Pentecost 16 – Sunday, September 24, 2017

September 24, 2017  

Matthew 20:1-1

I was ordained September 27, 1986… that’s 31 years ago.

I am so grateful to be here today, in this place, serving you. I never really believed any of this could happen, let alone that it would.

My ordination service took place in the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, in Rockford, IL. I was baptized in that church. I was confirmed and took my first communion there. I was a member of Good Shepherd all my life, up until I received my first Call to be associate pastor down in Westby.

Last January I was invited to return to Rockford, to return to Good Shepherd to preach in celebration of the congregation’s 75th anniversary. As I wrote in a recent edition of the Messenger, my sermon had three points, each point based on something my parents taught me about what it means to be a follower of Christ.

We have adopted those three points as our theme for Stewardship this year: Go the Church! Give to Church! Be the Church!

Go the Church!

My parents taught me how important it is that we gather with a fellowship of believers. Really, the community that develops in congregations is vital to having a healthy life. Strength comes from being with others who accept you, who love you, who stand by you in the name of Jesus Christ, as servants. My parents still attend Good Shepherd Lutheran. My twin sister is a member there, along with her husband, daughter, and grandson. Whenever I return I feel like I’m at home. I see my high school Sunday School teacher, I see folks I sang in Youth Choir with, I get a hug from the mother of my first college roommate.

It was never a question in my parents’ household, we were going to church. Sundays. Wednesday nights. Thursday nights. Friday night. I remember as a child snuggling into my mother’s fur coat during a cold Lenten evening service. I remember biking across town to go to bible school. There was not a time I did not want to go to church… Because I could see, I could feel the love that was there for me. The same love is here for you. Whether this is your first time worshipping here, or your thousandth.

Give to Church!

I was taught to give generously. Give time. Give talent. Give money. My mother has written a check to her church every Sunday, sitting at her kitchen table, for as long as I can remember. Last January when I told that story at her church, she started to giggle. In the middle of my sermon. I later found out she wrote a check that morning, but forgot to bring it with her. The check was still sitting on the kitchen table.

 My family was active in church. I’ve said this in a sermon before. At one point in my home congregation’s life my father was president of the congregation, my mother was president of the Ladies Aid, and I was president of the youth group. Now my sister is a member of church council at the same church… give to church. Give time, Give talent. We need you and your expertise. Even if you aren’t an expert at anything, we need you here.

Be the Church!

In all that you say and do, know God lives. God speaks. God acts in and through you. God’s Work; Our Hands. So we are called to love one another.

Being the Church goes beyond us being here together. When we are the Church we are constantly examining who we are, what we do, what we say, asking if this is what a beloved Child of God would be, would do, would say.

Which is where our stewardship theme falls into today’s gospel message.

None of us would like it if we were working somewhere and we arrived at work on time, were guaranteed a certain amount of pay for a certain amount of time worked—and then we saw other people come to work late, really late, hardly put anytime into working, yet they get paid the same amount as you or me. It would be infuriating.

But the story is not really about people going to work and getting paid. The story is about God’s love for us.

God loves us all as much as God can. It does matter how much we Go to Church or Give to Church, or even how much we are Being the Church. God loves us as much as God possibly can. You can be like me, raised in the Church and devoted to it. Or you could be someone who walked into church for the first time today. God loves us equally. Which is to say ultimately—God’s love cannot be surpassed in power or might or thoroughness.

Our God is a generous God.

What we do in response to God’s generous love is to Go to Church. What we do in response to God’s generous love is to Give to Church. What we do in response to God’s generous love is to Be the Church.

We do these out of gratitude, not merit.

To Go, to Be, To Give—these are commitments made because, and only because, God so generously and gracefully loves us.

We welcome Ruby Eleanor into the Lord’s family today. As we do, we make promises to her. Parents and sponsors, you promise to raise her as a member of the Lord’s family, bringing her to church, teaching her about the faith we all share.

In support of you, we as a congregation make commitments. To help you teach Ruby. To love her and guide her. This is a family of faith. In Ruby’s name, and in the name of every person gathered here today we celebrate God’s love for every person. Always God will love her. Always God will love each of us.

Amen.

Pentecost 15 – Sunday, Sepetember 17, 2017

September 17, 2017  

Matthew 18:21-3

We are still answering the question about greatness.

Last week I told people the gospel we read was part of a long answer to a short question. The question: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

The answer, as I tried to illustrate last week, is complicated.

