Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

October 18 -- Giving, God and Grace (Pentecost 20A)

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

This text has been used in all sorts of ways.  
It’s been used by some to argue that we shouldn’t have to pay any taxes.  Can you see why?  Pay no allegiance to Caesar, is what Jesus is saying.

It’s been used by others to argue that we should certainly pay taxes, that this offers us a model of civility in living harmoniously in both the worldly realm and the religious realm.  That’s kind of how Luther used this passage in his time, where people wanted to rebel violently against the powers that were...   

Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t answer the Pharisees’ question about money directly…I believe, mostly because the Pharisees weren’t asking it as a stewardship question on their Pledge Sunday, during their Stewardship Month.  They had different intentions:  they wanted to trap Jesus.  And they knew they could trap him with either answer he gave.

So I’m not sure how directly helpful this text is for Stewardship Sunday.  Jesus isn’t giving us any clear cut answers.  Other places in the Bible he does:  he says very plainly just 2 chapters before this – “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor...then come, follow me.”  Jesus said much about money in the Gospels.

There’s also that passage in Acts where those who don’t give a percentage of their income are accused of “stealing from God”…which is a continuation of an over-arching theme throughout the OT.  Good thing we don’t read those today, right? ;)  This text today is not so blunt.  Rather it leads us to understanding and insights about offering up money in more indirect…and grace-filled ways.  

In this text, there’s not a straight answer for us on how much to give.  Rather we are offered two things:  
an idea about intentions, and we are led once again to a beautiful conclusion – that all “our” money and stuff is actually God’s.  

First, I think the Gospel story today raises for us the question of intentions when we talk about money.  The Pharisees had intentions when they asked Jesus about money.  As you consider what to write or what not to write on your pledge cards for 2021, what are the intentions behind the questions you might have:  “Why am I being asked to make a financial pledge to this church, again?”  What might the intentions be behind that kind of question?  In other words, what gives birth to your questions about financial stewardship in the church?  Sometimes just our tone of voice can be a give-away for our intentions.  Are our questions born out of mistrust, anger, fear, or a way to trap…like the Pharisees?

Or are our questions around money and what to offer born of something else?  Joy, peace, trust in the abundance of God’s love and grace.  “How might God use me?  How can I make a pledge that is an expression of my thankfulness to God, for all God has given me?”

This question of what to pledge is really a chance to reflect on yourself.  To look in the mirror at yourself, to look at your own life, and to consider God’s blessings, God’s presence in many and various ways.  Maybe that sounds obvious, but pledging once again this year is not about looking at the church and determining whether a larger or smaller sum is appropriate “for the church” for this year.  It’s about looking at yourself and considering God’s grace and abundance in your life.  

I hope you’ve been able to sit with your pledge card, set some time aside, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and then write down your pledge.  (if you need some more specific direction in that – I like to just stick with the biblical model of tithing, 10% of your income, or at least working up to that each year…gives us direction, like a compass)

Pledging at your central place of worship (whether that’s here or elsewhere), during stewardship season, is ultimately a gift for you, not your gift to the church.  

[pause] It is an opportunity for each of us to make a statement about how much we trust in God.
Are your intentions and your questions around money and giving born out of distrust and fear, anger or the need to trap or control?   Or are they born out of joy, peace, trust, thanksgiving?  Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle…wanting to have your questions born out of joy and peace, but feeling stuck in fear and distrust – distrust of institutions or people, maybe even distrust of God – and angry about it all.   Siblings in Christ, God is with us in our bitterness and resentment, in our mistrust and anger.  God is with us, nudging us, holding us, comforting and challenging us…as the Holy Spirit guides us into new realms of joy and thanksgiving.  

You know, I used to say that I hated stewardship time, as a pastor, having to talk about money and giving, how hard that is, and then I’d even drag other pastors in with me and make a blanket statement…but…over the years,  I’ve experienced a sort of evolution in my talking about these things:

It’s a joy to be able to proclaim and bear witness to the fact that your being invited to offer up one of this earthly life’s greatest treasures, your money, is a gift.

This day and this text is a gift, Stewardship Sunday, Jesus talking about “give to Caesar what is Caesars and to God what is God’s”, for it all brings us back to the blessed conclusion …  and prayer we say every Sunday:

We joyfully release what you have first given us — our selves, our time, our money, signs of your gracious love.  Receive them...  

Friends in Christ, it all belongs to God.  All that we have comes from God, belongs to God, and what we offer, with joyful and thankful hearts is a just a faithful token of that fact.  It was all God’s in the first place.  

Giving in this way is all wrapped up in thanksgiving.  I’ll share just one personal story, Heather and I are tithers to whatever church we belong to.  We were taught at an early age how to move the decimal over to figure out what 10% is.  So it’s always been something we’ve practiced.  But when we had a capital campaign at the last church for a building project, we were really worried about how we could give above and beyond the tithe.  I was sweating it.  I wanted to be a model for the congregation, but didn’t have the kinds of funds we needed to impress everyone with a lead gift.  And we had this campaign consultant Phil  down from Seattle, and he just said to me, “Dan, you’re missing the thanksgiving part of this.  Whatever you put down on that pledge card,” he said, “do it with thanksgiving.  Say a prayer of thanksgiving.”  Stewardship is taught, faith is taught, living in thanksgiving — we have to be taught this stuff at some level; it’s not natural.  It’s learned.

And Christ is our teacher, calling us back.  Blessing us richly, loving us unconditionally, still with us now — right here with us in the midst of the election, the violence, the sickness, the sorrow, the fear, the chaos, the confusion — Christ is right here.  May that peace that passes all human understanding keep you, friends, keep your heart and your mind in faith, hope, gratitude and even joy.  AMEN.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

October 11 -- Showing Up (Pentecost 19A)

Micah’s at his second weekend of travel baseball tournaments here in October.  Last week he and Heather were over in Delaware, this week they’re down south.  And I’m reflecting on how much baseball for him — and for us by extension — has changed since he was a Little Leaguer.  You sports families may be able to relate to the evolution we’ve experienced.  I’m thinking about how the coaches, in particular, have changed over the years:

Gone are the days of constant affirmation.  I mean, there’s affirmation when you do a great job, but not when you’re just doing your job.  Gone are the days of cupcakes and box drink apple juice after the game.  Gone are the days of “everybody plays, everywhere on the field.”  Remember those days?  

