Archive for September 2011

Is it coming? Yes, it’s coming. Good.

September 12, 2011

Genesis 50:15-21
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Pent13 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 9-11-11

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I had a little conversation with my wife this week, as I was preparing my sermon. It’s the same conversation that happens every week, and it goes something like this:

“How’s it going? Is it coming?”
“Yes, it’s coming.”

And then she goes to make breakfast or get ready for the day. Every time I prepare these words to share in worship, I have to believe that “Yes, God is coming” through prayer and the study of scripture – through conversation with others – through listening and asking questions. “Yes, it’s coming.” “Good.”

But this week, I heard that conversation differently. Because, what’s been on my mind these days (and I’m guessing on your mind as well) has been that same question directed toward our nation:

“How’s it going? Is it coming?” ‘IT’ being another terrorist attack or act of vengeance on this, the 10th anniversary of 9-11. “Is it coming?” I find myself checking the news more often. That’s the mindset you’ll have when you live in “an eye for an eye” society. “You bomb our buildings and we’ll destroy you, whatever it takes.”

No, I don’t condone the cowardly acts of religious fanatics. I just think there are better ways to move forward in life than the descending spiral of violence that has pulled us down with it. Ten years later, we’re still fighting and dying, and eye-for-an-eye-ing.

“Is it coming?”
“Yes, it’s coming.”
“Not good.”

Joseph’s brothers “saw it coming.” “He’ll punish us, for sure, when he finds out our father is dead.”

And maybe Joseph was in such a position that he could afford to be generous with his cruel and spineless brothers. Would he have acted differently if he was still a slave or of lowly rank in Egypt? I mean, think about it, here they were caught under the power of their long-forgotten brother who is now 2nd in command of all Egypt. They’ll starve without some grain from him. After all they’d done to him – stripping him of his multi-colored coat, selling him into slavery, and adding the color of ram’s blood to that coat before giving it to their father. “The poor fellow was eaten by a tiger!”

Even on their way to meet with Joseph, they’re devising new lies in order to save themselves. “Let’s tell him that father’s dying wish was that Joseph forgive the crimes of his brothers. That ought to work.” And, of course, when they come bearing more lies, pretending to care about Joseph, he breaks down and weeps. “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good.”

First of all, why God even cares enough to get involved in the family feuds of humans is beyond me! When we hold a grudge against another, God cares enough to get involved in the story.

Listen to this poem by Stephen Dunn, written after 9-11, entitled Grudges:

Easy for almost anything to occur.
Even if we’ve scraped the sky, we can be rubble.
For years those men felt one way, acted another.

Ground Zero, is it possible to get lower?
Now we had a new definition of the personal,
knew almost anything could occur.

It just takes a little training, to blur.
A motive, lie low while planning the terrible,
Get good at acting one way, feeling another.

Yet who among us doesn’t harbor
A grudge or secret? So much isn’t erasable;
It follows that almost anything can occur,

Like men ascending into the democracy of air
Without intending to land, the useful veil
Of having said one thing, meaning another.

Before you know it something’s over.
Suddenly someone’s missing at the table.
It’s easy (I know it) for anything to occur
When men feel one way, act another.
(source: The Writer’s Almanac)

The grudges we harbor can lead us to feel one way and act another. But notice what happens with Joseph and his brothers… God does show up – God does provide a way to save his people, Israel – “Is it coming?” “Yes, it’s coming.” “Good.” Good comes, even through treachery and deceit. And, good will come again through this tragedy, to God’s creation.

What if this day you took a fearless, moral inventory of your inner life and asked yourself: “What grudges do I hold ?” “To whom am I harboring resentment?” An old friend? A co-worker? A fellow student? A church member? An entire race of people? A nation? The Japanese? The French? The “rag heads” who wear turbans or the hijab? Who do you harbor resentment for? That’s all I’m asking: that you lay that grudge at the feet of the judge.

I wish you could have been there on August 24th at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. I watched as my sister-in-law was “sworn in” as an official US Citizen. Claire stood up that day and proudly raised her right hand along with 350 others from 46 different countries and said the Pledge of Allegiance. She’d married my brother while he was stationed in the Philippines in the US Navy back in the 80s. Now, 30 years later, she knows more about America than I do (having prepped to take the test). I watched with my brother, who was filming it all from the balcony, with tears in his eyes. And my pride swelled along with his. The presiding judge joked that this is the only time that everyone’s happy with his ruling.

