Sermons for Occasions

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Confirmation Sermon on John 8:31-36

The Power of the Word

Beloved community of our Lord Jesus Christ,

It has been 500 years this week since Martin Luther nailed his propositions to a door for all to read.  His words were a spark, lighting a tinder of unrest and revolution that he never anticipated or even desired.  He wanted to coax the church back to its center, to remind the church authorities that God’s grace is not found in traditions or transactions but rather in the cross of Jesus Christ and the resurrection he shares with us.

But words have power, perhaps more power than even Luther expected.  His own words sprang from his personal experience with God’s grace.  He wanted everyone to be able to read about it in a Bible of their own language.

Words have power.

On this momentous weekend of both a church anniversary and students undergoing their Affirmation of Baptism, I want to say just a few words about words.

First, the Word of God.  I once stood in the room where Luther was said to have translated the Bible into German, the language of his people.  It was an ordinary room in Wartburg Castle.  That room reflects what God does for us, distilling the wisdom and beauty of God’s intentions for us into one book, in language that we can understand.  Ordinary words like “house” and “sky” and “life” and “shepherd.”  Yet in those simple words, we learn of a God who loves us deeply and eternally.

I am reminded of these words from the book of Deuteronomy, a message to God’s people right before they were to enter the promised land, not unlike the threshold our confirmands face this weekend:

“For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.  (Deut 4.32-35)

We have these stories that we will know there is no other God. There is no other book in the world that will tell you of such a mysterious and loving God who reaches across eternity, into your mind and soul to draw you into the great story of purpose and meaning and beauty.

In July of 2004, the people of Ranonga, a small, remote island in the Solomon Islands, read the words of Christ for the first time in Lungga, their own language  This followed more than 20 years of fundraising efforts by the local people.  When the finished copies were finally made available and the people held before them the written words of Christ, a local pastor declared: “Today God has arrived in Ranonga.  He has arrived in our own culture and is speaking to us in our own language.”[i]

“Into a world of souls, some listening, others preoccupied, Jesus speaks in words common to all: ‘Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in’ (Rev 3.20). To recognize a voice speaking in a language we understand is so much more than acknowledging a string of inanimate, recognizable words.  We recognize a person beyond the sounds, meaning within the language, an invitation in the face that somehow looks to ours even now.  How much more so this is true of the voice that first spoke into the silence and called the world forth by name.”[ii]

See, we not only have words about God and even words from God, teachings and dialogue from Jesus; we have The Word who is Jesus himself.  The apostle John said Jesus is the Word come to us from God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1.1-3, 14)

Even if you have trouble understanding the Scriptures, you can still know the Word of God when you know Jesus himself.  He said, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  I don’t think he was only talking about his teachings.  He walked among us and taught and ate and laughed and suffered and died and rose again so we could see God up close.  He was and is the living message of God for us.

Make it your business to know Jesus in the gospels, and you will understand the rest of Scripture much better.  He is the Word that interprets the rest of God’s Word for us.

So, there is the Bible that we call God’s Word, and there is Jesus, also known as the Word.  Then there are our words.

If Luther lived in a time when written words were scarce and prized, we live in an age that is the opposite.  There is a barrage of words coming at us every day.  Language is thrown around carelessly, as if it has no power.  Yet we know that it does, especially when it is used to criticize, provoke, and insult each other.  How many people have died as a result of words flung at them, whether thoughtlessly or with intentional hatred?  How much has our government become ineffective because they can’t communicate with words of wisdom and compromise?

James writes about the power of our words.  He might as well be commenting on social media, or our public dialogue, or what you texted to one of your friends this weekend:

“…the tongue is a fire…no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (Jas 3:6a, 8-10)

You know the power of positive language, words of encouragement and of hope and of love.  Some of them you have heard in this room.  You have heard many of them from your parents and mentors and friends in this beloved community.

Confirmands, you are speaking words today that are like a doorway.  Words that are a beginning.  Language that contains far more than all you have been taught in confirmation classes, words whose meaning can’t even be fleshed out by the entire Bible, to tell the truth about it.

