Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Door Number One




15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God[a] that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.  ~Deuteronomy 30:15-19

From 1963 to 1977 Monty Hall hosted a popular game show, Let’s Make a Deal,
One of the gimmicks of which was so inventive that it became a meme of its own:
The choice is yours.  Do you choose door number one, door number two, or door number three?
Behind any of these doors could be something really cool, like a BMW, or something stupid called a “zonk.”  A “zonk” might be a used tricycle.
The meme of door number one sticks because a door represents mystery and possibility, a new future to be entered into.
Like Christ speaking in Revelation: 
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Doors represent choice.
We make hundreds of choices every day
And we open hundreds of doors every day.
To get up and go to work or school, you have to open a whole series of doors.
You open the bedroom door, the bathroom door, the shower door, the refrigerator door, the kitchen cabinet door, the front door, the garage door, the car door, the office door, and finally you have to choose whether or not to open your laptop, open a window and actually work.
Each of these is a little choice.
Many of these choices are very simple and don’t seem to have lasting consequences.
But sometimes the doors we choose to open or walk away from can dramatically alter our lives.
Opening the refrigerator door could up your pants size.
Opening the door for a lover could cost you your marriage.
Knocking on the door of a drug dealer could take your life.
In Deuteronomy God sets before the people of Israel two doors:
Door Number One:
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
Door Number Two:
If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
God makes it ridiculously clear:
I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. 
These doors are not blank white mysteries.
On the first door is painted the promised land.
On the second door is skull and crossbones.
If God were Monty Hall, he would announce:  “OK Israel, here’s a hint. Behind door number one is an all-you-can-eat milk and honey buffet.  And behind door number two is a very fierce looking army. What’ll it be?”
There’s a drumroll as the audience weighs in.
“Door number one!  Door number one!”
Nodding helpfully in his pinstriped polyester suit and polka dot tie, God hints:  “Choose life!”
And yet, how often do we walk over and open the door with the skull and crossbones?
You know that five minutes after you eat the stale birthday cake in the refrigerator you’ll regret it.
You know that trading in your forty year old wife for two twenty year olds will only be fun until each of those twenty year olds demands child support.
You know that the temporary euphoria of intoxication quickly leads to a crash—and that it takes more and more and more to get that high, and less and less and less of you will be left at the end.
You know which of the doors placed before you will lead you to joy and which will result in sorrow.
For Christians it’s tempting to spiritualize this passage of Deuteronomy.
Door number one is heaven, door number two is the other place.
It’s true that Christians believe that the choices we make in this life have consequences in the hereafter.
Yet the people of Israel who stand before Moses are making a choice about here and now, about the life of the community in this world.
What God is offering them is a very real, physical, immediate consequence:  a plentiful land of their own.
This is something for Christians to pay attention to.
Heaven is not only something we are looking forward to.
This life is not a trial meant to be endured.
We are meant to experience a foretaste of heaven here on earth.
The joys of health, prosperity, love, and service
Are gifts that we are meant to enjoy.
And, in the same way, when we stop listening to God,
When we follow idols of romance or sex, comfort or pleasure, getting high,
When we choose actions which result in only temporary and illusory happiness,
We experience, over time, the slow slide
Into loneliness, frustration, and despair,
Getting high eventually gets you pretty low.
It’s not that God condemns us to hell.
It’s that our choices can result in what feels like a living hell.
Sometimes our temptations are not as clear-cut as treats or twenty-year-olds or tequila.
Sometimes our temptations are much more insidious.
I have a temptation to negative thinking.
For instance, I start thinking about my to-do list, and as I run over and over through the things I have to do, I start to feel overwhelmed,
And then thinking, “I feel overwhelmed,” causes me to feel more overwhelmed.
Or I think about every bad thing that has to me happened recently, and I think, “I have the worst luck.  Nothing good ever happens to me.”
Or as I’m driving home at 10mph up I-75, praying I won’t spin out, I think “Winter will never end.  Winter will never end.  Winter will never end.”
It’s very simple, but it took me a long time to realize that I had a choice in what I thought. 
That I could take a thought like “winter will never end,” and evaluate whether it was really rational or helpful.
To get into the habit of choosing the good,
Of choosing life,
Of daily choosing the path that will lead me to joy,
For me means relying on the Holy Spirit.
For me means listening to God:
I set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life.
For me listening to God means remembering what God has shown me in the past:
Don’t make decisions when you’re hungry, lonely, or tired.
Turn to those saints in your life who sit, maybe not on my shoulder, but on the other end of my phone,
people I trust who will call me on my stuff.
And finally, ask, is this me talking, or the demons that haunt me?
This ubiquitous pop song by Imagine Dragons is just running through my head:
“I wanna hide the truth, I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside, There’s nowhere we can hide
When you feel my heat, Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide.”
That song sticks with people because
Whether we believe there are literal demons or not, we each have our metaphorical demons, our lifelong temptations, those habits and thoughts that lead each of us to that door marked death.
Our Oakland University group is reading CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which is the collected letters of the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, tutoring him on how to tempt his assigned human patient, a young man choosing between door number one and door number two.
Lewis is a great student of human nature.
He writes, “when two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face that are almost unendurably irritating to the other.  Work on that.”
And, “When he gets to his pew (in the church) and looks round him he will see…his neighbors.  Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somewhat ridiculous.”
Temptations are not necessarily obvious and rarely have a supernatural quality.
Temptations are all around us in the smallest and most ordinary aspects of everyday life.
How do we resist?
Deuteronomy repeats the refrain it began back in Chaper 6, proclaiming, “Hear, O Israel.”
Listen.
Hear.
Recognize which voice is the voice of God and which is telling lies.
Hear God’s voice and listen.
The voice of God is the voice of your true self,
It is the voice of the angels that you can call at any time,
Your friends who you trust to love you no matter what.
The voice of God is the voice calling you to life, health, and joy.
The voice of God makes you laugh and smile.
You know what that voice sounds like.
You know what door number one looks like for you.
And the best way to stay away from door number two is to open door number one.
It’s the door to the gym.
It’s the door to the therapist.
It’s the door to the church.
It’s the door behind which Jesus stands and knocks.
And the good news is, he really wants to get in.
Look at the people of Israel.
In Deuteronomy, these characters the Israelites have already failed.
They already picked door number two over and over again.
Moses leads them out of Egypt, they ask to go back.
God parts the waters of the Red Sea, they say, hey, let’s worship a golden calf!
God tells them, Choose life!  after they have already chosen death.
God gives them this choice after for-giving them all the wrong choices they made in the past.
God could choose door number two for us.  God has every reason to condemn and punish us.
But God keeps choosing to forgive and forget and say, OK, let’s try this again.
If God has to, God will open the door himself, God will unclasp our locked hearts,
God will break down every door, every wall, every idol that separates us from him, and enter in our hearts.
Jesus is dying for us to choose life.
God wants us to choose life because life is a gift God wants us to unwrap.
God wants us to really live.
Saturday was a rough day in the Grano household.
Diana broke her foot on Wednesday jumping on the stairs
(I did not encourage this activity.  I was unloading the dishwasher.)
And she’s too little for crutches, so we have to carry her everywhere.
And she’s heavy.
And Rosie is barking because she’s been cooped up all winter,
And we’ve been staring at the walls for months and months,
Which by the way, I am thinking, are really dirty, 
When Dan crosses his arms and announces,
“We are going to Belle Isle and we are going on a nature walk.”
“Are you crazy?” I respond.
“Our daughter can’t walk. 
And we don’t have time.
Have you noticed how dirty our walls are?
We have to clean.  And unload the dishwasher. And put away the laundry. And I have to preach tomorrow.  I have to think of something to say. I have so much to do!
I’m overwhelmed.
Winter will never end.
Winter will never end.
Winter will NEVER END!”
And Dan says, “I’m gonna pull the car up.”
So, we drive to Belle Isle.
We put the invalid on a sled and I pull her along for two miles.
And halfway through, I discover she’s been reaching over the side of the sled, grabbing the snow (full, I’m sure, of microbes) and eating it.
She looks up at me with her face totally red from eating snow, and she’s smiling.
And Rosie is following the tracks of some small animal deep into the woods, panting with joy, and she looks back at us with this big doggy smile.
And Dan says, “Look!”
There’s an ice formation left by the barges that came through to create a shipping channel in the Detroit River,
Crags of ice jutting up from the water,
And nearby two tufted ducks sit together, gazing over to Canada,
And we are smiling, really alive,
Unwrapping the gift of this day.
Unwrap the gift of today.
Choose to really live.
See the door? Open it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nets

