Risky Business

Inspired by Matthew 25:14-30

Our church year is winding down already. Today we have another parable from Matthew, and next Sunday will be our last reading from Matthew for a while, as Advent will begin our year of Mark, the best Gospel. I’m joking. Not really. But today’s parable comes immediately after last Sunday’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, the second of three parables in this chapter and by the way, the last three parables in the Gospel of Matthew.

And I mention that because, like most story tellers, I wonder if Matthew saved the best for last. Or, I wonder if Matthew, like many of us do, told what he wanted his readers to remember the most, last. Maybe, maybe not, I’ll let you decide next Sunday. For right now, we have before us this parable of the valuable coins, but how accurate that title is we will see.

It’s the story of a landowner who goes on a trip and leaves three people in charge, giving each a different amount of money. The first two take the landowners money and double it. But the last one, keeps the money safe so that all of it can be returned to the landowner. That last one wanted to be assured that none of the landowner’s money would be lost. Not that the other two gambled with the landowners money at the local blackjack table but they probably invested it in some way.

And as you know, whenever you invest, there’s a chance you’ll lose it. However, there’s another element to this, another reason why this last worker didn’t use the landowner’s money—and also why we know that the landowner probably doesn’t represent God in this story. The landowner is a crook! A cheat! A thief! And that last worker, the one who just saved the landowners money, knew it!

In fact, the landowner sounds more like a mob boss! Not only is he a swindler but he scares the living daylights out of that poor worker—and apparently for good reason because he ends up throwing that worker out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth! And every time I read this I think to myself, why? What did that worker do so wrong? I would have probably done the same thing!

I wouldn’t want to be sent down the river or swim with the fishes if I lost the mob boss’s money! I would have done whatever kept me safe! Ah, and there it is. That last worker did what was safe, secure, and risk free. Could that be what Jesus was challenging here with this parable. I think so. Like last week’s parable I don’t think his point was to scare us into avoiding the outer darkness or being locked out.

I think these two parables are way more practical than that. Having more to do with the here and now rather than some far off place in the clouds. And I think that’s why these three parables, last week’s, today’s, and next week’s, stick out like a sore thumb in the Gospel of Matthew. They’re down to earth, practical, real-world things we can actually do in the here and now. There’s nothing mystical or miraculous about them. It’s simply Jesus saying, this is the way I want you to live if you are going to call yourselves my followers.

This is the way I want you to govern your lives. I suspect, the reason that so many over the centuries, have been so enamored by the spirituality of Christianity is because spirituality doesn’t ask you to do anything, it’s more of a state of being. And there’s nothing wrong with that state of being but Jesus doesn’t want us to end there.

Jesus calls us to do something with our spiritualty. And in this parable, that something, is to not be afraid to take risks, to not be afraid to step outside our comfortable, secure hole in the ground that we have dug for ourselves to keep ourselves safe. Do you hear where the focus is in that?—on us, on ourselves, inward. So, first I want you to think of the risks that you have taken over the course of your lives, risks that have panned out for you, times in your life when you have taken a risk and the result was something positive. And let me be clear, most of our decisions involve risk right? Even the good ones.

As beautiful a decision is for two people to get married, it’s a risk! You don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but you decide that the risk is worth it. Having children, very risky! You don’t know how they’re going to turn out! Choosing a church. Getting a dog. Buying a car. Making a new friend. Going back to school. All of these decisions, however good, involve risk. And that risk, can be scary. So scary, that it keeps us from making decisions, from taking risks, risks that could lead to some very amazing, beautiful things. Earlier I asked you to think of risks that you have taken. Now I want you to imagine having never taken those risks. All the good that has come from taking those risks, gone, never happened.

And to be fair, not all of our risks pan out do they? Sometimes we take risks and they don’t work out. God may be urging us to take more risks but that doesn’t mean that God asks us to leave our brain at the door. God also wants us to be wise with our risks, to learn from our mistakes. But to always be keep ourselves safe and risk-free? I don’t see anywhere in scripture where God calls us to make self-centered comfortable decisions.

And so far, we have been talking about individual decisions. How about decisions that we make as a congregation? How risky are we as the body of Christ here in Auburn, CA? Or do we tend to make decisions based on our comfort level, on our safety, on our security? It’s something that I feel called, have felt called for some time now, to have us examine as a congregation.

When we discuss decisions and all I hear are phrases like, “I’m afraid if we do this then blank” or “I’m worried that blank” or “What if blank happens.” When all that is said around the table are those kinds of comments, well, the decision has already been made. It was dead before it even took its first breath. And nothing changes, nothing happens, but us standing in the outer darkness. You know why it’s dark in the outer darkness, because nothing is moving out there, it’s stagnant, because you don’t need light when nothing is happening.

