Don’t Be Afraid (throw the hymnal)

The tragic events of last weekend were never far from my mind this week.

I was delighted to receive this lovely pashmina from one of our Women of the ELCA—which I was easily able to fashion into an orange stole.

Orange in the church, “… a plea and a penance and a proclamation: that … we people of faith… have something to say to the violence of death and destruction. That we have seen, and noticed, and that we are not unchanged, unturned, unmoved, we who are alive.”[1]

One place my mind went this week was to Charleston, South Carolina in June, 2015. To Pittsburgh in October of 2018. To Christchurch, New Zealand just this past March.  Places that now remind us that even as we gather in our houses of worship, our sanctuaries, we are not immune to the violence perpetrated by dangerous people with guns.

I remembered how, particularly after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, congregational leaders began to talk about how we might protect ourselves when we come together to worship or study or serve. I remember some congregations organizing presentations by the local police.  Conversations about “security teams,” even whether someone should always be carrying a firearm when we’re gathered. About keeping our doors locked tight once everyone is inside worshiping. Maybe you had some of these conversations.

While these conversations were happening, I was serving at little St. Peter in small town Trenton. We noted the conversations, acknowledging that even we weren’t immune to the risk of someone coming and shooting.   And then I read the best piece of advice for worshipers.

Each of us has at hand a heavy object with fairly sharp corners.  Even the most determined shooter might be thrown off guard if 10 or 100 substantial cranberry-colored hymnals came flying at him.  At St. Peter, there’s one man who almost always sits in the balcony, right at the rail. He makes a video recording of the service.  We just agreed that he’d have a stack of hymnals next to him, and if he saw me quickly duck down behind the altar, he’d start pitching them.

Thanks be to God, we never had to use that self-defense system while I was at St. Peter, and I pray that they, nor us, nor any congregation ever will. But that’s how we at St. Peter decided to “be ready.”

In today’s reading, Luke gives us a lot of advice about being ready. We’re supposed to consider our material possessions—if we have too many, they’ll be lost or destroyed, so why not sell what we have and give the proceeds to the poor.  Luke’s Jesus suggests that having fewer material possessions helps us keep our heart ready for God.

Then we’re advised to be dressed and keep our lamps lit, watching for the boss to come in during the middle of the night.    If we can manage to be ready when he gets in from the wedding party—at whatever time that might be, he’ll serve us a middle-of-the-night feast.

And that strange one: “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”

Well, of course he wouldn’t.

But we stand reminded to be on guard against that stealthy thief.

Our dear friend and gospel-writer Luke apparently did not study with my homiletics professor. The Rev. Dr. Hank Langknecht at Trinity Lutheran Seminary would have advised him that one solid example will do; more muddies the water, confuses the listener. Luke, do some editing; choose the BEST of these examples from Jesus.

But we have 3 examples, and hearing them, there’s no question that we’re to be ready.

But what’s not entirely clear, is for what we’re to prepare.

Luke’s watching-for-the-thief example notwithstanding, I think there’s something more than keeping our eyes trained on the door, hymnals at the ready.

Because, we have to go back to the very first verse that I read. Don’t be afraid, … because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. (Luk 12:32 CEB)

Don’t be afraid.

How easy it would be to let fear rule in our lives.

Not just random shootings, but there are things of which to be afraid everywhere we turn.

Loss of a job; disease or injury; since we’re sending folks back to school today, we might think of students who fear the report card or the teacher conference.

But God says don’t be afraid…because God wants to give us the kingdom.

There’s a rabbit hole for us:   what does giving us the kingdom mean?

I think we can avoid the rabbit hole if we go back to those servants waiting in the night, fully dressed and with lamps lit.  That boss who will come in and be so delighted that they waited up that he’ll head straight to the kitchen, tie on an apron, and whip up a big pot of macaroni and cheese—and bring it to them at the table–along with a nice assortment of beverages and maybe a big fruit salad.

That’s a meal that’s worth waiting for and now you know my idea of the perfect meal…and I think this is a great way to flesh out that brief verse: “don’t be afraid, …because your father delights in giving you the kingdom.”

We’re pretty good at this kingdom meal thing here at Trinity.

Thursday nights our kitchen fills with people who have their aprons tied on and are ready to cook and serve.    And Trinity Hall fills with the kind of people we might expect to be waiting on us if we went out to eat at Frisch’s. I’ve heard those folks sometimes come in early…waiting, ready.  Because they know they’re going to be fed.  And they know they’re in a church, and that the people serving them are church folks. And that we’ll pray for them if they ask. Actually, we’ll pray for them whether or not they ask.

We can’t protect them from all the dangers in their lives, no more than we can protect ourselves from all the things that make us afraid.

But on Thursday nights, when they walk through our doors, we show them God’s love, God’s kingdom.

We give them a meal to feed their bodies.

We visit with them and treat them with respect to feed their psyches.

And we pour God’s love on them to feed their souls.

Be ready for the kingdom of God—God wants to give it to you.

