Wedding Sermon – Lars and Alisia

(Written for the wedding of my nephew and his bride in August of 2016)

I used to write in a journal every day – especially when I was in college and seminary and well, basically before I had children. It was before I had a cell phone, too – so it was kind of my default when there wasn’t anything else to do, I would write stuff down.

I was looking at a journal from my last year of college and I thought I would share something I wrote in the fall of 1991.

October 31, 1991; 11:23 a.m.

“I am an aunt. Nearly four hours ago my nephew, Lars Andrew was born! ”It is a beautiful, sunny, clear fall day – it is crisp outside – the kind of day that makes you want to praise God. (the famous Halloween blizzard that day hadn’t yet gotten to Moorhead) I concluded, “What will Lars be like? Thank you, God, for life, for love, for Lars.”

I remember writing that. The words had felt very full as I wrote them down. We had all anticipated that day for so long and we were all so excited you were finally here. We had no idea all that was ahead but there was just this wonderful sense of joy in what God was doing. A new life, created out of love; our family was growing, and we were so thankful.

Kind of like today, a day full of life and love. Today I gain a niece – although, truth be told, Alisia, it feels as though you have already been part of our family for a long time. What a true joy that today the commitment and devotion you two have shared for so long becomes official. What a great thing it is that we all get to come together and celebrate the love God has blessed you two with. Thank you for letting us share in your joy. Your joy brings us joy.

I thought for a very long time about what I might say today. About fifteen months, actually, ever since you asked me if I would officiate today. Although I have officiated at a lot of weddings, I’ve never gotten to preside at a wedding for a family member before. I wanted to be able to convey so much in this message, to say just the right words and share with you just the right bits of clever wisdom. I fall into that trap all the time, thinking stuff is all about me. This service isn’t about me or what I am doing.  And it isn’t about you two or any of us here, really. Because we are gathered here in God’s house, to ask for God’s blessing on you two, whom God has seen fit to bless with life and love. This service is about God and what God is up to. That is why we are here, to thank God, to praise God, and to point to God, from whom all blessings flow.

The scripture reading I shared with you from Colossians talks about what we need to wear as God’s people. And although everyone here today looks really nice, all dressed up for this special day, what God wants us to be sure to wear for our everyday clothes is a different kind of wardrobe.  God tells us to dress in compassion, kindness, quiet strength, humility, and to be even-tempered, quick to forgive. Long after today is over, after the tuxes have been returned and the dresses have been put in storage, clothe yourselves with these kinds of attributes and the peace of Christ will keep you in tune with each other.  Dress in compassion. Dress in kindness. Dress in humility, quick to forgive. We have to dress right for the occasion. If you are going snowmobiling, you don’t wear shorts and a t-shirt. If you are going swimming, you don’t wear a floor-length gown. And if you are setting out for a long, happy life together, you don’t dress in selfishness or anger or grudges.

A long time ago, about 26 years ago, I was in a wedding. It may or may not have been a family member’s wedding. Okay, it was your parents’ wedding, Lars. The bridesmaid dress I got to wear was really pretty – lots of pink and lace and ribbons going on. The shoes were pretty, too – but I realized at the last minute I had ordered shoes that were way too small. All I could think about during the whole wedding was how I couldn’t wait for it to be over because my size 11 feet were crammed into these really cute, size 8 shoes. It’s hard to maintain a good attitude if you are trying really hard to make something fit that just does not fit. What you wear can affect everything.

So I don’t think it’s strange that the Bible gives us this advice on what to wear each day. Our days look different if we go about them wearing kindness rather than cruelty. Our days are richer if we go about them wearing thankfulness instead of bitterness. Our days have more life to them when we keep God and others at the center rather than our selves.

Which brings me to a reading from the Gospel of Luke.

When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a story. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I hear an important message in this for all of us, but maybe especially good advice for a young couple just beginning married life. The message of this gospel is to remind us how living God’s way looks. Living God’s way means we put our best energy toward serving and loving others. It means we get our focus off ourselves and onto others, lifting others up, not ourselves. In a marriage that means each day working to make life better for your partner.

