on the spot. He asks them to show him a coin of the empire. By doing so, they reveal that they are breaking the rule against graven images in the temple. They also show that they are profiteers of this temple system and that it is corrupt and they are part of the problem. This temple system, where they change the graven image money into temple money and sold animals for the sacrifices kept the Pharisees and Herodians in power and all the little people had to pay the fee to have any access to God.

Then Jesus tells them a riddle. He’s going to let them figure it out for themselves. He says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” So what does that mean? God made everything, everything is God’s. Give God everything. So what is the emperor’s? He needs his image stamped all over everything—that’s how insecure he is. And the coin had the words in scripted on it saying that Caesar is god. He’s saying to give Caesar meaningless words and images and titles and give him a boost to his ego if that’s what the inferior guy needs. God is above all that. God has already left God’s mark on absolutely everything by giving it life, creativity, power, etc.

So that leaves the question for us about where our loyalty lies. Can we be good Christians and good citizens, at the same time? Can we be loyal to our country and God? It is a question that I’m not going to answer for you—I’d rather imitate Jesus on this one than stick my neck out. But also, God gave you a brain to decide.
It is clear that we should be loyal to God first. God gave us everything—didn’t withhold even his own Son. God made everything and shares with us. We can trust God completely so that’s where our loyalty goes first. That doesn’t mean we can’t also be loyal to our country. But we have to remember that our country is fallible. It is human-made and has flaws and we can’t always rely on it to protect us or look out for our best interests or to be loving and just. There are many times we can rely on it to do that, but at times it will fail to do that. So we have to be ready to ask the hard questions of our country and our citizens and understand our motivations and use our voice and our vote to try to make this country better, more just and fair and compassionate. We can also give to God what is God’s—everything, and still have something to give to our country, our service, our hope, our vote, our protest, our critique. And in the places our God and our country are on the same page we can rejoice.

The same is true of our church. Giving to our church may not necessarily be giving to God. Yet, just as we make up our country, we are the church. We have a say here to be more loving and compassionate and generous and to make decisions about where our financial gifts go. Sometimes I’m surprised that God only asks for 10% back from each of us. In our congregation we give more than 10% of your gifts to help others here and around the world between the benevolence we give to the Oregon Synod and King’s Cupboard, Backpack Buddies, Pastor’s Discretionary Fund and various other people and groups that you support in your giving when you write that on the memo line of your check or on your envelope. We also know that many of you give outside the church to places like Habitat for Humanity, The Sierra Club, The Heiffer Project and on and on, as well as volunteering your time to help others. We can also honor God when we use our money to support local businesses, buy American and/or sustainable products. We get to try to use everything for God’s glory. God has given us everything we have, let us share and use those gifts of God in ways that would please God and help our neighbor and give life to those around us.

My grandma used to give us $20 each year when we started school. That was a lot of money to us and we could really make it stretch. When we went as a family to spend that money on school clothes mom always reminded us to use it in a way that Grandma would have appreciated. Even though she had given it as a gift, we recognized how special a gift that was, and wanted to use it in the way she would have wanted us to. In the same way, God gives us many gifts, everything we have. And we can remember to use it in ways that please God and make our whole lives a “thank-you” note to God for all he has given us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sermon for October 9, 2011

October 9, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14 Psalm 23
1st Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9 2nd Reading: Philippians 4:1-9

“Praise” “rejoice” “let us be glad.” I, of course, wrote all this before yesterday when my dad's wife took her own life. It is certainly affecting me, but even after all that, I still stand by these words and believe joy to be a state of being that doesn’t change based on happenstance. I picked out these commands from our readings this morning because sometimes I can be too serious and sometimes I look around and wonder if we’ve come here to church to be solemn and feel guilty or to give thanks to God for how good God is. And there is no reason it can’t be both, but sometimes I look around for that joy and don’t see it on people’s faces. There is a nearby church who calls the sanctuary the “celebration center” and another one nearby that has for its baptismal font the “celebration bowl.” This word reminds us of the joy that comes from believing in God. We are a reserved people. We don’t want to look stupid. We often keep our feelings hidden, whether they are joyous or sad. We don’t want to be like those holy rollers with their Amens and Hallelujahs, do we? I remember I used to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it then your smile will surely show it” and looking around and not seeing anyone smiling. We’re Lutherans.

So let’s see does anyone have anything to praise God about today? I invite you to share one thing with your neighbor that you have to praise God about. I’d say, don’t stop here. Share that with someone else you meet this week. You can leave all the religious stuff out of it and just say how thankful you are that this or that is the case.

Isaiah is praising God for many things. God has done amazing things, made wonderful plans and carried them out. God has been a refuge—has anyone here experienced God as a refuge or a safe place? God has fed the people—we experience that every time we share the Lord’s supper, but this supper is found in every meal we eat. Let’s remember that this morning at coffee hour. Sip that cup and taste the Lord’s plan, planting those beans, the hard work that goes into growing them, the harvest, the processing of them, getting the husks off, washing and soaking and drying them, the sorting them, the roasting them, the grinding of them and the shipping and stocking and brewing. And then that feeling of coffee in your mouth, God’s plan, the third Lutheran sacrament, the goodness, the holiness, something greater than its parts. And pay attention when you eat your lunch and dinner, the texture, the flavors, the ingredients and where they came from and what it took to gather them and get them in this form, who cooked it and where the energy came from to do so. There is so much to be thankful for, to pay attention to in God’s plan for feeding us with rich food and well-aged wine. God has a plan for the future, to swallow up death, to wipe away tears. God has done so much for us and still plans to do more—much more. We have so much to smile about. We have so much to be thankful for.

Paul also tells the people of Philippi to rejoice and in case they didn’t get it, he repeats it and tells them to do it always. None of us feels like doing it all the time, but Paul seems to be saying it is a state of being, a choice. You can’t always be happy. You can’t always get what you want, or so say the Rolling Stones and they would know. It is saying whatever your circumstance, focus on the positive. Focus on what is true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. There is always something to be grumpy about or feel guilty about. Don’t dwell there. Instead, turn your thoughts toward what is positive in any situation and focus on that and you will experience God’s peace.

Now this Gospel is really puzzling. I’d almost rather not even read the ending paragraph there where the poor guy gets thrown out of the wedding but if you start throwing things out of the Bible, it gets to be a slippery slope. It seems to go against the whole parable where Jesus says that everyone is welcome, the good and the bad. It seems petty to exclude someone because of what they’re wearing. Some scholars have suggested that Matthew embellished Jesus’ story a little bit because his community was uncomfortable about including absolutely everyone. This part of the story only appears in Matthew, so maybe that could be true. He might have misremembered part of the story to fit his community.

I’m thinking, though, that maybe this guy came to the party, but he wasn’t really partying. He wasn’t really celebrating or rejoicing. His heart wasn’t in it. He wasn’t fully dressed for the wedding. He wasn’t putting any effort into it. Many times you get out of something what you put into it. It seems those wedding garments were available to everyone who came to the party. It is like he wouldn’t wear a party hat or have cake or sit and eat with the others. At a party, you have to make an effort to enjoy yourself and get into the spirit and this guy just isn’t there and he’s spoiling it for everyone else. He was just going through the motions, making faces, and being a spoil sport. So he’s asked to leave.