There’s a wonderful piece of wisdom that I first heard from a colleague—pastor Alice Connor.  Its attributed to John Lennon and recently made popular by the 2011 movie “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

“Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

I’m not sure that previous sources were using this phrase to talk about God, but it sure works.

Don’t be afraid—in the end, God will see to it that everything’s alright. Watch for it.

 

[1] https://rosalindhughes.com/2016/04/21/when-orange-is-ok/

Where is God?

I woke up early this morning and had a little extra time in my mourning schedule. So I scrolled through Facebook for a bit and ran across something I hadn’t heard of before. A priest I know in California has shared a post from her bishop that read “I don’t want to bless any more orange stoles.” I hadn’t ever actually heard of an orange stole…orange isn’t one of our normal liturgical colors. But the tone of the post told me an orange stole isn’t going to be for a happy occasion.

It turns out, in 2013 a movement arose after the shooting death of young Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago: the “Wear Orange” movement. A few years later some Episcopal priests decided to raise up the movement in their congregations. So a priest near Cleveland who has some sewing skills started making orange stoles to be worn on the Sunday after “wear orange day” in early June. She couldn’t keep up with the demand. She described the use of the color orange for a liturgical garment this way:

“This orange stole is not a statement that I want you to see me. It is a plea and a penance and a proclamation: that we have something to say about this, we people of faith. That we have something to say to the violence of death and destruction. That we have seen, and noticed, and that we are not unchanged, unturned, unmoved, we who are alive.”[1]

After I read about the orange stole thing, I thumbed around to find out more about the Wal-Mart shooting in El Paso yesterday morning. 20 dead, 26 wounded by an angry young man. But then I noticed another article. It turns out that just hours before I read, in DAYTON OHIO, another shooting had happened. 9 dead, 24 wounded. The odds are good that someone hearing this sermon this morning has some connection with someone who is impacted by that shooting so close to home.

As I prayed about who we are as a society that can’t seem to do anything to stop this kind of violence, I realized that just like Mary and Martha, victims of my laryngitis a couple weeks ago, another carefully prepared sermon was going to be left on the cutting room floor.

This morning you were supposed to join me in considering what it means to amass worldly goods and how we might be faithful in using the gifts with which God has blessed us.

But instead, early this morning, I turned back to our scriptures for today.

Usually by the time I offer you my sermon I will have spent many hours studying the text I’ve chosen and how God might use that text, through me, to speak to your life, your situation, your needs. Which is what I had done with today’s reading from Luke.

I have NOT spent those many hours studying our reading from Colossians, but that’s where I was drawn early this morning; to consider what it means for Christians to live in our sinful world in 2019.

This morning all I had to work with was my horror and grief at these events and a few notes I had jotted during my meeting with fellow clergy a couple weeks ago.

One thing I had jotted down was “where is God?”

Some people look at tragedies like these and wonder how we can follow a God who lets such things happen. Shouldn’t God be powerful enough to stop a gunman from opening fire in a crowded place like a busy Saturday morning shopping center or a Saturday night nightclub?

My answer to that question is that God is just as dismayed, or more dismayed, by these acts than we are. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to imagine that God may be rethinking God’s commitment to free will.

Free will is the lens through which I view these things.

God’s great preference would be for us to live together in peace and harmony. But in order for us to be fully human, to lead meaningful lives, God created us with free will. And along with free will comes our propensity to sin.

God has also given us plenty of teaching on how to best live with our gift of free will, to choose the better. The 10 commandments come to mind.

Colossians counsels that as followers of Jesus we should behave differently, avoiding evil actions and words. We are to clothe ourselves “…with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

And I think that most of the time, most of us are able to avoid impurity, evil desire and greed and can speak without anger, malice and slander. But perhaps that new self, in the image of our creator, needs to do more.

So I come back to the question “where is God?”

God is in the tears of those who watch their friends and family members and total strangers being gunned down.

God is with the first responders who come in to do their jobs the very best they can.

This one may be hard to hear, but God is even with those shooters, who, although grasped by evil, are still, like us, flawed children of God. Jesus died and rose even for their sins.

God is here with us and if we are a new self in the image of our creator, we look to God for what this violence might mean in our lives.

For each of us a response looks different.

Prayer is certainly a response that each of us can and should make.

For me, the response was an early-morning change in how I would preach God’s word to you today.

Here at Trinity we’re making space for voting on Tuesday. Perhaps as voters, each time we consider the ballot before us we can study what we’re being asked to vote for and pray about making a selection that might begin to shift the societal norms and expectations that allow rampant gun violence.

Maybe I need an orange stole.

Maybe you’re able to write letters to lawmakers.

God is in each faithful response to evil and violence, whether simple or grand.

I’ve had a hard morning, and one thing I promise as your pastor is that I’ll always tell you the truth. So here it is:

I’m mad at God for making me re-write my sermon this morning instead of enjoying a relaxing start to my Sunday.

I’m mad at our society that can’t seem to stop people from killing other people with guns and cars and whatever else they can think of.

