God's Return Policy

Gods Return PolicyA sermon preached for Ash Wednesday on March 6, 2019 on Joel 2:12-17 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas 

If you’re like me you have items in a bag in the closet that have to be returned to the store.

Let’s see what’s in my bag—a Christmas gift that’s the wrong size, make-up that’s the wrong color (I have nearly finished the bottle of the right color and still haven’t gotten this returned), sheets my son doesn’t need, a jacket for my daughter, 2 sweaters for me that don’t fit…all this stuff and I only have 3 receipts!

You might have noticed, I have trouble returning things. Every store has a return policy—some are better than others—but you have to follow their rules.

Rule 1. You must have a receipt. You have to prove that the product came from that store and upon its return, that it belongs there—it’s their product and they are responsible for it.

Rule 2. Its not supposed to be used. You cannot wear the clothes and then return them; you cannot use the dishes, wash them and then bring them back. You cannot play with the toy and when you are tired of it, return it to the store. The difficulty is that it is hard to know if you really want something until you have tried it and then you realize it’s not what you had wanted or hoped or expected, but of course, then you can’t return it.

Rule 3. Stores often don’t want broken things. The Customer Service counters usually want you to prove that it was a problem with the product to begin with—that you didn’t misuse it or fail to follow the directions. If YOU broke it, if YOU’RE at fault, they may not take it back, you may not get your money back. Your return can’t be broken – or broken in. You can’t take one step outside in your New Balance shoes before discovering that the heel slips or your stuck with $130 heel-slipping shoes for two years because you were breaking them in inside and forgot and walked out to the mailbox.

Rule 4. Customer Service likes returns in their original packaging with the tags and stickers on there. Never mind a lot of toys and electronics are like getting into Fort Knox. When my children were small, I joked that we should put the people who wrap up Barbies and their furniture in charge of National Security – no one is getting through that plastic packaging. Also, you may not get your money back if you have lost your box, threw out the plastic, tossed the stuffing and Styrofoam, or wrecked the wrapper.

Finally, returning anything is just a hassle – there are long lines, forms, signatures, time limits – within 30 days, and often, you can do exchanges but not receive cash. So, now you understand why we avoid returning anything.

This week we began the season of Lent and Lent is a season of returns.

Perhaps we avoid returning to God as well—we are afraid of being judged by God for our sin, for not following all the rules, and we don’t want to feel bad, shameful or guilty. Or maybe we already do feel ashamed or guilty and we’re afraid we’ll feel more judged if we come to God.

But our Old Testament reading from Joel says reminds us, “Return to the Lord, you God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Returning to God is not about judgment, but rather about love—It’s about trusting God’s love for us, even when we don’t get it right. Confessing our sin is not about judgment, but about experiencing God’s steadfast love and being liberated from our fears, guilt or shame so we can grow more and more into the image of Jesus.

If God coming to us in human form means anything, it certainly means that God “gets” our human experience. God will not be surprised by whatever we’re hanging onto that causes guilt. Lent is a call to move from sin to Love. So, during the season of Lent, God calls us to return, to return ourselves, our lives, and the hidden corners of our soul to God.

God calls us to return from those places and ways where we have wandered away. God calls us to return from the places in our life where we have been afraid to allow God in. Unlike the Customer Service counter at any retailer, God’s return policy doesn’t require a lot of receipts and rules.

With God’s return policy of grace and mercy, you don’t need a receipt to prove that you came from God—that you belong with God. God knows his own product-line. In steadfast love, God created your inmost being; God knit you together in your mother’s womb; you are fearfully and wonderfully made! God knows what God made. God knows you belong. God wants to take you back and is delighted at our return.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects us to be used—those are the returns God loves the most. God wants us to be used up and return empty. God imagines we will be worn out and rough around the edges, using our gifts and expending ourselves for good; hoping we have been out in the world living and loving and serving.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects we will return broken—that something in our lives is amiss, that there is pain, and grief and frustration –that we are broken and in need of healing. God’s not looking for who’s fault it is—if we didn’t read the manual or follow the directions or take care of ourselves how we were supposed to, or if we’ve lived by fear. God knows you were made “very good” at creation, and in love, takes us back broken, to fix us up and feed us and heal us again.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, we don’t need to be in our original packaging with everything in its place. The packaging may be different now—we’re older, maybe we’ve grown taller or maybe we’ve shrunk a little. Maybe we have a few more wrinkles, maybe we are thinner or heavier, maybe we have a new hip, a pacemaker or lost a gall bladder. Perhaps we have lost some things along the way—innocence, childlike wonder, delight, or maybe a sense of joy. God can restore those again—God’s concern is that we return.

