Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Looking for God

I stopped in at the pre-school yesterday afternoon.  I actually spent some quality time in a class of three-year-olds, long enough to hear them sing "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God" to me, long enough to find out how they feed their brains so that they can grow strong, long enough to get some hugs, and hear a few declarations of upcoming birthdays.

The teacher told me that beside everything else they learn, they also are learning to look for God.  They are learning to look for God everywhere.  The teacher illustrated this by asking the children, "When you get up in the morning, who are you looking for?"  "GOD!"  the children shouted.  "And when you are in the car, who are you looking for?"  "GOD!"  "And when you are in school, who are you looking for?"  "GOD!"

They are always looking for God.

I remembered in my former congregation, that I wanted my congregation to practice "God-sightings."  "Tell me where you saw God today," I asked them one Wednesday evening at an informal worship service.  They were eerily silent.

So I was impressed that the teacher was already teaching her students to look for God.  She said they learned that birds don't just say "tweet tweet", that they praise God, and that the trees praise God too.

It did my heart good to be there, for the hugs, for the songs, and for the reminder to always look for God.

It's not so easy as it looks.

I don't know what the trees and the birds were doing on Sunday morning in Sutherland Springs.  I know that God was there, even in the presence of the evil, because I know that God does not abandon us.   But sometimes God is really really hard to find.   Sometimes God is impossible to find.

I keep thinking of the children:  the children in Sutherland Springs, worshipping with the parents and grandparents.  I keep thinking of the children who hugged my legs and told me they were looking for God everywhere.

Me too.  Me too.

There's something about being around pre-school children.  They remind me both of the simplicity and the impossibility of faith.  Look for God in the birds and the flower petals.  Stay close to the ground.  Pay attention to the small things.  Keep looking for God.  Don't give up.

There are days when it is easy to see God, when I see the flash of a cardinal, or hear a baby laugh, or witness a small act of mercy.   And then there are days when I close my eyes and I imagine what is promised:  a day when there is no more mourning and no more death, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  I close my eyes and I imagine the city where the Lamb is the light, where the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.  I close my eyes and I tell myself that evil does not have the last word, will not have the last word, and I believe in the God I cannot see.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sermon for All Saints 2017

“Shining in the gift of our family”

            I remember:  There were just a handful of people at the visitation and at this particular funeral
            Two of them were adults with Downs’ syndrome.  One was a member of our congregation who was 101 years old.
             Just a handful of people, and her family was small, just her son and daughter and their children and grandchildren. 
            But her children told me some things I didn’t know (it’s always like this) – that she had actually borne five children.  One was a daughter borne with cerebral palsy.  Another was a son born with a hole in his heart.  He died when he was 9 months old.  Another was a little boy who had Downs syndrome.  Her daughter remembered that he was often sick and died when he was very young. 

            So much grieving in her life.  I think of her today, on All Saints Sunday, when I think about that small gathering.  She is one of the people I remember.  But not just her. 

            I remember my friend Melissa’s son, lost in the Mississippi River.  I remember my dad, who had Parkinsons. 
            And I remember Charles, who was a music teacher and who had Alzheimers and lost the ability to speak. 
            I remember Al Weddle and Sharla Biehl and Janet Faraone, and I remember my grandmothers Emma and Judy, and my father-in-law George, and how
             – when he invited us out to dinner, always said, “Order whatever you like!” 
            I remember Ella Brekke  and her well-worn Bible, and how her family drove through a blizzard to get to her funeral.

            Who do you remember?  That’s what All Saints Sunday is for.  It is for remembering.  Isn’t it? 
             All saints Sunday.  Every year we gather and we light candles and say names and we remember. 
            And that is what we mean by “All Saints Sunday.” 
            It is a day when we remember the saints among us, the saints who are no longer among us.   But even saying that, it seems odd.  Saint. 
            it’s an odd word to say.  What is a saint?  Are YOU a saint? 

            I asked this question at the Assisted Living Center on Wednesday.  And you know what? 
            No one there thought that they were saints. 
            Maybe because they thought that a saint had to be a lot holier than they were. 
            Maybe because they thought that you could only be a saint after you die.  But for whatever reason, they didn’t think they were saints.   

            What is a saint?   And what does it mean to be blessed?

