Do you ever feel left out at a party? Like everyone else is an insider and you alone are different? It’s a terrible feeling…and Brad Zeiner has struggled with it all his life. He’s amazed when Pastor Phil tells him that Martin Luther felt the same way.

Based on Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. It’s been particularly quiet ever since last Sunday when Pastor Baldridge went off about our country’s gun culture during the sermon. And it wasn’t that he said things that people disagreed with…it was the raw passion with which he said it. It was as though he had just gotten tired of being sensitive to those holding contrary opinions and had decided to lay out his convictions once and for all. This was no middle of the road sermon…Pastor Baldridge had just gotten tired of  being nice! Of course some were offended…Ralph Mogen had walked out, his face bitter and angry. No one quite knew what to say. Even Pastor Baldridge was quiet afterward…he knew he’d crossed a line. And there really wasn’t a good way for him to retrieve all the words that he said. At home he talked it over with Helga, his wife, and made a snap decision to take a quick trip to San Diego…he’s even thinking it might be time to call it quits. Pastor Phil was willing and able to fill in this next Sunday…and he’ll do his best to provide some sort of explanation for Pastor Baldridge’s outburst and absence.
There has been little visible fall-out from last Sunday in the continuing activities of the congregation. As one of the staff put it last Tuesday at their meeting, “People are getting used to hearing forceful expressions of convictions…it’s what they see on television every day. They were surprised on Sunday…but I think most have already forgotten what happened. It’s sad, I guess…but that’s the way it is now.” And maybe that is the way it is. Anyhow as people hear that Pastor Phil is filling in on Sunday they’re mostly excited. He always brings freshness…and he’s always outspoken.
Brad Zeiner went out to Sun Lakes and met him for coffee on Thursday…it’s overseeding time and Pastor Phil’s usual Thursday golfing group is taking some time off. Brad has had some issues for a couple of months and he wanted a fresh ear to hear them…Lacey, his wife, is a good listener but he was seeking a second opinion. Pastor Phil knows him pretty well…he’d done their pre-marital counseling and Brad likes him a lot.
They talked a bit about Pastor Baldridge’s outburst…Pastor Phil hadn’t gotten the details and laughed when Brad told him about the sermon. “Good for him,” he said. “I wondered when he was going to finally show his true colors.” Back in the day Pastor Phil had always preached on the edge…which is most likely why he had changed parishes so often. He does much better as a retired eccentric pastor…a change of pace sort of guy, but not what you’d want on a regular basis.
Brad wanted to talk about his relationship to God…a pretty big topic, but one that’s been on his mind for some time. He expressed his sense of ambivalence, how sometimes he feels welcome and accepted by God but how at other times he feels terribly alone. He said, “Lacey believes that all people, regardless of whether they’re good or bad are welcome at God’s table…and I like what she says. And she’s convinced of what she believes. She talks a lot about grace, that there’s nothing left for me to do for my salvation…but I keep wondering.”
Pastor Phil interrupted. “Well, Lacey’s right…but I suspect you already know that. Describe your wondering for me.”
Brad said, “Well…it’s based on a feeling I’ve had all of my life, that somehow other people have gotten inside information about living that for one reason or another hasn’t been passed on to me. It’s like there’s a book somewhere that explains life and that was handed out at birth…and my copy was lost…or maybe I never got one in the first place. Anyhow, I’ve always felt very alone. When I come to church and look around I feel like an impostor, like everyone else has a ticket stamped for heaven…and I don’t know where mine is…or maybe I never got one. If someone were to ask me for my credentials, I’d be speechless. I have so many doubts and there’s some stuff about the bible that I just don’t believe. Jesus said, ‘Many are called but few are chosen.’ I’m having a really hard time believing that I’m one of the chosen…especially when I compare myself to Lacey. I know she’s both called and chosen.”
Pastor Phil laughed, “Well everyone would come up short if they compared themselves to Lacey….there’s no doubt about that. But why make her the standard? Why don’t you use Martin Luther instead?”
Now Brad was confused. He hadn’t expected a Luther reference and he really didn’t see any connection….he told Pastor Phil as much. Pastor Phil explained, “Well, Martin Luther was more like you than Lacey. He never believed that he fit in and was convinced that there was something more that he had to do…and he could never figure out what it was or how he could get it done. He tried everything. And then one day it dawned on him. He didn’t need to do anything. It had already been done by God. And as long as he stubbornly kept trying to do something he really was going to miss out. He was like the one guest at the wedding banquet in Jesus’s parable. He’d refused to put on the gifted wedded robe and he ended up being thrown out of the party. Luther realized that the white robe of righteousness was already his…if he didn’t put it on he’d never be at peace.”
“Is that what that story is about?” Brad knew the reference but he’d never heard this particular explanation.
“As far as I know,” Pastor Phil said. “At least that’s what I’m going to tell people in the sermon this Sunday at your church. And by the way, don’t ever think that the people sitting next to you in those pews have it altogether. They don’t. They’re mostly just as confused as you are…and a whole bunch of people feel horribly alone…and most of them don’t feel that good about themselves. They just put on a good front.”
“If that’s true,” Brad said, “it’s good you’ll be there on Sunday. If you tell them what you’ve told me, it’ll be just what they need to hear!”
And that’s the word  from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

