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Thursday, October 23, 2014

October 19, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

In these days of email, it is pretty fun to get a real letter in the snail mail, once in a while. My grandma writes actual letters and so I do my best to answer her by letter, too. Because of this, I still buy stamps. I remember being a little girl and licking the stamps for my mom that she placed on the bills. For a short while I collected stamps. I remember looking at the images on the stamps, and wondering about them. I remember looking at all the colors, all the different subject matter from plants and flowers, to hearts, to art work, to celebrating different holidays, to actors and actresses, and finally images of presidents and important people.

It used to be that you had to be dead to be depicted on a postage stamp, but that rule changed in 2011, maybe because the Postal Service is so much in debt and trying to make up its huge deficit. It was around that time that I started seeing advertised at the Post Office that you could buy a computer program to put the picture of your choice on a postage stamp. The suggestion was that you might like to have a picture of your grandchild on a postage stamp.

The idea was to sell what people wanted, the image that an individual would find appealing, and who would know better than that same individual? Well Caesar had the chance to put the image of whoever he wanted on the coins of ancient Rome, and I doubt there was much of a question that it would be Caesar, himself. He had already declared himself a god. He already pushed his kingdom and rule on all kinds of people. He already pushed his laws and taxes on them. He wanted absolute rule, absolute obedience, absolute power. He may have once had some lofty ideas about making life better for people, but he was a dictator, removed from the everyday life of people. It ended up that his rule benefitted him more than anyone, and those close to him next, and the Jewish people very little, if at all.

In other words, Caesar did show partiality. He treated people differently depending on what they could do for him. He expected everyone to treat him best of all, because of what he could do for them or out of fear because of what he could do to them. And in this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether people should pay taxes or not, to try to trap him. First they try to flatter him by saying that he shows no partiality. To him that is a compliment. To them that is an insult. Basically, they are saying he has no taste, no common sense about who it is good to hang out with and share with and who it isn't.

If Jesus says you should pay taxes, the Jewish people will be upset, because they are taxed to the max by the Romans and they get very little in return. If he says you shouldn't, they will tell Caesar and Jesus will be labled a traitor and arrested. Jesus directs them to the image on the coin. There is Caesar's image on it. Give to him what is his.

What is Caesar's in this case? The idea is whatever he stamps his image on belongs to him. He thinks whatever he imposes his values upon, his rule upon, his image upon, become his. The Jewish people were trying to keep their traditions and values, to worship God and make decisions for their own people. Who did they belong to now? God or Caesar? They were seeing Caesar's image stamped all over the place. They were finding it in their pockets and purses. They were seeing the impact on their lives--oppression. And those in power, like the Pharisees, were using this rule to benefit themselves. The tax collectors were collecting more than the tax to line their own pockets. The Pharisees were using the Romans to get rid of people like Jesus who empowered the poor. What is Caesar's? Taxes, oppression, partiality, favoritism, and take, take, take--selfishness.

What was God's, then? God is all give, give, give--selflessness. God made everything on this earth and made it good, to benefit everyone and to give life to all. God had made every tree and plant, every animal, every element such as the gold which formed the coin. Finally, as we know from the Creation stories, God created humankind in the image and likeness of God. Show me the coin—who's image is on it? Ceasar's. Show me the human-who's image is on him? God's image. That's why Jesus shows no partiality. Whomever he encounters, he sees the image and likeness of God.

We are agreed that we also must not treat others with partiality. But what about the image of God we carry within each of us? It means a certain responsibility to carry God's values within us. We all look so different from each other, so what is it about God's image that we hold in common? I think it is the heart of God, the values of God, the focus of God on life-giving ways. And we take that image wherever we go. It isn't just something we wear or embody at church. Yes, we may dress up a bit, shave, put on a clean outfit, to come here. We also try to put on a good attitude and a friendly smile, even if we aren't feeling that social. But God's image is stamped on us every other day of the week, as well. We carry God's image, God's values to work with us. We carry it with us to the store, to the ballot box, to the bank, when we drive our cars, when we take out the trash, when we fill out our estimate of giving card, when we volunteer our time, when we forgive, when we show no favoritism. Jesus' values led him to give his life that we might have life, to disregard his own welfare for the sake of others. We give thanks that he made new life possible for us, that he made that connection between God and humankind, between heaven and earth so clear and so available to us who have done nothing to deserve a place at God's table of grace. Yet, here we are, all valued, all invited, all chosen by God.

Today we estimate our giving for the coming year in a way that incorporates God's values. Our estimates help the congregation create a budget, so we aren't guessing. It helps you set an intentional goal, with prayer, to use this gift from God, money in a way that supports God's values. It also helps separate you from your money, which can so easily become an idol, no matter who's image it has on it.

