Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sermon from the Greater Concord Interfaith Service

If you are anything like me later today you will gather with friends and family and you will stuff yourself with Turkey, potatoes, squash and pie.
If you’re anything like me you will watch football in a slightly hazy state as we try to recover from eating too much.
It seems that Thanksgiving is a very odd holiday.
It is a holiday based on the very American idea of overeating and over consuming.
In America we have a very odd relationship with food.
We seem on the one hand to be a nation that over eats.
And on the other hand we seem to be a nation obsessed with staying thin.
We spend millions of dollars a year trying not to eat.
And then we have a whole holiday based on the idea that we are too eat as much as possible.
I know that when I sit down at the table at Thanksgiving my plate is over filled.
This can not be the value and meaning in Thanksgiving.
It can not be simply about over eating and watching football.
I have been trying to find not just the worldly meaning of Thanksgiving but the deeper spiritual meaning of this holiday that seems to be based on the not so spiritual idea of over consuming.
For we are people of faith and we have to not simply accept this holiday as the world tells us, but to look behind the curtain to draw out some real meaning and value in Thanksgiving.

I would like to start looking for meaning at the very first Thanksgiving.
When I was a kid after we watched the Thanksgiving Day parade, my sisters and I had to go to our rooms and prepare a presentation about the history and meaning of Thanksgiving.
Most of the time we would give this report:
in 1621, after a very hard first year in the New World, Pilgrims, who had fled England because of religious persecution, got together with their Native neighbors and celebrated God’s goodness with a big feast.
This is the basic Thanksgiving story that we all know.
However, as I grew up I began to understand that the real history of our nation and this holiday is not so serene.
The truth is that those settlers eventually would isolate and kill those same natives that had helped them survive in the new world.
The truth is that those same pilgrims would turn their new experiment of God’s kingdom into a place of intolerance and fear.
So this basic story that I believe is an attempt to tell us the real value of Thanksgiving is somewhat tainted by the actual history that took place.
However, the story of the first thanksgiving I believe is informative, and has something to tell us about the true meaning of Thanksgiving.
I think it is important to say that this first Thanksgiving story is not about true historical account of the events.
History is often a more complex set of events then we give it credit for.
Historical events are neither purely good nor purely bad, but are often a combination of these two extremes, the truth is often somewhere in the middle.
So it is with the history of Thanksgiving.
What is more important then historical accuracy however is the myth of the Thanksgiving story.
What that story attempts to do is tell us about who we want to be as a nation and as a people.
The Thanksgiving story tells us about what is truly meaningful to our lives.
Here is the meaning that I believe we get from the Thanksgiving story.
We want to be people that live in harmony with our neighbors.
We want to have a bountiful harvest that benefits all members of the community.
We want all people to feel welcomed.
We want to live in a land that is tolerant of different religious beliefs.
And finally we want to acknowledge that all our gifts are not something we earn but are gifts from our creator.

Ingrained in our Thanksgiving celebration is the idea that all of the gifts we have in life are not of our making, but gifts from our creator.
As people of faith we understand that the food that we eat on Thanksgiving comes from God.
It was God, our creator, who made the land that produces fruits and vegetables for our consumption.
It was God who created us with enough brains and brawn to be able to take the natural world and make it produce food for our nourishment.
Food is a gift to us from God.
So too are the other blessings we have in life.
Our families, that give us unconditional love, are gifts that we did not earn nor that we deserve.
Our jobs are gifts that God has given us so we can support our families and serve our neighbors.