I wonder if sometimes we encourage people to subdue their joy and check it at the door at church. Sometimes this doesn’t seem like that joyful of a place. Other times it does. I know it is a matter of balance, but I fear more that we don’t celebrate enough than that we do so too much. When visitors come, do they sense our joy and hope and get swept up in it on a regular basis? When we sing, do we feel like smiling? Do we come in our wedding robe, in full sequins and feathers and in our shiny shoes and sparkling eyes or do we sometimes hide our lamp under a bushel? I’m sure it is a little bit of each, probably more on the reserved side.

Let me tell you some things that I have found very joyful around here lately. Little Nicholas, Barry and Ellen’s grandson, helping to read the lessons brings a smile to all our faces. It gives me joy when Jessica and Cheyenn light the candles so respectfully at the altar. I leaped for joy when Doug’s email came this week that there was no trace of his cancer on the PET scan. I smiled at the sound of the tone chimes practicing the other night. I rejoiced when our visitors last week were shown the candle table and engaged in a conversation with several standing around there. I gave much thanks to God when our office helpers showed up and gave their help while Susan is on vacation. I rejoiced to see food piling up in the barrel and the girl scout troupe come to sort it. I give thanks that my uncle is staying with my dad over the coming week and that our family comes together to support each other. I give thanks for a beautiful day yesterday. I give thanks for my wiggly fetus and all the people getting ready to welcome this new person. I smiled inside when I saw each of you drive in this morning and come in to the church. There is so much to be thankful for, to smile about, to rejoice and praise God for if we just look. And if there is any place to let it all hang out and to let your smile really show it, this is the place, God’s house, and then take that bright smile out to show others the light of Christ.

St. Francis Day Sermon

October 2, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46 Psalm 80:7-15
1st Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7 2nd Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

In the past few years we’ve had a number of stray cats staying in our yard. I don’t know if this is part of the downturn in the economy that people are abandoning their pets because they can’t afford them or not spaying or neutering their animals because they can’t afford that, or just some co-incidence. Three strays have lived in our yard. I suppose they chose us because they know we’re suckers. They know cat people. They know how hard it is to say no. I hate to see an animal starving, so I’ve looked into what I can do about it. With the first cat, I called the Humane Society. At the time there was a 6 month waiting period for them to receive strays. I put a flier around the neighborhood and asked people of it was their cat. I could have taken “Stachey”—named for his mustache—to the pound, but the likelihood that a perfectly healthy, beautiful cat would be euthanized was too much to bear. And I took him to the vet to see if he had a microchip. He didn’t, but he panicked and I learned he was feral—had probably never been indoors before and too wild to sterilize. We gave him to someone who lived out in the woods and needed a barn cat, because he had killed a squirrel and several birds, but he instantly ran away and we don’t know what became of him. Now that we have two other strays in our yard, we are feeding one and our neighbor is feeding the other and I don’t really know what else to do.

Maybe it is because we know what it is like to be rejected that we latch on to these creatures who need us. Maybe we have soft hearts. Maybe we are suckers. Maybe we have compassion.

The Gospel reading for this morning says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” God knows what it is like to be rejected. In the first reading, God puts in all this hard work constructing a vineyard. The rocks are cleared. The vines are planted. The watchtower is built. The wine vat is in place. The fence goes in. You can just imagine the vineyard owner’s anticipation. Every rock removed is a sign of the hope he has in the upcoming harvest. He believes that very sore muscle is going to be worth it. It takes a long time for grape vines to get established and mature enough to produce grapes. He has delayed gratification and put everything into this venture.

And it is all for nothing. The grapes are wild.

Think of God, preparing this earth, developing every tree, perfecting every river and brook, evening out the seasons, bringing night and day, setting the earth on its axis and spinning it, placing the stars in the sky, painting every sunset, providing snow melt every spring. All this will nourish us and help us thrive, and yet, here we are, wild grapes, not acting like God’s people at all—not producing what God was expecting.

And put it in the context of the Gospel, God sending prophets and teachers to help us understand what God wants for us and to help us out. And we kill those prophets. We don’t want to hear it. And God sends more people to show us a better way and we do the same with them. And God sends the Son and we don’t want anything to do with him. We kill him, too. God knows what it is like to be rejected—and mocked and spit on and tortured. We rejected him until he couldn’t be rejected anymore, because we had killed him.

Understandably, God is upset, just like we are when we get rejected. In the Gospel, the vineyard owner is really, really mad. The Kingdom of God is taken from those who reject God and kill God’s representatives. The cornerstone crushes those who don’t produce the fruit of the Kingdom.

In Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi, there is a different response. Instead, God makes us all his own. God doesn’t take the fact that we’ve rejected God and use it to reject us. Instead, God comes back to us again with compassion and understanding and adopts us again. That’s what any parent does with their kids. Parents teach their kids the best they can to make good decisions. Most children don’t do everything the way their parents taught them. That is part of becoming their own person. Parents may even feel rejected by their children. Yet parents continue to love their children and help them.

That’s the nice thing about our pets, it is very rare that they reject us. They can be so loyal. They might disobey us. They might destroy something important to us. They might get away and run around the neighborhood, but none of it is malicious. They are innocent. More often, we reject them. Every night I throw the cats out of our bedroom. I have lately been throwing the cat out of the crib. I have it covered with a sheet and yet she finds a way to climb on top of it and lay down in a warm, satisfying sleep! I put my cats out in the rain. I may not pet them for days. Yet, every morning when I get up, they trust me to feed them. As soon as I sit down at the computer in the evening, they are walking on the back of the chair or begging to get in my lap, which unfortunately for them is getting smaller and smaller. They are loyal and loving, like God.

The truth is, we have all been rejected and we’ve all done some rejecting. We’d like to think we’re not rejects—we’d like to think we’re somebody important. But we are quirky and vulnerable and weird and are afraid of being rejected.

The good news for this morning is that there is a place for rejects, with God. God, who knows what it is like to be rejected, accepts and loves all of us just as we are. That kind of acceptance, after all we’ve done against God, can help us be more compassionate toward those who have rejected us and those we once rejected.

We are the stray cat that is hanging out in God’s yard, abandoned by our friends, scruffy, hungry, pathetic. But God sees the potential there. When he tries to comfort us, we may scratch or bite. We might keep our distance. But when the food bowl is filled, we come running. Everyone, even a reject, could use a good meal and some love. So we are invited to the table from all our various corners, not to claw and scratch, but to be redeemed rejects with value and hope for a brighter future.

Discussion question for this week:
In what ways has God blessed you through your pets or through nature?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sermon for September 25

September 25, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32 Psalm 25:1-9
1st Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 2nd Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

I can really appreciate Paul’s comments in his letter to the Philippians this morning, “Just as you have always obeyed me, not just in my presence, but much more now in my absence…” It is kind of a tongue in cheek comment, since the Philippians weren’t doing very well being faithful in Paul’s absence. I couldn’t help but relate thinking of my upcoming absence and hoping for your steadiness and faithfulness while I am away. Not that I need you to obey me, but that I need you to keep on listening to God and obeying God and also keep this place running.

