Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nov. 16, 2008

Nov. 16, 2008

A sermon preached at All Saints Lutheran Church, Lilburn, GA

Text: Matthew 25: 14-30
Title: Of Fear and Faith

I grew up in rural North Carolina as part of a large extended family. Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles and cousins, all on neighboring farms; all in each other’s lives: “all up in each other’s business,” as my friend Larry would say.

My Aunt Mildred lived with Grandparents and took care of them long after others had married and moved out. Sometime in her forty’s, her parents died and she married her longtime sweetheart, Uncle Andy. And they too built a house, “over the river and through the woods,” from the rest of us.

Everyone has gotten older, many have died, the younger generation has moved away. It got down to Mama in one house, Aunt Mildred in another a half mile away, and my brother Tony coming out from town every day to check on them.

A few years ago, Tony got Aunt Mildred a Lazy-Boy Recliner that would push itself up into a standing position to make it easier for her.

One day when he went to visit her she said:

Tony, I’m having a lot of trouble getting out of my chair lately.

Tony said, Let me have a look at the motor.

She said, That won’t do no good. I never plug it in.

Tony, Well, whyever not?

Mildred; Well, what if the power went out whilst I was alaying back in it. I’d be stuck up there like a knot on a log. I wouldn’t never be able to get out of it.

Today’s Gospel Lesson is the parable of the Talents. Let me tell you upfront; this story is not about money and investment strategies.

This story is about our God-given abilities and how FEAR and LACK of FAITH keep us from using them.

Aunt Mildred had a lot of real and quite reasonable fear in her life. Her husband had died, she was in her eighties, she had health problems, she lived alone on a farm.

She also had a lot of gifts for dealing with that fear. The problem is her fear kept her from using her gifts to deal with her situation.

In the story that Jesus told, the third servant, the one who received only one talent, took his talent and buried it in the yard. Why?

Well, he says “I was afraid,” and that is most certainly true. He also calls the master “harsh and cruel,” which probably isn’t true. What most certainly isn’t true is that GOD is like the master in the story. God is most definitely not “Harsh and Cruel.”

And, to tell you the truth, all that “harsh and cruel” stuff is beside the point. It’s not his master that the third servant is afraid of; it’s failure.

He is afraid of fouling up, making a mess, being a disappointment, making a mess of things.

My son is a college Basketball player. He says that the worst thing that can happen to a team is in their head, not in their hands. He says that when a team starts trying to avoid losing rather than playing to win, they are in real trouble.

The Third Servant is playing NOT TO LOSE; rather than taking chances, trying to win.

This story has much to teach us in our current economic crisis. It’s not a good time to be extravagant; but it is also not a good time to give in to fear. If this country is to pull out of this downward spiral, we must work together and dare to take risks on each other. We can bury neither our heads nor our abilities in the sand.

Here at All Saints Lutheran Church, you have challenges before you as well. Your pastor leaving was something of a surprise to everyone. The next year or so will be about taking a good look at yourselves to see who you are and what direction God is calling you to go.

Though it is a frightening time; it will do you no good to shy away from speaking truth to each other. You need to fearlessly and faithfully take an inventory of your mission and ministry so that you can discover once again your many talents and use them to grow God’s Kingdom.

A story from the life of Martin Luther may be helpful here.

After Luther got into trouble with the Pope, he was invited?, no, summoned, to the city of Worms to defend himself against charges of heresy.

There he stood, in front of the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor. And though he was admittedly quite afraid, he refused to back down and left the City of Worms.

Though the Emperor had granted Luther a “safe conduct,” pass, his friends feared for his safety; they didn’t trust either Pope or Emperor.

So, his friends had Luther kidnapped and taken to the castle of Wartburg. Luther went around disguised as Squire George, while stories were circulated that he was dead.

While Luther was in hiding, his fellow teacher and reformer Phillip Melanchthon was in charge of things back at Wittenberg.

