Thursday, November 22, 2012

Midweek Message for November 22: Giving Thanks

In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches the Children of Israel one last time.  They will be entering the Promised Land without him, and he wants to make sure that they remember all that God has done for them.  In Deuteronomy 8:11-36, he reminds them of how the Lord freed them from slavery in Egypt, led them through the wilderness, providing them with food and water and making them God’s people through the giving of the Law, cautioning them about becoming complacent once they have settled in the abundant land God is giving them.  He says:  Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth."  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today (vs. 17-18).

          It’s a good reminder for us as well.  We live an abundant land and are blessed by God in so many ways.  How easy it is to forget that everything we have, God has given us.  How easy it is to forget that God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2, 2 Corinthians 8:12-15). 
This Thanksgiving, I offer a prayer of grateful thanks to God:

Gracious and generous God, thank you for all the blessings you have given us.

We thank you for the blessing of homes to shelter us against the storm.
We pray for those who have no place to lay their heads, whose homes offer only minimal shelter, whose homes are damaged.

We thank you for the blessing of a variety of clothing appropriate for the seasons.
We pray for those who are clothed in rags, or are clothed inadequately.

We thank you for the blessing of the many and varied possessions surrounding us.
We pray that our possessions do not hold us, that we may find joy in giving.

We thank you for the blessing of food in abundance.
We pray for those who are hungry this day, for those who do not know where their next meal is coming from, for those who do not have reliable access to food.

We thank you for the blessing of clean water to drink, to wash with, easily at hand.
We pray for those whose access to water is limited or who don’t have enough water.

We thank you for the blessing of health and for access to effective medicines and adequate medical care when illness strikes.
We pray for those who are battling illness and addiction, who lack adequate medical care, who cannot afford medicine or treatment.

We thank you for the blessing of meaningful work, and income that provides for our families.
We pray for those who are unemployed and those who are underemployed, for those who work long hours yet barely make ends meet.

We thank you for the blessing of the love of family, for the joy of friends.
We pray for those who are lonely, who are far from home, who are mourning loved ones, who are estranged from their loved ones.

We thank you for the blessing of this country where we are free to travel, to gather, to speak whatever and whenever we want.
We pray for those who are restricted in their movement across boundaries, limited in their assemblies, and whose speech is silenced.

We thank you for the blessing of our government, by the people, for the people; for the freedom to vote, for the wonder of peaceful transfer of power.
We pray for those whose governments are oppressive, where transfer of power is taken by force, where war threatens peace and safety.  We pray for our nation, heal the wounds of hatred and distrust, give our leaders wisdom and guidance, that we may all work together for the common good. 

We thank you for the blessing of freedom to worship as we want.
We pray for those who worship in secret, for those who suffer persecution for professing faith in you.

We thank you for the blessing of a faithful community of believers who share each other's joys and bear each other's sorrows.
We pray for your church throughout the world, that the unity of Christ binds us together in love, and empowers us to work for your kingdom.

We thank you for the blessing of your love which surrounds us, for your amazing grace which saves us. 
We pray for the day when everyone knows the warmth of your love and the peace of your grace.

O Lord, you truly have blessed us abundantly.  Make us a blessing to others.  Give us hearts that are grateful and generous, as you are gracious and generous to us.  In Jesus name, Amen. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: Fear, Hope and Birth Pains

Readings for this Sunday:  Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8


I’m just going to say it.

We’re afraid.

We’re very, very afraid.

We’ve been in a recession that doesn’t seem to want to quit.  We’ve seen the stock market dive, taking our life’s savings with it.  High paying jobs were replaced by lower paying jobs with fewer or no benefits. 

We’ve watched our leaders become more and more divided - to the point Congress can’t work together at all.  We’ve watched our country become polarized - to the point where even though the President won both the popular and electoral vote, people are so upset there are petitions from several states to secede from the union.[i]  The division has turned our civility to rancor and we resort to demonizing people who disagree with us.  Instead of working for the common good, we’ve settled into an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

We’ve seen our churches decline in membership.  We’ve seen a drop in participation by members.  We’ve heard the news reports that the fastest growing religious group is those who claim no religious affiliation at all.

