Monday, January 28, 2013

The Annual Report

This past Monday on Martin Luther King Day we had a day working with women from the women for women coalition.
This organization was organized to help women who are African refugees/immigrants in New Hampshire.
One of the women was sharing her experience of going into a church here in New Hampshire.
She had grown up her whole life as a Christian and attended church regularly in Africa.
When she came to New Hampshire she went to worship and she was not talked to or acknowledged in anyway by the people of the congregation.
She told us, “It has nothing to do with a language barrier; it has to do with love. Church is supposed to be a family and a place where you go to be loved by others in your family.”
I have been unable to shake her words this week.
They have stayed with me.
“It has nothing to do with language it has to do with love.”

As we hear reports about our ministry here at Concordia.
As we hear about how well our Sunday school is doing.
How well we are doing financially.
We are going to hear how much outreach we are doing.
How many new people are coming to worship with us.
What good shape our facilities are in.
When we hear about how wonderful our worship is, how talented our choir is.
When we think about our ministry together and what a success it has been, let us remember that it all means nothing without love.
Everything we do here at Concordia is about love.
It is about the love we have for each other, for the community, and for the world.
It is about reaching out to spread and share love.

I am not always sure what make a church successful.
Is it preaching, solid doctrinal teaching, good music, well run children’s ministry, outreach to the poor, is small groups, good organ music, praise music.
I don’t know any one thing that makes a church successful.
But I do know what makes a church unsuccessful.
A congregation that does not have love will be unsuccessful.
If there is no love for people who are going to walk through that door the first time we cannot succeed.
If there is no love for the people that we are serving than we cannot succeed.
If there is no love for the person sitting with you in worship this morning we cannot succeed.

We hear this morning Jesus give us in Luke his inaugural address.
In John Jesus ministry begins with a wedding party.
In Luke it begins with a mission statement.
Jesus in the synagogue is given the scroll of Isaiah.
Then he reads it and says this is what I am here for.
I am here for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
I am here to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Often when we hear sermon’s on this text we are then encouraged to go and do what Jesus does.
We are encouraged to help those in need.
However, this is only part of this story.
Because we too are the ones in need.
We are also the ones that Jesus has come to save.
What are the ways that we are poor, captive, blind, and oppressed?
When are able to see these things inside ourselves it is easier to feel compassion and mercy for people out there.

We are all broken people.
Despite our efforts to keep it all together, underneath everything we are the ones needing saving.
The problem is that without that understanding we are not doing things out of love, but out of some moral crusade.
I cringe sometimes when I hear good meaning preachers get up and pound their fist for justice like it is merely an intellectual exercise.
Justice flows from us knowing someone and loving them so much that we are willing to risk our own well being and lives for their betterment.

I have always said that justice flows for me from good pastoral care.
I can’t say that I care about your life unless I care about the entirety of your life.
When people come and see me who have been handed a bad hand, or who need help I can’t merely slip them some money and send them on their way with a prayer.
I feel I must work to bring about change to the system that is failing them.
Acts of justice without love are never going to get you far.

And a church without love is doomed to failure.
St. Paul knew this well.
He wrote his letter to the church in Corinth because it was a congregation in turmoil.
There was fighting in the congregation about who was greater, there was inequality as some of the richer people would horde food and keep it from others in the community.
St. Paul did not use the image of family, but of the body.
I think this is even more powerful.
In theory you can get rid of people in your family.
You can get in a fight with your sister and not talk to her for twenty years.
But all the pieces of your body are connected to one another.
You can’t get rid of any of them without doing real harm to yourself.
That is how connected St. Paul thought we should be.
Jesus thought that too.
We should be so connected that nothing keeps us from each other.
Not economic status.
Not Physical deformities.
Not outside forces.
Not nationality.
Not language.
Not race.
Not sexual orientation.
Nothing separates’ us from each other in the body of Christ.
In fact, it is our differences that bring us together.
Our differences are important because those are the things that make us whole.
I need you and you need me.
I can’t do what you do, and you can’t do what I do.
God has brought us together to be this body as one.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

I don’t know if there are statistics for that kind of thing.
But what I do know is that it is vital for a congregation.
It might not be explicitly stated in the annual report, but it is the subtext of it.
We are all in this together, and we need one another to make this body run.