Before we sing our next hymn, I want you to think about some risks that you have taken that didn’t pan out, risks that ultimately failed, because believe it or not, that is where the good news is to be found, that is where the gospel is to be found, and this is why. Because in our failed risks, God remains.

In our failed risks, God shines all the brighter for us.

In our failed risks God makes God’s presence known like never before, because God knows we need it more than ever.

In our failed risks God smiles and says don’t despair, I can still work with this, I can still make good out of this, because guess what, I’m God!

And I risked everything for you and thought the world counted me among the dead, look, here I remain, with you, says God almighty! 

Please pray with me. God of risk, God of promise, your love, your presence, and your might, are ever-lasting. Create in us confidence where there is timidity. Create in us strength where there is weakness. Create in us hope where there is despair. Create in us assurance where there is uncertainty. Create in us boldness where there is fear. Create in us hearts that are willing to take risks, based on your promise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Prepared, Not Scared!

Inspired by Matthew 25:1-13

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins
by William Blake
This is a strange story from the Gospel of Matthew! Let’s first deal with the cultural stuff. In Jesus day, this was a very typical wedding ritual for Jewish families. They would have these long elaborate processions leading up to the actual wedding, and would then hold vigil as they waited outside for the bridegroom to be ready. It was very common for them to have to wait for the bridegroom, which will be important in a minute, and the reason was because, it took a long time to haggle over the bride price. With the haggling complete, the wedding could then proceed and all could enter in. So, right away you realize that you are dealing with a very different culture with very different rituals, not to mention very different social constructs.

So there are those cultural differences that make this a strange story but even more puzzling are the theological differences. This story, as well as the one that follows it, which we get to read next Sunday, does not seem to fit in with the rest of this Gospel! I don’t know if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the floor, or if he was sick of attending weddings, or if he had one too many glasses of “water”, but the lessons from this story, taken at face value, just don’t seem to line up with everything else that Jesus had been teaching, such as, sharing.

How many times have we heard Jesus teach us to share what we have with those less fortunate? But now, all of a sudden, Jesus seems to be saying no to the idea of sharing as he doesn’t seem to reprimand the ones who tell the foolish bridesmaids to go to the store! No, he calls them wise! Not to mention the fact that Jesus, in various ways, has taught us to care for others, even at our own expense. But not here, here he seems to be teaching the very American way of looking out for number one, a very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of thinking.

So I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t a lesson on how to be stingy, nor is it a lesson on how to look out for number one, nor is it a lesson on how to throw a sexist wedding. Well, here’s one more thing I don’t think this is about, the future. Many over the centuries have used this passage to strike fear into believers hearts convincing them that when Christ returns you better be ready, or else! I don’t think that’s very helpful! I mean, if you have to read this in a future-oriented way then the take away should be that our hope that Christ will return is not in vain. But I really don’t think that’s what Jesus point was here and we get a clue of this at the end of the chapter. Sometimes it helps to skip ahead and see where Jesus lands to help us understand some of his strange teachings.

In this case, right after this he tells another, very related story, about a master giving three servants different amounts of money and what they do with it, which as I said we will read next week, but then he ends this teaching session with the story of the sheep and the goats. That’s the story where the ruler says to the sheep, “Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat.

I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” And the sheep reply, “when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink, or as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear or sick or in prison and visit you? When you did those things for others, you did them for me, the ruler said.

In this whole teaching session, Jesus wants us to focus on the here and now. What are we doing, or not doing, now. The future is in God’s hands and is taken care of. No need to worry our little heads about that. The present is where Jesus is pointing us. So, in that light, and in this particular story, the lesson seems to be about being prepared and the ramifications, or as I like to call them, the natural consequences, of not being prepared. I recently had a conversation with our Stephen Ministry team and I was telling them how I really don’t like to just drop in on people at their home.

And Joy Johnson asked me, how I felt about being dropped in on without notice, and I had to admit that, no, I’m not a big fan of it either, which is probably why I don’t like to do it to others, but especially not a fan of it is my wife Sara! Her favorite is when we tell the girls that we have to clean the house this weekend and their first question is, “Why, do we have company coming or something?” That question just drives her up the wall! Because, one, we who live here permanently enjoy a clean house, but two, you never know when someone is going to just stop by, so why not be prepared!