This is one of those life passages when you make promises whose meanings you do not yet know.  You are using words like “denounce,” and “Yes, with the help of God.”  But it takes a lifetime and then some to know what you are saying today.  Like all those through whom God spoke in the Scriptures through the ages, you are speaking about things that are too wonderful for you to understand.

Your parents did this at your baptism.  The sacrament that celebrates God’s grace in calling you and forgiving you is a mystery that no human being can fully grasp.  Yet it is a gift that we dare to claim because God invites us to do that.

A similar kind of speaking happens in a wedding ceremony.  Vows are uttered that have to be lived into.  It takes many years to know what is really meant by “for better or worse” and “till death do us part.”  The meaning of those words is learned through tears and heartache and celebration.  The value of those words is learned through trust and forgiveness.  The word “love” takes on dimensions you never dreamed of at the altar.

Today is Reformation Sunday.  We remember Martin Luther challenging the church’s notion that they could dole out words like forgiveness and hope as though they could be bought.  He knew that the good news was not something that should be hoarded or abused; it was free to everyone who had faith in Jesus Christ.  God invites everyone to explore the mysteries of God’s wonderful gifts.

And so, today, you dare to speak.  You can do it because your friends and family who have spoken these words before are here to encourage you that they are good words.  Their hearts are filled with hope that you will live into these words, that the doorway of your promises today is an opening to a life of faith that will not disappoint you.  We speak them again, with you, to live into them ourselves.  Together we confess our faith, and dare to speak, because the Word himself, Jesus Christ, has given us a voice to say a word, to say “yes” to him, with confidence and joy, even though we are only beginning to know what that means.  Thanks be to God.

[i] As quoted at http:

[ii] “Slice of Infinity” by Jill Carrattini, Oct. 23, 2009.  Copyright Ravi Zacharias Ministries.

Confirmation Sermon on Genesis 32:9-31

“Growing Up”

Chances are very good that today will not change you.  It is an important day, certainly.  We need to publicly speak the words of commitment and faith, whether it is in baptism, holy communion, weddings, or as you are doing today, affirming your baptism as part of your coming of age.   We stand before God together and stake our lives on Him, the One who has revealed himself to us purposefully.  This is a piece of our story as a community of faith.

Here at Bethlehem we have been scanning the big story of the Bible here at Bethlehem in the past year, dipping into various episodes.  Some were familiar, others were more obscure, even a little surprising.  And it is through that big story that I have attempted to teach you what matters about God, and faith, and yourself these past three years.  We have talked about God calling a people to be His own, to love and trust God in spite of the folks who try to claim power for themselves, the “big deals.”  Over and over we have seen that God provides our daily “manna” out of love for us.  We have underlined passages in the Bible that speak of God’s great love for you that I hope will help you as you continue your story of faith in the years to come.

Today I want us to go back to the story of one of the patriarchs of the Bible, those characters in Genesis whose lives are given to us as the setting for God’s first dealings with humankind after all the drama of creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah.

You remember Abraham, and his wife Sarah, whom God called to live in a new land to get this story started.  Abraham had great faith, to obey God’s call to uproot his family and move to the land God would show him.  Just like us, sometimes Abraham had trouble trusting God, but God made him the father of the nation of Israel nevertheless.  Remember how he and Sarah had their first child when they were old enough to be great-grandparents?  Their son was Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau.  So Jacob was Abraham’s grandson.

Jacob was not a person I would have nominated to be a patriarch.  He hung around the family compound, whereas his brother Esau roamed the hills and valleys hunting game.  Jacob might have had too much time on his hands, because he often brooded over the fact that his twin brother would inherit their father’s land because he was only five minutes older than he was.  Of course he thought he was far more deserving, more intelligent and refined than his brute of a brother, who seemed to be content with having enough to eat and a tent over his head from time to time.  He wondered if he could find a way to change his fortune.

When Esau came home famished after a couple of unsuccessful days of hunting, Jacob saw his chance.  He offered his brother some soup in exchange for his rights as the firstborn.  Esau carelessly agreed.  Some time later, when it was time for the ceremony of the birthright blessing, their mother Rachel talked Jacob into fooling his blind father. This would seal the deal.  (Jacob came by his scheming nature honestly.)  He disguised himself as his brother and pulled one over on his own father, who pronounced the blessing of land and food, leadership of the family and community, and God’s stamp of approval.