No, Coach expects his players to “show up” — practice, hustle, pay attention, be out front.  “Bring everything you have to this field,” they say.

In fact, if you don’t “show up,” he’s going to play someone else.  If you’re distracted from the game and not bringing your all, you’re going to sit out.

The king, in Jesus’ parable today, calls the wedding guests to “show up”.  It’s time for a party.  And the king’s pulling out the stops.  Everyone’s paid for, food and drink will abound, the table is set, the candles are lit, the band is cued up, the meal is hot and ready to be served...
                        And nobody shows.  

They all have excuses.  Most of them just have to work.  No time for any frivolous, excessive partying.

Some have a “better” offer, pre-existing plans.  Others just don’t really want to come — I mean, they don’t really know the wedding couple anyway — so they make something up, and bow out with a quick, friendly text.  

[slowly] And then there are others, who might actually like to go, but some voice in their head is telling them they’re not worth it, that they don’t deserve this party. [pause]  They’ve hosted weddings themselves and know how expensive it can be, and so they don’t want to put the king out — they’ve got a bit of a martyr complex, they mean well, but they fail to see value in themselves, and they just can’t let themselves be loved and lavished by the king...  

That’s a little like in the text when some actually seize and kill the king’s servants who are managing the RSVPs.  
It just kills the spirit of the feast.  Have you ever had someone decline a lavish gift you’re excited to give.  And they pass, citing some “oh-not-on-my-account” or “oh-don’t-want-to-put-you-out” excuse?!  It just sucks the spirit of joy and generosity and celebration out of the room.  It’s like killing the king’s servants.  So, those  suffering, martyr-complexed ones decline the invitation too.

In fact, nobody, the text says, who was originally invited “shows up”.  And this infuriates the king:  I should do a little textual analysis here.  Matthew says the king goes out and kills these no shows, burns their city!

Fundamentalists read this clearly as a reference to hell and the fires of damnation...if you don’t “show up” for Jesus.  

Most mainstream scholars look at this in the context of the time Matthew was writing — that this was an obvious reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the lackadaisical faith of the chosen ones, the insiders, who are squandering the goodness of God.  You have to decide what you think this means.

But anyway, the king’s going to play somebody else, put someone else in to the celebration.  You know, like when the kid on the team who’s biggest and strongest and probably has the most talent, but who’s also had a really bad attitude these days?  Playing only for himself, cutting down his teammates, mouthing off arrogantly...So the good Coach takes that kid out, benches him — he’s not “showing up” — and instead puts in the kid who’s all heart, and might just have enough gumption to turn this game around.  The king’s going to put someone else in because the privilege-round draft picks didn’t “show up”.  Is that so heartless...or is it actually a great move, even loving...for the good of the whole.

So the master’s servants (they’ve been through a lot, haven’t they?) again go out and invite everyone now.  [Gentiles - the Gospel opens up to everyone!]  This is what the kingdom of heaven is compared to, Jesus teaches — A king who invites [pause] everyone.  

[slowly]  The riff-raff is welcome.  Just verses before, Jesus was talking about tax collectors and prostitutes getting into God’s good graces before those puffed-up and self-righteous Pharisees.  This parable is an elaboration on that.  And I hope our baseball real-life metaphor can be helpful too...

“Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”  

Here’s what occurred to me this week:  [pause]  We’re the riff-raff.  You’re the riff-raff.

We’re the ones who are left.  We’re the ones who got scooped up by God’s love, and here we are.  We’re the ones who Coach just put into the game.  All heart.  

You’re not a perfect group of churchy people.  I’m not a perfect pastor.  We’re broken.  And jealous and bitter and hungry and sad and lost and struggling and scared.  But here we are, scooped up by God’s love, probably because of one of God’s servants who invited us — maybe that was a parent or grandparent that brought you into the banquet hall long ago.  Or maybe it was a friend or even a stranger.  

But here we are at our Lord’s banquet — candles lit, food and drink abounds!  Here we are: still serving and being served, still feasting, still drinking wine and eating bread, still ingesting and digesting this word of life, this Word of God.  We’re the riff-raff, siblings in Christ.  The good and the bad, all wrapped up into us, all wrapped up into you!  

And God’s gathered us in: “And the wedding hall was filled with guests.”  [pause]

Now what about this guy who gets bounced from the party because he wasn’t wearing his wedding garment?  That’s a whole ‘nother sermon, but let me say this:
When God invites us into the banquet, when God calls us onto the field, we ought to bring everything we have...including that free garment of grace that God’s given.  

Those wedding robes in those days were something no one could afford...they were provided by the king at the door of the wedding feast, like worship folders at the beginning of a church service...only way more expensive.  

God’s love and grace is provided freely at the door, before we even sit down, so for God’s sake, put it on!  

Don’t think that you can pass without wearing God’s free garment of love and grace.  This one guy did, and he was thrown into the outer darkness.  How we too can be tossed out, when we choose not to accept God’s offer, God’s robe of forgiveness and peace.  (We pretty much toss ourselves out at that point.)

Here it is, given freely and shed abundantly for you.  This welcome to all, this challenge to both receive it, to give it our all on the field, and to seek to extend that same welcome to everyone else, just like we’ve received from God.  That’s the party.  That’s the game.  That’s the joy.    

This is where we find ourselves these October days, sisters and brothers in Christ.  God’s hospitality is multifaceted and exciting and lavish...and you’re in!  You’re on the team.  You’re on the field.  [pointing] “Play ball.”


