Saturday, November 22, 2008

do you know the muffin man?

This has been a week of being busy at church.

This past Wednesday, I was at church for thirteen hours, with only maybe a cumulative time of 15 minutes being spent outside of the building once I stepped foot inside in the morning. I spent most of the day getting ready for Confirmation that evening. Which was frustrating in a number of ways.

First, I decided that I was going to use Power Point for the lesson, something I haven't done before but was the main reason we got a laptop when we replaced my work computer. So I spent some time coming up with fun slides when I was reminded by Cheryl, our custodian and jill-of-all-trades here at church, that my laptop wasn't working with the projector. We found that out the other day in church when we were using my laptop to show a Power Point slideshow while the handbell choir played, only to have it stop working about ten minutes before our first service. Luckily, Cheryl was also using her laptop to present her announcement about the brunch we are having at church as a celebration of our fall stewardship appeal.

So I went up to the sanctuary and hooked up my laptop to the projector only to find out that still didn't work, so I called Dell and spent about ten minutes talking to some computer hoping that it would transfer me to someone who could help me. I talked to the first person for about 10 minutes, giving him all the same information that I had given the computer I had been talking to, only to have him say that he was unable to help me and he'd transfer me to someone who could. So I got transferred again, this time to someone with an accent so thick it was difficult to understand him. Luckily, it only took this one about 2 minutes to say that he was unable to help me and he transferred me to someone else. My third person was a woman with no distinguishable accent, and we chatted for a bit, before she said she wanted to connect to my computer and that I needed to go to this particular website. Now, we only have internet in our offices at church, we don't have wireless or anything cool and modern like that, but there is a fairly strong wireless internet signal from somewhere else that we can pick up in the sanctuary. So I told her I could connect to it, but then my computer decided to be extremely slow, and then, finally, when I got connected to the website that I was supposed to connect to, I realized that I had been disconnected from my phone call.

So, I called them back, talked to the automated computer person for a couple minutes before getting connected to a guy who could immediately help me. He said to hit 'function' and 'f8' and it would then transmit the signal from my laptop to the projector. So I hit it, didn't see anything happen, hit it again and that's when hell broke loose. The best way I can think to describe it is that the connection between my laptop and the projector started to wig out and flash back and forth constantly. Only unhooking my computer from the projector would get it to stop. Turning my computer off, hooking it up to the projector and then restarting it did not help.

I decided that I would just have to suck it up and not do the Power Point thing. So I finished up the lesson in time for the Confirmation kids to start showing up. Since there are now sports for a few more weeks, I've noticed that we either have kids showing up extremely early or just right before Confirmation is supposed to start. I helped serve pizza to the kids, then sat with some 5th graders who are there for our new Wednesday night pre-confirmation classes for our 5th and 6th graders, and then taught Confirmation.

After that was over, we had our Senior High Youth Group in the youth room, led by Noah and Laura to great and awesome volunteers. Our Bible Study was led by Casey, one of the youth, and then we played this game called Intense, or Intensity, which involves hitting a raquetball ball with ping pong paddles. There are other rules, but it definitely is intense.

I happened to come upstairs when choir was over and Cheryl and her husband Curt were in the kitchen getting things ready for the brunch on Sunday. So, Sr Pastor Mark, Cheryl, Curt, Noah, Laura, and several others and I hung out in the kitchen and ate some ice cream that we needed to get out of the freezer so that they could have room for all of the food for the brunch.

So then, today, there was a group meeting over at church at 9:00 to help prepare food for the brunch, which is tomorrow. So I was over there a little ater 9 today, and helped make large amounts of cheesy hashbrowns, several pans of egg bake, I helped set the tables for 170+ people, and then helped mix up and bake 360 muffins of various flavors, and made it home a little after 2:00. At which point I sat in my chair and I don't think I've moved since then.

I don't really have big plans that include moving for quite some time, either.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

sermon for 11/09/08

I'm not sure how I feel about posting sermons that I've written. I don't have anything against other people sharing their sermons with the world. I think what I have a problem with is sharing MY sermon with the world. Preaching it to my congregation - who know me and who are there to see me preach it - is one thing. To put it out here on the internet, where there really is no accountability for people who want to rip it apart or say mean things about it, is another matter completely.

BUT, that being said, I received a few compliments on my sermon today. And it wasn't the usual suspects that I can often depend on for encouraging words about my sermons. It was from other people, some of whom I perceive to be more discerning in their sermon listening. So I thought that if they got something more from my sermon this week, maybe I should put it out there so that others might get something from it, too.

That being said, here's a brief explanation. Normally, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a schedule of readings for the church, during the church year. This is how we get the readings for each Sunday that are printed on the insert in the bulletin.

