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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Eve Service 2012

During a recent study of current American life, a journalist entered the homes of many families to record whatever he found there. Much to his surprise, he found clutter in almost every instance. Gathering all this stuff seems to have become our way of doing things.

This time of year, when we are stuck indoors, do you find that you notice the clutter more? You can’t get away from it! And we start to take more clutter in, too! We’re gathering for holiday celebrations so we need the right tableware, the right centerpiece, more food than we can fit in our giant-sized refrigerators. This time of year, my gift drawer is overflowing as I try to get something together for each of my nieces and nephews. At Christmas time, we’ll bring the tree into our already crowded house and when the New Year comes we’ll be even more cluttered than we were before because people will be generous and give us so many treasures.

This summer there was a series of articles in the Oregonian about simplifying your life. One article was about how to get rid of the stuff we don’t need that clutter up our homes. Rather than ask yourself whether you will ever need this or that item, ask instead whether it is worth the space it is taking up, or if that space might be better used to hold something else. When I ask whether I might ever need this purse (one of 6 that I own even though I almost never carry a purse) or this length of cable, or if I will ever read this book, the answer is almost always “yes.” But if I ask whether that space might be better used another way, the answer to that question is often “yes,” and might be a better indication of whether we really need all the stuff we keep laying around. Removing that purse from my closet door means that it closes a little more easily. Removing the cable from the junk basket that we keep on top of the fridge means that I can find the junk that I really need more easily. And as for that book, maybe there is another book I am more likely to read, or maybe I could put a book in its place that is currently in a box in my basement.

“Do not be anxious saying what shall we eat or what shall we drink or what shall we wear.” Don’t you think the clutter in our houses is reflection of the clutter in our minds and hearts? What is taking up space in your mind? What are the anxieties that we store up there that are taking up head space?

I have to say my mind is cluttered not only with my schedule but with going over and over again conversations with family and colleagues and parishioners and friends. Some of these conversations have already occurred and I’m trying to fix them or understand them. Some have yet to happen, but need to happen. And sometimes I lay awake at night anxious about global warming and whether I am raising an independent but connected child and what I can do to keep church attendance up and why did I have to put my foot in my mouth again, and how I’m going to have to preach the best Thanksgiving sermon of all time! A few of those thoughts might be helpful as I try to work through difficult situations. A lot of them are just some automatic loop I’m stuck in. Certainly that brain power might be better used for something else, like that space in my house could be better used. They’ve got to go, but it isn’t so easy to banish them. How do you keep from worrying? You can’t just make yourself stop thinking about what you’re thinking about.

It is easy to focus on what not to do and what we’re doing wrong when we read a lesson like this. It is like we forget that it is the Gospel. This is good news! We don’t have to beat ourselves up for getting off track. Instead Jesus has words of hope for us all.

Here it is: You are of value to God. God loves you. God values you. God is looking out for you. Isn’t that a breath of fresh air? Let yourself hear that. Let yourself believe that. God values you. God loves you. God knows what you need and is paying attention.

Let that good news stop you in your loop of anxiety. Let it calm your nerves for a moment. Let it open a space in your heart for the new life that God wants to give you, give us, give a hurting world, give this neighborhood. No matter what else happens, you are loved by the Great Love that created the universe.

I have presided at many weddings over the years, and I take time to prepare a couple for both the relationship and the service of marriage itself. I always tell them that something is bound to go wrong on their wedding day, but don’t let it get to you. For my own wedding, the cake was in a car accident (no bakers were harmed) and had to be redone and arrived only moments before we were pronounced husband and wife. At the last wedding I did, the matron of honor lost the wedding ring for the longest 5 minutes I think she ever experienced. We didn’t tell the bride it was ever missing. These things are minor distractions. They make for funny stories in later years. But I always tell the couple no matter what goes wrong, don’t lose sight of the reason you are there: Your love for each other. Cake or no cake, you are going to get married. Ring or no ring, you are going to get married. Whatever goes wrong, you are going to get married, and so far, I’ve always been right. It is usually only in the movies that somebody gets left at the altar.

The same is true of our faith life. All this stuff is just extra—our cars, our thanksgiving turkeys all moist and delicious or dry and tough, our Christmas lights, our white or yellow or missing teeth, our gorgeous choir anthems and inspiring or not so inspiring holiday sermons. Put those things in their proper place as extras rather than essentials. What is essential is Jesus, the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, God’s relationship with us, God’s love and forgiveness, and everything else will fall into place.

At thanksgiving time we have a chance to give thanks to God for all he has done. One of my favorite Christmas carols goes like this “And when we worry and we can’t sleep, we’ll count our blessings instead of sheep.” The best way to banish anxiety and focus your mind on the Kingdom of God is to start thinking of things you are thankful for. And I’d say, take it to the next level. Start thanking those people that have blessed your life. Tell them what you appreciate about them. Share the message that you value them, that God values and loves them. In this way we can literally reprogram our minds to pay attention to God and his righteousness instead of getting distracted by all things that don’t matter.

