Forget Your Perfect Offerings - April 7

II Corinthians 4:5-15
John 12:1-8
Rev. Susan Stull-Carr


Each of us has an internal narrative about our life.  We use this narrative as a way to see the world and explain it to ourselves.   For many of us, somewhere along the way, somewhere in our life, there is a strand, or perhaps many which we carry, stories of fears, shame, humiliation, blame, hurt, wounding and much more.   We know that we are far from perfect.  And yet, if your lives are anything like mine has been, there is this tremendous desire, especially early in our lives, to do things perfectly.  Well, we think, I won’t carry that ugliness from my relationship with my father into other relationships and then, we do.  We think, I’ll be different, I’ll get all A’s and excel at many things.   We think, my parents weren’t too successful, but I’ll show the world, and make a name for myself.   The taskmaster perfection, is ever-present.   It drives our culture of diets, and body shaping and athletics, self-help groups, in-crowds, the right neighborhoods and right houses, the good grades and even parents buying college educations.  Everyone wants to ‘look good!’  Have it all together!  It even is alive and well in church.  If I follow the rules, if I am a good person, things will work out well for me.

We know that the Pharisees and Saducees and religious people of Jesus’ day loved being viewed as perfect and they proved it by keeping their rules and laws.  The best among them paid scrupulous attention to making sure every jot and tittle was crossed and every i dotted.   In fact, the good ones among them could keep all 621 of them.   Every day they ran around and made sure they were perfect.   And they made sure that everyone else at least tried to get it perfect.  And if for some reason, you couldn’t keep it together, they were highly happy to let you know about it. I have people like that in my life – do you?  People who are highly happy to let me know that I haven’t quite met the mark, people that remind me of my inadequacies, my imperfections.  Not of course, intentionally, but in their tone or that downward glance over the tops of their glasses, it’s there.  Not only are we not perfect, but certainly are actions and motives are rarely on point.  

We can feel the judgments in the sideways glances this morning, as we watch Mary of Bethany anoint Jesus extravagantly with oil.  She was there wiping his feet with her hair.  Could there have been a more egregious show of affection? We know that Lazarus has just been raised by Jesus, according to John’s gospel and it his sister Mary that is offering this anointing.  For a woman like Mary, from what we read, most likely a woman without a husband, this act of devotion was completely out-of-place.  It was unthinkable for a good Jewish single woman to act in such a frivolous, intimate way with a man who was not her husband.  And then we can hear the rebuke for her ‘mistake’ coming out of Judas’ mouth.  Her simple kindness, her act of thanksgiving is turned into something ugly.  “Why are you doing that?  That kind of money could have been used for the poor.”   Not that he was worried about the money says John, since he was a thief and often kept a little out of the coffers for himself.  

Every day, for most of us, our imperfections stare back at us from our mirrors, and if they don’t offend, then someone during the day will be sure to remind us.  You are not perfect.  My mom and I started reading Louise Penny mysteries a while back and in one of her books, she used this quote by Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”.   It spoke to me so beautifully about this concept.   “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.  

I had felt this for a long.  I was cracked.  I wasn’t perfect.  There were many moments which caused me to know this more deeply about myself.  And we all know cracked and broken things have no real purpose.  They are throw-aways in a culture that values perfection.   But Cohen offers another perspective.  Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.   And not only that, but without the crack, the light cannot get in.  Nor can anything come out.  As long as we are striving to be perfect, we are unable to connect with anything or anyone, not even ourselves.  

This is why I love so much Paul’s image here.  We have a treasure – we have a gift for the world when Christ dwells in us, but in order for the light to have come in, we will have had to be broken.  We have this treasure in a fragile, clay jar.   And a cracked one at that.  

During Lent, and our honest self-examinations, we will have happened upon the sad truth that we are far from perfect.  Jesus has laid down impossibly high standards – don’t judge, love your enemies, be willing to be the least, live your whole life with passion towards God, leave behind your dead, give away all your money to the poor.   We are never going to get to that place of our own accord, by our own will.  We are never going to measure up.  We will never be perfect.  

But that’ why grace is so important.  Jesus isn’t asking us to achieve perfection in LOVE, but rather learning that LOVE is the practice.  And since we can never achieve enough perfection to stand in God’s presence, which is absolute Holy Light, before which no sin can stand, we are in need of God’s grace.  And that grace, like the poured out anointing falls upon us, and declares, by God grace and through faith, you are enough.   In Christ, grace achieves what we cannot.  We are made right with God and with one another.   

