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The Perfect Gift

lambs 19185cMessage for Pentecost 9 on Luke 12:32-40 on August 7, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Have you ever had that experience when you were so excited for Christmas or a birthday celebration because you had found the perfect gift for a loved one and you could not wait for them to open it? Can you think of one of those gifts that you were thrilled to give because it was just right? Of course, we try to get meaningful gifts all the time, but once in a while, we have that experience of getting something extra special.

About 20 years ago, Dan needed a new jacket–he had mentioned in passing that he liked those bomber-style leather jackets, but it was really not in our budget since I was staying home with the kids and they were all involved in activities.

I was not making a lot of money with my home business, but I decided I was going to figure out how to buy Dan a leather jacket. I booked extra appointments, sold extra products, and before Christmas, I made enough money to buy Dan this beautiful black leather jacket with a zip-in lining so he could also wear it in the St. Louis winter. I could not wait for him to open it. He was so surprised, and truly loved it.

Giving my husband whom I love, something that he wanted and needed that made him feel special and loved gave me such delight and pleasure. Don’t you love that feeling? Is that not why we buy gifts after all? Not just to please the person we are giving them to, but because giving them something special also gives us pleasure and delight?

Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

We do not often think of God’s delight and pleasure in giving us, God’s beloved children, the special and wonderful gifts God wants us to have. No, many of us were raised to believe that God is grumpy, judgmental, and stingy; that we are always supposed to appease this God with our prayers, our good thoughts, and our better behavior so God will toss a few meager morsels of forgiveness or blessings our way even though we do not deserve it.

But this is never the God that Jesus describes! Jesus shows us a God who is an intimate, close and loving parent who cherishes, knows, and provides for the people God made and loves: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Jesus describes God's generosity as One who gives out of pleasure, and delight, out of being well-pleased (like God was at Jesus Baptism and his Transfiguration!). God gives to treat us specially, and with joy, like a loving mother caring for her children, like someone gifting their beloved with the perfect gift, like a father doting on his children.

Think about it: If we experience such joy in giving something just right to those we love, imagine that feeling of love multiplied a gazillion-fold to infinity, by the God of the universe who desires to give us the fullness of God’s presence in Jesus, in love, in forgiveness, in community, and in the Spirit’s power!

• Can you imagine this?
• Can you imagine God’s pleasure in giving us grace, and all that we need?
• Can you imagine God’s delight in giving us the ability to love?
• In giving us family and the church to help each other?
• Can you imagine God’s joy in giving us the ability to share generously? In giving us the Spirit to multiply goodness and Godness and justice in the world?

God’s up there thinking, “ooh this is awesome! I can’t wait until they open and experience these gifts! When are they gonna get it?” How much longer ‘til Christmas?!

When we embrace this God that Jesus really shows us, we begin to understand why he starts this passage with “have no fear, little flock.” God delights in giving us all that really matters. Then there is nothing to fear–nothing we lack, nothing that we need beyond what God willing and lovingly provides for us. Indeed, what is there to fear when we completely trust that God loves and provides for us now and in the life to come? God can’t wait for us to know and fully grasp what we’re getting!

When we embrace this loving God who delights in giving us love, community, forgiveness, daily needs, and the gift of Jesus Christ–the very gifts of the kingdom for us, the rest of what Jesus says makes more sense: for Jesus calls us to treasure the God who treasures us. Jesus invites us to make an unfailing treasure in heaven that is above all else.

1. Jesus asks us to also delight in loving God, as God loves us! We treasure the God who treasures us by putting God first in our lives by giving God our time, our prayer, and our gratitude.
2. Then Jesus asks us to treasure God by generously sharing God’s gifts to us, with those who need extra help. As we treasure God, God’s gifts multiply—like loaves and fishes!
3. Finally, Jesus calls us to treasure God by finding ways to live according to God’s design for human flourishing–which includes that all are fed, clothed, housed, and given opportunity for livelihood—that’s what the kingdom of God looks like!

Jesus clues us into the great reversal of the kingdom with his veiled story about himself as the master who returns and serves the slaves their meal. Has not our master and Lord come to feed us all with his own body and blood and given himself to save our very lives? God has treasured us so much to give his only Son for us, feeding us with bread and wine of forgiveness.

Then he asks to go from this table and embody a society where the imbalances of the world are set right–and all have an equal seat at the table of God’s treasures. And we can do all of this without fear, little flock, for our loving God delights in giving us all we need now, and forever in Jesus. We trust that as we share God’s treasures—God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s resources, they multiply! And so does our experience of God’s blessings—more delight, more love, more joy!

