Archive for October 2015

Standing Up & Standing Out: A Reformation Day Sermon

October 29, 2015

John 8:31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Reformation Day / First Lutheran Church / 10-25-15 / John Stiles

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.

This week marks the 498th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther’s act of defiance in Wittenberg, Germany. It was the year 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church, thus creating a spark that soon caught on and spread through all of Europe.

It certainly wasn’t the first act of protest against the church (which is where the term Protestant comes from, by the way). John Huss had been burned at the stake for speaking out against the pope 100 years before Luther. And 100 years before that, John Wycliffe protested by advocating for the Bible to be written in the language of everyday people. Things were pretty dicey back then. Luther’s 95 theses (or complaints) against the Catholic Church had a lot to do with the sale of indulgences (certificates which assured forgiveness of sins for those who could afford it). He also was in favor of allowing priests to marry and taught that we are justified by faith, apart from the works of the law. Martin Luther called the Catholic Church “the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of brothels, the kingdom of sin.” And so, of course, he was excommunicated by the pope and a bounty was put on his head. He was kidnapped by some friends and taken to the castle at Wartburg, where he grew out a beared, assumed a secret identity “Knight George” and translated the entire Bible into the German language. (All in a days work, right?)

But nowadays, the Catholics pretty much agree that Luther was right on being saved by grace. There’s more that we have in common that what separates us. In fact, in 1996 a document was signed by both denominations, putting an end to those divisions entitled: The Join Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It was a milestone in resolving a centuries-old debate. And just this year, plans were announced to rename a main square in Rome “Piazza Martin Lutero” in honor of the reformer, which has the official blessing of the Vatican, no less!

To be sure, there are still beliefs on which we differ: whether priests can marry, and our teachings about the Lord’s Supper (is it really the body and blood of Jesus?). But, for the most part, we have learned to live together as sisters and brothers.

So, if protesting against the Catholics is out, I suppose we could spend some time imagining what needs reforming today in the church. After all, Luther never set out to form a “Lutheran Church,” he wanted a better Catholic Church! And yet, here we are 500 years later with dozens of Protestant denominations, each striving to live out the truth as they understand it to be.

Maybe that’s the word we should be focusing on today: Truth.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus says: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The disciples were scratching their heads when they heard it: “We’re children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” And, of course, he was talking about being slaves to sin. How easy it is for us to fall into bondage to sin – by things we have done or left undone – by not loving God with our whole heart – by not loving our neighbors has we have loved ourselves.

Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” We’re just drawn to the stories of scandal – the falls from grace – the dirt on someone else. But heaven forbid that we should take a hard look at ourselves! We’d much rather go with advice of noted author Shel Silverstein, who once wrote:


I’d be lucky to get “one” out of eight of those… if the truth be told.  And then there are several variations on this Bible verse from John.  From Aldous Huxley: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you mad.” Or from Flannery O’Connor: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” Or this old Russian Proverb: “It’s better to be slapped by the truth than kissed by a lie.”

The truth can hurt. It can make us stand out when we stand up for it. The truth can be suppressed or silenced. And in some societies, to speak the truth is cause for Revolution.

Whatever the case, Jesus tied the truth to freedom – a freedom that cast out all fear.

When was the last time you heard someone say a word of truth that her very life depended on? A word of truth that he would “go to the wall” for? What word of truth will you be called on to speak this week?

On this Reformation Day, we sang an anthem written by Martin Luther: A mighty fortress is our God. And I hope you heard that word of truth running through that last verse, especially. See how he staked his very life on it?

“Were they to take our house,
goods, honor, child or spouse.
Though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever!”

Yes, the truth will set you free. But it will also make you odd – make you stand up and stand out – it will cause you to give and to live generously – the truth will lead you where you don’t want to go sometimes – and you will meet people you didn’t want to know. And through it all, God is reforming us still. Re-shaping the church. Re-forming our souls from the inside out. Telling us the truth about ourselves and each other.

And the good news is that we find our freedom in this truth. As we ‘Awaken the Faith’ among us and ‘Become Children of the Light’ we are being set free. Free to protest where racial injustices still threaten to divide. Free to hear the truth about ourselves and reform the way in which we live. Free to offer help to victims of natural disasters or simply a neighbor in need. Free to fill out a pledge card and support financially the 2016 mission at First Lutheran Church. Free to extend a true welcome to the stranger among us – even if they are truly strange, odd, and different.