There is a process in Chinese art, called Kintsugi, where when a piece of pottery is broken, at the borders where the break has happened, they will restore the crack with lacquer and paint with gold.  Now, the cracks have been restored, and the piece becomes both functional and beautiful once again.  Interesting, as I read about kintsugi, I discovered it comes from the Zen ideal of “wabi sabi” – a concept of embracing imperfection.  Sounds like a perfectly imperfect spiritual discipline to me!   

To embrace our imperfections as the very thing that God will use is not easy work.   We heard it today, in the song the band played, “Broken Things” by Matthew West.   Listen again to the words as Mike reads them, “The pages of history they tell me it’s true, that it’s never the perfect; it’s always the ones with the scars that You use.  It’s the rebels and prodigals; it’s the humble and weak, all the misfit heroes You chose, tell me there’s hope for sinners like me.  Now I’m just a beggar in the presence of the King, I wish I could bring so much more, but if it’s true You use broken things, then here I am Lord, I’m all yours.” 

So forget your perfect offerings and just put yourself out there, cracks and all!  Amen.

The Prodigal Father - March 31

II Corinthians 5:16-21     
Luke 15.11-24       
Rev. Susan Stull-Carr

 “The Prodigal Father”

When I was a young woman, I attended a spirituality conference at Notre Dame.  Inside the great Basilica was a statue carved in wood that told the moment in this story where the young man, stumbling home, found his father running out to meet him.  The prodigal son has flung himself at the feet of his father.  And his prodigal father reached down to envelop and embrace him with his open arms.   I stood in front of the piece for a long time, caught up in this moment of reunion. 

Something about the scene caught me where I was then living.  At that moment of time, I was distanced emotionally and physically from my parents, family, and son. But also, even now; far too often, I experience the distance of time and space between me and others. 

We have family reunions and class homecomings, but they have become for the most part, predictably staged moments in time.  But when a real re-union happens, we know that grace has been at the center of all things.  We have come home to each other.   I think of friends who have separated from one another in their marriage, only to recognize somewhere along the way, what they really had and were able to re-unite with one another.   I watched as my Grandma prayed and waited for her son, who had been emotionally destroyed by his service in Vietnam, come home and wait for him to finally return home.  He never did as long as she was alive.   I have known a man, waiting for a son with whom a relationship had been shattered by divorce, finally re-unite with his son over a meal.  I’ve seen separation never overcome and I’ve seen reconciled relationships. Today is about reconciliation – one of my favorite words!

One of my favorite stories is of a father whose son had left home and was lost to him, placing an ad in a local newspaper.  It said simply, “Pedro, I miss you so much.  All is forgiven.  Please come home.  I will meet you in the square of San Juan at noon on Sunday, August 5th.   That day, as the father came to the square, there were hundreds of Pedro’s lined up, hoping that the note had come from their father.

There is something in us that longs for restoration, that hopes beyond hope that reunion and reconciliation can happen in our lives, or in the lives of those we love.   We know the shattering pain of separation.

We know the bones of the story.  A boy demands his inheritance.  Not some money, but half of his father’s wealth.  Immediately this story would rub people the wrong way.  In Jesus’ time, the tradition was that the elder always got everything.  The youngest son had no rights.  And in the middle east, yet today, people hearing this story tell how no father worth his salt would ever give in to a child who demanded such a gift.  Indeed today, if your children came to you and demanded that you give them their inheritance before you had a chance to live off it, you would think them ingrates!

This is why Philip Yancey, author of “What’s So Amazing About Grace” says that this story might be better titled “The Prodigal Father.”   There are actually two definitions that define prodigal.  The first is ‘recklessly wasteful, a person given to luxury and extravagance.   But it can also mean ‘profuse, a grand generosity.’  This story is about child, who squanders every good thing that the Parent has offered them freely.  They thought only of themselves as they wastefully gave way to luxury and extravagance.  But it is also a story about the goodness of a Parent, recklessly wasting a gift on a child that doesn’t deserve it.  For it is a story about a profuse and grand generosity wastefully poured out on someone who didn’t deserve it, didn’t earn it. At first, these two meanings seem to be polar opposites, but in fact, they may be closely related.  A Parent who is recklessly wasteful, incredibly generous, pouring out gift upon gift to those who will not take care of what they have received.   And instead of turning that child away, when they finally ‘come to their senses’, welcoming them back into the fold, and celebrating with great joy.  

