Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Justice and Dignity

Matthew 25:31-46, Christ the King A, November 23, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

When we hear this gospel passage, we often think of judgment day. Jesus one day will divide us like sheep and goats, one group destined for heaven and one destined for hell. Jesus will separate us based on our good works. We think of this passage as describing an event far off into the future, one that has no immediate consequence for us. 

Yet this is not necessarily the case. I wonder if we are taking this too literally. Is the purpose to give a detailed description of our final judgment, or does it have something to say about right here and now? Jesus here is encouraging us to act, to follow his example, and to watch out for the least among us. 

There are always people in need, and we always have something to offer. Sometimes, we give to others for our own benefit. We may donate clothes to Good Will, yet we do so just as much to clean out our homes as we do to clothe the naked. We feed the homeless and the hungry so that we feel good, not always so that their bellies are fed. We, as Christians and as Americans, are good at charity, but how good are we at justice?

I occasionally hear of service projects that truly are focused on those in need, and not on our own benefit. On the internet and during podcasts, I hear stories of how individuals are changing the world, helping one individual at a time. 

For example, consider the movement called "Do Something." On Facebook, I follow this organization run by millennials creating service projects for millennials. For example, one of their campaigns is Teens for Jeans. When this group of young people heard that one of the most requested items by the homeless is a good pair of jeans, they could not sit idly by and do nothing.

So, they did something. They realize that homelessness is a real problem for some teenagers, and often what those young people want most is a pair of jeans. Homeless teenagers have plenty of third and fourth-hand old ratty clothing, but what they desire most is something that will help them feel good inside and out. A good fitting pair of jeans is not just a piece of clothing - it is a self-esteem booster.

So, teenagers organize collections at their schools. High schoolers donate jeans from their own wardrobes so that others can be clothed well. These young people see Christ in the homeless around them, and they are doing something about it.

These millennials are doing exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s parable. Jesus tells us that the sheep who will enter the kingdom of heaven are the ones who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, given clothing to the naked, and visited prisoners. We can do these things not just so that we can feel better about ourselves, but we can truly help others in the precess. When we serve our neighbors with respect, we can give them the dignity and confidence that they deserve.

Here is another example of charity that borders on justice: Rupal Patel gave a TED Talk about her creative way to create new synthetic voices. Voices are important and unique to each of us; our voices often reflect our age, our gender, even our race. Our voice is an important part of our identity, yet some people cannot speak. Some have neurological conditions, and others have had problems with their vocal cords. We are familiar with Stephen Hawking, who uses a computerized voice to speak for him. We see him on tv interviews and even on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Big Bang Theory. Because we have seen him using this voice, many of us associate this male, deep raspy voice computerized voice as his. 

Even so, most people who cannot speak use the same computerized voice. When Rupal Patel went to a conference for people who cannot speak, she saw eight year old girls speaking to sixty year old men using the same male, computer-generated voice. She saw hundreds of people using just a few computer voices, and none of their voices reflected their age or gender.

Patel decided to do something about this. She created an organization called, "Vocal ID." She took voice samples from a young woman named Samantha who could make sound but not speak. She then found another woman with the same tone of voice to be her voice surrogate. That surrogate woman recorded four hours of speech where she gave samples of just about all consonant and vowel combinations. 

Then Patel created a program so that the computer can use her samples to generate any words that Samantha would like to speak. Now Samantha no longer needs to use an old male's voice to express herself. Now she can use a voice that is all her own. 

Rupal Patel is giving dignity to disabled people. For people who may feel imprisoned in their own bodies, Patel is giving them their own voice. Young girls and boys can use a computer-generated voice that sounds like them. When they are older, then Vocal ID can create a new voice for them that reflects their maturity.

It is people like this - like teenagers donating their jeans and like Rupal Patel giving a voice to the voiceless - who are doing the work of Christ. They will be the sheep when Jesus divides the sheep from the goats, because they are loving the least among us, and doing it with dignity. These folks find a social issue that could just be a charity case, yet through their respect, they are doing justice. 

