Rest and Grace (sermon – July 9, 2017)

Last Tuesday, the Fourth of July, was a blissfully inactive day at our house. It was one of those rare, precious days when we were all at home the whole day. We made no plans for any of it and just did what we wanted – which, for me, included about three movies, a walk, eating, and a nap. I tried to read part of a book but the nap quickly overtook the reading. For a little while the boys and I sat out on the deck just talking about nothing. For a moment, I was transported to summer days when I was a kid – most of which seemed to be filled with nothing and a lot of sitting outside with my parents and brother to try to catch a cool breeze when the house was hot and stuffy. Sometimes I remember getting very bored, aching for something to do, but my parents believed too many extracurricular activities were unnecessary and learning to enjoy quieter pursuits like reading and going for walks in the woods built character. Looking back now from the vantage point of my often overscheduled days, I know I was lucky to have those long, quiet days, plenty of time to think, to create, or just to sit and talk about nothing with my parents.

It seems like usually at least once every summer there is a text that comes up in our Sunday morning readings that includes something about the importance of rest. It often seems to come at just the right time, too – about this time of the summer when all I hear people saying is that summer is going too fast and they just want it to slow down!  But there is so much fun stuff to do and only so many gorgeous days to be outside! We schedule ourselves from dawn to dusk – mostly loving every bit of it – but with hardly any time to breathe, to be, to rest.

Sometimes we need a reminder like the one Jesus gives us. I’ll read a couple verses of our gospel for today from Matthew – but this time from another version of scripture, The Message – as I love this paraphrase…  Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Are you tired? The National Center for Sleep Disorders estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. Often, our sleep deficit is related to too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. Many times it’s related to work – stress from work, putting in long hours at work, working night shifts, working on the home computer until the second we go to sleep.

Sleep deficits have been linked with poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems, and mood problems like anger and depression. The growing list of health risks has been documented in recent studies, too. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have all been linked with chronic sleep loss.

But we know that we can be and feel tired more than physically – we can grow tired emotionally and spiritually, too. No matter how we are attacked by weariness, each of us have experienced it in our own ways – whether it is the exhaustion that parents of a newborn can feel; or the bone-tired hours, days, weeks spent at the bedside of a loved one who is sick or dying; it could be the flagging energy and depression that comes from being overworked or just doing work that doesn’t suit you, or the draining, heart-rending work of trying to save a dying relationship – every person has faced days and nights when we understand to our very core what it means to be weary and heavy-laden.

To us, to all, Jesus says, “I’m here.”  “You don’t have to struggle so hard to carry it all by yourself because I am already here – let me help you carry those things weighing you down.” “Rest.”

David Whyte writes, “To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right.”

Are you guilty of thinking that everything rests on your shoulders? Do you ever fall into the trap of self-important thinking where you can’t stop racing around and fixing things, because if you stop, everything will surely fall apart?

And In the church we are so good at talking about all the things we need to do – to pray, to serve, to study scripture, to meet for worship, to live out our discipleship – but our gospel for today blows in like a cool summer breeze and reminds us that resting is holy and necessary, too. When we do not rest, we suffer – not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally.  To rest is not self indulgent.  Rather, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and perhaps, most importantly, to pause to appreciate everything we have already been given.

What is something you could do this week to slow down and rest? Could you find a way to leave some open spaces in your schedule for blissful nothingness, some open spaces to be surprised by the beauty of a sunset, a conversation about nothing with a friend or a stranger?

Or if you are at a stage in life where rest isn’t as hard to come by, is there some gift of your time or energy you can offer to someone who is stressed out, overworked, bone-tired? When my friends Terry and Amy had their first born child nearly twenty years ago, one of our mutual friends, Cathy, offered as a gift to them to babysit once a month so that Terry and Amy could have a date night. And while of course that gift of time alone together was a gift to Terry and Amy, Cathy talks about how offering to do that blessed her so much as well with a decades-long relationship with this baby girl and eventually that baby’s siblings as they grew up. An older couple in Colorado Springs offered to do something similar for Chad and I when we had a toddler and a newborn. The words had barely come out of her mouth, “We’d love to watch your children sometime if you and Chad would like a date night,” when I practically shouted “yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!” and I was digging out my planner to figure out a time that worked.

Sometimes we are able to give each other the gift of rest or help each other carry a burden. Sometimes we are the ones needing a break.

But truthfully, resting in Jesus is more than taking a nap – it is leaning into Jesus’ love. Ultimately, this scripture is about much more than just self-care. It’s about discipleship, really. It’s about grace. Jesus tells us, “I am with you as you live as my disciples.” Self-care matters, of course, but we have to be careful not to confuse the good news with good advice.  Good advice is nice, but it doesn’t save. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way to his students: “God’s intention is to bear or sustain us, not to teach or improve us.”