One of the things in life that I always struggle with is why I have all of these blessings.
Why do I have such a loving family while other people are sitting at home alone?
Why do I have so much food, that I have to throw some of it out because I can’t possibly eat it all, while other people starve?
Why do I have the pleasure of being a pastor while others can not find their calling in life?
Some people might say that I have these things because I have earned them.
Some people might say that because I am religious and I have been faithful to God therefore God has rewarded my good work by giving me blessings.
However, this assumption fails because we all know people that are faithfully religious people who suffer from something in life.
I know people that grew up in the church, went to church every week, served on the church boards, prayed every day and who died alone and penniless.
This way of thinking also makes God seem very twisted and unjust.
Are we trying to say that God chooses who eats and who does not, based on religious attendance?
The truth is that we have enough food in the world so that tomorrow everyone could eat enough.
But I believe we have limited imaginations and a limited vision that allows us to justify living in a world where people starve in the midst of abundance.
There is a great Gospel song sung by James Cleveland that in essence says, “I am glad man does not control the sun, because I would get none. I am sure glad men do not control the rain, because I would never feel it on my face.”
What that song is saying is that God provides and human beings horde and take away.
It is our own human weakness or own brokenness that allows people to horde the gifts of God.

God does not reward us for Good behavior by giving us more food at the expense of others, but God does provide the food.
And that is the point, by realizing that God provides the food and our other blessings we can see that it is not our hard work that gives those things but that it is God.
God has also provided that food to those that we believe do not deserve it.
Understanding where our gifts come from hopefully makes us all understand our common humanity.
If all the blessings of life come from God, our creator and sustainer, then maybe we can see that there is no hierarchy of people.
There are no people that are better then other people.
There is no one that is more deserving of food then other people.
Rich people are not rich because of hard work and ingenuity,
they are rich because they are able to manipulate the gifts God gives to all people to benefit a few.
Poor people are not poor because they are lazy they are poor because we have not shared the bounty of God’s table.
When we gather for Thanksgiving later today, let us not forget what we are doing at that table.
We are not merely stuffing ourselves at the expense of other people in the world, but we are acknowledging our own fragile existence.
We are saying in essence, “There but the grace of God go I”
We are doing what I think our Thanksgiving story suggests we should do on Thanksgiving.
We are recognizing our common human bond.
We are celebrating that our human community is a fragile thing that needs a greater power to help us survive one November to the next.
We are celebrating not our individual accomplishments, but our collective understanding of our human predicament.

Maybe Abraham Lincoln, who reinstated the practice of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, said it best, “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United states, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, and sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

Let us take President Lincoln’s advice and remember our common desire for peace and justice.
Let us remember at this Thanksgiving the many blessings we have.
And let us use this as an opportunity to see our common unity.
The need for the entire world to be fed clothed and loved.
Let us be resolved to see ourselves as not only as the blessed, but also able to give blessings by sharing the abundance of gifts that God has given us.
Let us not divide our common humanity into subdivisions of us versus them, but remember we are one community united by our fragile broken selves in need of God.

For This I Was Born

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.”
These words of Jesus that we read this morning in the Gospel of John have been with me all week.
Jesus is clear about what he came into this world to do, and to accomplish.
He came for this moment in time to show others the truth about God.
He came to give the world himself.
He was born to die on the cross for the sake of the world.
He was born so that you and I here this morning might know salvation, peace, love, forgiveness, and all the glory of God.
Jesus had a clear mission.
But it made me think of us.
What we were born for?
What were you born for?

I am of the firm belief that God makes us all for something.
God has created us for a task on this earth, and our job in this world is to figure out what that is.
What did God create us to do?

It is an important question because if we are to follow Jesus then we have to struggle with what Jesus would want us to do.
For some of us it might mean taking a real hard look at our lives and see the ways that we are not doing what God created us to do.
But for others of us it might simply mean looking at what we are doing differently.

Last week we passed out time and talent sheets and we asked you to consider the question, “how would you serve God.”
Within the context of a stewardship talk I can see why everyone wrote down a way that they could serve in this congregation.
That is the way we have been taught to think about stewardship.
What ten percent of my time am I going to give to God?
Here is the problem.
We are supposed to give everything to God.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, and what that means for us is that we accept Jesus as the King of our lives.
I know for me I always struggle with the meaning of that because a king to me is a very negative image.
I think of some tyrant oppressing freedoms that we love.
But the basic idea of Jesus as our king is that we give our lives over to Jesus.
We trust Jesus to run our lives and tell us what to do.
And this is not just ten percent of the time; it is just not when we are in Church.
We are suppose to let Christ rule our lives when we are at home with our families, at work, at play, at the grocery store, on I-93 in the middle of traffic.
All the time Jesus Christ is our king.

