Sunday, December 18, 2016

Joseph and Mary

Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1: 26-38

This week, as I prayed and thought about the Gospel reading about Joseph, I started imagining a conversation between Mary and Joseph when he learned that she was pregnant. The two Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth differently. Matthew focuses on Joseph, and Luke focuses on Mary. Yet, there are plenty of similarities. Both are visited by an angel. Both are told the child is sent by God to save the world. Both say, “Yes,” to God’s call.
So, let’s put Mary and Joseph together to see what they might say to each other. I have to admit this is a lot of “what-if.” Jews might call it “Midrash,” a story that expands on Scripture to help us understand it. …

Joseph: Mary, can we talk? Maybe on that bench over there, where people can see us, but not hear us.  
Mary: Of course. What’s on your mind, Joseph?
Joseph: Mary, we have been promised to each other since we were children. A few months ago, we became officially engaged. We will marry in a few more months. But now, I have heard rumors that you are with child.
Mary: It’s true. I am with child. I haven’t told anyone here except my parents because the story is so hard to believe. … You know how every girl these days wants to be the mother of the Messiah? Three months ago, an angel appeared to me and told me I am the girl! …
Joseph: What!?  
Mary: I couldn’t believe it either. But the angel told me my cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant – and she was already too old to have babies. So, I went to see her. It’s true, she is pregnant. She said an angel had appeared to her husband Zechariah and told him it would happen. Their child is supposed to be the prophet who goes before our child to prepare the people for his coming. … It’s so amazing, I can hardly believe it myself. But, I know now that I am pregnant. I have been true to you. I have never been with another man. I promise! It has to be God’s doing!
Joseph: When I heard you were pregnant, I was so angry. I wanted to shout from the rooftops how you had shamed me. I wanted to have you stoned! … But then, I calmed down and made up my mind to just quietly end the engagement. I planned to talk with the Rabbi today.
Mary: Oh, Joseph. …
Joseph: But then, I had a visitation from an angel, too. Last night, he told me your baby is from God, from God’s Holy Spirit. So, now I understand that we should go ahead and get married. Probably, we should get married soon, so people don’t talk so much about this baby.  We want to make sure there is no shame in his life.
Mary: Great idea. I’m ready. Now let’s talk about baby names. The angel said I should call the baby Joshua, which means “God saves.”
Joseph: The angel told me to name him Joshua, too. He also said people would call him “Emmanuel” – so he will save by being with us.
Mary: And, Son of the Most High. He will be the Son of God!
Joseph: Mary, what have we gotten ourselves into? Just what is it that God is asking us to do?
Mary: I guess we are to be the human parents of God’s son. How will we ever do that?
Joseph: I think we should not tell people about this. We can tell people we got excited about getting married and got pregnant. Since we are already engaged, people will soon forget the timing and fall in love with our baby.
Mary: And we should pray, a lot, for God to guide us. Now, let’s go talk to our parents about a wedding.
… As Jesus grew up, I’m sure Mary and Joseph had many such conversations. How do these human parents raise God’s son? I have long imagined Mary crafting and singing the song we call the Magnificat: My soul rejoices in God my Savior, who will change the world by lifting up the lowly and casting down the high and mighty. Because Jesus’ ministry so closely follows the words of Isaiah and the Magnificat, I believe Mary taught him that God wants love and justice for all people by teaching him this song.
Why, do you think, God chose this way to save the world? There are lots of theories and theologies. Personally, I think it all has to do with love.
When we look at a baby, all we want to do is hold and cuddle the infant. This is why we love Christmas so much. When we see Baby Jesus, we feel love. We feel love even if the baby belongs to a total stranger we see in the store or doctor’s office. The love we feel at that moment is the love God feels for each of us. Pure love, wonderful love.
While he walked the earth, Jesus loved. He did not judge. He tried to win over even his enemies – the Priests and the Pharisees and the Romans. He showed them love first. His parables are about loving one another and the justice that comes from true love. On the cross, his words were about love and forgiveness.
I believe that Jesus came as a baby, grew to be a man on a mission, and died without blaming those who killed him, so we could know for sure God’s true heart is love. He was raised from death so we could know that God has power over life and death, and that death is not the final word for us. God wants us to know that God loves us so much, God wants to spend time with us now and in the next world.
… This week, practice giving and receiving love. Let yourself love everyone, even if your first instinct is to judge. Allow the love others offer enter your heart, even if you don’t want them to love you, or if you don’t feel lovable. This week, let love guide you to follow Jesus, wherever you go.

