GIVING GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S

GIVING GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S
I was thrilled when my children and grandchildren spoke their first words – mamma, daddy, adding more and more words. I’m sure that “No” was among the first; it seems that we so frequently say, “No, don’t touch, hot”. I also remember teaching them to say “Please” and “Thank you” as soon as that seemed possible. I wanted them to be grateful for what they had received, regardless of how big or how small. And to make a request with “Please” rather than “give me that…”, that they would somehow know the difference from selfishly demanding and taking something and grateful and politely acknowledge their needs, as well as the gift of receiving. The challenge of teaching those words came probably at the same time they became capable of saying “MINE”. Through their ‘terrible two’s’ and ‘triumphant three’s’, they had gained the confidence as well as the selfishness that seems to be internalized to declare that it was all “mine”, snatching back toys, covering toys with a body block-blanket, or grabbing and running from another vying for the same toy. Then came the lessons on sharing, “play nice with your friend, your sister, your brother, share what you have so they can play, too”. Later it was share your food, share what you have to drink.” Let others have some of what you have so they don’t sit there and watch you eat, drink. All in all, I thought I had done a pretty good job. But I regret not helping them to understand at the earliest possible opportunity that this was not just being polite; it is stewardship. We share because what we have wasn’t ours to begin with, it was given to us by another source, even if that meant we planted the seed and grew the vegetables, raised the baby pig to the point it could be butchered and serve as food for our table, babysat to earn the money to buy a new blouse, and later to study and train to be employed, earning wages that would supply our daily needs. The skills to work were given as a gift from God. Sometimes I have received a check and in the “Memo” line the person had written “thank you” – thank you for the services rendered. What would it be like if we wrote “thank you” in the Memo line of every check we wrote, acknowledging that we are grateful for phone service, for electricity, for water running through our pipes and garbage pick-up, for food and household goods. Thank you for the tax bill because I live in a country that affords me so many more freedoms and rights that I can’t even begin to name them all.
In today’s Gospel the question that is asked of Jesus is not whether taxes should be paid gratefully or grudgingly. Rather the question is whether in his opinion it is right and proper to pay taxes at all. The political situation in the time of Jesus was that the land was under military occupation; a foreign power extracted taxes from the citizens. Like many of the questions put to Jesus by the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the question to be a trick. The two groups of people who approached Jesus represented two conflicting alternatives; the Herodians were Jews who were partisans of the ruling Roman royal family. The Pharisees were religious purists who would have liked to avoid paying taxes to the Gentile over-lords. Thus, in putting to Jesus the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” the Herodians and Pharisees meant to trap him. Jesus gave a response that did more than merely foil their trick. Jesus gave a teaching that left them with a challenge that rings down through the centuries. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus said. They gave him a piece of Roman currency called a denarius. As our American coins today bear the heads of dead presidents, this small silver coin was minted with a likeness of the currently ruling Roman emperor, Tiberius. On the denarius Jesus held, Tiberius’ head bears a laurel wreath, a token of the emperor’s claim to divinity. Around the head of the coin runs the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of the majestic God, and High Priest.” No wonder the more zealous and sensitive Jews took offense at having to pay taxes to such an idolatrous regime. No wonder the Jews scorned those who made contracts with the Romans to collect taxes, as Matthew had done. Yet the account of the good news that we proclaim today bears the name of just such a tax collector: Matthew, whom Jesus called to be one of his disciples. “Whose head is this and whose title?” Jesus asked; they responded, “The emperor’s”. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus said, “and to God the things that are God’s.” The money was commonly considered to be property of the ruler who had minted it. But of course the emperor wanted more than just the money, the taxes. All governments, all government officials want more than just the money – they want allegiance and loyalty, they want military service which may even claim one’s life as they serve their government or take the life of another’s. What was also clear to these Pharisees was that Jesus had turned the table, and literally had overturned the tables in the Temple in Jerusalem. God declares the divine intent as we are created in the image of God. We bear God’s image imprinted on us. All that they had belonged to the Holy One of Israel. All that we have belongs to God our Creator.
We may not get a clear picture from this lesson just what it is Jesus thinks we should rightfully give the government or give God, but Jesus framed the question very clearly. Jesus was clear that such a line is to be drawn. In placing duty to state in the context of duty to God, Jesus affirms that no claim on us by an earthly power is to be considered an absolute. Only the claim of God on us is absolute. Discerning what is right and proper in this respect is up to each of us. God can work even through ungodly governments. In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God says he is first; God has called us by name, and all that we have comes from God. It is God who is divine. The most important and most challenging part of Jesus’ response is not what to give Caesar, but “give to God the things that belong to God.” For this saying of Jesus places everything we own and everything we are in the context of our relationship with God. With the coin that we possess, we have so many choices: What to give to charities? How much should we put away for our children’s education? How much for our own retirement? Don’t we deserve to be able to go out to dinner once in a while? What about the starving people in other countries? All these decisions, all these legitimate claims on us loom large. Scripture reminds us that we should give intentionally, share abundantly, and that God loves a cheerful giver, hallmarks of faithful stewardship. In Luke 12:34, we are to give communally, that we are interconnected, and that where are treasure is, that is where our heart is. Deuteronomy 26:1-2 tells about first fruits giving, giving back from what God first; not to give God the left-overs, if there are any. Jesus taught that it was the community’s responsibility to communally care for the widows and orphans, those without a security net. Who do we trust? How can we let go and give to God what belongs to God.
What belongs to God? What bears the image and name of God? It is our very selves. God created us. We are the coins of God’s realm. Let us “give to God the things that belong to God.” There is a limit to what we owe Caesar, but there is no limit to what we owe God. We may be reluctant to place in the context of our covenant with God and our relationship our wallet, our career, a relationship with another, our weekends, our work, but God claims us in our baptism, fully, totally. In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit; we are made a child of God in our baptism. God lays claim to this marvelous creation in each of us and calls us by name. We are created in God’s image. No part of our life is excluded from our covenant with the One who created us, sustains us, redeems us, the one in whose image we are made. The reason we give God what is God’s is that God first gave us His love, and went even further in giving us love and grace in His son, Jesus Christ. We remember that each time we hear the words, “This is my body given for you; this is my blood shed for you.” God has given us grace, love, forgiveness, mercy, the promise of eternal life.
To give consideration to giving back to God, to have a plan and follow it, to be generous, to give first – not a little left-over, to give cheerfully are tenets of stewardship. Do we play tug-of-war with the envelope as the plate is passed or can we give it up, knowing that the church will be faithful with what is given and to be about mission that helps people grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, grow as faithful disciples. The church is not a club house, but is called to be about mission. Our giving is about discipleship – a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our giving, our very being is about stewardship, and God has called you by name and you are God’s. Don’t cling to every red cent you have, screaming “mine” inside yourself as the offering plate is passed. After all it isn’t a “bill plate”, but an opportunity to OFFER back just a small portion of what you have already been so generously given. Only God has the right to call out “Mine, all mine”, for indeed that’s what we are, each one of us, God’s very own, and will be there as we eat and as we drink – given for you, shed for you because you are MINE, God says. Thanks be to God! Amen

Texts:

Isaiah 45: 1-7
Psalm 96: 1-9
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22

Under New Management – Whose Vineyard Is It Anyways?

