Monday, March 29, 2010

Love me some Palms

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week - AKA the busiest week of the year for pastors. This is like April 15 for accountants or the week before Christmas for retailers or the last week of August for Disney World. My holy week will end with me preaching 4 times between Thursday night and Sunday Morning, but fortunately it started out fairly easy - I didn't preach yesterday!

Instead of a sermon, our Sunday School student and some adult helpers did a dramatic reading of the passion narrative from Luke (Luke 19:28-40 and 22:14 -23:56). They did a wonderful job!

We started outside, though cold with our palms and the reading of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. We then processed inside singing All Glory, Laud and Honor. Our narrative then brought us to the Last Supper and we then celebrated communion. Afterward we heard of Jesus providing for his disciples and we gave our offering as Jesus has provided for us.

We prayed for all people after hearing of Jesus praying in the garden, and confessed our faith after Peter denied knowing Jesus. Then towards the end of our worship as we heard of Jesus' trial, sentencing, crucifixion, death and burial we sang verses of the spiritual Were you There.

I was a little nervous about worship since it was something so different - what we are having communion before the prayers?! And there were a few snafus, like the ushers disappearing during communion, luckily the sanctuary is not that big so I don't think anyone got lost on their way to the altar railing. But overall things went very smoothly. And the speakers did a FANTASTIC job!

Are we doing it again next year? Probably or at least something like it. Next year the reading will be from Matthew so it will be a bit different.
Would I change anything? I think I would have some longer pauses between when a reading stopped and when our liturgy began. Also I forgot to give Lyudmila, our organist, a copy of the script so I had to nod to her whenever it was time for her to play.
Was it a great start to Holy Week? You betcha! Many people told me they thought it was great and very meaningful. It was a great teaching tool to help people connect portions of our liturgy (worship elements) to scripture, plus it allowed those not able to make it on Thursday, Friday or Saturday (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil) to hear important parts of the Holy Week story which you miss if you go from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem to Jesus' resurrection with no betrayal and death in between.

So what did I do this last week without having to write a sermon? Well I actually wrote two sermons: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday - Easter Vigil and Easter morning are still left to write. But those will be posted later this week along with my exciting Saturday! (Okay it wasn't that exciting but it was dusty, fun, and well needed.)

Happy Holy Week!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Extravagant Love

For the fifth and last sermon of Lent, we hear the story of Mary pouring perfume on Mary's feet from John 12:1-8 and we hear Isaiah's warning to the Israelites to not remember the former things for God is about to do something new in Isaiah 43:16-21.

I again memorize the gospel in order to tell the story in a more meaningful way. I can't believe the responses that I have received. Many people are just shocked that I'm able to memorize the text, though this week I was a lot less accurate. But even more heartwarming are the people who have said that the gospel stories have become much more meaningful to them and it has opened the Bible to them.

But anyway onto the sermon:

Can you imagine the smell? How overwhelming must it have been to be in Lazarus’ home and smell the pound of perfume that was poured on Jesus’ feet? Many of us love the smell of various perfumes, but often just a dab or a quick spray is enough to leave that lingering scent. But yet most of us have been somewhere when someone had on too much perfume. Too much of a good thing can cause headaches, dizziness, sinus pressure. And it doesn’t matter if it is a teenage boy who sprayed the entire bottle of Axe Body Spray on him before his date, or the elder woman who accidentally put on too much perfume before going out to dinner with her family.

I’m one of those people who practically run through the perfume section of the department store or try to plot a way to get around it. So when I come across someone with too much perfume on I wonder if they bathed in it or I try to figure out who they are trying to impress, and sometimes I even wonder if their sense of smell works. I can’t say I have ever wondered if someone else bathed them in perfume as a sign of their extravagant love for them.

But that is exactly what Mary did. She took this bottle of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with it and then wiped the excess away with her hair. This was a sign of love. Can you image the adoration that must have been in Mary’s eyes and she did such an act? Can you image how humble Jesus must have felt when Mary did this? I wonder what Mary felt like as she anointed Jesus’ feet; did she feel like she was doing one of the most important things in the world.

But yet Judas points out that Mary was wasteful. Now let’s cut Judas some slack about that side comment about him stealing what was in the common purse. Judas makes a very valid point. That perfume was worth something. It was worth a lot of something. If Judas’ estimate of the cost is correct, that perfume was worth a year’s labor for the average worker. That perfume could feed and house a family for a year.