But not everyone is happy. There is still hatred and suspicion of those we see as “different.” The fact that nearly half of those sworn in that day were from Somalia – doesn’t sit well with some Americans who harbor grudges against Muslims or those who don’t look like we do.

So where does that leave you in this conversation this 9-11? “Is it coming?” Is God’s mercy and forgiveness coming through you this day? Will the light shine through the darkness – so that the darkness does not overcome it? Let your prayer be a resounding “Yes, it’s coming.”



God’s Gravitational Pull, Tying Knots & Waking Us Up!

September 7, 2011

Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Pent12 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 9-4-11

Children’s Time: I have a rope here and I need 2 volunteers: 1) to be “God” and 2) to be a human. God, you hold this end of the rope and human, you hold the other end. Now, let’s say the human gets tired of having God around and wants to be alone. Well, I have this scissors here (cut the rope). Now what? You might drift away for awhile… until you need help! (call to God for help). Then God comes and ties a knot, bringing you back together. But what if you get angry with God and swear using God’s name? (cut rope) That might make you drift away again, until (call for help). When we call on God in our time of need, God is there to re-tie the knot. But sometime later we may decide to do things by our own rules (cut rope). That may make us feel powerful and important, and we may not even notice we’re drifting away from God. When we realize how foolish we’ve been (call for help)…God is right there to tie the knot again. Do you see anything different from when we started? Yes, there are a lot more knots, but notice also that the human is much closer to God with each new knot. This is what forgiveness is all about: it’s not something we do, it’s what God does for each one of us. When we are truly sorry and call to God for help, it brings us closer to God. Let’s pray: God, we thank you that you are always ready to tie the knot when we cut the string and drift away from you. Help us to be honest and to depend on you for all we need. Amen.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, it’s Labor Day weekend – a time to rest and reflect on what we do for a living, maybe take in the MDA telethon, or spend time with your family. Think for a moment about what sort of “labor” do you do. We labor all week building homes, cutting wood, cutting hair, waiting tables. Some of us manage stores, sew clothes, provide security or hit the books, laboring as students. There are jobs in tech support, life support, teaching, nursing, consulting, banking, preaching – most of our lives are spent doing something for a living – for the betterment of society. Even in retirement, we find ourselves grandparenting or volunteering in our communities. But there is a labor that is even more important than what you do for a living.

When it comes to hard labor, the “labor of love” ranks at the top of the list. In our 2nd lesson for today, Paul tells the Romans, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” He concludes by telling them to “put on the Lord, Jesus Christ.” “Slip into your ‘Jesus coat,’” Paul might have said, “and wake up from your sins.” But there was a problem: they wanted to sleep in. Paul writes: “Now is the moment for you to wake up from sleep for salvation is near”

The Greek word used here for ‘sleep’ is hypnos. So, of course, the Romans weren’t really sleeping… but were likely hypnotized by sin, in need of a wake up call.

This week, on Tuesday morning, there’ll be a lot of hypnos to overcome as my children go back to school. “Get up! It’s time for school! Come out from under those covers and greet the brand new day!”

It’s a hard habit for kids to break – that sleeping in until 9 or 10 o’clock business! The same is true of our faith. When we become hypnotized by sin, we need a reminder to “put on the Lord, Jesus Christ.”

It’s hard to admit we’ve fallen away – or cut that string between us and God. Oh, we’re good at putting on a good front. We put on airs. But putting on the Lord takes careful attention.

I’m a people pleaser. I want everyone to be happy. Oh, I know that’s not possible… but with God… (I tell myself). So, I worry sometimes about making sure everything is “just so.” Just this morning coming to church…. I forgot my children’s sermon bag. My wife met me halfway on Helmo Ave. and we passed each other! I’ve never met anyone who truly “had it all together.”

Sometimes when we come to worship we have this idea that we have to be shiny and presentable – putting on airs – as if only saints were allowed. The truth is we’re a mess much of the time, if we admit it. We’re imperfect people with weaknesses and vices, addictions and flaws. We sometimes fight or don’t get along. We grab with a “me first” mentality and talk behind people’s backs. We’re easily distracted by bright, shiny things – sleek things, sexy things, chocolatey things, ice-creamy things. We fall to pride, lust, gossip and selfish ambition. We don’t, in fact, help the poor as much as we could. And, if anyone ever knew this about us, they might not like us anymore.