Sunday, October 4, 2020

October 4 -- Wine Pressing On (Pentecost 18A)

One of the things I really miss during this seemingly endless season of physical isolation from one another — especially in worship — is the Children’s Talk!   I think that’s why Pastor Time children’s messages have been such a priority for me.  There’s this moment I really miss, and can’t replicate virtually and that’s when you’re with children and you need a volunteer.  Teachers know about this too.  You know that moment?  Our kids here at Bethlehem have arms that shoot up in the air before I’m even finished asking, “OK, I need a volunteer, who would like to volunteer?”  Doesn’t matter if its work or fun or a mystery, we have kids who are ready and willing to step up.  Isn’t that a wonderful image.  [imitate] “Ooo, ooo, pick me, pick me!”  I love it.

We have an rich Gospel text before us this day…Because Jesus is looking for good tenants, good stewards…on this Caring for Creation Sunday, on this kick-off of stewardship month, and I know Christ is looking in our direction today.  Jesus identifies the Pharisees and the chief priests (the insiders) as evil tenants, and basically says “If you can’t produce good fruits, then I’m looking for someone who can.”  Could we be the ones Jesus is looking for?  Is Jesus saying, “I need a volunteer.”  Friends, Christ wants to entrust vineyard work to a people who produce good fruit.  And Jesus this moment is looking over in our direction.  Are we willing to be the ones who reach out in the love of Christ…
or simply the recipients of the reaching out?  Because that’s there for us too:

Friends, we are all recipients of the reaching out of Jesus, who rescues us from sin and the power of death.  He is the one in the parable who is killed, he is the stone that the builders rejected, the head cornerstone.  

And today Jesus is looking at us, and asking are you willing to help me reach those who are in need, those who are hurting, those who haven’t yet heard of God’s love and forgiveness, those who are hungry, sick, lonely and lost?  This is a stewardship text, this is an environmental stewardship text.  Are we willing to respond to what God is offering?  

All that we have is on lease from God.  Maybe you hear this all the time, but think about it again today in terms of this vineyard text.  Our Triune God, the cosmic landowner, planted the vineyard (like the text says)—the plants, the trees, the animals, the oceans—God planted everything.  

God built a watchtower—a way to see what’s coming, a way to protect the vineyard, the earth.  That is, the cosmic landowner gave us minds to think and learn and understand and study and see what’s coming, protect the vineyard, protect all that God has planted.  We have the ability to climb up and look out with our intellects.  

Then God built a wine-press—a tool for producing and enabling good things to flow from us and from our hard work.  In other words, it’s not just our minds, God also gave us bodies — hands and feet, voices, and hearts, that press/squeeze out good things for this world.  Think of your bodies as a wine press this day, crushing out good things for this world.  And in so doing, we don’t always stay clean.  Pressing good things out for the world is exhausting and messy.  The wine-press is a great image.  Two ways to press wine back then: 1) giant rocks were fashioned to crush grapes, which took lots of back breaking work, and 2) people stomped on grapes, which was a big mess (like the famous “I Love Lucy” episode).    

Our church body, the ELCA has a signature phrase: “God’s Work, Our Hands” (I’d add “Feet”).  The wine-press…our own bodies, are not ours.  They’re God’s, but the produce comes directly from us.  God leased all these things, all this responsibility to us.  

What if we responded like the kids at the Children’s Talk? “Ooo, ooo, pick me, pick me, Lord!”

But something can happen and often does, even at an early age — we can most definitely loose this enthusiasm and willingness.  Why, what’s happening there?

sometimes it’s because we have other things to do
sometimes we just don’t want to
sometimes we don’t think ourselves good enough/smart enough/eloquent enough/wealthy enough/ connected enough/free enough (too busy)
sometimes it’s an even deeper doubt of ourselves…
sometimes it’s a bitterness, that I’ve already served/done my part: others should...step up/serve/give

Bishop Graham on raising your hand…
Council positions the same way…

Yes, this is a powerful lesson for today…because there have been many distractions, both internally and out there in our crazy/dangerous/divided world.  

These distractions come along, and I wonder if it’s almost like God’s checking to see if we’ll loose track of what we’re all about, of who we are…

I’ve been saying with more confidence lately that I’ve never felt so called as the church of Jesus Christ in the world.  I often feel like the church’s voice (our voice) heard to hear — like a screaming mouse — but what we should be saying and doing has never been clearer to me: just read the Gospel of Matthew:  clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, nurturing the child, welcoming the stranger, proclaiming and practicing forgiveness, mercy, generosity, justice and peace…

Maybe you’ve heard the line “God’s church doesn’t need a mission.  God’s mission needs a church.”  

We can get so caught up in all the drama, the fury, the pettiness, the overwhelming concern for our own selves and our own safety and security — I know of a church right now that is only concerned (my judgement) about their own survival.  Nobody is saying “Pick me, Lord!” They’re bitter and angry and scared and grasping at every little thing they can to stay afloat.  It’s that saddest picture of a church loosing its mission.  My friend is trying to help them see...  

How we can forget this invitation to stewardship and be like the Pharisees and the scribes—how we we can miss this opportunity to respond to God’s goodness—that God is offering us—to be the ones to raise our hands (not just dutifully) but even enthusiastically:  “I’ll go in there, Lord!  Pick me!”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, as broken and imperfect as we might be, we are the church for God’s mission – clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, nurturing the child, welcoming the stranger, proclaiming and practicing forgiveness.  Bethlehem is called to be a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.  And in so many ways we already do!

Ruth’s generosity and kindness…
Mike and Marva’s care for the beauty in the sanctuary...
Ramona’s opening our eyes to racism and white supremacy…and a deeper care for one another...
Tim’s passion for keeping us, for keeping this church safe…
Alison’s gift of music and all her good, hard questions...
Marie’s picking up a phone and checking-in with so many of us during this time of isolation…
Richard’s continued dedication of time and organization and resources to FACETS…and feeding hungry people...
Ann’s witty sense of humor...
John’s hugs...
See the risk here is all the people I’m not naming...right?
But this is just a few Bethlehem wine-pressers, crushing out good things for God’s church and God’s world!

