Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Midweek Message for September 29

The same summer I did my clinical pastoral education unit in seminary, I was cast as a nun in the local community theatre’s production of The Sound of Music.  It wasn’t a big part, and sometimes during rehearsal I wondered if I’d even be missed if I were not there.  Rehearsals consisted largely of sitting around waiting to go on.  After all, the nuns’ chorus was on stage ten minutes or less.

I had lots of time to watch the behind the scenes activities involved in staging such a large musical (the musical is almost three hours long).  The cast was large – 7 children, the adult speaking parts, the soldiers and, 30 nuns.   All in all there were 50 of us.  And then during tech week (the last week before the show opened), the technical crew, costumers, orchestra swelled our numbers.  People were running everywhere – moving props, helping the children with their numerous costumes changes.  A hairdresser was brought in to help make the hairdos more authentic.   People seemed to just materialize out of the woodwork to help.

In the midst of all this frantic activity, I had time to reflect on why I wanted to be involved – especially when I was so busy with other things.  And especially when, at times, it seemed that my part was so insignificant that no one would notice if I was not there.  For that matter, why were so many people willing to take time out of schedules every bit as busy as mine to spend 4 or more hours each evening tech week to get ready for opening night?

I realized that the answer was that we wanted to be a part of something wonderful, something bigger than any one of us.  The knowledge that we were doing something that would bring joy to our audience was all the motivation we needed.  We loved being able to use our gifts – be it acting skills, musical ability, set design, costuming, choreography, or the many skills that are involved in making sure that everything was where it needed to be when it needed to be there.

I looked around during warm-ups at the cast and crew.  We were all very different people, with very different gifts.  And it occurred to me that a theatre company is a lot like the church.  There are different people in our congregations, and we all have different talents and gifts.  We all want to be part of something wonderful, something bigger than ourselves – we want to be part of God’s work in the world.  Some of us have roles that are obviously necessary and some of us think that we don’t matter much at all.  But we do!  We each have something to give, some way to contribute, something that will be missed if we choose not to be involved. 

          When I got to the theatre on the Saturday after opening night, the review had already been posted for all to read.  And I found out just how important the nun’s chorus was to the whole production – the reviewer felt we were the star of the show!  I discovered that all the time and effort I had put in to my little part was valuable – something that only I could give, my voice blended with the other “nuns” to make a joyous sound.

          We all have gifts that God has given us to use.  The Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12: 4-21, that the Spirit gives each one of us different gifts.  Paul uses the imagery of the body to teach us that each one of us is an integral part of the body of Christ.  We may not always be able to see just how God is using us.  We might not be able to tell how our unique gifts blend with the gifts of others – but our Audience of One enjoys the joyous harmony we make together.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

15th Sunday after Pentecost: The Ultimate Undercover Boss

The first time I saw the preview for the show “Undercover Boss,” I was intrigued.  If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is:  a big company’s president or CEO or owner takes a week, gets a disguise and goes to work for his or her company in a “regular” job, posing as a new employee.  The owner of a home health care service served as a health care aide.  One of the family owners of White Castle hamburgers flipped burgers, worked the drive through and spent a day working in the frozen division plant.  The mayor of Cincinnati spent a day with the sanitation department picking up road kill, an afternoon with an after-school program, and a day in the city vehicles maintenance garage getting schooled – he had no automotive training or experience.
They are amazed by what they find.  They meet every-day people trying to make ends meet and provide for their families, sometimes in difficult circumstances:  a single father of three, a parent of a visually impaired child, a woman with serious health limitations.  These are people who are committed to doing good work in even when policies and procedures sometimes seem to conspire against them.  And many of them find time to give back to the communities:  a woman who takes the old flower arrangements from the casino she works at to area nursing homes on her own time, a man who is active in the local veterans’ center.

These bosses who spend a week walking in their employees shoes come away changed.  Rules and regulations are changed to promote employee satisfaction.  Investments are made in equipment that employees need to do their jobs better. 
To add drama to the show, there is a big reveal.  The boss meets with each of the employees who trained the “new employee.” These bosses have been so touched by their employees’ stories that they want to do something to help them: provide a scholarship to culinary school, money for a long-denied family vacation.

It’s a novel idea – a boss who is willing to roll up his sleeves, and get his hands dirty in order to better understand the situation of his employees and to build a better relationship with them.

Of course, it’s been done before. 
In our reading in Philippians today, Paul tells us the story of the Ultimate Undercover Boss:

God has tried everything to restore the relationship with humans, which was broken back in the fall.  God gave a set of instructions on how to live in fellowship with God and each other.  God has chosen a people to demonstrate that way of living and God has worked hard to rescue those people when their attempts to live in community go astray from the plan.
God knows that something different must be done if humankind is ever going to enjoy the loving, life-giving relationship with God and each other that they were created to have.  And so God decides to get God’s hands dirty and go undercover as a human.

