november 22, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
Consecration/Charge Conference/Christ the King Sunday
Psalm 126
Matthew 6:25-33

“Grace and Peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Grace and Peace to you, you, from our Lord, Jesus, the Christ.”

Have you heard this greeting before? It is a common greeting, in the life of the church, and between church folk. Grace and peace to you. From our Lord, our Savior, our Redeemer, Jesus. The Christ. The Anointed One. The greeting comes from Paul. This is how Paul started each of his letters—to the Romans, the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians, Philemon…

It is a common greeting. Traditional. Reminding us, when we gather, to pass the peace, to enter anew the grace of God, the connection we share through Christ—the one who strengthens us. But it didn’t start as a common greeting. It was a risky greeting. A radical declaration. A political rallying cry. Fightin’ words, almost.

You see, before Jesus was born, another Lord, Ceasar Augustus, the first undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, was named the divine Son of God. Words we use to declare our devotion to Jesus were reserved for him. Lord. Savior. Redeemer. And, words like grace and Prince of Peace were used only to refer to the emperor. Later, when Nero became the ruler, he was also declared “divine” by the majority of the population, and became known as the Prince of Peace.
When Paul experienced the transformation and healing power of God and began his ministry, he started going from community to community preaching, and Paul started transferring these titles to Jesus. “Grace and peace to you, from our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Meaning, not from Nero. Needless to say, this did not sit well with Nero. Paul knew he was taking a risk, was issuing a challenge, every time he extended this greeting. Risking it all, for faith. For what is real, and right. Reminding the faithful to risk, too. For the sake of building the Kingdom of God.

Risk: the possibility that something unexpected will happen to expose someone or something to the unknown. Risk: uncertain; unpredictable; precarious. Risk: to put on the line. Risk: opportunity for growth.
Paul knew that the Good News of Jesus called him to take risks.

Now I am fairly risk-averse. I am not always so comfortable with that which is uncertain, unpredictable, precarious. I’d rather know how something unknown is going to unfold. I’d rather have a roadmap, and a game plan…And, I don’t know if you know this about me or not, but I am a worrier. I can find it in me to worry about almost anything. I worry about the past. I worry about the future. I worry about big things that matter, and I worry about small things that don’t, not really. I worry if something seems impossible, and I worry if something appears possible. I worry about things utterly out of my control, and I worry about things I have the power to influence. I worry about my own life, and I worry about the lives of others—family, friends, folks in this congregation. I even worry about how much I worry! I am a worrier. Which means, I believe, that I have something to learn from Paul. And, I certainly have something to learn from this morning’s gospel text from Matthew.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Creator feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the people of little faith, of shallow faith, who strive for all these things; and indeed your loving Creator knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the reign of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

It is fitting, I believe, that this piece of scripture happens to find us in worship today—the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Christ the King Sunday. Charge Conference Sunday. Consecration Sunday. The last Sunday before we begin our journey toward Bethlehem, and the waiting and watching that mark Advent.

Please hang with me, if the connections aren’t yet clear.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving. Giving thanks, not for things, but for life. For relationships. For signs of God’s reign, here and now. If we live into and out of a spirit of gratitude, we will not worry. Or at least, not as much. It is almost impossible to feel grateful and to worry, at the same time. To give thanks, and give in to anxiety. It just can’t happen. Gratitude is about recognizing abundance. And we all, we all, experience abundance. Worry is about fear, fearing scarcity (whether it be scarcity of resources, or time, or love, or happiness…) Do not worry about your life…Look around you, the gospel writer implores. Do you not see the evidence of God’s care for you all around, overflowing and abundant? If God pays attention to the needs of grass and birds and things like this, how can you spend even a moment wondering if God is paying attention to you, and your needs? If God’s goodness seems scarce, rather than abundant, we’re not paying attention to God at work in our lives and world.

The Good News of God’s love, always with us, always around us, always within us, asks us to risk. To anchor ourselves to belief, not fear.

And, Christ the King Sunday. Grace and peace to you, from our Lord, Jesus, the Christ. Did you know Jesus never talks about himself in the Gospels? In all of scripture? He never asks that people believe in him. He does ask that people follow him. He doesn’t assert himself as the Divine Child of God. He does teach that we are all children of God, which means we have sacred blessing, and sacred responsibility. Jesus does talk a lot about the Kingdom, or the Basileia, in Greek, we’ve translated it Kingdom, or Reign. Bringing the Basileia. Being the Basileia. Becoming the Basileia. The Kingdom of God isn’t just about identity. It is about priorities. Not just about Jesus, who Jesus is. But also about what Jesus does, how Jesus lives, and what Jesus teaches us to do and how Jesus commands us to live.

Maya Angelou writes about this important distinction. She says, “Many things continue to amaze me, even well into my 7th decade. I’m startled when people inform me they are already Christians. My first response is the question, “Already? It seems to me that becoming a Christian is a lifelong endeavor.”

Becoming Christ-like. Striving for the basileia, the reign of God. It’s not about calling ourselves Christians. It’s about striving to be Christ-like, in word and action. Which means growing and changing and stretching ourselves, and our faith, and our faithfulness.

The Good News of God’s Kingdom coming here, on earth as it is in heaven, asks us to step into the unknown. To dream. To vision. To hope. And, to act. Which means, to risk.

And, Charge Conference Sunday. When we lift up leaders and share visions and name ministry expectations and poise ourselves to strive first for the reign of God in the coming year of ministry together.
In her recent book, Mindset, Carol Dweck describes two different mindsets we might take when we look toward the future. A fixed mindset, and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset values certainty. It seeks out what is unchanging. With a fixed mindset, you stick with what you know, and do what you already know how to do. With a growth mindset, you see challenges as opportunities, you take risks to grow, you step into the unknown, guided by core values and beliefs.

Psalm 126 shows us, I believe, what it is like to put on the mind of Christ, a growth mindset. Remember the psalm—When God showed up, we began to dream. We saw what God could do, and began to envision what we could do. We face all this unknown, and yet still we laugh and shout for joy, because God is here! God, who can make water of life flow into the most parched lives and souls; God who can see someone weeping, and care and love so much the tears cease, and we remember how to laugh, and begin to shout for joy! God, bearing hope, when hope seems impossible.

Charge Conference, while sometimes enshrouded by all the forms and committee meetings and nominations and signatures—Charge Conference really is, really should be, about hope. What we hope to see happen here. What we hope to do, together. How we hope God will guide us, and enliven us. Karl Barth said hope is the act of taking the next step. Hope is the act of taking the next step.

Hope is not being sure that we can deepen our faith, or meet our ministry expectations, or increase our active membership, or increase our budget, or pay our apportionments. Hope is taking the next step, anyway. By turning in our pledge card. By saying yes to offering our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. By coming to church. By tending to the least of these. By reaching out to our neighbor, in our pew, or across town, or across the world. Hope is showing up, and saying, “Together, with God, let’s try!”

The Good News of God’s reign is that it involves each and every one of us, invites and includes and needs each and every one of us.

And, Consecration Sunday. Consecrate—to make or declare something sacred; to dedicate to a divine purpose. To sanctify, bless, make holy, make sacred, dedicate to God, set apart, reserve. Today we consecrate our pledges to each other and to God—we declare ourselves to God, and dedicate ourselves to the sacred task of striving for the Kingdom, and setting apart our gifts to return generously to God what God has already given us.

I have been praying a lot about these pledge cards, about our stewardship drive, about this day of consecration. I have challenged all of us to turn in a pledge card. Issuing a challenge like this is risky. I have to face the possibility that you all will not step up to this challenge. This week I ran into two faithful members of this congregation. They have given faithfully and generously of their gifts and presence and service and prayers for many years. But, they shared that this year they will be turning in a pledge card for the first time. I don’t know if you can begin to imagine my joy! This is, a sign of the Kingdom coming!