That doesn’t mean we don’t take care of ourselves or treat ourselves with compassion, too, but very few happy marriages can be built if the only question we are asking is, “What have you done for me lately?” No, if we listen to God’s wisdom about putting others first, and both partners are each day seeking to make life better and richer and more full for each other, then the peace of Christ will be at the heart of your home.

I bet if you think about your parents, your grandparents you can remember ways they lived examples of this for each other and for you. The examples are often quiet and understated but they are what good lives are built upon. I’ll never forget when Chad and I were dating – the first time he came out to visit me when I was at the church in New York. He was only there for a few days – but after he left I kept finding things around the house that used to be broken but were now fixed. The sink no longer leaked, my computer was working better – he had been fixing stuff around my house when I was at work and never said a word about it, just quietly and sweetly making my world a little better.

When I think of love, real love, selfless love – that is what I think of…those thousands of teeny-tiny opportunities each of us get every day to try to make life better and sweeter for each other. Chad’s always been better at it than I am. But I’ll keep trying. And my prayer for the two of you is that as you enter this new stage in your life together, you will always look for those opportunities to love each other better each day.

Some days that will be easy. Some days that will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do – but don’t worry – because just as God brought you to the moment you met each other years and years ago, and just as God brought you to the moment you fell in love, and just as God brought you to this wedding day, God now goes with you into the future.

In a few moments we will share in the vows – and the vows you are about to make are not ones that two human beings can fulfill on their own. When times get hard, call on God who promises to be with you and help you fulfill the vows you make today. Vows to live in love, real love. Love that is knit together through thousands of small kindnesses, humility, and grace.

Norway Trip – August 7-17

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Last year, I was asked by some in this area with Norwegian ancestry to put together a trip to Norway. This summer, we are going! After looking around at different companies to help me, I decided Brekke Travel’s reputation and long history of leading trips to Norway was unsurpassed. They helped me put together this trip – the itinerary is one of their most popular and the price is great when you look at all that is included. Also, if you have ancestral places you would like to visit while we are there, Brekke can help you get to those places. I plan to see the homeplace of my great-grandparents on both my mother’s side and my father’s side while we are there! I would love to have you join us for this exceptional journey. For more information, message me at ruthehetland@gmail.com or call me at 254-265-5349. Let’s go to Norway!

Choose Life – sermon from 2.12.17

There was a book and a course I led some years ago called “Love and Logic” by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. The book and class were all about helping parents gain practical, effective, and fun techniques for fostering respect, responsibility, self-control, and good decision-making skills in children. My kids were very little when I first read the book and lead the course and I don’t remember much except one of the tools for getting your kiddos to listen to you was to give your kids control through giving them choices. The rules on the choices were that:

  1. If the child doesn’t choose, you had to be prepared to choose yourself.
  2. You had to pick two choices you could live with.
  3. Never give a choice unless you are willing to allow the child to live with the consequences of his/her bad choice.

So an example of a good choice would be “Would you rather clean your room or rake the lawn so I’ll have time to clean your room?

Or “Would you rather clean your room Saturday or Sunday?” or “Do you want to settle the problem yourselves or draw straws to see who sits by the window?”

So it was one day that I found myself in the midst of a battle of wills with Owen – who was only about three or four years old – we were standing in the kitchen and I was trying to get him to pick up his toys. Being a toddler, he wasn’t interested in what I was saying when suddenly I remembered the choices technique and I started saying, “Would you rather pick up your toys or – but I hadn’t thought of the other choice before I started talking – so I had to think on my feet and so I said the first thing that came to mind, “Would you rather pick up your toys or that I dump a cup of water on your head?” I knew it maybe wasn’t the best set of choices but I remembered that follow-through was very important – so when he proceeded to not pick up his toys, I walked over to the sink and I grabbed a small cup of water and proceeded to dump it on his head.

It may not have been one of my finest parenting moments, and the Love and Logic people probably wouldn’t like it because the choices aren’t supposed to sound like threats – but I tell you what – it got his attention. He looked at me like he couldn’t believe I had done it – and I said, “I told you – you had two choices.” I gave him a towel to dry off his little head and then he put his toys away.  Since then, I’ve often used the cup of water technique and it has surprisingly become my secret weapon although I’ve never had to follow through again because they know I will use it – “Get out of bed now, or I’ll dump a cup of water on your head.” “Do your homework now, or I’ll dump a cup of water on your head.” Choices are magic.