Did you know that Dan still wears his black leather jacket today, 2 decades later? Not as often in Texas–but it’s still in the closet and whenever it’s cold enough, he wears it. It has been repaired, restitched in places, re-lined, and specially cleaned. Other clothes have been passed along, and replaced, but this jacket remains. Why?

• It’s not because he loves leather–if that were true, he’d toss this jacket and get a new one.
• It’s not because we can’t afford it–we are much better off than we used to be, and he could buy any jacket he wants.
• Dan still wears a 20-year-old jacket because he treasures it as a gift of love, and he feels treasured and loved when he wears it.

It is God’s good pleasure and delight to give us the kingdom and all that we need. In Jesus Christ, we feel treasured and loved taking the same careful stewardship with all of God’s gifts––to treasure them, make them last, re-stitch, recycle, caring for creation and the people God made—feeling loved and treasured with every good gift–

• every moment of forgiveness,
• each experience of prayer,
• every blessed meal,
• each worship service,
• every clean drink of water,
• each piece of music that helps our spirit soar,
• every sticky kiss from a child.

And when we have something we no longer use or need, we hold it lightly and pass it on, advocating for that day when all will be fed and housed.

We do not know when Jesus will return in all his fullness, but when we treasure the God who treasures us, Jesus enables us to take good care and have no fear, little flock.

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Essentials for Life

richfool wLGMessage for Pentecost 8 on Luke 12:13-21 on July 31, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

What does life consist of? That is the question that sits at the center of our story from Luke’s Gospel today. The man in our story is sure that he knows — and he is not getting what he wants. So he seeks out a judge, an arbiter to decide in his favor.

It was customary in Jesus’ time for rabbis to give a legal ruling in disputes. It sounds like a straightforward request to settle an inheritance; to get the older brother to fulfill his duty to share the correct share of the family money with his younger brother. But Jesus senses something else going on in this young man’s mind and heart other than the settling of the books, and distributing one’s fair share of the inheritance.

Jesus does not satisfy the man’s request because he knows that the man isn’t simply seeking fairness — he is seeking his own material gain. This man’s motivation is not justice, but greed.

Greed is a common experience for all of us. That’s what one of the main levers that advertisers use — they know we want nicer things and more things — and so they dangle all sorts of luxuries before us with great promises that a new car or a new house or a new pair of tennis shoes or a new set of clothes will make us happier and more content. Now, on the one hand there is nothing wrong in having possessions — a car, a house, clothing, and so on. Our problem as humans is the easy tendency to put our possessions above people, to place money over relationships, to value cash before community, and worst of all, to love goods more than God.

Greed — that is wanting more and believing that life consists of getting more, always trips us up doesn’t it? Whether it’s inheritance, marital disputes, divorce, child support, or resolving family conflicts, it often comes down to the money–who’s got it, who’s spending it, how much is enough, and what about me? Like the man in our story, we all have an underlying fear that we are not going to get our fair share. Greed can spur disputes about money or inheritance can cause irreparable family rifts–I know of a number of families where the adult children do not speak to one another after the parents died and the children could not settle the estate. It is so easy for money to be more important than relationships. 

We also cling to our possessions in hopes that they will help secure our future. This haunts us like a nightmare repeating itself unbidden in the dark of night. Will I have enough? What if I run out of resources? What if a disaster strikes? Again, the wise person does try to plan for the future. God wants us to participate in our own well-being. That’s why we buy insurance, that’s why we save for retirement, that’s why over the last four years we have started an Endowment and a Capital Campaign, why we steward the building–faithfulness includes planning future missions. Yes, God protects us against evil that can destroy the soul. but God also gave us brains to figure out ways to protect our lives — things like vaccines and healthy living patterns, and wise financial management, and on-going mission beyond our lifetimes. But how quickly this planning for the future can drive us into a fearful greediness that puts possessions, money, and stuff over people, relationships, and God.

Knowing this, not just about the brother in front of him, but all of us, Jesus does not settle between the man and his brother. Rather, by telling the parable of the Rich Fool, Jesus invites the man and us into an alternate way of seeing what life consists of as we live in a world in which everything is a gift from God.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

Wouldn’t it be nice if the story ended there? I wish this were a story about the wisdom of building bigger barns so you don’t have to worry about anything. But, as is so often the case with Jesus, there is always more to the story.

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

The tragedy of the story is the man thought that he was the captain of his destiny. He put all of his energy into securing a future that, in the end, he did not control. You notice the pronouns in the story were “I” and “my” and “self.” There are no relationships, no mention of family or God or community. He is curved in on himself so much so, that he cannot see anyone but himself.

