Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dear Klaus, thank you

The day I got Klaus

August 1, 2017

Dear Klaus,

I am sitting here next to you, and giving thanks. These past weeks and months, we have watched your age catch up to you, as your health has declined. You have been such a trooper, putting up with a couple babies poking and pulling on you (and in Grace's case, trying to ride you), being patient with how often you get kicked as we run around trying to take care of those two babies, never barking or biting but warming when appropriate, and remaining ever the cuddliest buddy.

But, my dear friend, we have come to the end. We had hoped against hope that you might recover, but it is increasingly clear that you won't. And so today, as I enjoy one last day with my little furry love, I want to remember all the things you have been.

You were my first dog. Sure, my parents had had dogs that I loved and considered my own, but I had
His first birthday (9yrs old!) with me
never had my very own dog. At the time I got you, it didn't make a lot of sense for me to get a dog. I first met you between my first two cancer surgeries. I went out to your house, and amidst a bunch of barking dogs, one little guy came right up and put his wee paws on my shins. "This one?" I asked, and she said yes. I hung out and watched you for a little while - watched you cuddle, and strut, and chew on your own ear (??), and follow a toddler around for dropped food - and got a sense of who you would be. It seemed like fate, and so I went for it. I am so glad I did. It was a rocky start (my oboe case still smells like pee), but you were exactly what I needed when I needed it. Thank you for being my good dog.

You were my nurse. The day your previous owner dropped you off at my apartment (October 31, 2012), I was home recovering from my second surgery. You were understandably a little uncertain of why you were in this new place, but after a short time, you were crawling up on
Comic relief, aka "flying nun"
me and licking my face. We were fast friends. And you quickly became my nurse, cuddling with me and helping me heal from four surgeries. When anxiety was high, you were there to stroke. When tears flowed, you offered hugs and kisses. You wiggled your way into every emotion and brought calm, and sometimes, comic relief. You always knew just what was needed, and gave it. Thank you for taking care of me.

You were our first "child." Michael suddenly lost his dog, Daisy, the day after my third (and first major) surgery. As Michael and I prepared to be married three months after that, he shifted all his dog love to you. You quickly became not mine, but ours. This is documented by probably thousands of pictures, including one of you as a
The Rehbaums!
groomsdog at our wedding, with your yellow bow-tie. (You ate your heart out at that event, patrolling the perimeter to pick up all dropped food, and boy, you felt it that night!) You came with us to pick out a Christmas tree. You were in our church directory photo. You were as much a Rehbaum as anyone else! Klaus Rehbaum the Dachshund, German dog! Thank you for being a part of our family.

You were our daughter's first friend. When Grace came along, our attention necessarily shifted to her and her needs, but you were no less a part of the family. You watched over her, checking in on her, guarding her, sitting with her when she cried. You had a little sibling rivalry, vying as you did for lap space, but overall, she was quite enamored with you (whom she calls "Lau"), and you were quite protective of her, and have been for Isaac, as well. Two mornings ago, as you stood whimpering under the table, Grace looked at me with worried eyes and asked, "Lau okay?" I said no, you weren't,
Grace and Klaus
that you were very sick. She said, "Oh..." and proceeded to try to give you food. That night, even in your disorientation, you stood guard by their door for an hour after we went to sleep. Yesterday, when Grace was trying to move you so she could get her bike through, she accidentally pulled off your collar. She looked at it, and starting reading the tag (interspersing "Lau" with various other babble). Then she held it up for me, pointing to your name tag, and said, "See? Lau!" She loves you, little dog. Thank you for your care of our children, and your friendship.