In the Old Testament reading for today, God gives the people a clear choice – that a beautiful and prosperous way of living exists for those who choose God’s way. “Choose life”, God says.

Unfortunately, when we think of God’s commands we don’t think of them in this life-giving way – but rather as a set of rules we better follow “or else.” Do this and do that or the fires of hell await you. Do this and do that or God won’t be happy. Even worse, God’s laws often get translated into something like “if it is too fun, God probably frowns upon it.” I grew up in a home in which there was a long list of things that I was assured God didn’t like: drinking, of course, dancing, playing cards, spending time with people who weren’t Lutheran, dating before the age of 18, long hair on boys, short hair on girls, tattoos, listening to loud music on Sundays, Listening to rock music anytime and spending money on anything frivolous. The God of my childhood was a stern taskmaster I couldn’t please. Perhaps that is why instead of veering way toward Law, I tend to veer way toward grace. “Jesus loves you” is the message I want my kids and all our kids to know the best. Forgiveness and mercy for mistakes made is what resonates with me and I think is such a life-giving message the church can uniquely bring.

But the law has its place – an important place – and that is why Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – which began with the text we read a couple weeks ago with the Beatitudes (blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the poor in spirit) and continued with his instructions for being salt and light in the world as we heard last week – continues today with these laws. These laws aren’t new to the people, but Jesus is expanding on them in an interesting way.

First, he talks about murder – “You have heard it said “you shall not murder” but then he adds, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council.” He encourages that before making a gift to the altar of God, you are to make amends with anyone with whom you are having a fight or have had harsh words.”

Martin Luther expanded upon this in his explanation of the ten commandments in the small catechism – you probably remember this from your confirmation days – The Fifth Commandment is Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.

Anger is a normal, human emotion but we mostly hurt ourselves if we don’t work hard to resolve anger. If it is anger about a wrong done to you, be patient with the feelings of anger that might be hard to shake, but do what you can to let go of those feelings. Prayer helps. Sometimes we need to speak words of forgiveness or sometimes we need to put as much distance as we can between ourselves and the person who has hurt us.  C.S. Lewis talks about the fact that loving one’s neighbor does not mean liking them.  This is where we can find the strength to forgive.  Loving our enemies doesn’t mean we have to think they are nice, or invite them out to coffee.

In addition, it’s fair to say that righteous anger over injustice we see in the world can even be a good thing but not if it stays only anger – only if that small hard stone of anger evolves into a seed for working for change can it do any good. Choose life, God says. Choose to let go of anger.

Next, Jesus talks about adultery – “you have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery”.  Jesus expands this so that we remember it’s not just our actions that matter, but our thoughts. Don’t entertain thoughts that might cause you to sin. Luther expanded on this saying: “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.”

Jesus uses vivid imagery: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” It’s a powerful way of saying, “you know, if you are attracted to your co-worker, don’t start sharing personal things with each other. Don’t confide in him or her in a way that starts feelings of intimacy to grow.” We maybe can’t help if we find someone besides our partner attractive, but we can control our behavior. We must. The love shared between married partners is a gift from God, and as with any gift, it must be cherished and nurtured. This isn’t always easy by any means, but it is a holy and sacred task, nonetheless.

I like the story of a couple married for 15 years when they began having more than usual disagreements. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had. For one month they planned to drop a slip in a “Fault” box. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: “leaving the jelly top off the jar,” “wet towels on the shower floor,” “dirty socks not in hamper,” on and on until the end of the month. After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The husband reflected on what he had done wrong. Then the wife opened her box and began reading. They were all the same, the message on each slip was, “I love you!”

Good story as Valentines’ Day comes up, I think. Choose life. Choose love. Choose faithfulness in your words and actions – But also this:

Sometimes relationships do break apart – and sometimes it can even be for the best if there is abuse or if trust gets so shattered it simply can’t be repaired. Divorce happens, and when it does, remember grace. I know very few couples who have divorced without trying very hard to make things work. If divorce has been part of your journey, remember you are loved. I pray you feel God’s grace surrounding you. Our vows and commitments we make to each other matter to God, but we matter even more. When things fall apart, God is still here to help us put the pieces back together and start again. Always.

