Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Road Trip, a Wedding and Flat Tire

I'm technically on vacation right now but for the rest of the week we are doing a "staycation." However we just got back yesterday from a short road trip.

On Sunday after worship, Bob and I went to a parishioner's home who was having a good luck party for their son who is being sent to Afghanistan in March. We left there around 2:30 to head to Philly - the first leg of our trip. Now there really is no good way to drive from Georgetown to Philly. Either you have to go through New York Traffic or you have to drive way out of your way to avoid it. Being it was a Sunday afternoon we drove through NYC and oddly enough that was the easy part of our journey. It was the New Jersey Turnpike that was slow and go pretty much the entire way. It also didn't help that we were getting on the turnpike which is near the Meadowlands shortly after the Giants game ended. Errr Anyway we made it to Philly met up with our friends Becca and Gary (yes her name is also Becca, I am not typing about myself in the third person) had dinner and went to bed. We also stayed at the seminary I went to which reminded me how much I do not miss living there. The rooms are never bright enough during the day nor dark enough at night.

The next morning we got up WAY too early and hit the road in order to avoid traffic. Bob, Becca, Gary and I got on the road by 6:15 and headed towards Roanoke. We made it there by around 1 had some lunch hung out got ready and went to the church.

The entire reason for this trip was that two seminary friends, Ben and Marissa, were getting married. The wedding ceremony was beautiful, but some kids made it memorable.

I have this theory that at every wedding there is something that happens that make it memorable and it is something that you can never predict. Sometimes it is something that goes wrong or a prank that the groomsmen pulled on the couple, but for Ben and Marissa's wedding it was the kids. During a solo a friends almost three year old daughter sitting behind us said in a ever so cutesy voice "that's beautiful" and then about a minute later announced in that same voice "opps I farted." Now granted she didn't say this loud enough for that many people to hear but it was quite memorable.

However the real show stopper was the first reader. The girl who read was around 8 years old and she read a children's story version of Daniel 3. She was a great reader other than she read so fast most people could not understand what she was saying other than Nebuchadnezzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, which actually she pronounced better than many adults I have heard read the same story. But what does an 8 year old do when you get to the end of the story while reading in public? Well it wasn't "Word of God, Word of Life" or "Here ends the reading." Instead she said paused looked up and said quite loudly and proudly "That's it!" to which everyone responded with applause and laughter.

The reception was wonderful, some great memories (some of which I can't share so that they may be used as blackmail at a later date), lots of friends and plenty of dancing (my legs still hurt). Thank you Ben and Marissa! I had a wonderful time and I pray that your marriage may be blessed and fulfilling.

On Tuesday morning we headed out for a long day of driving. We were going to Becca's parents house in Albany by way of Philly to drop Gary off. Things were going well, until we got to Pennsylvania. We stopped to eat lunch at a Wendy's in a small town just north of the Maryland border. Now something you must know about the state of Pennsylvania, it really is a land of two city states and not a whole lot in between. There is Philadelphia on the east side, Pittsburgh on the west and in the middle is a land better known as Pennsyltucky and we had lunch in Pennsyltucky. We also stopped to get gas and switch drivers, and Bob went to the back to get some stuff to work on since he was no longer going to drive and four beer bottles that we had left over from the night before came spilling out of the car and broke on the ground at this gas station. We picked up the gas, the station attendant came out and swept the area for the small pieces and we were on our way.

However bad karma must have followed us. Probably just as someone else got a flat from a small piece of glass that wasn't picked up, I hit something and our front drivers side tire popped. I'm not talking about any old flat but a loud pop that sounded more like gun shot. Luckily no one was near me and I was able to pull over quickly and Bob was able to put on the spare without much problems. We were also near the western suburbs of Philly at the time and was able to find a tire place easily, but had to go to three places to find one that could helps us since the first was too busy, the second could only fix a leak and not a replacement. So 2 1/2 hours and $250 (for two tires and an alignment adjustment) later we were back on the road and made it to Philly and Albany safely but much later than we wanted.

After a night and most of yesterday in Albany with Becca's family, we made it back to Georgetown safely and now I'm watching the snow fall silently and thinking what a great year it has been and what 2010 will bring. But I think those thoughts will be saved for tomorrow.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday Morning Surprises

So what do you do when it is Lessons and Carols Sunday (i.e. a whole lot of music is going to be played) and your organist calls out sick with the stomach flu?

1. You give thanks that it is Lessons and Carols Sunday and therefore the hymns are familiar

2. You quickly download as many of those said hymns as possible

3. You change any hymns that are not all that familiar to familiar ones

4. You bring your laptop and computer speakers to the church and hook them up

5. You explain the situation and be grateful that between us being a casual congregation and it being the Sunday after Christmas we are even more low key and go with the flow than normal

6. You laugh throughout the service at the absurdity of it all

7. You feel the Spirit move through you as you worship in a new way.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Celebrating

This Christmas was one that will be memorable and luckily not because anything chaotic when on. I received some great gifts, spend time with some wonderful people but most importantly (at least what makes it the most memorable for me) is that it was my first Christmas as a pastor.

Christmas Eve I woke up early unable to sleep any longer. I was like a little kid on Christmas morning. After breakfast I went over to the church and did some random stuff to prepare for worship while Bob sanded the parking lot and did a mail run. After a few hours, we had a Middeke traditional Christmas Eve dinner of a Hickory Farms gift box (yes this really is a tradition in my family). As the day went on I went back to church to prepare, the choir came to practice, the luminaries went outside and the church filled with worshipers. I did have one stress-filled moment around 4:30 when the Sunday school kids were there to practice, the choir wasn't done practicing yet and I had other things to do before 5 when worship began but I bowed out hopefully I didn't insult anyone.

Worship went really well. The choir sang beautifully, us bell players pulled it off, the kids lead Away in the Manger wonderfully and hopefully my sermon was meaningful to those who heard it. And of course candlelight Silent Night was the highlight of the worship service for me.

After worship, Bob and I went back to our home and he fixed us dinner and we opened our gifts to each other and a few others we received. I have to share what Bob commissioned his brother to draw for me. He basically did a collage of pictures from my ordination weekend. (We went to the Peabody Museum in New Haven that weekend hence the triceratops.)

At 10:45 as we are watching Miracle on 34th St we hear a knock on our door and who does it happen to be? The Hottensteins from My First Wedding fame. They thought there was an 11pm service but wanted to stop by and say hello. It is always so nice to see them, especially because they live in New Jersey and are therefore not in CT that often.

On Christmas morning we slept in, took Daisy for a walk and then went to the Grunsell's for Christmas dinner. I love holidays because they are the only days it is considered normal to eat at 3 in the afternoon. Ellen as always put on a fantastic spread of food and the company was wonderful.

We then came home so that we could open the presents from my family while we talked to them on speaker phone. We would have done it via webcam but we do not have a working webcam and we didn't think about that until we were on the phone with them. My family opens presents one at a time and we give gifts to everyone so it takes quiet awhile, but even via speaker phone we had a great time laughing together and both admiring the gifts we received and making fun of them as well.

It was a wonderful Christmas and I hope you all had a wonderful time in worship, with family and friends as you celebrate the birth of our Lord.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

God's Love Had Changed Everything.

Merry Christmas

It was a beautiful Christmas Eve service at Bethlehem and a joyous occasion as my first Christmas service as a pastor. But more about that tomorrow, instead for now I will post the sermon.

The gospel was the Christmas story from Luke (Luke 2:1-20) I also read the Tale of the Three Trees for the Children's Sermon to talk about how when we celebrate Jesus' birth we also celebrate his death and new life. (I could have done a little better connecting the two but oh well it was my first Christmas as a pastor). The sermon starts with a quote from this book.

Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to read the last two pages of that story, The Tale of the Three Trees, again: "But on Sunday morning, when the sun rose and the earth trembled with joy beneath her, the third tree knew that God’s love had changed everything. It had made the first tree beautiful. It had made the second tree strong. And every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God. That was better than being the tallest tree in the world."

God’s love had changed everything! God’s love is changing everything! God’s love will change everything!

What better Christmas message is there? Isn’t that basically what the angel proclaimed to the shepherds? “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” The angel proclaimed that God’s love incarnate, through this little baby, has changed the world.

God’s love in the form of a baby born in a manger has changed the world. God’s love in the form of Jesus who performed miracles – turning water into wine, calming storms, feeding 5000 with only a few loaves of bread and fish, and healing the sick – has changed the world. God’s love in the form of Jesus who died on the cross for us has changed the world.

