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.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Pentecost Year A: "Shining in the Gift of Prayer"

Philippians 2:1-11

Dear  friends in Christ, Dear People of Grace – Grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  AMEN

            What are your first memories of prayer? Who taught you to pray?  How do you practice prayer now?  This week we are “shining in the gift of prayer” – and for me – the gift of prayer is linked – first of all to my family, and the prayers my parents always said with us at mealtime and at bedtime. 
            My family taught me my first prayers. 

            But there was also LeRoy Palmquist, my 4th grade Sunday School teacher. 
            Our class met every week in the choir room – there were not enough classrooms – and I have to admit that I don’t remember much of anything we did in 4th grade Sunday School – except for the one week that we did not take out the workbooks.
             Instead, he taught us how to pray.  He taught us how we could make our own prayers, using the acronym “ACTS.”  A stood for adoration, or praise. 
             You always began a prayer to God with praise.  “God you are wonderful, awesome, mighty!”   
            Then you moved to C, which stood for Confession.  You confessed your sins.  “I’m sorry that I hit my sister, or that I doubted your love for me.” 
            The next letter stood for Thanksgiving, and was the easiest.  “Thank you!”  The children at the pre-school are best at saying thank you to God for everything – EVERYTHING. 
            And finally, S stood for supplication.  Which is a word most 4th graders don’t know.  But it meant “asking for help”.  Supplication means saying to God “Help me.”  “Help us.”  
            What are your first memories of prayer?  Who taught you to pray?  How do you practice prayer now?
            We are shining in the gift of prayer this week – and it is a gift – and it’s a gift to be simple in prayer as well. 
            I have never stopped praying those simple prayers I learned in childhood, or the ones that are written down in our worship books.  
            I believe that written out prayers are true prayers,  and also that simple prayers, “Thank you,” and “Help me” and “Wow” can be prayers as well. 
            We are shining in the gift of prayer this week – but it might be good to start with what prayer is – and why we do it. 
            What is prayer – after all? 
            How do you define it?  (maybe ask for some people to say what their definition of prayer is.) 
            When I think about prayer, I often think of the disciples’ simple request to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”  
            And of course this is where we get the Lord’s prayer, from this simple request. 
            But sometimes when I think of the disciples’ request, I imagine that they aren’t asking, “Teach us a prayer to say,” or even, “Teach us HOW to Pray,”
             “Teach us a METHOD of prayer.” 
            But maybe they are asking, “Teach us to come to you…. With everything. 
            Teach us to confide in your, to ask you, to depend on you, to TRUST you.” 
            “Teach us to pray…. Rather than NOT pray.”  How can we trust you, depend on you, come to you …. ?” 
            Because that’s what prayer is. 
            It is conversation with God.  It is depending on God. 
            It is trusting God – with our secrets, with our needs, with our whole lives –  our whole congregation -- and our whole world!

            And this is where stewardship comes in, too. 
            We are stewards of everything that God has entrusted to us.  And prayer is at the heart of remembering that. 
            Prayer is the foundation of our mission, and our vision. 
            Not perfunctory prayer – “God, bless all the plans we have already made for ourselves.”
             But real, simple, trusting prayer, “God, help us to follow you.  Help us to want for ourselves what you want for us.”
             If it’s true, what the Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it…”  it’s probably a good idea to check in with the owner once in awhile….
            So prayer is the foundation of our lives, because praying reminds us who and whose we are 
            Prayer reminds us of who God is – and of who we are. 
            The passage from our reading from Philippians gets to the heart of this as well. 
            Paul begins with his vision for the congregation in Philippi – a congregation he dearly loves and (if you read the beginning of the letter) prays for always. 
            Paul is writing to them from prison, and he prays for them to be in full accord and to be of one mind. 
            Now anyone who has ever been part of a congregation might think this is an impossible thing to ask.
             We are people with many different ideas.  We don’t all think alike.  Some of us are native Texans.  And some of us emigrated from the Midwest. 
            Some of us have been Lutheran forever, and some of us are pretty new to this particular faith tradition. 
            We don’t all share the same political perspectives – and we might have some different priorities as well. 
            But Paul isn’t asking for uniformity.  He is asking for unity.  And through prayer, I believe we can travel in this direction.
            Because the unity we seek is through Christ Jesus.  Paul’s vision is of him, and his “downward ascent.”  
            For love of us, he came down here to live with us,  to know us and be known by us, to suffer with us and for us, to die for us. 
            This is the direction of our lives as well. 
            We live this downward ascent.  We live our lives – not for ourselves, but for the sake of God, and for one another. 
            As Paul writes in Philippians, “let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” 
            One of the ways we do this is through prayer.   
            We do this by prayer that is honest – not just saying what we think God wants to hear – but admitting our fears and our doubts and our failings.
            Do you know why we bow our heads sometimes when we pray?    Back in the days where there were kings, subjects knelt and bowed their heads in front of the king, which exposed their necks. 
            They put themselves in a position of vulnerability in front of the king. 
            In one of the powerful moment in the movie, Luther , the Lutheran princes kneel in front of the Emperor Charles. 
            But what they are saying is, you can kill us, but we will not give up our faith. 
            The Lord’s prayer itself begins with this “downward ascent.” 
            We begin by praying that God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come.  Not our will, and not our kingdoms.  But God’s.
             And then we pray asking that God meet our daily needs, and our spiritual needs, and keeps us from temptation and evil. 