So – God says to us – “Choose Life” – Choosing life means paying attention to God’s laws, taking them to heart, using them as our guidepost for living the best, most whole life possible.  Choosing life also means we remember at the beginning, middle, and end of all our striving, there is grace. 

 

Hometown

fullsizerender-14I went home yesterday. Well, the place that used to be my home. It’s about 55 miles from where I live now – a tiny town of about 700 people – Henning, Minnesota.

It’s like many small towns in this area – a school, a post office, some business and more churches than it probably needs. Most of the places there that hold the largest amount of my memories are virtually unrecognizable to me now. My grandmother’s house was sold a few years ago and the new owner has painted it a garish blue. The school built a large addition shortly after I left and even my lovely little white church has been torn down and a new, modern worship structure is taking its place.

I drove across the roads that wound themselves between lakes and woods, snow skittering across the highways in the temperatures that hovered near zero toward the place that once was home. I saw the school bus dropping off kids near Ottertail, drove past the areas where many of my classmates used to live – the classmates who lived on the “other side” of town from me. The lake kids.

I went to see mom and dad. I hadn’t been there for many months. Although cemeteries are rarely full of fun, they are particularly desolate during the winter. When the weather is nice, I almost enjoy walking among the gravestones, observing the flowers blooming, the decorations and solar garden lights people have left behind for loved ones. During the winter, however, the cemetery is bitter and cold. I could only stand by their graves for a few minutes. I brushed some snow off their names engraved in the granite, a few tears freezing at the corners of my eyes, and then I shuffled back to the shelter of my car.

I drove around a bit more but it only takes all of five minutes to drive down every street of Henning. Then, I pulled up to the assisted living home where my mom’s best friend lives. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon, likely a good time to catch her. Norma was sitting in her room when I arrived. She makes a fuss over me when I come. I like that. Mom used to make a fuss over me and I miss that. We sat and talked about this and that. Shared some memories about my mom and dad. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet thing to talk to other people who miss the same people as you.

Finally, it was getting to be suppertime and the sun was going down. I hugged Norma goodbye and said I would be back soon when the weather gets warmer. She went into her big closet and brought out some chocolates for me to bring to the boys. She makes a fuss over them, too. I like that.

I left town as the sun set. I saw the water tower, the prairie, the sidewalks where my best friend and I would walk and laugh until our sides hurt, the café where mom and I used to like to go have pie and coffee.

I hardly cry about her anymore. She’s slipping from my daily memories and yet she’s always there. I hear her in my voice, I see her in my mirror, she rests in the background of every decision I make. “What would mom think? What would she say? I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.”

Past the snowy fields I made my way back toward the place life has brought me now. The moon was rising bright and cold. I drove up to my warm house – the lights welcoming me home. My husband and children were in the midst of the evening routine. I could hear Owen practicing his baritone as I got out of the car. Jesse was wrestling with his math homework. Chad was putting away the leftovers from supper.

This beautiful life. These days so near and yet so exceedingly far from my hometown.

Be Salt and Light (sermon – 2.5.17)

Our church book group has read some really interesting books in the last couple years. Books about human trafficking, a Swedish novel, memoirs of Scandinavian settlers in the upper Midwest, a riveting commentary on end-of-life issues called “Being Mortal” – and one of my favorites was the book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” by Michael Moss. It’s a big book full of the tireless research of a man wanting to know more about the processed food industry. Food companies have known for decades that salt, sugar and fat are not good for us in the quantities Americans consume them. But every year, people are swayed to ingest about twice the recommended amount of salt and fat — and an estimated 70 pounds of sugar. 

I read an interview with the author who was talking about some of his findings about salt – he talked about how dependent the food companies are on salt, because it’s a miracle ingredient for them. It lets them avoid using costly ingredients like spices and herbs, and of course has this thing they called “flavor bursts,” which just gets you so excited about eating snack foods, especially.

But the other thing is, salt masks off-notes or bad flavors that are inherent to some processed foods. In meat, it’s called “warmed-over flavor,” which happens when the fat in meat oxidizes when it reheats, and salt is one of those things that can cover up that taste.

It’s a fascinating book and I was thinking about it when I came across our Gospel for today in which Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth. “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”

Salt affects whatever you put it on, salt does something. Salt loses its purpose if you keep it in the salt shaker.