God’s love has changed the world! God’s love is changing the world! God’s love will change the world!

God’s love is given to us in the gift of baptism – in the waters that claim us as daughters and sons of God, in those waters where we are baptize – claimed – in the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, when we are marked with the cross of Christ forever – God’s love which we receive in baptism changes us!

God’s love is given to us in communion – in the bread and wine, in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the remembrance of both Jesus’ life but more importantly his death, his death on a cross for our sins – God’s love which we receive in communion changes us!

God’s love has made us beautiful, beautiful in the eyes of God, created in God’s image as we are meant to be, as God has envisioned us to be.

God’s love has made us strong – maybe not physically but strong in spirit. God’s love allows us to face the daily trial and temptations of this world. A world where we all have days when we just want to crawl back into bed, a world where we each face sadness, sin and even death. But God’s love has made us strong. Some of us are mourning this Christmas – either as the first Christmas after the death of a loved one or because we are not able to physically be with family and friends who are far from us. But God’s love makes us strong especially when we mourn, when we feel loss.

God’s love allows us to see God’s love in others. Many of us are celebrating new life this year, whether it is a baby’s first Christmas, the first Christmas with a new spouse or significant other, or the first Christmas with new friends. And it is through these gifts, through this new life that God’s love has changed us. God’s love allows us to love others.

God’s love has come to us, as we celebrate the birth of Christ. God’s love comes to us each and every day through out the entire year for God’s love has changed everything! And that is the true Christmas message: Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

God’s love has changed everything! God’s love is changing everything! God’s love will change everything! Including us through the birth of Christ. Merry Christmas! Amen!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A shopping trip, a baptism, a snow storm and some decorating

It was a busy weekend around here.

On Friday, Bob and I did some much needed errands and shopping trip. All total I think we went to post office, the recycling center, Kohl's, a garden center, Target, Lowe's, Stew Leonard's, the mall, an art supply store, the pet store and Stop n Shop. And I don't think we bought any gifts other than for the dog and I bought each other. The trip to the post office was actually to mail out the last package for Christmas gifts for family and friends. We are going to a wedding the Monday after Christmas so a large portion of the shopping was getting clothes for the wedding - I only have spring/summer dresses and Bob needed a new dress shirt. By the time we got back to the house at 6pm we were so tired that our plans to go out for dinner were axed and we ordered Chinese takeout instead.

Saturday I had confirmation in the morning but the highlight of the day was doing a baptism at the home of one of the elderly members of the congregation. Her great-grandson was baptized amid a small gathering of family. It was such a delight to have an informal worship service with a family.

Throughout the day the snow threatened, and the weathermen talked about the snowpocalypse that was coming, and my friends in the DC area were giving regular updates via facebook. But other than a few flurries the snow did not come until around 9, and then boy did it come. By the time we went to bed there was probably close to 2 inches on the ground. And by 6:30 when I awoke there was at least 7 but it was hard to tell exact measurements since it was all powder. Worship was canceled, and Bob and I shoveled. Some areas were practically bare but yet the steps were covered. I even stepped in a snow drift that came up to my mid-thigh.

And Monday a lot of things happened in order to make up for what didn't happen on Sunday. After worship there was suppose to be a time to decorate the sanctuary and the choirs were suppose to practice. So instead we decorated yesterday (the sanctuary is so pretty and slightly different than previous years) and the choirs rehearse last night. So hopefully we are all set for Christmas Eve.

But for now I will enjoy this calm both post and pre craziness.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Love All

On this snowy Sunday Morning, worship has been canceled. But that doesn't mean that we cannot still take a few minutes to worship.

The readings for this week are: Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10 and Luke 1:26-56. This is also the 4th sermon in the sermon series on Advent Conspiracy. (Here are links to the other 3: Worship Fully, Give More, Spend Less.)

I hope you enjoy your snow day and that you can take a few minutes to rest and be calm in the midst of the pre-Christmas craziness that happens to many of us this time of year.

Hope to see you Thursday at 5pm for our Christmas Eve Service

Editors note: This sermon is written to be given verbally. Therefore there are probably a few typos in this sermon as well as run on sentences and sentence fragments. In other words my high school English teacher would be in horror reading this and would probably whip out the red pen , while my speech teacher would be imagining how this would sound as a spoken piece. Please be the speech teacher.

Finally! Here we are the fourth Sunday in Advent, on 5 days until Christmas and we are finally getting to read a lesson that actually has something to do with Christmas. Really five days before Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were packing up getting ready to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, if they hadn’t already left yet. But instead, today, 5 days before Christmas, we hear the story of Mary being told that she was pregnant and then traveling to her cousin Elizabeth to celebrate. Now I don’t actually have any personal experience with this, but from friends and siblings who have had kids recently, 5 days is a really short time to anticipate and prepare for the birth of a child.

But we have been preparing for Jesus’ birth throughout this Advent and throughout the year. For we are not just preparing for his birth, because really that happened over 2000 years ago, but we are preparing our hearts and minds for Jesus to enter in and for Jesus to come again. We are constantly preparing, learning and experiencing how we can better know, love and praise God.

And Mary, in her heart felt song of praise, in her willingness to be a servant of the Lord, is an excellent example of how to do just that. When Martin Luther explained Mary’s song of praise, the magnificat, he uses these words to describe how we can all learn from Mary. “Here, the tender mother of Christ teaches us, with her words and by the example of her experiences, how to know, love and praise God.”

But how hard this must have been for Mary. She was an unwed teenager who was just told by an angel that she was going to have a child though she was a virgin. Unwed pregnant women we often stoned to death for committing adultery. Though Mary has traditionally been depicted as a daughter of a priest, and if that was true she would have been burned to death instead of stoned for being pregnant out of wedlock.

But Mary doesn’t think about the consequences of her pregnancy. After her initial fear of the angel, she doesn’t run or turn away or reject the news or ask why her. Instead she does as God has called her to do. She accepts that she is a servant of the Lord, and even rejoices at the news. She knows that she has been chosen, that she has been blessed by this news that other might dismay.

And there is Elizabeth, an old barren woman, (realistically, she was could have been as young as me, but in her era when you were married as a young teenager, making to 28 without having children would have made you considered barren). Anyway here is Elizabeth, also pregnant, when no one thought it was possible, after she had gone for years without children, and instead of turning from Mary for being full of disgrace, instead of disowning her, or even warning her to flee for her life, instead of all the things Elizabeth could have done to Mary, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. She loves and accepts Mary. She feels blessed and honored to be visited by her and knows that Mary is not only pregnant but also that she is pregnant with the Christ child.

So what does this have to do with us? I mean other than Mary was the mother of Jesus who grew up to not only teach, preach and heal in the name of God but also died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead.

Well most of you know by now that this Advent I have been talking about Advent Conspiracy and their four tenets: Worship Fully, Give More, Spend Less and Love All. Thus far we have discussed each of them except Love All. In some ways this seems like it is an easy one right? I mean of course we love everyone. But if we are honest with ourselves love is the hardest of them all.

We are not always acceptable, we are not always perfect, we screw up, we do not always conform to society’s standards of what is appropriate. We sin against God, we sin against others, we hurt others by our thoughts, words and deeds, by what we have done and what we have left undone and sometimes we do not deserve it when others love us.

We sometimes run from God, we turn away from what God is calling, asking, us to do, we ask why, we complain, we reject God’s call. We ignore God, we are too frighten, perplexed, troubled, disturbed and confused by what God wants us to do that we fail to love God and fail to love others.

Sure we do not show love to strangers but we also do not show love to many people who are family members or once friends. Be honest: how many of you are dreading seeing a particular aunt, uncle, cousin, sibling, parent or child this Christmas or are grateful that you do not have to see them? We fail to love relatives and sometimes we fail to love those who we once loved more anyone else, whether that plays out in getting a divorce, disowning siblings, children or parents, or even just the generic continuing to tolerate and live with the person but no longer having any loving feelings for them.

In an interview on Thanksgiving, Robin Williams stated “Thanksgiving is the holiday that makes us grateful that we don’t live near our family during the rest of the year.” Can’t that be true on Christmas as well? Christmas can be hard on children of divorce, not wanting to offend either parent by choosing one parent’s Christmas celebration over another. Christmas can be hard of married couples, not wanting to choose one spouses traditions over another. These choices are hard because to some people they can be interpreted that they love one person or family more than another.