Just think – the BOSS (that’s all caps folks!) of the universe wants to connect with human beings, his servants.  No sitting in the place of power and issuing directives from on high for our God.  And so God puts divinity aside and becomes human. We call that Incarnation, God with us, God as one of us.
God puts on the disguise of a baby.  From King of the Universe to frail, helpless baby – the sacrifice Jesus made for us didn’t start at the cross.  It started the minute he took on human flesh.

He lived with us as one of us.  We did not know it, but the Boss was working beside us, walking with us, teaching us, healing us.  A few of us closest to him began to see through the disguise, to see who he truly was.
Even then, with the followers who knew who Jesus was, that this was the Son of God, he didn’t take on the privilege of a master.  No, Jesus served his disciples, caring for them, washing their feet, calling them friends.

Jesus did what everything he could to show us just how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us.  Instead of demanding obedience and love from us, he goes to the cross to show how far God will go to restore relationship with us.

Three days after the cross is the big reveal – God’s power over death and sin is demonstrated by Jesus’ resurrection.  Jesus is revealed for who he truly is – God’s Son and Lord of all Creation. 
God so loved the world that he came to live as one of us, to live with us, to suffer and die for us all to restore us to communion with him.  The world is renewed – those things that deny life and break community are defeated.  Our working conditions, so to speak, have been improved because our Boss walked as one of us.

Now unlike our TV undercover bosses who get to go back to their day jobs, Our Ultimate Undercover Boss remains one of us.  Jesus returns to the Father, taking his place at the Father’s side, in his resurrected human body.  Fully God and fully human, the broken relationship is forever restored and through Jesus we can now live the lives we were created to live.

It’s Jesus’ example as our Ultimate Undercover Boss that Paul encourages us to follow: 

·         To be willing like Jesus to not hold on to our privilege, but to serve others.  Sometimes this means we need to put some of our desires on hold.  Sometimes this means that we give up our own self-interest in favor of serving someone in need. 

·         To consider others as better than ourselves.  Now this is not a call to crippling self-denial.  Jesus always remained fully rooted in his identity as the Son of God and yet he treated others with great respect and compassion.  We are called to follow his example, remember our baptismal identity as children of God and then to treat others with respect and compassion, knowing that they too are created in God’s image and are children – perhaps prodigal – of the same Father.

·         To work together as the body of Christ.  Paul calls it ‘having the same mind, being in one accord” and “working out our salvation together.”  That phrase troubles us Lutherans a bit – it sounds like works righteousness, and we’re all about God’s grace over human effort.  We need to remember that the “you” is plural – the community, not the individual works together to live out the results of Jesus’ saving grace in our lives. Be the body of Christ in the world, which we can do only because God is working in us and through us.

Following the example of our Ultimate Undercover Boss, Let’s put on humility, rely on God’s power in our lives, roll up our sleeves and get to work!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mid-week message for 9/22

“It’s not fair!”

If you’re a parent, those are familiar words.  It doesn’t take very long for a child to start sizing up what her siblings have and compare it to what she got. 
“It’s not fair!”  “His piece of cake is bigger than mine.”  “She took more crayons!”  “You spent all day with Johnny and didn’t spend any time with me!”  (This one’s usually at the end of the day when Johnny’s been sick and you’ve been run ragged caring for him.)

“It’s not fair!” 
This attitude carries over into our adult lives as well.  We grumble when we get passed over for a promotion, especially when we feel the guy who got it was much less deserving than ourselves.  We complain the lights are against us when we’re running late.  We envy the good luck of the neighbor who can take a grand vacation, or the co-worker who tells us about an unexpected windfall.

We want life to be fair – and that usually means that we want things to go our way.  For most of us “fair” means that we get ours.  Unfortunately, it often seems much less important if others can also get theirs. 
Some of us would define “fair” as being equal.  In my household, there was a time when Brussels sprouts were the most desired veggie (honestly, I was just as amazed as you are!).  When we had Brussels sprouts for dinner, I had to carefully count to make sure every family member got the same number of sprouts on their plate.  This was fair.

That may work for Brussels sprouts, but “fair” often goes far beyond equal.  The best definition of “fair” I’ve ever heard was at Girl Scout summer camp training.  The camp director told us, that we needed to treat the girls fairly, and “fair” meant, not equal, but making sure that each girl got what she needed.
“Fair” is everyone getting what they need.  And that’s exactly what Jesus teaches in the parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15).