             I think of the list in our gospel reading from Matthew.  
            The word ‘saint’ doesn’t appear anywhere in this passage, but we read it often on All Saints Sunday, and some have come to believe that these passages somehow describe saints. 
            “Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the merciful.”  
            Blessed.  This word appears over and over.   Blessed.  
            And the word blessed is used with some pretty odd statements, if you think about it.    Would we ever – for example – say that someone who is grieving is blessed? 
            How about those meek?  How are they ‘blessed”? 
            And poor in spirit—I’ll confess that even after all these years of studying I’m still not exactly sure what it means to be poor in spirit. 
            But it doesn’t sound like a positive thing.
             “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” 
            It’s sort of like saying, “Blessed are the failures.”  Blessed are those with low self-esteem.  Blesssed are the needy. 
            Those would not be the blessings of our culture.  
            We would say instead, blessed are the successful who had made it on their own! 
            Blessed are the popular!  Blessed are those who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from! 
            Not “blessed are the needy.” 

            But what is a saint?  We remember them today.  Maybe we want to be a saint. 
            Maybe we are sure that we are the farthest from sainthood.  Martin Luther said that we were both. 
            Both saints and sinners at the same time.    And blessed.  We are blessed.  And so we remember.

            Today is a day for remembering.  It is a day for remembering the saints, famous or ordinary, holy and imperfect.
            It is a day for remembering the stories of people in our lives, those who lived long lives, those who died too soon. 
            And it is a day to know that we too are saints, we too are blessed, we are the needy and the poor in spirit – we are the ones who mourn and need comfort. 
            We are God’s imperfect holy ones, saint and sinner at the same time, called to reflect the mercy of God, called to reflect the grace of God. 

            Today is a day for remembering – not just the people, and not just the stories, but the promises too. 
            Today is a day for remembering the promises of God that those who grieve will be comforted, that the meek will inherit the earth, that the merciful will receive mercy. 
            Today is a day to remember the promises of God that the poor will be lifted up, and the dead will be raised, and the hungry will be fed.          Today is a day to remember that we live by those promises.  That’s what it means to be a saint.  
            To trust God’s promises.  
            To trust God’s goodness, rather than your own.  To know that the light you shine is the light of Christ.

            All of the people I named before:  I saw the light of Christ in them.            I saw the light of Christ in my dad, and my father-in-law, in Emma and Judy, in Al and Janet and Sharla. 
            I saw the light of God  in Jean and in Jan, in Melissa’s son Chris, in Charles  and in Ella and in so many others.
             I saw the light of Christ in them, not in their perfection, but in their humanity, in their weakness, in their need. 
            In whom has the light of Christ shined for you? 
            Who showed you Jesus?   Who showed you the wideness of the love of God, the depth of the grace of God, the breadth of the compassion of God?

            Esther.  That was her name.  the one with the small family.
             At her funeral there were just a handful of people.
             Just her two adult children, and their children and grandchildren.           And two adults with Downs Syndrome, and a member of the church who was 101 years old.  After all,  She had a small family.  But she showed me Jesus.
            She showed me Jesus and she showed me that despite what I could see – she did not have a small family. 
            That is another thing we remember on All Saints Sunday. 
            We remember the stories and we remember the promises, and we remember that by those promises of God, we have been given a gift – the gift of one another. 
            We have been given the gift of all of those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us, all of those who are here, and all of those who are not here – all of those claimed by the promise, living in the Grace of the crucified one.   

            See what love the father has given us
            That we should be called children of God.
            And that is what we are.
            That is what we are.

            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Fifth Sola

For a long time I only thought there were three "solas."  Three Reformation rallying cries:  "Sola Gratia!  Sola Fide! Sola Scriptura!"

Grace alone.  Faith alone. Scripture alone.

It didn't seem to me that you could add to these.

But somewhere along the line I learned that there were two more: Solus Christus (Christ alone) and Soli Gloria Dei (To the glory of God alone.)

Tonight I am consider that fifth "sola."  To the glory of God alone.

What does it mean to live "for the glory of God alone"?

I'm tempted to get a picture of a particularly religious life, because there is a part of my unconscious brain where I think that of course, a particularly religious life gives glory to God.  And that could be the particularly religious life of someone who is a clergy person or an educator, someone who lives in a monastery and prays without ceasing, literally.  Or it could be the particularly religious life of someone who has goes to Bible studies all of the time, or volunteers at the church, or sings Christian songs, or works for justice.

But then I think about it some more.  And while I think that singing Christian songs and praying and working for justice are all important things, and while I even admire those who live in monasteries where they pray and make delicious soup (I imagine) and pray and welcome visitors, I don't think that's what it means to live for the glory of God alone.

And I'm not so sure that I'm very good at it.