I’m mad that racism is still rampant as I worry about all the young black men in my neighborhood—including my future son-in-law—who live knowing that no matter how upstanding they are they still have a higher chance of becoming some kind of victim than my own white son does.

I worry about my daughter and all those of you who are getting ready to go back into schools, which we know are places at high risk for gun violence.

And I boot up my computer and see my background—a picture of our tiny granddaughter. Whose skin won’t be white. And I worry about what the world will have in store for her.

When I started typing this morning at 5:00, I made a mistake. But I didn’t change it and I’m very glad auto-correct didn’t either. Way back in the first sentence of this sermon, I talked about my morning schedule. But I typed the letters m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. An extra vowel that gave a completely different and very appropriate meaning.

Mourning comes first.

And after our time of mourning and deep sadness,…what’s God calling us to do?

Are You the One?

Luke 1:46b-55; Matthew 11:2-11

So, we all know what Jesus looks like, right? You’ve seen the picture…the same one that I remember seeing since childhood. There’s one like it on the wall in Tammy’s office and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few more around here someplace. It’s usually printed in sepia-tone, so we don’t have a full-color image, but it looks like Jesus has medium brown colored hair, fairly light skin and Caucasian features. His hair is long, a bit wavy, and Jesus seems to have found the perfect combination of hair care products to keep his flowing locks shiny and soft. In this picture Jesus looks thoughtful, and serene.

There’s just one problem with this picture of Jesus. Jesus was a first-century middle-eastern Jew. He didn’t have light skin or Caucasian features. He didn’t have flowing, wavy medium-brown locks, he had dark hair that was probably fairly coarse. And he was poor, so whatever hair care products might have been around, Jesus couldn’t afford them. His hair wasn’t shiny and smooth. We’d probably call it dirty and tangled. And Archeologists tell us that the average height for an adult man in first century Palestine was just over 5 feet –I bet you pictured him taller than that, I know I always did.

Of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, and those images don’t matter all that much. Every culture tends to make Jesus in its own image, it helps us recognize him if he looks familiar. But that brings us to the big question from our gospel today: Jesus, are you the one?

This question is especially surprising when we think about who’s asking it: John. John, who’s been prophesying about Jesus, who baptized him. John, who, according to Luke, was Jesus’s cousin and, you may recall, is the one who leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when pregnant Mary came to call. John, who surely knew Jesus, is asking “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Even John doesn’t seem to recognize Jesus.

So John asks this question, this question that might seem odd. Is he being impertinent? Is he just thick? Or is it a question of contemplation…is John realizing that perhaps God doesn’t always match up with OUR expectations?

And Jesus gives him an answer…sort of. Jesus’s answer echoes the words of Mary from Luke’s gospel that we heard as our psalm today. (By the way…although we usually use a reading from the book of PSALMS as our response to the first reading, a psalm can actually be any sacred song or poem, so our alternate selection qualifies!)

Mary’s song expresses her deep faith, a faith that’s demonstrated by her willingness to trust that God’s outrageous plans for her are RIGHT for her. But she also sings of the vision behind those plans: God’s strength scatters the proud—those who are usually the winners—and God lifts up the lowly—the ones who are usually stuck at the bottom of the heap. God has fed the hungry and shown that God keeps God’s promises. Jesus’s answer to John’s question talks about the same kind of reversals that Mary described—those who used to suffer will now receive the greatest gifts.

But Jesus’s answer is also one of his famous near-answers. Jesus liked to make his listeners think about what he said … He doesn’t just say “tell John yes, I am the one.”

I just can imagine John’s disciples returning to John in prison with Jesus’s “answer”! And John says (or at least thinks) “ok, ok, so all this good stuff happen, but IS HE THE ONE?”

And of course, we have the same kinds of questions. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s the question at the heart of Advent. It gives voice to our reluctance even in the midst of our anticipation. It allows us to express our uncertainty… even from our privileged perspective on this world’s side of the incarnation. It gives us the words to say what our hearts, our souls, are feeling… when our mind tries us to convince us to not to say a thing.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s the question we ask from our own prisons that confine us to a limited imagination about God. It’s the question we ask from behind our concrete walls that divide us from others. It’s the question we ask from our jails that justify our views of God—our picture of the white Jesus with smooth shiny hair– over and against someone else’s view.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It’s the question of longing — longing for promises to come true when it seems the cards are stacked against us. Longing for what was, but at the same time looking forward to what could be.

And that’s one of the great gifts of Advent. We get to ask the questions, to wonder about Jesus. To wonder where we can find Jesus and how we’ll recognize him when we do see him. Because, in spite of Jesus’s assurance to John, there are still people who can’t see, or hear or walk. There are people ill with all kinds of diseases. There are still people dying, and plenty of poor who could really use some good news.

So we ask Jesus, if we’re supposed to recognize you because the world around us is in better shape than it was before…it doesn’t seem like you’re really here. Things are still a mess! Are we to wait for another?