We can do the same. For when we see the face of Christ in the least among us, how could we not treat them with respect and dignity. The very least we can do is help others gain a bit of self-confidence even as we care for their basic needs. When that day of judgment comes, we will confidently join the other sheep, not just because we have done these good deeds, but because we are confident of God's love for us. Amen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Harvest Feast Abundance

Matthew 25:14-30, Lectionary 33 A, November 16, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Recently, Professor Karoline Lewis commented about today’s parable saying, “A spirit of abundance produces abundance.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=557 Did we not see this last night?

Out of our abundance, many of us donated food. Then the cooks took those simple items and made delicious beef stew. Combine that with the cornbread, applesauce, pie, and all the sides - we truly shared a feast last night!

Out of our abundance, many of us donated baskets. These simple items, some store bought and some homemade, combined together formed beautiful opportunities for families to have something new. Our events and services auctioned offered opportunities to do something new. 

Out of our abundance, many of us offered our time. Some spent hours shopping and creating homemade items. Others gave hours designing the event and its publicity. Others donated time during the event itself. 

We each contributed to the Harvest Feast in some way. We each have shared out of the abundance that God has given us. We truly have experienced how “a spirit of abundance produces abundance.” 

In today’s parable, the master entrusts his servants with various amounts of money. Then he leaves for an uncertain time. When the master returns, he finds that some have carefully invested and indeed doubled his investment. One did not. The master rejoices in those who took risks as they invested his money, and he curses the one who did not.

I think we are like the servant who was given the two talents. We may not be given the largest sums of money to invest, yet we certainly do increase our yield. Consider what we all donated to the Harvest Feast - the food, the sold items and events, and our time. Did we not double our investment last night?

We have taken our two talents and made them four, but exactly how much is a talent anyway? The short answer: a whole lot of money. For the long answer, let’s do some math. 

One website says that a talent is worth fifteen years’ worth of wages. With the average Iowa salary being about $56,000, that means that one talent may value $840,000. 

56,000 x 15 = 840,000

Another website shares that a talent is worth about 75 pounds, or 33 kilograms, of gold. So, if a gram of gold today is worth $20, then 33 kilograms of gold is worth $660,000. 

33 x (20 x 1000) = 660,000

It seems like each scholar and each website have a different answer for the exact value of one talent in Jesus’ time. However, most can agree on this: The talent was the largest monetary unit in the ancient world. It most likely was worth an equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. That means that 5 talents was worth millions of dollars.

Can you imagine your boss just giving you millions of dollars and saying, “Take care of this while I am gone”? Well, in a way, that is exactly what God has done. God may not give each of us millions of dollars, yet God has entrusted this church to us. Between the property, our annual income, and everything else that we donate, certainly this church is worth at least two talents.

God has given us two talents, and we have invested and multiplied them. Now we hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt. 25:23) So, through the Harvest Feast, we have shown our worth. We have shown God that we are capable of  investing what God has entrusted to us. In the big picture, the Harvest Feast is such a small part of what we do.

Now we can invest much of what we raised last night by sharing our mission support with our synod of Southeastern Iowa. They will combine our support with that from other congregations. A small portion will then be shared among the synod staff to further their sharing of the Gospel through all they do. The synod will also invest in the local ELCA educational institutions, including Grand View University, Luther College, Wartburg College, Wartburg Seminary, and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Our synod will also share about half of our mission support with the churchwide office. In addition to funding the churchwide staff and their ministries, our support also goes to Lutheran organizations like ELCA World Hunger, ELCA Malaria Campaign, and Lutheran Disaster Response. Our donation now covers staff salaries and supplies so that our designated giving later go directly to those in need.

Through our fundraising efforts from last night, we also are able to support local organizations like Lutheran Services in Iowa that provides family services and Churches United that oversees the food pantries across the Quad Cities. We also support local church camps. Of the money that we brought in last night, most of it will be going out. Our donations will then offer other Lutheran organizations to take their two talents and multiply them. For, “A spirit of abundance produces abundance.”

