I Don’t Know

Amos 8:4-7 ~ 1 Timothy 2:1-7 ~ Luke 16:1-13

This is one of those Sundays when the lectionary-based preacher wishes she had planned her vacation more carefully. For the preacher in a setting where several people might share the preaching duties, this would surely be the Sunday when the senior pastor assigns preaching to one of the associates. Or if the pastor’s lucky enough to be supervising an intern, this is a great week to offer her an excellent growth opportunity in preaching!

Since I didn’t take vacation and have no associates or intern, I had no choice but to work with what the lectionary offered. I’m called to preach God’s word to you, and always to find God’s grace in the word. So as I began to consider a sermon for today, I thought I might focus on the Old Testament reading from Amos, or the pastoral advice from First Timothy…but no, that wouldn’t be right. You deserve the chance to hear your preacher, your new pastor, stumble around with the crazy parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel.

It’s hard to figure out what Jesus means by this parable. He tells a story that seems to feature a manager defrauding the owner of the business for his own gain. It seems the manager hasn’t been doing his job very well— probably wasteful and inefficient. So when he finds out he’s about to get sacked, he comes up with a plan to provide for himself. He invites the folks who owe money to the boss to reduce their debt—they get a free discount and he gains friends who’ll take care of him in the future… of course at the boss’s expense.

I’ve heard a parable described as a story about something ordinary, with a surprise or twist that leads us to experience reality in a new way, maybe even transforming our daily life.

The setup of this parable sounds like a pretty ordinary scenario: a guy’s trying to look out for himself, and sometimes that happens at the expense of someone else. But there’s definitely a “surprise or twist!”   When the owner of the business found out what his erstwhile manager had been up to, he commended him. Instead of a reprimand, or worse, the guy gets kudos for “acting shrewdly.” Then Jesus piles on some commentary to the parable, inviting his listeners to “make friends…by means of dishonest—or worldly– wealth…”

Is this really Jesus talking??? Jesus, the Jewish rabbi who advocates love and keeping the law—including the 10 commandments…including #7: you shall not steal…

So I studied it, prayed with it, looked at different translations, read what other, far more accomplished, scholars have said about it. And some people offered some pretty creative explanations involving the social mo-res of the time, the system of honor and shame in the first century Middle east, and a kind of Robin Hood approach: because the system was corrupt, always favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, the shrewd manager could be commended for equalizing the wealth: reducing the debt owed to the landowner may have decreased his wealth, but since he had more than enough, it was fair to make him share with those who were poorer.

Usually after I spend some time wrestling with the text, something rises to the top for me. Some point that seems to be the right thing for the congregation to hear right now. And while I struggled with this lesson, some themes seemed to make sense…but nothing felt really right.

And then I had that lightbulb moment…maybe     it would be OK to tell you that sometimes I don’t know what to make of a text. Years of reading and studying the Bible before seminary, intensive study of old and New Testament during seminary, almost 80 sermons preached in the last 3 years…and I don’t know what God’s trying to tell us with this text.

I HOPE     you won’t change your mind…after all, I’m not yet ordained and installed “officially” as your pastor. But there’s one thing you can count on with me…I’ll never make something up when I don’t have the answer to a question or problem. I’ll always do my best to work it out, or guide a process of working something out together. If I don’t know, I’ll say “I don’t know.”

So the grace-full lesson that I finally discerned from this text, for this Sunday at St. Peter, is that sometimes…we just     don’t       know!

Our church body, the ELCA, tells us that scripture is “inspired” by God. When we use the word “Inspired”, it means more than the brief definition I found in Webster’s: “very good or clever.” When we talk about scripture being inspired, it’s actually a reference to the Holy Spirit. The oldest meaning of inspire is “breathe”…so we might say that scripture is breathed into us by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit breathed God’s word into the people who first wrote it down thousands of years ago. And remember it was written down in ancient languages that most of us wouldn’t know how to read: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. It was written down using tools that we might not recognize today: chisels on stone, sharp blades or quills on sheepskin or parchment. And for many hundreds of years, if another copy was needed, that copy was made by hand.