When Esau found out what had happened, Isaac was already miles away, having realized that this birthright deal had consequences.  Jacob did not have half his brother’s strength, and he would be the loser if Esau got hold of him.

While he was on the run, Jacob had to sleep out in the open, maybe for the first time in his life.  It was on one of those starry but uncomfortable nights that Jacob was given a dream, a vision of the traffic between heaven and earth.  For reasons that only God knew, God renewed the promise made to his grandpa Abraham and his father Isaac: land, offspring, and the privilege of being the vessel for God’s blessing of all peoples.

Did it change Jacob?  No, it did not.  I wonder whether it even surprised him, so deep was his attitude of entitlement.  He had the nerve to tell God his conditions for the covenant God was making with him.  He vowed to trust God if God would protect him, give him enough to live on, and keep his brother from killing him in revenge.  That is as close to trusting God as Jacob would come for a long time.

Fast forward to at least twenty years later.  Jacob has gotten married, acquired great herds, and is on the run again, this time from his father-in-law Laban.  Jacob had met his match:  Laban was as much of a shrewd and scheming man as he was.  Life together in the same family compound became unbearable.  As they say, the place wasn’t big enough for the both of them.  Jacob got to thinking again, and a future with Laban was worse than facing the music back home.  Surely the land he was promised in the blessing was not his to claim by now, but maybe Esau would be willing to grant him a small corner.  So Jacob took his wives and herds to return home.

Jacob got more and more nervous the closer he got to his homeland.  He had nightmares of his brother Esau coming at him with his hunting weapons.  As they got close enough that Esau might be around the next corner, Jacob sent his family and possessions ahead of him, ready to forfeit most of it if Esau would only let him live.  He spent the night at the River Jabbok, and it is there that his life was changed.

He was sitting by the river at dusk, pleading with God to spare his life and those of his family, and trying to work out plans A, B, and C when somebody grabbed his shoulder and tried to pin him down.  At first he had thought it was Esau, but this man didn’t smell right or feel hairy like his twin.   Jacob fought for his life in a wrestling match that lasted all night long.  By daybreak he had suffered an injury to his hip; it was pulled out of its socket.  Yet his opponent seemed to be giving in, asking to be released.  Jacob said he would only give up if the man blessed him first, making Jacob the winner.  His blessing amounted to a new name: Israel, which means “one who strives with God” or “perseverance” for short. Suddenly it was clear who this man was.  Jacob realized that he had been wrestling with an agent of God himself.

Jacob was never the same after that.  He limped, for one thing.  And it seems that he finally understood that it was not through striving and grabbing that he would find life.  We see it when he meets up with Esau not five minutes later.  Jacob was repentant.  He apologized to Esau.  He owned up to his past and faced his brother instead of sending a peace offering and hoping for the best.  His eyes were opened to see his brother with love instead of competing with him.  Listen to what he said to his brother about his gift:  “please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” (Gen 33.10-11)

Quite a change.  It seems that Jacob finally grew up and stopped trying to make the blessing happen.  He had to admit his brokenness before God and other people.  The pain in his hip reminded him of it daily.  Not that his life was easier after that.  Some of his sons inherited their father’s deceitfulness, and they developed a mean streak to go with it.

Not everybody learns how to trust God as Jacob did.  He strived and strived a long time before he discovered that it was never enough to satisfy his restless heart.  He had to learn that the most important things can only be given, and received.  That the beautiful life he was striving for couldn’t be found in things or even people; it is instead a result of allowing God to bless us out of love for us.

To be fair, it is not easy to trust a God like that, a God so generous, who blesses us out of sheer love and doesn’t require any sort of striving to earn it.  But Jacob had one son who learned this early on, and didn’t seem to lose sight of it.  I’m pretty sure you’ll remember the story of Joseph, Dad’s favorite.  God gave Joseph dreams of being the favored one, even though he was toward the end of the line as far as birthrights go.  It irritated his brothers to the point of violence.  Just as his father had been shocked by a hand on the shoulder and an all-night wrestling match, Joseph found himself unexpectedly at the bottom of a dry well with his brothers shouting curses and spitting at him.