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. I

As many of you know, my current husband was also my high school sweetheart, my college sweetheart, and my seminary sweetheart.
We are blessed to have grown up together, and we’re still growing up, and still doing it together.
Some of our good memories come from when we went on study abroad in my senior and his junior year of college.
We decided to study in London, England, for six months in 2003.
It was a great experience and one that was really enriching for both of us.
Neither of us had lived in another country.  Dan has still never lived outside of Michigan.
So moving to the second largest city in the world, with minimal support from the University of Michigan, was a rather jarring experience.
Sure, we knew the language, but we were there with a duffel bag each and a student ID and had to buy pots and pans, get a TV license which one needs in order to have a television in the UK, and learn to navigate the London Underground since of course we had no cars.
We had decided a few things beforehand:  we were not going to hang out with people from Michigan, because if we just hung out with Americans, why were we even in Britain?
We were going to do volunteer work because we recognize that most tourists just look at the pretty parts of a new place and never deal with the more challenging realities.  We wanted to help others in Britain and not just ourselves.
And third, we were going to join a Christian community.
The University was able to set us up as volunteer drama teachers with a Bangladeshi immigrant children on the East end, which was an amazing experience.
But finding British friends and joining a Christian community proved more difficult.
Like much of Europe, London is extremely secular.  One study showed that less than 10% of London students had ever gone to a religious service.
We were amazed that at the University of London at that time, there were only two student Christian organizations, neither of which were Presbyterian.
Good millenials, we looked at their websites.
The first group had information about their next meeting on the website.  The topic?  Why Evolution is Evilution.
“Quick!  Quick!  Close the browser!” I yelled.
On to the second group:  “Koinonia—a charismatic Christian community from a variety of Christian traditions.”
“Charismatic?  Dan, that means they speak in tongues!”  I exclaimed.
Speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift experienced in Pentecostal and charismatic communities whereby the Holy Spirit moves a person to ecstatic, often unintelligible utterances. 
The idea totally freaked me out.
“Well, let’s keep an open mind.”  Dan said. 
He went on to add:  “Maybe God has a reason for us to go there.”
Finally I agreed to go to one meeting, but just one. 
And if it did not seem like God had a plan for us, we would not be going back.
So we went to the first meeting and were greeted when we arrived, by the group’s leader, Nico, who, we were amazed, spoke with a Midwestern accent.
We said where we were from, and he said, “Ann Arbor?  No way!  I went to Michigan!  Go Blue!  And you’re Presbyterian?  Hey, do you know Graham?”
Well, Graham was our campus minister.
Dan looked at me and just smiled.
Sometimes God is annoying.
That group became a wonderful community for us with whom we still keep in touch.
Yes, they prayed in tongues, while we respectfully prayed our silent Presbyterian prayers.
And then after our meeting, we would go to the pub, because that’s what even Christians do in London.
Through that group we were able to really soak in another culture, which is what we were hoping to do, and it also expanded our own faith and openness to possibility.
But I was initially so scared to follow Christ’s call.
Were the disciples scared to follow Jesus?
Jesus gives no details about where they are going.
In Matthew’s Gospel, they haven’t seen him perform any miracles.
They haven’t heard his teachings.
All they have is his words, come, follow me and fish for people.
If they had known what was coming, perhaps they would have been scared.
Following Jesus will set them against their religious tradition and against the entire Empire of Rome.
Following Jesus will be physically taxing work with little financial reward.
Following Jesus will eventually lead some of them to an early and violent death.
And all they have to go on is this man, Jesus, and his words:  “Come, follow me.”
They left their nets.
They left their boats.
They left their families.
They left it all, immediately, and followed.
Fisherman could have meant a variety of different occupations—Matthew doesn’t elaborate.
It could have meant a government official who sells fishing licenses—the upper class.
It could have meant a fishing business owner who hires seasonal day laborers and reaps a profit—the middle class.
Or, it could have meant the seasonal day laborers themselves—the lower class.
Mark tells us they had servants, and Matthew tells us they left their boats, so it’s likely that they were the middle class small business owners.
If that is the case, in a way it’s even more shocking.
This is not just giving up a seasonal wage, but leaving their largest capital investment on the lakeshore, to be snatched up with glee by their former competitors.
We know the nets were important to them.  James and John are right in the process of  mending the nets, carefully sewing, untying the tangles, when Jesus comes to them.
They’re obsessed with the nets.
And they left it all behind. 
They left their nets.
They left their boats.
They left their families.
They left it all, immediately, and followed.
Recently I asked someone in this church for an enormous favor, and he said yes, and then he said, “how can you say no to God?”
I can think of some ways to say no to God.
I can think of some excuses.
“Not if they speak in tongues.”
Or,
“I have tickets to a concert that night.”
“I’m going to drama camp.”
“I like sleep.”
In ministry, a lot of my job involves twisting arms.
There were no seminary classes in the art of arm twisting, and little preparation for the variety and number of excuses we would receive.
I know that in many cases, people have very real reasons why it is unhealthy for them to say “yes” at any given time.
I have also heard people who reluctantly had their arms twisted later tell me what an amazing and life changing experience service to the church became for them.
There are many reasons not to give of yourself to the church.
There are many reasons not to follow a possible call from God.
For one thing, there are the nets.  There’s the boat.  There’s the job.  There’s the family. 
Responsibilities.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were not in Hebrew school looking for a rabbi to follow.
Jesus could have gone to the Hebrew schools and looked for people seeking to become spiritual leaders.
He didn’t.
He went to people who weren’t actively seeking the call, who were actually quite gainfully employed in other productive work, and asked them to leave it all behind.
He asked them to give up something good in exchange for something better.
So you enjoy fishing?  I’ll show you how to catch people.
And they left their nets.
Is there a net that you’re holding onto?
Concert tickets?
Drama camp?
Sleep?
Could you be holding onto your nets, your responsibilities, your excuses so tightly that you don’t even realize they have you completely tangled up?
Could you be so tangled, twisted, and tied up in knots, so trapped by things that somehow became important, that you can’t follow when Jesus calls?
Today we have a congregational meeting.
Maybe you’ve never gone before.  You’ve said, let other people do that.
Well, you are the other people.
Go.
Listen.
Meet someone and learn about them.
You never know how God might speak.
Leave the nets behind and follow.
Because it’s only when you stop letting the nets tangle you,
That you can become God’s fishing net.
Maybe by serving with our mission committee you can be a safety net for people in great need.
Maybe by helping with the Boy Scouts you will find yourself used as a human basketball net that brings joy to a boy’s face.
Maybe by greeting on a Sunday morning you can be the fishing net that brings in a new member in need of this community.
If the disciples had never left their nets behind,
If they had never given themselves up to be the equipment on God’s fishing boat,
Well, they would have been small businessmen, who lived and died in Nazareth.
Instead, they are Peter, Andrew, James, and John, whose names have been given to children for two thousand years, so common that we forget that they were the names of the disciples.
Instead, these men founded a faith cherished by billions of people, which has brought comfort and joy to you and to me.
Instead, these fishermen caught people.
And there is no greater joy than catching people.
There is no greater joy than helping someone find faith.
When I die, I won’t be thinking of the products I did or didn’t buy,
I won’t be thinking of how fancy my car was or how many square feet were in my house.
On the day that I die I will remember how it felt to baptize a young person who found faith,
How it felt when someone told me, I saw God speaking through you,
How it felt to watch a child repeat a verse I had taught her,
How it felt to know that when God went fishing, God chose to bring you and me.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

mmediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Matthew 4:18-22

Black and Decker



Do you know why you were created?
Have you ever wondered, what in God’s name am I doing here?
I have wondered what in God’s name I am doing with my life from time to time,
When I’m organizing another game of Sardines,
When I’m pulling out my sleeping bag for another retreat away from my family,
When I’m hauling out my paint-stained pants for another mission trip.
Ephesians says: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do, to be our way of life.
What, in God’s name, we are supposed to be doing with our lives are good works.
It makes even more sense in reverse:  What we are supposed to be doing are good works, in God’s name.
Our purpose in life is not to make a lot of money.
Our purpose in life is not to have a lot of fun.
Our purpose in life is not even to have children and raise them.
Not fully.
Our purpose is to do good works.
God created us so that we can share in his work of truth, justice, and love.
We are not here for ourselves.
God chose us to experience the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and to share that grace, love, and fellowship with the world.
God chose you and me and each person here and prepared work for us to do, work that he carefully chose for us.
God made you in such a way that there is a specific task he wants you to do.
Listen again to Ephesians 2:10:  You are God’s workmanship, created in Jesus Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do, to be our way of life.
God formed you in such a way that there is a specific task he wants you to do.
You are God’s handiwork.
You are God’s machine, God’s instrument.
He wants you to perform a specific function.
And if Black and Decker, Hewlett Packard, or Ford are concerned with their machines performing their functions well,
Imagine the care and thought God has put into designing and engineering us to do his work.
In our church in Rochester Hills we have lots of engineers.
Many of our congregation members work in the auto industry trying to make cars run better.
Engineers are people who are very interested in how things work.
There’s an old joke about engineers.
Three men were sent to the guillotine to be beheaded, a doctor, a lawyer, and an engineer.
The doctor comes up to the guillotine, says his last words, weeping, to his family, proclaims his innocence, kneels down on the block, sticks his head out,
And the executioner lets go of the rope and the blade begins to fall but…
Halfway down the blade stops, perfectly still.
The doctor looks up, astonished.
The executioner shrugs his shoulders.
The judge proclaims, this must be the will of God!  And lets the doctor go free.
Next the lawyer comes up to the block.  Says his last words, proclaims his innocence, kneels down on the block, sticks his neck out, and the executioner lets fly and…
The blade stops still, halfway down.  Must be the will of God, he must be innocent.  The lawyer goes free.
The engineer comes next to the block, kneels down, and looks up, and he says, “I think I see what the problem is!  There’s a little knot in the wood right there…does anyone have sandpaper?”
The engineer is obsessed with making sure something does what it’s supposed to do.
My dad is, in fact, an engineer.
And whenever we’re having a problem with something around the house, he’ll say, well, let’s look at it.
Just like the engineer on the execution block, he likes to study something and think about how it works.
Look at this can opener.  See the sharp blade?  That’s what cuts.
See the little wheel?  So, we turn that.
And soon, we have it figured out.
We make it work the way it was made to do.
Have you ever looked at yourself that way?
Have you ever considered yourself as God’s equipment, meant to perform good works, and asked,
What was I made to do?
What was I fashioned for?
Look at your life.
Look at what your gifts are.
Look at the ways you could be using your gifts to serve God.
I believe that you can tell quite a bit about a person from their kindergarten report card.
My kindergarten report card said:  Reading skills:  Excellent.  Mathematic skills:  Excellent.  Hand-eye coordination:  Needs improvement.
To this day, I am more comfortable in the spiritual world than the physical one.
I tend to trip over myself, to walk into walls, to spill food and beverages on myself, etc.
When I remember kindergarten, I remember that I often would withdraw from my class, to go into a little cubby by myself, to read and pray.
And God is so good that now reading and praying is called “work.”
Look at your life.
What did your report cards say about you?
What gifts have your friends and family noticed in you?
What is the good work that God wants you, and only you to do?
Think about what you do when you’re having trouble with a new machine, a new cell phone, a new gadget.
You look at it, and then you play around with it, don’t you?
Try the buttons and the levers and figure out what works.
Are we afraid to mess around and try things out to see what works?
Are we limiting ourselves out of fear?
Maybe you can do something you never thought possible.
This sermon is not a lesson on what-color-is-your-parachute; it’s not career development.
The good works we are called to do are not always related to our jobs.
We may have several callings at any one point in life, in our church, community, family, and career.
Our good works may be in surprising areas.
I was with my husband’s aunt Pat in Florida and I wanted a cup of tea.
And she took some water in the coffee pot, poured it in the coffee maker, and turned it on without any coffee grounds in the coffee maker.
Then, when the coffee pot was full of hot water, she poured it on my tea.
I was astonished, I said, “that’s how you make tea?  With a coffee maker?  Without lighting the stove and filling up the teapot and everything?”
She said, “why are you so bound on having something used only for one purpose?”
Perhaps you too can be used in a way you didn’t think possible.
I love the email you’ve no doubt seen:  Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Moses was a murderer, Rahab was a prostitute, Mary was a teenager, Peter denied Christ, and Lazarus was dead.  God can use you.
Perhaps you already know this.
Perhaps you’ve figured out what it is God wants you to do, but you are not doing it.
You know you are meant to brew coffee, but someone poured alcohol into you instead.
You know you are meant to open cans, but instead you have turned your sharp blade onto yourself.
You know you are meant to carry others forward but you can’t seem to get out of your own garage.
You are misused so that gifts that God could use for building up the church are only building up yourself,
Or worse, you too are being destroyed,
Because when you use a machine the wrong way you ruin it.
When you turn on the coffee pot with no water in it it could catch fire.
When you don’t take time to clean off the can opener it will rust.
And a vehicle that just sits there will fall apart.
When you are not being used correctly, you soon won’t be good for what God needs.
Are you the machine that has been used and abused?
Are you feeling like you’ve failed God?
Are you feeling like you are useless to anyone, fit for nothing but the junkyard?
God has good news for you.
Three times, three times, in this passage of Scripture, Ephesians 2, it says “by grace you have been saved.”
By grace you have been saved, and this is not your own doing.
God saves you whether you’re working right or in need of a few repairs.
Our salvation doesn’t depend on what we do, it depends on who we are and whose we are.
Because unlike Black and Decker, Ford, or Hewlett Packard,
Who make things that will eventually be thrown away,
God doesn’t make junk.
All these machines will eventually wear out and be thrown in the junkyard.
But a human soul is something that can never be destroyed.
God made you to save you.
He is intent on saving you.
He wants to repair you so you’ll work right.
He wants to prepare you so you can do what you are meant to do.
You are God’s handiwork, created for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
God knows what you were truly meant for, the great work he has set aside for only you.
He has prepared it for you in advance, and he is preparing you for it as well.
The purpose of our communion meal is not to quietly mourn the death of Jesus.
The purpose of the communion feast is to fill us spiritually with Jesus Christ, so that we are prepared to do good works throughout the week.
God spends a lot of time preparing us.  He’s given us an instruction manual to read,
And he sends us helpers to keep us tuned up.
Have you ever thought that when you are going through a hard time, perhaps it’s because God is preparing you for greater service?
Being tuned up and repaired isn’t always entirely comfortable, but it’s necessary.
And sometimes God is tuning us, preparing us to serve him better.
I have also struggled in my life with depression.
At one point in my life I was suicidal and I was hospitalized.
Through my own struggles with depression, I am now able to sit beside those who are hurting and understand in part that pain.
I share my story with others and it helps them to know that they are not alone,
And it helps them to know that like me, they can get better,
And it helps them to know that God has not abandoned them, but walks beside them.
So such a difficult thing in my life has become one of my most abundant blessings.
If you are in a time of trial,
If you are in a time of challenge,
If you find that you need to rely on God more and more,
Perhaps God is preparing you for your good work.
Look at your life.
Listen to your life.
Watch for what God is doing.
There is a work that only you can do.
Do not be afraid to do the good work God has prepared for you.
This is your opportunity.  Don’t waste it.
Do the work God designed for you to do.
Be the person God created you to be.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Umbilicists

This is why I love youth ministry.  In Confirmation I collect written questions that either I don't have time to answer in class or the students don't want to ask in class.  Then I attempt to write responses that will help the students.  The above query was raised after a lively discussion of creation last week.  I had no idea how seriously some people, specifically creationists, take this question.  Enjoy.   There's some big quotes here from an article by Al Maxey in Grace Centered magazine, 10/10/12.

Did Adam have a belly button/navel/umbilicus?
“This will help answer the question. “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (soul)” (Gen. 2:7). Woman had not even been created at this point in time, so it is obvious that Adam did not come from the womb of one. “For man does not originate from woman” (1 Cor. 11:8). This being true, then how could Adam have had an umbilicus?”  So, the traditional answer would be, “no.”

Did Eve have a belly button?
“ ‘So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at that place. And the Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man…’ (Gen. 2:21). Eve also did not experience a natural birth, but rather a supernatural creation! Thus, for her to have been given an umbilicus would likewise be a false testimony.”
Again, neither an innie nor an outie.

Uncle Sam gets involved: 
“In 1944, a subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives Military Committee (chaired by Congressman Durham of the state of North Carolina) refused to authorize a little 30-page booklet titled ‘Races of Man,’ that was to be handed out to our soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting in World War II, because this little booklet had a drawing that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons! The members of this subcommittee ruled that showing Adam and Eve with navels ‘would be misleading to gullible American soldiers.’”