This is another of those places where we have to settle for the mystery of “already…but not yet.” Jesus came into the world, lived and died as a human man. God keeps God’s promises. Jesus healed the sick, fed the poor, and taught his followers to do the same. The world really is a better place because Jesus lived. Christians and Christian organizations are responsible for much of the good we see around us. Historically, most hospitals, schools, universities, social service organizations, all had their start in the church. Church-sponsored organizations are often the most helpful when tragedy strikes around the world. Right here in Trenton it’s easy to see the many ways the EMA helps those in need. That’s the “already” part.

But, there’s still the “not yet.” We aren’t yet to the place where ALL the world’s tears are dried, all the pain healed. That comes later, when sin is finally overcome and all will be well. Until that time, our job is to keep asking “Are you the one?” and to keep spreading God’s love around as much as we can.

Yesterday a few of us from St. Peter were at the Trenton Country Christmas at Barn-n-Bunk. We sat at a table giving out treats for kids, these water bottles, and some information about St. Peter. A few people approached our table with a dollar bill in hand, asking how much for a bottle of water. Of course the answer was, it’s free, just like God’s love is free.

Was Jesus there with us, along with the Grinch and Santa Claus? Along with all the good people singing their hearts out, shivering on an outdoor stage? Along with crafters and food vendors? All these folks came together to share an afternoon of the best of our community… and I know Jesus was there.

But I also know Jesus is there when our hearts are breaking. Jesus is there in homes where there is no laughter, no shiny Christmas lights brightening the season. Where illness, or unemployment, or addiction make it hard to feel very “merry.”

It is good to look at our images of Jesus, imperfect as they are. It is good to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem. And it is good to ask the question: Are you the one? We ask it together – knowing we won’t be able to answer it, to solve it, to tie it all up in a Christmas bow. But by asking the question we lean in to the waiting, the wanting, and the wonder, knowing that God’s answer is there.

St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton Ohio ~ December 11, 2016

 

With Me

Colossians 1:11-20 ~ Luke 23:33-43

Today is kind of like New Year’s Eve for us in the church. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday in a new church year. Even though we’re a little more than a month ahead of the secular calendar, here at church we’ll do some of the same things that we all do at home at the end of December. We’ll change out the calendar—or in this case, we’ll start a new series of scripture readings that focus on the gospel of Matthew, instead of focusing on the gospel of Luke as we’ve been since last December. We’ll change out our decorations—except that in the church we call them paraments. Today we have white for this Sunday when we celebrate Christ as King; for advent the color will be blue, as we focus on the hope we have for Jesus’s coming.

There’s one other thing that some folks do when New Year’s Eve rolls around…they make resolutions. When we turn the page on a new calendar year, It feels like a new beginning, so it seems like a good time to focus on the ways we want to make our lives better. These resolutions might center on better discipline around our eating or exercise habits, or maybe managing our time better, or watching less TV.

We could think about make New Year’s resolutions here in church too. We could resolve to come to church more regularly. We could resolve to do a better job following the 10 commandments and read our Bible every day. All good ideas but…

Just like the December 31 New Year’s resolutions we might make in a few weeks, we know how these new church year resolutions would go. We might manage to keep the new discipline for a couple of days, or maybe even a couple weeks. But, before too long, just like the new diets and TV schedule, we’d probably fall back into our old habits. We have great intentions, but…well, nobody’s perfect.  We’re humans and we fail. And I’m afraid that’s the end of the story when it comes to our diets and bad life habits. We do the best we can, but sometimes we’re just not going to be able to make much of a change.

But let’s go back to our focus for today on Jesus as King. If Jesus were a normal kind of king, he might be expecting us to make our resolutions and to keep them! If he were a particularly benevolent king he might give us encouragement or maybe some kind of incentives. Remember the President’s Physical Fitness awards for school-aged kids? That was a big deal back when I was a child in school—of course, I was never one of those kids who could reach that achievement, but it was a way for the president of the United States to encourage young people to be more active, since we know that in general, being more active is more healthy for our bodies. So Jesus the benevolent king might create a reward system for us. The “Christ the King Ten Commandments achievement awards.”…maybe we would get a star on our chart if we manage to keep all Ten Commandments for a week…  or maybe a day.

But wait…my Lutheran danger signals are going off big time! As much as Jesus our king might want us to behave well and keep the 10 commandments, a reward chart sounds way too much like EARNING God’s favor…and we’re right back to where we started: we just can’t do it. Try as we might, we just can’t keep our new year’s resolutions to be better Christians. Our sin gets in the way. And Jesus our king knows that; he knows we can’t keep our new year’s resolutions no matter how hard we try.

That’s why Jesus is the kind of king who rules from an unlikely place…the cross. Jesus doesn’t sit on a throne to show everyone how powerful he is, wearing rich robes and a jeweled crown. Jesus is at his most powerful as he hangs on the cross—his head encircled by a crown of THORNS, not jewels, his body naked as the life drains from him.