Joseph’s story, while vastly different from that of his father, is also a lesson about faith.  His innocent trust in God never seemed to leave him.  Remember how Jesus said we should have the faith of a child?  Joseph seems like a good example of that.  Even though he was sold by his own brothers, enslaved, framed and thrown into prison, Joseph seemed able to keep his eyes focused on a faithful God.  As he grew up, he didn’t lose that simple faith.  We can be sure it wasn’t easy.  He had to be scared out of his wits and beaten up often enough.  Bit it appears he inherited the best of his father’s ability to scheme, because he always seemed to rise to the top, whether as a slave, a prisoner, or an aide to Pharaoh himself.

Two very different stories.  And there are dozens more in the Scriptures.  All of them have one thing in common: a faithful God even when we are faithless.   Even when we try to weasel other people out of their blessings and grab them for ourselves.  Even when the best of them gave in to their appetites like David in his adultery, and their fears, like Peter in his denial.

What changed them was not a declaration such as the one you will make today.  What changed them was being broken and finding themselves utterly dependent on God.  And that is where we come in today.  Although your vows today are important, and will serve as a touchstone and resource for you in the years ahead, it is the act of coming to God with your brokenness and sin that will always be what changes you.  Maturity and faith do not come through wishing for them or by osmosis.  We do well to study God’s faithfulness when we are comfortable.  But deep faith is developed only times of crisis.  We learn it when we come to the end of ourselves, our striving, our pain and the injustices of life and find that God is the only constant.

Chances are that you have already faced some real pain, have had to grow up sooner than expected.  Then you have had the chance to realize that God’s love is yours no matter what, and that God will never abandon you.  Through the scars and disappointments, and in times when you realize that your own plans are insufficient and flawed, you will find that God is faithful.  You will have begun to grow up in the faith.

And that is why we come to the table together.  We come as beggars.  We come with grateful hearts.  We eat the bread of Jesus who was broken for us.  You will lay the bread that is his body in the hands of your fellow believers today, as one broken person feeding another with the beautiful food of God’s goodness.  You will be on your way to growing up in the faith that we all share, faith in a God who loves us throughout and beyond our stories.

Confirmation Sermon on Humility

Wonder-full Words….Job 42:1-6, 10-17          

Dear confirmands, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ our Lord,

This is the most challenging message for me every year.  It is hard because I want desperately to say something to you that will convey the importance of what you are doing today.  Something that will sum up the beauty of what God has done and is doing for you, and the urgency of responding to the grace of God in faith.  But it’s too much.  It can’t be expressed in one message.

In fact, it can’t be expressed in a thousand messages.  What we do here and say here is a weak attempt to honor a God who is vast and mysterious.  We try in vain every Sunday to explain God’s love, to offer something back to the God who, beyond all reason, calls us and embraces us as His own.  We sing hymns that are beautiful, but there are no tunes or words for the enormous love and glory and power of God.

Our lives are filled with words.  When you were a toddler, you started naming the objects and people in your life that populated your narrow existence.  Ball, puppy, mama, daddy.  Words to name the things you were familiar with.  It wasn’t long before you learned that words didn’t just have to be names.  They could carry power.  Mine!  No!  Words can make people react, can sometimes get you what you want.

When you went to school, you learned words for ideas like 1 + 1 = 2, and places that you were told about, but you had not been to Africa or Antarctica.  You learned the power of words for friendship, and for hurting other people.  You learned that a well-timed word could be a bomb, destroying someone’s confidence.  Or another carefully chosen word could create a bond, a friendship you depend on.

Words come in many shapes and colors.  You use some of them without even thinking.  Still, they can have power in spite of your carelessness.

Job realized that his words could be used clumsily.  He was a man with everything going for him.  He was wealthy, he had a large and lovely family, and he was a good man—a very good man.  He was a man who believed in God.

Job’s faith was so sparkling and beautiful, it made Satan jealous.  It made him want to spoil this man’s loyalty to God.  He was sure that Job’s faith was shallow, based only on his remarkable luck—the fact that he had it so good.  Just watch, he said: take away his nice family and his prosperous farms, and his faith will be just as beat up and flimsy as the next guy.

