Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reforming Slaves

Today's sermon, for Reformation Day, was mainly based on the gospel lesson, John 8:31-36.  Today was also Reformation Day, when the Protestant Church, and the Lutheran church in particular, celebrates the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing 95 theses (or complaints) against the Roman Catholic Church to the door of the Wittenburg Chapel in hopes to reform the church.  Luther's complaints ended up sparking the Reformation, in which groups broke off from the Catholic church, instead of a reformation within the church.  For Bethlehem is was also the day that two teenage members (Ryan and Tori) affirmed their baptisms, or made their confirmation.

One thing I love about confirmation services being on Reformation Day is that it is a reminder to us that our faith is constantly reforming and God is revealed to us.  Our faith should not be stagnate!  So in the spirit of a reforming faith and a spirit of an confirming faith, enjoy today's sermon

Jesus was talking to some of his Jewish followers about freedom and they in response boasted that they are descendants of Abraham and therefore have never been slaves. Umm I seem to recall an entire book in the Torah about the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt into the promise land in Israel. I believe the book is called Exodus. The book is about how God sent Moses to tell the Pharaoh to let God’s people go from their captivity as slaves so they could go to the promise land. And then how Pharaoh refused multiple times so God kept sending plagues so Pharaoh would free the Israelites and eventually they had to flee after God killed the first born sons of Egypt and they went across the Red Sea and then wandered in the wilderness for 40 years (though that part is in the next three books of the Torah). These Jewish followers of Jesus were so confident in their supposed freedom that they were not able to recall how they ancestors had once been slaves nor where they able to see how they were currently slaves to sin.

And some of us are probably thinking that we are American and are not slaves, forgetting that just 145 years ago slavery was legal in this very country. Much less are we able to see all the ways that we are enslaved.

So what are you slaves of?

For Ryan and Tori, they probably have at times thought they were slaves to confirmation classes, having to be at church at 9am each Sunday for a year, and 10am on Saturday twice a month for another year. And having to deal with a pastor who thinks she is much cooler than she really is.

Many of us are slaves to our houses trying to constantly clean, maintain and pay the mortgage on. Many of us are slaves to our cars, so use we are to constantly making car payments, taking it in for oil changes, and getting gas that we forget that we can occasionally walk, ride a bike or take public transportation (granted I will give you the fact that very few things are within easy walking distance in this part of Connecticut). We are enslaved to student loan payments, insurance payments, credit card bills and other payments and bills that we struggle figuring out how to pay them all off each month. Some of us are enslaved to fashion, television, or the internet; we are addicted to gambling, alcohol, or drugs; we are imprisoned to our jobs; we are bound by family obligations; we are oppressed by the structures of society; we are subjected to the government. Yet all these things we can do something about, they take time, but we can change. We can downsize; we can join a support group or twelve step program to free ourselves from addiction; we can quit our jobs; we can tell people no; we can even move out of the country or disappear off the grid in order to be free from the government.

But regardless of what we do, we will still be enslaved. Regardless of what we do we will always be slaves, we will never be free. Because we are captive to sin. We are in bondage to sin. We are imprisoned to sin. We are enslaved to sin. We are oppressed by sin. We are subjected to sin. We are addicted to sin. And there is nothing we can do about it.

Regardless of what we do, we will always be sinners. Regardless of how much we pray we are still sinners. Regardless of how often we worship God, we are still sinners. Regardless if we memorize the bible, we are still sinners. Regardless of the fact that we are theological descendants of Martin Luther, we are still sinners. Regardless if we stand up here today and confess our baptismal faith, like Ryan and Tori will do today, we are still sinner, and Ryan and Tori, just for the record, you will still be sinners after you affirm your baptism today. Because no matter what we do, we will always be sinners.

But our freedom is not dependent on us. Christ is the one who sets us free from sin and death. Jesus’ death on the cross saved us from the power of sin. The truth that comes through Jesus allows us to be free. It is Christ who reveals our faith to us, a faith that is constantly reforming which we celebrate today on this Reformation Day. It is God who claims us in the waters of baptism. It is Christ who comes to us through a simple meal of bread and wine. It is the Holy Spirit working within us that allows us to affirm our faith. It is God who claims us as children of the heavenly Father. It is God who gathers us in God’s bosom and gives us refuge. It is God who sets us free!