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—I mean, Renaissance painters—weigh in:
“Some of the world’s great artists also wrestled with this problem, as did the Roman Catholic Church. In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne, a doctor and philosopher from Norwich, published a work titled ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ in which he sought to expose some of the ‘vulgar errors’ then present in society. He devoted an entire chapter to ‘Pictures of Adam and Eve with Navels.’ He points out that even such notables as Raphael and Michelangelo were guilty of such ‘vulgar errors.’ He declared that to paint Adam and Eve with belly buttons would be to suggest that ‘the Creator affected superfluities, or ordained parts without use or office.’ The Catholic Church, as a rule, seemed to be against artists depicting Adam and Eve with navels in their paintings, so this posed quite a problem for a number of these artists who didn’t want to antagonize the church. A good many of them, therefore, chose to take the ‘safe path’ and simply painted the couple with strategically placed foliage, long hair, or forearms blocking the abdomen. And yet Michelangelo dared to paint Adam with a navel, and to place it right there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for which he was accused of heresy by some theologians of his day.”

Did you know that people who believed they had navels are called umbilicists?

“Pre-Umbilicism — This is the view that has already been presented above; the view that Adam and Eve were given navels at the moment of their creation by God.”

“Mid-Umbilicism — This particular view suggests that Adam’s navel was created when the Lord God took the rib from him and created the woman Eve. God chose to pull the rib from the center of Adam’s blank abdomen, thus forming a puncture wound. Therefore, the navel on Adam, unlike all future navels, was not a visible sign that he had come from a woman, but actually a visible sign that woman had come from him. Eve, according to these Mid-Umbilicists, never did have a navel, as there was no need for her to have one.”

“Post-Umbilicism — This last theory places the umbilicus on both Adam and Eve after their sin, and at the point of being driven from the garden. When Cain was later driven out because he had murdered his brother, we are told God ‘set a mark on him’ (Gen. 4:15)…the Mid-Umbilicists similarly assume that a distinguishing mark was placed on Adam and Eve when they were driven from the garden (although Scripture never mentions any such mark being placed on them), and that this mark was the belly button. This ‘scar’ in their midsection would forever be a reminder to this couple, and to all mankind, that they had, by their sin, been ‘severed from’ their God, just as a baby is severed from its mother when the umbilical cord is cut, with the navel being a constant visible reminder of that previous connection now forever severed.”

So what do you think?  Did they or didn’t they?


Deciduousness

Walking through the forests at my family’s cabin in Kalkaska this summer,
For the first time I really noticed the trees,
Pulling out the books on the shelf and identifying the sycamores and black maples,
The elms and aspens, I noticed their beauty for the first time.
We are so blessed to live in a state with the continual sermon of deciduousness.
The life of a tree through its seasons teaching us about the way God works.
Isaiah says, “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be.”
In Israel the trees seemed to live forever.
In the Holy Land I saw the silent witnesses,
Olive trees that were over two thousand years old,
Olive trees from which Jesus might have plucked fruit.
Trees in Isaiah symbolize sturdiness and longevity.
And that is what God wants for us.
Jesus describes faith as like a mustard tree, that started so small but grew so strong and living that the birds of the air find a home for their nests.
The first Psalm says that God’s people “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.  And their leaves do not wither.  In all they do, they prosper.”
In summer we see these strong trees with beautiful leaves,
Taking in all the sunlight that they can,
Standing firm and solid in place.
They are unmoving but very much alive.
We the church are called and blessed to draw in God’s light,
To drink from God’s living waters of baptism,
As essential to our life as the flowing stream is to the forest.
The church has its summer, a time to be glad and rejoice forever, as Isaiah calls us to do.
I think of our summer as the time of confirmation and graduation, Vacation Bible School and mission trips.
It’s a time for the young to stand before us,
For us to delight in their energy and remind them to wear sunscreen.
When our young people come before us in their very prime,
We rejoice in their faith and future.
We soak in their sunshine like summer leaves
Taking delight in the gifts God has given us,
The beautiful creation around us,
We eat up every moment and we never want it to end.
The early church had its summer when Jesus ascended to heaven before hundreds of people and the heavens were opened,
On that first Pentecost, when the Spirit was alive and believers were coming in by the hundreds, speaking new languages,
The ancient and painful divisions of nation and tongue were reconciled,
As the Spirit blazed with holy fire.
Or the Billy Graham crusades when thousands were baptized and the songs rose up from the hills.
The missions of the nineteenth century in places like Korea, China, and Malawi, when  after years of missionaries’ patient struggles, churches were packed with people singing a new song, people who were on fire with the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is the church in summer, soaking up the sun, drinking up the living water.
But summer cannot last.
