Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What is God Calling You to Do?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Stewardship 1 – 15 October 2017
Text: Matthew 22:1-14
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas


Have you ever looked at an unshelled pecan and wondered, who was it that first looked at this thing and thought, “I bet if I crack this open, there’s something really yummy inside!” When I was a kid, my Grandpa Woolard always had a bowl of unshelled nuts just waiting there – along with a nutcracker and the little picks to get out all the meat from the shells.


Today’s parable told by Jesus is like this pecan. To get to the meat of the pecan, you have to get through the tough stuff. To get to the meat of this parable, you have to get through the tough stuff. Like many of the parables of Jesus, you can’t just look on the outside and take it at face value.

And this parable has some pretty difficult parts to it:
·      There are these people who’ve been invited to the banquet and they refuse to go. Eventually, they attack the king’s slaves and kill them.
·      The king responds with anger, sending troops to destroy the murderers and their city.
·      At the end of the parable, the king sees a guy who isn’t dressed quite right for the party, and has him thrown out, roughly.
If we take this story at face value, then we can extrapolate that God (who’s played by the king) is a real jerk who’s looking for any excuse to wipe us out.

But I want to break through that tough outer shell for a minute and take a look at the meat inside this parable. The real meat of this parable is found in verses 9 and 10: the king says to his slaves, “…Go out into the main streets, and invite everyone you see there to attend the party.” So the slaves do just that – they go out into the streets and they gather everyone – the good and the bad – and the party is full of guests.

This is the meat of the parable; this is the good news – that the king throws open the doors of his banquet hall to the good and the bad, welcoming them inside.

But we’re still left with that tough outer shell. What do we do with the difficult parts of the story? Why are they even in there, at all?

I believe that this parable uses those tougher elements first, to elicit a response from the listeners. If you were listening when I read the parable, you probably had a response to those uncomfortable parts of the story. Your response might’ve been one of confusion or some anger (what do you mean the guy gets thrown out at the end just because he’s not dressed right?!). But your response at least is a response. This is a parable meant to draw us out of apathy.



But secondly, I believe that Jesus includes these tougher elements to underscore an important point: that there is a seriousness to the call of God upon our lives, and that there should be an intentionality to our response to that call. As far back as our baptisms, God invites us to participate in a life of faith, and what are the possible responses to that invitation? We can refuse, we can make light of it and go on our own way, we can be hostile toward those who call us back to faith, or we can lack intentionality where our faith lives are concerned.

But if the meat of this parable is the good news that God throws open the doors and welcomes us all in, then we should do everything possible to grasp at this good news – everything we can to grow in our lives of faith – to grow as disciples of Jesus. And not only that, but we should also be willing to go out and invite others to join us in our lives of faith.

[Note: Here's where we handed out Ministry Activities Descriptions and forms for people's ministry commitments for 2018...]

·      Stewardship time can be a difficult time. The pastor’s going to ask me for something. You’re right – I am. I’m actually asking for two things: First, I’m asking you to take these home and look them over with intentionality. Pray about these ministry activities. Consider your gifts, and where you feel called to serve. Talk about it with your family or friends. Second, I’m asking you to make a commitment. I’m not asking you to commit to serving in whatever capacity for the next 27 years. I’m asking you to commit to serving in that capacity for 2018. Things change, lives change, our callings change. What is God calling you to do in 2018?
·      
     We will collect these on Commitment Sunday, which is in two weeks, on Reformation Sunday. So, I guess you could say that I’m asking for three things. As part of your commitment to the ministry of this congregation, I’m inviting you – and I’m inviting those who aren’t here today, too – to be here on October 29 to turn in your commitments personally.

Now, of course I’ll take them any way I can get them – in person, via email or phone, or even by homing pigeon if you have some of those around. But I really hope you’ll be here on October 29 to celebrate the gifts we each bring to this congregation. If you look around – go ahead and take a second and look around – think about all the gifts gathered together here, in this room. Think about the gifts of those who aren’t here today, or the gifts of those who you could invite to be here with us. We are gifted and thanks be to God for that.