Please pray with me. Jesus, so long ago, you came to us. You have shown us how to love. Remind us daily to love others, and to let ourselves be loved, by you, and by those we meet. Amen 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Are you who I think you are?

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Because we know the answer, we wonder why John is asking this question: “Are you the one, or is there another?”
Just like today, some people in the time of Jesus had an end-times outlook on life. Others did not. Some people looked for a new Messiah, a military ruler like David, who would conquer the Romans. The Essenes seemed to believe there would be two end-times figures.
John may have been connected to the Essenes, so he was checking to see if Jesus was really the one they should be looking to. John is now communicating with the world not from the banks of the Jordan, but from behind Herod’s prison bars. Where now are the crowds? Still, his close followers are with him and he sends this message to Jesus.
Jesus’ reply is a sort of quotation of a passage from Isaiah: What do you think? The blind see; the lame walk; the chronically ill are healed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor hear good news. This is just about the opposite of a military conqueror that most people of the time, including John, expected.
Jesus also replies with a message of encouragement for John: You are just who you have thought yourself to be. You are the messenger who has come to announce the coming of the Messiah. You are the most important person in the world.
So, here we are, 2,000 years later. It seems we are still waiting. Some people are still waiting for the end-times. They try to predict it: there will be wars and rumors of wars – there have been wars and rumors of wars for thousands of years. There will be signs in the heavens and the earth – there have been hurricanes and floods and earthquakes and fires for thousands of years. There will be plagues and disease – there have been plagues and diseases for thousands of years. These constantly recurring events have not brought Jesus. Neither has the red heifer or plans to rebuild the temple or the repopulation of Jerusalem by Jews.
What will bring Jesus is our caring for those in need, every day, in little and great ways, caring for the blind, the lame, the deaf, the poor, the oppressed, and the oppressors.
You know how to do that. So, I’ll just share some stories that inspire me.
First: a couple of stories about the protest at Standing Rock over the building of an oil pipeline through Native American land.
Dustin Monroe is a Native American and a US Army veteran. For months he has brought food and supplies to Standing Rock to support the thousands of people gathered to protest the pipeline through Native lands. And he continues to stand with them against this invasion of sacred grounds. Serving in this way heals him from the wounds of war. 
Even though the Corps of Engineers denied a permit to cross the Missouri River, and it seemed like victory is at hand, the energy corporations insist their plan will continue. The National Guard has been reinforced and additional bunkers built to protect the rights of the corporations.
Chase Iron Eyes, a spokesperson for the tribe has declared that this is a critical time for democracy. Will big corporations rule, will big money rule, or will the people rule?
So, does the insistence on building the pipeline through Native sacred grounds and across sacred water seem like oppression to you, as it does to me? If it does, then Jesus is there with the people, resisting what they see as an invasion.
Then, a different story: In 2010, My husband Mike and I joined about 45 other Lutherans in a tour of the Holy Lands. We spent a few days in Egypt, then mad our way by bus from south to north in Israel. We spent time in Jerusalem’s Old City, and some time in Palestine, in East Jerusalem.
One of the highlights for me was a tour of Augusta Victoria Hospital, which is a Lutheran World Federation mission site. The wall built to protect Israelis from attacks from militant Palestinians, divides the city into a place of haves and have-nots. West of the wall there are plenty of hospitals and medical centers. East of the wall, there is one, Augusta Victoria.
The staff of the hospital does what all hospitals do, but they focus on care for chronically ill Palestinians, whether they are Christian, Jew, or Muslim. They specialize in treatment for cancers, in dialysis, in diabetes care, as well as the usual surgeries and sub-acute care units.
In addition to serving the people of the West Bank, they do job training and employ those whom they train, from office work to cooks to nursing care and physicians.
The community outreach program sponsors soccer teams with children of all faiths playing together. They also encourage all the things our local hospitals do, preventative screenings and health education.
In many ways, Augusta Victoria Hospital cares for the blind, the deaf, the chronically ill, the lame, and the poor. And Jesus is there through the offerings we give, and the care provided by the staff of the hospital.
So, this week, as we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a baby once more, let’s be aware of the many ways he already comes to us and those in need. Jesus is who we think he is, and lots more.
Let’s pray for the protestors at Standing Rock, that they will be safe and warm. Let’s pray for those who insist on building the pipeline, that they will hear Jesus’ words of protest and find another way. Let’s pray for all those who live and work and serve in and near Jerusalem, that there will be respect for each other and peace between peoples. And let’s pray for ourselves, that we may find joy in knowing Jesus comes to us all the time, in many ways. Amen

