No More Hiding

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Zech. 13:1-9Eph. 1:15-23Luke 19:11-27

Today Luke tells the troubling parable of the Ten Pounds.

If you don’t remember: one slave gets one pound, and makes 10 pounds.  Another slave gets one pound and turns it into 5 while the master is away.  The final slave gets a pound as well, but wraps it in a cloth and returns it.  He is reprimanded.

This has been perhaps the most troubling of all parables for me.  Greed is rewarded?  Earning 10 fold was not something proud of attainment like it would be today.  That kind of profit was strictly forbidden by Old Testament codes.  If you exploited others, you were forbidden from business.

This is a parable, so by definition we are meant to learn from this about something else.  The context was a bunch of folks who expected the kingdom of God to appear immediately.  And Jesus ends by talking about “these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

That is even more frightening talk.  Jesus wants those who disagree with him to be slaughtered in his presence?  I thought Jesus was meek and mild?  No.  That’s the case only if you read the edited version.

So what is going on?  It appears Jesus is much concerned with this: to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

It appears Jesus, like Paul and Zechariah in our other two readings, is inciting us into action.  He wants us to DO something.  We have gifts.  We have skills.  We have money.  Many of us have all three.  We are to use them for the sake of the gospel.  We are to claim our calling, and not hide our gifts.

I think back to my early days in church, a young tween and my fear of playing the piano for church.  I had become quite the pianist for an 8th or 9th grader, but I was nervous and hesitant to play for church.  My perfectionism had reared its ugly head.  Unless I could offer “something that was perfect to God” I didn’t want to offer at all.  My pastor at the time, a compassionate but firm Lutheran pastor, pulled me aside on a Saturday afternoon during my practice time at church to inquire about this.  I remember Pastor Mike’s response to this day: “God has given you the gift of music.  And while you may feel it is bad to offer something less than perfect to God, it is a far greater sin to NOT OFFER IT AT ALL.  You must play.  Whatever it is you got in you, you MUST play.”

That was the best advice I could have gotten.  It was telling me that if I was going to wait to offer something that was perfect, I would be waiting a long time.

Despite the church being a place full of broken people, the fact is that we offer our gifts anyway.  With all our warts, we are called to offer our best.  But the key is: we are called to offer them no matter what.  No excuses!

-Matt

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It Is Not Illegal to Seek Asylum

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Zech. 11:4-171 Cor. 3:10-23Luke 18:31-43

Today in Luke a blind beggar calls for Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  People order him to be quiet, but he shouts all the more.  He gets Jesus’ attention and ultimately is healed.

This all occurs on the heels of the Rich Young Ruler, who could not enter into eternal life with his worldview of money.  It also occurs on the heels of a lack of faith on the Pharisees part, or even the disciples.

Here is a blind beggar: by the crowd’s standards this guy is unclean by his condition, and doubly unclean because of his begging.  Here, Jesus lifts him up as the example of faith.  He knows that he only has to ask, because he knows who this is and the power he has.

We are in need of being healed of our affliction.

We are a people who have traded in the grace of God for a lie.

We believe that we are the dispensers of God’s grace, rather than recipients of it.

We believe that in our pursuit of money, if we are truly successful we can become immune to the need for God’s grace.

We are wrong on both accounts.

I love the irony that is found in the debate about immigrants and refugees.  Ironic because most of us have the blood of immigrants running through our veins.  Natives remind us that we belong to the land, not the other way around.  And yet many of us feel privileged, immune, resistors of the reality that all comes from God and our dependence has always been on the Other.

We have always fallen into sin, especially those of us who come with this warped European work ethic driving us, thinking somehow that “those without” simply haven’t worked hard enough, when the reality is that generations ago when our forefathers came with nothing in their pockets, the reality is that they were also recipients of a lot of grace, opportunity, and second chances – mainly through the laws protections or the lack of laws about immigration.  Yes many experienced discrimination, but they were also afforded amazing opportunity to establish themselves.  And now somehow we have forgotten that our history is one that includes the Statue of Liberty and all that goes with her.

I pray that we can come to terms with the reality that we are not dispensers of grace, but recipients of it, and therefor have become instruments of God called to dispense more of God’s grace.  I pray that grace once again becomes the order of the day.