Monday, October 25, 2010

MMC: Reformation Freedom

Good Morning Bethlehem

I hope you are enjoying our beautiful fall weekend and it looks like the next few days will be blessings as well.  

This coming Sunday will be an eventful day at Bethlehem and all are invited to celebrate with us.  Sunday is Reformation Day as we celebrate and remember the day that Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Chapel which started the Protestant reformation.  At 9am is an intergenerational Sunday School for all ages in which we will learn a little bit more about Martin Luther and the Reformation.  Sunday is also Confirmation Day, when Ryan and Tori will affirm their baptisms and become adult members of the congregation.  Please plan on joining us for this festive worship service, wear red (the color of Reformation), and bring some finger foods to share at the reception to follow.  

As Ryan and Tori affirm their faith, I am asking that if anyone has any advice to share about what has helped them in their faith life, to either email me or write out that piece of advice so that it can be passed on to Ryan and Tori on their confirmation day.  

The following Sunday, November 7th, is All Saints Day.  If you have a name to include in prayers of the saints for that day, please send me those names before November 7th.  We will be praying especially for those who have been born, baptized or have died within the last year.  

And this week's book of faith puzzler is: In Matthew, what did Jesus tell his disciples to fish for?  (Thanks to Tori Muniz for thinking of this week’s question.)  If you know the answer, or think you do, email me by Wednesday at noon to be entered into this week's drawing. 

Now onto this week's texts:

The first lesson is Jeremiah 31:31-34.  God promises that the day is coming when a new covenant will be made between God and God's people.  God's law will be written on our hearts and everyone will know the Lord and we will all be forgiven. Do you think this covenant has already been made or is it still to come?  If it already has happened, how is God's law written on your heart, how do you know the Lord and how do you feel forgiven?  If it hasn't already happened, do you experience any of those things at least on occasion?  

The second lesson is Romans 3:19-28.  Paul discusses the law and that we are made righteous outside of the law.  He also says that we are justified by Jesus' grace and that is a gift.  How is grace a gift to you?  Is it a gift that you realize that you have been given? Is it a gift that you accept? or one that you refuse?  Do you feel like you need to do something to receive this grace?  (Hint: verse 28 reads: For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.)

The Gospel is John 8:31-36.  Jesus tells some skeptics that if they follow his word they are his disciples and through following the Son and knowing the truth you will be free.  What are you a slave to?  How do you follow Jesus' word?  How do you ignore it?  What does it feel like to be free?

As always I welcome any thoughts you may have on these texts or my questions.  Also all women are invited to the parsonage on Wednesday evening at 7:30 to discuss these text over chocolate and wine.  

Have a wonderful week
Pastor Becca

God I Thank You That I Am Not Like Other People...

Sunday's sermon was based on the gospel Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. I had a lot of fun telling this gospel with full disgust during the Pharisee's prayer and lament during the tax collector's prayer.  But I also had struggles with this text for to tell someone to be like the tax collector is to judge another (aka acting like the Pharisee).  But in the end I enjoyed both writing and giving this sermon.  


The Pharisee was grateful that he was not like other people. And aren’t we at times also grateful that we are not like other people? However there are different ways to be grateful.

The Pharisee was not thankful because he had been kept from a living situation that made him resort to stealing, lying, cheating others or breaking Levitical laws. He was not grateful that God had given him the ability to live a life were he was able to fast twice a week by choice and made enough money to tithe.

Instead he was regarding the thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors with contempt and distain – how dare they be that way! He looked down on them because they would live such a life. He looked down on them because they did not fast and tithe like they should, like he did. He was not grateful for what he was given but smug that he had earned his own righteousness and those poor fools were just kidding themselves.

Instead of looking up to God and being thankful that God had blessed him with such a great life, he looked down on others and wondered why they couldn’t be more like him.

The Pharisee made a clear divide in his mind between the righteous and the unrighteous, between the just and the unjust, between who is “in” and who is “out.” And we often do the same thing.

