Thursday, November 26, 2015

Grateful for the Future

Thanksgiving Eve 11.25.15
Westwood Lutheran

…then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced.
Happy Thanksgiving! I love this holiday that still, somehow, has some purity in its practice – it’s hasn’t been overdone by Hallmark or included mass amount of greed or getting.  Tomorrow is day set aside for gathering and feasting and simply letting our words be words of gratitude. Will your Thanksgiving include uttering those words, listing and naming what you’re grateful for?  I’ve seen quite a few social media waves with people posting images or words of thankfulness for every day of this month – spreading out the meaning of the day and so much of it is thankfulness for what has been, what was given, what was fixed or restored or offered.  It’s a sweet idea and fills my screen with gratitude, for which I am grateful! Our gratitude flows out of our nostalgic view, from hindsight comes the blessings counting and the good gift naming.

Our psalm reading, Psalm 126 is a looking back kind of psalm, one that remembers and names what was good and life-sustaining.  Psalm 126 was written by a person, or maybe a whole people who knew, first hand, what wandering in wilderness is like.  The author of this psalm knew about homelessness, physical hunger, loss of identity, the feeling of the absence of God – the author was most likely an Israelite who had been sent away from his own land.  The author of Psalm 126 is a refugee.  
…then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced. 

The wandering mass of God’s people eventually found a land and heard of God’s favor once again.  And then the psalm was penned through the memory of what had happened and the gratitude came out of hindsight.  The Lord has done great things for us! The rejoicing and the thankful hearts all come to life through memory and acknowledgement of what had happened.

The Hebrew people were not always thankful, in fact they are notorious for wavering back and forth with God about being abandoned, neglected, and left to starve and rot out in the desert.  Their thankfulness is typically short-lived with their fickle memories and uncertain faith in God.
Our thankfulness is usually dependent on our memories, on what we choose to lift us as memorable and worthy of being counted around the Thanksgiving table or uttered in our prayers. This makes me nervous, for I fear that my memory is like the Israelites – picky and short-term, prone to fear and doubt. Is our gratitude confined to the past? Can we only be thankful for what has been and even then we survey what has come to us in this life and lift up the good, trying really hard to forget the hurtful stuff – and our Thanksgiving lists become trite. How else can we know what we’re thankful for if it hasn’t been done or given?

Just a few moments ago we sang a song from the Taize, which is a monastic community in France that gathers thousands of people every year for chanting and silence, prayer and intentional community.  Their music is often short and repetitive with words of prayer and power.  And the song we sang today wasn’t set in the past tense – it is a song of gratitude, but it’s pointed toward the future!

 “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice” it’s a future statement – it’s a faith statement! “In the Lord I will be ever thankful…” this kind of thankfulness is not dependent on our memories; it’s not about yesterday or last year…and there is strength in that kind of statement.  Did you hear it?
What if gratitude was the powerful force with which we went into tomorrow and the next day? What if gratitude was our statement of faith for the ventures of which we cannot see the ending?
Fear is often what carries us into the unknown.  Fear is all over the place these days and with good reason.  There are gun shots in our city, there is sexual abuse in our churches, there is hatred and suspicious between people and public servants.  I am not grateful for any of it! And I’m mostly left doubting and despairing, I’m mostly left with fear for the future.  So I near words that are not hinging on my own memories,  we need stories that tell of courage and justice and new creations.  We, as people of faith, need songs to sing:
…In the Lord I will be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice.  
Look to God to not be afraid lift up your voices the Lord is near. 
Lift up your voices the Lord is near.
We are children of a God who has done great things for us in the past, and this God is on the move, bringing the kingdom of God ever and always in our world, our city, our churches and we are called, as reconciled and freed children to be a part of God’s movement into tomorrow and the day after that! We are called to be a part of our families and our church communities, to be in our neighborhoods and in the streets, we are called to be God’s hands and feet and voice in this place – so what will carry us into tomorrow?  Fear and weakness are certainly a part of us, but what if gratitude was the power and the guiding force that went before us?

