Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Now Thank We All Our God!

A friend on Facebook asked this question this week.
“What do you consider to be your core values? The guiding moral compass by which you navigate the murky waters of connection and communication with your fellow human beings?”
I thought it was a good question.
And here is my answer.
I believe that every human being is flawed, sinful, and selfish, including myself.
That is my core belief.
It is what I assume about the world around me.
You might say, “That is really a pessimistic view of the world.”
I don’t think so.
I think it is a realistic view of the world.
The world is what it is.
It is important because I am not caught off guard, I am not surprised, shocked, disappointed by what people do.
I assume it, because people are people.
I don’t really expect them to get better, or do something drastically different to improve life here on the earth.

On the other hand I have a core belief that God loves this world.
That God loves all of us who are flawed, sinful, and selfish.
God redeems us, reforms us, and reclaims us.
God makes right what we cannot.

I mention this because today our theme is hope.
And I am hopeful.
But you just said, “Everyone is flawed, sinful, and selfish and we can’t make the world better”.
I didn’t say was I was optimistic, I said I am hopeful.
There is a big difference in my view.

The Czech writer Vaclav Havel once wrote, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.
It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Hope carries with some element of trust.
Hope is the belief that together we can make things better.
Hope takes courage.
Hope is active.
But here is the thing what do we hope in.
We might hope for better outcomes in the world.
We might hope for a more just world, a more peaceful world.
And that is good.
But who is bringing in that world.
Certainly not us, we are too much concerned about our own selves, to make that happen.
Certainly not the Government we elect to represent us.
Certainly not anything I have come across in this world.

But I don’t hope for things.
As a person of faith, I hope in something.
My hope is always in God.

Today’s Gospel from Matthew is about this very thing.
Today’s Gospel is apocalyptic literature, part of a longer section in Matthew about the end of the world.
It is meant to lift back the curtain and show us what the end looks like.
It is to show us what the powers of the world really look like.
And it is not pretty.
The powers of the world are monstrous.
And the only thing that defeats them is God’s goodness.
Matthew wrote his Gospel to encourage Christians to remain hopeful during difficult times.
To remind us to be alert so we can see God at work.
“Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Matthew writes so his faith community can trust that God was working through all the things that they faced in the world.
Matthew believed that faith in God lead to an ethical life.
That because of faith we could and would serve our God and neighbor and live out justice and grace.
Yes, the world was flawed, sinful, and selfish, but God was working it all out.
Put our hope in God, to make us and the world better.
As it says in Psalm 39, “My hope is in God.”

We need that hope.
We need it at all times.
Many people will think that we live in the worst times ever, but I can assure you we do not.
We live in relative easy times compared to what others throughout history have faced.

Consider our hymn of the day today.
I choose this hymn so I could tell you the story that lay behind it.
It was written by Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in the little village of Eilenberg, in what is today Germany.
He was a pastor during the thirty years war, one the worst wars in all of European history.
Because of this war his little town was a place where refugees flooded into, and his walled town was surrounded by Swedes.
Not on only that but there was the plague going around.
He was the pastor of this little village and all around him people are dying.
It has been said that he once did as many as fifty funerals a day.
He buried his wife, and all of his pastor friends.
His little village was surrounded by Swedes and they wanted a huge ransom to stop fighting.
The good Rev. Martin went out and negotiated peace and the hostilities ended.
Things eventually returned to normal.
Martin wrote this song for all those that survived war and the plague.
Think about that.
He wrote a song about giving thanks to people who were devastated by war, famine, and fear.
What could they possibly have to give thanks for?
They could give thanks to God, because it is in God that we put our lives.
It is in God that we trust and have hope.

It is true without God there would be no reason to be thankful.
And this morning I want us to think about how God gives us hope.
Without God things are very grim.
There is war, famine, death, and fear.
Without God there is only our flawed, sinful, and selfish self.
But with God we can believe in the power of the resurrection.
We can believe in redemption for us all.
With God we can have hope that the powers of this world will not rule forever, and that God will have the last word.

That is truly worth giving thanks for.
And we just gave thanks, on Thursday around Thanksgiving tables.
And maybe it was too easy.
To easy to sit around a dinner table filled with food, surrounded by loved ones, in relative safety and say all the things we are thankful for like family, food, friends.
But also we know that even today our lives are not as always easy as they look.
That we too are filled with fears about what is happening in the world.
What our children face.
We are filled with empty souls that turn too easily to material things to bring our lives satisfaction.
We are filled violence in our hearts.
And we too need to remember that even in our sinful, flawed, and selfish selves we are Thankful to God for giving us hope.
Hope that we can and will make a difference to others in this world.
Hope that we can be used to love others.
Hope that this world is worth fighting for and striving to make more just and loving.

“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices…”
Thanks be to God for giving us hope that indeed Jesus will come into our hearts, and into the world to tear away fear, famine, and war, and make us and the world the place it should be.
During this season of advent we wait for that with eager anticipation and hope.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shake Down Sunday!