I can appreciate Paul’s approach. He starts with why we’re all here. “If there is any…encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, or sympathy in Christ…” Well, of course someone is going to pick one or more out of that list. Even if church is not going well at all, in order to keep people there, one or more out of that list has to be happening. And I would hope that as we look through that list, we’d see several that we’d found to be true at King of Kings. So let’s say we all agree that something good is coming out of our relationship with Christ and our work in this congregation, just as the people of Philippi could find at least one of those good things happening at their church. We all agree then so we can go to the “then” of the “if…then” clause.

If that’s true, then Paul asks that the members complete his joy. How could they refuse him? He had been imprisoned for his faith. He was in a terrible situation because he had brought them the good news—arrested as a criminal and held in chains and still writing to encourage them, despite all that.

I’d like to ask the same of you—make my joy complete. Do you want to make me happy? Look at me, asking for your cooperation and continued participation. Who of you would tell me, no, that you aren’t going to continue on in faithfulness while I am away, working for the Gospel and keeping this church and your fellow members strong and our ministries making a difference in the neighborhood? And it is in your interest to keep on working for the Gospel, because in many ways this is even more your church than mine.

If you want to make Paul happy, he asks you to put on the mind of Christ. Get a brain-transplant and put Christ’s brain inside your own head. Start thinking how Christ would think. And he outlines some of what that would mean. Look to other’s interests rather than your own. Be selfless. Don’t take advantage of other people. Use your privileges to help others. Empty yourselves and give up some things you’d prefer in order to help others. Trust God fully. Be willing to face death as well as all the scary places in life that make you think you’re going to die. Confess Jesus Christ and worship him. And follow through on your commitments.

This description of Paul’s is about all the things we believe about Jesus and reminds us of who he is for us. This is one of the very first creeds, like the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed. It is a statement of what is most important in our faith and what we need to remember for when our community is arguing or our leader is absent or we just need to stay on track. And it should describe us as his followers if we really believe in him. I think of the video last week with Shane Claiborn when he says that even the demons believed in Jesus. You can believe in Jesus and his power and not follow his ways. To be a Christian is more than believing. It is following.

So what can an imperfect people do with this overwhelming job description of Jesus’ that Paul is reminding them of while Paul is away? First, let’s remember this is a job description for the whole community. It isn’t for individuals. We can all do our part in fulfilling and following Jesus together. It doesn’t just rest on one person. Second, this job description sets us up to fail. We aren’t going to be able to do it. We are sinners. We aren’t Jesus. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus. It brings us to the very humility that it asks of us. We die a kind of death to the notion that we could do it. Instead, when we read all this, we realize we can’t do it, and we turn to Jesus who can and did. And we experience that forgiveness. We forgive ourselves. We forgive each other. We are raised with him in a way to new life. So we move forward in that state of forgiveness to try to live a new way that comes close to this job description, but also gives us that feeling of freedom instead of failure.

Soon I will be leaving you temporarily. I have a list of things I’d like you to do, that I have been preparing you for. I have to say you have showed a level of commitment that impresses me, following through on visitation and using what you learned in the Children’s Message refresher course. You aren’t just saying what I want to hear like the first son in the vineyard. You have more than just good intentions. Most of you have been here a lot longer than I have and have the experience of taking up the slack when there has been an interim or in the time when your new pastors have been getting to know you.

When I say, “Make my joy complete,” I have on that list that you would keep coming to church. It isn’t that church is going to get you to heaven or make everything right in the universe. I’d like you to keep coming because at church we get reminders of why we are people of faith. We see that good that can be done for others. We remember what is most important to us. We also get strength and encouragement, being here. The ancient stories combined with the current ones of good friends, help us keep moving forward on our journey of faith and keep us going when we feel discouraged. There is accountability here at church. We aren’t just living for ourselves, but as part of a community and we get to check in about how we’re carrying the good news to the neighborhood through donations or smiles or volunteering or in our work.

When I go into labor, after I’ve made that call to the Church Council President or Nick does, I’m pretty sure my mind will be elsewhere. I am preparing myself to place you and this congregation entirely in God’s hands. And although I will be praying for you and thinking of you now and then in the weeks while I am away, I will treasure that time to concentrate on my new family and my new role and getting some sleep and having patience. I will not be fretting about you, because I know only you can decide whether to follow through and knowing you that you will for the most part and when you can’t you will forgive yourself and others will forgive you and you’ll all move forward anyway.

I’m sure you’ll want to be here, to experience the different preachers we’ll have, to experience worship in a different way. Heck, I’m sorry to miss some of what you’re going to hear and see. You’ll want to get in on the work that will still be going on because it is God’s work, and God working through you, rather than being my work as your pastor. I also encourage you to be here, regardless of whether you feel like it or not, because that’s part of putting others before yourself and emptying yourself in that job description. You have a community that needs you here. Even if you think you’d rather have the sleep, there may be someone here that only you know the right words to say to, or only your hand squeeze could console them, or only your smile could make their day. So come for each other and support each other and make God’s joy complete.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sermon for September 18, 2011

September 18, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16 Psalm 145:1-8
1st Reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11 2nd Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news, and that is that God is generous. It depends on your perspective, right? I want you to put yourself in the story. Can I have a show of hands: How many of you would consider yourselves to be the workers coming to work at 5 o’clock? How many of you would put yourselves in the category of bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat? How about somewhere in between? Wouldn’t want to be too toot your own horn to much, but don’t mind taking a little credit!

I am a lifelong Lutheran. I’ve pretty much always gone to church. Sometimes I take communion twice in a day—if I visit a homebound person. I volunteer my time for the poor. I visit the sick. I try to follow the Ten Commandments. I try to grow my faith, read the Bible, and pray. I’m a pastor! I’ve dedicated my life to God and the church and God’s people. Certainly I have born the burden of the day!

Then I look out at all of you. Some of you have been at this twice as long as I have! Some of you have been through trials I can barely imagine and come through with a strong faith. Some of you have faced illness, faced cancer, lost a spouse, lost children. Yet here you are. Some of you have served on councils and building projects, slept outdoors in solidarity with the homeless, given away your coat or shoes to someone who needed it. Certainly you have born the burden of the day. My day’s just getting started. Maybe I’ve come in in the middle.

And then I look to Jesus Christ. He’s the only we can truly say bore the burden of the day and kept on working. He threw himself into his work, was completely obedient to God, ignored what other people thought of him and always did what was right in relationship to others—especially the poor. He didn’t think of himself and what was due him as God’s son, as one being there from the creation of the universe, who gave up his throne to walk in dirt and pain and human experience.

And Jesus came to make us all equal with each other and with him. We don’t like to be equal with each other. I don’t mind being equal with those that are better—I don’t mind being lumped in with all of you. But to be put together with the really late-comers seems insulting. We can think of reasons they weren’t there to be hired. Maybe they were sleeping late. Maybe they were hung-over. Maybe they didn’t have it together. They were probably lazy. Why would I want to be lumped in with them?

But if I am to be lumped in with Jesus—which I do not deserve, then inevitably I’ll be lumped in with all of you and all of the late-comers too. It just doesn’t seem fair, and it isn’t fair. But aren’t we glad that God isn’t fair and gives to us generously? We’re glad when God is generous to us but we get grumpy when God is generous to others.

Jonah is so angry in our Old Testament story. Let me tell you, you’re supposed to laugh at this story. It is funny! Jonah is mad that God is so generous to the people of Ninevah because it makes him feel foolish. He told the people God was going to punish them and then God doesn’t do it. It makes Jonah look like a liar. It makes him look stupid that what he said would happen didn’t and that God is gracious “and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing.” So Jonah has himself a little pity party—a pout fest. He’d rather die than see the people Ninevah repent and God be kind to them.