Stand up and speak the truth this week, even if it makes you odd or mad and embrace the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. Amen.

And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds together as one in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

On A Pilgrimage

October 26, 2015

Whenever I think of Thanksgiving, images of horns of plenty and wandering pilgrims often come to mind. But what, exactly, is a pilgrim? Someone on a pilgrimage is on an important journey with a purpose. Unlike our Muslim neighbors who are required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, if they are able sometime in their lives, Christians don’t really have anything similar to such a pilgrimage.12776

One example may be found in the Old Testament (Exodus 15-16) where the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years before coming to The Promised Land. It was a time of uncertainty. The Lord had delivered them from bondage in Egypt and given them Moses, Aaron and Joshua to lead them on to freedom.

Probably the closest thing we have to it in the New Testament is Jesus’ assurance to the disciples on the night in which he was betrayed: “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.” It was a place of “many mansions” (John 14:1-6).

So, you might say that we’re all pilgrims on a journey. But, as with any pilgrimage, we soon find that the journey itself matters as much as the destination itself. Unfortunately, too many well-meaning Christians spend all their time focusing on the destination and their own personal salvation that they miss the needs of people right here, right now. In other words, we become so heaven-bound that we’re no earthly good! So, if the journey is just as important as the destination, then how do we plan to get there? Who do we invite along? What will we bring for supplies? What mode of transportation will be most reliable? What is a safe speed?

Years ago, during a staff development session, someone compared the journey to a ‘church van’ in which each person played a vital role in getting us to our destination (see diagram below). So, what role to you play? Where do you see yourself in the ‘church van’ carrying us in mission? Are you the windshield wipers, helping us see better? Are you the shock absorber, easing the way through the potholes? Maybe you’re the GPS keeping us on track or a honking the horn (with encouragement, of course!). How are you contributing gas to make sure we reach our destination? (See separate mailing about our 2016 pledge drive!)

Church Van Assessment ToolI recently received an email from an old friend who is a retired pastor. He shared with me a few words from the “Self-worth Creed” that his church in Milwaukee has adopted. It begins with the words: I am unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable, and of infinite worth and dignity…” We are all pilgrims, only passing through this land but what we have to contribute is of infinite worth and dignity. How dare we doubt ourselves or belittle others along the way! Each one of you is unrepeatable and irreplaceable. Think about that.

In this season of Thanksgiving and stewardship, I give thanks for each one of you and the vital role you play in keeping us “on the road” and “on our way” in this pilgrimage to our heavenly home. Thank you for playing your part. This journey just wouldn’t be the same without you.

Pastor John

First Lutheran Church ~ Brainerd, MN ~ Official Documents

October 24, 2015

Here are a few scanned documents from the vault at First Lutheran Church in Brainerd, MN.

The first is a hand-written “Subscription to build a Swedish Lutheran Church in Brainerd.” It is signed by early supporters of this church:

2013-07-27 16.08.52

The next two are re-prints of our Articles of Incorporation, dated 1930, which is when the name was changed from the “Evangelical Swedish Clara Lutheran Church” to “First Evangelical Lutheran Church.”

2013-07-27 15.59.26

2013-07-27 15.57.59

Swimming In The Deep End

October 19, 2015

A sermon from Sunday, October 11th, 2015

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

01 Aug 2006, Summit, New Jersey, USA --- A woman hangs for a moment under the water in the deep end after coming off the water slide at the Summit Community Pool, in Summit New Jersey. --- Image by © Tony Kurdzuk/Star Ledger/Corbis

01 Aug 2006, Summit, New Jersey, USA — A woman hangs for a moment under the water in the deep end after coming off the water slide at the Summit Community Pool, in Summit New Jersey. — Image by © Tony Kurdzuk/Star Ledger/Corbis

Pent20 / First Lutheran Church / 10-11-15 / John Stiles

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.

Can you swim? My dad was the one who first got me into the water. I still remember that first swimming lesson and how much I hated it! It was terrifying! We were at the Thunderbird Hotel, which is down by the Mall of America in Bloomington. At first, he’d scoop me up, hold on tight, then jump into the shallow end. I got water in my eyes and up my nose… and coughed up a storm. But I never let go… and neither did he. He’d just laugh and swim around a bit with me clinging to his neck. But then I soon learned that there was something called “the deep end!” And you, for sure, didn’t go there without a grown up. And should we swim over there now? Dad asked. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! It’s a scary thing, learning how to swim. Because, at some point, we all need to learn to let go, lean back, and to trust that the water will hold us. Until we can do that, we’ll never learn how to swim.

