Sermon for Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

In 1992, Walt Disney released the animated film, “Aladdin.” In this movie, there was a theme of imprisonment going on: each of the main characters was imprisoned by something, and each one wanted to be free of whatever it was that was imprisoning them. So, let’s take a look at a clip from the movie, where the genie expresses his desire to be free of the lamp in which he’s imprisoned.

So we see that the thing the genie wants most to be free from is the requirement of him to constantly fulfill other people’s wishes. He wants to be his own master and to be able to do things for himself. That sounds very much like the American idea of freedom, doesn’t it? To be completely independent, to have no one else telling us what to do with our lives, to have complete control and to be able to fulfill our own wishes. But today’s Gospel gives us a different idea of what freedom is all about. Jesus tells us, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” And then, in response to the question, “What do you mean by that?” Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” These two statements by Jesus raise several questions: What is the truth that Jesus speaks of? What does this truth set us free from? What is sin and what does it mean to be a slave to sin? Only when we try to answer these questions will we get a glimmer of what Jesus is talking about, and move toward an understanding of what freedom truly is.

Let’s begin with a definition of sin. There is a distinction between sins in the plural form and sin in the singular form. Sins in the plural form refers to the bad things we do, the things that we think of when we confess them each week: arguing with a family member, gossiping about a friend, stealing office supplies, failing to help a person in need of food or shelter, failing to be there for a friend who is grieving the loss of a spouse, etc. That’s pretty easy to understand. With those sins, the things we do and the things we fail to do, we either forgive them in one another or we punish them, as in a court of law. But when we talk about sin in the singular, we’re talking about something deeper. Sin is the condition that we are born with, and that we are enslaved to. And that condition that we call sin is the condition of insecurity. We are, at heart, insecure. Deep down, we do not believe that we are truly God’s children, and that God loves us and will provide for us. And that insecurity, the condition of sin, leads to all of the individual sins that we commit. Think of the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree. The serpent had led them to believe that God was holding back knowledge from them that they needed to survive. They became insecure; they doubted that God loved them and had their best interests at heart. And this insecurity, this condition, led to the first sin: that of disobeying God’s command and eating from the fruit of the tree. And since then, all human beings have been born into this condition of insecurity.

We are enslaved to sin: we are, in our deepest heart, insecure. All of us. Advertisements play on this weakness. If we just buy the latest iPhone, we will have access to all of the information we need at the speed that we need it, so that we will never miss out on anything. If we just buy the latest, biggest, flat-screen TV, we can host big parties at our home and we will never be lonely again. If we single women wear the latest fashion and the best makeup and if we have the exact right figure, then we will land a handsome man and live happily ever after. If men buy the right tools, then they will be able to fix stuff around their home and never have to rely on repairmen again. The trouble is, what happens when we buy all of this stuff, and the promises don’t materialize? Then there are more advertisements, more products that promise us things will be better and we will be secure again, if only we buy and we hoard. We fall victim to those false promises, and we are enslaved to sin.

This false security is what Martin Luther was fighting against when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. Although the practice of indulgences may have started out with good intentions, by the time Martin Luther arrived on the scene, if you paid enough money for the right kind of indulgence, then this piece of paper said that you escaped all forms of punishment for your sins. It was kind of like a “Get out of Jail Free” card in the game of Monopoly, except the card wasn’t free. In Thesis 27 of his 95, Luther wrote, “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately the money clinks in the chest.” In other words, buying indulgences was the 16th century’s version of buying more and more in the hope that yet more indulgences would secure a person’s release from purgatory. Like us, the people of Luther’s time had trouble believing that God loved them, that they were worthy of that love, and that no amount of money and no amount of promises from the pope written on paper could give them the love and security they were looking for.