You were my constant. Since I moved to Rochester, my life has gone through several major changes: new job, two cancers, five surgeries, wedding, new house, two babies. Through all of that, you have been my constant. You have been my steadfast little friend. You have adapted, and cuddled, and made us laugh, and always loved with all that you could. Thank you for grounding me.
Klaus and "IronKlaus"

I couldn't have asked for a better dog - you patient, tolerant, gentle, kind, stubborn, spunky, friendly, loving boy. As Michael said yesterday, if we could be half as good humans as you are a dog, we would be doing all right. Thank you for your cuddles. Thank you for your fish breath-scented kisses. Thank you for all the sermon illustrations. Thank you for loving our babies. Thank you for winning us both over for small dogs. Thank you for showing us what unconditional love and affection looks like. Thank you for being in my life.

Love,

Your forever Mama

Sermon: Never separate from love (July 30, 2017)

Pentecost 8A
July 30, 2017
Romans 8:26-39

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
            Some years ago my mom and I traveled from California to Portland. At the time, my parents were taking care of my grandmother, visiting her every day in a nursing home as she fell deeper into the grips of Alzheimer’s. My grandpa had died a few years before, but my mom had been unable really to grieve his death, because she immediately threw herself into loving and caring for her mom. As my parents started dealing with my grandparents’ estate, one collection of items that they went through was my grandma’s jewelry. Among many beautiful pieces was my great-grandma Nita’s diamond ring. It fit my mom perfectly, and as she wore it, she felt close not only to her grandmother, but also to her own mom, even as her mom – her brilliance, her compassion, her eloquence – was slipping rapidly away.
            On our way home from our trip north, my mom packed all her valuables in her carry-on, not wanting to lose them should something happen to the checked luggage. This included her jewelry – and Grandma Nita’s diamond ring. Everything went smoothly as we picked up baggage and loaded it in the car… but when we arrived home from the airport, my mom realized she was missing her carry-on. She knew she had taken it off the plane. Did anyone remember putting it in the car? No one did. We called the airport, and nothing had been turned in. My mom’s carry-on – including that diamond ring that tied her to her grandmother and her mother in a time when she daily watched her slip further away – was gone for good.
            It wasn’t so much the loss of the diamond that was devastating. We all know that things can be replaced. No, the real loss was felt in all that the ring represented. Her grandma was gone. Her dad was gone. Her mom was slipping away. If you have lost someone or something important to you, you know – when you endure a loss, it is not long before you start to feel a little lost yourself. You feel lost, and you may even start to feel alone and disconnected.
             And genuine connection is what we social, emotional beings crave, perhaps more than anything else – connection with friends, with a partner, with family, with God. That is why this last line we heard today from Paul’s letter to the Romans is so meaningful to us: “I am convinced,” he says, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It’s a passage often read at funerals, during a time when we are feeling an acute loss, but it is good news for us any
time we are feeling any sort of loss, isn’t it? It is a comfort. It is a solace. It feels good to our hearts, because what is more devastating than loss, or to feel lost, or to feel alone? And here, we are promised: we are never alone.