In the Gospel, those who worked a full day are angry at God’s generosity to those who only worked an hour. They are mostly mad because even though they had agreed to a certain wage, they thought they would get more. They thought they were entitled to more. They thought they deserved more. They feel stupid for working the whole day when they could have worked an hour for the same pay.

The landowner here is giving those who worked an hour as well as those who worked all day a living wage. It is what they’d need to live on, no more, no less. If a person doesn’t have the minimum, they won’t go on living for long and won’t be there to work another day. Having more than the minimum can also be problematic, especially when you start to think it makes you better than other people. God gives us exactly what we need.

If we are all equal in God’s eyes, then why shouldn’t we just be lazy and let others do all the work? Why don’t we sit back and take advantage of all this grace that God so naively gives?

When I think of those who come to the pantry, I would say that almost everyone would rather work than to have to ask for food and help. And all of you in retirement—you’d keep getting your retirement income whether you sat in front of the TV all day or went out and volunteered your time somewhere. Yet you choose to give your time to help other people, your family, your neighbors, and your church. And for those of you who have been housewives most of your life—this counts as work and on top of that, it is without pay. I think most of us would agree that there is so much value that people get out of work besides wages.

Work can make life more interesting. It teaches us about ourselves. It keeps us learning new skills, interpersonal skills and maybe physical or intellectual skills. It gives us purpose and meaning and satisfaction. It gives us goals to work toward and progress to measure, and a way to participate in society and contribute.

And, yes, work brings us suffering. Other people can be a pain in the neck. Our job can get tedious. We will be frustrated at times. We’ll get overwhelmed. We won’t live up to our own expectations and we’ll be disappointed or we won’t to live up to those of someone else. Paul says, “Not only has God graciously granted you the privilege of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” Oh goodie! We get to suffer for Christ!

The sign at Oak Hills this morning says something about the privilege of suffering. They must still be on the lectionary. I tricked you in here with “Welcome Back!” But really suffering IS what we’re talking about this morning, too! Gotcha!
Suffering, for Paul, is a privilege. A lot of times we measure our faith by how smoothly our life is going. If things are going well, we can assume we are being faithful enough and doing everything right, that God is with us and we can just stay the course. Just like the vineyard workers were measuring the value of their work by how much they got paid. But Paul is pointing out that suffering is one way to measure whether we are making progress in the faith. The more we’re suffering, the greater our faith progress. Bearing the burden of the day is a privilege that teaches us something about ourselves and has value in and of itself.

When my life is cushy, I think a lot less about my faith life and taking the next step. Why should I, if everything is going well? It is when I am suffering or struggling, that I remember most how much I need God and my friends and my church and to read the Bible. And when I am struggling, that’s when I am really grappling with my faith and what God means to me. It means I am growing in faith, that I am learning something new about myself. And when I struggle, it reminds me of all the struggling people in the world who have it worse than I do, and reminds me to lend a hand and to give of myself to relieve suffering in the world. We can measure our progress in faith by how much we are struggling.

I’m not going to go so far as wish suffering on you this week. Life brings suffering all on its own. But I hope we learn and grow from our struggles and become closer to God and one another.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sermon on the 10-year Anniversary of the 9-11 Attacks

September 11, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35 Psalm 103:1-13
1st Reading: Genesis 50:15-21 2nd Reading: Romans 14:1-12

We come to this house of worship because we are incomplete. There is something necessary in our lives to help make us whole. We need each other. We need God. We need to mend our relationships. We need to learn from our mistakes and find a better way to live. We come here because, as it says in the letter to the Romans this morning, “We do not live to ourselves.” Sometimes we realize this when we make a mistake or have an argument with someone. Sometimes we realize it when we get sick or can’t do all the things we’ve done before on our own. And sometimes we realize it during a time of national disaster and mourning, such as on September 11, 2001.

That day affected us all in a different way, yet that day did affect us all. We were going about our usual business, self-sufficient in our own little worlds, living for ourselves, satisfying our own desires, oblivious to others in a lot of ways—to our neighbors down the street, and to our neighbors around the world and how we might be impacting them.

Suddenly there was no business as usual anymore. Our world changed that day. We realized there was some broken relationship that we weren’t aware of. Someone wanted to hurt us and we didn’t know why. We were suddenly alert to the person driving next to us, tears running down their faces, the crowd glued to the television screen in the hospital lobby, the person desperately trying to get through on the phone to New York. We were seeing the panic, the sadness, the anger in each other’s eyes. We were suddenly aware of each other and that we couldn’t and didn’t live unto ourselves, like we thought.

Joseph’s brothers thought they lived unto themselves. They didn’t think they’d ever see Joseph again after selling him into slavery and lying to their dad he’d been eaten by wild animals. They just wanted him out of the picture out of jealousy. They did whatever they want. Then the famine hit and they realized they don’t live unto themselves. They need others to get by in life. They needed the grain that Egypt could provide. And they realized even more that they don’t live unto themselves when they went to ask for help and who shows up to talk to them but their own brother they sold down the river years before. They actually needed him, the one they had sought to destroy. They suddenly realized that all things are interconnected. None of us is an island.

The servant of the king in this morning’s parable was living life unto himself. How else do you accumulate billions of dollars worth of debt? Suddenly the King comes to collect and the servant realizes that he needs the king’s mercy. He is responsible to someone else. So he begs for that mercy from the king, who forgives the debt and forgives him and releases him. He sees his interconnectedness with those who can do something for him, and is willing to accept their help and their relationship, yet he is willing to destroy the life of someone more vulnerable than he is, rather than show that same mercy and connectedness with another.

I did not pick the readings for this Sunday, but if I were going to pick them, I don’t know if I would be so bold as to pick these. To advocate forgiveness and mercy on September 11 is asking a lot. But I am not asking that. These texts were picked many years before September 11, 2001 came about and will be texts that are used on this particular Sunday every third year for many more to come. So you could say that the Holy Spirit had something to do with it.

God is the one telling us to forgive. Was God ever so wronged as we were on 9/11 that God could give us such a mandate? Did we ever owe God so great a debt as a billion dollars?

The truth is, we act as if we are entitled to everything God has let us borrow. We take it for granted that God will continue to lend it to us when we abuse it and damage it and hurt other people around us. We put ourselves in the place of God, saying we earned this or that privilege we have, acting as if we made it all by ourselves, and denying our relationship with God and each other. How often do we say, “My house,” “my car,” “my church,” “my yard,” “my children?” And we do think of them as our own, but they are really gifts from God that we get to borrow for a little while and care for.

Of course God is the one who should get the credit for every good thing we have—for every bite we eat, for the roof over our heads, for our family and friends and health and pets and clean water to drink and all our blessings. God didn’t have to give us all this. God certainly has reason to deny connection and relationship with us—we’ve screwed it up millions of times. We’ve turned our backs on God and God’s friends. We’ve wasted what God has given us and ruined it. We’ve taken it for granted and taken credit for us. And when God came to be among us and try out our life, we nailed God to the cross and killed him. So yes, God has been as wronged as we have and more and yes we owe God more than a billion dollars. And God has forgiven us all of it. Every last cent is erased from the record. It is an amazing sense of relief to know that it won’t be held against us. We’ve still got that relationship. We can still go to God and sit on God’s lap and receive that love and comfort and help God’s always given us.