Now, enter Jesus with his words of promise: “If you continue in my word, you are truly  my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” We can now guess what we want to be free from. We want to be free from our enslavement to sin. We want to be free from our insecurity. And the only way that can happen is for love to enter the picture. When we feel completely loved and accepted, worthy of dignity and respect, and confident that we are enough, then the insecurity is gone, and we are no longer tempted to commit sins. And that is the point of the Reformation begun in 1517 and something that we need to continually remind ourselves of today: In God’s eyes, what we do, all of our accomplishments, and all of the things that we have acquired do not matter. These things and accomplishments do not give us status in God’s eyes. In God’s eyes, what matters is that he has created us and that he loves us, simply because he made us and for no other reason. God loves us in all of our insecurities and accepts us for who we are. That’s it. This is the truth that Jesus Christ came to tell us, and knowing that truth, and knowing that God the Father sent his only Son to die for us on the cross, to show us how much he loves us–this is what sets us free from our enslavement to sin. Jesus comes to set us free from our insecurities and to show us how much God loves us.

But this freedom has more to it than being set free from something. This love of God through Jesus Christ also sets us free from our insecurities in order that we can be free to show that love to others. Martin Luther put it this way in his treatise, “On the Freedom of a Christian”: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” And now you may start to understand why Lutherans are able to embrace paradox! Luther goes on to write this, “Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.” Paul writes in Philippians 2 that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God  as something to be exploited,” and “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” In becoming a slave to those he loved, all humans on earth, and dying for us on a cross because he loved us, Jesus set us free from sin. But that freedom is now freedom to do the same thing that Jesus did: to submit ourselves to those whom we love, to help them in their needs, to grieve with them in their sorrows, and even more: all to show them how much Jesus loves them for who they are, not because of what they have done or what they have.

So, what does this freedom to love look like in our daily lives? Once when my maternal grandfather was alive but was suffering from dementia, the family was gathered at my uncle’s house in Tennessee for a visit. My uncle came outside to where I was sitting with some other members of my family, and, clearly frustrated, said, “Tonya, why don’t you go in and talk to your grandfather?” I went in to the living room where my grandfather was sitting and sat down nearby. My grandfather started talking to me, but, as his speech was slurred and indistinct, I had no idea what he was saying. So, for a little while, I entered his world and I pretended to understand him, nodding along and saying, “OK,” “Uh-huh,” and so on. This seemed to calm my grandfather immensely. For that moment in time, I would like to believe, he felt loved for who he was, and his insecurities were eased. When we sacrifice our time and our talents to give to others what they need to feel loved and secure, then we abide in Jesus’ word, we know the truth, and the truth sets us free. When we sacrifice our treasure–our money and our possessions–to give to others what they need to feel loved and secure, then we abide in Jesus’ word, we know the truth, and the truth sets us free. For it is in those moments, when we give of ourselves in love, that we are set free from our own enslavement to sin–to insecurities–and we feel that we are worthy, simply because we are God’s children.

Many pastors today will be preaching about the church continually needing to reform itself. And indeed, we are seeing today a great “re-formation” of the church. Many churches are closing, but also, there are many new ways of being church that are being experimented with. Church today does not look like church did in my grandfather’s day, or even like it did as I was growing up in the church. But whatever changes the church is going through right now, it is important to keep this principle at the center: Nothing that we accomplish, or have, or acquire, matters to God. Instead, God loves us for who we are: God’s children. God showed us how much he loved us by sending Jesus to the cross to die for us, so that we might be freed of our insecurities and so that we might love others as God loves us. That is the simple truth that sets us free. Let us now rest in that love and go forth to show that love to all whom we meet. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 19A

Matthew 22:15-22

What do you not talk about when you’re with certain friends or members of the family? When I’m with my parents, I have learned not to discuss politics, especially with my mother. My parents and I don’t see eye to eye on most political issues. My father is slightly easier to talk to, because he will at least pretend to listen to my viewpoint and because he will remain rational in the discussion. My mother, on the other hand, becomes emotionally charged when she argues for her viewpoint, and will rant for at least 5 minutes without letting me get a word in edgewise. And when I dare to interject my viewpoint, she will tear it down in a minute and start ranting again. So, since I only see my parents about twice a year now, I do not bring up political issues so that I can enjoy my time with them. And if they bring up political issues, I pretend to listen and then attempt to change the topic as quickly as possible. I’m sure that many of you have such issues that you avoid in discussions with family and friends, and more likely than not, the topics that you avoid center around the big three difficult and divisive issues: politics, money, and religion.