$40 Thousand dollars is the current average income for US workers. So how would you feel if right now I bought a Chevy Tahoe just to crash it or blow it up? Or if I consumed a $40 thousand dollar meal? Or if I took out a bottle of perfume worth the same amount and dumped it on your feet? We might at first thing the explosion was really cool or enjoy the smell of the food or perfume but I would venture a guess that many of our minds would start to wander and think about the cost of such extravagance and what else could have been done with that money.

But yet Jesus does not agree with Judas, Jesus is not concerned about the cost. He tells Judas to leave her alone for she has bought the perfume for his burial. Jesus knows that his death is coming, that God is about to do something new through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And Mary, through her extravagant love of Jesus, has allowed God’s work, God’s love, to be demonstrated to others in that room.

In our Old Testament text today, Isaiah commands the Israelites who were exiled in Babylon: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” Jesus is telling Judas not to worry about the poor for God is about to do something far greater than what could have been done with the sale of that perfume. No amount of money in the world would be able to free Judas and everyone of us from the power of sin and death, in fact often money leads to sins, but it is through God that a new covenant, a new promise of salvation, a new forgiveness of sins is about to happen.

So what does this mean for us? Are we suppose to just forget about the past, the last 100 year history of this congregation or the past 500 year history of the Lutheran church or the past 2000 years of Christianity or the past 3000 years since the words of Isaiah? No Isaiah’s words do not mean for us to forget the past, they mean for us to be open to the new things that are coming through God, through Christ, through the work of the Spirit in each and every one of us. If we are so focused on the past, and our mindset is stuck on what has been, how great we once were or that “we’ve never done it that way before” then we are not allowing the Spirit to work in us today in order to demonstrate our love for Christ to others.

If Mary only thought about how perfume is suppose to be used, because that is the way it has been done before, then Mary would have never shown such a demonstration of her love for Christ. If Martin Luther was only concerned about what had been done before, what was the status quo, in the Catholic Church then he would not have spoken out against things he considered spiritual injustices and the reformation would have never happened. If the founding members of this congregation were only concerned with how they had worshiped before at home in Aland, than this congregation would have never started, worship would have never been done in English and I would have never been called as a pastor solely because I am female.

But yet these things happened. They happened because we are a reforming church, they happened because God is constantly doing new things, they happened because people were moved by the Holy Spirit to show their love, their extravagance for Christ. God’s new things come from our extravagance. New missions support and social ministries are created because we have an extravagant need to care for others. Evangelism happens because we have an overwhelming desire to tell others about Christ. Worship happens because we have an extreme need to praise God from whom all blessings flow.

But when we stop being extravagant in our love, new missions and ministries dry up, no one new shows up and worship becomes the same boring ritual that happens week in and week out. God doesn’t want that to happen, God does not want us to become bored. God doesn’t want us to stop caring, stop being concerned about others. That is why God is constantly doing new things, that is why God is constantly showing us signs of God’s extravagant love for us. Water that is poured out upon us in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s supper, new life in young children, new seasons in the flowers, cool breezes and warm sunshine that we have enjoyed so much this week. Those plain, every day things are signs of God’s extravagant love for us. And those plain everyday things move us to ask: how can we show our extravagant love to God?

And I think that answer begins with showing God’s extravagant love to others, especially as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead this Easter. It begins by following Mary’s example of pouring out our love for Christ for all to see.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Almost an Ending and a New Begining

Over the past 6 years or so I have needle-pointed Christmas stockings for myself, Bob, a few friends and now my nieces. Since October I have been working on a stocking for my youngest niece, Sophia. Her older sisters received their stockings for Christmas this past year and while I first thought that I could finish Sophia's up by this Christmas, I soon realized that hers would have to wait until next year - which is okay, she will be turning three this spring. All told, I believer this is the ninth Christmas stocking that I have made.

The last few weeks I have been working away on Sophia's stocking (getting near the end always makes me work a little harder). While at baby pastor school, I stopped working on the pattern itself (takes more concentration) and started the background while listening to the key note addresses. About three weeks ago at Stitch and Bitch I finished the pattern, a week later the background and all that remained was the back-stitching (outlining). Well last week I fell short. About two yards short. That is how much thread I still need to complete the back-stitching on the toe part of the stocking.

I still need to do some back-stitching around the snowman, the bushes and the lower left hand window. After that is complete I will do some couching with a thick gold thread for the reins for the reindeer. Unfortunately the closest craft store to me that I know carries embroidery floss is about 10 miles away and it is out of the color that I need. So I have to wait to get to another store so I can finish the stocking.

