Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality, Uncategorized

There’s a Place at the Table

Matthew 22:1-14

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Monday night, in Lubbock, Texas, a 19-year-old Texas Tech student named Hollis Alvin James Reid Daniels, III was arrested by campus police because they found illegal substances and drug paraphernalia in his dorm room. While they were processing him at the police station this young man (who was not handcuffed) pulled out a gun and shot and killed the police officer who was with him. The gun was somehow missed when he was arrested. He fled the station which led to Texas Tech being locked down until he was recaptured later that night.  He has been charged with Capital Murder of a Peace Officer and bail has been set at 5 million dollars. This was national news, some of you may have seen or heard it.

This young man, Hollis, is from Seguin, Texas. That city name might sound somewhat familiar to you because that is the town where I lived and served as youth minister prior to attending seminary. Hollis went by one of his middle names, Reid, and he was a member of my youth group. I’ve known him since he was 12-years-old.

It is heartbreaking and devastating to know that the sweet, goofy youth that I knew and who I watched grow into a caring, hardworking, young man, made such poor life choices, that this is now reality.

It was equally as heartbreaking to watch how corporate media painted the picture of Reid and his family; and how people on social media, who don’t know he or his parents, were quick to condemn and judge. Some of what people had to say was just cruel and ugly.

It made me realize how many times in the past, when events like this have occurred, I have been quick to condemn and judge and be cruel and ugly.

But the thing is, Reid, although a horrible sinner who made a devastating choice with hugely expansive and overarching consequences for many, many, many people, is still someone’s son. He is still a brother. He is still an uncle. He is still a friend to many. He is still the goofy, sweet, hardworking, caring person young man I knew. The paradox of his identities makes for a very fuzzy and blurred overall picture. And we in modern America, don’t like blurred lines. We want sharp definition. Black or white. No grey. Good or bad. Not both.

Which is why I think many modern Christian traditions are often drawn to this morning’s Gospel. They like what comes across as hierarchy and justice.  They like the perceived judgement and condemnation.

In it, Jesus tells a parable. In the parable there is a king whose son is getting married. He invites all of his friends and colleagues to the wedding banquet. He does this as convention at the time dictated – first with a formal invitation that one would accept or decline (almost a save-the-date, if you will) and then reminds them with a personal summons the day of the event.

For some reason, the guests who formerly accepted, do not come. The King even tries enticing them with descriptions of slaughtered oxen and fatted calves.  Because we all know people show up for barbeque!

This still doesn’t work. In fact, some of the invitees go away – one goes on a business trip, another to his farm, and the rest – well they just seize, mistreat, and kill the slaves delivering the message. Because that’s a rational and normal response to a wedding invitation!

The king is furious (obviously!) and destroys those who slighted him. He burns their city to ground. Then he tells some of his slaves – we’ve got to have guests, clearly those I just smote were not worthy – so go out and find me some people! The slaves go out into the streets and gather everyone they can find, both good and bad and fill the wedding hall.

When the king arrives he notices one guest who is not dressed appropriately. He is not wearing a wedding robe – the king asks how he got in??? When the guest does not answer – he has him bound and thrown out.

Upon first review, it seems pretty harsh, at least for those who offend the king. Often this is interpreted that those people who reject God and/or do bad things in the world are the ones who get destroyed or thrown out of the banquet. It fits into modern societies need for vengeance, justice, judgement, and absolutes.

The only problem, is that this, like all parables, is not meant to be taken literally. It’s allegory. Matthew had a strict Jewish piety and therefore minimalized the use of the word “God” and instead chooses “King” which was a common metaphor for God.  The wedding was also a common metaphor for God and God’s relationship with Israel. This is meant to tell the tale of salvation history.

So, the king represents God. The original guests are the Kingdom of Israel, God’s chosen people. Whom God sent prophets and messengers to, informing them that the Messiah was coming. Yet many of them still rejected him and killed him when he arrived. The son who is getting married represents Jesus. The wedding is his act of salvation on behalf of the world. The guests who are gathered from the streets are Jews and Gentiles alike. Good people and bad people.

And the wedding clothes that they wear – is the cloak of love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and salvation that we receive when we are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sharon Ringe states that: “The final invitation that will fill the banquet hall is inclusive in the extreme. In that sense it mirrors other instances of Jesus’ table community that embodied the hospitality and inclusiveness of the divine project or empire he proclaimed. Questions of social status or observance of Torah regulations, or even ones ethical behavior are set aside in favor of the urgency of the host’s plan.”