And the question we have to ask in all circumstances is; what was I born for?
What is it that God requires of me in my life as husband, brother, wife, mother, father, banker, nurse, teacher, computer electrician, or whatever I am doing?
You see we don’t only serve God by doing, “religious things”. (Although we certainly can serve that way as well)
We serve God in all of our lives.

There was once a prominent banker who after he turned sixty-five retired.
In his retirement he gave every spare second to serving the church.
He would clean the fellowship hall, make coffee, balance the church’s books, order Sunday School supplies, and anything else that needed to be done.
He told his pastor that, “finally I can serve God. I have been waiting my whole life to do this.”
The pastor replied that he had already been serving God.
Helping people get money to buy their dream house, buy a car, or making sure their savings were secure was a way to serve his neighbor and therefore serve God.
He had served God all those years as a banker.
We don’t merely serve God in Church, but in our vocations in the world.
Martin Luther saved us from thinking that we could only serve God in or through religious institutions.
In Luther’s day only people who were in religious orders were seen to have callings from God.
Luther said that all of us no matter what our profession had a calling from God to serve and love our neighbors.
That in our everyday lives we serve God.
Luther said that we all are called by God to serve, love, and help others.
Many of you already have callings that make it possible to serve God in a very meaningful way everyday.

It is not that we come here on Sunday and we do something for God and then go back into our lives to do wretched sinning.
No, we find a way everyday to love and serve God and that can be done in a variety of ways.
Luther once said that God is more pleased with the smell of a father changing a dirty diaper then all the incense in Rome.
We serve God in all things, even changing diapers.

When filling out our stewardship time and talent sheets we should include things like go to work, sit at home and play chutes and ladders with my kids, change dirty diapers, help my neighbor pick up her leaves on her lawn.
All of these things are ways that we use our gifts from God to help and serve our neighbor.
They are ways that all of us are acting in the world to help others see the truth of Christ’s love.

Because for us the truth is not a philosophical concept it is a real thing that was lived out in the person of Jesus Christ.
The truth is that Christ died for us out of love and care.
And we are then called to spread that love and care to others in the world.
Not just through what we do at Church.
But the way that we teach and care for our children, what we do to earn a living to support our families, how we act in all the circumstances of our lives.

As most of you know the Lutheran Church is losing members all the time.
Last year the ELCA lost 100,000 members.
We are failing to evangelize those around us and closets to us.
We are failing to evangelize our own children.
Every year more and more people are confirmed and leave the church never to return.
We could say that they might come back, but the truth is many of them are not coming back.
There are many reasons for this.
But perhaps one of them is that we are failing to help people make the connection between their faith and their life outside the walls of this Church.

Too often we make it about keeping the institution of the church alive instead of making it about the needs of all of us to grow and to find the ways God is working in our lives.
We have to encourage each other to ask why was I born?
What is my purpose while I am here on this earth?
What is God calling me to do and to be?
How do I serve God in all the places of my life?

How do I serve God as a good father or mother?
How do I serve God as a good co-worker?
How do I serve God as a student?
How do I serve God when I go to a store and buying Christmas presents?
How do I serve God when I am sitting at red light on main st.?
What is it that God is calling me to be and to do?

Of course only you can answer these questions.
I know that I have to keep asking them of myself, because my life is constantly changing.
My answers would have been different five years ago, ten years ago then they are today.
They are important questions to keep asking.
What were you born for?
What ways is God calling you to serve and love your neighbor?
For this you were born, for this you have come into the world.
To testify to the truth that Jesus is king of your life.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tithing is not a New Testament Biblical principle!?