Martin Luther, in his sermon on this text, wrote that the slave should have paid his debt. It was a matter of justice for Luther. If you owe something to someone, you pay what you owe. Luther said that, if any of us were the king we would have expected to be paid back. And, if any of us were the slave, we would have carried the burden of our debt. The debt would have weighed on us enough, we would have wanted to pay it back (Luther, “Twenty-Second Sunday After Trinity” in Sermons on the Gospels, p. 356-369).

In the 21st century… I don’t think so. Debt is common. Most of us have debts we need to pay. We know we need to pay them. But it isn’t such a big deal to us that we have them. I’m not sure they weigh on us… although maybe they do. Particularly if money is tight or is absent… as it seemed to have been for the slave.

Knowing how common debt is in our lives, let me put this slave’s debt in perspective. He owed the king 10,000 talents. 10,000 talents is equivalent to $6 million for us.

The slave owed the king $6 million!!!

Knowing that, let’s ask: what kind of king allows someone to pile up a $6 million debt?

A mighty generous king!

The king didn’t just free the slave from debt. He also freed him. From slavery.

This is just a story—an illustration.

Jesus tells the disciples the story to illustrate his point.

Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

Those who forgive.

He is no fool, our Jesus. He understands human nature. He understands enough to know what the freed slave would do next. Jesus knew that slave would turn around and do to someone else exactly the opposite of what was done to him. He called in a debt. When the debtor couldn’t pay him, the freed slave had the debtor thrown in jail.

If you are inclined to want to judge this man—think again. Think again because, that freed slave is every man, and that freed slave is every woman, every person. He is you and he is me.

God promises us that EVERY DAY we will awake free people. We are free from the burden of our sins. We are free to begin again, we are free to start over, we are debt free. Yes, we sinned against God. Yes, we turned away from God. We sin, we turn away ALL THE TIME.

God promises us, when we sin, we are forgiven. God promises us, when we turn away God will turn back to us, not turn God’s back on us. That’s what God’s grace is all about. That’s what the gift of God’s grace means. We are free.

I’ve been ignoring the rest of the story. I don’t like the rest of the story. I don’t like that the king calls the freed slave back and has him tortured.

Matthew wrote that Jesus said “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I disagree with Matthew. I can’t imagine Jesus saying what Matthew said he said. I think Matthew was trying to make a point to his first century readers. I don’t like his point. He forgets, God gave Jesus to the world, not to condemn the world but to save it.

Luther wrote:

For as the sun shines and gives light none the less, although I close my eyes, so this mercy seat or forgiveness of sins stands forever, though I fall. And as I see the sun again as soon as I open my eyes, so I have forgiveness of sins again when I look up and again come to Christ (sermon for Twenty Second Sunday After Trinity).

God’s love is always there.

God’s grace is always there.

God’s promise, to forgive our sins, is real and that promise is constant and that promise is yours and that promise is mine.

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

None of us.

All of us.

God’s love is great.

God’s love makes us great.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pentecost 14 – Sunday, September 10, 2017

September 10, 2017  

Matthew 18:15 – 20

Let’s put these verses in their proper context.

Today’s gospel reading is part of the answer to a question the disciples asked Jesus.

Their question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mat. 18:1).

His answer, was long and complicated. The answer ENDS with the verses I just read. His answer begins with a few examples:

First, Jesus put a child among the disciples and said “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Second, Jesus warned the disciples not to become stumbling blocks to those who believe. He told them to cut off a hand or a foot if it caused someone to stumble – or to tear out an eye.

Third, Jesus told the disciples the parable of the lost sheep, telling the story of a shepherd who left 99 sheep unattended while he went in search of the one that was lost.

Jesus summarized those verses (all from chapter 18) by telling the disciples that the greatest of these is the least of these.

Then, and only then, did Jesus share the words of today’s reading. Then, and only then, did Jesus tell his disciples what to do if another member of the church sinned against them.

All of that, all of those points were an answer to the same question: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

According to Jesus, a discussion of “greatness” was a discussion about humility. And a discussion about humility is a discussion about what causes us each to stumble. And a discussion about what causes us each to stumble is a discussion about sin. Human sin.

Our sinfulness prevents us from ever being great.

We are all lost. Lost to sin – except for the loving presence of Jesus.

Jesus, our good shepherd, found us. And loved us. And freed us form our lost selves.

Jesus wants us to free each other from sins we commit, one against the other. Jesus encourages us to use a respectful, private process, naming each other’s sins gently.

