Friday, October 30, 2009

Sermon 10/25/09 -- Stewardship in the Life of the Disciple #1

The text for this morning’s meditation is found in Matthew 25: 21 – “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
We are going to consider discipleship in light of what we have heard from the Gospel of Mark over the past few weeks as well as stewardship in the life of the disciple.
This Fall the focus has been on interactions between Jesus and the crowds and the disciples. Let’s take a look back.
Jesus told his disciples that they should set their mind not on human things but on divine things. He said that we should deny ourselves – that we should actually renounce any claim to our SELF.
Jesus told his disciples that they were to be servants, not seeking the highest position but claiming the lowest.
Jesus showed his disciples that they were to welcome those whom society forgot.
Jesus healed the people in the crowds who were pressing in on him.
Jesus called his disciples to radical generosity as he told the rich man to sell all that he had, give it to the poor and come and follow.
Jesus described a very radical kingdom. A kingdom where the most important are the least and the least important are the greatest, a kingdom where the disciples sit down at a Round Table after they have put their mops and dish rags down.
God’s work. Our hands. We’ve been speaking of this for some time now. It’s been the subject of a church-wide video contest.  It’s the tagline for the ELCA. And it could even be thought of as the tagline for the life of a disciple of Jesus. God’s work. Our hands.
One of the parables that Jesus told is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. It is the Parable of the Master and the Master’s servants and the talents. A master was preparing to go on a journey and he gathered three of his servants around him. To one he gave 5 talents – now a talent is a unit of currency in ancient times, but today we think of it as a gift or skill. Both apply for our purposes. So, to the first servant the Master gave 5 talents, to the second he gave 2 talents and to the third he gave 1 talent.  The first two servants took what was given them and used those talents and multiplied them and earned a profit for their Master so that they could return a surplus to him. The third took the 1 talent and buried it in the ground so that he didn’t lose it and could safeguard it for the Master’s return.
To the first two the Master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” But the third received the judgment and condemnation of his Master.
This is not a parable about investment strategies. This is a parable about what we, as disciples of Jesus and as stewards of what he has given us, do with what we have been given.
How do we live into: “God’s work – Our hands” as “good and faithful servants?” There are many aspects of our life together as disciples and servants and followers of Jesus. Some of these apply to our life as a community and some apply to how live our individual lives.  As a community we worship together, we serve together. Individually, we each pray daily, we each read our Bibles regularly to learn new things and apply familiar things to the way that we live our life. And after the first of the year we may look more closely at some of these things
But right now, we want to focus on stewardship and giving as one of the marks of a disciple. Remember that Jesus has called us to “radical generosity.” Now, I have to tell you, the part of me that loves lattes, wants a netbook, and hopes for clothes shopping weekend while on vacation rebels against this notion of radical generosity. That’s because I think that what I have is mine, I earned it, I’m entitled to it, thank you very much, and, yes, I will give some of it to God.
But from the Parable that is our text today, I learn that what I have – whether time or talent or treasure – is NOT my own and I cannot use it in whatever way I want. But in the same way that Paul asks the church in Corinth, so must we ask ourselves – what do we have that we have not received?   I have college and graduate degrees. Are these my own? No, I have received these because of tuition paid by parents, courses taught by professors, scholarships received from donors, textbooks written by scholars.
Some years ago, I knit Earl a sweater. My own creation, right? Well, no. I followed a pattern written by others, used yarn prepared by others and needles manufactured by others.
We remodeled our home – our own? Well, no.  The ideas that we used came from things that we had seen elsewhere. The materials we used were manufactured by others.  Some of the labor was performed by us but other more specialized work was done by others. What do I have that I have not received? The answer is, “Nothing.”
As a follower of Jesus, I am to step out boldly to put what God has given me to work for God’s kingdom, not my own self-interest. That is what a steward or a caretaker does.
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
 Giving radically of what God has given us is what we do in response to God’s grace.  It is an expression of faith.  But who's faith does it reveal?  I believe that when we give of our time, when we share our talent, when we offer our treasure, we are responding to faith, in faith.  We are responding to the faith our Master has shown us, the faith that we can be his caretakers here on earth.  And we are responding in faith that he will continue to care for us, and that we will live in the joy of the one we claim as Lord. 
We will be talking more about this over the coming weeks.  What would it look like if we regularly gave a chunk of our time to an agency or organization or family who needed it? What would it look like if we regularly gave generously of our skills and talents for the work of the Kingdom? What would it look like if we regularly gave generously of our treasure? Please consider these things over the coming weeks.
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” 
See with new eyes what God has given each of us. See with new eyes how he may want us to use this to further the Kingdom. See with new eyes God’s work and our hands, his good and faithful servants.
Amen. May it be so.