Yesterday I was having breakfast with some friends.
I was talking about my sermon for this morning and how it is for us Stewardship Sunday.
One of my friends said, “Oh, you mean shake down Sunday”.
I admit that it can often feel like that.
The pastor gets up and gives a sermon about how we are not doing enough, and that we need to give more.
I know because there have been times I have given that sermon.
I once gave a sermon in my first congregation where I pointed out that I as a first year pastor was making as much money as the pastor who had been there for 14 years previous.
I chastised them for failing to pay her properly.
I may have been right, but later I regretted it.
Talking to people later about it I realized that it did not make anyone in that congregation more generous.
It just made them feel ashamed.

So this morning I want to start by doing something that is unusual for Lutherans.
I am going to brag about all of you.
I am going to commend you for being very generous people.
I am going to tell you that I am often overwhelmed with how generous you can be.
I want to tell just one story that illustrates this point.
Every year our congregation collects health kits to send to Church World Service that serves poor communities around the world.
This year we again had people give very generously to that.
When we do that program we have to pay about $300.00 for the shipping.
This last year I had two people that both wanted to pay for that shipping cost.
I won’t say they fought over it, but one of them was disappointed that they didn’t get to give the $300.00
This story shows that generosity is contagious.
Think about all the generosity going on in that story.
We had the generosity of people giving the supplies, and on top of that we had two people that wanted very badly to give to ship the supplies.
We had more than we needed.
In this story we had abundance.

When we think about God I hope that what we think about is abundance.
Our Gospel for this morning is a great example of abundance.
Jesus is being crucified.
That is horrible in and of itself.
But on top of that humiliation he is being mocked and derided.
His whole life, and all the great things he did, is being is called into question.
Think about how extraordinary it is that while this is going on Jesus responds with forgiveness.
How easily are we offended?
 How easily do we walk away because we have been disrespected?
How many relationships have we given up on because we felt that we just were not treated correctly, or for minor things?
Jesus is being crucified!
Jesus is being made to look foolish, and he is still forgiving others.
“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
It is an abundance of grace.
It is over the top.
We would not ask any one we know to act the way Jesus does here.

But this is what separates us from Jesus.
We cannot be as abundantly giving as he is.
We are limited in what we can do for others.
We are limited in the amount of chances we are willing to give.
We are limited in the amount of abuse we are willing to take before we want to get revenge.
Jesus has no reservations about offering grace to those who hate him, torture him, mock him, and cast him aside.
We can never duplicate that.

What we can do is live a life of a steward.
We can live a life that recognizes the great gift we have been given.
We can use that life to help others, to give of ourselves in small but meaningful ways.
It will never be as glorious as what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
But it will be glorious.
And our generous spirit will encourage others to have the same spirit.

My father in law was telling me how he learned to be generous.
He was telling me that when he would go out to eat his father would tip 30%. And he would tell his father that he didn’t understand why he gave so much.
His father told him, “They have to eat too”.
Generosity breads generosity.
It helps us to see in the other person their God given importance.

The reason we have stewardship Sunday is not to shake you all down.
It is not to have you give money to the Church.
It is not about paying my salary.
It is not to have you part with your hard earned money.
It is to acknowledge the gift.
Today we acknowledge that we have been given by God something that no amount of money can pay back.
We acknowledge that God has been abundantly generous to us, and we desire to do the same.
We also acknowledge that we are not alone, and that others have to eat too.

I am aware that this is counter intuitive to us in many ways.
We are used to a system that is based more on our personnel satisfaction and desires.
A system that tells us to get what we can while we can.
A system where we get what we deserve.
I get it.
I live in that world too.
How beautiful it is to see the abundance God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
To see how much God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
How wonderful that people are willing to give up $300.00 so we can send health kits to people in another country.
How wonderful that we give to that without knowing if the people who will receive it are worthy.
We don’t know anything about them.
We don’t know if they are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, good or bad people.
All we know is that there is a need and we can help.

I have been thinking a lot about the election as I am sure you all have been too.
And last week I was at the Bishop Convocation where I talked about the election a lot.
And I want to offer something that will bridge the divide between people.
I want to say something that will make my Gay friend feel less scared about losing his rights.
I want to say something to the refugees and immigrants living here in Concord who are being told that they are not as good as the real Americans.
I want to say something to my Black/African Americans friends who are worried about all the racist words being used.
I want to say something to the Trump support who feel hopeful, vindicated and proud at the outcome of the election.
I want to say something that will make us all feel better, and will bring us back together.
I will admit that I have not found those magic words.
(This is not easy to say for a preacher.)
I don’t know if they exist.

What I do know is that what is true today was true before this election.
God calls on all of us, regardless of who we voted for, to a life of abundant giving, to a life of abundant grace.
Not because it is the right thing to do, but because the God we know in Jesus Christ did it for you.
God gave all he had so that you will be “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved son, in whom we have redemption, and the forgiveness of sins.”

Our God is abundantly generous.
I thank God today that all of you are abundantly generous too.
I thank God you are generous with your time, your money, your lives.
May we continue to grow in our generosity, and continue to show others the power of God’s generous grace through our stewardship.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Trust God Not the Election!