            Perhaps you have a story from your past, or even from your present, in which you needed to hear that promise of enduring connection. There are plenty of causes for it. Paul even lists a few: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” he asks. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” These words no doubt meant everything to the audience for which he was writing – for the first century Romans reading his letter, these all hit remarkably close to home. For us, they may not carry the same impact. So, what if we substituted some more modern situations to make Paul’s sentiment come alive for us today, in 2017? How about this: “What can separate us from the love of Christ? Will divorce, or unemployment, or secularism, or mental illness, or sexuality, or ISIS, or hate crimes, or cancer, or miscarriage, or infertility, or guns, or bullying?”
            Suddenly, Paul’s next statement hits with a much harder punch: “No! In all these things, we are more than conquerors!” In all of these everyday realities that threaten us, that threaten our safety and our views and our self-image and our dreams and our way of being in the world – in all these things, we are more than conquerors. The Greek there is the same word from which we get the English “hyper” – so, we are hyper-winners! The winningest of winners! Notice, he does not say we are conquerors over these things, but rather, conquerors in these things. Paul is not saying, “If we are faithful enough, or pray hard enough, we will not have to endure these things.” He isn’t promising that challenges will not come our way, but rather, that when they do, we still have victory in Jesus Christ, because we still have the love and grace of Jesus Christ. In all these things, we are more than conquerors.
            Still, we may not always feel much like conquerors. As Paul notes, we may feel more like sheep lined up to be slaughtered – standing up for counter-cultural ideals, living in a way different from how the world would have us live, loving our neighbors of all stripes, standing up for the poor and marginalized and disenfranchised, like Jesus did and like he commanded. This is not an easy job. It was not easy in the first century, and it isn’t easy now. It would be much easier to be socially acceptable, to watch out for number one, to seek our own good instead of the good of the poor or the other. We do sometimes feel as if we are sheep to be slaughtered by this harsh world.
            Yet Paul responds to each sheep as he or she asks his or her most pained question, fearful of the backlash, and instead receives a grace-full, pastoral response. A man riddled with tumors asks, “Does my cancer separate me from the love of Christ?” No! A recently widowed woman who is so overcome by grief she can barely leave the house asks, “Does my grief separate me from the love of Christ?” No! A man who is unable to be as kind and loving to his family as he should be, because he struggles with depression and anxiety, asks, “Does my mental illness separate me from the love of Christ?” No! A woman who has endured a sexual assault comes, broken and ashamed, and asks, “Does my brokenness separate me from the love of Christ?” No! A person who was born male, but has always identified more as a woman, asks, “Does my gender confusion separate me from the love of Christ?” No! A man who cannot shake his dependence on alcohol to get through each day asks, “Does my addiction separate me from the love of Christ?” No!
            Finally Paul stops them all and says, “Listen up, everyone! There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing! That covers everyone, everything, every conceivable situation you could ask me about.” Whatever our brokenness, whatever our pain, whatever our sordid pasts – we are never, ever separate from the love of God.
            And so we are more than conquerors. No matter the failures and struggles we face, we have this love, and we have the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf to pray when we don’t know how, and we have the enduring promise that, because Christ died for us, and rose again, and brought us with him into eternal life, we need not fear the grave. Let us cling to that promise, brothers and sisters. Let us rejoice in our victory, knowing that it does not save us from having to face hardship, but that it promises that in all we face, we are never alone, and never without the life-changing love of God.