A landowner went to hire some workers first thing in the morning (about 7am).  He agreed to pay them the usual wage, a denarius, and they went to work for him.  About 9am, the landowner went back and hired some more men.  Again at noon, and at 3 pm, he hired more.  Each time he hired them, he promised to pay what was fair.  Finally at 5pm, when there was only about an hour left to work, the landowner hired a few more men – men who were left standing without work when everyone had finished hiring for the day.
So far, so good.  The trouble comes when pay time comes. 

The landowner decided to pay in reverse order of hiring.  So those men who only worked an hour were paid first.  Imagine their surprise when they each received a denarius – a whole day’s pay for an hour of work!  What a windfall!  What good fortune!  What generosity on the part of the landowner!
Those who were hired first began to do some calculating.  Sure they were promised a denarius too, but look what those others got!  There must be a bonus involved.  Surely they’d get much more than one denarius.

But the landowner paid them the agreed upon wage.  And those first hired men grumbled.  “It’s not fair!  We worked all day in the hot sun!  We put in a full day!  Those slackers you hired in the last hour goofed off all day and barely did any work when they got here!  It’s not fair that they be paid the same!”
And the generous landlord said, “I paid you what we agreed.  I am fair with you.  What is it to you if I decide to be generous to someone else?” 

“It’s not fair!”
This parable makes many of us angry.  When discussing this parable with some pastoral colleagues, one pastor said that he has a parishioner who simply won’t come to church when this parable is the assigned text.  It makes her angry and she doesn’t want to hear any sermon based on it.  We want life to be “fair,” and in this parable it seems to us that those first hired hard workers weren’t treated fairly.

Maybe it would help if we called this “The Parable of the Generous Landowner.”  We focus on the laborers, but the real story here is the Landowner.  Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes and hires workers – not like the workers that he hired.  And that is a very good thing.
Because in the kingdom of heaven, the Landowner hires workers all day, every day.  Everyone is offered a place, everyone can respond to the Landowner’s call.  And the Generous Landowner knows that to be truly “fair,” the summer camp definition is best:  making sure everyone gets what they need.

How do we respond to God’s grace, steadfast love and mercy?  Do we look around and grumble that someone else got a bigger share?  Or do we look with gratitude on our blessings and thank the giver?
“It’s not fair.”

Thank God it’s not!  Thank God that we do not get what we deserve.  Instead we receive abundant grace and blessing from God’s hand. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

14th Sunday after Pentecost: Putting on Endurance

This weeks readings:  Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-20 (sermon text); Matthew 20:1-16

Paul is in prison.  That doesn’t particularly bother him – he’s been in prison before.  Traveling around the Mediterranean, bringing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ has caused problems for Paul.  People in power have often not liked what he preached, or have felt threatened by his message.  So prison is nothing new for Paul.  In fact, Paul does some of his best preaching to the prison guards and those around him.

But this time, Paul realizes that this may be the last time he is imprisoned.  This time, the powers that be may just decide to execute him.   If that happens, it happens.  Paul has no regrets.  He’s been passionate about preaching Christ crucified.  He’s seen God’s love and grace transform people’s lives.   God has used him to start churches, and to teach congregations about Christ death and resurrection, and about how to live as children of the King and citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

No regrets.  In fact, death just means that he will now live in the presence of Christ – which is a whole lot better than being in prison!

But then he thinks about his dear friends at the church in Philippi.  He misses them and loves them.  He’s so proud of them and their faith in Christ and the love they have for each other.  He would dearly love to see them again. 

His death would cause them so much pain.  And there is so much he has to teach them yet.  As they continue to grow in their faith, they still need him to guide them.  They have trials of their own to face and need the encouragement Paul can give them.

Paul begins to write to his friends.

We don’t know what the particular trials the Philippians were suffering Maybe they had upset the status quo and angered some city leaders.  Maybe some of their neighbors thought that they were no longer good citizens because they would not participate in the public worship of the traditional gods and the Emperor.

We don’t know what the Philippians were facing.  But we do know that kind of trials and suffering we face.

Sickness – Tami was a five year cancer survivor the day she found out her cancer returned.  She fought it for another 2 years before she lost her battle.  She spent her last few months bedridden, in pain and very weak.  She often wondered, “Why doesn’t God just take me?”

Job loss and economic uncertainty - Mark was downsized out of his job when the economy hit the rocks in 2008.  He hasn’t been able to find another job in the 3 years since.  Oh, there’s been temporary work and some occasional short term contracts.  Fortunately, Cindy’s job was not affected.  Things have been tight, but now, Cindy just found out that her job is scheduled to be eliminated in a month.

Loss of loved ones - Ruth is in her nineties.  She lost her daughter about 20 years ago.  Over the years, one by one her brothers and sisters have died.  When the youngest, the baby of the family, died a couple of years ago, Ruth took it really hard.  She was the only one left.  Now she’s grieving the loss of her son.  She’s outlived her siblings, her husband and her children.  She feels so old and useless; she wonders why God keeps her around.