So God let Satan test Job.  The troubles were horrible: Job lost everything, even his family.  He even broke out in boils on his skin.  The book of Job has him trying to figure out why so many bad things had to happen to him.  He has friends—if you can call them that–who alternately blame him and urge him to give up on God.

And Job tries out their theories.  He questions God’s fairness.  He makes a case for his own worthiness, suggesting that God has made a mistake in delivering such punishment to a model citizen.

Job throws words around as if they don’t have any power.  But he learns that they do have power.  He gets a scolding that can only be described as historic.  He feels the sting of divine sarcasm: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God challenges Job, who learns that God is not to be trifled with, not to be addressed as you would talk to a friend on Facebook.  He learns that his faith will hold, but it has to find a new language.  And that language is filled with awe, humility and repentance.  “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…”

And we can learn from this story that words that do not just name, do not simply whine or hurt or question.  Words can be inadequate.

But we still have to say them sometimes.  In fact, we have permission to say them.  Today is one of those days.  You are speaking words today that are like a doorway.  Words that are a beginning.  Words that contain far more than all you have been taught in confirmation classes, words whose meaning can’t even be fleshed out by the entire Bible, to tell the truth about it.

This is one of those life passages when you make promises whose meaning you do not yet know.  You are using words like “denounce,” and “Yes, with the help of God.”  But it takes a lifetime and then some to know what you are saying today.  Like Job, you are speaking about things that are too wonderful for you to understand.

Your parents did this at your baptism.  The sacrament that celebrates God’s grace in calling you and forgiving you is a mystery that no human being understands.  Yet it is a gift that we dare to claim because God encourages us to do that.

A similar kind of speaking happens in a wedding ceremony.  Vows are uttered that have to be lived into.  It takes many years to know what is really meant by “for better or worse” and “till death do us part.”  The meaning of those words is learned through tears and heartache.  The value of those words is learned through trust and forgiveness.  The word “love” takes on dimensions you never dreamed of at the altar.

The words we speak and hear at the Lord’s Table today are words we live into.  We hold out our hands for the bread and cup and wonder at our unbelievable good fortune.  To reach out to God is to risk getting burned by holiness, to risk being led somewhere you hadn’t expected to go, but to have your hands also filled with gifts of love and meaning and hope.  It is to say “yes” to a life of trusting God.

Today is Reformation Sunday, a day we remember, among other things, that the language of faith should not be used lightly.  Martin Luther challenged the church’s notion that they could dole out words like forgiveness and hope as though they could be bought.  He knew that the good news was not something that should be hoarded or abused; it was free to everyone who had faith in Jesus Christ.  God invites everyone to explore the mysteries of His wonderful gifts.

And so, today, you dare to speak.  You can do it because all those who have spoken these words before are here to encourage you that they are good words.  Their hearts are filled with hope that you will live into these words, that the doorway of your promises today is an opening to a life of faith that will not disappoint you.  We speak them again, with you, to live into them ourselves.  Together we confess our faith, and dare to speak, because the Word himself, Jesus Christ, has given us a voice to say “yes” to him, with confidence and joy, even though we are only beginning to know what that means.

Stewardship Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

Caretakers, Risk Takers, and Thanks-givers

          “525,600 minutes.”  How do you measure the moments in a year?  That’s what one song asks.[i]  And it is the same number for every one of us.

The steady passage of time might be the only equal measure we are given in our lives.  Otherwise each of us is a combination experiences and talents, ideas and yearnings that make us different from everyone else.

The man who left his servants in charge of different sums of money knew that each servant had different skills, and he doled it out accordingly, but he expected all three of them to do something with it.  In the parable Jesus told in Matthew 25, the master gave to each one “according to his ability.”

On this Stewardship Sunday, we consider this equation.  God gives each of us X amount of time, abilities, possessions, and we are responsible for the other side of the equation, the return on God’s investment in us.  Kind of a crude way to talk about it, but Jesus himself put it in those terms more or less.

He made us stewards of everything we have, and everything we are.  Stewards are caretakers, not owners.  Much as we might like to claim our houses, our land, our families as our own, that is not how we see it in the reign of God.  We see them as entrusted to us for a period of time, to put to good use.

