Gifts, Gifts, Gifts!

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From 1980 to 2000, I was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Saint Johns, PA. Along with another former pastor of the congregation, Bill Horn, I was with St. John’s on Sunday, October 29, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Here is the my children’s sermon and sermon for the occasion.

St. John's signboard

 

(With children, who join me up front) I have with me an old book that’s falling apart. It’s called “God’s Table of Grace.” I used this book when teaching children about Holy Communion.

I’d tell them that each word in the title teaches us something about Communion. The word ‘God’ tells us that Communion comes from God.”

Then we’d look at the word ‘table,’ and I’d say that two of the things we do at tables is talk and eat. So Holy Communion is talking with one another about God, and it’s sharing God’s meal with one another.

Then we’d come to the word ‘grace.” “That’s an interesting word,” I’d say. “Sometimes ‘Grace,’ is a name, but that’s not what it means here. Sometimes ‘grace’ refers to a prayer, but that’s not what it means here. ‘Grace’ has a special meaning when we connect it to Holy Communion. I wonder if anyone here today can answer the question, ‘What is grace?’  GOD’S LOVE FREELY GIVEN

 When I was the pastor here, I asked that question many. I asked it during worship.  . . in First Communion instruction. . . in confirmation classes. . .  on retreats. . . and once in the middle of a wedding rehearsal. You just never knew when I would suddenly ask, “What is grace?’  GOD’S LOVE FREELY GIVEN        

Grace matters to us because Martin Luther put such emphasis on it. Martin Luther went through some very sad times. He wanted to be right with God. But no matter what he did, he was never sure he had done enough. But through his study of the Bible, it hit him: It’s not what we do that matters. When it comes to being right with God, what counts is what God has done in Jesus. So Bible verses like this became important to Luther: “Out of sheer generosity God put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did this by means of Jesus Christ.” (Romans 3, “The Message”        

All that God does for us is summed up in the word “grace.” Grace is God giving to us all that we need. Because of what God does, we gather every Sunday to say, “Thank you, God, for all you have given.”

 Repeat this prayer after me: “Thank you, God. Thank you for giving us life. Thank you for sending Jesus. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit. Amen.”   (Children return to seats.)

(Sermon) 

Been here, done this. I’ve preached many times from this pulpit.  Anyone remember the first time?

It was 1976; the occasion was the installation of William Horn as pastor of St. John’s. Bill and I were serving neighboring congregations in Minersville when he was called to be pastor of St. John’s. He extended to me the honor of preaching at his installation. The first time I preached here was his gift to me.

And the last time I preached here, I received gifts celebrating our life together as pastor and people. One gift was this cross.

On the back of the cross are the words, “Blest be the Tie that Bind.”

Ooops. It was supposed to say, “Blest be the Tie that Binds.”

It’s also inscribed “St. Johns, St. John.”

Ooops. The name of the town is St. Johns.

When the errors were discovered, an offer was made to have it corrected. But I said, “No, I like it just the way it is. It’s a good reminder that although we tried our best to be faithful to Jesus, we didn’t always get it right. Being reminded of mistakes is a good thing, a humbling thing. The cross’s imperfections make it the perfect gift.”

For the past seventeen years, I have worn this cross whenever I have preached. Week after week, I have been reminded of the gift I received of being pastor of this congregation.

There was another gift I received the last Sunday I was here. When I opened it, I blurted something like, “Somebody did their homework.”

For the gift was a pair of binoculars, a thoughtful present in light of my passion for hawkwatching. And they weren’t just any binoculars; they were Zeiss ten-power, at the time was the premiere optic for hawkwatching.

Two months later, binoculars around my neck, I stood on North Lookout at Hawk Mountain. Looking in your direction, I said, “Thank you, St. Johns. This year’s first migrating eagle is dedicated to you.”

Speaking of migrating eagles: One of the gifts I received during my years here was your enthusiastic embrace of how I united my vocation of parish pastor with my avocation of hawk watching. I did this, for example, in something called “Eagle Watch for Hunger.” You made pledges to the Hunger Appeal based on the number of southbound eagles I saw each fall. And each week I would give you an update on how many I had spotted.

Well, the last time we did one of those updates was 1999. I think it’s time for another.

Remember how this works. We do eagle flaps, and you count with me as we flap. Back then, we counted by ones. Today we’re counting by hundreds.

So everyone—arms out. Flap and count with me. One hundred, two hundred. . . . . fourteen hundred, fifteen hundred. Stop.

I don’t know the exact number, but it’s somewhere in that vicinity. But the exact number was never the most important thing, for I would end our eagle flapping by saying, “What matters most isn’t how many eagles I’ve seen, but your gifts to the hunger appeal. Thank you for your generosity.”