So more important than anything is that we have love for one another, for people walking through those doors for the first time or the forty second time, we have love for the people who are not yet here.
We have love for the people that we serve at the friendly kitchen because there but the grace of God go I.
We have love for the refugees who use our building for ESL classes, because this congregation was founded by Swedish immigrants who wanted a church to feel connected to each other in love.
We have love for the AA groups that meet here because we too are addicted to things other than God.
We have love for the blind because our bodies are frail too.
We have love for each other, because we are all in this together.
When one of us succeeds we all rejoice together.
We have love, because Jesus Christ crossed boundaries of race, ethnicity, economics, sin, to show us God’s love and care for us.
Jesus crossed those boundaries to make the words of the prophet come true.
Today we sit here together as a recipient of that love, and also as an ambassador of its spreading.
I have seen our congregation share that love.
I have seen it in action.
“Hope, faith, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love.”
May that always be the most important annual report we give.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The God Who Keeps The Party Going, And The Wine Flowing

This story in John’s Gospel of Jesus turning water into wine has always been a little perplexing to me.
It seems like such a odd story.
And as a way to announce your arrival as God incarnate it seems too small.
Of all the things Jesus could have done to show who he is this just doesn’t seem like the right place to start.
So why does John start here?
John is the only Gospel writer to tell us about this wedding in Cana.
Why is it important and what does it say about Jesus?

The first thing to know is that in John’s Gospel there are no miracles.
There are only signs.
The signs that Jesus does points to something about him, they are epiphanies to the people around him about who and what Jesus is for them.
So this story is not a miracle, it is a sign.
It points us to something about Jesus.
Perhaps that is why John can tell this seemingly small story because it begins to shows us something important about Jesus.

Like all good Gospel stories there are many interpretations of those stories.
And this one is no different.
However, what struck me this time is the idea that Jesus saves the best for last.
Everyone thought the party was over.
All the wine was gone it was time to go home.
And then Jesus brings out the best wine, the most expensive wine.
Most ordinary people couldn’t afford wine in Jesus day.
But families would save money so that on their daughters wedding day they could have the best feast, with wine flowing until everyone had their fill.
In order to save money they would serve the good stuff first and the horrible stuff when no one knew the difference.
(I had a couple nights in college like that.)
Anyway, Jesus gives the best and at the end.
The party can go on and for a long time.
Enough wine is provided.
Jesus always saves the best for last.
When we think the wine is gone, when we think the party is over, Jesus comes through for us and provides the best of what we need.

In the last two weeks our congregation has had three people die.
This is a lot of people in our congregation.
Consider that all of last year I only did one funeral.
The people at Bennott funeral home were saying that it must be hard for me.
But I have to tell you it isn’t.
I would rather do a funeral than a wedding any day.
At weddings you are window dressing.
People are more concerned about the flowers, and getting to the reception on time than they are about hearing the word of God.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t dislike weddings.
I love to dance and have a good time, but as a pastor I feel that people need to hear God’s word more at a funeral than a wedding.
It is at funerals where people really want to hear those gospel words of comfort.
They want to know that their loved one is at peace.
They don’t usually care about little things that don’t matter, because they need God at that time.
What I notice is that God saves the best for last.
When we need it the most, when we feel like the wine is gone and the party is over, God shows up and says this is not the end the party goes on and on.
Don’t worry there is plenty of wine, and it is the best stuff.
Indeed your loved one is not dead but in an even better place.