But, of course, Jesus isn’t talking about being prepared for company, Jesus is ultimately talking about being prepared for him. And again, I don’t mean being prepared to meet him at the pearly gates after we die. We don’t have to make everything about salvation! No, Jesus is talking about the present, being prepared for others needs that may turn up without notice—needs like hunger and thirst, being a stranger, nakedness, illness, or being a prisoner—and being ready to meet those needs with food, drink, welcome, clothes, care, or a visit. And in being ready for those needs we in turn are ready to meet Christ, here and now. But the point is being prepared.

Here are a few practical examples from the here and now: we recently went trick or treating for cans in our surrounding neighborhood. Our director of children, youth, and family ministry, Lisa, also knew of just how many hungry people show up at our office door each week and thought, maybe we should store some of that food here at the church, to be prepared for those needs when they arrive—prepared to meet Jesus, when he arrives hungry at our door. Here’s another one: I recently got an email from Dana Miller. She told me that she’d like to form a team that was ready to welcome visitors on Sunday, that was prepared to welcome strangers that show up at our door—prepared to welcome Jesus when he shows up.

Here’s another example: a man showed up at our office door just the other day with two large bags of toys that he wanted to donate to children this Christmas. Our office manager knew exactly which direction to point him because of a relationship that she had already established with one of our local ministry partners. She was ready, prepared for when Jesus showed up at our door with bags of toys. Here’s another example: Not that long ago Muriel Delagostino asked me if she could gather and store here at the church, medical equipment like canes and wheelchairs and walkers for when people need one but can’t afford one, so that we would be ready when those needs arise—prepared for when Jesus shows up with a medical need.

Here’s another one, I could do this all day!: I mentioned early that I met with our Stephen Ministry team, most of that conversation centered around how we can be ready for the visitation needs of Bethlehem, whether that be for shut-ins, the ill, the lonely, or anyone in between. They want us to be equipped for when those needs arise—prepared for when Jesus needs a visit. As Jesus said, when you do these things for others, you do them for him. If you take a look at any of those examples by themselves, they may seem small and insignificant. But one of the gifts of my position as your pastor is being able to see all of these examples, being able to see the big picture, being able to see all that you do, on behalf of Christ, for the sake of the world. It’s not insignificant, by any stretch of the imagination.

And I don’t tell you that just so you can all give yourself a pat on the back, I’m not that nice. I share these things with you to give you hope and confidence. Because when you don’t see the big picture it is easy to fall into indifference, complacency, and despair. Church growth is on the minds of many these days. But there are more ways to grow than just filling these pews. That would be nice too, I’m not gonna lie.

But I think the other ways we are growing, growing in discipleship, which is just a fancy word for following Jesus, or more specifically, following the ways of Jesus, that kind of growth, should happen first, and is happening. That kind of growth, growing in how we follow the ways of Jesus, is how we prepare ourselves to fill these pews—with new members, meaning new extensions, of the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


A Funeral Of One

Inspired by Revelation 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3, and All Saints Sunday

Earlier this year I had an experience that I knew someday I would share from the pulpit, I just didn’t know when. Well, today is that day. I had received a phone call from a local funeral home. The lady on the other end asked me if I could do a funeral for a local woman who had recently died. I said sure but she interrupted me to say, “Well, this one’s gonna be a little different.” I said, ok, how different. She said, “Well, other than you, no one else will be attending.”

I said, ok and then offered her a pause to explain further, which she did. She said that none of the remaining family were very religious and weren’t interested in being present, but wanted to honor her wishes to have a Lutheran funeral and this is the best they could do. So she asked, “Are you still willing to do it?” And by her tone I think she was expecting me to say no, but I said yes, I can do that. And very gratefully she said goodbye.

Now, though I said “Yes, I can do that” I had no idea what I would do. God knows I’m no stranger to funerals but I couldn’t help but feel like I was on new ground there. Nevertheless, the next morning I put on my collar and dress slacks and dress shoes, my funeral clothes, and went to the funeral home with prayer book in one hand and anointing oil in the other.

The same lady I talked to on the phone the previous day greeted me gratefully and showed me to the room where the body was, told me to take all the time I needed and awkwardly closed the door behind her, probably wondering the same thing I was, what in the world does a pastor do in a situation like this? And there I stood, with my prayer book in one hand, anointing oil in the other, in a room that was probably not as dark and small as it felt, just myself and the body of the deceased.

As I stood there and pondered how I was going to handle this, I felt myself growing a bit self-conscious and awkward at the prospect of doing a funeral all by myself in that small, dark room. But I immediately pushed that aside because I thought, she deserves better than that. In my mind I knew, she didn’t care. She was at peace with God, she didn’t care that no one but a stranger with a book and some oil attended her funeral.

