Monday, December 20, 2010

Listening to Angels

I have to start this morning by saying that I am not a huge fan of angels.
In my faith life they simply have not played a major role.
I find them a little hokey.
Kind of like those religious bumper stickers you sometimes see, “too blessed to be stressed”, “put the Christ back in Christmas” etc..
So I was struggling with how I was going to talk about angels this morning.
One thing I know for sure is that Angels do play a major role in the Biblical story.
Angels are God’s messengers, in other cases they are sent to protect, and in the case of Jesus after his temptation they are there to tend and comfort him.
So I cannot say that angels are not important for our faith.
They are important enough in the Biblical text.
This morning we see that they played a major role in the birth of Jesus.
If not for the angel then the story would have unfolded very differently.
Joseph is convinced by an angel not to divorce Mary but to take her as his wife.
We don’t think about Joseph that much in this story Mary seems to get most of the attention, but Joseph like Mary has to be open to this extraordinary thing that God is doing too or else it would not have happen.
Joseph has to accept that Mary’s story about being with child and a virgin are true.
If not then Mary will be outcast and possibly stoned to death for committing adultery.
Instead Joseph is open to the Angel’s message and follows God’s plan even though it seems rather crazy and inconceivable to him.
I guess we can be thankful that Joseph did believe in angels and did believe that God was speaking to him.

It is good for all of us to hear that God uses a variety of ways to speak to us, to get our attention so that we will follow God in our lives even when it seems inconceivable and crazy.
This past couple of weeks we sent out eleven people with $100.00 each and told them to use the money to help other people.
I can’t wait for all of you to hear all of these amazing stories of people doing such great work for God.
I have heard a couple of people tell how they used the money.
Every story is different, but one thing that connects them all is that people felt called by the spirit to do the good they did.
People felt God directing them in some way to help certain people.
I know that all of you are going to be moved by all the good that those 11 people did.
What has also been amazing is how much was done with so little.
$1,100 is not a lot of money.
Yet so many people were helped with it.
So much good was done in this world.
I was thinking this week about all the people that our congregation has helped this year.
It really is extraordinary.
The amount of good we did.
I feel blessed when people come to my office often times looking dejected and hopeless and because of all of you and your giving I get to help them.
This year I was able to give people gas for their cars, I was able to help people move into new apartments, I was able to buy some food for people, I was able to help some people out with other needs, all because our congregation is so generous with God’s money.

This doesn’t take into consideration all of the others ways we have helped the clothes we collected, the food we collected, the coats, hats, mittens, health kits, kitchen items, thermal underwear, games, and socks.
Doesn’t make you feel good to hear of all the ways that we have helped others.
Doesn’t make you feel good about being part of this faith community that doesn’t just talk about God but follows God.

I think all of this is possible because we remain open to the ways God is calling us to follow.
Maybe some of you have seen angels in your dreams telling you what to do, and how to help.
Maybe some of you get a sense of what it is God is telling you what to do.
Perhaps some of you received some sort of sign from God.
Whatever the mode of delivery we can all be sure of one thing.
God is speaking to us all the time.
God is always calling us to follow down some extraordinary path.
Just like God was calling Joseph to trust that God had a greater purpose and plan for his life.
We too must trust that what we do is for something greater than we can imagine.

The truth is that all those people whose lives we have touched individually and as a congregation we don’t know what it really meant to them.
We don’t fully know what our acts of God’s love and grace will do for them in their lives.
Something simple like giving a coat might totally change someone’s life.
Who knows what God has in store?

Here is something I absolutely believe about angels.
We can be angels in this world for one another.
We can be messengers of God’s love and grace.
We can be comforters to those in need.
We can protect others when they are at their most vulnerable.
I know that at times there have been people that have showed up at just the right time and delivered exactly what I needed.
I always believe those people to be heavenly sent.

This week on NPR I heard the story of a woman who lived in the Midwest.
During the major snow storm that they experienced she took people into her home who were stranded on the street in front of her house.
She took them in and gave them coffee, some toast, and a warm place to spend the night.
In fact, she even gave up her own bed so her guest would be comfortable.
It seems crazy in these times to let complete strangers into your house.
When she was asked about it she simply said, “It was the right thing to do. The neighborly thing to do.”
She said the thanks that she got from those she took in meant more than anything else.
Indeed she was an angel to those who were stranded.
She was God’s comforter, and helper.
We have angels in our midst all the time, all around us.

This week a great person in my life died.
His name was Ronnie Simeonson.
Ronnie was a member of Triumphant Lutheran Church in Salem New Hampshire.
This was the church my wife and I grew up going to.
Ronnie was a special person.
He was heavenly sent.
Ronnie had multiple disabilities both physical and mental.
He spent his life doing God’s work.
Every Christmas Eve Ronnie would sing “O Holy Night”.
He had perfect pitch; I have never heard that song sung so wonderfully with such feeling and heart.
My wife and I were talking about how blessed we were to know Ronnie in our lives.
He taught us so much about not judging people on the outside, but knowing their heart and their soul.
He was a great soul and to me he was sent from heaven.
I guess he was an angel.
I think we all have special people like this in our lives who teach us about God.
We all have people in our lives who help us to be more compassionate, more open to God.
There are lots of angels in our midst.

You see by the end of this sermon I totally convinced myself not to be so cynical, closed minded, and dismissive of angels.
How about you?
At the very least I hope that in this time of advent, in this time of expectations of God’s wonderful work we will be open to the ways that God is talking to us, calling us, and asking us to follow down unexpected paths of grace and mercy.

May you be visited by angels.
May you be open to God’s messages that are all around us.
Most of all may you follow God down some unexpected crazy paths.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tell What You Have Heard and Seen

As Christians we all share a responsibility to grow the kingdom of God.
There are other religions in the world that rely on national or familiar blood lines to continue growth.
But Christianity from its beginning has been about going out and telling the story of Jesus Christ.
Christianity has always been about spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
It started really with the shepherds that night in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.
What they heard and saw was so magnificent so awe inspiring that they left “glorifying and praising God” telling everyone what they had heard and seen.
Today the importance of telling what we know about Jesus is even more important.
No longer can we assume the culture we live in will tell the story for us.
No longer can we assume that the majority of people around us are Christian or know God in a personal way.
We have to tell what we have heard and seen.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
This is the instruction that Jesus gives to John’s disciples who come and ask if Jesus is the Messiah.
And it could be Jesus instruction to us.
Have you ever been asked, “You don’t really believe all that stuff about God do you?”
I have been asked this question on more than one occasion in my life.
And the question that I want us to wrestle with this morning is what we are going to say when asked that question.
What will be your answer?

I think that there are many different ways to answer this question.
For some Christians the answer is to take a very aggressive approach.
To almost brow beat non Christians over the head with a lot of scripture about how they will go to hell.
I have experienced this many times and I have to say it makes me not want to be a Christian when I see it in action.
One time I was riding on the T in Boston with a friend of mine who happened to be Jewish.
This very nice looking young man sat next to her and said, “Do you know Jesus Christ as your savior?”
She then looked at me and said, “Jon help me.”
We switched seats and I started to talk to this young man.
I have to say it ended badly he told me that I was going to hell for not trying to convert my friend.
He got off at the next stop I told him as he left, “Well, I much rather be in hell then in heaven with you.”
At which time the other riders on the train started to clap.
Not my finest hour, but it really made me mad or sad that this is how someone was presenting the Christian life.
Hey get on board or God hates you….
I just can’t get on board with that kind of evangelism.

This kind of evangelism reminds me of the John the Baptist we read from last week’s Gospel.
John came warning people of the wrath to come if they did not repent.
He warned of being burned like the Chaff.
This was John’s expectation of what Jesus would be.

And this morning in our Gospel reading we have John wondering if Jesus is really the Messiah.
He is not acting in a way that John thought he would.
Where was the fire and brimstone, where was the condemning words, where was the militant stance against the Romans.
Instead we have Jesus wasting time with sinners, forgiving sins, preaching about blessings to the poor and outcast.

This leads me to another type of evangelism.
The type of evangelism where showing what we hear and see by what we do and who we are.
It is about living the Gospel instead of talking about it.
It is about helping the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers healed, and the poor.
It is about showing God’s love given in Jesus Christ through who we are as Christians.
It is not about condemning others for who they are but showing love to them.
This seems to be Jesus stance this morning.
Instead of saying, “yeah I am the Messiah look how great I am.” Jesus simply says that he is bringing the kingdom of God by doing what God would do.
And I think as Christians this is our calling.
Who do you think had a more positive impact on my Jewish friend the guy on the train condemning her to hell?
Or me the person who served with her in an inner city school in Dorchester?
Who showed her Christ through simply being himself?

All of us are called to tell what we have heard and seen in Jesus Christ.
And we have all heard and seen some miraculous things in our time as Christians.
We have seen sins forgiven.
We have seen the poor tended to.
We have seen strangers welcomed as friends.
We have heard of how our God takes us from the wilderness and makes ground springs of water flow.
We have heard how our God is one of everlasting joy and gladness.
We have seen the bereaved comforted.
Yes, those of us here can say that our God is good all the time.
We can join with the prophet Isaiah and say that we are strong and not fearful because we know that our God is here.
It is a call to share this with others.

