Sunday, December 25, 2011

Spreading the Light

John 1:1-14

The beginning of John’s Gospel is called the Prologue. It’s designed to set the theme for the entire Gospel. The message of John’s Gospel is simple but powerful: Jesus is God; and belief in Jesus brings us into a relationship with God, which John calls eternal life.
More specifically, our text make it clear that Jesus is God’s Word – through the Word God spoke everything into being; and Jesus’ presence brings powerful light to counter the darkness that is present in the world.
This is awe-inspiring poetry, and at the same time very different from the sweet stories that describe Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke. John is much more concerned about the reason for Jesus’ presence on earth than in giving Jesus’ biography.
John uses the image of Light to symbolize Jesus’ power. Light is very powerful; even one lit candle in a dark room breaks the power of the darkness. If we want absolute darkness, we have to work very hard to block all the light from getting into the room. Light seeps into the darkest spaces, just as God’s power and presence work their way into our world.
Through our ministry in Jesus’ name we spread God’s light into many places, especially into the darker corners of our world.  Consider the light we spread in these situations.
Betty – a generic name, not anyone in particular – is a single mother trying her best to raise several children, not all of them her own. Working poor families have little extra in the family budget to buy gifts and extra food for holiday celebrations. Betty struggles to make rent payments, and put gas in the car to get to work. She works hard to spread Food Stamps and Food Pantry allowances out to last all month to feed her family. Medical expenses, car repairs, growing children, and such put great stress on the family budget.
When churches like ours purchase Christmas gifts, we help Betty keep current on her bills as well as provide gifts for her children who were looking at a gift-less Christmas. Instead, knowing that there are one or two gifts under the tree for each child makes the light shine in Betty’s eyes. Just like children with a dozen gifts, her children want to hold, shake, peek, and try to guess what is in each package. Jesus’ light shines in the darkness of their poverty through our generosity.
Children all around the world have even less that the working poor in our country. In addition, they may never even have heard of Jesus!
Imagine the joy on Denny’s face as he unpacks his shoebox. There is stuff in it he needs – he really likes the feel of clean teeth so he is excited to find toothpaste and a toothbrush along with the stuffed bear. He cuddles the bear all day and sleeps with it every night for the next two years.
The simple gifts we send in Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes shine Jesus’ light in places of extreme hardship and gives their families the opportunity to learn about Jesus from strangers thousands of miles away.
In modern Israel, those who are not Jewish find life a challenge. It’s difficult for Palestinian Christians; even harder for Palestinian Muslims. Unemployment is high, about 25%. Augusta Victoria Hospital in Bethlehem is a place that works hard to make life a little easier for Palestinians. They train nurses, office workers, custodians, kitchen help, and others, so out-of-work people can get job skills and find employment or even create their own small businesses. They use some of their land for soccer fields, so youth have a safe area and opportunities for recreation and exercise.
Miriam is a breast cancer patient who lives in the Gaza Strip, 50 miles and two unfriendly borders away, where medical care is limited and medications are in short supply. Miriam has learned that she can get inexpensive housing so she can stay in Bethlehem for the weeks or months of treatment without having to cross multiple barriers several times a week in order to get the medical care she needs.
Augusta Victoria Hospital is using a holistic approach to health care, and changing lives for thousands of people. The Hospital shines Jesus’ light on Miriam and on all who need care, no matter what their faith is. We here in Florida are part of their ministry, because the hospital is a ministry of the ELCA.
We hold our candles high on Christmas Eve and shine our light – Jesus’ light – into the darkened sanctuary. We don’t need candles to shine Jesus’ light far and wide every single day with the simple gifts we offer those in need in many ways. Jesus’ light shines through us into homes in our community, into homes in Haiti, Africa, Asia, and South America, and in Augusta Victoria Hospital in Bethlehem, in modern Israel.
Please pray with me. Light of the world, we pray with all the Bettys, Dennys, and Miriams in the world for your light to shine with holy power, and banish the darkness forever. Shine through us, that all may know you and your love for them. Amen

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pondering and Treasuring the Gift of the Son