Are you familiar with Kelly Latimore?  Kelly Latimore Icons.  His work has gone viral on Facebook a lot lately.  He very powerfully in images has portrayed the refugee, particularly his images of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.  Check them out:  kellylatimoreicons.com  They are powerful reminders that we have hitched our wagon to a Savior who himself was “without” and needed the community of grace and protection.

We hitch our wagon to a refugee who reminded us we too are refugees.

We are a prideful people, we Americans.  We are industrious and independent.  “Help?  No thanks, I can do it myself.”

May we have the courage and faith to look past that to the reality that we are utterly dependent on God and one another.

-Matt

Community and Togetherness

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Zech. 10:1-12Gal. 6:1-10Luke 18:15-30

Last night was a great night, reconnecting with the Search Committee that brought me to NW Ohio as General Presbyter.  We had dinner at Carol’s house.  I am so thankful for them, and the work they put in.  Anyone who has been on a search committee knows this.  Countless hours.  Hopes.  Dreams.  The meal was extravagant (as it always is when Presbyterians gather).  But mainly it was a time to say “thank you” as we broke bread.

It was a time of thanksgiving and celebration, but also a reminder that our stories are far greater than our little lives.  We are connected in ways we sometimes forget – connected through our greater church life, the work of the presbytery and our denomination, and connected to one another in our dependence on one another and the earth in which we live.

The readings this morning transported me to last night, but they also took me all the way back to Taizé, France where there is a monastery that is close to my heart.  It is also a fairly well known monastery these days attracting thousands of young pilgrims every summer in Europe.

I had the privilege of spending a couple weeks of continuing education at Taizé almost 17 years ago.  I got to interview Brother Roger, the founder of the community, and really live in the midst of their community for a while.  I was honored.  Some of the key words you would hear over and over again from Brother Roger were “reconciliation” and “community”.

People these days are hungry for togetherness.  I deal with people on a daily basis who are profoundly lonely.  What we see over and over is that just because someone lives with a roommate or has a large family does not guarantee avoiding loneliness.  Loneliness is everywhere. Taizé is an important place for many troubled souls to reconnect to God and be reminded that their story is a part of the fabric of God’s greater tapestry of grace.

In both our New Testament readings, there are examples of the Christian’s value of community and togetherness in new and profound ways.  Jesus blesses the little children.  Paul speaks of bearing one another’s burdens.

For Paul, being together in community means something much deeper than restoring a transgressor, and righting a few wrongs, but of a mutual responsibility and forbearance.  Being part of the family of faith means sowing seeds of community and responsibility into the fabric of our lives – so that we reap from the Spirit.

Today is a great day.  This week has the potential to be a great week.  For wrapped up in this season is the ability to make it a season of togetherness.  And this year is an opportunity to do it in a new and special way – to mend fences and experience the joy of giving thanks.  This is not mere lip service, but a call to the renewal that Paul speaks about and the blessing that Jesus speaks of.

We are called to bless one another.  In doing so we value each other in our mutual brokenness.  It is not “I will love you if you fix all your flaws, but I love you despite all your flaws.”  This is the blessing we give to children, and the blessing we are called to give to others as well.  In that blessing carries great power, but also great responsibility, for the two way street of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood means that blessing will come back 10 fold.

-Matt

A Thanksgiving Proclamation by Lincoln

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Psalm 145Joel 2:21-271 Thessalonians 5:12-24

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday.

This may seem ironic, because it is a holiday of purely secular origins, and I have a schedule that is decidedly filled with sacred holidays being a minister and all.

And yet I cling to Thanksgiving.  It is one of those rare holidays that the church hijacks from the world.  The tables have turned!  Usually it is the sacred holidays that get hijacked by the world.  Talk to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus if you wanna take issue with that last statement.

But why not put a sacred spin on Thanksgiving Day?  After all, the harvest comes in and we give thanks to the God that created the world.  It is the time of year that makes the most sense for any God-fearing person to give thanks.

This is what President Lincoln knew and articulated when Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed for the first time, and like all the presidents that have followed him.  And so today we pause and give thanks to God, the source of our being and abundance.