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Baptized by water and fire

Matthew 3:1-12

Every year, on the second and third Sundays of Advent, we read about John the Baptist. This week, he issues invitations to those who want a fuller relationship with God, and challenges to those who object to his message. Next week, John sends messengers to Jesus to clarify who Jesus really is. Both weeks, John points to Jesus. In a few weeks, we’ll hear about John again, when Jesus is baptized.
Maybe we should start with who John is, since he is so important to the story. On Wednesday, we talked about Angel Gabriel’s visit with John’s father Zechariah. Gabriel says that John will be the one who announces the coming of the Messiah.
When baby John is born, Zechariah sings a song to him. It will be the Hymn of the Day, which we’ll sing in a few minutes. Some of the words go like this:
You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. [Luke 2:76-77] 
John will go before Jesus to prepare people for his coming. John will tell people about God’s forgiveness.
… About thirty years later, John is living in the wilderness, preaching about Jesus, and he is drawing a crowd. Some are happy to hear they can be forgiven and some want him to shut up.
To symbolize the forgiveness of sins, John uses a common ritual of the time – baptism. Many ancient – and modern – Jews used ritual bathing as a method of purification. Imagine an ancient hot tub called a mikveh. Priests would immerse themselves in a mikveh before leading worship involving sacrifice. Women would immerse themselves in a mikveh each month at the end of their menstruation and after childbirth. Men would immerse themselves in a mikveh after sex.
The problem the Jewish leaders have is that John is offering this baptism free of charge, and away from the temple on the banks of the Jordan river. He is not a trained priest, so he is not authorized to offer this service. He is usurping their power. In the end, his message will cost him his life.
In today’s text, his words clarify his position. He is the announcer of something better still to come. John baptizes with water, but the one to come will baptize with fire.
I assume you are all baptized, most of you as infants. You have known God’s forgiveness all your lives, because we frequently talk about baptism and the forgiveness it brings. This is why Pastors stand near the font during the confession and absolution portion of worship. 
When we are baptized promises are made: we will learn the catechism; learn to trust God; proclaim Christ through word and deed; care for others and the world; and work for justice and peace. In our baptism, we promise to always point to Jesus.
… What do you think? Were you baptized with water, or with fire? Or both? Sometimes our lives are easy, and baptism by water is an easy swim through life. Other times, our lives are a challenge, and baptism by fire is a more appropriate metaphor.
I love the water, walking near it, listening to it, swimming in it. Last week, Mike and I made an overnight trip to St Augustine. We checked into the hotel and went straight to the beach, where we walked along the wet sand and picked up shells. As usual, I stood and watched the waves roll in and out, constantly in motion, constantly baptizing the shore. It was too cool to want to wade or swim, but I thought about it. Baptism by water is for me like breathing. It’s easy to point to Jesus when life is easy.
I have also been baptized by fire. You know what I mean. Raising children is often baptism by fire. So are many jobs. Some days, just driving on local roads and highways can be baptism by fire. Making the money stretch far enough to pay all the bills is baptism by fire. Sometimes, being black or brown or a police officer or an immigrant or a Muslim or young or chronically ill is baptism by fire.
… When Robbie was born, I was fourteen. He was like my first son, because Mom trusted me to care for him when I came home from school. He was a joy to be with, creative, fun-loving, sometimes aggravating. When I was in college, Mom would send me letters filled with Robby-isms. He loved to take things apart, but he could not always put them back together again.
At about age 12, he started using marijuana. Someone gave him some PCP (a drug also called angel dust) and his life changed forever. The drug made changes in his brain, and he became paranoid schizophrenic. He heard voices. He could be violent. He was depressed. I remember one evening he was laughing with us over a TV program; he left the room for a snack, and came back angry and sullen. It was baptism by fire. How could God let this happen to my beloved Robbie? In the end, he chose to end his own life after 6 tormented years.
We can give in to the fire and turn away from our baptismal promises, or we can remember that we are God’s children and face the fire and allow it to help us grow in trusting God.
… As I was walking the beach, I picked up a number of shells. They are all different. They have all been baptized with water. Some are in great condition. Some are a little beat up. Some of them look like they have been baptized in the fire of wave and sand and rocks.
I offer them to you. Choose a shell that speaks to you today. Choose a shell that is perfect, to remind you of Jesus’ perfection. Or choose a shell that is a bit imperfect, like you. Or, choose a shell that has been baptized by the fire of tumbling in the ocean, like some of the times of your life. And, yes, after all have chosen a shell, you may take shells to give to others.
Place the shell where you can see it for the next few days. Remember as you look at it that it points to Jesus. If you choose a second shell for someone else, tell them that the shell points to Jesus.
Please pray with me. Thank you, God, for people like John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus so long ago. Help us see you in the water and the fire of our lives. And lead us to point others to you each day. Amen