His next illustration is similar – that of light. What good does a candle do if you light it and then put it under a basket? No, a light is meant to shine and create a glow to help people see in the dark.

Jesus says, be salt, be light. Do something. We weren’t made to just exist, to be absorbed by all the other tastes and atmospheres around us, but to affect them.  To exist for a purpose. To season our community with the words and actions of Christ, to let his light shine through our days and deeds.

But how? Perhaps one of the finest examples of being salt and light for Christ in this world was shown to us in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the time of Adolf Hitler’s rule in Germany. Many other clergy supported Hitler – Pastor Hermann Grunner said, “The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ.” Another Lutheran pastor put it more succinctly: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”

We know what history has told us: The German people had gone through the defeat of World War 1 and the economic depression afterward – and this charismatic Hitler appeared to be the nation’s answer to prayer—at least to most Germans. But not to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was determined resist Hitler. While many, many other Lutheran churches and pastors followed in line behind Hitler, even putting the Nazi swastika on their altar cloths, Bonhoeffer and others resisted – pointing out how Hitler’s prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish people was distinctly contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wasn’t raised in a radical or particularly religious environment – he was born into an aristocratic family. His mother was the daughter of a preacher and his father was a distinguished neurologist and professor. When Dietrich announced at age 14 he was going to become a minister and theologian, his family was not encouraging.

Bonhoeffer graduated from the University of Berlin in 1927 and then spent the next years working as an assistant professor, writing his dissertation, and doing some lecturing in New York at Union Seminary.

During these same years, Hitler rose in power, becoming chancellor of Germany in January 1933, and president a year and a half later. Hitler’s speech and actions against the Jews, and other marginalized groups intensified.  Bonhoeffer became part of a movement that opposed him – they were known as the Confessing Church – which announced its allegiance first and foremost to Jesus Christ and not to earthly leaders.

In the meantime, Bonhoeffer wrote one of his most famous books, “The Cost of Discipleship” – a call to more faithful and radical obedience to Christ and a condemnation of comfortable Christianity. He had a fire within him to help Christians reject what he called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance. Cheap grace is baptism without church discipline. Cheap grace is communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, without the cross, without Jesus Christ living and acting in our lives.  He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

The government in Germany banned him from teaching so he helped teach in an underground seminary. Finally that seminary was discovered and closed. While others in the Confessing church became more reluctant and afraid to speak out against Hitler, Bonhoeffer just changed strategies. He signed up with the German secret service to serve as a double agent. He traveled to church conferences all over Europe and was supposed to be collecting information about the places he visited but instead he was helping Jews escape the Nazis.

In time, he was caught and put into prison where he remained for two years. There is a book full of the letters and papers he wrote during that time. One month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged along with six other resisters. He was 39 years old.

A camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging described the scene: “The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Jesus said, “be salt in the world, be light in the world.” He didn’t say it would be easy. After all, he himself was killed for sharing the truth of God’s message of love for all, why should we expect following the way of Christ should be easy? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, the fourth archbishop of El Salvador –  who spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture and in 1980 was assassinated while offering mass. Countless others throughout time who have spoken up for the way of Christ have suffered and died. Maybe we think that is only required for a chosen few, and yet, perhaps the greatest challenge facing the church is if we think being part of the Christian faith only requires things like attendance at church potlucks, putting in a bit of offering now and then, being nice people. But this Christian life is just that – a life – and what we hear in this place and read in the word of God, the Bible, is meant to filter into every bit of our lives: our speech, our choices, the way we spend our money, the way we take care of our earth, the way we take care of ourselves – everything.  It reminds me of a quote I have shared before by C.S. Lewis – but it is so appropriate – He wrote,

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Sisters and brothers, you are called to be salt and to be light. You were given your voice and your smarts and your compassion and your vision and your faith in order to bless and inspire and urge and love the world as best you can in the name of Jesus as long as you have breath. Each day, working with whatever you’ve got to help mold your little piece of the world as much as you can into something that shows the likeness of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer used his brains and his voice, his passion, his bravery, and ultimately his life to stand up for those being persecuted. He was salt and light in this world.

How might you and I be salt and light? With what we have? Where we are?