But we can strive to love all. We can strive to love the poor, the forgotten, the overlooked, the sick, the marginalized. In fact those people are often easier to love than our relatives. By donating toys to St. Luke’s Life Works or Toys for Tots and money to the Salvation Army or other charities you are showing love, God’s love and your own, for others. By accepting people for where they are at, for not allowing that person to get under your skin this Christmas, by being gracious, you are showing love, God’s love and your own to others.

See we don’t always deserve to be loved. I think we can all think of multiple examples of times that we have hurt another, but yet God still loves us. God still accepts us. Just as Elizabeth love and accepted Mary, before she even knew Mary’s story, God accepts and loves us. God’s love is given to us through the healing waters of baptism. God’s love is given to us through the bread and wine of communion. God’s love is given to us through Jesus’ death on the cross. God’s love was given to us through the pregnancy of an unwed teenager 2000 years ago, God’s love was given to us through the birth of Jesus Christ, which we will celebrate in a few days, and God love will be given to us when Jesus comes again someday. For even if we do not always deserve it, God loves us!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Spend Less

Worship was full today with our regular worship plus a temple talk on stewardship and the presentation of the budget for next year. So while some of the other text were referred to with stewardship and budgets in mind, this sermon focused mainly on the gospel text: Luke 3:7-18

So this Advent, this season of preparation before Christmas, I have been talking about Advent Conspiracy. Advent Conspiracy is a movement to have people reclaim Advent and Christmas from what it has become for many people: stress, traffic jams, to do list, shopping. Instead the goal, the hope, of Advent Conspiracy is that people can reclaim Advent and Christmas into a season of love, hope, promise and realize that Christmas can still change the world by us worshiping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all.

So let’s talk about spending less, but first lets see where were are.
• How many of you are already done with your Christmas shopping?
• How many of you have ever given a gift out of pure obligation? They gave or will you a gift so you feel you have to give them something in return?
• How many of you have the one person on your gift giving list this year that you have absolutely no clue what they might enjoy?
• How many of you will spend over $100 on Christmas presents this year? $200? $500?
• How many of you like receiving gifts?
• How many of you like giving gifts?
• How many of you can remember giving someone a gift that they really wanted or were really excited over? What was that like?

See I’m not a Scrooge, I like giving gifts. I like thinking about what someone would really enjoy and finding the perfect gift for them. And I like receiving gifts too. I like receiving gifts that I know were specifically purchased or made with me in mind. Gifts that are useful or meaningful or ones that I will treasure.

But it happens every Christmas, you open that present and you immediately put on that fake smile and as you lift your gift out of the box you exclaim or it is great, I love it. Meanwhile you are wondering what were they thinking when they bought you that? Did they buy it on the way home from church on Christmas Eve and the only place open was the gas station? Whether it is a hideous sweater, a Chia pet, a shirt two sizes too big, or a gift certificate to a place you never shop at, nor would ever shop at, you have just received a gift that was wasted. It would have been better that they wrote a thoughtful card than given you something that proves they put no thought into what you might enjoy.

And if you gave that gift, and you realize that they didn’t like it, it feels horrible. You just want to take it back and either give them the cash you spent on it or a card or something else.

And then think about this: every year Americans spend $450 billion dollars on Christmas. $450 billion! That is ten times the amount Bank of America just paid back the US government from the bailout program. That works out to be almost $1500 per person, not per family, per person, including children.

So what would happen if each year, we bough one less gift? One less gift that we give solely out of obligation. One less hideous sweater, Chia pet, shirt two sizes too big, or a gift certificate that they will never use. Think of how nice it would be to not have to buy something for the random coworker in the Secret Santa pool at work. Think of how nice it would be to not have to rack your brain to get something for that one person who you can never think of what to get them.

So if every person bought one less gift a year, say that averages out to be $20 (I’m being cheap here), that is $610 million dollars a year in savings.

So what all does this have to do with the Gospel? What does this have to do with lessons we just heard, that we just read?

Well there is John the Baptist out in the wilderness preaching to crowds telling them to prepare the way of the Lord. And how does he tell them to prepare the way? By giving away an extra coat and extra food, by doing their job well and by being satisfied with their wages. That’s it! It is simple. He didn’t tell them to go out and do great things, he didn’t tell them to go out and even do anything particularly religious – going to worship daily, reading the scriptures. No just give away your excess to those who have none, do your job well and don’t complain.

See we often feel like we have to do something big, that we have to do something worth wild in order for it to make a difference in this world. We hear about the people who gave a million dollars to a charity or a university. And maybe we wish we could be them, to get their recognition, to change the world that way. But really we don’t have to do anything big. A tree only has to bear one good fruit in order for the seed to be planted in order for another tree to grow, which will bear more good fruit and more trees.

We don’t have to do anything spectacular, we just need to do what we have been called to do, do it well, and help others in need. To do our small part, to do what God has call us to do.

Plus some of the best gifts, the best fruits we can bear, require no money at all. By giving what we already have, people can have warm clothes for winter and food on their tables. By giving the skills that we have, houses can be built, quilts can be made, children can be educated, the world can be changed. God has given us the ability to bear good fruit.

God has given us the gifts of community to support us as we bear good fruit. This church has donated over $700 for Redding Social Services this year, not including the hundreds of food items as well. We donated a pile of toys to St. Luke’s Life Work’s this year. Think of how many children will have gifts this Christmas that might otherwise have none. We have support the African Mission. We have done many, many things. God has given us this community to support us as we bear good fruit.

We bear good fruits because we have been given the gift of Christ. Christ who came to us as child born in a lowly manger, Christ who forgives our sins, Christ who died on a cross for us, Christ who will come again! Christ who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, Christ who gave us his body and blood through the bread and wine of communion. Christ who was the ultimate gift for the world. For God so loved the world, that God gave his only son to die for us so that we might receive eternal life.

We have been given the gift of Christ so that we can bear good fruit. So then what if we buy one less gift so that we can bear good fruit. What if we take that $20 that we saved from not buying that one gift and instead donated to a charity on that person’s behalf? And what if only one in every one hundred people in this country did the exact same thing? It may seem like nothing big, but that would be an additional $61 million dollars given to charity each year. Think of all the good things that charities like Lutheran World Relief, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity and others could do with an extra $61 million a year. Lutheran World Relief’s total program expenses for the year are only $32 million.

It is by bearing that one good fruit, something that might seem so small at the time, by buying that one less gift, that we realize that Christmas can still change the world.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Crafting fairies

My house, well the dining and living rooms more specifically, looks like it has been taken over by the craft fairies. I've been working away making gifts for Christmas presents for some friends and family. Unfortunately some of the recipients of these gifts read this blog so I won't post pictures but since Friday I have:

Sewn together two Christmas stockings that I needlepointed earlier this year.

Made 9 cute little felt ornaments.

Traced/drew a picture of someone in a well know cartoon setting. This is a similar picture that I made last year of Bob with Peter and Stewie from Family Guy.

Made a whole lot of yarn into pompoms for a tacky yet cool wreath.

Made a felt jungle play mat.

Cut out felt (not sewn yet) for a car/roadway play mat.

Still up:

Make Bob's gift - not even going to hint about what it is.

Make another personalize cartoon picture.

Sew some skirts.

And if I have time, and only if I have time make an Advent calendar

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How to Give More

The second concept from Advent Conspiracy that I'm focusing on this Advent is Give More.

Advent Conspiracies defines this as "God’s gift to us was a relationship built on love. So it’s no wonder why we’re drawn to the idea that Christmas should be a time to love our friends and family in the most memorable ways possible. Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving. Sounds a lot better than getting a sweater two sizes too big, right?" But how can we do that? Life is crazy, I don't have time to give my time.

So life is crazy. Everyone's life is crazy. I try never to get into complaining competitions because there is always someone who has a crazier life than me, but there are very few people I know who would not enjoy a few more hours in the day, a few more days in the week and a few more weeks in a year in order to get everything do that they must get done.

It is the craziness of life that makes giving time a difficult thing to do. However it is the craziness of life that makes giving time one of the most enjoyable gifts to give because it allows us to step back and enjoy the time we spend together.

So how can you give time?

If you have a hobby that produces something tangible - knitting, needle-pointing, woodworking, photography, writing, baking, cooking - use your hobby to make gifts for others. Not only do you get to work on something you enjoy, it is a personal gift that hopefully they will enjoy more.

Spread it out over the year! One of my favorite suggestions about giving time came from a parent with multiple kids. The parents made up coupon books with simple events for each month of the year that gave each kids time to be alone with one or both parents. So the kids got a year of presents like "a lunch date with mom" "going to the batting cages with dad" "going out for ice cream with mom and dad" that the kids were able to redeem throughout the year.