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Come to us, Lord Jesus

Matthew 24:36-44

Lots of people try to predict the end of time, the end of life on earth as we know it, the coming-again of Jesus. But Jesus says only God the Father knows when those things – or that event -- will happen.
Today’s text is part of a longer passage in which Jesus predicts the coming of enemies and the destruction of Jerusalem. Since the Gospel of Matthew was written after 70CE when the Romans destroyed the temple, we assume that the author knows about this terrible event. Has this disaster shaped his story of Jesus? Does he believe it signals the impending return of Jesus? It certainly seems so.   
Jesus likens the coming of the Son-of-Man to the coming of the flood. No one believed Noah when he began building the ark. No one even believed him when it began to rain buckets.
Jesus warns the disciples -- and us -- to be alert, aware, awake to what is happening. Life will go on, as it does day after day. We will be fishing, or enjoying a cup of coffee, or playing music. And suddenly one of us will be taken and the other left behind. We will be saved from the terrors of the coming disaster.
We always assume that being taken is good news for the ones who are taken. We also assume it is we who will be taken because we are good, and that it is the evil ones who are left behind. But how do we know that we are the ones Jesus is coming for and not the other person? What makes us so sure? Are we really ready to be taken?
Jesus warns us to be ready for anything, including the thief in the night, including the end of days, including the Son of Man. But, what does it mean to be ready?
In the next part of this chapter and the next chapter, Jesus goes on to tell us what it means to be ready. We are to be like good servants, fulfilling whatever responsibilities the master has given us, always ready to be good servants. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned as if we were caring for Jesus himself.
I have heard many times that if some are taken and some are left behind, the Lutherans will choose to stay behind, to care for those suffering from the disaster. The Lutherans will stay here to bring Jesus to those who don’t yet believe.
 If we focus on being Jesus’ hands and feet and heart with those who are hurting, we won’t have time to think about when Jesus is coming again. Except, let’s remember that when we do these things, Jesus comes through us to those we help.  
For example, the residents at Dogwood Manor Assisted Living Community in Georgia wanted to help people in the community. They learned that premature babies struggle to stay warm, but tiny hats are an easy way to help warm. The residents began to knit caps for preemies. It was one way to “keep the old people out of trouble” and help others at the same time.
Ed , who is 86, wanted to take part too, but he had never learned to knit. He went to a fabric store, where the staff sold him a how-to-knit book, some yarn and some needles. Ed says the first few hats took a long time, but after a while he began to get into a groove and soon, his sofa was covered with little caps.
Another example: Paul is a counsellor in a high school in Chicago. His school is mostly filled with black and Latino youth. The day after the election of Mr Trump as president, Paul expected the school to be full of anxiety, fear, and hate because of what they had heard Mr Trump say about them. He spent the time driving to school thinking about how to help the students.
But he arrived to see something very different from what he expected. Before he arrived, some of the students had printed posters and put them on classroom doors throughout the building. They read:
"Dear Undocumented Students, in these classroom there are no walls."
"Dear LGBT students, in these classrooms you are accepted."
"Dear Female students, in these classrooms you will be respected."
"Dear Mexican students, in these classrooms you are not a rapist nor a drug dealer."
"Dear Black students, in these classrooms your lives matters."
"Dear Muslims, you are not terrorists."