Have you ever had the experience of thinking something to be true your whole life, and then someone will say something or phrase things differently and you will suddenly realize that what you used to think was wrong?
When it happens it is rather humbling, and in some cases rather freeing.
This happens to me all the time.
It is not that I am easily swayed, or at least I don’t like to think so, it is that I am open always to the possibility that I can be wrong.
Anyway, it happened to me again recently.
I was at the Bishop’s convocation at the guest speaker was talking about stewardship.
He told us that tithing is not a New Testament Biblical principle.
You see I had been brought up and told that tithing was a Biblical principle.
So this was cutting into something that I have believed for a very long time.
It was something that I had thought about a great deal.
At first of course I fought it.
It just could not be true this guy who was giving the speech was off his rocker.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.
This morning I want to tell you all why tithing is not a New Testament principle.

First, notice that I use the word New Testament.
Surely, tithing is in the Bible.
In the Old Testament God’s people are commanded to give a tithe.
It is in the law.
For example in Deuteronomy 14:22 “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field.”
Here is the problem.
We are not people of the law.
We are a people loved and forgiven set free by Jesus Christ.
The law was given to the people of Israel so that they could live by it and have a relationship with God.
It was God’s way of showing his love to the people and living in the covenant with them.
But what we discovered is that the law always fails to make us righteous before God.
So God did something even more miraculous, God sent his son to die for us.
God sent Jesus to show us the way, to set us free to give generously.
We live not by the law but by faith in this God who gave his son to die for us.

Notice in this morning’s Gospel from Mark the two groups of people who come to the treasury to give.
The first group is giving probably according to the prescribed law, they are bringing their tithe.
(it is interesting to note that in the law the tithe is just the starting point of one’s giving. On top of the tithe there is all kinds of other required giving.”
The problem is that we are never made righteous by what we do, only by our faith in Jesus Christ.
In contrast this poor widow brings her two coins, all that she has, and gives it to God.
She gives not just what the law demands but more.
Her act of giving is generous and reckless.
She does it not out of obligation to the law, but out of love and trust for her God.

We give not because of the law, but we give because of the love and trust we have in God.
We don’t give because the pastor tells us we should, but we give because we want to give.
We give because spiritually we need to give.

My maternal grandfather was a pastor and he told me this story about one time when the congregation he was serving was doing an every member visit for their stewardship campaign.
There was this one woman in his congregation who was always so grumpy.
She never liked anything that happened at the church.
My grandfather felt that she did not really care for him either.
Because of this no one wanted to go visit her.
And everyone was afraid to talk to her about increasing her pledge.
My grandfather being the pastor was eventually sent to talk to her.
He went to her house and they made small talk.
Eventually, the woman said, “Pastor aren’t you going to talk to me about increasing my pledge?”
He told her that he was but was nervous about it.
She said to him, “Don’t you think I want to give to my Lord? It is my joy to give to God.”
You see we all want to give.
We want to be part of something that means something.
We want to be part of growing in our faith.
I see this in the ministry of Concordia Lutheran Church.
Every time the congregation is asked to respond to a need people respond.
When asked to bring your spare change for world hunger and you did.
When asked to bring in clothing for the needy it arrived, when asked to bring in blankets for the homeless you did it.
When asked to bring in food for the food pantry, friendly kitchen, you responded.
Next week you will be asked to consider what percentage of your income you want to pledge to this ministry.
I have no doubt that you will answer the call to support the important work we are doing together in this congregation.
Not because you have to, but because you want and need to.

Think about the investment we are making.
We are making sure our children learn the importance of faith.
We are making sure the Gospel is preached and heard.
We are making sure people get visited in the hospital or at home.
We are making sure that God’s work is being done here in Concord.

All of that is possible not because of the law, but because you have faith Jesus Christ.
Jesus the one who notices were our money goes.
Jesus the one who gave his life for us, and inspires us to give to others.
Jesus is the one who we love and we want to follow.
Not because we have to, but because we want and need to.