Natural disasters – Tom is back at him home in Pierre, what’s left of it at least.  All his belongings, clothes, furniture, pictures everything were damaged in the rising waters.  He looks around at the house.  The carpet has to be ripped up, the drywall torn out, the floors removed.  It almost looks as if it would be better to tear it down and build new from the foundation up. 

Crop or livestock loss – In a farming community, we all understand this particular trial. Howard told me about how 5 years ago it was so bad they didn’t even get the combine out – there was nothing to harvest. 

Care giving during a loved one’s illness - Laura’s teen age son suffers from severe mental illness.  He bounces from joy to despair it seems at the drop of a hat.  He rages at her and then later apologizes for his outburst.  She feels like she’s walking on eggshells, trying not to set him off.  And the doctor appointments, the hospitalizations, the meetings with the school – it seems she’s always dealing with a crisis of some sort.  She loves her son and would do anything for him.  Still, she feels like life and joy is being drained out of her very being.  And then she feels guilty.

We all face times of troubles, suffering and trials – sickness, job loss, trying to make ends meet, the loss of a loved one, caring for an aging parent or critically sick child.  

During those times we long for a break.  We long for better days.  We long for comfort and rest.

The last thing we want to be told is to ‘stand firm.’

But that’s exactly what Paul tells the Philippians.  He uses his own thinking: about how he’d rather be with Jesus, especially if he’s going to die anyway.  But Paul knows that it is better for him to remain.  Being with Jesus would be good for Paul, but staying would be far better for the Philippians.

Not that Paul’s choice is whether to live or die – that’s in God’s hands.  Paul’s choice is to moan about his circumstance or to allow God to equip him with endurance.

Paul’s example provides encouragement to the Philippians to stand firm and endure the trials and suffering that they are experiencing.  Paul tells them (and us) that God will empower the community to stand in the face of suffering.

Jesus too wrestled with a choice – between the road to the cross and some other way.  And yet, Jesus chose love for others over his own comfort.  He chose to endure the cross because of his love.

In Jesus suffering and death, God entered into the human experience of suffering.  It doesn’t make it easier to bear, but it we can endure because God is present in those moments of our deepest pain.

We are reading the first chapters of Genesis in confirmation class right now.  Adam and Eve need to leave the Garden and God talks about how they will suffer outside of the Garden.  Only three chapters into the Bible and already everything seems lost.  But it’s important to remember that God doesn’t stay behind in the Garden and leave Adam and Eve on their own.  God provides them what they need for the outside world.  And God goes with them.  The rest of the biblical story is all about God walking with us, redeeming our suffering and bringing salvation – ultimately through Jesus.

Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm in their faith, through whatever trials they may have.  By standing firm together they comfort one another.  Together they see possibilities for redemption.  Together they find hope in God’s promise. 

Well dressed Christians wear love and compassion. They are also girded with endurance – a gift from God that brings them hope in the midst of their trials and points other’s to Jesus.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reflections of a Worker who was hired last

Based on Matthew 20:1-15

I got to the marketplace early that day.  I wanted to make sure I had the chance to talk to every possible employer.  I wanted the best possible chance of getting hired.
It was critical to have some work – even just for the day.  I needed to provide for my family. 

Employers came.  Around 7 o clock, I was in a group talking with a man wanting painting done on his house.  Just my luck that several of the men around me were skilled painters.  He hired them and left me standing.  By then all the other employers had left.
But I waited.  Usually some more possible jobs came around a bit later in the morning.  Sure enough, a few more people stopped looking for day laborers around 9am.  A bit frantic with the thought of no work for the day, everyone was snapping up the offered jobs as quickly as we could.  Despite my eagerness, I was passed over again.  Maybe it was my limp.  Sometimes an employer would look at my uneven walk toward him and ignore me in favor of someone walking strong and firm.

Noon came, and I started calculating.  Half a day’s work wouldn’t feed my family tomorrow, but we would have supper tonight, maybe even a few bites of breakfast for the kids in the morning.  I waited, hoping against hope that someone else would need a hired hand for the rest of the day.  A landowner stopped with minor handyman jobs, but again, I wasn’t hired.
About 3 o’clock, my hopes for work were gone.  Still, I waited – maybe someone would need a couple of extra workers to finish a project before the day’s end.  A few hours’ pay would be better than nothing.  But again, the few employers stopping by passed me over.

By 5, the handful of us left knew there would be no work today.  There would be no food on the table tonight.  We waited, not in hope of being hired, but simply because there was no reason not to.  There was no hurry to go home, only to disappoint those depending on us.

One landowner stopped by the marketplace.  I had seen him stop several times during the day and hire guys.  He must have a really big job going on.  Maybe if I talked to him, I could get a promise of work tomorrow.  It wouldn’t help for tonight, but at least we’d have some hope.
He asked us why we were still in the marketplace and we told him we had tried, but no one hired us.  Amazingly, he said, “Well, come along and work the rest of the day for me.”