In the midst of fear and uncertainty, these students took control of what they could manage. They created a safe space for everyone in the school.
These days, we can complain that we are too old or too young, or too rich or too poor to make a difference. But Ed and Paul’s students prove otherwise. They could spend time looking for Jesus to come again, but chose instead to help others.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent. We begin by remembering that Jesus has come to us once already, as an infant. He died and was raised, and appeared to the disciples and other followers. In a way we could say he has already come again. Then he ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to be his presence on earth. So, we could also say he has already come again. And, whenever we do kind things for others, Jesus comes again through us. So, we could also say he has already come again.
I suggest we focus not on wondering and debating about when and how Jesus will come again, but on being his hands and feet and heart right here in our community, today. In many ways, Jesus has already come again, if we look for him, if we pay attention.
Here is your challenge for this week: What do you already do to bring Jesus to someone else? What else could you do to bring Jesus to someone else? You are neither too old – remember, Ed learned to knit at age 86 – or too young – remember, high school students made their school a safe place for all – to bring Jesus to someone else.

Please pray with me: Powerful Lord Christ, we pray that you will come to be with us. We pray for your mercy and your presence to be made known to us. Help us to see you in the faces of others, and lead us to bring your presence to those who need to see you. Amen  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Merciful reign of Christ

Maybe you saw this story on CBS news this week. Dan’s wife died and he became seriously depressed. For six months he stayed at home, wishing he could die. It was as if he was already dead. The worst part of his life was having to get groceries. It meant that he had to leave the house and face other people in the store.
He shopped on Seniors Day, so the store was full of older people, as well as younger families. He was in the canned food aisle when a little voice said, “Hello, old person. Today is my birthday.” And then she asked for a hug.
Something about Nora’s invitation penetrated through the fog of Dan’s depression. And he began to talk with her. In the selfie photo they took, Dan’s grin was as big as Nora’s. The relationship that developed since has been filled with a love Dan says he has never before known.
Why did Nora approach Dan, and not the other “old persons” in the store? Why was she able to break into his depression and make a difference?  I think it was a God thing, a God-incidence. At this particular moment, God sent Nora to shine mercy into Dan’s heart.
… It was mercy that Jesus sent from the cross into the hearts of the two criminals on the crosses beside him. Only one of them accepted it and saw the possibilities of the future even though he was dying. He wanted the forgiveness and grace Jesus was offering. He reached out and received mercy.
Last week I talked about Jesus as Lord of all. Today I want us to see him as merciful Lord of all. The Bible is filled with stories of kings who did not obey God. Only a few were known to be mostly obedient to YHWH. That’s what makes King David and King Solomon so unique … they are not known to worship other gods … even though they are otherwise pretty sinful as human standards go.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Our world and our history are also filled with stories of good and really awful kings and rulers. Jesus is nothing like any of them. So I usually think of Jesus as a sovereign, who reigns, and today is Reign of Christ Sunday. As Lord of All, Jesus reigns over everything there is and over all that happens. Unlike other rulers who may or may not be merciful rulers, Jesus rules, reigns, with mercy, and wants us to also be merciful.
… So, what does mercy look like in the “real world”? Every year, Hallmark Channel shows movies about the Christmas spirit. Often, there is a lead character who has experienced something that made her or him hate Christmas. The story tells of the mercy shown to the character by the community that surrounds them, and shows them the Christmas spirit, and eventually converts them into believers.
The movie Christmas Cookies told the story of Hannah, who was instructed by her boss to make a deal with Jake to purchase Jake’s company, Aunt Sally’s Christmas Cookies. Aunt Sally’s was experiencing financial difficulties and needed an influx of cash to continue to exist.
When Jake realized he was out of options, he agreed to a deal, with one important clause. Because the new owners planned to move the company out of town, the citizens would be out of work. So, Jake insisted that the purchase agreement gave any money he might to receive to the employees, the people of the town who worked at Aunt Sally’s.
Jake was more concerned about the others than about his own welfare, showing them mercy despite financial consequences for himself.
… Often, we are more interested in retribution, in revenge, than in mercy when someone harms us. We want them to hurt as much or more than we have hurt. It is hard for us to be merciful when we are in pain. Yet, this is what Jesus shows us, even while hanging on the cross.
This week we have seen riots in response to Mr Trump’s election. “Not my president,” the signs say. Blocks around his apartment building are guarded by soldiers and police officers and blockades. In part, this is normal protection, but in part this is because of fear of retribution against him. Where is the mercy that should be shown? When will they give him a chance to lead?
Yet, we will be watching to see if he shows mercy to those who are hurting. Will President Trump be a merciful ruler? That remains to be seen. On the other hand, we know we will always see mercy with Jesus, our merciful sovereign.  With Jesus, we see divine mercy.
… We see divine mercy when the hungry are fed, when there are jobs for the unemployed and under-employed, when there are homes for the homeless who want homes. We see divine mercy when a dying loved one is finally out of pain. We see divine mercy when refugees find a place to live, or are at last able to return home. We see divine mercy when someone listens to our stories and understands our heartache.
This week, look around for mercy being shown to you or to others. Give thanks for the mercy. Show some mercy to someone who is hurting. Tell someone Jesus loves and forgives them, so they receive some much-needed divine mercy. Give someone a hug, as Nora did with Dan, and share mercy with each other.
At the Thanksgiving meal this week, go around the table and tell a story of mercy, yours, or someone else’s. You can even tell a story you saw on TV, as I did today.