            Let us pray… God of love, when we face hardship, distress, persecution, hunger, vulnerability, danger, or violence, and when we feel so very alone in our struggles, remind us that we can trust that your love is always with us. Help us to see others, too, as people who also possess the assurance that they are your beloved children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Sermon: Reckless Sower (July 16, 2017)

Pentecost 6A/Lectionary 15
July 16, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9, 13-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
            I’ll admit it: I have garden envy. One thing I love about summer, especially in my neighborhood, is walking around and looking at all the beautiful blooming things. And I envy so many of them. I long to have such a beautiful garden! To have the eye to know what to plant and where, and then to have the knowledge and skill to plant it and make it grow so lusciously. But alas: my thumb is not green. Even the lowest-maintenance of plants, I’m just not great at keeping them alive and looking nice.
            It seems like it should be easy: just dig a hole, put the seed in, water, and be delighted! But apparently there is a lot more to it than that. You have to prepare the soil. You have to pull out the weeds and debris, and add nutrients, and plant the seeds at the right depth. You have to water the right amount, and put them where they get the right amount of light. If you want seeds to thrive, they need all the elements in place, including well-prepared soil.
            Any good gardener knows this. So it’s surprising, then, that the sower in the parable Jesus tells today seems to have no regard for the quality of soil where he plants the seeds! Totally reckless, no forethought, no preparation, just tossing seeds here, there and everywhere. And the result? Three quarters of the seeds don’t fall on fertile soil, and are scorched by the sun, or eaten by birds, or choked by thorns. Not much foresight there, Sower.
            I mean we, today – we know how to prepare for things. Businesses do a demographic study of an area before they plant a store there. Church mission starts also study an area, knock on doors, explore needs, before deciding to start a church. You want to have a sense that you are filling a need, serving a purpose… not to mention be successful! This lack of preparation that the sower is guilty of… that wouldn’t fly in today’s world.
            Not to mention the recklessness! Throwing seeds willy-nilly. It’s just not responsible. Since I was a kid, I have been so careful about not wasting things, and keeping things in case I might need them later. I remember for one birthday a friend gave me a package of clay that came with instructions for how to make
Van Gogh
pottery based on Native American designs. It even came with some black paint so I could do designs on the side. Such a cool gift! I was delighted. But every time I looked at the package of clay in my closet, I thought, “No, not today. I might mess up, and then I will have wasted it. I should save it for a time when I am sure I will be able to make something beautiful with it. If I use it now, then I won’t have it anymore, and then I’ll be sad later that I was so reckless to use this before I was really ready to get everything out of it that I could.” See – I was careful, thoughtful, and I thought ahead. Not like this sower in the parable.
            Well, I’d love to say my thoughtfulness, care and foresight served me in the end. But guess what happened to that clay, that lovely, interesting gift from my friend? I kept it – for years, until I was too old to really enjoy it anymore, and then a little longer in case my interest might return… until the clay dried up and became worthless to me. I ended up throwing it in the garbage one day many years later. I never got to enjoy it.
            How much of life passes us by like that? How many opportunities do we miss because we are afraid of not doing it right, because we are waiting for the perfect time, and want to make sure we are absolutely prepared? How many of us need to make sure the proverbial soil is perfectly tilled before we take any risks and try to make anything grow?
There are many ways to enter this parable. We can think of ourselves as the sower, being sent out to spread the good news to others. We can think of ourselves as the seed, that is being spread upon the world. But my favorite way to understand this well-known parable is to think of ourselves as the soil, and God as the sower. But – we’re not always the good soil. At least I’m not. Just as I sometimes miss opportunities to share the good news with others, I have also missed opportunities to let myself hear the good news. My guess is I’m not alone in this. Sometimes it is hard to hear and receive God’s Word, because our hearts have been hardened and burned too many times before, and we’re not in a place to receive the good news of God’s grace. Or sometimes we hear God’s Word, but quickly let it be choked out by other things that seem more important in the moment, or by our own preferences or fears. Or we hear it, but ignore it and let it be overcome by the elements and the ways of the world.
It’s a good thing, then, that the sower so recklessly spreads seed, even on the bad, unprepared soil – so that if we miss it the first time, we will still have another chance. This parable, you see – it is a parable of abundance. It is a story about a God who throws seed out to all different kinds of soil – not because God is a bad gardener who doesn’t understand about tilling and fertilizer, but because God knows that all of that seed will do some good. The seed that gets eaten up by birds – at least it is feeding the birds! The seed that gets thrown among thorns – it is fertilizing the soil for future harvest.
And the seed that lands on good soil – that not only grows and thrives, but is an abundance beyond our understanding! A good harvest is one that yields between seven and ten-fold. Jesus tells his disciples that the seed that fell on good soil yielded 30 times, 60 times, even 100 times! Surely the farmers in the audience were laughing at his absurdity – it is impossible! But God’s grace IS absurd. It often makes little sense, is not at all the way we would do things, and certainly is not, in any reasonable mind, the “best” or most efficient way to do something.
But you see, what is impossible and unreasonable with humans is possible and effective with God. Because our God is one of abundance – who throws seeds everywhere without counting the cost, who doesn’t worry that some of those seeds may not do a bit of good, and some will do good that we didn’t expect; a God who knows that some of those seeds will yield a crop that is lavishly beyond human comprehension. With God, there is always enough. There is always more than enough.
That story I told about my clay… I think I got that for my 7th birthday, and it has stuck with me for 27 years since, probably because in some ways I am still that cautious little girl who wants to be sure she has what she needs when she needs it. But I wonder: what if I received God’s abundant grace the same way I received that gift of clay? Admiring God’s grace in its package – bread and wine, water in a font, a baby in a manger, a man on a cross – and understanding what a great gift it is… but never willing to actually delve into it and experience the joy it brings. Unwilling to take it and touch it and use it, lest I use it up and then not have it when I need it. Concerned that I might mess it up if I get too invested in it, and so content simply to admire it from afar. What if that was how we viewed God’s grace?
Thanks be to God, that is not how grace works. Our God, the Sower, is a reckless God of abundance, lavishly spreading grace and love upon the world. Some will receive it with joy, and yield an absurd amount more. Some will not be ready to receive it – yet. But the seed keeps coming. The grace keeps coming. It never runs out, and it is never wasted. It may not make sense to us, but that is the way of our abundant God of grace.