It’s there, on the cross, that Jesus tells the sinner hanging beside him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” There’s no time for Jesus to give the thief an exam, to quiz him on how well he knows his Bible stories and catechism. There’s certainly no time for a chart with stars to see how he does in keeping the 10 commandments—including the one about stealing.  No questions at all; the thief shows Jesus that he trusts him by asking him to remember him in his kingdom, and Jesus makes the resolution.

And that’s the beauty of the kind of king Jesus is…he makes the resolutions so we don’t have to! And of course, there’s a really big difference between Jesus making New Year’s resolutions and ours—when Jesus makes the resolution, it’s guaranteed! Jesus isn’t going to let those resolutions slide after a couple of weeks.  Jesus says it. And, like the thief hanging on the cross beside Jesus, we can know that we’ll be with him.

So even though an achievement chart won’t work for us, we can take some advice from all this talk about resolutions. We can trust Jesus,  we can trust that Jesus is the kind of King who will make resolutions and keep them, and that those resolutions will always be for our best good.

What does it look like to trust Jesus? We know we can’t measure it by our behavior—we should always TRY to be kind and loving, but sin will always get in the way. I heard a good suggestions recently: be sure we’re putting Jesus first in our life. Whatever we choose to do, does it keep Jesus first? We can ask this question in our individual lives. When it comes time to make a decision, large or small, which option keeps Jesus first? We can ask the same question when we make decisions as a group: does a particular course of action for St. Peter keep Jesus first?

After we finish worship today, we’re going to re-convene for a business meeting. Our constitution says that certain things must come before us for a vote. Whatever we might need to consider, whether it’s a large matter or relatively small, the question we should ask is: will Jesus be first if we make this choice? That’s how we can honor Jesus as our king—and it just so happens that if we keep that question in mind, our choices will keep us closer to God and will show our neighbors that we trust God.

So if Jesus is our king, ruling from the cross, we might wonder where we’ll encounter him. The thief who was crucified next to Jesus didn’t have any trouble finding him, but the crucifixion isn’t something that’ll happen again IRL as the young folks say—“in real life”.  But we do have a chance to encounter Jesus every week–right here–around the table. Here at the table, Jesus the king is present. Jesus is proclaimed our king and savior—even as he comes to us as the meal itself. Here we can put Jesus first, receive him, and hear those words: “today you will be with me.”

And so let’s enjoy our New Year’s Eve, remembering that Jesus makes all the resolutions we need—and no worries about him keeping them.   Remembering that Jesus asks that we do our best to trust him, keep him first.  And Jesus knows we’ll fail…but we’re invited back again and again, to this table that is God’s great gift to us, to hear the words “Today you will be with me…”

November 20, 2016 ~ St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton OH

Made Whole

Philippians 4:4-9, Luke 17:11-19

Have you ever thought about the fact that we’re gathered here this evening to offer our praise and thanks to God, in celebration of a day that isn’t even a church holiday! Our official holiday of thanksgiving comes about by proclamation of the president of the United States—nothing having to do with church at all. And I hate to even bring up the way the day has evolved in the last decade or so. You know that shopping frenzy that used to come on the day after thanksgiving… you know its crept onto the day itself. If you want to head over to the outlets at Monroe you‘ll have to wait until 6:00 pm. But for an earlier start, go to JC Penney, they’re opening at 3:00 in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day.

So each year our president declares that we’ll have a day of giving thanks, and the good news is that the churches have jumped on board. That’s why we’re here tonight. And this is as it should be. Regardless of our circumstances, we have much to be thankful for.

Pastor Wes just read to us from Luke, the important story of Jesus healing 10 men who had a skin disease. What’s interesting for us today is that one man—the Samaritan, the outsider—who returned. He came back to say “thank you” to Jesus.

All the others followed Jesus’s instructions to go to the priests. But one turns around. Going straight to the priests isn’t good enough for him. He knew that his life had just been changed in a way he couldn’t have imagined …and he has to thank Jesus for it. And when he does, Jesus tells him: “…your faith has healed you.”

Now wait a minute…Jesus healed 10 men. Why is he singling out this foreigner, this Samaritan, telling him his faith has healed him? What does this guy know about faith? Well, it turns out that this is one of those places where it isn’t easy to figure out exactly what the Bible means. If we go back to an older translation, we can get a better idea of what Jesus is saying to the man who came back. The King James Version says: “thy faith hath made thee whole.” Once we get past those old fashioned words that many of us aren’t used to hearing, I think being “made whole” is important for us. All 10 men were healed of their disease. But this Samaritan was MADE WHOLE…and it was his FAITH that made him whole.

You’ve heard of an “attitude of gratitude”…that’s what this guy had. His faith was shown in his thankfulness.  And that’s how we, as Christians, have to live.  Most of us can easily come up with at least some things to be grateful for. We can be grateful for our material possessions, whether many or few. We can be grateful for another day of living—and we might even be grateful for having been cured of a serious illness, like the man in our story. I’m grateful for my family and friends, those who keep me surrounded with love and remind me why I’m here.