Psalms says that the tree must yield its fruit in due season.
Ecclesiastes says there is a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.
Autumn is the time of letting go.
As our young, proud, green students leave us, we are like the tree that releases its leaves into the wind.
It’s a time of letting go, of sharing, of giving up.
Autumn is a time to embrace change.
And this is true for the church as well.
We are called to share what we have while we can.
Not to hold on desperately to our gifts.
Because what is now ripe will soon rot.
It is sharing, not hoarding, that is the key to our survival.
If a church does not reach out into the community,
To share not only the physical gifts of money, warm hats, a Thanksgiving meal,
But also to share its faith,
To tell others in the community about the hope found in Jesus,
To offer its care, to invite people to join in worship and work,
That church will die.
The church has had seasons of change,
When cold winds begin to blow,
And we sense the change of autumn,
The opportunity to share with others.
I think of the Reformation, when church was called to let go of dead thoughts and rotting practices,
Like brown, dead leaves on a tree.
And today, as the church is challenged to acceptance of new ideas and thoughts,
Fresh and sometimes disturbing interpretation of Scripture,
And to let go of some of our preconceived ideas and prejudices.
It is a time to let go, to be generous with our faith.
It is a time for a beautiful, glorious, surrender.
Our generosity carries with it the seeds of our future.
Jesus once cursed a tree--the fig tree that had no fruit.
The tree’s hope for the future is buried within its fruit.
It is not only the leaves that fall in autumn.
The tree passes out hundreds and thousands of fruits,
Fall after fall after fall,
Many of which will fall to the ground and rot,
In hopes that one, just one, seed will take root and grow.
So now we rake, and we take in our harvest,
Be it large or small,
We will give thanks that we can enjoy this fruit,
The labor of our hands and the gift of God himself, Lord of the harvest.
And soon the last leaves will fall.
The snows will come.
And the branches will be bare and covered with ice.
Here in Michigan we have this gift of winter.
When the leaves are gone the tree’s skeleton is visible and the world is frozen in apparent death.
It’s only when all the leaves are gone that you can really see what the tree is.
See its branches.
See the trunk, the dark, solid, core.
All a tree has to do in winter is survive.
The church has had its winters.
Why else would Jesus have said “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there?”,
Than because he knew we would sometimes have to comfort one another with those words.
You have been to those Bible studies.  I have been to those Bible studies.
On that January morning when the choir is bigger than the congregation.
When the church is stripped to its very bones.
Those Sundays matter.
Those Bible studies are vital.
The little churches who count their membership at 32, 67,
They are as important as the first church was at 12.
Stay alive, bare tree, just one more day.
Just one more storm.
Stand tall and strong.
Your branches may crack, twigs fall away.
Your leaves are all gone now, it has been a year, a decade since your baptismal font was used.
Stand firm, bare tree, broken tree, dead tree.
You are the tree we believe in.
The bare tree, the broken tree, the dead tree is the one I wear around my neck.
The one at the center of this church and every church.
The skeleton tree that held our savior is the tree of our salvation.
Our tree is the empty cross.
Our faith is a winter faith.
Our faith is a faith that does not give up.
Our faith is a light that shines in the darkness.
Our faith is that little congregation that will put on its boots and drove through a snowstorm to be here at 9am on January 5.
Why?
Because we believe.
We choose to stubbornly survive.
We are these odd people who live in this wintry tundra,
We are these odd people who believe in the tale of idle women, the scratches written by tax collectors and sinners,
We are the people of the peculiar, obstinate, irrational hope of resurrection.
The belief that life will come from that skeletal tree.
Isaiah glimpsed that life.
“A new heaven and a new earth,” he prophesied.
The first earth had trees, a tree whose fruit allowed choice and brought death.
But Isaiah saw a new earth where there would be only life.
No more weeping.  No more pain.
No more violence and cruelty,
The wolf and the lamb will lie down together,
And even that pesky snake can stick around and eat dust.
This is a time when we won’t have to pray, won’t have to call out to the Lord,
Because He will answer before we even think to ask.
Do you believe this day is coming?
Is the vision of Isaiah your vision too?
I believe because I have heard the sermon of deciduousness.
There is a tree that we see every Sunday.
When we renovated in 2008 we broke through the back wall to bring in natural light.
The tree we see out that window looks different in different places in the sanctuary, but if you look closely you can see it wherever you are.
It is no different from any other tree,
Except that we here know it is God’s tree.
There were originally plans for a beautiful stained glass window our church quietly, communally, without even needing to take a vote, has decided never to install.
Because through the year this tree has spoken its quiet sermon.
It tells of an unexplained universe, of the persistence of creation, and re-creation,
It preaches its beautiful, complicated, inexplicable life.
Winter makes way for spring.
From death impossible new life is born.
God persists.
And so will we, standing firm, weathering the storm, soaking up the sun, and sending out our seeds for a new generation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Dented