Under New Management – Whose Vineyard Is It Anyway?
The first Sunday in October has been called World-Wide Communion Sunday for as long as I can remember. This year I have heard that it is being called “Global Sunday.” Last week the choir introduced to you a global song, “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table.” We will be singing it today as our Hymn of the Day. The words are compelling to me – EVERYONE BORN – no one excluded – a place at the table. I had sung it before, but when we sang it at this year’s Synod Assembly, the words and the melody persisted in my very being. In this day of building walls, trying to send refugee children back to where they came from, trying to keep out others seeking a new country for a new life, this song speaks volumes to me. Even the way in which we dispatch aid to those who are suffering from the recent hurricanes and fires is not done with equity. How can it be that some are more entitled to assistance than others. Years ago I went to Puerto Rico with other Wartburg seminary students to help after Hurricane Georges, and witnessed the devastation of the land, but also to the people. There is a depression that sets in after the storm is past and people see the incredible amount of work to be done to restore their homes and their land. It occurred after Hurricane Katrina, and is happening now after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma here in the States, and is certainly a part of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. While I may not be able to do the same work I did then, my contributions to Lutheran Disaster Relief will help with other volunteers and their work at restoration to make a difference in the lives of these battered people and their homes and land. They all have a place at the table that God offers to everyone. We all hunger to be loved and to find that place at the table for ourselves. I long to know that God’s gift of his son, Jesus Christ, makes that possible for me as well as for others – for EVERYONE.
We also have the parable of the vineyard in Matthew’s gospel where the land owner is likely the chief priests and elders, who are allowed to own land and the slaves are subordinates, others they have hired to do the work. We actually have a chance to look at this in a couple of ways, and the second way is that this has often been interpreted as God being the owner, God’s chosen – the House of Israel, are the tenants, the slaves are the prophets, and the landowner’s son, the heir, is God’s Son, Jesus. Here we have the place, the possible players, and the story. We are asked a similar question to ponder. What have we done to produce good fruit, social justice, righteousness, and how do we take seriously our responsibility for the gifts we have been given in our lives for each day? And whose kingdom do we live in – are we the owners or are we the tenants?
Pastor Stacy Swain of the Union Church in Waban Massachusetts tells of a happening at her church on a Communion Sunday. In the midst of her sermon as she was defining how important she viewed the communion table as a defining symbol of faith, Harriet walked in from the side door of the sanctuary. Harriet had been visiting the church for several weeks off and on, and their church was open to those who were homeless and low-income people. She was making her way in front of the pulpit, headed the center aisle to find a seat, when she noticed the communion table set with bread and trays of juice. She stopped and took off one piece, and then another, eating as she pulled off one piece after another. She then took a piece in each hand and headed for a pew. The congregation watched, as did Pastor Stacy, who had continued on with her sermon about what she believed the purpose of the church to be – that of love, working towards healing and wholeness for others, and for the world. Then Harriet was up again, headed back to the table, filling her hands and with more bread. A deacon, Brenda, slipped out of her pew and walked up to the table as well; standing next to Harriet, she wrapped her arms around Harriet’s shoulders, and they turned together and walked slowly back to the pew – Harriet holding the bread, Brenda holding Harriet. They sat there together, side by side. Pastor Stacy said she could imagine what some of the thoughts were. And she noted that in this gospel about the sons and the vineyard, the Temple religious leaders thinking about their responses as they challenged Jesus and thought about his responses. Perhaps God was wanting to show them something through Jesus’ teaching, through this image of the vineyard, and the opportunity to reconsider a response of no, and then to go as opposed to a quick yes, but then not going. Perhaps the lesson was about considering what divides us, and the opportunity to give further consideration to the opportunities one might have if they reflected more deeply, and then acted on their yes to go, to make room for the other, the outsider, to open their arms, and to find a place where they can be side by side. That communion has an extended meaning besides eating – more in that we can communion with others by opening up our very selves to share a place at the table and beyond, to not be closed off because we don’t think they belong there. After all, whose vineyard is it anyway?
The same mistake, but with their own vengeance, was made by the vineyard tenants in the parable told by Jesus. The tenants, the chief priests and scribes, did not own the vineyard, nor do those they have working in them. They also did not own its fruits. As tenants, they had only leased the piece of ground. They had not paid a purchase price; they only paid rent, and the rent took the form of a portion of the harvest; they wanted the first fruits for themselves. If you have ever rented a house or land, you know that legally the renter’s first obligation is to pay the owner. This is the obligation the tenants in the story had assumed in entering into this agreement with the vineyard owner. When the owner sent workers to collect the harvest from those who had leased the land, the tenants failed to acknowledge their obligation. Instead they were mean-spirited and plotted, “Let’s make the vineyard our own.” They then proceeded not only to deny the owner the rent that was due, but to mistreat and kill those whom the owner sent to remind them of their obligations.
That’s our story as well. All our lives we’ve been helping ourselves to God’s vineyard, to the bread on the table, so to speak. Whether we realize it or not, whatever fruit or bread we may have are fruit and bread that come from God. What have we returned to God for the gifts, the life, with which we have been entrusted? Our challenge is the same challenge presented to the chosen House of Israel. In whose kingdom do we live: in our own or in God’s? The mystery is that we are responsible for what we do not own. Wow, that’s a hard pill to swallow. We live in a rent-to-own culture; we pride ourselves in how much we own. The more we have the more power we believe we are entitled to have. We sometimes feel pulled up short when we talk more directly about stewardship, usually part of the Fall programming in preparation for program planning and budget making. We hear that we are stewards of much and owners of nothing, that it all belongs to God and has been gifted to us to use to build up God’s kingdom. God’s Word tells us that we have been given the responsibility to take care of what God has planted, to tend the vines so that they’ll produce an abundance of good fruit. We are entrusted with much in God’s kingdom and left-overs and little tokens just won’t get it. Our best, our first fruits, our generosity is what God expects because God gave us the very best, was and is generous with grace and love and forgiveness. We have good news in our parable about the vineyard.
God is in charge and takes the ultimate responsibility for repairing, saving, restoring, and guiding our worldly vineyard. The owner’s son, God’s son, indeed is killed, but in his death, in Jesus’ death on the cross, we are forgiven, restored, and given a fresh start. Those grapes we harvest become the blood of Jesus, given and shed for us. His body becomes a living sacrifice for us, his body given for us, so that we might know the greatness of God’s love. Today Christians around the world are coming to the table to taste of God’s goodness. It is my prayer that we always come hungry to worship – hungry for what God has to offer and will want to eat and drink often of this cup and this bread and of God’s Word because that’s where our strength comes from. And we don’t come alone, but with a great cloud of witnesses who gather to eat this feast with us. We are given strength so that we can be the servants God has created us to be, faithful and loving, generous and open to all the possibilities we can tend and harvest as we serve as God’s hands in the world.
We as a group of God’s tenants gather together weekly on the anniversary of the Son’s victory over death in order to offer back to the owner of the vineyard a portion of the grain and wine his land has yielded. We offer up the sweat and tears and laughter of our lives. In doing this, we receive back as our food the body and blood of the Son who was slain that we might be redeemed. The Son was offered that we might be nourished and saved by the God who will not leave us alone, that we might live with him in his blessed kingdom now and forever – a real home for eternity. It is this hope that our faith is built on – Jesus’ blood and righteousness. The table is ready, the meal is abundant. For Everyone Born, there’s A Place at the Table. Thanks be to God! Amen

Ezekial 18: 1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25: 1-9
Philippians 3: 4b-14
Matthew 21: 33-46

LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES

LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
No one needs to teach to compete for love. Have you noticed that if the phone rings and you’re talking to someone, that’s the very time the kids get into things, or the toddler screams for your attention. Around the age of two, a child senses the threat of others even more strongly, to the point that some toddlers will hold and turn their parent’s face to attempt to hold their attention they believe is being given to someone else. Around three, many children become very aware of what they perceive to be “mine”, defensively guard toys when they think someone else might touch them or take them. Sharing isn’t easily caught or taught. Competition seems the name of the game.
We often kid in our families, “Who do you love best?” We tend to vie for the love of our parents, and while most of us can tease as adults about that during family gatherings, there are those who have always feared that perhaps what they thought to be true might really be true. The reply, “I love all of you equally,” is never a satisfying answer. When the rest are out of the room, the question persists, “Now you can tell me; who do you really love best?” “Am I your best friend?” Children and teens aren’t the only ones who hope to be number one, to be the one and only. Sharing the love of a special friend with someone else is rarely an occasion for celebration. It is rather like the loss of a special resource, a special relationship. A new friend, a third member to the group, is like an invading army. And if we’re the third added to the duo, how often have we felt like the useless “third wheel?”
There are times when marriages struggle and a spouse asks, “Why am I not enough for you?” “Why do you need to go out with your friends? Why do you spend so much time doing things I don’t want to do?” We wonder, “Am I not enough?” There are those times when our world caves in when we feel like we are not “everything” to the other. Since Cain and Abel, we’ve been looking for love in many of the wrong places, jealous of others, weighing the scales of fairness.
The parable about the laborers in the vineyard may well disturb us. Those who began at 6:00 AM, then 9:00 AM, up to noon have been working in the blistering sun. In walk others in the later portion of the day, even the last hour. When it comes time to settle up for the day’s wage, the owner orders his manager to pay them ALL of them the usual daily wage, starting with those who went out in the last hour. It doesn’t seem fair; unions would be in an uproar, there would likely be strikes. This owner doesn’t pay according to the amount of work put out; the owner pays what will meet the worker’s daily needs. It is an act of mercy rather than justice. What kind of gospel is this? What kind of reward for keeping one’s nose to the grindstone, so to speak, is this? Perhaps we really don’t know God like we thought we did. The question comes out – “Are you envious because I am generous?”
The disciples may well be thinking: “We left our families, gave up the comforts of our own homes, gave up jobs and security, gave up everything to follow you, Jesus. We’ve laid it all on the line, put ourselves in danger’s way and we want to know what we’re going to get in return, what’s in it for us?” Jesus responds, “Salvation, eternal life, a place in the kingdom of heaven.” BUT… there’s an AND – “And so will every other believer.” Everyone, no matter how much they have given to Jesus in their lifetime, will receive the same wage – salvation. Those who waste their time, sleep in on Sunday mornings, give when they feel like it and as little as possible, maybe stay away for years, and even those who on their deathbed come to accept Jesus as their Savior – they will receive mercy, forgiveness, and salvation – eternal life.
For those who are active and truly give themselves to God, this may seem unfair. To those who give regularly to support the work of the church, spend time in prayer and study of Scripture, serve on the Council, sing in the choir, this may seem unfair. You could be doing other things with your time, getting chores done around your home, enjoying some well-deserved recreation. You could save your money for your own wants and wishes. But perhaps you’ve seen a side of God you truly embrace. Our God is a God of generosity, a God of abundance rather than scarcity. Perhaps you’ve had an attitude adjustment about who God is and who and whose you are.
I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop with Dr. Eugene Grimm, pastor and ELCA Stewardship Specialist. He showed us how thoughts, including prayer, truly changes things. He showed us a slide of a drop of water. First, a pure source, next a polluted source. One is clearly defined in a shape similar to a snowflake. The polluted drop is murky with no definition. The pure drop was then exposed to heavy metal music and nearly disappears. Next it is exposed to the words repeated, “You make me sick, I will kill you.” It looks as those it splatters. The next source repeats over and over, “Hitler” and it becomes dark. Then it is exposed to classical music and it returns to its snowflake-like appearance. When it is exposed to the words, “Mother Theresa” there seems to be a glow around its edges. When the words “Thank You” are spoken, it shines. Finally when polluted water is blessed, prayed over, it returns to its snowflake, pure appearance. 65-67% of our body and 85% of our brain is water. If thoughts and prayers can do that to water, imagine what thoughts and prayers can to and for us! Think about how our attitude about generosity and giving when changed to positive thoughts and responses could change us, change our congregations, change us from seeing limits to seeing possibilities. Negative thinking generally bring negative results. Those who have positive outlooks on life and ministry tend to generate positive results. What do you expect? Do you see yourself as a child of God, a child God loves with abundance and blessing? Scarcity thinking is based on fear not faith, and our God is too small. Do we trust God to provide all that we need? Can we focus on God’s generosity and truly believe that God has given us far more than we either have earned or deserve. We need not vie for God’s love – God has already loved us – loved us to the very death of God’s son, Jesus Christ; loves us and promises us forgiveness, mercy, and salvation. Our giving back is a response to this love. Our giving is sacramental not sacrificial. Tithing – that 10th of all that we have been given – time, resources and talents, and yes, even our money – is a grateful and JOYFUL response to God. It is about a spiritual commitment. God gives us the opportunity to respond to the abundance and blessings that we have already received in our own baptism and in our own faith journey. Amen.

Texts:
Jonah 3: 10-4:11
Psalm 145: 1-8
Philippians 1: 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

The Gift That Keeps On Giving
How wonderful to have the story of Joseph today, at least this last portion of this family’s story. We remember how special Joseph was to his father, Jacob, the first-born son of his beloved wife, Rachel. His other siblings were jealous of Jacob’s love for Joseph, jealous of the beautiful coat given to Joseph. Their jealousy drove them to beat Joseph, tear his coat to make it appear that he had been attacked by a lion. They pushed him into a cistern, and then sold him as a slave. Yet Joseph was found favor with Potiphar, the Egyptian ruler, and he was trusted and given a high position in his court. Then sin raised its ugly head again in his life as Potiphar’s wife wanted him for her own physical wants. As he attempts to honor who she was, she betrays this honor and gets him imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. His skills and gifts given to him by God were used as he told the butler and baker the meaning of their dreams. He noted that he was able to take the punishment dealt because God was with him, even in prison. The butler is restored to his position; the baker is hung as revealed by their own dreams and Joseph’s interpretation. Years later, as Potiphar is troubled by his own dreams, the butler remembers Joseph’s skill at interpreting dreams; Potiphar calls upon Joseph to reveal their meaning. Joseph is then reinstated to Potiphar’s court as governor and wisely plans for the years of abundant harvest and years of famine. We remember that Joseph’s family suffers in the years of famine. His brothers are sent to Egypt to beg for food where Joseph recognizes his long-lost family. He works his position by having a brother imprisoned, and requires them to bring Benjamin with on their next trip. Jacob worries that he will lose yet another son, never getting over the loss of Joseph. We know how Joseph’s cup is planted in Benjamin’s bag, and he is accused of stealing. Joseph has his father brought in, rent with grief. A grand reunion happens as Joseph reveals his true identity. What was intended as evil – revenge over their father’s love for Joseph, God, through Joseph, uses for good – an opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation. The brothers have the opportunity to repent, to remember and to reconcile. Forgiveness is a process.
We have the opportunity to view ourselves through this story of Joseph. The revenge, the jealousy and sin of these brothers had long-standing consequences not just for Joseph, but for their father, for Benjamin, for their families and their community. Forgiveness does not come easily. Confessing our sin on a Sunday morning using the liturgy within our worship may roll off our tongues as we stand side by side; we read the words, but what do the words mean to us. In the very few moments where we stand in silence to reflect on our lives, our sins known and unknown to us, what are we thinking? Do we have the urge to run from the sanctuary, to beg forgiveness from someone? Do we have the urge to not say anything, knowing that there are those things we really don’t want to let go of? What thoughts, words, deeds do we keep in the depths of the dark parts of our very souls? Forgiveness is a process; it is not easy to truly ask “forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who trespass, sin, against us.” As much as we would like to say that it is easy to speak and mean these words, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s abundant grace that we are able to speak these words and to KNOW God, who promises to forgive our sin, and indeed does so. Forgiveness is a process of turning our lives around, of remembering who we are and whose we are, and taking every opportunity God offers us to reconcile with God and with our brothers and sisters in our families, our church and our community. The ability to forgive and to be forgiven is beyond our human capacity; it comes as a gift from God.
Why is forgiveness so important? Why, if God knows our hearts, doesn’t God know we’re sorry? God knows us, indeed knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows that we hold grudges, knows that at times we contemplate how we can get revenge for being wronged. God knows our wants and desires often get the best of us and we want far beyond what we either need or deserve. Many of us see what the other has and wants it, too. In fact, we often want it to be bigger and better than what our neighbor has. Thank God we are not left alone in our prisons of desire, our prisons of revenge and retaliation, our prisons of greed and our blindness to see how easily we are tempted. Thank God we have the miracle of God’s love for all God’s creatures given in God’s son, Jesus Christ. We need the memory of the pain and suffering inflicted on us as much as what we have inflicted on others to keep us returning to God for mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Look at the model we have in Jesus. He is betrayed and abandoned by his disciples, yet he reappears in his resurrection to these very followers to repair the damage done when their relationship broke down. They are able to remember their fear, betrayal, violation of the promise to stay with him. In remembering, they are able to hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness, and they are knit back together. He models loving those who acted out of fear and anxiety, protecting themselves at the cost of another, their very Lord. He doesn’t encourage them to pretend that nothing happened. In an article on forgiveness in a previous issue of The Lutheran magazine, an example is given of a woman who spoke of a vicious betrayal and her attempt to put it behind her. “These folks were renting too much space in my head, and I wanted to renegotiate the rental contract. I pray for forgiveness. That doesn’t mean I trust them with my life. I don’t know if I could be friends with any of those people again, but I’m working to love them –as enemies.” Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.”
How can we love like this? How is it possible? We turn to the cross, the crucifixion when Jesus was abandoned by his friends, followers, even his beloved Father. He hangs there staring into the face of evil, defies this evil as he forgives: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Are the words spoken in compassion or are they spit out of the mouth of this dying Jesus? Jesus doesn’t say he can do this, but asks that the One who sent him make it so – “Father, forgive them.” He found the forgiveness not from himself, but from God, his Father. Jesus’ forgiveness from the cross remains one of his most important lessons he left behind for us.
Forgiveness, deep and true forgiveness, does not come overnight. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to forgive. It is God who promises to stay with us in our prisons of hurt, thoughts of revenge, struggles to let go. It is God who loves us abundantly beyond our understanding who provides the grace and mercy to forgive. Reconciliation is the miracle of forgiveness – the ability to be able to come back into our relationship with God, admitting that it is us who have wandered off, checked in only when we personally wanted something for ourselves, or sometimes asking for another. And in that miracle, other relationships are restored as well. We do not live just in a bubble in and for ourselves. We live in families, congregations, community; we are broken people. But by the grace of God, the miracle of forgiveness restores us to be who God has created us to be and who God calls us to be. We are called into community by the One who forgives us; we are called then to give as generously as we have been given, to live out Jesus’ cross and resurrection, to live out of an empty tomb and into a journey of real discipleship, real commitment and real accountability for the gifts we have so richly been given. Remembering 9-11 and the ongoing terrorist attacks throughout our world, school shootings, flooding, fire, earthquakes, and devastating storms, we thank God for grace to forgive. Forgiveness is a process and a gift! It is the gift that keeps on giving!

