The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Waiting statue

Advent 1B

Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

1 Corinthians 1:2-9

Mark 13:24-37

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and acclaimed author of dozens of books on the Bible and spirituality, said this about waiting for God,

“Is God present or is God absent? Maybe we can say now that in the center of our sadness for God’s absence we can find the first signs of [God’s] presence. And that in the middle of our longings we discover the footprints of the one who has created them. It is in the faithful waiting for the loved one that we know how much he has filled our lives already. Just as the love of a mother for her son can grow while she is waiting for his return, and just as lovers can rediscover each other during long periods of absence, so also our intimate relationship with God can become deeper and more mature while we wait patiently in expectation for [God’s] return.”
― Henri J.M. NouwenOut of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life

Saint Tom Petty said this about waiting, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Continue reading

Our Thanksgiving for God and God’s Thanksgiving for Us

Leper

Thanksgiving A

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Luke 17:11-19

You can’t command someone to be thankful. It doesn’t really work like that. You can’t be forced to say “Thank you,” and really mean it.

In one scene of the movie, A Christmas Story, a nine year old boy, and his family are opening presents beneath their Christmas tree on Christmas morning. Ralphy receives a gift from his Aunt Clara who in his words, “…had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl.” Ralph suspiciously opens his gift to find a very fuzzy, pink, set of bunny pajamas. They have little bunny faces on the feet and big floppy bunny ears that are attached to the hood. Ralph’s mother tells him that his Aunt Clara puts so much hard work and thought into her Christmas gifts and asks Ralph to model the new pajamas. The thoroughly embarrassed Ralph reluctantly wears the bunny suit as his younger brother giggles uncontrollably and his father tells him that “he looks like a deranged Easter Bunny” and “a pink nightmare.”

Ralph’s mother tries to convince her son to appreciate the odd, but very thoughtful gift of his aunt. But no matter how much his mother pleads, Ralph cannot force himself to feel grateful for the gift. Continue reading

God with Us

Tabor

I go to a weekly Bible study group with a number of other Lutheran pastors in our county. In preparing for All Saints Sunday, we read a text from Revelation describing a multitude of people robed in white worshiping and praising the Lamb. The author asks someone who these people are and he responds:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb… for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Revelation 7:14-17).

What a gruesome image! Washing clothing in blood is unsettling to say the least. We may be tempted to ignore such grisly images in the Bible. Continue reading

The Mystery of Faith and Service

Reign of Christ A

Stewardship: Fearless Service

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

Andrei Rublev- Christ in Majesty
Andrei Rublev- Christ in Majesty

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

That statement of faith is one that the church has been making since about the year 60. It is central to our understanding of who Christ is for us. We remember that Christ died giving his life for us- he died for proclaiming and enacting a message of radical inclusion and faithfulness to God and he died by our hands. In spite of our sinfulness, he still died for us. Christ rose from the dead defeating the powers of sin and death that enslave us. Christ will come a second time to set the world right. Christ is the king not only of the past and future, but also of the present. I think we can too easily forget that.

It is pretty easy to remember Christ as king when he was walking around Galilee and Judah teaching and healing. It is pretty easy to imagine the reign of Christ in second coming when he comes with trumpet fanfare, descending on clouds, surrounded by angelic hosts as is described in Revelation and other apocalyptic texts. But it is pretty hard to see the second statement “Christ is risen” today. Where is Christ anyway? I don’t see any traveling Rabbi multiplying loaves and fishes and I don’t see Lamb of God descending from heaven with a host of angels. Do you?

Jesus shows up in curious ways. Paul writes to the Ephesians and is totally gushing over them. He is smitten by how much love they show their neighbors and how faithful they are to God. He then says that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is the same power that enables the Ephesians to love each other in the way that they love each other. That same resurrection power that rose Jesus from the dead, is what resurrects the other deaths in our lives. When love defeats greed, loneliness, sickness, hopelessness, poverty, and anger- that is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

In our Gospel reading, the sheep and the goats unknowingly encounter Jesus in those who are hungry, imprisoned, and naked. The sheep who served those people were given eternal life and the goats who did not got eternal punishment. I find it so strange that neither the sheep nor the goats realize who Jesus was. In reading this parable I ask myself, “If we don’t even realize that we’re serving Jesus, why do it all?” Is it to avoid eternal punishment? No, I think that will drive us pretty crazy if we wonder whether that one homeless person we didn’t give money to or that one organization we didn’t support means our damnation. I don’t think that is the point of the parable either. I think it is to help us remember who Christ was so we can see who Christ is today.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We remember that Christ gave everything for us- including his very life- even when we were the ones who killed him. We know the power of forgiveness and new life because we have experienced it. The know the power of resurrection and that is what makes it possible for us to share the love of God that we have experienced with others.