Philip Yancey, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? says this about coming to church as a little boy:

As a child, I put on my best behavior on Sunday mornings, dressing up for God and for the Christians around me. It never occurred to me that church was a place to be honest. Now, though, as I seek to look at the world through the lens of grace, I realize that imperfection is the prerequisite for grace. Light only gets in through the cracks.”(p. 273)

So, with all the doing that goes on around us this Labor Day weekend, how about we sit back for a moment and consider “God’s labor.” There’s one thing we can’t do for ourselves: only God can truly forgive and extend us grace.

You might argue that we can forgive others – in fact, we’re commanded to in the Lord’s prayer. But that reminder is more about God forgiving us – as we release the debts owed to us by others. God is still the one who forgives sins.

Simone Weil (French philosopher & and Nazi reistor) spoke of the concept of Gravity & Grace. When we are drawn into our own gravitational pull – we’ve cut the strings with God. When we’re living by the rules of gravity, we’re trying to draw people to ourselves: “Look at me, over here!” It’s all about power and influence, persuasion and loyalty.

But when we’re living by grace, we are drawn into God’s gravitational pull. It is a posture of receiving as “jolly beggars” (to use a phrase coined by C. S. Lewis).

That grace is pure gift. Yes, it is a labor of love (as Paul reminds us) but it doesn’t happen without God’s hand involved. Even when the disciples fought amongst themselves, Jesus gave them the promise that where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name – I’M THERE in the midst of them. This is how human community is restored – how God wakes us up to love one another. “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”

Loving others is perhaps the hardest labor we will ever perform this Labor Day weekend. But we don’t do it alone. “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them,” says Jesus.

Everytime you “take it to the Lord in prayer” a knot is tied, you draw closer to God.
Everytime you “speak the truth with love” a knot is tied, you draw closer to God.
Everytime we gather at this table and receive this bread and this wine – a knot is tied, we draw closer to God’s gravitational pull of grace.

Come, all you who labor – all you who’s lives are a mess – come. Come one and all. Come two or three. I am there, says the Lord. I am there.


All ye that carry heavy burdens

September 7, 2011

Matthew 16:21-28
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Pent11 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 8-28-11

Children’s Time: What does it mean to “bear the cross?” Have you ever had to carry something really heavy? Like a suitcase when you go on a trip? Or some groceries from the store? Or how about a backpack at school? It’s heavy isn’t it? Sometimes we’re okay with carrying things… for awhile at least. But when we carry something for a long time can be very tiring. Jesus was made to carry his own cross the day he was crucified. It was so heavy he needed others to step in and help him. In our lesson today, he says that we should take up OUR cross and follow him. That there are things in our lives we’ll need to carry – and it might be too hard to do alone. That’s when prayer and trusting in God comes in. Can we remember to trust in God when things get heavy? Let’s pray: Dear God, we are sometimes very tired carrying things that are heavy. Help us to do our best and to trust you when we fall. Amen.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord, and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

What I like about Peter is that he’s so human. He follows his heart, offering to write Jesus’ job description for a Messiah (no suffering necessary). At another time, he’s eager to set up a few tents on the mountain for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Still another time, Peter gets so excited to see Jesus on the shore when they are at sea, that he puts on all his clothes and then jumps into the water to swim to Jesus. Peter acts first and thinks later. Maybe that’s why Jesus calls him ‘Satan’ in today’s reading – as a simple reminder that sometimes we don’t have a clue what we’re talking about. And, when we say it anyway, we run the risk of letting the devil get his say in matters of grave importance.

Have you ever spoken too soon, without all the information? Only to be left with egg on your face? When we’re clearly found to be totally in error – having absolutely no idea what we are talking about… well, that’s when we’re invited to sit down at the table and to ‘eat those words.’ Or begin ‘Eating Crow.’ Or, perhaps you’d like a serving of ‘Humble Pie?’ Or, since we’re onto foods, how about some ‘Just Desserts’? Because, when you’re ‘full of baloney,’ you can be ‘Taken down a notch,’ ‘Put in your place,’ or ‘get your comeuppance.’ Or, as the young people like to say: ‘You got served.’ Nice comeback, Peter. Oh, that’s right, you didn’t have one!