But in the meantime I have started another project. I haven't started the next Christmas stocking which will be for my godson. Instead I started this:
I was a math major in college so I really like how the fractal/chaos pattern is formed into a cross. But this is a HUGE project with the final size being around 28.5 x 21.5 inches. Fortunately it is on black fabric so I don't have to do the background, unfortunately it is on black fabric which is hard to see and therefore stitch with. It also includes A LOT of colors, 75 to be exact.
I did start it this past Thursday and this is how far I have gotten on it thus far:
The ruler is to give you an idea of size - it is 6 inches long.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spring has sprung?

It seems that lately I have fallen a bit behind with my blogging that is not related to sermons. But I have lots to share. So hopefully over the next few days I'll catch up.

First up: my garden!

A few weeks ago I got these in the mail:

However that same day it looked like this outside: (sorry for the meshy pattern - it was take through a screen).

By my spring fever and gardening plans have slowly been festering within me.

Since then, Bob and I have cashed in our credit card points for Home Depot gift cards and went one mini shopping spree getting stuff ready for our future garden. Unfortunately it rained most of the weekend so the stuff is only our porch waiting to take form:

This last weekend we also started our first seeds; eggplant:

Soon we will hopefully have eggplants as well as tomatoes, peppers (bell and hot) butternut squash, potatoes, onions, carrots, spinach, and a variety of herbs.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sibling Rivalry

Yesterday I did something new, hopefully I will do it again. I memorized the gospel text, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, the story of the prodigal son. As I have talked about before I have been playing with Biblical storytelling. I have been trying to read the gospel text more dramatically, putting more emphasis on the emotions conveyed in the scriptures. As I was preparing for this sermon, I realized just how much emotion was in this story of the prodigal son. The father was jubilant at seeing his younger son. The younger son was scheming to go back home in order to survive but was probably truly repented when his father put his arms around him and kissed him. And the older brother was truly, truly angry at the father. Those emotions do not come out when this story is just read out loud, but when I was up there running, rubbing my chin in a scheming way and yelling, those emotions are conveyed.

It was also interesting to watch people react to me. I started at the pulpit like normal but then moved out of the pulpit after a few words. Most people started reading along with the text and after a bit would look up at me, notice I was not in the pulpit, look down again at the text, look up at me again and then just put the text down and listen. Since we had lost an hour of sleep the night before, I think people were a little slower than normal noticing that I was not just reading along. And at the end, when I said "the Gospel of the Lord" there was the longest pause. I'm not sure if people thought that they should applaud or if they were waiting for me to bow or if they forgot their response. Maybe they were just stunned - it is one of the longer gospel text.

But the biblical storytelling went over quiet well and I do hope to do it again - especially for text that have so much emotion.

But now onto the sermon. Below is the text that I wrote for yesterday's sermon. It is not quiet the sermon that I preached. I realized on Sunday morning before worship that I just wasn't quiet happy with what was written but I figured between the biblical storytelling, communion, singing Amazing Grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, people were going to hear the gospel. So I used this text as a starting point and kinda went from there. Read it, enjoy it but add much more about forgiveness and you will then pretty much have the sermon that I preached.

During my first two weeks of seminary, we had a prolog course. Basically it was two weeks of introducing us to the variety of topics that we would discuss within the four years of seminary. At some point during these two weeks, the powers that be invited a few seasoned pastors to impart their knowledge upon us hopeful future pastors and church leaders.

During this discussion, a question came up about preaching and the use of the lectionary, the three year rotation of readings which we follow in the Lutheran church. One of these seasoned pastors said that if it wasn’t for the lectionary he would probably preach on the Prodigal Son 23 times a year. And I just remember sitting there thinking: 23 times a year?! Are you kidding me, what could you talk about that often!

Now granted I have to tell you first about my personal bias against this text. I was a camp counselor for two summers. Each year there was a theme and each day of the week there was a bible text that we would talk about with the kids that explored that theme. This allowed the kids to learn a variety of stories, but it also meant that for 13 weeks one summer every Wednesday I would do a bible study on the Prodigal Son and for 13 weeks every Wednesday I would see the same dramatization of the Prodigal Son performed that was based on some song. This repetition causes you to grow a little weary of certain text and makes you realize that you don’t want to preach about the same topic for 23 weeks within a year.

But my dislike for this parable is not just because I overdosed on it one summer, it is because it continues past verse 24. If the son came home and was forgiven and life moved on, it would be a great story about forgiveness and love even after someone basically tells you to drop dead. If the story stopped with the father forgiving him, it would be a great tale about letting your children go out and find themselves, to allow them to make mistakes but be able to help pick them back up if they fall.