This is the God that Jesus is enlfeshing in John’s Gospel.
It is a God of grace and truth, who loves us, and wants us to have lives of abundance.
It is the God who shows up at the party and is not uncomfortable around people having a good time.
We have a God who wants us to know that the best is yet to come.
Do you know that?
For you the best is yet to come.
This day might feel like the party is over, but God is still at work in our lives and still cares enough to show up and talk to us and have some wine.
 I would agree with St. Teresa of Avilia who would pray to be delivered from “Frowning saints”.
God’s people are not to suppose to be stoic and void of celebration.
We are supposed to be at the wedding feast celebrating the grace revealed to us through Jesus Christ.

It is at the wedding that Jesus reveals to us a God who is overflowing with grace, a God who fills us to the brim.
For me one of the things God has done over and over again for me is to offer me forgiveness and a second chance.
I say over and over because I make lots and lots of mistakes.

On Friday on the cover of USA today newspaper one of the headlines was, “How Much Can We Forgive?”
It was about Lance Armstrong.
For those who don’t know.
Lance Armstrong not only lied about using performing enhancing drugs, he also intimidated people into lying about it.
If someone told the truth he would sue them.
Not only that but he made everyone think of him as some super human figure because he overcame cancer and then won more races.
I don’t want to get in to whether or not we, or anyone, should forgive Lance Armstrong.
But I want us to think about this.
What can God not forgive?
What have we done in our lives that we need forgiveness from?
Can God forgive that thing?
I am not talking about whether the people in our lives can forgive those things.
I am asking about God.
We might not want or be able to forgive Lance Armstrong, but I am sure that God does.
This God that Jesus shows us in this story is one who shows up when everything else seems lost and hopeless, when the wine is out, and the party is over, and offers us the best.
Perhaps for Lance Armstrong his life was not the best it could be, and now it will be even better.
It will be free from all the deception and lies.

That what I think this sign points us to, a God of extravagant grace, a God who shows up and keeps the party going, a God who is overflowing with love and mercy.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise because that God is the one who is revealed to us in scripture too.
It was the God who brought people out of slavery, led them to the promise land, gave them the law, sent them the prophets, and now has given his son to point the way back to that God.

At almost every funeral I do people request Psalm 23.
Perhaps because it is the best known psalm and the only piece of scripture people know.
But it is known for a reason.
It is known because it speaks the truth about the way God acts in our lives.
“The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life….My cup overflows.”
This is the God we know and want.
It is the God that we get to know more intimately through Jesus.
Perhaps that is why John starts his signs with this small intimate gathering at a wedding.
It shows that Jesus shows up everywhere we are.
And I was wrong it is not a small story.
It is a story that says everything about this God of grace who shows up and gives us the best just when we think that there is nothing left.
Know today that is the God who will follow you into your lives.
Know that God will show up at all times and places, know that God who keep the party going and the wine flowing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You Are My Beloved!

The question of faith is do we believe it.
Do we believe what God has said to us?
Do we believe what God has to say about who we are?
Do we believe in the promises of God?
This morning Jesus after his baptism hears a voice from heaven descending like a dove.
That voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus baptism prepares him for his life of service.
It reveals Jesus true mission and identity in the world.
Our baptisms do the same for us they reveal to us who we really are.
We are beloved children of God.
The question is do we believe that or not?

There are some who might say that what is preached too often in our churches these days is some kind of therapeutic message.
That what we get instead of the gospel is a watered down message that is meant to make people feel good.
Some would say that our churches have become places of therapy instead of places where we are challenged by the demands of a life of service.

For me it is never an either or proposition.
Look at Jesus baptism for guidance.
It is both a call for service and a revelation of a promise that God makes to all of us.