Lincoln’s words were spoken at a time of deep division in our country.  It is almost haunting how much they ring true in our time.

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

 

True Allegiance

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Hab. 2:1-4,9-20James 2:14-26Luke 16:19-31

“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Many reformed Christians have struggled with the book of James.  This is why!  So steeped in salvation by faith and  not works, this passage in James is often like a clanging gong to our reformed ears, which seems to say the opposite.

And yet, James provides a richness and completeness to Paul’s argument.  First, we are not talking about salvation, but about the transformative nature of a life of faith.  Second, James concentrates on works of charity, not works of obedience to the Jewish law.  Third, James also includes what I consider to be a central statement of Jewish belief, “God is one” and that that statement expands the meaning here.

If we are living as members of Christ’s faithful community, would not acts of charity be a natural outcome?  If we proclaimed to be Christian, and then spent all our time trampling all over the poor, others would very clearly see that we weren’t really Christian.  It reminds of the cute little tune, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…by our love.”

Works aren’t going to save you.

James never claims that.  But what he does state is that if you aren’t backing up your faith without works, you have lost your mind!

Christianity is not a religion of lip service.  This is not something we do on Sunday morning and ditch the rest of the week.

James helps us with focus.  He helps remind us that all that we do, all that we say, all that we believe, feeds into the overarching belief that God is one.  When we take this seriously, we come to know that the brokenness of this world, the heartache of our neighbors, all feeds into honoring God.  There is no divide of God’s character, and as James spins out his theology on demons and their work as the enemy of God, we see a God that firmly stands against the tyranny of poverty, brokenness, and hopelessness.

In other words, God demands our allegiance – our belief and our power to transform.

-Matt

Native American Heritage

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November is Native American Heritage Month.  Are you celebrating this in worship in any way?  Here are some ideas.  Many of them don’t require a bulletin change, just incorporate into what you are saying.  But a write up in the bulletin, a deliberateness to it, and coordinating with musicians in your congregation can provide extra impact.  Here are some of the things I have done in the past:

  • Talk about November being Native American Heritage Month in the announcement time and invite one of the Natives in the congregation to come forward to tell his/her/their story.
  • Have a Children’s sermon and tell about the “Legend of the Turtle”.  The Turtle and the Flood works best for me (Woodland), or the Turtle Gets a Shell (Oneida) but there are many depending on what jives with you.
  • Sing the Navajo prayer:
    Now I walk in beauty,
    beauty is before me,
    beauty is behind me,
    above and below me. (Google NOW I WALK IN BEAUTY to find a pdf score of the melody or a recording.  This one can be sung a cappella with very little practice.  I often sing this as I am walking down to begin the announcements even before a word comes out of my mouth.  Interestingly, over the years, this has become one of the more memorable things I do this Sunday in the congregational memory.  This is somewhat surprising because it only takes 20 seconds.)
  • The Presbyterian Hymnal is a treasure trove of Native music.   Sing Hear the Good News of Salvation (#441 in Glory to God Hymnal – a Dakota hymn sung to a familiar tune), Many and Great, or the Muscogee (Creek) hymn Heleluyan, We Are Singing (#642 in Glory to God Hymnal)
  • I have a Native American flute.  I doubt you have someone in your congregation who has one and can play it fluently.  But there is YouTube!  I feel a pre-recorded prelude coming on, and giving your musician a break!
  • Pray some Native prayers this Sunday.  Google “Native American Prayers of Thanksgiving” for many ideas from the Ute, Apache, Cherokee, and Creek peoples.
  • Connect with the Native American Ministries division of the PCUSA.  Reach out to someone in Grand Canyon Presbytery, Indian Nations Presbytery, or Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, or at the GA office.  There is a Native American Young Adult Council too.
  • Think about inviting a Native speaker for next year’s Native American Sunday in September or for NA Heritage month in November.
  • Use a Native benediction.  I have used the traditional Cherokee blessing before:

    May the warm winds of Heaven blow softly upon your home;
    May the Great Spirit bless all who enter there. 
    May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows, and 
    May the rainbow always touch your shoulder.