Her hair is a nest of bleached tangles.
The baby screaming bloody murder from the shopping cart
Raising the blood pressure and drawing the glares of the shoppers within earshot
All she can think about is getting the kid in the car
She leaves the cart and goes to her car door, no power locks on her beat-up, used Chevy
And the baby, terrified at being abandoned,
Ups the tempo, raises the pitch of her screams to the unbending wail of a siren
As the frantic mother presses the unlock button, races around the car, swings the door open, moving too fast,
And she hears an awful thump, her heart sinks, she is too late,
And she pulls back the door and there, in the perfect line of the black Mercedes SUV parked in the next space over,
Is a dent.
Not just a door ding that might be fixed with a magic marker.
This is a real, in-erasable dent.
Her head falls forward, her whole body collapsing into the space between the door and her car.
She cannot think, because the baby is still crying and the groceries have to be unloaded and her useless insurance won’t cover this.
“Excuse me.”
She turns and looks at the woman with the perfect car.
Slim, well-coiffed, Mercedes holds a single reusable grocery bag in one hand, a Coach bag in the other.
“I’m so sorry.  I opened it too fast…”
The nicely-dressed woman lifts a manicured finger to the dent.  “This is a new car.”
“I know.  I’m so sorry.  I know my insurance won’t cover it.  Can I just pay you out of pocket?  I get paid at the end of the week.”
Mercedes takes in Chevy’s birdnest hair, the stained sweatshirt, the screaming child, and assesses the probability of getting a penny out of this woman.
“I’ll take your insurance information.”
As the tired mother searches for the insurance card, buried somewhere in the glove compartment—she prays it’s not expired—she hears the screech of tires and both their heads turn.
“Joey!”
She leaps out, into the parking lot, where her son, who should have known to watch his sister, is standing inches in front of a van.  The driver rolls down his window.  “Lady, you better watch your kid!  He almost got killed!  What the heck are you doing out here?”
“I’m sorry!  I’m so, so sorry.”  She grabs him by the hand.
"Whatever."  The driver mumbles something under his breath and drives off.
Joey whines, “Mom, I was just…”
“Get in the car.”
She ensconces him in his booster, scoops the child, still wailing, into the car (just in case that one should get away), and fills out the insurance information on the back of Joey's "art" project.
“Here you are.  I’m so sorry.”
Mercedes snatches it up, saying only,  “You’ll hear from the dealership.”
She clicks a button, and drives away, her car dented but her life appearing enviably smooth.
Mercedes-Benz drives away, thinking to herself, what a disaster.  People should need a license to procreate.  Probably on food stamps.  I bet I’ll be stuck with this repair bill.  She glances down at the steering wheel at her perfect rust-colored nails.  I’m lucky I don't have to live like that.  Not lucky, rather, I’ve made good choices.
A parking lot and a world away is Chevy, owner of a beat-up Impala and a pint of quickly melting ice cream, custodian of two loud children.
She opens her trunk, and the screams are released at full blast.
She doesn't react the way she wants to, which is to scream right back.
Instead, she closes her eyes, and she utters a prayer, one of the only ones she knows.  The prayer she learned in rehab, the prayer that helped her get off drugs and get her kids back.  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Amen.
She opens her eyes.  Her life is still in chaos.  Her soul is at rest.
How often do we judge the children of God?
How often do we pat ourselves on the back for our own good choices?
How often do we mock God with our self-righteousness?
So easy to condemn the poor, to judge other cultures or groups in our schools, our businesses, our communities, even to judge others in our own church.
There’s something that feels good when you look at someone who’s clearly a disaster.
That gawker feeling driving by a bad accident,
And you think, thank God I’m not them.
It's a good feeling, is judgment.
You feel smug, you feel justified in the life you are living.
You feel happy about your choices, the way you are living your life.
Which must be the right way, the righteous way, because you’re not one of them.
The Pharisee in Jesus’s parable prayed, “God, thank you that I’m not a thief, a miscreant, an adulterer, or like this tax collector.”
What would someone pray today?  Who do we as a society view as the screw-ups, the sinners, the disasters?  “God, thank you that I’m not an addict, a welfare mom, an ambulance chaser, or a homo?”
We do choose people to condemn, to look down our noses at, people we have to judge in order to feel better about ourselves and our lives.
I saw a billboard this week that I can’t get out of my head:  “Millions of Americans are living happily without religion.”
When I saw it I was surprised by what a good job the irreligious are doing of evangelism.
They’re spreading their message far and wide:  who needs religion?
Who needs to be involved in a religious community or participate in a church?
Who needs to hear "God loves you"?  You can love yourself just fine.
Millions of Americans are living happily without religion.
Of course they are.  Without religion, there’s nobody to tell you how messed up you really are.  
In church we are made to go through the motions of confessing our sins and receiving pardon, week after week after week.
Some churches don’t do that.  I don’t think it’s popular among the newer mega-churches.
Confessing sin is pretty much a downer.
For me it’s essential.
Because I am a person more like Chevy than Mercedes.