Another way to thank God and banish the anxiety is to give of your time volunteering. It is hard to feel sorry for yourself if you are occupied taking care of others. It is hard to feel bad for yourself when you see how other people are materially worse off and yet they are surviving and being generous and kind, and finding hope.

This holiday season, may we truly seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. May we revel in the good news that God values us and our neighbor. May we remember what is most important and let go of what doesn’t matter. May we have thankful hearts for God’s incredible generosity and find ourselves overflowing with generosity as a thankful response for all God has done for us.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

November 11, 2012

Gospel: Mark 12:38-44
1st Reading: 1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
2nd Reading: Hebrews 9:24-28

When I was working as a receptionist at the optometry shop, the place I worked before I was called here to be your pastor, I was constantly dealing with people who were waiting in the aptly-named waiting room. They waited for their appointment. They waited while the doctor took too long with the patient before them. They waited for their eyes to dilate. They waited for their glasses to come in. People deal with waiting in lots of different ways, but mostly waiting is considered to be more of a negative thing. Once I proposed calling it something other than the waiting room—like the lobby or something so that people wouldn’t have the negative association with it. That idea was shot down. The people would still be doing the same thing there, waiting, so why pretend they weren’t?!

It can tell you a lot about a person, what they do while they wait. Some people bring a book everywhere they go and the moment they have a chance, they put their nose in it. Some people bring their knitting or cross-stitch. Some people complain the whole time. Some people listen to music on their portable listening device. Some people these days talk on their cell phone, text, or play computer games. The nature of those cell-phone calls can tell you a lot. Sometimes it seems that the conversation is a little too loud on purpose to draw attention to it. Some people fight on the phone in public. Sometimes they want to talk about it with you and sometimes they don’t.

My favorite were the ones that would just chat. People have interesting lives and it can be fun to find out more about people just having a normal conversation. Of course, the conversations can vary. Some people seem to be very self-centered and self-interested. Others seem to want to interview you. Others show off how much they know. And then sometimes it just clicks and you have a nice chat with someone interested in your life, able to share bits about their own without the TMI factor, and you come away feeling refreshed and connected and hopeful about humanity.

We are all in the waiting room of life. We wait in traffic. We wait for the weekend. We wait for our paycheck. We wait for our spouse to get home. We wait for dinner. We wait for the next holiday. Some of us are waiting for life to begin. Others are waiting for it to be over. We await for test results. We wait for people to help us. We wait for the sermon to be over. We wait for Christ to return and make everything right.

The scriptures today make me think about what we are waiting for and what we do while we wait.

The scribes haven’t had to do a lot of waiting. They are first in line. They’ve got the best seats. They are waiting for people to notice them and give them respect. They are waiting to climb the ladder of society and have the most money, the biggest house, the longest prayer, and the most pats on the back by all the important people. They want the biggest plaque, the best seat, and the highest salary. They will never be satisfied because there is always someone who hasn’t given them the recognition they feel they deserve. They get their value from others rather from a deep sense of self-assurance.

Today Jesus refuses to give them the credit they feel is due and it is driving them crazy. He won’t cower before them or butter them up with fake compliments and soon they will have him arrested to punish him for not giving them the attention they like.

The widow in the Old Testament is waiting to die. It might very well be the same for the widow in the Gospel. She could care less about the finest clothes and best seats. She is waiting for a crust of bread for the next day, a bite to feed her child, a sweater to keep away the chill. She could shut her doors and go and die quietly alone. But while she is waiting to die, this Gospel widow goes out. We don’t know if she was Jew or Gentile, but she goes to a place of prayer, of community, of connection. She goes to be seen, not so that she can feel important. It is a last act of resistance. At least people are going to see the one they’ve neglected, the very specific one that God has commanded them to help. They would probably rather not see her or acknowledge her. She is a sign of their failure. She is raining on their parade.

How we act while we are waiting can be an indication of what we are waiting for. If we are waiting to be important, we will prance around in long robes, talk loud on our cell phones, pray long prayers until we get what we’re waiting for.

If we are waiting for God’s kingdom to come we might wait a couple of different ways. We might wait passively, like the first widow. She’s preparing the last supper for herself and her son and then are just going to wait it out. In this case, God is active while she is passive. God sends Elijah to ask for her help. God doesn’t send Elijah to give her food. God sends him to let her know she’s still got something valuable to give. Even if the world says she’s worthless and has no value, God is letting her know through her community that just isn’t true. God isn’t done with her. She’s got the ability to share. She’s got the ability to trust in God. She’s able to do a lot with a little. She’s able to teach generosity and trust to those who think they have it made and don’t really have anything of value at all.

Who might God be sending us to, to affirm their gifts, maybe people the world has written off, but we know are of value to God? Are we going to them and bringing life to them and letting them bring life to us? Are we forming relationships with them and bringing them into community where there is a safety net and a place their gifts will be valued? How can we do this better?