Phillip was as quiet and retiring and hesitant as Luther was loud and aggressive and assertive.

Phillip always fretted over doing the right thing and doing things right.

The Church was Reforming, Protesting, Changing. Things were totally and completely unsettled.

Many were recommending rash action and rapid change. Others wanted things to stay the same. Still others wanted a gradual change in Church and Society.

Phillip just couldn’t decide what to do. He couldn’t make up his mind, so he wrote Luther.

He laid out his options, in a professorial set of pros and cons in columns and tables.

He said to Luther, If I do this, this could go wrong. If I do that, that could go wrong, etc. etc.

I just can’t decide; I don’t know what to do.

Luther wrote back, somewhat impatiently,

Look Phillip, you’re right. It is hard to know what the right thing to do is. Anything you do WILL have some sin in it.

Therefore, SIN BOLDLY! but, trust the GRACE of GOD more boldly still!
(And you thought he was talking about beer, didn’t you!?)

Luther’s advice to Phillip is the answer for the Servant with one talent and the answer for us as we face uncertain times.

Sure, we’re afraid.

Sure, we’re uncertain.

Sure, we might mess up,

Sure, we might do the wrong thing.

All of that’s true and possible.

But Jesus calls us to leave our fear behind and give ourselves over totally to trust and faith in God. We too are called to SIN BOLDLY, to act, to act now, and to also trust that God will take care of us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit to a tiny Christian congregation in a village in Kenya. They met in the open air beneath a thatched roof.

When it came time for the offering, a round flat basket was passed up and down the rows of benches as people put in coins and small bills.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She looked at the basket for a long time.

Then she took the basket and placed on the dirt floor in front of her.

Taking off her sandals, she picked up her children, held one on each hip, and stepped into the offering basket; standing with head bowed praying for several minutes.

Then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

The basket has come to us. What will we put in it? Will we let our fear and anxiety hold us back?

Or, will we take off our protection in the presence of the Holy and step boldly into the center of God’s will and way; giving to God the one thing God really wants, our complete and total devotion?

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Nov. 9, 2008

A sermon preached for Consecration Sunday at St. Mark’s Lutheran, Huntsville, Alabama

November 9, 2008
Texts: Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Title: Good News, Bad News

Listen again to the words of the Prophet Amos:

Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake

These verses remind me of a Good News/Bad News joke. Not any particular Good News/Bad News joke, just that kind of joke.

As a matter of fact, I spent a great deal of time in sermon preparation looking for just the right Good News/Bad News joke to start the sermon.

The Good News is: I found one. The Bad News is: it isn’t very funny. The really Good News is I decided not to tell it.

A few weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore and I ran across two books I had never seen before.

One is The Optimist’s Guide to History
The other is The Pessimist’s Guide to History.

While I was checking out, the clerk looked over her glasses at me and said,
“I’ve sold a lot of these books, but nobody’s ever bought them both at the same time.”

I said, “Well, I guess most people are either optimists or pessimists, but I’m just a preacher looking for sermon ideas.”

And the Good News is: I found one.

The books are organized in chronological order, beginning with Creation, or the Big Bang, depending on your point of view; and progressing to the present.

The Optimist’s Guide points out the positive events in history;

while the Pessimist’s Guide lists all the horrors that have ever happened.

As I read through these two books, I noticed two interesting things:

1) The Pessimist’s Guide is much longer than the Optimist’s Guide; (360 versus 260 pages)I don’t know what that means, I just noticed it.

2) There are many things in each book which I, personally, would have put in the other book.Some things the authors counted as Bad, I saw as Good, and vice versa.

It would appear that whether something is Good News or Bad News is a tricky question.

It depends not only on whether or not you’re an Optimist or a Pessimist;

but also where you’re standing when you look at it.

This week’s election is an example: America has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American President. Is that Good News or Bad News or both?

How you answer that question depends of where you’re standing, what political party you belong to, what positions you take on the great political problems of our day.