It is my hope and prayer that – out of thanksgiving to God - we will take these gifts we’ve been given and use them well.

Amen.




Sunday, October 1, 2017

Changing Our Minds

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Lectionary 26, Year A – 1 October 2017
Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Today, Jesus tells us a Tale of a Father With Two Sons. The Father has a vineyard, and he needs some work done. He asks one son to go work, but that son refuses to his face. So the dad asks his other son to go work in the vineyard. That son agrees to do the work.

There’s some backstory missing for us, the listener. We don’t know why the first son changes his mind and goes to work in the vineyard. We don’t know why the second son changes his mind and doesn’t work in the vineyard at all. All we learn is that one son does what the father wants, and the other son doesn’t, in both cases because the sons each change their minds. 

This story is a about a question of will. The father’s will – his desire – is for some work to get done in his vineyard. His sons both clearly know what his will is – but only one of them follows through, and we’re left wondering how the dad dealt with both his sons. What words of thanks did he give to the one who did the work? What words of anger did he have for the son who blew him off?

Once, many years ago, I made plans with a friend to go to a restaurant for dinner. I’ll call the restaurant Rob’s BBQ. Early in the day before we were supposed to meet, while I was at my college job, I changed my mind. I called my friend, and I canceled our plans. I don’t remember what my reasoning was – I do remember that my friend was rightfully angry with me for canceling, especially without a good reason.

After we got off the phone, I felt terribly guilty. I knew we would get past it eventually, but I felt badly for causing this rift between us. I stood by the phone and reflected on the conversation and my guilt. I was standing by the window, looking out, toward the UT Stadium, and from that vantage point, I could see the planes they flew over the stadium – the planes that carry the advertising behind them. The planes would circle over the stadium, come toward where I was, and then return to the stadium. Around and around.

As I stood there, by that window, I took a second to read the banner behind one of the planes that afternoon, and – I kid you not – it had a directive on it: “EAT AT ROB’S BBQ!”

I laughed out loud, took it as a sign in the heavens, quite literally, and called my friend. At first, she was suspicious of my sudden change of heart. But she relented and forgave me, and we went to have a delicious BBQ dinner. Most importantly, the rift in our friendship was mended.

There’ve certainly been other times in my life when I’ve changed my mind and things haven’t worked out so well. You probably have those times, too – can you remember any of them?

"Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven."
Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say to God: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” and Luther said that when we pray this, we’re asking for God’s will to “come about in and among us.” And that’s the really tricky part, because maybe I want for God’s will to be done in someone else’s life – maybe someone I think could use some of God’s will in their life. 

Then God tries to accomplish something in my own life, and I resist. God’s will is too difficult. God’s will is too challenging. God’s will leads me to try things that make me uncomfortable or that I really don’t want to do. And so I change my mind from “Thy will be done,” to “Never mind, God! Really. I know best.”

When I do that – when I act like I know better than God - a rift between me and God opens up faster than anything. 

That rift is called “sin,” and I sin daily. I sin daily in thought, word, and deed by what I have done and what I have left undone. Do those words sound familiar? From where?
Right – these are from our corporate prayer of confession. If we say them with intention, then as we pray these words, we think about the times we’ve denied God’s will, and we think about the people we haven’t loved as much as we love ourselves. 

I sin daily, even though I know that God’s will for me is to love God with my whole heart, and to love my neighbor as myself. This prayer of confession is like a re-set button, in a way. It’s like that plane that gave me that directive to go eat BBQ, except this banner might read: “Love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And maybe that banner would be followed by another, reading: “By grace you have been saved. May Christ live in your hearts by faith.” 

And then, while we’re imagining planes with banners behind them, maybe a third one could come behind, saying, “Go and put your faith and love into action!”