We can also wait more actively, in the Hebrews reading it talks about those who are eagerly waiting for Christ. To me this means people who are creating the world they want to live in, who are bringing in the Kingdom of God. You could say that Donald Trump creates the world he wants to live in. With money he surrounds himself with a private jet, and people who say yes to him, and mansions and exclusive golf courses. But money and fame is so fleeting. He creates the illusion of the world he wants to live in. None of it can last. And it takes from others in order to have it the way he wants it. It creates a life in the short-term that he seems to want, but not one that satisfies, and not a world where others can also enjoy riches beyond imagination. In fact it impedes on others’ view of a good life as he literally bulldozes the livelihoods of families and the nesting grounds of endangered birds just to make room for his golf course.

What does it mean to create the world we want to live in? I think of a young mother here recently, nursing her baby during church and I was so proud. I thought to myself, this is the kind of church I want to be in! This is the kind of world I want to live in. Maybe someday, pastors will nurse their babies in church, and to me that would be the Kingdom of God realized on earth, the way God meant it to be. Maybe that wouldn’t be the Kingdom to you, but it would be for me and a lot of mothers. To have been able to have my child with me at work this year, has been the Kingdom of God realized in my life. It might not have looked particularly professional. Yet to be able to be your pastor and Sterling’s mother at the same time and not to have to choose or miss out has meant so much. It is the Kingdom of God to me. And it meant that to some of you, too. It meant I got to share him with you and my joy and his progress. You are a part of him and he is a part of you. It is messy and awkward sometimes, but it is Kingdom.

We have been doing things the Kingdom way here at King of Kings. We practice the bringing in the Kingdom when we accept the help of pantry clients. They teach us how to be generous and thoughtful. One brings boxes with handles for people to carry their groceries in. He puts little labels on them reminding them to bring them back for the next pantry. He is a pain in the neck as he stacks his boxes everywhere we are trying to walk, but now that we have a designated place to put those boxes (outside and out of the way) we have to acknowledge he is bringing in the kingdom of God. Someone in our congregation has been an example of creating the kind of world he would want to live in. His elderly, disabled neighbor was going to have to move because she couldn’t get up and down the stairs. He wanted to live in a world where people can live in their own homes for as long as possible. He built her a chair lift. She will probably live longer and is definitely already happier because of this gift and this building of the Kingdom of God, the kind of world where we can all live life to its fullest.

I invite you to dream about this Kingdom of God and what it would look like to live in a world where people have the chance to really live. You are dreaming God’s dream. Then your waiting becomes so much more than waiting. And your wait becomes shorter for God’s dream to become a reality because he is making it a reality through you.

Discussion questions: What kind of world do you want to live in? Where do you see your dream and God’s dream intersecting? Where do you see God’s dream being realized in this world? Where do you see the potential for God’s dream to be realized?

November 18, 2012

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
1st Reading: Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
2nd Reading: Hebrews 10:11-25

It has probably been a long time since most of us read the driver’s manual, but I got to look through it again a couple of years ago and watch a safe driving video so that I could drive a van of kids to Camp Odyssey in 2011. It was a good reminder for me of how to be a defensive driver, especially the idea of scanning the road. Many of us are very aware of what’s going on right in front of the car, but if we also see what is going on further ahead, we can prepare and react and be a better driver. We should scan the road 10-15 seconds ahead so we can see what’s coming, as well as all our mirrors and closer to the car as well. Anticipating what might be coming up and adjusting to accommodate that can prevent accidents and save lives.

The same can be said of our lives. It is so easy to just focus on what is right in plain view, right in front of us. I know when I get into the office I look at my calendar for that day and prioritize my tasks based on what needs to be done first. Sometimes I forget to take that longer look at my schedule and do the longer-term planning that I need to do. And with home life, doesn’t it seems we spend a lot of time cleaning up the small things, loading and unloading the dishwasher, washing and folding the clothes, cooking dinner, feeding the pets, that the longer term chores sometimes get neglected. Sometimes we lose track of the bigger picture of the routine maintenance we need to keep up with and then the bigger chores and upkeep like painting the house or replacing the roof or having the chimney swept.

And the same can be true of our spiritual lives. We move through on automatic, going to church, going to meetings, doing devotions with our eyes on the road right in front of us. But are we also scanning ahead to the bigger picture, the long-term view of what is coming ahead? Are we ready to see what God has in mind, long-term, for our world, our souls, our church?

Today in the Gospel reading, Jesus is saying that something big is coming up the road. There are many churches that talk about “end times.” They are watching out down the road for signs that we’re coming to the end. This focus for Evangelicals causes them to get out and warn everyone of the impending doom. “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” they might ask. If you haven’t been born again according to their definition, they become afraid for you that you will spend eternity in torment, even if you are a Lutheran pastor or regular church-goer.