Erick Thompson states that: “Our culture resonates deeply with Christopher Nolan’s Batman when he says, “it’s what we do that defines us.” For many of us our world creates jobs and family situations where our performance is deeply tied to our sense of worth. Many people in our culture want to be the best employees or best parents because that will dictate whether or not they are okay… For many people, we know that we are okay, that we are justified, because we have fought the good fight, done our duty, been a good person, etc. In the parable, the king responds by turning our systems on their head. By sending out his troops to destroy the people and their ‘city,’ the king is destroying our human notions that what we have done and built has value when it comes to the wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the king invites everyone in the main streets: the good and the bad, the non-elite. No longer are we worried about the elite, the wealthy, or those who control society. Instead God is declaring [God’s] preference for the marginalized. This might be like hearing that one’s workplace is giving bonuses to everyone; even the bad employees, or even employees who have been fired… If we remember that God’s grace is what saves us, we won’t worry about how we are clothed, or who else God has decided to include in the Wedding Banquet. There is no room for piety or first-rate Christians in the kingdom of heaven. There is only room for those whom God has chosen.”

We are really good at creating hierarchy and structures of moral superiority. We are really good at passing judgments. At criticizing others. Of telling ourselves that our sin is lesser or that we are better people because – well – it’s not like we’ve killed anyone.

I know I have done my fair share of making assumptions and forming opinions based on media stories or perceptions. I’m sure we all have.

We want that role of first-rate Christian. We want to condemn and cast aside the Reid’s of the world.  In this parable we are being told that we can condemn and cast aside all we want, but God will not do this.  No sin is greater than another, and in baptism, we all receive an invitation to the wedding banquet. The good and the bad. God doesn’t care how great we are or how much we fail. There is plenty of room for everyone. God has chosen all of us. Me. You. The highly successful. The abysmal failures. The criminals. The socialites. The rejects. The scholars. The middle-of-the-roaders. Everyone has a place. We are all invited to come and eat.

This is the comfort and security that I have clung to this week. Earthly consequences are appropriate and necessary for Reid, but that doesn’t negate God’s love for him. He will always have a place at the banquet table. He will always be clothed in Jesus’ grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  We all will. Every last one of us. Thanks be to God this. Amen.

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Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan

I realized that this sermon from September 10th was never posted… a month late, but here it is.

Matthew 18:15-20

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Conflict Telephone5 years ago – in the Spring of 2012 – I received a telephone call from one of my youth minister friends. She was a graduate student and part-time youth minister at a small congregation in my synod. Her congregation was located in a neighborhood that had once been affluent but was not any longer. She had done a lot of amazing ministry with the local neighborhood youth who as I’m sure you can imagine, did not fit the typical membership demographic of this small, traditional, German Lutheran Church. These youths had never experienced traditional liturgical worship. They had never engaged in the standard pew aerobics that we take as common and normal. (You know – stand, sit, kneel, repeat.) They didn’t know what was considered appropriate or not. My friend would often sit with them and help coach them through worship. This was going very well, until one Sunday she was asked to play guitar for worship.

This Sunday no one sat these youths. No one helped shepherd them through what was still a rather foreign service. And as teenagers are apt to do – they were off task and a little noisy. The cultural differences between the congregation and the neighborhood became very apparent. Rather than kindly address behaviors that were deemed inappropriate with the youth directly, or even with my friend shortly after worship, a small faction of the congregational members instead started up gossip-mill. They wanted these youth expelled from worship and began the process of trying to make this happen.

When word finally got to my friend, via the pastor, the suggestions were – create a youth only worship service that she was responsible for leading so that they wouldn’t bother anyone else, or tell them they were no longer welcome. Obviously, my friend was very upset.

As we talked about this she was at a loss for what to do and was looking for any perspective I could offer. She didn’t want her hurt, anger, and frustration to cloud her judgment when engaging in a meeting with her Pastor and the ring-leader of the upset congregants. I told her this:

#1) I don’t believe in fractionalizing the Body of Christ. We don’t separate out subgroups of people and cast them into corners. We worship as a community. So noisy children, people with special needs, people with mobility issues, people from different cultures with different standards for what is socially appropriate, people with different stylistic worship preferences, and people who are “normal” are all welcome and necessary for the body to function at its best.