Surely, as the elder son can see, such grace and mercy is reckless.  This person hurt you.  Stayed away, worrying you.  Taking half of your inheritance and simply throwing it down the tube.  We do better with a God who stands in judgment over such profligate ways.  We are happier in some ways, if God sends these wastrels into exile, or better yet, if God would disown them completely. 

This amazing story, this story of grace, stands as a powerful beacon of what God has done for the world in Jesus.   Rather than judging the people and finding them wanting, God enters the world in human form and dwells with us, taking on all that we are, comprehending what it is to live in these bodies and in the midst of the broken spaces of this world.    In one story, Luke shows the shepherd going out to look for the lost one.   But here, the lost one, has to ‘wake up, to come to their senses and turn back towards home.  I know that no matter how many times someone tries to make me look at my prodigal behavior, I often won’t, until something in me finally comes to my senses.   Many people don’t even know yet that God is in love with them, madly, crazily, prodigally in love with them.  All they can see is that they don’t measure up.  Perhaps, they never knew a loving parent before they left home.  

Paul says this to those that his is ministering to, Gentiles who never heard about a loving God, a God willing to suffer in order that they might have life.  In their cultures, gods were always doing whatever they wanted, or using whoever they wanted to get their own needs met, or demanding a sacrifice before a blessing could come.   But Paul says this, “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view.  At one time, we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view.  How differently we know him now!   This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.  The old life is gone, a new life has begun!  

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ.   And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.  For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them.   And he gave to us this wonderful message of reconciliation.   So we are Christ’s ambassadors, God is making his appeal through us.  We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come home.  Come back to God.”  For God made Christ, who never sinned, an offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”   (II Corinthians 5)

There’s a celebration waiting folks.  A reunion of all reunions where all things are reconciled once again to God, and all things have been made right with God.  And Christ, Love’s gift, waits with the Loving Parents to welcome us home to ourselves and to each other.  Amen.

One Body, Many Parts

I Corinthians 12           

Written for Jazz Sunday at Trinity UCC by Rev. Susan Stull-Carr                                                                                    Sunday, March 3, 2019


What a marvelous visual we have this morning of Paul’s description of the church, or any relationships that surround us – community, family, spouse, co-workers.  One body with many parts.  One song with many instruments.  One song, but with infinite possibility of harmony, rhythm, tempo, notes, and sounds.  Two instruments ring out and then one takes a lead.  All instruments add their unique interpretation to create music.  And we, filled with this energy, tap our toes, sing along, or dance, or simply listen, each of us playing our parts.

Paul uses this image of a body to describe our interconnectedness and dependence on each other.  As much as our culture loves to tell us we are individuals and independent, the truth is, we are nestled and sometimes bound in a web of relationships that affect us in many ways.  

Paul says, we need to understand how much we need each other to pull off the work God intends for Christ’s church.  We can’t say to one another, “I have no need of you.”  Or, “my work is more important than yours.” Or, “we must do it my way.”

As we listen to the jazz this Sunday and the incredible gifts of our musicians, I’m remembering a time I was a part of a group of great musicians.   A student at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, I was part of an internationally known choral group.  Yet, even though music was in each of our ‘bones’ as it were, a part of our individual DNA, there were many things that we had to learn about making music together.

Mike and I spoke about a number of those gifts that come from making music – tools of our trade – that is, learning to sing in harmony with one another.  Not in cacophony, but in harmony.  

The first step of course, is to learn your part – to know your instrument, frontways and backway and all around.  It is to be practiced at your own part and aware of how your part is important to the whole.  Learn your part.

Be trustworthy.  If others, who are around you, know that you know both your gift and your limits and that you are willing to work to learn the ‘song’ the way it is written, then together, the individual parts will begin to be able to improvise, the heart of jazz, giving it your own unique spin.   Be trustworthy.  Do your homework.

As you begin to work together, one of the most critical pieces of building harmony, blending ‘hearts’ and music, is the gift of listening.  Now let me tell you right off, that most of us are terrible listeners.  This may be one of the most important tools we discover for our future.   Generally, while people are speaking, we are already formulating our response, or thinking about how we can get them to agree with us.  In music, listening is crucial in order to get the blend right.   Voices and instruments need to be attuned to each other to find the right blend – not too loud to overpower, not too soft to be overtaken. And as I learned to listen, I had to connect my voice with the one next to me and behind me and in front of me and even 3 or 4 voices down the row when I got to be very good at listening and blending.  So learn to listen and take time to blend.  Learn to be a complement to those around you, not one who takes over. 