Texts:
Genesis 50: 15-21
Psalm 103: [1-7] 8-13
Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35

WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED…

WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED…
Life in community … our opening remarks on the front of our bulletin says, “We gather in the name of Christ, assured that he is present among us with gifts of peace and reconciliation.” The scripture we’ve just read and heard talks about how God wants there to be reconciliation and peace among members of the family of God. “Where two or three are gathered there in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says. In the midst of tragedy and disaster, pain and suffering so enormous that it defies description, there Jesus is. With hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, fire, rain, and wars raging in our world, we certainly would seem to long for peace and reconciliation – with each other as human beings and with the earth. In our understanding of the Theology of the Cross, where Jesus goes to the cross for our sins, for the sins and suffering of the world, suffers for us … it is at this cross that we go to lay our burdens down, to cry out and wonder if we have been abandoned in the midst of terrible human suffering. It would seem that our land and our very being with each other is in great turmoil at this time.
I loved playing in the band ever since I began playing an instrument. I loved the music we made and the getting everyone together for a common reason of making music. For the most part, I liked band rehearsals. I remember my high school band teacher telling us that we didn’t need to like the person sitting next to us – as there was conflict and contention at times as we battled for our seating order in the band, but that we needed to love making music and that the band was about being community. If we loved making music, we could get passed our differences for the sake of making great music together. I didn’t quite get it until I was a senior and a new student moved into the district and she was a very talented musician. I had held the first chair flute since I was in 7th grade and she came in and won the seat in our fall auditions. She not only was a talented flutist, but she was a talented vocalist and was in my soprano section in choir, displaying her fine talents with a trained voice that few of us had had in our small rural community. My parents couldn’t afford private lessons for us – there was two of everything being a twin and the budget was always tight. I was band president my senior year and had been working hard throughout high school towards the John Phillips Sousa Award given out in the Spring to the Senior most deserving of it. I simmered inside for much of the year, fearing that she would take that too. To make matters worse, my twin brother had a crush on her and they dated much of our senior year. But for the sake of community and love of music, I learned to get passed this in order to make beautiful music in our band. It may seem like a kind of “mushy” story to tell alongside this gospel lesson, but some of our life thorns in our sides are almost as petty as what this now seems to be, although it seemed like a huge thorn at the time. One thing it did was it challenged me in ways that made me accountable for being the best I could be and I learned more about what it meant to be community.
Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us that we are reconciled to God through faith rather than through works of the law, and he encourages Christians to practice God’s law of love while we wait for the salvation that is to come. So our readings are about relationship and community. Community life, whether it’s in a family, a congregation, community or groups such as school, athletic teams, 4-H clubs, activities, is the testing ground of faith. St. Teresa of Avila thought that relationships in community were often a greater indication of one’s relationship to God. Community activist Dorothy Day wisely believed that injustice and exploitation were as present in small service communities as in the political scene locally, nationally and globally. Many have observed that it takes greater charity, humility, and love to get along with a co-worker than with a stranger. Paul reminds us that love is frequently tested in our immediate relationships with our neighbor – be that brother or sister, the person who lives down the road or street, Council member, co-workers … you name it. While we can list horrendous crimes and sins such as murder, stealing, betrayal in relationships, these are actually variations in everyday sins of manipulation, deception, cheating, lying, gossiping, and taking care of #1 in spite of the needs of others right in our midst. Sounds simple, love one another, love your neighbor as yourself. But love is complicated; building community is never simple. Love makes us accountable and responsible for others beyond ourselves. Love is complicated because it’s about more than our selves; it’s about our relationship with God and our relationship with others. It reminds me of the shape of the cross: relationship with God and self is the long bar that comes down from God, and the cross-bar is about our relationship with God and others. That’s how Jesus ends up on the cross, because of our sin, our inability to love one another and love God; that’s how God knows our pain and suffering, pays our debt with his son, Jesus.
Jesus has just told the parable about the lost sheep in the text before this one. He wants us to go out and find the lost sheep from the flock of 99 because that one matters, has value, is significant to the community. We might go find the lost sheep because of its dollar value, what it will cost us in financial loss, and fail to realize that it has other value. In this gospel text, we are given a way to deal with problems and behaviors that complicate community life. We don’t usually enjoy directly confronting another person, especially someone with whom we are having difficulties. Some families and organizations go years without addressing problems. Grudges and resentments within a community often die with those who hold them rather than come to resolution in open and healing dialogue. The things that irritate us most about friends or relatives are usually discussed with anyone but the accused. Encountering the truth, struggling with bettering the relationship for the sake of the relationship itself is painful and challenging. However, if we seriously love another person as the “other”, not just want them for our own needs and our own desires of usefulness, when we can truly value them as valued also by God, then we have a chance to transcend our humanity and begin to love them as God loves them. Sometimes we only imagine our relationship with God being about what God can do for us, what our needs are and what it is that we expect from God. Relationships are always two-way streets. A true relationship with God also means that something is expected of us, and our lives must reflect not only God’s love in and for us, but our love for God and our willingness to be more than mouthpieces, but real servants, real love in action. Our human relationships mirror our relationship with God. Whenever we encounter each other, and that happens continuously, there Jesus is in our midst. We are always in a three-way relationship.
As we contemplate the destruction and years of rebuilding from tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, fire, and horrendous storms that have hammered so many communities close to us and far away, we could just send a check and be glad we could give some kind of help. We often find that we have connections with those experiencing disasters. We share in their pain because they are family or friends. People often have to be relocated and have to rebuild their lives in other communities; the one they knew is gone. Our response to these disasters needs to come from our hearts and from our prayers and from what it means to be the body of Christ. Sometimes it means a rebuilding in our own churches. It’s about the importance of our mission projects like the work we do as inner city churches to be a presence in Kishwaukee School with our mentors and our gifts of school supplies and clothing for those whose needs are so great. The underwear, socks, the backpacks and supplies all enhance the lives of our brothers and sisters far beyond our own walls. We need to get over thinking that someone else will do it. WE can care and be accountable; we can step up to what it means to be a community of believers where Christ is in our midst. We thank God for our families, our friends and for our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering both in these local and national disasters and through-out the world, and for the opportunity we are given to love them and serve them because of what we ourselves have already been given. We love because God first loved us. We are community in so many ways and God is always with us, wherever we are and in all our relationships. Thanks be to God. Amen.

tEXTS:
Ezekiel 33: 7-11
Psalm 119: 33-40
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

SACRIFICAL LOVE, CAN YOU IMAGINE IT?