In the verses that follow today’s reading, the disciples ask Jesus another question. They ask: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Jesus answers: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

None of this is really a conversation about greatness, or about humility, or about forgiveness, as much as it is a conversation about how to live as followers of Christ. If any of us want great lives… we must be humble. If any of us want to live in right relation with our friends and neighbors, we must forgive, again and again, over and over.

Remember when I said, a few weeks ago, “It’s not about me.”

Greatness is not about self. Greatness is about other. Greatness is about the other people in our lives, and how much we love them. How much we forgive them. How much we serve them.

Churches around the ELCA are, today, choosing to do God’s work. God’s work. Our hands.

We do God’s work when we feed the hungry on Tuesday nights.

We do God’s work when we clothe women from our Women’s Clothes Closet.

We do God’s work when we comfort the lonely, some of whom might be sick, some of whom are simply away form home – when we send them cards every month.

We do God’s work when we make quilts that are used by people around the word!

We do God’s work right here in our neighborhood, by providing a quiet, peaceful place for folks to sleep, to take shelter, to sit and to think in our Peace Garden.

We will do God’s work when we distribute Blessing Bags to folks whose basic needs aren’t getting met.

We will do all of those things this day, not because there is something in it for us, but because others need us. And because God is calling us to serve. To work. To love. To forgive. To comfort. To feed. To clothe. To bring peace.

Amen.

Pentecost 13 – Sunday, September 3, 2017

September 3, 2017  

Jeremiah 15:15-21

I was on the phone talking to my twin sister. This was years ago, when her kids were little. Her son, my godson, kept interrupting our phone conversation. He sounded distressed, like he was in pain. My sister told me that he had been wrestling with one of his friends when he got hurt. His friend threw my nephew to the ground. Somehow, in the process of getting thrown to the ground, one of my nephew’s toe nails was torn half off his toe. It hurt when it happened and continued to hurt hours later. My nephew wanted his mom to “fix it.”

I suggested duct tape.

Duct tape fixes everything… except toenails, I guess.

Children tend to think parents can fix things. Children tend to think parents just know.

The prophet Jeremiah said to God “O Lord, you know…”

In the old Revised Standard Bible the verse is written “O Lord, thou knowest…”

Thou knowest.

Imagine if your child came up to you and said “Thou knowest.”

Jeremiah was praying.

He was saying to God “You know me… You know who I am… I am not a stranger to you… I am familiar…”

O Lord, thou knowest.”

Jeremiah felt persecuted. I think it sounds like he was lonely. The son of a priest, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, Jeremiah lived 5 to 6 hundred years before the time of Jesus. Jeremiah never married. He spent his life in service to God, as a prophet.

Scripture makes it pretty clear, Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet. He felt he had no choice. God’s word burned in is heart, compelling him to speak God’s will to his people, the people of Israel.

The Israelites had gone through a time of changes. Where they were once devoted to one God, they were, in Jeremiah’s time, worshipping other gods as well. Jeremiah believed his people had forsaken God. He believed God was punishing them for their infidelity.

Truth told, the Israelites were suffering. Because of their rebellion (according to Jeremiah), their land was taken from them. They were being deported… exiled from their homeland.

Although always faithful, Jeremiah suffered with his people. He anguished with and for them. He believed they were choosing to reject the very God who could save them. He believed God could and would save the Israelites, if only they would turn themselves around. If only they would repent.

Nobody seemed to be listening to Jeremiah. He felt alone. He felt persecuted by both friend and enemy. And so Jeremiah prayed “O Lord, thou knowest.”

O Lord, you know…”

Jeremiah believed God knew what was going on, that God could fix what was happening because, according to Jeremiah, God was the cause of it all.

It is interesting… as a prophet Jeremiah was speaking to his people on behalf of God. He was speaking God’s words, painful words calling people out for their sin. God’s words left Jeremiah living alone, feeling alone, and suffering. Yet, Jeremiah continued to trust God.

Jeremiah knew God could “fix it.”

Jeremiah prayed “Remember me…visit me…”

Take care of me, God.

Make them stop.

Fix it.

Jeremiah asked God “Are you like a spring brook that rushes through the field with plenty of water, only to dry up in the heat of summer, leaving me with nothing?”

Imagine that you are the faithful one, you are the devoted one, you are the one that followed all the rules and never rebelled… AND YET you are the one who is alone. To make it all worse, you feel alone and forsaken BECAUSE you were faithful. Because you were devoted.

God said to Jeremiah “I am with you.”

God said to Jeremiah “I am with you to save you.”

God said to Jeremiah “I am with you to save you and deliver you.”

God said to Jeremiah “I will deliver you.”