The horrific shooting in Las Vegas colored the week at Crown and Cactus as our mythical friends tried to figure out an appropriate reaction. Mel Falstaff has another great conversation with his cynical lawyer friend, Ed, and is amazed to discover that Ed is now reading the bible.

Based on Matthew 21:33-46

33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Naturally everyone was shocked at the horrible shooting in Las Vegas and as the days went by there was an air of unbelief…no one could quite comprehend the extent of the tragedy and that there seemed to be no motive for the shooter’s actions. Pastor Baldridge was thinking that this fall there has been one awful thing after another: three devastating hurricanes and then an earthquake and now another mass shooting. But this felt different. Those other events had been what we call “natural disasters,” and the automatic response is to sent money for assistance to the victims. This was no natural disaster. What had happened in Las Vegas was a failure of another sort, a symptom of a deep and pernicious evil that is present throughout the world. This was a human failure. But it had also been an occasion for heroism and acts of love…so many stories were coming out about those who had given their lives for the sake of others, who had risked their lives to assist and rescue the wounded.

There was a lot of talk about the carnage at the staff meeting on Tuesday. Some were familiar with Las Vegas and the place where the shooting had occurred. Pastor Baldridge shared some of his feelings about the gun culture that is so firmly established in our country. He doesn’t believe there is the will to do anything substantive with regard to gun laws and that mass shootings will continue to be experienced on a regular basis. He doesn’t understand the love of guns and he particularly doesn’t understand how anyone can believe that the abundance of guns makes our country safer. He will address the shooting in the course of the prayers and the sermon but he’s not at all sure about what he’s going to say. It’s the sort of topic that makes him feel powerless.

Mel Falstaff had plenty to say when he met his friend, Ed, for coffee on Monday afternoon. Ed is a lawyer and he gets a kick out of baiting Mel about political issues. They had of course started talking about what had happened and both agreed that it had been a horrendous act. Mel was in a mood to reflect on the violence of our society, how everyone seems in a mood to settle grievances on the spot with weapons and that our greatest desire is revenge. Ed came back at him with some biblical references saying, “The root of all that violence is in the bible. God regularly punishes evildoers and even wipes out whole nations.”

Mel had said that those references were in the Old Testament and that Jesus was different but then Ed brought up the text for this next Sunday when in a parable Jesus intimates that the tenants in the vineyard will be crushed and destroyed for not bringing forth good fruit. (Ed has started checking out the texts ever since he worshiped a few months ago. He likes talking about the bible with Mel ever though he hasn’t gone back to Crown and Cactus.) Ed even quoted a verse, “‘The one who stumbles on this stone will be broken to pieces and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ That reference is to Jesus and it’s about as violent as it could be.”