As the country is gearing up for the midterm elections, I, at least, have not heard from candidates so much about why I should vote for them as why I should not vote for their opponents. In the attack ad era of politics we now live in, we have heard and seen speeches, television and radio ads, and campaign flyers that might as read like the Pharisees prayer: “Voter, I thank God that I am not like my opponent: a thief, a liar, an adulterer, and even a spender of your tax dollars. I will vote for issues that you care about; I will care about the people of this district.” Though in all frankness, regardless of who says this, I don’t think that last part is always 100 percent honest.

And it is not just in politics that we create in and out groups where we consider ourselves, the in group, just and the out group unjust and therefore look upon them with distain. In the wake of multiple suicides within the past two months of teenagers who were bullied for being gay or perceived to be gay, and with the political and legal battle that is happening in the nations courts about the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, we are reminded of how often in and out groups are formed on the based of sexuality. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: bisexuals, transgender, transsexuals and even like those homosexuals. I have never questioned my sexuality; I am completely comfortable in who I am, especially as a teenager.”

Or in the immigration debate. “God I thank you that I am not like other people: Hispanics, recent immigrants, Muslim immigrants, or even like those people who are putting a strain on our social welfare programs. My family has been here for generations (ever since my grandparents came over from Sweden or Germany), and I would be more than willing to work a grueling physical job for less than minimum wage with no benefits.”

Or with the economic recession. “God I thank you that I am not like other people: the Wall Street tycoons who created this mess, the bankers who are not lending, or even those people who have lost there jobs and homes. I would not have let my own personal financial advantage allow me to scam others out of their money; I would have read all 45 pages of my mortgage contract that is written in legalese and point 8 font.”

And even in sports. “God I thank you that I am not like other people: Yankees fans, Red Sox fans, Giants fans or even like those Patriots fans. I would never be so upset over a lost; I cheer for the fun of the game and never yell insults at the players, coaches or refs.”

We create in groups and out groups in just about every aspect of our lives. We mentally put people into categories by if we consider them righteous or unrighteous, just or unjust, friend or enemy, a person of like belief or not.

But when we step back and consider these groups that we, humans, have created, we realize that God is with both groups. And God loves both groups. The Pharisee told the truth and Jesus did not criticized his deeds, just his despite for others. In fact, one pastor mentioned in a study on this text how much most pastors would love having many members just like him, someone who worship regularly, gives a tenth of his income and is willing to pray out loud! God is with the Pharisee in his works, his praying, fasting and tithing. God loves the Pharisee!

But God is also with the tax collector. Jesus commends the tax collector for his humility but he does not excuse him of his wrongdoings. God is with the tax collector in his humbleness, in his calling out for mercy. And God loves the tax collector.

God is with us, and God is also with the others. God loves us and God loves the other. God loves Democrats and Republicans, Independents, Green Party and the Tea Party. God loves the people who are bullied and the bullies. God loves homosexual, transsexual, transgender, bisexual and heterosexual people. God loves recent immigrants and first generation Americans, just as much as God loves people whose ancestors came to this land 50, 100, 200, or 300 years ago across an ocean from Europe or Africa or those who ancestors came here a few thousand years ago across a land bridge from Asia. God loves those who are homeless, unemployed, underemployed and even those who greed has cause others to be homeless and unemployed. And God even loves sports fans of all types and sizes, of all teams and all sports, in winning seasons and in losing seasons, God loves them all.

God loves the whole world, and through Jesus’ death on the cross we all have been forgiven; thieves, rouges, adulterers, tax collectors, Pharisees, those belonging to the in group and those belonging to the out group. We all are loved, we all have been forgiven. In God’s mind there is just one group, the beloved children of God, and each one of us is part of that group.

Monday, October 18, 2010

MMC: Humbling Oneself

Good Morning everyone!

I hope that you had a restful yet productive weekend and you are looking forward to a good week.  For me personally, I'm headed to Bishop's Convocation in Massachusetts in a few hours and will be coming back on Wednesday.  If you need me for any reason I will have my cell phone on me and access to my email, though it will not be as frequently checked as normal.  

A few other announcements before I move onto the text for this week.  

October 31st is Reformation Day and Confirmation.  Worship will be a festive experience as we give thanks to God for our reforming faith and as Ryan Hawley and Tori Muniz affirm their baptism.  Please wear red, the color of the church, and sign up to bring finger foods for the reception that will follow.  

