Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ash Wednesday Sermon

“Where Our Treasures Are”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This short verse became one of my favorites when I first began reading the Bible. I was about 14 at the time, and had justlost one of my best friends.

We had only known each other for about 6 months, becoming fast friends when I moved to Petersburg, Alaska. On my first day of school, Iza was one of the first people to come up to me and introduce herself. She had grown up in Poland and knew what it was like to be the new kid in school. Soon, her, myself, and about 4 other girls became a close-knit group who did everything together.
Although she wasn’t the best influence on me, she smoked and knew how to cause trouble, she was someone I could confide in. I cherished our friendship and she made me feel secure in a place that was so unfamiliar. I was so grateful to have people in my life I felt I could lean on and speak to openly.

That all changed one February morning. On the bus to school, an ambulance drove by, an unusual site for our small town. I did not think too much of it, and just let it drift from my mind. When I arrived at school, however, I knew something was not quite right. As it turned out, our dear friend Iza collapsed on her way to the bus and instantly died. We would find out later she had a heart condition that had never been diagnosed.

Although I had experienced the early death of a classmate a few years back, this loss was so different. She had become one of my closest friends. The loss devastated me and I think forever changed who I was. The grief felt unyielding and my other friends and I tried to work through the emotions that came in waves and the questions that naturally flowed with them.
This single experience I believe had the greatest influence on my relationship with God. I became angry, questioning how a loving God could take away someone so young, yet I also clung to my faith finding comfort in the presence of Christ that I felt so strongly. It was a time of uncertainty and growth for me. It was also a time where I came to have a greater understanding of what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume.” I realized that nothing on earth is permanent and no matter how hard I try, I cannot control the world around me.
Iza’s death was not the first upset I had experienced during that period in my life. We had just left the only home I ever knew back in Seattle. My life long friends were all back there. My parents had only separated about a year and a half prior, and my father and new stepmother were back in Seattle. How much more could I really take? My parents marriage was gone, my home in Seattle was gone, my friend Iza was gone. Nothing in my life could remain stable, other than Christ’s presence in my life.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is a day when we are reminded of our own mortality. As the ashes are smudged on our foreheads, we are faced with the realization that we are frail, imperfect, and solely dependent upon our Lord and Savior. The treasures that surround us in this world will perish, the only thing that will remain steadfast is our God.
The loss of my friend was the first time I really reflected on how everything in our lives can be lost in an instant. In our world, we strive to gain control of our finances, of our health, of our actions. We create laws as a way of controlling our society, and put locks on our doors in order to prevent chaos. When our health fails, we find every specialist in the country to help us prevent what will ultimately be an inevitable death. We crave the ability to prevent anything from occurring in our lives that would upset the stability we have strived to build.
It is during those times when everything falls apart around us that we are reminded of that simple yet complex phrase, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. When we feel the ashes upon us, when we look around at each other at the end of this service, we are reminded of the reality that we have no control. We cannot control the fact that we will die, no matter how much we want to. At some point, treatments will fail. Whether this is in weeks, months, or 20 years down the road, our bodies will give out.
We cannot control the fact that time and time again our peers will fail us. Classmates will betray us, saying things behind our backs. Secrets will be spilled in the uncontrollable need to gossip. At work, someone will want to get a promotion badly enough that they will go around us in order to get ahead. We cannot control the fact that at times, our laws will not be able to prevent us from being harmed. Bad people will still lurk in corners, selling drugs to our children, mugging the innocent, finding a way to break into our homes. 14 year old girls will still die. Parents will divorce. We will still be uprooted from places that make us feel secure. Our world is broken and full of broken people.
This is why Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven. We are not to depend upon a broken and fallen world, we are to depend upon a perfect and loving God. A God who has given us the greatest gift to ever be offered, the gift we will celebrate at the end of this 40 day journey. It is the gift in knowing that we do not have to strive for control, because the control is in his hands. It is the gift that although we mourn now, soon that mourning will be turned into joy. It is the gift of knowing that we are forgiven, time and time again, because we are given the gift of grace through the suffering of a loving God.
As we take this 40 day journey of Lent, we are reminded of our brokenness and dependence upon Christ. This is a time to deepen our spiritual lives, to look beyond our own brokenness and need to control our world, and look to the one who is ultimately in control. We cannot always prevent bad things from happening in our lives, but we can use these situations to look deeper into what it means to be dependent upon Christ.
When my friend died, I was compelled to go deeper in my journey of faith. Her death occurred right around this time of year, and it was my first introduction to Ash Wednesday. As I had the ashes smudged on my forehead and for the first time heard the words “you are dust and to dust you shall return”, I took time to really reflect on what those words meant. I was able look beyond the darkness of my grief, and looked towards the cross that was now marked on my forehead. I realized that even though we are so imperfect and our world is broken, that the ultimate gift is found on the cross. As we go through the dark times in our lives, as we make this journey called Lent, it leads us out of the darkness and into a new creation. A creation that is full of life, hope, and grace.
Although we are mere mortals, full of sin and frailities, we are gifted in knowing that the greatest treasures of our lives lie not in this world but in Christ our Savior. In the ashes we receive today, we are given a sign to remind us of our mortality and are need for repentance, yet we are also reminded of the grace that God gives us in the gift of eternal life. That is where our treasure lies. For all of these things in our world that we depend on will eventually pass away, but we can be sure that no matter what, Christ will always remain. Amen