Mel was taken up short by Ed’s reference and didn’t quite know what to say. He got out his smart phone and looked up the text….and saw that Ed was right. It had been a lot easier to debate Ed before he had started studying the bible. Mel has always had a problem with these kinds of words from Jesus in the gospels and he’d once asked Pastor Baldridge about them. Now he was trying to remember what Pastor Baldridge had said. He didn’t remember precisely but he was at least able to retrieve an idea that had been stored away in a seldom used corner of his brain. Often he he amazes himself with the random stuff he can sometimes remember. He said, “I think we have to distinguish here between Matthew’s word to his community and the ultimate answer Jesus gave to violence in his personal reaction to it.”

Ed laughed and said, “You’re really good, Mel. Sometimes you pull things out of thin air. You should have been a lawyer. Okay, distinguish it for me.”

Mel was trying hard to make sense. He began, “Well, in the parable it is suggested that the evil tenants should be put to death, but that suggestion doesn’t come from Jesus. It comes from the crowd. Now it’s true that Jesus doesn’t disagree, but what you have in that exchange is an affirmation of the typical human response to acts of violence and murder; which is that the perpetrators should be punished, an eye for an eye kind of thing.”

Ed nodded and said, “Okay, I’m with you so far.”

Getting to more comfortable ground Mel continued the argument, “But just think of how Jesus responded to the violence against his own person. Think about how God responded to that violence. Jesus made no defense and went willingly to the cross. He suffered and died with words of forgiveness on his lips. And God didn’t respond by wiping out the killers. Instead God raised Jesus from the dead and through that act gave hope to all humanity. God’s answer to violence as seen through the life of Jesus is not more violence. Instead it’s a word of life and hope.”

Ed said, “Mel, you’ve done it again. I thought I had you but once again you’ve gotten out of checkmate with a technicality.”

Mel answered, “Hey, this is no technicality. This is the heart of the gospel…it’s the core of what I believe. I kind of resent it when you use the word ‘technicality'”

Ed smiled and shrugged, “I get it…and believe me, Mel, I love the message that you keep bringing up to me. It’s just the sort of thing that a lonely lawyer needs to hear…I’m just not sure that it would work in a court of law.”

The two men continued to talk for some time. Mel is Ed’s connection to grace and faith and he enjoys his company. They are both troubled by gun violence and wish there were some easy answer…Mel referenced the many acts of bravery and compassion following the shooting and said that those actions were what gave him hope. In the right circumstances humans are capable of acting decently.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed and the children are all growing in grace.


It was hard for the religious leaders to hear hard words from Jesus…and it’s hard for life-long Lutherans too. After all, we’re on his side. But Jeannette Brier wasn’t a life-long Lutheran and she knows exactly what he was talking about!

Based on Matthew 21:23-32

23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

It’s been a quiet  week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. These are prime Sundays for worship and involvement and the place is humming with activity. Most evenings the parking lot is full of cars and a variety of classes are taking place…even some community groups are using space in the building. Pastor Baldridge is particularly happy since he happened on a program for celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last Tuesday. Pastor Phil from Sun Lakes was talking about a priest that he’d met playing golf…he’d spent his career as a teacher at St. Thomas University in St. Paul and was an expert on Luther studies from a Roman Catholic perspective. Pastor Phil said he was a really neat person, lively, with a sense of humor and Pastor Baldridge asked if he were available for a presentation later in October. Pastor Phil had done some checking and it’s all set up. There’ll be a half-day session on October 28 and then he’ll preach at both services on Reformation Sunday. Pastor Baldridge feels as though he’s been bailed out again,  a reward of sorts for being a world class procrastinator. The real burden now falls on Janice Porter, the music director…she has to come up with some top-notch anthems for the weekend…something a bit different from the choral variations on “A Mighty Fortress” that she’s used in the past. Pastor Baldridge is equally grateful for Jennie Craster who will be handling arrangements for the Saturday session and coming up with suitable sanctuary decorations.