For most Lutherans the “End times” is not our favorite topic, precisely because of this negative association that so many others attach to it, but the “end times” are Biblical and something for us to be aware of. For us, it is different. The end doesn’t mean a reason to panic and be afraid. The end times mean God’s reign is coming near, that justice will be done and peace is not far away. To be near to God--isn’t that what we all want? For Lutherans to look down the road and see the signs of the end times, we have the assurance that Jesus has wiped out our sins and separation from God, so we’re looking forward to the end. This has been a long journey, and we’re ready to get out and stretch our legs and embrace our loved ones and enjoy a feast beyond imagination together. The end is a good thing for us. Because of Jesus’ love and life and promises, the end is not an end, but a beginning of eternal life and peace and love.

The reading from Daniel is something called “Apocalyptic Literature.” It is the Old Testament version of the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It is giving a prediction of what might come down the road. It talks about some anguish and some shame and everlasting contempt, so you get an idea of where some Christians are coming from when they freak out about the end times. However, this is meant as a comfort. First of all a protector is arising. God’s people will be protected. The people have a promise of deliverance. Those who are dead will be raised. The wise will shine like the stars for all eternity. All that sounds pretty good. And at the time Daniel was written, the Israelites were in exile. They were already in anguish and needed to know that this wasn’t how it would always be. They needed to know that it wouldn’t always be this rough road, but that their destination wasn’t far away and it would be better than they could have hoped. God has a plan to turn anguish into hope and joy. The Israelites wanted to know that those who had hurt them would be punished, so they took comfort knowing that their enemies wouldn’t rule over them forever. It might be strange to think of this reading from Daniel as a word of hope, but I assure you that is how it was meant and that is how the Israelites would have heard it.

This word of hope is more clear in the reading from Hebrews. After a pretty scathing attack on priests and pastors (Ok I get it!), we are assured that our salvation and joy and hope doesn’t rest on these blundering messed-up humans (because if it did, we’d be in big trouble). Instead it rests on Jesus and his love and sacrifice. That’s why I see my job as pointing to Christ. I am standing up here in my long robe, offering up prayers, and going on and on, blah, blah, blah, but what I really hope to do, is point to Christ. Can you see down the road, Christ, the big picture? I want to be a road sign pointing the way. Don’t focus on the sign too long or you’ll lose track of what’s on the roadway. Look up ahead and see Christ—not someone to fear, but someone with open arms who loves you and is waiting for you to come home.

That second reading assures us that it is all taken care of, forever. We can stop obsessing about our sins. We can stop gripping the steering wheel of life in fear that we will break a traffic law or crash into someone. We can live our life in hope. We can move forward toward our goals with confidence. We don’t have to be afraid, as we look up the road. Instead of obstacles, let us see opportunities to grow in faith, to become better drivers, to encourage others to drive defensively, too.

Driving is such a solitary activity, it is hard to relate it to faith life. I suppose a lot of people these days wouldn’t see the problem. They like the idea of practicing your faith or spirituality alone, believing that it is individual and private. The reading today acknowledges such people—those that neglect to meet together. I think they are missing out on something important. The support of community when you are hurting or in need is such a big part of a life of faith, in my view. We need each other for encouragement and also for checks and balances. Our faith community helps us evaluate our faith journey. There is a saying, “Friends don’t let friends _______.” I think it used to be “drive Fords” or “drive Chevys.” Now I think that’s been replaced with something more universal, “drive drunk.” A true friend will tell you when you’re on the wrong track.

Driving isn’t really a solitary activity at all, though is it? There are many other vehicles on the road to consider and take into account. I read an article this week that Toyota is working on cars that communicate with each other. They may be able to prevent accidents by knowing where other vehicles are or swerve if a person steps out in front of the car. These cars react to one another and to objects in their path, just like we all need to do in our spiritual life. A faith life is one lived in community, with communication, with encouragement, with chances to join our gifts with those of other people, with chances to know God’s love through the people in our faith community. Family has to love each other. Church is a chosen family where we learn to work together, as we learn to love each other, as we progress on our faith journey.

In the Gospel, the Disciples are learning to scan ahead a little bit, but when they lift their eyes, all they can see is this huge building. Ok, we want to look beyond what is right under our noses. Here is something that looks impressive and lasting. They are distracted by the Hummer limo in the lane in front of them and they are missing the big picture again.

Jesus situates himself opposite the temple, in both location and attitude. He is against the temple, against big buildings, against institutions that oppress people and perpetuate the cycle of people being left out. We might picture Jesus sitting on the hill over here under the tree we thought about cutting down. What would he see as he looked at our church? Would he be impressed that we kept our lawn mowed? Would he notice that it was recently painted and had a roof put on? Would he be impressed by all the nice cars in the parking lot? It seems he might have something to say to us about how temporary all this is and how he’s got a bigger picture in mind for us. He might remind us to put our energy into something that is bigger: love, encouragement, community, inclusiveness. He might tell us to get out of our temporary building and work with the people around us to build a better world.