Luke 2:1-20

Each time we read a familiar passage from Scripture, we can see and hear it in new ways. Different words or phrases cause us to stop and think about the text differently. As we heard the story about Jesus’ birth tonight, which verses stand out for you? As I’ve prepared to preach, I’ve been thinking about this verse: “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
I imagine that Mary – like most mothers – remembered many of the moments of her pregnancy, living them over and over again, sharing them with Joseph, and with the trusted women in her life. Nine months gives us all plenty of time to treasure and ponder God’s ways in our lives.
She treasured the coming of the angel, to announce her pregnancy with a special child, the Son of God, sent to be the Savior of the world, and pondered what it would mean as the child grew up.
She treasured telling Joseph about the pregnancy, and how hard it was for him to believe her at first. She treasured Joseph’s story about the angel who told him the baby was God’s plan. And together they pondered how to raise a child to be the Son of God.
She treasured her memory of visiting Elizabeth, who also was pregnant in a miraculous way, with a child God sent for God’s purposes. She and Elizabeth pondered together why God had chosen them instead of some other women, and sang together Mary’s song: My soul magnifies the Lord.
She often pondered the questioning looks and remarks she got from her neighbors when she and Joseph married so quickly. And she pondered what would come of her child, born into such a judgmental world.
She treasured the first time she felt Baby Jesus move in her belly, and treasured the changes to her body as Jesus grew and grew inside her.
She pondered the decision to travel with Joseph, even though she could have stayed in Nazareth with her mother. Each mile they traveled made her question their decision more and more. But, perhaps they decided together that the child needed to be born in Bethlehem, and the only thing to ponder was why they waited so long to go there.
She quickly forgot the pain of childbirth as she cuddled her new baby. As she held her child, the child promised by God, she pondered what he would be like as he grew. She remembered the song she sang as she praised God for the new world to come, and sang it again for her new baby. My soul magnifies the Lord.
After the shepherds came and told their own story of angels, Mary treasured the joy it brought to them to hold the new baby, and pondered with renewed hope and faith just what would become of her child.
When the Magi came and paid homage to her child, she treasured their gifts, and pondered how they would use them in years to come.

What are you treasuring and pondering tonight? Are you pondering the worries that beset all of us? Are you pondering how to pay for your Christmas gifts? Are you pondering how long your good health will last? Are you pondering what will become with your children and grandchildren? What else are you pondering?
Are you pondering and treasuring how much God loves you – yes, even you? Are you treasuring and pondering the hope that Jesus came to earth to give human voice to God’s heart? Are you pondering and treasuring that you – yes, even you – are worth dying for?
In the midst of your worrying and pondering, remember also to treasure and ponder the miracle of the birth of God’s Son.
Imagine holding him the way Mary did, cuddling him, loving him, pondering what his coming means for you.
Ponder trusting him to love you as much as he loves Mary and Joseph.
Treasure that love as you go through each and every day.
Please pray with me: We praise you, O God, and give you thanks for the gift of Jesus, your Son. Help us to treasure all that you give to us, especially your love, and share your love in ways that helps others ponder your gifts as well. Amen 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mary’s song for those in the middle

Luke 1:46b-55

Today’s psalm is the text from Luke we call Mary’s Song, the Magnificat. In Latin, the song begins magnificat anima mea dominus -- in other words, my soul magnifies the Lord. Mary sings this song as she meets with her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the child who will be known as John the Baptist. Mary and Elizabeth share the joy and burden of bearing children chosen by God for God’s special purposes.
Mary praises God for bringing the world a new order of right-ness. In this new world order, there is plenty for everyone, and no one has too much. Everyone has enough to eat, enough of whatever they need to thrive in their community. More importantly, no one has too much; especially no one has too much power over anyone else. Justice is administered fairly to all. Those who have too much power will be toppled from their positions.
What do you think of when you read and hear this passage? If you are a poor person, an abused or oppressed person, you cheer loudly and shout, “Bring it on! It’s about time for some good news.” If you are among the wealthy and powerful, you feel threatened and become defensive. You state very firmly, “No way!” and “Over my dead body!”
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We have enough to be comfortable, don’t often feel oppressed, and know we can make choices for ourselves. So, we feel a bit like outsiders when we hear this text. It doesn’t seem to apply to those of us in the middle. But, maybe it does apply to us, after all. Perhaps the goal of this song is to urge us into action, to make sure there are no inequities anywhere.
In the 1960’s, the Civil Rights movement was a powerful expression of the need to end oppression for African American people. Especially in the south, but not just in the south, Black people had very little power. Separate drinking fountains, the least desirable places on the bus, little access to good education and libraries, limited access to decent jobs and livable wages, lynchings and obviously unjust trials. Amazingly, African Americans still sang praises to God, while at the same time begging for relief from such oppression.
Whether you agree or disagree with the Occupy Movement in the US today, it reminds me of the Civil Rights Movement. Today’s mostly non-violent demonstrations call for justice in the banking and financial arena, and reform in the ways elected politicians run the country. The sometimes violent response to the Occupy Movement also reminds me of the response to non-violent Civil Rights demonstrations. Those in power are working hard to retain their power over those who have a lot less power.
Mary’s Song encourages us to take action to ensure that all people have access to justice in all aspects of life. We all experience injustices – whether they are perceived or actual – just about every day. Someone zips into the last parking space at Winn Dixie from the wrong direction; someone complains that they have been waiting longer than we have to see the doctor; our neighbors have walked away from paying the mortgage on their house on our street so they could get a new one at a bargain price; our new boss is more of a jerk than the last one; the amount in our pension account continues to drop as the stock market struggles to recover.
We also have at least as many opportunities to offer justice to others. We can let a mom with small children go ahead of us in the grocery check-out line; we can open the door for someone else; we can say, “God bless you,” instead of the words we want to speak to certain drivers on the highway; we can purchase items for the needy families we have sponsored for Christmas; we can write letters to our congresspersons asking for justice and reform; we can notice when something isn’t fair, and seek to do something about it.
I want to read this text from Luke again, and as you hear it, I invite you to open your heart to let God speak to you. When does your soul proclaim God’s greatness? How could the hungry be filled with good things? Who needs to hear this promise of mercy?