Paul Otto Manz 1919-2009

The death of Paul Manz did not really surprise me -- the man was 90 years old! What has surprised me is my reaction to it. I have felt melancholy and sadness that some may say is out of proportion to the event. So, I've spent a little bit of time thinking about this.

I attended Minneapolis Lutheran High School with three of Dr. Manz' children. Dr. Manz brought some of them to school each morning because Mt. Olive, the church he served, was close by. During Advent and Lent our choir would travel to a number of congregations to sing during evening mid-week services. It was during one of those mid-week services that I first heard Dr. Manz at the keyboard. I was spell-bound. A year or two later, our choir director added the motet "E'en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," a simply elegant and exquisite composition. Again, during one of the mid-week seasonal services, we were at Mt. Olive. Dr. Manz was the organist and then as a surprise to us became the choir director for this favorite anthem the choir sang. I have never forgotten this experience of music and worship.

I remember the first time that dear husband (DH) worshiped at Mt. Olive and heard him play. I can still see his eyes wide open amazed at the wonder and beauty of what he was hearing. I think of Peter, Anne and Sara who where high school friends. In the late 80's or early 90's, Dr. Manz came to St. Petersburg where we lived and did a Sunday afternoon recital and hymn sing. And the artistry was so familiar and fresh at the same time. 

Yes, sad and melancholy. Lots of chords struck.


photo from

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Reflection on Ego

So many weeks have passed since I wrote anything other than a sermon, a lesson plan or a Facebook status update. And during these weeks so many pieces of paper, so many words, so many ideas have passed through my fingers or fingertips, few of which were original. Today, I finally had to shout "Enough!" at my desk and move on page after page, word after word, sheet after sheet.

A few articles were held out for further consideration but mostly I am enjoying a cleared work space. Tissues close at hand, a clock face I can actually see, a phone I can actually find without moving anything. And, as tidy as this is, it reminds me of how much reflection I have not engaged in over these past weeks as I wrote sermons and lesson plans. Reflection is messy, seldom tidy.

In previous posts I have spoken about M, a homeless member of our congregation, who has very serious health concerns and who left our midst rather suddenly a few weeks ago to head to places unknown to us by means unknown to us. I was a tad irritated that M didn't hang out at our parish for the last of his days (however many of them there may be) and chagrined that I didn't fully understand his parting words to me because I was certain that there was no parting to come.

Oh my, M was miles ahead of me. Yes, his friend came from distant places to pick up M and bring M back to his home so that M could live out the last of his days, however many of them there may be, in places that are familiar and pleasurable.

So, at breakfast after church yesterday, another who has cared for M very much, observed that every single thing that we have prayed that M may experience has come about. And he just isn't here in this particular family of faith any longer. But thanks be to God that M is in a safe place, a loved place, and a familiar place where he is doing the things that he always wanted to do and hasn't been able to for the past many many years.

The old hymn, "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" bids us spread our trophies at Jesus' feet. At Jesus' feet we raise all to the glory of God.