Let us pray… Reckless Sower, you never run out of grace for us. Make our hearts good soil, ready to receive your Word, and to share your lavish abundance with the world. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Christ's yoke and discerning God's will (July 9, 2017)

Pentecost 5A/Lectionary 14
July 9, 2017
Matthew 11:16-19
Romans 7:15-25a
Genesis 24

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
            In today’s story from Genesis, we hear about how Abraham found a wife for his son Isaac. You see, Sarah had just died, so Abraham was probably thinking, “Man, if this whole ‘great nation’ thing that God talked about is going to happen, Isaac’s gotta get busy having some kids, and to have kids, he needs a wife!” So he sends his servant back to Abraham’s home country to find a wife for Isaac. The servant has some concerns about this, namely, why would some young woman come with him to some far-off land to marry some guy she knows nothing about? So he comes up with this idea. “If a woman offers me a drink of water from the well,” he says, “AND also offers some to my camels, then I’ll know she is the one!” This way, he thinks, he will know God’s will.
Have you ever used such a tactic to figure out what God wants you to do? Like, “Heads I take the job, tails I don’t.” Or, “If tomorrow it rains, I’ll take it as a sign that God wants me to do such-and-such.” This tactic worked well for Abraham’s servant in his quest to find a wife for Isaac: the very first woman who comes to the well is not only gorgeous, but also fulfills every qualification, and passes every “test” that the servant had in mind, and so naturally, the woman, Rebekah, is also willing to follow him back to Abraham and to Isaac, and God’s promise can continue.
Well, it worked for him, but it’s certainly not a foolproof way for us to discern God’s will, is it? Because too often, Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans come into play. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” In other words, despite our best intentions, and our knowledge of what is the right thing to do, our sinful nature is always wriggling its way into our decision-making. So when I try to use Abraham’s servant’s idea for making decisions, I see “signs” pointing toward what I would like to be the case as signs from God, and dismiss signs that point me toward something that makes me uneasy or uncomfortable, or things I downright don’t want to be true, as mere coincidence. Anyone else guilty of that? I always prefer that God would agree with me and my will, than have to adjust my attitude or my thinking or my acting to go along with God’s will! So if I can find things that make me believe that God’s will and mine are in agreement, then all the better.
Yes, I see the fault here, or at least, the potential for fault. So the question becomes: what IS a good way to discern God’s will? Because this is one of our most pressing spiritual questions, isn’t it? I don’t just mean about the big decisions of our lives – whether to take a new job, or get married, or have kids, or move into assisted living. Certainly we need God’s guidance on those decisions, too, but we need help even on the more mundane things. Should I give $1, $5, or nothing to United Way when I check out at Wegmans? Am I voting for the right people or ideas? Am I fighting for the right things? Am I devoting my energy to the right things?
For me, this is especially the case lately, as I look around the world at all the things that are not as they should be: sick people without adequate health care, people who work full time (even multiple jobs) and yet still are unable to reliably put food on the table for their family, veterans who are not cared for, children who don’t have the support they need to thrive, faithful people who are persecuted for worshipping God in the way they know how, people who are mocked and bullied simply for being the beautiful creatures God made them to be, an earth that is commodified, taken for granted and trampled upon for the sake of profit. All these things I care so much about – but what am I supposed to do? How do I know the best solutions, and what role is God calling me to take in those solutions? Where is the balance of serving the needs of the broader world, and serving the needs of my family? What is God’s idea for the future of the congregations I serve, and what role do I play in that? How do I, and how do we, discern God’s will for our lives, and how do we act on it?