But no the parable does not end there, it continues, it continues with a very angry, very upset older brother. Not only does the older brother not want to forgive his younger brother for telling their father to drop dead then fleeing the area and spending all his money. Not only does the older brother not want to forgive, he also gets upset at his dad for forgiving his brother. He sees this as an injustice, the dad has not treated him fairly, forgiving the younger brother after everything that he has done, yet he has been following every command and had never received such extravagance.

The younger brother was only given his future share of the inheritance, what specifically did he do to cause harm to the older brother, to cause such anger? Would the older brother have been so angry if their dad just allowed him to quietly come back home and not have thrown a party? Did the older brother ever even ask for a young goat so that he could have a party with his friends?

It is hard to forgive and sometimes it is even hard to watch somebody else forgive. Was there more to the story? Has this been a repeated pattern of behavior with the younger brother and the older one knew that he would just take advantage of the father again? It can be hard to watch someone who has been abused forgive the abuser yet again, knowing that the cycle of abuse will just continue.

But sometimes it is hard to watch someone else forgive because we know that we do not have that ability to so radically forgive in us. And instead of having compassion for the forgiver, we have anger at them.

When a man walked in a shot a group of Amish school children before taking his own life and the Amish community forgave the man and his family, many Americans were moved at the amount of forgiveness and compassion that the Amish showed. But a few people were outraged, upset, discouraged and even angry that they could so easy forgive the person would took the lives of their daughters.

And our anger over forgiveness isn’t always directed at others, sometimes it is even directed at God. A former co-worker of mine was obsessed about knowing if the guy who pushed the button that drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be in heaven. For some reason he thought that the guy who actually pushed the button, not the one who created the bomb or flew the plane or order the bomb to be dropped or all the other people who have done evil things during war, that that guy should not be allowed into heaven. My co-worker said that if he went to heaven and the button pusher was there, he would walk right back out. Well I think he might be surprised once he gets to heaven. A lot of us might be surprised once we get to heaven at who else is a child of God.

Because God is the father, God radically forgives us. God forgives us of our sins, God forgives us if we do something that we consider a minor offense: swearing, gossiping, running through a red light. But even when we commit what we consider a major offense, God forgives us: murder, adultery, dropping a bomb on a city, telling our parents to drop dead. When we repent, God radically forgives us.

And God even forgives us for our anger over who is forgiven. God forgive us for having a unbalanced sense of injustice. God forgives us for our jealousy over the forgiven.

We can sit here and keep tally, having sibling rivalry with all of our siblings in Christ, over who has been forgiven the most and then become angry at God for forgiving such offenses. Or we can celebrate with God the Father, the one who radically forgives, because such a person was has repented there sins and has come back to God. Because when we celebrate, we know that there is nothing we can do, no sin great enough, that can separate us from the radical love and forgiveness that is found in Christ Jesus. And that is truly something to celebrate and possibly even preached about 23 times in once year.

Let us pray. God of forgiveness and grace, we know that we are sinners and often times do not deserve your forgiveness. But we thank you for the forgiveness you have given us, and pray that you help us learn to radically forgive others. In your name we pray, Amen.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Figs and Manure

This sermon is focused on both Luke 13:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Unfortunately if you went at Bethlehem this morning you missed dried figs and Fig Newtons.

So I know why the owner of the vineyard wanted fruit to produce from his fig tree: figs are wonderful. Seriously have you had one recently? They are so sweet, almost too sweet, as in you can’t eat more than two in a sitting. I’ve only ever have had dried figs, at least that I remember, but even these dried ones are in a way moist. And figs are a very versatile food. You can eat them plain, either fresh or dried, they make excellent fillings for pastries such as the ever popular fig Newton. You can make a glaze for your meat or put them in your salad and you can even make fig bread. The owner of this vineyard wanted his fruit, he wanted his harvest so that the tree was not just sitting there but producing food for his consumption and possibly a crop to sell for money.

So I can see why this owner thought this fruitless tree was a waste of the soil, because not only want it not producing fruit, it was also taking up space, a lot of space. While the average fig tree is only 10 to 30 feet tall, the branches spread out in a large circle often covering more area than height. So if this fig tree was 10 feet tall, it could take up almost 400 square feet of planting space. Think of all the other things that could have been planted in that same amount of space – for comparison, the average home garden today is about 300 square feet.

But yet it is the owner and not the gardener who wanted to destroy the unproducing tree. I get the feeling that the owner might not have know a lot about what actually took place in his vineyard, about the hard work that went into producing the fruit and wine that he loved to eat and drink. He probably did not know a lot about how to care for a tree, how pruning helped it produce more fruit or how the weather affected the crop. If he was really ignorant and arrogant he might not have even have known when various fruits were even in season. So it probably is not a stretch to guess that this owner probably did not know that it takes the average fig tree 3-5 years after planting to produce fruit. This fig tree that he had waited three years for was not yet mature enough to bear fruit.

