Sermon for 9/28/14 Matthew 21:23-32

There is a saying I’ve seen more than once: no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. And I always thought “yeah yeah…” and kind of moved on. I never really gave it much thought, honestly. As I read, thought, and prayed about the scripture for this week, I kept coming back to the word “authority” over and over again. And I think we often equate authority with power and rightfully so. As strange as this may sound to all of you who see me on a weekly basis, power and authority is something I struggle with a lot. My female clergy friends and I share stories that range from laughable to horrible when it comes to dealing with people who don’t know how to treat a woman clergy person. We have all shared the struggle when people don’t know what to call us “so….do I call you sister, or Father, or um….what?” Just last week as I was in Hy-Vee picking up a few things for dinner, I was wearing my collar and one of the nice young men that worked there said “are you a um…. um….” and he just pointed at my collar. “A pastor?” I answered. “Yeah…a pastor. Well, I didn’t know whether or not to call you Pastor or Reverend or what.”

But we’ve also shared horror stories of being slapped on the behind, being called “sweetheart” or “honey,” or going for an interview to serve a church and the interview being cancelled because they don’t want a woman pastor. I haven’t had to deal with this kind of thing a lot, but it’s enough. There are people in this world, even people who call themselves “Lutheran” that probably think I shouldn’t be a pastor just because I’m a woman. The problem is theirs, not mine. But really, when it comes to authority, the only way that someone has it is if we give it to them. Think about that. Yes, on occasion, the president of the company may say to an employee, “I am now making you vice president” therefore giving them authority. But, the majority of the time the reason that someone has authority is that we have given it to them.

Remember the quote I shared with you a few moments ago “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Your consent is your authority that you give away. As a female, I deal with this a lot. Now, that’s not to say that men don’t. But since I’m not a man, I don’t know what you have to deal with. I know Chris (on occasion) has been discriminated against in his field because of his age. Our authority is ours to control and give away. Giving away your authority or allowing someone to have authority over you can change your past, present, and future.

The question that Jesus gets asked is not really the question he is being asked, if that makes sense. The chief priests and the elders want to know about Jesus’ authority not because they wondered if Jesus was smart or something. But remember, people were always trying to set up Jesus, trying to frame him, and ultimately, crucify Jesus. After all, if Jesus were to answer “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” with the answer “well, I am doing these things because I am the son of God and God the father gave me this authority” the crucifixion would have happened a lot earlier in our story than it does.

Many times when there is an argument, especially an argument in a church, the thing which is being argued about usually isn’t the real problem. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that we decided to pull the carpet out and refinish all the wood floors because the wood floors that were just refinished look so good (which they do). There might be discussions that talk about how we might sound while singing if we take out the carpet. Or what if we spill wine during communion? Or even better….but we’ve always had carpet in the church! Usually what an argument boils down to (again, especially in a church) is usually grief or power. If your family gave the money to purchase the carpet from your great great great grandfather’s memorial money, taking up the carpet may mean that we are disrespecting him and the grief of his loss may come back all over.

I also heard a story (a true story) from a church far far away from here where during a funeral luncheon one woman yelled at another for buttering the rolls incorrectly. That argument wasn’t about buttering the rolls though. In reality, it was most likely about power and authority. It’s also kind of hilarious when you think about it.

We are no strangers to arguments and conflict here. But to be clear, we’re in a pretty good place right now. I don’t want any of you to think that I am preaching about power and authority because there is something going on that you may not know about. I am happy to say that we haven’t had too many major issues since I started. I think the biggest problem thus far has been “how do we catch the ground squirrels?”

Who gives you authority and to whom have you given authority? Jesus was given his authority by God. When he was marched: bloody, bruised, and beaten to the cross, he didn’t fight it. Even on the cross he exercised his authority to forgive. It was in that beautiful moment of what may appear to be a weakness that Jesus was actually the most powerful and strong. But, I know it’s not always easy to be strong. It’s not always easy to keep our authority and power. Sometimes we have those people in our lives that can take our authority or take our power with one simple word, one simple glance, or one simple action. For our younger members, these might be the bullies at school. For those of us who are a little older, these might be distanced parents, lost children, or even a boss or co-worker. I pray you don’t know these people or this situation, but I fear too many of us do. Maybe you don’t have these people in your life but you have given authority to your past sins and shortcomings and cannot move on.