It used to be that the offering was taken, the first fruits from the field, the best of the flock, and it was burned. Many a pastor has fantasized about taking the offering, putting it on the altar, and setting it on fire. The reaction would be priceless. Nowadays, very little of what ends up in the plate is paper money anymore. Most of it is checks, so it wouldn't be so effective. But the thought of destroying the money, in theory, is appealing. It means the giver truly has to let go and says, “This isn't mine anymore.” Like the prayer says, “We release what has been given to us.” Then no more could one's offering be held over the church's head. No one could say, “Do it my way or I will withhold my tithe.” No one could say, “We can't offend this or that important/rich person in the congregation or they will stop giving.” Destroying the money destroys the power it can have over us, the partiality we might have because of it.

However, if the money is destroyed, it can't be used to do the work that supports God's values of giving life impartially and supporting all in need. Alas, there will be no fire in the offering plate today. We work together to pass a budget that we believe supports God's values. Our budget tithes our offerings to the larger church to pay some administration costs that help us stay connected to other Lutherans and from time to time get support for calling a new pastor or gathering resources to write a sabbatical policy, for instance. Much of what goes to the larger church goes to fight disease and respond to disasters. Furthermore, our budget supports a food pantry that feeds thousands of hungry people in our neighborhood and creates partnerships between our congregations. Our budget pays the staff to carry out the work we see as important.

And our budget pays the pastor--me. This can be an awkward subject and yet, I know, I have a job, a livelihood, insurance and retirement because of your generous offerings. This is the way I see it. You pay me to work on behalf of the poor. I visit the sick and hospitalized and lonely. I make my way around the pantry, praying with clients, listening to them and loving them. I work on issues like immigrant rights and the health of this planet that God made and diversity training for youth. I encourage you to get involved, too. You also have your own areas of interest and focus for community service and your own connections to bring life to those who are struggling.

Maybe a grandchild is the perfect image to have on a postage stamp, just the person to venerate and honor, because of what that represents. For that grandchild, we want to create a world more just, more life-giving, more clean, more beautiful, more peaceful. We can see in that child both our own image and likeness, the face that carries our genetic code, and the face of God, so wonderous and beautiful and full of possibility. That little person is so powerless, and yet with that little voice holds such sway. That little person has no ill will toward anyone, and truly shows no partiality. That little person is truly innocent, knowing nothing of politics and money, but only about forming relationships and being open to new learning, moldable to God's sculpting hands. The important thing to remember is that we are also grandchildren of someone and they once saw in us what we see in them. And I have to think that God still sees that in us. So much possibility. So much good. So many of God's most important values. I have to think that our image can be found on God's postage stamps, God's love letters to us reminding us what is most important. Surely God's image is on our hearts, making us ready to love and give life and share and empower one another and be kind and work for the poor and vote and to give to God what is God's, which is really everything.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 5, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
1st Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

Imagine you find an abandoned cat or dog, scared, hungry, injured, and neglected. You spend all your money getting it healthy, making a good space in your house for this pet, fencing the yard, getting a microchip, acclimating the pet to the other animals in the house, providing a nice cozy bed and plenty of food. You put in time getting to know your new pet, getting it used to you and the new space.

Just imagine your disappointment when the pet not only destroys property, but bites the other animals and you, continually runs away, and attacks your children and grandchildren.

Now, your heart is heavy because you’ve put all this investment into this pet, hoping that it could recover and lead a happy, healthy life in harmony with other creatures around it. But now you have no choice but to put it down.

We know that when an animal is like this, something has happened in the past that makes them this way. Maybe they were abused or suffered so terribly they can never recover. But when God has set everything up for us to live together in harmony, to have everything we need, to be comfortable and happy, and instead we get aggressive and selfish and destroy ourselves, our environment, and other lives around us, that is a choice we’ve made. In the readings for today, we can infer that God gets mad, but I think just as much, God gets sad and we all get sad and wonder where is the hope in this world if people are not willing to be tamed and live the way God intended, a life-giving way for everyone.

I suppose first we have to stop and admit what we’ve done. Are we really so bad as a wild animal or a trampled vineyard? We try to do right, live like other people, and protect ourselves. We go to church most Sundays and even if we don’t, we believe in God. We give some of our income to charity to help other people. We volunteer. We let people go in front of us at the grocery store. We’re kind to animals.

We probably didn’t set out to be wild grapes, but that’s how it has ended up. We are so isolated and removed from each other we don’t even know how our choices affect those around us. We are so comfortable behind the closed doors of our homes, we don’t even know the neighbors right next door are suffering. We tend to think of our home, money, and yard as ours and do with it what we wish, forgetting that everything we do affects other people, and that these are gifts from God that actually belong to God, not to us. We are just borrowing them for a little while.