Luke 1:46b-55 (From Words for Worship, copyright 2011 Augsburg Fortress. )

46bMy soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
          47my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
          From this day all generations will call me blessed;
49you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
          and holy is your name.
50You have mercy on those who fear you,
          from generation to generation.  
51You have shown strength with your arm;
          and scattered the proud in their conceit,
52casting down the mighty from their thrones
          and lifting up the lowly.
53You have filled the hungry with good things,
          and sent the rich away empty.
54You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
          to remember the promise of mercy,
55the promise made to our forebears,
          to Abraham and his children forever.  

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ

Mark 1:1-8
Last Monday I asked a question in our Bible study class. After we read this text from Mark, I asked, “Where would you begin telling the story of Jesus?” We had a lively discussion as we looked briefly at the beginning of all four gospels and shared our own ideas. After class, I decided to try asking the congregation the same question, so I send an email to everyone I have an address for. I didn’t phrase the question clearly in the email, so some of you may have been confused and not known what I was asking.
I received several responses which were as varied as the ideas shared in the class. I thank those of you who took the time to respond. It’s something I have wanted to try and this was a good opportunity. I’ll do it again soon.  
·         Everyone’s favorite is the sweet reading from Luke which we hear every year at Christmas Eve worship. Many families also have the tradition of reading it together on Christmas Eve. So, for most of us, it is what the Christmas story sounds like. And the Christmas story is the place to begin telling Jesus’ story.
·         A few folks mentioned the story from Matthew, which includes the appearance by the angel to Joseph, and the visit of the Magi. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us Jesus is a Jew, and Matthew seeks to prove that he is the Messiah they have been looking for. This is also a good place to begin Jesus’ story.
·         Several folks said they would start with John’s “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s beginning is cosmic. Jesus was there at the beginning; he has always been with God, and he is God.
·         Some people said they knew little about Mark and wanted to learn more about his way of telling the story. So, starting with something we know less about would be a new place to begin Jesus’ story.
So, let’s look at what Mark does say. Mark’s very first word in Greek – the original language for this text – is “arche” which means beginning, or first, or highest. (In English, we think of archbishop, archaeology, arch enemy, archangel.) This leads us to consider the other books in Scripture that begin the same way. In the book of Genesis, in Hebrew, the very first word is “Bereishit” – which means “in the beginning.” By starting his Gospel with the same word, “In the Beginning,” Mark is saying, “This is a new beginning. This is a new relationship with God.” We also see here a strong connection with John’s Gospel, which was written about 30 years after Mark’s Gospel.
In Mark, there is no story about a baby, no visiting angels, no shepherds, no Magi. John the Baptist is not related to Jesus. Mark jumps right into the story with a declaration: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From the very first word of the story, the reader knows the point of telling the story. Jesus is the Son of God, and that’s good news.
After this announcement, Mark tells us about John the Baptist, who came to announce this good news. “Repent and get ready!” “Make everything as easy as possible for the one who is to come. He is powerful, and worthy of honor.” As important as the people around him think John is, he claims he is not even worthy of washing the muck of the road off of Jesus’ feet as he enters the house.
It’s important to look at the beginning of any story – and then to see how the story ends, because then we know how to read what happens in the middle. In the case of Mark, the story begins with the proclamation of a new beginning and ends at the empty tomb. The women leave the graveyard amazed and terrified. They head toward the Galilee, where Jesus has promised to meet them.
There are several endings for Mark, as ancient editors tried to make the ending match the other gospels. But we should respect Mark’s intent. His purpose for ending the story the way he did is to demonstrate that the story of Jesus goes on, into the Galilee, around Israel, around the Mediterranean Sea, and around the world.
After 2,000 years, the story has still not ended. It continues through us. The story of God’s relationship with us began with creation, continued with the Flood, the family of Jacob, the Exodus, the Exile and return. The story of God’s relationship with us took a new direction with the coming of Jesus on earth, whether we start the story with his birth, with his first appearance on the scene with John the Baptist, or with the beginning of time.
Defining where to start the story helps us explain to ourselves and to others who Jesus is in our lives. What’s important for us is the impact a relationship with God through Jesus makes in our lives.
Mark chose to begin with what it means for us that Jesus came to earth. For him, it was not essential to tell the stories of his birth. For Mark, the presence of Jesus meant a new beginning to the relationship between humans and God, based on forgiveness. This word of grace was being brought by none other than the Son of God, so it can be believed as absolutely true.
This week, I invite you to ponder where you would start telling the story of Jesus’ birth. Would you begin with the birth stories, with his appearance on the scene with John the Baptist, or with the creation? As you define the story, are you telling it to people who already know Jesus? Or to people who have never known him? Which details are necessary, and which can be left out, as you seek to tell the story?
Please pray with me. God of mercy and power, you came to us as your beloved Son, the very human Jesus, to make it clear how much you love us and want to share your forgiveness with us. Help us to hear your story and make it our own, so we may share it with others. Amen