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow and Sermon

Well, we finally have winter! Since yesterday, I would estimate we have had over a foot of snowfall, and it is still coming down. It is so beautiful and although I was looking forward to an early spring, I am glad we got a taste of a real winter snow. The only downfall was trying to shovel out my car this morning so they could plow the road. Man, did I feel how badly I need to start working out!
As you can see in the picture, my glasses are officially gone! Thanks to the generosity of an eye doctor in our congregation, I was able to get my eyes checked after seven years of not going
in. Unfortunately, our seminary insurance does not cover dental or vision, so both of these areas have gone unchecked. My vision was bad enough to where I could not see most street signs. So, now I can see beautifully! He convinced me to get contacts along with new glasses. Although hesitant to try sticking my finger in my eye, I tried the contacts and am learning to love them. It is so freeing to be able to see clearly, with a new prescription and no scratches, superglue, and other icky things on the lenses. I think I am going to stick with contacts from now on. Just one more person in our congregation who is a true blessing! It is my hope that he knows how
much his gift means to me. What a great example of what it means to live a life of service to Christ.
Things are going very well with the Pastors out of the country. So far there have been no major crisis' and I hope it stays that way! I am learning to take more authority which is one of the things we have been trying to working on.
My meeting for the new children's program went really well. I have 26 volunteers for the program and I think they are all very excited to get started. So far we have 17 kids signed up, so I really need to work on that. Hopefully we will have a great turnout and the congregation will want to continue the program on next year.
I did the worship services last week by myself. It was a wonderful experience and it was very humbling to hear all the kind comments. I must say it really gave me a much needed boost and demonstrated to me that I am truly competent to lead services alone. This next weekend I will have a supply preacher for the services, as it is a Communion Sunday. I cannot preside over Communion until I am ordained, so we needed someone in anyways. This will be nice for me as it will give me more time to focus on my Sunday school lesson, rather than trying to balance that with a sermon. My adult teaching skills aren't the greatest, so I need to put more energy into these lessons.
Alright, so I am going to go start dinner. Enjoy the sermon below; it is not my greatest, but I thought I would share it anyways. I have moved the Asher's friends list to it's own site if you are looking for it. There are many updates on it, so please go to: and pray for all these kids.

"Blessed to be a Blessing"
Sermon- 6th Sunday after Epiphany

Many Sunday mornings, as I am getting ready for church, half asleep with a cup of hot tea in hand and typically my grapenuts with peaches, I sit and flip through my basic cable channels, trying to find something to watch in order to help myself wake up, if only just enough so I can function at the 8:15 service.

As most of you are probably aware, there is nothing good on television at 7am on a Sunday, unless you are a small child who enjoys power rangers. So, as I muddle though the channels, I typically land on one of the paid ½ hour advertisements. Many times, this is either advertising for one of those really cool magic bullet things that can make anything from a smoothie to cream of broccoli soup, or the advertisement is for something of more substance. It is to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, in order to help families who cannot afford their child’s medical treatment. Or it is for impoverished children suffering the effects of AIDS or years of drought. The pictures flash on the screen of little children with their ribs sticking out of their chests, their bellies distended from disease, flies eating at their skin. As hard as it is to watch their suffering, ultimately it is difficult to change the channel. The extent of their poverty and illness is unfathomable. It is unlike anything we see here in our community, and the suffering seems so far separated from us. In remembering these pictures, it is much easier to picture what Jesus is talking about when he says “blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

When discussing Jesus’ love for the poor, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez describes the reason his love is so strong is because they are living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. I find this description of the poor to be applicable to more than those suffering the kind of devastating hardship the children on the paid TV advertisement are experiencing. This description of God’s love moves throughout all whom he calls blessed. It is contrary to God’s will that we suffer in any way. God does not desire for us to weep, to be hated, to hunger. When we see the children suffering through treatment for life threatening illness’ on the St Jude commercial, does God will that? I honestly do not think so. Yet then we go on to hear Jesus say, “woe to you” who are rich, who are laughing, who are spoken well of. Is it not God’s will that we be happy and live lives that are comfortable?