Now there are times when words need to be used.
There are times when we have to say something about what God has done in our lives.
Perhaps us Lutherans have been too quiet about our faith.
There is that old joke: The only part of the Bible that Lutherans take literally is when Jesus ordered those who he healed to, “Go and tell no one.”

That same Jewish friend was having some difficult things happening in her life.
She asked me how my faith helped me in difficult times.
Then I needed to use words.
I had to use words to explain all the wonderful things that God had done for me.
How God had saved my life and given it purpose and direction.
How God was my constant friend and comforted as I faced difficult times.
Then I needed words.

Perhaps the message should be that at different times and different places we will use a variety of ways to express our faith.
At times we will be like Isaiah we will be the one calling for change in our world.
At times we will be like Jesus healing others, bringing hope, expressing joy, and caring for the poor.
At times we will be like shepherds praising and glorifying God for all the miraculous things God is doing in our lives.
Let us stay away from being too much like John the Baptist condemning others, passing judgment, and offering a God of small minded ultimatums.

So go and tell this day what you have heard and seen.
In this advent season when we are filled with the expectations of what God will do share your faith with others so that they may know the goodness of God.
Remember that God has done great things in our lives.
Let us go and tell what we hear and see.
The wilderness is filled with water, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Monday, December 6, 2010

O Little Tiny Backwater Town of Bethlehem

A couple of years ago I read an article by an atheist about why he can’t believe the accounts given in the Bible about Jesus.
In part he wrote, “So I can reason rightly that a god of all humankind would not appear in one tiny backwater of the Earth, in a backward time, revealing himself to a tiny unknown few, and then expect the billions of the rest of us to take their word for it, and not even their word, but the word of some unknown person many times removed.”
It is a good question why does Jesus appear during this time of history and in this place?
This morning I want us to think about why does Jesus appear in Bethlehem?
It is a place of no real significance in the world.
I looked up some of the history of Bethlehem and I have to say it is not pretty.
One war after another happens in Bethlehem.
It only has a population of about 30,000 people, even smaller the Concord, NH.
It was destroyed in 529 AD, then rebuilt only to be conquered by Arabs, then conquered again by the Ottoman Empire.
It was ruled by the British, then Israel, and currently by the Palestinian National Authority.
This is all to say that it is a tiny backwater part of the earth.
It is of no real significance to anyone.
Even in Jesus times it was not the greatest place to be.
Why not be born in Rome the middle of one of the greatest Empire in the history of the world?
Why not be born in Jerusalem the center of religious life the place of the temple?
Why this place?
Why Bethlehem?

What my atheist friend fails to see is that this is exactly the point.
The significance of Bethlehem is that is of no consequence.
It is a place of war, destruction, sin, humanity.
This is precisely why God has chosen such a place to come.
As we are told in Isaiah this morning “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
God’s judgment is different than ours.
God chooses what is foolish, tiny, and backward to the world, and in it reveals the biggest truths.
It does not make sense that God would appear as a baby defenseless and weak.
It does not make sense that God would appear to shepherds dirty and unsophisticated?
And it certainly does not make sense that God’s Son would die on a cross.
But what is common sense to the world is not to God.

Here is the good news that if God can appear in Bethlehem in that backwater tiny town, then he can appear to us.
The God of the universe cares about our lives, our tiny backwater insignificant life.
God cares about our failures, our success, our hurts, our pains, our joys, and our weakness.
More than this God knows them first hand because Jesus experienced all of this with us, among us, as our brother, and friend.
Sure God could have shown up in some other time, place, and way.
God could have made some huge show…maybe throw some lighting down and then tell yell from the heavens… “Hey, I really love and care for all you little people down there.”
But instead God came down into all of the humanness of life, into the tiny dirty backwater places of our lives and transformed them.
In Jesus God gave us hope, love, joy, and peace not so we can escape this world but so we can learn to live more deeply into it.

I was thinking this week of a friend of mine who I lived with after college for a short time.
He and I had this conversation once about faith.
He was really struggling with believing in God.
He said it happened one day in worship when he was at the communion rail.
“I was kneeling there and I just started to think that all of this was really nonsense.”
I remember telling him that faith was about belief in what we can’t see that even though he couldn’t see it now someday he was going to need his faith again.
Not too long after this conversation his mom suffered a major stroke.
That moment changed his faith too, it helped him find again.
It is precisely for moments like that when we need to know that God is with us.
It is moments when everything falls apart that we need to know that there is a merciful, loving, just God, that God has a plan (even if we fully don’t always understand the plan), and that we are going to make it through.
It was interesting to me that he lost his faith in worship at the communion rail when the symbols and God’s message was right there.
But that he found his faith in a difficult time, he found his faith when he least expected too.

This is what Isaiah’s vision is all about.
Israel was in fear of being conquered by the Assyrian armies; Isaiah replaced that fear with a vision of God’s promised future.
Isaiah told the people of Israel that a shoot that would come from King David’s throne.
That shoot would bring righteousness, peace, and faithfulness.
That shoot would replace the fear of armies with the knowledge and understanding of God.
That we would someday see things that we did not think possible like the wolf and lamb living together.
Isaiah like all the prophets had a vision beyond the immediate crisis into what God was preparing.

And maybe that is the most miraculous thing about Jesus.
Is that it was not just a moment.
It was something that God was preparing for long before the night in Bethlehem.
When God anoints David King over a thousand years before Jesus birth God is preparing for a great glorious future.
What Isaiah prophecy 700 years before Jesus birth is pointing us to the night Bethlehem?
When the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem 700 years before it happened God was preparing us for the night in Bethlehem when the angels would declare “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all whom he favors.”
God was preparing his people even then for what God was going to do.

I wonder today what God is preparing us for.
What is God’s preparing us for 700 years from today?
What is God’s preparing in your life?

Here is what Bethlehem teaches us.
That plan is not always obvious.
It is not something that we can always see with our eyes.
We need to see it with something more.
We need our hearts, minds, and ultimately with faith.

This is the ultimate lesson of advent that our lives are preparation for God’s promised future.
Jesus coming was preparing us for this day that we live today.
Jesus was preparing us to see God in those tiny backwater places of life.
To see God in the places where we don’t think God will show up but does.
God is preparing us for God’s promised future.
So be prepared when God shows up in some tiny backwater place that you never thought of or imagined you would find God.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Be a Prophet!

When we start out in life none of us knows what will happen.
We don’t know the twist and turns, the ups and downs, the path that lies ahead.
We all could point to something in our lives that was unexpected that took us by surprise.
I was thinking about this week because it was my 10 year anniversary.
My wife and I were discussing what we thought might happen in the next 10 years.
What we agreed was that we had no idea.
The last 10 years was about twist and turns and living day to day.
It would be foolish to try and predict the next ten years.

This morning’s readings are about future events.
They are about things hoped for, things longed for, and dreams.
When will be that day of peace, when God will judge between nations, when swords will by beat into plowshares, when nations will no longer learn war?
When will be the day when all nations flow to the holy mountain of God?
When will be that day when we walk in the light of God?
When will be the day when Jesus comes again?
This is what advent is about waiting for that day.
Anticipating the day of spears becoming pruning hooks.
Of the prince of peace coming.
While we wait we need to be prophets of our own lives.
We need to see beyond today and into God’s promised future.

The job of a prophet is to be able to see through current circumstances into the promise of God’s future.
It is not about predicting future events, it is about reminding people of God’s promises.
Even though we don’t know what will be coming around the next twist and turn in the road, in faith we know that it will be God there with us.
Isaiah sees beyond the war torn predicament of Israel into the day when all nations come together under God’s rule.
Isaiah sees beyond the destruction and scheming of politicians to the day of peace for all.
Summarily, Jesus had a vision of God’s future, of a day of all things coming together.
He talked about it a lot.
He talked about the day when God’s kingdom would come to earth.
The problem is that Jesus is short on the details.
Gives no date or time, no predictable event, this morning he evens tells us that he does not know any more than we do when these things will happen.

And that is where we find ourselves in this advent.
We simply don’t know what will come next.
We don’t know if it will be joy or calamity.

This is why it is so fitting that James is going to be baptized on this first Sunday of Advent.
Here is a new life, and we don’t know yet what that life will be like.
We don’t know if all the things that his mom and dad have dreamed for him will become true.
We don’t know if he will be a lawyer, a doctor, a mill worker, a salesman, or whatever.
James’ life is yet to be written, it is yet to be seen.
Every day for him will be an adventure to what he someday might be.
We know that for him there will be twists and turns, ups and downs.

Today we can be assured of one more thing for James.
For the rest of his life he will have God as his companion.
In Baptism we receive the promise of God’s grace and love toward us.
What this does for James and for all of us is give us the ability to be prophets.
It gives us the ability to see beyond the moment we are in and toward a better day.
And there will be days in James life when he is going to have to see beyond the moment into what God is calling him to be.

