Monday, November 24, 2008

Throne Room Humor

In the New Yorker, there's a cartoon of a medieval king, surrounded by knights and lords.  The caption is "I like relaxing in my favorite chair."  Wish I'd had it for the bulletin yesterday.

You Got to Serve Somebody

Reign of Christ Sunday - November 23

Matthew 25: 31-40 (?)

Bob Dylan had it right when he wrote the song, “You Got to Serve Somebody”.  Human beings have a throne shaped hole in our hearts, and our lives seem less than vital and fully alive, until we get something or somebody on that throne, until we have a center to our lives that we worship and adore, we’re always a little bit lost.  That inner throne is, I believe, a gift from God, intended to bring us into relationship with the Divine. 

And there’s no doubt that when lives go horribly wrong  -  (I’m not talking difficult, here.  Difficult is part of the package.  Pain, sorrow, loss, all that.  By "wrong" I mean abuse, addiction, bullying, body -and -spirit -killing wrong) – When things get ugly and hateful  - it is because the wrong thing got put on the throne. 

That throne is meant for Christ to occupy.  That is the throne for Jesus.  We know that.  We want Christ there, reigning in our hearts.  And that’s a very good thing. 

I don’t think there is a person here this morning (though I guess you might surprise me) who doesn’t long to gather around that throne and worship Christ.  We want to bow humbly to the magnificent presence, bring him good gifts, made with our own hands.  He want to honor Christ, use our best language and our best behavior, and bask in the reflected glory of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We’d be content to sit at his feet and share his perspective, looking down on the world below in love.  Like James Bond in those 007 movies:  At His Majesty’s Service!  Yes!

Yes.  We’d love to serve Christ the King.

But strangely enough, His Majesty’s service doesn’t happen in a royal throne room.  Jesus himself reminds us that service does not consist of saying, “Lord, Lord!” , with loud prayers of praise and self abasing expressions of piety.  

Serving this King looks like sharing a meal at a soup kitchen, 

welcoming an immigrant, 

buying a coat for a kid from the trailer park, 

outfitting a room for a homeless woman trying to get off the streets, 

visiting  Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes and drunk drivers in jail. 

Christ the King says, When you do these things, you do them to me.  He doesn’t say,  "When you do these things, I look down from my throne and smile approvingly."  He says, “You serve me.  I am enthroned in those poor, sick, hungry, cold, imprisoned ones.” 

On the Sunday in which we recognize and celebrate the Reign of Christ – this scripture reminds us that we worship a King who, above theological correctness or pious behavior or public declarations of religious fealty – is honored in acts of compassion shared with the least of God’s children. 

Praise to the Christ.  Long may he reign in our hearts and our lives.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Giant Purses Save

Now we know:

Of course, I've always maintained that there are worse things than dying, and carrying a portfolio sized bag might just be one of those things, for me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sermon- Nov. 16, 2008 "A Story with a Sting"

(An acknowledgment of debt: This sermon owes a great deal to "What Do You Take Me For?" - a Sermon preached in Duke University Chapel on November 13 2005 by the Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells, which can be read verbatim at:  ) 

Matthew 25:14-30

On Thursday night, I attended a preview of Tim’s last show for WILL – a documentary about Abraham Lincoln’s circuit court days.  The preview was at the Lincoln Museum in Springfield.  And one of the things I learned about Lincoln was what he thought of preaching:  He said, “I don’t have much use for a cut and dried sermon.  No - when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”

Well, this week’s text, the parable of the talents, is one of those stories from the Bible that inspires some bee fighting behavior:  some yelling, and some ducking, and some swatting.  It is one of the “hard stories”

Some people say it doesn’t sound like gentle Jesus meek and mild, mainly because it ends up with one of the servants (which obviously stands for Jesus’ followers – aka you and I) , who fails to satisfy the master (who is Jesus) ,  being cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  That’s the sting of this story.  Failure to adequately care for the talents entrusted to us by the master results in . . . rejection by Jesus.  But before we let that bee land on the end of our noses, let’s backtrack a little bit, maybe blow a little smoke to slow those bees down,  and establish some foundations for interpretation:

This is the middle story told by Jesus near the close of his career and the stories are about the end of time.  Matthew retells them, very forcefully, because the church is living between Jesus’ life on earth and the time when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled in all its glory.  So the master that goes away – that’s Jesus.  Slam dunk.  Got that bee back in the hive.  That’s right.