But I have this thing about respect and the dignity of another human being that I just can’t seem to shake. I was made aware of this one night when I was a chaplain at Hershey Medical Center in Pennsylvania. I visited with a family whose father was actively dying, unresponsive, unconscious. I prayed with them, listened to their stories, and did my best to comfort them, as best as anyone could in a situation like that.

Honored to be invited into one of the most intimate moments in a family’s life as they said goodbye to their loved one lying in that hospital bed. And when I felt it was time to go I said goodbye to them and left. But halfway down the hall I stopped dead in my tracks because it was then that I realized I never said goodbye to that dying man. Now, he was unconscious, I knew that, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had somehow disrespected him, that I had not honored his inherent dignity as a human being. And as you can tell, that really left an impact on me. So, fast forward seven years, in that small, ever darkening room, where I was not going to make that same mistake again. But the question remained, what do I do?

Any of you watch crime dramas on TV like NCIS? Well, one thing I’ve noticed that is common on a lot of those shows is coroners talking to the deceased while they perform their autopsy. And it may look a little weird at first but then you realize, that is their way of honoring the dead, of paying their respects. And so, without giving it much thought I began talking to her, well, more precisely, I started asking her questions.

Like, “How did this happen? How did you end up here, alone, with me, a stranger, in this small, dark room?” It just seemed so wrong, on so many levels. And there was nothing I could do or say that would make it right. But something else I learned about myself as a chaplain in that hospital was, that isn’t my job. It isn’t my job to make things right in people’s lives, or in their deaths. My call is to proclaim the promises of God, and so that’s what I did.

I prayed the prayers of our faith. I read the ancient writings of our spiritual ancestors. I proclaimed the promises of God, the same promises that were proclaimed at her baptism, in some Lutheran church, in some unknown place, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” And as I spoke those words I traced the cross on her forehead with anointing oil as some Lutheran pastor did so many years ago on her infant head—oil from the same bottle that I use to anoint your heads at the Great Vigil of Easter.

And at some point I realized that this was indeed a funeral of one, but not of one person, me, but of the one body of Christ of all times and places. I can’t even begin to try and explain that or rationalize it, but I knew we were not alone in that small, dark room, that didn’t seem so dark anymore. Just as we are not alone in this room.

Communion of Saints by Ira Thomas
In our reading from Revelation John was given a vision of this great big crowd, too big to count, people from every nation, tribe, and language. In some mystical way, as only a person like John probably could, he was able to see all God’s children, past, present, and future, which means he got to see all of these lovely faces that you have brought pictures of to surround us this morning, and he also got to see your lovely faces, and faces we have yet to see—all surrounding the Lamb, Jesus the Christ, with us as children of God gather around the Lamb at the table each week, singing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”

I know, that sounds very mystical, maybe even a bit magical, hard to wrap our heads around or even try to understand. And honestly, I’m not even sure that’s my calling, to try to explain such things, even if I could. But what I do know, is that I am called to proclaim to you this and every day, that you, children of God, have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with cross of Christ forever, and therefore, you are not alone, never alone. Thanks be to God and to the Lamb. Amen.


If I had a hammer...

Sermon by Rev. Tuhina Rasche preached on Reformation Sunday 2017

Inspired by Matthew 22:34-46 and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

When you think of Reformation Sunday, what comes to your mind? This is not a rhetorical question.

In thinking about Reformation Sunday for today, I couldn’t help but think of a song.
            If I had a hammer,
            I'd hammer in the morning,
            I'd hammer in the evening,
            All over this land,
            I'd hammer out danger,
            I'd hammer out a warning,
            I'd hammer out love between,
            My brothers and my sisters,
            All over this land.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there have been so many ways that the Protestant church has rejoiced. Ecumenical services, particularly with our Catholic siblings. Choir concerts. Oktoberfests. Carnivals. Reenactments. But looking back over the past 500 years, I cannot help but think, does this matter? Is the Reformation over?

It does matter. I mean, we’re all gathered here today, right? We’re baptizing a beautiful child on this day that the Lord has made. It’s pretty amazing to think about what a hammer and some nails could do, because Luther’s hammer and nails helped bring us to today. Were it not for the catalyst of the Reformation, I wouldn’t be standing in the pulpit today. I marvel at how something about Luther nailing something to a door brought us here today; not as being classified as Protestants, but instead being classified as Reformers. This is not a party to say, “Woohoo, we’re not Catholic!” 