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

The Prayer of the Day begins ‘Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.’ So often in our lives we cry out to God: Hear me! Come to me now! Why are you not here with me?! Today’s scripture passages scream out with longing for God to make God’s presence and power known and felt.
The situation in our passage from Isaiah the prophet speaks to God for the people. The Judeans, the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, have returned from exile in Babylon. They hoped to pick up life where they and their parents and grandparents left off 50 years ago, but it was not to be. Their land was filled with weeds, the vineyards and olive gardens were overgrown and untended, their buildings were flattened, the protective walls around the city were just piles of rubble, and the temple – which Solomon had built – was destroyed.  
Things were so bad, the people as a whole grumbled to God. We have here in Isaiah’s text a lament about how bad things were. This writing is 2500 years old, but it’s as fresh as if we were speaking it today. The people cry out for God’s powerful presence as the Israelites had experienced it in the past: manna, water from a rock, pillars of smoke and fire, a voice speaking from the heavens. But God seems to be absent, so the people are looking for reasons and answers.
They blame God – ‘You were absent, so we sinned.’ And they ask for forgiveness. ‘We recognize our sin and we repent.’ ‘After all, you are our God; you are our Father. We are your children and we need your help. So, now, act like our parent and help us!’ In other words: Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!
Working together, under the leadership of Nehemiah, the people were able to rebuild their city, their walls, and their temple. They restored the vineyards and olive gardens, and reshaped their religion with a focus on obedience to God’s commandments so they would never again be conquered and taken into exile. But the leaders’ focus became obedience to the rules, instead of caring for the poor and needy among them.
Five hundred years later, two thousand years ago, the time was right for God to act. The people needed a new direction for their faith practices, the Romans were very oppressive, and the people were crying out for help. They called out: Stir up your power, O God, and come to us! They were looking for smoke and fire and earthquake, not a human infant. They were looking for a leader like Moses to free them from Roman slavery. They were looking for a military hero, like King David. They did not want to hear what the prophets like Amos, Micah, and Ezekiel had to say about caring for the needy. They were not looking for God to be born as an infant.
The Gospel of Mark was written in the middle 60s, probably during the Jewish Revolt against Rome, but before the destruction of the city and the temple in 70. Once again, conditions were terrible in Jerusalem. The city was under siege, and Jews and Christians were joining the revolt, hoping that God would notice their fight and come to help them. They, too, were hoping for God to show up with smoke and fire and power to defeat the Romans. They were crying out, Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!
However, Jesus’ message in this passage is that humans cannot make God to do what humans want. God’s plans are God’s plans. God’s timing is God’s timing. The little story of the fig tree tells us that: Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem in the spring, and the fig trees do not yet have leaves and fruit buds. When it is the right time, they will sprout and grow and produce fruit, but only at the right time, God’s time. As people who love figs, we can only watch and wait for the fruit.
And we can only watch and wait for God’s activity. In every era, in every age, every century, people have cried out, Stir up your power, O God, and come to us! Now, as we face serious illness in our individual lives, and as we face economic meltdown, and as our elected – wealthy – politicians play games with Social Security and Medicare, and as wars go on and terrorists continue to plot against us, ... now, we think, would be a good time for Jesus to come. We cry out with those of every time and every place, ‘Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!’
Yet, I wonder. Would we notice Jesus if he did return? How would he come to us today? As an illegal immigrant? As a demonstrator in the Occupy Movement? As a starving infant in Africa? As a Palestinian living in Bethlehem? As a neighbor in need? As a homeless person living in the woods in Citrus County?
Would we notice Jesus as a neighbor with a casserole dish? As a fellow parishioner offering a ride? As a cashier with a kind word? As a stranger offering love when we thought life was hopeless? As a family member offering forgiveness? Would we know Jesus even if we were actively watching and waiting for him to return?
Let’s remember that God doesn’t do what we expect but what God know is best. When we cry out, ‘Stir up your power, O God, and come to us!’ Jesus actually does come to us. He comes through the Holy Spirit present in many of the people we encounter every day. He is present in the people who need us and reach out their hands to us, and in the people who reach out to us and help fulfill our needs.
They may not be what we were looking for, but they are God’s response to our cry for help. They are all instances of God responding and coming to us with power. God comes to us in God’s time, in ways that surprise us. Our job as believers is not to try to predict when he will come again, but to watch and wait for all the ways he is already present among us now.
Please pray with me. Stir up your power, O God, and come to us! Amen 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Generous Collection