The census shows that there is no longer one single religious group that has a majority – Protestants used to have it, but we’re down to 48%.  Projections bases on the census speculate that in 10 or 15 years no single ethnic group will have a majority either.  The United States is quickly becoming a religiously and ethnically pluralistic society – truly a melting pot.

But it scares us.  Our way of life is changing. 

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 

Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

We understand the panic the disciples felt at Jesus’ words. 

The Temple – this was the icon of Jewish faith, the foundation of Jewish society.  The Temple was the heart of religious practice – the very home of God on earth.  The Temple was the center of their identity as a people.  Oppressed by Rome, denied self-government, the Temple became the symbol of their national identity.

If the Temple fell, if it was thrown down with not one stone remaining upon the other, the very foundation of their lives would crumble from under them!

It’s such a disturbing idea that Peter and company come to Jesus privately and ask when this will happen, how can they be ready?

We too are disturbed.  We come to Jesus as well, with a slightly different question - when this will end, when will it get better and how can we cope in the meantime?

As it turns out Jesus’ answer is the same to both the disciples’ question and ours.

Jesus never actually answers the disciple’s first question – When?  He completely disregards it to go on to talk about wars, rumors of war, of earthquakes and famine and leaders who will come promising to be the savior to lead us out of our current trouble.  In fact, Jesus goes on to say that we cannot know the timing (Mark 13:32), that even he does not know the timing.  Only the Father knows.

It’s all in God’s hands.  All in God’s timing.

And God’s timing is not ours.

So now what?  What do we do in the meantime with our fears and anxieties?  How do we live?

Jesus does answer that question.

First he reminds us to beware – be aware.  To look for signs of God’s kingdom coming.  To look for where God is working in the world.  It’s really easy to get caught up with the panic-mongers, the rumor-spreaders.  To allow yourself to be led astray, to be led away from looking for signs of the kingdom of God.  It’s was too easy to put your trust in rulers and leaders who promise to save us and forget that our trust belongs to God alone to bring salvation.  We just read/prayed Psalm 146 last week – a timely reminder for us:

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish[ii]

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;  who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.[iii]

Next Jesus comforts us.  “Do not be frightened.  Wars, rumors of wars – these things are going to happen – it is a natural result of the coming of the kingdom of God.  The forces of evil do not go down quietly.  Stay calm and keep focused on God.”

The Greek phrase that the NRSV translates as “this must take place” is two words.  The first means “it is necessary” and the second most often means “to be born.” 

Something is being born…which brings us to the birth pains. 

Jesus likens the coming of the kingdom of God to birth pains.  It’s not easy – sin and evil have a strong hold on us and institutions of power, wealth, and oppression will not easily give way to God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace. 

Yeah, the pains of labor are coming. The beginning of birth pains – birth always means that an old way of life ends and a new one begins.  A couple goes from 2 to three.  The only child becomes a sibling.  The baby of the family becomes an older brother or sister.  Life is never quite the same again. 

And sometimes, changing from one way of life to another is very frightening:  

Did you hear the murmurs that things are going black
         and lockstep war is coming that will horrify and crush
         and there’s nothing you or the generals can do about it?

Did the gossip train roar by your way today
         and Doppler-shift whistle that stars are disintegrating
         and temples and towers falling while we watch with small eyes?

Did the word mushroom to your state that a virus leaked
          and the military lost control of containment
         and soon North Dakota will be silent and then South?

Listen: It’s all true, or it’s freaked out fearful chatter, or who knows,
          but then what anyway? All is prologue and prelude, lift up your
         heart to the universe: the ultimate word and song are yet to come:

sonnets of peace, grace notes of lovingkindness, rumors spreading
         of Spirit filling up the desolate space between when all this
        cosmic crucifixion will rest and then rise a sanctified singularity[iv]

 This is how we cope, how we live in these times:

 We trust in God’s grace and loving-kindness.  We live in the prologue of what’s to come.  We are hearing the prelude of the song of God’s kingdom.

 The rumors we pay attention to are the rumors of the Spirit hovering
·         over a food pantry,
·         or hurricane relief efforts
·         or anywhere God is bringing comfort and healing and mercy.