But Jesus’ parable forces us to ask other questions, How much is enough? How much do you need? What does life consist of? And when death calls — and at some point, death will always call — it does not matter how wise an investor we have been with our earthly resources. They will no longer be ours and then our eternal wealth will begin to matter: “what investments have we made in our relationship with God?”

I want to share with you a painting that illustrates the way that this parable invites us to reconsider our relationship with our possessions. It is by Texas artist Jim Janknegt (look at the picture posted with this sermon).

Here is the painting. There are two houses, one large and one small. Which house would you rather live in? If you are like me, you would like the biggest house. There is more space. It is more comfortable. You can store more possessions.
And that's exactly what the rich man prefers. His large buildings allow him , eat, drink space for nice furniture, art, and possessions. He has a nice bedroom upstairs where he can dream of his worry-free life. This is a house in which he can eat, drink, and be merry. But there are other symbols - cactus in the yard, it's very stark, shadows over the house, the owner is alone and his back to the neighbors house.

There are possessions one buys around outside - jewelry, electronics, house for sale, bull-dozing a house to build a bigger one, newscaster with a skull–horrors of the day.
There are sales pitches in the words behind the items: 

  • “But one Get One Free”
    “Essentials for the Home”
    “50% Off Sale”
    “One-Day Specials”

But there is a problem with this man and his large house. While it gives you the security and comfort we all want, it prevents you from having relationships. It puts possessions above people and cash before community. This is symbolized by a piece of art inside his home–it’s a sculpture in his living room. It looks like a child with the center hollowed out or the heart cut out – a symbol of the kind of life and soul one has who only has relationships with possessions, and not with people. This is also a symbol of what happens to the larger community by his hoarding of grain. By not putting his extra grain into the market, he drives up the price of grain for the poor. His selfish practice gives him economic power and status in the village as others become more dependent on him. The rich fool wants to control the market at the expense of his neighbors. Those who control market forces for unreasonable profits, leave the stomachs of the poor empty. 

And do you remember what happens in the parable when the rich man gets everything he wants? When he gets his security and your happiness? God comes and tells him, “Fool, tonight you lose your soul. And what you have provided, whose will it be?” This question underscores that the only relationship this man has is with his stuff, possessions and money.

But there is another house in the painting... a house that none of us would prefer. But look inside this house. Here is a whole group together–perhaps a family or a family with friends or relatives over. People of different ages. And they are sitting together at a table, sharing a meal and having fellowship. Fellowship is a word that comes from two other words: “with” and “bread:” fellowship. Our companions are the people with whom we eat bread. Their house is small, there is not much, but they have everything they need. They have everything we need:

  • Toys in the grass
    Tree of life above the home
    Flowers on the stoop
    Their house is full of life and love and light.

Think of the most profound times of your life — the ones that brought you the most joy, the most peace, the most purpose. Were they joyful, and peaceful, and purposeful because of your possessions, or because of the relationships you were enjoying– with your parents, or your siblings, or your spouse, or your children, or your grandchildren, your close friends or neighbors. Were they transformative because you were gathering things unto yourself, or sharing your time and your abundance and your love with others? Were they meaningful because you were thinking about yourself, or because you were grateful to God that your life was blessed and good?

There is nothing wrong with having what we need. There is nothing wrong with having a comfortable life, planning for the future, or securing our retirement. But when those things define who we are and begin to take larger importance in our life than our relationship with God and with others, then Jesus wants to pull us back into deeper relationship and alignment with this parable into what life really consists of–relationship with God and with each other.

Security, happiness and joy come, not from what we have, but from God who gives us everything we need to have joy, and peace, purpose, and love. Wealth does not come from packing our possessions into bigger storage units, but from sharing what we have with others.

This becomes easier when we remember that all our possessions belong to God. We are not actually the owners of our stuff, we are administrators and stewards of the things God has given us, and given us the ability and opportunity to work for. And when we shift to this perspective, our actions change too. We no longer build bigger houses or storage lockers to protect our belongings, we build bigger tables to share the blessings of God, and that’s what it means to be rich toward God. That’s what life consists of in the kingdom of God.

And that’s a great mission image for lives and for St. Luke’s today–building a bigger table where more people, more diverse neighbors, more of all kinds of people can build life-giving relationships with the God who provides us with everything we need–along with a community with which to grow and deepen our relationship with God. In this community we are reminded that the essential for every life is faith and the most valuable possessions are free–the gift of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, along with hope, and love which we share together.