Jesus has the bigger picture in mind. Even when we are distracted drivers on the roadway of life, even when we sink money into that which can’t last, even when we are impressed by all the wrong things, God is my copilot. Actually, it turns out that God is driving. God is in control. And that’s why the end isn’t so scary. As scary as it might look to face the end, God has been to the end and back. God has come through the end and made it a beginning of new life for all creation. The end is something to look forward to because God works through what seems final to bring resurrection to us all.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

November 4, 2012

Gospel: John 11:32-44
1st Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24
2nd Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” the Judeans ask. This week, a lot of people asked this question as Megastorm Sandy beat down on the east coast. Thankfully, due to evacuations and preparation, only 35 deaths are blamed on the storm when there could have been a great many more. But if you are family of one of those 35, certainly you have a very deep loss and there is loss of property, homes destroyed, power out, whole neighborhoods in New Jersey flooded. The storm hit the coast line so hard that maps will have to be redrawn.

An article on this week evaluated the trending words on Facebook and Twitter and found “prayer” to be at the very top, as well as “thanks.” News organizations found the storm to be an opportunity for people to discuss the power of God verses atheism and all aspects of faith.

We believe in a powerful and active God. We believe that God hears our prayers. There are times when we can explain human suffering as a result of human error or selfishness. Someone might be seriously injured in a car accident because of a drunk driver. Someone’s bad decision to drink and drive caused another person to suffer. But in the case of natural disasters, human error can’t be said to have caused the suffering. In fact the insurance companies call it an “Act of God.”

Could not the one who raised from the dead this Lazarus, have kept those people from dying in the storm or kept those houses from being destroyed? It is a question people are asking this week and ask any time there is a natural disaster.

There isn’t an easy answer. You could say humans are causing climate change which makes these storms worse and worse. It is hard to prove the many causes of any one weather event. And people died long before we put so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

You could say that God gave the universe, this earth, laws of gravity and magnetism and convection that govern how systems interact and God doesn’t interfere every time a human life is in danger. That isn’t how the world works. That isn’t how God works. Yet God parted the red sea and allowed Jesus to calm the winds and walk on water. God has the power over weather and has chosen to use it at least a few times.

I don’t think you could say that God doesn’t care, though. When I was growing up, my grandma made sure if I knew nothing else about the Bible, I knew that the shortest verse in there is, “Jesus wept.” Here we read it, “Jesus began to weep.” This way of saying it gives it an ongoing feeling. “Jesus wept,” sounds like he broke down for a moment. “Jesus began weeping,” is more true to the original Greek it was written in, that Jesus’ weeping goes on. Jesus was hurting. He was hurting at the loss of his friend. He was hurting that his friends were grieving. He might have been a little frustrated that everyone was blaming him that he didn’t get there in time. Some also believe that he may have been weeping in anger. When it says in the Gospel that he was “greatly disturbed,” that might better be translated “furious.” Anger and sadness are so closely related. We have a hard time picturing our meek and mild Jesus getting angry, but he may have been angry at death, itself, his big adversary and one he would soon face in a final battle alone on the cross.

Storms and car accidents and earthquakes and suffering don’t happen because God doesn’t care. Jesus weeping shows me just how deeply he does care. That’s the thing to remember when we are suffering, is that God knows what it is like to endure great suffering. God walks with us in our suffering. God is beside the one who is suffering. God is within that person. When we weep, God weeps with us.

And this is where the Saints come in. Saints are people just like us whose lives have born witness to God’s loving compassion. Their lives have not been without troubles or suffering, in fact many of them suffered quite extensively. Yet they didn’t live for themselves or their own comfort. They used their God-given gifts to lessen the suffering of others. It was about the big picture, not their own wishes in the moment. They thought of others and God worked through them to relieve suffering of those around them.

And none of them have escaped death, yet. We will all die, one way or the other, whether it be in a megastorm or quietly in our sleep. The end will come to our earthly life. But death is Jesus’ big adversary that he defeated. Jesus offers eternal life. Like Lazarus, we will all go to the grave. Even Jesus didn’t escape death. But like Jesus and Lazarus, we will be raised to new life.

Death and resurrection is something that happens at the end of our life, but it also goes on throughout our life. The saints practiced dying to their own desires. They lived and died a thousand small deaths throughout their lifetimes and came through them to find new life. They denied themselves the comforts of life. They gave up family and friends and houses and lucrative jobs. They let go of the things that didn’t really contribute to the bigger picture of a better life for all people and they devoted themselves to bringing that better life. They allowed Jesus to raise them to a new awareness of how they are connected to all life, of how their gifts could be used to make a better world. They rose everyday to new life to bring that life to others around them.

So when the time came for them to die, they had been there already. They knew how to surrender. They were ready. They had been waiting to hear Jesus call their name and command them to “come out!”