In our 2nd lesson, from Hebrews, we hear about letting go when we listen to God’s Word. Here, God’s Word is a two-edged sword… which lays bare our souls… so, what have we got to lose? God knows us all the way down to our bare naked selves. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness.

I don’t know about you, but when my soul has been laid bare, the last thing I’d feel like doing is approaching some throne with boldness! Are you kidding me? It’s embarrassing! I’m not the person I know God wants me to be. Me, in my selfishness and when I do not notice the needs of even those dearest to me? I expect something more like, “Hang your head when you approach that throne of grace, and maybe – just maybe – the Lord will cut you a little slack!”

Singer, songwriter, Jason Gray wrote a song about this called “The Cut” He sang:

You peel back the bark
And tear me apart
To get to the heart
Of what matters the most
I’m cold and I’m scared
As your love lays me bare
But in the shaping of my soul
The cut makes me whole.

Remember the words of Psalm 139? “O Lord, you have searched me and known me… you knit me together in my mother’s womb… where can flee from your presence?” God is always there. The Hebrew word for “you have searched me” may also be translated “you have probed me.” Like some cosmic forensic CSI expert, God probes each one of us, knowing us intimately, having peeled back the layers, to get us down to what matters most (which can be both comforting and unsettling).

That, I believe, is how Jesus looked upon this wealthy man in our Gospel lesson today. He knew what was most important in his heart-of-hearts. Yes, money is important – we can’t dismiss that Jesus makes a claim on it – and calls for a redistribution in favor of the poor; but there is also the following to which he calls us – the desire to know this young man.

Notice how, in other places (like Luke 19), Zaccheaus is commended for only giving half of his possessions to the poor. And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” When the early church began (according to Acts 4) the believers sold their homes and laid the proceeds at the feet of the disciples (something which never occurred again, as far as we know, in the Bible). So which is it? Give half away or give it all away?

Maybe salvation has more to do with faith and learning to float in God’s grace and swim in service to others – instead of focusing on all our possessions.

So, what’s keeping you from swimming out into the deep end today?  Or, maybe you’re already there and at your wits end just trying to stay afloat!  I hope you hear the loving tone in Jesus’ voice this morning. The rich young man went away sad because he had many possessions. But Jesus had looked on him with love and said to him, “You lack one thing. Go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor and follow me.” In other words: Let’s go to the deep end, where you can’t touch bottom. I’ve got you in this and I’m not letting go.

Noted author and speaker, Brennan Manning has said that heaven will be like this: “When you get to heaven Jesus isn’t going to ask if you found the cure for cancer or brought about world peace… he’s only going to ask one question: ‘Did you believe that I loved you?’”

I suppose the rich young man was used to getting his way, if he was so wealthy. And yet, he was a good man – one who had followed the Ten Commandments since he was a child. But he asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Think of the logic of that question for a moment. Can anyone do anything to inherit something? No. Someone in your family has to die first. Right? Then you, being next of kin, receive the inheritance.

If it’s up to us to follow every commandment to the letter of the law… we’ll be spending a lot of energy pushing camels through the eyes of needles! And so, hear the good news again: It’s the love of Jesus that saves us. The text clearly says, “Jesus looked at him with love.”

But still he went away sad. He just couldn’t see it, drowning in a sea of riches. Today, there are people who still just don’t see it. They’re drowning in the deep end of sorrows – stuck in a place in which there seems to be no way out. Lost in the grip of depression and despair.

I don’t know why Aggie Ohman had a stroke this week and has now lost control of her whole left side of the body. On top of losing her eyesight, and having to move away to live closer to her children, and falling and breaking her hip last month – now this! How long can anyone keep treading water in the deep end? So, we swim out.  And her Lord swims alongside for awhile, and offers encouragement and a blessed assurance.

I don’t know why 13-year-old Vienna Peterson hanged herself last week at a sporting event here in Brainerd. But clearly, she could no longer hold on. So we swim out, and Jesus swims out along side us in those times.  My heart breaks for this teen and her family. For anyone out there who is struggling in the deep end, please know that there are people out there, right alongside you, who care. I’m one of them. I don’t pretend to have an answer – I’m not even the best swimmer – but I will be a lifeline.

We don’t even know why this rich young man threw himself at Jesus’ feet – only that he believed Jesus could help him. He swam out along side him with the assurance: You are not alone.