With God’s return policy of steadfast love, you don’t need a tag or sticker. Whether or not it is Ash Wednesday, God sees that smudge on your forehead—the sign of the cross that was traced in your baptism. You’ve already got Jesus’ name on your forehead and Jesus’ claim on your life, and Jesus’ Spirit dwelling inside you, and that’s all that really matters.

So, return to the Lord your God this Lent with all of who you are and don’t hold back any part of yourself or your life. Trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!

For with God’s return policy, there’s never a line, there’s no waiting for an available clerk, there are no forms to sign, there is no time limit, the counter is always open, and no one is turned away!

Simply show up and tell God you’ve returned. Ask God to accept you, to embrace you, to love you, to forgive you, to guide you, to help you live out of love.

Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!

That’s a return policy we all can buy into!

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Interfaith Hospitality Guidelines

RIA LogoI am on vacation this week, so instead of a sermon, I wanted to share Hospitality Guidelines for Interfaith Events. Rabbi Elana Zeloney of Congregation Beth Torah and I worked on this together as part of the Richardson Interfaith Alliance. Our community leaders needed a resource to ensure an inclusive welcome to all the people of Richardson at community events. This guideline includes local restaurants and stores that provide Kosher or Halal food. I left these local resources in this post as a reminder for you to replace them with your own local sources.

Hospitality Guidelines for Interfaith Events

Richardson Interfaith Alliance

It’s wonderful that we live in a diverse, inclusive community with many different religions and cultures represented. One of the ways to include guests whose faith regulates what they eat is to take their dietary needs into consideration when serving a communal meal. It can be awkward for guests to turn down food that is offered, or to provide food for themselves in a communal setting.

Food Considerations: The best way to include people whose traditions exclude particular foods is to ask them what would enable them to eat with the group. We have listed some ideas for your consideration below, but the best way to insure you serve foods your guests can eat is to ask them about their needs.

Meat: Meat, poultry and fish can be a problem for observant Jews, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Hindus and 7th Day Adventists. Meat and poultry can also be a problem for some Christians during the season of Lent. If you serve meat try to provide an equally attractive vegetarian option. You might consider, quiche, meatless lasagna, veggie burgers or a stew made from beans.

Alcohol: Observant Muslims, Mormons and Baptists avoid alcohol. Some may even include vanilla among foods they won’t eat. Avoid putting alcohol in sauces or desserts. If you hechser symbolprovide alcohol as a beverage consider serving an appealing non-alcoholic beverage in addition. Suggestions include sparkling cider or grape juice.

Grape Products: Traditional Jews only eat grape products that are under rabbinic supervision. This includes grape juice, wine, vinegar, salad dressings, pickles and ketchup. We suggest looking on the Internet to see which brands are under rabbinic supervision. Many of these products have a hechsher symbol (at right) on the package and can be found in most grocery stores.

Gelatin: Gelatin is produced from bones and hooves. This means that people who avoid meat or certain types of meat may not eat gelatin. Common products that contain gelatin are marshmallows, pudding, frosting, ice cream, candy and sometimes yogurt.

Natural Flavors and Coloring: These dyes and flavors are sometimes derived from animals. For example, cochineal/carmine is a red dye produced from crushed beetles. It is found in alcoholic beverages, jellies, puddings and candies.

Labeling: If you label each dish with its ingredients your guests will be able to tell what the dish contains and determine whether or not they are comfortable eating it. This is also helpful for people who have allergies (dairy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, wheat/gluten, and soy are the most common).

Grace: Another element of your meal to take into consideration is saying grace, or a prayer before the meal. While many cultures take a moment of gratitude before eating, we do it in different ways. When the prayer before meals is led in the tradition of one faith tradition, it may make others feel excluded. Consider a moment of silence before meals where people can give thanks in their own way. If you are saying a communal prayer aloud, consider using phrases that do not mention a particular faith tradition. Even the word “God” is only inclusive of monotheistic faiths. Some phrases that might be helpful in crafting a prayer are:

• “Let us give thanks for the gift of food…”
• “Let us pray this food nourishes our bodies and this fellowship sustains our souls…”
• “We are grateful for what we are about to receive….”

Schedule: When planning an interfaith event, it’s important to check the dates of holidays from the different faith traditions you are inviting so as not to conflict with a holy day, festival or holiday. Some examples include Shabbat and Yom Kippur for Jews, Ramadan for Muslims, Easter for Christians, Vesak for Buddhists, and Diwali for Hindus. A calendar of special events for those in the Richardson community can be found on the Richardson Independent School District website: www.risd.org, click on Calendars, scroll down the left-hand column and click on Calendar of Religious Holidays, Festivals and Observances for a current schedule.