We forget that our land once belonged to someone else and that at one time it belonged to all God’s creatures in the area. We forget that someone after us will use it and that the things we do to it will affect future generations.

We think of our money as our own, that we earned it and should be able to use it as we like. We spend it on so many frivolous things. Some of these are even for our pets. In this country we spend $61 billion a year on our pets. We spend about 7 billion on Halloween. Yes, those things make us happy. They keep our economy going. But thinking of hungry children, of single parents who can’t find work, of elder neglect, and people who can’t afford medical care, might make us consider what God’s priorities might be over our own.

I don’t think God’s given up on us yet. We can see that our way of life is unsustainable and that it is destroying this earth, using up resources, and polluting our air and water and soil. We are starting to experience the consequences of our actions. God is still saying, there is another way, a way for life to flourish for all, for everyone to have enough, and for us all to live together peacefully, for our planet to thrive. But we have to be ready and willing to change. God is saying when all these changes happen in our world that wake us up to what we’re doing, God’s is offering us another way. We will have to let go of the life we’ve known and embrace something new, something we can’t anticipate exactly, how it will all work. But we’ll have our strong faith and the stories of death and resurrection, of facing reality and making a change, and receive strength that it can be done. We’ll have the support of our community to make the changes necessary. We won’t be alone. And we will live again. We’ll find a new way of life in which we will bear the fruit of the Kingdom—new life, loving God, loving our neighbor, loving God’s good creation, behaving in loving and balanced ways. God says, why not start making these changes now, so that the destruction that is coming won’t be so disastrous?

We do the easy things. We change our light bulbs for energy efficient ones. We recycle. We turn out the lights in rooms we aren’t using. We do the things that are culturally acceptable and popular. God says, the Kingdom of God is not culturally acceptable. This is needs to be a deeper change that is risky. It makes you look foolish to your friends and family and neighbors. People will make fun of you. They will talk behind your back. But it is the way that eventually leads to more life for everyone and it is God’s way, it is the way for us to survive and thrive on this earth. It will be worth looking like a fool.

Jesus came to show us how to really live. He was kind toward those everyone rejected. He put other people first and their welfare. He emptied himself of everything and still had something to give other people. He taught us to share when we have next to nothing. He taught us to live without things that are unnecessary. He taught us to give everything away. He taught us to have a thick skin about what other people think. He taught us to look out for the little guy and even for the plants and animals. These are the lessons of healing for our community that Jesus teaches us. And he taught us to die, to let go, to be transformed, to give ourselves into God’s hands—to trust.

Because after death comes resurrection, new life, new relationship, God’s Kingdom in our midst. I challenge you this month to start a new habit, to do something a little harder to bring in God’s Kingdom. For every dollar you spend on your pet, give another dollar to the Pongo fund to give pet food to those who can’t otherwise afford to fee their pets, or give a bag of dog or cat food to a shut-in neighbor with pets. For every dollar you spend on Halloween, give a dollar to Lutheran World Relief to fight Ebola in Africa. For every dollar spent at Starbucks, give a dollar to Backpack Buddies. For every hour spent watching TV, spend an hour volunteering for the pantry or a local shelter or reading to kids at a school.

We have been given something wonderful and amazing, this beautiful world and many riches. It is not for us to use as we see fit. It is not ours. We can use it the way we want to, but it will be our destruction. Or we can let God tame us and show us new life and we will drink of the wine this land produces and share in its riches. We have a responsibility to the one who has invested so much in us, to God. And we have a responsibility to this earth that has provided such a wonderful life for us, to care for it that many future generations will be able to enjoy what we’ve enjoyed and know the blessings of God’s good creation.

September 28, 2014

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

I enjoy watching the Louie CK show. He is a comedian for which no subject is off limits, so don’t take my taste as a recommendation. He is raising two young daughters, though, and his parenting can be so right on sometimes. We recently saw an episode in which Louie is preparing smoothies for his kids. He has an extra slice of mango left over and he offers it to his oldest daughter. The younger daughter is fit to be tied.

"She got a mango popsicle and I didn't," she whines.

"That's right," he says, and continues cooking. "Sometimes she gets things you don't and sometimes, it goes the other way. That's just how life works."

"But daddy," she pleads, "it's not fair!"

"Who said anything about fair?" he asks. "You were just fine without it until she got it. What's the problem?"

"It's just not fair," she insisted. "If she gets one, I should get one too."
"Look," he says, getting right down on her level, "the only time you need to worry about what's your neighbor's bowl is if you're checking to make sure they have enough." then he turns back to the stove and continues cooking. His younger daughter is pretty ticked and walks off in a huff.