But we are in the midst of our Fall Stewardship Appeal. Our focus for these few weeks is GRACE, which is an acronym which stands for Grace Relationships Acceptance, Community and Education... I'm positive on all of them except the C... but as I'm not preaching on the C, it's ok if I can't quite remember what it stands for. Anyway, todays service was brought to us by the letter A.

As I thought about acceptance, I really wasn't moved by the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday. In conversation with my senior pastor, we talked a lot about the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and how that was the theme verse for today for other parts of our stewardship drive. Immediately, after that story was named, thoughts and ideas flooded my head. I could tell this was going to be an easier angle.

When I sat down to write this sermon, I feel like it wrote itself. So, here you have a sermon about acceptance focusing on the story of Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4, in case you want to read it first...).

This is a very well known story from the Bible. It gets read a lot, and we talk about it quite a bit. And while I think that it’s a good thing to do, I think it’s also unfortunate because the story loses some of its punch. Because, for the people who would have heard this story back in Jesus’ day, it would have been quite the story. So what I’m going to try to do right now is share with you why this story would have been such a big deal for the people of that time.

So Jesus comes to the well in the middle of the day. Now, this was not the best time to be outside. It was noon, the middle of the day. The sun would have been at its peak and the heat would have made it pretty unbearable. People would have gone to fetch water from the well either early in the morning or later in the evening, when the heat of the sun was not as strong. It would be a rare occasion to find someone at the well during the heat of the day.

But Jesus does come across someone, and it’s a lone woman. Now the women, who would have been in charge of getting the water, would have gone together. It was a communal activity, giving the women a chance to talk and catch up on what was going on in the community. There’s also the idea of safety in numbers, and it would have been better for the women to be in a group.
Also, this is taking place on the outskirts of the city. That means that the chances are good that this was not the most used well. Most towns and cities would have had a well within the walls of the city. That way if an enemy approached, they could close the gates and still have access to a water supply. If the only water was outside the city limits, all the enemy would have to do would be to guard the well and the people of the city would eventually die of thirst.

Now Jesus is at this well, on the outskirts of the city, in the heat of the day and he finds this woman all by herself. This is not normal, and Jesus would have known that something was up. There was some reason why this woman was separated from the community.

As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus was Jewish and this was a Samaritan woman. Now, the Jewish people were big on cleanliness. There were rules and regulations about almost every aspect of living to make sure that they remained clean: from the foods they ate, to the activities they did, to the animals they could come into contact with, to the people they could associate with. And Samaritans were at the bottom of that list of people.

There were a couple of reasons why this was. The first is that the Samaritans were of Jewish descent, but they had mixed with other races. Since they were not of pure blood, they were unclean in the eyes of the Jewish people. The second is they followed the Jewish religion but not as strictly as the Jewish people. Because of their mixed cultural heritage, other things had blended into their religion as well. And so this made them heretics in the eyes of the Jewish people.

So for these reasons, the Jewish people did not interact with the Samaritan people. To do so would be to risk your own cleanliness and your own standing in Jewish society.

So Jesus is at the well, on the outskirts of the city, in the heat of the day and he finds this woman all by herself. And she’s a Samaritan woman and he’s a Jewish man. Neither of them had much business talking to the other. Jesus had his reputation to think about. Stopping to talk to this Samaritan woman who, for some reason, was on the outside of her community would have raised a lot of questions and risked making him unclean. The woman would have had strict gender roles to follow, so to talk to a strange man who was not a part of her family was simply out of the question.

There were plenty of reasons Jesus shouldn’t have talked to her. He should have kept on going, ignoring the fact that he saw her. He should have looked the other way and pretended like she wasn’t even there, which is probably exactly how many in her own community would have reacted to her.

But Jesus stops and he talks to her. He asks her to give him a drink. Now the woman is surprised, and she asks Jesus why he, who is a Jewish man, is asking a drink of her, a Samaritan woman. She’s aware of the way things are. She knows where she stands and what a Jewish person would probably think of her. So the fact that a Jew is acknowledging her, even to ask for a drink, takes her by surprise.

Now Jesus shifts the conversation and he stops talking about actual water. He says to her that if she had any idea who he was, and what he had to offer, she would ask him and he would give her living water. The woman still isn’t on board with him, she’s still thinking about real water. And she sees that he doesn’t have a bucket to get water, so she asks him how he would get this water that he offers.

Jesus tells her that anyone who drinks of the water from the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink from the water that he offers will never be thirsty, and it will become in them a spring bubbling forth and granting them eternal life. The woman still thinks he’s talking about actual water and this sounds good to her. If she were to drink this water, then she wouldn’t need to come to the well in the heat of the day. She wouldn’t be reminded every day of how she was not a part of her community, at least in the act of drawing water.