SACRIFICAL LOVE, CAN YOU IMAGINE IT?
Can you imagine it? I’m sure Peter was struggling with imaging what just took place. It was only a short while when he was confessing Jesus as the Messiah, and now in his concern, he takes Jesus aside to have a chat with him. First he was a cornerstone, given the keys to the Kingdom, and now Jesus is calling him a stumbling block. Surely he doesn’t really mean that he’s going to suffer at the hands of the religious leaders and be killed! And what’s this stuff about being raised from the dead? Dead is dead, or is it? Can you imagine it? But Peter can’t, and perhaps we struggle with that as well, even when we know the rest of the story. These followers are certainly aware of the violence and oppression, the occupation and taxation that the Romans have exerted over them. They certainly are aware that Herod and others have killed everyone from infants to peasants for fear of someone rising up and becoming more powerful. Force and violence appear to be key to who is holding the power. They can’t imagine anything different from retribution, violence and hate. Sound familiar? We can well imagine as it sounds like all too familiar tones of our day and our world as well. And perhaps we’re not even surprised that Jesus was killed, that he did suffer beatings and torture, crucified and humiliated on the cross, innocent of the drummed-up charges by the priests and scribes, violence and hatred trumping love and caring for the least, for the marginalized.
I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with an image for this. I thought about dancing and how one partner might be trying to lead steps for a two-step and the other might be trying to waltz. How awkward and out of step they are with each other. What one imagines about dancers is that one will lead and the other will follow, and they will be dancing the same foot patterns, dancing to the same rhythms, and there will be a one-ness about their dance. You can imagine this, even if you’re not a dancer.
I then tried to think about it from a sports aspect, baseball – how you have a game plan to study those who are in the line up to bat, what the pitcher needs to know about each player coming to the plate. Those out on the field also know something about each hitter, whether they tend to go long or are especially good at placing the ball through the gaps to get on base. There’s also something that hitters know that will lead to advancing base runners, and that’s a sacrifice ball – they are out for the sake of advancing the runner. It’s a team sport and getting more runners to cross the plate than the other team is the object for winning the game. Sounds simple, and perhaps you can imagine that.
I’m thinking that what we have difficulty with imaging is that Jesus didn’t come to violently take control of people or the world. He came to bring peace, love, and freedom, and he will make the sacrifice so that we might have these. Sometimes we might not even be aware of what controls us or keeps us tied up – not free. We have a culture that encourages us to seek a little more – more wealth, more status, more security, more stuff. Sometimes we have to come full circle in our life’s journey to realize that more is rarely life-giving just for the sake of having more. I think what we are offered in this text, and also from the reading from Romans is something that is more life-giving. “Let love be genuine,” Paul says. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” He goes on to say “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another.”
It would seem that there are many stumbling blocks that keep us from extending hospitality to strangers, contributing to the needs of others, loving others with mutual affection. I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks is fear. Fear grabs us and we’re afraid that the stranger will take something from us, will want more than we are able to give, will want us to make sacrifices that we’re not ready to commit to. While the Midtown Ethnic Festival was a great day to experience the diversity of our community, it’s a one-day festival. It’s pretty easy to go back to doing what we’ve always done without thinking about how all of this diversity is who we are every day. I continue to marvel at the students, faculty and staff at Kishwaukee School – truly a little united nation of cultures and ethnicities that come together every school day and not only make an effort to get along; they make the sacrifices necessary to show mutual love and understanding of one another. They respect the differences as well as learn to embrace the ways they are alike. How is it that we expect less of ourselves as adults than we do of these young children? Can’t we imagine what mutual love, freedom, respect, and make the sacrifices necessary for that to happen? Perhaps it is too hard to imagine!
I think that is one of the reasons the Church continues to exist. We are the training ground for that kind of love. We pass that on to the next generations in our homes, in our schools, in Sunday School and activities that we participate in as the body of Christ – the oneness that Jesus calls us to be about. We model that in our worship – coming together to first confess our sins and hear God’s words of absolution for us – a clean slate. We offer prayers for one another; we share the peace – not just because it’s a nice thing to do and a chance for a little hospitality to guests who might show up for worship. We share the peace because we have been reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who died that we can be a forgiven people. We model that as we come hungry to be fed with the sacrifice of Jesus – his body, his blood, and the promise of life eternal. We have a reason for coming together and being sent out – that there’s a mission God has called us to be about, and it will require some sacrifice on our part. We are asked to give – because we’ve first been given. Our God is a God of abundance and we aren’t given left-overs. God gives us the best. The school supplies we bring so that the children have what they need for their learning are a love offering that we can make. The prayer shawls we bless and give are our prayers wrapping the one needing to sense God’s closeness and healing powers. It’s almost time to send off what we have been gathering for Lutheran World Relief, and each of those school kits, baby and personal kits are life-giving gifts to others we may never meet – hospitality and contributing to the needs of others. Lutheran Disaster Relief is already in Texas and Louisiana, assessing the needs and bringing aid to those who are suffering from the ravages of the hurricane and flooding. 100% of our giving to LDR goes directly to those who need it most and none is used for administrative costs. Our benevolence that we give, first here, then what we send to the Synod, and then what is sent on to Church-wide makes these kinds of services available to those with such great need. I want you to imagine that – because that’s the kind of Church we are.
Peter may well have been reeling from what he encountered as he was only trying to protect Jesus from the violence and hatred that Jesus knew was to come. We too may well be reeling from the violence and hatred that we hear and experience daily. But God has not left us orphaned or abandoned in the midst of all of this. We are a gifted people. God gave us his son – the very best gift – and made the sacrifice so that we might know love, forgiveness, freedom, and have the opportunity and responsibility to give back – to realize that we have new life in Jesus Christ. All things are made new through this sacrifice of love. And because we are a blessed and gifted people, we can offer that to others who need life-giving love and hope in the midst of violence, war, discrimination and hatred, and power that takes life away from those who already have so little. We can multiply the impact of God’s gift by the way we live out the love we have from God. We can help others to imagine that they are loved and whole in our broken world. There is good news! We know that good news! I hope you can imagine it and help others imagine it as well. Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order to introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead and that is good news. We can see it, we can taste it, and we can believe it that the life-giving promises of the Messiah – Jesus Christ – came not to give us what we want but what we need. The circle of life leads us from despair to love and hope. We are reflections of that love and hope. Imagine that! Thanks be to God. Amen

Texts:

Jeremiah 15: 15-21
Psalm 26: 1-8
Romans 12: 9-21
Matthew 16: 21-28

THE COST OF DESCIPLESHIP

THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
Well, Peter – one week we read of your stepping out of the boat in faith, then we hear your courageous words in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and now this Sunday Jesus is yelling at you for your human side coming out- not wanting to think about the messiness, pain, difficulty of Jesus facing suffering and death as he shares with these followers what must come next. Do you, Peter, feel like saying, “Take this job and shove it!”? Do you feel, Peter, like saying that you were doing quite well as a fisherman in Capernaum and didn’t expect to be verbally cuffed for not wanting your leader to suffer and be killed? Do you feel like telling Jesus that this isn’t what you expected? Do you want to tell Jesus how your heart is breaking?
Following God is difficult. We’re always overwhelmed by discipleship. We fear being asked too much of, fear being asked to speak hard words, follow through with difficult tasks, stand up for something that goes against the popular grain of the day. We fear that we will have to suffer, go without; that we’ll be asked to give up too much. Following God is difficult. It’s difficult because we tend to focus on how much we will have to give rather than on what God has already given and continues to give. Discipleship is not about us, it’s about God. It’s about our figuring out who we are in Jesus Christ, in our baptism, in our being claimed by God as God’s child. It’s about God’s power rather than our own. What must be paid is a willingness to let go of our hunger for security, approval, and comfort; to take up our own cross of love and give ourselves away, to abandon our images of success and schemes of self-indulgence.
We live in an age when, by all cultural accounts, our faith is foolish. Our ritual and the vows we take at baptism, in our confirmation, in joining the church appear to be promises too difficult to keep; our sacraments are a nice touch to those looking in from the outside, but what power does three handfuls of water have? What good can come from eating a bit of bread and a sip of wine? By today’s standards, it’s appears too hard to expect a person to be faithful to one partner for a lifetime. The soap opera stars change partners like they change their wardrobe, and somehow we think this is the way ordinary life is. Those on the outside of the church’s walls view us with skepticism. We don’t seem to get along much better as a faith family than they do without faith. We have our disagreements and conflicts just as readily as those who don’t claim a religious up-bringing or have turned from any regular relationship with the church or with God. They view the church as only wanting money, power, and privileges; and actually some who hold membership in the church also see only this surface element of the church rather than the depth of faith and the call to be more than that. They don’t see the call to pursue justice, peace, healing and wholeness. And if those who claim to be followers of Christ think these are too hard, then who will oppose the forces of evil in our world?
To Peter’s credit, he does get behind Jesus. He gets behind and yet follows him to Jerusalem, even though he fears what’s coming. He follows to Gethsemane, even though he, in his humanity, falls asleep even as Jesus asks him to watch and pray. He follows to the Passion, even though he lies; he waits for Christ in the upper room, even though he is shamed by his own words of betrayal – “I do not know this Jesus.”
It indeed takes courage to keep those vows, keep our promises to come and worship, to give of ourselves, our resources, including our money. It takes an extra bit of “umpf” to pull ourselves out of bed and what seems to be the only morning we could sleep in and get ourselves ready for Sunday School and worship. It takes courage to follow this leader – more than a game, but a true life commitment.
Do you realize that we who fear terrorism in our land also has within our land the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, known in prior years as the School of the Americas, a military school in Fort Benning, Georgia that has trained Latin Americans in tactics of war, terrorism and torture. Shortly after I graduated from Wartburg Seminary, two sisters (biological and Franciscan sisters) Dorothy Marie and Gwen Hennessey, 89 and 69 at the time, were arrested and served six-month jail sentences for acts of civil disobedience in protesting the School of the Americas. When asked why they did this, they responded with stories of their brother who was a missionary priest in Guatemala and whose parishioners were brutally tortured and killed by people who had, no doubt, been trained by the School of the Americas. These sisters have seen and heard too much, and being silent about what they knew wasn’t an option. Both said too many people don’t know or don’t want to know what’s really happening in our world, so they became witnesses who couldn’t be silent; they were compelled as disciples to speak for justice, peace, healing and wholeness. I think now about Pastor Carrie Ballenger Smith and her husband, Rev. Dr. Robert Smith, and their family in Jerusalem, with Pastor Carrie serving a Lutheran church in Jerusalem and Robert is teaching professor for Notre Dame there with international students. I think about what it has meant to leave first Capron, and then Crystal Lake and move to Jerusalem, seemingly a world away from what they knew – all for following this radical Jesus. The transitions for their sons, and now their oldest son attending college in Germany, and the daily confrontation of a military zone and the realities of hatred literally exploding all around them, and daily persecution.
The way of the cross is the way of faith, claiming life and truth in the face of everything that tells us not to. Once Jesus has really come close to us, really touched our hearts, convicted our very souls, we find that the only truth in being called “Christian” is to keep on the path, the path to the cross where we lay our sins upon Jesus, who carries them to his own death, and who then grants us our salvation, and the grace and love to continue to boldly proclaim that he indeed is our Lord and Savior.
On this particular Sunday when we are especially aware of the pain of loss and suffering throughout the world from what seems like ceaseless wars, pain from someone dying or pain from disease, pain from storms that ravage and kill, pain from drought that causes wells to dry up, pain from earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters, we also come together to claim God’s promises. God’s promises will act as a balm to our broken hearts. In our humanity, in our tears, in our celebrations, God promises to weep with us, to laugh and celebrate with us. Surely the presence of God is in our midst, surely it is Jesus Christ who has died for us, was raised from the dead, so that we might know the promise of eternal life. Surely Christ will come again to take us to himself, that where he is there we may be also. Surely Christ will be compassionate and stay with us in our fear, in our losses, and in our everyday journey. We need not be afraid to be followers of this Christ. He claims us as his own. Christ calls us to follow him, calls us by name, calls us in the midst of our own cross stories, and calls us to step up and out in faith. Lord, give us the courage to be who you have called, equipped, and empowered us to be. Help us to be faithful followers. Amen

Texts :

Jeremiah 15: 15-21
Psalm 26: 1-8
Romans 12: 9-21
Matthew 16: 21-28

GOD’S CRUMBS

GOD’S CRUMBS
The first portion of our Gospel text is in brackets, so we could leave it out, but I’d like to point out its importance in hearing the rest of the text. In this text, Jesus is teaching about the second table of the 10 Commandments, those commandments that are about our relationships with others. The first three commandments deal with our relationship with God. This set begins with and end with a focus on what comes from the mouth. As he teaches about life together, Jesus attempted to have his listeners understand the difference between keeping the laws and moral requirements as a part of tradition and keeping them because they are something we live in our heart and express with words that come from our mouth. He is attempting to have them understand that tradition for the sake of tradition is mere law keeping – our modern day “We have always done it this way”, which can get in the way of what God really wants us to be about, losing sight of God’s mission in the midst of change, controversy, differing opinions, our own personality quirks and ways of doing things. Jesus is telling them, telling us, that we are made unclean by the unloving words that spring so readily from our mouths. He is calling them and us to treat others with respect and abstain from verbally attacking others who have views and practices that differ from our own. It is the ugliness of false witness, slander, and unkindness that we sometimes carry in our hearts that trips out of our mouths, wags from our tongue and out over our lips that can kill, maim, and destroy those we speak of. We hear this teaching, and then we turn to the next section of this text and wonder if Jesus was present and listening as he was teaching the previous crowd. Here is a Canaanite woman shouting at him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” Jesus doesn’t even respond to her. If he wasn’t going to tend to these Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon, why did he go there? If he was called only to save the “lost sheep of the house of Israel, why didn’t he just stay in Jewish communities? This woman is not likely even culturally a member of the community but a person from a rural community; folks shut away from the Jewish community, an unnamed outsider woman. It’s about more than her cultural heritage; it’s a story about her faith. It’s not WHO she is by culture that heals her daughter; it is because of her faith that Jesus heals her daughter. She recognizes Jesus for who he is, and she humbles herself, kneels down before him and begs Jesus for his mercy and his help. She acknowledges Jesus as “Lord”, recognizes him as one who has come to heal, to save and to cleanse. Not only does she recognize her position in society, but she recognizes that her daughter will not be helped if she, her mother, does not plead in her behalf. Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who changes things for the better, is rewarded. Jesus acknowledges her faith and her daughter is healed. We only have a brief part of her encounter and Jesus’ response. I wondered as I read the text what she might have been thinking and what her life might have been like. As I teach Biblical Images in the Synod’s Diakonia Program, I urge my students to put themselves in the story, to somehow get a sense for what’s going on and as a way of identifying ourselves as a part of the gospel story. Putting myself into this story as the Canaanite woman, my own story of a daughter in need of healing comes to mind. The moment Shari was born I became her medical advocate. There were seemingly constant appointments at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in eight different clinics. When she was born, there were only five study cases in the world with similar birth anomalies. While she was a patient with learning appeal to the residents and medical students, she was my daughter and I felt like I needed to walk a fine line of hoping they would learn things that would help her as well as others they would treat, but not turn her into a medical guinea pig. We were fortunate to have some of the finest physicians in the world provide their wisdom and medical expertise, but it was still a painful and unknown journey we were on. I was young but tenacious – for her sake as well as my own. I get this Canaanite woman’s despair as well as her tenacity. I get how she was relentless to get help for her daughter, even if it was just the crumbs of this Jesus, the one others were talking about as a teacher and healer. I get how she didn’t give up even when it seems she’s going to be sent away. I get that she will put up with being put down if it will get help for her daughter.
This daughter apparently has a mental illness. How fraught our news is with frequent news of those who suffer or have suffered from the darkness and despair of depression and addictions. Working as a mental health professional and often on the suicide hotline, I know the pleadings of those who wonder if life will ever be any better than the darkness and torment they find themselves in. I knew the parents who tried desperately to get the help their child needed – not just young children, but their adult children – to help them hang on until they could see some light of day. I heard their pleas to keep them hospitalized so that they would be safe from the harm of their own hands. I also worked with those on the addiction unit with hopes of helping them fight their demons and find resources that would give them the strength to battle their way back to a healthier life. I know the battle of family members and friends who also battle the demons of depression and anxiety and how debilitating all this can be. I get this Canaanite woman pleading with Jesus. And I think that Jesus sees something new in her pleadings – that he indeed was sent for more than a particular community, but to something more, and he is stretched as well in his understanding of who he was sent to save. She may well have had her faith tested and stretched, but that Jesus sees her wrestling with challenges of her daughter and the deep love she has for her and the desperate need for healing. It would seem that Jesus learns that God’s kingdom and his mission to enact that kingdom is bigger than he had first imagined or dreamed of.
This is a text to truly wrestle with. It’s not a fun story, although we can rejoice that Jesus sees this woman’s deep faith and heals her daughter. How we wish for that kind of healing for ourselves and for our children, as well as for the very world itself – the wars, the shootings and killings, daily news of yet more hate and violence – Lord, heal us, we plead. But I wonder what other lessons we might learn from this challenging text. I wonder about those we wish were here worshiping with us today. I wonder what it is about the present-day-culture who either doesn’t find what they are looking for when they show up to visit a congregation or whether there’s something we have gotten so locked into that we can’t or are unsure of how to change to reach out to them in ways that are inviting or healing or whatever it is they are looking for. We all are looking for that place to fit in, to find some kind of comfort zone and to find something that feeds the needs gnawing inside ourselves. We need to be tenacious in our praying – prayers for renewal and revitalization – to be God’s people alive with the gospel good news inside ourselves to be shared with others, lived out each day.
Gospel stories are not just for those who lived so long ago in the midst of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but they are gospel stories that intersect our very lives. That’s why I will keep teaching and urging you to find your story and Jesus’ story merging and bring meaning and learning and healing to our lives. It may not always be exactly what we are pleading with Jesus to give us, but I’ve learned throughout life that healing comes in a myriad of ways. Be faithful, be tenancious … Jesus is listening.
We gather to worship God. Lines once drawn in the sand are erased by Jesus’ mind being changed. Jesus grew in his understanding of what it meant to be Son of David, Messiah, and what he was to do. God’s kingdom is inclusive; God gathers everyone, including outcasts. God chose you in your baptism and loves you. Follow your faith. You will receive more than crumbs. Jesus, our Savior is here. Grace poured out for you; it is God’s love for us. Amen

