Friday, December 25, 2009


Christmas Eve
December 24, 2009

Many of you know that Mike and I eat out a lot. On Saturday, after my sermon is finished, we frequently head for Emperor’s Garden – a Chinese buffet on 41, north of Inverness. Often, but not always, there is an ad in the coupon books. The ad has two coupons: free beverages, or 10% off the meal. Free beverages is the better deal, so that’s the one we use.
Since we have a stack of coupon books, we use one coupon, and pass the other to another diner. It’s always fun to see the look of surprise and delight in their faces when we hand them the coupon. A small, free gift. Unexpected, yet welcome, and valuable, even if it only saves them a little bit.
At different times during my life, I have sometimes devoted a lot of time to gift-wrapping, and sometimes very little. Some birthday gifts are offered in the original Wal-Mart bag, or tucked into a gift bag with a scrap of tissue. Some gifts in easy-to-wrap shirt boxes have tidy, tight corners, with the finished edges folded neatly under. The bow may be a simple stick-on, but there is a bit of ribbon twisted under it to fancy it up. Other gifts are carefully wrapped, with special paper, ribbons, and expensive bows. 
When my boys were small, I knew they were peaking into the closet to look at the gifts hidden there. As they grew, I left off the labels, but wrapped them and put them under the tree. I had a code which changed each year. The code was written small, on the underside of the box, where it was hard to find. One Christmas Eve, as I went to put the labels on the coded packages, I noticed that my tight corners weren’t as tight as I knew I had made them. I guessed it was Danny who had been peeking – and he confirmed that a few years ago. He unwrapped the ordinary gifts – the sweaters, the socks, the pajamas. He hadn’t found the better stuff – the toys and games that were hidden at my office until the last minute. So, I still was able to give him the gift of surprise on Christmas Day.
Over the centuries and centuries of God’s relationship with God’s people, many promises had been made, and many gifts had been given. The promises told of God’s desire to give good gifts to God’s people. Sometimes, those gifts came wrapped in warfare and conquest; sometimes, those gifts came wrapped in peace. The rainbow came after the Flood. The Exodus came after slavery. The settlement into the Promised Land came after battle after battle with local residents. The Babylonian Exile came after conquest, and the Return to Jerusalem 70 years later came as a surprise gift from Cyrus, the Persian.
In our reading from the prophet Isaiah, we learn of a promised new ruler who would restore justice and righteousness to God’s children. The gift of this new ruler would come as a child who would grow up to be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This new leader would come wrapped in light, and share that light with those living in darkness.
This promised child did come, 500 years later, as a surprising gift. People of Jesus’ time were looking for royalty – a child born to a descendant of King David, a child born of the royal family, a child born in a palace. The people of Jesus’ time were looking for a military hero, to make things better for them in the short term. The people of Jesus’ time were looking for a new king, to replace Herod, who ruled because Rome said he could.
God’s surprise gift was a baby born in a cave where animals were stabled, gift-wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in an animals’ feeding trough. This gift baby was born to a poor family in unusual circumstances – Joseph worked with his hands, and Mary was pregnant before they got married. This gift baby was praised by angels, and visited by shepherds – among the lowest people on the social scale.
It can be hard for us to appreciate the depth of the surprise for this birth of God’s Son.
·         Imagine, if you can, baby Jesus being born in a corner of a New York subway station, or in the dank, dark corners of Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago. Would such a child even have a blanket to be gift-wrapped in?
·         Closer to home, imagine baby Jesus being born to a family in Crystal River, where some of the poorest people in the county live. This child might be gift-wrapped in a thrift store blanket.
·         Or, perhaps, imagine Jesus being born to a family in one of the rental houses down the street or around the corner from this church. A hand-me-down onesie might be the gift-wrap for that child.

Would we be able to see God’s promise in a child born in these circumstances? Would we go to visit him, and praise God for his birth? Or would we wonder, as many did of Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth/ a New York Subway station or Lower Wacker Drive/ Crystal River/ Citrus Springs?”

God has always made promises and fulfilled them in surprising ways. What gifts has God sent to you, wrapped in surprising ways?
·         Has a stranger – or a friend – given you a coupon, just when it would come in handy?
·         Has a life-threatening illness renewed your faith in God? Was that renewal wrapped in the prayers of the faith community that surrounded you?
·         Has a less-than-perfect child drawn you closer to God as you prayed to be able to handle the challenges such a child brought into your life?
·         Has losing a fortune in the stock market – or losing your job because of the recession – caused you to trust even more deeply in the promise of God to provide for you?
·         Has the plight of a neighbor caused you to reach out in love to offer to help?
·         Has a neighbor reached out in love to help you? Was the love wrapped in the offer of money, or food, or a ride, or handy hands, or a cup of tea? Did you accept the gift and unwrap it to receive the love given to and for you?

The baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago did not look like a king, did not look like God’s Son, did not look like Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But he was gift-wrapped in God’s promises of love, justice and righteousness, light and life for all of creation. And his life, death, and resurrection fulfilled God’s promises in those days, and continues to do so today.
Baby Jesus is the gift who keeps on giving, wrapped in God’s love for us, wrapped in our love for one another. This year, as you give and receive gifts, check out the wrapping. It may look fancy or humble, but it is love. Open your hearts and receive it.

Please pray with me. Gracious God, like any parent you wish to give us gifts, and sometimes those gifts come wrapped in surprising ways. Help us to appreciate not just the gift but also the wrapping of love that comes with it. In Jesus’ holy name, we pray. Amen

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bearing fruit: share, be fair, show you care

      Luke 3:7-18

Last week, the challenge was to see how you needed to be purified, so you could repent and grow closer to God. The next step is to put your purified self to good use. Today’s passage says this means to bear good fruit.
Once again, we have John the Baptist as the key figure in our Gospel lesson. All four Gospel writers include stories about John, in part to dispel the idea that he was the messiah. They all make it clear that John is God’s messenger, sent to proclaim the coming of the Son of God, Jesus.
Crowds gathered to see John, to hear what outrageous things he would say this time, and to be baptized and forgiven. At some point, they must have angered John; perhaps he began to draw more sight-seers and critics than believers; perhaps the people seemed to believe they could come and be baptized and forgiven, then return to their old sinful ways of life.
So, he raises the pressure on those who come – not unexpected for a prophet. And the people still came to hear him. This time, he calls the people in the crowd a “brood of vipers” – a den of snakes! He goes on to say, -- in a Pastor Lynn’s paraphrase – “If you are going to come to repent and be baptized, your lives must bear the proof of that repentance. You can’t rely on your heritage as children of Abraham. You yourselves must demonstrate the goodness you have received.” 
Now that John has their attention, they are willing to listen. “So, John, what do you want us to do?” “If you have plenty to wear, you must share what you have with those who have less. If you have food, you must feed those who are hungry. You must collect no more taxes than you are legally allowed to do. You soldiers must not threaten the citizens, and you should be content with what you earn and not try to force innocent people to give you more.” In other words, share what you have; be fair; and show you care as you seek God’s justice.
The people wonder if John is the Messiah, but John always points to another – to Jesus. Like the people of his day, John expects that the Messiah will come with violence and judgment; the Messiah will sort out the good people from the bad people and throw the bad people into the fire. We know, of course, that these expectations turned out to be not exactly what God had in mind.
But even with these threats from John, the people are eager to do as he said. And, Luke says John proclaimed the good news to the people. Even with the news of judgment, the promise of forgiveness born in repentance and baptism is seen as good news! And it was good news, for the people of that time and for us today.
We begin each Sunday worship with the opportunity to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. I know the time allowed for silent confession sometimes seems too long, and sometimes, it’s too short. We either can’t think of anything that needs to be confessed, or we can think of lots of things for which we need forgiveness. There are also those things we have done or not done that only God may be aware of. We trust in the promise of forgiveness in our baptism and rejoice that God does forgive our sins for Jesus’ sake.
We respond to the good news of our baptism comes with a desire to pass on God’s goodness to others. In John the Baptist’s terms, we bear fruit worthy of our baptism. We demonstrate -- or pass on -- to others the goodness we ourselves have received. We share; we try to be fair; and we show we care by seeking justice.