Make a date for it. Set a weekly or monthly time to spend together and stick to it, whether it is family game night, a monthly night out with friends.

Buy tickets for two. Tickets to a concert, sport's game, art exhibit, play, etc are great gifts and way to spend time together, especially if you make a day of it.

Already bought the person a gift? Is there some way you can share in it together? Read the book you bought him and discuss it. Have her beat you in the video game you bought her even if you embarrass yourself doing so. Cook together using that new kitchen gadget. Build something together with the new set of tools. Play together with the new sports equipment. And I can't think of someway to share clothes but be creative I'm sure you can think of something.

Happy Advent!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Give More

For the second Sunday in Advent the text were Malachi 3:1-20, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:1-11, and Luke 3:1-6. There was also a baptism who is the Liam that is mentioned in the sermon. This is also the second in the series of sermons using the concepts of Advent Conspiracy. Yeah so there is a lot in one sermon. Enjoy!

We have some pretty interesting lessons today. I mean it is not even three weeks till Christmas, shouldn’t we be hearing about Mary being told by an angel that she was pregnant with Jesus, or a preview to Jesus’ birth or maybe even about the birth of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who was born just a few months before Jesus. Instead our Old Testament reading about Israel having to be put through the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap (whatever that means), the second reading is some blessing Paul wrote to people who agreed with him in Philippi and the gospel lesson is a list of some dudes who ruled some lands and John the Baptist proclaiming the need for people to be baptized. Okay so at least our psalmody is not from psalms and instead it is the song Zechariah, John the Baptist’s dad, sang when John was born – but we don’t ever get to read the background story.

But Advent, this season of four weeks before Christmas, in the church is not just about preparing for Jesus’ birth. Think about it, what parent just prepares for the birth of a child and not for the child’s life to – the clothes, carriers, strollers, diapers, that is all about the child’s life. Advent is about preparing for Jesus’ life, for his ministry, for his death on the cross, it is about preparing for Jesus resurrection from the dead and for him to come again. Yes we tend to focus on Jesus’ birth at Christmas – at least if we look at the meaning of Christmas and not the way secular society has made Christmas out to be – all about presents, cookies, decorating, holiday parties and the big long to do list.

So with that in mind, the preparations that are being made not just for Jesus’ birth, but also his life, it makes since that we have today’s text. We must prepare the way Lord. We must make paths straights, mountains and valleys level. We must make ourselves clean, worthy for Christ, through the refiner’s fire, through the fuller’s soap, through the waters of baptism.

The people of Israel needed to be scrubbed clean, they needed to go through the refiner’s fire. The people John was preaching his message to needed to repent, to have their sins forgiven. The Lord was coming and they needed to make his path straight. To level every mountain, to fill every valley. But all of that takes time!

The refining process for gold and silver was drawn out, it took time to get out the other chemicals in order to leave pure silver and gold. Leveling mountains and filling valleys take time. Have you ever dug a garden bed? Making paths straight takes time. Think of how much time they have spend already on the parkway and route 7. They all take time.

It takes time! Time something that we never seem to have enough of. Time, probably one of the most precious commodities in the entire world. We are fine if we waste some of our own time, playing on the internet, watching a un-worth-wild TV show, flipping through the pages of a catalog that we will never purchase anything from. But how dare somebody else waste our time, in a pointless work meeting that has nothing to do with us, by being late to a meeting or lunch, making us wait for our appointment with the doctor or dentist, making us wait in line at the grocery store or bank.

We are constantly trying to find ways to save time. ATMs have almost eliminated the need for actual bank tellers, emails are a quicker way of trying to arrange meetings or exchange ideas. At Stop N Shop, you can now use a hand-held scanner as you shop for groceries so that when you get to the cash register all you have to do is pay – and if you bring your own bags and arrange your cart well, you don’t even have to worry about bagging your groceries either. Entire TV programs show you how to cook a well balanced meal in less than a half hour. It is all about saving time.

So maybe that is why time is often the most precious gift we can give.

We often think that we can buy our own and other people’s happiness, especially at Christmas time. If I spend a lot on a present for them, they will like me more. If I get them the gift that they really want, even if I can’t afford it, they will be happy for the entire year. If I only owned a nicer house, boat, car, designer clothes, cell phone, latest gadget, fill in the blank, then I will be truly happy.

But money does not buy happiness, however time does, or at least helps.

I’ve been talking about Advent Conspiracy with you in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Last week we talked about Worship Fully, one of the core concepts to Advent Conspiracy. But this week, lets talk about Give More. We often think at Christmas about giving and spending more of our money on our family and friends in order to make Christmas memorable. But really we should Give More of our time, our presence.

It is in giving that time that we make memories. Yes I remember fondly playing with many of my siblings and my Christmas presents, an easy-bake oven, the Nintendo, some musical instrument kit. But what I remember more about those toys was the times when my parents played with them with me. When my mom, sister and I would cook desserts in our easy bake oven then have a little party. When my siblings and I took turns beating my dad at Duck Hunt. When I got my siblings to join in a parade of musical instruments and march in front of my parents.

An as a young adult, my favorite presents have become ones that either put time and effort into making especially for me – a Christmas stocking that my dad needlepointed for me when I was a kid, or the tie blanket that Bob made for me a few years ago before we got married. Those are the gifts I treasure.

And how about you? What have been your favorite Christmas presents? Ones that someone picked off a shelf for you at a store because it was on sale? Or ones that people picked out or made especially for you? Or even ones where people spend time with you, taking you out to your favorite restaurant, tickets to a sports game or play, time to teach you a hobby that you have always wanted to try?

Time is a precious commodity. Time is what makes happiness. Time is what builds relationships. Spending true quality time with your family this Christmas is what will make them happy – at least most of them, there are always some Scrooges out there. And quite honestly we each probably have some family members that we don’t want to spend time with.

To quote the Advent Conspiracy website: Time is the real gift Christmas offers us, and no matter how hard we look, it can’t be found at the mall. Time to make a gift that turns into the next family heirloom. Time to write mom a letter. Time to take the kids sledding. Time to bake really good cookies and sing really bad Christmas carols. Time to make love visible through relational giving. Sounds a lot better than getting a sweater two sizes too big, right?

Time is a gift.

We all know it. God knows it to. All those things that I talked about earlier – making hills low and filling valleys, straightening paths, going through the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap – all of those things take time. And God is willing to give us that time.

God builds relationship with us through time. Today when the baptismal waters are poured over Liam, God is just starting a formal relationship with him. God is not done with Liam once his head is dried off. And God is not done with us. God was not done with us at our baptisms. We were not given the gift of baptism and then left alone for the rest of our lives to wander in the wilderness. No, God comes to us each and every day. The word of God still comes to us.

We are continually given the gifts of God’s grace. We were each given that grace at our baptism and we are continually given God’s grace whenever we remember that we are children of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever.

We are given the gifts of Christ Jesus. Jesus gave us the forgiveness of all of our sins through his death on a cross. And weekly at this altar, at this table, we are given the gifts of Christ’s body and blood through tangible offering of bread and wine. Gifts that are given to all people. Gifts of forgivness.

We are given the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, generosity, self-control, the ability to teach, the ability to preach, the ability to serve. Each have been given to us in our own ways. The Holy Spirit moves in us each and every day. We have been given these gifts over and over again. Time has been spent on us.

As we prepare for Christmas, for Christ’s birth, life and death, we are reminded of the amount of time it takes to prepare the way of the Lord, but we are also reminded about the amount of time God has and is willing to spend on us. God is building a relationship with us and relationships take time and they take love. And we are worth the time and we are loved.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Ways to Worship Fully

So yesterday my sermon was about Worship Fully, one of the four main concepts of Advent Conspiracy. In the sermon I used the "definition" from the Advent Conspiracy website for what it means to worship fully. But to keep you from looking it up it is: It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

But what does that mean? How can you worship fully in your life? Well here are a few suggestion, use them all, use only one.

Plan the Advent/Christmas season around worship - make sure shopping, decorating, parties and other preparations do not prevent you from attending weekly worship.

Use an Advent wreath of calendar and each evening take a moment to light the wreath or open a door and offer God a prayer.

Read the bible daily.

Find a daily devotional you enjoy and read it each day of Advent.

Pray with family or along.

Say table grace, even at restaurants, even when you do not each as a family.

Take a few moments each day to stand back and find joy and thanksgiving in your day.

