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.