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
We know that letters were sent back and forth between Paul and the churches because some of the letters we have from Paul are his responses to their correspondence. We have no copies of those letters to Paul, but we can make assumptions of their content based on what Paul wrote. We have no way of knowing, but perhaps several people from a congregation wrote letters to Paul.
Paul’s letters would have been read aloud in the worship gatherings. They would have been studied for lessons to learn about Jesus and about living a life of faith. Paul’s letters offer encouragement to remain faithful to his understanding of what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection meant. His letters stress the importance of not believing different interpretations. They call for repentance when the believers’ practices have been unfair to some of the believers. Paul’s letters also demonstrate a strong bond between himself and certain named individuals, like Priscilla and Aquila, Junia, and Clement.  
I imagine how some people might have responded to what we know as Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. Since Paul had lively, respectful relationships with women as well as men, this letter is from a woman named Mary.

Mary, blessed by Christ Jesus, a member of the community of believers in Corinth,
To the Apostle Paul, called to share the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you.

Your letter to us has been read many times, and I am so grateful for the message it brings. I am bold enough to write because of your encouragement to all of us to use the gifts God has given us for the common good. I believe God has given me the gift of caring deeply for others and I have committed myself to using that gift as well as I can, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
You know my history and how you rescued me from a life of using other people to make money for myself. You assured me that there was forgiveness and peace in believing in Christ, and I have found that to be true. I am so grateful for this new life of faith that I have given up my old ways altogether. I love being able to share the fortune that I earned in my former life with people in real need.
I have told many of my friends about Christ Jesus and they have also come to believe in him. The knowledge that God loves them and forgives them has given them a new life. They are able to endure much hardship because of their faith.
Unfortunately, many believers in Jesus have been forced out of their families – who still believe in the Roman gods – and are now homeless. I have opened my home to offer them shelter and a place at my table. They do not go hungry here. I cannot give a home to everyone, but I am so thankful to be able to share what I have. I have learned what a blessing it is to be generous.
I am reminded of your request for a collection for the people of Jerusalem. The collection is to help people in circumstances similar to what we are experiencing, only in larger scale; hundreds of believers driven from their homes and their jobs and their families, all because they have faith in Jesus, the Son of God.
The believers living in my household agree that we should make a generous donation to them. We have all shared as much as we can, and more than most of us can really afford. We share with joy and thanksgiving what we know God has first given us. It is not ours to keep, but ours to share with those in need.
Added to the gifts from the other believers here in Corinth, there will be a large sum from us for you to carry to the believers in Jerusalem. In addition to these gifts, we hold the people in Jerusalem in our prayers both night and day. We pray for their comfort, their safety, and that they may remain faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ.  
We also pray daily for you, giving thanks for you and Titus and Sosthenes for the blessings you have given us in the name of Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Greet them for us, and greet our sisters and brothers in Macedonia and elsewhere as you travel and share the good news with all who will listen.
May God keep you safe and in peace.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sheep and goats and gold stars