#2) If we say: “All Are Welcome” – one of those quintessential Lutheran catch-phrases – Conflict welcomethen we really have to mean that! We can’t just say all who look, act, behave, and function like us are welcome. And when new people enter our community, part of what it means to welcome them, is to help guide them. And to incorporate in their what they bring to the table.  Even for longtime Lutherans, entering a new community invokes some anxiety. No congregation does things the same… there’s always a learning curve to try to figure out how worship functions, how communion is served, where you go after worship is over, etc… This is exacerbated by about a million for non-Lutherans.

#3) It is never okay to complain and stir up conflict when you have not addressed an issue with an individual first. It may not go over super well because they won’t want to hear it, but you need to quote Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan when you meet with this group.

By Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan, I meant this morning’s Gospel. In the text the author of Matthew depicts Jesus as addressing conflict amongst the body of believers. Our translation states that: “If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It’s noteworthy to understand that in the time of Jesus, “the church” did not exist. Commentators argue that a more accurate translation or portrayal of this would be – if a brother or sister sins against you. The intent is to portray a deeper level of intimacy – not necessarily just some random stranger or acquaintance.

Conflict-Resolution-Puzzle-PiecesAs Jesus is giving these instructions to the disciples it is highly likely that he was trying to give them guidance for how to proceed in the future when they are more active leaders. Not only with those whom they are helping to guide, but also amongst one another. We know that Peter, James, Paul, and many of the other early church leaders, did not always get along, and did NOT always follow Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan.

The plan itself seems fairly simple – if conflict exists. If someone sins against you – TALK TO THEM ABOUT IT! Direct communication. Work it out.  When my kids were little they would often come to me tattling about something that one or the other of them did. You know, because reading their book without permission or looking sideways at a beloved stuffed animal was a grievous sin and completely tattle worthy. I would tell them – “I’m sorry. Mommy doesn’t understand tattle. My ears don’t hear it. You’re going to have to go figure it out!”

If for some reason direct one-on-one communication doesn’t work, then you bring in another member of the community. Have another set of eyes and ears. Get additional perspective. It’s definitely possible that you have been seriously wronged. It’s also possible that you are completely overreacting. Extra perspective often can bring about resolution.

If the private intervention doesn’t resolve the issue, bring it before the entire church. Sometimes it takes hearing that we are wrong from many, many people before we are willing to accept our sin.

no-passive-aggressiveBasically, Jesus is saying – no passive-aggressive behavior, no triangulation, no “parking- lot” conversations, no gossip. Just forthright communication. It’s much easier to complain to others about our perceived offense than to address it with the offending party. Elizabeth Johnson stated that: “Jesus leaves no room for self-absorbed grudge-nursing. Restoring a broken relationship must begin with conversation between the parties concerned.”

Finally, Jesus states that if this still doesn’t bring about any kind of resolution, then treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the context of the Jesus’ ministry, Gentiles and tax collectors were often part of the fold. Friends. Followers. Contributors to the ministry. People who Jesus reaches out to regularly. So, this is a very tongue-in-cheek comment.

Karl Jacobson stated that: “Being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep. If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times, that’s how many times you forgive him.”

So – If neighborhood teenagers are disrupting worship, you talk to them and you guide them through worship. If a child is being noisy, you walk them around the sanctuary or get them a book or crayons and paper. You help their quite possibly overwhelmed parents get through worship.

If your least favorite hymn in the history of ever is sung, you sing joyfully because your least favorite is someone else’s absolute favorite. When the scary crotchety kitchen dragon lady fusses at you, you respond in kindness and point out that she could have been gentler in her approach.

Eric Barreto pointed out his is commentary of this text that: “This is no mere handbook for resolving conflicts. Simply following this order of confrontation will not ensure a result consonant with God’s hopes. It is not as simple as moving through these steps. We know that the mechanics of decision making do not always reflect our values. Checking off these duties step-by-step will not guarantee a decision rooted in God’s love for us. This process could so easily be co-opted by selfishness and dislike and so many other human frailties. Instead, what matters here is the concern for the other and the community.”

gathered-in-my-name-prayer-fullUnfortunately for my friend – concern for other did not prevail. Shortly thereafter she decided to focus on her studies and I suspect the relationship with those youth diminished.  Jesus knows this is a possibility and continues with saying that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by the Father in heaven. This is a promise. He finally ends with: “Where two or three are gathered in my name I AM there among you.” I AM – God. Jesus. The Trinity is among you. Present. Really present. Not just where two or three are gathered and getting along. Not where two or three are gathered and in complete agreement on doctrine, liturgy, and mission. Just, where two or three are gathered.