The following Sunday, November 7, is All Saints Sunday.  If you would like to include a name of a loved one, especially someone who has died within the past year, in the prayers for that day, please give myself or Ellen Grunsell the name on or before that day.  

The people of Bethlehem have been invited to join other Lutheran churches in Fairfield county on a intergenerational mission trip to southwestern Virgina.  The group will be repairing homes while learning about the Appalachian region.  The dates are tentatively set for July 23-30 and will cost approximatively $300.  Please let me know if you are interested in attending or would like more information.

The Book of Faith Puzzler for this week is a multiple choice question: What type of tree was the tree that Adam and Eve ate from: apple, fig, pear or we don’t know?

Now onto the text:

The first lesson is from Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22.  This section is a prayer, a lament, from the people with God's response in between (verses 7-9 prayer, verse 10 God, verses 19-22 prayer).  The people are pleading to God that God will not forget them.  God responses that they will not be accepted.  And yet the people continue to plead that they will not be forsaken due to their ancestors' iniquities.  When have you been told no, and yet you continued to ask for something?  Have you ever felt like you were being punished because of something your parents did?  Have you ever been helped because of who your parents are?

The second lesson is 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18.  Paul talks about how he has fought the good fight, has finished the race and has kept the faith, yet he is still under attack.  However it is the Lord who will rescue him for all these attacks and who allows him to continue to keep the faith.  What is something that you have only been able to do because of the grace of God?  When others praise you for your ability, do you give credit to God?

The gospel is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  The Pharisee goes into the temple and loudly and boastfully prays thanking God that he is not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers or even tax collectors.  We all have at times given thanks that we are not like other people; who are those other people in your lives?  Do you give thanks because you do not like their lifestyle or because you are grateful for what you have been given?  Meanwhile the tax collector in the parable, the tax collector hides in a corner, ashamed to pray, yet he asks God for mercy knowing that he is a sinner.  When have you been humble?  How does it feel to be humble yourself?

As always I look forward to hearing any responses you might have to the text or my questions.  And all women are invited to the Wednesday night bible study at the parsonage when these text will be discussed in a little more depth.  

Hope you all have a great week!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wrestling with God

Today's sermon was mainly based on the first reading for today, Genesis 32:22-31, though it makes a few references to both the second lesson, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, and the gospel lesson, Luke 18:1-8.  

I have been wrestling with God over various parts of my life this last month in particular.  No particular hardship or trauma has caused me to start arguing with God, nor has I been wrestling with some of the bigger questions in life.  Just a bunch of little things that make me want to ask God why can't it all be just a little bit easier.  But when reading and preparing for today sermon, I was able to reflect on other times in my life when I really wrestled with God and why even though those moments really sucked at time I am who I am today because I went through those struggles.  So now I'm embracing my current wrestling, knowing I will be transformed, and therefore allowing the struggle to happen instead of thinking that I'm not allowed to struggle.  

We all have wrestled with God at some point, and I hope that this sermon helps you embrace the struggle.  

“When have you wrestled with God?” That is the question that I asked you in this week’s Monday Morning Church email.

When have you struggled with God? When have you asked God why is life not going the way it should? Or when did you argued with God because someone you loved died long before you were read to let go of them? Or maybe you argued with God because you watched your loved one suffer for a long time before God was willing to let them die in peace?

When have you struggled trying to equate a portion of scripture with your own political or theological beliefs?

When have you struggled with the big questions: How was the earth/universe created? What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What if my faith isn’t strong enough? What if my religion is the wrong one? ……. Is there a god?

Notice that I asked “when” have you struggled, not “if” you have struggled.

Because we have all at times struggled with our faith. We all have at times questioned God. We all have had times when we just want to argue with God. We all have had times when we think we could do a better job than God. We all have wrestle with the big questions. We all have had our moments of doubt.

Jesus told his disciples a parable to remind them to always pray and to not lose heart. Timothy was reminded to keep preaching the gospel whether the time is favorable or unfavorable because Paul knew that all who do God’s work will have moments of doubt and need encouragement. And Jacob wrestled with God, physically.