Anything!  It was better than going home empty handed.  One hour’s wage – it wasn’t much but at least the kids could have a mouthful or two before bed.  And maybe…just maybe, there’d be more work tomorrow.

When the end of the day came, he called those of us who were there just an hour to be paid first.  He smiled, and pressed a coin in my hand.  I looked – a whole denarius!  I got paid for the whole day!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.  I could provide for my family! 
Had the landowner heard us talking about our worries and our families as we travelled to the jobsite?  Somehow he must have known just how badly those of us hired last needed that full day’s wage!

My eyes got hot and teary as relief flooded my body.

As I walked away, I overheard some of the guys hired first thing in the morning talking.  They were sure they’d get more because of how much we were paid.  I stayed around out of curiosity.  Just how much did this guy pay his workers anyway?
So I heard them grumble when they each got their denarius.   And I heard the boss say, “Didn’t you agree to work today for a denarius?  I paid you what I owed you.  What does it matter to you if I decide to be generous?”

I don’t know.  I’d probably be angry too, if I had worked all day and got paid the same amount as a guy that only worked an hour.  All I do know is that I am very grateful that the landowner decided to pay me not for what I did for him, but to pay me based on his generosity.

How do we respond to God’s grace, steadfast love and mercy?  Do we look around and grumble that someone else got a bigger share?  Or do we look with gratitude on our blessings and thank the giver?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Midweek Message for Sept 15

Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily to humans.  Sometimes it’s quite easy to forgive – think of the wide-eyed child whose plea for forgiveness for some naughtiness is answered with stifled laughs and fondness.  Or the genuine remorse in a loved one’s “I’m sorry” that softens your heart and, while not erasing the hurt, begins the process of reconciliation. 

But then there are those whom we struggle to forgive.  People who callously destroy the thing you most cherish.  The neighbor who commits the same offense again and again.  Or the co-worker whose insincere “Sorry” doesn’t even begin to make up for the credit he took for your work.   We all know of families torn apart from carefully nourished grudges.  Sometimes the desire for revenge or punishment is what comes easiest to us.  Forgiveness doesn’t come so easy.

Perhaps this is what Peter is thinking when he asks Jesus, “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?”  (Matthew 18:21-35)  Peter is looking for a number, a definition on just when he’s done his duty in the forgiveness department and can write the relationship off.  To forgive someone seven times – presumably for a repeated offense – is more than generous.  Seven is the number of wholeness and completeness, so surely seven times is doing your forgiveness duty.

But Jesus ups the ante – not seven times but seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven.  The point is not a specific number seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety.  The point is that forgiveness has no limit.  To drive home his point, Jesus tells a parable.

Sometimes, when Jesus tells a parable, you have to work to figure it out.  Some parables are so tricky that Jesus himself explains them.   That’s not the case with the Parable of the Generous King (also known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant).  Jesus’ point is abundantly clear.

A servant owes a huge debt to his king, 10,000 talents.  If you do the math, the servant would have to work approximately 150,000 YEARS to pay off his debt.    It’s impossible – he cannot repay the king.  So the king orders him, his family and all he owns to be sold.  The servant throws himself on the king’s mercy.

Incredibly, the king is moved by the servant’s plea and forgives the entire debt.  The servant is free to go and free of that crushing debt. 

He hurries home, excited to share his good news with his family.  On the way, he meets a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, or about 100 days wages.  The first servant, freshly released from staggering debt, does not ‘pay if forward.’  Instead, he jumps on the second servant, and has him thrown in prison when he cannot pay.

The King, when he hears about this is not pleased.  He calls the servant to him and challenges his lack of mercy.  Then the king ‘unforgives’ the debt and hands the servant over to torture until the debt can be paid.

Really, there is only one way to read this parable and it’s a sobering one.  We are the servants who have been forgiven abundantly, extravagantly by the King of the Universe.  And the King expects us to respond to this mercy and grace by showing mercy and grace to those around us. 

Now, there’s no chance that God will rescind our forgiveness.  Jesus paid our great debt once and for all on the cross.  We are a forgiven people who live that grace by offering forgiveness and reconciliation to others.

Peter wants to put a limit on forgiveness.  He wants to define how much is enough.  Jesus makes it clear that just as God has unending mercy for us, our mercy for our brothers and sisters never ends.   

Yes, forgiveness doesn’t always come easily for humans.  Thanks be to God that when we find it difficult to forgive, we can ask God to soften our hearts and change our grudges to grace.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

13th Sunday after Pentecost: Putting on Compassion

Scripture readings:  Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103: 8-13, Romans 14:1-12 (sermon text); Matthew 18:21-35

We started learning to “put on Jesus” last week, learning that the main garment in our Jesus wardrobe is love.  This week Paul teaches us that well-dressed Christians also wear compassion and tolerance for each other.