So many questions to discern! And then, even if we do successfully discern God’s will, we are still susceptible to “doing the very thing we hate,” because, well, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But there must be some way at least to get a little closer not only to knowing God’s will, but to actually doing it?
I find our Gospel lesson today offers a helpful image for the task of
discernment. It’s in that very famous and well-loved line at the end: “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I have long been fascinated by this image: how is it that Jesus can promise rest for our souls when in fact, a yoke is something used for a work animal? What does that even mean to say Jesus’ yoke is easy? I’ve seen how hard those animals work – that doesn’t look easy to me!
            But that’s how discernment can be sometimes, can’t it? It is not easy. It is hard work, work that requires reading and listening and praying and perhaps talking to trusted people. What is helpful about Jesus’ yoke as a discernment image is this: you cannot be yoked alone. A yoke brings two together, to share the load. And in the case of Jesus’ yoke, of course, you are sharing the load with Jesus. And Jesus is walking alongside us all along the way.
So as we discern that question, “What does God want from me right now?” this image urges us to consider it right alongside Jesus. That is, we read scripture, we pray, we talk to other Christians who will push and question and challenge us to think things through. As we make big decisions, whether that is in personal life decisions, or in forming our opinions about the various issues the world and our communities are facing and acting accordingly, we must look at the words and teachings of Jesus, and ask ourselves, “Where would Jesus guide me on this? If Jesus were in my position, which way would he go?” Because the fact of this image is: Jesus is in your position. You are yoked with him. Where you go, he goes – or perhaps better, where he goes, as long as you are yoked, you go, too.
            But here is something else important to know about this yoke image. Jesus was speaking to a community of Jews who were feeling exceptionally burdened by Mosaic Law, and its 600-some laws that they were required to follow. Imagine having to keep all of that straight, and living in the constant fear of slipping up! But along comes Jesus and he condenses all those laws to essentially two commands: love the Lord your God with all you have, and love your neighbor. It’s simpler, yes, but certainly not any easier to love in so open and undiscriminating manner as Jesus, who spent all his time with the sinning-est of sinners! Still, with Jesus’ interpretation of the law, every action can be filtered through the same question: is this action in the best interest of my neighbor? Does this action, or viewpoint, or vote, or opinion, or word, show the sort of love to my neighbor that Christ himself would show? If we are truly yoked to Christ, we must be in step with him!
            But at the end of the day, the reason Christ’s yoke is easy, and we will find rest in it, is that his yoke is one of grace. Yoked to Christ, our salvation does not depend upon upholding the letter of the law. It depends not on our actions, but on Christ’s action – his action to die for our sins and rise again to bring us into new life with him. And because of that grace, suddenly being in step with our God of love and service to neighbor becomes not just easy, but a joy, because we are living into the gracious love shown to us by our Savior.
            Come to Christ, you who are weary from the weight of the world, and carrying the heavy burdens of your decisions, and Christ will give you rest. When you take his yoke upon you, you will learn from him: learn what it means to love your neighbor without counting the cost. Christ is gentle and humble in heart, willing to serve even the lowest and most despised, the weakest, the least popular. In loving these, you will find rest for your souls. Christ’s yoke is easy, for it makes the burden of sin light. Take Christ’s yoke upon you, and you will live in the joy of God’s love and grace.

            Let us pray… God of wisdom, you not only guide us when we have decisions to make, but you also walk right alongside us all along the way. Help us always to be attuned to your will, always to have our neighbor’s well-being in the forefront of our minds, and then to follow through on what you would have us do. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.