In the few short verses that we have as our Gospel text today, all three of those difficult and divisive issues come up: politics, money, and religion. Any reasonable pastor would have decided to preach on one of the other lessons today, but since I like a challenge, and since we are in the middle of our stewardship emphasis here at Hope, I believe that the Holy Spirit has called me to preach on this. Since Jesus was not afraid to tackle these difficult questions, we who are his followers should not be afraid to tackle them, either, to discuss different viewpoints, and to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in our discernment. It is in this way that we can be a model for the community: Yes, it is possible for two people to be Christian and to hold completely opposite views on the same subject. And yes, it is possible for those same two people to be able to discuss the topic rationally and still acknowledge one another as Christian.

So, let’s start off with some background information on this passage so we can understand what is happening in this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Herodians. At the time of Jesus, Israel was under the control of the Romans. Specifically, the part of Israel where Jerusalem was located, Judea, was under the control of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The two groups who came to test Jesus with today’s question were odd bedfellows: The Pharisees emphasized holiness in personal lives, not advocating for Roman control nor for the Jews to overthrow the Romans. The Herodians were a group of people who wanted the descendants of King Herod to rule again rather than have direct Roman control over Jerusalem. These two factions were thus united only in their desire to get Jesus into trouble. That is the politics of the situation.

Now, here is where politics begins to interact with religion, in the form of money: The tax that the Pharisees and the Herodians were talking about was a particular type of tax. Each person was required to pay a denarius to Rome in order to support the Roman occupation of Israel. In other words, they had to pay their oppressors to keep oppressing them. Furthermore, the coin that they had to use did, in fact, have the emperor’s portrait on it, which violated Jewish laws against making idols of any kind. So we can guess that the Pharisees might have objected to the tax based on religious grounds—using a coin with an image engraved on it violated the Torah; the Herodians objected based on political grounds—continuing to support the Roman oppressors—and the general populace objected with a mix of the first two reasons, plus the fact that it was an economic burden on them—monetary grounds. Here is the volatile mix of religion, politics, and money, together in one question designed to trap Jesus. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay the tax to the emperor, then he would be seen by the crowds to support the Roman oppressors, and he would lose popularity. If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay the tax, then he would come to the attention of the Romans as a rebel. His opponents thought they had finally gotten him.

But Jesus, in typical fashion, was aware of what was going on and did two things: First, he made his opponents provide the coin, showing that the Pharisees were being hypocritical for having the coin with the image on it, and the Herodians for having the very coin used for tribute to the Roman oppressors. Second, he gives a mysterious answers: Give therefore to the emperor, the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And this statement, finally, is what we wrestle with today. How do we give to the emperor (or to the government) the things that belong to the emperor/government, and how do we give to God the things that are God’s? Is it possible to reconcile these two things?

Let’s begin with the theological claim that I have repeated through our Season of Creation and at the beginning of our stewardship emphasis: everything that is created belongs to God. God has given this earth and everything in it to us “on loan”: to steward the earth, to serve the earth, to care for the earth. The Nicene Creed says that we believe in God the Father, who is the maker of all that is, seen and unseen. So consider that everything around us, seen and unseen, including us, is in God, and that God is in everything. That may seem a bit broad and a bit mystical, so let me focus the lens on what we are talking about today: God is in even those institutions that govern us. Now, that does not mean that the institutions that govern us are going to get everything right all the time. In something that seems to be a paradox, the all-good God is somehow still present in an imperfect government run by sinful human beings. Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it is this idea that enables the prophet Isaiah to make the claim, in today’s Old Testament lesson, that God has anointed Cyrus, king of Persia, as his instrument to allow the Jews to return to Israel after their long exile. Isaiah saw God’s hand at work in the political actions of a king who did not even know God.