Radical Ranking -- Proper 24

Some years ago, well, many years ago, when I was in law school, someone told this joke: Due to an emergency among the secretarial staff of a family law firm, one of the junior members of the firm found himself handling the phones one day. The more senior members of the firm included his father, his uncle and his older brother. This phone answerer had done pretty well and it was coming on the lunch hour. Another call came in. He answered it again: Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson. To whom may I direct your call?
I would like to speak with Mr. Jackson.
I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson is at a lunch meeting and is not expected back until 3:00.
Well then, I would like to speak with Mr. Jackson.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson is in court at this time.
Oh. Perhaps then, I could talk with Mr. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson is not available as he is out of town taking depositions.
I see. Well, then. Would you please put me through to Mr. Jackson.
This is he. How can I help you?

Pecking order. This Mr. Jackson knew his place. He was the lowest on the totem pole of the firm of Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson. Where does one fit in the overall scheme of things? Where is our rightful place? How do we secure our rightful place?
So, today as we read this story about James and John, don’t we just kind of shake our heads at their presumptuousness? Who do they think they are!!?? Who indeed.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks with his disciples of his coming arrest, trial, suffering and death three separate times as they are traveling toward Jerusalem where all of this will happen. Each time, Jesus’ words are very simple – the time is coming when the Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of the authorities and he will be rejected and will be tried and will suffer and will be put to death and will rise again.
After he said this the first time, Peter was outraged – “No Lord! It will not be.” Jesus listened to Peter’s tirade and then taught the disciples saying, “If you want to save your life you will lose it.”
Then after he told them this again some weeks later, they didn’t say anything to Jesus about it because they were afraid. But among themselves they were debating who it was among them who was the greatest. They ‘fessed up to Jesus who said to them, “Whoever is to be first, must be the last and must serve all.”
And today we hear of the third time in much more detail and directness – we can almost hear him say, “Listen to me! We’re headed to Jerusalem. When we get there, the church leaders are going to pass judgment on me and hand me over to the civil authorities who will sentence me to death and they will make it so bad for me that I might even wish that I would die. And three days after dying, I will rise.”
So, what is the response this time? James and John are brothers and they, along with Peter, are two of the closest of Jesus’ friends. They hear these words of Jesus again and then have a conversation among themselves and a proposition for Jesus.
At my house over the years, I have become known for my “deals.” One night, it might be like this: “Earl, I’ll make you a deal – I got dishes tonight.” Another used in earlier years might have been this: “Matt, I’ll make you a deal – you take out the garbage.” Now, I think that Earl will agree with me that my “deals” were not always self-serving. But we hear today James and John approaching Jesus with “a deal.” They say, “Let the two of us sit at your right and left hands when you come into your glory.”
Pecking order. James and John were staking out their turf.
And Jesus’ response is nearly identical to the other responses he made to the disciples as they tried to figure out what to do or say in light of Jesus telling them what was awaiting him in Jerusalem. Jesus said, “You don’t get it yet. But let me tell you again – things in the kingdom of God are radically different from how things are in our society. You want to be great, do you?? Well, pick up a mop! You want to be first in the Kingdom? Well, go wash the dishes.”
But see, the point isn’t about scoring points by doing menial chores so that we can gain a higher position on the totem pole. The point is that as disciples we don’t care about the totem pole at all. One writer said about Mother Teresa that, if we could monitor her thoughts, we probably wouldn’t hear this monologue: AH, that Peace Prize, now that would be a great thing to have. So I think I’ll go and serve the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. That should clinch it for me. That would be great.
The reason that Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize is that it was the last thing on her mind.
We are not servants and slaves SO THAT we may gain entrance into the Kingdom. We are servants and slaves BECAUSE we have been brought into the Kingdom – not by any of our own actions but purely because of the grace of God.
One of my favorite all time movies is Camelot. And one of my all-time favorite scenes is when King Arthur comes up with a whole new way of thinking about being a knight, about being a king, about organizing a kingdom. King Arthur decides that there will not be an ordinary rectangular table for the knights of Camelot to meet at – a table with a clearly established head and chairs to the right and left of the head of the table. A table that clearly reflects rankings in the kingdom. No, King Arthur says that the knights and king of this kingdom will meet at a Round Table! Imagine that! One without a head, one without a ranking, one at which each knight has equal rank and equal say. One where Mr. Jackson would answer the phone and say, “This is he” the first time.
Well, the Church is like that. No human occupies the position at the head of the table. Rather, we are a round table with Christ at our center. There is not a pecking order. We each have the honorable role of being a servant.
May it be so.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Posting Sermons