I know that all of you are pressing out good things for God’s world!  We are the church of God’s mission.  AMEN?  

-God knows that none of us are ideal tenants, perfect stewards of everything God has given us.  
-God knows and we know that we’ve fallen short.  
-But look at what God has already done here!  

I love the line in our text for today, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”  Look at all the amazing things God has blessed us with here, and wherever you are!  It is amazing in our eyes!  

There is an aspect of biblical stewardship that is often forgotten, and that’s the spirit of joy that accompanies the giving.  (Lucy starting to having fun)

Reaching out, tending the vineyard, this is always hard, messy work…but it is also accompanied by an indescribable joy.  Experiencing joy in sacrificing is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to explain.  I guess it’s like golf, you have to try it to get it:  You just have to try...reading to children, picking up trash on the ground, visiting inmates in prison, signing a percentage of your paycheck over to GOD before you do anything else with it (that’s biblical stewardship), taking extra time from your job to be with your kids who need you, listening to a friend who is grieving, donating time at FACETS or Lamb Center.  Each of these examples of tending the vineyard, are difficult—sometimes literally backbreaking, always messy—but because God smiles at the church accepting the mission, we smile too.  It’s contagious God’s joy becomes our joy.  That’s how it works for us resurrection people of the cross!  Joy abounds, like the joy of children jumping up and down saying, “Pick me, pick me, pick me to light the candle!”  

IN SPITE OF…WE PRESS ON.  That’s how we roll at Bethlehem.  IN SPITE OF…WE PRESS ON. 
God made the wine press.  And we squish out good things for this world.  We press on...

In spite of all that would tear us down, we press on.  In spite of all that would distract us, we press on.  In spite of evil and danger in the world, we press on.  In spite of white supremacy and all the work we have to do to condemn it, in spite of attacks on us and our community, we press on.  In spite of environmental abuse — animal abuse, forest abuse, Chesapeake Bay abuse, air abuse, we press on.  In spite of families breaking apart, we press on.  In spite of ourselves—our own brokenness, selfishness, inabilities, we press on.  We press on in God’s mission because Jesus is there with us, because nothing (not even death itself) can separate us from the love that Christ has for each of us, because God has called us to be the church in mission, because we are soaked in the powerful waters of baptism and will never the same, because we are fed and nourished with the body and blood of Christ’s own self at this table where all are welcome!  

The earth is God’s, the wine press [pointing to you and me] is God’s, and it is amazing in our eyes.  And so we give thanks with our lives.  But we press on because whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

September 27 -- Becoming *Teleios* (Pentecost 17A)

Grace to you and peace from God who creates us from the muddy clay of the earth (I was on the shores of the Chesapeake this week, beautiful muddy earth), from Jesus who bridges us from our primal separation from God because of sin, and from the Holy Spirit, who comforts us when we are afflicted, and who afflicts us when we are comfortable.  Amen.

At first glance this reading might lead us to the simple conclusion and popular aphorism that ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS.  There are two sons.  The father asks them both to go out into the field, one says he’ll go and doesn’t.  The other says he won’t and does.  Jesus makes a model of the latter.  

But, after praying and studying this text, I’m not sure
A-S-L-T-W, is really the lesson here.  

First of all, in my own experience and in the experience of many that I’ve listened too…words sometimes (not always) speak louder than actions.  It’s not pretty or fun to talk about, but the wounds from violent actions (physical abuse) can heal, but the wounds from violent words (emotional/spiritual abuse—insults that cut deep, threats, even just indifference to another’s presence or opinions) sometimes never heal.  So not only is “a.s.l.t.w.” an interpretation of this particular scripture text that I don’t agree with, it’s a saying that I don’t think is even completely accurate.     

So let me share with you a concept that flows through the entire Bible, certainly through the book of Matthew and therefore arches over this passage today...  

Teleios.  The Greek word is teleios.  And it means mature, or complete, or commonly translated as perfect.  Matthew 5:48 (be perfect even as God in heaven is perfect.) or Matthew 19:21 (Jesus said, "If you wish to be perfect go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.")  I think translating teleios as “perfect” gets us headed down the wrong path.  (I’m just full of opinions today, huh?)  “Mature” or “complete” is more like it.  The best way to think about this overarching theme of teleios is to think about it in terms of fruit.  A banana or a pear is teleios — not when it is completely free of blemishes, but  — when it is ready to eat.  When it is ripe.  When it has come to fruition or come full circle.  

So read these texts with that in mind.  “Come to fruition, even as your God in heaven has come to fruition.”  There’s more of a notion of process here, and that’s very important to remember.  

So returning to the two sons, with the concept of teleios—coming to fruition—in mind, let’s look at it again:

Jesus praises the brother who “says no” but “acts yes”…because he is engaged in the process of coming to fruition, he is ripening.  The other brother is not.  The other brother has chosen to reject the opportunity to go out and to work in the vineyard; he has refused the ripening process.  In other words, he has rejected the journey of transformation.

Siblings in Christ, God is calling us this day to engage or perhaps renew our engagement, and enter again into teleios, into the process of coming to fruition as a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  God is calling us into a journey of transformation.

Grace is empty, if the process of discipleship is not evident, if there is a refusal to ripen.  Bonhoeffer called that the “carcass of cheap grace”…If we’re not on the journey of transformation, engaged in the ripening, the coming to fruition, the maturity and completeness, the teleios...then you simply haven’t experienced God’s grace.  The church has failed you.  The pastor has failed you.  When God’s people are saying yes, but acting no, teleios has gone dormant.   