In his book “Messy Spirituality” Mike Yaconelli writes: “It is so bizarre, because I know Christ loves me, but I’m not sure he likes me, and I continually worry that God’s love will simply wear out… [In Romans, chapter 8] Paul uses lots of religious words, but the bottom line is we are all stuck with God’s love whether we want to be or not. The words ‘nor anything else in all creation’ mean that nothing can stop God from loving us. Nothing. He just keeps loving us. In modern language, you could say, ‘Neither failure nor poor church attendance, nor inadequate Bible reading and prayer, nor betrayal, denial, doubt, insecurity, guilt, weakness, bad theology, or even losing our temper can separate us from the love of God.’ He loves us when we don’t want him to love us. He loves us when we don’t act like Christians. He loves us when our lives are a mess.” (from Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality, p. 123f)

I wish we could all hear this – that we are loved beyond anything we could ever do to separate us from God.

It’s what every child needs to hear: this promise from the deep end of life.
It’s what every refugee or oppressed person needs to hear: this promise of a welcome that will not wear out.
It’s what every wealthy person must hear: this promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Looking at him, he loved him.”

What can we do to inherit eternal life? Follow me, says Jesus. Become a child of God. In a world in which we expect “hoops” to jump through – and ladders to climb, we are simply handed the mercy and love of Jesus – this scandalous free gift, which can only move us to tears of deep gratitude. Pure, undeserved salvation! Or, in the case of the wealthy, it may send us away sad, with a lot to think about.

This stewardship season, we are asking you to consider giving a percentage of your income to the work of God through the General Fund at First Lutheran Church – and to invite you to grow in your giving as a spiritual discipline. You should be receiving a pledge card in the mail about this. And, from our gospel reading today, we clearly see how our relationship with money has a lot to do with faith.

Simply put, when we receive the morning offering, toward the General Fund, it becomes the fuel for all the ministries you see each week (and many that you don’t see). Beyond the obvious expenses for maintaining a building and utilities, there are staff to pay and ministries to support – to ensure that the table may be set for Holy Communion – and that a young person will have a visit in the hospital from our youth director – and that preschooler will be kindergarten ready, and know that Jesus Loves Them, by the time they graduate from the Learning Tree – and that a homebound person who can no longer attend worship will be visited by the pastor – and those hymns will be carefully chosen by the organist – and that choir will have a director to rehearse the cantata with – and the books will be balanced – and statements will go out – records will be kept – and the building will be clean. Truly there is a lot to think about, as we consider our giving this year: both in time and treasure. And, each year, we rely on you, the people of First Lutheran Church, to make sure we don’t ‘run out of gas’ on the journey.

That’s where I’ll end this morning: with where this gospel lesson started out: with a simple phrase: “Jesus was preparing to go on a journey.” Don’t you want to go with him? Don’t you want to go swimming today? To hear Jesus say, “I’ve got you. And I’m not letting go.” Together, let’s learn to trust Jesus – and in each other – to lean back and float in the love of this one, through whom all things are possible. Let us pray:

O God, without you we are lost at sea, drowning in the deep end. Ease us back into the waters of your love – that healing and redeeming water of baptism – so that we may learn to float all over again – and swim out into the deep end in service to you and one another. Amen.

A Poem I wrote years ago

October 13, 2015

Grey Matter
by John Stiles

“You know, we really
take a lot for granted
when we’re younger,”
I said to the octogenarian
sitting vigil by his
wife of 65 years.
“That is true,” he said,
slowly nodding,
as we gathered in the dim light
of her hospital room.
This week she fell and broke her hip.
And he had an aneurysm
and can’t do for her what he used to.
Still, he showers her with kisses to the forehead.
This is the woman who once welcomed him
to the comfort of her bosom
as they reveled in the glory of their youth.
Now she sits,
unaware of what has happened,
or perhaps more aware than any of us.
He, on the edge of the bed,
thin legs crossed like walking sticks.
I want to stay with them.
I want to listen for truth, wisdom,
for whatever lies beneath her half-smile.
What does she know?
Perhaps the greatest freedom
comes in the forgetting
or, in letting go
of the need to remember
what the world
deems worthy
of our grey

Out Of Many, One

October 12, 2015

A sermon from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 10-4-15

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

08 Jul 2006, London, England, UK --- Street Pastors Praying --- Image by © Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbis

08 Jul 2006, London, England, UK — Street Pastors Praying — Image by © Philippe Lissac/Godong/Corbis

Pent19 / First Lutheran Church / 10-4-15 / John Stiles

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.