Sing along to those Christmas Carols - especially the ones that refer to worshiping Jesus - O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Away in the Manger - just to name a few.

These are just a few suggestion on how to worship fully. There are many, many more things you can do, but the point is not to give you an even longer to do list. The point of Advent Conspiracy is to allow you the opportunity to stand back from all the holiday craziness that happens this time of year and instead take time to worship God, who came to us as a humble child, for that is the true reason of Christmas.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Worship Fully

This Advent I'm hopefully preaching a sermon series based on the four concepts of Advent Conspiracy - Worship Fully, Give More, Spend Less and Love All. You can find out more about Advent Conspiracy HERE and HERE.

This particular sermon focused on Worship Fully and did reference the gospel text for today Luke 21:25-36 . But really all of the text from this week were helpful in discussing how we worship fully. The other text for this week were: Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25:1-10 and 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

So it is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the First Sunday in Advent and I have a question for you: Are you sick of Christmas yet?

Are you tired of the commercial for sales daily reminding you that you need to buy your family’s love (but don’t worry it is on sale this weekend only)? Are you annoy yet with the Christmas carols being constantly played in the malls, department stores and even on the regular radio stations, some places started as early as November 1? Are you disgusted with the house down the road that has already had Christmas decorations up for a month and each day puts up something new? Are you fed up with your ever-growing to-do list of shopping, cooking, decorating, wrapping, caroling, partying, spending, stressing? It is not even December yet, and are you sick of Christmas?

And really what is the point of all that? Of decorating, shopping, cooking, baking, wrapping, caroling, partying, spending and stressing? Is that meaning of Christmas? Is that what makes memories? Are those your favorite memories of Christmases past? Is your favorite memory of Christmas dealing with the traffic jams and crowds at the mall? Is your favorite part of Christmas trying to find the perfect gift for the random co-worker that you hardly know who you were so lucky get in the secret Santa exchange at work? Is your favorite thing about Christmas is when you finally pay off the last bill in June? Is that what you hope your children and grandchildren remember about Christmas?

See all of that is temporary. They are things of this earth. They will pass away, they will fade. Every year Americans spend 450 Billion dollars on Christmas, most of which will be returned, exchanged or tossed in the trash. Forgotten about by the time Christmas come again the following year.

So are we not to do all this? Are we not to worry about decorating, shopping, cooking, wrapping, caroling, partying, spending, and stressing? But what if you like cooking or caroling or the parties? Well maybe we can do it only differently. Maybe we can conspire to do Christmas in a way that is less stressful and more meaningful.

I would like to invite you join a conspiracy with me. An Advent Conspiracy.

Advent Conspiracy is a group that was started in 2006 by four churches and their pastors to help people reclaim Advent as a season of waiting, of giving, of worship, so that Christmas can be a time of meaning and not about useless gifts, long to-do list, and stress. There are four main concepts to Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully, Give More Presence, Spend Less and Love all. So each week this Advent, I hope to discuss one of these with you so hopefully you will conspire with me.

But first lets begin with worship, because that is where Christmas began, that is why Christmas began. We worship. We worship the infant in the manger, we worship the man hanging from the cross, and we will worship the Son of Man who is coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

To worship means to pray, to sing, to give our time and our possessions. We think we worship, but really worship happens to us. Worship is what God does to use when we think we’re singing, praying and listening on Sunday Mornings.

Worship happens when we hear and listen to God’s voice. Worship happens when we received Christ’s body and blood through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Worship happened when we have been washed with the grace-filled, life giving waters of baptism. Worship happens when we receive God’s grace and forgiveness. Worship happens to us. To worship fully means to accept the Holy Spirit to move through us, to allow the Spirit to stir our hearts and minds, to receive God’s grace, to gather around Jesus Christ.

To worship fully, in the words of the Advent Conspiracy website, is to realize that: It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus. This is the holistic approach God had in mind for Christmas. It’s a season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. It’s a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath. It’s the party of the year. Entering the story of advent means entering this season with an overwhelming passion to worship Jesus to the fullest.

See it all begins with worship. The shepherds had an overwhelming passion to come to worship Jesus in the manger. The wise men had an overwhelming passion to came to worship Jesus and offer him their gifts. That is the point of Christmas, that is the point of Advent.

Advent is a season of waiting. Yes we are waiting and preparing the birth of Christ, something that has already happened, but we are reminded by our Bible lessons today that we are also awaiting for Christ to come again. We are waiting, preparing, praying, singing, listening for when Christ will come again in great glory. For the day when we can stand up and raise our heads in worship, knowing that our redemption is near. We are waiting for a day when we can worship Jesus in all his glory, when he comes again.

This Advent we are waiting and preparing. We are not just preparing our homes with decorations. We are not just preparing our schedules with too much to do. We are not just preparing our credit cards with too many bills to pay (450 billion dollars). This Advent and really each and every day of the entire year, we are waiting and preparing our hearts and minds for Christ. We are waiting and preparing to truly worship Christ. We are waiting and preparing for the day when God’s promises will be fulfilled, when the Lord will be called our righteousness.

But until that day, we worship God and realize, hopefully with an overwhelming passion, that God happens to us in worship. As we wait and prepare, we receive the forgiveness of all of our sins because Christ who was born in a stable will die for our sins and come again in glory. As we wait and prepare, we received God’s everlasting, eternal grace through the gifts of the Lord’s Supper. As we wait and prepare, we are reminded that we are children of God, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. As we wait and prepare, we worship, for Christmas is coming and Christ is coming again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dessert, dessert and more dessert

We finally had our house warming on Saturday. It was a lovely evening filled with many congregation members and a few friends from outside the congregation. I have no clue how many people we had total but it was a full house.

But as a spin a on typical house warming with cheese and cracker trays and veggies and dip we had a dessert party.

My family had dessert parties for quiet a few years after we moved to Minnesota for various reason, and I just remember my parents and myself and maybe my sister baking for a few weeks a nice variety of cakes, cheesecakes, cookies and pies and the dining room table being covered in desserts the entire evening.

So I set to baking. A few weeks ago I made chocolate chip, peanut butter and snickerdoodle cookies (all were frozen). The following week I made strawberry jam bars, double chocolate brownies, triple layer cookie bars, chewy peanut butter bars, and peppermint cookie bars. And this last Friday was cake day: mint chocolate cheesecake, smore's cheesecake, almond cheesecake, pumpkin cake, pineapple upside down cake, fruit pizza, triple layer raspberry chocolate cake, flour-less chocolate torte, and angel food cake. Can you tell I like to bake and are you hungry yet?

Of course there were leftovers, but between freezing some items, bringing others to coffee hour on Sunday and pawning some leftovers onto others, there is a manageable amount left that Bob and I can munch off of for the next week or so until we really do eat our weight in desserts.

But I think the best part of the night was for the congregation members to see our home. The house has had such a history with the congregation and so many people were excited to see it remodeled to new life. So here is hoping that there will be much life still left in this old house!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past, Present and Future

For Christ the King Sunday, the gospel text is John 18:33-37. The second lesson is also referred to which is Revelation 1:4b-8. I also started this sermon by first showing pictures of The Burger King, King Kong, Elvis, Michael Jackson and the king of hearts to ask what makes a person a king.

Who are these people? Kings What makes them kings? What does it mean to be a king? Who else are kings?

Well today is Christ the King Sunday, so tell me, how is Jesus Christ a king?
See I knew you would have an answer for this, probably more than most adults which is why I started with talking to you today.

So here it is Christ the King Sunday and we have a gospel lesson about Jesus being on trial, about to be put to death, something that is very un-kingly. Jesus was not being treated as a king. He was mocked, he was put on trial, he was persecuted, he was sentenced to death on a cross and he died a horrible death.

Jesus was a king without a physical realm. He was a king without a throne, court, money, gold, and prestige that comes from being a king.

Then again Jesus says it himself, his kingdom is not from this world. Jesus was not treated as a king because Jesus was not the type of king that people had seen before. Kings are still mortal, they were born like any other human, they still die like any other human, but Jesus was not just human.

Jesus was and is also God. Jesus was born in a manger, his birth we will celebrate in just a few weeks, but the beginning of the gospel of John also tells us that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The gospel continues: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Jesus was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus was born like any other king, maybe a little more humbly, but still a very human birth, but yet Jesus was also at the beginning, Jesus was not created, Jesus was eternal.

And Jesus did not die like any other king. He was put to death on a cross but unlike all other humans Jesus did not remain dead, he rose again, was resurrected on the third day. Jesus then ascended into heaven, Jesus is eternal.