We listen for God’s voice in the comforting words of a friend.  We see God’s face in the neighbor.  We feel God’s grace in the gathered community.  We touch God’s hands when we use our hands in God’s service.  We taste God’s goodness in the bread and the wine, and a meal shared, or a meal given to those who hunger.

As we watch for the coming kingdom of God, we discover God at work in the midst of the trouble and turmoil, in the midst of our fears.  We discover God working for us, in us, and through us.

We discover hope. 

And expectation.

What might God be birthing in the labor pains we hear around us – in the wars and rumors of wars, in the fear and uncertainty in a time of change and unrest and financial insecurity and political divisiveness, and declining church attendance?

[i] Fortunately, after the last inter-state tiff (the Civil War) calmer head approved the 14th amendment which doesn’t allow states to secede.  So these efforts are largely symbolic, and signal the deep hurt and division felt in this country.
[ii] . I would personally paraphrase this as ‘do not put your trust in Republicans, in Democrats, in whom there is no help.  When their term ends and they return to their home states, on that day their plans are voted down.’
[iii] Psalm 146:3-10  
[iv] Poem by Pastor Michael Coffey, First English Lutheran Church, Austin Texas, used by permission:!/2012/11/rumors.html

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Midweek Message for November 15: Just Give!

“What is the correct way to tithe (before withholding, extra money received)?”

 It’s a good question.  Let’s look at the scriptures. Tithing is an Old Testament commandment.  Tithing was just one of the many offerings in the Law – there were also first fruits of produce and livestock, votive gifts for vows, sin and other ritual offerings, freewill offerings and donations (Num 18:21, Deut 12:17, 26:2 are just some passages dealing with tithes and offerings, and the book of Leviticus has a whole series of ritual offerings outside the tithe)

Of course, since we are Christians and not under the Law of Moses but bound by the new covenant of Jesus Christ, we also look to the New Testament:  what did Jesus say about money?  Jesus mentions the tithe once directly.  In Matthew 23:23 (also Luke 11:24), Jesus chastises the Pharisees for bring in their tithe, but ignoring practicing justice and mercy and faith. 

But that’s not the end of what Jesus has to say about offerings.  Jesus told the rich young ruler to go and sell everything(Mark 10:71-31) and give it away.   Jesus tells us that widow who gave two small coins gave a greater offering than the large sums the Pharisees gave out of their abundance (Mark 12:41-44).  Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave everything behind to follow (Mark 2:16-20).  He teaches that where your treasures is, your heart follows (Matthew 6:19-21) and that we can’t serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).   He teaches us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel Luke 9:23-25).  Jesus calls us to give everything.

So what does all that mean for us?  Well, it’s hard to make a direct application from the scriptures to our situation – unless we go with Jesus telling us to give all we have!  We no longer have ritual sacrifice offerings to make.  And we have taxes, retirement funds, investments – all sorts of things that were not in practice when the Bible was written.

We need to look at the intent of the tithe and offerings – to provide for God’s ministry in the world, to care for the poor, widows and orphans, to rejoice in the blessing that God has given us.  From that intent, we can come up with some reasons why we give.  We give, because God has first given to us.  We give as a sign of our trust that God provides for us.  We give out of gratitude for all that God has blessed us with.  We give to further God’s ministry in the world, to care for the most vulnerable among us, to remember that God has indeed blessed us. 

Knowing the purpose of giving does helps us to think about how to give.  Now, there’s a lot of advice out on how much to give and what to tithe on – before tax income, after tax income, windfalls, odd jobs, gifts.  Here’s a good starting point:  just give.  Do you tithe now?  Great! For some of us, tithing is a good starting point.   Work on increasing your giving each year.  If you tithe on your after tax income, work up to tithing on your before tax income.  If you get a raise, or a windfall of money, think about how you can thank God for that gift.  

Maybe you don’t tithe.  Maybe the tithe seems impossible given your financial situation.  That’s ok.  Start giving what you can.  Your giving is a step of faith.  God honors even the smallest gift given from a heart that trusts.  And remember that our offerings are about more than money – we offer our time and the talents God has given us too.   