Our Gospel today calls us to the vineyard, to follow Jesus, not just to say that we believe in Jesus.  Our Gospel text for today is about coming full circle.  

One way to illustrate this text is by looking at worship—what we’re in the midst of right now.  Our faith, which is expressed here on Sunday morning, guides us into our week, bringing us to fruition, bringing us full circle.  Worship/Church is more than mere tradition, it’s more than just “what we do/say” on Sunday.

How many of you have ever participated in any sort of theater production?  Been to a dress rehearsal?

You see, worship is a dress rehearsal for Gospel living.  
Think about the purpose of the dress rehearsal:  It solidifies what we already know (lines), introduces something new (costumes), and prepares us for what’s ahead (opening night).  Bringing everything full circle.  

[look the sections at bulletin] Worship too, solidifies what we already know (in the gathering we are reminded and again we receive forgiveness of sins), introduces something new (as together we enter into the Word of God, and new light is shed on our understandings of the saving work of Jesus Christ), and through Bread and Wine, Body and Blood, the waters of the Baptismal font, we are prepared for what’s ahead, we are washed and nourished with heavenly water and food for the journey, the journey of discipleship—we are engaging in the journey of transformation, in teleios...even right now!  

And what follows worship?  What is that Sending all about (“go in peace, remember the poor,” we say today)?  Because we receive forgiveness of sins right at the beginning, flowing from the baptismal font, here in worship, we are able to forgive others during our week.  Coming full circle.  Because there is a proclamation from this Holy Book about God’s love and God’s hope on account of Jesus Christ, we are then enabled to speak words of love and forgiveness. Coming full circle.

Because justice is alive at God’s Holy Table, as all are welcome to the feast of Jesus’ own body, edible grace, then we are empowered to live out that same model of justice and compassion, welcoming and feeding the friend and the stranger alike. Coming full circle.  Because we are sent out with God’s blessing at the end of our worship service, we are filled with the task of sending others, empowering others, inviting others to follow Jesus, calling others back into the love of God…through both our words and our actions. Coming full circle.

We are not a “gathering of eagles around a carcass of cheap grace,” on Sunday mornings.  Worship for us is more than just a going through the motions each week.  Worship is a dress rehearsal for Gospel living, a modeling of God’s very will being done here on earth “as it is in heaven.”  

Here we are caught in the undertow of grace, here we are swept up in the process of coming full circle, in the ripening, in the coming to be the people God has molded us, breathed into us, redeemed us, and filled us anew to be!

You know, I went to some vineyards here in Northern Virginia recently...last week.  It was good to look out over the vineyards (and enjoy a nice blend of grapes), but I was thinking about how could I align even better my own words with my actions.  After all, we’re coming into the stewardship season, the season of giving back with joyful hearts, what God has first given us.  

And I am pondering what I might give up or take on during these days.  Not just discipleship disciplines in Lent: what kinds of faith actions can we put into practice now, in response to the grace that God has first given us?    Let’s make these a faith-moves together.  Let’s do teleios together — might look different for each of us.  Some might give up meat after seeing the impact that consumption has on the planet, others might write letters, others might try tithing, others might volunteer, or protest, or make phone calls to members of this congregation.  Words and actions lining up, you see, I’m pondering this myself, and even if I had something to share I’m not sure I’d want to roll it out here in a sermon in some grand exposition of my faithfulness...I’m praying on it...  

But if I am going to speak about compassion and justice, I have to ask how I might start to act more in that direction.

Pay attention this week to the nudgings of the Spirit, that’s how the Holy Spirit works…quiet ways.

Where is God whispering to you this week, how is that gracious and loving Holy Spirit is afflicting the comfortable areas of your life.  How is God inviting you to have your words and your actions come full circle?  How are you becoming teleios?   Because I have no doubt that God is working on you.
As that complicated Holy Spirit continues to nudge you, at the very same time, may God’s loving arms of mercy and peace wrap around you and fill you with all-goodness and grace, even today, even now, and forever more.  AMEN.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

September 20 -- From Bitterness to Clean Hearts (Pentecost 16A)

 “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.”

Well, pick your analogous story to today’s fabulous, but potentially bitterness-inducing Gospel parable from Jesus:

Let’s say there’s a new hire at work, who comes on board right at the beginning of December.  And when the boss hands out the Christmas bonuses, she gets the same amount as everyone else.

Or...you’ve got the guy who gets a World Series ring, even with only 4 plate appearances with Nationals!  He still gets the exact same ring in October as those guys who showed up for Spring Training, and gave it all for the team day-in-and-day-out!  Happens all the time.

Children jumping contest — but everybody gets a trophy

We’ve had a tactile example this week...of the rain here in DC-Maryland-Virginia region — showering everyone/everything, regardless.   

And in this pandemic, what about all those who have got it better than you.  Who seem to be in a much better place with work, kids, school, time off...fabulous stories, but potentially bitterness inducing?

Or...you don’t need an analogous story: could easily just connect to this same story that Jesus tells today.  Every day, there are day-laborers, ready to work.  Not sure if this exists here but in San Diego, outside of any Home Depot, groups of men (mostly) are hanging out early in the morning with cups of coffee, hoping you might hire them for some yard work or project in the house...  
$20 for the day — that’s the equivalent to one denarius.  $20 — not much for a day’s wage, but it’s enough to feed a family that night at the dinner table — some rice and beans, maybe a small bucket of fried chicken.  So imagine a man doing some major landscape work instead of vineyard work, and he hires guys all through the day, and pays the ones he hires last, right around happy hour, the same wage he pays the guys he hired at 6am.

Any bitterness?  Are you above it?  Are you happy for the late hire-ons,  the shortest jumpers?

When you think of it in terms of providing dinner that night for the worker and his or her family, maybe it’s understood a bit little differently.  Seems to me that’s what the landlord in the parable was thinking.  This tells us about Jesus:

God is certainly interested in everyone having enough to feed their family around the table.  God is certainly interested in the community taking care of one another.  God is certainly compassionate and generous.  That’s what Jesus kicks off this whole story to say the realm of God is like...everyone having what they need, everyone having enough.