Anybody remember Highlights magazine?  Goofus and Gallant?
Anybody else here identify with Goofus?
I have a lot to confess Sunday after Sunday.
But as a church, are we confessional, or are we just comfortable?
Are we in the pews more like Chevy or Mercedes?
Are we as smug in our own righteousness as the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable?
He's pretty comfortable with his relationship with God.
He's giving ten percent...not an easy feat.
He's fasting, that is, going without food two whole days a week, giving it up to God.
Isn't that enough?  Shouldn't it be?
Isn't what we're doing enough?
After all, we're Christians, we're the minority that actually comes to church.  We're the good guys.  Jesus high-five!
Do we assume we’ve bought God off by tithing, ok maybe not 10%, more like 5%, but hey, that’s still good right?
Or making it to church once a week, or….once a month.
Doesn’t that secure our place among the good people?  Aren’t we square with God?
Like the Pharisee, who asks nothing from God, because he needs nothing from God.
He’s got all he needs.
Is the prayer of the Pharisee really a prayer, or more of a little spiritual pat on the back?
But the tax collector, on the other hand, does ask something from God.
He asks for mercy.
Jesus is specific on the physical position of these two men.
Though they were in the same place they were far apart.
The Pharisee is by himself, standing apart from other people, perhaps to emphasize his own purity, perhaps because he feared pickpockets or contagions.
The tax collector, too, stands far off, like the new people in church, who sit at the back,
Afraid to come too near the holy.
The tax collector’s prayer is so strong that it takes over his whole person.
This is not a silent, whispered prayer.
He is beating his breasts.
He is so broken, so destroyed, so dented that he must reflect in his body the urgency, the anxiety of his prayer to God,
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
The Pharisee is smug, secure, comfortable in his holiness and religious knowledge.
When just a few feet away is a person who is yearning for God and the Pharisee does nothing.
Why is the tax collector justified and the Pharisee is not?
Is it just that the Pharisee refuses to acknowledge his brokenness, his need, his dented heart before God?
Or is it also that the Pharisee’s lack of true love for God is revealed in his utter contempt for his neighbor?
Here is a man clearly in need of a word of hope...and the Pharisee walks right by.
To receive mercy, we must be merciful.
To receive forgiveness, we must be forgiving.
To avoid God’s judgment, we’d do well to withhold judgment ourselves.
What if the Pharisee had prayed the prayer of the tax collector?
What if the Pharisee had realized that God doesn’t need our righteousness,
God doesn’t need ardent fasting or generous tithes,
We need some of those practices, but God certainly doesn’t.
What God wants is our hearts.  What God wants is for us to stop trusting in our own righteousness rely on him fully, completely, totally.
To fall back on his grace and mercy.
That’s why God, perfect God, became sin for us.
Became broken, bruised, and dented for our sakes.
In Jesus Christ God identified with us, screwed up people like us, so that we could rely not on our own perfection, but on his.
What Christianity proposes—uniquely among all religions of the world—is that we aren’t saved because of our own perfection but because of God’s perfect love.
What if the Pharisee had prayed the prayer of the tax collector?
God, have mercy on me, a sinner?
Then when he turned and walked from the temple, would he have seen a disaster, a screw-up, a sinner, a tax collector, a thief, a miscreant, an adulterer, an addict, a welfare mom, an ambulance chaser, a homo, or a fellow sinner in need of grace?
Would he have walked over to him and delivered the good news, that God’s mercy is boundless, his love greater than our sin, his forgiveness wider than the sea?
Instead of leaving feeling his prayer was unanswered, the tax collector would know that despite everything he had done, he was accepted.  He was loved.
Instead of continuing on his road to judgment, the Pharisee would experience God’s saving grace.
Instead of going their separate ways, each would leave feeling a little less alone.
What if Mercedes had begun her day with a humble prayer for God's guidance?
If she had, when she came to her car, would she have seen first not the dent in an inanimate object, but the brokenness of another woman’s spirit?
What if she had said, “It’s OK.  Happens every day.  Don’t worry about it, I’ve got good insurance.”
What if she had kept an eye out for the kids, helped poor Chevy get the kids in the car, the ice cream in the trunk?
What if she had listened while Chevy told her about her struggles to put her life back together?
What if she had cared?
What if she had opened her own heart and said, “I’ve been through tough times too.  And I think you’ll get through this.  This might seem odd….it even feels odd to me, and  I don’t know if you’re a believer, but there is something I wish…well, can I pray with you?”
What if instead of going their separate ways, each left feeling just a little less alone?
None of us is perfect.
We all have our dents, whether we choose to see them, or not.
Do you see your dents as imperfections that must be fixed, so that you can believe you are perfect once again,
Or does your dented-ness remind you of your need for God?
When you see others who are hurting,
Do you move away quickly, so that their problems won’t rub off on you,
Or do you extend to them the mercy that Christ so freely extends to you?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Friday, September 27, 2013