Every Tuesday I go to Bible study with other Lutheran pastors from New Hampshire.
It is one of the things I do to prepare to preach on Sunday.
This week I told my colleagues that I planned to preach on the election.
They all said, “It was nice knowing you”.
Even my kids tried to talk me out of it.
When I told them I was going to preach about the election they both said, “Dad, don’t do it!”
It is true that our politics have become so toxic, and this particular political season so bad, that we can’t even talk about it anymore.
Despite the warnings from colleagues and my kids I am going to talk about the election.
I am going to do it for two reasons.
One, I trust you all.
I trust that you are all adults, and as adults can have conversations with people with whom you disagree.
I trust that we are a congregation that is centered on Jesus Christ and not our political views.
Second, I was always taught that you preach with the Bible in one hand, and the New York Times in the other.
The word of God must have an application to what is happening in the world.
And what is happening in our country is that on Tuesday we are going to have an election.
So everyone get ready, buckle your seat belt, put on a helmet, here comes my sermon on the election.

On Monday’s at Bible study we are studying the book of Daniel.
It just so happens that our first reading for this morning is from Daniel.
It is a part in the book of Daniel where Daniel has a dream about four beasts that rise out of the sea.
As all dreams are symbolic so is this one.
The Four beasts represent four dynastic empires Babylon, Medes, Persians, and the Greeks.
They are all empires that committed crimes against the people of Israel.
They ruled with fear and intimidation.
The book of Daniel has two major themes.
One is that all empires fall, and the only true king/empire is God.
All others that claim to be great are false gods.
The second is that we are called as God’s people to remain faithful under the rule of such empires.
Our role is to remain faithful to the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of the earth.

This election has been prophesied by both political parties as the end of the world.
No matter who wins it will be catastrophe.
As people of faith we don’t believe it, because if this was the end of the world then it would be in God’s hands and not ours.
As people of faith if it is in God’s hands we know we will be fine.

Something else is going on, something that happens every election but seems to be getting worse, or is bothering me more this election.
We are taking sides based on our religious beliefs.
And I think that is dangerous.
As followers of Jesus Christ we are not married to either of these political parties.
We are called to follow Jesus.
Yes, we should vote, we should do our duty as citizens of this country, we should use our minds and hearts to vote for who we think would be the best president, senator, congressperson, but our destiny is not about who wins this election, or any election.
It is tied up with the kingdom of God and not of the kingdom of this world.

Think about the words that Jesus speaks this morning in his sermon on the plain from Luke’s Gospel.
“Blessed are the poor for your is the kingdom of God”
“Woe to you who are rich now….”
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled”
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
These are not the words of a politician trying to win an election.
They are the words of our savior telling us that the kingdom is beyond our imaginations.

I was thinking about these words this week.
We simply don’t here politicians talk this way.
And we should not be fooled by any of them.
No matter whom they are or what party they belong to none of them is about God’s kingdom.
None of them can solve the problems you have right now.
None of them can save a marriage, get you a job, save your life, care for your children.
Or do the million things we all have to do to get through a day.
Politics is all a show.
It is all fake.
And that is what the book of Daniel shows us.
Earthly powers are always fleeting.
Only God’s power is forever.
Politicians that promise us peace and prosperity are always lying, because only God can bring peace and prosperity.

I have read a lot this election about people in our country who are feeling left out of the political process.
Poor, uneducated whites, in rural parts of our country that no politicians go to visit, feel left out.
African Americans who are statistical disproportionately jailed more often than whites, who are executed by the death penalty, and who are killed more often by police.
In this election Latinos have been caricatured as lazy and criminals.
There are Muslims being called terrorist.
What I believe is that all these people have more in common than they think.
They are being divided by politicians looking for power.
And that is exactly the way the rich and powerful want it.
And we are being divided by people telling us that your side is righteous and the other horrible human beings.
How many times does a Facebook post have to start with, “Conservatives hate poor people.” Or “liberals don’t want people to work.”
(Or add your own insult here.)
We have forgotten that we are all children of the same God.
We have forgotten what Jesus teaches us this morning, “Love you enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
When was the last time you heard a politician talk like that?

Today is All Saints Sunday.
And today we are not celebrating super Christian people that were perfect.
We are celebrating a collection of people that together were more than they were individually.
Today we remember that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
We are surrounded by people from other times and places that have gone before us, people that set an example of what it means to live a faithful life in a often mean and cruel world.
People that crossed oceans, learned a new language, worked hard, raised a family, lived through great depressions, evil manic dictators hell bent on killing everyone, fear of nuclear annihilation, racial prejudice, women’s suffrage, gay and lesbian rights.
We remember today people that knew real hunger and injustice, but who held on to God for dear life, people who saw empires rise and fall.
And those saints speak to us today.
They remind us that God is true and faithful, that life is about following Jesus.
It is about helping out each other, and especially those at the bottom.
Whatever happens on Tuesday we have to remember that God is still our hope and our guide just like he was for the saints that came before us.
That we believe in God’s kingdom come.
And that no election can change that truth.

I will be praying on Tuesday for our country.
I will be praying for all of you as you vote.
But most of all I will be praying that we remember that our allegiance is always to God first.
It is always to Jesus Christ.
And that is where we put our hopes and our lives, and not in an election.