So hear this, church: Jesus is beside you, loving you and forgiving you – helping you weather it all – the good days, the awful days – the sunny and rainy days and every other day. And we as a church community are here to support one another as well…to do our best at loving each other and the world as Jesus taught us.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love that picture from 1946 we have hanging in our hallway out there – the picture of the whole congregation then. The picture we are going to try to recreate after worship today. They are sitting and standing side by side – the people of Saint Peters in that time. So many different people. So many different gifts. Perfectly flawed and perfectly beautiful. God brought them together – to love and serve God as best they could.  God called them. And today God calls us.

In Jesus’ name we work and rest – today and every day. Amen.

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The congregation of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 1946
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The congregation of Saint Peters Lutheran Church (with a few missing…) – July, 2017

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?

All Saints

Henry Scott Holland wrote, “Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt. Nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

It was three years ago this past Sunday that I woke up on the couch of room 379 of Providence Hospital and noticed I couldn’t hear my mother breathing in the darkness anymore. A few hours before I had set down my book I was reading, “Water for Elephants,” glanced over at her lying there, and thought for the thousandth time how I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. I couldn’t bear for her to leave me. I couldn’t bear for her to be so sick anymore. And so my prayer in those days just had kind of become, “Please…God.” And I understood God would just have to fill in what I didn’t know how to say. I had turned off the light and fallen asleep to the sound of her breathing. And at some point while I slept, she slipped away. Went on to the next place.

I’ll keep telling that story as long as I live. The story of her loss is now such a big part of my own story because now I’m not just Ruth, Betty’s daughter, but I’m Ruth, whose mom is no longer here. Ruth, the forty-something orphan. Ruth, who was overjoyed a few months ago when I was back home in Minnesota and I ran into my hometown pastor who is nearly blind now – and I went up to him to say “hello” and he said even though he couldn’t see me, he knew me by my voice, because I sounded just like my mother.

As of three years and a few hours ago, I cannot tell the story of me without telling the story of her loss. I think you probably understand that because this is just how it is once we have known great loss. Our stories are knit together and when we experience the death of someone closest to us, we don’t expect the empty spot they left behind to ever really be filled again. We may grow accustomed to the empty spot, we may get used to the ache, we certainly go on and live and love again, but we would not wish the echo of their loss to ever disappear, because we know there are just some things in life that are irreplaceable. It’s like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say God fills the gap; God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”

And yet, it’s not just the pain and the emptiness that remain with us after our loved ones die. In a mystical, yet very true way, they are a part of us. In countless ways we feel their presence. Think about it, how the scent of a particular gum brings back memories of the fellow who used to always share a piece of it with you before church. Or how when you hear a certain hymn you remember how your grandma would tear up whenever she sang that song. Or how when you look at the smile of your grandson you can so clearly see the same grin your father had. And these things feel like small miracles because they bring back dear memories and glimpses of loved ones long since gone.

But it goes even farther than that. Here in the church we believe that those who have gone before us are not just with us in those memories. Rather, the communion of the saints is a fellowship we continue to share as the body of Christ – regardless of time and space, life or death. I was told a fascinating thing this week – something I don’t know if I had heard before, but if I had, I had forgotten it. That there is a very intentional reason for the half moon shaped altar rails in the Scandinavian churches. The current congregation gathers around the visible half circle rail, while the circle is completed beyond time and space by those who have already died. The altar rail may look like an incomplete circle, but when we gather there we can know that those who have died in the faith are kneeling with us at and complete the circle.

So the tradition of All Saints Sunday that is celebrated in many churches is a powerful time – to not only take time to remember the people from our congregation who have died in the last year, but also to remember all our loved ones who have died, and to remember that while we miss them so much, we are still knit together in the mystical communion of saints. When we sing together, they sing with us. When we share in communion, they share in that meal as well – and it is a thin veil that separates us.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “They live on, those giants of our childhood. They manage to even take death in their stride. Death may take them, but it can never take our relationship with them. However else they still live on, they still live on in us. Memory is more than looking back to a time gone by; it is looking into another kind of time altogether. A time where everything that was continues to be – and grows and changes with the life that is in us.

The people we loved and who loved us; for good or for ill, taught us things. Dead though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is though they come to understand us – and we come to understand ourselves – in new ways too.

Who knows what “the communion of saints” means, but surely it means that these people we once knew are not just voices that have ceased to speak. They are saints because though them the power and richness of life not only touched us once, but continues to touch us still.”