Jacob was worried that his brother was going to kill him because years before he had tricked him out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. And Jacob was alone as he sent his family ahead of him so that they may not be harmed due to his transgressions. And in the mist of him being alone and scared he wrestled with God.

This wasn’t the WWE type of wrestling with cheesy scripts, flashy costumes and whacking one another over the head with metal folding chairs. This was rolling in the dirt trying to gain leverage on your opponent type of wrestling. This was the primal fight for your life type of wrestling, when animal instincts kick in and you scratch and crawl in order to come out not just the victor but to come out unharmed from serious injury.

Sometimes our wrestling with God is like this primal type of wrestling for our lives. We wrestle with God when it comes to our physical life, praying that God will cure us, or allow us or a loved one to live. We wrestle with God for our emotional lives. With tears, heartaches, sadness, despair, grief, and depression we cry out to God day and night. We wrestle with God for our intelligential lives. Pondering, questioning, studying, disputing, and examining the big questions in life and trying to match scripture and dogma to our own personal theology and beliefs. We wrestle with God for our spiritual lives. Praying, meditating, lamenting, singing, and calling upon God to be our help in times of trial.

And in many ways we wrestle with God the hardest when we feel alone and scared in this world. We wrestle the hardest when we know we have been deceitful, we wrestle when we know we have sinned against God and others. We wrestle the hardest when we feel like everyone else has abandoned us. We wrestle the hardest when we feel like we are at our darkest hour.

But by the time dawn breaks, Jacob is transformed because he wrestled with God. Jacob is transformed physically as his hip socket is put out of joint. Many traditions depict Jacob limping for the rest of his life. Jacob is transformed spiritually as God blesses him. And Jacob’s very being is also transformed as he is renamed Israel, which means “God rules” or “God struggles”

And through our wrestles with God, when our dawn breaks and crises that caused our struggles starts to fad, we are transformed by our wrestling with God. Our faith lives is transformed because we have wrestled with those doubts and most of the time we come out stronger. We are transformed spiritually knowing that through the struggle we have found God’s blessing. And our very being is transformed as we are reminded that we have been renamed in the waters of baptism as children of God.

Our doubt has transformed us. Our struggles have transformed us. Our wrestling has transformed us. And as much as those periods in our lives were full of sorrow and despair, as much as those periods in our lives were upsetting, and full of turmoil, as much as those periods we hard physically, emotionally and spiritually, once we are through the struggle we are able to realize that it is because we struggled that we are the people that we are today. Because we questioned, we found answers. Because we argued, we found peace. Because we struggled, we are able to be calm. Because we doubted, our faith was made stronger. Because we were persistent in prayer, we have heard God’s word. Because we called out to God, we were able to hear God’s voice.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What Happened to the Sermon?

So you may be wondering what happened to my sermon from Sunday, as it is now Tuesday and I have yet to post it.  Well basically I trashed my manuscript and went without notes.  I was struggling with the gospel text all week: Luke 17:11-19, the story of Jesus healing ten lepers.

I was struggling with this text because even though only one returns, all ten are healed.  It is so easy for us as preachers, and as Christians in general, to try and lump ourselves in with the one who returned to Jesus and therefore everyone else must be like one of the ungrateful nine who didn't return.  However they were only doing what Jesus told them to do, go to the priest.  We don't know if the nine returned later, or if they praised God at the temple or maybe they even became followers of Jesus after they too looked down and realized that they were healed.

I wrote my sermon on Wednesday before bible study, but then had new ideas after bible study.  But when I went to play with my sermon later in the week I thought it was okay, but then couldn't remember what I wanted to change.  And then Saturday night when I read it over again I wasn't happy with it. So when I went to preach, I just spoke from the heart.  I did use a few ideas that were in my original sermon, especially an idea that we are often so quick to explain away God - chalk up the sunset to science or think the stranger who helped us was only there because of coincidence.

But I also added ideas, I talked about how worship helps us see God more clearly in our lives. When we come together to worship we are praising God but also remembering all the ways that God has interacted with us in the previous week.  All ten were healed but only one actually saw that he was healed.