You see when I meet people whose lives are in ruins.
When I meet people who are down and out, people who have been in prison, who are now homeless, and battling various problems in their lives.
Their stories are different, but what I find are people who don’t know about this promise or people who don’t believe it.
I hear people who don’t know their worth.
I hear people who don’t believe that anyone even God could love them.
I have yet to meet someone who is down and out who has said to me, “You know the problem in my life is that I was simply loved too much.”
The Gospel is about a love that is ours always.
All the other relationships in our lives demand something from us.
They demand that we give something to them.
But our baptism in Christ is pure gift.
And it never goes away.
God is always there for us.
Now we might reject the gift, we might forget about the relationship for times in our lives, but God’s love is never dependent on what we do.
For me this is the radical nature of the Gospel.

I was reading about how many people believe that they have to do something for God.
But baptism is always God’s work and not ours.
This is why we, Lutherans, baptize babies.
It is one way for us to show that it is not our work but God’s.
Babies cannot do anything for God, and seeing them baptized is one symbol of how we come to God.

The hard part is carrying that into all of our lives.
When everything else has left us, when we have been beaten up and left unloved by everybody else do we still believe that God calls us his beloved children?
It is hard to do, because the people in our lives are those people that teach us about our worthiness.
It is from our parents that we first learn love and trust.
When that is broken where do we turn?

I believe that Holy Spirit can help us to see it again.
At Jesus baptism the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove.
Have you ever had this experience in your life?
I believe that with God it is possible.

I worked for a while in a home for abused and neglected children in Portsmouth, NH.
There was this young woman who lived in that house.
I will call her Mellissa.
We had a connection because we liked the same music.
One day we took a walk to a store near the house with some other residents.
She was going through a particularly bad time.
On the way she was sharing with me some of the things that had happened to her in her life.
The things that this poor young girl had to live through are really unspeakable.
She was abused by the people who should have showed her love.
I was searching for something to say to her that was of some comfort.
On the way back to the house it started to rain.
We got back to the house and were soaked from the rain.
As I looked at her covered in water, I thought about baptism.
I saw that water as a sign of God’s reminding her of his love and care.
It was as if the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit was cleansing her and saying, you are my beloved child.
Of course, I could not say that in that particular setting.
It was one of the things that made me really want to go become a pastor.
Because I believed that beyond all the therapy that one could offer was something more profound that I wanted to be able to tell people.
I realized that I wanted to be able to tell people like Mellissa of God’s never failing love.
I wanted to tell her that even though other people had made her feel unloved and unworthy that God loved her and believed her to be worthy.

All of us here are part of that call.
The reason why we are given this promise is to share it with others.
We are given the promise of God’s love in our baptism so we can carry that love into the world.
We can help others remember this love that redeems and saves us.
So the love we receive leads us to serve and give to others.

You see we cannot remove one from the other.
If the message of the Gospel is just God loves you that is incomplete.
We need to hear the second part which is that we are then equipped for our work in the world.
Jesus is not just told of his beloved status but then sent to serve in that love.
It cannot just be that we are to serve others.
How can we accomplish such thing?
How can we give love others if we feel we are unworthy of love?
Service without love is simply not enough.
We serve out of love because that is what God gives to us.

For me this is not just some theological insight I gleamed from a dusty book in seminary.
This is how I have always experienced God at work in my life, and those around me.
I have heard hundreds of stories just like Mellissa’s.
I have also seen what God can do when people believe that they are loved and have worth.
God has placed us all here for extraordinary reasons.
And as a pastor I get to see people give extravagantly to others.
I have seen the love of God in action in people’s lives.
It has always been God’s love that has kept me going.
I believe in my core that I am beloved child of God, and nothing can take that away from me.
This morning I am asking you to believe it too.
Not because I said it but because the heavens open and God speaks it to you.
I am asking you to believe it because it is matter of life and death.
When we believe that we are loved and valued by God.
When we believe that we are worthy then I believe we can and will do extraordinary things in this world.
We will love and give beyond what others think or know possible.
I have seen the devastating effects of what happens to people who don’t know their own worth.
It is as if life is taken away from them.

Today the heavens have opened the Holy Spirit is descending on us, and God is telling us that we are beloved children.
Do you believe it?
I hope so because it is true.