God said to Jeremiah “I will redeem you.”

God made promises to Jeremiah.

I believe Jeremiah already knew those promises. I believe Jeremiah never stopped believing in those promises. How do I know? Because Jeremiah said so.

Jeremiah said so when he prayed to God, saying “O Lord, thou knowest.”

O Lord, you know.”

God has made the same promises to us that God made to Jeremiah.

God tells us:

I am with you.

I am with you to save you.

I am with you to save you and deliver you.

I will deliver you.

I will redeem you.

God knows us.

God saves us.

God loves us.

God knows us. God saves us. God loves us.

This was, this is, and this will always be true.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pentecost 12 – Sunday, August 27, 2017

August 27, 2017  

Matthew 16:13-20

Peter.

Cephas.

Petra

The Rock.

Peter has become such a common name in our Western Culture, we might tend to want to think it has been around forever. We might even be fooled into believing that Peter was the name of the disciple we hear about in our gospel reading today. After all, Jesus called him Peter… or did he?

The disciple’s real name was Simon or Simeon, known as the son of Jonah. Jesus never actually called this disciple Peter, Jesus called the disciple Cephas (in Aramaic), which would be Petra in Greek. The Greek word Petra means “Rock.”

Essentially, Simon had a nickname: Petra or Rock. It was not a common name (or a common nickname).

If we were to translate part of today’s reading correctly, it would read that Jesus said to Simon “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my church.”

This disciple, Rock, according to Jesus would be the foundation of the Church. He was Rock, the foundation of Christ’s Church.

For Christians, for Jews, and for Muslims, Jerusalem in thought to be the center of the world. The Temple in Jerusalem was built on a rock. That rock is preserved by all three traditions, sometimes it has been and is fought over. Originally, Muhammed prayed, not in the direction of Mecca, but in the direction of Jerusalem. In the direction of the rock.

As Christians we don’t worship to or pray to our Rock… That would mean praying to Peter, to Petra, to Cephas… to Simon Son of Jonah. But we do honor this man Jesus called Rock, knowing him as the foundation of the Church of Christ.

Jesus believed the Church, founded on Peter, would be the center of our world. The question is, what did Jesus anticipate the Church would be?

Including all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the word “Church” is found only twice. In Greek the word is Ekklesia. It is used in this reading we have from the 16th chapter of Matthew, and it is used again in Matthew’s 18th chapter.

The Greek word Ekklesia literally means “called out.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Usually we think we come into church. Jesus called the church out. Specifically, he called Peter out. He called out Rock. Our Rock. Our foundation.

Remember, Jesus said to Simon son of Jonah “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church.”

Built on Rock, our church stands.

This church, Our Savior’s. Possessive. We belong to our Savior.

We are Called Out.

Do we come to church to be Called Out?

Interesting, isn’t it? We are the Church, we are Called Out, in noun form. We are called out as an adjective, as a description of the noun. Called Out (name) is called out (adjective).

Meaning we, the Church, are told to leave this place.

Where are we supposed to go?

Outside ourselves! We, as the Church are called to move outside of ourselves, into the world to celebrate the good news of Jesus Christ.

It is a hard message (get it, Rock/hard)… J

This is a difficult message. So often we come to church to get something, to feel something. We come because we need something. And we do… we need prayer. We need forgiveness. We need grace. We need healing. We need love. We need peace. We need joy. We need community. We need safety. We need sanctuary…

Jesus gives us all of those things. As children of God, followers of Jesus we are given those things. Thanks be to God!

But then—Jesus literally Calls Us Out!

We need prayer; we need to be praying.

We need forgiveness; we need to be forgiving.

We need grace; we need to be graceful.

We need healing; we need to heal.

We need love; we need to be loving.

We need peace; we need to be peaceful.

We need joy; we need to be joyful.

We need community; we need to be community.

We need safety; we need to be a safe place.

We need sanctuary; we need to provide sanctuary to others.

Built on Rock… we become Rock for others, we become the Church.

Called Out.

That’s who we are.

That is what we are.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pentecost 11 – Sunday, August 20, 2017

August 20, 2017  

Matthew 15:21-2

She was doing what any mother might do. Or father. She was acting on behalf of her child. Her daughter was, as it is written in Matthew she said “being tormented by a demon” (Mat. 15:22). Obviously, the woman wanted her daughter healed.

Today’s gospel reading tells us Jesus was in Phoenicia, which was part of Syria. In ancient times the people living in Phoenicia were known as Canaanites. Canaanites preceded Jews and later, were not Jews. They did not worship the God of the Chosen People. They worshipped other gods… depending on the tribe they belonged to.