How then do we as “caretakers” take care, really care for what God has entrusted to us?  We might not give it a second thought most days.  But then we read Psalm 90, and Moses talks about numbering our days: “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  Step back for a moment and realize that your life is finite.  You don’t want to reach the end of it and wish you had used it with more joy, done something more meaningful with your time.

Parables always seem to have a surprise or a twist in them.  Have you noticed that?  Last Sunday the young maidens who had to run off and buy oil were shut out of the wedding feast.  A shepherd searches for one stubborn sheep while risking the other 99.  A woman throws a party just for finding a lost coin.

These happen in Jesus’ stories because he has to help us understand how God’s reign works.  It is different from our way of thinking.

In this case, the servants are commended for taking risks by investing the money.   It was the one who wouldn’t take any risk at all who got thrown into “the outer darkness.”  For burying money in the ground!

Risk is one of those concepts that mean different things to different people.  Some people invest in the stock market directly, while others buy mutual funds, and still others wouldn’t do either one.  I like to travel overseas, but I know people who think flying that long over water is just too risky.

The master expected each servant to risk as much as he was given.  To risk it all, it seems.  So whether they have five, two, or one talent, they were expected to put it to work.  It’s kind of silly, but every time I read this parable, I think of Dolly Levi, the lead character in “Hello, Dolly,” who quotes her late husband: “Money is like manure; you have to spread it around, encouraging young things to grow.”  (Turns out he was quoting Thornton Wilder in The Matchmaker.)

I imagine that the return on investments that God expects from us is measured not in dollars but in the good they do.  We cannot quantify it, but we can expect God to use it in some way.  It never goes to waste.

We might be tempted to see it that way, that there had better be results we can see; otherwise we won’t take the risk of giving.  But faith means giving what God asks of us.  How much does God ask?  God asks for everything.  Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” he says.

We admire Jesus’ commitment, but then we turn away and tell ourselves to be more realistic.  We look for ways to soften this command of his.  We think faith is about feeling secure about life and about the hereafter.  To us faith is no more risky than believing a few things about God and Jesus.  It’s about “getting our theology right and then living a good life and avoiding bad things.”[ii]

But Jesus invites us to discipleship, which means investing our lives, risking them, stepping into what is uncomfortable for the sake of love.  “It is to be bold and brave, to reach high and care deeply.”[iii]  What we discover is that God meets us there with more life and faith and opportunity than we ever expected.

In some ways, faith is like the human body.  To be healthy, the body requires exercise.  A sedentary lifestyle will leave you diseased, can even hasten your death.  You need to “move it or lose it.”

Faith is exercised by accepting God’s invitation to do with God what we could never do on our own, whether it is giving more than you thought you could in the offering plate or finding out that the limits of your strength are greater than you thought.  It is to give out of love because that is just what God’s beloved people do.  God proves faithful in this process, making sure we always have enough left over for ourselves.

So, caretakers are risk takers in God’s reign, it’s a simple as that.

But there is one more thing about that one-talent servant that should not go unnoticed today.  This man had the nerve to blame his caution on the master himself, even accusing him of greed.  “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

I wonder if I have done that, actually blamed God for my disobedience, for not trusting God when I am asked to give.  I’m sure I have.  “God, you would want me to be responsible with this money, wouldn’t you?  You don’t want me to give it to somebody who might not deserve it.”  Does that sound familiar?

Or how about this: “If I get involved, people might think I actually approve of those people’s lifestyle.  You want me to have a good reputation, don’t you?  I think I’ll stay away.”  Or: “I know you’ve been asking me to stop spending so much on myself, but I’m supporting the local economy.”

We find ways to rationalize, when what is operative is fear.  Fear that we might not have enough, or look bad, or be uncomfortable.  So we end up hoarding what God has trusted us to put into circulation for the sake of the world God loves.  The servant had the ability to multiply the master’s money, but he was afraid of making a misstep, and he let that fear paralyze him.

We can tie ourselves in knots with the questions about how much to give, when to invest our time, whether to say yes or no to another request for volunteers.  Let me propose a solution to the anxiety.  It is found in a word I never noticed in the parable of the talents before: joy.

When the master commends two of the servants for increasing his funds, he gave them more to do and said it would be a joy to partner with them: “you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

We find joy also in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that we read today: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  So, if you aren’t sure what to do, seek joy, pray, and give thanks.