It certainly includes all of those things, but it also includes where two or three are gathered and not acting as their best selves. Where two or three are gathered in conflict. Where two or three are gathered and cannot get along. Where two or three are gathered and are unable to come to any sort of resolution.

Because no matter how great the plan that is laid out for us is. No matter how much sense it makes. No matter how clear Jesus was… ultimately, we almost never do it that way. We do gossip. We do triangulate. We do act in passive-aggressive ways. We do look out for ourselves first and community second. We do ostracize and isolate those who are different from us. The noisy neighborhood teenagers are often NOT welcome. And in all of that Jesus is present. Especially in these times, Jesus is among us. In our times of joy, in our times of sorrow, in our times of peace and harmony and agreement, and in our times of contentious conflict, Jesus is with us. We are called to do our absolute best to live lives according to the Gospel – and when we fail – and we do!… Jesus is with us. We are loved. We are forgiven. We are extended grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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God in a Box

In an interview with Time magazine, the Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States was asked, “Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?” She replied, “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”

I came upon this quote in an article about Katharine Jefferts Schori’s decision to not continue on as the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA once her current term is completed.  It gives so much to think about.

Why do we constantly try to figure out God? Why does everything have to have a perfect understandable answer? Why do we put God in a box again and again and again? Surely we should know by now that God cannot be boxed in a perfect little package of what works for us. I think “the church” as a whole has lost sight of some of the mystery that is involved in our faith. We search for rational answers to all of our questions and jump at the opportunity to point fingers and place blame.

The only problem is that our faith is not rational.  Our faith is crazy and aberrant. It really makes absolutely no sense, but we know it to be truth. It is truth. Still we try to rationalize and explain and understand God and that is just not possible.

Who are we to assume God could NOT act in other ways? Who are we to assume when, where, why, and how someone comes to know Jesus. Does it have to be the same way we did? Does it HAVE to be in this life or else… too bad so sad?

I for one am super comfortable with mystery and unanswered faith questions. I’m good with not knowing. I’m an inherently lazy person and sometimes just accepting the unknown is easier, and I’m really, really okay with that.

I prefer to think of God as being able to reach those that I cannot. I don’t know in what way, shape, or form that will take place, and that’s just fine by me.

On a related, yet separate note – I looked for an image to include with this post and one of the graphics I found said: “Don’t put God in a box. He doesn’t fit.” So it strikes me that in referring to God as a “he” one is actually putting God in the “Man” box and completely shatters any credibility the image might have had.

Don’t put God in a box… God doesn’t fit.

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Amazing, Frazzled, Sleep-deprived Body of Christ!

OverloadThe transition back into the academic world continues to be a challenge. So it turns out, 10 years, 2 children, a husband, and you know… LIFE… definitely makes this a whole lot different than being an undergraduate student.  I constantly feel like I’m behind and like somehow my mental capacity has shrunk. Last week especially I was super stressed out and struggled a lot with self-doubt. I had 3 quizzes, a test, and an all day workshop on professional boundaries. I ended up getting through it all and actually did fairly well on all of my exams. (I’m sure that’s not shock to others, but I really felt like I was about to fail something.)

I talked to Roger about how crazy stressed I was and he told me I’m doing great and the only way he would be disappointed is if I gave up and quit.  That helped a lot. I continue to be so appreciative of how supportive he is.

Then I had my big “God Moment”… that moment where I felt like I was getting a big old – “Quit Being Stupid!” message thrown in my face.  Friday morning before my preaching class began a fellow student, who I have been secretly envious of because she is single and seems to always be super well rested, on top of school, and like she knows what is going on, came into class and told me she was so stressed out and felt like she was behind on everything and I’m doing this with a family and way less time to study, etc… yet have it all together and how do I do it, other than the fact that I’m Wonder Woman.

I just laughed and told her I most definitely DO NOT have it all together. I am NOT Wonder Woman and actually am sometimes envious of her.

It made me realize that although I feel alone at times, I’m not. I am part of a community of equally stressed out people. We have all been called to this place at this time and make up a beautiful, amazing, frazzled, sleep-deprived, Body of Christ who lift up and support one another. I am so grateful for each and every person here.