Jazz also teaches us about spontaneity, ‘go-with-the flow’, improvisation.  Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not get bent out of shape.  Rigidity and demanding spirits have no place in a body that is working towards harmony.  It’s an organic process, without any right answers, but rather a willingness to work together to find ‘an answer’ for that particular moment.   The song may sound different a few days later, and that’s okay.  Learn to let go and trust the Spirit.  It’s harder than it sounds, but its worth the effort.  Flow, let go and trust in God’s movement to bring things together in new ways!

The body does have a leader.  Paul says, the head of the church is Christ.   But Christ is that kind of leader that moves into the background so far that you almost don’t see him unless you’re looking for him.  The conductor, he or she, is not out to pull people’s attention to them, but rather to point them to Christ, the one who gives each of us our own unique song to sing, our own unique part to play.  But keep learning and watching the leader we follow.

Learn your part. Be trustworthy. Study your part. Listen.  Learn to complement each other. Go with the flow.  Let go of trying to work it out the way you think it should go. Trust the Spirit.  Watch the leader.  And though we’ll have some sour notes now and then, some off-tune noises, we will know we are on our way to making some harmonies, beautiful, strong, gentle, whimsical, yearning, winsome and true! 

God's Abundant Presence

When I was a little girl, I was taught that God was everywhere.  In every thing, and in every one.  We still teach our children that.  It is a lesson to look for God in all things, all of the time. 

I also think this is a reminder that even as adults we need to look for God in the person, places, and things we believe God’s presence is lacking.  We need to remember that God is in that one person who annoys the heck out of us, that person who doesn’t look like us, act like us, or won’t behave the way we want them to behave.  We need to remember God is present at the welfare line, in the prison system, with the Republican and with the Democrat.  God is present for the rich as well as the poor.  God is present with the Muslim, Jew, Christian and the atheist.  God is IN and SURROUNDING, and MOVING.  God is CONSTANT.

In our book, Sully saw God as a light.  When and how do you see God?  When someone smiles at you, or does something kind for you?  Do you see God in Oscar the Grouch?

Sisters and brothers, God is present with us today.  Sometimes we may think God is far away.  Trinity is going through some difficult changes:  Pastor Jan’s retirement, where to put the administrators office, accessibility issues, differed maintenance.  We can panic, throw out accusations at others, stomp our feet, point out another’s mistakes, or worst of all, stop putting money in to the offering plate.  We do things like this to send a message.  But just who are we sending that message to?  When we dig in our heels, and cross our arms, does that action acknowledge the presence of God?  

Our lesson today from Ephesians is a prayer for its readers.  The readers were “a church”.  The letter was written in the first century and it’s words to this day are still relevant.  Verses 18 & 19 again:  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Next year, Trinity, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of our founding.  I am sure there has been conflict, turmoil, and indecision many times over in that century and a half.  In my 20 years here, we suffered through a fire and rebuilding. We made the decision to take down Trinity House and to sell the parsonage.  We’ve been through 3 settled pastors, 2 interims, and we are about to welcome a third.  We’ve sometimes done things the hard way, but the lessons learned from those mistakes are invaluable.  And every time our church life got hard, God was present with us.

Sometimes we get bogged down in the details.  Whose job is this?  What committee is this?  Should this be studied?  Some of us are detailed people.   Sometimes we take risks, and jump off the “leap of faith” cliff.  Just do it, it will get done sooner.  Some of us are risk-takers.  And sometimes we just plain do nothing because we’re afraid or unsure. God is still present. 

Whether individually, or as group, in our church family, or our personal families, God is present. God is present in the details. God is present in that leap.  God is present when we are scared.  

Brothers and Sisters, let us embrace the fact that God is present in this time of transition and turmoil. We will stand with our feet firmly planted and look to the future with confidence, knowing God is beside us. 

Each one of us have different personalities and different ways of getting a job accomplished. Sometimes we may not like another persons way of doing business.  But that’s not wrong, just different and it might make you uncomfortable.  We all have what’s best for Trinity in our hearts. We need to forgive often, forget forever, and move on.

That “FULLNESS OF GOD” mentioned in the lesson from Ephesians? May that abundant presence of God burst out of each of us like an explosion.  May it blow the roof off the building and flow into the air all over the community. May each of us before we go home today acknowledge the presence of God in each other.

Alleluia!  Amen.

 by Kathryn R. Dierbeck - Guest Lay Leader