Tithing is not as important as the principle that underlies our Gospel this morning.
Everything we have belongs to God.
Are we giving everything we have to God?
Are we being faithful in our lives to God?
Are we using our money in a way that would please God?
Not just the 10% that we give to church, but all of our money are we using it in a way that God would want us to use it.
Again not because we have to, but because we want to.
Because we are people freed from the law to give.
We often misunderstand what it means to be set free by Jesus Christ.
It does not mean that we are set free to do whatever pleases us.
No we are set free to give more, and love more.
The woman gave even more then what was expected by the law.
She gave more than tithe because she was free to know that money was not the end all be all of life.

I think we all know this deep down.
In a place that God put in our inner beings, we know that when we give we only reap the benefits of that giving.
Not in an I give money and God then gives me more money kind of way.
But when I give and my spirit is so uplifted from knowing the good that I do that I have a real peace of mind.

Tithing is not a New Testament principle.
But reckless generous giving is.
Giving that is about giving all we have to God is what Jesus did, and what is our joy to do.
So as we leave here today let us give generously.
Let us remember the generous act of God in Jesus Christ.
So that we are set free to give all we have to one another.

Monday, November 2, 2009

18,250 Moonlit Nights, Celebrating 50 years of ministry at Camp Calumet.

While preparing for my sermon this afternoon I was thinking about the title for this celebration of the ministry of Camp Calumet.
The title of 18,250 Moonlit Nights got me thinking about all the nights that I have spent on the shores of Lake Ossipee.
In my lifetime I like many of you have spent many nights gazing at the stars, or wondering at the brilliant moonlight.
Some of the best moonlit nights were when I was a counselor in the boys Junior End.
I spent my career as a camp counselor in unit one, and therefore got to live for three summers on lakefront property. (Properly the last time in my life that will happen.)
Those nights are special because after the kids had gone to bed we had time to talk and let out steam at the end of what was usually a long day.
One of the things that we would talk about a lot on those moonlit nights was why we came to camp every year.
Why did we give up care free easy summers at home with friends to come and work real hard trying to mold kids, who basically drove us crazy?
Why did we care so deeply about Camp Calumet?
We came to the early conclusion that we did not do it for the money.
Working at camp as you all know was not a good way to get rich quick.
One night sitting around in the Boys junior end we figured out that we basically got paid about $.70 an hour.
My Fraternal Grandfather helped pay for me, my two sisters, and my cousin Amy to go to camp to be CIT’s.
He would say every time, “I don’t understand this camp. You have to pay them to work there?”
So if not for the money why?
Well, if you could ask the seventeen year old version of me (and by the way this was a unanimous vote in the Boys Junior end. And I mean no disrespect. I only want to express the views of my seventy year old self.)
Any way if you asked me then I would have told it was because of the girls.
Think about it.
As a guy working at camp the ratio was almost 2 girls for every boy.
You had a pretty good chance under those conditions.
How else do you think a guy that looks like me gets to marry someone as beautiful as my wife Vicki?
How else does Karl Ogren get to marry someone as beautiful as my sister Jen?
Todd Dickenson, who was an attractive young man, but at camp he was “Todd, Todd, the boating god.”
OK so that was the seventeen year old version of myself.
Now after years of growing up and maturing I think about it differently.
Why do we all love this place?
Why do we give our money to it, why do we continue to go back year after year, why do we insist that our children go to Calumet.
I was reading on his blog that Rick Dacey travels back from Australia to make sure his kids get to go to Calumet.
Why do so many alumni move to the north woods of New Hampshire just to be closer to it.
Why do we love it so much?
In my older more mature years I have come to the conclusion that it is because at camp we experience God.
I want to be careful here, notice I did not say camp was God, I said here in this place we experience God.
At camp we are able to see God in a way that is sometimes harder in our hurried normal everyday life.
This afternoon I would like to share with you some of the ways we experience God at Camp Calumet.