When Jesus tells us to be ready.
This is what he is telling us.
Use the gifts of faith to see something greater at work in your life.

The world is full of stories where people started out doing something very small and it became something much greater.
For example, I once met a thirteen year old boy who was walking to school one day.
It was a day like all the other days.
He happened to see a man sleeping in the woods just beyond the sidewalk.
He also happened to notice that the man was cold because he did not have a blanket only newspaper to cover him.
He went home after school and took some blankets from his house to give to the homeless man.
Then he started to ask his friends and family for extra blankets.
Eventually he collected 100 blankets, and then 500.
He ended up forming his own charity that collects blankets for the homeless.
A small act of charity that ended up helping hundreds of people.
More than this it inspired people to be better, to hope more, to believe in the possibility of good.
It gave people a vision of a world where we help others, and that no one is too small or young to contribute.
It helped others see a way to beat a sword into a plowshare.

Perhaps that is what all of our lives are about beating swords into plowshares.
We have rough edges that kill others and our own lives.
And what God helps us do is beat those things down and smooth out our sharper edges.
This means taking the long view of life.
What we are today is not what we have to be tomorrow.
God will give us time to change to make ourselves better.
If we fail today we still have a chance to do better.

We see only in part.
We see finite things in this life.
And that is why we need the heart and mind of a prophet.
We need to see the bigger picture, the larger plan, the things that God will do through us.
In baptism we are called to that larger picture of God’s redeeming work in the world.
Through this water and God’s word we tie ourselves to Noah, Moses, the prophets, Jesus, the disciples, to our parents, our grandparents, and all those who have gone before us.
Our story becomes part of the narrative of God’s larger story.
Through James God is going to do something really wonderful and magnificent.
I have no idea what it will be, but I know that God will use James for a larger purpose then I or you can see.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Hoosiers.
It is about a small town basketball team that makes it to the state finals.
The actor who played the point guard in the movie was a local Indiana basketball player.
In real life he was a farmer.
His life took some unexpected turns.
He ended up getting divorced and then killing himself.
I don’t know all the reasons why someone would kill themselves.
I don’t know why this person killed himself.
I am sure that the reasons are complex.
His ex-wife had this to say about it, “that everything had gone right for him. He had a Midas touch. He didn't know what to do when adversity hit.”
It is important for us as human beings to be able to see beyond the twist and turns in the road.
Otherwise we get bogged down in the moment when things don’t go right, we get lost in the ways we fail, or in the way life does not measure up to our expectations.
We don’t give God a chance to change the course of our life for good.
It is important for us to be prophets and rely on God’s promises so that we give God a chance to beat those swords into plowshares.
We give God a chance to take our rough edges and make them into something good and useful.
Because we will experience some things in our lives that are not always good.
And it is important to see beyond them and see the larger picture.

So today I hope that James in his life learns to be a prophet.
I hope that he learns to rely on God’s word and is able to see the bigger picture.

May all of us learn to be prophets and see beyond the twist in turns in our paths, and may your path whatever they be always lead you to God.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

If The World Seems Cold, Kindle A Fire To Warm It

A couple of years ago I was eating Chinese food for lunch.
And I did something I almost never do.
I saved my fortune that came out of my fortune cookie.
I lost it in our move here to New Hampshire from Long Island, but I still remember what it said.
I remember it because unlike the usual fortune cookie this one seemed to offer some sage spiritual advice.
It read, “If the world seems cold, kindle a fire to warm it.”
This seems like good advice to keep in mind as we head into these cold days of the winter season.
But deeper then that it seemed important because too often in this world we become cold and cynical about our lives, and the world we live in.
Maybe especially now in these economic times when everyday we wake up to bad economic news, especially in these bad times we might be tempted to be cynical and disheartened.
Everyday we hear some combination of bad economic news, the dow is down, inflation is coming, deflation is coming, highest unemployment in fourteen years, home foreclosures, home prices dropping, our state faces difficult financial decision ahead.
You all know this already, and as we enter this Thanksgiving season it might be even harder for us to find reasons to be thankful.
But in all circumstances of our lives it is important that we are thankful for what God has provided no matter how small.
Because being thankful leads to something so much more important and that is living thankful lives.
Being thankful leads us to an attitude that says when the world seems cold; I will kindle a fire to warm it.
When things are at there worst I will be at my best.
When things are the scariest I will be fearless.

As people of faith who live together in Concord we must be the leaders in our community to insist that we live in thanksgiving, that we light the fire of hope, love, and joy.

Did you know that the Thanksgiving Day we celebrate was really due to the efforts of one woman?
Her name was Sarah Hale.
She was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s book, a very popular publication of her time.
And for 36 years through five different presidential administrations she wrote about our countries need for national day of Thanksgiving.
This is what she wrote, “There is a deep moral influence in these periodical seasons of rejoicing in which whole communities participate. They bring out, and together, as it were the best sympathies in our natures.”
Sarah Hale believed that having a day to sit and contemplate all the good things we have in this life would help us to not only be thankful, but to live thankful lives.
She believed we could not hate our neighbors, cause wars, and be intolerant of one another if we rejoiced together in the gifts God has given us.
She was finally able to convince Abraham Lincoln to create a national holiday of Thanksgiving.
Lincoln too was convinced that Thanksgiving could have a positive effect on a country that was divided and about to start a civil war.
In the darkest and coldest hour of our country Sarah Hale decided to light a fire.
And that fire lives on today, as we will gather later today in our homes with those we love and care about to celebrate and give thanks for all God has given us.

Thanksgiving is so much more then merely giving thanks because it is during this season that we are moved more then ever to give of ourselves.
We give food to the needy, clothes to the homeless, and shelter to the lost.
On Thanksgiving I am always overwhelmed with all the good things God has done in my life.
And that motivates me to pass those blessings on to others who are in need.
Thinking about what we are thankful for motivates us to live lives that are thankful.
What I wish for our community here in Concord is that we learn to live Thanksgiving everyday, and we act towards one another in a spirit of thankfulness.

This morning I would like us to contemplate together some of the ways that we might live Thanksgiving.
If we live in thankfulness, we can see in one another God.
As we heard from Psalm 65, everything in the world belongs to God.
“You crown the year with your bounty, the pastures overflow and the hills clothed with joy.”
Across our faith traditions we share a fundamental belief that God made the world, that God created us, and that every human life is sacred because it is created by God.
We should be Thankful for our lives, but we should also be thankful for the lives of others.
Because I can not succeed without you.
In Concord across race, religion, nation, and anything else we can think of that might divide us, we are one in our common humanity.
In each person God has placed something of value and of richness.
I happen to be a Christian, but for us Christians it is true that we are called to see the sacred beauty and wonder in each person.
Jesus tells us that when we help those in need, visit the sick or the imprisoned we do these things for Jesus himself.
Therefore everyone in this community must be given value and worth, and as people of faith we must seek the best for our neighbors.
In living Thanksgiving we live with idea that all of our lives are tied together.
Just as the pilgrims learned they could not succeed without the help and advice of their Native American neighbors, we can not live without the help and advice of one another.

Living Thanksgiving means that we take nothing for granted.
We give thanks not to ourselves, our own industry, our own abilities, but as people of faith we give thanks to God.
Our God makes all things possible, and gives us every good thing.
Therefore I think we are able to see the larger picture, and have a deeper compassion for those who are left out.
In our community we must continue to help those who are being left out.
The family whose home is being for closed, the immigrant who cuts our lawns, the refugee searching for safety and a new home, the day worker who builds our homes, the single mom struggling to make ends meet, the drug addict, the person dying of cancer.
All of these are God’s and their failure is not merely loss of fortitude, it is circumstances that conspire against people to ruin lives.
We can never lose our compassion for such people.
Across our faith traditions is the mandate to care for the least in our society.
And living thanksgiving means we understand that everything we might have is only given by the grace and mercy of God.
It is not given for us to horde, but to share with all in need.

We live thanksgiving when we put away cynicism.
If we see all things in our life as gifts from God, if we see our community as something to celebrate, if we see our neighbors as friends, then we can not feel cynical about the world.
I sometimes read in the comments section of the Concord Monitor online people describe our community and our world as if it is a lost cause.
As if we once lived in some utopian dream and now we live in a world of despair.
But remember this is the world that I now live in; it is the world I am bringing my children up in.
And it is the world that was past on to me.
Is not that world worth fighting for, worth struggling to make better.
Living Thanksgiving is about having hope that what God once created God will continue to make better.
Being thankful for our lives means we no longer live in cynicism but in hope.
We share in our faiths a hope that God will make everything right; hope that our fellow human beings are at their core good.
We as people of faith have to lead the way in this community in spreading hope.

There are lots of bad things happening in the world, but there is also lots of good.
Think of all the good that happens in our community every day.
The Friendly kitchen offers a warm meal in a welcoming environment, First and South Congregational give shelter to the homeless during the coldest months, Rise Again offers clothing and other necessities, Friends of Forgotten Children give so much, every year we have the CROP walk that helps hungry people all over the world.
I could go on and on…
We don’t hear the good stuff enough; because we are too busy complaining.
We are too busy concentrating on the few bad seeds that ruin it for the majority of people in our community who want to live in peace.
We should all be thankful that we live in this wonderful community.
This community with its diversity, its commitment to learning, its parks, it fine public servants, and its spiritual houses of worship.
How can we be cynical about such a community like Concord?
But even if you are cynical my advice to you is the same as the Fortune I received from that Fortune cookie, “If the world seems cold, kindle a fire to warm it.”