Now, again, we do have to be careful about interpreting the actions of the government as God’s actions, because we run the risk of saying first of all, that we know God’s mind, and second of all, that some really evil deeds have God’s blessing. Think of the Nazis, for example. It is hard for us to discern, when we are in the middle of something momentous, whether God has a hand in it or whether it is sinful humanity rearing its ugly head. And this is why it is good and acceptable for us Christians to question what our government is doing. We need to decide how we as faithful Christians are going to proceed: Is God truly at work in what the government does? Or do we need to speak out against the sinful actions of human beings? And, as I said at the beginning of the sermon, it is possible for two faithful Christians to discern different answers to that question and to be on opposite sides of whatever the issue of the day is.

This brings me to the issue of the day here in Wyoming: gay marriage has been declared legal in this state. This puts me in an awkward position. Yes, we have separation of church and state in this country, but in the case of weddings, I am an agent of the state and I have the authority to marry two people. However, just because something is legal does not mean that I am required to do it. For instance, if a heterosexual couple came to me with a marriage license and said that they wanted me to marry them tomorrow, I would say “No,” because I have a policy of doing premarital counseling with a couple before marrying them. And I would be within my legal rights to do so. It is the same thing with gay marriage: although it may be legal, I have the right to say “no” to marrying the couple.

And at this point in time, I would say no to a gay couple wanting to be married. Even though gay marriage is now legal and I am an agent of the state with authority to perform the wedding ceremony, I am also a representative of this congregation. And we as a congregation are divided about what we believe God says about homosexuality. In this case, the Holy Spirit has not given a clear word to us. As long as the Holy Spirit has not spoken to us clearly and given us a consensus, I will not violate my conscience or yours by performing a ceremony that has the potential to cause another rift in this congregation. What is important, though, is that we remain in conversation about this matter, and continue to discern God’s will together. In this way, we will show our neighbors that we can disagree over something and yet still remain the church together, united as the body of Christ.

Stewardship is about more than finances. When I began writing this sermon, I thought that I would be bold in saying how we should pay taxes, but to remember that when we spend our money, it should always be in service to God. This is why I wanted to do this with the children’s message today, because this is a good and valuable application of today’s Gospel. But at a deeper level, Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees and the Herodians is about how we as Christians relate to our government. And as Lutherans, we can acknowledge the paradox that God is present in human governmental institutions and sometimes chooses to work through them, but also at the same time, that sinful humanity will be present in the government and make some really bad decisions. I don’t understand how this can be, but I believe it to be true based on the evidence from history and from what I have seen with my own eyes. Just as Jesus’ response to his opponents was as clear as mud, we are not always clear on how we should respond to the actions that our government takes. As we discern, we need to pray, study Scripture, and discern together as a community what the Holy Spirit is saying. Only then should we choose to respond or not to respond. And we pray that whatever our response might be, that God would always be with us to guide us and lead us. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 18A

Matthew 22:1-14

Recently, I pulled a book down from a shelf in my study, and out fell a postcard. Curiously, I looked at it, and found that it was this “Save the Date” postcard from my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding two years ago last June.

Paul and Constance Save the Date

This Save the Date card is unique. My brother and sister-in-law are both comic book fanatics, and they regularly go to comic book conventions. My sister-in-law has been doing this so long, in fact, that she knows several artists who draw comic books, and it was one of them who did this “Save the Date” postcard. Their wedding was equally unique. Yes, my sister-in-law wore white, as is traditional. But, her shoes were covered in comic book pages, and in her bouquet were tiny little superhero figurines. On the corsages that my brother and his groomsmen wore were also affixed these tiny little superhero figurines. In this wedding and in the party that followed, the two of them celebrated their uniqueness, their joy at being joined together, and the love that they had for their friends and family. It was indeed quite the party.

The parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel is also about a wedding party, but amidst the joy of the wedding feast, we find some sour notes that may make us confused. So, in order for us to get a handle on this, we need to first take a step back from the Gospel text and look at the person who wrote it. Matthew was writing the story of Jesus to a group of Christians in the first century who were mostly Jewish in background. This group of people was seeking to understand why they had responded to Jesus’ call to follow him, while their friends and family had not. Presumably they had had very divisive arguments with their family members, and by the time this Gospel was written, they realized that their differences were not able to be bridged. Hurtful words had been spoken, and the division was final. And so we can see in Matthew’s version of this parable (Luke tells a much gentler version) a story of salvation history: God invites his chosen people to the wedding banquet of his Son, Jesus, but they refuse to come. God sends more messengers, but those who are invited treat the messengers badly, just as the vineyard workers in last week’s parable did, and they still refuse to come. Here Matthew envisions God becoming enraged and exacting punishment on those who refused, and then inviting everyone else out there to come, so that the banquet is filled and people are celebrating. Like so many of us who think that God is on our side, we want to imagine God punishing those who we think are wrong. But then, in the story, the king notices someone at the banquet with no wedding robe, and throws him out. Here, Matthew is saying that just because you are one of those whom God has gathered in to his banquet, this does not mean that you can rest easy. Your life must show evidence of the transformation effected by believing in Jesus, that is, you must bear the fruits of the kingdom of God. As James writes in his letter, “Faith without works is dead.”  We Lutherans have issues with that, but that’s a discussion for another time.

So, what are some points that we can take from this strange little story today? Let’s start with this: don’t refuse God’s invitation to the wedding banquet. He has given us his very best: in the reading from Isaiah we hear about rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. In the parable that Jesus tells, we hear about oxen and fattened calves that have been slaughtered and prepared. And all for us: fallen and sinful people whom God sent his Son Jesus to die for. In the world to come, we will feast with God on the best food and drink ever, better than anything we could ever serve guests who come to one of our parties. And we receive a foretaste of that feast every week when we come to the table here to receive Holy Communion.

Besides answering God’s invitation and coming to the feast, we should also be looking around for those who are outsiders in our community. The king in the parable tells his slaves to go out into the streets and find everyone they can to bring them to the wedding feast. One of my New Testament professors at seminary always liked to say that “All means all.” I think he would also say that “everyone means everyone”. This means not only those of us who have nice houses, cars, and plenty to eat, but also those in our community who are struggling, those who rely on Loaves and Fishes for their daily bread; the children who take backpacks filled with food home with them on the weekends because they don’t have enough to eat; those who are addicted to drugs and those who live in the shabby trailer parks around our community, and so on. Everyone is invited to the wedding feast, and we are called to go out into the community and invite each person that we see.

Finally, besides accepting God’s invitation and bringing others to the banquet with you, there is the matter of the “wedding robe,” that is, proper clothes to wear at the banquet. This is interpreted as right behavior, and when I say “right behavior,” people immediately think of moral behavior: do this, but not that. But what is proper behavior at a wedding party? At a wedding, proper behavior is rejoicing: dancing, drinking, feasting, and joining in with the bride and groom’s happiness. So consider that the person at the banquet without a wedding robe was someone who was not doing any of these things. Instead, this person was grumbling that the bride’s wedding dress was not pretty enough; that the family did not greet her according to her rank; perhaps that the groom had made a bad choice and would have been better off picking her as a bride, because she would have brought him more credit. In short, the person not wearing a wedding robe was someone who was behaving in a very jealous manner and refusing to share in the king’s joy.

When do we behave like the cranky wedding guest who is at the banquet only to complain the whole time? Well, how about when we grumble about the person who we don’t think should have been invited? The prisoner, for example, who had an 11th hour conversion to Christianity right before he was executed? What will we do when we see him at the heavenly banquet: complain or rejoice? What about the alcoholic who loves Jesus and does her best, but whose behavior has ripped her family apart time and time again? When we see her at the heavenly banquet, will we complain or rejoice? Or, how about the homosexual couple who some might think is violating God’s law? What will we do when we see any of these people at the wedding banquet? Will we complain that they should not be there and that God had no business inviting them? Or, will we rejoice with God that all of God’s beloved children have been gathered in to the banquet and are now experiencing God’s love?

Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, we are called upon to rejoice at the gathering of all to the banquet. We are called upon to welcome all who come to our doors here and now to worship and to take part in the foretaste of that heavenly feast, to rejoice as we experience our sins and the sins of others forgiven in Jesus, and to forgive one another the sins we commit. We are called to not always be somber and serious about our faith, but we are called to rejoice with God over everyone who comes to worship and celebrate with God and with us. We are also called, however, not only to welcome and rejoice with those who come, but to continually go out and introduce people to the host of the party, God, who loves everyone—and everyone means everyone—and who desires everyone to be saved. Let us go out and continue to invite, to rejoice, to be glad, and to celebrate. It’s going to be a heck of a party, with all kinds of interesting people there. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 17A

Matthew 21:33-46

Over the years, people have asked me why I prefer renting an apartment to owning my own home. After all, owning your own home is part of the American dream, right? And I do admit that there are certain things that attract me about having my own place: picking the neighborhood I want to live in, for example, or having more space, or having a garage—which I’m going to start wanting very soon as temperatures are beginning to drop! But then I think about all the advantages to renting: I don’t have to worry about mowing the lawn, for example. And the most important advantage of all: included in my rent is a built-in plumber if something goes wrong with the toilet or the sink and a built-in house repairman if something breaks and it’s not my fault. And for me, these advantages outweigh the advantages that would come with owning my own home. I just need to remember that “my” apartment really isn’t “mine,” and that I need to check with my landlord before I make any major modifications to his property, and that I need to keep the apartment relatively clean and be a good tenant. And that is a deal that I am happy to make.

This tenant to landlord relationship is what’s front and center in Jesus’ parable today. He tells the story of a landowner who leased his vineyard to tenants and then went away to another country. In his absence, the tenants began to look upon the vineyard as belonging to them: they thought that since they were doing all of the work of tending the vineyard, the vineyard should naturally belong to them, especially as the landlord was nowhere to be seen. So they felt perfectly justified in beating and killing the landowner’s slaves when they were sent to collect the produce that belonged to the landowner. The landowner hadn’t bothered to show up recently, so they felt safe in doing this. But here’s the problem: these tenants forgot that they were tenants. Just because the landowner had made himself absent for a long time did not mean that he would be absent forever. The tenants forgot they were tenants and they forgot that the vineyard did not really belong to them.

If this sounds a bit familiar to you, it should. During our Season of Creation, I spoke on this theme when I talked about how God commanded Adam to “serve” the earth, which is the word that usually gets translated as “till”. God never transferred ownership of the earth to us, but rather, God gave us stewardship of the earth so that we might care for it in God’s name. We are now entering the time when we focus more generally on stewardship, that is, stewardship of time, talents, and treasure, here at Hope, and I would like to use this parable as a framework for how we talk about stewardship. Everything that we own is not really ours. Everything that we think we own really belongs to God, and is given to us to care for in God’s name. But there are times when we behave like the tenants in this parable and refuse to give to God what belongs to God. So, let’s look at the three areas that we focus on during our stewardship emphasis: time, talents, and treasure.

We start first with time. How do we refuse to give our time, which is really God’s time, back to God? One way is when we don’t come to worship on Sunday mornings. I saw a joke not too long ago where there was a mother prodding her son to get up and go to church one Sunday morning, and the son saying that this was his only chance to sleep in. The next frame of the cartoon reveals that the son is her adult son, and she says, “You have to get up and go to church. You’re the minister!” I will admit that there are some Sundays that I would rather sleep in than come to church, especially now as it is still dark in the mornings and the cooler weather motivates me to stay snuggled under warm blankets. But, the Holy Spirit prods me (sometimes in the form of my dog who needs to go out!) and I get up and come to church, and by the time I get here, I’m glad that I came. And not just because you all are paying me to be here! I enjoy leading worship; I enjoy hearing and seeing God in action among this community of saints here in Powell, Wyoming. Now I know many of you don’t make it to worship on Sunday mornings because you are traveling. If that’s the case, I challenge you, where possible, to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy by attending a worship service wherever it is you are traveling. You don’t have to go to a Lutheran church—it’s okay to worship with a congregation in another denomination—but the fact that you worship God on Sunday morning means that you are giving time back to God and being in community with other Christian believers. And if you’re not traveling—please come on Sundays and give thanks to God for all of the many blessings he has showered upon you, and hear again the good news of how much God has done for us in giving us his son, Jesus. And, if you know someone who hasn’t been with us for a while to worship, please call that person and urge him or her to come.