I remember the first time I discovered that not all Christians believe that the same things are acceptable.

I was in 8th grade and had attended worship and Sunday school at a friend’s church.  Her dad taught our Sunday school, so I of course knew he was a really good Christian, because only strong Christians taught Sunday school. 

After church, my friend and I were talking to other friends about later plans.  Her dad found us and told us to hurry; he’d be waiting out by the car.  We finished and walked out the front door and I stopped in shock. 

He was SMOKING!!!

At my church, smoking was a big sin.  It was right up there with the 10 commandments.  I was pretty sure that the only reason that there wasn’t an 11th commandment that said, “Thou shalt not smoke” was because tobacco hadn’t been discovered when Moses was on Mt Sinai.  Still, smoking was a huge sin and REAL Christians, especially Sunday school teachers, would never smoke.

Later on that day, I asked my friend about her dad.  She didn’t think it was odd at all that her dad smoked.  Lots of people from her church smoked.   But she found it strange that my good German grandmother kept beer in her fridge and would occasionally have a drink.  She was positive that you couldn’t be a Christian and drink alcohol. 

I realized then that there were some things that Christians just did not agree on. 

As shocked as I was about my Sunday school teacher smoking, I was even more shocked to discover that Christians would condemn each other for not agreeing on things like smoking and drinking.    

We can be like little children pointing fingers at each other.  “She did this!”  “He did that!”  “My way is better!”  “No, my way is the right way!”  But children don’t always see the big picture and they don’t always understand the nuances of a situation.  Sometimes they find out that neither one of them is right. 

Sometimes it takes a loving Parent to step in and settle the argument. 

It might seem silly to us now that Paul has to teach the Romans not to condemn each other on whether they ate meat or what days they worshipped on – just as silly as me condemning my friend’s dad for smoking.

But this was a big issue in the early church.

You probably heard about the issue with eating meat, especially for people who lived in the cities.  Most of the meat had been offered to the local gods.  Some Christians had no problem with that.  They understood that there was only one God and those local gods were false gods.  So they felt free to eat meat that had been offered to idols.

Other Christians were not so sure.  They thought that by purchasing the meat offered to the idols, you were somehow honoring those false gods and participating in their worship. 

In addition, there were the Jewish dietary laws.  The Hebrew Scriptures have all sorts of teaching on what to eat – not eating certain animals, not eating dairy and meat together.  For the Jewish people, what they ate was important.  So Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians argued about the need to keep kosher.

And then there were those who wanted even stricter, purer rules about eating:

Did you know that in the beginning, some people believe that God wanted us to all be vegetarians?

Well, at first God told Adam and Even they could eat from any tree in the garden except for that 1 special tree (Genesis 2:16-17), so technically we were fruitarians.  But after that incident with the apple, God included plants of the field in our diets.  (Genesis 3:17-19)  So based on that, they figured God must have wanted us to be vegetarians.

It wasn’t until after the flood that God allowed people to eat meat (Genesis 9:3-4).  So some people, upon reading or hearing the scriptures decided that the thing that would be most in keeping with God’s original intent for creation was to eat no meat at all.

With all the different opinions about what a REAL Christian should eat or not, groups began to judge each other.  They would get together and argue over the fine points of behavior and try to prove their position was the right one.  In the meantime, they would get so distracted, that they forgot all the things they agreed on.  They forgot that they served the Lord of Love.  They forgot to put on Jesus’ compassion.

Paul tells the firmly, “STOP IT!”  Paul tell the Romans that the ‘strong’ must not despise the ‘weak’ for their belief and the “weak’ must not pass judgment on the ‘strong’ for their stance.

Instead, Paul tells them to ‘put on compassion’ for one another.  In the next few verses, he writes:

Romans 14:13-19   Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.  14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  15 If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.  16 So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.  17 For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  18 The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval.  19 Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

‘Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  How do we do that?  By treating each other the way we would want to be treated.  By acting with love and mercy and forgiveness.

Last weeks’ gospel talked about holding a fellow believer accountable in love.  And we do need to do that.  There are times when it is clear that someone is making choices that are not life-giving and that break relationship instead of building it up.  At those times we need to speak the truth, no matter how painful, in love.

But accountability is surrounded by forgiveness and reconciliation.  Today, we heard Jesus’ parable about the servant who didn’t pay it forward.  He was forgiven an enormous amount, yet couldn’t respond to that forgiveness by extending the same generous compassion to a fellow servant.