Taking a risk, and seeing what is possible unfolding…I believe to my core that each of us has something to give, and that each of us is called to give what we have, and that pledging a commitment is an act of faith. And, I know that asking you to step up your giving means I need to be willing to step up mine.

This past week I was sitting around a table of other United Methodist pastors, talking with Anne Lippencott, our District Superintendent. At one point, Anne referenced how pastors should model tithing to our congregations. None of us said anything, but the nervous fidgeting and lack of eye contact and shifting in our seats leads me to think I wasn’t the only pastor at that table who hasn’t been tithing. Last year, I pledged enough to make me a little nervous. Enough to feel generous. Enough to make me rethink my budget and reorder my priorities. But I didn’t, I have never, tithed. This year, for the first time, I am going to. I’m going to try. I’m going to pledge 10% because it’s what the Bible commands, what Jesus teaches. Because the command toward economic justice, runs throughout the Bible, where those who have give to those who don’t. I’m going to try tithing because I know it will have to be a spiritual practice. That I will have to pray and trust and depend on God and reorder my life to make it possible. I’ll have to set aside some of my instinct to worry, or else I won’t make it through!
I have come across a number of pithy quotes as I have prayerfully considering (and, if I’m honest, worrying about!) tithing. Ruth Ross wrote, “We won’t even attempt to do what we do not believe at a deep level we can do or deserve.” I believe it is within possibility for me to give 10% to the church, if I make it a priority, and I believe at a deep level that God, that this community of faith, deserves it, is worthy of this priority, and sacrifice. Winston Churchill wrote, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” I want my life to be a generous one. And, while this pledge is risky, while I know I might fail, I remember the words of one of my favorite theologians, Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote, “The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable.” An adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. Risky. Faithful.

Paul, taking a risk, entering the opportunity by greeting people in the name of Christ, not of the emperor, by naming Jesus as the source of grace and peace. The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit. I pray my commitment to tithing will be an adventure of spirit, that it will open opportunities for me—to be faithful, to grow in generosity, to enable new vision and ministry, to learn to pray and trust, when it would be easier to worry.

The Good News of God’s generosity invites us to not only receive, but also respond. With open hearts. And minds. And yes, wallets.

And, it is the final Sunday before we enter the season of Advent. Everything changes next Sunday. Next Sunday, we receive and remember the promise that God is coming, choosing to become flesh, to dwell among us, to take on all the risk and responsibility of becoming human, in order to love more fully and lead more clearly. We are invited to hope, and it is a risky kind of hope, to believe that something not-yet might be possible.

The Good News of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, coming to us, entering the world, being born anew in our hearts and lives and relationships and church. The Good News of Emmanuel, daring us to believe, when we have nothing but God’s promise that it will be so.

Grace and Peace to you, from our Lord, our Savior, our Redeemer, our Friend, Jesus, the Christ.

There can be no hope without taking the next step. There can be no transformation, without challenging what has been. There can be no growth without entering the opportunity, and risking what seems impossible. There can be no faith, without hearing the Good News, receiving the Good News, living the Good News, sharing the Good News.

Billy Graham said the test of a preacher is that her congregation goes away saying, not “What a lovely sermon!” but “I will do something!”

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

november 15, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
November 15, 2009
Psalm 24
Mark 12:38-44

A bagpiper was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery in the remote countryside and this man would be the first to be laid to rest there.
The bagpiper was not familiar with the remote area, and got lost. He finally found the cemetery, but by then he was an hour late. He saw the crew eating lunch but the hearse was nowhere in sight. After apologizing to the workers for his tardiness,

the bagpiper stepped to the side of the open grave where he saw the vault lid already in place.
He assured the workers he would not hold them up for long but that he needed to play so that this homeless man, whose life had held so much heartache and struggle, could be honored. He knew it would be easier to just leave, but he knew staying was the right thing to do. The faithful thing to do. He had something to give. The workers gathered around, still eating their
lunch. The bagpiper played, full of heart and soul.

As he played, the workers began to weep. He played and played like he'd never played before, from Going Home and The Lord is My Shepherd to Flowers of the Forest and In the Garden. He closed with Amazing Grace and walked silently to his car.
As the bagpiper was opening the door and taking off his coat, he overheard one of the workers saying to another, "Sweet God in Heaven, I've been putting in septic tanks for twenty years, and I’ve never seen nothin’ like that before.

When we share our gifts…when we give our time…when we offer the outpouring from our hearts and our souls…we can never know the impact we will have. When we give what we have…when we show up and do what we can do…when we offer ourselves because it is right, even if no credit will come our way…we can never fully imagine what might become possible.
I’m going to ask a question, and I’m not asking it to try to make any of you uncomfortable. How many of you were here in worship last Sunday? Raise your hands…

Those of you who were here hopefully recognize the gospel story from Mark. The widow, who hands over everything she has, less than the wealthy people, less than the important people, two meager copper coins. But it was everything she had, and, Jesus teaches, it meant more than any of the gifts that were given without sacrifice, without genuine feeling. Those of you who were here hopefully remember that I preached on this text.

This week I’m returning to this gospel text again. To preach about that widow again, and the lessons of extravagant generosity and faithful stewardship written within the text. I’m doing this because I didn’t like my sermon last week.
A recent study found that 85% of pastors feel uncomfortable and ill-equipped to preach about finance, and stewardship, and giving. I am part of that 85%. Even from our finance committee, the folks in this church who, maybe more than others, know how important generous giving is for the life and ministry of this congregation—only two of them were willing to stand up here and speak on Sunday morning, and even that was a stretch. Talking about money, and giving, is not comfortable. I would rather not preach on Stewardship. And yet, I think spending only one Sunday a year on stewardship when it is a major theme running throughout the Bible isn’t quite enough.

Last week I told you all why giving is important. Why it is biblical. That it is what Jesus says to do, over and over and over again. I laid out numbers and percentages about tithing, and shared how all three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) all command faithful followers to give generously—zedekah, zakat, tithe. Important stuff, to be sure. But I didn’t like the sermon. For quite a number of reasons.

I don’t want you to give because I tell you to, or I convince you that giving is a central part of being a Christian, a follower of the teachings of Jesus. I want you to decide on your own to give generously. I want you to give with abandon because God gives with abandon. I want you to give because helping others and believing that in doing so we are serving God is one of the most fundamental pieces of living out our faith. I want you to give, but I don’t want you to give because I tell you to.
And. I don’t want you to give because you feel guilty about not giving. Guilt is not of God. Recognizing a wrong done or an opportunity missed is of God. Feeling convicted to do it differently is of God. Making amends and asking for forgiveness is of God. Guilt, however, is not of God. I want you to give, but I don’t want you to give because you feel guilty.

And. I don’t want to scare you into giving. I don’t want to compel you to give because we are struggling to pay our bills, because we don’t have the money to afford the new carpet this sanctuary needs, because we aren’t doing our part in the connection by paying apportionments, because Andrea as Treasurer has to choose which bills to pay and which bills to hold back until more offerings come in, because our elevator is old and our basement isn’t accessible, because youth know that Our Saviors has a pool table, and a basketball hoop, and we don’t. Fear and coercion are not of God any more than guilt. I want you to give, but I don’t want to use fear to scare or coerce you into giving.

And. I know that many of you give already. Generously.

Your gifts. Last Sunday morning, right before worship, after it was too late to change my sermon, one of you handed me a check for $1500 dollars, your pledge.

And, many of you generously give your prayers. Many of you do the spiritual practice of prayer regularly.

Your presence. Many of you show up, day after day. I’ve seen you come Friday morning to water the plants in this sanctuary and pick up meat to cook for the Roast Beef Dinner and come back Saturday to peel potatoes. I’ve seen you arrive at 6:30 Sunday morning to turn on the heat to prepare this space for worship. I’ve seen you here Wednesday night for youth group, and for choir. And because you sit in the same spots every week, I do notice when you’re here, and when you are missed.