The great thing about our country is that all of us have an opportunity and a responsibility to not merely watch things happens to us, but to participate and act to change and right the wrongs.
We have the ability and freedom to not only be thankful, but to live out our thankfulness everyday.
When we live in Thanksgiving we light a fire to warm this cold world with love, hope, and joy.
May all of us this Thanksgiving be blessed, and ready to live each day thankful to God for everything we have.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Welcomed by God

When I was an intern the church I served had a nursery school and every morning the kids would gather and we would sing songs, read Bible stories, and pray.
Often we would sing the song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
And every time we would sing that song we would sing the verse with each kid in it.
He’s got Jacob in his hands…He’s got Jacob in his hands…He’s got the whole world in his hands.
And every time the kids as we sang this song would shake their heads no.
I wonder if we sometimes feel this way.
That our lives are carried away by forces greater than us, but that it could not be God.
Today is Christ in the King Sunday and what it is about is recognizing that God has the whole world in his hands…that God has all of us in God’s hands.
Because as it says in Colossians this morning” And through Jesus Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

For the last three weeks we have been talking about what it means to live as ourselves in God’s grace.
We heard that God’s grace frees us to be who we are as we are, and that we are given the power to live as saints, that God’s grace means living without fear.
We end our sermon series in an appropriate place talking about the reign of Jesus.
Today we will be talking about Jesus as our King.
We have to say up front that this is really hard to talk about.
It is hard to talk about because we simply do not have any experience with Kings.
The first time I was the pastor during a Christ the King Sunday I made the mistake of asking the kids at the children’s sermon if they could name any Kings?
After a long silence finally one kid blurted out, “Burger King”.
After another long silence another kid said, “King Kong?”
It was apparent that they did not know any Kings.
In America where we rejected the rule of Kings from the outset we have not known a King since George III.
So why do we have this as part of our liturgical year?

In 1925 after the First World War in response to over secularization and nationalization the Church decided that people needed to be reminded about who ruled their lives.
We all have something that rules our lives.
Most of the time we don’t recognize those things, we don’t name them.
We pledge allegiance to our country, to our freedom, to our ability to make and spend money.
Christ the King attempts to get us to recognize the true source of lives.
That Jesus is ruler of heaven and earth, and ruler of our lives.
That when we say that God has the world in his hands we can say yes with confidence.
This is a hard concept for us because Americans don’t want to admit that we are ruled by anything, or that anything but our individual choice is in charge of our lives.

But Jesus rule is not like those other things that rule us without us knowing it.
Jesus rule is about something more.
It is about something deep in us, around us, through us.
In naming it, in giving our lives over to it, we don’t become slave but become free.
The popular image of church is that it is the place we come to be told what not to do.
It is where we come to be told who we can have sex with and at what time, where we should spend our money, what kinds of words and actions are expected of us in a civilized society.
I disagree.
Church is where we come to be welcomed, to be free, to be ourselves, to live in God’s grace.
It is the one place in this world where I am truly myself.
And today Jesus welcomes you into paradise as yourself.
On the cross Jesus welcomes a criminal, a guilty man into paradise with him.
On the cross Jesus ask for forgiveness of those who are mocking him, crucifying him.
Think about that act.
I have trouble sometimes forgiving people who mess up my order at a restaurant.
Jesus forgives those who kill him.
And today Jesus welcomes you, forgives you, and sets you free.

I would like for us to think about the criminal on the cross for one minute.
The one who Jesus welcomes into paradise.
Here is this criminal who was free to steal and kill, and do whatever he wanted to do in this life.
But in summiting to Jesus he becomes welcomed and truly free.
Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want whenever we want.
Freedom is about giving our lives over to others, to God.
It is an interesting paradox.
In searching for who we are we only find it in submitting our lives to others.
This is what faith gives us.
It gives us a place to live free.

Jesus as King is not about demanding things from us but rather about inviting us into something greater then we can imagine.
It is about a Kingdom of grace, not about the rules that we know in this world.
It is about a Kingdom where grace is operating all the time.
The Kingdom is about a father who makes a fool of himself by running after both his legalistic son and runaway son.
A woman who throws a big party after finding one coin.
A Shepherd willing to leave 99 sheep to find one.
A Samaritan willing to risk his own life for someone he should dislike.
A worker who gets equal pay for less work.
The Kingdom is about you and me this morning.
It is about this time right here that we share together.
The kingdom is about this time, this one hour, where we are welcomed by Jesus into paradise.
If you want to know what God’s kingdom looks like look around.
Because this hour we recognize that Jesus is Lord of our lives, and we surrender our lives to that truth.

I think to some people this is a very hard thing to explain.
How does coming to Church give us freedom?
We have to wake up early on Sunday, fight with the kids to get in the car, come and sing songs we might not like and listen to a sermon that might put us to sleep or wish that we were asleep.
How does it benefit me to serve on a committee, or work to make the church better?
How does it help my life to be involved in a faith community where I have to give my money, time, and energy, when I can worship God anywhere at any time?
It seems to most that we are locking ourselves into a life of slavery.

Those of us who have been involved in the Church our whole lives know better.
In submitting to the one who died for us we have been freed from all the other things that pull and tear us apart.
We have been given a gift that cannot be taken away or defiled.
Our money will someday be gone, our careers will someday be over, our kids will someday grow up and move out (hopefully), our parents will someday die, political ideologies and parties will change, our sports coaches will someday retire.
One thing will remain constant Jesus will always be there for us.
Even while dying on the cross Jesus thoughts were not about himself but about us.
Jesus was thinking about our salvation or need.
Whatever happens in our lives Jesus is the one thing that we will be able to count on and know.
And the Church is the place we were experience and know that permanent invitation of welcome.
Today you will be with me in paradise.
Today we are forgiven and welcomed into new kingdom of grace.
Today we can be with Jesus in paradise, simply by submitting to God’s grace and love.
Nothing else needs to be done on our part just by being ourselves we are receiving the welcome of God.

God has the whole world in his hands…
Yes it is true!
Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth and we are welcomed to participate in this kingdom of grace.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Be Not Afraid!

Have you ever had one of those weeks when all you received was bad news?
I had one of those weeks.
It was filled with one bad thing after another.
It was filled with bad news about death, sickness, and destruction.
My week was filled with stories of a husband that allegedly killed his wife and daughter, a former co-worker of my wife’s that was hit by a truck, a colleague whose house caught on fire and husband lost his job.
Yesterday was a great day until I received the news that my godfather was dying.
It is weeks like this that make me yearn for the end.
The end of the struggles that we face in this life.
An end to the bad news that often crawls across our televisions on a nightly basis.
It makes me want to shout out “thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is what the end of the world is about.
It is about our desire to have God come and take over for good.
It is about our desire for the hardships and heartache to end and for us to live fully with God.

All end of the world literature is written by people who are facing extremely difficult situations.
The book of Revelation for example is written by a community of people being persecuted by the Roman Empire because of their Christian faith.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus talk about the end.
He is talking to a community that will face extremely difficult times.
It is a community that will see the Roman Empire destroy the Temple in 70 AD.
Jesus words are meant to be of comfort to a community in fear and disarray.
“do not be terrified” Jesus tells his disciples.
Jesus tells them that he will give them the words they need to have to defend their faith.
Jesus tells them that although they will be hated and reviled they will gain their souls.
When we read these words about the end time our imagination gets ahead of us and we focus in on the horrors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plaques, and dreadful portions.
There have been lots of books written about the end of the world and how horrible it will be.
We have the obsession with focusing on the end of the world and making ourselves and others afraid of it.
It would be better if we focused on what Jesus tells us about living in times of wars, earthquakes, famines, plaques, and dreadful portions.
In such times we should focus on not being afraid.
Passages like this bring us fear and dread, but their intention is to bring us comfort and hope.
The Gospel is not about fear and dread but about Good News that is brought to us by Jesus Christ.

So on weeks were bad news is all around us.
On weeks when nothing seems to go our way perhaps we should remember that in all these things God is there with us.
Perhaps instead of focusing on what awful things went wrong we should remember that these things are inevitable in our world.
There are wars, earthquakes, famines, and plaques.
There always has been.

We would be hard pressed to remember a time when we were not threatened with something.
There was never an idyllic time or place to be alive.
Each generation faces its own difficulties.
In generations passed some of you fought against fascism, economic depression, in the cold war we fought against communism and lived under the fear of nuclear annihilation.
Recently, we have been fighting against terrorism.
Against fanatics hell bent on destroying people to bring fear into our hearts.
Thomas Friedman in the New York Times last Sunday wrote in an Op-ed that we have been lucky that five terror plots have not succeeded in the last year.
“But one of these days, our luck is going to run out because the savage madness emanating from Al Qaeda, from single individuals it inspires over the Web and from its different franchisees — like the branches in Yemen and Iraq — is only increasing.” Friedman ominously predicts.
We live under constant threat.