I mean, imagine Peter’s embarrassment (in front of all the disciples) when Jesus calls him ‘Satan!’ A bit harsh, don’t you think? Especially since Jesus had, only seven verses earlier, named Peter “the rock” on which he would build his church. He was just trying to make sure Jesus had his facts clear on all this “dying-on-the-cross” business! “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus chides, “You’re setting your heart on human things, not divine.”

It’s like that Living Will we keep putting off – or that important ‘sex talk’ with the kids. There are a few things we’d rather not have to deal with in life. And suffering is one of them. And yet, there is a cost to discipleship. The same Jesus who bears the cross bestows the cross to his followers. We can’t carry his cross for him, but neither does he carry ours for us.

Anna Carter Florence reminds us of a key word in this reading that comes from the first sentence in our gospel for today (Matthew 16:21): “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…”

He had already ‘told’ them about it – but hearing is often selective – in one ear, out the other, like when your father says: “Did you take out the garbage like I asked you?” “Oh, yeah, I’ll get right on that!” Or Jesus may have ‘taught’ them about suffering that was to come as a Christian way of life. But they could always rationalized it away – “Oh, you mean suffering in a metaphorical way, like a parable?” But when he shows them it forces them to actually look upon the suffering.

“This won’t be easy,” Jesus says. “But here we are, setting a course for Jerusalem. There’s no turning back from this cross.” Ironically, it’s what we claim as our namesake: HOLY CROSS LUTHERAN CHURCH. But is the cross a part of our mission statement? Is suffering for our faith, or with hurting people, on our long-range goals?

This week I read a story about Sebastian Cross, an eleven-year-old boy, who woke up to find a letter from his dad saying he was “on his own.” His father, Steven Cross, from Lakeville, had raised him since he was a toddler. Recently, he had become overwhelmed with financial woes and civil suits that had been filed against him. Out of work and facing foreclosure on the home, he took to living on the streets. The night before he left, he wrote a letter in which he told his son to go live with the neighbors next door.

Where was his family in all this? His friends? His neighbors? His church? Our calling is to stand with the suffering – to reach out as best we can, bearing one another’s burdens and offering a word of hope. Families should never have to suffer in silence and be separated because of hardship. And the church has a fundamental calling to stand in the places where people suffer.

Fred Gaiser, from Luther Seminary, conducted a survey of church mission statements to see how they would describe themselves and their mission. And what he found surprised him. Many churches described themselves as welcoming and as servants to their communities. There were notes about education and fellowship – but not a single church mentioned suffering for Jesus’ sake in their mission statements. What was missing was the cross.

It’s in our nature to want to talk about something more cheerful. No one chooses to suffer. Often, suffering comes to us without warning. But, so long as Jesus is still around, you can bet Judas is not far behind, and Caiaphas, and Herod and Pontius Pilate.

Another Bible character who knew about suffering was Jeremiah, a prophet from the Old Testament, who we hear from in our first lesson today. For forty years, Jeremiah had been God’s spokesperson to the people. And over the course of that time, he’d been beaten and ridiculed, placed in the stocks overnight, thrown down a well, and imprisoned and tortured. God had forbidden him to marry, so he didn’t even have a shoulder to cry on in his greatest time of need. All this suffering, he bears for his words: “Thus says the Lord.”

It’s no wonder that he would come to these words of complaint in our first lesson: “Know that on your account I suffer insult… Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”

It’s a very personal, up-close, look into the loneliness of God’s servant. Anyone who has suffered for their faith can relate to his words of lament. And God’s reply to Jeremiah comes in the form of a promise: “I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.”

Old Testament scholar, John Bright, reminds us that “God does not make his call to his servants conditional upon their purging themselves of weakness and achieving a measure of perfection. He does not extend his call only to the brave, to the saintly, to those who are strangers to doubt and despair. Rather, it pleases him to entrust the treasure of his word to earthen vessels. It is precisely in their weakness and frailty—even in their rebellion—that God calls his servants.”

Like with Peter, as with Jeremiah, and as with you and me – we have but two options: to bear the cross or refuse it. Either way, God is there, whether – in our weakness – we refuse or complain… God is there to tell, and teach, and show us the way. Or, when we by faith bear the cross that is given to us, God is there with a promise: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”