Your service. I’ve seen you mowing the parsonage lawn, and serving on ministry committees, and baking bars for funeral lunches, and making Ingathering kits, and creating seasonal altar spreads, and teaching Sunday School, and attending UMW circle.

Your witness. I’ve heard you tell your stories of faith, I’ve heard you bear witness to God’s goodness alive and at work in your lives. I’ve heard you say “Yes” to sharing a children’s sermon, and seen you willing to take a risk and preach a sermon.
I want to encourage all of us to consider how we might give more, how we might step up our giving, how we might find new ways to give. But. And. I do know that many of you give generously already.

And. I know that some of you cannot give money right now. Some folks within this congregation are struggling to pay rent, and utility bills. Some are unable to cover the cost of prescriptions, and necessary health care. Some wonder if they can make their paycheck last to buy groceries at the end of the month. Some folks cannot give money right now. And, I do not want any of you to feel inadequate. Worthless. Less valuable. Less faithful. Because you can’t spare any money. This is not of God, either.

I know these things. And I don’t know if I conveyed them last week in my preaching about stewardship, and generous giving.
But. I do believe that living out of a spirit of gratitude and generosity is a requirement of our faith. Part of our job as servants and disciples of Christ is to give. Part of the sacred covenant we have made by becoming members of this congregation is to faithfully give. Our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, our witness. And, I know I, I know we, need to be reminded of that covenant, and continually renew our commitment to be faithful to it.

One of you asked me this past week how stewardship and faith development are connected. What extravagant generosity has to do with what we believe, and how we live out that belief. It’s a good question. One we need to spend more time considering as a congregation.

Faith development is about being in relationship. With God. With the Body of Christ. With our neighbors. Faith development is about cultivating and nurturing spiritual practice—praying, studying scripture, receiving the sacraments, worshipping in body and spirit, asking the questions “What Would Jesus Do?” And “How Would Jesus Respond?” and then allowing that answer to guide our actions and responses. Faith development is about finding ways to follow the greatest commandment of all—loving God with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and loving our neighbors, and ourselves. Faith development is about learning to trust—God, and God’s children. To care. To share.

Faith development is about learning to place at the center of our lives what needs to be central—God; the teachings of Jesus; family; beloved community; friends who become family—and keeping at the periphery things that need to be peripheral, or let go of all together—appearance; social status; fear; judgment; stuff. Faith development is about taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zones when the Good News of God’s love calls us to do so—taking a stand; speaking out; seeking out and welcoming the least of these, the stranger, the strange.

So too, is stewardship. Stewardship is about being in relationship. With God. With the Body of Christ. Stewardship is about cultivating and nurturing spiritual practice—the practice of giving, lifted up more times in scripture as a necessary part of faithful living than anything else, even prayer. Stewardship is about asking the question “What Would Jesus Do?” And “Who Would Jesus Give?” and then allowing that answer to guide our own behavior. Stewardship is about gathering our resources and finding ways to follow the greatest commandment of all—loving God with all of our hearts and minds and souls and strength, and loving our neighbors and ourselves.

Stewardship is about learning to prioritize true priorities, and letting go of the things advertisers and marketers tell us are important, but aren’t. Stewardship is about taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zones. Trusting there to be enough. Giving at least as much to the church as we spend on cable TV, or cell phone plans, or video games, or toys, or dinners out, or new outfits, or fancier cars.

Faith development and stewardship are about remembering what God has already done for us, and responding, giving back, giving thanks.

Faith development and stewardship are about recognizing that the poor widow in Mark’s gospel who gave all she had, her two copper coins, brought the Kingdom of God nearer, because she acted out of faith, not fear, out of concern for the community’s well being, not just her own.

Faith development and stewardship are about knowing that when we do what is right, what is good and kind and compassionate and just, we might end up playing bagpipes over a septic tank rather than a grave, and that this might be a blessing, a strange and unexpected act of ministry.

Faith development and stewardship are about believing that what seems impossible just might be possible after all.

Theologian Karl Barth created the phrase “impossible possibility” in his effort to describe what God has done and can do, when things look hopeless or out of reach. I want you to give because I believe that if we all give more, this community will grow—in numbers, in faith, in love, in mission.

Faith development and stewardship are about knowing that the power of the Spirit, the power of being the Body of Christ, can make the impossible possible.

Faith development and stewardship are about remembering that small acts can have enormous, unexpected effect. That daily acts of faith—a kind word, a simple prayer, an expression of gratitude, an appreciation of beauty, showing up, a helping hand, a listening ear, a heartfelt gift—that this is how we live our faith. That committing to give regularly, whether $1, $10, $100 or $1,000, is a spiritual practice, and act of service to God. This is how we be the church. This is how we are faithful to our covenant with God, and how we live after the example of Christ.

So. I want you to give. I want you to give generously. I want each of you, every household, to turn in a pledge card next week, Consecration Sunday. I want you all to know that every one of us has something to give. I want you to give a little more than you are comfortable with giving. Of your money. Of your time. Of your presence. Of your prayers. Of your witness.

Not because I say so. Not because you feel guilty, or scared, or coerced. Not because you fear I’ll keep preaching on the same gospel story until our budget it met, and our apportionments paid, and your pledge card turned in.

But because it’s what God asks of us. Because it’s what you have already covenanted to do by being a member of this faith community. Because it’s faithful. Because it’s what the widow does, even when she has so little. Because it will help us do extraordinary things, to grow, to do ministry and outreach and faith development that seems impossible, but isn’t, not really, not with God, not with each other. Not at all.

May it be so. Amen, and amen.

november 8, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
November 8, 2009
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Mark 12:38-44

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the sanctuary and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The themes from Ruth and Mark are clear: extravagant generosity; risking it all for faith; caring for the collective community, and trusting any just, faithful community to care right back; righteous living, which means trusting God to meet you in the mess, when everything is unknown. Both of this morning’s stories from scripture are messy ones, stories that disrupt our ways of life. They are the kind of stories that makes waves, create ripples that spread, permeating and changing everything.

In the scripture from Ruth, we have scandal, and sex, and secrets and deception. And this, this, context, gives birth to David—the holy family—Jesus. It seems even the biblical family tree—like every family tree—has its twists and turns and stories that are repeated in hushed whispers, histories carefully kept out of public views, relationships formed and babies birthed in less than ideal circumstances. And yet, God is still there, working in and through the messy, scandalous lives of flailing, faithful people.

And, in Mark. In Mark’s gospel we are held to an ideal of generosity few if any of us can attain. The bar is set high. So high that even the most literal of scripture readers starts immediately making compromises with the text, and it’s clear mandate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is important to remember a few things about the roll generosity and giving play in all three Abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Within Jewish tradition, there is the obligation of performing tzedakah—giving up 10% of one’s income. Tzedakah—practicing righteousness, or justice for those in need. The practice of tzedakah teaches the faithful to strive for God’s justice through generous giving.

Within Islamic tradition, one of the five pillars forming the foundation of faithful living—along with prayer, fasting, professing faith in one God, and making a pilgrimage—is zakat. Zakat—giving to charity—the sacred duty of those with means to help the poor. Zakat—practicing righteousness, striving for God’s justice through generous giving.

And, within Christian tradition, the tithe—a holy obligation, a biblical mandate, giving 10% of one’s income. Tithe—a sign of loving one’s neighbor, and caring for the least of these, and in doing so, generously caring for Jesus.

Tzedakah. Zakat. Tithe. Righteousness. The power to give life, a sign of our intent to share the life and generosity divinely shared with us.