So we have the choice of how to respond. I always say this about a time of grieving for a family and maybe it is the same for a congregation or a country, “It can bring out the best in people, or it can bring out the worst.” We have a choice to respond with anger and vengeance and retaliation. We can decide it happened because “They hate our freedom.” We can kill and destroy and try to make this world better through those means.

But God says that never works. When people came to kill his Son, Jesus, one of the disciples cut off the ear of one of the guards in the garden of Gethsemane. But Jesus stopped him. Jesus went without resistance. When we nailed him to the cross and left him to die and mocked him, he did not return violence for violence.
God teaches us the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, relationship. Forgiveness is a sticky subject. It doesn’t mean forgetting what happened. Instead it means remembering so that we can learn from it. It doesn’t mean simply pronouncing forgiveness without examining the situation. Jesus says, “Forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” That doesn’t just happen overnight.

Forgiveness is a process of learning from the other person, understanding what brought them to that point. It means claiming your own part in the situation—taking responsibility for the brokenness that occurred and for the healing that can occur with God’s help. It means moving forward in a different way than before, learning from this terrible tragedy what to do differently in the future.

Many of the results from September 11, 2001 have been anger and retaliation. Not only has our country become involved in several wars in which many innocent people have died and one could argue that the economy suffered greatly as a result of these wars, a mosque in our own state was bombed, Arab Americans have been singled out and threatened, kept from flying, and held without charges. We continue as a country and individuals to meet violence with violence.

I often wonder, what can I really do about it? I feel helpless at the same time that I feel responsible. Sometimes I wonder if it is up to me to do the forgiving or leave that up to others who lost loved ones or suffer from respiratory illnesses from the cleanup. In some ways, we aren’t capable of such forgiveness as Jesus commands. When we realize this is another way we fall short, may that turn us back to God to do the forgiving for us and soften our hearts toward one another.

Whether we can forgive all or part or none of these wrongs, there are ways we can become better informed about why these attacks happened. We can read about other perspectives. We can pay attention to news that is more than just sound bites of what we like to hear, but digs deeper to hear people’s stories. We can try to understand. We can sit down with an Arab American or invite a Muslim person to come to talk to our adult forum class as we have in the past. We can examine our purchases or our stock portfolios to see if we are supporting companies that support the war. And we can take actions of nonviolence in all areas of our lives, toward the earth and in our advocacy work and as we volunteer to empower people to have options other than violence.

This kind of tragedy can also bring out the best in us and in some ways it has done that, as well. On that day we found ways to reach out to those around us. Strangers who hadn’t been to church in ages, or maybe even ever, gathered in houses of worship to pray together. Many of us contacted our loved ones that day and told them how much we loved them. Maybe we don’t take so much for granted anymore—all the gifts we have from God, how much we owe God and those around us for their love and support. And if we can begin to see our neighbors around the world as family, too, and be in relationship with those we see as so different from us, we won’t be living unto ourselves but for each other, as God hopes we would do.

Although God did not cause the events of September 11, God can make something good out of it and build a world where we all understand our relationship to God and one another and are generous and loving toward all our brothers and sisters around the world.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sermon for September 4, 2011

September 4, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20 Psalm 119:33-40
1st Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11 2nd Reading: Romans 13:8-14

“Wherever two or three are gathered…” has become a joke that we use to refer to dwindling church attendance, so how apt that it comes on Labor Day weekend. It has the feeling of resignation about it, because it has a piece of the truth, that church attendance isn’t what it was in the ‘50s or ‘70s. And it helps us to remember that God is still with us, so all is not lost. It is a good thing if we can laugh at ourselves, or else we might cry!

“Wherever two or three are gathered…” there is the potential for great love. There is opportunity to work together, to have companionship and understanding, to learn about yourself and the world, to give of yourself, to be in relationship, to listen and be listened to. The benefits of love go on and on. Love is the highest good, wanting the best for another person, looking beyond yourself and having compassion, putting the best spin on another’s actions. Love is the ultimate blessing. Love is an experience of God. We can experience God/love in our family relationships, in marriage, in domestic partnerships, at work, in our neighborhoods, in our volunteering, and in our church.

And “Wherever two or three are gathered…” there is the chance for arguments. That’s what the lessons are focused on today. There are a million things that can go wrong in a relationship that can lead us away from love.

The reading from Ezekiel doesn’t lay out what the house of Israel has done, but God is heartbroken and angry because they’ve broken their relationship with God. If you read the book of Ezekiel, you can see that Israel has worshipped other Gods and not followed God’s commandments. Israel has ignored the widows and orphans and not cared for the poor. God is letting Israel know that God is displeased, hoping that they will listen and change their ways. Of course they keep right on the same path, despite all warnings and eventually are taken as slaves into Babylon and the temple destroyed.

Paul writes the Roman Christians who argue and can’t agree on much of anything. He gives some examples of what happens when love breaks down: Adultery, murder, theft, envy, reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. “Why can’t we all just get along?!” Instead he tells them to put on the armor of light and to put on Jesus Christ—to put on love, compassion, justice and so on.

Now isn’t it too bad that we’ve now found a community of peace and we never disagree so we can’t use these words of Jesus anymore? Sometimes churches pretend to be places of peace when they aren’t or we pretend to agree with someone when we don’t. I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times before, too. It is a fine line between putting a good spin on something someone does or says and shoving it aside while still holding anger deep down inside that someday is going to need to get out.

Martin Luther reminded us to put a good spin on other people’s “bad” behavior. We say to ourselves, “They are just having a bad day,” or “They must be driving like that because they are trying to get to a hospital in a hurry,” or “They didn’t really mean that.” But thinking the best of others can become a game of make-believe that as time goes on and these encounters stack up, we may not be able to play so easily anymore. To love is not only to think the best of others, but to build relationship with that person, to go to them and apologize for unkind thoughts, to find out what is going on with them. It becomes easier to be kind and compassionate when we learn what people are really going through and share our feelings with them before they are bottled up so long that they start leaking out in gossip or passive aggressive behavior. There is another scripture that says “Live peaceably with all, so far as it depends on you” Romans 12:18. There are times when you try to make peace and build relationships with those you disagree with and they won’t participate. The way to love in that instance has to be to let them go and let it go, maybe until the timing is better or maybe forever.

Especially at church we tend to gloss over our differences and pretend that we all get along, but is that really love? We want people to like us. I want people to think that I am a nice pastor so they will come to me with their troubles and concerns and trust me to be there with them in their time of crisis. Don’t we want a nice Jesus to tell us what we want to hear, that we’re doing mostly ok and just keep up the good work? Wouldn’t we rather pretend to be at peace than deal with conflicts out in the open?