We don’t do God’s will to earn our way into heaven, yet we also read in Scripture again and again that seeking God’s will and doing God’s will are important parts of our lives as Christians. And, for all of the modern-day questioning and proclaiming about what is God’s will (and what isn’t) – this I know to be true: God’s will is what God commands, and Jesus says that the greatest two commandments are to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So when we come to church and say the confession and receive God’s forgiveness, these are not merely words on a page or in the air. Sometimes I have people who aren’t familiar with liturgy ask why we say these same things every Sunday. “Don’t the words lose meaning?” they ask. 

Well, maybe so. But they don’t have to. These words of confession and forgiveness are meant to be emblazoned on our hearts, our minds, and our souls. We don’t always love God or love our neighbor, even though we know this is God’s will for us. 

But, even as the difficult words of confession sink into our spirits, we then hear the next words: that we are saved by God’s grace, and we are given strength by Almighty God to have power through the Holy Spirit, so that Christ may live in our hearts by faith. 

And when we change our minds – and hearts and souls – away from God’s will, God is always calling us back, so that the rift between us can be mended. 

Let us close with words of prayer from our Hymn of the Day, that we will sing next:

“Give new strength to our believing, Give us faith to live your word.”

Amen.


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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Generosity Shows Love and Grace

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Lectionary 25, Year A – 24 September 2017
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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If you are familiar with the old classic, “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” – which was a staple of my childhood – you might remember a scene with Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally. I had forgotten all about this scene until a blog post I read this week reminded me. Sally writes a huge list for Santa of all her requested gifts, and, then – just to cover all the bases – at the end of her letter, she says, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.”

Charlie Brown calls out his sister for her greed, and she says, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me!”[1]

If you ever want a true sense of what is fair and what is not, become a teacher, or do anything that involves spending lots of time with children, and you will learn. You might even find yourself surrounded with Sallys – surrounded by little people all saying what is fair and what isn’t.

At first glance, the parable in today’s gospel lesson seems to take what is fair and throw it out the window. A vineyard owner hires different groups of workers throughout the course of the day, starting at about 9am, going out to hire the last workers at 5pm, or about an hour before quitting time. At the end of the day, he pays everyone what they’re due – he pays everyone the daily wage that they’ve agreed to.

I have a feeling that those first workers hired by the vineyard owner might commiserate with Sally. After all, they worked the longest amount of time – presumably from about 9am till about 6pm. Of course they would expect to get paid more than the people who were hired at 5pm. In their minds, that’s only what is fair.

Except the vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable isn’t interested in what they think is fair. He’s interested in getting work done in his vineyard, and paying people what they agreed to, and that’s exactly what he does. And Jesus, in using this parable, doesn’t seem to be interested in the fairness aspect either.

So maybe the point of this parable isn’t what’s fair and what’s not. It sure does get our hackles up a little, and maybe that is the goal because at least that means we are paying attention.

We like to get all wrapped up in the question of fairness in this story, but – quite frankly – that’s the low-hanging fruit. That’s the easy reaction. The more difficult response is to pay more attention to the generosity of the vineyard owner to those who don’t necessarily deserve his generosity. The more difficult response to this story, too, is to recognize that we are like those workers who are hired last, getting what we don’t deserve, receiving an outpouring for which we haven’t worked.

This is, of course, the heart of the gospel message: that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us….” Given to us! the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5 – not earned, but given. He goes on to say that “… while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  The heart of the good news is that even though humanity has been weakened by sin, God in Jesus steps into our weakness and gives us new life.

In his explanation to the Second Article of the Apostle’s Creed – that’s the part of the creed where we talk about Jesus – Luther says this:
“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He 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.”

This parable describes the generosity of God to us – to all of us, equally. And when Luther was asked why on earth God would be so generous, his answer was this: “God has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.” This difficult parable helps us see that God’s generosity may not make any sense to us, but it doesn’t have to.

Generosity often doesn’t make sense on the surface, whether it’s generosity of spirit, or generosity of forgiveness (as we’ve talked about the last two weeks), or financial generosity. If we feel called to be generous, and we answer that call, some of our actions won’t seem right to others. Some of our generous actions will be called into question, just like those workers hired early in the day, who questioned the vineyard owner’s actions.