In Jesus Christ, we have a God who walks by our side, who fills us with strength and peace, and who accompanies us in every breath. He comes to us at this table with life abundant and bread to share, asking us to hold fast to the relationship that lives beyond this life into eternity, and then calls us to extend the table, so all might know his never-failing love and power.

So come to this table–where we can eat, drink and be merry, for Christ is our bread, and we are God’s people together, sharing what life really consists of—the goodness of God in Jesus Christ. We can go from here using our blessings to build a bigger table, so all might eat, so all might hear, so all might be loved, so all might experience that the best and most secure gifts of life are absolutely free and abundantly given.

Art by James B. Janknegt https://www.bcartfarm.com/wfs15.html.

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An Intimate God

lords prayer ge7e468c53 1920Message on the Lord's Prayer, Luke 11:1-13 for Pentecost 7, July 24, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

In his only novel, “No Great Mischief, ” Canadian writer, Allistair Macloed, is famous for penning the phrase, “All of us are better when we are loved.” This even included an alcoholic character in the book convicted of murder. “All of us are better when we are loved.”

It sounds a bit like the theme in the Gospel Luke—with Jesus, as the Savior for the lost and outcast of every kind in every place: prostitutes and tax collectors, women and outsiders, the sick and widowed, the lost and enemies, like the Samaritans. I imagine Luke wanted folks to hear and know that all people, even the lost, are loved here, in the Lord’s Prayer, before he went on to record Jesus’ more difficult teachings and parables yet to come in chapters 12 and 13.

Imagine for a moment that you are living in the first century and among the crowds to whom Jesus is speaking. You are poor, like 90 % of the population, most likely a subsistence farmer. As a Jew, the Lord’s prayer would be familiar and similar to prayers you already know: addressing God as holy, and asking for forgiveness as you have forgiven others. Rarely do your prayers address God as, “Father” and the few times they do, it is in reference to the God who has elected and adopted Israel as the chosen people.

Your daily prayers–usually three times a day–connect you to your community, remind you of God’s will in your daily life, help you remember God’s Word. These are lovely aspects of prayer that Jesus builds on when he teaches the Lord’s Prayer; however, God might be more of a distant authority figure over the whole community.

Now, let’s take our imagination a step further and picture ourselves as a member of the community to whom Luke is writing. This community is a non-Jewish–a group of Gentile Christians and they hear this prayer differently than Jesus’ Jewish followers. You may be from Greece or modern day Turkey; you grew up worshiping the pantheon of Olympian gods or practicing many of the pagan religions before hearing about forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ.

This new faith is hard to wrap your head around because in your world, fathers and grandfathers have complete control over their children and grandchildren. For example, a father decides whether his newborn child will be raised in the family, or whether they will be sold into slavery, or simply be killed.

Your father made this decision about you–maybe you are in this Christian community as a slave in a household that converted to Christianity, maybe you were a girl and your dad wanted a son, maybe you had an ailment that made you too sickly to be desirable by your family.

Living with men exercising such potentially abusive power…in the home, and in the occupying forces of Rome that seem to oppress everywhere you turn….or living in poverty, experiencing God as a part of life, but distant, watching over the whole nation from afar…

And into this experience, you hear Jesus teach the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray beginning with one word that is so startling it catches in our throat, and completely bends us out of our experience and beyond culture, with who this God is to whom we pray. It is one word that changes everything and stretches us into a space and relationship:

“Father…” Not a distant deity, but an intimate dad.
“Father….” Not a cold patriarch who would sell, abandon or betray you, but a nourisher, a protector, a provider.
When you pray, say, “Father…” Talk to God as your intimate caregiver who loves and embraces you as his very own child, who listens to you, who knows you, who understands you, who even adores you.

A God who is not far, but close, personal and loving.
A God who does not engender fear based on judgment, bean-counting and score-keeping, but rather a relationship centered in love, giving us confidence and trust that God is always working on our behalf to save us, to bring us closer, to provide us bread, to forgive our errors, to keep us safe.

The radical nature of the Lord’s Prayer to first century ears is not What the prayer petitions say, it is to Whom the prayer is said, which is so transformative to those who hear Jesus' words for the first time. Imagine someone who’s father sold them into slavery hearing that God will be their father and love them like their own father could not?
Who ever heard of a God who is so generous, who cares for each of us like an intimate parent, loves us enough to listen to our needs, and desires what is best for us? Who would send another to show how much he loves us–and to save and redeem us!

Jesus invites us into the same relationship he has with God–one that is personal, intimate, sacred and trustworthy.