So what are the talents?  Well, since Jesus is the master in the story, the talents aren’t all your and my natural abilities – great physical beauty, a powerful singing voice, or ability to make money,or a great sense of humor.  Uh Uh.  The talents are things JESUS has given to his disciples.  These might be what we call gifts of the spirit – discernment, prophecy, interpretive gifts, healing, stuff like that.   But this is Matthew’s Gospel and Matthew tends to be a little more concrete:

Jesus has given stories about God’s Kingdom. 

Jesus has set an example of someone who loves sinners and the poor and women and other outcasts.  

Jesus has given the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of the banquet to which all people are invited. 

Jesus has given the Lord’s Prayer, and the teaching that God’s ear is open to us and God longs to give us what we need. 

Jesus has given forgiveness and the command that we forgive even as we are forgiven. 

These are just your standard issue set of gifts.  This is the one talent range.  Anybody who loves Jesus get all of this. 

Now some of the servants get more.  Maybe the two talent guy gets the gift of prophecy, so that he or she can see beneath the surface of situations, and speak to the hidden depths of people’s hearts, as Jesus does so often.  The talent to do that is special.  Not all of us have that. 

Maybe the five talent servant also gets the gift of healing, or the gift of building extraordinary communities of faith, or translating the Gospel into different languages or cultures.  Not all disciples have that. 

But even the standard issue one talent is more than enough to work with as servants of God:  Jesus’ example.  Baptism.  The Lord’s Supper.  The message that God loves all people so much that God would die for us, so that we might live new lives. 

And these things are enormous!  They are huge!  In the parable, Jesus likens these gifts to mind-.blowing amounts of money.  Even one talent is probably equivalent to million dollars now.  These guys have more than enough.  MORE than enough. 

The first two eagerly accept the challenge and risk doing what it takes to make more.  But, for some reason,  the servant who received only the basic priceless gifts of grace didn’t use them. 

And so the master returns and is greeted by the servants that have used their gifts and multiplied the blessings – The master welcomes them with joy and invites them to share that joy with him.  And from the eagerness with which they greet him, you just know that they’re already joyful, that the work that they have done for the master has been the most exciting challenge and most satisfying work they’ve ever done.  “LOOK!” they say.  “Look what I was able to do with what you gave me!”  When I read this passage, it almost reminds me of a child, bringing home the art project from school:  “Look, Mom!  You gave me an orange juice can, and I made a pencil holder for your desk!!”  Such pride and happiness is the creative process of turning the gift into something greater!  

But the one who has buried the talents comes with quite a different attitude:  He says, “You are a hard man.  (Does a hard master give opportunities like this?)  And I was afraid of you, and what you might do to me.  I didn’t want to lose anything you gave me.  And I haven’t.  You can see – here it is.  It’s a little moldy around the edges.  But it’s all here.  I never used a penny of it for myself.”

Imagine now, Jesus response:   “You never used your baptism – the new life I gave you?  You didn’t spread my forgiveness around?  You didn’t love sinners, like I showed you?  You didn’t pour out your heart to God, and let God make you new?  Never told anyone about how much Jesus loves them?  Never invited anyone to the Table? Never forgave a sin?

What have you been doing all this time?  

Oh, wait.  Let me guess.  You’ve been making up this stupid story about how I’m such a strict taskmaster and such a hard judge, and how everybody had better be as afraid of me as you are?  That’s what you’ve been doing, isn’t it?  You’ve been turning sinners away, and discouraging people who are struggling, and generally making things harder for the people I love.  You’ve been living a life that contradicts everything I have told you about God, and everything I have shown you about being human.  And now you expect congratulations?”

Now casting the servant into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth begins to make some sense, doesn’t it?  Hasn’t this servant already been living, by his own choice, I might add, in the darkness? Don’t we know the life of meanness and spiritual poverty always results in weeping and gnashing of teeth?