When I post my sermons, I post the manuscript that I have prepared for Sunday; and the manuscript was prepared with a view toward preaching the manuscript rather than having it read by others on a webpage. While I could edit it into a written product rather than one that would be listened to, frankly, spending the time to do so isn't something that I can do right now. So please read them with this caveat in mind.

Blessings and peace,

Radical Generosity, Prosperity and Grace

Sermon Sunday October 11, 2009

“If I were a rich man…” (sung) What WOULD it be like if I were a rich man?
The Telegraph, a major London newspaper, reported this in 2007:

A brain scan study has shown that no matter how wealthy you are, money is most rewarding if you have relatively poor friends, peers and colleagues.
Several studies by sociologists have looked at whether the effect of money on happiness results largely from the things money can buy or from comparing one's income to the income of others and concluded the latter is most important.
As if to underline this difference, one economist even referred to the "shocking fact" that people in the West have become no happier in the last 50 years, despite being healthier, wealthier and better traveled.

I have to wonder who put this lectionary together – last week was divorce and this week it’s money! Just as I struggled last week so I struggled this week. Look, we all agree that in common social situations we don’t talk about religion or politics. And even among our close friends we tend to talk about income or money in only very general terms like, “my retirement plan took a big hit with this recession.” No one would ever ask, “Oh really? What is it down to?” We would simply nod our head understandingly and voice our agreement.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus tackles money and possessions head on. And, let’s face it; some of the things that he says are surprising if not shocking.

Often when we read this text, we shake our heads condescendingly at the foolishness of this young man who walked away from Jesus because he couldn’t follow Jesus’ instruction. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Does he not know what he is doing???

One commentator said that this story is “untamable!” But you see, I want to take it and shape it and tidy it up and make it into something that I can live with.
But I think that Jesus is saying to us, “Dear children of mine – don’t you GET it!!”
What is it that we don’t get?

There are three things that this text addresses pretty clearly. First, we are called to radical generosity. Second, what we own is a huge stumbling block to our life in the Kingdom of God. Third, with God, all things are possible.

First, radical generosity. Earl and I often speculate about what we would do if we won the lottery – if we won millions we would have a terrific time giving millions away! If only… But Jesus said to this sincere, humble, faithful, follower of the law – this is what you need to do. You need to GO, SELL, GIVE, COME, FOLLOW. Sell all your possessions, sell all that burdens you, sell all that gets in the way of your coming and following me. But don’t just sell it and put the proceeds in the bank for your retirement – give the proceeds to the poor. Radical generosity. I don’t know exactly what that means for me and I resist it, truth be told. But Jesus’ words are clear.

This is not a call to slim down, to simplify, to do with less. Jesus’ words are a call to radical generosity. This is not a call to a simpler lifestyle – it is a call to a whole different lifestyle. One in which the poor benefit from our surplus, one in which those in need can rest knowing that they are cared for, one in which we are relieved of the burden of our possessions so that we can serve.

That is a segue to the second part of this text – what we own or cling to can be a huge stumbling block to our life in the Kingdom. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. Now, I know that some folks have tried to understand this teaching by watering it down, by trying to explain it away in any number of ways. Friends, none of these are persuasive. Jesus said what Jesus said. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle – it is easier for a huge animal to pass through a very tiny space – than for a rich one to enter into the kingdom of God.