Tips

"For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:12

I never really thought of Labor Day except as the day to eat a hot dog and stop wearing white shoes.
Labor Day, which began as a movement within labor unions in the 1880s and became a national holiday in 1894, is a day set aside, in the words of Peter McGuire, one of the day’s founders, to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold." 
Labor Day is a day when we recognize people who don’t usually get recognized.
It is a day to honor people who aren’t normally honored, the people who deliver our mail and do our dry cleaning, the woman who cleans the office and the guy who cuts our grass.
It’s a day to honor the many people who work so that society can run smoothly, so that we will have the things we need to live and be comfortable.
Come to think of it, many of the people for whom labor day was designed, working class people who need a break, will have to work on this labor day.
Think about the people whose work benefits you on a daily basis.  I think of Georgia, who checks me out at the grocery store, or Chris, who checks Rosie in at PetSmart.  I think of the guys who change my oil and the guy who drives my car around after the oil is changed, who always remembers my name even though I can’t remember his.
Think of the people you never met who boxed the egg you ate this morning and grew the beans for the coffee you drank and sewed the clothes you are wearing right now.
I think of all the waitstaff who have served me meals.
Many of us have waited tables at one point in our lives.  I only did it for two weeks.  I was not a good waitress.
I was frustrated a lot of the time because of the hard work and the low pay, and I think that’s why I got fired.
In Michigan,you only have to pay tipped staff $4.75 an hour because they are supposed to earn the rest of minimum wage, $7.40 an hour, in tips, and in some situations you only have to pay someone $2.65 an hour.
The entire idea of tipping is therefore that we should compensate someone who we understand is not adequately compensated for their work.
A tip recognizes someone not normally recognized. 
A tip honors someone not regularly honored.
My parents, especially my dad, taught me to tip generously,at least 20% but on occasion, I’ve seen my dad give 50%, and I came to appreciate that during my two weeks in an apron.
In my brief experience, the larger the party, the bigger the order, the more complicated the requests, the smaller the tip.
When you pay at a fancy restaurant, you give 20% of the bill, which may be $100, so you give a person $20.  But when you go to a Ram’s Horn the bill may be only $20, so you give $4.  But she did about the same amount of work regardless, and she has the same costs of life—rent, utilities, childcare, healthcare—as we all do.
Tips recognize a person who is not adequately compensated for their work.
And there are many people who don’t get tips who are not adequately compensated for their work.
I think of the bus driver who remembers kids’ names and takes the time to wish them a good day, even though that’s not on his job description.
I think of the woman who works in a union job for one of the big 3, and she works hard not because it's the popular thing to do but because she believes in her company and in our region.
I think of the teachers going back to school tomorrow who go the extra mile, especially the ones teaching in tough districts, who use their own personal funds to buy things for the classroom.
There are many people who don’t get honored for the good work they do.
Our market economy gives the message that some people are valuable, others not so much.
One person I know was told by her boss, “you’re paid what you’re worth.”
So if you’re not paid much, does that mean you’re not worth much?
It’s easy to be critical of Jesus’s society, where lepers,prostitutes, and tax collectors were shunned by all,
A priest or a rabbi would not even eat with such a person,
And even the place at which you sat was determined by how important you were deemed to be.
But is our society really that much better?
When we have a labor day that’s enjoyed by some, but not by the ones who possibly most need it?
Jesus watched the jostling for position with interest.
He’d been invited to dinner with these prominent Pharisees,which was a pretty odd and tense situation to begin with.
And in those days, everything that happened at a dinner depended on the system of honor and shame.
Whether and how you washed your hands, who you sat with,where you sat, how you were greeted, each demonstrated your social position.
I’m sure you’ve been to board meetings or social clubs where you feel the jostling for position, hopefully less obvious, but there nonetheless.
Pliny the Younger records of a similar situation that there were three bottles of wine:  one for the host and his best friend alone, one for other invited guests, and another for the servants.
And Jesus, observing all this, rather than get in on the social climbing himself, has some advice for the guests:  instead of going for the best spot, go for the very worst position.  Then your host can say, move on up a little higher, and you will be honored in the sight of all.
Everyone must have felt a little embarrassed, but also wondering, is this really advice for attending dinner parties, or does Jesus mean something more profound?
Jesus doesn’t stop with advice to the guests, but, with the tone of wisdom and authority characteristic of him, went on to critique the host and the entire idea of this gathering.
When you give a banquet, he says, don’t invite your neighbors and relatives and rich friends. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Your blessing will be that you cannot be repaid in this life.  You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
In both his advice to the guests and his advice to the hosts, Jesus is not simply advocating a shift in the system of honor and shame,
Of valuing some and using others,
But rather Jesus suggests an alternative view of reality, in which persons recognize their value and the value of others not in their social position, but with the certainty that God values them, God appreciates them,God recognizes their beauty and inherent worth.
Jesus is speaking realizing there are slaves and servants in the room,
Waiters bringing out the food,
A boy in the kitchen to wash all the dishes,
Who were not invited to sit down with the Pharisees,
But who are just as valued in God’s sight.
And one day, when they sit at the lowest place at God’s heavenly table,
The Lord will say to them, friend, move up higher.
Take a place by my right hand, my beloved child.
You who are precious in my sight.
If you have been told you are valueless by a company, if you feel irrelevant in a society passing you by,
If you feel like no one sees the work that you do and no one cares,
If you feel like you always end up on the edges in photographs and at the wrong table in the party,
Know that God made you exactly as He wanted you to be and calls you good,
With gifts and skills and a calling only you can fulfill,
God sees all the work you have done and everything you have tried to build in your life,
And declares you worthy to sit at his right hand.
Because when God sees you, he sees the righteousness of his own Son.
When God sees you, he sees his Holy Spirit, which has been working within you to make you better than you are and your work more important than you think.
Imagine coming to Denny’s and seeing a waitress who barely makes minimum wage,
Who’s tired and looks tired, who’s crabby and can’t take all the crabby out of her voice,
As she says, “Hi there, what can I get you today?”
Imagine if a customer didn’t just leave a 10% tip because she didn’t do such a great job.
Imagine if a customer didn’t just leave a 50% tip because they were kind and thoughtful.
Imagine if someone said, you know what?  Come here. You deserve a break.
Take my seat.
Take a load off.  Take a rest.  Get something to drink.  Get something to eat.
Don’t worry.  I’ll talk to the boss.
Don’t worry.  I’ll pay the bill.
That is what Christ does for you and for me.
He invites us to His table. To come here, and rest, to lay our burdens down and to have our hearts nourished and our souls lifted.
And he does even more than that.
He lays himself down, his own body, and gives himself up,his own blood,
To become our heavenly food.
You are precious to God.
You are worthy in his sight.
He and no other sees your value.
And he asks you now to take a moment, take a day, to rest,and to feast, and to invite others to do the same.
The idea our nation had in the 1880s was the same as God had on the sixth day of creation.
Rest.   Be restored.  Look at yourself, and at those around you, and at the blessings God has given you, and say, it is good.
Happy Labor Day.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.