We share: At this time of year more than any other, my mail box is filled with requests for cash donations. In the last week, I’ve had mailings from my college, from my seminary, from Heifer International, from Lutheran World Relief, and from several other places. My gifts will help students stay in school, will feed hungry people – and help them feed themselves. You all receive these as well, and many more, I know. You come to worship and see bulletin announcements to contribute Shoe Boxes, turkeys, candies for gingerbread house decorations, and so forth.  It’s important to share generously what God has given to us, so that those in need are cared for.

Each week, our scripture readings urge us to be fair – to seek God’s justice. We bear fruit worthy of our baptism when we treat each other with respect, when we remember that every person here is God’s beloved child. We try hard not to judge others and we try to see their point of view, and work toward finding middle ground and compromise.
On a national scale, this is what Congress is trying to do with health care reform – despite being torn in hundreds (thousands?) of ways by individual and group concerns and fears. On a congregational scale, it is seeking the facts before we pass on a story, and using direct communication when we feel hurt.

We bear fruit when we show we care by advocating for justice in our community for those who are being oppressed. On a major scale, advocacy is what Martin Luther King and Gandhi and their followers did. On a small scale, it’s going to the civic association meetings and asking for youth activities, so young people have something to do besides get into trouble. It’s using vacant land to start a community vegetable garden, so we can teach people to feed themselves. It’s providing nutrition and cooking classes so people can eat a healthy diet.

When we share what we have, try to be fair, and show we care, we are disciples of Jesus, bearing the good news to each other, and to those in need. We sometimes forget that there is more to faith than coming to worship on Sunday mornings. We are baptized followers of Jesus, and we are called to be the church Monday through Saturday as well.
It’s an old saying, but it’s very true. We are the only Jesus some people will ever see. The ways in which we share, are fair, and show we care demonstrate to people outside the church that we are followers of Jesus, trying to do as he taught us.

Your challenge this week is to watch for ways to be the good news of Jesus. Watch for opportunities to share what you have, be fair with those you know, and show you care for those who need justice.

Please pray with me. Emmanuel – God with us –  you gave your life for us, teaching us that following you means giving ourselves to others. Be with us this week as we seek to do your will, by sharing, being fair, and caring for those we encounter. In your holy name, amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Melting away impurities

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

The Psalm for today is actually a song called the Benedictus – like the word benediction, it means blessing. It is Zechariah’s song after his son John (the Baptist) was born. In this song, Zechariah thanks God for all that God has done for God’s people over the centuries and centuries of Israelite history. He then commends John to God’s leading, knowing that he will be a prophet called to prepare the way for the One who is to come.
John will be much like Malachi, the prophet who was sent to the people to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. Malachi was a prophet in the time after the return from the Babylonian exile, around 500 BCE. The Israelite people – now called Jews since they were sent back to Judah – had rebuilt the temple, but even the priests were giving lip service to worship. Their offerings of blind and lame animals were unacceptable to God. The people were intermarrying with the locals who worshiped other gods, leading God’s people away from the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt.
Into this time, place, and situation, God called Malachi to tell the people they were about to be purified and refined. Fullers soap is a cleansing process used on wool before it is made into cloth. It is made of old urine and mud, an alkali mixture. Metal refining involves heating ore until it is so hot, all the impurities are melted away, leaving behind only the purest precious metal.
As God’s children, we also are intermingled, infused with stuff that makes us impure: old hurts that we can’t quite forget or let go of; sins we have committed, for which we can’t forgive ourselves; hurtful things we have done to someone without even knowing it; ways in which we have not done what God wanted us to do. Indeed, only God knows some of the ways in which we are impure.
While the process of melting away the impurities may be painful, the results are for our benefit. When the impurities of sin and hurtfulness are melted away, only the purest person is left. Since it is sin that keeps us apart from God, this purification is a good thing. It brings us closer to God.
… John, the baby Zechariah sang to, grew up to be the prophet his father had anticipated. He eventually found himself facing both religious and political leaders, all with a lot more earthly power than he had. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Since only the priests had the right to forgive in God’s name, and only after a person had paid the appropriate fees, John ran afoul of the religious leaders. And, since John challenged Herod and his wife regarding the legality of their marriage, he also ran afoul of the political leadership. But, those are stories for another day.
For today, we have John in the wilderness calling on all who would listen to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Lord. Some listened, and repented, and turned their hearts back to God. Many more refused to listen, refused to repent, believed they were doing all they needed to do to maintain their relationship with God.
To prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord really means allowing God to purify us. God purifies us by making us aware of those sins that need to be confessed, so they can be forgiven. Recognizing and confessing sins to one another, or even just to God, can be painful for us. But forgiveness is a gift – a free gift ­– from God designed to heal our broken spirits, and bring us closer to one another, and to God. This forgiveness, this healing of broken hearts and spirits, this assurance of life with God after death, this is the salvation from God which was promised by God, through John, and made a reality by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
This year, as we prepare our homes for the celebration of Christmas, as we purchase just the right gifts, as we bake just the right foods, let’s remember also to prepare our hearts. Let’s allow God to purify our hearts, melting away those sins that keep us from having a loving, trusting relationship with God and with each other.
I’m reminded of the stories told in the TV show “Touched by an Angel.” Each week, the angels helped several people resolve the conflicts that kept them apart as a family and that prevented them from truly knowing God’s love. Each situation was painful; for example, a father and daughter who never spoke to each other. Both father and daughter needed to confront the painful memories, the ways in which they hurt each other, and the ways in which they had been hurt by each other.
Those conversations were painful, gut-wrenching but essential experiences. But the process brought healing to both hearts. As the impurities of their personal relationships were melted away, they were brought closer together. They also experienced God’s love and forgiveness as the angels, especially Monica, showed them how much God loved them and forgave them.
As we prepare for the birth of Jesus as a baby, let’s tend to our relationships with each other and with God. Let’s allow God to melt away the impurities from our hearts, and draw us closer to God and to each other. In that way, the meaning of Christ’s birth can have a true impact on our lives. And that is your challenge for the next couple of weeks.