But then Jesus tells her to go call her husband and come back. And the woman says that she has no husband. And Jesus says, that’s right you’ve had five husbands and the man you live with now is not your husband. Back in Jesus’ day, a woman was not able to divorce her husband. It was entirely up to the man to divorce the woman. So, five different men have decided that this woman is not fit to be a wife and divorced her. We have no idea exactly why that is, but now she’s living with a man who is not her husband. And Jesus tells her that he knows that this is so.
Now the woman knows that Jesus isn’t what he appears to be, so she says he must be a prophet. Jesus then takes that opportunity to share the Good News with her. He tells her that the Jewish people might worship God in their temple, and the Samaritans might worship God on their mountain, but the hour is coming when that won’t matter and everyone will worship God in spirit and in truth. The woman tells Jesus that she knows the Messiah is coming and that when he does he will tell everyone this. And then Jesus tells her that he is the Messiah.

This is big news. This is the first time in the Gospel of John that Jesus has told someone he is the Messiah. And he chose a five time divorced Samaritan woman who is rejected by her own community and living with a man to whom she’s not married to share this information with. He didn’t choose some important, devout temple leader or someone else who was considered good enough or worthy enough. He chose to share this news with this woman on the outside.

And this woman is so touched and amazed and excited by this encounter with the Messiah that she leaves her water jar and goes running back into the city. She begins telling everyone what has happened, how she met this man at the well who has told her everything she has ever done, and she thinks he’s the Messiah. She immediately decides to share this Good News with the very people who have made her on the outside. She brings them to meet Jesus and through her testimony and their interaction with Jesus, many of these Samaritans came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

So let’s look at this. We have Jesus, offering acceptance to this Samaritan woman, even though she’s an outcast of her community, she’s been divorced 5 times, and she’s currently living with a man who is not her husband. But he still offers her this living water that will give her eternal life. She, in response, runs to the very community that has made her an outcast and shares with them this Good News that she has received at the well. She tells them about Jesus, about this life giving water that he offers, and how her interaction with him has changed her life. So these people follow her out to the well, they meet and interact with Jesus and come to realize that he’s the Messiah. And I think it’s safe to say that they probably accepted this woman back into their community. There is a lot of acceptance in this one short story.

So where do we fit in the story? I think many times people say that we are to be like Jesus in this story. But really, it’s Jesus. There is no way we could ever hope to be as loving or as accepting or as anything as Jesus is. I mean, Jesus is God. We’re just humans.

I think we are the woman in this story. I mean, there have been times, I’m sure, when each one of us has felt on the outside – when our own actions or situations beyond our control have alienated us from others. There have been times when we’ve been excluded or left out or ignored. And really, Jesus has every reason to ignore us, too.

But the truth is, and lucky for us, that Jesus doesn’t let that stuff get in the way. Jesus is able to see through all of that. He can look through our sin, through all of the things we’ve done wrong, all the ways we have fallen short, all of our mistakes and shortcomings, everything that weighs us down and makes us feel unworthy. Jesus can look through that and see the Child of God that we are. And it is to this precious Child of God that he offers acceptance and life giving water. It’s what we call the grace of God, this love and acceptance that is undeserved. It is not because we are great people who are considered worthy and deserving of God’s love. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s because Jesus loves us in spite of our unworthiness. It is when we were still sinners that God chose to send Jesus into the world.

And Jesus comes to each one of us, just as he did that woman. And he looks through all of the things that separate us from one another, and he offers this life giving water, the grace of God, to each one of us.

The woman responded by sharing this great news with everyone she knew, even those who had made her an outcast. She thought that this news was so amazing that everyone needed the opportunity to hear about it. So she rushed back to the city and she told them all about this man Jesus who had met her at the well and had changed her life.

We are called to respond that way, too. We are called to share this great news with everyone we know, even those people we might not agree with or get along with or that we might not even like that much. Because this news really is amazing and everyone does deserve to hear about it. We have a God who loves us and accepts us, who has offered us amazing grace despite the fact that we could never deserve it.

So, just like that woman did, let’s leave from this place where we have been offered this life giving water. Let’s go out into the world and share this amazing news with everyone. Let’s encourage and invite them to come and have an encounter with Jesus, an encounter that will change their lives just like it has changed ours. Let’s invite everyone to come and see! Amen.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mark's Soapbox

I knew there was a reason I lived in a small town.

Yesterday I had no evening meetings and community theater play practice was cancelled for the evening. This meant that I had a Thursday night free. This happens increasingly less and less these days.

Back in the day when I was a carefree seminary student, there was a group of us that would get together every Thursday to watch Survivor. This morphed and changed over the years, and the location changed, but every year it was one of my favorite parts of the week. Nothing beats watching Survivor with a group of good friends as you try to figure out who is going to vote which way, who is going to get voted off next and who is going to win. Well, I suppose there are some things that beat that, but it's pretty cool, I have to say.