The real hard stinger of this story isn’t how that Jesus names the misery that the bad servant has chosen.  The real stinger of this story is (Sam Well’s words this time) how someone who

had seen Jesus lay down his life,

had heard his words,

had received his invitation,

had been empowered with his gifts and sent forth into his kingdom,

could ever take him for a distant, cruel or merciless master.


The stinger is that this parable isn’t about OUR talents, and OUR gifts and OUR resources and how we use them. 


In the end it is about what kind of God we believe in. 

A strict, demanding and distant God? 

Or One like Jesus?


The answer to that question and that question alone determines what kind of servant each one of us will become and what we will hear when we meet our master face to face.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Abraham Lincoln's Preaching Preference

Abe said,  "I don't like to hear cut-and-dried sermons.  No--when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees."

Well, I'm fighting bees this week with the parable of the talents.  I'm just sayin'.

Old enough to read the obits - But not old enough to understand what they tell me

Last week I saw, in Presbyterians Today magazine, my first seminary roommate's name listed in the "Deaths" column.  So I googled, and sure enough, it wasn't just her name, it was her.  Dead at 54.  And all week I've been thinking about the cause of death:  "She died of natural causes, while on a vision quest in the mountains of California".  
A vision quest. 
This woman was one of the quietest, most conventional seeming women at Princeton Seminary. One of the reasons we didn't room together long (besides the fact that most rooms were singles, and it was pretty natural to want to get one asap) is that living with me was a little stressful for her.  I bent the rules.  I didn't think the professors walked on water.  I was the one who was full of questions, who got a big kick out of challenging what I was told and told to do.  We were opposite characters:  I was a little strange and she was perfectly normal (and I mean both of those words together like that.)
Yet, twenty some years later, here am I. I am the pastor of a small church in a small midwestern town - a pastor who doesn't even say she voted for Obama if McCain supporters are in earshot - I am the essence of conventional and quiet and cautious.  And my well behaved little friend (actually, she wasn't little, she was a big, raw boned, athletic woman) was so "out there" that she died on a vision quest.  A vision quest.  In the mountains of California.  
What happened to us?  

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sermon, Nov. 9 - Stewardship Fun

Matthew 22:15-22

Stepping Stone#8 – Bread (Dough)

 Since September's Rally Day, Stepping Stones of Faith has been our theme.  We’ve talked about markers of growing faith – beginning with Baptism, learning the Bible, Being part of Worship, taking Communion, Becoming an active member and Stepping out in Mission.  Today is our last segment of this series, and it falls on Stewardship Sunday, the day in which we dedicate our pledges of support for the coming church year.  So I’m sure no one is surprised to hear that today we’re going to talk about the step we take when we make the commitment to give a portion of our income, our worldly possessions, our earnings, our BREAD, to God through the church. 


Some people are shy about stewardship.  I was at a conference last week, and some of my colleagues were discussing at one of the meals how stewardship season was upon us, and ugh.  We have to do the stewardship sermon, and it’s not my favorite topic, etc.  And one of the non-clergy spoke up and said, “Yeah, we can tell you hate it, too.”   I guess that stewardship Sunday might seem to some people like the pledge week on Public Radio.  It’s annoying.  It takes away from regular programming, but it has to be done in order to pay for the good stuff – the regular programming. 

Well, those of you who know me know that I don’t feel that way about Stewardship at all.  I don’t approach Stewardship thinking, “Oh, it’s painful and embarrassing to have to ask people to give money, but we just HAVE to do it, in order to keep the doors of the church open.”  It seems to me that if we read our Bibles with an ear, especially, for what Jesus has to say to us, his take might be more like this:  “One of the most important things the church can do is to help people get a right relationship with money.   A right relationship with God is impossible if love of money stands in the way.”

·         Jesus talks a lot about money and possessions. 

Jesus talked about money more than He did Heaven and Hell combined.

·         Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God.

·         11 of 39 parables talk about money.

·         1 of every 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke talk about money.