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Adventures at Camp Day #2

“And they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” ~Matthew 1: 23b

This morning we were super excited to discover that our youngest campers (First Graders) were leading morning worship.  They did a fantastic, if sometimes quiet, job. Their skit in particular was pretty funny.  The them today is Child of God: Never Alone. God came to earth as Jesus so that we would never be alone.  Their skit was a few people who were sad because they were alone and then a bunch of ninja’s who were hiding behind trees came out to let them know they weren’t alone.  Random, but reinforced the fact that they got the basic concept of the story.

Following worship we next joined the kids for Bible Study. I sat in our Alpha Female groups Bible Study.  The counselors did a great job of simplifying things to a level they can understand.  Somehow for little ones, understanding seems to go without saying.  God is always with us… we are never alone… well… DUH!

Following Bible Study we had Lunch and Turtle Time.  Unfortunately it POURED during lunch and Turtle Time. Fortunately, it stopped and no afternoon activities were affected.

I joined our Second and Third graders in Arts & Crafts where we leather stamped bracelets.  It was a lot of fun helping them make their bracelets. I ended up holding the stamps for a lot of the kids because it was hard for them to hold and hammer at the same time. (I only got hit with the hammer a couple of times.)

Next I attended a cooking activity with our Fourth & Fifth graders.  I wasn’t sure what to expect and it ended up being a cake baking relay race. It was very amusing to watch. While they waited for their cakes to bake, this group planned morning worship for tomorrow.  I am highly anticipating this worship service based on the creativity that I heard in that session.

Finally I closed out activity time back at Arts and Crafts with our First graders.  Once again I helped them leather stamp bracelets and was fortunate t10403341_10100430203176884_3575731197529880929_no only suffer a few whacks from the hammer.

Dinner followed activity time. Katie and I ate with First, Second, & Third graders and then hung out with our Fourth & Fifth graders for a while as they ate. After leaving the Dining Hall we headed up to where the other kids were playing outside games.  A bunch of our kids were playing Gaga Ball. Due to the rain the Gaga Ball Octagon had turned into a mud pit.  None of them seemed to mind as they proceeded to coat themselves in grime.  It was hilarious!

Our evening concluded with Sing-Along, an All-Camp Game, and Closing Worship.  Katie and I joined our First Graders for S’mores and were fortunate enough to get some made prior to the rain starting up again.  Unfortunately for our Fourth & Fifth Graders, they were unable to hold Night Swim (their evening activity) because of lighting. Hopefully they can make it up later in the week.

And now… I’m sitting in my bunk listening to thunder and preparing to get some SLEEP!  Be well beloved children of God! Until tomorrow!

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Camp Adventures – Arrival & Day #2

Yesterday my intern Katie, 15 elementary youth, and I all arrived at church camp.  Upon arrival the kids were CRAZY excited and running around as we were trying to check-in.  Katie corralled them to the best of her ability as I did the responsible-adult-paperwork-thing.  Once that was completed it was time to load up children and parents and get the kids to their assigned cabins.  That process honestly took very little time and next thing I knew the kids were running off to the pool for swim tests and to play and Katie and I were off to our room to unpack.

Unpacking was also quite quick and then we sat there and stared at each other like… Now What?  (We had 2.5 hours until dinner which was the first time we were going to see our kids again.)  I gave Katie the grande tour of camp, visited the kids in the pool, chased down fly away umbrellas (ask if you want details on that one) and relaxed a bit.

At dinner and throughout the rest of the evening the kids were having a blast with each other and their cabin mates.  The excitement and joy on each of their faces was so much fun to watch.  Even our first year campers were not shy or nonparticipating.  Each of them have attended VBS Day Camp at the church and it shows… they knew the songs we were singing, they were already familiar with the routine, and they were all fiercely independent. (AKA – it’s okay Ariel, you don’t have to sit with us, we’ve got this!)

Today has been awesome so far.  The kids are still having a blast.  As some of the initial excitement wears off, I’m getting more hugs, more – will you eat with us, and more… are you coming with us to…. “_____” activity???  Katie and I are going to do our best to connect with all three of our groups during activity time this afternoon. (It’s a fun juggling game to spread two people over three groups.)

The only slight bummer is that it rained earlier today and the afternoon forecast is uncertain.  Hopefully the torrential downpour is over.  For now activities are still on and about to begin… stay tuned for more fun from camp later!!!!

 

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
~Romans 8:14-16

 

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