Besides refusing to give time back to God, we also often refuse to give our talents back to God in God’s service. God has given each one of us unique gifts to use in serving him. I see the talented sewers we have here each Tuesday when they come in to make quilts for use in keeping people around the world warm. I see the talented cooks that we have each Sunday after worship during fellowship hour, and anytime we host a potluck dinner for ourselves and for the community. I see the talented builders and fixers we have in all of the upkeep that gets done around the church, and all of the little things that get built to help the building function better. We as a congregation are good about giving our talents back to God. But, can we become better? Are there new ministries that God is calling us to do where we are not heeding his voice because we don’t think we can do it, or are afraid to do it, or think that it would be too much effort? I’m not sure if I have the answer to these questions, but I would like to ask that we as a congregation be in devoted prayer and discernment over this through the coming weeks. And if anyone has a thought about where God might be leading us as a congregation or you as an individual, please come and talk to me or to the appropriate committee.

Finally, besides giving of time and talent, we often refuse to give God our treasure—or rather, God’s treasure that he has given to us. Again, this congregation is very good about giving their money—rarely have I seen stewardship committees drawing up a budget for the church that have not been contentious, but I have experienced that here. It’s wonderful. At this time of year, though, it is appropriate to reflect on the material blessings which God has given us and ask ourselves if we are giving enough, or if we could give some more. I was reading an article recently where the author was talking about how much fun it was to give gifts, especially when you can see how much the gift means to a person. When you give money to the church, you don’t always get to see that excited reaction. It’s hard to convey that excited reaction in a form letter, or in the giving statements that the financial secretary sends out periodically. But perhaps we can receive that joy knowing that we have given our money so that God’s work, through our hands, can continue here in Powell.

There’s another part of our treasure besides our money that God is calling us to reflect on giving back, and that is our stuff. We Americans hoard so much stuff it’s disgraceful. I’ve seen people who cannot fit their cars in their garages because they have used their garage to put all of their stuff in, and most of the time they don’t even know what’s in the garage. And sometimes our stuff overflows so much that we have to rent storage units to put our stuff in. As well as reflecting on what we should financially be giving back to God, this month we will be focusing on all of the stuff that we have. We will challenge ourselves to buy nothing for the month of October, aside from groceries, medicine, and household items that are absolutely needed. And let’s examine all of our stuff, too, and see how much of it we really need—not that we “might” need, for if it’s a nebulous “I might need this someday,” without foreseeing a definite need, then it’s probably something we can do without. And at the end of the month, as a symbol of our self-examination, we will each bring one item, lightly used, to the altar to offer it up to God and then to donate to where it is most needed.

I’ve preached a lot of law today—that is, a lot of what we should be doing rather than what God has done. And at first glance, that is what Jesus’ parable today looks like: the tenants behave wickedly, treat the vineyard owner’s messengers badly, and throw out his son. The Pharisees, hearing this parable, answer Jesus’ question about what the landowner will do and in so doing, condemn themselves. But, that is the Pharisees’ idea of what will happen, not God’s. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” In this parable, the owner of the vineyard continues to send messengers to the tenants, even though it would have been his right to come in with a police force and throw the tenants out. He even, foolishly it would seem, sends his son, thinking that the tenants will respect his son. This speaks to the desire of the landowner to have a relationship with the tenants; a desire on his part to keep these tenants and to love them. Just so, God keeps coming to us even when we refuse to give God what belongs to him—he sends messengers and finally sends his Son, Jesus, to die for us, hoping that at last we will understand how much he loves us. The question for us now is, will we listen to God and have the courage and the trust to give back to him, so that all may know his love? May it be so. Amen.