And copies by hand, aren’t usually perfect…even if the copyist is also inspired or breathed on by the Holy Spirit. In fact, I brought my Greek new testament so show you something…I know you can’t see detail from where you’re sitting, but take a look at this page. The top portion of the page is the text, written in Greek. The bottom portion is a series of notes, advising the reader that what’s written above is really just scholars’ educated guess at what the “original” version said. Most of what’s written in the Bible, the inspired Word of God, might possibly say something else. No one can be sure. And we haven’t even gotten to translation yet, taking the original Hebrew or Greek and turning it into our King James or New Revised Standard Version or “The Message”…

So, I’ve shared a little lesson in in interpreting ancient texts. From this I hope you’ll remember 2 things. First, I believe the “inspiration” is ongoing. God didn’t just inspire the original writers of Holy Scripture. Each ancient scribe, making a copy of what had already been written down…each translator…each READER…each preacher…can be breathed on by the Holy Spirit. That’s why there isn’t just ONE sermon to preach on a given text. If there were, my job would be a lot easier. Look up the text, and preach the same message that was offered 3 years ago the last time this lesson came up in the lectionary.

That’s also why each listener takes something different away from the sermon. This hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard preachers describe a conversation with someone in the congregation after worship…the listener talks about how the sermon touched him…and is saying something completely different from what the pastor thought her sermon was saying. Each of you is listening with ears and heart inspired by the Holy Spirit—so you’ll receive the word that you need to hear. God is breathing even now.

The other important thing to hear is that its OK if we don’t always have the answers. Sometimes we don’t hear the Spirit breathing…and that’s OK. And that’s where I think God’s grace is today. We can accept that there will be times when we just won’t know the answer. We do the best we can, reading, praying, studying…but sometimes we just have to wait for the breath of the spirit to come…or wait until we’re ready to hear it. AMEN

September 18, 2016, St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton OH

Lost…and found!

Exodus 32:7-14 ~ 1 Timothy 1:12-17 ~ Luke 15:1-10

These days I get lost a lot. Last winter, after I had come here to St. Peter to supply for a couple of weeks, I was excited that I could find my way without launching the GPS on my phone. But now that I’m here regularly and exploring the community and trying to find out where many of you live, I’m back to needing that GPS.

Whether you use a GPS, a map, or you just have a great innate sense of direction, these kinds of getting “lost” aren’t usually too much of a problem. You might run late for an appointment, you might feel frustrated or embarrassed or occasionally even frightened, but usually its not too hard to get back on track—even if sometimes we do have to make the dreaded stop at a gas station to help get our bearings.

I have a pastor friend who has to be feeling pretty lost right now. We were in seminary together, and after we graduated she was called to serve a congregation in western Kentucky. She was excited about the call, but I know it was an adjustment for her to leave Florida where she had made her home for most of her adult life. But God was really calling her to this congregation, and besides, it was closer to her roots in the Midwest.

A couple of years ago, back while we were in seminary, her dad died, and as you might expect, it was a tough loss for her.

Then early this summer, her mom found out she had cancer, and after a brief struggle, she succumbed in late August. My friend was busy grieving the loss of her dear mother just a few years after her father’s death… when the unthinkable happened. Her only child, her son,              died shortly after her mom’s funeral.

Talk about lost. She’s single, and with her son and both parents dead, everyone she was close to in this world was gone. She’s living on her own in a town that still must feel a bit strange after just a year. That’s a kind of lost that none of us would ever want to have to experience.

There’s one more way I want to think about being lost. This kind of falls into the category of “preaching to the choir”, but we have to think about those who are lost because they don’t know Jesus. Think about all the ways you use the tools of your faith to help in your life…maybe you have some favorite bible passages that you turn to when things are tough. Or maybe you look forward to the chance to come together with your brothers and sisters in Christ on Sunday mornings. Or maybe it’s knowing that folks here at St. Peter are praying for you when you’re having troubles.

There’s no way I’d want to contemplate life without the toolkit that my faith gives to me,       but we know there are lots of folks who haven’t opened that toolkit, haven’t taken advantage of the good things that God offers us.