The mother was a Canaanite. It is important for us to note, she was in her home territory. She was the insider. She might have been poor, she might have been rich. She was probably married. And she was advocating for her daughter.

Jesus was outside his home territory. Born in Bethlehem, Jesus was a descendant of David, a Jew. We don’t know why Jesus traveled outside of his own territory, if in fact he did. The details of the story might have been manufactured by Matthew to prove a point. Whatever the truth is—we know Matthew tells us Jesus, an outsider, was confronted by an anonymous woman, an insider. And he turned the tables on her. And then she turned the tables back on him.

Early Christian believers, the first to hear this story as told by Matthew, would have been shocked by the details. Early Christian believers were mostly Jewish, mostly like Jesus, descendants of David. They believed Jesus, the Messiah, had come to fulfill the promise God made to the Jews. A promise made to the House of David. God promised the first Hebrew, Abraham, that God would save Abraham’s children from centuries of suffering. The promise was made to them—not to pagans. The promise was for them—not for Canaanites.

When Jesus ignored the anonymous Canaanite woman he did exactly what any other descendant of David would have done. He wasn’t intending to be mean. He wasn’t intending to be exclusive.

The story feels mean. It feels exclusive.  I don’t like what I see Jesus do in this story. I don’t like his initial response to the Canaanite woman. Good thing this sermon is not about me! It is about Jesus. And an anonymous Canaanite woman.

“Never the less, she persisted” (to quote the senior Senator from Kentucky).

The Canaanite woman’s daughter was being tormented by a demon. Of course she persisted. The woman was in Mama Bear mode. She was fighting for her young.

So when Jesus said to the disciples who had encouraged him to send her away “I was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (vs. 24) she went and knelt before him and she said “Lord, help me” (vs. 25).

No arguing. No yelling. She knelt before him, submissive, and didn’t ask but said “Lord, help me.”

Which is when Jesus finally seemed to have heard her. Jesus recognized her faith in him. Her faith. The faith of someone outside the tradition. Finally he replied “Let it be done for you.”

Let it be done.

There is much that can be said about insiders and outsiders, about power and might, about persistence and faith. I want to say a few words about persistence. Let’s put those words in the context of baptism.

We are about to baptize Leo Mark. Baptism is an ancient Christian practice that has all the trappings of a cultic rite. The language goes back thousands of years. The same with the actions… three times I will wash Leo’s head with water as I say I am baptizing him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I will mark him with the sign of the cross, a seal placed on his forehead. It all sounds rather exclusive, like he is joining a secret club.

He is joining a family, a community of faith. This family, this community of faith is intended to be anything BUT exclusive.

ALL are welcome here.

All are welcome. Always and forever.

Jesus was clear when he stated, according to Matthew, that we should “go and make Disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (28:19).

For centuries, Christians have persisted. They have persisted at sharing the good news, that Jesus loves us and he loves the world. All the world.

Leo has two parents and two godparents who will promise this morning to persist! To raise him in his family of faith. To teach him. To prepare him to live life, knowing he is loved and protected not just by them, but by God.

We as a congregation make a commitment to Leo, to be his family. To love him. To teach him. To always welcome him.

These are the promises we have made to every child or adult baptized here. These are the promises we must be certain we embrace in all that we say and all that we do. And then we take those promises and we share them with others—even those most unlike ourselves.

That is the challenge of this story. That we constantly push on and push at any boundaries anyone tries to place on the Christian faith. We must be persistent. We must not allow people to speak in our name if they are trying to define Christianity as anything other than open and loving and all embracing.

Let it be done, to echo the words of Jesus.

Let it be done.

Amen. 

Pentecost 10 – Wednesday, August 16, 201

August 16, 2017  

2 Samuel 17:17-27, 31-5

It’s a great story.

Having heard me read it, now listen to the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, as explained in the Small Catechism.

We pray:
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
We ask:
What does this mean?
Martin Luther’s response:
The good and gracious will of God is surely done without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may be done also among us.
We ask:
When does this happen?
Martin Luther’s response:
God’s will is done when God hinders and defeats every evil scheme and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful self, which would prevent us from keeping God’s name holy and would oppose the coming of God’s kingdom.
And God’s will is done when God strengthens our faith and keeps us firm in God’s Word as long as we live.
This is God’s gracious and good will.

Thy will be done

Are we, as God’s children, ready to serve God’s will? Are we ready to follow God’s desires wherever those desires lead us?