Did mom & dad fight when you were a kid? We all have our disagreements from time to time. And some fight more fairly than others. And yet, I can’t remember a more frightening time, as a child, than overhearing my parents fighting. Whenever they raised their voices, I knew it was bad. It didn’t happen very often, and they usually were able to make up afterwards. They had some ground rules: 1) Don’t take the car keys if you leave the house – just go for a walk; and 2) Never let the sun go down on your anger (that one wasn’t so easy). But in the heat of the moment, everything that makes for a stable home can seem, all of a sudden, terribly wrong – especially for children. I felt powerless. I wasn’t even sure what it was about, though it usually involved not listening or not caring. On a few occasions, I remember going into my room and pulling the covers over my head and just praying that they wouldn’t get a divorce. It was not good.

In our first lesson for today, these words echo from God at the dawn of creation, “It is not good – that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2) – which seems odd, because up to this point all God could say after making the seas and the mountains and the rivers and the trees is: “It was good.” And when God made human beings in the image of God – he said, “It is very good!” But here, (in this 2nd account of creation – yes, there are 2 creation accounts in Genesis) after creating Adam, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

So, God made all the animals to see what the man would name them, but there was not found a suitable helper for him. And when we hear the word ‘helper’ let’s remember that this wasn’t intended to be a subservient ‘maid’ for Adam, but a partner.  In fact, the word ‘helper’ is most often used in the Old Testament to refer to ‘God’ as a helper to those who call for help in prayer.  Even ‘man’s best friend’ couldn’t fill the void of human companionship. So, God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, took a rib from him and closed up the place with flesh. From the rib God formed woman and brought her to the man. “At last,” he declares, “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones!”

Even Jesus recalls this story, in our gospel for today, when he’s being tested by the Pharisees on whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. At first, he refers to the Law: “What does the law say?” They reply, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal to divorce his wife.” Which was true. Usually adultery was grounds for divorce – and very few women had the power or social standing to enact divorce in those days. But this law also made it possible for a man to divore his wife if the hot dish wasn’t quite done all the way through – really, any small offense could be used as grounds for this “loophole law.” It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t want to dismiss the Law, giving the Pharisees ammunition against him; but he also knows that John the Baptist was beheaded by speaking out on Herod’s marriage to his brother’s ex-wife.

So, he takes them down a much more narrow path – he interprets the law. “Moses gave them this law because of their hardness of heart.” Sometimes hearts go hard making marriage unbearable. Sometimes differences are irreconcilable. When abuse is involved, divorce sometimes becomes the lesser of two evils. But none of that changes the fact that God still looks down on our brokenness and says, “It is not good that these people should be alone.”

So Jesus bypasses Moses, going back even further – to Adam & Eve: “For this reason a man shall leave his parents and cling to his wife and the two shall become one.” This story isn’t just about marriage and divorce – it’s about how God intended the whole world to live: in community. And there are all different types of families out there – trying the best they can to live this out.

When our founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and established these United States of America, their motto was a Latin phrase: E PLURIBUS UNUM (“Out of many, one”). Somewhere along the way, we seem to have flipped that around, asking: “What’s in it for me?” “Look out for number one” and that song Frank Sinatra immortalized: “I did it my way!”

And so, the church has much to offer this nation at a time when fear and despair threaten to drive us into hiding – or worse: into trusting the powers of this world to save us: wealth, political power, and military might. Whatever we put our ultimate trust in – that becomes our God. So we arm ourselves with even more handguns, as if that were the solution to yet another school shooting in our nation. Ten people dead in Roseburg, Oregon, and the very Sunday after this heinious crime – which has become all too commonplace in these United States – we have this lesson: “It is not good to be alone. Become like little children.”

Look at the pattern of how we, as a nation, have responded to school shootings – whether it be Columbine, Paduca, Sandy Hook, and now Roseberg. We’ve become more ‘alone’ – more divided into “us” vs. “them” – those who are “right” and “wrong” – about gun control – or mental illness. When, deep down, we know it’s just our hardness of heart that’s driving us apart.

Jesus spoke clearly to the Pharisees, underlining the importance of marriage, lifting up the importance of family and human community. But then… he put a child in the midst of them. A little child, saying, “You won’t receive this kingdom unless you become like this little one.”