I am thinking about Jesus words in Matthew 6, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear."  I am thinking about how Jesus encourages us to look at the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.  The lilies and the birds live for the glory of God without thinking about it, just by being what they are.  They fly and they feed their young; they wave in the wind, they bloom and they fade.

They just live.

I've been thinking lately that to live for the glory of God alone is something like this -- it is not so noble or self-conscious.  It is to glory in the God who created us, and the world.  It is to notice things, small things, the tiniest flowers in the yard (which are weeds), the way the sun feels on a cool day, to look up at the stars on a dark night.

I'm not very good at it.

Instead, I confess, I'm anxious.  My worst times are Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, as I am getting ready for church.  I'm worried about all of the things that could go wrong, whether my voice will squeak on the high notes or whether anyone will show up,  mostly things I can't do anything about.  I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't fall asleep because I'm anxious, and I think, "It should not be this way.  I love worship.  I love worshipping.  Why am I feeling this way?"

Maybe next time I feel this way in the middle of the night I should go out in the dark and look up at the stars.

I live just north of Houston, and one of the surprises in this new house is that it is just like living in the country.  When it's clear, I can look up and see the stars.

I have not seen the stars for many years.

To live for the glory of God alone.  What does it look like?

I remember once having a conversation with women from one of my churches.  They were not sure whether fifth graders should have Holy Communion.  Their proof?  They had overheard a conversation between two girls after they had received the sacrament.  "It was good!" the girls said to one another.  The woman thought they were not taking communion seriously enough.  But I thought the girls were right.  It was good!  They were tasting the bread, and they were glorying in it.

Maybe that's what it looks like:  to live for the glory of God.

Maybe it looks like wonder, and maybe it looks like laughter.  Maybe it looks like the tears you let stream down your face when you are overwhelmed by sorrow, or joy.  Maybe it looks like singing at the top of your lungs, even when your voice squeaks.  Maybe it looks like hitting bottom, maybe it looks like being raised up.  Maybe it looks like tasting bread, and knowing it's good.

 That fifth sola.  It's our whole lives, lived in God, with God, from God.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon For Reformation 2017

“Shining in the gift of faith”
A sermon for Reformation 500, 2017

           All fall we have been learning these words, this verse:
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.

            And it’s been good.  All fall we have been living into the promise of God that we are the light- - that we have been given the light of Christ to shine –  and today
            – I want to pause, and acknowledge that we are also in a special time and a special day as this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
            We’ve talked a little about that here.
             During Lent we studied Luther’s Small Catechism. 
            Hannah Alfred from our church shared the significance of her trip to Germany this spring, and what she learned about Luther and the Reformation.   
            There have been events all over our Synod and in fact, all over the country and all over the world commemorating this year and this day.            Last Sunday night some of us got together and watched a movie about Martin Luther’s life, and its significance. 

            In two days it will be October 31, 2017, exactly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the University church door in Wittenberg.   
            He didn’t mean to change the world.  He just wanted to have a conversation.
             He was concerned about a particular practice in the church of his time – the practice of selling forgiveness through indulgences
            And He was beginning to experience God – the grace of God – to know God in a different way than he had before – and he wanted to make sure that this message got out clearly.
             So he nailed those 95 statements to the door – meaning to start a conversation – and instead started a revolution. 

            And at the heart of this revolution was Freedom. 
            You might be surprised to hear that. 
            You have perhaps have heard that it was the grace of God, or about faith – or you might have heard that it was about the Word of God, and its center in our life.
            And all of that would be true.  But all of these things – grace and faith and the word of God – brought freedom to Martin Luther.
             It was about, as the Gospel reading from John tells us “the truth that sets us free.”

            In this short passage from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking with some of the Jewish people who had followed him.  “If you continue in my Word,” he tells him, You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
             Seems simple doesn’t it?   First the promise of knowing the truth, and then the promise that this truth has the power to make us free. 
            But it’s interesting – instead of meeting Jesus’ words with joy – or gratitude – or anything positive at all
            – they say, “Wait a minute! What do you mean ‘free’?  We aren’t slaves!  We have never been slaves

            It’s an interesting response by people who tell a particular story as a part of their history – the story about how they were slaves in Egypt, and how God delivered them with a mighty hand and brought them into the promised land. 
            That’s the story of Jewish People.  Passover.  That tells him who they are.   
            And that’s not even the only time they were slaves.  They were slaves of the Babylonians, and of the Persians, and even now – they were living under Roman rule. 