The first is through relationships.
Camp is a place that fosters and encourages us to be friends.
Friendship I would say is one of the great tenets of Camp Calumet.
Here we experience people that care about the same things we do.
Here we experience authentic Christian community that cares about each other.
To this day I still hold the friendships I made at camp as the most important in my life.
I know that some of you who worked at camp at the beginning fifty years ago are still close friends to this day.
We forget sometimes that the Christian Church is primarily about relationships.
Yes, those relationships are formed around some core beliefs, but the relationships we share with one another are still primary in our lives.
God does not desire of us to merely adhere to doctrine as much as he counts on us to stick with and love one another.
What Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel of John this afternoon is to, “love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus command to us is to love one another, make our relationships of primary importance.
We experience God at Calumet because there we experience love for each other.

We experience God at Calumet because we participate in the giving of ourselves to something greater then ourselves.
When we give of ourselves to help a child learn, to make the planet cleaner, to spread peace and love then God is involved.
Giving of ourselves is a godly action.
To this day many of us continue to give as we support Calumet not only with our hearts but with our pocket books.
There is great joy in being able to give knowing that it is for a greater purpose.
How many of you had campers that became counselors and thanked you for making sure they had a week of fun, faith, and friendship.
It makes changing wet beds well worth the effort.
We experience God at Calumet through giving of ourselves.

We experience God at calumet because it is here that as young people we are entrusted to teach the Bible to children.
I had heard Bible stories before going to camp, but when you have to know it enough to teach it and have it make sense to others that it grows in you.
Even more some of the Bible passages that I love to this day I discovered at Calumet.
For example, one year in unit one we had secret Santas and Heather Briggs made me this poster with my name and inside the letters were all the great things about life.
One of them was Psalm 139.
Before that I had never read Psalm 139.
I read it and it became one of my favorite and most cherished Bible passages.
At camp my faith grew because I experienced God in pages of the Bible.
I discovered there a God of love, a God who cared about me, and would give anything for me.
As the Psalmist wrote, “If I take the wings of morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your right hand shall hold me fast.”
I have taken those words and all of God’s promises with me all the rest of my life.
At Camp we experience God’s words of grace and mercy.

This leads me to my final point.
And what I am about to say actually comes from Pastor Henry Moris.
We once had a conversation when I was program director and he was the Chaplain.
It really affected the way I think about Calumet and what happens to us there.
I was complaining to Henry that some Pastors don’t seem to get the beauty and importance of camp.
They complain that it is not Lutheran enough because we teach too much about peace, love, and harmony, and not enough about Lutheran doctrine.
Henry told me that camp does not teach about Lutheran doctrine but rather it lives it.
He used as an example someone who had swam the lake that day.
He said when that person got to shore there were twenty people there early in the morning to cheer them on.
It did not matter what the time was or if they had beet the previous record.
They were cheering only because this person was a person to care about.
That is grace at its best.
Perhaps camp does not teach grace, but those of us who love it can tell you there we experience the wonder and beauty of God’s grace all the time.
Calumet is that place you go where people are glad you are there, not for any reason other then you are another child of God.
No one cares about your accomplishments or your bank account, they only care that you are there.
I remember this one summer I had to stay at college in Pennsylvania after my class finished I went to camp to volunteer for the last two weeks.
I was walking onto to camp and Sarah Carlson, now Arndt (Another example of why we go to camp) saw me walking towards the office and she came out and ran to me screaming.
She was so happy to see me.
That does not happen in real life.
Most of the time people could give or take our presence, I think at camp we feel the presence of God’s grace because it is there we are accepted for who we are.
We are not perfect, but unique beloved children of the same God.

That is ultimately why we love Calumet, it is why we give our money, it is why we go back again and again to sit on the shores of lake Ossipee, it is why Rick Dacey flies back from Australia to make sure his kids get to camp at calumet, it is why alumni move to the north woods of New Hampshire, it is why we give up summers to make $.70 an hour, it is why we are passionate about it, because there at that sacred space God comes to us and tells us that we are indeed loved and that other people care about us.