Into the midst of the threat of terrorism Jesus comes and tells us not to be terrified.
In the Gospel this morning Jesus is discussing all of the things he knows his disciples will face.
Jesus is talking to us about all the things we will face too.
And telling us not to be afraid, not to let those things overtake us.
Because what Jesus calls us to in these times, as in all times, is faithful living in the midst of difficult times.
Faithful living involves witnessing to our faith, and helping others not to be afraid.
This week on more than one occasion I have offered prayers and thoughts to those whose lives have been turned upside down by death, sickness, economic travesty.
I believe in those prayers, because I have faith that God will not let a hair on our heads perish.
I have faith that God is with us all the time and there is no reason to be afraid.
We can face all the things that come at us in life because God is always with us.
This is the true comfort that Jesus offers us today.
He is not trying to scare the disciples, but tell them that in the midst of horrible things he will be there with them.
That is what faith is about.
Trusting in God even among difficult and contradictory times.
Living in fear of the end times is not a real faith it leads us to stop living.

In 1533 in Wittenberg Germany a preacher by the name of Michael Stifiel who was also a mathematician told people that he had figured out that the world was going to end at 8:00 am on October 19, 1533.
All of the people of Wittenberg believed him and spent the last week eating and drinking everything in town.
On that morning they all gathered at the Castle Church to wait for the end times.
It didn’t happen, and Michael Stifiel was put in the Castle jail for his own protection because the towns people of Wittenberg were so upset that they had squandered everything they had that they wanted to kill him.
Having the end of the world as the focus of our faith leads us to do some pretty crazy things.
Instead the focus on our faith should always be the present moment, the task at hand, and the thing in our lives that God has called us to at this moment.
Our faith should always be focused on the comfort Jesus brings to us in uncertain and difficult times.

The end of the world is not our concern because we don’t control it.
Jesus knows this and it is why he does not directly answer when the disciples ask for more specifics.
“When will this be?”
They ask Jesus.
We don’t know.
And we shouldn’t, instead we should live today with the faith that all things lie in God’s hands.
Martin Luther supposedly once said, “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!”
It was a statement of faith in God.
That we should not fear but live in the promise of God, live with knowledge that God is always with us and keeping us.
As Martin Luther said in a sermon on the end of the world, “now we journey and know not just whither; yet we put our confidence in God, and rest in his keeping, and our faith abides in all its dignity.”

If you are having a bad week, a bad day, a bad year.
If you are afraid at what the world has become or what it will become.
Listen to Jesus, “do not be terrified.”
Instead live right now today and in faith trust the future to God.
And everything will be fine.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Forgiven Saints

Since today is All Saints Sunday I looked up what the criteria was for becoming an official saint like St. Francis.
I thought that we would go over it together in case anyone here wanted to try and become a saint.
First, you have to die.
Then people who thought you were extra Holy when you were alive have to pray to you.
And then you have to perform a miracle.
And then you have to perform another miracle.
Finally, after all this is verified then you can become a saint.
I think it is a pretty complex process.
I like Martin Luther’s definition much better, “A saint is someone forgiven by Jesus Christ.”
By that criteria everyone in worship this morning is a saint.
It is why we read that long list of people’s loved ones this morning.
Not because they were perfect people who always did the right thing.
But because they were people that had faith in God, and taught us about faith.
Saints of God given that title not by their deeds but by the virtue of being forgiven by God.

St. Paul tells us this morning in his letter t the Ephesians that we are given an inheritance.
Each of us have been given by God something so wonderfully magnificent that it is more important than any amount of money that our parents could give us.
It is an inheritance that gives us the power to live for the praise and glory of God.
That is what I would like us to focus on this morning the immeasurable power that God gives to us.
We don’t really talk about it enough.
I for the last two weeks have been reminding everyone that they are sinners.
Today I want to remind you of the other side of the coin.
Each of you are also saints.
All of you have an immeasurable power.
Power to love, to forgive, to teach, to lead, to be the people of God.
It is not a power that you can conjure up, but one that is given to you by God.
I bet that the saints that have gone before us could tell us about that power.
They would tell us that having Jesus in their life gave them the ability to face hardships.
They will tell us that having Jesus in their life gave them the ability to give their love to others.
They will tell us that having Jesus in their life made it possible to get out of bed each morning with joy in their heart.
They will tell us that having Jesus in their life made it possible to hope for a better tomorrow.

Think about the people in your life who have shared God’s love with you.
Maybe your grandmother, or aunt, or teacher, or pastor, or parent, or friend.
What they will have in common is that you felt the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through them.
When you were with them you felt that power.
You felt like nothing could go wrong.
It was not them it was God’s inheritance that gave them this power.

Do not be fooled because you all have it, in your baptisms God gave it to you.
Who have you been an example to in your faith journey?
What youth have you taken time to talk to and take an interest in?
What person have you taken time to share God’s love with?

In this congregation there are so many people doing such powerful work.
For example, there is a team of people working with a refuge family in Concord.
This team of people is inspirational to me.
The time they put in to help, the way that they are making a difference in the life of this family, the love that they are showing, and the care they are spreading.
To me they are doing more than merely driving someone from place to place, or showing a new family how to navigate the system.
They are participating in God’s power.
By sharing themselves they are welcoming new people into our community, they are giving love and care.
It has been a wonderful thing to be a part of, and an outstanding testament to the power of God.
This is what we are about together living out our faith by showing others the power of God.

On the one hand our life together as a faith community is about forgiveness we offer to each other.
On the other hand it is also about living in the power of God by doing things that show’s others God’s love.
Those things have an effect on people it matters.
It matters to young people when we take time to share God’s love with them.
It matters to refugees when we show them that they are welcome in the city of Concord.
It matters to an elderly person when we take time to listen to their stories.
It matters to God that we use our power to help others.

Yesterday, at the youth event we had at our congregation that brought together youth from Lutheran Churches in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire the youth made foot prints that I have left on the floor for you to see this morning.
They wrote on one foot someone who taught them about the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And on the other they wrote what inspires them to share the Good News with others.
The youth had various answers some wrote their parents, some pastors, some other adults they had known.
We all have had these people in our lives.
We all have Saints who have shared their faith with us in powerful ways that make us who we are today.
We all walk in the footsteps of other saints who have trod this way before.
Walking in the footsteps of the Saints gives us the assurance that we don’t walk alone.
We always walk with others, behind others, in front of others, and most importantly we walk with God.

This speaks to the power of God in our lives.
That God sends us people to teach us about faith, and inspires us to continue sharing the power of that faith with others.
This morning I want us to think of the names that we read at the beginning of worship this morning.
How they taught us and inspired us to know God’s power.
Today we stand in that company of saints and we receive the inheritance of faith.

That faith is not only for dead people but for us who are alive now
Saints are not only dead people.
Paul calls people in the church who are alive saints as well.
In our lives now we live as saints in the power of God.
This week think of the people on that list that taught you about Jesus.
Think about the power that had in your life.
And then think about how this week you are going to share with others the power of Jesus Christ in your life.
This week look for the ways that God is inspiring you to continue to be the saint that you are.
This week use the power of God to show others the Good News.

We have been given an inheritance.
It is the grace of God.
Because of that every day we have the power to love others.
Every day we have the power to be a Saint of God and inspire someone else in their lives of faith.
This is what it means to be the body of Christ.
As we live as God’s people and are the Church we share God’s power.
Let us go forth and inspire others so they might know the power of God.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Free To Be

On any given day there are about three areas of my life that I have been called by God to pay attention to.
I have been called to be a pastor, a father, and a husband.
There are other things that come into my life from time to time.
I have to be a good friend, an uncle, a brother, and a son.
But pastor, father and husband are the most pressing on a daily basis.
The truth is that most days I fail at all three.
On really good days I can get two out of three.
Very rarely am I great at all three.
Truth is that on any given day I fail to be a good pastor.
I am sure there are people in worship this morning who I have failed at some point.
I didn’t do what you thought I should do, I didn’t do what you wanted me to do, I didn’t live up to whatever standard you had for me.
More than this on any given day I have not lived up to the standard that God has for me.
I didn’t use my time wisely, I didn’t speak in the best way possible, or I didn’t get to that thing that has been sitting on my desk for a month.
Thankfully our congregation is about forgiveness and love; I depend on that every day in our ministry together.
Even if I am not a perfect pastor I feel that this congregation loves me anyway.
And I don’t expect any of you to be perfect either; I love you not in spite of your imperfection but because of it.
It is our imperfections that make us who we are.
It is our imperfections that make us children of God forgiven and loved.

You can ask my wife and she will tell you that on any given day I am not the greatest husband in the world.
I didn’t remember that we were supposed to go out this weekend.
I didn’t go to a family event because I had to be a church for some meeting.
At night when my wife is talking about her day I was too busy watching the television to give her the attention she deserves.
Yet my wife and I made a commitment to one another to love each other even or maybe especially when we are imperfect.
I rely on her forgiveness and love every day.