We also die a thousand deaths. As we go through life we have to let go of our ideas of who we thought we would be. In marriage we have to let go and make a lot of compromises with our spouse for the sake of a relatively peaceful home life. When we get sick, we have to let go of our independence. When we lose our job or retire we have to or get to let go and die to our old life and try something different. So when it is time for us to physically die, we know we have already been there. We have died before and we were not alone. We had community. We had God weeping beside us. And we rose to new life, something different than we expected, but a place we experienced God’s grace all the same. Not what we would have chosen, but a situation where we could learn and grow in compassion and love.

I invite you to picture your loved ones hearing their names called and walking from the dark grave that really is this life, and stepping into the full sun, the welcome of community, full peace and health and life, knowing connection, knowing love, being one with God, being complete. And I invite you to think of God calling you from the grave. Maybe it is one that you dug for yourself in this life or one you just fell into. And picture being raised to new life and new experiences and new heights of love and growth. And picture yourself having physically died and being called out of the darkness into the light and presence of God. May that view of the big picture give you courage and peace for whatever you face from day to day—that God knows the end of the story and it is going to be ok and better than ok. It will be God’s Kingdom realized both here in this world and in life eternal.

At the very end of the Gospel, Jesus calls for Lazarus to be unbound from his grave clothes. In this life, Jesus calls us from the grave, from our sinful ways, from our deathly choices, from our fears and hatred. But we are not just called from something. We are called to something. And we unbind each other. We need to hear forgiveness from each other. Part of that grave experience sticks to us and keeps us from moving forward. We need to know that we can leave those old grave clothes behind. It really is a new start. We aren’t held to the law anymore. We are freed to move forward in true new life. Jesus calls us to new life, and it will be in community, with the help of others around us can we truly be freed from the remnants of the grave to serve and to practice that new life and love.

October 28, 2012

Gospel: John 8:31-36
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Welcome to Lutheran Pride week, where we celebrate how when others got it wrong, Martin Luther rose to the occasion and spoke out and reformed the church. It is the day when we celebrate the focus on God’s grace. It is the day when we celebrate our favorite Lutheran Bible verse “We are justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

There is a lot to celebrate about being Lutheran. We don’t believe in simple answers. We are simultaneously saints and sinners. At the same time that we are in God’s family, we are also broken and part of a messed up world. We are, at the same time, freed by God’s love and grace, and slaves to sin and bound up in brokenness.

As Lutherans we believe in the “Priesthood of all believers.” The pastor is only one calling among many. Everyone can glorify God in their work and daily life. The janitor is as important a person to God as a doctor. Everyone has their own area of expertise and gives glory to God in a job well-done. Because of this we encourage regular people to read their Bibles and do devotions at home and pray and communicate with God. We believe that any of us can show others the goodness of God through our words and actions.

We emphasize law and gospel. Each time we read scripture, we can be looking for these two things. We look for the law, the rules we couldn’t keep, the bad news that we are broken and hurting ourselves and others, that we are sinners. And we look for the Gospel, the good news that God loves us and God’s grace is a free gift and we are still part of God’s family. God makes us part of God’s family and we continue in forgiveness.

I’ve saved the best for last. My favorite Lutheran saying is, “sin boldly.” Most of us can do that. Martin Luther believed that in everything we do there are mixed motives. Even when we do good to our neighbor, it is for attention or to make ourselves feel better. There is sin and brokenness in everything we do. However, God loves us and forgives us and maintains a loving relationship with us. So we are free to go forward and “sin boldly.” Martin Luther used to spend days in the confessional trying to think of everything he ever did wrong, every thought that entered his head, every time he passed gas. He agonized over his every move. He felt that if he didn’t confess it, it would never be forgiven. Then he realized that he was being really self-centered and sinful by confessing for that long. He could have been out helping the poor. So he said to go forward in your life. Don’t let the fear of doing something wrong keep you from doing something right. It doesn’t mean to hurt people intentionally, but it says to live our life we can’t be crippled with fear. Jesus died and took away our sins. We don’t have to fear an angry God. We have a forgiving God who will understand and give us another chance when we get it all wrong. God will turn us back again to him and continue loving us.

So there is a lot to appreciate about being Lutheran. But “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” None of us as individuals or a denomination have arrived at or near perfection. We are still falling short. And that’s why we know the church has to keep reforming. The Reformation was an event and the reformation is still going on. The church needs to be relevant to people today. It needs to speak to new generations of people who need to hear the good news.

The things we believe in as Lutherans give us a lens to evaluate our faith practices at this moment in time.

We don’t believe in simple answers. God loves this church and has claimed us as God’s own. And there are a great many ways we are broken and hurtful to ourselves and others. Because we know we are forgiven, we can take an honest look at what we’ve done and try to do better. There isn’t going to be a program or silver bullet to make the church relevant and better. It will mean different things in different places. It will mean a lot of experimentation and deep thinking about what is most meaningful. There are no easy answers.