Please pray with me: Jesus, our Sovereign Lord, Ruler of All that is, be with us this week. Shine your mercy on us, and help us share mercy with others. In your holy name. Amen 

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Luke 16: 19-31

One of my pet peeves is to walk into a restaurant and have the server look at Mike and me and say, “Just two?” I know she or he wants to make sure we are not waiting for others to join us. But it makes us feel like two isn’t enough, like we should have brought a friend or two to join us. It’s even worse when I go to eat by myself. “Just one?”
I know that I am more than ‘just’ in God’s eyes. I know that if I am alone or with others, God knows who I am and who is with me.
The rich man knows who Lazarus is. He even knows his name. I am sure that every time he walked through the gates to his estate, he looked down and thought, “Oh, it’s just Lazarus lying there. I wish he’d go beg somewhere else.” Just. Lazarus. Almost a non-person.
It’s interesting that the rich man is not named, but Lazarus is. Because I was curious, I checked the Internet. The name Lazarus is the Greek and Latin version of the name Eleazar, which is also the name of one of Aaron and Moses’ brothers. It means “my God has helped.”
The rich man and Lazarus both die and find themselves in the next world, but on different sides of a chasm. They are both with Abraham. The King James Version said, they were gathered to Abraham’s bosom. Now, the roles are reversed and Lazarus is enjoying luxury and the rich man is the beggar. The rich man insists that Lazarus come and take care of him, but because of the chasm, that is not possible. Besides, the rich man has already had his luxury, and not it’s Lazarus’ turn. The rich man is discovering what it means to be “just.”
The scene concludes with the rich man asking Abraham to send someone to tell his brothers that they need to change. But Abraham says, “You all have ignored the warnings of Moses and the Prophets. Even if someone returns from the dead, your brothers won’t believe him and change their ways.”
Jesus tells this parable, not to portray what heaven and hell are like, but rather to teach us that each person is known and noticed by God, and therefore worthy of notice and care by each of us. We are to pay attention to the teachings of Scripture and Jesus, who has returned from the dead, and never treat one another as “just.”
During the eight years I have been here, I have encouraged you often to pay attention and notice those whom many don’t see. So, it’s appropriate this last Sunday that I get one more chance to give you that reminder. A couple of stories:
We often don’t notice the bus people who clear tables at restaurants. Mike and I often eat a late lunch at a restaurant. There is one busser who does such a fantastic job of clearing the tables that I was watching him. He works fast and thoroughly. I noticed how heavy the tubs of cleared dishes are, and how strong he is. As we left the restaurant, I went to speak with him and to tell him I noticed how hard he works. I wanted him to know he was not “just” in my eyes.  