And in all honesty I don't really know what all I said.  In fact at least once I thought I was rambling, but when I asked a few people about it after worship, no one else seemed to think so.  Whatever I said, I'm sure I said it because it was what God wanted me to say and what someone in worship needed to hear.

Monday, October 11, 2010

MMC: Be persistent

Good morning Bethlehem!

Attached is the flyer of the Blessing of the Animals service which is this coming Sunday, October 17, at 2pm.  Please print off copies to hand out to friends and family so that they may come and bring their pets with them.  

Also this Sunday is our first intergenerational Sunday School lesson of the year.  Everyone is invited to talk about the care of God's creation.  We will meet in the Sunday School area at 9am.  

October 31st is Reformation Day and Confirmation.  Worship will be a festive experience as we give thanks to God for our reforming faith and as Ryan Hawley and Tori Muniz affirm their baptism.  Please wear red, the color of the church, and sign up to bring finger foods for the reception that will follow.  

The people of Bethlehem have been invited to join other Lutheran churches in Fairfield county on a intergenerational mission trip to southwestern Virgina.  The group will be repairing homes while learning about the Appalachian region.  The dates are tentatively set for July 23-30 and will cost approximatively $300.  Please let me know if you are interested in attending or would like more information.

Now onto this coming Sunday's text. 

The first reading is Genesis 32:22-31.  Jacob wrestles with a stranger who changes Jacob's name to "Israel" which means "he wrestles with God."  When have you wrestled with God?  Have you walked away injured like Jacob?  Did you wrestle alone like Jacob who sent his family away?  Did you realize it was God you were wrestling with during the midst of the struggle or not until it was over?

The second reading is 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.  Timothy is given continued instructions on how to go about his ministry including the words: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  When have you been persistent in preaching the gospel and telling others about Christ?  When have you not been persistent?  When has talking to others about Christ required patience?  

The Gospel is Luke 18:1-8.  In the parable, a widow keeps coming to a judge asking for justice.  But the judge only grants her justice in order to keep her from pestering him.  Have you ever gotten something solely because you were annoying the person you were asking?  Or have you ever granted something in order to stop the person from asking you?  (Maybe this is especially true in a parent/child relationship)  When has your persistence been rewarded?  When have you been worn down due to someone else's persistence?  Jesus ends the parable by asking "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" and "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"  Does faith equal crying to God day and night?  

As always I look forward to any thoughts you may have on these test either in response to my questions or additional ideas.  You may either respond via email or phone call and all women are invited to the Finer Things in Life, the women's bible study on Wednesday at 7:30pm at the parsonage where we will discuss the gospel and other text for the week.  

Hope you all have a blessed week.  

Monday, October 4, 2010

MMC: Leprosy and Thanksgiving

Good Morning Bethlehem!

Yesterday was a wonderful day for worship as we celebrated World Communion Sunday.  Thank you to everyone who donated money to Healing Hope Mission Inc, in Malawi and for all who offered their voices and hands in making beautiful music.  A special thank you goes to Nancy Beck who planned the majority of yesterday's service.

Some notes about upcoming dates:
  • Tonight at 7:30 is the Congregational Council meeting.  All are welcome to attend. 
  • Wednesday October 6 is Senior Lunch at the Bluebird Inn in Easton, all are welcomed to join us at noon!
  • Wednesday nights at 7:30 is The Finer Things in Life, a woman's bible study at the parsonage.  All women are invited for chocolate, wine, scripture and possibly fire.
  • Worship Together is every Saturday at 10:30am.  Come enjoy songs, stories and praise geared towards young children and their families.
  • There is no Sunday School this coming Sunday, October 10, due to the Columbus Day weekend.  Bible Study is still meeting at 9am as well as choir practice.
  • Every Sunday night at 7pm is Theology Pub at the Lumberyard.  Last night we topics included the virgin birth, baptism, communion, and worship.  
  • Mark your calendars: Blessing of the Animals is Sunday October 17th at 2pm.  All leashed or caged pets and their owners are invited to attend.  You can also bring pictures of animals or stuff animals to represent pets that are not able to be there in the flesh/fur/feathers/scales.  
Now onto the text for this coming Sunday

The first reading is 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c.  Naaman has leprosy and is told by Elisha that to be cured he must first wash 7 times in the Jordan.  However Naaman is upset thinking that because he is so powerful Elisha would be able to cure him by just waving his arms and he would not have to do anything to be cured.  Naaman eventually gets over his pride and washes in the Jordan to be cured.  When have you thought you were worthy of an easier cure/life/treatment than others?  When have you had to swallow your pride?