In our modern context, when we are so disconnected with where food comes from and how it is made, we sometimes behave like the owner. We don’t always associate food to the season in which they are harvested. When our produce comes from not just across the country but across the world, we forget that there is actually a time of year when peppers, apples, potatoes, oranges and all the other produce that we buy at the grocery store is actually in season. We might realize that apples are cheaper in the fall or that they are from New Jersey instead of New Zealand but there is hardly a fruit or vegetable out there that you can’t find year round in the grocery stores.

We expect the food to be there whether it is in season or not, just like the owner expected fruit to be on the tree, even if it was not mature enough to produce fruit.

And sometimes this demand for things when they are not available translates to other parts of our lives. We expect only good to happen in our lives, even if we know that bad things happen too. We expect people to be as committed to our interests and causes, even if they have other interest and causes. We expect people to do only what is right, even if we ourselves often make mistakes and do the wrong things.

But yet this tree was saved, not by the owner but by the gardener. The gardener convinced the owner to give it another chance, to give it one more year to mature, to bear fruit. But yet the gardener was not going to leave it alone for the year, to withstand the elements on its own in the hopes that it may bear fruit. Instead the gardener was going to care for it, to nurture it, to tend to it, to put manure around it, he probably was also going to prune the tree and water it too. But let’s go back to that manure for a moment.

Manure is well manure, animal excrement. The stuff that makes your nose wrinkle and keeps people away. It is the stuff we flush down our toilets and hope we never have to think of again. And if for some reason, we do have to think of it again, that means there is something wrong with our sewer or septic system and then we are in deep….manure.

And yet out if this…manure, the stuff we often don’t want to think about, hopefully good will happen. Out of this excrement, out of waste, fruit will hopefully be produced.

Manure happens, bad things happen in our lives. The last verse of our second reading today which actually says “[God] will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” is often misquoted as “God will not give you more than you can handle.” Those two sayings are not the same.

When we build up our muscle strength we do it by pushing our muscles to the limit, to strain them, and after awhile what was once difficult becomes easy and our muscles grow. When you start lifting weights you may not be able to handle it, unable to complete as many reps as you would like, you may collapse in exhaustion at the end, but yet your strength grows. It sucks, it hurts, you feel weak and tired and it may take days to recover but you grow and you endure.

God gives us the strength to handle the tests given to us. But yet God is not the one who gave us those tests.

Shortly after my nephew was born, my sister called me. My sister has always wanted to be a mom but a few years ago she found out that she might not be able to get pregnant and while the pregnancy was not a difficult one, she did have to endure extra monitoring and test and have a c-section in order to make she that both she and the baby would survive. So during this phone call she asked me “Do you think God gave me all those medical problems and the harder pregnancy to test me? To make sure that I would be a good mom?”

That is a fairly normal question, one that many people have asked in some way. Do you think God was testing me to make sure that I am a good person?

And all I could reply to her was “God does not test you. God did not give you those medical problems. But God did give you the doctors and nurses who cared for you and treated you, a loving husband, parents and family who supported you and now has given you this beautiful baby.” Those tested were not given from God, they are part of life, they are the manure that is given to us in life and well manure happens.

But God is the one who gives us the strength and the support so that we can endure the manure. God is the one who tends to us, who nurtures us, who takes the manure, the stinky animal excrement, and makes good things happen out of it. God allows figs, sweet fruit, to produce out of the manure that can be our lives.

Manure is not always a bad thing. It may seem like it when it first happens, stuff that we don’t want to deal with, stuff that we just want to flush way. But sometimes good things come from the things which we want least. While God is not the one who tests us, gives us the manure, for that is definitely an earthly thing and not a godly thing, God is the one who gives us the strength, the nurturing so that we can produce sweet fruit.

God strengthens and nurtures us through the people who have been sent into our lives who love and care for us, family, friends, co-workers, fellow congregation members, and God strengthens and nurtures us through our faith. When we worship our faith is strengthen, when we give generously to others our faith is strengthen, when we read scriptures our faith is strengthen and when we offer up prayers our faith is strengthen. So let us strengthen our faith with prayer.

Let us pray:
God of strength, thank you for the ways you nurture us, the ways you care for and love us. Allow us to continue to grow in our strength and faith and endure any tests life gives to us. Allow us to bear sweet fruit. In your holy name we pray. Amen.