The correct way to give?  Giving to God out of a heart that loves, a heart that trusts, a heart that is grateful, a heart that seeks after God. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Midweek Message for November 8 - Just Pray

"What’s the right way to pray?"

There really is no right way to pray. Prayer is not a magic formula that you have to say just right to get what you want. Prayer is conversation with God. In prayer we talk to God like we are talking to a friend.

It sounds so easy. Still many of us don’t feel confident praying, especially praying out loud. We hear someone else’s prayer or the prayers on Sunday morning and think that our own prayers are never as good.

You know, Jesus disciples asked him the same question in Luke 11:1 They had seen him spend time in prayer, and heard him pray. Talk about being intimidated by someone else’ prayer! Imagine hearing Jesus pray. No wonder they wanted to learn how to pray like him!

Jesus responded by teaching them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4, and in Matthew 6:9-13). That’s a great place to start learning how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer covers everything we do when we pray – praise God, ask for God’s will to be done, ask for what we need, ask for forgiveness and for help to forgive, ask for God’s help to resist temptation and for God’s protection from the evil out there.

Another great place to learn how to pray is in the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible. There’s a prayer for every human emotion from joy to despair. Find a psalm that you like and pray it, verse by verse.

Some people feel more comfortable using written prayers, like the prayers in a hymnal, or a book of prayers, or even praying a hymn. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s exactly what those prayers are for –to give you words at times when you can’t find words of your own.

The prayers on Sunday also teach us ways to pray. The easiest example of this is when we pray for the sick or those in need – think about how often when the pastor is praying for the sick, someone comes to mind that could use prayer. Go ahead – silently (or out loud, if your church does that) name that person to God.

Sometimes, you might feel like just talking to God like you do a friend. That's the simplest, and often the best, way to pray. Just state what's on your heart - just like you would to your best friend.

It really doesn’t take a lot of words to pray. Sometimes, your prayer can be really simple – “help me, God.” Or just naming a person or situation in prayer. Or even a simple “Lord, have mercy” or “Thank you, God” or, “I love you, Jesus.”

And there are times when you want to pray, but have no words. Times when you go to God and no words come – the pain is too deep, the grief too fresh, or the situation overwhelming.  It’s ok – God knows what’s on your heart.  Paul teaches that in those moments, the Spirit prays for you, “with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26-27).

Paul also teaches in his first letter to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:15).” Can you really pray all the time, anywhere you happen to be?

Yes.  Anywhere and everywhere. Any time and at all times. Standing, sitting, kneeling. Lying on your bed, driving a car, in church or at home. If we talk to God as we talk to friends, then think of prayer as your cell phone to God – you can pray anywhere you could use a cell phone. In fact, you can pray in places where cell phones aren’t allowed.

"What's the right way to pray?" Pretty much, any way you pray is fine with God. The important thing is that you pray.

So, let us pray…

Saturday, November 3, 2012

All Saints Sunday: Why?

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44
Two days. 

Thirteen states in the storm’s direct path, more impacted by the outlying parts of the Hurricane Sandy:

·         7.5 million without power;

·         an estimated $30 billion in property damage with another $20 billion in economic losses;

·         possibly the most damaging hurricane ever[i] ;

·         The latest report I heard said 110 dead[ii] .

I mourned with the mother whose two- and four-year olds were swept from her arms after their car was caught in the rising waters. [iii]

We can’t hear about this kind of devastation, the gut-wrenching loss without asking “why?”

Why does God allow things like hurricanes and tornados and tsunamis and earthquakes?


We ask:

Why does God let all these bad things happen in our world today, like war and hate, poverty and hunger?

Why is there so much unrest in the world?  May God help us all!

Why is there sickness in the world?

Why do children have to die so young?

Why do children get cancer? Why does anyone get cancer?

Why does God allow innocent children to suffer at the hands of abusive parents and allow belittling in communities?

Why does God allow such horrible suffering for good people and the evil ones seem to go on unharmed?

Why is there pain and suffering in the people that have faith in God?

   (Dramatic pause as we turn to the gospel)

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”


Back when I asked you to write down your questions about God and faith I said that there would be some questions we wouldn’t be able to answer.  Questions that theologians had wrestled with for centuries. 