Gratitude is a way of life that will enliven and expand your faith.  It is one of the ways we rejoice.  Instead of agonizing about what to do with what you have, give God thanks for it.  Look around you and start identifying things you appreciate.  They are gifts from God.  Focus on the beauty of your surroundings and give thanks.  Look for goodness in a person you struggle to like, and give thanks.  Pause before you eat, or sleep, or wash your face, and give thanks for your food, your bed, clean water.

Make gratitude a daily, intentional practice, and see how it deepens your faith.   Notice what happens inside you when you give some of yourself away.  Your questions about stewardship will work themselves out.

God’s people are thanks-givers, not just this week on a holiday, but all the time.  It reminds us who is in charge (not us).  Doesn’t that take the pressure off your decision-making?  God is the source of all that you have and are and will be.  You can relax, because everything comes from God and belongs to God.  We are simply caretakers who take risks because we a partnering with a powerful and creative and compassionate God.

What a wonderful reason to give thanks.

[i] From “Seasons of Love” in “Rent” by Jonathan Larson.

[ii] Buchanan, John M. in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 2011.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 312.

[iii] Ibid.

A Wedding Meditation during Advent

We are nearing the close of the season of Advent, tomorrow being the fourth Sunday before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the great mystery of God becoming a human being.  It is in the darkest season for us in the northern hemisphere, a fitting time to observe the spiritual practice of waiting.  We wait for the Light of the world to shine in the darkness each year, and indeed as the apostle John has testified, “the darkness has not overcome it.”

In many depictions of the nativity, a glow emanates from the manger.  We have come to see light as a sign of holiness and revelation.  Yet there was probably very little light in that crude anteroom where God’s Son entered the world.  The light was of a larger nature, far brighter and deeper than the human eye can bear.  It was a dazzling, fierce, eternal love that birthed an infant that night.

This is the love that illuminates us and in whose spectrum we celebrate your union today.  How beautiful and precious is this moment!  You proclaim not only your love, but in the words of Matthew 5, your commitment to come together as a light for a world gone dark with sin and confusion and despair.

A few years ago this congregation was blessed with the light taken from Bethlehem itself and relayed, flame by flame, until it glowed among us here.  It was humorous and ironic that the Christ candle was low on oil and failed to remain lighted, yet we had a spare with the deepest of symbolism, come from the site of the manger where Jesus was born.

Indeed, there are times when the light of Christ seems dim among us.  It is in these times that our tending of the light is most critical.  How blessed we are, then, to have God’s own life within us to ensure that the light never goes out!  As God’s beloved, we are the burning bushes of our world, whose flame and illumination never die.  In us, others sense the holiness of God and are captivated by the glow of God’s love.

Even so, you want to let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory not to you, but to your Father in heaven.  Each of you will need to keep this light burning within so that you can tend the flame to which your marriage will bear witness.  At times you will need to be light for one another, as discouragement or disease, loss or loneliness threaten to obscure the flame of God’s love that burns within.  You will open the Scriptures to claim God’s enduring promises.  You will drive your faith deep into the hope that the cross of Jesus Christ has established within all who believe in him.

Light carries within it all the colors of the spectrum.  God willing, you will have a lifetime together to explore the many colors of God’s love refracted into and through you.  You will find the deep satisfaction of dwelling in the color of love that is longsuffering, enduring pain and loss and your own failings.  Another color of love is patience, as you bear the waiting for goals to be achieved, for healing from sickness, for God’s work of growth in each other, for the birth of children.  And the colors of delight, and sacrifice, and faithfulness, and so many others, are yours to explore as well.

But you do not intend to keep this love to yourselves.  You have stated your mutual desire to be like the light of a city set on a hill.  I am among many others here today who remember the days of looking out over the fields of rural Iowa and seeing many dots of light in every section.  Some sections had so many lights that they seemed almost like small towns.  This is no longer the case.

All the more reason to make your light count.  Not only because there are fewer farms, but also because those that remain–like the Showalters’ and Brugmans’ farms and all others represented here—can  be lights of leadership and hope as you choose to make them so.  To do your work as unto the Lord, to conduct the work as faithful stewards and to provide food for our world.  And you, Laura, like your mother and so many others who see their medical work as God’s calling, do the work of healing in the name of Jesus, also much needed among the rural folk you serve.