Some of my best friends from seminary, and most of the original group of seminary Survivor watchers that I was a part of, have moved closer to me than they previously were. So we have started getting together to watch Survivor, and I attend when my schedule allows. Because I have been involved in community theater here, and Thursday is one of the nights of the week that we have practice, I have not been able to attend. But, as I already mentioned, last night was a free night. So I took advantage of it.

I left my house at 4:30pm yesterday. According to Mapquest, my friends live approximately 64 miles away from me. So it's a bit of a drive but worth it to spend time with good friends - especially now since gas dipped below 2 bucks a gallon.

I arrived at my friends' house at 6:30pm. Two hours later. Traffic was horrible and I spent a lot of time craaaaaaaaawling along the road, if I was lucky to be moving at all. It made me realize what I like so much about living here in a small town where a traffic jam means four cars arriving at the four way stop at the same time.

Since I'm complaining already (and since this is my blog and I can complain all I want), I thought I'd bring something else up that bugs me. That is cellphones. Well, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about them. I appreciate their convenience and how they make communication quick and easy. However, I do not like how people feel they have to be attached to them 24/7. If they're not talking on them, they're texting someone. If they're not texting someone, they're checking their e-mail through them... And don't get me started about people who wear those bluetooth things on their ears all the time. I think we've become far too dependent on these things. For instance, at a youth event last year, the other adult leaders and I decided that we didn't want any cellphones and so we "borrowed" the phones of all the youth there. You would think I was trying to cut off their arms the way they were reacting. In fact, I'm not sure that a couple of the girls recovered. They "didn't feel well" the rest of the evening, looking very despondent when we were at the bowling alley.

At a coffee shop that I visit often, there is a sign on the counter top that says "we will be glad to serve you after you finish your cellphone conversation." I think that quite often they interfere with us being present in the moment, being aware of and interactive with our own surroundings.

And to combine these two topics, something that really rubs me the wrong way is people talking on cellphone while they're driving. Last night alone, on my way to my friends' house, I was negatively affected several times by people driving and talking on their phones. I think it's distracting to the driver, like I mentioned previously hampering them from being aware of their surroundings. I realize that their might be times when it is necessary or helpful, such as when you need directions to someplace or you are on your way somewhere and will be late or something like that, but I don't see any reason why you should just be chatting with someone while you're driving. Hang up the phone and focus on the road.

Okay, I'm putting away my soapbox now...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

confirmation like clockwork

I love days when plans go off without a hitch. When things just seem to mesh together amazingly and everyone does what they're supposed to do and everything moves like clockwork.

Unfortunately, today was not a day like that.

It started out pretty well. I mean, any day that begins with a good cup of coffee, reading the paper at the coffee shop and watching a little guy from the congregation having breakfast with his grandpa has to be a good day, right?

Well, I thought so, too. But after lunch, things didn't go quite as well. Now, don't get me wrong, they weren't terrible. But when you are the leader of a group of 50 Confirmation students and their adult leaders, and it's your job to get them fed, on a bus, and up to the convention center... and THEN back home withOUT losing even one of them... It can be a bit stressful.

It can get even more stressful when the pizza (that is supposed to show up at church at 3:15, so that the kids can eat it and be on the bus ready to go by 4:30) doesn't arrive until 4:05 because of an oversight by the restaurant.

But all things seemed to work out. We made it on the bus by 4:30. We got good seats at the convention center (at least better than last year when we were in the nose bleeds and the people on the stage looked about the size of those green army men I used to play with). We learned about youth homelessness, and how we have it within our power to end poverty and homelessness in Minnesota. And then we made it back onto the bus with 50 people, the same amount we arrived with, so we got all of our kids on the bus or swapped them out for new ones, and I haven't heard any complaints yet...

So even though it didn't turn out to be a clockwork smooth day, it was a good one nonetheless. I brought along my camera to take pictures of the kids enjoying themselves, but I didn't think to take very many pictures until on the way home on the bus. But then I got in trouble for distracting the bus driver with the flashes, so I had to put it away.

Some quick facts on youth homelessness in Minnesota:
Over 3,200 children and young people are homeless on any given night in Minnesota.
About 2,600 are younger children within homeless families.
About 500-600 are unaccompanied youth under the age of 18.
Half of all children and youth come from greater Minnesota (or as Twin Cities people say "out state."
thanks to Lutheran Social Services in Minnesota for that information.

The message that ran throughout the presentation this evening was that we, as Christians, are called to do something about homelessness. They brought up Matthew 25:34-40, where Jesus says "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

We are the Body of Christ and, as such, we are called to reach out and help our brothers and sisters. And, when we do that, we help Jesus himself.

I don't know if the young people were impacted at all, but I felt particularly spoken to this evening. There is no reason so many young people - or people in general - should not have a safe place to live and nutritious food to eat. We need to see the need in the world and do something about it - to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

So let's get started.