It’s easy to see that we are the servants who have been forgiven abundantly, extravagantly by the King of the Universe.  Jesus paid our great debt once and for all on the cross.  The King wants us to respond to this mercy and grace by showing compassion and grace to those around us. 

We are a forgiven people who live that grace by offering forgiveness and reconciliation to others.  We live grace by putting on the compassion of Christ.  Jesus’ compassion and mercy changes us.  It gives us the ability to be compassionate and forgiving instead of judging– even to those who would judge us!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Midweek Message for 9/8

Matthew 18: 15-20 is often referred to as “Jesus’ instructions on church discipline.”  It’s pretty easy to see why: the steps outlined are a good conflict resolution technique.  Say a church member sins against you (or offends you, or you have an argument, or are in conflict).  First, you go to that person to try to resolve the conflict.  Great first step: you deal directly with the issue, not involving others unnecessarily, no slander, no gossip.  If that doesn’t work, then take two or three others with you and talk to the person again.  Again, this is good process: getting someone uninvolved in the issue to help mediate the conflict and to witness the conversation.  If the problem remains unresolved, then take it to the church to decide.  This move brings accountability to the community and allows the process of the Holy Spirit working through the gathered body of believers to bring resolution.  Finally, if the fellow believer refuses to listen to the church, “let them be as a Gentile or tax collector to you.” 

So, what happens you’ve followed the process and the conflict is not resolved?  Does that mean that you’ve done all that’s expected to resolve the conflict and now can forget about it, leaving the relationship between you and your fellow believer broken?

Maybe we could look further in the scripture for guidance.  It’s a good practice to look at where a particular passage is placed in scripture.  Often what happens before and after a passage sheds light on what the passage means.

This passage sits squarely in the middle of one of Jesus’ teaching sessions with the disciples.  A session that starts by the disciples asking, “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Jesus responds by telling them that they must become as a child.  In the kingdom of heaven, those who are humble as a child are the greatest and those who welcomed children welcome Jesus. 

Next, Jesus teaches that we need to be careful not to set stumbling blocks for others, especially the humble children of faith, to trip over in their faith walks.  He goes on to give the parable of the lost sheep that strayed away from the ninety-nine, and the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the one who has strayed.

Having set the stage with an illustration of how the God seeks to find and bring the lost back into the fold, Jesus then teaches this passage on how to deal with conflict with a fellow believer.

Peter wants to make sure he’s got it right.  To Peter, this sounds like a teaching on forgiveness, not on holding another accountable and making sure there are no sinners in the congregation.  He asks how many times he needs to forgive and Jesus says “77 times” and then follows this up with the parable of a servant, who was just forgiven a huge debt by the king, refusing to forgive another servant who owes him a pittance. 

It may seem odd that a passage on “church discipline” is set so squarely in a teaching on forgiveness.  Did Peter get it right and we have lost something along the way?  Maybe this passage is not about church discipline at all.  Maybe it’s about seeking the lost one, trying to forgive and reconcile.  It’s about actively seeking the fellow believer who is straying, trying to mend the broken relationship, forgiving offense as many times as is needed, in the humble spirit of one whom the Father has also forgiven.

And that thing about treating the unrepentant believer as ‘a Gentile and tax collector” – we need to think about how Jesus treated them.  Matthew himself was a tax collector before Jesus called him as a disciple.  So was Zacchaeus, and yet Jesus chose to have dinner with him.  Jesus healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, and the centurion’s servant, and the demoniac at Gadarenes.  He engaged the Samaritan women in conversation at the well.  One of the Pharisee’s complaints against Jesus was that he associated with tax collectors and other sinners, even going as far as to eat with them!  So perhaps instead of cutting off the unrepentant fellow believer, we should be following Jesus’ example of how to treat ‘Gentiles and tax collectors’ – finding ways to demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness to them, seeking to bring the lost sheep back into the fold.

Maybe a better title for the passage would be “Jesus’ instruction on how to forgive and reconcile when you live in a community of believers who are forgiven but still human and sometimes sin.” 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

12th Sunday after Pentecost: Put on Jesus

For Labor Day at my internship congregation, the pastor asked everyone to come to church wearing their work clothes, or at least bring a symbol of their work.  We had nurses with stethoscopes, teachers with lesson planners or chalk, business people with briefcases.  There was a guy in his martial arts clothing, complete with black belt.  And Buckeye Phil, who is retired, came decked out in his OSU gear, as being a fan has become a full time occupation for him.

I thought about doing that here to mark Labor Day.  I wonder how we would have looked this morning if we all came dressed for work.  Some of us would have had easily recognizable ‘uniforms’ perhaps.  Maybe there would be a sea of red competing with a sea of green as farmers showed their implement preference.