God calls us into a new reality. The tax collectors and the prostitutes in our gospel today don’t have a great reputation and probably not a lot of authority. And for Jesus, that doesn’t matter. Their past and how they have been defined by others doesn’t matter. The rest of your days are full of opportunity and promise. Your past does not have to define you. Your sins will not and cannot define you. The power and authority you may have given away is yours to reclaim. And I get it, this isn’t easy stuff. But the hurt and disappointment you have experienced in your past will not and cannot determine our future.

Our new reality has been our reality all along: we are loved. God does not keep a tab or a tally on our mistakes. God will never define us by what we do or don’t do, by how we fall short or how we excel, by look or don’t look; God will only define us as this: beloved children of God that are constantly being invited into a new, life giving relationship with the one who created you. God has given you the power and authority to love and that love needs to start with yourself. You were created in God’s image, therefore, love God’s image! In our baptism, God promises to love us, no matter what. All of us have mistakes, regrets, and secrets that stay hidden in our past that steal our authority and power. I want to invite you to put a stop to that today. I don’t usually end with a prayer, but I thought this one was pretty good.

“Dear God, we often allow things from our past to dominate our present and close off our future. But you have promised that you love us no matter what, and so we offer our hurts, regrets, and resentments to you, trusting that you already know them and love us anyway. Help us to believe about ourselves what you believe about us: that we are worthy of love and respect. And help us to treat others as you have treated us: as those who deserve love and respect. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, the one who died on the cross to show us the depth of your love. Amen.”

 

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Sermon for 9/21/14 Matthew 20:1-16

Part of my training to become a pastor included one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. CPE is usually a 10-12 week intensive study of self, honestly. But it is a time when seminary students become chaplains in hospital settings, nursing homes, and sometimes places like homeless shelters or even prisons. As strange as it may sound, it is a time when you get to know yourself, your theology, how you operate, and how whatever baggage you may bring with you into ministry may affect you.

I did my CPE at Heartland Hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri. I chose the site because it was just close enough to my parents that if I wanted to go home, I could. It was also a place I was familiar with as I was born in St. Joseph and I went to college about 40 miles up the road. In a way, it felt like I was going home. There were 4 students in my unit that summer: myself, my classmate Rich, an interesting Mennonite named Bruce, and a Methodist woman named Denise. What made this also even more interesting is that we lived together: Rich, Bruce, and myself in one house and Denise in the house next door. It was a space issue, not a personnel issue. It quickly turned into a personnel issue.

Since Rich and I came from the same place (literally, the same seminary) and we were both studying to be ELCA Pastors, we often confided in one another, bounced sermon ideas off one another, and had the usual inside jokes that friends do–often at the expense of our classmates. As the summer progressed, Rich, Bruce, and I noticed that Denise often was able to turn in work that wasn’t completed, that wasn’t up to standards, or that just wasn’t what was asked for. She had various excuses, and we all got kind of sick of hearing them. But, she was never called out for it by our supervisor. We seemed to be working as hard, if not harder than Denise and yet, we were all getting the same praise. I brought this up to Rich one day as we were lounging on our porch and just kinda shrugged and said, “I don’t know…workers in the vineyard, man.” And from then on, this parable kind of became our mantra. When things weren’t going well and we would pass each other in the hospital halls, he would sometimes ask “how is your day going” and I would respond “I’m having a workers in the vineyard kind of day, man.” I can’t read this parable and not think about CPE.