Please pray with me: Gracious God, we truly need your mercy. We are filled with impurities, and need your help in melting them away. As you cleanse us, help us to see that the pain of this cleansing is temporary, and the reward is our ability to be ever closer to you. Amen

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Telling the story

Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

This is a tome for telling stories. In the stores, as soon as the Halloween merchandise goes on sale, the Christmas merchandise appears. By now the stores are full of decorations, gift-wrap, holiday sweaters, and Black Friday deals. The day after Halloween, radio stations began playing Christmas music. Houses, stores, and streets are decorated for the holidays. There are Christmas themed movies and programs on TV and at the theaters. Countless books tell the stories of Christmas and the people who learned – or didn’t learn – the lessons of Christmas. These all tell the story of Christmas from different aspects.
In the church, we tell the stories, too. The Bible records the story of God’s relationship with God’s people, from creation to the future. Everything we read in scripture reminds us that our God wants a relationship with us, a relationship in which God is given high priority in our lives and hearts. Repeatedly, the Bible records stories of how God’s people don’t always put God first.
In the Old Testament, when the relationship with God gets really strained, it seems God sent warnings through the Prophets, to call the people to repent and turn their hearts back to God. God also sent promises when circumstances seemed to be at their worst. God will never abandon God’s people, no matter what they do, and good things will come!
In the New Testament, God first sent the Son, to speak God’s heart directly, to tell God’s story in the first person. After Jesus, God used humans to send letters to the people, reminding them of Jesus’ message of God’s love and forgiveness. The Gospels, Acts, and the Letters tell the story of God’s relationship with us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Each year at appointed times, we tell the stories of Christmas, and the stories of Holy Week and Easter. Each year, we hear the stories of God’s call to us to make sure our focus is in the right place – on our relationship with God. Each year we hear the warnings and the promises spoken through Jesus, and through God’s many messengers. But, do we hear and pay attention to the warnings and promises? Or do we ignore them, and go about our daily lives as if they didn’t matter?
Mike and I both love Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” We have several film versions on tape and DVD. And, of course, we have already seen the latest film version at the theater. Dickens is such a masterful story-teller, his story about Ebenezer Scrooge is timeless.
You may recall that Scrooge was a miserly old man, who had little regard for anyone but himself and his obsession of saving money. Poor people should be sent to the jails or the work-houses. His faithful clerk, Bob Cratchitt, never gave up on him, and neither did his nephew, Fred. They both encouraged him to take some time off, to be with family and enjoy the gift and message of Christmas. But, his comment was always, “Bah! Humbug!”
In the story, four messengers appear to him: first, his deceased partner, and then the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. Scrooge does hear the message carried by these spirits, and repents. In the last scenes of the story, he sends food and gifts to Cratchitt’s family, makes sure their son Tiny Tim gets medical care, and joins his nephew at their Christmas celebration.
While Dickens spends little ink on the faith aspect of the story, it is evident in the presence of members of the community seeking gifts for the needy, and in the call for social justice and mercy for all people. It is obviously a story about the need for repentance and a new way of living.
A couple of weeks ago, we read and I preached on a portion of Mark’s version of this Gospel text, now taken from Luke. This text uses changes in nature as the signs of the coming of God’s kingdom. Yet, it comes with a confused timing. This generation will not pass away;, heaven and earth will pass away. So, Jesus, we want to ask – just when is the Kingdom of God coming? Or, has it already come?
And the answer to that is – Yes. We live in an already-not yet time. The reign of God has come; Jesus’ death and resurrection has proven that death is not the final word – the end of our lives in relationship with God. Yet, if this is how God reigns, we’re suffering a lot more than we thought we would!
Jesus has a clue for us, though. He wants us to tell the story – his words will not pass away! So, be careful that you are not distracted by worldly cares, and be on guard to keep your focus on Jesus. Hear the warnings – we tell the stories every year, so we can hear them over and over again. And hear the promises. God-with-us – Emmanuel – has come to dwell with us on earth, never to leave us.
Jesus tells us we are not to be afraid; we are to stand with our heads up, and face the coming of the Son of Man with faith and hope, because we have already been redeemed through his life, death, and resurrection. We can tell the story of how our God defeated the powers of this world for our benefit.
And, since we are Jesus’ hands and feet and mouths – God’s stand-ins, as Desmond Tutu has called us – let us be about telling the story of God’s promises of love and forgiveness. Let’s tell the story in as many ways as we can. We can use words, and decorations, and gifts, and loving relationships, and music to tell the story.
And we can tell the story with our presence in Dunnellon, and as we hand out Angel Food boxes to those in our neighborhood, and as we bring in food for the food pantries, and as we visit the homebound and ill members and friends of the congregation, and as we host three scout groups each week, and as we make quilts and fill shoeboxes and ship them off to help the needy in other places.
Your challenge this week is twofold:
Pay attention to your response to the warnings and promises in Scripture. Do you hear them, and heed them, as Scrooge heeded the warnings of the spirits who came to him? Or do you disregard them and think they are intended for someone else? Can you remember a time in your own life when you were forced to repent and get refocused? Did God have anything to do with that? Have you told someone that story?
And, watch to see how many ways you tell the story of Jesus. Do you buy gifts, because you love someone? Do you share what God has given you with those who have less? Do you seek the opportunity to tell someone why you go to church – telling them your story?
Please pray with me. O Lord, we read story after story of your love for us, through warnings and promises. Help us to hear your story and what it means for our lives; and help us to share your story with someone who needs to hear the promises are for them as well as for us. Amen

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Underestimating Jesus

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Today we celebrate Jesus’ reign in our lives, and we take time to remember the fullness of who he is. We will soon celebrate his birth; during Epiphany we remember Jesus as the revealing of God’s presence among God’s people; from there we move into Lent and prepare our hearts to receive the gift of salvation through Jesus’ suffering and death. With Easter we receive with joy the good news that God is more powerful even than death. All summer and fall we hear once again what Jesus taught his followers. In November, we spend some time contemplating the impact of Jesus life, death, and resurrection on the whole world – the cosmic impact as well as the earthly impact. This morning’s songs tell the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, as we sing one song from each season of the church year, except Pentecost. 

Two thousand years later, after the resurrection, it’s easy for us to look back and wonder why people who lives with Jesus just didn’t get it. But there had never been anyone like him before, they understood him in terms of what they knew. Because of that, people were always underestimating Jesus. They didn’t expect that he would do most of the things that he did; they didn’t expect that he was God incarnate – God with human skin.
At his birth, Mary and Joseph were amazed that people of all sorts came to honor him. Yet his birth caused an emotional earthquake in King Herod, who wanted no competition for his throne. Even so, Herod underestimated God’s power to save the Son.
Even those who lived and traveled with Jesus underestimated him. He taught as one with authority, and did not simply repeat what previous rabbis had already taught.
Often, people asked for healing, and were offered forgiveness – God’s forgiveness – as well as healing. The sick and disabled underestimated what Jesus had to offer them.
The families of the deceased underestimated Jesus’ power over death.
The religious leaders underestimated Jesus’ power to draw a crowd and challenge their authority in peoples’ lives.
In our Gospel passage today, Pilate underestimates Jesus. He tries to understand him in terms of human kingship. “Are you a king? Of what country are you the king, if not the king of these Jewish people?” … We can read between the lines and imagine Pilate’s thoughts: You certainly don’t dress like a king. You don’t act like any king I’ve ever known. Why don’t you claim your authority and your throne? … Later in the conversation, we do know that Pilate said, “You do realize I have the power to save you or to put you to death, don’t you?” But Jesus had a very different throne to claim, and it meant the humiliation of flogging and crucifixion first. Pilate didn’t understand, and continued to underestimate Jesus.
Even the disciples underestimated Jesus. In the upper room, hiding from the religious authorities, they were grieving the death of their friend and teacher. Even though Jesus had told them several times that he would suffer and die and on the third day be raised from the dead, they didn’t believe his words, didn’t believe him.
After his resurrection appearances, however, the disciples tried to understand what had happened and found various ways to explain Jesus to others. The more people believed and became followers of Jesus and the Way that he taught, the more authorities, both religious and political, persecuted the believers. But even they underestimated the power of Jesus to reign on earth.
The persecutions led to a form of writing we call apocalyptic, which means revelation. Apocalyptic writings are often written in code, to protect the author and readers from authorities who would object to what was written. There was in those days no such thing as a free press!
In the vision we know as the book of Revelation,  Jesus reveals himself to John, and through him to the seven churches in Asia Minor. In this vision, Jesus reveals himself to be as divine as the God in Daniel’s vision – the Ancient One. Yet, Jesus also reveals a loving God – One who takes off the robes of divinity and comes down to human level and dies for all of creation.
In this revelation, Jesus is also revealed as the One through whom the earthly powers and principalities will be defeated. It may seem to us that nothing has changed – we still battle evil on a personal scale as well as on a local, national, and global scale. Yet, if we assume that God isn’t paying attention, then we, too, underestimate Jesus’ power.
Those who suffered persecution in the first century read or heard Jesus’ Revelation to John and found comfort and reassurance that God was in charge and Jesus had been victorious over the power of evil and death. If we fail to believe that God will eventually win, we underestimate Jesus. If we fail to recognize that Jesus is Lord, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, all we need, we fail to give Jesus the honor he deserves as God and King of our whole lives.
… There’s another way in which we underestimate Jesus. We underestimate what we are called to do in Jesus’ name. We have been freed from the power of sin and death, and made to be a kingdom, priests serving Jesus and God. That service does not come in the form of the most perfect worship, but in the form of service to those in need. That service to Jesus does not mean only taking care of ourselves and what we like, but seeing to the needs and preferences of others.
Sometimes, we resist letting Jesus be the most important thing in our lives. We’d just as soon have him reign in our lives from a distance. We are sure we can make our own decisions and don’t need God’s help – or interference. But, when we let Jesus guide our lives, and help us make decisions, life goes a lot better because we put our trust and faith in Jesus. We know that Jesus wants what is best for us, because God loves us and cares what happens to us.
Your challenge for this week is to pay attention to how well you let Jesus reign in your lives. Do you even think about Jesus during the week between Sundays? Do you put Jesus’ wishes for you and all God’s people first, or do you push him aside and make your own decisions? In what ways do you underestimate Jesus? In what ways do you intentionally do some things specifically because Jesus wants you to?
Please pray with me. Jesus, you are the portrait of a loving God, who took off the robes of divinity to walk with us on the earth. You reign over all, on earth and in heaven. Forgive us when we underestimate you. You want to reign in our hearts always. Forgive us when we limit your power in our lives. Amen