Do you hear this story and relate more to the land owner — what’s your first inclination, in terms of your perspective: are you too in a position to hire day laborers?  Or do you relate more to the workers?  Have you been or are you currently in a tight spot where you need to feed your family tonight or can barely eek out rent for this month?

My pastor colleague and friend Cyndi, who has always been an advocate for disability rights, and is in a wheelchair-scooter herself, shared with me that she doesn’t believe the ones who were hired last are lazy.  They just weren’t as physically attractive and able as the big strong ones who were hired first.  [pause]  “This is a disability gospel, you see!” Cyndi exclaims. The late-comers desperately wanted to feed their families too; they wanted to be hired all day too.  But someone else could jump higher, lift more, cut faster — offer more bang for your buck.  

“Are you envious because I’m generous?” the landowner asks the bitter ones.  There’s a perspective that I think we all may be able to share:

We can be envious of others’ blessings — those who seem to be doing better than me.   Family members and friends who seem to be doing better than me.  Co-workers who make more, parents who how have more, neighbors who show more...

As the temperatures drop (here in the mid-Atlantic regions), as the leaves start to change and drop, this is a season, an opportunity for growth and great soul searching.  God is working on you quietly, even with all the noise and energy even chaos all around, God is working on you, whispering:  

“Let go of your bitterness and resentment,” God’s words are deep down in our bones, “Stop worrying about what others are getting, and what you’re not getting.  Do you have enough to eat tonight?  I want everyone to have enough, you see?  And your anger and your bitterness is pulling you down, holding you back from being the fully human being I created you to be.  Let that stuff go, and share and love and enjoy...as I have shared and loved you — generously, freely, and compassionately.  That takes some work, I know,” says God, “but I created you to do this, so I know you’ve got it in you...I know you’ve got that clean heart...and I know I created a holy community for you to support you in this heart-tending work.”  

This is our time, friends in Christ — both to recognize God’s compassion and generosity, where everyone gets what they need, everyone gets enough, everyone gets to feed their families, roof over their head, the medicine they need, the education they need (I guess God gets quickly political here, if we’re paying attention, but if it’s God calling us to it, then food and clothing and health is literally theology).

Yes this is our time, friends in Christ — both to recognize and give thanks for God’s great compassion and generosity, and also this is our time to slow down and recognize God’s great compassion and generosity within ourselves...even and especially if its been buried.  Don’t dig it out — God’s compassion that’s in you — let it rest in you today, let it settle, like a seed in the soil:  God’s compassion grows in you, deep down, in and through us all, finally breaking the surface and bettering the world, offering beauty and food and companionship.  These are the ways God’s love is made known — through us!  In tangible, real ways — food and companionship...  Isn’t it amazing when a new tree you’ve planted turns from from a beautiful little sapling, to an actual source of shade, or a source of food, or a source of beauty...and maybe even into a companion or a friend?

That’s the kind of growth God’s got in store for us, friends in Christ.  

God has planted us, and grows us.  See what’s also happening?  Christ is both planted and planter!  Sheep and shepherd.  God is ultimately the gracious vineyard owner here, bestowing gifts of enough on all of us, no matter what time we arrived!  

Siblings in Christ, we entrust ourselves to God, who loves us, who showers us with blessings, brings us in, calls and sends us out...with enough.  With clean hearts to share our abundance, and this good news of our generous God whose name is Love.

This is a narrow way — recognizing, taking hold, and receiving God’s abundant mercy.  And today we continue down this winding, narrow way...together, singing our praise and thanks for the broadness of God’s generosity all the while.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

September 13 -- The Country of Forgiving-ness (Pentecost 15A)

I feel like these last weeks of lessons from Matthew have been preparing us for this bombshell today.  

Forgiveness is the ultimate question.  How are you doing with forgiveness, I’ve been asking us all.  How are you doing at forgiving others; and how are you doing at the fact that you have been forgiven by others...and by God?

And just in case we want to just check off this work like another chore on our lists, Jesus blows Peter’s mind:

Peter is looking to check a box or two or twenty.  I say he wants to “one-and-done” forgiveness.  “How many times, Lord?  What form do I fill out, where do I sign?”  But Jesus calls him (and us) to see that forgiveness is not an item on a checklist, but a country.  

Jesus tells Peter not to keep score, but to immigrate to a the land of “forgiving-ness” — that’s what the  77x means.  Seven refers to wholeness, so Seventy-seven is the “wholest wholeness,” a total state of total forgiving-ness.  A new place to live.  Build your life there, Jesus says.  

We live in a tit-for-tat land, where we check items off of lists, payback and pay-up to settle accounts.  It’s hard for us to accept undeserved kindnesses — whether that’s physical gifts or compliments or favors — if someone gives me something, I want to pay it back or pay it forward or pay it off...and not feel like I owe anything to anyone.  It’s programmed deep down there in our protestant-capitalist-dog-eat-dog-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours-work-ethic DNA.  

So it’s really hard to hear this message today.  
It’s really hard to pack up and move.  

Or even to envision this new territory that Jesus and Paul and Joseph in the Old Testament are mapping for us today, this “Commonwealth of Forgiving-ness”!

The brothers in that great OT story of reconciliation are still not being honest in their making amends with their brother Joseph — they try to strategize and pull at the heartstrings of Joseph and his long-lost father’s wishes (“Let’s tell him that Dad would want this…”).  

But Joseph, who definitely wasn’t perfect either, has this moment of divine intervention.  There’s no other way to describe it, like all the cases of forgiveness.   God picks Joseph up and puts him on a raft, blows a wind, and Joseph enters into the country of forgiving-ness.  Joseph blazes the trail into this new territory, into Seventy Seven:  “Have no fear, I will provide for you and your little ones.”  
And that, by the way, made it possible for his brothers to get there too.  As they embrace.  “Do not fear, God has made this for good.”  And they weep tears of joy.