Purim and Passover are two Jewish holidays where the past is remembered and that memory influences our present actions. At Purim you are supposed to give to any needy person who asks of you. If there is one day in the year that you do this, it should be Purim. You give to the needy because we remember the Purim story of our own neediness. Haman plotted to have all the Jews of Persia killed, but God cared for us and saved us. We know the power of that saving love, so we know how important it is to share it with others.

At Passover you are supposed to invite strangers or at least non-family members to the table that night. You invite the stranger, because we remember at Passover that we were once slaves in Egypt. We were strangers in a strange land and God gave us the gift of hospitality when God saved us and welcomed us into the promised land.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We remember the power of Christ’s love for us and it empowers us and compels us to share that love with others. Why would we ever want to hold back such an incredible gift? We have experienced the death of sin and the death of death. We remember the story of God’s deliverance to Esther and her people, we remember the story of Israel’s welcome into the promised land, we remember the Communion meal that promises newness of life, we remember the waters of baptism where God promises to be with the child or adult through life and beyond death, we remember the word of encouragement that we’ve heard from a good friend, we remember the listening ear of a loved one, we remember the meal given to us when we were hungry, we remember visits we received when we were lonely and lost. We remember the acts of God’s love and faithfulness in the person of our servant-King and friend, Jesus.
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Amen.

Enter into the Joy

Matthew 25:14-30

Genesis 1:1-5

What are you afraid of? Some people are afraid of spiders. Some people are afraid of the dark. Some people are afraid of heights. Some people are afraid to talk about money, but I think most people are most afraid of failing.

About a month into my internship in Massachusetts, I found myself in the middle of stewardship season. My supervisor, Pastor Goodman, informed me that he and I would be visiting a woman whom he felt could be giving more money to the church. She was giving less money than half of the congregation, but she was certainly one of the wealthiest. She was literally a rocket scientist. Sally (not her real name) worked for MIT calculating rocket trajectories for the military. This impending conversation about money sounded like the most awkward conversation I could imagine having with another person. Pastor Goodman was going to take me into this woman’s house and we were going to tell her that the gift she was giving the church wasn’t enough and we wanted more. I could just imagine her reaction. She would get angry, she would tell us that we should be grateful for what the church is receiving, and she would tell us that it ultimately wasn’t any of our business what she did with her money.

So I asked Pastor Goodman if he was scared that she would react in any of these ways. He told me that he was not. He said to me, “You know, Daniel, we have a real gift to give in stewardship season. Some people are genuinely struggling to make ends meet and they have told me so. Knowing that, the church can pray for and support those folks. But some other people are ruled by their money. They are so afraid of losing it, that they become paralyzed and don’t do anything with it other than store it away. We have the gift and responsibility to encourage folks not to be ruled by their money, but to let their money serve God and the church. There is a real freedom and joy in that.”

Pastor Goodman and I went to Sally’s house where he told her that he wanted to encourage her to give more money to the church. Her financial gift can be part of her legacy and can be a part of the exciting and transformative work that God is doing in the world through the church. To my surprise she did not yell at us, she did not scold us, and she ended up tripling her financial pledge from the previous year.

In today’s parable, I am most struck by the master’s exclamation to the first two slaves, “Enter into the joy of your master.” As I read this parable, I hear that invitation given to us as well. “Enter into the joy of your master.” God has already given us our gifts- our time, money, and talents, and God is now inviting us to use them in a way that gives joy. God has experienced the joy of giving. At Creation, God created sun, moon, and stars; air, water, and land; and animals and plants. At the end of each day of Creation, God stepped back, breathed it all in and shouted, “This is good!” In today’s parable, the master gives a massive some of money (some people estimate that a talent was worth about $250,000) to his slaves in a bold, fearless act of trust. In Christ, God took on our flesh, walked on our streets, and gave his very life for us. These are all good and amazing acts that benefit us and that give God great joy. God invites us to “Enter into the joy of our master,” and share in God’s creative, life-giving work in the world.