This week a retired UM pastor in Iowa shared his wrestling with the gospel story from Mark. He keeps up with the lectionary readings, and is faithful to biblical study and the practice of exegesis—searching scripture and lifting out the meaning, the truth, residing in the holy words. Even though he no longer prepares a weekly sermon, even though he no longer steps into a pulpit on Sunday. It is worth remembering, of course, that the practice of wrestling with a scripture text, or studying it for meaning and truth and then applying it to life today, this is a task of all the faithful, not just preachers and pastors.

So. He re-read this familiar story of the poor widow who gave everything she had. Not 2%, not 10%, but 100%—all she had, we are told. And this retired pastor was a little bit peeved. He had received a pledge card in the mail from his worshipping community, and was sitting at the local diner to contemplate the challenge to step up his giving.

He had every reason not to—not to take a risk or give too generously. Neither the Board of Pensions nor Social Security would be giving him a raise. Everyone knows the state of the economy, everyone knows how difficult it is to find and afford quality health care. This is the perfect time to be cautious, is it not?

This pastor understood the importance of stewardship, but was still a bit put off by the church’s audacity to ask for more. Put off by the challenge made by the congregation challenging everyone—everyone in the congregation from oldest to youngest, richest to poorest, newest member to most tenured faithful, to pledge a ¼ tithe, or 2.5%. He grumbled his way through lunch. That darn scripture, he kept thinking. That darn widow. He just couldn’t get her out of his head, or perhaps, out of his heart.
He kept grumbling. The waitress, his favorite, familiar waitress, kept his coffee cup filled, and he lingered. Finally, noticing the diner was filling up, but grateful his waitress hadn’t rushed him, had offered him the space he needed, he asked for his bill and got out his wallet. He paid—the $7 plus change, and left a generous tip—$3. More than his usual 20%, but the waitress had been patient, attended to his needs personally and with kindness.

Collecting his bible, journal, and pledge card from the booth, he realized what he had done. Giving almost 50% to the waitress. A generous step up from a standard of 20%. Out of gratitude. And, he resisted pledging 2.5% to the church. The church that raised him, nurtured his faith, blessed his marriage, baptized his children, fed his soul, gave his life meaning, invited him into relationship with a risen savior, with an ever-loving, ever-present God, formed his values, renewed his belief. 20% to the waitress. 50% on a good day. The church, he decided, was worth 2.5%. A least. After all, that darn widow hadn’t stopped at 2.5%. or 10%. or 50%. She gave everything she had. Everything. Trusting that her act of generosity—risky, extravagant, perhaps even foolish generosity—would be matched by God’s care for her, and the community’s care surrounding her. Why not tip the church, the slightly chagrinned pastor though. The service has been excellent, the food good, the ambiance inviting, the folks caring and hospitable.

Zakat. Tzedakah. Tithe. Righteous living, generous giving. Justice for those in need. Fulfilling a sacred duty to help others. A sign of loving one’s neighbor, and caring for the least of these, and investing in beloved community.
As members of The United Methodist Church, we have pledged to God and to each other to give generously of our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Stewardship doesn’t stop with money.
What if we took the obligation of tithing seriously?

Tithing our prayers—spending 10% of the day—2 ½ hours each day in prayer?
Tithing our presence—about 16 hours in church each week.
Tithing our service—about 16 hours of service each week for the community, and those in need.
Tithing our gifts—10% of our income. If you make $30,000 a year, that means about $57 a week, or $250 a month.
And, as high as that bar is set, it’s already scrimping, compared to the widow, this darn widow, who Jesus lifts up as an example of faithful living and giving.

So, already scrimping, what if we each pledged ¼ tithe? 2.5% of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Spending 40 minutes in prayer each day. Coming to church on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning, and at least one other time during the week? Pledging 2.5% to the church.

If you make $15,000 a year, that’s $8 a week. About $30 a month.
$30,000 a year, $15 a week. $60 a month.
$50,000 a year, $25 a week. $100 a month.
$80,000 a year, $40 a week. $170 a month.

For many, less than monthly cable, or internet. For most, more than we already give. For most, more than we are comfortable with. More than we can give without noticing. And still, so much less than that darn widow, who dropped two copper coins into the collection, giving everything she had—out of faith, without fan fare or glory.

Jesus warning rang loud in the ears of that retired pastor, until he stopped resisting, and started listening.

Hear, again, the words from Mark, as found in The Message Bible. “Jesus continued teaching. “Watch out for folks who call themselves religious, and the people who loudly proclaim their faith. They love to walk around preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.” Sitting across from the offering box, Jesus was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins—a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, “The truth is that their poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all.”

The scripture readings this morning are tricky. If we take them seriously, they stop us in our tracks. Mess us up a bit. Make us think twice. And then, think again. This is what God’s Word does. It meets us where we are. And then invites us to go somewhere we’ve never gone before. Righteous living isn’t always comfortable. Usually, faithfulness pushes us out of our comfort zones.

May we listen. May we hear. May we wrestle. May we be guided by what seems hardly possible, rather than held back with what we want to think is impossible. May we give. What we have. What we can. All we can. All we have.

Amen, and amen.

november 1, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
November 1, 2009
All Saints Sunday/Celebration of Communion

One of you slipped something under the door to my office this past week. I don’t know who it was, but I have my hunches… Here’s the story, written on the pages left for me to find.

A pastor was finishing up his sermon, and was getting pretty worked up. The sermon was on sin and temptation, and the pastor was the kind of pastor to get pretty excited about sin and temptation. With great emphasis he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river…Be rid of it! Get it out of here!”

And then, he was off his script now, and really fired up, he said, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river…Be rid of it! Get it out of here!”

And then, he was almost shouting by now, and shaking his fist in the air, he said, “And if I had all the whiskey in the world I’d take it and pour it into the river…Be rid of it! Get it out of here!”

And with that, he finished his sermon, said “Amen,” and sack back down feeling pretty satisfied with himself. The song leader stood up, looking a little nervous, then smiling, then almost laughing, and announced, “And now, please rise to sing hymn #732, “Shall We Gather at the River.”

That song leader was no saint. That preacher, whether he admitted it or not, was no saint. This preacher is no saint. None of us are saints. If. IF. IF. By saint we mean perfect. If by saint we mean above mistake. If by saint we mean without failing or fault. If by saint we mean holier than thou, superhuman. None of us. NONE OF US are perfect. All of us. ALL OF US have room to grow in love and faith and compassion and just-relationship.

Many of you have objected when I have called you saints. Saints of the church. Saints of God. “But I’m no saint,” you say, and I think I understand what you mean. Not perfect. Not without room to grow. Not without work still to be done. But saints, nonetheless.

Cindy McCalmont, a pastor and colleague and mentor and friend of mine defined saint this way: ordinary people, occasionally rising up to great heights to do extraordinary things. Ordinary people, occasionally, every once in a while, when needed, rising up to great heights to do extraordinary things.

Today is All Saint Sunday. A liturgical holiday set aside for remembering and honoring the saints who have gone before—the friends, mentors, family, and family of faith folk held in our hearts, and in our history. None of them perfect. All of them saints.

Both of the scripture readings we have heard and read and borne witness to this morning are about what is real. What is honest. Not perfect. Not pretentious. Not pretending to be perfect. The common thread running through these readings from Revelation and the Gospel according to John are tears, and rebirth. Real pain, and real resurrection. Grief, and gift. And they go together.

“See,” the loud voice from the throne is saying, “the home of God is among humans. God will dwell with them, with us; we will be God’s people, and God will be with us; God will wipe every tear from our eyes.” Not, God will make things perfect so we will never cry again, but God will be with us, in the humanness of love and loss, and will wipe away every tear from our eyes, making all things new.

In the gospel of John, Mary is weeping. The faithful people, gathered around her are weeping. Jesus joins them, and soon Jesus is weeping. And, in the midst of their tears, while the tears are still flowing, the glory of God shows up. And stuns. And raises them all to new life, in this life.