This passage from Matthew seems to be one of the less challenging passages about money.  In it, Jesus is confronted by opponents who are trying to trap him into saying something either extremely unpopular on the one hand, or treasonous on the other.  What do you say, Jesus?  Shall we pay taxes to Caesar, or shouldn’t we?  This is the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question.  There’s no good answer.  If Jesus says, “yes” then the crowd will turn against him as a collaborator with Rome. And if he said “no”, then all the opponents would have to do is turn him in to the Roman authorities for making threats against the state. 

But Jesus doesn’t answer immediately.  Instead, he asks for a coin.  Now, do you have a coin with you?  Get it out.  Imagine that, instead of a dead, duly elected President, a representative of the people, the coin had on it the image of George Bush.  And instead of saying, ‘e pluribus unum” and “In God We Trust” it said, “George Walker Bush, divine son of divine father HW, the most powerful man on the planet”. If it helps you to imagine feeling a little queasy about it, imagine that the coin had Bill Clinton’s face on it, and ascribed glory and honor and divinity to him.     

You can imagine that such a coin would be more than a little disturbing to the religiously scrupulous.  They took that no other gods commandment pretty seriously back then. Such a graven image was religiously offensive and politically humiliating. Lots of religious Jews didn’t even carry these coins.  (And in case you are wondering, Herod the Great and Herod Antipas had special non-offensive, sort of politically correct for their day, coins minted especially to be used in Judea and Galilee and Samaria.)  And they would have been especially careful not to carry them in the Temple. 

So when Jesus asks for a coin and his questioners whip out one of these “Caesar is God” numbers, they immediately show themselves to have “bought in” to the system.  They are exposed. The crowd sees who is “collaborating”.  Jesus then asks, the question about who’s image is on the coin.  It’s Caesar’s.  Then he says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to him.”  It’s a pretty good, smart-alecky answer that fully takes care of what was asked:  Should we pay Caesar these taxes?  Jesus says, “It’s his money.  Give it to him.” 

And that could have been the end of it.  But Jesus adds a little twist that brings his hearers, back then and even today, it brings those listening to Jesus up short:  He says, “Give back to God what is God’s.” 

What bears God’s image?  What belongs to God?  What did God “mint” that bears the likeness of the truly Divine? 

According to the Bible, that would be us:

Genesis 1:26-27 – Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;  . . God created human kind in the Divine image, in the image of God they were created;  male and female, God created them.”

Genesis 5:1:  “When God created humankind, it was made in the likeness/image of God.”

Genesis 9:6:  “. . . for in the Divine image God created humankind.”

So what are we to give to God?  Ourselves.  Our whole selves.  

What does that mean? 

One stewardship trainer says that it means that whatever we give to the government in taxes, we should make sure to give more to God through the church, to show where our greatest allegiance lies. 

That’s an interesting thought.  Maybe that would work for you.  But let me suggest another –

It means God gets “first dibs” on our time.  Every morning when we wake up, it is because God has given us another day.  Sharing that day with him should be first priority.  That means talking to him.  Prayer.   Maybe a set time of your day, or throughout the day, prayers of thanksgiving, and confession and requests for help for ourselves or others. . . We owe God that.

It means God gets “first dibs” on our talents and abilities.  If we can sing, God deserves the best song.  If we can learn, God deserves some of our focus.  If we can build, what are we building for God? 

And if God has gifted us with the ability to earn a living . . . well, you know where I’m with that.  Returning some of that to God through the church is good and right.

It’s good and right for the church, which has salaries (my salary, as a matter of fact) and utility bills to pay. 

It’s good for the people who benefit from our mission and ministry – our children who get Sunday school instruction, those needy individuals and charities that receive part of what you give through mission. (Wasn’t that mission dinner great a couple of weeks ago?  Anyone who wondered where mission money goes could get a really good answer to that question.) 

But, most of all, it’s good for those of us who give.  To be a good giver is a tremendous blessing.