I found this photo story about immigration and child labor and couldn’t resist sharing it. The full set of 9 images is available here  The story and images are 100 years old, but it seems we haven’t learned much in the ways we treat immigrants and refugees. We still tend to see and treat them as “just”. 

In 1904, a schoolteacher named Lewis W. Hine started photographing immigrants as they arrived at Ellis Island. Hine was working as a teacher and photographer at the Ethical Culture School in New York City when he started taking his students on field trips to Ellis Island to show them the conditions of millions of immigrants. He believed that if people could see images of the abuse and injustices that were happening in America, it might make social reform a reality.

And, eventually, his dream started coming true. He's now known for creating images that brought to light scenes of child labor, poor living conditions, unemployment, immigration, and human ingenuity. So, let’s look at some of his images.                                                           
Immigrants brought so little into their new lives.
Women did piece work, many huddled into small homes
Children worked in unsafe conditions in factories
Children picked cotton  
Hine’s images showed that the powerful viewed these immigrants and children as “just”. They used and abused them as things, chattel, as worth little. They owned them and held power over them nearly as much as slave owners held power over their slaves. They said, “They are just immigrants. They are just children.”
Unfortunately, many people are still treated as “just” today. “They are just undocumented immigrants. They are just Muslims. They are just black. They are just cops. They are just Democrats. They are just Republicans.” And so forth. We have forgotten, in our un-civil discourse, that no one is “just.”
Jesus teaches us to see each person as filled with God’s Holy Spirit, as never “just” anything. I invite you this week to notice when you think of others, or yourselves, as “just.” Remember that no one is “just” in God’s eyes, not even you.
You have been more to me than “just parishioners.” You have been individuals with personalities and your own ways of being God’s children. We have not always agreed with each other, but we have all tried to please God. I will pray for you as persons and as a congregation. And I hope you will pray for me as I face this transition into retirement.

Please pray with me. Jesus, you have given us stories to help us understand you. Continue to teach and guide and challenge us. Show us how to love each other as more than “just” anything, rather as fully embodying you and your Holy Spirit. In your holy name, Amen 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Luke 16: 1-13
A Sting Operation

Note: I asked Susan, our music director, to help me with this sermon, using music by Scott Joplin, "The Entertainer", the theme song from the movie, The Sting. The music can be found here: and elsewhere. 

Isn’t this a strange story? Since when does Jesus praise scoundrels?!
There is an owner and a manager who gets caught doing something underhanded and gets fired. The manager makes arrangements with the debtors and doctors the owner’s books, so he will have friends after he loses his job.
It seems even Luke wasn’t sure how to interpret the story, since he included at least 3 interpretations of the parable:
·         Make friends whenever and however you can
·         Those who are faithful (or dishonest) with a little will be faithful (or dishonest) with much
·         No one can serve two masters, God or wealth
Many pastors check out the other readings for this day, rather than having to wrestle with this Gospel text. But, I was reading it and imagining different scenarios. I finally settled on one I haven’t exactly seen in commentaries. So, given the culture, it may not be valid. But it makes sense to me.
I wonder … What if the manager is caught, not misusing the owner’s income, but has a set of books on the side. He makes deals with the tenants and debtors on the side. The owner still gets what he is owed, but the manager agrees to some special favors in exchange for some extra money or oil or wheat. Then he spends the extra to make his life better. Unfortunately, people notice that he is living better than he should be, and begin to ask the owner if he gave the manager a raise or a bonus.
So, the jig is up, the manager is caught, and he will soon be out of a job, and living on the streets unless he can figure out something else. And he does, because he’s a shrewd, or maybe wily, guy. He plans and carries out a sting operation.