In her little book Not Just yes and Amen, Dorothee Soelle tells us that resurrection breaks through the feeling that nothing goes right and that we can't do anything about it. We gather together. We cry together. We witness to the fullness of life together—love and loss, pain and possibility, gift and grief. We hear the word together. We eat together and drink together. We sing together. Sometimes, we gather at the river together. And today, on All Saints Day, we remember together as that death does not have the last word. That mourning and crying and pain, while real, do not have the last word.
This is what it means to be a saint. To be real, with each other. And to be made new, together.

Last Wednesday afternoon, I sat around a table with three saints of this church, looking through all the former church directories capturing this history of this church. I saw names I know…Crosser, Hungerford, Biederman, Mehmen, Carter, Fredericks, Maxwell, Weber, Dammen, Morse, Betts, Quarne…sometimes with faces I know, sometimes with faces of those who have gone before, generations past, people I have never met, yet still present in the life and legacy and spirit of this community…Saints of God. Saints of the Church.

Last Sunday, Cal preached about miracles, and thanksgiving. Miracles, like saints, are NOT meant to be held apart, separate from daily life, relegated to the pages of scripture or the first few hundred years of Christian history. Saints—ordinary people, rising up to do extraordinary things when needed. Miracles—ordinary moments, when we are opened up to the extraordinary power…and mystery…and beauty…of God. Making all things new. Resurrection, breaking through. Scripture, alive. Living Word.

I want to end by reading the lyrics to a song written by Peter Mayer. I met Peter when I was in campus ministry. This song is called “Holy Now,” and it speaks to me of saints, and miracles, and the power of resurrection breaking through, in the ordinary, the daily, the holy.

Holy Now
Peter Mayer

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
As he would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

And when I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now

It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now.

Everything is holy. Everything’s a miracle. Everyone is a saint, invited by the Holy One to rise up, to do great things, when the occasion calls.

Thanks be to God. Amen, and amen.

october 18, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
October 18, 2009
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c
Mark 10:35-45

It is Laity Sunday. A special Sunday established by the General Conference to celebrate the ministry of all lay Christians. It is good that we have a designated Laity Sunday, because we need to remember to celebrate the ministry into which all of us are called. It is not good, if we believe laity should be involved in the leadership, ministry, and mission of the church one Sunday a year. We need lay leadership. We. Meaning clergy. Meaning our church. Meaning, well, the world. If we are to be the body of Christ, we must remember there is not the body without the laity. Laity—meaning, of the people. You. Liturgy—meaning, work of the people. You. You are called. Into ministries of justice and compassion. To make disciples of Jesus. To transform the world. Not just when clergy are busy. Or out of town. Or sick. You are called. To share your stories. To tell your truths. To give testimony to God’s grace at work in your lives.

This morning Penney Morse will share part of her story. Her story of faith. Of call. Of seeking to live a life and build a world that is more just, more engaged, more peaceful, more compassionate. If I had my way, each and every one of you would be up here, in worship, creating our liturgy, doing the work of God’s people. God willing, we have many more Sundays together. Many opportunities for you to share your story. The invitation is extended. And now, we turn again to the gospel…

They are ordinary folk. I mean, extraordinary in the way that all of us are extraordinary—created by God, called good by God, called into ministry by God. But they are also ordinary. They are laity, let’s not forget. Not ordained. Not rabbis or priests or rulers. They go to their teacher: Do what we want you to do. The teacher is wise enough to ask what it is that they want before promising anything. We want to sit beside you, they say. Be near you. Enter into glory with you. They want to ride on his coat tails. The teacher can do all the work, and they can bask in the glow.

The teacher says, something to the effect of, “Do you have any idea what you will have to do—what sacrifices you will have to make, what courage you will have to summon, what grief you will be given, what conflict you will have to navigate, what opposition you will face? Do you have any idea? And they say yes. But they say it a little too quickly. The teacher isn’t sure they’re sure.

So, the teacher gives them a lesson. On leadership. On greatness. On using power. There are some, the teacher warms, who think that being a leader means flaunting your power—using it to dominate others. They scare people, threaten them, and then when no one challenges them, they convince themselves it is because they have been right all along. They amass great wealth, which is unjust as long as anyone is poor. They pretend to have a monopoly on the truth. They try to make very complicated issues black and white, and are quick to call others sinful or evil to build up the fa├žade of their own righteousness. Don’t be like this, the teacher warns. This kind of power doesn’t make someone great. It will not make you great. It will not make you a leader. It will not get you a seat on my right, nor on my left.

But. It isn’t any more right to shrink back. To convince yourselves you are powerless. To bemoan what is happening, but let others try to make it better. Doing nothing will not get you a seat on my right, nor on my left. So. If you serve. If you value kindness over kingship. If you help the poor, build relationships with them rather than rob them. If you challenge injustice in whatever forms it presents itself. If you eat with people who are usually pushed away from the table. If you do the kind of work that is important, even if it is not the work that will get you noticed. If you speak the truth, rather than repeat what people want to hear. If you find the courage to tell your story, share yourself and your God-given gifts. Then…Then… Then, you will always have a place with me. Then, you will know you are beside me, and I am beside you.

May it be so.

october 11, 2009

Written by Anna Blaedel; preached by Cal Nicklay, Lay Speaker
First UMC, Osage
October 11, 2009
James 5:13-16a
Mark 10:17-25

“First, I’d like to make an announcement. I, Cal, am not Pastor Anna. Pastor Anna is enormously grateful (those are her words) that I, Cal, am willing to read her sermon, and share her message with all of you today. Pastor Anna is unable to be with us in worship this morning, but will be holding all of us in prayer as she worships with other United Methodists outside of Iowa. Sometimes even pastors just need to be in worship. She wants it said that anything that goes well, that connects with you in the sharing of this message is likely attributable to Cal. Any mistakes or disconnects are likely Pastor Anna’s.

Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in our sight, O God our strength and our redeemer…

The week before Pastor Anna moved to Osage, a week before she started pastoring this church, she called a mentor. Her mentor, Jill, has been a pastor for a handful of decades. She is wise. She is faithful. Pastor Anna’s plea was urgent—“Jill,” she asked, “what do I do?” How do you pastor a church? How do I prepare to preach, week after week? What if I don’t have anything to say? Where can I find the courage to be prophetic, even if it doesn’t make me popular? How will I navigate the quagmire of committee meetings and charge conference forms and church budgets? How do I find balance so I don’t burn out?” Pastor Anna’s questions rambled fast and furious. “Teacher, how do I do this?” Jill listened. She took time to hear, to really hear. “You know that stuff,” she said. “Or at least you know enough. What you don’t know, you’ll learn.” Keep it simple, Anna, she said. Two things. “Love God. Love the people.” The rest will follow. Love God. Love God’s people.
Jill was shifting the focus from rules to relationships. From commandments and conference mandates and curriculum and committees and conflict management styles—shifting the focus to compassion and community. From to-do and not-to-do tasks, to right relationship—being the Body of Christ.

In 18th century England, John Wesley was approached. “Priest! Pastor! What do I do? What do I need to be faithful? How can I build up God’s kingdom?” John Wesley took a complicated question and tried to make it simple. Pare down to essentials. Three simple rules: 1) Do no harm; 2) Do good; 3) Stay in love with God. Do no harm—this is what the commandments get at—Don’t steal—Don’t murder—Don’t commit adultery—Don’t break the Sabbath. Two—Do good. Pursue personal piety and social holiness. Pray. Commit to small group study for support and accountability. Work to free the poor from poverty. Challenge injustice. Challenge anything that breaks people down and destroys and keeps the Kingdom from coming. And, third—stay in love with God. If you don’t nourish this love, if you don’t tend to your relationship with the Holy, you’ll never be able to sustain yourself in doing good and avoiding harm.