Brene Brown put it this way: “When you are vulnerable, you are beautiful.” It’s not a child-ish faith God calls us to – as if we were naive pushovers, who haven’t got a clue – no, Jesus calls us to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Instead, we are to be child-like in our faith, fully trusting in God to guide us and save us. But being vulnerable is scary. We’re afraid of what might happen if we trust and get our feelings hurt / We may decide not to feel anything at all because it’s too painful.

The month of October is set aside each year for Domestic Violence Awareness. As you may know, a couple years ago, when I was in Oakdale, we had 2 murder-suicides, just 2 weeks apart – involving kids from the same school in our town. So we had vigils – we said our prayers – but then a few of decided to write some music and to record an album – and donate the proceeds to the family. As I close today, I want to end by singing the title track of that album – a song I wrote called: “We Are The Children” – because any time a child suffers, we feel it, as if we ourselves are those children. In Jesus’ time, children were powerless, at the lowest rung of society. And yet, he makes time for them. Even when his life was threatened and others were trying to trip him up on his way to the cross – Jesus makes time for me and for you – his children – he goes to prepare a place for us.

My parents had their own place, Grace Lutheran Church of Albert Lea, where they learned this lesson and went on to build a marriage and a home for 45 years, by the grace of God. Sure, they had their arguments, but they had something much more powerful – a place where the many became one – a church where, if one suffered all suffered with them, and when one was honored all rejoiced. We are that church – we are that Body of Christ. And we are the children.

Close by playing the song: We Are The Children.  Listen here:


Generous Giving, Generous Living

October 12, 2015

“Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” –2Corinthians 9:7

In every congregation I have served, I have been blessed with people who have taught me a thing or two about faithful living and, in today’s case, faithful giving.

Last week, a member wrote me a letter with an article, clipped from the Sunday paper (Star Tribune, August 30th, 2015 p. SH3). It’s entitled: “Secret to Happiness: Being Generous.” In it, the writer lifts up scientific research that proves the health benefits of being generous with your time and money.

Now, I know enough to be careful when someone says, “scientific research proves…” (Yes, I read the local paper, too!) However, as people of faith, we already know the benefits one receives from being generous. Still, I’ve never quite known what to do with St. Paul’s words to the church at Corinth: “For God loves a cheerful giver!” (2Cor. 9:7) In fact, this verse has often been used to guilt people into giving by forcing us to ‘suck it up,’ ‘give till it hurts,’ and offer ‘service with a smile’ even you’re your heart isn’t in it. Which is why the first part of this verse is so key: “…not reluctantly or under compulsion.”

Based on studies at Stonybrook University School of Medicine in New York, research shows that when we give, while thinking about how it will benefit someone else, we are happier and healthier people. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

“Countless studies have found that generosity, both volunteering and charitable donations, benefits young and old physically and psychologically. The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk and overall greater happiness… Studies show that when people think about helping others, they activate a part of the brain called the mesolimbic pathway, which is responsible for feelings of gratification. Helping others doles out happiness chemicals, including dopamine, endorphins that block pain signals and oxytocin, known as the tranquility hormone. Even just the thought of giving money to a specific charity has this effect on the brain… For example, if you give people a gift card for a Starbucks cappuccino and call them that evening and ask how happy they are, people say they are not happier than if you hadn’t given it to them. If you give another group a gift card and ask them to give it to a random person, when you call them at night, those people are happier… Taxes are a form of giving that typically does not make Americans happy. In order to gain a personal benefit from volunteering, you have to focus on how your giving helps other people.”

In other words, when we imagine how our giving can help someone in need (hungry, homeless, hurting, etc.) we are becoming the kind of cheerful givers that God loves. As children of the light, we are shining out our faith whenever we recall how our gifts help others.

The month of October is Stewardship season at First Lutheran – that time of the year when we ask you to consider a pledge of giving toward the overall expenses of the church (aka “The General Fund”). And, to fill out a Time & Talent form with ways you can serve. This means, we’ll need you to think – really think – about how your giving will make a difference to someone else, beyond just keeping the lights on and paying the bills.

As in past years, we are challenging members to increase your giving to First Lutheran by at least ½ of 1% of your household income. For most of us, this increase will be less than $10 per week. We also ask you to consider using an automatic funds transfer program that our congregation already has in place for your giving. But mostly, we call on you to think about the benefit your dollars will have on the people of this congregation, community, and around the world.

Be children of light this day, as you become the kind of cheerful givers that God loves!
Pastor John