Someone’s gotta venture out there, cutting through the strangler vines and thistles of resentment and past grievances and often downright evil.  The brothers, you remember, threw Joseph into a pit, left him to die decades ago.  Joseph gets pulled out by traders passing by who carry him like a commodity to sell in Egypt.  ...Lotta time for a thick forest of anger and resentment to grow.  The weeds of disdain and revenge can take over, especially as Joseph amazingly rises to power and to a position in Egypt to exact payback on any of his past abusers.

But that’s not what happens.  Someone’s gotta blaze the trail, and Joseph was the imperfect candidate God selected.  Someone’s gotta lead the expedition into the new territory.  We can’t just keep living in these swampy forests of anger and keeping tabs and holding onto debts.  

You must go there too.  God is picking you up today and sending you — and me.  We should to pack it up, trust God, and head out for Seventy Seven, the Commonwealth of Forgiving-ness.  
Always from the territory of sin and brokenness into the land of healing and wholeness.  

The trail has actually been maintained, by all those imperfect saints who have gone before us...in loving their enemies, in praying for those who persecute them, and forgiving their debtors.

This is heaven-come-down-to-earth stuff today. Do you realize that?  “On earth as it is in heaven.”  That’s what the Commonwealth of Forgiving-ness is.   It’s a territory we can inhabit here and now.  Not 7 (like a checklist) but 77 (like a country).  

Can you see it?  Especially as we start to get specific?  

As we talk about racial justice, and environmental justice, and gender justice?  How does heaven come down to earth?  Where is the embrace and the tears of joy, and God making it for good?  As we talk about Democrats and Republicans, and Fox News and MSNBC and families around the table?  And neighbors who annoy?  And leaders who betray and friends who “assume”... Where is the divine intervention?  Where is God putting you on a raft and the Holy Spirit current is carrying you to Seventy Seven?

In the Commonwealth of Forgiving-ness, you don’t have to hang onto the words your friend (or who you thought was your friend) said about you.  In Seventy Seven you can see over those trees.  You can see her as a broken child of God, hurting and in need…

The father who is an abused abuser?  Compassion and prayer blanketing the work of healing, reconciliation and peace.  Seventy Seven is no oasis.  The labor is long and daily, but not without breaks, and not without community.

And in Seventy Seven, your mistakes are completely in God’s loving hands.  You don’t have to carry them or trip over them.  You can work without that extra burden.  The pain you’ve caused others, whether intentionally or unconsciously, is lifted from your shoulders.  

And that feels so good that you invite others to come to this new land too.  And together you build sustainable housing for everyone to move to Seventy Seven.  You bake and harvest and sew and set tables, so that everyone can live in Forgiving-ness.  

Paul says it like this, to a community that was struggling to immigrate to Seventy Seven: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So then, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.”

Here’s the thing: I’m trying to paint hopefully a picture of a Land called Forgiving-ness, and invite us all there in Christian discipleship.  But what if we can’t get there?   What if we’re stuck?  What if it seems we’ll never get there?  

Friends in Christ, the welcome is always there, it is again today: the Customs gates are always wide open and anyone is free to enter Forgiving-ness at any time.  And many, many faithful ones are going!  

But even if you stay behind, you still belong to the Lord.  You already reside in God’s embrace.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

September 6 -- The Tough Conversations and Jesus


Friends in Christ, Christian reconciliation — that is honest and blanketed by prayer — is really hard work.  
        Take some time this week to ponder and pray about your own experiences with reconciliation:

...where it’s failed
...where you’ve parted ways with a sibling or a partner or a parent or a church member or a friend.  
...And where it’s been good?  Reconciliation that has finally come to fruition through time (maybe years) and prayer and tough conversations.  

These five “Matthew 18” verses are probably not what we do best…
It’s a gift to be around people who do this well.  

This poignant lesson is life-giving for us all...when it’s done faithfully.    

When someone sins, when someone breaks covenant, breaks relationship, breaks trust, breaks the heart, breaks the community...when there is a severing, Jesus says, go to that one in-person and speak to them privately.  What’s been your experience of that, either being the one to go or the one to be approached?

Often nowadays, we use email as an alternative.  And email communicates some different messages, right?  That the recipient is only left to guess…

Maybe it’s saying...
You’ve sinned but, I don’t have time to call you or meet with you in person.  It’s not important enough for me.  
I don’t want to talk to you in person.  I don’t care about you that much.
I don’t do well speaking face-to-face.  And I certainly don’t like it.  I can put my thoughts into writing much better.
I just want to move on.  By writing this down after a glass of wine, and blasting it off to you, then I’ve said my piece, done my part, spoken my truth, and now I’m done.  I don’t even need you to respond.

I had a friend who was a pastor and promoted a practice of email as only a tool for scheduling appointments.  [pause] He broke his own rule all the time (and I know I do too), but it was a very helpful guide:  email as a tool for scheduling the face-to-face...not the venue itself.

And trying to text our way to reconciliation is kind of a trumped up version of all this, I’m afraid.  That’s why we popularly recognize and even joke about the shame and disgust in breaking up with someone by text or email, even by phone.  We know the impact of in-person conversations, and it’s one of the great losses of this COVID time:  in-person conversations are now physically a risk.  So this Gospel lesson just got even tougher.

What does email and texting have to do with our Gospel today?  It is a very down-to-earth, everyday part of how we live out our faith, how we follow Jesus (like how we pray for our lips and our tongue, every word that comes out of our mouth, let’s pray for our fingers too — what we type, the numbers we dial, and the sit-down appointments we make.)  This is everyday, specific stuff...maybe a little too close to home?  