A pastor whose church ministers to the poor of Haiti tells of visiting a woman there, who had been given a loan to buy some chickens and who now had a thriving egg business.  She’d given hens to her neighbors, and formed a cooperative with some of the women to market the produce.  She hosted Brian in her one room, dirt floor home.  She insisted that he sit in the only chair, and she sat on the floor.  From a box under the bed she produced two cans of pop, which she said she had been saving for a special guest.  She thanked him, over and over, for the help the church had offered her.  He asked her what was the most important thing she’d been able to do with the money.  She said the thing that gave her the most pride was that now she was able to tithe.  She said it was so wonderful to be able to do that.  It blew this minister away.  There she was, in the one room shack, with the one chair, and the little bed and a few chickens, it seems like such a precarious existence.  As he left, he said,  “God bless you.  You’ll be in my prayers.”  And she said, “Pastor, I will be praying for you, too.  I know that it is more dangerous to have a lot than it is to have a little.” 

We have, not a little.  But a lot.  And the danger is that we might, in our wealth and ease, forget that what we have and what we are belongs to God.  Returning a portion to God through the church is one way to remember. 

In a few minutes, we’re going to pass out pledge forms, to record your commitment to financial support of this church.  It’s not intrusion into your personal finances.  It’s an invitation to the joy of giving.  And it is strictly between you and God.  I’m not asking you to turn them in. 

But we are asking that you take a few minutes and pray about what you will give.  Think in terms of a percentage of your income.    And write it down.  That’s because if you write something down you are 5 times more likely to fulfill your intention.  Be specific.  That, too helps us follow through.  God gives us ways to help ourselves be faithful, and we ought to use every help we can.  So write down a specific goal.

And you know, telling someone else what you are committing yourself to do is also helpful.   In past years, we’ve all told the same person, by turning in our pledge cards to the treasurer.  This year, I encourage, invite, URGE you to tell someone that you choose to tell.    If you aren’t comfortable sharing the amount, tell the percentage.  Or, if you don’t feel close enough to share that, then just let a church friend know that you intend to return something to God throughout the upcoming year.  “I filled out a pledge form!”  is really all you have to say.  It’s one small way to be help one another be accountable for what we need to do to take this step in faith.

So – Friends, we have been told by Jesus Christ that we should give back to God what belongs to God.  Shall we take that step together?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Nov. 2, 2008 Sermon - - All Saints’ Day

Today we are going to take a little break from talking about the Stepping Stones of faith in order to celebrate and thank God for those who have walked before us along those stepping stones of faith. We call them saints, and our lesson is a picture of what being a saint means.
Text - Rev. 7:9-17