Often when I travel by plane, I make sure that whatever I carry onto the plane fits under the seat in front of me. I do this for several reasons, one of which is so I don’t have to worry about finding space in an overhead bin for a larger bag. When we all line up to board, I don’t have to worry about fighting my way to the front of the line. After all, as long as I get on the plane, I will end up at the same destination as everyone else on that plane. Why does it matter if I am first or last?

The point of generosity is to show love and grace. And so God reaches to humanity in our weakness and says, “The last will be first and the first will be last,” so – to God, anyway – all our shuffling around for the best position makes no difference. God is generous to the first and to the last, and to everyone in between. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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[1] Thanks to Scott Hoezee for reminding me of this story. Found at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-20a/?type=the_lectionary_gospel.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Lectionary 24, Year A – 17 September 2017
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Last week, we looked at the first part of Matthew 18, in which Jesus teaches us about handling the conflicts that arise in our lives. For instance, when we’ve been hurt by someone, we should talk with them directly about it, or, when someone is telling us that we’ve hurt them, we should listen to what they’re saying.

Today’s gospel reading gives us more from Matthew 18 – and in some ways, it gives us the whys of forgiveness. Why do we forgive someone?

Today’s teaching by Jesus gives us insight into community expectations. What I mean is this: the Gospel of Matthew was written for an early Christian community and one of the intentions was to answer these questions: As followers of Jesus, what kind of community are we going to be? What will we value as a community? What is important to God, and so therefore, also important to us?

Matthew 18 shows us that forgiveness was one of their core values. As followers of Jesus, they saw themselves as being led by Jesus to forgive others. As followers of Jesus, they saw this ability to forgive others as flowing directly out of the forgiveness that we ourselves receive from God.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant helps us think more imaginatively, and that’s exactly why Jesus uses so many parables in his teachings.

·      Imagine if a servant owed his king an impossible sum of money.
·      Imagine if the king showed mercy, and forgave that impossible debt.
·      Imagine if that forgiven servant didn’t offer forgiveness to someone else.

And with our imaginations stirred, we begin to see how forgiveness plays out in the Kingdom of God, and we can see the extreme importance to God of us living out the petition that we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We can also begin to see how unforgiveness binds us, and how forgiveness sets us free.

Forgiveness provides a release. When we forgive someone, we stop allowing the pain of someone else’s action to control our lives. When we forgive someone, we are freed to live more fully, we are more able to love others, and we are then offering a life that is pleasing to God. And when we forgive someone, we are living out – we are embodying - the abundant forgiveness that God gives to us.

Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others.

The extreme forgiveness given by the king in the parable told by Jesus may not make sense to us. But Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question at the outset gives us a sense of the complete forgiveness that is given to us and hopefully also given by us. Peter comes to Jesus and asks him how many times we should forgive someone who has sinned against us…?

What do you think, Jesus - one time? Twice? Surely not six times? Or seven? THAT MANY?

And Jesus ups the ante even beyond Peter’s highest bid – he says that we should forgive  not only seven times, but seventy-seven times. That number – seventy-seven – isn’t a just random number. In Scripture, seven represents wholeness or completion. Our forgiveness of someone is to be complete. And how many times do we forgive someone? That should be uncountable – we shouldn’t even keep track.

This may seem impossible. But forgiveness – like love – is often made up of a series of small decisions over time. Forgiveness is rarely once-then-done, rather, it is lived out day by day, week by week, year by year. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’re automatically reconciled to this person who has hurt you. Forgiveness does mean that the wrong they’ve committed no longer has power over you.

Forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others.

When we pray those words, we are reminded of our own need for forgiveness from God, and from others. We sin daily, and through God’s grace, God forgives us when we confess our sin. Whether our confession comes here at church, or in our cars, or living rooms, or wherever it is we realize our sin, God meets us with forgiveness – God meets us with extreme forgiveness.

And then, as forgiven ones, we are freed to live as followers of Jesus who offer forgiveness to others.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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