The second reading is 2 Timothy 2:8-15.  Timothy is reminded that "If we have died with (Jesus), we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful"  Timothy is reminded that faith is not always easy but the rewards are great and even in moments of doubt, Jesus is still faithful to us.  When has your faith been difficult but also wonderful in the long run?  When have you doubted but realized that Jesus was still with you?

The gospel is Luke 17:11-19.  Jesus heals ten people with leprosy by telling them to go show themselves to the priests (the people who would officially declare them clean).  Only one, a Samaritan, an outsider, came back to thank Jesus.  When have we forgotten to thank Jesus for what he has done?  When have you been so caught up in joy you forget to thank the person who made it possible?  Is this a lesson about thanksgiving or about praising God?

Many blessing in your week!

What is Faith?

I actually preached on all four text yesterday, I believe for the first time ever!  The readings were all about faith:  Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-4 and Luke 17:5-10.  I have to give a lot of credit to Daivd Lose's Dear Working Preacher column this last week as I pretty much just stole his ideas.  

Below is also not the exact sermon that I preached.  Due to props of water in a measuring cup and a board that had the key points about what faith is and is not, I had my podium with the manuscript further to the side than normal and therefore went much more off script.  

It was also World Communion Sunday and to celebrate, Bethlehem had an African themed worship were all the music was African traditional music or written by African composers.  It was a lot of fun as we passed out egg shakers and other instruments at the beginning of worship for people to play along.  

Enjoy the sermon!

How much faith do you have? I’m going to pour water into a measuring cup, tell me when to stop. When you think I have poured enough water to represent how much faith you have.

It is kind of a frivolous idea isn’t. I mean how do we measure faith? Is your faith as large as a mustard seed? It is only this big. Is it the size of your pinky, your arm, your whole body? Is your faith as big as an elephant a whale?

But how do you measure faith? How do we even describe faith?

Well let’s start with what faith is not.

Faith is not measurable. We can’t count faith. When I write in my newsletter articles about GROWing in your faith, I’m not asking you to make it grow like a plant so you can measure its height. Faith doesn’t grow like a child that you can weigh. Faith doesn’t even grow like knowledge that you can measure and test through exams. Faith is not something that you can measure via a survey.

The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith. We want to Jesus to increase our faith, but often not for very faith-filled reasons. If my faith was strong my illness would go away. If my faith was stronger, then my marriage wouldn’t be crumbling. If my faith was stronger, my bank account would be larger.

But faith doesn’t grow like that, faith is not something that we can pull out of us and pour into a measuring cup. Faith is not a physical object.

Faith is not easy. In the first reading, Habakkuk lamented “How long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” Haven’t we all been there? Praying to God and yet it seems like our prayers are going unanswered. Praying to God over and over again and yet it seems like nothing is happening. Our loved ones are still dying, life is still difficult, our job still sucks (well not mine), bills are still due.

Even the answer that Habakkuk gets, that the wicked will perish and the righteous live by their faith, is not the answer that Habakkuk sought. Our prayers sometimes take longer to answer than we would like, and when the answers to our prayers do not come it is so easy to give up, to loose faith, to turn our back on God. And when the answers come and they are not the ones that we were looking for, our faith can really hit hardship.

Faith is not easy. Faith doesn’t mean that we will get the answers to our prayers when we want and exactly as we want. Faith is not a quick fix.

Faith is not the opposite of doubt. Nor is faith free of doubt. We so often think that if you have any doubt, any questions, any concern about God then it means that you do not have faith. But yet some of the people with the strongest faith often have gone through the biggest struggles with doubt and are still doubting. Having doubt does not mean that you do not have faith.

The Psalmist reminds us to be still before the Lord and wait patiently, to refrain from anger and leave rage alone. Faith does not free us from trial, sin, and doubt. Faith is not free from struggle.