When you think about it, this is probably one of the most offensive parables in the Bible. We may read it and think “but…but…that’s just not fair!” If you have children in your family, no matter how old they are, you have heard “that’s not fair” probably more than you care to. But, if we’re going to be honest with one another here, we’ve all probably said or thought “that’s not fair” more than once in our lives. And sometimes the things that we declare as “unfair” really just boil down to a justice, fairness, or generosity issue. Let me give you some examples I have heard either on the news, read in the newspaper, or heard come from the mouths of fellow human beings.

“I don’t think that the illegals should be able to come here and take our jobs.” Or how about “It’s not fair that I have to pay for my health insurance while that freeloader gets to take advantage of Obama-care.” I have also heard “I don’t think that people who use food stamps should be able to eat as good as you and I do.” Or maybe it could be more mundane things that you either mumble to yourself or complain to your friends about “I work my rear end off doing the laundry, the least those kids could do is put it away!” Or “She got to hang out with her work friends and go have drinks last week while I stayed home with the kids, I don’t understand why I can’t go watch the game with my buddies.” The fact is this: our human definition of fairness and generosity is a long way away from God’s definition.

This parable, at its core, is about fairness, generosity, and justice. Our vision of those things are warped by so many various things that it may be difficult to wrap our minds around the idea that in the kingdom of heaven, God gives everyone their due share, and often times, God gives everyone the same amount of grace whether we like it or not; and this is offensive! We live in a society (especially here in western culture) that tells us “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” You put in the hours at work, you get a raise. You practice your sport, instrument, or craft for long hours and you are chosen to start for the team, you get first chair, or you get a blue ribbon. You study hard enough and you can get into your school of choice, maybe even with a generous scholarship. All of these ideas are great and motivating, but at the same time they are human driven ideas.

The landowner asks the laborers a very interesting question “…are you envious because I am generous?” Ummm….YEAH!! I want more money than the guys who showed up almost 8 hours after I did. The landowner’s generosity is offensive. “The offense of grace is not in the treatment we receive but in the observation that others are getting more than they deserve. The generosity of God quite often cuts across our calculations of who deserves what.”** And the crazy and frustrating thing is that as soon as we think we have God’s grace figured out, God surprises us. God can surprise us in a good way and God can surprise us in a disturbing way. When you learn that your sins are forgiven, even if you can’t forgive yourself, because of what God did through Jesus on the cross; what a great surprise. When you learn that the person in life who caused you heartache, trouble, agony, or even pain also receives the same forgiveness; what a disturbing surprise.

When you come to the table and have that bread placed in your hand and you are reminded once again of God’s amazing grace that is a pleasant surprise. But when you realize that someone you know has fallen really short of what it means to be labeled “a Christian” also gets to come to this table, no questions asked, what a disturbing surprise. God’s grace never works like we think it should, brothers and sisters. Believe it or not, this is actually good news for you and me. If God’s grace worked by human standards, none of us would receive grace. But (as one of my favorite Christian rock songs says) “if God’s grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.”

This parable is offensive. God’s grace is offensive. As strange as it sounds, my friends, it would do us some good to prepare to be offended. Our offensive God is wanting to offend you with grace you don’t deserve, with grace you cannot earn, with grace you will receive despite that. How awesomely offensive.

Sermon for 9/14/14 Matthew 18:21-35

** a word of note: we had a renewal of vows for a 60th wedding anniversary on this day**

60 years is a big deal. No…it’s a huge deal.  A lot of couples don’t make it this far. In a world where people are getting married later in life and the divorce rate being as high as it is, to make it 60 years is an accomplishment worth celebrating and I am so glad that Bob and Marlene have given us this opportunity today to help them celebrate. In those many years together, do you have any idea how often you have apologized to one another? Or do you have any idea how often you have asked for forgiveness? I am sure all of you have heard one of (if not both of) these phrases before “never go to bed angry” and “being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I have learned that both of those phrases are a little silly, a bit useless, and may tread on being harmful.