These are the questions and thoughts that filled my mind this week as I pondered our text for this Sunday. It is a text that many struggle over, including me, because upon first reading, it sounds as though the way we are living is not pleasing to God. It sounds as though we should rid ourselves of all possessions and live a life of poverty. The extreme side of me would even take it to mean having the clothes on my back is wrong. But, in reality, I really don’t think this is how Jesus expects us to interpret the text.

To me, this sermon is not a call to throw away all we own. It is not a call to inflict suffering upon ourselves so we can be blessed in the eyes of God. And it is certainly not a call to seek out persecution for the sake of Christ. Rather, I take this sermon as more of a call to a life of discipleship. Just prior to the sermon, Jesus had called his twelve disciples and they were just beginning their ministry together. The twelve had just left their homes and their possessions, and were devoting their lives to ministry. These drastic changes they had just experienced I am sure were overwhelming. They had gone from lives that were comfortable to lives full of service, poverty, and persecution for the sake of Christ.

The words of Jesus in this message were not necessarily words to praise people for being poor or to condemn those who were fed, but to call the people together in a life of service to one another in the name of Christ. It is a call for the disciples to not worry so much about what they had given up, but to focus on what they are gaining; fellowship in the Christian community.

The two extremes Jesus offers us in this sermon, of people suffering and others living in the lap of luxury, is contrary to God’s will. Why should others suffer while we live comfortably with more than enough to spare? We all have something to offer others, we are told this time and time again throughout scripture, that God has blessed us all with gifts in ministry. Here, in this sermon, is our call to use these gifts, to demonstrate God’s love to all our brothers and sisters through a life of discipleship. It is not a call to rid ourselves completely of what we have, but to share our gifts with each other. It is a call to bring a balance within our world. To offer others what we have so that all our needs are met.

We are reminded in Jesus’ sermon that we will all suffer. If we are laughing now, we will weep later. If we are filled now, someday we will be hungry. And if people are speaking well of us today, another day they will not. Some of our suffering may more inhuman than others, but we will all suffer nonetheless.

About four years ago, I was meeting with a counselor that I saw for about two years. During one of our sessions, we were talking about the divorce of my parents back when I was a child and the impact that it had on me throughout the years. At one point, I mentioned that it was no big deal, as so many others had suffered such greater heartaches than I had. Who was I to complain? His response to me was that there will always be another suffering a greater heartache than me, but that does not make the hurt any less painful.

Someone will always be in greater pain than ourselves. It seems there is always someone in our world whose pain is worse than what we are experiencing. The children we see on television, living in third world countries, are suffering greatly with hunger and disease. Their pain is evident in their faces as they live each day with the fear that they will be cold, hungry, and abandoned. Here, in our church today, many of us are suffering greatly as well. It may not be with empty bellies, it may not be with the threat of no where to sleep. But pain is there nonetheless, with empty pocket books, empty homes, empty hearts. Each pain that we face is contrary to God’s will. I do not believe it was ever in God’s great plan for us to suffer, but just as sin entered the world, so did suffering. The call God gives us now is for us to serve each other in the name of Christ, in the hope of alleviating each others pain.

The call for us today is to live lives of discipleship. In our baptisms, we joined this family of disciples. We took on the call to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed, even if it meant suffering for his sake. Our baptismal call is a call to be a support to one another, the children oversees, the single mother down the street, the person sitting next to you in the pew. Jesus is calling for us to bring a balance to our world; to offer our riches to those with nothing. These are the riches of monetary wealth, of a listening ear, of our skills, and of our prayers. We each have so much to offer each other, so that all may be blessed through the gifts that Christ gives us. God has given to us so that we can give to others.

In college, one of my professors use to say we are “blessed to be a blessing.” God has given us the tools to turn our woes into blessings for others. Our riches can be used to bless those who have nothing. If we are now laughing, we can be blessed to bless others who are weeping, by offering a listening ear and a comforting presence. If we are being spoke well of, we can bless others by advocating for them when they are being persecuted. God has blessed us with the gift of discipleship, to come together to bring love and healing to our neighbors, so that all may come to know him through our actions. Reflecting on her words now, it is so evident that she is right. We are all blessed to be a blessing. Amen