Oh how I have changed tenses, Jesus was eternal, Jesus is eternal. And guess what? Jesus will be eternal. Past, present and future. All three at once. Isn’t that one of the very first rules you learn about grammar in writing classes, to stay in the same tense, to not switch back and forth between past, present and future. But we still do it.

In fact, as we have started using the first setting in the ELW have you caught when we switch tenses when referring to Jesus. Open your hymnal now to page 109. Do you see it? Christ HAS died. Christ IS risen. Christ WILL come again. Christ is past present and future, Christ is truly eternal. And again in our reading from Revelation: “The Lord God who is and who was and who is to come.’” Past, present and future. Truly eternal. From the beginning to the ending. The alpha and omega, the A and the Z.
But what does this have to do with us now, here today? Jesus lived in bodily form a long time ago, the beginning was a really long time ago and hopefully the end will be a long time in the future.

Well Christ still was, is and will be. Christ has been in our lives, Christ is currently in our lives and Christ will continue to be in our lives. We have been beloved children of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever. Christ died for us, for our sins. Christ was sent into this world for us.

Today and each day we are given reminders of Christ’s love and grace for us. We are continually reminded of God’s love and grace through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table. We are continually reminded of Christ love and grace through the healing and life giving waters of baptism. And we are continually reminded of Christ love and grace through the love, joy, and patience of friends, family, loved ones, and fellow members of the body of Christ.

And we will be resurrected with Christ into a life like his. We will be given eternal life with Christ in heaven.

We have been, are and will be given the forgiveness of our sins.
We have been, are and will be marked with the cross of Christ forever.
We have been, are and will be loved with a love so strong that God gave his only son to die for us.
We have been, are and will be given eternal life with Christ.

Christ is the King. He is the king of love. He is the king of forgiveness. He is the king of compassion. He is the king of grace. He is the king of us.

Even through his trial, suffering, crucifixion, death and burial, Christ was still King. Even when he was treated in a very un-king-like matter, as he was mocked, persecuted and was killed, Christ was still king. Even when people did not know that they belonged to the kingdom of heaven, Christ was still king.

And today even though we often stray from Christ, Christ is still king. Even though we do not always listen to his voice, Christ is still king. Even though we do not treat him as a king and worship other things besides him, Christ is still king. Even though we do not always know and obey the truth, Christ is still king.

And when the end times come, when the living and the dead are judge, Christ will be king. When people repent for their sins, Christ will be king.

For Christ was, is and will be king. Christ, the Lord God who is and who was and who is to come. For Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. For Christ is the king.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In-Gathering Sunday

I can't believe that I made it to Wednesday before posting about In-gathering Sunday. It has been a busy week, but that is good.

So for those of you who are not familiar with Bethlehem, you might be wondering what In-gathering Sunday is. Well I was too. I had heard about In-gathering Sunday when I first arrived at Bethlehem and while it was described to me a few times I was still confused at exactly what it was. Basically in a nutshell, it is the Sunday when everyone brings in food that is then donated to the food pantry for Redding Social Services. It is normally a few weeks before Thanksgiving but also during the Stewardship campaign for the next year so hopefully people make the connection that stewardship is about all of our resources which go to help others, not just money that goes to the church.

The altar is COVERED in produce and during the offering many people bring forward the bags and bags of food that are collected.

So unfortunately I don't have pictures of this year's altar yet. But here are two pictures from a previous year.

Standing at the altar amid all that food was spectacular! It also really added to all the illusions of communion being a feast.

What a visual joy!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bigger is not always Better

So Bethlehem is a small congregation, and I'm not knocking large churches in this sermon, I'm just hoping to point out that there is a place, reason and ministry for smaller congregations. The sermon is based on the gospel lesson from this week Mark 13:1-8 as well as references to the second lesson Hebrews 10:11-25

If you were to describe Bethlehem to a friend who knew nothing about this congregation what would you say?

How would you answer the question about how large the congregation is? About how many worship here and what the facilities are like?

In many of my conversations with you all over the last 5 months, there have been concerns about our congregation’s size. That we are small, that we tiny. There is no denying that we are a small congregation. Our average worship attendance is around 25, even less in the summer. So do you admit to others that we are a small church? Or do you skirt around the issue, maybe even apologizing that we are small, or justifying it – “well we only worship about 25 but we are a very active group.” I’m guilty of this too. At bishop’s convocation last month when I talked to pastor friends and they were asking me about this congregation I often said things like “Well we worship around 25 a Sunday, but at least that many people are involved in the congregation outside of worship every month.”

So here we are, people who attend a small church, even when the world is telling us that bigger is better.

Have you ever worshipped at a mega-church? They have programs galore! The calendars alone almost frighten me. Most mega churches have more things going on each day of the week than we have schedule within a entire month. And people go to them, flock to them. I know of people who drive over an hour one way to attend a mega church when hundreds, if not thousands, gather to worship together. Their Sundays school attendance is in the hundreds, a small group consist of 20 people. If you listen to some theologians and worship leaders - Mega-churches are the wave of the future! They are the way modern American’s do church. Bigger is better!

Then why? Why do you come here? Why do you worship here? Why do you participate in the faith community of this place? Why do you worship with only a handful of people? A place where we are happy if we get 5 people for Bible Study, a place where we have 6 Sunday school students in all the grades combined.

The disciples too were caught up in the bigger is better mentality. “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” They were in awe at the size of the temple in Jerusalem. They were like first time visitors to New York – constantly looking up – about to be hit by taxis because they can’t take their eyes away from all the big buildings, all the people, all bright lights. They were in awe by the size of the temple, and probably even felt a little ashamed that their group was so small.

But yet Jesus reminds them that bigger is not always better, that buildings are just buildings, things that will not last forever. Jesus warns the disciples that “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus cautions his disciples to reject the things of this world, for the disciples are focused on the things of this world, on buildings and our bodies, on the when and the what, on when and what will happen when the world ends. Instead Jesus wants us to focus on the things of heaven, to focus on the spirit, on our heart’s intent on the how and the why, on the how and why we are loved by God and the how and the why we can show that love to others.

Things of this earth do not matter. The temple fell and yet Judaism continued. This building could be destroyed but yet Bethlehem Lutheran Church will continue. The church, with a small c, as in the building, is temporary, a thing of this world, and will someday no longer exist. But the Church, with a large C, as in the community of believers, is a thing of heaven and is everlasting. So when you get right down to it, I think none of us come to church (with a small c) here because of the excellent facilities – yes we may like the feel of this building, the look of the stain glass and the architecture, but that is all secondary. So why do you come here?

I laughed on Monday when I first read this gospel reading. All I could think of when I read the first verse “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” was Little Red Riding Hood. “Grandma, what large eyes you have” “The better to see you with my dear.” “Grandma, what large teeth you have.” “The better to eat you with my dear.” Bigger is not always better – for little red riding hood, the wolf’s bigger eyes meant less places to hide, the wolf’s bigger teeth meant she was much easier to be killed. For churches, bigger buildings mean more maintenance; bigger congregations mean less personal connection. And it is the personal connections, the personal relationship with one another and with Christ, that make us the Church (with a large C).

Ahh did I touch on it? Did I say maybe why you come to worship here? So it is not about the building, as blessed as we are to have it, as much as we have been entrusted to care for it. But it, the reason why we worship here, is not about the building, it is about the relationship. When you worship here you know most of the people here, not just their names but something about them, something about who they are. When you aren’t here you know that you are missed, and if you don’t show up a few weeks in a row, someone is probably going to call you and ask if you are okay, to see how you have been.

See that is the how and the why. The how and the why we worship here, the how and the why we are Christians. Jesus doesn’t care about the what and when, or even the where. Where you worship, what you do there, and when you do it. When the end times will happen or what will happen. Jesus cares about the how and the why. How and why do we care for others, how and why we, to use the example from our reading in Hebrews, provoke one another to love and good deeds, the how and the why we meet together and encourage one another.

Bigger is not always better. Bigger does not mean a better understanding of how and why we do things. In fact for many people it is the opposite, the larger the community, the less connected we are to each other, the less we care about how and why do things that we do as a community including worship and service. But here in this small community, we know some of the how and why we worship here. And yes sometimes we come just to make sure that others don’t call us to see if we have been sick.

As a community, we worship because of the relationship, but more importantly we worship because Jesus died for us. How? Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. Why? Because God loves us.