John Wesley was shifting the focus from rules to relationships. From commandments into compassion and community. From to-do and not-to-do tasks, to right relationship—being the Body of Christ.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him, urgent. Frantic. “Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do? How might I experience life eternal?” Jesus responds: You already know what to do. Go do it. Jesus almost sounds exasperated. Perhaps because he’s setting out on a journey, and eager to be on his way. The man responds, “I’ve been doing all this already. Since I was a child.” Jesus looks at him. And, the text says, then he loves him. He looks. He sees. And when Jesus sees him, when Jesus loves him, it stops being an exercise in theological exhortation. It becomes about relationship. If you really want to be faithful, if you want to inherit eternal life, if you want to be thy kingdom come, then you’ve got to shift your focus beyond rules, into relationship. Beyond commandments, into compassion and community. Beyond to-do and no-to-do tasks and into right relationship—being the Body of Christ.

There is, of course, the rest of the story. This is a challenging text. For while relationships are more important than rules, that doesn’t mean that building Christ-like community is easy, or without discomfort or sacrifice.

Jesus says, because he loves the man, “Go. If you’re really in this thing, sell all you own and give the money to the poor. Then, come follow me.”

In preparing this sermon, Pastor Anna thought about how radical this gospel piece of scripture is. She thought about how even the most simple living she could imagine included some ownership of possessions, some desire for security She wondered how you might feel if she gave you this advice—the very advice Jesus gives this man. If you came to her for counseling, and she told you that to be faithful, you were to sell everything you own and give the money to those most in need? Not just what you don’t want anymore, but everything? What if she proposed this church doing it…selling the building, auctioning the stained glass windows, emptying every account and fund, and giving the money to the poor?

Even as she thought about these questions, she felt the need to assure you—this is NOT what she is proposing. But…it is what Jesus proposes.

If we have things, we will be bound by them. If we value possessions, possessions will compete with people. If anyone is in need, our abundance keeps us from right relationship.

Jesus starts it simply enough, but it doesn’t take long for him to admit to the challenge of this call. “How hard it will be,” he says, “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” This is perplexing to the disciples. It runs counter to everything they’ve learned—all they’ve been taught. So Jesus says, again, “Children, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

If our concern about rules trumps our care for relationships, we are not building the kingdom here on earth. If committees and commandments keep us from extending and embodying Christ’s compassion, we are not building the kingdom come here on earth. If we eat our daily bread but don’t share it with those who have none, if we don’t question why some have too much when others have not enough, we are not building the kingdom come here on earth. If we place profit over people, if we value comfort more than compassion, if we invest in security but not social justice, we are not building the kingdom come here on earth.

So. The question is: What are we to do? How can we be faithful? What will enable us to taste and see life eternal, here, now?
The answer, said in different ways, all pointing towards the same truth:

According to Jill: Love God. Love the people.

According to John Wesley: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

According to the prophet Micah: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

According to Jesus: Sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor. Follow me.

May we have the wisdom to place less value on rules, and more on relationships. May we have the courage to focus less on commandments, and more on compassion and connection. May we have the sense to put to-do and not-to-do lists on the periphery, and place people and right relationships in the center. When we do, Jesus promises, we will glimpse life eternal.

May it be so. Amen, and amen.”

october 4, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
October 4, 2009
Communion Sunday
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
I Corinthians 12:12-26

I remember hearing something, early in my time here, in the first month perhaps, that surprised me. Enough so that I have been thinking about it ever since. I was told that worship attendance in this congregation typically drops on the 1st Sunday of the month—on Communion Sundays. Now, if you are one of the people who generally steers clear of the communion table, I am not criticizing you. I do not think you are being unfaithful, or that you need to change your practice. And, being the first Sunday in October, communion Sunday, World Communion Sunday at that, I imagine most of the die-hard Eucharist avoiders have found other ways to occupy this Sunday morning.

If you struggle with communion, if you have hang ups with this sacrament, if you think you don’t understand it, or if you’ve had negative experiences with this ancient ritual of remembrance, or if you just think it’s a little bit creepy to talk, in church of all places, about eating the body and drinking the blood—well, know you are not alone. And, I invite you to come and talk with me about these hang ups. Talk with each other. I want to understand what keeps folks away from this table, from this feast. I want to understand, partly because, well, I love communion. I mean, I really, really love communion.

I’m going to do a perhaps dangerous thing, now, and quote—myself. I want to share a piece I wrote about the meaning I find in breaking bread, in gathering at table, in participating in this feast, in partaking in the sacrament of communion. I wrote this in seminary, and then revised it for an interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry:

“Part of the mystery and power of coming to the Communion table is that each time I find new and renewed understanding—a dynamic, living experience of communion with a dynamic, living God. Receiving and offering the communion elements has offered me spiritual nourishment, community connection, and personal healing. I have approached the communion table in joyful, exuberant thanksgiving for the immensity of God’s goodness and in painful penitence for my sins of harsh, alienating words, greed, and apathy. In abundance, and in need. Whether I enter communion in a spirit of joy or pain, penitence or gratitude, the act of communion speaks deeply to me of profound connection, transforming wholeness, and unconditional relationality. My Eucharistic understanding encompasses ritual remembrance, receiving nourishment and renewal, participating in a bodily and embodied act that is profoundly personal and deeply relational, and acting on the invitation into deeper communion with God and with humanity. The breaking of the bread and pouring of the cup signify, to me, both the brokenness that exists within the world as well as within my denomination and its faith communities, and connects us in solidarity with those who, like Jesus, suffer persecution and even death because of systems of power and manifestations of evil. God’s love and Jesus’ teachings are offered freely to all, and the Eucharist is an opportunity to remember and celebrate this within community. Though I have never affirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation, I do believe in a radical change that occurs in partaking of the elements. It is we, the participants, who become radically changed as we allow ourselves to be more fully embraced by God, and enter into deeper relationship with each other at the table. We celebrate God, en-fleshed, and among us.”

I love communion. I need communion. Taking communion. Receiving communion. Celebrating communion. Being in communion.

Those of you who were in worship two Sundays ago know we celebrated communion then, too. The table was the world, painted by conference artist Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten. I wish it could be our table again today. Try to conjure that image, again. If you were here on September 20, you will also remember Ted clarifying the task ahead of us, the life we are being called to live with one another, the ministry of sharing and being good news in a world that needs good news. Ted said it simply. Remember what he said? You all—you are to be the Body of Christ. And I—I am to tell the truth. Together, we are to be, to become more fully, the Body of Christ, and to be truth-tellers—of the goodness of God, of the Good News of God’s reign being built, here and now.

This morning’s text from Ephesians offers glimpses of what that means. The how-to for the task of Becoming the Body. “We are members of one another,” scripture proclaims. “So, put away bitterness, wrath, slander and wrangling and malice—be kind to one another—tender hearted, forgiving one another.”

Perhaps this is what it means, what it looks like and feels like, to be imitators of God, to be the body of Christ—tender hearted, kind. Living in love. Permeable to one another. Permeable to one anothers’ needs, and pain and rejoicing and loss and celebration.

And this is what happens at Christ’s table. Or rather, what can happen at this table.

Let’s return to the letter to the people of Corinth. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” All of us—part of one Spirit—Jews and Greeks, slaves and free—those were the distinctions that mattered, that threatened to divide the Body in Jesus’ time. In Paul’s time. What distinctions matter to us, now? What threatens to divide our Body—here, in this congregation, or in Osage, or in our denomination or in our world? All of us—part of one Spirit—young and old, rich and poor, city-dweller and small-town celebrator, those hailing from the heartland and those coming from a coast, citizens of this country and citizens of the world, left wing and right wing, white, brown, black, able bodied and ailing bodied, citizen and sojourner, Cyclone fan and Hawkeye enthusiast, gay and straight, all genders together—born into One Spirit, made to drink from One Spirit. Invited to one table.