My kids will tell you that I lose my temper sometimes.
That on any given day I am not as patient as I should be, that I am not as an attentive father as I should be.
A couple of weeks ago after taking my daughter with me to the store I went in the house and was continuing on with my day.
My wife asked me where was Phoebe.
I said she is in the play room.
A couple of minutes later we hear the car horn beeping.
I had left her in the car.
She was crying terribly scared that I had left her in the car for good.
I felt so bad.
I told my wife, “I guess there will be no father of the year award for me.”
Yet, when I come home from work my kids are there running towards me waiting to give me a big hug.
I depend on their unconditional love.

What about you?
What is it that you feel ashamed of in your life?
What are the areas of your life that you fail at?
Today we are invited by Jesus to lay those things down.
We are invited put all sin on Jesus and allow him to make us free.
“If the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Today we are invited to think of ourselves not as slaves to shame, failure, and guilt, but as heirs to God’s love and forgiveness.
Jesus invites us to have a permanent place in the household of God, not because we got it all together, but because of God’s love.
We are invited to see ourselves free from sin and living with Jesus in his word.
Ultimately it is living with Jesus that we experience that unconditional love that we need in our lives.

Jesus tells us today that when we know the truth it will set us free.
This is why I started this morning talking about the ways we fail.
Because that is the truth about our lives.
We often fail.
As St. Paul tells us this morning, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And we know it.
We feel the shame, the guilt, and that sense of loss.
It would not do any of us any good to get stuck in that place.
We would end up a slave to our shame, guilt, and sin and this is why we need Jesus in our lives because Jesus helps us move beyond that to a better place.
Jesus tells us that God loves us not in spite of that sin, but precisely because of it.

Jesus tells us that this truth it leads to freedom.
“You will know the truth and it will set you free.”
To know that we fail does not lead us to despair.
It leads us into the arms of God.
It allows us to simply be.
I am not perfect and I know it.

This is how we live truly enriching lives.
God’s grace is what helps me wake up every morning and try again.
Try to be a better pastor, father and husband.
With God we don’t have to pretend who we are.
We don’t have to worry about what we have done.
Instead we can simply be ourselves.
We are free to just be.

Knowing Jesus allows us to get beyond the shame, guilt, and worry.
And allows us to live in forgiveness, joy, love, and hope.
I am convinced that people who have been down and out know this better than anyone.
Talk sometime to a recovering alcoholic or drug addict and they will tell you that it was only when they admitted their powerlessness that they came to truly be free.
For example, Judy who was 45 when I met her told me about how she lived a life a slave to her addiction to drugs and alcohol.
She will tell you that she did everything in her power to get drugs and alcohol.
She lied, cheated, and stole mostly from people who loved her.
But by the grace of God she came to realize that she was a slave.
After she lost everything her home, family, friends, and job she realized that she needed God in her life.
After finding God she got sober, she asked for forgiveness.
She found in her life that unconditional love that she wanted so badly.
And now she is free to live, free to help others, free to love herself and others, free from the shame she always felt about her past.

It is not always in such dramatic ways that God comes to us and frees us.
It is a million small ways every day.
When we mess up at work, or offend our best friend with poorly chosen words, when we squander the gifts we have been given.
God is there not with harsh words, but with love and forgiveness.

Yesterday I got to go and give a message in the parking lot near the Friendly Kitchen our soup kitchen in town.
Because our congregation had recently collected thermal underwear the Reach for Hope bus had invited me to come and see how they helped homeless people in our community.
What I saw was lots of people wanting a relationship with Jesus.
What I saw was people trying to be free.

The people from Reach for Hope are trying to start a homeless church for homeless people.
Because many of the homeless don’t feel welcomed in our churches.
They feel that if they come to church they will be judged.
This is sad because many of them desire to grow in their relationship with Jesus.
Church should be that place that we are able to bring our failures.
It is the one place we should be able to be ourselves.
Because here we experience not judgment but love and forgiveness.
Freedom in Christ means letting go of our shame and living as ourselves for others.
It means that we don’t have to live under the law, but under the freedom of grace and love of neighbor.
It is because of Jesus that I get to be and love.

Today we celebrate the reformation.
We celebrate the freeing of the Gospel to be heard and preached.
But more than this today like every Sunday we celebrate the reforming that happens in our lives every day.
We celebrate that Jesus Christ is working on us and reforming us all the time.
Jesus is taking our lives and freeing us from sin.
That doesn’t mean we won’t sin it means that we are free from the effects of sin.
We are free from the shame, anger, and resentment that comes from realizing we don’t always have it together.

Some of you hear this morning might be wondering how this can be possible.
Is it possible to live without shame, fear, guilt, and resentment?
It is possible when we remain in a relationship with the Son.
Continuing to read and hear his word helps us remain in that relationship.
Our relationship with Jesus is one of constant growth.
It is a relationship not based on what we do, but who we are.
We are heirs of God’s promise, children of God.
Therefore we are free to love our neighbors and ourselves.
We are free to be.

This week when you fail remember that there is unconditional love in Jesus Christ.
When others fail remember to offer forgiveness to them as God has given it to you.
Don’t live in shame and guilt, but in grace and hope.

This morning we leave here not slaves, but heirs of the promise of God given in Jesus Christ.
We leave here free to be.
Free to be loved and forgiven.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Plane and the Seat-belt

There is a story about Muhammad Ali getting on an airplane.
He was asked by the stewardess to put on his seat belt.
Muhammad Ali answered, “Superman does not need a seat-belt.”
To which the stewardess replied, “Superman does not need an airplane either.”
This is what our parable is about this morning.
It is about recognizing who we are and where we belong.
We are not Superman.
We are the ordinary humans in need of God’s mercy and grace.
Often the trap of this parable is that it is familiar to us, and seems straight forward to us.
It appears that it is only about being humble.
We all know that it is important in our lives of faith to be humble.
The reason the parable is often a trap for us is because we very quickly turn being humble into a badge of self righteousness.
In fact, my initial sermon to you this morning was going to be about people who watch reality shows and how they like these shows so they can judge the people on them and think to themselves, “I am glad I am not like that person”.
But then I realized that if I preached that sermon I would be judging people who watched reality shows.
In essence I would fall into the trap of saying, “I am not like those people who watch reality shows.”
The message of our Gospel reading today is really more than a morality play on the importance of being humble.
Because being humble can be turned into a work that we do and then ultimately we end up judging others for not being as humble as we are.
It is about recognizing that we are not superman and we need both the seat belt and the plane.

The problem with the Pharisee is not what he does.
It does not lie in the fact that he fast twice a day or gives a tenth of his income.
These are good things that one does as a spiritual discipline to grow closer to God.
The problem is how he sees himself.
The Pharisee sees himself as justified before God because of the things that he does.
He does not recognize that everything he has is God’s.
Unlike the tax collector who recognizes God as his only hope for mercy.
The center of the parable is about God.
It is God who justifies, God who makes us righteous, God who gives mercy.
To recognize this is to understand where all things come from.

Too often we fall into the trap of seeing our good actions as things that we choose to do.
This includes religious practices.
It includes coming to church, praying, caring for the poor, giving money, going to bible study.
These are things not that we do, but things that God through the Holy Spirit calls us to.
These are things that God makes us do beyond our will.

Just as a small example, on Wednesday night we have Bible study here at our church.
I am always amazed that anyone comes to it.
Not because I think that people don’t like Bible study, but because I think there are always other things people could do with their time.
There are television shows to watch, dishes to clean, mouths to feed, people have had full days they are tired or worn out.
But on Wednesday night there are always ten or so souls that show up.
I believe that it is God who has brought these people together.

Just as I believe that all of you who have come this morning are here because God has brought you here.
And there are many different reasons to be here.
Some of you might be searching for something.
Some of you might be here out of habit.
Some of you might be here because you want to hear again the words of God’s mercy.
But we are all here out of the mercy of God.
Thank God that you are here this morning, thank God that we are together to collectively thank God for his mercy to us this day and every day.
But we who have come here this morning are no better and no worse than the people who are not here this morning.
All of us need that plane and seat belt.
We rely on the same God as the person who wanted to sleep in and read the paper over their cup of coffee.
We are just as sinful as the person who went to play golf this morning.

It is hard I think this because we who are here think we have done so with great care.
It appears as if the person who does not come does so without even thinking about it.
The truth is that we all suffer from the same sickness, the same sense of loss.
We who are here this morning are naming that sickness and seeking the cure through Jesus Christ.

The trap in the parable is to think that the tax collector was somehow a good guy.
He was evil bad.
He was collecting taxes for Rome who was a conquering power over the people of Israel.
His prayer is appropriate because he is what he says he is a sinner before God.
I wonder how many of us here this morning can own that too.
I am a sinner.
Can you say that?
Say it right now out loud with me, “I am a sinner.”
Good for you.
Didn’t that feel good.
I hear many people denying it in rather subtle ways.
I am a good person, I try to do the right thing.
And maybe you are a good person but that is not the point.
The point is that we all are in need of God just like the tax collector.
We all have failed to live up to God’s standards.
And that is why we do things like give, pray, and study the Bible.
It is a recognition on our part of where our lives really belong, and who we really are.
We give because we recognize that God has given to us.
We pray because we realize that things are not as they should be.
We study the Bible to hear the comfort and mercy we seek.