But doesn’t this beg the question of who it is who is “rich’? I don’t feel rich. I would certainly know if I were rich, wouldn’t I? I don’t know that I am rich. And then I come across comparisons of our life in the United States of America with those in developing countries and I read this:

If you have a bank account, money in your purse or change in your pocket, you are among the wealthiest 8% in this world.

Let there be no confusion, we in the United States of America are benefactors of radical prosperity. We may feel that our security is uncertain, that our future is unknown, that we will never have the health care that we need. Yet, my friends, we are far more rich, far more abundant in possessions than millions of people around the world. As we struggle to simplify, to have lives that are less encumbered by physical possessions, our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are in deep need. They do not have clean water to drink, do not have mosquito nets to protect them from malaria, and do not have food. We live in radical prosperity while they live in radical poverty and need. We need to hear Jesus words of Go and Sell and Give. These words of Jesus are imperatives, directions, mandates.

Finally, we are drawn into the family of God through God’s radical grace. “With God, all things are possible.” This rich young ruler thought that it all depended on what he did. But Jesus spoke across this. Jesus said, it is not what you do. In your human perspective, the camel can’t get through the needle’s eye. Instead I want you to know that I do what you can’t.

Who needs the touch of the people of Grace the most? Radical generosity
What do we cling to too tenaciously ? Radical prosperity
Who do we depend upon most? Radical grace
Radical grace, experienced every Sunday, day after day, meal after meal , prayer after prayer.
All of us gathered together around this Table. All of us mindful of our brothers and sisters around the world.

May it be so.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Radical Need Mark 10:2-16