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8
Psalm 67: 1-7
Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: [10-20] 21-28

Can You Hear Me Now?

Can You Hear Me Now?
“Let anyone with ears listen!” Reminds me of the cell phone commercial … “Can you hear me now?” Jesus goes on to tell other parables about seed and sower, good soil, and weeds. Stay tuned, because next week, Jesus will ask us again… “Can you hear me now?” Perhaps just as the fellow on the commercial roams from place to place asking, “Can you hear me now?”, so Jesus moves from the boat on the Sea of Galilee, to the hillside of mountains, to beaches where fishermen repair their boats and mend their nets, to rural villages, market places, and towns, telling stories about the Kingdom of God, explaining their meaning to followers, asking them, “Can you hear me now?”
Today’s Gospel parable follows directly upon the parable of the seed and the soil. It is another parable drawn from the agricultural community of Jesus’ day, this time focusing on the final judgment. We’ve heard journalists, writers speak of the end times through articles and books, many declaring that human civilization is threatened with total devastation by a nuclear holocaust, that there are end days predicted, and drones to spy, and threats of missiles being shot off in Iran, the very land where Jesus is preaching and teaching. Meanwhile, we live in an age in which farmers handle the problems of weeds among the wheat and other crops with herbicides that raise serious concerns on the part of environmentalists. We are alerted regularly to the presence of chemicals that perhaps not only endanger the weeds among the wheat but the wheat, all vegetation, and the very cells of our bodies. One environmentalist wrote that our planet has no life insurance policy. Infants born today, he asserted, may experience more changes in their lifetimes than the planet Earth has since the birth of civilization. I think of those reaching their 90th or 100+ birthdays and living into their 90th decade of life and beyond, the many changes since World War I and II, the Great Depression, horse and buggy to cars, hand-planting and hand-picking crops to planters and combines that can plant and pick a whole field in a matter of minutes rather than days. I think about ink wells in school desks to computer labs, from gravel roads to freeways, covered bridges to suspension bridges and tunnel bridges that go underground. There have been so many changes already; it’s hard to imagine what changes are ahead. What will we be called to do as we live as responsible tenants of God’s creation? We’re encouraged to “go green”, and our children often know more about recycling than we do. It’s our responsibility as stewards to care for all that has been given to us. Much has to be done if we are to preserve creation as we know it.
Jesus did not approach the subject of the final judgment like the doomsday prophets of our day. Certainly he would encourage good stewardship of the creation, and makes it clear that we will be held accountable for the way in which we respond or don’t respond in concern for the creatures and land of the creation, and in our own giving back. Jesus said in the parable that the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. In the previous parable Jesus had explained that the seed was the word of God. When the good seed is sown into the ground, it will yield good crops. The parable suggests to us God sows the seed out of good grace. In a later explanation to his disciples, Jesus identifies himself, the Son of Man, as the one who sows the seed. What is important to note at this point is that the seed is sown as a totally gracious act on the part of God.
It is just as certain that as God, out of good and perfect grace, works on behalf of the people, someone is sure to work to counter that divine activity. In this parable’s interpretation offered in Matthew, the enemy is none other than the devil himself. We can see those demonic forces at work every day. Just as a church is planted and built to the glory of God and to be a place where God’s Word takes root in our lives, a meth lab is discovered or the heroin or opioid use that wreaks havoc on people’s lives as the chemicals alter their potential to be all God created them to be. Our defense industry spends millions of dollars to build a smart bomb, but our schools get far less than that per year to create one well educated child. One does not have to be very perceptive to see something demonic about the tremendous amount of waste in this country while a good percentage of our population lives below the poverty level, adequate medical care comes at a premium and is not accessible to everyone, children are hungry, so many are homeless. Immigrants continue to come to our nation and our community seeking safety and opportunities to build a new life.
The demons are at work among good people. The devil is an expert at using the mask of religiosity to tempt people. God’s work is often hindered by people passing themselves off as upright and holy. The exposure of TV evangelists who peddled their religious wares makes this clear. However, many have not been exposed until they have bilked millions of people. The enemy is clever in deluding people inside and outside the church. I want to point out the ministry done by those who make visits to our homebound and shut-ins, those who are in care facilities, as well as the card ministry that is done; many write notes to our shut-ins, to those homebound, in assisted living facilities, or nursing homes, and now prayer shawls, wrapping them in our prayers. It is important to keep those connections with those who are ill and in need of ties with their church family. I remember candidly the year I spent at home with Shari because of her medical needs. My church services for the most part were Sunday TV evangelists or the stories of The Lutheran Hour. How I longed for liturgy, hymns and communion. Robert Schuller was quite a churchman, but always with a sales pitch besides the gospel, always something to buy. My aunt spent hundreds of dollars sending money to Oral Roberts for people to pray for her as she grappled with cancer, when she could have asked her own congregation and pastor to pray for her simply out of love for one of their own, even though she had long fallen away from regular church attendance.
Just think, we open our doors for worship and prayer, actually every day of the week in some way, but specifically on Sundays, and there’s no charge; we do it out of love for one another and love and trust in God’s grace and mercy. Perhaps you think our stewardship program is also a sales pitch, but it’s not; it’s about our relationship with God and what God has first given us, and our response back to God. It’s about God’s mission getting done with our first fruit response, not our left-overs. It’s about spiritual health; how we give or withhold has everything to do with our spiritual wellbeing.
We hear about God’s tolerance with the weeds in the field, to wait until the final harvest. God’s in charge. We often forget that and want to be the ones who run in and make judgments that may not be accurate or for the best reasons. God gives people time and an opportunity to repent and to bring forth the fruits of repentance. We may get discouraged and feel like evil is winning, but God is patient, willing to wait for us to grow in faith. The time until the harvest is the time God allows for people to come to the knowledge of God’s love and grace for all; we may not be aware of those who respond. In fact, we may be troubled at times because we see nothing happening. It may be we who are asleep and indifferent to the hand of God in people’s lives.
This parable demonstrates to us that God is extremely patient with us. We can thank God for exercising extreme patience with us then and not moving in to weed us out as evil ones! Likewise we are challenged by God’s example to demonstrate the same kind of patience and charity with our neighbors. God’s love includes everyone; bigotry, racism and intolerance will never do. As we have experienced the patience of God, we are asked to deal patiently with others in love. A tall order, but we can do this through the strength we get from prayer, worship, communion and fellowship in nurturing our faith to hear God’s will for us. Jesus reminds us that God promises to walk with us on this journey. He came as the Word made flesh, calling us, reminding us, urging and encouraging us. “Let anyone with ears listen!” “Can you hear me now?”