God has also entrusted us with the responsibility for some ministries that will not be covered by last night’s Harvest Feast. We have Thanksgiving food baskets to fill next week. The week after that is Noisy Can Sunday. Before we know it, we also will be filling Christmas baskets and angel tree gifts.
This may seem overwhelming for some. After the Harvest Feast, we almost immediately have to turn around and donate food, coin, and gifts on top of our regular giving. Even so, this is not a burden - it is a delight! 

Our God has granted us an abundance of blessings. When we are grateful for all that we have and for all that we are, we find that “A spirit of abundance produces abundance.” May God help us as we invest our talents to share God’s blessings with others. Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How are you ready?

Matthew 25:1-13, Lectionary 32 A, November 9, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Well, here we are. November 9th, just seven weeks away from Christmas. The stores are full of Christmas gifts and decorations, Mix 96 has switched to nonstop Christmas music, and the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza is up - even if it isn’t lit. This week, even our readings are now pointing toward Christmas.

We haven’t even reached Advent yet, and our Gospel lesson is telling us to be ready. Scholars say that we start having Advent-like readings before the four weeks begin because Advent used to be 7 weeks just like Lent. Even though that change happened during the Middle Ages, the readings still reflect 7 weeks of Advent.

So, here we are on November 9th hearing Jesus tell us for the first time this season to be ready. What does he mean this time? Maybe being ready is like a college graduate looking for his first full-time job. Take Mike, for example. Mike is getting ready for his first job interview. He carefully shaves his face, being sure not to nick himself. Then he puts on his best suit, purchased just for this event. He now looks as mature as he feels. 

His girlfriend straightens his tie before giving him a quick kiss and sending him out the door. During his car ride, Mike goes over his resume in his head, rehearsing why he is qualified for this job. Then, as he waits for his potential new boss to call him in, he takes long, slow breaths to calm his nerves. Then, when the employer calls him in, Mike stands up tall, gives the employer a firm handshake, and walks in.

We certainly can imagine being ready for Christ to look like this. We expect Judgment Day to quickly follow Jesus’ second coming. Isn’t an interview with God the most nerve-wracking interview of all?

Yet Jesus shows us that he has already paid for our entrance into heaven. God isn’t keeping track of our sins and our good deeds to determine if we are worthy for heaven. We are not worthy, yet God through Christ Jesus loves us enough to welcome us into heaven anyway.

Maybe being ready for Christ is more like a young mother ready to walk out the door with her toddler. My friend Tonya recently posted on Facebook that she prepared her one year old son for an outing. First, she packed her bag. She had snacks and wipes in her purse. She had child-friendly apps on her phone. 

Then she prepared her son. She had him layered in clothes and jacket, ready to go out into the almost freezing weather. Then, right before walking out the door, she realized that he not only had a dirty diaper; he had soiled his clothes as well.

Maybe preparing for heaven is like this. Tonya carefully prepared for all of her son’s potential needs. She had food in case he got hungry. She had wipes in case he got dirty. She had games in case he got squirmy. She was on time - until she realized that her son needed a whole change of clothes. 

We see something like this in today’s parable. The wise bridesmaids have extra oil to keep their lamps lit even if the bridegroom is late. The foolish bridesmaids do not have extra oil. They are out buying more oil when the bridegroom comes, so they are late to the party. By then, the gates are closed and they are left in the cold.

Tonya with her packed bags and her newly changed son may be ready to go out shopping, but are they ready for Jesus? This example may be interpreting the passage a bit too literally. Maybe being ready for Christ is more about living a Christian life and less like packing our bags or entering an interview. Take some local farmers, for example.

Recently, Tom Olson of Calamus died at the age of 65. He was driving his farm tractor trailer over railroad tracks when the grain auger became caught on the railroad crossing arm. After such a horrible, fatal accident, the people of Calamus went out of their way to help the Olson family. 