Looking back and knowing the stories of our faith is a major way that God reveals who God is in this world.  Knowing the stories of the Israelite, of the prophet Joel who spoke of creation being renewed and knowing the stories of Jesus who tells us not to worry or store up treasures in heaven, these are all stories that reveal who God is – so we look back, we hear the stories of God’s great faithfulness to all people and we say thank you.

Just in the same way that gathering with multiple generations and hearing the stories of the grandparents or telling the stories of the people now gone helps the growing generations to know where they’ve come from, what their family line is all about – it helps us all know who we are.  So we look back, we hear the stories, we say thank you.

And in the hearing, in the compassionate listening we are changed! People of God your story now includes the refugees that penned Psalm 126. And the stories of the refugees, of the once barren earth, the stories of a Savior trying to teach and shape a people of faith are our stories for which we give thanks.  And it is these stories that launch us into tomorrow’s journey of faith.
Does tomorrow’s journey of faith include the refugee, the barren earth, the doubting, the fear, the protester and the prophet, the teacher and our Savior? Yes, it does! So go into your future, into God’s future, not with fear, but with thankful hearts that are made of stories of faith that over and over tell us, and tell our city and tell our families that God is indeed near to us.
…In the Lord I will be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice. 
Look to God to not be afraid lift up your voices the Lord is near.  
Lift up your voices the Lord is near.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

All our saints, and all our sinners.