Since today we are welcoming new members into our congregation I was thinking about what I would offer them as words of welcome into our congregation.
And I came up with this quote, “The church is the only institution in the world whose membership is based on unworthiness to be a member.”
We welcome today Jim and Ken, the Maurer family Chris, Rene, Julia, Katherine, grace, and Ben into our imperfect family.
We welcome you to be with us every Sunday as we collectively get down on our knees and beat our breasts and ask for God’s mercy.
This congregation is not about perfect people, it is about a perfect God.
What we invite people to be part of is our imperfection.

This is freeing.
It allows us to be ourselves.
Be yourselves while you are with us.
The church is a collection of people that are never fully right with God, but who are called to righteousness through Jesus Christ.
It is why our congregation does the things it does.
We don’t sit around and say well since we are sinners we can’t do anything.
We say that because of Jesus Christ we are called to love the world filled with people just like us.
We are called to love all the people we find in this world, because we are no different than them.
This is what our recognition of our sinfulness hopefully leads to a deeper humanity.
It leads to the Pharisee and the tax collector seeing their common need before God.
The lesson today is not: don’t be a Pharisee.
Some of us are.
The lesson is that if we are Pharisees we should acknowledge the true source of our life and work God.
This is why our congregation reaches out to help all in need.
Not because we are some great church, but because God has called us to help those in need, love each other as sinners, and tell of the saving grace of God.

We are not Superman, or Superwoman.
We need the plane and the seat belt.
We need God’s mercy and grace every day.
Thanks be to God that we have it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Pray and Do Not Lose Heart

Asher Brown, Bill Lucas, Justin Aaberg, Seth Walsh, Raymond Chess, Jack Korritang.
You may not recognize any of these names, but they are all kids under the age of 16 who killed themselves recently.
What they had in common is that all of them where made fun of at school for being different.
For example, Seth Walsh who was only 13 was told by one of his classmates that, “the world does not need another queer. You should go hang yourself.”
What kind of world do we live in where people can be so cruel, so rotten, so mean.
I don’t only blame the kids who bullied these kids, I blame us adults too.
We have somehow placed the idea in kids’ heads that it is ok to talk like this or make others feel bad about themselves.
But I guess the larger question for me, other then who is to blame, is how can I live in this world?
How can any of us survive and thrive knowing that this kind of inhumanity goes on?
I think the answer to that question is in today’s Gospel reading from Luke.
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Luke tells us what the parable is about before we even here it.
It is about our need to pray always and not to lose heart.
This parable is not about God.
It is not about the way that God answers prayers.
The parable is not saying that if only ask enough God will eventually give us what we want.
God does not answer every prayer, no matter how often we pray it.
We know this because if God did then no one would ever die, or be sick, or get hurt.
It is saying that in a world where thirteen year old kids hang themselves because they feel there is no better alternative we need to pray.
We need to be in contact with God.
And we need to be in contact with God so we can ask why this might happen.
We need to be in contact with God so that we can have a place to bring our confusion and anger.
We need to be in contact with God to ask for justice to be done in the name of all the people in the world who feel down and out.
We need to be in contact with God so like Jacob in our first reading we can wrestle with God and understand our lives and God’s love better.
This is what prayer is all about it is about a conversation we are constantly having with God.
It is not about our asking and God giving.
But a constant wrestling that happens when we engage God in the deepest questions of our lives.
Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “…nothing is so necessary as to call upon God incessantly and drum into his ears our prayer that he may give peace, preserve, and increase in us faith…”

Truth is there are a million things in our world that on any given day disturb us.
There are things in our own lives that make us wonder if the universe might be against us.
I hear people all the time talk about how bad things are getting for them.
For example, the single mother barely making it that all of sudden loses her job, and her Mother dies, and her son gets sick, and her car breaks down.
The family of four that loses their health care, and can’t keep up with the mortgage payment, they can’t seem to get ahead because something always goes wrong.
You hear these things all the time.
They might not be major injustices but they make us wonder if we are cursed or something.

This is why we constantly need to pray because it keeps us in contact with God.
It helps us to have faith that God cares about us.
It reminds us that things get better and that this is not the end.
This week I was mesmerized as I watched the minors in Chile being rescued from the mine.
I can’t even imagine being trapped in the dark underground for 69 days!
It must have been dark and at times seemed hopeless.
But they preserved.
And I am sure they prayed a lot in that time.
One of my favorite images of the rescue was of Mario Gomez the oldest of the miners rescued.
It was of him on his hands and knees after the rescue praying.
He said, “I never lost faith that we would be rescued.”
This is what it takes for us to get through all those dark times in our lives and still have faith.
This is what it takes all those times when things seem impossible or lost.
It takes us constantly praying, not because of God need but because of our need.
And we need God always in our lives.

This morning we celebrate two really extraordinary things.
One is the Baptism of Mitch Bartels.
I don’t know how many of you know Mitch but I have gotten to know him a little bit.
I got to tell you that he is a good kid.
And today after sober thinking he will be baptized.
Not because he is a good kid, but because he knows that in his life he has needed God, and I am here to tell him this morning that he will continue to need God.
Mitch today you receive from God an eternal promise that all your days God will be with you.
Do not underestimate that gift.
Use it throughout your life to remain in relationship with God to wrestle with God so that you might know God’s blessings.
Pray always so that you will know what God is doing in your life.

We are also celebrating today the service of June Iffland as our organist.
I am sad that I did not get the privilege of working with June.
But I am honored always to be her pastor.
I don’t know if I could be any more impressed with how far June has come in her recovery from her stroke.
Her recovery has been remarkable.
For June it was always about a resolve to keep going, and to overcome the odds.
And I know that for June she depends on God.
That she prays often to God and wrestle with God to know what is happening in her life.

Two people this morning on the opposite sides of life and both of them need prayer.
Both of them need to not lose heart, but to keep going and keep praying.

Just like those miners, just like the families of those kids who killed themselves, just like each and every one of us.
We need to keep praying, and never lose that personal connection we have with God because it is what helps us to have faith in difficult circumstances.
It is why Jesus tells the parable because he knows that his followers are going to face tough times.
He knows they are going to be persecuted for their faith.
And Jesus wants them to keep that faith until he comes again.
Jesus knows that we too will face difficult times.
We might have a stroke; we might lose our job, our homes, our friends, our loved ones.
Jesus knows that we will see many injustices in our world.
Jesus knows that sometimes people will lose their humanity and act with cruelty instead of love.
Jesus knows that there will be miners trapped, soldiers shot, the poor starved.
Jesus advice to us in all these times is to keep praying, and to have faith that our just and loving God is listening.
Have faith and know that God hears our cries and cares deeply about our hurts.

Let us not lose heart, but have faith in God.
Let us never cease to pray so that in our wrestling with God we will always know of God’s care and love for us.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

If You Had The Faith of A Mustard Seed (and you do!)

I know a woman who at 54 her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
She did what many people of faith do in such circumstances do she turned to her church and asked for support and prayers.
She was told by many in her congregation to “have faith”, and if she did everything would work out.
Eventually her husband died.
Her first week back at worship one of the parishioners told her that if she had just had more faith maybe her husband would still be alive.
This is one of the interruptive problems we have with texts like our Gospel from Luke this morning.
We read what is written and we make faith into something we posses and we have.
We make faith into performing outlandish magic tricks.
“If you had the faith of mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and it would be rooted in the sea.”
We read Jesus words and we believe that with faith we can cure cancer, stop death, make all the bad things in life go away.
The worse part of this type of theology is that what happens when people die, when bad things happen to good people faithful people like us?
Lots of times what happens is that people stop believing in God, because God did not come through like they were told God would.
Faith is not about magic tricks.
It is not about believing that some miracle will happen if only we can believe harder, pray more, or do a dance by the first full moon of the second week of the first month.
Faith is about trusting in God even, and maybe especially, in difficult times.

We read the Gospel for this morning and what we hear is “If you had the faith of a mustard seed…”
We take that as a challenge from Jesus to his disciples and to us to have more faith or get more faith.
Yeah if we only had more faith things would be better.
But a better translation of what Jesus is saying would be “if you had faith (and you do)…”
It is a condition according to a fact, like saying “If Jesus is our Lord….”
Not a condition contrary to a fact, like saying “if I were you…”
So Jesus is not condemning our faith.
But telling us we already have all the faith we will ever need.

We are like the disciples given the enormity of our task on earth.
Given all the factors that seem to contradict belief in an all loving God, it would seem that we would need more faith.
But all of you have been given in your baptisms all the faith you will ever need.
God has equipped you to handle all the things that happen in this life.