God has already given us the gifts. For some of us, it may be the gift of money, the gift of prayer, the gift of teaching, the gift of cooking, the gift of music, the gift of listening, or some other amazingly valuable gift. We can be ruled by our fear of failure, or by the grace of God, we can enter into the joy of our master and use those gifts to join in God’s good work in the world. Amen.

The Prodigal Sower

van_gogh_sower

-Van Gogh’s The Sower

Mark 4:1-9

Again [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

I have a friend, Ben, who grew up on a farm in a semi-rural area of Ohio. He then went to a small college in a semi-rural part of the state. Ben is pretty good at making up his own fun. One day Ben visited a local granary and told the worker that he would like have some corn seed for a project he was doing in a science class. The worker obliged and gave him a sack of seed. Ben then took the seed back to his campus and began to toss it about wherever he went. On the way to the dining hall, on the quad, in front of the library, on his way to the dorms- corn seeds everywhere. He didn’t till the soil or even look where he was tossing it. He just threw it everywhere. And sure enough, that Spring little foot-tall stalks of corn began to sprout all over campus.

I tell this story because I imagine the sower of today’s parable acting in a similar way. The sower does not seem to do any prep work before tossing the seed- no pulling of weeds, no removal of rocks, no tilling the soil. In fact, it doesn’t even seem like the sower is looking where he is tossing the seed. The seed falls among thorns and rocks, but most surprising to me is that some of the seed falls on the path. How did the sower not see that? It’s a path! That doesn’t look anything like a farm plot!

But this isn’t a guidebook for farming. It is a story that shows how God shares God’s word of forgiveness, love, and abundant life. God isn’t so selective about who gets to hear this life-giving word. God doesn’t look around and choose only those who (by our standards) would be most worthy to receive this precious gift. God tosses the seed or Word all over the place. It falls among those who are too scared or caught up in the affairs of this world to really hear and believe that God is the source of all joy, forgiveness, and wholeness. It also falls among those who are too hurt or weak to do anything with that message of love once they receive it. But it always falls on good soil where its goodness is multiplied. God’s Word of love and wholeness multiplies in incredible ways when it is heard in Scripture or preaching, when it is tasted in bread and wine, or when it is felt in cool water. That message of God’s closeness with us then gets multiplied. By God’s grace, we start telling others about the goodness of God, we bring Communion to those who can’t get to church, we invite others to come and hear this Good News of a God whose love destroys death and sin, we feed and care for those who are most vulnerable in our communities. We do all this because we know that the Good News of God transforms the world for good and that Good News to the hungry is bread, Good News to hopeless is hope, Good News to the captive is freedom, and Good News to the dying is life.

The way this Good News seed is spread is just like the way the sower spreads the seed in our parable. It is with abandon and it is prodigal. God calls us to share our time, talents, and treasure in such a way that is exuberant and in many ways seems to be reckless.

We may wonder if it is such a good idea to give away some of our money or even to tithe to the church. We may ask, “What if I give and the church still doesn’t grow?”

We may wonder if it is a good idea to invest our precious time and money in international aid organizations like Lutheran World Relief or to local services like the clothes closet or the community meal. We may ask, “What if I give up my time and/or my money and no one new joins the church? What if we don’t serve all the people we want to serve?”

We may wonder if it is a good idea to invest our time and skills in teaching a Sunday School class or leading a youth activity. We may ask, “What if no one shows after I put in all that prep time? What if they do show up, but don’t appreciate it?”

Those are all legitimate concerns, but how the seed grows is not under our jurisdiction. We are simply called to toss the seed about. God is the one who will see over what grows and what does not grow.

In spite of our failures and shortcomings, we know that God’s Word will yield incredible results and this message of the God who lives and dies for us will transform our world through forgiveness, healing, and life. We have that promise through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus- that the powers of sin and death are ultimately defeated and God’s goodness will spread throughout the world.

This stewardship season, I invite you to consider how God calls us to join in on this crazy, extravagant, and fearless spreading of God’s Word. With God as the sower, we can expect a surprising and abundantly good harvest. Consider giving of your wealth, your time, and your unique gifts- these things that God has blessed us with, to share God’s life-giving Word and work with a world that so desperately needs it. God tosses God’s promises about to all people whether or not they appear to be “good soil” ready to receive that life-giving promise. That’s how we ended up receiving that Word of grace. God now calls us to likewise toss about this promise of grace this way and that through our words, our resources, and our work. We can expect that the seed will land in good soil and God’s work will be done.