This is the question I had in mind.

Why is there suffering in the world? And if there has to be suffering, why do the innocent suffer?  Why do people of faith suffer?

The same morning I heard that those two young boys’ bodies had been found, I heard an answer given by a couple of pastors - this awful storm was a punishment from God on America.

That's one way to answer the 'why.'
Maybe thinking that God is responsible makes it easier to think about suffering – it’s punishment for sin, we’ve displeased God somehow.  God is testing us.  God is teaching us a lesson.  It’s all part of God’s plan. 

Those may all answer ‘why.’  But I believe it’s not a very biblical answer.

Because that’s not the God we find standing at Lazarus’ graveside.

Mary’s grief touched Jesus.  Martha’s grief (verses 20 and 21) moved Jesus.  We read Jesus was ‘greatly disturbed in spirit’ and he ‘wept.’

Jesus wept.

Those are perhaps the two most startling words of the Bible.

Jesus wept.

Jesus – God with us - wept.

God weeps. 

If God is love – and we believe that God is Love – then love cannot remain unmoved.  Love has compassion.  Love has empathy.  Love weeps.

God does not sit up in heaven unmoved by our pain and our suffering.  

No, God comes down to us.  God is with us in those times of suffering. 

God is standing at the graveside, weeping with us, holding us, greatly moved.

God makes sure death and suffering never have the last word.

The last word belongs to God.

God speaks, “Come out.”

Come out of the stench of death.  Come out of the grave.   Come out of the place of suffering.  Be unbound from the winding cloth and be free.

God speaks words of resurrection and re-creation.  God speaks words of healing to our hearts.

I heard a story this week[iv].  A woman had suffered a great loss.  In the midst of her grief, she turns to the church.  As she tells her story, she says that she came to the church for the wrong reason.  She wanted to escape the pain.  But church didn’t help her escape the pain.

It held her through the pain.  She discovered that faith is not about avoiding pain and suffering.  Faith is about the God who understands pain and suffering, who loves us enough to come down and experience that pain and suffering first hand, who holds on to us until we can move through the suffering. 

As Lutherans, we like to say that God’s power is revealed in weakness and God is most fully present at the cross.  That’s maybe a fancy way to say that in our own times of suffering, God is with us.

This woman discovered that faith was also about being the community that is the Body of Christ, about being with each other and holding each other through the hard times of life. About showing God’s presence to a world that is blinded by pain.

I may have shared this story before.  After my mother died, a couple of co-workers spent a lot of lunch hours listening to me cry.  They’d ask how I was doing.  They would listen to my stories.  They sat beside me as I cried out my broken heart - week after week, until finally the worst of the pain had passed.

My clearest memories of that job are those lunches.  I remember them because that’s where God met me, where God sat with me while I cried and God wept.

I’ve been on the other side of the table.  When I was doing my clinical pastoral education, I had the opportunity to meet with a woman every day during her mother’s last week on this earth.  I walked with her through the first code blue, a second code blue, the realization that her mother was not going to get any better, her grief as she came to realize that her mother was dying.  I listened to her as she remembered her mother’s love of life, mourned her upcoming death, debated what her mother would done medically, and finally signed the DNR order.  I held her hand as she cried after the final code blue. 

I don’t remember a lot of what happened those weeks that I served as a hospital chaplain.   But I remember her.  And her mother.  And how God’s presence changed a dying woman’s hospital room into a holy place.

Why is there death and suffering and pain and sickness and natural disasters and war and hunger and poverty and ….


I don’t know. 
All I know is we live in a world of brokenness - a world that God is in the process of re-creating.  Until that day when the new heaven and the new earth come down, there will be sickness and pain and suffering and death.

And all I know is that until that day, God is in the process of wiping the tears from our eyes, comforting our grief, of sitting with us, holding us.

All I know is that when it's time for us to move from that place of grief, God calls us to come out of the brokenness and stench of death and take a deep breath life.

[i] Statistics from The Examiner;
[iii] I heard about this on The Today Show, November 1, 2012
[iv] From a video called ‘Jesus Wept’,