Sunday, November 15, 2009

God’s plan is for love and forgiveness

Mark 13:1-8: Hebrews 10:11-25

I grew up in the far southern suburbs of Chicago. Whatever we needed to buy was within a few miles of our home, but every once in a while, we went as a family into the Loop. I remember gawking at the height, massiveness, and abundance of the buildings. Many years later, I went to seminary on south side of the city, and went occasionally into the Loop. I still gawked, but then I noticed the beauty and variety of the architecture.
When Jesus’ disciples entered the city, they may have seen the Temple several times each year for festivals, or they may have rarely or even never been in Jerusalem before. Either way, the temple was a striking building, and they commented on it.
Jesus is not impressed by it. Indeed, he predicts that as massive as it is, it will be destroyed. Forty years later, in 70 CE, the temple was destroyed as Roman soldiers put down a Jewish uprising. The people were unable to rebuild it, and 600 years later the followers of Muhammad built al-Aqsa Mosque on the same site. So, it will probably never be rebuilt as it once was.
We can view Jesus’ next comments as prophecy, predicting that the end of the world will come when there are wars and rumors of wars, nations rising against nations, and kingdoms against kingdoms. But I don’t recall a time in history when there were not wars somewhere in the world, and usually many going on at the same time. Jerusalem itself has frequently been the crossroads of war, located where it is between Europe, Asia, and Africa.
And we can’t use earthquakes or famines as predictors of the end of the world either, since there have always been earthquakes and famines. Earthquakes destroyed the al-Aqsa mosque twice before the present building was constructed in 1035. Historically, there have been famines somewhere because of droughts and weather pattern changes, especially now with global warming, but also during the “little ice age” in the Middle Ages. 
I mention this simply to say it is not possible to predict when the end of the world will come, and what that might look like. So, what other lesson can we learn from Jesus’ words? Taken metaphorically, Jesus could be saying that existing structures must be torn down before new things can emerge.
In Jesus’ time, religion revolved around obedience to the religious laws, and around sacrificial worship in the temple. After the destruction of the temple, worship moved to the local synagogue, and people speak of the sacrifice of prayer.
Jesus could also have meant that his followers and those who refused to follow would have to part ways – reflecting that period when early Christians continued to worship with the Jews on the Sabbath, and added their own worship of Jesus on Sunday. After a time, the Jews evicted the Christians from the synagogues – a painful divorce for all.
Jesus means, some things have to be destroyed in order for new things to arise. Paul tells us there is a new creation in Christ Jesus. Everything old has passed away; everything has become new! (2 Cor 5:17) In the new creation, however we can easily observe that there is still a lot of the old ways of living hanging around. We continue to believe we can solve problems by hurting and killing each other. We continue to focus on ourselves – Luther’s definition of sin. Natural forces such as earthquakes and floods haven’t ceased.
Mark’s audience, the first believers to read or hear what he wrote, would have looked around and seen the same conditions: wars, natural disasters, hunger, unemployment, slavery. Perhaps they would have been reassured by Jesus’ words: “do not be alarmed.”
As we continue to study the prophets in the Wednesday class, we are reminded over and over again, that, no matter what is happening, God is in charge. We too can take comfort from those same encouraging words. Do not be alarmed; God is in charge.
Since we are not to be alarmed, and since we haven’t a clue when the end will come and what it will look like, and since it may have already begun – we live in Christ’s new creation – let’s turn our attention to living in the meantime.
The author of Hebrews has some helpful suggestions for us. Let us approach God with a true heart, knowing we have been made clean through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Let us be filled with hope, because God is faithful. And let us provoke one another to love and good deeds, by gathering often to worship and to encourage one another.
I recently saw a portion of an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He mentioned that we are God’s stand-ins. Made in the image of God, we are on earth to use our hands, feet, and hearts to do what God wants us to do with and for each other.
Feeding hungry people is one way that Hope has chosen to show God’s love for all people. Angel Food Ministries provides food for anyone – from the wealthiest to the poorest – with nutritionally balanced food at reduced prices. By opening our doors to invite people in to pick up food, we let them know God loves them, and so do we.
Filling shoeboxes with a lot of small items and shipping them with a copy of the New Testament in the local language lets people around the world know Christians care for them.
When disasters happen, Christians in the US and around the world express God’s love by sending aid, in person, in goods such as food and tents, and in cash.
On a daily basis, we show God’s love to each other with a hug, with a kind word, with a prayer, with a phone call, with a gift.
In all these ways, we are God’s stand-ins.
Since there will always be wars and rumors of wars, we show God’s love by fighting for the freedom of those who are oppressed. Although I strongly object to war, and firmly believe we should use other methods for creating peace, I recognize that others have different opinions.
I am proud that my father fought in WWII, and most happy he survived. I am proud to be an American, where soldiers for centuries have fought to protect my – our – freedom from those who would take it away. Especially valuable is my freedom to worship as I wish.
Wars will not end until people, especially leaders, everywhere learn to love or at least respect each other and begin to communicate well. Old communication patterns must be destroyed so new ones can emerge. If we could get leaders around the world to communicate well, we would be on our way to becoming the world as God first imagined it, the New Creation Jesus died for.
We show God’s love – we are God’s stand-ins – when we use healthy communication patterns. It’s not that hard, but it means breaking old habits. There are four loving things we can all do. First, we can speak directly with each other, instead of about each other. Second, we can check the facts before passing on a story or judging someone. Third, we can remember that forgiveness is at the heart of everything Jesus said and did. Fourth, we can encourage each other, telling them they have done a good job.
Your challenge this week is to imagine a place – a home, a congregation, a community – where everyone loves and encourages each other. Observe when you do or don’t communicate in loving, respectful ways. Spread love, forgiveness and encouragement around and watch them grow and create a new sense of God’s beloved community, even as they destroy the old patterns.