Sandy and I went to seminary together. I didn’t like Sandy very much. She was kind of a flirt. She was living together with a man about 20 years older than her and talked about her relationship openly. I thought she ought to be ashamed of herself. Seminarians are expected to live a certain life and she was not meeting the requirements and she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong, plus she flaunted it in front of everyone. Sandy and I ended up in the same year-long chaplaincy program. I pretended to be her friend. I fed her cat when she was out of town. We had lunch together. We supported each other. And yet I was still judging her. I was not being real with her. Chaplaincy is all about knowing yourself and being real with each other so at some point during the year, my supervisor encouraged me to tell Sandy what I thought of her behavior. It really hurt Sandy. And I then had to confront all the ways I am also a hypocrite and break the rules, just like her, because that was what my anger toward her was really all about. As hurt as she was, Sandy didn’t give up on me. We met for lunch once a week to work out our mess. We started sharing on a deeper level. We got real with one another. And now that is one of the relationships I treasure most in my life. We can share anything with each other after that.

In church, too, we can have fake relationships and gloss over our differences, put on a smile when someone hurts our feelings, hold our judgments deep inside hoping the other person will change. Or we can love. I think this is one of the major complaints that outsiders have about church—people aren’t real with each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can engage each other and learn their point of view. We can look for our own responsibility within the situation. We can ask ourselves, “What am I doing to contribute to this problem and what can I do to be part of the solution.” We can take responsibility for our own feelings rather than believing that someone else made us feel that way. We go to someone and say, “You really puzzle me sometimes, I’d like to know you better. Would you like to have lunch?” We can go to someone and say we’re sorry or that there is something we don’t understand in their words or actions. If both people are willing to be adults about it, love can blossom that makes for deep friendships that can withstand anything.

As the body of Christ, our unity can’t be based on what we agree on, because we will always disagree and have different opinions. It has to be based on love, relationship, compassion, because that is the only thing that lasts. It has to based in love, because God is love and God must be the basis for everything we do as the body of Christ.

Many of you have set a good example for me. Here are some ideas I’ve noticed you trying for carrying this idea out. Some newer members have been inviting some longtime members over to their homes to build relationships. Some of you have invited neighbors over who are full of negativity and don’t have very many friends as a consequence to make friends with them and learn to love them. Some of you have thought of leaving this congregation because some things didn’t sit right with you, and instead you came and talked to me and helped me understand what you needed. Many of you have worked to make this place one that is comfortable for to worship, for instance purchasing new microphones or making artwork that has enhanced the worship space. Some of you have started sitting somewhere besides your usual spot during worship or coffee hour, even coming to the front row, in order to meet new people and build new relationships. You’ve stretched and challenged yourself to be on council or on committees here to learn more about each other and yourself and your church. Some of you have invited your friends and neighbors and family members to attend church or provide special music here. Some of you have reached out to someone you know was having a similar difficulty that you’ve faced before, for instance reaching out to someone who has an adult child with a mental illness or who is facing addiction.

You’re already doing this love work that Jesus invites us to do. You’re already reaping the rewards, feeling that satisfaction when you’ve made a real connection. I’d encourage you to keep up that good work until God’s love is obvious to all around us and we truly experience God with us.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Sermon at Holden's Baptism

August 28, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28 Psalm 26:1-8
1st Reading: Jeremiah 15 2nd Reading: Romans 12:9-21

Holden Frederick, today is your baptism day—a day of joy for the family you are born into, a day of joy for your family of faith, and a day for rejoicing by the angels. You have come into this world all full of promise and hope. You’ve come into a family who loves you and provides for you. You’ve come into a community who has walked with your grandparents over the years and seen your dad and aunties born and grown up and married and been with them all in good times and in difficult ones, and now offering that same support and love to you. Today is the day that God says publicly and clearly how much God loves you, that God made you and claims you—you belong to God. And this church as a representative of the body of Christ makes some promises to watch over you and teach you and raise you with faith and hope. Today you gain a family and we gain a brother.

You already belong to God completely. God formed your little ears and toes and every little body part. God loved your cells into being and multiplied them. God made your bones strong and gave you a voice and nerves and systems and everything you needed. We didn’t participate very much in that miracle, except your mother eating right and getting her rest and exercise. Now God has handed you over to us all to teach and prepare for life and enjoy.

You’ve got a lot to look forward to. God’s world is fun to explore! There are all kinds of foods you’re going to want to try—some you’ll love and some might be acquired tastes. There are all kinds of textures to feel and put in your mouth and maybe your nose. There are all kinds of people to meet and animals to bum along with and songs to sing and feats of balance and agility to attempt. You’re taking in life every moment and storing it in that amazing computer God has given you, sorting and evaluating and trying again and perfecting skills. It is an amazing time in your life.

Even Jesus said so—you’ll be hearing a lot about this guy, Jesus, by the way. He said that we should all be like little children in order to experience the Kingdom of God. We all want to be like you Holden! Here we are teaching you to be like us, when really the goal is for us to reclaim that curiosity you have—your ability to trust, willingness to learn, flexibility, forgiving nature, and your joy. God says those should be our goals. You get to teach us!

We’ve come along way since infancy —some of us longer than others. We’ve been learning how to live in this world for a while now. Some of it has been very helpful: I tell you, there is nothing like being able to walk wherever you want to. Then you’ll want a tricycle and a scooter, then a bike and a car and who knows what kind of transportation they’ll have when you’re an adult! It is nice to be able to take care of your own needs and do meaningful work and say what’s on your mind. All those are good things about growing up.

And we’ve learned some bad habits along the way. We’ve learned to argue with each other, how to utter what is worthless, how to be arrogant and selfish, how to repay evil for evil, and so many other things we wish we hadn’t learned. And we have learned the selfish pursuit of saving our own life and put that front and center of everything. It can get to be all “me” first. That’s not all bad. We want to survive and prosper. But we also want to get our own way at the expense of others. We’ve learned to play some games that aren’t very nice. And we are going to teach you those games, too. Some you’ll learn at home, some on the playground, others at church or at work or in relationships. It won’t be long and we’ll be taking you down some questionable paths.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Our faith gives us other options. Jesus shows us another way. Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Let me tell you, Holden, there are a lot of puzzles that you are going to run into. No one can solve these life puzzles for you. You’ll have to figure out what they mean for you. And you can have a community around you, also puzzling out these riddles with you. You’ll get to puzzle out what it means to find and lose your life. You’ll do it many times over. You’ll get to discover what it means to accept yourself and deny yourself. You’ll get to practice following Jesus and getting distracted from that. You’ll have a lifetime to puzzle out these sayings of Jesus and this is one of the more challenging ones.

Maybe it seems kind of ornery of Jesus to offer you a riddle, right now. But riddles make us think. They give us a chance to use our God-given wits. It might be easier if God would be more clear and lay it all out there, but I’m sorry to say that life isn’t so simple that one rule works for every situation. And God doesn’t insult our intelligence by pretending that’s the case.

Instead God respects us enough to let us figure it out for ourselves and with the help of others. It is a lifelong journey unpacking some of these puzzles, but you can also see it as an adventure. It isn’t about winning or getting it right. It is about walking with Jesus through your whole life and being in relationship with God and God’s people. It is about being in a conversation with God about what makes for a good and generous and fulfilling life. God doesn’t need us to get it right, because Jesus, God’s Son, took care of that on the cross. That makes us free to live our lives and to try to be loving and make this world better.

Today, Holden, you practice denying yourself, giving up your life, and following Jesus. We will get you wet in the font, a symbolic drowning, taking you through the waters, washing you clean, hearing God’s word of promise for you and for people throughout the ages, finding your part in the story of God’s people, and bringing you up into new life—one that isn’t defined by your mistakes or the world’s. This is a new life of second chances, of learning from history and from your past to try to find a better, more life-giving way. This is new life that is counter-cultural where you learn what doesn’t make sense for getting ahead in this world, but makes for a better world for everyone.