Think about it even if you die, through faith you are ready to handle it.
You already know that death is not the final word.
What Jesus is asking from his disciples, and what prompts them to ask for more faith is forgiveness, and care for the little ones.
Before our verses today what Jesus tells his disciples is that they should forgive anyone in the church who does them wrong.
And they should not put any stumbling blocks before people who sin or do us wrong.
We all know how hard it is to forgive and to move on.
It is no wonder the disciples ask for more faith.
We too ask for it.
Because it is hard for us to forgive as well.
It is hard for us to learn patience and meekness.
It is hard for us to learn to live in the struggle that is life.

But God has already equipped us through his word, through communion and baptism.
Every week when we worship we are reminded of Jesus love for us.
We are reminded of our need for forgiveness.
The purpose of worship is not to give us more faith.
But rather to stir up the faith already in us.

An imagine a colleague of mine once shared that I think illustrates this really well is that of a child making chocolate milk.
Have you ever watched a child make Chocolate milk.
They dump tones of chocolate syrup into the milk, and it all gathers at the bottom.
So they think that what they need is more syrup.
So they dump more chocolate syrup in, and then more.
Not noticing that all they really need to do is stir up the chocolate syrup at the bottom and then they would have more than enough chocolate syrup.
That is what our faith needs sometimes is to be stirred, to be stirred into action, stirred into remembering the awesome grace and love of God.

And our lives will turn from desperation, or being lost, or being forsaken into hope and trust.
The 54 year old woman who lost her husband to brain cancer did not need a lecture on being more faithful; she needed a community of faith that would stir her faith.
That is what we can be for one another.
We can offer the words of forgiveness, hope, encouragement, and comfort that help us to remember God in our lives.

When my father died people sent lots of letters and cards to my mom.
When she would get a letter we would read it together.
Each one was a little treasure of God’s love.
People who offered us words of comfort and hope in a difficult time reminded us what a wonderful God we had.
It reminded us that God sent people who care.
It reminded us about the power of the resurrection.
This is what faith communities are about, because this is what our God is about.

Not about trying to put on a scale the amount of faith one might have at any given moment.
And certainly not about a God who performs magic tricks instead of comforting and loving us.

This is why Paul writes to Timothy.
To encourage him in his faith and remind him of the power of Jesus Christ amidst the suffering that one often suffers in this life.
Paul knew firsthand that following Jesus Christ is not easy.
That bringing the word of God to the gentiles made his life harder.
He knew that in the Church many other apostles disagreed with his mission.
He knew that when he spoke in synagogue about Jesus welcoming gentiles as well as Jews that his life would be threatened.
Perhaps he knew that he would be martyred in Rome because of his faith.
Paul like all the great figures of the Bible did not have life without hard times.
What he had was faith in God.
Faith that God was working through his life, faith that God would use him for God’s purpose.
You all have that same faith it just needs to be stirred sometimes.

So when you suffer, when things don’t go your way, stir up your faith and be uplifted to know God has given you everything you need.
Know that in some way God is working in your life even through suffering.
And then be prepared to share your faith with others.
This week someone you know is going to need to be uplifted just like that mulberry tree.
Someone you know is going to need to hear the words of Jesus Christ.
Someone you know will suffer in some way.
What will be the words that you will speak?
I know that they will be words of comfort, encouragement, and love.
For you have the faith that was given to you in your baptism.
You have a faith that tells you what to expect in this life, and what to expect from God.
You have a faith the size of a mustard seed, and it just needs to be stirred into action.
Use that faith this week to move mulberry trees and put them into the sea.
Uproot obstacles in your way so that you can see and know God in all things.

You have the faith of a mustard see may it be stirred so you can serve God and know his power in your life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lazarus at your gate

Being a Christian means different things to different people.
Some Christians are politically conservative.
Some Christians are politically liberal.
Some Christians are neither.
And some like Lutherans are not really sure.
We see this all the time in any one of a number of issues.
Pro-choice versus pro-life, Anti homosexual versus pro-gay rights, Guns versus non guns, etc….
Not only on political issues but on theological issues we see a wide range of opinions.
We see Christians that baptize babies and those that baptize adults.
We see born again Christians, and main line Christians.
Some Christians believe that Communion is just a remembrance, and some believe that the elements of bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
There is a wide spectrum of belief and practice within Christianity today.
And it has always been this way, and probably always will be.
But there are two things that all Christians of any political ideology or theological position can agree on.
Whatever else Christianity may mean there are two things that all Christians believe in.
One is that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.
No matter what denomination you are in, no matter how your Christian understanding is played out politically, theologically, or practically all Christians say that Jesus is their Lord and Savior.
All Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins.
And the second thing is that all Christians believe in helping the poor.
One cannot be a Christians without this being part of who they are.

This morning we see in our three readings just some of the overwhelming Biblical evidence that calls us to help the poor.
The Bible sometimes will say contradictory things about modern day subjects.
For example, the Bible is contradictory on whether or not a woman is allowed to be a leader in Church.
In some places, in the Bible, women are told to be quiet and not speak.
Like in 1 Corinthians chapter 14 where it says, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.”
But in other parts it is clear that women are taking on leadership roles in the Church in Romans 16 Paul commends a list of women as his fellow workers in Christ.
So on that issue we can use our modern day brains and our reason to come up with the best practice based on what we know now.
But this is not so with the issue of poverty to be a Christian, to follow Jesus Christ means to be concerned about the poor.
The Biblical witness is overwhelming.
We see it in the prophets of the Old Testament.
Amos tells us this morning that those “who are at ease” will be the first to go into exile.
Those who are rich and think they have no worries; those who see nothing wrong and do nothing to fix it are the ones that God calls to action now.
In the letter to Timothy the rich in church are called to share what they have and do good.
The church is told not to make riches our goal, but the kingdom of God.
And finally in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus Jesus warns in a parable about seeing the need of the people at our door and helping them.
The problem with the rich man is not that he is rich.
It is that he does not see his fellow human being begging at his gate.
The rich man takes no account of Lazarus or his pain.
And therefore does nothing to help the one who begs at his gate.
It is not that he has riches, but that he does not use his riches to help others.

For all of us here this morning we are rich.
We have more then we need.
Sometimes it might not feel that way.
I know that it is a monthly struggle for my family to pay the bills, but the truth is I have more then I need.
God has given me riches beyond measure.
I have a roof over my head, three meals a day, clothes to wear.
Beyond this I have money to give away, I have money to buy luxury items, I have money to go on vacation.
And it is my responsibilities to help others were I can.
I am rich.

In fact if you go to the website and put in your income it will tell you where you are in comparison to other people in the world.
I put in our families income and we are in the top .8% of the richest people in the world.
You all know what I make it is no secret.
It was shocking to me how much I make in comparison to the poorest in the world.
You see I am the rich man.
And the question that I have to ask myself is who is the Lazarus sitting at my gate?
Who are the people I ignore?
Who are the people I take no notice of?

One thing we can know is that Jesus never loses concern for the poor.
Jesus asks us not to be apathetic, or hopeless.
This is the attitude of the rich in all our readings, but especially the rich man in the Gospel.
There is no need to act, or do anything for the one who is in need.
I think that this is one of the great spiritual problems of our day.
We are all a little angry and tired of dealing with politics and politicians.
I don’t like the way they express themselves, but we can all understand the frustration that lies beneath the tea party movement.
We all know that it seems hopeless in this world to try and do anything.
After all we will always have poor people.
Not to mention that the statics are overwhelming.
1.1 Billion people are forced to survive on less than a dollar a day.
Consider that the avg. salary for a worker in the US is $91.00 a day.
Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes-one child every five seconds.
11 million children die of preventable illness- that is one every 3 seconds.
These are children whose lives could be saved with simple medicines of immunizations, if their families could afford them.
But these are just numbers and we have all to some extent become numb to numbers.
In fact, we have all become numb which has only fueled our complacency.
But if we take Jesus parable seriously this morning complacency about the poor is really not an option.

I believe we all can do something.
I believe that we all have the power to make some real powerful changes in the world.
Yesterday, our congregation once again participated in the Concord’s CROP walk.
We walked with 25 other faith communities and about 150 other people.
We raised $12,266.
What I loved most about yesterday was the attitude it takes to come out on a Saturday, raise money, and walk.
Forget the numbers what matters more is that all the people that walked believed that they could do something in this world for someone else.
They had hope that the simple act of walking would make the difference to someone that they did not know.
More than anything the CROP walk is an act of defiance against hopelessness and apathy.
It is an act that says I care about people all around the world suffering from the effects of poverty, and I can and will do something about it.

Did it end poverty?
That will take more walks and more time.
But what it did was stop us from becoming complacent in our lives.
We can say to Jesus that we did care, and we took steps (literally) to do something for the Lazarus at our gate.

Our congregation is working hard on these issues.
We do care about the poor here at Concordia Lutheran Church.
There are many ways for you to get involved for you do something that will show that you too are hopeful and are taking action to help the poor.
I am proud to be part of this congregation that will not stand ideally by and watch people suffer.
We will do something.
Because we are Christians and that is what Christians do.
We believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and we take care of the poor.
We follow Jesus therefore we act to help those in need.
We will see the Lazarus at our gate and act to help because we believe in Moses, the prophets, and most important Jesus Christ.