Shopping: Finally, we leave you with a list of stores, restaurants/caterers in our area that carry kosher, halal, and vegetarian products. Please note that a vegetarian menu includes many religious considerations and is inclusive of most if you can offer gluten-free and diary-free options.

Kosher symbol Kosher

o Tom Thumb has a Kosher deli, bakery, butcher, and an aisle of kosher dry goods: 1380 W Campbell Rd.at Coit, Richardson, TX 75080
o Milk & Honey Café with some dry goods: 420 N Coit Rd, Richardson, TX 75080
o Fino: 7522 Campbell Rd #108, Dallas, TX 75248

Halal

Halal symbolo Sara’s Grocery Store has Mediterranean groceries, halal meats and bakery: 750 S Sherman St, Richardson, TX 75081
o Chopped Halal Grill: 3000 Northside Boulevard #500, Richardson, TX 75080
o Fratello Halal Pizza and Grill: 201 S Greenville Ave, Richardson, TX 75081
o Afrah Mediterranean Grill: 318 E Main St, Richardson, TX 75081

Vegetarian/Gluten-Free

o Vegvana Indian Restaurant: 100 S Central Expy #35, Richardson, TX 75080
o Whole Foods: 1411 E Renner Rd, Richardson, TX 75082
o Jason’s Deli has vegetarian sandwiches, gluten-free bread: 101 S Coit Rd #385, Richardson, TX 75080

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Getting the Good Stuff

BlessedA sermon preached for the 6th Sunday of Epiphany on Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10 on February 17, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Have you ever imagined what God really wants for you? I mean really desires for your soul, your life, your well-being?

It’s hard question to ask, because culturally, I think our immediate response is “oh no, God will judge me, rehearse my sins, make me feel guilty, or God will give me a list of to-dos’ that I should be accomplishing, but I’m not.” Our culture offers a God who is distant or angry at us, leaving us feeling like we are supposed to do better than we are.These fears can hold us back from spending time with God in quiet meditation and asking what God desires for us. But I’ve found that judgment, guilt, anger, or a list of “shoulds” is not what happens when I ask God what he really desires for me.

I invite you to practice asking God this question. I want you to close your eyes and drop your attention down into the core of your being, breathe in and out from the center of your soul and just listen for a moment, listen with the ears of your heart, what does God really desire for you?

Maybe a word floated into your mind, or a feeling of well-being, or a sensation in your body. Or maybe it was just a relaxed moment of calming silence surrounded by people of love and faith. God wants to give us the good stuff—God wants to give you and me the deep spiritual truth we really need, that will give us wholeness and peace. God wants to bless us through a deep and abiding spiritual relationship that feeds us body and soul and defines us according to God’s identity and love for us—a blessing that comes when we spend time sinking our roots deep into the water table of God’s love.

That’s what “blessed” means in the Sermon on the Plain from Luke—"Blessed are you –how satisfied, how unburdened, how peaceful are you because you have received the good stuff you need from God.”

Those who are in need, have an easier time receiving the good stuff from God, because there’s nothing that blinds them of their need for God. Jesus is not lifting up poverty as a preferred state of being—the person is blessed, not the condition they are in, so we must continue doing everything in our power to end poverty and hunger. But those who are poor, hungry, grieving, hated or excluded, have no illusion about their need for God. Their need is so great, their soul is so bare, their heart is so open, nothing gets in the way of them receiving Jesus, or his healing, his grace, his love, his freedom. The crowds around Jesus have no delusion they can save themselves. They live in the kingdom because they are so aware of their need of it. Jesus says,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
• How satisfied are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled with the good stuff God provides.
• How unburdened are you who weep now, for you will laugh and are open to God’s love embracing you.
• How peaceful are you when people hate you…because you are so grounded in receiving the love you need from me.
• Blessed are you who know the really good stuff of life comes only from God, and you are open to receiving all that God has for you.

What is God’s deep desire for your life? What do you need from God that would enable you to feel "satisfied, unburdened, peaceful, blessed?" I did this meditation when I was preparing for today. When I closed my eyes and meditated on this question, of what God really desires for me, the word that floated into my mind was “freedom.” I wondered, “freedom from what?” The answer was as clear as bell:

Freedom from perfectionism, freedom from having to get everything right, freedom from the burden that if I get everything right, I can prove to my family, to you, the world that I am good. What would it be like to be free of the running commentary in my head that points out everything flaw, all the things that I could and should do better? What would it be like to be freed from the fear that I am not worthy or good enough, and someone will find out?