            (Denial.  It’s not just a river in Egypt.)

            But that’s one of the truths that will set us free, one of the truths that Martin Luther found in the Scriptures – not the only one, the truth about us. 
            The truth is that we are captive to sin – not just Peter who betrayed Jesus, and not just the other disciples, and not just the soldiers who put him to death ….
            The truth about us is that we are slaves.  The truth is that we miss the mark, that we fail, that we fall down, that we hurt one another, sometimes without meaning to, sometimes intentionally. 
            The truth is that we are broken, flawed,  imperfect.  And we’re not that good at admitting it.

            It’s like the popular song, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” 
            You know that one?  And there was one time that I found an old bulletin with the words to Amazing Grace printed on it, and someone had crossed out the word “wretch”.  Because you know, that seems sort of harsh, right? 

            It’s hard to admit, but it’s also the truth behind the very first of Luther’s 95 theses – “that when our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “repent”, he willed for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
            I don’t think Luther means that we need to spend our whole lives beating ourselves up – but he does mean that we need to be able to tell the truth about ourselves – that there are things we need to repent of.       That there are things about us that need to change.  It’s one of the reasons we confess our sins and hear the promise of forgiveness every single Sunday.  It’s part of the truth that sets us free. 

            But it’s not the only truth.   It’s not just the truth about us that we need to know.
             It’s also the truth about God, the truth about Jesus.

            Those of you who were at the Luther movie on Sunday night – there this very powerful moment in it when Luther’s confessor turns to him and says, You are not being honest with yourself, Martin. 
            God isn’t angry with you.  You are angry with God.  
            Think about that for a moment.  And what Luther’s confessor is saying to him.  “God isn’t angry with you.” 
            The truth about God – the truth about the God we know in Jesus is that he loves you
            – and he loves you in all over your messy imperfect humanity – so much that he went to the cross –- and he rose to new life – for YOU. 
            The truth about Jesus is that through his death and resurrection he has imprinted his life and love on us and in our hearts, that he has given us his light to shine in our hearts and in our community,
             and that there is nothing that we can do to make him love us less.   We can’t earn this love, or this salvation.   
            We can’t MAKE God love us, and we can’t stop God from loving us.

            Like a friend of our family once said to me, a long time ago, during a time when I was sort of down and discouraged with life in general and myself in particular.
            I love you, kid.  He said.  And there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. –( Okay – he used somewhat stronger language than this.)
            I love you – and there’s not ONE THING you can do about it
             THAT’s the truth that sets us free. 
            He loves you – YOU – and you the way you really are, not you with the photo touch ups or the you you post about on Facebook, or the you that you put in the resume
             And this truth sets us free – there is nothing we HAVE to do to earn God’s love.  
            There is nothing we HAVE to do – but there  are plenty of things that we are FREE to do. 
            We don’t worship because we have to.  We don’t pray because we have to 
            We don’t read the Bible because we have to. 
            We don’t serve because we have to. 
            We do it because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.   

            If the Son has set us free, we are free indeed.  Free to see ourselves as we really are, free to trust God in death – to trust God with our lives.  Free to love our neighbor, to serve freely those who most need it.  Free for another 500 years --– to let God re-form and re-new us as the people of God and to shine that light for the sake of the world God loves  


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pentecost 23 Year A: Shining in the Gift of Worship

Matthew 22:15-21

            Recently I’ve been thinking back to the long journeys I took to church when I lived in Tokyo many years ago. 
            I would get up early on Sunday mornings, walk to the train station, and then transfer twice before I got to my destination. 
            After I got off the train, it was a twenty minute walk to Hiyoshi Church, where I worshipped in Japanese every single Sunday. 
            I remember the first week, when someone walked with me from the train station, I thought, “I will never be able to do this on my own.”  But I did. 
            I remembered the route, and took the trains and walked the winding streets every single week.