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday; it’s also called Reign of Christ Sunday. I like the term Reign of Christ because it makes it more clear to me – and I hope you – that Jesus Christ rules over all of life, over all of creation.
It’s the last Sunday of the church year, so it gives us a chance to think about who Jesus is from birth ... to death ... to resurrection ... to ascension. Our hymns today come from most of the seasons of the year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The choir anthem gives us the sense of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, from the season of Pentecost.
Today is also the last Sunday of what many call the “green season,” a time for growing in faith and knowledge. For six months we have had green paraments and studied what Jesus wants to teach us. Our readings from Matthew have both assured us and challenged us all summer.
Jesus’ teaching brings us surprises. Earlier in the church year, during Epiphany, we read and thought about the Beatitudes: blessed are those who are poor, meek, grieving, persecuted. “What?!” we ask ourselves, “how can those outsiders be the blessed ones?”  
In this passage from Matthew, Jesus describes a scene of judgment, with the sheep and the goats being sorted from one another. The sheep inherit the kingdom/reign of God, and the goats are sent to the eternal fire of the slaughterhouse. Very simply, in Jesus’ message here, the sheep do ministry to and with those in need, even if they don’t know they are doing it, and the goats don’t see the ministry at all.
We usually assume that we are the sheep, the chosen ones, and that those other people are the unlucky goats, on their way to the slaughterhouse. We like to determine for ourselves that certain people are goats, and that they could not possible be loved by God the way we sheep are loved.
But what if our very assumption of sheep-ness makes us goats? Whether we like it or not, that is what Jesus is saying in this passage. Jesus is the one who does the sorting, not us humans, no matter how much we want that job for ourselves.
It’s easy to think that the more we do in Jesus’ name, the more God will love us, the more Jesus will call us his sheep. But if we are doing those actions in order to add gold stars to our score card, Jesus says, that’s not the way it works. That’s part of what could make us be goats. Our good deeds are to be done “just because” in response to God’s love for us.
For example, the other night, I was at a dinner party at a friend’s home. While we were finishing our meal, some members of the friend’s family arrived. They were spending the night on their way to a football game the next day. As we ate our dessert, the family members filled the dishwasher with all our dirty dishes. They weren’t hoping to gain gold stars in the family system; the dishes were there, they needed to be done, and they did them. It was a simple act of love and kindness.
There’s a lot of focus in our culture about getting into heaven. People ask us, “Have you been saved?” “Will you make it into heaven?” So, we wonder, how do we know if we have done enough to make it into heaven?
Jesus’ answer for that is: it’s not up to us. We will be judged. That’s made clear in this text, and implied in the Beatitudes. But the judgment is not based on how hard we tried to do the right things; it’s based on how authentically we have loved God and passed on that same love to God’s people.
Even more than that, we are judged by Jesus, who was born as a human child; who lived, preached, fed, and healed; who challenged the powers that be and changed the way people think about God. He was crucified, died, and buried; resurrected, and ascended in order to prove with his own life just how much God loves us and wants us to return that love. It is this Jesus who judges us, who wants us to be with him as we live and love, and after we die, still in that love.
In response to God’s love, we love others. Most of us are familiar with the ministry Mother Teresa of Calcutta did. She went into one of the poorest places in the world and gathered in the sickest people in order to care for them with dignity as they died. She did this ministry in the name of Christ, and told us she saw Jesus in the face of every person she encountered. After she died, it was revealed that she did this ministry in spite of a feeling of Jesus’ absence for much of her life. Mother Teresa ministered to needy folks because they needed to be cared for, not to score gold stars with God.
We do that too. We fill shoeboxes and we give to needy people in the community because we love Jesus and he has taught us to pass on what we have with those in need.
Like Mother Teresa, we try to see Jesus’ face in the faces of those we help, too. We try to see Jesus in the faces of the children who receive shoeboxes, and in the faces of the needy folks who come to us for help. Those faces are filled with joy at the way we care for them, and we hope they can see Jesus’ face through us, too.
We don’t do these ministries because we want God to give us gold stars; we do them because there are needy people and we can help them. This is why Jesus, our King, our Ruler, and our Judge will call us his sheep.
Please pray with me: Jesus, you are our king and our judge. Be merciful to us, and help us be your sheep. Amen 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fear or reverence?

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 5:1-12
I love the movie The King and I. At one time I knew all the words to all the songs and could visualize each scene. Some of them connect to the topic for today. There’s the scene when Anna meets all the children; they parade into the room and form rows, each bowing to the ground, looking like so many little frogs lined up. And there’s the scene where the King insists that Anna’s head should always be lower than his, and he gradually gets on the floor himself, so she will bow down to him the way his subjects do.
While the King’s family and subjects respect him, there’s also a great sense of fear. The King’s anger is fierce, and he expects total obedience from his subjects. One touching story line is about Tuptim, the new young wife of the King, and Lun Tha, the man from her village, whom she loves. Lun Tha and Tuptim run off together; they are found and Tuptim is returned to the palace. She learns that Lun Tha’s body has been found floating in the river, and assumes she will be executed soon, too. It is right to fear this king.
... The book of Revelation was written about 90 CE, at a time when persecutions were prevalent. The emperors were demanding to be worshiped and everyone was on edge. Jews and Christians were especially concerned because they refused to worship the emperor, because there is only one God, named YHWH, and they refuse to worship any god other than their God. Much of the imagery in Revelation is disguised criticism of the Roman emperor. It was right to fear the emperor.
In strong contrast, Jesus is a God to be revered. In this scene from Revelation, Jesus is the Lamb who was sacrificed, as well as the Shepherd who cares deeply for all the sheep. There is no reason to fear this King, this God, who provides an abundance, who tenderly wipes away tears, who deserves to be revered.
In Hebrew, the word most often translated into English as fear is yirah. Yirah means fear, awe, reverence and devotion. The sense in the Hebrew Scriptures is almost always that of reverence and awe, rather than fear.
It’s pretty easy when we speak to say revere instead of revere God. In our psalm today, we could change the word fear to revere and get the same sense of devotion. Verse 9 would read, “[Revere] the LORD, you saints of the LORD, for those who [revere] the LORD lack nothing.” In other words, because God provides all we need, we respond by revering God.
The Beatitudes in the Gospel reading say the same thing. Because God loves us and wants the best for us, we are not to fear God, but revere and love God. When our life circumstances seem the worst, God is there with us, working through others to make life better for us.
... Since today is All Saints Sunday, we can focus mostly on the petition: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We remember with thanksgiving those who have been saints in our lives. Many of our saints are still alive, and we remember them because they helped us know Jesus and how to love and serve him.
For many of us, our grief for loved ones – also our saints – is a familiar friend, still there, but not so painful anymore as we have become used to their absence. For some of us, however, our grief is no friend, but a painful reminder of those who are gone and very much missed. This Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” is just what we need to hear.
This Beatitude tells us that God knows about our pain and is reaching out to comfort us, to help us find peace in our hearts, to fill the hole left in our lives by the death of our loved ones.
This Beatitude reassures us that there is no need to fear death because the God who loves us so much in this life will take excellent care of our loved ones after they are gone from us.
This Beatitude promises us that God has not taken our loved ones but received them with open, loving arms.
This Beatitude reminds us that we receive comfort, mercy, and justice through the ministry of others in our lives.
We know through the all the Beatitudes that we have a place in God’s heart forever, because God loves us and cares for us and provides for us.
In response to this love and care and provide-ance, we have no cause to fear God; rather, we have plenty of reasons to revere God. As we remember those loved ones who now rest safely in God’s arms, let us give thanks for the love they gave us, for the time we were given with them, and for the witness they shared with us about God’s love for us all.
And let us revere, not fear, the God who gave them to us.
Please pray with me. God of love and mercy, we turn to you in reverence and awe. Heal our aching hearts, and send us to be your comforting arms wherever they are needed. Amen