Do you remember what a sting is? Technically, a sting operation is a complicated confidence game planned and executed with great care. Crooks play stings on one another. Undercover law enforcement personnel play stings to catch high level criminals.
There was a great movie in 1973 about a sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. [Susan, play a few bars to help us remember.] Newman and Redford played kinda bad guys who got themselves in some trouble and decided to pull a sting operation on some badder guys to get themselves out of trouble. They set up a scenario to get the badder guys to give them a bunch of money for a fake event. At the end of the movie, we are cheering these scoundrels for their success. [Susan, play those notes again.]
In the Bible story, the manager knows he has been caught and he figures out a sting to save his future in the community. He thinks for a few minutes, and then says, “I know what I can do.” And he develops a plan to make the people he has been dealing with on the side grateful to him. He has to act fast, before he has to turn over his books, and before the folks in town find out he has been fired.  
He invites a few of the debtors into his office, and has them change the numbers on the original contracts with the owner. This works because in Hebrew, it is easy to change one number to another. Imagine in our Arabic numbers changing a 5 to a 3, or a 9 to an 8, 3 to a 2. With a small stroke of a pen, the debtors owe less oil or wheat. They are grateful to the manager, and will readily welcome him into their homes. This ancient sting is a success. [music]
Now, it is hard to tell in the story if it is the owner or Jesus who praises the manager for his cleverness. Either way, the folks listening can appreciate the idea of pulling off a great sting. It seems we are to be as shrewd as the manager in following Jesus.
What does that mean? It means that we need to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus. We probably do not need to set up an elaborate sting operation, but we do need to be focused on the goal of putting Jesus first in all that we do. 
I want us to think about the idea of a sting as a way to bring people into the church. This is a good sting, for the purpose of sharing Jesus with others. [music]
Events like the flea market, the indoor yard sale, and the Shred Event draw people into our yard, into our buildings. They say, we care about our neighbors. They say, come and see. They raise awareness of Hope Lutheran in the community, so even if they never worship anywhere, people know we are here.
Many congregations use music, art, education, and food programs to draw people inside. Through these programs, our neighbors meet us and get to know and trust us. They come to realize that we are not judgmental fanatics, but caring people just like them.
The more of these kind of stings that Hope does, the more awareness people will have that there is a church, a Lutheran Church, in the neighborhood. [music]
In addition to the congregation planning and running a sting operation to draw neighbors in, we can carry out little stings every day to remind people that Jesus is real and loves them. But it’s not always easy.
This week our book club spent some time discussing a story we had just read in Reviving Old Scratch. Richard Beck is pastor who has a ministry in a maximum security prison. One day, he was leading a Bible study on the Beatitudes. When he got to “Blessed are the meek …” the men all had a strange look on their faces. Finally, one of them spoke up. “It’s not that we disagree, but we can’t do that stuff in here.” Meekness in prison is interpreted as weakness, and it can get you killed.
Back home during the week, Beck thought about their statement over and over, and he came to realize that we can’t do that stuff out here either. Meekness/Weakness in the classroom gets us bullied. Meekness/Weakness in the office gets us the crummiest assignments. Meekness/Weakness on the jobsite gets us uncooperative employees. So, to be meek believers in today’s world we need to be as shrewd, as wily, as the manager in the Gospel story.
We may hesitate to be bold in making ourselves known as Christians in public, because we have no desire to be ridiculed for being people of faith. Fortunately, here in the south, in this part of the Bible Belt, many people are believers, and actually welcome our reference to the Divine. It is easy here to pray our thanks at a restaurant, and to say “God bless you” when someone does something nice for us. It’s easy to notice someone’s cross and ask about it, and learn about their faith.
These simple activities may not be stings, and they are not for any underhanded activity. My hope is that by using the idea of a sting, it will encourage you to think more often about sharing Jesus with others, so they might be willing to accept an invitation to Hope, and to be loved and forgiven by him. It will make of you a shrewd follower of Jesus! [music]
Please pray with me. Jesus, you gave us this parable to cause us to think and wonder. Lead us to think shrewdly and boldly about ways we can share your love with those we know, with those we meet. Give us open hearts and words to speak. In your holy name, Amen