Speaking of lost, it’s too bad the shepherd in today’s gospel couldn’t have implanted a GPS chip into that wandering sheep; or maybe the woman who lost the coin should have had one of those things you can put on your keys so they’ll “beep” when you push a button to find them.

Losing that coin was a big deal for her, and she went to a lot of trouble to find it. She lit her little lamp, using up some of her precious, expensive supply of oil. She does the hard work of sweeping…and don’t picture picking up a nice clean broom to sweep the linoleum floor in your nice, bright kitchen—she has a rough broom made of twigs bound together with twine and she’s sweeping on a floor of hard-packed dirt. But she took the time to search everywhere— it was important to her to find that coin. That coin was a tenth of her savings—savings that she needed to live. You know, in the first century women on their own didn’t have any respectable options to earn a living. Imagine losing your paycheck or social security check—or more likely a whole year’s worth of them. You’d search everywhere, in every dark corner, every place you could think of to try to find those lost checks.

These 2 parables in Luke show persistence in looking for what is lost—in fact it might even seem like overkill. The shepherd doesn’t give up until he’s found the lost sheep, no matter how long he had to leave his other 99 sheep, even though they might be in danger. And the woman doesn’t stop searching her dark house until she finds that one little lost coin. Both needed to find what was lost. Both were determined to keep searching until they could find the lost and feel complete.

Now remember back to how this reading began: the religious authorities were complaining about who Jesus was spending his time with. He was welcoming sinners and eating with them! Scandalous! Jesus, the rabbi, the teacher, should know better than to eat with such unworthy people.

But actually, Jesus is telling these parables as a response to those leaders, because Jesus has a different idea. He hardly ever does things the way the world thinks he should do them.          Jesus tells the parables about losing and finding to make the point that the sinners and tax collectors are exactly the people that he should be eating with. They are the LOST, and God won’t rest until they’re found!




lighting the dark corners of the world,

God will do whatever it takes to find the lost and bring them into God‘s kingdom.

When I drive around, especially when I’m not lost, I always look at the signs in front of churches. Sometimes they’re announcements of worship times or activities happening in the congregation, sometimes brief inspirational messages. Recently as I drove around I noticed a message that caught my eye. It said: “September 18 is National Back to Church Sunday.” That was new to me, but a quick internet search gave me some details. It seems that almost 30,000 congregations across the country have agreed to advertise “back to church Sunday” and encourage their members to invite a friend to church that day.        It sounds like a good idea.              Maybe this is a way God can find some of those “lost.”

I keep thinking about my friend. How lost she must feel as she gets used to living without her mom, which is hard enough, but also without her son. Mostly she and I are in contact now using email and Facebook, and I saw some Facebook posts from her recently that let me know that God isn’t letting her stay lost. God is reminding her that she’s a child of God and is loved by God and by so many of God’s good people.

The other night she posted about gratitude…even in the midst of her dark time, she can remember to be thankful for the blessings in her life. And she posted about love and relationships. Even as she wakes up each morning bearing the heavy weight of grieving the loss of the people dearest to her, she remembers that God created us to live in relationship with one another, to treat one another with love. Even in her sorrow, she can feel that love. She knows that no matter how lost she feels, God won’t let her stay lost.

Like the shepherd looking for a single lost sheep, and the woman looking for her lost coin, God can’t rest while God’s kingdom is incomplete. God’s going to keep searching; if you are lost, sinful, frightened, or just plain worn out, know that God is seeking you. God wants to give you the peace that comes from being found by God. In our Gospel from Luke today, both the shepherd and the woman were excited when they found what they had lost! Each one called friends and neighbors to celebrate together. And just like those celebrations, God’s throwing a party for everyone who’ll come. Remember that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, and today Jesus welcomes sinners to the table where he is both the host and the meal. As we gather around the communion table to share together the body and blood of Jesus Christ, remember that all are welcome, lost or found. YOU are welcome—and why not bring a friend?

Preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, OH on September 11, 2016