What does God desire for me? Freedom—freedom from this trap of fearing I am not worthy, and trying so hard to prove that I am. That’s good stuff! That’s what I really need from God!

You will notice that the answer to the question of what God desires for us, also reveals what can get in the way—what blinds us or blocks us from receiving the really good stuff God wants to give us. It was so clear what blinds me and blocks me, but it didn’t come as judgement, anger or guilt—it came as a knowing—that God knows me fully and loves me as I am, and love me enough to not want to leave me there. God is ready to give the good stuff—a message that unburdens me and gives me satisfaction, and peace.

What God desires to give me is the polar opposite of my own auto-pilot, life-management plan—running around the like a chicken with my headache cut off with a list of things to do as long as my arm, while a prosecutor, judge and jury in my head, are busy telling me all the ways I have failed or should have done better. When I am stuck in that pattern, Jesus looks at me and says, “woe to you, who are so caught up in yourself, and what you can do, because you’re not available for me to fill you up with the good spiritual stuff that unburdens you and gives you peace.”

“Woe” means, “how sad for you, what a shame for you.” Jesus says,

Woe to you who are rich—you have so much stuff, you’re not even aware of your desire for God’s goodness.
• How sad that you are full now—you are so full, you cannot get in touch with what you need from God.
• What a shame for you who are laughing now—you cannot even sense your spiritual poverty.
• Woe to you when all speak well of you—your great reputation blocks you from seeing the holes in your soul that only God can fill.

Jesus speaks woe over all of us when our beliefs or circumstances make us blind to God’s deep and loving desire for us and our life. Notice that it is what we aspire to and work for in our culture that can block us from being aware of our need for God. What a true sadness that the very things our culture wants us to pursue are what hinder us from a deeper relationship with God.

This experience of being blessed by God, of getting in touch with what we really need from God, has been an important part of the conversation for those of us using Rooted small group curriculum. We are getting in touch with the good stuff God wants to give all of us, and we are honest about what hinders us from seeing and receiving the peace, and unburdened satisfaction that comes from a deepened relationship with God. We pray for each other, for God to release our burdens and what holds us back, so Jesus’ Spirit can fill us with the abundant blessings God desires to give all of us. Last week the Rooted Group prayed for me to be released from perfectionism and it changed my behavior today. Instead of checking and double-checking everything to make sure everything was perfectly ready for worship, I went to Sunday School—not just for ten minutes, but for a whole half an hour!

So what does God really desire to give to you? What gift from God can unburden you, bring you peace, help you live with a deep sense of satisfaction—not the stuff of the world, but the good stuff in here, that makes us like a tree planted by streams of water, with deep roots that sink into the water table of blessing that sustains us.

I encourage you to ask God this question, throughout the week. Take five minutes—a pause over coffee, or a break after lunch, or a few minutes before going to sleep at night, and ask God what he really desires for you. Practice quieting the mind and listening inward for the Spirit to move, giving you a feeling, a bodily sensation, a new thought, a word, or a picture of this blessing. God has good stuff to give you that will bring you peace, and an unburdened feeling of satisfaction. Then you can write your own beatitude as a reminder. Here’s mine:

“Blessed are you, Linda, when you focus on ‘being,’ instead of ‘doing’ and allow God’s freedom from perfectionism to ground your heart and your day.” 

 I have printed it out and taped it to my bathroom mirror. What is your beatitude? What’s the good stuff God wants to give you? Listen this week for your Beatitude, for Jesus says to all of us, “Blessed are you…”

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What's Yours?

Whats YoursA sermon preached for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany on Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 on February 10, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

We all have one, don’t we? I know I did. Isaiah does in our first reading. Paul does in 1 Corinthians. And Simon Peter certainly does, in our Gospel reading.

What’s yours? What’s your excuse why you cannot follow Jesus? What’s your reason why you cannot possibly do what God calls you to do?

We all have one—and we are in good company because most people in the Bible have some sort of argument with God about why they cannot do what God calls them to do.

We all know Sarah’s excuse why she couldn’t possibly become the mother of nations with Abraham. She was too old to become pregnant and start a new family line. Moses also had an excuse ready. He said to God, “I can’t speak well—I am slow of speech and of tongue—how am I supposed to go tell the Pharaoh in Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery?" When God called Jeremiah to be prophet, he said he was too young. 

We know almost nothing about Isaiah in our first reading, other than his father’s name was Amoz, and that Isaiah had some kind of a potty mouth. Maybe he loved saying all the bad words, or he was a bar-room brawler—we do not know. But about 700 years before Jesus was born, God called him to be a prophet. Like other Biblical characters, Isaiah had his excuse ready—"I am a man of unclean lips.”