Please pray with me. Gracious God, too often we don’t love each other as you have taught us. We put ourselves and our ideas first, and forget to ask what you want for and from us. Help us to learn new ways, here at Hope, in our homes, in our nation, and in your world. In Jesus’ name, amen

Sunday, November 8, 2009

For all the Faithful Women

1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44

The women in our Bible texts today have no names. Most of the women in Scripture are nameless, and women are mentioned much less often, in comparison to the men. We’ve also talked before about how women have little value in that ancient society. So, if the writers of scripture included a woman in a story, we need to pay attention.
In the case of the widow of Zarephath, she is a foreigner who worships a god other than Elijah’s Lord. Elijah has been sent to her, but she seems to not have received the message that he was coming to her. She and her son are down to the last crumbs of food, and expect to die soon of hunger. When we explore the context of this time and place, we learn the woman would probably have worshiped Baal, who was the god of storms and fertility. The rains brought by the storms are connected to the raising of crops, and the feeding of animals and people. No rain means no food, and that means no life.
When Elijah tells her she is to give him some of the last of her food, she doesn’t argue with him, but feeds him first, as she has been told. And, as promised, the food never runs out. Through this foreign widow, God provides for the prophet, as well as for the woman.
We learn some lessons from this little story. First, the Lord is more powerful than Baal; second, the Lord provides what is needed; third, that God’s provision sometimes comes in surprising ways; and fourth, we often benefit by giving up something we think we need.
In the Gospel text, we have compare and contrast stories. Jesus and the disciples are in the temple, after the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple, and before Jesus’ betrayal and death. Jesus will soon predict the destruction of the temple, and has increased the emphasis he places on the lack of true righteousness of the religious leaders.
In the first story, Jesus describes the scribes as hypocrites, who want others to believe they are super-holy, so they wear long expensive robes and say long prayers. But at the same time they prey on widows and take their houses from them. They are similar to those who have promoted predatory lending practices in the US, and received pay raises and giant bonuses, while the rest of us have less and less to live on, and may lose our houses as a result. The widows Jesus mentions are being taken advantage of, and they deserve justice. The scribes, who think they are so righteous, deserve condemnation.
After this scathing review of the scribes, Jesus sits down on a bench and watches how people put money into the treasury. These were special chests conveniently located all around the women’s court of the temple, so people could easily pay their temple taxes and offerings of various types. Apparently it was possible from the bench to observe how much each person put into the chest.
Perhaps those with a lot to put in take a long time to drop the coins through the slot, or they make an ostentatious show of putting in so many coins. A lot of coins would make a lot of noise as they dropped into the box. It seems Jesus knows what the percentage of their offering was in comparison to what they own. In contrast, the widow puts in two small coins. It wouldn’t take her long to deposit them, nor would they make much sound as they fell. Yet, Jesus looks at her and knows that she has given all the money she had, 100%. She has nothing left. She has given everything she had to the institution whose leaders are likely to take her home away from her.
There are several lessons we can learn from these two stories. The first is that people haven’t changed. There have always been some people who will take as much as they can get, and more. And they will take the last coin from the poorest person in town, if they can get away with it. We also learn that Jesus doesn’t like it when poor people are taken advantage of.
Second, apparently, the widow trusts God a whole lot more than the scribes do. She trusts God to feed, clothe and house her, even though she has no money. The scribes have their wealth and want to keep it and show it off instead of trusting in God to provide for them.
Third, we learn that Jesus knows what is on our hearts. It’s no use in trying to hide it, from ourselves or from God. Jesus can look into our hearts and know what we really think about what we give to God to use for ministry. God knows if we are sharing the most we can, or the least.
And, Fourth, there are consequences – condemnations – for deceptive practices. Just because we think we are righteous – right with God – doesn’t mean God agrees with us. As with the widow of Zarephath, there are benefits to be had for generously giving away what we have and think we need.

In the contemporary congregation, this same scenario plays itself out in familiar ways. Marilyn’s congregation was situated among modest houses, and the membership was mostly people of moderate means. Marilyn was a strong advocate for evangelism, and frequently invited people to knock on doors with her. They focused on the neighborhoods near the church, and gained a few members of modest means.
She and her husband were relatively wealthy, and generous givers. As her congregation struggled to pay its bills, she issued another challenge for people to go out and invite folks to come and worship with her. This time, she added her true thoughts. “For God’s sake, let’s find some wealthy people!”
I, too, have wished for a  millionaire member who believed in tithing, but have yet to encounter one in the churches I’ve belonged to. Yet the poorest people I know believe in giving as much as they can, because they know how hard it is to be poor and they want to help people who have even less. 
I have a pastor friend who has confessed to having to pay attention to the biggest givers in the congregation, and doing what they want him to do, so he can keep his position. As he does that, he realizes he has ceased to serve God, but has been forced to accede to the wishes of wealthy members. His call to serve God has become merely a job in which he serves powerful, pushy people.
And I can point to Women of the ELCA and its predecessor organizations. They all began with a desire to send missionaries to share the good news of Christ, especially overseas. Over time, they also realized their funds were needed in their own neighborhood. My home church in Michigan records several times in its early history when the funds the women had set aside for mission were used to pay the mortgage or other essential bills. And it was with the Women of the ELCA funds that the church kitchen renovation was begun.
Women of the ELCA, locally as well as synod- and church-wide seek to do ministry with and for poor and oppressed people, especially women and children around the world. Through national programs and grants to local organizations, Women of the ELCA works to educate women and children, eradicate poverty, improve lives, seek justice, and share the good news of a loving God with all people.
Using the often nameless women in scripture as their faith models, the women of the church have given of their time, talent, and often limited financial resources to change the world, one woman, one family, one community at a time.
This week, I have two challenges for you. The first: ponder and pray about whether you are more like the widow or more like the scribes as you consider how much to give to ministry in Jesus' name.
And the second: think about the faithful women in your life. For many of you, that will be your mother, grandmother, aunt, or God-mother. For others, it is a friend or neighbor.  Tell someone a story about them, and if they are still living, write them a note to say how much you appreciate them and their influence on you.
Please pray with me: Faithful God, you know our hearts, our strengths and our weaknesses. Draw us closer to you, that we may learn to trust in you more, and learn how well you really do provide for whatever we need. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Remembering the Saints