But for those of us who identify as Christians, it goes so much deeper. We know that our very life is a gift from God, and we give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus our savior. Without Jesus, our sin would keep us separated from God, but because of Jesus we know that we have God’s grace poured into our lives.

Is one day really enough to offer our thanks to God? Of course it isn’t. That’s why the Samaritan man turned around to thank Jesus…he was living a life of gratitude. I’m not saying it isn’t a good idea to set aside a day for giving thanks. I’m just saying that we need to keep our thanks to God front and center every single day.

A friend once told me a story that helps me remember to live every day with gratitude. This friend had decided to try to do more things to LIVE her faith and one of the things she started doing was keeping a small stash of dollar bills in the center console of her car. That way, if she saw someone asking for money, she could easily hand over a dollar, with a prayer that her dollar would help the person move just a bit closer to living a better life.

Well, one day she was stopped at a red light and noticed a man asking for money a few cars ahead. She reached into the console, pulled out one of her dollars and waved it out the window at him. She expected him to come right over to her car to collect the bill she was offering. But he didn’t…he took his time. The driver of the car in front of my friend kept the window rolled up tight…but the man still paused next to that car. Finally he reached my friend and she had to ask him why he had stood there, next to that car that clearly wasn’t going to hand him anything. He said that he stopped to offer a prayer and a blessing to each car that he passed, whether or not they offered him anything. He would be praying for her too. This man, who had so little that he had to ask drivers for a handout, wouldn’t pass anyone without praying for them. He knew God’s grace and was thankful for what he had in life—he had been made whole.

So I hope you’re able to enjoy a happy thanksgiving holiday. However you celebrate, whether it includes a turkey feast, family, shopping, or something else entirely, I hope it brings you joy. But I hope you don’t limit your giving thanks to that one day. I hope you can be thankful every moment of every day. For it is in living as God’s grateful people that we are truly “healed”…”made whole.”

November 20, 2016 ~ Community Thanksgiving Service, Edgewood High School, Trenton OH

It is Well With My Soul

Malachi 4:1-2a ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 ~ Luke 21:5-19

The Bible was written thousands of years ago and on the other side of the globe. If we’re ever inclined to wonder whether such old and foreign ideas can still have relevance for us today, these readings can put that question to rest. Jesus is painting an extraordinarily bleak picture. The temple—the center of religion and LIFE for his listeners, the temple   with its grand and stunning beauty, will be completely destroyed. We know from history that it happened; in fact, even though Jesus was speaking BEFORE Jerusalem’s destruction in the year 70, Luke probably wrote these events down AFTER 70, so by the time of Luke’s writing Jerusalem was already in rubble, the stones of the temple thrown down.

When I visited the Holy Land in 2013, I had the chance to see evidence of this destruction with my own eyes. Where Herod’s enormous and exquisite temple once stood, there’s now just a broken down portion of one wall. Faithful Jews and Christians visit that site, awe-struck to stand before even this little bit of the temple. But its former glory is gone.

Jesus goes on to describe further suffering. Wars and uprisings, earthquakes, famines and plagues. As we read these words of Jesus it isn’t hard to think about current events. Governments and kingdoms in our own time rise and fall, doing battle both against one another and within their own borders. This week there’s political unrest in South Korea, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, fighting in Iraq, economic crisis in Venezuela, and of course uncertainty both here in the United States and abroad over the election of Donald Trump, a non-traditional sort of president for the US.

We’ve heard recently of devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Italy, South America and even Oklahoma. If we think more broadly about destructive weather, we’ve seen dangerous storms such as hurricane Matthew and flooding in Louisiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and abroad in Ethiopia and Great Britain.

And famines… nowadays they may not look just like they did in the first century Middle East. In today’s global economy, famines are seldom caused by failed crops or drought       but the results are the same: people starving because they can’t get enough food. There are thousands of people within 10 miles of St. Peter who don’t have enough to eat. That sounds like famine to me.

So all these things that Jesus said would happen…we know they happened in the first century, and we know they’re still happening today. I guess this tells us that we’re still living out the reality that God’s beautiful world has been infected by sin. Sin’s ugliness makes people disagree in violent ways. Sin’s greed keeps people from sharing resources so people go hungry. And sin may or may not cause the deadly weather patterns that we see, but sin shows itself during a storm, when some may be prevented from reaching safety because of the actions of others. And sin shows itself after a storm, when the destruction can be made so much worse by those who take advantage of the situation. It can be hard to think about God being present in all these horrible situations, but this is God’s world, and God is here.

After Jesus gets us thinking about all this devastation, we hear the good news. We hear that even as things are falling down around us, that even if we are taken prisoner and tortured, we are not alone. In fact, Luke has Jesus suggesting that all this terrible stuff happening to us can actually be an important opportunity. We can testify! Now, most of us here are good Lutherans, and the idea of giving our testimony isn’t usually something that gets us excited.  In fact, usually it’s quite the opposite.  We usually DREAD having to talk about our faith, especially to someone who may not agree with us. But here’s where the good news from God comes in: I will give you words and a wisdom that…no one will be able to contradict. God doesn’t leave us on our own. God will give us the words.