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Presenting our true selves

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

I was at a gathering of pastors a few years ago. We were from many denominations and for some reason, we were discussing drinking alcoholic beverages. Most of us confessed to enjoying a glass of beer or wine with a meal on a regular basis.
Bill, however, was Wesleyan, and drinking alcohol is frowned upon in that denomination. He said, “If I wanted to have a drink, I would have to be in some place very far away from here.” In other words, he would have to be some place where his parishioners were unlikely to find out about his activity. It struck me how hypocritical this was. He didn’t say, “I don’t drink.” He said, “If I want to drink I have to be where I can’t be caught doing it.”
Jesus is talking about hypocrisy in this passage from Matthew. He is criticizing the scribes and the Pharisees, accusing them of wearing broad phylacteries and long fringes. The fringes Jesus refers to are attached to prayer shawls. The longer they are the easier it is to see them under the other clothes they were wearing. One comment I saw suggested that Jesus was joking that the fringes were long enough for people across the street to trip on.
“Phylacteries” in Greek means charm or amulet. It’s not exactly what the Hebrew means, but it’s close. The Hebrew is “tefillin”, which refers to a pair of small leather boxes attached to long leather straps. Inside the boxes are small scrolls with short quotations from scripture, including the greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind.”
The straps attach the boxes to the upper arm near the elbow and on the forehead. The tefillin are worn during the morning prayer service in literal fulfillment of Deuteronomy 6:8: “Bind these [commandments] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” Modern tefillin are about an inch and a quarter square. Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees make theirs a lot larger, so they could be noticed and thought to be more pious.
The purpose of the scripture, “bind these as a sign on your hand” is to keep God first in one’s life. It was interpreted literally by the Jews of Jesus’ time into the wearing of scripture on one’s body. Did it work to help the wearers of tefillin keep God first in their lives? Jesus says, “No way!” Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being hypocrites. He says their appearance is very misleading, and they do not practice what they preach. Instead they make keeping the rules of the faith burdensome for people without much money.
Hypocrisy is not limited to the people of Jesus’ time, of course. My friend Pastor Bill is not the only hypocrite of his community either. It is something we are all guilty of. We say to our children, “Don’t ever smoke!” even as we light our own cigarette. “Don’t skip school,” even as we call in sick at work so we can attend a ball game. We wear clothes, buy houses, and drive cars that are beyond our financial means, so our friends can be impressed – or maybe so we can impress ourselves. We wear crosses as jewelry, but don’t always remember to treat each other as Jesus would.
... There’s a video with Professor Timothy Wengert teaching about Lutheran Reformation history and theology. I vividly remember one small piece of his teaching. Wengert uses the image of a ladder or stairway to describe how right we are with God. We like to imagine ourselves as somewhere on the ladder, usually on a middle step. We know we are not perfect enough to be on the top of the ladder, but we know we are better than some other folks, who are definitely on the steps below us.
The thing is, in God’s eyes, there is no ladder. There are no levels of perfection – we are all imperfect sinners, standing on the floor. And we are all forgiven, equally made perfect in God’s eyes, even though we are standing on that same floor.
We have no cause to be hypocrites, trying to make ourselves look better than other people. God knows our true hearts, just as Jesus saw through the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees to their true hearts.
Knowing we are forgiven, granted grace through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, there is no need for us to pretend to be different than we really are. Knowing God is gracious, we can present our true selves to those we meet and work with every day.
Is that unrealistic, to present our true selves to other people? Absolutely!
We know that if we present our true selves to those around us, we will feel vulnerable, because we know that those who do not present their true selves to us will take advantage of us.
We know that we will be judged by them, and we don’t like being judged. We know that we are not perfect – far from it – and we want to appear perfect to those who might judge us.
 Even so, we can seek to present ourselves as children of God. Paul puts it this way: “Lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”
Let us seek to present the truest self we can to the people in our lives. This week, you might try to notice all the times when you don’t present your true self to others. Notice, also, why you don’t present your true self to them. Are you trying to impress them? Do you think they won’t like you? Are you comparing yourself to them and finding yourself better or less than them?
There is no need to be afraid to present your true selves to God. God already knows you, your true self. God knows you through and through, as a forgiven sinner, as God’s very own beloved child.
Please pray with me. Gracious God, you call us your children, and you forgive us when we are not perfect. Teach us to remember this when we are with others, so we may present more of who we really are, both to them and to you. Amen