We see what is happening in our world. We see what is happening in our society. We see what is happening in our communities. What does God desire that we do?

David was ready to stand against, to DARE Goliath. Goliath’s power and might were, literally huge. Goliath was a champion of the Philistines. The Philistines were followers of other gods, pagan gods.

Goliath stood as tall as four men. He wore a bronze helmet and coat. Even his legs were protected with bronze. His shield was so heavy it had to be carried for him.

This huge man stood before David. David wore no armor. David’s only weapon was a sling, and five smooth stones. David trusted in the living God to protect him. David KNEW God would give him the power to kill Goliath and cut off his head.

Prejudice, racism, inequality—those things have a long history, not just in the United States but in the world. I try to imagine the ugliest monster I can… and I have a vivid imagination… but I cannot imagine a monster as ugly as prejudice. Prejudice is a monster; prejudice is a disease; prejudice is an evil. As followers of Jesus we need to fight prejudice every way we can. There is no place in God’s kingdom for prejudice to live.

The battle against prejudice can seem overwhelming. We might feel like David, a little man standing in the face of a well-protected giant. We might think there is nothing we can do to defeat this evil. Or we might think it is none of our business.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Prejudice, the deliberate act of pre-judging someone based on a superficial condition—it is not God’s will. God’s will, God’s way is clear. God reaches out to the world with love. Love is the antithesis of prejudice. Love and prejudice are opposites and they don’t attract!

As we battle this mighty enemy, we need to trust that God will equip us and bring victory to our side. We can stand against racism and prejudice confidently, knowing God is with us, empowering us, strengthening us…

God is love. Love will triumph. God had shown us this is true, throughout history. God has promised us this will be true, now and forever more.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost 10 – Sunday, August 13, 2017

August 13, 2017  

Matthew 14:22-33

I was reading posts on the “ELCA Clergy” Facebook page a few days ago, when I ran across the following story posted by a Pastor from Texas. He wrote:

Some years back in what seems a different life the football team in town hung out Wednesday nights in the gym of a church I was serving. I think it was because we had the cheapest pizza around and I always ordered too much so they could eat more.

One day they walked in with these shirts on. They were grey with huge black letters that said INAM.

I asked them what it meant. They said it didn’t matter and wouldn’t say much more. Finally one kid that I confirmed pulled me aside and said “If you really want to know I’ll tell you later.” I said I didn’t really if it was that big a deal. He grinned and said “Pastor, fine. I don’t really want to tell you. Because, if you think about it, it’s not about you.”

The pastor wrote Took me two days. It’s not about me. INAM.

It’s not about me.

Here’s the thing. AS I’ve thought about this story I’ve gone back and forth, back and forth. A huge part of me wants to scream “It is about you!” And “It is about me!”

Particularly when I see what is happening in the world, when I see what is happening in society, when I see what is happening in our communities, when I see what is happening in our lives, in places like Charlottesville, VA. I want to scream “It is about you!” and “It is about me!”– it is about us if what we are doing is wrong. If what we are doing is sinful. If what we are doing is unkind. If what we are doing is disrespectful. If what we are doing hurts, if what we are doing denies, if what we are doing kills people!

It is about us if what we are doing is racist, if what we are doing is sexist, if what we are doing is elitist or exclusionary. It IS about us if what we are doing is saying that some people are better than other people, if what we believe is that some people ought to have privileges other people don’t get.

It is about us; it is about our need to repent.

Then I think those t-shirts were right. I think “It isn’t about me.” I think “It isn’t about you.” I think “It isn’t about us.” It is and always must be about Jesus. Particularly, I think this when I see what is happening in the world, when I see what is happening in society, when I see what is happening in our communities, when I see what is happening in our lives. It is about our need to see, to really see Jesus for who he was and who he is in our lives and in the world, and then to share who he was and who he is with others. It is about our need to share Jesus’ message of love. It is about our need to share Jesus’ message of hope. It is about our need to share the miracle of Jesus’ presence in the world, in society, in our communities. To share his words of grace. To share his forgiveness.

The disciples were in a boat without Jesus. It was night-time. Their boat was being battered by waves. They were far from land. The wind was against them.

It had to have been a long night.

Early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them ON the sea. Walking ON the water. When the disciples first saw him they thought he was a ghost. They were terrified! They cried out!

Immediately, Jesus spoke to them.

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus said “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

And Jesus said “Come.”

And Peter got out of the boat and started walking, ON THE WATER.