Last week, Jonathan and I were invited by some friends to join them for a concert. We weren’t sure what kind of concert this would be, but we’ve often enjoyed entertainment with these folks, so we trusted that it would be a fun evening. So we traveled to the historic Universalist Church in downtown Montgomery. This structure was built in 1837 and is actually similar to our building in many ways. One big difference is that is it’s no longer used for worship; it’s owned by the City of Montgomery and is used for city events or available for others to rent it. While we sat, enjoying the music, I came up with a theory of why Montgomery’s Universalist church is no longer used for regular worship…the pews! Now, our pews may not be a comfy as your lazy boy recliner at home, but I believe they’re formed carefully to allow worshipers some level of comfort… But these Universalist pews…tiny…, straight, …and hard as can be.  One thing we’ve noticed is that the concerts and other events we’ve been to there never last longer than an hour, and even that can be pushing it.  So can that be why the Universalists deserted their beautiful little red brick church in Montgomery?

I can’t really answer that, but at any rate, the less-than-one-hour musical event that our friends invited us to enjoy turned out to be an old-fashioned hymn sing. No argument from me…what a treat it was to sing those old favorites. The group’s leader gave a brief introduction to one of the hymns that got me thinking…he told of a nineteenth century Chicago attorney named Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford and his wife had a large family and his legal and business successes were complemented by his active work on behalf of his Presbyterian Church. But in the 1870’s, things began to unravel for Spafford. He experienced heavy financial losses in the Great Chicago fire, and his wife suffered from poor health. To help relieve some of these stresses, the family planned a trip to Europe. Spafford’s wife and children set sail on the S.S. Ville du Havre, with Spafford following soon after. But Spafford’s crossing turned into a time of desperate torture for the successful man. Shortly before he set sail, he received word that The Ville du Havre had sunk at sea. Many lives were lost. Spafford’s wife survived, but their four daughters all drowned at sea.

During the long days of Spafford’s crossing, he found himself putting thoughts to paper…thoughts that gave him comfort. They were thoughts that testified to his faith that no matter how many losses he would experience, because of his faith in a good and almighty God, he would be able to say confidently “It is well with my soul.”

After hearing the story of Horatio Spafford and singing his powerful hymn on Thursday evening, I decided it would be a perfect hymn for us today. By Friday morning I knew I was probably too late to get the title into the bulletin, but I decided to check with Tammy anyway. It would be great to have the title listed in the bulletin, but if it turned out that Tammy had already run it, I knew you’d be flexible and forgiving enough to let me simply announce a hymn change. So I called Tammy, and she had already listed the hymn she had chosen in the bulletin…and it was, in fact, the very one I was requesting. Thanks be to God for being at work in our lives!

As we try to find ways to testify, to proclaim our faith in God even as the world around us is full of discord, storms, and people starving, we can sing these words written by a man whose own life had been wrenched apart. And you’ll see that Spafford doesn’t paint a rosy picture.  He acknowledges the presence of Satan, sin, and sorrow in life. But in the end, “It is well with my soul.” Spafford could make this confession just days after his four daughters had died, and we can make this confession too.

Now, will you sing with me?  Testify, for God will give you the words.  It is well with my soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,  when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,  “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Refrain:
It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

2 Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,  let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,  and has shed his own blood for my soul. Refrain

3 My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!  my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;  praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain

4 O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,  the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;  even so, it is well with my soul. Refrain

(Public Domain)

St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio ~ November 13, 2016

 

Are You a Frog-Slayer?

Romans 3:19-28

Trust: it can be a tough thing. Everything around us tells us not to trust anyone: be your own person—you don’t need anyone else! Remember that rugged individual “Marlboro Man” from back in the days when cigarettes were advertised? And more recently we’ve been told by a sneaker manufacturer to “Just Do It.” But the Bible tells us differently…so where do we place our trust?

A lot of people put their trust in money. You probably have a dollar bill in your pocket or purse right now. It’s just a piece of paper, but it has value because it can be used to pay for things. At the bottom it says “one Dollar,” which tells us how much value it has.

But its not always simple. The value of that one dollar can change. One of the places we see it most is at the gas pump. That gallon of gasoline might go up or down daily—and for those who drive a lot, that can be a big shift in how many dollars we have to use for our fuel.

The other problem with these dollar bills is, where do they come from? If a person has a job, then usually she’ll receive a certain number of dollar bills for doing that job, and if she’s both lucky and careful, she’ll be able to buy the things she needs with the amount of money she receives from her employer. But sometimes employers make changes to the amount of money they pay us. They might give us more if we’re doing a very good job, or they might have to give us less if their business isn’t doing well. And of course, most peoples’ jobs aren’t guaranteed. We never know if we’ll be able to count on that stream of dollars coming in.