See it described in Paul’s letter to the Romans: being genuine, loving, honoring, rejoicing, persevering, contributing, blessing, living in harmony, being humble. And isn’t that the world you have now, Holden? You will come full circle, starting out an innocent child, living that harmonious life, being corrupted by this world, and then finding a better way and probably going round and round many times in your life and maybe even daily. And going to the cross doesn’t have to be so scary. We can practice dying every day to those things that don’t make this world better and don’t serve us or God or our neighbor. And when the time comes that we breathe our last breath, we don’t have to be afraid, because we’ve practiced many times before giving ourselves over into God’s hands and we know he will be with us every step of the way and give us eternal life, with God and all creation in unity forever.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sermon for August 21, 2011

August 21, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20 Psalm 138
1st Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6 2nd Reading: Romans 12:1-8

I promised to tell you about camp, and now that I have had a week to reflect, I might be able to start putting my experiences into words. I see some connections to the readings for today that I will try to explain. Let me start with a little disclaimer, that camp was an experience that is difficult to put into words, like many things in life.

The main connection with the texts and what I experienced at camp has to do with identity. There in the texts it is talking about who Jesus is, and who Peter is, and who we are—whether we are conformed or transformed. The readings explore who these individuals are and who we are in community and what it means to be the church.

Camp Odyssey was very much concerned with these issues too. We first built a safe place where we all trusted each other and learned to work together. We built community where we knew we could face tough challenges together and rely on each other, make mistakes and forgive ourselves and each other.

That was the first day when we had our challenge course. In our small groups we learned to problem-solve and work together using everyone’s gifts to reach a goal. For instance we were given 2-foot lengths of gutter and told to get a golf ball from point A to point B—a distance of about 20 feet. There were about 7 of us with pieces of gutter and we had to get it in a hat. The ball had to keep moving forward at all times. We problem- solved together. We learned to put our pieces of gutter at only slight tilts so the ball would roll slowly enough for the people at the front to get to the end and line up their gutter. We learned to point our gutters directly at the goal. We learned about communication and encouragement. We had a fabulous sense of accomplishment when we finished this exercise. And then we were given the extra challenge of having 2 of our group members blind folded. But we weren’t discouraged. We helped each other even more and met the challenge in even less time than the original assignment.

This community of King of Kings has built communication and trust and teamwork over the years. You didn’t have to do it all in one day like this group of teens. You’ve problem-solved and hit roadblocks and started all over again and encouraged and assisted and used everyone’s gifts. You have gone through your own challenge course, over the years, and become closer as a result and that will continue to go on. You’ll continue to face new challenges with hope as your mission statement affirmations suggest. On some of these challenges you will succeed and others fail, but you will know that you will be loved and included. It is really about the process of becoming together and learning who you are that matters rather than the end result about whether you met your end goal, whatever that is.

Jesus and the Disciples had a three-year challenge course. They worked together. They met challenges. They failed at challenges. They built confidence. They encouraged each other. They became a very close-knit community.

Once we built trust in community and confidence in ourselves, at camp, we moved on to learning about ourselves. We have to know who we are before we can begin to understand who another person is. You’ve probably seen this plenty of times and we’ve all done it—when we’re unsure of who we are, we might try to become someone we’re not. I remember when I was 12, getting a red ten-speed just like my friend Trinidy. She had one and I wanted one, too.

In the Gospel, Peter is learning who he is as reflected in the eyes of Jesus. Peter is becoming. He’s just tried to walk on the sea and fallen in and been called “you of little faith” by the person whose opinion he cares about the most, Jesus. Now, he gets it right and he’s being commended and told that he is actually a rock—that would make sense why he would sink. He is a rock—that would make sense why he is so dense and doesn’t get it. He is a rock—he is strong and faithful and Jesus will build something on this strong foundation. Peter is becoming. His identity isn’t so simple. He’s discovering who he is through experience and reflection and interaction.

At camp, too, we spent time reflecting on who we are as individuals and who we are as groups of people. We got into groups with those who were like us and tried to discern our own identity together. Being a woman, I got to ask with the other females, what does it mean to be a woman? Those of us who are white got together and asked ourselves, who am I as a privileged white person in this culture? Immigrants asked themselves what it means to be an immigrant in this country. It is a question none of the groups could answer for the other but we each had to answer for ourselves to know ourselves more fully.

We asked ourselves: Where do I come from? What are my communication styles? What assumptions do I hold about others and where do these come from? What makes me, me? What makes us, us?

The default answer to the question about who I am is just to give in to all the pressures and become conformed to this world. It might be easiest to make ourselves in the world’s image—to take on the priorities of the world, to believe the messages we hear that what is most important is to gather power, money, pleasure and focus on these. But even by the teenage years, most of us can see that this isn’t working. The campers could see how these pursuits were failing. They’d experienced divorce, alcoholism, violence. They’d seen the other side of power. They had all been personally hurt in someone else’s pursuit of power.

So what is the alternative to being conformed to this world? Paul says it is to be transformed and Jesus offers that transformation. Who among us can transform ourselves? It is only through interaction with others that transformation can take place. It is something that happens to us, not that we do to ourselves. But some of us seem more ready for transformation than others. How do we set ourselves up for transformation?

I saw all these campers, so honest about their pain, so open in their experiences, so trusting and eager for something different than the BS they were hearing from their families about who they should be and from the media saying who they should be and their school saying who they should be. They were so ready for transformation and they trusted us to take them through a process. At times they were angry at us. At times they almost gave up. We took them to the places they were most ashamed of and hurt by. And they stuck with it and faced how they had internalized all these messages from the world and put them on each other. Seeing that clearly, they were able to set them aside and really see each other as human beings, and allowed themselves to be seen as more than just a set of assumptions but as people, and they were truly transformed, and I was transformed, too.

Jesus too takes us the deepest darkest places within ourselves and asks us to look down deep—to see how we bind and loose one another with our assumptions and with our pressures of how others are supposed to be, how we keep each other down by not sharing what we have, by not seeing others as people, how not knowing who we are and who others are keeps us all imprisoned in sin. And Jesus goes to that darkest, scariest place within himself, where he feels abandoned by God and all his friends and where even his life is taken away, yet he still is. His identity stands in relationship—he is God’s Son, he is our savior, he is the Messiah of the world, he was there at the creation of the universe. Nothing could change that.

In the same way, nothing can change who we are at the core of our identity. Our friends might reject us. We might be losing our battle with a debilitating disease. Our child or parent or sibling might die. We might lose our home, go hungry, and be despised. Yet we are still of value to God. We are children of God. And this community as Christ’s body in the world is here to truly see each person as they really are and show each person that they are of value. The church is here to be a safe place for transformation and to encourage it in one another. At times the church may prevent transformation, which means it isn’t really being the body of Christ. At other times God works through the church to cause this transformation. It might be happening for one and not another, or we might be someplace on that journey of transformation and not even know it. Let us be open to God’s transforming love, being honest, looking deep within ourselves, learning who we are, and sharing of ourselves.