This is again, a wake-up call from God, the “Jesus alarm clock” is ringing again.  Seems like this idea of forgiveness/reconciliation keeps coming up for us Jesus-following people!  
The church is not just a social club where people pay dues, share common interests, and when there’s a disagreement the club either breaks up or dies…

No, the church is the body of Christ.  Different people, from different walks and perspectives, from all over the community and the globe, all come to gather around the manger, the table, the words of Jesus.  Bound together — not by their own will and likes/dislikes, but — by the Holy Spirit.  And today called again to work together, as we move back out into the world.

There’s some housekeeping we always need to do before we go back out into the world.  We need to make our metaphorical beds, wash the dishes, sweep the floors:  Go to the individual, and speak privately.  Do the interior house keeping.  

Talk to one another, when things get tough.  When feelings are hurt.  When there is severing.  [Heather with the neighbor and the truck on Monique Ct.]

I’m spending a lot of time on the first part: go to the individual person who has sinned.  Hold them accountable in Christian, neighbor-love.

As I was pondering this text this week, I had this vision of a congregation that decided to suspend all programing, except for worship, for the explicit purpose of going to one another and doing the deep housekeeping of Christian communication, reconciliation work.  Who would you need to sit down with?  Who might reach out and ask to speak with you [pause] in the church, in your family, in your workplace and your community?
Tell the truth, Jesus says.  If that conversation is not enough, then, Jesus says, gather together with others and, in Christian love and honesty, have a larger conversation. And if and when we hear each other, we have regained one another.  There is reconciliation—one of the most beautiful and powerful moments in the human experience.  Reconciliation (talk together again).  [Would love to hear your stories sometime of reconciliations…and I hope you can remember those times in your own lives and celebrate those (times in the church community but in your families, neighborhoods and workplaces, etc.  We could have a Reconciliation Fall Festival.]

But if, after one-on-one conversation and conversation with a larger community if necessary (I’m not talking as much about that because I want to emphasize Part 1, the one-to-one.  And Part 2 is often the jump.  “We 3 or more all think [this] about your actions” is not heard as well if it was never preceded by a one-to-one, right.  Part 2 is important also, but if it skips Part 1 (the one-to-one) it violates the spirit of Holy Community.  

But, when the steps are worked — the one-to-one yields no reconciliation, and after a few have met with the individual and still, that one “refuses to listen,” the third part of Jesus’ life-giving instruction today: when conflict doesn’t result in a reconciliation or a re-gaining, but to only greater anxiety and pain...then Jesus says this: “Let that one be to you as a tax collector or a Gentile.” 

In other words, LET IT GO.  Let that individual go, yes, and there’s a sad and painful process to releasing someone from the community.  But I want to get back to these three words.  Let it go.  Release it to Jesus.  Release the whole situation to God...

This is so important.  How are you doing with letting it go?  That’s a good question to check in with one another on...

Because in addition to so many other social and psychological side-affects of not-letting-it-go, our anger, resentment, bitterness toward a person or at a community has been shown to have physical effects on our bodies—digestive problems, back aches, head aches, sexual dysfunction, ulcers...the stress kills.

Or God forbid, our hanging-on-to-it’s, our not-letting-it-go’s mean that our children or other innocent ones get the brunt of our pent-up, toxic anger and bitterness. 

Let it go, Jesus invites us, let it go.  Not a storming out, “*beep* you, I’m outta here!”, angry “I’m done with it” response, which is more of a cultural norm.  This is a different kind of letting it go, that takes prayer and Christian community and practice, practice.  Just words today, but one exercise is [breathing (grace-peace)]. 

It’s the ultimate question again:  How’s forgiveness going (hfg)?  As we move into a new school year, hfg?  As we move toward the anniversary of 9/11, hfg?  As you think back into the past here at Bethlehem, can’t pretend that they were all perfect years, hfg?  As we chat on the phone with family members and distant friends this afternoon, hfg?

“Let that one be to you as a tax collector or a Gentile.” 

Let it go…because we know how Jesus treats the tax collector and the Gentile. 

Let it go, release it to Jesus, who forgives even and especially the tax collector and the Gentile.  Release that one, and leave them to Jesus, because Christ is at the center of our letting go...when we reach our limits, honest about our frailties.  And despite the distance between yourself and the one you must release to God, we can still love, feel compassion, pray for those who persecute us...when Christ is at the center.  This is the power of God!  Loving and letting go at the very same time…and God gives you that power today!

One more thought:  In truth, if we’re honest, we’re all Gentiles, and so Jesus welcoming and forgiving the Gentile becomes all the more poignant.

This can be perhaps the most liberating and practical message we’ll hear in a long time:  First, to do the hard work of going directly and lovingly to the person or the issue…and trying in Christian love to reconcile.  If there is reconciliation, “Praise God!”  There is nothing greater.  That’s amazing grace, in flesh and bone.  The lion lies down with the lamb.  And if not, release it, and harness the power of God to continue to love despite wrong-doing, distance, evil and deep sadness.

This is where Jesus calls us, friends: down that rocky road, carrying the cross of direct and healthy and loving communication.  Not avoiding or distancing but meeting our sibling, our parent, our co-worker, our friend, our neighbor in love and longing for reconciliation.  And blanketing the whole process, however it goes, in prayer and trust in God.

Finally, Jesus knows that we cannot ultimately go to the cross, that finally we must lay our crosses down.  “Let go of your cross,” he says to us, “I’ve got it from here.  You’ve done your best.  Let me take it now, your anger, your hurt, your resentment, your bitterness.  Let me take it now, and unbind you, from all that is holding you down.  Let me take it…”

Jesus takes it.

Friends, because of Christ, we are now free, you are now free to love and serve and live.  Now you are unbound in order to be bound.  In order to be bound to this Christian community and to this world in love!

Let us pray:  Teach us, O Lord your life-giving ways.  Help us to meet and talk, and say, and do the right thing, and keep you at the center through it all.  Help us to release what we must into your care, and thank you for taking it from there.  AMEN.