  • As Prayers of the People, pray the Great Spirit Prayer (Lakota):  “O Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind,
    Whose breath gives life to all the world.
    Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.
    Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever
    behold the red and purple sunset.
    Make my hands respect the things you have
    made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
    Make me wise so that I may understand
    the things you have taught my people.Help me to remain calm and strong in
    the face of all that comes towards me.
    Let me learn the lessons you have hidden
    in every leaf and rock.Help me seek pure thoughts and act
    with the intention of helping others.
    Help me find compassion without
    empathy overwhelming me.

    I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,
    but to fight my greatest enemy Myself.Make me always ready to come to you
    with clean hands and straight eyes.

    So when life fades, as the fading sunset,
    my spirit may come to you without shame.”

  • And finally, if you are not in a leadership position with worship at your church, you can still do something to remember Native American Heritage.  You can pray this Prayer of Thanksgiving from the Iroquois people silently before worship on Sunday or with me right now:

 We return thanks to our mother, the earth, which sustains us.

 We return thanks to the rivers and streams, which supply us with water.

 We return thanks to all herbs, which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.

 We return thanks to the moon and stars, which have given to us their light when the sun was gone.

 We return thanks to the sun, that has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.

 Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit, in Whom is embodied all goodness, and Who directs all things for the good of Her children.

  Iroquois Prayer, adapted

99 and 1

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Joel 2:12-19Rev. 19:11-21Luke 15:1-10

It was a warm welcome yesterday at the presbytery meeting.  Maumee Valley Presbytery….I feel the love.  Thank you.

It was a great day, and I was honored to preach at our worship service.  For those of you that weren’t there, I preached over the passage from yesterday in Luke 14: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Today’s gospel reading deals with the parable of the lost sheep.  The parable of the lost coin.  That being said, we are still talking about crosses!  On my recent trip, the Journeys of Paul, I had the privilege of visiting the Vatican.  While there I bought a replica of the cross that Pope Francis wears.  His pectoral cross, which each pope has the opportunity to choose one unique to them, from afar looks like a crucifix, but up close it is the parable of the lost sheep.  I would expect nothing less from a Jesuit.  He is so crafty and wonderful.

In the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin, each is a response to the claim of the Pharisees and the Scribes that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

This is the 1st Century equivalent of mud-slinging on the campaign trail.  “This is how bad Jesus is!  He welcomes sinners!  He eats with them too!  How bad can it get?  How many rules is he willing to break?” the Pharisees and scribes are saying, attempting character assassination.

What is most interesting is that, instead of explaining it away, Jesus seems to defend and reinforce this idea!  Jesus says, “Yes, one should welcome sinners!  And one should eat with them.”  He declares this in the context of two parables.

Does not one leave the ninety-nine sheep and go find the one that is lost?  And don’t you look for the one coin you lost?  Of course you do!  And in doing so, Jesus changes the trajectory of the early Christian church.  And today when we hear the phrase, “Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them,” our immediate reaction is not, “Oh my God, what a scandal,” but rather, “Good for him…and we should too!”

What good news!  God is concerned for the lost.  Luke pays special attention to the lost physically and spiritually.  There is much talk in his gospel of the poor, the lame, the widows, the children, the afflicted, and the lost.  His gospel begins with the special place of Mary and Elizabeth, and we see shepherds at the manager.

God is interested in exalting the lowly.  Those who have been swept under the carpet will now be raised up.  And these two parables, which often become the focus of repentance, are actually parables about joy.  “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”  So too, the woman who finds the coin in the parable ends up rejoicing.

In a sense Jesus is saying, “The party that I am having right here right now is nothing compared to the party that is happening in heaven each time God finds another lost soul!”

What a wonderful image!  This idea of God as judge is a bit different than what many of us grew up with, which went something like this: “Do bad things and God will get you.”  Instead, it is just the opposite!  God is not interested in the kind of judgment that curses us.  When we stand before the judgment seat and confess we have strayed, God’s judgment, as it turns out, is not one of condemnation, but one of rejoicing!  No life in prison.  No death penalty.  Not even probation.  Instead, the slate is wiped clean and the party begins.

I will wear my new cross with pride!

-Matt