Sometimes you can tell a lot about someone by the clothes they wear.  And people dress to make a statement.  Sometimes people choose their clothing as a way of saying who they are.  And sometimes our clothing says why we’ve come, what we’re doing.  I know that when I get up in the morning, I think about what it is I have to do that day.  Am I working around the house or in the yard?  Is it a work day and will I need to wear the ‘uniform’ of my office – the clerical collars?

You know, what we wear matters – like it or not, people get their first impression of us from how we are dressed. 

This morning Paul talks about dressing a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  First he says to “put on the armor of light”.  Then he goes on to say “put on Jesus”

That phrase caught my attention: 

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ 

What does that mean - to put on Jesus???

I have been intrigued with this idea since my Greek class.  You see, I had to translate this passage as a class assignment.  The thing I learned in Greek class is that sometimes things really do get lost in translation.  And, for me, this passage was one of those moments. 

I discovered the verb that we translate “put on” was used for putting on clothing.  We would probably translate it today “Get dressed in Jesus.”  It could also refer to getting ready for battle – to put on your battle gear, especially the protective armor.  We might translate it “Suit up” or “Get your gear on” or “Gear up”.  Hmmm.  “Gear up with Jesus?”  “Get your Jesus gear on?” 

In Greek, one would say an actor “put on” his character – it’s the same verb.  It indicated the focus which an actor needed to assume his role.  In those times, an actor would wear a robe and mask as his costume.  The actor’s identity was hidden, and he took on the identity of the role. 

        So what does it mean to put on Jesus?  And how does one do so?

It’s interesting that the reading from Romans starts out talking about love:  about owing only the debt of love, about love fulfilling all the commandments.   If we look at Jesus and his ministry on earth, one thing that stands out is his radical, all-inclusive, extravagant love for everyone.  So we can start by putting on love – dressing ourselves in Jesus’ love.  That love becomes our armor.

But we aren’t talking about a sloppy, sentimental, feel-good love here.  No - we are talking about love that brings life, that makes whole, that completes, that fulfills.  This love is sometimes tender, as when Jesus blessed the children; sometimes healing, like when Jesus looked with compassion on two blind men sitting by the road side and healed them.  Sometimes the love is tough - just think of last week’s gospel reading when Jesus corrected Peter, challenging him to look beyond his own perceptions to see what God was doing right there, right then.  And sometimes, that love was even harsh - as when Jesus dealt with the Pharisees.  In love, Jesus chastised them, calling them to face their own self-righteousness, to move beyond it to God’s true righteousness. 

In the gospel reading today, there is a detailed plan on how to deal with a member who sins against another member.  Sometimes it’s tempting to gloss over that passage – but if you really look at it, you can see love.  I mean - do you just go to the whole church and denounce the other person?  Do you go around telling everyone how the other persons offended you?

No!  Instead, you go to that person privately and try to resolve the issue. And in doing so, you are seeking reconciliation in a spirit of love.  Each of the steps outlined has love and kindness at the base of it – consideration for both parties and a spirit of reconciliation. 

The epistle starts out talking about love:  that if one truly loves, one does no harm to the neighbor.  And we never finish paying our debt of love.  Our call to love goes on forever. 

Love is the first step in putting on Jesus.

The love talked about here has everything to do with our gathering today, our weekly celebration of this community of believers.  God clothes us with this love from the moment of our baptism.  When we are baptized, we are “clothed with God’s mercy and forgiveness.”  God wraps us in Jesus. 

And swaddled in Jesus, we are embraced by this family of God.

We spend our lives learning how to live out our baptism.  It’s an on-going process.  Martin Luther said that the baptismal life is daily dying to sin and rising anew in God’s mercy and forgiveness and love.  It is daily waking from the darkness and putting on the armor of light, just as Paul tells us to do in Romans.  Living our baptism is daily putting on Jesus, putting on his divine love. 

You could say that God dresses us daily in Jesus’ love.  Dressed in Jesus, we imitate him.  We try to follow his example.  We act the way he acted, love the way he loved. 

Sometimes we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”  Maybe you even have WWJD on a bracelet or key chain or a bumper sticker on your car.  It’s become a catchphrase among Christians.  But when we really ask “WWJD?”, we find the first answer is love. 

Jesus would do love.

And when we put on Jesus, the very first thing we put on is his love.

So what does it mean to put on Jesus? 

How do we live as children dressed in the baptismal life our Father has given us? 

What does it look like to be a community where Jesus is present every time two or more of us are gathered?

Let’s suit up in our Jesus gear and find out!  From now until All Saints Sunday, we are going to be exploring the epistle readings.  Paul did a lot of preaching about the gospel in his letters, but he also spent a lot of time teaching the new communities of believers about how to live as citizens, not of this world, but of the kingdom of God.  Over the next several weeks, we are going to learn how to dress for living in the kingdom of heaven – how to put on Jesus.

This week we start by putting on love.