Last week I talked about approaching someone directly if there is an issue. The hope is that whatever the issue may be, that both parties can reconcile and move on. Have you ever thought to keep track of the times that you say “I’m sorry?” I have expressed my frustration with the English language before that it doesn’t always capture what we want to say. When I say “I’m sorry” to someone for accidentally stepping on their feet, it doesn’t quite mean the same as when I say “I’m sorry” to Chris for something I’ve done. Likewise, those of you that have children or that are around children enough have probably said “say you’re sorry” only to be echoed with a less than enthusiastic “I’m sorry.”

In today’s reading Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who sins against him. And for us, it might sound a bit naive of Peter to ask this. We might even wonder what in the world kind of question is this anyway? Who keeps track of how many times they have forgiven someone? Do any of you, by a show of hands, keep a tally at home of how many times you have forgiven someone? Go ahead, raise them high. Talking about it like this may make us realize what an interesting and strange question Peter is asking.

I struggle with forgiveness. I may have mentioned this before. I am not proud of this fact. My pride, my ego, and ultimately, my own self-created sin gets in my way all the time. If you have hurt me or the people I love, I am slow to forgive. It’s not a trait I love about myself. I am trying to forgive a little easier than I used to. It’s an ongoing process. The strange thing is, when I am to be on the receiving end of forgiveness, I almost crave it. I am anxious to receive it. When someone finally does forgive me for something I’ve done, it feels like a drink of cool water in a hot, dry, desert. I know I haven’t been on this Earth long enough to make broad, sweeping generalizations like the one I’m about to make right now, but I am willing to say it nonetheless: I believe that granting and receiving forgiveness is one of the most difficult things we humans must and should do on a daily basis.

Forgiveness is at the core of who we are as humans because forgiveness only comes about when there is sin. We don’t usually throw around the words “I’m sorry” just because. It is either because we have sinned against someone or someone has sinned against us. And as much as we may fight against it, forgiveness means that someone has recognized sin in us. Someone has recognized our flaws, our faults, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, and ultimately, someone has recognized our “ugly.”

As Lutherans we believe that we are simul justus et peccator: simultaneously saint AND sinner. There is a reason I have that tattooed on me. We are firmly rooted in the fact that we are not, we cannot be, and never will be 100% saint or 100% sinner. We need forgiveness in our lives. Forgiving someone means freedom. It means that you are free from the anger you have for someone or it may mean that you are free from the guilt you have from someone. It is good if I take a quick pause right here to put on my pastor hat (even more) to say that there are some situations that cannot be “fixed” with forgiveness. I have met people who forgive their abusers, only to end up suffering at the hands of their abusers time and time again. Forgiveness is about love. And sometimes the best way to love someone is to no longer enable or tolerate their behavior. If you or someone you know is in a situation that is not healthy, not life giving, and certainly not forgiving, please know that you are not alone and I am always here to help you.

So how many times should we forgive someone? Peter wants to know and perhaps, so do we on some level. Jesus responds: not seven times, but 77 times. And this seems absurd because it is. What Jesus really is saying is this: don’t keep track. In a society that tells us to keep score so we know whether or not we’re doing better than the next guy, just don’t. Don’t keep score. Don’t keep track. God desires to be in a relationship with us and God desires for us to be in relationship with one another. If you are willing to take the risk to love someone (and it is usually worth the risk) then you need to be willing to take the risk that at some point in time you will need to forgive and be forgiven. It is not easy work, friends. I know this for a fact.

Forgiveness is a very deliberate decision to change your past, present, and future. It is more powerful than any weapon or any amount of money. Forgiveness looks like a cross. Forgiveness tastes like bread and wine. Forgiveness feels like water. Forgiveness is a God that constantly forgives. We heard in the Roman’s reading today this amazing promise “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Do you hear that promise? There is nothing we can do that is going to make God keep track of the number of times we have been forgiven. God’s mercy and grace will always be stronger and more powerful than our sin. You are people of God: fed, forgiven, and freed. We ARE the Lord’s. We belong to God and there is nothing that will ever change that. Forgiveness is a gift, brothers and sisters. It is a gift whether we receive it or give it. Forgiveness gives us freedom to love and to be loved in return.