Now, notice, the scripture does not say this One Spirit makes us all the same. Nor is “sameness” the goal—of God, of the gospel, of this sacrament. “Indeed,” we read in scripture, “the body does not consist of one member but of many…As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you, “ nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

There is a song I learned in seminary—sung by, listen to the name of this group, “Hezekiah and the Love Fellowship Choir.” It is called, “I need you to survive.” It is a song about communion. Being the body. It reflects the same truths shared in this morning’s scripture. Hear the lyrics: I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s body. It is God’s will that every need be supplied. You are important to me. I need you to survive. I pray for you. You pray for me. I love you. I need you to survive. I won’t harm you with words from my mouth. I love you. I need you to survive.”

Being the Body. Becoming the Body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” When one part of the body is hungry, the Body is hungry, and needs food. The Body notices, and shares it. When one part of the body is suffering, the Body suffers, and needs tender hearted presence, and the balm of compassion. The Body notices, and shares it. When one part of the body is pushed out or excluded, the Body is limited, and needs an ever widening circle of welcome. The body notices, and does it. When one part of the body is hopeless, the Body is a place of restoration and remembering the promise of God’s presence, and the Good News of God’s love. The Body notices, and shares it.

It is World Communion Sunday. People of faith all around this beautiful, broken world are celebrating communion. Joining the feast. Recommitting to becoming One Body.

I want to share an excerpt with you, from a book called Take this Bread, written by Sara Miles. The subtitle is A Radical Conversion, and this book is her story of coming to faith, her conversion into Christianity and Christian community, through communion. In this excerpt, she traces the history of this sacramental practice.

Sara Miles writes: “Early Christians, worshipping in houses, shared full feasts, following Jesus’ promise that he would be among them when they ate together in his memory. They ate believing that God had given them Christ’s life and that they could spread that life through the world by sharing food with others. Later churches, reducing the feast to bread and wine, wrangled over the right way to understand Jesus’ presence: Was God physically there in the meal or conjured up through the repetition of particular words? And they began to license and control the distribution of the elements central to the faith. Bread then became stylized wafers, [a chalice of] wine became [tiny plastic cups of] grape juice, and church officials—much like the temple authorities Jesus had ignored—imposed rules about who could and could not receive communion. Different denominations made their own restrictions: No communion for Catholics or Orthodox in each other’s churches; no communion for the unbaptized or children below a certain age; no communion, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, for anyone living “a notoriously evil life…who are a scandal to the other members of the congregation. Instead of being God’s freely given gift of reconciliation for everyone—the central point of Jesus’ barrier-breaking meals with sinners of all description—communion belonged to the religious authorities. The entire contradictory package of Christianity was present in the Eucharist. A sign of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness, it was doled out and rationed to insiders; a sign of unity, it divided people; a sign of the most common and ordinary human reality, it was rarified and theorized nearly to death. And yet this meal remains, through all the centuries, more powerful than any attempt to manage it. It reconciles, if only for a minute, all of God’s creation, revealing that, without exception, we are members of one body, God’s body, in endless diversity. The feast shows us how to re-member what had been dis-membered by human attempts to separate and divide, judge and cast out, select or punish. At that Table, sharing food, we are brought into the ongoing work of making creation whole.”

I love communion. I need communion. Taking communion. Receiving communion. Celebrating communion. Being in communion.

Which is not to say that you need to love communion. Or even that you need to receive this sacrament to be and become the Body, together.

Whatever our differences, we have hunger in common. And, together, we have food to share. Whatever our differences, we have embodiment in common. And, together, we are invited to become One Body.

I need you. You need me. We’re all a part of God’s body.

Thanks be to God. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

september 27, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
September 27, 2009

“I praise the fall,” wrote Archibal McLeash, “for it is the human season.”

“I praise the fall, for it is the human season.”

Yesterday morning, people gathered in this same place to celebrate Dorcas Ask’s 91 years of living and loving, and now, to mourn her passing. A life lived fully, sustained through many seasonal shifts. We read those familiar words from Ecclesiastes during her service: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

This passage from Ecclesiastes is not part of this morning’s lectionary cycle, but I believe it speaks to this morning’s lectionary texts.

The lectionary readings from Mark for these autumn days are sobering. They match the season, it seems, of leaves falling from trees—green to gold to fiery red, and then, to brown. Of flowers fading. Of corn and beans drying up, ready for plucking up what has been planted, as the scripture says. The first frost hasn’t come, but it will, soon, and even though we know it’s coming, it will surprise the senses. Signal a shift.

I brought out my winter coat Friday night, in order to stay warm at the Homecoming football game. I appreciated staying warm. I did not appreciate that I needed my winter coat in order to stay warm. I know September signals a shift in seasons. I know autumn is upon us, and that winter is not too far away. And, I’m not quite ready to admit that it is real. It took the band marching down the street earlier in the day, a parade I had forgotten about, but heard through my open window, it took trumpets and drums and a gathering community to help me look. And see. And understand. The beauty and joy and celebration that is as much a part of this shifting season as falling leaves and winter coats. I suppose the disciples needed a marching band, too. To startle them just enough that they start paying attention. Sometimes even religious leaders and the faithful elect can forget to pay attention.

In Mark, we see Jesus—this teacher and prophet, the very child of God—whom no one understands. Jesus is speaking of the cross, of death, and of resurrection, but the people who are around to hear him haven’t a clue what he means. They were absorbed in their own little worlds, and this new message made no sense. Life was hard, and would soon be over. They knew about death. They knew about death, it seems, more than they knew about life, and how to live. Death is real, Jesus says, and it is coming. But life is real, too. Resurrection is real. Spring is real, the promise is real. And it is coming, too.

The disciples don’t have ears to hear it. They are too busy arguing over who is the greatest. Jesus overhears them, and asks what they were arguing about. The disciples are suddenly silent. Imagine that awkward pause. How would you feel if you had to admit to Jesus that what you had been disputing on the journey to his passion was who was greatest among you? How trivial. How unimportant. How petty. How, well, human.

Jesus has just told them what is unfolding, what lies ahead of them—his betrayal by human hands, his coming death, the promise that not even death ahs the power to overcome life, and that resurrection is real. He offers the disciples a warning, lets them look into a crystal ball and glimpse the future, invites them to shift course and do it differently. They don’t get it. Because they are scared. Because they are busy, and their focus is somewhere else. Because, perhaps, they feel powerless to do it any differently. Powerless against the forces of destruction and death.

This morning’s scripture from James enters into the disciples’ dispute. Who among us is greatest, they ask? Who is wise and understanding among you, James asks? The disciples, in arguing over who is greatest, show that none of them is very wise at all. James interrupts them. Stop talking about it. Show. Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness. Envy and selfish ambition will get you nowhere, he writes. Hypocrisy and self-centeredness breed distrust and destruction—the very things contrary to the reign of God, the body of Christ.

Jesus is ushering in a new season. And the disciples don’t even notice. All they have to do is notice! Draw close to God, James writes, and God will draw close to you. That’s all you have to do. Pay attention. See God in the world around you. Give thanks to God. Practice living the gentleness and kindness and compassion that is of God, and God will fill your life. Be wise—which is not to say, Be perfect, or Know everything, or Make sure you’re the greatest, or Tell everyone and everything just how wise you are. True wisdom, scripture tells us, is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. If you take step after step towards this, resurrection is yours to experience—in this life and in the next.
I recently read an autobiography of a woman I don’t know. It is written in five chapters. Five very short chapters. I want to share it with you.

Chapter 1: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in. It’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter 5: I walk down another street.

Jesus is inviting the disciples to walk down another street, and to welcome the greatest and the least to join the journey. They’re still stuck somewhere around chapter two. James is inviting them to open their eyes, grow in wisdom, pay attention to the world around them.