            There are many ways to pray and many methods of prayer.  You can color your prayers (I do) and you can use your body in your prayers.       You can pray the prayers in the back of your hymnal, and you can say, simply “Help me.  I am yours.” 
            You can pray like the children, “Thank you God for my dog and for bugs.”  You can pray in silence. 
            You can pray the Faith 5,  which some of our families here use, and which includes time for sharing scripture together and the important moments of our days. 
            You can pray like my Sunday School teacher, LeRoy Palmquist – A for Adoration, C for Confession, T for Thanksgiving, S for Supplication.

            But all of our prayers begin in the same place, with Jesus, the one who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” 
            They begin with the one who came down for us, and in his Spirit, is with us still, even to the end of the age.  They begin with Jesus, and they end with Amen.  Let it be so.  Make our lights shine Lord, for that is your will for us.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sunday Morning

It's Saturday afternoon, and I'm thinking back to last Sunday.  I'm getting prepared, and making notes, and praying and resting.

And I'm thinking back to almost a week ago.

The morning began with 8:30 Bible study.  We've been watching videos and having discussions all summer, and we had planned to begin a new study this week, but the materials didn't arrive in time.  So I did a "low-tech", old-fashioned Bible study.  The theme was children in the Bible.  We discussed Isaac and Miriam, Samuel (before he was a judge) and David (before he was a king).  We did not get through the whole list, but we learned a little about the gifts and the stories of the children in the Bible.

I suppose I coud lament the small number of participants (there were only about 8 of us) but what I remember is this:  one man said, at the close, "You can do this any time you want.  This was very interesting."

Good old low-tech, old-fashioned Bible study.  I love it.

At worship, we had to tell the congregation that we were behind on our budget, due to a few factors (at least one of them a hurricane which canceled worship).  Our speaker was gracious and reminded us that the reason we give is to share the mission of Grace.  We honored one of our college students with a scholarship.  The children tried to figure out how big the love of God was (hint:  bigger than 70 X 7.  Bigger than a HUGE container of  M&Ms).

I preached.

I remember seeing a dad and daughter that I hadn't seen for several weeks.  They are regular visitors, but hadn't been at worship lately.  Also a young woman and  her little son came and sat right up in the front, where she smiled at me during the whole service.  I smiled back.  For the longest time I thought they were first-time visitors, and then, at the end, I discovered that they were part of a family who had moved away.  They were moving back!

For the past several weeks we have had a mysterious visitor.  We only know his first name.  He comes and sits in the back and says gracious words to us at the end of every service.  Several people have spoken to him and welcomed him.  For some reason, he has become a sign of grace to me.

After worship, we held acolyte training for three young people.  We haven't had acolytes here for awhile, so it was great to teach them how to light the candles and help with worship.  They are getting to be friends.

And after that, when I went over to the fellowship hall, I had a wonderful conversation with a young woman who is getting married this winter.

First-time visitors were also there, which I consider to be an act of courage.  It is harder to go into the fellowship hall with strangers than it is to worship with strangers!  They were having a lively conversation with my husband and a couple of other people at the church.  One thing I discovered:  They had seen a short video I made on the morning of the hurricane.  And, they said, that's why they showed up that morning.

Sunday morning is only a small sliver of the week, but for me it is the culmination of everything I do.   And, sometimes, I'll admit it:  I wonder if I should keep on doing it.  Is this still my calling?   And then, on Sunday morning, there were the kind words of strangers, the voices of the children, the people who just showed up, and sang, and prayed, and who I know will go back out.

What I know is that, somehow, I found a blessing on that morning.  Or perhaps, a blessing found me.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon for Pentecost 15: Shining in the Gift of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

            May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.

            Just the other day, I was doing some over-due straightening in my office and I came across an old notebook, from before my time. 
            It was the two words on the cover that got me:  “Experience Grace”, they read.
            I didn’t know what was inside the large notebook, but those two words got me thinking – that’s the point, isn’t it? 
            It is to experience Grace, ourselves, and for others to experience Grace through us. 

            Where, When, in whom do you “experience Grace”?

            I’m thinking about these two words today in part because of the parable before us, the parable which we often call “The unforgiving Servant.”   
            And to me, reading the parable, it’s pretty clear that this servant did NOT experience Grace.
             Or at least that’s what it seems like.  This story is troubling in so many ways. 
            The behavior of the servant is shocking and cruel, especially after his master forgives him so much.    
            And it might not be clear from our translation just how much the servant is forgiven.  What did we just hear?   
            The servant owed the master 10,000 talents.  That seems like a large amount of money – but do you know how much one talent is worth? 
            One talent is about 15 year’s worth of wages for a common laborer.  Think about that.
            And what the slave initially says to the master is, “be patient with me, and I will pay everything back.” 
            And, let’s be honest here, there’s no hope that he will be able to do that.  Unless he wins the lottery, which they didn’t have at Jesus’ time. 
            So he asks for patience, and he gets something much more – his master forgives him the whole enormous debt. 