and excerpt from All Saints sermon 11.01.15
Westwood Lutheran Church

Tonight we are surrounded by quite the cloud of witnesses, the company of our saints.  All Saints’ Sunday is a day for remembering and honoring, a day where there is more room for grief and sorrow and it is a day to be inspired by lives of faith that we can now look back on because the earth-bound story has come to completion and we can take some lessons and inspiration for our own life of faith.  
Today I lit a candle in honor of my Uncle Joe.  He was one of my Dad’s younger brothers, an Italian man from the east side of St. Paul, pretty gregarious, funny, a little crude and overall kind man. His desire to do right in life was palpable, but his ability to carry out that desire was lacking.  I remember, as a teenager, being really angry at my Uncle because he divorced the mother of my favorite cousin.  And suddenly that cousin was no longer at Christmas gatherings and after my grandmother died we lost our connection to that aunt and cousin, the same story repeated with another failed marriage and another cousin drifting out there and tragedy struck with the ending of his final marriage and two sweet little boys who wouldn’t know their father due to separation, then a brutal, brief fight with cancer, then death.
Uncle Joe became sick during my first year at seminary and I remember one afternoon bringing over a big dish of pasta to his last former wife’s house.  She had taken him back in so he could be near his children as he was dying.  He sat across from me, trying to crack the same jokes I’d heard my whole life, trying to keep up a conversation.  But he was frail, visibly showing the wrinkles and wear that come from a life full of struggle, substance abuse, relationships failed and a heart at unrest. He was the shadow of the man I’d known my whole life.
When he died the funeral would be held at the church his last wife attended, a nice Lutheran congregation in St. Paul and it was complete coincidence that the pastor presiding at the funeral was a friend of mine.   During this week of funeral preparations this friend, the preacher, called me and said, “I’ve just met with your uncles and dad and the Joe’s wife and I couldn’t get a lot out of them.” I thought well of course you’re not asking them to argue politics or debate the best pasta sauce recipe.  But I also knew that through his illness and dying there was plenty left unresolved, not every relationship had been healed, the words that needed to be spoken didn’t happen and his death came quickly because his body and soul simply were not strong enough to fight the cancer within him. So I can imagine my family members become tongue tied because we want to present the tidy version of the story, we want God to accept this man and so we should find the fun, light hearted stuff to share at his funeral and not let the pastor see what’s really going on.  This is the struggle that I think is present when we call a day like today, All Saints’ Day. 
My Uncle Joe was no saint when he walked about this earth and I told my friend, the preacher, so. I told him I thought honesty was best and that we, his sad and hurting family, needed to hear God’s promises not because God’s promises come when we are so saintly and all the funeral platitudes are being spoken, but I needed to hear God’s promises thrust into my Uncle’s story, his estranged sons all needed to hear about the kingdom of God that welcomes in every part of that man – full sinner, full saint, completely redeemed and healed by God.
Uncle Joe’s candles burns here with all the others, and I’m guessing if we could peer into each flame and see the whole story each candle carried, we’d see lots of Uncle Joes and estranged children and confused pastors and disappointed nieces.  Right? 
There are points in all of our stories and in all our of grief that need, that demand for Jesus to speak a Word of grace into them.
Did you hear that welcome in this morning’s gospel story? Did you hear how Jesus insisted that an infant be brought before him? Now we think that’s adorable, of course Jesus is welcoming in the cute, little babies! But in Jesus’ day children were not considered the sweet entity of the society that we deem them to be now.  Children simply weren’t old enough to work in the field, not smart enough to hear a rabbi teach – according to the customs in Jesus’ day a child had no business being heard or valued.  So Jesus does what Jesus is so prone to do and pushes at societies boundaries and says, “Let the little children come to me for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”    To such as these: the kingdom belongs to helpless, little nuisance babies? 
And the rich man is told to sell all he has to benefit the poor – then he is welcomed in.  Jesus is turning everyone on it’s head – we value the rich, the successful, those that are productive members of society, we value those that can understand complex religious ideas and properly sit at Jesus’ feet without getting in the way.
And Jesus says no.  Jesus doesn’t value any of it – as he teaches the crowds and reprimands his disciples he says helplessness and poverty of possession – this is the kingdom of God!  We want to earn our way in, prove our worth and Jesus offers a completely contrary welcome:
Jesus alone will welcome us into God’s kingdom despite all we’ve accomplished on this earth
Jesus will be the one to transform our failures into beauty, our ashes into new life so that the infants, the poor will be found in the kingdom of God, so that stories filled with hurt and scars, like my Uncle Joe, will be found in the kingdom of God.
As much as today is about remembers our loved ones and acknowledging the stories that each of these flames represent – today is also about proclaiming a God who welcomes us in! Our stories our indeed swept up into God’s story and we become the kingdom of God! We find ourselves surrounded by the light of this God and it is not apart from suffering, not apart from grief, not apart from the weaknesses that we all carry – this light of God is here to show us how to keep going on in our lives of faith through the deep darkness. 
Today is also the second week of our vocation reader and if you haven’t already I urge you to pick up a reader at the church office and jump into a small group for story sharing and conversation.  In this week’s material is a link to a short TED talk which discusses the difference between living a resume-focused life and an eulogy focused life.  As you might imagine, one such life is focused on temporal successes, tangible wins, accomplishments to be listed – the other, well, is eternal, with primary energy spent in that which will outlive our mortal lives.
Now, I’m not going to collapse into a pep talk on how you might live a more noble life, for I know the realities we all struggle with and trust that we all aim to live with right priorities through well-intention-ed choices.  However, I do want us all to hear clearly the kind of kingdom our God is welcoming us into, the kind of story we are swept up in:
It is the kingdom of eternity, Jesus’ welcome is not because of how impressive you are, but because of how grace-filled Jesus’ love is.  The kingdom of God is not filled with a table of clean and pure people, but is filled with our people, the flawed, faith filled people of our stories.  The saints who surround us were not ultimately saved by their resumes, but by promises such as these words we heard from Revelation
 ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes and death will be no more.
The TED talk in this week’s reader is worth your time, if for no other reason than it ends with these words from Reinhold Niebuhr,
 “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

Through the welcome of Jesus we are transformed into the saints of God, a promise we will one day know fully.  So for all the saints, and all the sinners, for the gift of faith and the welcome of Jesus we say thanks be to God.  Amen.