But then he noticed the wind. Then Peter became afraid. Then he started to sink. And he cried out “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.

It’s not about Peter. It’s about Jesus.

Then again, it is about Peter.

If our salvation depended on us we would all be sunk. There is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, nothing we can be other than completely dependent on Jesus.

Our dependence on Jesus does not and never will excuse our bad behavior. Nor will it excuse our ambivalence in the face of the bad behavior of others. Our silence. Our complacence.

Our dependence on Jesus doesn’t eliminate the need to repent of our sins and reach out to Jesus, begging for forgiveness. Begging for newness of heart. Begging for the ability to see and to know and to care about the suffering of others, to care enough to speak up and to do, to act, to recognize our privilege and to let it go…

We will be forgiven. We ARE forgiven. Just as we are called to forgive others. We are called to LOVE others. All others.

If we were to all go around with t-shirts on that read INAM we would have it half right, it is not about me. It is not about you. It is not about us. Our lives of faith are always and must always be about Jesus and all Jesus has done for us, in us and through us.

But, it is about us when we open our hearts and lives to serve him. It is about us when we seek to be disciples of Jesus, loving the world. It is about our success and our failures. It is about our weaknesses and our strengths. It is about our commitment to keep reaching out to Jesus and then, beyond Jesus, to the world. It is about us, and our need to do better. To be better. It is about us. Jesus made it about us when he died and rose again, for us and for our salvation. Jesus made it about every child of his kingdom. Every person.

Always and forever.

Amen.

Pentecost 9 – Sunday, August 6, 2017

August 6, 2017  

Matthew 14:13-2

There’s a sneaky preface to our gospel reading this morning; there’s a reference to the personal life of Jesus that folks tend to gloss over to get to the point of the reading.
Jesus was grieving.

When we read the story of the feeding of the 5,000, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Of course we do! Jesus fed 5,000 people with just a little bread and fish. That is a story worth telling.

What we might not notice is that the story begins with a quick bit of information. Jesus had just heard news of something, news that made him want to find a place to be alone. What did he hear?

The verses prior to the ones we have as a reading today tell us. John the Baptist had just been killed. Murdered. Brutally murdered by King Herod, who had John’s head placed on a platter as a gift. When John’s disciples told Jesus the news, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matt. 14:13).

Some translations of the text say Jesus went to a “private place.” Others say he went to a “solitary place.” The point is, Jesus wanted to be alone.

Jesus was grieving.

Jesus didn’t get much time to himself. He wasn’t given much time to grieve. The crowds needing him, followed him.

The good news is, even in his grief, Jesus loved them. Jesus had compassion for the people in the crowd who followed him. Because of his compassionate heart, because of his love—Jesus chose to heal those who were sick, and he fed everyone.

The 5,000 people that followed Jesus (and imagine for a moment, being followed by 5,000 people!) did not ask Jesus to feed them. Jesus saw their need. Jesus said to his disciples “…give them something to eat (Matt 14:16).

It is written in the book of 1 John

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that [God] loved us…” (1 John 4:7-9).

Martin Luther, in his commentary on 1 John wrote “These are simple words, but they are words that require faith in the highest degree” (Luther’s Works, vol. 30, p. 301).

God is love.

Another scholar wrote about 1 John chapter 4 “God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no reason other than that love is the very nature of God that is knowable by human beings” (NIB vol. 12, p.433).
What does this mean? The scholar writes that it means “love looks like Jesus.”

Love looks like Jesus.

Love looks like Jesus, who in a moment of intense personal loss and grief set aside his own needs to tend to the needs of those needing him.
Love looks like Jesus who, sent by God, tended to our greatest need: salvation.
Love looks like Jesus, who said to God “Not my will but thy will be done” as he surrendered himself to the cross.

Love looks like Jesus.

God’s love was made perfect in and through Jesus.

Like us, the church I served in Houghton, MI years ago has communion every Sunday. One of the members there once told me that, if there was one thing I did consistently in my sermons from Sunday to Sunday—it was to tell people God loved them.
I had a seminary professor who reminded me when I was a student, even if I am saying the words “God loves you” for the millionth time, there might be someone present who is hearing those words for the first time.

God loves you.
Love looks like Jesus.

When I bless children at communion I say a few different things, depending on the child. Most often I say “God loves you.” I mark them with the sign of their baptism, a cross on their forehead, and I say “This is the sign of your baptism and it means God loves you.”