Do you see the radical nature of what Jesus is doing with this one word? When you pray, say, “Father.” Jesus bends the image of God everyone is operating with. He takes distance and pulls it in close; he takes the God of a nation, and makes it personal; he takes a controlling, even tyrannical father image, and he makes him loving, constant, nourishing, redeeming.

When Jesus bends the image of God to bring people into an intimate relationship with God, he gives us permission to do the same. So if the “father-parent” image is not one that invites you into a loving experience of God for whatever reason, then use the language and image that does invite you into intimacy with God! (why have Christians gotten this wrong for 2 centuries?). Jesus talked about himself as a mother hen–try “our mother, our grandma, our opa or oma”–try other intimate words or images for God that help you experience love and closeness with God in whom you can put childlike confidence and trust. I know someone who likes the word, “Source.” With what image of God can you experience expansive and personal love?

Because when you experience this intimacy, you can bring everything to God–like a loud neighbor banging with persistence to get some bread for his guests–Jesus’ parable is not just about “persistence” in your prayer—persistence can also be translated, shamelessness. When you have childlike trust that God loves you so much, that God’s love is immense and reliable—you can not only be persistent in prayer, you can be shameless in your requests.

Let God have all of it–all of your needs, all of your questions, all of your middle of the night fears and anxieties.

For if you, who are limited human beings, can respond with love to your children, how much more can the Father and Mother and Source of all give blessings abundant, love and the Holy Spirit to those who seek, ask and knock. If you were to be shameless in your prayers today, deeply trusting in God’s love for you, what would you talk about with God?

That’s what I want you to talk about with God today—and this week—I want you to be shameless, and shamelessly persistent because you are so sure of God’s parental love for you.

I want you to try shameless persistent prayer this week, because you see our fear is that God does not have that much love and attention for us. But God does! And when you trust God does, and are shameless in prayer, you will experience it! Like a kid who will ask 100 times for a cookie, or the same toy for Christmas.

Franciscan priest, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “People who know God well—mystics, hermits, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found as an abusive father or a tyrannical mother; God is always a lover greater than we dared hope for. How different from the 'account manager' most people seem to worship. God is the lover who receives and forgives everything.”

Can you believe this with your whole heart? Are you willing to find out with your own persistent shameless prayers? Jesus communicates this truth with just one word of the Lord’s Prayer, “Father,” which revealed an intimate and infinite love not previously imagined. Perhaps this is why the Twelve Apostles, in one of their early Christian writings called the Didache, instructed believers to pray the Lord’s prayer 3x a day. If you do not know how to be shameless and persistent in prayer, you could start there—with the Lord’s Prayer, 3 times/day!

“All of us are better when we are loved.” I would add “All of us are better when we are loved by God in prayer,” for then we truly know there is no such thing as scarcity. There is always enough for all of God’s children, for all of God’s world, for all of God’s creation. When we live in this abundant love through prayer, centered in an intimate relationship with God the Father, our lives embody and exude this abundant love.

So try this shameless persistent prayer this week and discover this close, lovingly abundant, intimate God.

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Children's Book Coming Soon!

Tears of Joy Cover In Good JPG FormatNew Children's Book Coming out in 2022!
It's at the publisher's with expected publication in early Fall!
 
I wrote this story about compassion when the kids were young, but given the divisiveness in our country, and war in the world, now seems like the right time to publish. The inclusive illustrations (of culture, ability and LGBTQ) were done by the amazing Karen Hilmes of St. Louis (karenhilmesstudio.com). Please check out her beautiful art! Also, please go to HenschelHauspublishing.com to order to some GREAT reads and support independent publishers who help people like me become published authors. Thank you, Kira Henschel!
 
*A portion of the proceeds will go to support refugees fleeing violence and war through Lutheran World Relief!
 
An Initial Review of Tears of Joy

Tears of Joy is such a “feel-good”  story and it teaches empathy and considering others from such a loving place! Every reader will be able to relate in some way. The river of tears is an intriguing place where needs are met and people are cared for. This book is a soul-warmer and should be implemented in every elementary guidance curriculum! Seeing the world with compassionate eyes helps individuals feel proud of their efforts and find our place in this world, where we all belong! 

~Tonia Hastings, MA, Licensed Professional Counselor & Professional School Counselor. 

 

I'm Featured on an Author Podcast!

Mark's Motivational Podcast

by Mark L'estrange from Dublin Ireland

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Mark posted the podcast today! Mark features musicians as well as writers. He is a children's book author himself, and is also the dad of a 5-year old! We had such a fun conversation and I am grateful to him for the opportunity!

 

Thank you for supporting my writing!

Linda Anderson-Little

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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