I took my eagle flapping ways with me to St. Paul’s, Orwigsburg. They, too, embraced it. Especially one couple, who gave me this gift. Mr. Eagle became a partner in ministry with me in encouraging support of the hunger appeal.

And there was another partner in ministry who assisted me month after month. This partner was a gift I received from Melody Hinderer. Melody was president of the congregation the year I left. In that role, there were some forms she needed me to sign as departing pastor.  She told me they would be on the office desk the last time I was in the building, adding, “You’ll also find a gift from me.”

That’s how I met Beanie Baby Grace.

It was an appropriate gift, recognizing the many time I had asked, “What is grace?” And people would shout, “God’s love freely given.”

(talk to BBG) See Beanie Baby Grace, I told you they would know the answer to that question.

         What’s that? – You’re right; it is good to be back here where you and I first met. I was so glad when I first saw you. At the time, neither you nor I nor Melody, had any idea of the way you would work with me in coming years. You showed up at worship on the first Sunday of each month, which people started calling Beanie Baby Grace Sunday. Most times you would sit on the pulpit as a silent witness to God’s mercy. But sometimes you and I would hold conversations.

         Mmmmm?—Oh, that’s right. One year February 2 fell on a Sunday, and you talked to another beanie baby named Punxsutawney Phil. That was fun! I also recall a time you were getting ready to dive into the baptismal font. And on Christmas Eve, you sat in the creche next to the baby Jesus. You and I have had a lot of good times together, and it all started with a gift.

One day, my wife came home bearing another gift for me. This: big Beanie Baby Grace. Which allows for a visual demonstration of John 1:16 which says, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

All this talk about gifts has been a trip down memory lane, and that’s been fun. But talking about gifts is also a way to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Our Reformation heritage calls us to live by the gifts of God, and to share the gifts of God. We are God’s gift-receiving, gift-giving people. We are a people deeply rooted in grace. And what is grace?   God’s love freely given.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther speaks of the gift-giving God.

God the Father, writes Luther, “has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul; eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.

“In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, houses and farm, spouse and children…–along with all the necessities and nourishment for this.  . . . life ….All this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy; without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!”

God the Son, writes Luther, “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”

God the Spirit, writes Luther, “has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

So speaks Luther in the Small Catechism.

Gift upon gift, grace upon grace, freely given love upon freely given love—over and over again, God showers goodness upon us.

Because we are people of the gift, we are called to be a church ever reforming.

A reforming church is one that, while honoring the past, does not fear the future; and in the present, is courageous and risk-taking.

A reforming church is not entrenched in the way things have been, but is excited about what is yet to come.

A reforming church does not erect walls that keep others out, but builds bridges to welcome others in.

A reforming church realizes that gifts we have have received are not the work of our own hands, but the gracious work of God’s Spirit.

A reforming church does not hoard gifts received, but shares generously.

A reforming church recognizes that, over time, old customs and practices yield to new ways of living the Gospel.

A reforming church lives day by day, in the secure and certain knowledge that all things are held in God’s grace.

And what is grace?

God’s love freely given.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

 

 

The Trinity Bird

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towhee photo from sue schmoyer

(Photograph of Eastern Towhee by Sue Schmoyer; used with permission.)

This poem brings together the joy I find in both birding and in theology.

On spring days, Towhee,
I hear you sing,
“Drink your tea!”

And the theologian
In me also hears,
“Tri-ni-ty!”

Your April sound
Echoes through the woods,
Alerting us that spring is here.

It is fitting
That the time you appear
Is near Easter Day,

For you sing of hope:
The forest comes alive
After winter dormancy.

Towhee, not only in sound,
But in color,
You are the Trinity Bird:

Black for Good Friday,
White for Easter Sunday,
Rufous for Pentecost Day.

In appearance and song,
You bear witness to
Three-in-One, One-in-Three.

Your invitation to tea
Reminds me of the invitation
Of Jesus at Table:

“Come–eat–drink–
This is my body–
This is my blood–

“Given for you,
For all of you,
For all creation.”

Towhee, your words
And your colors
Are signs of God’s inclusive grace,

A grace which embraces
White, and black, and red,
And every shade of God’s creation.

 

Lent Devotion, April 15, 2017

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This Lent, we’ve considered the question “Who is welcome in the grace of God?” It is a question that has been asked for centuries, and continues to be asked today. Over the course of time, my own thoughts on the matter have changed. This change did not come suddenly, but happened over many years. There are folks who I was once convinced were out, but who now I am sure are in.