John 11: [17-31] 32-44
We don’t like to think about it for ourselves, or for our loved ones, but the ratio of death to people is 1 to 1. We will all die, some of us sooner than others.
For some of us, the dying doesn’t scare us; but the process of getting to death sure does. We all want to die peacefully in our sleep. It’s true that many of us will die in our sleep, but that final sleep usually comes after a long, painful illness.
When I talk with families about funerals, I ask about what scripture readings they would like. Sometimes, they know; sometimes they leave it to me. Given my choice, I often choose this passage from John, or even a longer portion, so we hear from Martha as well as Mary. I love how human everyone in this passage is. Let’s examine the text a bit at a time.
Martha and Mary are angry that Jesus didn’t come when they sent for him. At the same time, they are filled with the certainty that he could have prevented the death. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus and Martha have a conversation in which Martha confesses that she believes in the resurrection, though she doesn’t think it applies in this situation.
We, too, have similar emotions. We are angry about something, or anything. Our loved one left us unprepared for life without her or him. The doctors didn’t do as much as they could, or they did too much. Someone didn’t visit or call. We didn’t say good-bye, or say “I love you.” We are filled with “if only’s” and “why’s”. Yet, as believers in the same Jesus, we also have hope that there is something special for each of us after we die.
Jesus begins to weep. There are many reasons why Jesus was weeping. He was filled with sadness at the death of his friend. He saw the sadness, anger, doubt, and hope in the faces and hearts of those who grieved. He was frustrated that they didn’t immediately believe in what he had already promised them. We, too, weep for many reasons; when we grieve; when we see others grieving; when we are angry that other people just don’t get what we are trying to accomplish; when we hope and are filled with joy at the goodness of God.
The onlookers have their own human moments. Some of them notice how Jesus weeps, and they believe it is because he grieves the death of his friend. But, others mock him. “He healed all sorts of people, restored sight to the blind man. Why couldn’t he prevent his friend from dying?” We have such moments as well, when we are grieving. We are filled with tears and emotion at the slightest mention of sympathy. And we sometimes mock someone who doesn’t seem to get over his or her grief as quickly as we think they should.
Martha once again displays her humanity, and her sense of practicality. When Jesus asks that the stone be rolled away, Martha knows there will be an odor of rotting flesh. Un-embalmed bodies decay quickly. In ancient times, human remains were always buried within 24 hours for this reason, and the Jews and many other people today still practice this immediate interment. After four days, the stench would be overwhelming. Martha wonders if Jesus really intends to expose the family and crowd to that much odor.
Our practical concerns influence how we grieve as well. Where will we have the service? How much service do we want? What will it cost? Who will be present, and who can’t make it?  Do we want the body present, or immediate cremation? Do we want the service to be within 3 or 4 days, or a month or two later? How will we even get through it, no matter when we have it?
Jesus reassures Martha, reminding her that they have already talked about this: Good things will come from Lazarus’ death. If only she believed, she would see the glory of God. Do we not reassure one another as we grieve, that the days will get easier, the sadness will not be so heavy, that we will once again feel like living, even though life is different?
Jesus prays, and lets the family and the crowd listen in on his prayers. We pray first that our loved one would not die; or that he will not suffer much, as he dies. Then we pray for ourselves, that we will find comfort as we grieve her absence from our lives. We ask God to heal our hurting hearts.
But Jesus prays for those present to believe in him, and in the power of the God who sent him. He gives thanks that God always hears prayers, and trusts that this prayer will be heard in heaven, as well as in the hearts of those listening to him pray.
And then Jesus does the unthinkable! He calls for Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he does! God/Jesus is more powerful than death. God can bring the dead back to life. For Lazarus, this was a temporary return. We assume that eventually he died of old age. But he knew, as did those who were there and believed, that death is not the final word. There is new life, eternal life, after physical human death.
Even though we weren’t there, we believe the witnesses who told the story. In Chapter 12, there is even mention of a plot to get rid of Lazarus, because word of this amazing deed was spreading around Judah, and Jesus’ fame was growing even more. We believe in Jesus, that he has the power to conquer death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and belief in him gives us the gift of eternal life. Eternal life is whatever lies beyond death, life with God in our new body and our renewed spirit. Eternal life is also life in relationship with God in the here and now, as we trust in God to give us whatever we need.
Today, we remember all those who have gone before us, who lived faithful lives here on earth, and who now rest from their labors. We give thanks for their lives. We call them saints, and remember them. They have joined the feast of victory for our God. We grieve for them, and pray that God will comfort us, even as we go on living without them.

You may have noticed that I have begun inviting and challenging you to tell stories about your own faith life. You may or may not realize that you have a faith story, but anywhere that God’s story, God’s comfort, God’s presence, has intersected with your life – that is your faith story. Commonly, we can tell stories about when we were baptized or confirmed, or changed careers. We can also tell the stories about how God was present – or absent – at crucial times in our lives. For today, your story includes how God helped you through the grief and mourning after someone you loved died.  
Your challenge this week, then, is to remember one of your saints, and to find someone to whom you can tell her or his story. Tell also how God has helped you through your grief. Often, that means God sent loving arms to hold you, or Scripture passages to reassure you, or listening ears to hear your story. God may have sent someone to help you sort our your bills, or helped you get out of the house and back into church and work.
You have probably told these stories before. Try to find someone new to hear your story. As I said last week, if you pray for God to show you that person, he or she will be there for you. Since you are telling your own story, tell it any way you wish, but tell it.

Please pray with me. Dear Jesus, we love how human you are, as we imagine you weeping with grief. We also are amazed at your power, to give life where death has come to us. We ask you to comfort us in our grief, and to grant us greater faith in you, no matter what is happening. Amen

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reformation can cause chaos

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

2500 years ago, the Jewish world was thrown into chaos when the Babylonian army conquered the kingdom of Judah and then Jerusalem and transported most of the population into exile. Jeremiah had warned and warned about dire events about to happen if the people didn’t repent and return to obeying the Lord.

Once in exile, Jeremiah gave some comforting words as well, such as these in our first reading. God’s Law is written on our hearts, so if we turn first to God, all the rest will fall into place. The promise of a new, renewed covenant will result in a faithful people, and a loving relationship between God and God’s people. In the midst of exile and chaos, God’s people heard an encouraging word.

2000 years ago, Jesus renewed the covenant in an entirely new way by telling his listeners over and over again that believing in him led to new life. Their relationship with God did not depend upon the rituals they practiced, but in giving God their hearts, by trusting in Jesus. We don’t know how many people had already come to believe in Jesus before he died, but after his death and resurrection, Luke reports thousands at a time came to faith. In the synagogues and in the Roman Empire, chaos emerged, along with persecutions and dissension.

Perhaps 20 - 25 years after Jesus died and was raised – probably in the years 55 to 56 – Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. In it he reinforces what he perceived as Jesus’ key message. No one will be made right with God by doing the right things or performing perfect religious practices. We are made right with God only through God’s gift of grace through our faith in Jesus. Paul reinforced the message, and in various ways encouraged the believers who found themselves in the midst of uncertain chaos.

500 years ago, the Christian world was thrown into chaos. Father Martin Luther had begun actually reading his Bible and discerned that some of the church’s teachings were inconsistent with what he was reading.

Some of Luther’s key objections were:

- the sale of indulgences – paying for forgiveness of sins

- the requirement that clergy be celibate

- the practice of offering only bread at Holy Communion

- the Scriptures only available in Latin, and kept in the church, so only priests could read it

- the authority of the Pope

Others, like Johannes Hus and John Wycliffe, had tried to reform the church, and been killed for their faith-filled efforts. What made the difference for Luther was Gutenberg’s moveable type printing press, which made Luther’s writings available to the common person. Within days Luther’s articles were in print throughout Europe. And, of course, chaos ensued.

Parishioners responded by leaving what is now called the Roman Catholic Church and a separate church body was formed. As other theologians and scholars, like Zwingli and Calvin, got involved in the reform movement, they had many differences with each other as well, which is why we have so many denominations within Protestantism.

The 1500s were a chaotic, uncertain time in the Church with a Capital “C.” There were wars between Protestant groups and with the Roman Catholics. The various denominations wrote hateful things about each other, refusing to accept each others’ theologies and practices as equally valid. In the midst of the chaos, God’s message of love and grace was still heard and spread abroad. Luther clung to the promises of God to be with him always, and daily reminded himself that he had been baptized. Therefore all would be well, no matter what.