I love this scene, because it is not only for kids but for all of us. We’ve all heard kids freak out about what is fair and what isn’t. We all have our own sense of justice about what is fair and what isn’t. But when we say, “It’s not fair!” it is never the case that we got something more than what our neighbor got, is it? It is only when they got what we don’t have that we complain about fairness, like Louie’s daughter.

It is easy to dismiss kids’ complaints and their lack of understanding, but what about our own sense of justice. Our sense of justice and fairness is challenged when someone goes free who committed a crime, when someone who has taken advantage of other people has great wealth, when people enjoy pleasures and luxury that we don’t have, and occasionally when good people experience many hardships in a row.

In the Old Testament reading today, the Israelites complain that it isn’t fair that people’s children don’t suffer for their parent’s mistakes. They don’t think it is fair that God should give people a second chance to turn and live, mend their lives, make a change. They don’t think it is fair that God should care for all the other people of the earth and all the creatures, as God does the Israelites, that their welfare is tied to each other. And they don’t think it is fair that they should have to suffer consequences for what they do—aren’t they supposed to be special?!

In the New Testament reading, we are reminded that if we lived in a fair world, Jesus would not have been treated the way he was and had to give his life so that everyone could have abundant life. Instead, he did what was entirely not fair, and emptied himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For him it wasn’t about what was fair, but it was about what was right and that was to get everyone into right relationship with God and to be an example of what it means to let go of what is fair to benefit one another and people who need it most.

I think emptiness is what we are most afraid of when we exclaim, “That’s not fair.” I remember being a little girl and comparing what my sister got with what I got. I wanted to make sure I had more ice cream, soda pop, candy than she did. It was a measure in my mind of what I meant to my parents, what I deserved, and how special I was. And I was afraid of what it would mean to take second or third position, to find myself empty of my privileges as the oldest daughter. Who would I be then, if I was first, if I didn’t get the most, if I wasn’t most important in my parents’ eyes? If I lost that status, I didn’t know who I would be. I would be empty, in my estimation.

My cousin was a year older than me and we visited them often. He didn’t treat me very nice for a few years. I got to feel what it was like to be my sister, the way I treated her. He emptied me of my privileged role and I learned to be more compassionate.

We’re all going to be empty of power at some point in our lives. We are going to experience powerlessness. Jesus tells us that isn’t the end of the world. When we are empty of power, we are available to be filled. God will give us a new direction, a new heart, new eyes, a new spirit and we will be better off than we were before.

Here are a few stories of emptiness, of loss of power. The first I’ve heard time and time again. A woman is in an unhappy marriage. She finds herself attracted women. She tries everything to build up her marriage, to no avail. Her church rejects her. She wonders where God is in all this. She’s afraid that if she comes out of the closet, she will lose her family and friends.

Here’s another story: A couple recognizes their health is declining. They can’t do all the things they used to—care for a house and a yard, drive everywhere they want to go, and so on. They move into Independent Living. They have left friends, neighborhood, yard, possessions, hobbies, and more. Who are they now? They are empty of all that, plus now their kids are making many decisions for them. They have given up power. They feel depressed and powerless.

And another: A child comes into this world, healthy and happy. Nevertheless, a trusted friend shakes the child and he suffers brain damage. His parents are lost. The life they pictured for their little baby and themselves is forever altered. They don’t know what to do or where to turn. They feel powerless, empty of power.

Where is God when we feel empty? God knows what it is like to feel empty and powerless, is with us when we are in a place of fear and depression, and God has promised to eventually fill us again.

The woman finds other people who have been through the same thing she is going through. She finds God’s acceptance and love. She begins to accept herself. An older couple is able to share their frustration and pain with others who have been through the same thing. They feel encouraged that they aren’t the only ones who have felt this way. They find new activities to fill their days and make new friends and soon they are settled in their new living situation. A parent connects with other parents who have children who have been shaken. She finds that she sees so much that her child is capable of, and sees him enjoying his life and accomplishing things that she might have taken for granted. She feels such love and sees him loving. And she uses her energies to raise awareness of Shaken Baby Syndrome so that others might not have to feel the powerlessness she went through.

Death and resurrection, emptying and being filled, powerlessness and the power of love, a need for fairness and a letting go of what’s fair to face what is. The chief priests and elders ask Jesus this morning about his authority. The word in the original language for authority is “That which arises out of your being.” It is about who you are at your core. When everything is stripped away, who are you? When we are empty, that’s when we really find out who we are and what is most important and we find not an absence, but God’s love filling us and giving us strength and resurrecting us to new life in which we look into our neighbor’s empty bowl and share of our abundance until all are full of God’s love and life.