Oh, I could still tell you the Bible verses that argue for keeping them out. But I’ve also realized there are Bible verses that keep just about any of us out. And I’ve grown to see that the Bible isn’t a rule book to settle all questions for all times; it’s rather a conversation among the people of God, a conversation that is on-going and continuing. Through this conversation, there are new things to be learned. As Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; . . . he will declare to you all the things that are to come.” (John 16:12-13)

And as I have come to see the Bible in a new way, I have come to see people I once considered to be “out” in a new way. I stopped looking at stereotypes, and started looking at people as individuals.

And in some I had labeled “outsider,” I saw faith in Christ deeper than mine.  And I saw a commitment to the Church that exceeded my own. And I saw love for others that puts my weak love to shame.

In light of all that, I can no longer say, “You’re out; I’m in.”

I found—and am continuing to find—that God’s grace is much larger than anything I can begin to imagine. This inclusionary grace is one of the wonders of Easter.  And for that I say, “Thanks be to God!”

           Thank you, Lord God, for opening our eyes to the vastness of your grace. Amen.

Lent Devotion, April 7, 2017

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While Jensi was driving home from the Donut Shop, she was thinking about the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. A poem began taking shape in her mind. When she got home she made a few notes. Waking up early the next morning, she looked at the notes, and then wrote these words.  


She was not of his kin nor kind,
Yet came to him for grace.
He gave her quite a silent stare,
With doubt upon his face.

 The disciples came and said to him
“Please send her far away.
She’s loud, annoying, bothersome
Throughout the whole long day.”

She came and knelt before him then
With whispers, more she pled.
But he replied, “It’s just not fair
That dogs eat children’s bread.”

And then right back at him she said
“You’re right; no doubt on that.
But even dogs get crumbs that fall
From where their masters sat.”

Then Jesus looked at her and said,

“God’s love is yours today.
Your faith, my sister, shows to me
God’s grace has come your way.”        

Loving God, give us the faith of the Canaanite woman, that we will trust in your grace. Amen.

Lent Devotion, March 30, 2017

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(In the story “Boaz’ Field,” three shepherds are discussing how some people consider shepherds to be among the “not so holy.” Suddenly—)

—a bright light flashed in the sky, and fell upon them. And when a voice began to speak from the light, these normally courageous shepherds began to tremble in fear.  They heard the voice say, ‟Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will a find a child wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.”

Then there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‟Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth among those whom he favors.”

And then the angels were gone.

The first shepherd said, “I don’t know if this is the field of Boaz or not. I don’t know if this is the spot at which God was at work to include a foreigner in the divine plan. But whether the spot or not, the same thing is happening. God has come to marginal people like us, just as God came to the foreigner Ruth. God is at work, welcoming the outcast; and making room in his grace for everyone.”

            Lord, keep us always open to the surprise of grace. Amen.

Lent Devotion, March 25, 2017

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“Since we’re talking about God, the Scriptures, and welcoming the stranger,” Clint said, “let me tell you about an interesting conversation Matt and I had when we were in the Holy Land. We were near Bethlehem, and we wondered if we were anywhere near the field where Ruth had met Boaz.”

Ron (who you recall has little religious background) said, “Hold on a minute. Ruth? Boaz? Who are they?”

Matt said, “Ruth was a Moabite, who married into a Jewish family living in the land of Moab. After the deaths of their husbands, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi went to live in Bethlehem. Ruth met and married a man named Boaz. They had a son named Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David: the David who became Israel’s greatest king. So David’s great-grandmother was a non-Jew. The story of Ruth is remembered to argue that non-Jews are in the circle of God’s grace.”

Then Clint said, “Thinking about Ruth inspired us to write a short story expressing God’s love for all. The story is on our church web site, to indicate the inclusive spirit for which St. Barnabas strives.”

“Can you read it to us?” asked Jensi.

“Sure,” said Clint, pulling out his mobile phone.

(On Monday, we’ll begin to hear the story, which is called “Boaz’ Field.)

Thank you, God, for the story of Ruth and Boaz, and the witness it makes to your all-embracing love. Amen.

Lent Devotion, March 15, 2017

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When Jensi’s great aunt Elizabeth shared that she sometimes struggles to accept new people, her pastor was surprised. He said, “I’ve known you for the past 15 years, Elizabeth; you were one of the first people I met on becoming pastor of St. Mary’s. Your kindness immediately impressed me. You are beloved by the children of our church, and I know that some of our teens, when troubled, have sought your counsel. You are probably the most accepting, loving person I know. I’ve often thought that while I teach people words about grace, the way you live shows them what grace looks like. You certainly don’t come across as someone who has trouble accepting people.’

“I’m glad I come across that way. It’s how I want to live,” Elizabeth replied. “But it’s not always easy. It sometimes takes a great deal of effort. I try to treat everyone kindly. Sometimes it takes a lot of prayer to do that.”

Lord Jesus, in your earthly life, you showed self-giving, accepting love. Touch us with your Spirit, so that, in our imperfect way, we might follow your example. Amen