The Olson’s family, friends, and neighbors all came out one day to finish harvesting their 200 acres of corn. Hundreds of people brought their own trucks, combines, and semis to harvest the crop. They also brought food and donated fuel to the grieving family. What would have taken days to harvest, the community finished in a few short hours. Tom’s son, daughter, and grandson were among his immediate family awed and overwhelmed by the support of their community. 

That is what being ready for Christ is like. Showing up and helping out when a grieving family is most in need is one way to be ready. Truly, this community showed God’s love to the Olson family. Carrying the love of Christ into the world is a better description of what those bridesmaids’ extra oil represents for us. 

Even so, helping the Olson family harvest their crops is a one-time event. Those people only gave a few hours of their time to help this family. If we are to always have our candles lit, we will need to be serving the Lord consistently, always, in everything we do.

Maybe this final example is the ultimate example. Arnold Abbott was arrested this week for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale. This man, along with two pastors, were charged with sharing food in public. Frustrated by these laws that outlawed publicly helping the homeless, Arnold has had run-ins with the police before.

Back in 1999, Arnold fought in court to be able to feed the homeless on the beaches of Ft. Lauderdale. Even now, after this most recent arrest, Arnold is planning on feeding those in need at the beach. Arnold knows that he is doing the work of the Lord, and no court or police will be able to stop him. For over 23 years, Arnold has been feeding the homeless. That takes dedication, inspiration, and preparation. 

Indeed, the church has been waiting thousands of years for Jesus to return. Many denominations and congregations have spent hundreds of years keeping their candles lit by doing God’s work in the world. As one scholar wrote, “Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness.” (p. 451.)

It may not take much preparation to spend part of a day harvesting a neighbor’s field. But to feed the homeless for decades - that requires immense preparation.

So also for us. In Zion’s 162 years, we also have fed the homeless through the Salvation Army Free Kitchen. We feed local families at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We do God’s work with our hands throughout the year with our many social ministries. We take care of our own through education programs and our lovely music. Every week, we gather together to worship the Lord, united in our faith for the benefit of the world.

Through your weekly offering, you are helping the church’s oil lamp stay lit. We may not have as much extra oil right now, yet we are keeping our little light shining in the darkness.

On Christmas Eve, we will gather again, still waiting for the Lord’s coming. On that evening, we will each hold a wax candle, letting them shine brightly as we sing Silent Night. Then, we will show God that we are ready for Christ to come. Then, our literal candles will show how our figurative lamps are burning bright. Amen.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Stewardship Letter

 Zion Lutheran Church

204 Great River Road
PO Box 166 563-289-5566
Princeton, IA 52768

November 3, 2014

Dear Members of Zion Lutheran,

2014 has been a year of financial strain and unexpected (non-budgeted) expenses of $3,067. We also have seen a small drop in membership due to death and members leaving the community.  On a positive note, we were able to finish the new parking lot and complete a successful financial drive, which has been a wonderful addition to our church facility. 

At the October Council meeting concern was expressed over the continued “dipping into” of the Certificate of Deposit to fund on-going budgeted expenses of the Congregation.  This year the CD has gone from $15,000.00 to $8,505.90. Contributions through September 30, 2014 have been $65,300.00, leaving a short fall of $8,000.00 - $10,000.00 from our 2013 contributions.

To complete the year on the positive side of the ledger, we need your continued support. We are reminded in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8 as follows:  “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work

The council will be presenting the 2015 budget in the near future and is planning on a pledge drive for 2015. Each of us needs to examine how we have been blessed over our lives as we consider our giving pledges and pattern for the remainder of this and next year. We believe the current deficit challenge is short term and call on your continued generosity and assistance to finish out the year on a financial positive note.  Enclosed is a special offering envelope.  Any contribution you are able to make will help reduce the short fall.

You are invited to stay after worship this Sunday (November 9th), for fellowship and conversation. This will be an opportunity for the church council and your Treasurer to answer any questions you may have regarding the financial condition situation of the congregation.

Yours in Christ,

G. Wylie Pillers 

Council President