We didn’t talk much about God at camp. But those youth developed a love for one another based on truth-telling and trust-building and really seeing each other. They saw each other’s faults and weaknesses and continued to love each other and allow themselves to be loved. From what I know, God is love. I saw God/love reflected in that community at camp. I cried from the beauty of it. And I often see God/love reflected here, too, and am at times overwhelmed by it. Let’s offer that God/love even beyond our walls until those around us can see God/love clearly and be invited into their own journey of transformation until we can all be freed to become who we truly are.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 14, 2011 Aimee Bruno Gospel: Matthew 15:10-28 Psalm 67
1st Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 2nd Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

When my husband Nick was two, his sister, Carrie, was born. The story goes that no sooner was she home from the hospital than he bit her. When I went to visit my sister after her 2nd child was born, I saw that kind of sibling jealousy. Her older son, Logan, who was 3 seemed to spend his days trying to destroy the new baby. He’d swing large objects near the baby’s head and attempt handstands over the baby. At one point, Logan took a nap. Upon waking, he happily skipped out to the livingroom. Then seeing his baby brother sleeping in the corner, his smile quickly turned to a glower and you could see the resentment in his eyes.

This subject of sibling rivalry is addressed in the readings for today. Does God have enough love for all of us? Some of us have come to faith early in life. We might consider ourselves the older sibling. When we contemplate new people coming to faith that might have different tastes than us and also need attention, we might feel pushed out. Some of us have more recently come to faith. We might be considered the younger sibling. We might look up to those who have gone before, but we might have different needs and a different way of looking at the world than those with more faith experience.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah is written for the Israelites. God loves them. God will bring them joy. God will deliver them. God will gather them. They are the older sibling. And there will be some unexpected people among them. Foreigners and anyone who loves God and joins themselves to God will receive the same treatment. They are the younger siblings. God reassures both of them, but especially the older sibling that there is enough love, joy, deliverance, and community for everyone, even the outcast. And God’s “house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” And God promises to gather others besides the ones already gathered.

The second reading is going out to Gentiles and Jewish people, both siblings at once. Some of the Jewish people who were Christians were worried there was no longer a place for them, now that the Gentiles are being converted. Paul reassures them. There is room for everyone. God has enough love, joy, deliverance, and community for all of you. You, the older sibling, aren’t being replaced. I love this new sibling of yours, but I still love you just as much. Yes, even when you mess up and are disobedient. Your younger sibling is just as disobedient as you are. You both are loved.

And in the Gospel, Jesus has some competing children vying for his attention. He’s with his disciples, teaching and healing Israelites, the older sibling. Then a Canaanite woman wants his attention, too. He seems to ignore her at first. I don’t want to make excuses for him because he does seem rather rude. Although by that day’s standards, she would have been considered the one being rude and he was doing what was in his rights to do—ignoring some strange woman yelling after him. Even today, you and I would probably do the same and walk a little faster to get out of there. But, we’re used to Jesus being compassionate and sensitive, and telling us to treat others as we’d like to be treated. This seems a little out of character for him.

The woman asks Jesus for help. First, he ignores her. She keeps asking. Then he tells her that he’s not there to help her and her daughter, the younger ones, he is there for the Israelites, the older ones. She kneels at his feet and begs. He insults her and tells her no again. Still she doesn’t give up. She says, even dogs, even nobodies have a place at the table. There is enough for everyone. She knows that. She has to believe in a God of abundance. She is preaching the message to him. You’d think it might be the opposite—that her sick child would have made her discouraged. Instead her situation made her more stubborn and more demanding and more faithful. Being stubborn and demanding, Jesus says, is a sign of faith, so do more of that!

I always believe that when we plead with God, God hears our prayers. God’s answer might be different from the one we wanted or expecting, but God always offers healing of some kind and hope. But sometimes we interpret the situation we’re in as God saying no and wouldn’t the more faithful thing be to heed God’s no and move on. We might say to ourselves, “God knows best. I shouldn’t bother God. A lot of people have it worse than me, I am not worthy of God’s attention and care.”

This Gospel says to keep fighting. Keep up the faith. Keep reminding God of the help you need. There is enough life to go around. It isn’t a matter of deserving it. We all fall short and are disobedient. It is a matter of Christ giving his life so that we would have life. Christ gave his life so that some of those crumbs of life could fall down to those who have fallen through the cracks so that we could all have life. Claim your crumbs, people of God!

Of course God works through other people, too. That’s why the Isaiah reading says, “Maintain justice, do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” We get to do the right thing which is part of God’s plan for salvation for all people. When we do good to others, it is God doing good to others. God works through us to bring salvation to all people, the long-time faithful and the newly converted and those who don’t know yet about God’s family and the place there for them. We need to be sharing our crumbs and more than our crumbs, because in the end Jesus didn’t just give the leftovers. Jesus gave his whole life that the cosmos might have life, so that those without hope could have hope.

Since God works through other people, it isn’t just him we can be pleading with to help us. God comes to us through the people we meet and this Gospel gives us permission to pester them. Your pastor is here to help you—don’t worry about bothering me. If you even think there might be a way I could help you, come on by and ask. If I forget or something, ask me again, even four times, like this woman here. Don’t worry about exhausting me. I always learn something from every conversation, from every interaction. I always have more to learn and you help me do that when you ask for my help. There are other people, too, in this community and in our world who help you and I hope you ask for their help and accept it.

There is a generational way of dealing with authority. Many of you are used to doing just what your doctor says, not wanting to bother him or her with too many questions, not wanting to question authority. I’m asking you to make a cultural shift to see that, like your pastor, your doctor isn’t perfect either. Your doctor is often rushed and sometimes doesn’t give you the care you need. But either you or Medicare are paying for care, so ask the questions. Make a list of the things you’re concerned about. Bring someone with you, a friend or family member, who can help you interpret what you hear and ask the questions.

I think of Dina from our congregation. For months she hurt and had unexplained bone breaks. He doctor told her to lose weight. Her doctor told her to go home and do her exercises. I don’t want to make you distrustful of doctors, but it was her persistence that finally paid off. In her desperation she kept going back and asking for help, pleading for some kind of relief, until finally they diagnosed the cancer that was behind all of her problems. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will? So I want to encourage you to ask for your needs to be met. First you want to figure out what it is you want or need. Then don’t be afraid to ask, because your family wants to help you. Your church wants to help you. Your doctor wants to help you.

Here we are, the older sibling and we want to know if there is enough of God’s love to go around. We liked things the way they always used to be. We’re not sure God has enough attention for our needs and for the needs of a broken world. We’re not always sure we can sustain the pantry. We’re not sure we’d be willing to do church a different way. We like being the only child. But the new sibling is here, the outcast and stranger at our doorstep, and things are changing whether we’re ready for them to do so or not. The church as it has existed cannot go on the same way it always has. It has to make room for the new siblings that also need God’s love and probably even extra attention at first. God is reassuring us. God knows it is scary. And God wants us to know we are loved, no matter what. God has our best interest in mind. Even though these new siblings might be needy and immature and can’t do a thing for themselves, they will grow in the faith and it won’t be long until they strengthen us. For now they teach us compassion and love and sharing. Later they will teach us companionship and support and make us stronger in our faith.

Reach out to your brothers and sisters in the community to help them and to be helped by them, just as God reached out to you when you were a useless lump and saw the value in you and what you would become.