Well, if it’s hard to trust money…how about if we trust ourselves? After all, we’re smart people, we know God gave us gifts and expects us to use them. We can even read the Bible to learn what we need to know, and surely I can trust myself to know what is best for me? After all the Ordination and Installation festivities last weekend, I’m very confident I can trust myself…or maybe I’m letting all that excitement go to my head. Because when I comes down to it, no matter how smart I am, or how much I read the Bible, or how many pastors gather around and say blessings over me, I’m still a sinner and I can’t do anything about that.

I once read a book called Pedestrian Theology by pastor Deb Grant. In her book pastor Grant talks about her own faith journey, beginning when she was a child. Growing up in a small town, Grant and her older brothers had fun catching frogs in the pond behind their house. One day one of them thought of a –rather gruesome–way to add some excitement to their frog-catching: they would insert firecrackers into the mouths of the frogs they caught, then they’d light the firecrackers and throw the frogs into the air. Pastor Grant remembers being 7 years old and knowing this wasn’t right, but she sure had fun doing it. Later, when she reflected on this incident, she started calling herself “frog-slayer”.  She saw that “frog-slayer” applied to her whole life, as over and over she does the wrong things even though she knows they are wrong. Just like blowing up the frogs, She can’t help herself. Throughout her early faith journey she tried lots of different ways to “be good.” She earned a degree in biblical studies and worshipped with many different protestant churches. But she always came away feeling that no matter what she did, she couldn’t be good enough …ultimately, God would see she was a sham and would reject her because she was a frog-slayer.

Pastor Grant spent many years trying to trust and rely on herself, to learn enough, to be good enough. But she was never able to feel confident that she was really meeting God’s standards as long as she was a frog-slayer… and she just couldn’t stop being a frog-slayer.

Our text from Romans talks about placing our trust in the one sure and certain place. It begins by talking about the law, God’s law. It tells us that no matter how hard we try to keep the law, we won’t be able to be good enough to be accepted by God that way. It’s because we’re all frog-slayers.

I never blew up frogs with firecrackers as a child (mostly because I’m pretty squeamish about touching amphibians), but I have done plenty of things that are just as bad, and, like Grant with those poor frogs, I enjoyed it! I wanted to keep on doing it, even knowing it was wrong. Probably if you think about it you’ll be able to come up with some frog-slaying behaviors of your own. It’s called sin, and we’re all stuck here. We’re all humans, and we’re all imperfect. We can’t be saved by being good, because it isn’t in our nature: we’re frog-slayers.

But there is a happy ending to the frog-slayer story, just as there is to our own stories. Deb Grant finally found a church where they said to her, “yes, you are a frog-slayer. But God knows that. God already knows all about it… and God loves you anyway! You’re still a frog-slayer, but you’re a FORGIVEN frog-slayer!” God knew that we wouldn’t be able to stop sinning, or to keep the law well enough to meet God’s standards. So God sent Jesus Christ to be our savior. By his dying and rising from death, Jesus gives us the gift of salvation. All we have to do is open that gift and trust! We, too, can be forgiven frog-slayers!

This morning as we think about it being Reformation Sunday, I’m trying to remember to trust God in my own life, but also that we as God’s people in the church can, together, put our trust in God. And putting our trust in God can mean that we might get some surprises along the way. The other morning I was driving along with the radio on when suddenly the reporter said something that made me pay attention. She was talking about the church —our church. And it wasn’t a story about something bad happening in the church! This was a story about an event that’s scheduled for tomorrow in Sweden, when the pope and the president of the Lutheran World Federation will meet and worship together publicly. This event begins a year leading up to the 500th anniversary of the start of the protestant reformation, when Martin Luther offered 95 things he wanted to talk about with the pope…aka 95 theses… Remember that Luther didn’t set out to start a new church called “Lutheran”. He loved the church and just wanted to work out some things he saw that seemed unhealthy. But back in 1517 most of those 95 theses that he posted were just too much. The talking that Luther wanted to do has been a long time in coming, but its finally happening. Trusting in God, we can be surprised by places where the Roman Catholic Church and the LWF have found agreement. A recent joint document said it well: What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. …. ( From Conflict to Communion)

Trusting God, we can move along a path to agreement, instead of focusing on our disagreements with one another. What a surprise it was to hear something good about our church AND the Roman Catholic Church on the radio! What a great way to remember that Martin Luther posted his 95 statements to try to IMPROVE God’s church! And what a great reminder of how important it is to trust God.

In a few minutes, we have the chance to celebrate another place of trust: four of God’s beloved frog-slayers have decided to trust that they should make St. Peter their church home. So we continue to trust that God is leading us.

Well, we know we can’t always trust our money…and we can’t always trust ourselves to do the right thing. But we know there’s a better way. Even though we’re committed frog-slayers, we know we can all trust in God to show us the right way—and even when we don’t follow, we know that God, in Jesus, has given us a gift… the gift of forgiveness for our frog-slaying ways. That’s something we can trust—and watch for the surprises!

October 30, 2016 ~ St. Peter Lutheran Church Trenton, Ohio