Children’s message
What are you really good at? What are you not very good at?

Some people are really good at running races or playing soccer or reading stories or doing math and science. But most people are not really good at doing all those things.

Some people brag about how good they are at the things they are good at. And they make fun of people who are not good at those things.

Jesus doesn’t care if you are the best or the worst at running or soccer or reading or math or science. Jesus loves you just the way you are.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Being neighborly

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

In the reading from Deuteronomy, we come to the end of Moses’ life. His decades of trusting in and arguing with God are over. His years of listening to the grumbling of the people are over, too.
From his birth to his death, Moses has been God’s called servant. Moses received the Ten Commandments on two tablets, and spent a lot of time with God learning what they meant for the people. He knew the intent of the Torah – a relationship between God and God’s people in which the people put love of God and love of neighbor first in their lives. And he has passed on these teachings to the people.
Moses has prepared others to take over when he was gone, and the time has now come for Moses to die, and for Joshua to lead the people into the land God promised them long ago. By the time of Jesus, the written commandments number 613. The oral commandments and interpretive materials fill many scrolls.
The prophets repeatedly quote the scriptures, and speak for God, calling the people back to the basics of loving God and neighbor. In the Gospel reading, Jesus, too, quotes scriptures. He is asked to identify the greatest commandment, and he immediately says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The leaders can’t find anything wrong with this. It’s part of the daily ritual prayers for all Jews. But, Jesus isn’t finished. He goes on to summarize the rest of the commandments. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Here in Matthew’s story, Jesus asks the Pharisees a question about his identity. He gives them a puzzle to solve. The Messiah is believed to be a descendant of David; Jesus wants them to consider that the Messiah might instead – or also – be the Son of God. They have no answer to his question, and have no more questions for him, ever.
In Luke’s version of this same event, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about what it means to be a neighbor. We know the story as the parable of the Good Samaritan, which shows that a neighbor may be someone we don’t normally think of as a neighbor.
You all have had the experience of being a neighbor to someone else, and experiences when someone was a neighbor to you. You have even told me about some of those experiences: you make sure someone has meals when it’s hard for them to cook; you make sure a recent widow or widower has someone to sit with in church; you bring supplies and write checks when it’s for a good purpose. And so many more stories of good neighbors ....
A good neighbor in my life was literally my next door neighbor. When my boys were about 5 and 2, I had to go to work. I found a job near my mother’s house, so she could watch Danny, the 2-year-old. But Gary needed to be in school. To complicate matters, I had to leave the house about a half hour before Gary went to school. The next door neighbor had a boy about 8 years old, and she offered to take care of Gary and get him on the bus every day. I tried to pay her, but she flatly refused to accept anything. Since I couldn’t pay her, I always look for ways to pass on that good-neighborliness.
At seminary, there was a man from the West African country of Togo. He spoke several languages, French, English, and Eve – his native African language. Eddie was working on a PhD and had many papers to write. I offered to edit them, turning his mixture of languages into good English. This was one small way in which I could be a good neighbor to another student.
I have invited our deacons to share brief stories about times when they have been neighbors, or when others have been neighbors to them. After they have shared their stories, I’ll wrap up the sermon.
Our stories are varied, but they all make the same point. When we put God first in our lives, and love our neighbors – whoever they are – as we love ourselves, we are doing what Jesus wants us to do. It is not always easy; sometimes it means going way out of our way. But it is always worth the effort.
God loves us first, and asks us (commands us!) to return that love by putting God first in our lives – by giving God our whole beings, heart, strength, mind, and soul. And God asks us (commands us!) to love our neighbors with God’s kind of love.
This week, I invite you to remember some good neighbor stories. When was someone a good neighbor to you? When were you a good neighbor to someone else? It may be harder to remember those times when you were a good neighbor because we don’t like to brag about ourselves, but I hope you will try. These stories are part of who we are as God’s faithful people, and just as important to God as the stories we read in the Bible.
Please pray with me. Loving God, you love us first, before we have done anything for you. Help us seek to put you first in our lives, and help us be good neighbors, sharing your love with those around us. Amen