This weekend, a group of college students from the Wesley Foundation in Iowa City are somewhere on the Macocoda River, for their Emmaus Retreat. They take this retreat every spring, and every fall. I went on these retreats regularly during my time as a student, and then helped plan and lead these retreats as a peer minister. Each Emmaus retreat offered me the opportunity to stop. To listen. To look. To give thanks to God for the shifting seasons, evidenced all around me. To pay attention to what new reality God was inviting me into. To accept Jesus’ promise of new life, renewed life, restored life—In this life.

Every year, the students planning the retreat invite former students to write “Palancas” to be read on the retreat. Palanca, the Spanish word for lever—meaning, to lift up—to strengthen—to encourage—to share strength, for the journey. They asked me to write a palanca. In my note of encouragement, I shared a paragraph from a scrap of paper I have taped to my bathroom mirror. Perhaps some of you saw it when you toured the parsonage last week at the Open House.

Before living in Osage, this same scrap was taped to my bathroom mirror in San Francisco, and before that, in Berkeley, and before that, in Iowa City. The edges are a bit frayed, the paper worn and wrinkled. And, the words ring as true and as wise as they did the first time I read them. I need this message enough to take it with me, move after move, and to tape it where I’ll see it every day, mirror after mirror. I don’t even remember whose words they are, although I think they might be from Henri Nouwen.

Here is what the scrap of paper reads:

“Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, “How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?” There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let’s rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.”

The disciples in this morning’s gospel story don’t realize that this light is shining, that in fact, they are walking with the light. James teaches that true wisdom comes from taking step by step, walking in faith. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. Look for the light. It will shine in the darkness. Be wise, meaning pay attention. Stop to see the grandeur of God—grandeur and beauty and connection that permeates every season and every time.

The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark, waiting. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy, and be surprised at how far we go. May we rejoice in that little spark of divine light burning within each of us. May we take the next step, knowing God goes with us, and God’s grace is there, wherever there is, already, to meet us. May we pay attention—to the holes we need to walk around, and to the mystery of the shifting seasons, and to the people we need to welcome, and to journey with. “I praise the fall, for it is the human season.” May this unfolding fall season invite us to become more human—wiser, more gentle, peaceable, ready to yield when we need to, fully of mercy and awe and hospitality. And, may we have the wisdom to notice the invitation, and to follow. May it be so. Amen, and amen.

september 20, 2009

Anna Blaedel
First UMC, Osage
With Rev. Ted Lyddon Hatten, Iowa Conference Artist
“One Year Anniversary”/Open House Celebration
John 1:1-5/Romans 13:8-10/Luke 17:20-21/Romans 12:9-13

“The reign of God is not coming…In fact, the kin-dom of God is already among you.”

Faith—NT “pistis”—not “belief” but “trust.” Faith—trust—relational words. Cannot do it on your own. Trust and truth are closely related words. The Hebrew word “truth” used in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian First Testament, means “faithfulness” or “trustworthiness.”

Trust—the truth of relationships. Trusting relationships enough to be true with one another, faithful to our relationships with one another. Faithful in the messiness, in the beauty, in the mystery, in the unfolding of our lives.
True with God, trusting God, and God’s promise of coaxing love and relationship where there was none. God’s promise of going with us, even when, especially when we have never ventured there before.

We know something of this, no? Going where we haven’t gone before? Because of the relationships. Me, venturing into Northeast Iowa, into Osage, into Lutheran territory, into small town living, into pastoring a church, this church. You, receiving a new pastor, one moving from California, no less, who walks everywhere and cooks with quinoa, who doesn’t know how to can and knows very little about wrestling and had never been to a tractor pull…though I’ve now remedied that!
Me, that “new young woman pastor over at the Methodist church.” You, already in community, faithful, expectant. Seated, it might seem or some might say, across from each other. Not enemies, but different. A bit strange to one another, perhaps.

Strange. Full of contrast. Possibility. And, there is beauty in the contrast, is there not? In the coming together? In the stretching and growing and risking and trusting? Trusting that our relationships spark the Divine Spirit. Holy Mystery. Sacred Power. “The reign of God is not coming…In fact, the kin-dom of God is already among you.” Among us.

Truth. Knowing. To know one another is to begin living God’s truth of relationship. Koinonia. Communion. There are many things that I now know, that I didn’t know a year ago.

I had never heard of a Platt book before moving here, let alone how to use it. (Thank you, John.)

I had never heard of deep frying green beans (Teluwut) or deep frying bacon (hats off to you, Brian!)

I have learned…so much from you.

That “the” 4 mile corner is the intersection four miles East of town, even though there is an intersection 4 miles West of town, too...

That Mason City can simply be called Mason, that “going to rehab” means “Cardiac rehab” and that my sheer excitement in planting and picking vegetables in the garden shows I’m not from around here...

I’ve learned that an Oliver is a tractor, and that Wayne and his brothers restored a ’66 for their dad...

I’ve learned that Ardelys will never stop surprising me, and that Church Basement Ladies know how to have a good time...

That Rozanne and Andrea can make just about any space beautiful…and are willing to answer my embarrassingly ignorant questions about the flowers they plant, and tend...

That Jean’s raspberries delight my tastebuds and sooth my soul…

That Fern might not talk much, but that she’s wise. And funny!

That Frances ministers to this community through her cards and letters, remembering those otherwise forgotten, and that while she says she just shows up for the food, she models life long learning…

That Jackie can always be counted on to show up, and be ready to serve, and to be the face of Christ to “the least of these.”

That Penney’s letters to the editor, while not always popular, are very often prophetic…

That Galen and Ramona will tend to the details, faithfully, and with loving care…

That much of the beautiful wood in this church, and in my office, and in the parsonage, has been carved and shaped by Lorne. That Lorne will hand over the keys of his car when it’s raining, and when I’m on foot. That this kind of generosity runs keep in this community…

That the children of this church are incredible artists. That creativity is sacred. That questions and awe point us toward the Holy One…

That Bonnie reads the Upper Room every morning, and prays every day, and would do anything for this church…

That Althea prays her devotionals every afternoon, and has all of her Sunday School pins for years of regular attendance…

That Sam will play a few bars of Charlie Brown’s Christmas in the middle of Amazing Grace, and make it sounds good!

That Cal can be counted on. Period. To preach and pray and vision and teach and care and reach out…

That Chip really doesn’t need a microphone when he sings, and that making a joyful noise gives glory to God...

That Brian and Bill will show up—to put up the sign, or replace a broken refrigerator with a new one, even if it doesn’t fit quite right, or when I’ve locked myself out of the parsonage not once but twice in two weeks, and help me laugh, and get me inside, and leave me feeling a little less stupid. That this is part of small town living—knowing others will help; knowing you’re not alone…

That Sarah shares the gift of music, and patience, and avocados…

That Ila is always willing to fold more bulletins, and be in a good spirit about it…

That Dave’s pizza is to die for…

That the women of this church are some of the best cooks in the world….

That Bryce will remember it’s Noisy Change Sunday even when I forget…

That you sit there, and you sit there, and you sit there, and you sit there…

That Cynthia is great at making sure vestments and pictures and banners and clothes are hung even…

That Kortney is looking for and finding ways to change the world…

That you will notice if a car is parked in my driveway overnight, and you will respond, Larry, by bringing even more tomatoes…

I could go on and on, with each one of you, and I will, but not now, because I’ve also learned you like it when I keep things short…

Hear these words again, from Romans. This was the lectionary text for our first Sunday together, one year ago…

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. All the other commandments are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does not wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

The gospel truth. Faith. Trust. Faithfulness and trustworthiness—lived out in relationship. In community. In love. In Osage.
Following Jesus’ way—not of forming theological doctrine or solidifying right belief, but of building relationships. Gathering at table. Pulling up a char, getting to know each other, and knowing this is sacred. The reign of God is not coming…The kin-dom of God is already among us. May it be so. Thanks be to God. And amen.