Faith is not something we can do alone. Yes there are times when silent prayer or a time being alone with God is a wonderful time and can help support our faith, but overall we cannot be alone in our faith. We come together in worship to support one another, to care for one another, to love one another. To pray the names and concerns that others have on their hearts and minds. We come together to sing praises to God. We come together to hear God’s word.

Timothy is reminded in our second reading that his faith has been nurtured by his mother and grandmother. Our parents, grandparents, relatives or friends brought us to worship. Others prayed for us and still pray for us when we struggle in our faith. Others have brought us the scriptures, taught us about God’s grace given to us in the Lord Supper and baptism. Faith is not a solo act.

So what is faith? We are like the disciples who want our faith to be increased but faith is not measurable. We are like Habakkuk longing for answers to our prayers, yet faith is not easy and we don’t always get our answers. We are like the Pslamist, trying to avoid doubt but not realizing that doubt is part of faith. We are like Timothy, needed to be reminded that we cannot have faith alone. So then what is faith?

Faith is relational. When you have a relationship with someone you put your trust in them. Therefore when you have a relationship with God you put your trust in God. When you trust in God, when you live a life where you know and trust in your relationship with God, the impossible can happen, trees can move into the sea. When we live in a relationship with God, we do not do things in order to seek rewards or praise from God or others but because we want to do God’s will.

When I talk about GROWing your faith in newsletters, I’m talking about strengthening your relationship with God. By giving generously, reading scripture, offering up prayer and worshipping regularly you are opening the communication lines to God, you are building a stronger relationship. And through that relationship you faith is nurtured. Faith is trusting God.

Faith is patient. Faith is not something that happens in an instant. Our relationships with others take time to build and so does our relationship with God. God has given us a wonderful promise: eternal life in heaven, but that is not something that we have yet to receive. God’s kingdom is both here and not yet. God’s grace is poured out upon us and yet is still to come. God’s love is freely given and yet there is still more love to come.

Sometimes prayers are not answered on our timeline. Sometimes prayers are not even answered how we want them to be. Faith is not easy because faith takes patience but yet we have patience and faith that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Faith is relying on God’s promises.

Faith is about being caught up in the promises of God. When we are caught up in the promises of God sometimes we start to have doubt, doubt that those promises will be fulfilled, doubt that those promises were ever really made to begin with. But when we are able to put the doubts aside we are also able to be caught up in the delight that can happen in God’s promises, the joy of the Lord. Faith is full of joy!

Faith is communal. We worship together. Our faith has been nurtured by others. But yet faith has been given to us by God. Through scripture, worship, conversation, prayer and giving, others have helped mediate our faith because they have shared their faith. Today is World Communion Sunday, when we celebrate a shared communion and a shared faith with people around the world, faith is so communal that it extends beyond these walls, beyond this city, this state and this country. Our faith is something that we share with people from around the world. Faith is a communal gift and it doesn’t belong to just to us. Part of faith is sharing our faith with others so that their faith may grow as well.

Timothy’s mother and grandmother encouraged him in his faith. My faith was encouraged by my parents, pastors and youth directors, and probably each of you can name multiple people that helped encourage you in your faith. Faith is a gift that we have been given and are encouraged to share with others. Faith is a gift to share.

So what is faith? We are like the disciples who want our faith to be increased but faith is not measurable; instead faith is relational. We are like Habakkuk longing for answers to our prayers, yet faith is not easy and we don’t always get our answers. But faith is patient even when it seems like we have waited too long. We are like the Pslamist, trying to avoid doubt but not realizing that doubt is part of faith. But with the doubt, faith also fills us with joy and doubt helps strengthen our faith. We are like Timothy, needed to be reminded that we cannot have faith alone nor can we keep our faith to ourselves.

Faith is an awesome gift, one that God has given to us through grace. A gift that is constantly changing and reforming so it never gets old. And yet a gift that is constant, something that we can return to in times of comfort. A gift that was given to us in baptism and that we are reminded of each time we return to the Lord’s Table.

Water being poured into a measuring cup is not a representation of our faith. But the water that was pour over us at baptism is. Water that was blessed by the Holy Spirit, prayed over by the community, and drips off of us so that it may be poured onto others. We have been blessed with the gift of faith and that is reason to celebrate.