            Then one week, a gentleman sat down next to me on the train and struck up a conversation. 
            Where was I going, he wanted to know.  To church, I replied. 
            He was curious, having never been to church before.  He asked if he could go to church, too.  I said that he certainly could. 
            I was thinking that I was fulfilling my calling as a missionary!  Someone is going to church because of me! 
            But then he kept asking me if he needed to have money in order to come to church. 
            I kept assuring him that it was perfectly okay if he didn’t have money.  He could come to church and worship without paying for it. 
            I wondered why he was so worried, or what he could be thinking.  But I kept assuring him – no offering was necessary.
             I just wanted him to experience a worship service.
            You don’t have to pay to go to worship.  There is no entrance fee.  I stand by my statement to that Japanese gentleman. 
            But today – when we are ‘shining in our worship –‘  there is an offering – and it is an integral part of the worship. 
            It’s not an entrance fee and you don’t ‘have to’ – but it’s not optional either.
            Today we are “shining in our worship’ – and we will also be receiving our commitments for the coming year. 
            And today the gospel reading is all about money – and about what it means…..
            The setting is the temple. 
            The time is “Holy Week” – which means that Jesus will soon be crucified.
             The religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus by asking him a question about money and taxes – and they believe that no matter which way he answers, he will be giving the wrong answer to someone.    They asked him, “What do you think, Jesus?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 
            If he says, “Yes,” he’s made the Pharisees angry – because they think it is not right to pay taxes to the occupying forces of Rome. 
            If he answers, “No,” he will obviously be leading an uprising, and the forces of Rome will be need to bring him down.  What is Jesus going to say?

            So this is not just money, is it?  Like everything else in life. 
            But it’s about money too.  Like so much in life.

            It’s interesting that the two groups who approach Jesus are the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They hate each other. 
            They don’t agree on anything. 
            But it appears that they are united in one thing – their hatred for Jesus.  So they ask the question – they bait the trap – and they wait.

            But Jesus takes it in another direction.
             He answers their question with a question.  First, he asks them if they have the coin.  Surprisingly, someone does have a coin.
             I say, it’s a surprise because they are in the temple, and Roman coins should be changed to Jewish coins for offerings in the temple. 
            But, someone has a Roman coin, and Jesus asks, “Whose image and likeness do you see?” 

            Of course – it’s Caesar. 
            So Jesus says, “Give to Caesar the things that our Caesar’s – “ which, on the face of it means – meet your obligations, pay your taxes, be a good citizen, -- all well and good – but he doesn’t stop there. 

            Then he adds something else, “And Give to God the things that are God’s.”


            What DOESN’T belong to God?

            This casts everything in an entirely new light, doesn’t it? 
            It doesn’t mean that we don’t have responsibilities to the state – It doesn’t mean that Jesus says it’s okay not to pay taxes
            – but Jesus is also NOT saying that there are compartments where we can divide our loyalties either. 
            In fact, there are several places where Jesus speaks out particularly about loyalties which are divided.
             NO – regardless of all of our other obligations in life – ultimately, everything belongs to God.

            It all goes back to the “image and likeness” on the coin. 
            “It’s an interesting phrase, “Image and likeness”. 
            It is Caesar’s “image and likeness” on the coin.
             But if you go all the way back to Genesis, chapter 1, verse 26 (and I can’t help but think that Jesus is counting on us remembering this verse),
            when God made humanity, he made us “in the image and likeness of God.’ 
            Each and every one of us. 

            And then for us who have been baptized, and who have had the cross traced on our foreheads, there is even more:  we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever. 

            We belong to God.  Every one of us.  And every part of us.

            And that is, in part, why we take the offering every Sunday during worship. 
            It is God of course who is always always offering himself to us.  And that is what Sunday is about. 
            But it is also about us, offering ourselves back to God.  And offering ourselves to our neighbor. 
            We offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, confessing that God is God (and we are not). 
            We offer our time and our talents. 
            And we don’t hold back our wealth either.

            What we put in the offering plate, no matter how big it is, is just part of the picture. 
            The part that doesn’t go in the offering plate – well, that belongs to God too, and it matters how we use it. 
            What goes in the offering plate – helps us to remember that EVERYTHING belongs to God, helps us to remember that everything is a gift from God, and also helps us to remember that we are a community of faith, and that we serve and worship God TOGETHER.  

            So I told that man, you don’t need money to come to church. 
            In the Shinto religion of Japan, you put your coin in before you can pray. 
            You pay and then you can pray.   You pay to get access.
            So it was a good answer, the right answer . 
            For us, You don’t pay your money in order to be able to pray. 
            You put your coin in the offering because you can already pray – for free. 
            You put you dollars in the offering because we already belong to God because of what God has done – because God’s image and likeness has been stamped on us, because we are redeemed. 
            You give up a portion of your wealth because it was never yours to begin with, because you are part of the body of Christ, that body also made in the image of God. 
            You give because you are part of the body of Christ and part of the mission of God and –well --  it’s not your mission either, the mission belongs to God, and because we are privileged to play a part in it. 
            Let your light so shine before others
            That they may see your good works
            And give glory to your father in heaven.