I’m not much of one for crowds? Are you? Yesterday my family went to the University of Illinois football game, and man! It was crowded. 54, . . . people is a lot. There were lots of people crammed into little seats about this wide. On the bench in front of us there were four numbers showing. And then a family of four showed up and the momma and the daddy were each “like this” wide. They just looked at the numbers and went “whu”? And the two little boys, who were about the designated size for one of the bench seats had to sit between them “like this”.
Most everybody was wearing orange – which is not the most flattering color for my skin tone. I wished I could have worn my coffee-colored sweater set – much more practical for the weather, too. But dressing alike is part of being a good crowd, so there I was in my orange turtleneck. “Pushing up sleeves”
Crowd and crowded are related for a reason. And after the game, Mom and I were walking through this mob of people, both of us trying to make sure we were keeping up with the traffic, and that she was on even footing, and we’re getting jostled by people attempting to travel faster than everybody else, or who still so excited by the games big finish that they are throwing their arms around their buddies, or punching them “take that you Hawkeyes”. Crowds can be a little crazy and out of control.
So, on first glance, it makes the picture of the saints in heaven seem a little puzzling, doesn’t it? I mean, this is a picture of a huge crowd of saints, all wearing similar clothing, shouting and singing in unison, and waving palm branches, like pompoms or Zook Zone towels. And this is heaven? Hmm.
But then I remembered the people who first read the Book of Revelations. It was written at a time when churches and church members were being persecuted mercilessly. When to walk in Jesus’ way meant that you were an enemy of the state, and a pariah to your neighbors. Meeting together was forbidden. Leaders were exiled or fed to the lions. Family members were dragged off to slavery or prison or worse. It was hard to know who to trust. Who you could rely on. Christians, lots of Christians, were tortured and killed in a systematic effort to destroy this movement. And the threat that you could be next was always there. And the most effective method of killing off any movement is to make its members feel that they are alone and at the mercy of a more numerous and more powerful enemy. To make Christians feel as if they are alone.
In many ways, we are in a much safer, much more felicitous situation as a church than those earlier Christians. To belong to a church does not make you an enemy of the state. Your neighbors don’t hate you for that. Even if you invite them to church, or tell them about Jesus, they probably wouldn’t hate you. There’s little threat of torture of martyrdom for the faithful. We’re blessed to have it pretty easy.
And yet. I wonder if, underneath, many of us don’t feel, as the Revelation age church did, quite threatened and quite alone. Even if we sit here on Sunday morning, we may find in the corner of our souls, a sense of being alone in a crowd that does not really know what we are going through. And cannot help us deal with the threats to our souls.
Maybe we think that we are the only one going through a period of doubt and uncertainty.
Maybe we think that we are the only one struggling with addiction.
Maybe we think that nobody else knows what it’s like to wake up in the morning and have a mental illness,
or a painful marriage,
or scars of a divorce,
or an impossible boss,
or a soul-sucking job,
or fears for a child’s future.
That we are the only ones who feel the way we do and that, really we do not belong.
The most effective way to kill faith – to make people feel alone and powerless and just plain wrong in the face of implacable opposition. So let me just say this: you are not alone. There is hope. Others have made it through.
And what strengthens faith, and builds hope and inspires courage? A glimpse of the truth that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, much more powerful than the current opposition, ultimately victorious over even them most difficult opposition. That’s what our scripture lesson offers us: a vision of a mighty and triumphant crowd that includes us. And that is focused around the Lamb who was slain, whose is now “mighty to reign” – Jesus Christ who faced betrayal, isolation, torture and death on our behalf, so that we would know that we NEVER face those things alone.
This is a vision of belonging to the saints of God. And the vision is quite specific about what sainthood means:
1) Sainthood is inclusive. The crowd is innumerable. It is from every nation. Every ethnicity. Every language. We aren’t the last little pocket of God’s people on earth. We are connected to African Christians, Asian Christians, Arab Christians . . . and that’s just the “A”s! Sainthood is inclusive.
2) Sainthood is based on redemption. Every one of the saints gathered around the throne is wearing a white robe that has been washed in the blood of the Lamb. There aren’t any that got there on their own. There aren’t any that climbed the ladder of holiness to knock on heaven’s door by their own power. Every single one of us depends on Jesus’ death and resurrection to forgive us and wash away our sins. Nobody becomes a saint by being better than anybody else. We become saints through the grace of God and sacrificial love of Jesus.
3) Sainthood is supremely joyful, because it’s better to win than to lose, and saints are assured that, ultimately, love is more powerful than hate. Faith is more formidable than fear. Forgiveness blows vengeance off the map. God will lead his saints like a shepherd, provide them what is good, and wipe away every tear from their eyes. So that they sing and shout and wave their hands together, losing themselves in thankfulness and praise.
And when it comes right down to it, that’s a crowd we want to be a part of. And the good news is, Jesus has bought us a seat. He’s given us a ticket. He’s gotten us in.
It’s not a ticket to the throne room of the Lamb. Not yet, anyway, though we know some folks that are wearing the robes right now. We’re going to read their names and ring the bell for them in a few minutes. But, for right now, Jesus has admitted us, not to sainthood in heaven, but to a table here on earth that is a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. Here we share Holy Communion with other saints who, like us, are struggling on earth. But we also share, in spirit, with those who have triumphed, whose earthly struggles are through. And all of us are gathered together by the Good Shepherd that is also the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world and invites us to break bread of life and raise the cup of salvation remembering the ultimate and complete triumph of God’s love.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Nathan, the guy from Salt and Light, came to pick up the food the next day. There was a lot.
Thanks to everyone who helped out!

Trick or Treat for Cans pics

Here we are, all ready to go out and trick or treat for cans.