Because we believe in the priesthood of all believers, we all have a role in our church’s reformation. When we see something that isn’t right or isn’t working, it is up to us to speak up. When we see something that is working, we should encourage it and support it. And it isn’t only those who are going to church who get to have a say. Many who are believers don’t go to church. Maybe they’ve been hurt by someone who was a Christian. Maybe they want to sleep in on Sunday morning. Maybe they don’t see it as relevant to their lives. We get to listen to their critiques and include them in the continuing reformation of the church.

As Lutherans we believe in law and gospel. The law makes us aware that we are broken and sinful. We get to confess our wrongs. We get to take a good long look at those we’ve hurt and make amends. We get to see what is keeping us from being relevant to most people. Is it lack of imagination? Is it fear of change? Is it the sin of pride—the feeling that we got it right in the Reformation so we still must be right? But we don’t just stay with the law and how it convicts us of so many wrongs. We have a gracious and loving God. We get to continue in relationship with God and God’s people and try again to do the loving thing, the welcoming thing, the godly thing.

Finally, we get to sin boldly. As this reformation continues, we get to try new things. Some of them might be ridiculous. Some of them are bound not to work for people. But we move forward with boldness, trying new things, picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off after failure. Some things do touch people’s lives though and do bring in the Kingdom of God, bit by bit. Some things do change lives for the better, increase faith, increase justice and right relationship between people. These are the things of the continuing reformation until God finally fully brings God’s vision to this world, God’s Kingdom fully realized on earth.

Although we don’t want to be prideful about our Lutheran faith and believe we’ve arrived, we should be ready to give account of what about it works for us. Once in a while someone will ask why you go to the church you go to or what makes a Lutheran. They may be searching for something deeper. We need to be ready to give an account, to share part of our faith story in a way that connects with them. The trouble is, everyone comes from a different place. It may be good to say something like, “There are lots of things I could say about it. Is there something in particular you want to know about it (my faith, my church, my denomination).” Sometimes people want to know how it is different from the faith they grew up knowing the most about: Roman Catholicism, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish. To answer that question you have to know something about the faith or denomination they come from so then it is just best to ask about their experience in those places and types of worship. Then it becomes a dialogue where they get to express the blessings and shortcomings they experienced and you have a jumping off point for your honest assessment. When people ask me what Lutheranism is all about, I often simply say, “grace.” It is about a loving God freeing us to live our lives the best way we can. If people ask about your church, think of a story that illustrates a point that you want to make. Share a story about someone generous in the congregation, or something humorous that happened. Rather than saying that people are generous or funny or kind, a story helps people connect and know your experience.

And don’t be afraid to be honest about what doesn’t work for you. Believe me, we know that everything isn’t going to work for everyone. A hymn might touch one heart and not another. The children’s message might be your favorite part of the service and there is another person here who wishes we didn’t have children’s sermons. There are those kinds of things based on taste that you can express distaste with but they will probably still happen now and then at least.

Then there are other things that are more about the core of the Gospel. As Reformers it is important to speak up when you see someone not being welcomed, when you notice someone excluded. We need to be honest and keep each other accountable when we get off track from God’s path of grace and love. The congregation is not without sin and brokenness, but we can work on that when we see clearly who we’ve hurt and what we’ve done, and how we’ve strayed from the Gospel.

May we continue to be reformed by God’s love until the Kingdom fully comes into our world and God’s vision is fully realized.

October 21, 2012

Gospel: Mark 10:35-45
1st Reading: Isaiah 53:4-12 Psalm 91:9-16
2nd Reading: Hebrews 5:1-10

This week it was announced that scientists have found a planet made of diamonds. It is so far away it would cost a planet made of diamonds to get there, but it got my imagination going. Would we want to try to go there? Or would it devalue the diamonds we already have? Diamonds may be exciting and glamorous, but wouldn’t it be even more valuable and exciting to discover life on another planet? On a planet of diamonds, what is the rare stone that engagement rings are made of? Maybe quartz or pumice? It is all in our perspective, isn’t it?

Our view of the Kingdom of God is also about perspective. In one view, it is something precious and rare. Jesus says it is like a pearl of great value and a man goes and sells everything he has in order to purchase it. Or it is like a treasure hidden in a field, and a man, learning of it, goes and sells everything he has to buy that field and own that treasure. The Kingdom of God is something we’d like to have and it is something rare to find. It is something valuable that we would benefit from having possession of. So no wonder the Disciples want to know how they can get a hold of this precious treasure by making their reservation early for courtside seats, since they are limited.

Jesus talks so much about his “glory.” Today the Disciples are trying to get a piece of it. I have often puzzled about this. What is glory? How do you know you have it? How do you know you have enough of it? Is it something rare? Is it something to plentiful? We sing about it a lot in church, but I don’t know if I’d know it if I saw it.

I think we can agree that glory is something good.