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them that he too, was unworthy of participating in God’s work of sharing Jesus’ love throughout the Mediterranean world, because he had been a Pharisee and persecuted the church. His excuse was that his past made him unfit to be an apostle at all.

And then there’s Simon Peter in our Gospel reading. He and Andrews, James and John, have had a long night of unsuccessful fishing, and were ready to go home and sleep, when this new rabbi commandeered their boat for a teaching stage. Perhaps as a gesture to thank them, to feed the crowd, or to persuade them to join him in his traveling ministry, Jesus instructed the fishermen to cast their net in the deep water. When Peter saw how much fish they pulled in—enough sink two boats, and how holy and powerful Jesus was—the first thing out of his mouth, was an excuse—an excuse why Peter could not even be near Jesus much less follow him: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

We all have one. Maybe your excuse is different today than it was last week or last year or the last century, but we usually have one ready for God. When I first experienced a call to ministry, I had never seen a woman pastor until I arrived at seminary. Even bigger than that, my excuse was, “I don’t have the right personality”—I liked big earrings, I loved to dance, wear bright colors, I’m too extroverted and ‘out there.’” Most “religious” people I knew, especially women, were more like nuns—not like me AT ALL—they were quiet, demure, unassertive. Oh yes, I definitely had the wrong personality.

I bet if I picked up this microphone and walked around the congregation like a talk show, we would hear a lot of reasons why we think God cannot really use us to catch people, to witness to God’s love, to show compassion, to participate in God’s work in the world out there, not just in here. Maybe like Sarah or Jeremiah or Paul or Peter, you think you are too old or too young, or have too much of a past, or have been too much of a sinner. Or maybe you think you are not smart enough, do not know the bible well enough, do not know how to talk about faith, do not have time, struggle with mental health issues, feel you do not matter or are not important enough. We all have an excuse why God cannot possibly use us. We all have days where we wonder if God can use us at all. 

In the late 80’s my internship supervisor actually agreed that I was too “out there” and while I officially passed internship, he cut me to the quick and said some hurtful things to me at the end of my internship. But God reassured me through other people, that there would be some in the church who needed someone like me, and to persevere. I learned we cannot let others’ rejection of us or our own rejection of ourselves, nullify God’s claim on our lives.

God’s story shows us over and over again, that our limitations and excuses are only a barrier for us, but not for God. God looks at you and you and you, and says, “oh yes, I can work with that!”

• I can touch people through you,
• I can bring new possibilities through you,
• I can show love through you,
• I can offer forgiveness through you,
• I can bring justice through you;
• I can feed the hungry and do so much good through this human being, through this limited, beautiful vessel that I made.

God sees so much value, dignity, and kingdom-possibilities in you! God has an answer for every excuse you can think up.

Sarah thought she was too old? Well she laughed all the way to the delivery tent, because her descendants have become more numerous than the stars.  Moses couldn’t speak? Well, God gave him Aaron—he was his spokesperson, and God promised to be with them both—they did not have to fulfill their calling alone. Jeremiah thought he was too young? Think again! God said, “I will be with you and tell you where to go and what to say.” Isaiah was such a potty-mouth! But God said, “Your guilt has departed and your sin blotted out.” A vision of burning coal cleaned his mouth right up (which makes me grateful I just had to have my mouth washed out with soap when I was young!) The Bible doesn’t tell us, but do you not wonder how many other potty-mouthed people opened themselves up to God, because if God could work through Isaiah, why not them, too?

The Apostle Paul did have a terrible past—one where he had Christians murdered, but Paul’s past was not a hindrance for God either. God completely transformed his heart and his story. Without Paul’s missionary journey’s and all his letters to the churches, we would hardly have the Christian New Testament today. That’s pretty amazing work through a sinner with a past. And Peter? He was too afraid to follow Jesus and catch people because he was a sinner. But he became the rock on which the church was built. Not because he was perfect. Not because he got it all right. But because God in Jesus Christ used him, even when he fumbled and got it wrong, to be a vehicle of God’s love, healing and hope in the world.

In Ephesians, Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our excuses are no hindrance to God. God gives us what we need, so they are no hindrance to us either. God looks at each one of us and says, “Yes! You are very good. You matter. You are loved. I can work with you no matter who you are or what you think your limitations are. I am a limitless God and I call you to join me in doing justice, loving kindness, and bringing healing and grace to this world. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"

And with no excuses, we say, "Here am I; send me!"

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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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