As a community, we are weekly given reminders of God’s grace. How? Through the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Table. Why? Because we are beloved children of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever.

As a community, we provoke one another to love and good deeds. How? Through the community relationship that have developed, through our service to the greater community. Why? Because Christ loves us and we have been sent out to share Christ’s love with others.

As a community, we are reminded that our sins are forgiven, our faith is lifted, our lives are recharged. As a community, we sing with joy and thanksgiving. As a community, we celebrate and mourn. As a community, we are the Church…with a capital C.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I have loved going on Facebook the last week or so. Okay first I must admit that I'm slightly addicted to Facebook. But over the last week or so, something has caught on and it is so empowering, so attitude of gratitude that is becoming contagious.

It all started with someone out there that challenged people to repost this in their status updates: Let's see how many people can do this. Every day this month until Thanksgiving, think of one thing that you are thankful for and post it as your status. "Today I am thankful for..." The longer you do it, the harder it gets! Now if you think you can do it then repost this message as your status to invite others to take the challenge, then post what YOU are thankful for today.

And it has caught on, as things often do in the Facebook world.

It is so wonderful to see friends post status about being thankful for family, friends, parents, warm homes, days off, jobs, and the list goes on.

So what are you thankful for?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Remembering a Mentor

One of my former pastors died this morning after suffering from complications after a fall.

Pastor Tom Herbranson was the senior pastor of Immanuel Lutheran in Eden Prairie, MN well before my family and I moved to Minnesota and retired during my senior year of high school. Pastor Tom was a joy and a delight. He always had a smile on his face, a big bear hug for whoever needed one, a wonderful voice, and a joke in his sermons that kept you listening.

He will be greatly missed. Though I thank God for Pastor Tom's ministry and his inspiration to me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grace in Small Things

A friend of mine has recently been blogging about the Grace in Small Things. GIST was started in 2008 to help people take time every day to be thankful for some of the smaller things in life. I don't think I will blog daily about what I'm thankful for or where I see God's grace active in my life but maybe once a week I will try. So here are my five (out of many) for today.

A husband who lets me press snooze a few times while he gets up and makes tea

Beautiful spring like days in late fall

For the veterans who have served this country and others

For the neighbors down the road who I talk to daily on my morning walk as they wait for the oldest son's bus

For being able to listen live via internet to radio stations that do not broadcast in this area

Monday, November 9, 2009

When the Spirit Moves You...

Yesterday's Old Testament text was the Widow at Zarephath and the Gospel lesson was the Widow in the Temple Treasury.

I had struggled writing my sermon. Normally by the time I sit down to write the text on Thursday, I have thought about the text for quiet awhile and can write a good rough draft within an hour. Well on Thursday I spent over 3 hours and had two different starts, no end and definitely no rough draft. On Friday, after a discussion about the sermon with my husband< I was able to finish writing a sermon that I thought was okay. It wasn't one of my best sermons, but I was satisfied with it since I didn't know how to put things better.

Well on Sunday morning, which was the kickoff to our stewardship campaign for 2010, before the first lesson, one of the council members was discussing why he gives to the church. Jeff's point was that the church is a gift that we have been entrusted with, that we are the caretakers of. As I sat and listened to Jeff, I realized my sermon was all wrong. It had what I wanted to say, just not how I wanted to say it. And then as I re-heard the first lesson, read the psalm, and re-heard the second lesson, I knew I was being called to preach something else. So that by the time I approached the pulpit to read the gospel, I was ready to preach a different sermon on those two text than the one I prepared.

So what did I preach on? Well I can't quite remember it all. I know I talked a lot about how we are not the widows, how even the poorest among us are not waiting to die from starvation, or down to our last two coins. We are the rich, God has provided us with much through our jobs, talents, friends, family. God has provided us with cars, houses, clothing, food, love ones, jobs, and much much more.

I also discussed that the NRSV translation that I just read of Mark 12 leaves out a word. Jesus watched HOW the crowd was putting money into the treasury. I talked about how my vantage point of looking at the congregation during worship allows me to see how they worship. The ones who joyfully sing so that I can see their back molars, the ones who mutter along or don't bother singing at all. The ones who look desperate to be filled one week, drained from the stresses of life, and return the next week full of joy.

I probably rambled some, I probably did not make a very cohesive point, especially since this was my first time ever preaching without even notes. But it was the sermon that God was calling me to preach, not the one that was prepared. So hopefully it was the sermon that someone needed to hear. Amen!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fully Installed

Yes I am now fully installed - much like a dishwasher. On Sunday afternoon, Bethlehem hosted a worship of installation. The same band who played for my first Sunday played again for gathering music, joined the choir during the offertory anthem and joined with our organist for the sending hymn. The dean of the local conference of ELCA pastors presided for the beginning of the service and over the rite of installation, and the pastor from the church Bob and I attended last year in New Haven preached. All it all it was a wonderful service.

The sermon focused on the pastor being the shepherd, leading people to water at the baptismal font and food physically at the Lord's Table and spiritually at the pulpit as well as how we embody Christ when we share the peace with one another.

And of course afterward we had a wonderful reception. I am constantly amazed by Susan's ability to transform our regular old community room into an entertaining space.

It was a great afternoon of worship and evening of fellowship as we welcomed our guests.

And now all the celebrations are over (other than our open house) as I'm now official, official.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Death sucks

Happy belated All Saints Day! Yesterday afternoon was a little busy (hand my installation) so the sermon is going up today. The main text that this sermon was based on was John 11:32-45, but if you aren't familiar with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, I would suggest reading all of Chapter 11

I am not a huge fan of funerals. First off the reason why there is a funeral is because someone die – not really the best reason for a group of people to gather. Second, we face our own mortality as we mourn the loss of a loved one, a friend, a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a colleague and at the same time we also face the reality that we too will die someday…there is nothing like the death of someone else to remind us that we too are going to die. I especially dislike the funeral procession from the church to the cemetery…nobody really likes driving at 10 miles per hour, even if it does mean that you get to run red lights. There is also that awkward moment that happens at the visitation, as you gather with a group of friends or family, people start telling stories about the deceased, then you often get into other stories and then you start laughing and eventually there one person who in the middle of the laughter looks over at the casket or urn and everyone who was just laughing gets quiet and starts to feel guilty about laughing at a funeral. But the worst is that as a pastor but even mourner, you often meet new people at funerals and as you are getting ready to leave that phrase that so naturally comes out of your mouth because it is appropriate any other time slips out as you say goodbye to these people that you just meet: It was so great to meet you. It was so great to meet you? You just meet at a funeral, what is great about that? Sure they are a nice person and you have about 40 friends in common and have just never met in person and if you were at a birthday, family reunion, county fair or anything else that would be appropriate, but at a funeral?

However there is one thing that I do like about funerals, the food. Often after a funeral, family and friends will gather either at a local restaurant or in the church for a reception. And most of the time, if you go to a restaurant, it is the decease’s favorite restaurant or at lest one that holds memories of the dearly departed. And if it is a luncheon at the church, at least one of the favorite foods of the deceased is represented. At Bob’s grandma’s (Grandma Dixie’s) funeral, everyone had a Coke on Dixie, even hard core Pepsi drinkers, because it was her favorite drink. At my grandpa’s everyone had to have a Milwaukee’s Best, as gross as those beers are, because it is what he always drank. I have seen people who can’t stand the smell of lutefisk eat it at a funeral in honor of the one who just died.

And as we eat, we tell stories, favorite memories, things that we will miss, pet peeves that the deceased did that drove us crazy, and the healing begins. Laughter begins to flow, the person’s life is celebrated and we start the grief process, for some the grief process will last just days and for others a few years. But it is in eating, something, which is an act solely of the living, that we mourn and celebrate the life of the one who is dead. In this act of the living, we realize that we are not yet dead, that our life will go on, and eventually we will come to accept the death of the one we lost.

Maybe that is why Martha didn’t want Jesus to move the stone from Lazarus’ tomb. Yes she was afraid of the smell, for he had been dead for four days, but as the hostess, the housekeeper, the one who runs around getting all the details together, the one in charge of the party, she realized that nothing would ruin a funeral feast like the smell of someone who has been dead for a few days. Lazarus was dead, for four days! For four day now Mary, Martha and others had been mourning his death and celebrating his life. The grief process had started. Martha realized that Lazarus was indeed dead, she had come to some level of acceptance in her mourning process and returning to see his body, wrapped in cloth, placed in its tomb, would not bring Lazarus back.

But Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. He thanked God for always hearing him and he called out, shouted actually in the Greek, out to Lazarus to come out of his tomb, out of his grave. And Lazarus came out, in fact he walked out. This was not just a healing miracle like Jesus had done before, allowing the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk. Jesus brought someone who was dead back to life. And so back to life that he later serves a meal to Jesus.

But what about us? What about the people who we remember today? Why didn’t Jesus bring them back to life? As much as we begged, pleaded and prayed that they would come back to life again, they are still dead, not here with us today. Why is Lazarus so special?

Well that I can’t answer you, but I can tell you that I’m glad I am not Lazarus’s family. It is not part of today’s gospel text, in fact it is not in the gospels at all. But Lazarus dies again! The only other time we hear about Lazarus after this is that meal he serves to Jesus in the following chapter and that people then plot to kill Lazarus. So while we may not hear about it, Lazarus does die again. He is not still alive, walking around on this earth over 2000 years old. No Lazarus died again, was even the target of a murder plot, and all those people who mourned his death for 4 days had to do it all over again. Funerals are bad enough, the grief process is hard enough, to start picturing your life without a loved one is horrible enough, but to have to do it twice!? And the second time to know that he was probably murdered and did not die of illness as he died the first time, yeah I don’t think I would want to go through that twice.

So where is the good news for us in this text? It reminds us that we are mortal, it makes us frustrated, sad, jealous that our loved one was not brought back to life. What then is the gospel? What then are we suppose to get out of it?

Well today is All Saints Day, a day when the church remembers the lives of the saints who have gone before us. But we also must remember that we are all Saints, here and now. We do not become saints at our earthly death but we become saints at our spiritual death, at our baptisms. We become saints when we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We become saints not when we die a physical death but when we die a spiritual death with Christ. We were drown in the waters of baptism, baptized into death with Christ, but we were also baptized into life and resurrection with Christ. We have already died and been brought back to life.

And in baptism we were baptized into the communion of all the saints, including Lazarus. We were baptized so that we could be unbound from the items of this earth that ties our heart and minds so that we might serve others. We have been baptized into death but also into a life and into service.

So yes there may not be that much good news in today’s gospel lesson, there might not be that much to take heart in, only the sorrow of remembering those who have died before us, whether they died last week, last year or even years ago. We are still mourning those people’s physical deaths. But on this All Saints Day, as we mourn, we all celebrate. We celebrate new life, both physical life and spiritual life. We celebrate and thank God for those who have come into our lives within the last year and those who have come into a life with Christ. We doe this as we also mourn and thank God for those who have died and have touched our lives.

Isn’t that such Lutheran theology, the balance between the two, the juxtaposition? Mourning while celebrating, being a saint while also a sinner, remembering the dead while participating in acts of the living, being in the world but not of the world, law and gospel, baptism being both death and a new life.

So maybe funerals aren’t that bad after all. For in that awkward moment after a good laugh or the “It was great to meet you” comment we remember that we are alive and as much as it might suck at times to live after a loved one has died, we are alive. We are alive with Christ! Christ, who has already died the ultimate death for us. Christ, who we have already died with in baptism, so that eventually we will be able to live again in heaven with Christ and with all of our loved ones who we mourn today and each day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lutheran Pride Day

Just a quick note before I post this last Sunday's sermon. I have been so overwhelmed by the number of comments I have received about my last post "The Letter." I know that no one should be shocked that such things are still said from Christians' mouths/pens but it is still always amazing. Thank you all, friends and strangers, for you comments. May Christ continue to be with you all as you share God's true gospel message with all the world.

So onto the sermon. This sermon was really not based on any of the text for this last Sunday (yes I know I'm bad), though I did allude to those text: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28 and John 8: 31-36. And again my disclaimer: this was written for an oral sermon, i.e. there are probably many grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, but just deal with it.

I love being a Lutheran on Reformation Day! It is the day that we wear red (which we don’t get to break out that often) sing the Lutheran fight song (A Mighty Fortress) and celebrate the fact that we are Lutheran. Today, Reformation Day, is kind of like a Lutheran pep rally or Lutheran Pride Day. Maybe to evangelize we should start having parades…think of how many people would claim to be Lutheran on Reformation Day? I mean hundreds of thousands of people claim to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, when they clearly aren’t Irish.

But what are we celebrating today? In 1517 on All Saints Eve, All Hallow’eve (better known as Halloween), Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenburg. These were 95 complaints that he had against the Catholic Church. The main complain that all of these 95 theses had to do with was how the church handled confession, forgiveness and absolution. The Catholic Church was selling forgiveness to anyone who gave money to help build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now as great of a capital campaign as that was, what makes a human think that they can sell God’s forgiveness?

Well this lead to quite a bit of debate, and it started the Reformation, the re-forming, of the church. And as a result many different groups or denominations broke off from the One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Church in order to follow their own understanding of God, scripture and faith.

So does this bit of history mean that we are celebrating the Lutheran break from the Catholic Church? Well for some people that is true, but really we are celebrating, remembering and reminding ourselves of so much more.

See the real reason Luther wrote these 95 Theses is because he had a different understanding of forgiveness and salvation. For Luther, and for us Lutherans, forgiveness is not something you can buy. You cannot do whatever you want and then be able to buy your way out of sin and death by giving enough money away. First off true stewardship is more than just paying your dues, it is about realizing your money and possessions belongs to God and you are to give generously to God and to those in need. But more importantly, we cannot buy God’s forgiveness because it is not something that we can buy.

God’s forgiveness is not doled out to the highest bidder or the person who does the most good in this world. No God’s forgiveness is freely given, it is grace that is pour out upon us, each and every day, it is a gift that one cannot buy and also that one cannot return. We are saved from sin and death because of God’s grace. We are saved by God’s grace through our faith, and not our works (including our money). We are saved because God loves us, not because God loves how much we time and money we give or because God loves how much we love others. We are saved, we are given God’s grace because God loves us.

Alleluia! Amen! What an amazing message! Who would turn away from that? Who would not want to hear that it is not up to us but solely up to God? I don’t know. It is a message that is almost 500 years old and yet still people do not know it and still people turn away from it.

And at the same time Jesus came 2000 years ago and there are still people who do not believe in him, who do not acknowledge him as the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten not made, of one being with the Father through him all things were made, For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and became truly human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.

So if people aren’t going to acknowledge that, I can understand why hearing that God’s grace, forgiveness and salvation are free gifts that require no effort on our own other than faith, can be a little difficult for people to sallow.

But that is the point of the church, that is the point for us as Christians. We are suppose to go out as Christians, as people of the reformed church, and tell other the good news, the good news that God continues to promise us that Christ died for our sins, that Christ has set us free, that Christ has made us no longer a slave to sin and death. We are called to go out and tell others about the new covenant that God has made with us, the covenant that is referred to in our reading from Jeremiah today, the covenant that was started with Christ Jesus, but has yet to be fully realized. The covenant that God has forgiven us of our sins, the covenant that we are saved by God’s grace through faith and not our works. And we are also called as Christians and as a church to tell people that we are still struggling to understand what exactly that means.

See the Reformation is not something that happened 500 years ago that we commemorate today. No the reformation, the re-formation of the church, of our hearts and of our faith, is something that was started long ago but yet continues today. The reforming of the church is something that faith-based people struggled with 500 years ago in the days of Martin Luther, but it something that we have struggled with more recently. 500 years ago, the re-forming issues were about forgiveness, being able to worship in the common language, clergy being able to marry, and the definition of the sacraments. In more recent decades the re-forming issues were about the ordination of women, the merging of church bodies, ecumenical relationships, and the authority of scripture. And today many of those same issues are still at the heart of how the church is re-forming. But other issues have arisen as well, including the ordination and marriage of homosexuals, as was greatly noted by our most recent church-wide assembly, and the church as a whole is dealing with issues about how to adapt, change and remain the same in the constant changing tides that happen in the secular world.

And on a local level, we too are re-forming. We have been reforming as you have seen fit to call me as your pastor; we have been reforming as we understand what it means to be Lutherans in this area of Fairfield County, Connecticut. We have been reforming by telling people that Bethlehem Lutheran Church is not dead but has much life left in it. We have been reforming as we, a small church, do many great things and yet continue to be underestimated. We have been reforming as we grow, change and adapt to new situations, to new life.

We are a reforming church and that is truly what we celebrate on this Reformation Day, not the fact that some dude nailed a piece of paper to a church door almost 500 years ago, but that by God’s grace we are a church today, that is alive, and constantly reforming.