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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?