Some of those hateful messages have only been erased in recent years. For example, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed ten years ago by Catholics and Lutherans. This was a major accomplishment, that we were able to find agreement on a key element of Reformation faith: We are justified by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. We are made right with God because God loves and forgives us, and we know this through the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fast-forward to present day Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church in Citrus Springs, FL. You may or may not have observed that the last several months have seemed somewhat chaotic at Hope as well. I have been asked to share with you some comments I made at the last finance committee meeting.

· Income is down, and spending is up.

· Full-time pastors cost significantly more than part-time or interim pastors. Even before people left Hope, the income was not enough to fully support this extra expense, and we were taking money from the cash reserves. We continue to draw down those reserves.

· Cash reserves are finite, and shrinking.

· Spending has been pared to the basic essentials, including utilities.

· Attendance and membership is down, because a number of families have left, for a variety of reasons.

· Some people have returned, who had been inactive for years.

· A few families have joined in participation, if not in membership.

· Most people agree Hope needs a full-time pastor in order to grow and minister the way God is calling us to do.

· New programs are in place, or are beginning: monthly healing service; evening adult Bible study; additional Sunday morning studies; we have learned and come to enjoy new liturgical settings in worship; Jason and Catherine have joined the staff and continue to bless us with their musical gifts; the booth at Dunnellon First Saturday event draws repeat visitors asking for prayers as well as new visitors each month; adult leaders are trying to pull together a youth group; the pastors at Hope, Good Shepherd and St. Timothy are working to see what we can do together, beyond the Women of the ELCA invitational gatherings.

· We love to eat, and a lot of people stay for fellowship after worship, and a good number participate in Round Robin dinners.

· We have begun to do intentional stewardship campaigns, to increase giving as a response to God’s goodness, and as a sign of our trust in God to provide whatever we need. Today, the Stewardship committee hopes you will come back tonight at 5 for a pot luck supper to celebrate the end of the financial campaign.

· We have begun to be more intentional about evangelism: advertising more events; being present in Dunnellon; offering points of entry like VBS, the Pet Blessing and Trunk or Treat.

· When we focus on mission, people and money will come, but it must be in that order. Let me say that again. When we focus on mission, the people and the money will – yes, will! – come.

· One of those missions is already happening. Yesterday was our first pick up of food for Angel Food Ministries. That ministry will bring people into our building, will help feed hungry people, will demonstrate our willingness to serve in the community, will give people looking for ways to volunteer an opportunity to do so, and will share the good news of Jesus Christ in a very tangible way.

· We have a visioning process, called GPS-4-Hope, in place to help us gain focus. We continue to ask “what is our mission in this time and this place?” As part of that process, we want to know what you think Hope does well. In your bulletin, you’ll find a Post-it® or two. Please take a moment to write on the note some things we do well. After worship, please put them on the GPS-4-Hope board in the narthex.

With the uncertainty some folks at Hope are experiencing, we can look to the Scriptures and to God for the same reassurances our forebears in the faith have relied upon. God has not and will never abandon us. We have been called for God’s purposes in this time and in this place. We are called to put our focus on mission and trust that the money will come. It won’t be instantaneous, but it will come.

In the meantime, we are called to trust in God to provide whatever we need, even if that means digging deeper than we thought was possible into our pockets to support the ministries of Hope. In that way we will learn even more to put our trust in God.

When Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, and Luther and the other reformers began to turn the world upside down with their insights, it made their world chaotic, but they stuck to the message: God loves you enough to live and die for you, and this is a free gift. Today, in our chaotic, scary world, the same message holds true.

It’s a message that is different from many of our Christian sisters and brothers. Lutherans read all of Scripture this way: the gift of grace is free and available to all who ask for it. There is nothing we can do to earn it, and it can’t be taken away from us.

Two weeks ago, I invited you to pray about your financial commitment to the mission and ministries of Hope. Now is the time to fill them out and turn them in. If your circumstances change, you can always change your commitment, so please turn one in as you consider all the good ministry Hope does, for, with, and through you.

Remember to fill in your Post-it with a couple things we do well here.

Your challenge for this week is this: As you consider the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given freely to all of us, watch for an opportunity to share it with someone this week. I can promise you that if you pray for God to give you the opportunity, you will have at least one. And, God will put the right words in your mouth, and help the person you are talking with to hear them.

Please pray with me: Holy and Gracious God, we try hard to trust in you, in good times and scary, chaotic times. Forgive us when we struggle and fail to trust. Continue to pour out your blessings on us, now and always. In Jesus’ name, amen

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Trusting God and giving from abundance

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Mark 10:17-31

Amos was living happily in the kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), taking care of sycamore figs and herding sheep when he heard God speaking to him. “Go to Israel (the Northern Kingdom), and tell the people there what I tell you to tell them.” So he went.

The people in Israel were living much as the people of Judah were, with the rich and powerful getting richer and more powerful every day, and the poor getting poorer and more oppressed every day. Amos issues warning after warning to the wealthy people: “Seek the Lord and live, and the Lord will be generous to you. Or continue in your abusive ways and you will be punished.” Amos preached and shouted like this for about a year. Few listened to him, however, and the priests and prophets of the establishment tried to get rid of him. In 721BCE the Assyrians conquered Israel and the people were scattered into exile, never to return.

In the Gospel reading, a rich man approached Jesus. The man first tries to butter up Jesus by kneeling before him. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus engages him in a discussion about obeying the commandments. Well, he’s done all that; he’s been a good boy all his life. Jesus replies, “That’s good. There’s only one more thing for you to do then. Sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor. When you have done that, come and follow me.”

I imagine the rich man had a vision of giving up all the comforts of home. No more soft mattress and comfy chairs. No more servants. No more rich food, cooked by his favorite chef. No more rings and fine clothes. No more fancy chariots. Only one or two simple tunics, sleeping in other people’s homes or on the ground outside, the pot luck of food quickly prepared, walking everywhere. Eternal life was not worth giving up all of the good stuff. Even though he could note give up his belongings, Jesus still loved him. Jesus wanted the best for him – a closer relationship with God. But the man declined the invitation.

We read and listen to these stories and tsk, tsk, because we point our fingers at the wealthy people and compare ourselves with them. Surely, we think, we’re not like them. We don’t have so much wealth; especially lately, we’re just barely hanging on. Our retirement accounts and IRAs took a big hit last year. We’re supporting our children, who are out of work and living in another state. For many of us, such economic uncertainty has been a constant feature of life, and this downturn is nothing new.

But we all know people like the rich man in the Gospel story. A pastor friend tells the story about one of his wealthy parishioners in a previous parish. “Pastor,” the guy begins, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to give as much as I pledged to the church. I’ve had some other expenses come up.” The pastor says, “Oh, that’s OK. I understand how that happens.” They talk for a few more minutes, and the parishioner excuses himself. He walks down the hallway and calls to a friend. “Hey, Joe! Come and look at the new Lexus I just bought for my wife.”

Jesus challenged the rich man to give away his material wealth because he knew the man valued it more than he valued a trusting relationship with God. Jesus would have loved to challenge that parishioner, in the same way.

Jesus challenges us to give out of our abundance, and to not be so attached to what we have that we can’t give it away. When we are so attached to our personal wealth and fine possessions that we fear life without them, we place wealth and possessions higher than God in our lives. Our wealth becomes our God, and we worship wealth, instead of trusting and worshiping God.

October is our financial stewardship campaign. We are being asked to help the finance team and council plan for next year. How much income will we have? What ministries will we fund?

A key question is, how do you decide what you give to the ministries and mission of the church? Some people give proportionately, intentionally offering a percentage of their income to the church. A few people in every congregation I have served give 10% or more.