Not only in your vocations, but also in your love for each other and for others, you will be a light in this world.  In our conversations together, we discussed how you will thoughtfully identify your mission as a couple, as God’s beloved individuals united for a higher purpose than you might accomplish separately.  What a privilege to be God’s instruments of light and healing and provision for the world God loves!  What a joy to spend a lifetime together heeding what amounts to both blessing and command from Jesus himself, the Light of the world: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Wedding Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  (1 Cor 13.4-7)

 There are a few passages from the Scriptures that many people know, even people who do not believe in God.  Psalm 23 is one example.  The Beatitudes of Jesus are also popular.  The passage I just read from 1 Cor 13 is another.  We love them because they are easy to understand, and they reflect the beauty of God’s goodness that meets us at our deepest needs.

But I think there is something even more mysterious about what is happening when we hear these words.  They expand our hearts and our minds to hope for something greater than ourselves.  Scripture reminds us that we have a deep and special connection with the Creator of the universe, the one who loves us beyond the confines of this life and this world.

One of the mysteries of this connection with God is that we somehow reflect God’s image, and are invited to share in God’s very being.  And so when we hear the words “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” we don’t have to despair because of our inability to achieve such love.  We literally have access to the divine stores of love that are limitless and eternal.

The apostle Paul wrote 1st Corinthians to the early church, to help them practice the love of Christ among them.  In another letter to the early church, the book of Ephesians, there is a prayer that would be mine for you today as well: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3.18-19)  It seems contradictory to hope that you will comprehend and to know the enormous scope of the great love of Christ, but also to state that it is a love that surpasses our ability to grasp it.  But I think that is the point; we need to see that this love is without limit, but it is our purpose and joy in life to explore its vast dimensions.  To tap into this love that is ours, unbelievably ours, by the grace of God.  Just think, we can spend all of our lives probing the size and shape of God’s love, and embodyng it ourselves in all its variety and creativity.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis wisely depicts the places where God dwells as—listen closely—bigger on the inside than they appear on the outside.  You see a small cottage door, but when you step inside, you are in a spacious, beautiful place.  It is not unlike some scenes by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.  But I’m thankful that in Narnia, C.S. Lewis reminds us that this is God’s doing.  As God’s beloved, we are privileged to inhabit and also to create such places.

Odd as this sounds, I think it is familiar to all of us to one degree or another, perhaps even so familiar that we no longer notice it…if we’re lucky.  Have you ever entered someone’s home and spent time with them, and felt your life somehow enlarged when you left?  Is yours a home where love is so palpable that it seems to enliven the conversation and make everyone present seem more precious?  Don’t you want your home to be this kind of life-giving place?  Your marriage itself can be like this, a source of life and joy, for each other, and for other people in your life, something that is bigger than it appears at first glance.

But it will not happen if you do not tap into the Source of that kind of love.  Paul says that it is a love that looks beyond each other’s faults.  In fact, I would venture to say that keeping score makes your marriage and your home smaller, more confining.  Pride, rudeness, selfishness all accomplish the same thing, to shrink your life until it is fearsome and oppressive.

Instead, the characteristics of the love Paul talks about, the love whose dimensions are beyond our reach, these are the instruments for making our lives and our homes and our marriages large and expansive and welcoming.  Patience and kindness, grace and forgiveness do not always come easily, but if we use them daily they become second nature.  The beauty of this, the joy of life, is that these are not only mundane tools to keep our relationships working properly.  They are gifts, treasures–however small–that we give to one another.  And they don’t cost us a dime.

We don’t always do this well.  But we know that; no reason to dwell on it today, as we celebrate the best of life and the joy of this beginning.  Today we ask the blessing of the God who loves us all, whose love is real and deep and everlasting.  We ask it because God has shown us that it is ours simply for wanting it.  God is pleased to bless you and to offer you the love shown by Jesus Christ, self-giving, compassionate, and freely given.  Love in unlimited supply, perfect in quality, fierce in its power to reach its beloved.  May we live in the light of his love and let it flow among us, one to the other, always.  Thanks be to God!