Texts :
Isaaih 44 : 6 – 8
Psalm 139 : 1 – 12, 23 – 24
Romans 8 : 12 – 25
Matthew 13 : 24 – 30, 36 – 43

HEART CONDITIONS

HEART CONDITIONS
For many living along major rivers, the effects of flooding has robbed them of planting seeds and anticipating a harvest – not only for this growing season, but for some, the impact will last for years, perhaps decades. One can only imagine the affects this spring’s and summer’s winds and torrential rains have had on the crops. I can only imagine that in other places there will be no haying and no other crops growing or producing for a harvest. In many places there are no cattle or hogs to feed as many drowned in the flooding or had to be relocated. In many places the conditions for what the harvest will be are very tenuous. It’s a critical time. For those who have sown the seed, perhaps there is concern; perhaps they are anxious and downright worried. The seed sown is precious, full of potential.
Today’s parable is preached to a rural community of Jesus’ day. The society was primarily agricultural. Although the nature of the soil, the climate, and other factors made farming a life of constant toil and hardship, it was basic to survival. A large part of the land was desert and rock and could not be farmed. A typical farmer didn’t live on the farm but in a nearby village or town, most often near a fortified city. He owned no more land than he could manage with his family. He probably grew vegetables and herbs alongside his house. When the Israelites first came to the Promised Land, each household was given a plot of land. But as the rich engaged in buy-outs, it became difficult for the poor to hold on to their land. We need to erase our images of our American farms, now 100’s to 1000’s of acreage with big tractors and planters, combines, and round balers. Picture instead a hardworking farmer toiling in a small field with bare hands. There are hard paths that separate his plot from those of his neighbors; there are stones that he unearths or tries to navigate a kind of row for the planting of the seed that he throws from his hand. The pulpit for the telling of this parable is from a boat on the Sea of Galilee, the preacher Jesus is speaking to this rural congregation gathered on the beach. He told them that a farmer went out to sow his seed, but as he threw out the seed, some fell on those hardened paths, and the birds came and devoured them. Later he explained that the seed is the Word of God that is snatched up by the evil one. The devil works overtime to convince everyone that the Word does not have a chance. It is not difficult to find people who have been diverted from the Word, and often the easiest place for that to happen is right here in the church. Jesus wants us to understand that we often get concerned about the wrong things.
We get caught up in all kinds of issues and often forget why the church exists – as a gathering place for praising God, for inviting others in, offering hospitality, sharing a holy meal, a place of being inclusive. It is a place for praying for ourselves and our world, a place for hearing God’s Word, a place to come to give back from our hearts in response to the love and blessings God has already given us. It more importantly exists for mission – the gathering in so that we can be sent back out, sharing the good news of what Jesus Christ is doing in our lives with others. The church is not our field to come and enjoy the beauty of the flowers only for ourselves, to eat the produce only for our own nourishment. The seed, God’s Word, can fall on hard ground when we receive it, having all the wrong expectations.
Jesus said that there are some people who receive the Word with great enthusiasm, open to what the Word can accomplish for them, but unfortunately they are often like the rocky soil – the ground looks good on the surface, but it’s not deep. The seeds quickly germinate, exposed to elements that cause growth, but when the heat of the sun beats down, the new plants wither. They wilt under the pressure of what it means to be more than well intentioned – they wilt when it comes time to be truly committed. To bring it more current to ourselves – let’s think about how riled we get. Do we get riled about sports and other activities getting scheduled on Sunday mornings – traditional Sunday School and worship times? Do we wilt rather than standing up and saying “we can’t come at that time, that’s when we worship, that’s when we have a particular church activity we’re participating in?” Do we get riled when we’re asked to work at the dinner or other event, and are even asked to pay for our own dinner as it’s a fund raiser, or bring our children to church to serve as acolytes, to take part in church programming, but won’t think of missing a ball practice or game? It makes us uncomfortable to say these thoughts out loud or to hear them spoken as we often don’t want to think about the choices we have to make. Are we ready to consider that culture has really changed and that the church is changing as well and we may have to do things much differently to remain viable. Do we sometimes feel like God breaks into our otherwise ordinary daily life and redirects us to fields that we question why we have to tend to? In our honest moments, perhaps we can admit to times of pushing God into the background when it doesn’t suit our schedule or our preferences.
Jesus tried to get this gathered group of rural people to understand that the one who sows the seed shouldn’t give up. “Other seed fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” The fault in each other case was with the unproductive soil, not the seed. The soil failed to give any kind of yield. The seed is the gospel, which gives life, but if the soil is not receptive, the seed cannot produce – the gospel will not bring forth any fruit in the lives of people who are unreceptive to what it means to be committed and deep in their faith. This parable makes us uncomfortable. We’d rather just hear the story and move on. Jesus tells us to HEAR- but not just hear, really listen. I tell couples in premarital counseling that listening is a gift – we often hear, but much of the time we do not really listen, because to listen means to really hear beyond the surface of what’s said. We need to be careful that we don’t become indifferent to hearing God’s Word. We need to be on guard that we don’t just want to run through the sprinkler and get a little wet. Do we find ourselves defending ourselves: it’s too hard to understand what God’s saying? We’re so busy we couldn’t possibly put another thing like Bible study in our schedules? It would be nice, but I just can’t serve on another committee or sign up for another task. Do we put out hundreds of dollars for sports camps but can’t help with curriculum materials? Do we hunt for a pretty place to be married, but not come on any kind of regular basis for worship and daily ministry? Do we just want to come and shop and take off the shelf what we need and want and not be committed to why the church is here on a daily basis? It’s an easy “black hole” or “hard path” to find ourselves on. Be sure to hear that it’s not a money issue, it’s a heart condition. The condition of the heart may have these afflictions: Hardened Heart, Distracted Heart, Defeated Heart, Weakened Heart. It’s like the condition of the soil – is it hardened, dry and cracked? Does it look good on the surface, but when we look closer, it’s not willing to be committed to what God calls us to be about?
I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone say something about good intentions. That’s how most of us are – we really intend to get around to it. But good intentions don’t get it done. To make a difference in the world requires a high level of commitment. To be the church, the body of Christ, to be God’s mission field, takes commitment. It takes a Hopeful and Joyful, Generous Heart. Like the receptive soil, favorable weather conditions, cultivating and spraying bring the hope of an abundant harvest. It’s a big investment. Our hopeful, joyful hearts are filled with the Holy Spirit, open to hearing and receiving God’s Word, and we KNOW that we are blessed and we give back joyfully because we are responding out of love returned to the One who loved us first. God doesn’t limit the spreading of the seed to just those places where God thinks there is viability – but God spreads the Word, grace and forgiveness, an incredible holy supper, and promise and hope generously, lovingly, and without thought of cost – the cost has already been paid through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Like all the beautifully refurbished projects we’ve been about that are meant to be for the revitalization of our congregation, we are planted here for a purpose, and God intends for us to live meaningful, committed and productive lives, sharing with others what Jesus Christ has done and is doing in us and through us. May we give God our very best – not because we have to, are expected to, but because we first and foremost love God and want to! May we be God’s Good Soil! Thanks be to God! Amen

Texts :
Isaiah 55 : 10 – 13
Psalm 65 : [ 1 – 8 ] 9 – 13
Romans 8 : 1 – 11
Matthew 13 : 1 – 9 , 18 – 23