            He gets grace. 

            But it seems like he doesn’t really “get it”.

            Because after receiving this incredible news, this unbelievable blessing, that his whole unpayable debt is gone and he is free – he goes out and shakes down the first servant who owes him one hundred denarius (and one denarius was about a day’s wage
             He even has the other servant thrown in prison. 

            It’s impossible to know what was going through this servant’s mind. 
            Could he still be trying to pay back that impossible debt, even though it’s gone?
             Or could he be thinking that now that he’s free and clear, now is the time for him to get a little ahead.  Or something else entirely?
             This servant has been given Grace --  which is extravagant forgiveness – but he somehow doesn’t get it.

            Where – or when  -- or how have you experienced Grace?

            I think that this story is also troubling because what the servant should do in this case is so obvious – it’s so clear – that it doesn’t seem possible that anyone would react this way. 
            How could anyone be forgiven millions of dollars in debt – and not be transformed by this experience? 

            Of course, you receive forgiveness, and you pass that forgiveness along.

            But in truth, we know, that this parable is a story.  It tells us the truth, but we also know that forgiveness is not always so easy or obvious, that some offenses are not just a hundred denarius.    
            I will always remember one Sunday morning in my first congregation. 

            I remember that the gospel reading was on Forgiveness – and I had, sometime during the week, decided that I was going to preach on one of the other lessons, because (for some reason) I didn’t want to preach on forgiveness. 
            I don’t even remember why I thought that. 

            And there I was, with my fine sermon in front of me, and I got up in the pulpit and in front of me sat a mom whose young son had been beaten up for $2.00. 
            Two bucks he had to buy treats for the 4th of July. 
            His leg had been broken in 3 places and he had to spend the rest of the summer in a cast.  And the other boys – there were 2 or three – none of them had called to even say “I’m sorry.” 
            All of this happened in rural South Dakota.   Should she forgive them?  What would you do? 

            So forgiveness is not so easy to practice.  Is it?  It’s complicated and messy, and even though we know we have been forgiven, it is not automatic.

            But this parable does tell us some truths about forgiveness.  And the first truth this parable tells us is that forgiveness is a gift.  And that the gift of forgiveness  -- of grace – from God is a gift almost unfathomable in its depth and breadth and height ….
             Wait – not “almost”  according to the parable,
            it’s like being forgiven millions of dollars, it’s a gap that can never ever be closed. 
            Do we even think this way? 
            That there is a uncloseable gap between God and us – and that Jesus has closed it by his death and resurrection.  And there’s no way we can pay it back. 
            Don’t even try.   Don’t even try.

            There’s no way we can pay it back.  But you know what – we can pay it forward.   Forgiven people – forgive people.
             Loved people – serve people.
             That’s another truth of the parable – that the King who forgives the slave – expects that slave to pay it forward – expects the slave who has experienced grace – to help other people to experience it too.

            When, where, in whom have you experienced -- Grace? 

            A number of years ago I was visiting at the hospital. 
            Somehow I had gotten my car into a small space, and when I tried to leave the parking ramp, the space was even smaller than I remembered.
             So I was having some difficulty trying to get out.  And as I was moving inch by inch I happened to bump another car.  While I had my head on the steering wheel in despair, I saw that the driver was in that car. 
            He actually helped me get out of the jam, and afterwards we exchanged numbers and I said that I would pay for any damage to his car. 
            But after a couple of weeks, I realized that he never called me.  “I think he forgave you,” was one opinion.

            When where, in whom have you experienced – Grace?

            Have you received a smile in return for a harsh word, an unexpected gift, a hand up when you were down?  Have you seen something beautiful in the darkness? 
            Have you been welcomed when you never thought you would be?  Have you been forgiven when you did not deserve it?   
            Have you come to the table and had the bread of life put into your hands, your open hands, and heard the words, “The body of Christ is given for YOU?” 

            When, where, in whom – have you experienced Grace?

            Because Forgiveness is a gift that we have been given – but like every other gift from heaven – it is a gift meant to be shared. 

            And again, this is stewardship –stewardship of forgiveness – (because it was never ours to begin with) -- to take that grace we have experienced and to pass it along – to the weary and the hard-hearted, to the down and out and the up and coming, to the young and the old, to everyone who needs it.  70 X 7….

            It is not easy – O brothers and sisters – it is not easy – it’s not any easier than loosening our grip on our pocketbook –and we will fail a lot just like we fail at everything else that we practice. 
            But God picks us up and keeps pouring that Grace into our hearts, every single day.  

            So that the world – so that our neighbors – so that we – may experience Grace.