Each of our Scripture Lessons makes reference to an idea that is referred to by several different names:
The Day of the Lord,
The Coming of the LORD,
The Second Coming,

And the question is: “Is the coming of the LORD Good News or Bad News?”

In Amos, The Day of the Lord is pretty much Bad News all around, for everybody.

This idea, that the Day of the LORD would be a bad day, was quite a shock to his hearers.

They weren’t prepared for this word of Judgement and didn’t accept it.

The people Amos was preaching to thought themselves to be pretty good people.

They went to temple, did the required sacrifices, lived by the Ten Commandments;

except when it was inconvenient or seemed a little extreme or something, or got in the way of a good business deal or a good time.

In other words, they were a lot like us.

And they knew themselves to be God’s Chosen People, so the Day of the LORD would be Good News, right?

It would be a Good Day when God would give all those Godless other people who aren’t like us, a good licking for being, well, not like us.

So they were unprepared for Amos to tell them that their assumption of their own goodness was a dangerous thing.

It’s as if someone ran away from a lion and was met by a bear, or ran away from the lion and the bear into the safety of the house, then put his hand on the wall and was bitten by a snake.

Bad News becomes Good News becomes Bad News again.

First Thessalonians sees The Coming of the LORD as Good News for those who are dead and those who are still alive. This is what we’re talking about in the Creed when we profess the belief that Christ will “come again to judge the living and the dead.”

And in that judgement there is implied Bad News for those who are “not in Christ.”

And in the Gospel Lesson, the coming of the Bridegroom is Good News for the Bridesmaids who were prepared, who had oil in their lamps; and equally Bad News for those who were unprepared, not ready, who had no oil.

Since we know that the Church is the bride of Christ, it’s easy to figure out who the Bridegroom is in this story. What’s not easy to figure out is who we are.

We can’t take this story literally, securing our future fate by stocking up on lamp oil, like a bunch of Survivalists filling their basements with nonperishable food and machine guns.

What is the oil? What must we do to be counted amongst those who are prepared when the bridegroom cometh?

This is a place where a Lutheran preacher has to tread lightly. Our theology, quite rightly I think, is extremely cautious about telling anybody that there is anything they HAVE to do to be saved.

Justification by GRACE through Faith. Justification by GRACE through FAITH. It’s our mantra and it’s a good one because it’s true.

BUT, too often Lutherans have failed to recognize that there is more to being a Christian than being justified, than being declared righteous, Okay with God, by God.

Sometimes in bending over backwards to avoid legalism we have fallen over backwards into licence and amorality.

We seem to have adopted Oscar Wilde’s position that, “God likes to Forgive, I like to Sin; it’s a nice arrangement.”

We have learned well the truth that “God loves you just the way you are.”
We have ignored the equally important truth that, “God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”

So, again, what puts oil in your lamp? What must one do to be ready when Jesus comes again to judge the living and the dead?

The key is responding to God’s mercy and generosity with mercy and generosity of our own.

The Christian life burns brightly when one comes to the recognition of how much God has done for us; and one becomes so grateful that generosity begins to burst forth in one’s life.

The oil in our lamp is the oil of loving action in response to God’s loving act of sending Jesus the Christ into our lives to save us, and to fill our lives with hope, joy and purpose.

Today, Consecration Sunday, is not simply about financial pledges put in an offering plate, today is about joyfully responding to the Goodness of God by placing our hearts, our souls, our very lives into God’s hands and into God’s service.

The Bad News is all around us. Wars and rumors of wars. Economic struggles and job loss. Sickness and death. Poverty and hunger. The list goes on and on.

The Good News is: God has done something about those problems and needs. God sent Jesus into the world to show us God’s love and to show us God’s way. And God has called a people to deal with those problems, those needs, those Bad News things that surround us. God has called us, we are that people, we are the Good News to a hurting world.

We are called to commit ourselves to keeping our lamps burning with the love of God, reaching out to the world with love on our lips, hope in our hearts, and help in our hands.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!.