We’re really celebrating the amazing works of the Holy Spirit in the world. The Spirit that meets us when we gather together. The Spirit that meets is in the sacraments. The Spirit in which we baptize. Being a reformer is about challenging the systems that are in place through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is always challenging us to find new and bold ways to be the body of Christ in the world, to bring about the reign of the kingdom of God, to profess the radical and controversial peace of the Gospel message. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. 

The action of the hammer hitting the nail on a church door is not a stagnant event. What happened afterwards is what leads us here. But it’s not just Luther vandalizing a church door that brings us here today. Hammers hitting nails and the ramifications in another event changed the course of history. Hammers hitting the nails, crucifying Christ on the cross. It’s gut wrenching to think of that broken flesh... because the crucifixion was a disturbing event. With this being Reformation Sunday, I couldn’t help but turn to the words of Luther and his words on Christ’s crucifixion in a devotional titled “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion.” Luther writes:

“For every nail that pierces Christ, more than one hundred thousand should in justice pierce you, yes, they should prick you forever and ever more painfully! When Christ is tortured by nails penetrating his hands and feet, you should eternally suffer the pain they inflict and the pain of even more cruel nails, which will in truth be the lot of those who do not avail themselves of Christ’s passion. This earnest mirror, Christ, will not lie or trifle, and whatever it points out will come to pass in full measure.”

Um. Wow. You might be thinking, we’re never trusting Pastor Ron with selecting a guest preacher ever again. Let’s be honest, there is an uneasiness about Luther’s words. It’s easy to think, oh, Christ’s crucifixion happened a couple of thousand years ago. Other people did it to him. What is unsettling about Luther’s meditation is that Christ’s crucifixion becomes personal. It’s today. You did it. I did it. We’re all culpable. And that is horrifying.

But do not despair. Luther does not leave us hanging. He continues on to say:

“Sin cannot remain on Christ, since it is swallowed up by his resurrection. Now you see no wounds, no pain in him, and no sign of sin. Thus St. Paul [the apostle] declares that “Christ died for our sin and rose for our justification.” That is to say, in his suffering Christ makes our sin known and thus destroys it, but through his resurrection he justifies us and delivers us from all sin, if we believe this.”

We live within a fine line, with a tension between life and death. In this Meditation of Christ’s Passion, Luther talks about sin, our sins, being the nails that cause Christ’s crucifixion, making us aware of our brokenness. Hammers and nails led to Christ crucified on the cross, Christ’s death. But these nails also led to the resurrected Christ, the resurrected Christ who bore the scars of what happened, who took on so much for you and for me out of love for us and for the world.

Hammers and nails didn’t end with the crucifixion and resurrection. Luther’s actions on the door in Wittenberg also show us that hammers, nails, and wood are on the side of new life. We live within this fine line between life and death. The nails of the cross and the nails of the reformation show us this fine line. We are a people of death, but ultimately, we are also a people of life.  

The hammer and nails of Christ’s crucifixion are very much tied to who we are as Christians, and the risk God took in expressing God’s love for us in the person of Christ. The hammer and nails of Martin Luther formed who we are today in this place and are also tied to our Christian identity.           

As a Reformation people, we are a people of the crucified, yes, but also risen Lord. We are a Reformation people who know how the story ends. We know how that story ends because of God’s actions in the world through Christ and the cross. It is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ that is the ultimate Reformation act of all. It is God’s ultimate act of reformation of who God is in the world. It is the ultimate act of reformation of how God interacts with the world. How God loves the world. How God calls us to love one another. It is the ultimate act of reformation of the stories of our lives, and how we interact with the world, how we take an incredible risk to love our neighbors... and risk to love ourselves.

Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the ultimate acts of reformation that call for our response. Not in some “works righteousness” sort of way, but in a way to risk to love as God has so loved us, to respond to love our neighbor, to respond to reform and challenge the status quo of the way things are in the world, and to respond to reform the church and the body of Christ... not just for the sake of reforming, but instead by living into what the Holy Spirit calls us to do as the body of Christ in the world today. To reflect the love God has for the full diversity of the entirety of God’s creation.

Ultimately, the spirit of this day is not about us. The spirit of this day is not about Martin Luther. The spirit of this day is about the Creator God, Redeemer Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit that calls us to reform the church to represent the living Body of Christ in the world today. So no, the reformation is not over. The ultimate act of reformation came in God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. The reformation came with Christ’s life... and death by crucifixion. The ultimate act of reformation came with the resurrection, showing us that death and sin and the devil do not have the final say. We are given a rich legacy and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to continue this act of reformation; not just for the sake of reformation, but for the sake of being moved by the Spirit to be the body of Christ today, to love one another as God loves us today so that we may live our baptismal promises and nurture the body of Christ tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.