Think of the Christmas story when the angels appear to the shepherds, the Bible says that “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” This passage and many in the Old Testament seem to refer to a kind of light. When I think of glory in our culture, I think of the rich and famous. They get all this attention. The paparazzi are following them, hoping to snap a photo. We get news reports on which of them had a baby or donated money or adopted a puppy. Because we’ve seen them in the movies, we seem to think we know them and we seem to care about details of their lives. Maybe we wish we were like them or are glad that we aren’t. Do we watch them so that we can be like them? Or do we watch them so we can avoid the pitfalls they seem to get trapped in? Celebrities seem to get a lot of glory, but also people love to hate them, so they have their share of suffering and they get to suffer somewhat in public.

I was writing some synonyms for glory to try to understand what it is. I came up with honor, triumph, status, value, fame, credit, majesty, notoriety, special, recognition, and success. To have glory is to have elevated status. The world we live in tells us how to get more glory. We need to wash our hair with the right shampoo. We need to watch the right movies. We need to have the right job, the right amount of money, and the right friends. Glory is something rare that we can only get with riches. The thing is, if you’ve tried to find glory or satisfaction this way, you know it doesn’t work. Your hair gets dirty again. It never looks as glossy as it does in the commercials. Your money doesn’t bring you satisfaction. You can have all the money in the world and be sick or be unhappy. The world gives us a false path to glory. The world tries to entice us down this wrong path, we increase the profits of these companies that want to have the glory for themselves. We play right into their hands.

So here is Jesus showing us the true path to glory, to happiness, to success. He’s saying it may not be as rare as we think it is. It is just that we are looking for it in all the wrong places. Instead, he says, it is plentiful. It is in a life of service. Jesus is saying that glory is plentiful and abundant. There is enough glory to go around. We don’t have to fight over it. We don’t have to try to beat our neighbor to it. Glory is precious AND glory is plentiful. It is as close to us as our neighbor in need. It can be found in each flower, in each interaction. It is beautiful and wondrous and mysterious, yet it is right next door. It is as beautiful and precious as a diamond, but as plentiful as on the diamond planet.

Jesus reprimands the disciples that are arguing over his glory and their piece of it. He has just been talking about the suffering he is going to endure. They are troubled by this and their fear is what sends them scrambling for the glory. Jesus reminds them that suffering is also plentiful. If they are planning to be near him in his glory, they should count on being near him in his suffering. To sit on either side of him may be an honor, but it isn’t easy, as the criminals found out who were crucified on either side of him. Suffering and glory aren’t mutually exclusive. We think that in order to achieve glory, we should avoid suffering and if we run from suffering we will be happy. Remember the disciples abandoned and denied Jesus when it came time for him to suffer on the cross. Jesus says that glory and suffering are down the same path. Suffering and the Kingdom of God are down the same path. But every time we come to suffering we don’t realize that glory is just on the other side and we miss out. We think suffering means we are headed in the wrong direction so we try to recalculate. Jesus says keep going. On the other side of suffering is the Kingdom of God, the satisfaction, the hope that we’re looking for. He says if we want to become great, we should become a servant of one another. We should put our needs aside. Instead of going down the road that puts us first, go down the path that puts others first and we will find life abundant, not just for us but for others. And this path is as abundant as there are people in need, in fact infinite. It is the path of love and love is something precious, like a diamond, but also plentiful and immeasurable like the diamonds on the diamond planet.

On Commitment Sunday, this is a good thought to ponder. Do we exist for ourselves to get more glory for ourselves, to avoid suffering, to be served, to be comfortable? Part of me would love to say yes. I like my comfortable life. But we all know from life experience, this isn’t long-lasting. It doesn’t satisfy. We’ve also all experienced the true satisfaction of helping others, even when it inconvenienced us, even when it hurt us. So we are also aware of the Kingdom path that Jesus pointed us toward and led us toward. Our stewardship question asks us, do we keep the money we have for ourselves and spend it all on the things we like? Or do we spend it on behalf of others in need? Of course it isn’t all or nothing but a path we are moving down, like a continuum. On one end we spend it all on our pleasures and on the other end we give it all away to the poor. We are all somewhere on this continuum. Are we moving more toward one end or the other? And which end gives us more satisfaction? Which causes us more suffering and pain? Which one is closer to the Kingdom of God for us and for others. And it isn’t just about our money, but our time. Do we spend our time just doing what we like to do? Where does that get us but all alone and dissatisfied? If we spend our time helping others, we find ourselves relating to all kinds of people we wouldn’t have otherwise met. We find ourselves learning about ourselves. We find ourselves putting others before ourselves. We find ourselves forgetting the suffering we’ve endured. We find ourselves giving away our diamonds because there are enough to go around and we’ve got the real valuable diamonds, relationship and love with God, with our neighbors, and with people in need, something that can never be taken away.

The diamond is simply carbon, but its beauty isn’t revealed until that carbon undergoes tremendous pressure. Jesus on the cross endured that pressure that seemed to destroy him. Instead he rose more beautiful than ever to share the light of God, and the value that God holds us in, with all people.