There were identical twin girls, little girls worshipping in the church I served in Houghton. Their names were Rebecca and Stephanie. Every Sunday their mom brought them to church. Every Sunday I marked them with the sign of the cross and told them God loves them. One Sunday, I marked Rebecca with the sign of the cross and told her God loves her. Then I marked Stephanie with the sign of the cross and told her God loved her. Then Stephanie looked me straight in the eye and loudly proclaimed “God loves you, too.” Her words washed over me, filling me with joy. God does love me. God is love.
Luther wrote “Indeed, God is nothing else than love… all God’s blessings flow from love” (LW, vol. 30, p. 300).

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Pentecost 8 – Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 30, 2017  

Matthew 13:44-52

This morning’s sermon is a parable. I wrote the story, based on our gospel text. I won’t interpret the story for you. It is for you, to take and ponder in your heart. Let it mean what it means to you…

Her mornings were the same. The little girl always
(well not always, but as close to always as you can be to make it ok to say always)

Anyway, the little girl always woke up quietly. She woke up wanting to be hugged and held. She woke up wanting to sit in one of her parents’ laps. She woke up wanting to be loved. Her parents knew this about her. And so one of her parents was always there. In the morning. Holding her.

When she was ready to face the day, the little girl would sit up straight in her parent’s lap. She would turn quickly toward her parent and kiss whoever it was smack dab on the lips, passionately. “Mmm-wa” she made a loud kissing sound. Then she was off, ready to begin the rest of her day.

Her days were always an adventure. Not a go-to-the-dells-and-swim kind of adventure. Each day was an adventure of her making. No matter where she was, at a grandparents’ house or at home or at day care, the little girl did the same thing. She looked for treasure.

No one knows how the little girls learned what the meaning of “treasure” was. Maybe from a movie. Maybe from a book someone read to her. Maybe from a bible story she learned. The fact was, she had her “treasures.” And she treasured each one, just for a day.

One particular day, the little girl got out of bed, snuggled with one of her parents, kissed her parent passionately, and then jumped from her parent’s lap. Her parent helped her get dressed. Her parent fed her breakfast. Then the little girl marched to the back door, ready to pen it and go outside. He parents asked her what she was doing. The little girl said she was going on a treasure hunt “out back.” The parent said “ok.” Off she went.

The little girl dug in the sandbox. There was no treasure. She systematically searched each of her toys, picking each up, turning each one over in her hands, setting each one back down. None of them satisfied her. She wandered through the yard. No treasure. The little girl walked over to her little-girl sized table and sat down.

The little girl put her elbow on the table. She put her chin in the palm of the hand on the arm with the elbow on the table.

There was no treasure. Nothing she had found yet, anyway. But, she was determined. She WOULD find a treasure. She knew: every day she found a treasure. Every day, she knew what her treasure was as soon as she found it.

One of her parents stood at the sink doing dishes, watching through the kitchen window as the little girl searched. The parent watched her sit at the table. The parent could tell, that day’s treasure hunt was taking time. As the parent watched the parent saw the little girl get up from the table and walk to a tree. The parent saw her look up into the tree. The parent saw the little girl hug the tree. Then the parent saw the little girl let go, slowly walking back to her table. She sat down. She put her chin in the palm of the hand on the arm with the elbow she placed on the table.

The tree was not her treasure.

The little girl’s treasures changed, day from day. One day it was a blue marble. One day paper dolls. One day she treasured the dog, making a crown for his head, hugging him, running around the yard with him, taking her nap with him in his bed, both of them covered by her favorite blanket. Each day, the little girl gave all of herself to her treasure.

On this particular day, with no treasure to be found, the little girl watched her parent bring a laundry basket full of wet clothes outside, to the clothesline. The parent started hanging up the wet clothes. The little girl just sat, watching.

The next thing you know, the little girl was clinging to her parent’s legs. She wrapped her arms around both legs, holding her parent as tightly as she could. She pressed her face up against her parent’s legs, her eyes squeezed shut.

Her parent said “What are you doing?”
The little girl did not answer, she just squeezed tightly.
The parent said again “What are you doing?” Laughing.

Holding onto her parent’s legs the little girl pulled her head back, looking straight into her parent’s eyes. Then she kissed her parent’s knees, loudly. “Mmm-wa!”

The little girl let go, reaching her arms up. The parent leaned over, picking up the little girl.

“Thank you” the parent said.

“For what?” the little girl asked. “Thank you for being my treasure. Always. Forever.”

The little girl said “But you are my treasure today!”

The parent said “I know. And you are mine. Always. Forever. I love you.”

“I love you, too” said the little girl. “I love you too.”

Amen.

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