The story is told of Sam, a young man, who was contemplating his future. He had an older friend, Harry, who was single and so Sam asked Harry why he hadn’t married. Harry said that he wanted the perfect woman – spiritually deep, intelligent, kind, and beautiful. He went on to say that he had traveled the world looking for her. And finally he found her. Sam asked – yes? You married her? Harry said that no he hadn’t married her. Sam asked, “But why not?” “Ahh,” replied Harry. “It seems that she was looking for the perfect man.”
Yes, today’s Gospel reading is one of Jesus’ teachings – this one on marriage and divorce. And I have to tell you that I really wrestled with this one this week for what I hope are obvious reasons. I am married to a man who is divorced and have seen firsthand the pain of that in his life, our life together, and in our family’s life.
Some experts estimate that as many as 45% of marriages will end in divorce within 15 years. A study out of Rutgers University in 2005 found that only 63% of American children grow up with both biological parents -- the lowest figure in the Western world. And, perhaps most curiously, the divorce rate of Christians is nearly identical to that of non-Christians. What do we make of this? And what do we make of Jesus’ words today?
Jesus is clearly speaking of marriage and divorce. The Pharisees correctly observe that should the husband decide to divorce his wife, the law of Moses said that he could by giving her a certificate of divorce and sending her packing. And various rabbis interpreted this to permit a divorce for as simple a reason as the husband didn’t like his wife’s cooking. And we thought “no-fault” divorce was a modern invention! So, in answer to the Pharisees’ question, the answer was Yes, the Law permits a husband to divorce his wife. The Pharisees knew the Law.
But Jesus had more to say than simply to parrot what the Law said. You know, we say that we are people of grace, people who are not legalistic, people who know that we do not have a saving relationship with God because of anything WE have done. But, you know sometimes, I do believe that we get a little stuck in wanting to know precisely where the lines are – the lines that define “us” and “them”, the lines that include and thereby exclude, the lines that define who is in and who is out, the lines that show us who the law keepers are and who the law breakers are. You see if I know all those lines, then my life is just a little easier.
But, thanks be to God, Jesus looked at things so much differently. He said that this Law was given because of the hardness of heart of sinful human beings. He knew that we all want to know precisely where the lines are and he frustrated our attempts in this. He said, “Yes, the Law that came to you through Moses said that you could divorce your wife. Yes, there may well be times when that is necessary for any number of reasons. But, I want you to understand this – that is NOT at all what God intended for a husband and a wife in their life together.” And Jesus goes on to describe what God had in mind.
God had in mind a relationship of soft hearts, two people who leave their loyalties to their families behind them in order to create a union that becomes so intimate and so close and so shaped by the love of God, that these two individuals become one flesh. Please remember this – divorce is not a sin in and of itself. NO, there are often good reasons to divorce. Divorce is the result of the condition of sin. We are a broken people living broken lives in a broken world. And we are in desperate need of a Savior.
And so we come to another aspect of today’s Gospel reading. The story outside of the story. Let’s compare the people who came to Jesus – we have the Pharisees and the little children.
The Pharisees and the little children. The Pharisees came with the motive of trapping Jesus, of tripping him up because of his frequent disregard of the Law – not washing hands correctly, not observing Sabbath correctly, welcoming all sorts of unsavory people. So they try one more time. They ask their question – one that they think is sure to cause him problems. And Jesus says in essence, “You ask me this because of the hardness of your heart.”
On the other hand the little children – not just children, but “little” children – come seeking Jesus’ touch. When has Jesus touched people in the Gospel of Mark? Jesus touched people in order that they may be healed! These children coming to Jesus may well have been the children that we would see at All Children’s Hospital or in the “sick” part of any pediatrician’s waiting room. Remember what we know about children in ancient times – they weren’t even included in the census until they were 2 or 3 years old, so desperate was their plight. These children were in desperate need of a Savior, in desperate need of the touch of Jesus. In desperate need of his welcoming embrace.
One of the distant memories that I can actually feel is of a Christmas Eve perhaps 50 years ago. We had just gotten into our car to drive home from my Godparents’ home. We always spent Christmas Eve with them. It was very cold. Dad was driving. I was in the middle of the front seat. Mom was on the passenger side. (This was in the days of no seat belts, no child seats). Mom put her arm around me and I nuzzled my face into the very soft fake fur of her winter coat. I felt safe and cared for and loved.
That’s how it was for the children coming to Jesus.
My friends, the words of Gospel today are not that Jesus condemns divorce. The word of Gospel is that Jesus engages with those who challenge him, seek to trip him up, think the worst of him. The word of Gospel is that Jesus embraced snotty-nosed kids, kids with a fever, kids who were sick, kids like you and me.
Thanks be to God.

Ripping Apart Flesh

Up until Thursday last week, I hoped that I would find a way to avoid preaching about marriage and divorce. Frankly, as one with a "first husband" but who is herself a "second wife," this isn't a topic that gives me joy to enter into. But by Friday it was clear to me that there was no other "safe harbor" of preaching fodder that I could anchor in. Wrote a sermon tackling divorce, marriage, sin, Pharisees, little children. (I'll post it separately)

Then at the very early start of our Adult Class today a member asked if we couldn't talk about what is happening in the ELCA. My mind flitted around quickly and I saw that the same teaching of Jesus about divorce for the hardness of human hearts may have application to the current strugglings in the ELCA. We are indeed the very Body of Christ, one flesh. Some may think that the image of the Church as the Body of Christ is a simile -- the Church is "like" the Body of Christ. And two people married are "like" one flesh.

I rather think that two people married to each other are, in ways that we do not understand, actually one flesh. And the parting of these two people is a ripping apart of flesh that causes pain and anguish and should be done very cautiously and only when it is necessary, and there are times when it is necessary but often these times are less frequent than would initially appear.

And the members of the Church as the Body of Christ are, in ways that I do not understand, organically connected to each other. There may be a time where one of these members must rip apart from the other. But this ripping must be done cautiously and only when absolutely necessary.

I wish that I were a theological expert in these things....
But then again, I am very glad that I am not.