I started out as a young mom giving a dollar or two whenever I attended church. After a while, I was able to raise my giving to a percentage of my income, and then slowly increased the percentage to 10. This didn’t happen over night, but came through a growing conviction that it was essential for my spiritual well-being. I had to trust God enough to give away 10% of what I received.

Dan, our Arkansas son, once told me he and his wife Sarah learned by experience that they can’t afford not to tithe. Every time they used their offering money for something they wanted, something happened that cost them a lot of money, like car or home repairs. The repairs were always more than the amount they should have given to the church.

How do you decide what to put in the offering plate? In your bulletin, there is a chart which tells how many households give certain amounts each week. I invite you to look at it. If you give monthly or twice a month, your figures are converted into monthly amounts. We see that 15 families give less than $5 a week, and 15 families give between $5 and $9 a week. The higher the giving amount, the fewer families there are. 2 families give $150 or more a week to the church.

Where are you on the chart? Are you giving as much as you can? One way to think of giving an offering is to give until it feels good. Does the amount you give make you feel good? If every penny you receive is budgeted for expenses, and you are giving everything you possibly can to the church, God knows this, and blesses you for it. You should feel good about your generosity.

If the amount you give does not make you feel good, what can you do? Could you move to the next step in giving and not miss too much? For example, if you give less than $5 a week, could you give between $5 and $9? Could you even make that $10 a week, and jump two steps on the giving chart?

You might look for ways to rearrange your budget to increase your giving. One family has told me that they have chosen to give up one meal out a week, and are putting what it costs them in the offering plate.

Another suggestion is to try for one month to give a higher amount. At the end of the month, you can evaluate how it felt to give the higher amount, and if you missed the money you gave. When we trust God with our whole lives, including our finances, we feel so much better about ourselves and our choices, we really don’t miss what we’ve given away.

I know there are a lot of generous people here, based on the number of gift cards I receive, each time I ask for them to help the poor. Many of you frequently bring in food for the food pantries. You happily fund youth events and Vacation Bible School, and you fill and support the Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes.

Jesus calls us to recognize the abundance God has given us, and to give out of our abundance. When we look at everything we have, home, car, furniture, job, retirement income, family, friends – everything – as God’s gift to us, it’s easier to share those gifts with others.

On October 25th, we’ll have a potluck dinner as a celebration of our stewardship campaign. We hope to have every family’s estimate of giving card turned in then. Your challenge for the next two weeks is to not quickly decide how much you will put in the offering plate each week, but to pray hard about your decision. Open your hearts to God, and seek to trust God with all that you receive from God’s bounty. If you have already turned in your packet, you can submit a new one if, after praying for two weeks, you decide to raise your gift to the church.

Please pray with me. God of abundance, we often take for granted your gifts to us. Help us to share them with others as generously as you share your gifts and your very life with us. Amen

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Goodness and Brokenness

Genesis 2:18-24; Mark 10:2-16

The world God created was good. The first chapter of Genesis says that repeatedly, like a congregational response. “And God saw that it was good.” That the man was lonely was not good, so God created animals, and then a woman, to be companions for the man. God established rules for the man and woman, restricting them only from eating the fruit of one tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The rules were to protect the humans from harm.

However, God created the man and the woman with the ability to disobey, and we know it wasn’t long before they did just that. They were enticed by the serpent to eat of the forbidden tree. When God called on the man and woman, they hid themselves, because they were ashamed of their actions.

God established punishment for the man and woman, and for the serpent, who would from then on crawl and slither on the ground. The man and woman would suffer for their disobedience, pain in childbirth for her, and hard labor in working the ground for him. They were cast out of the garden God created for them, never to return.

Within three chapters of the creation story, the relationship between humans that began so perfectly was already broken, and so was the relationship between humans and God.

Throughout scripture there are stories of broken relationships. Human relationships within the Israelite family are often broken. The larger the family grows, the more the relationships are torn apart. At the same time, the relationship between people and God is also stressed, as covenant after covenant is broken by the humans.

For example: It’s not hard to imagine the conversations between Abraham and Sarah as they waited twenty-five years for the promised child to be born. … Abraham didn’t trust God to give him and Sarah a child, so he had a child with Sarah’s maid Hagar. It’s not hard to imagine those conversations, either. … Sarah kicked Hagar and the child out of the house. The resulting broken relationship is still seen today, in the broken relationship between Jews and Muslims. Broken relationships between humans put challenges on the relationship between God and humans.

As Moses and others crafted the Torah, God’s instructions for living, often translated as the Law, they provided for a man to divorce a woman. Little provision was given to the woman, so she might survive on her own, and even less provision seems to have been made for a woman to divorce her husband. You may remember that women were only slightly better than children; they were property, to be owned or cast off by men, at will, with only a piece of paper. The woman’s dowry may or may not have been returned. She was just a piece of property, after all!

By the time of Jesus, the Greek and then Roman culture had surrounded and invaded the Jewish culture. Divorce was a common feature of life in Roman society, and women were often the ones to ask for it. The Jewish leaders ask Jesus about divorce. What, they want to know, does he think? Is he Jewish or Roman in his understanding of divorce? His response is to expand the Jewish definition of adultery. Now, not only does the divorced woman commit adultery if she remarries, but also the divorced man. The Jewish leaders – all men – must have been shocked at this new interpretation!

Because of Jesus’ comment, for centuries, divorce has been frowned on by the church, but it still happened. In recent decades, divorce has lost its stigma, and become a common reality in- and outside of the church. It’s just one obvious aspect of human brokenness.

There’s no denying it is a painful process, from the first stirrings of discontent, to broken expectations, to deciding to separate, to telling the family, to going to court and coming to an agreement on property settlement, to custody issues, to moving out and moving on. After the divorce, there’s still the resentment, the broken dreams, the chance encounters, the custody issues, the economic issues, the learning to live alone, the learning to love and trust again. Some people find healing and hope; some never quite recover. The whole family, several generations of the family, and friends, and many others are affected by one couple’s divorce.

There are many other places of brokenness. Girls as young as nine or ten are sold into the sex slave trade. Murder takes the life of people every day. Illegal drug use is a major industry, putting millions (billions?) into the pockets of drug czars. Financial mismanagement (to say the least!) has stolen billions – perhaps trillions of dollars from our own pockets and caused the poverty of millions of previously employed persons. Many denominations – all branches of Christ’s one Body, the Church – are at war within themselves over issues of sexuality, of leadership, of control. Abuse of the world God created as good has destroyed not just the scenery but the health and welfare of countless people.

With all our brokenness, we might expect that God would simply throw up the divine hands and give up on us. Or send a worldwide tsunami to wash us all out to sea and start over. But, that’s not what God did. God sent the Son to show us how to treat one another, and to assure of God’s grace – God’s unmerited forgiveness.

God welcomes us, even with our brokenness, the same way Jesus welcomed the children on that day, with open arms! Feeling the open-armed welcome of Jesus heals us, heals our brokenness, and challenges us to seek ways to heal the world around us.

Your challenge this week is to seek to welcome others as Jesus would. Who around you needs a word of encouragement? Who around you needs a hug? Who around you needs your prayers? Who around you needs food?

Here’s a more specific challenge: Vic asked us to sign up to help with Angel Food Ministries. Can you help take orders? Can you answer the phone calls? Can you help pick up the food from Crystal River? Can you help distribute the food once a month?

Please pray with me. God of mercy, you created us good, but we so often disobey the rules that are meant for our benefit. Forgive us. Give us enthusiasm for ministry, for reaching out to those in need: of a hug, of a kind word, of a meal, that we may do whatever we can in your name. Amen