Jeannette Briar had a real challenge last Monday afternoon at the book group that she started attending when school started this fall. Now that Michael is in high school she’s got more discretionary time and decided to get more involved. It’s a group made up of older women, most of whom are life-long Lutherans and also strongly opinionated. Many know the bible quite well and make frequent references to scripture as they discuss whatever book they’re reading. Mavis Carlson is the leader and she is very proud to be the only graduate of St. Olaf College in the congregation. She welcomed Jeannette to the group and told her that she should feel free to express her opinions. She said that she had been a long-time friend of her mother-in-law, Myrtle, and that Myrtle had regularly shared confidences with her.

They’re reading a book by Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and even though Jeannette had read the book years ago she thought it would be fun to have discussions about Angelou’s memoir…particularly in view of the current conversations about race in our country. The first couple of times Jeannette mostly listened and spoke only when Mavis asked for her ideas. Her background is so different from that of the other women that she felt mostly inadequate. Everyone was very polite and a couple even seemed interested in hearing her perspective as someone who had grown up in the South. The others all had been born in the upper Midwest and none of them had even known anyone from New Orleans. Jeannette wondered how much they knew of her background. More particularly she worried that Myrtle might have shared some negative feelings about her with Mavis at the time she’d met Jim, Myrtle’s son. At that time she’d been working at the Ostrich Plume Bar in Queen Creek and didn’t have a stellar reputation.

A week ago she’d come home from the book group quite agitated and disturbed. She shared her feelings with Jim at supper. Mavis had brought up the controversy about NFL players disrespecting the flag and Jeannette was amazed at some of the comments that the women had made. Many thought the players ought to be disciplined. No one even mentioned the racial issues that had been the impetus for the protests in the first place. For them it was all about honoring America and being grateful for living in such a wonderful country. She told Jim that she didn’t think she’d go back. Jim had said that he would support her if she chose not to but to not make a snap decision.

At any rate Jeannette went back to the group last Monday having rehearsed what she might say if the topic came up again. She didn’t have long to wait. Some of the women were football fans and had watched games on Sunday. They had noted the emphasis placed on the player response to the national anthem and discussed what the Cardinals should do on Monday night in front of millions of television viewers. Jeannette hesitantly raised her hand and said, “Isn’t the reason for the protest the sense of racial inequality in our country? Isn’t that what we’re reading about in this book?” A couple of women nodded but some glared at her. One said that she was tired of hearing about “Black Lives Matter,” that yes, there had been racism in our country, but that was all behind us. These were law and order issues. Every person shot had done something wrong and if they hadn’t resisted questioning or arrest nothing would have happened.

Then Jeannette, full of the Holy Spirit, opened her mouth and spoke, “I don’t know if you know much about me…I mean the really dark stuff. Maybe you, Mavis,  have heard something from Myrtle…though I doubt it…Myrtle didn’t talk about folks. But for all my growing up years in New Orleans I lived on the edge. My  dad sold drugs and my mom sold her body. Both of them ended up in jail again and again. Me and my brother pretty much raised ourselves…and I was following in my mother’s footsteps. After I was arrested a couple of times for soliciting I left the city and started drifting across the country working in bars and doing some dancing. That’s how I found my way to Queen Creek…and that’s the life I was leading when I met Jim. He was struggling too…but he seemed like a nice guy. It took a while before he introduced me to his mom….I think we had already eloped to Las Vegas and gotten married.”

As she spoke, the other women listened. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Jeannette continued, “I don’t know when it was…it was after I met Myrtle. There was something about that woman that was different…she actually welcomed me as a daughter! And I started figuring out that her faith set her apart. She wasn’t like one of those judgmental street corner preachers I’d known as a kid…she just loved me…as I was…and she told me that God loved me too…which was really hard for me to believe. I got baptized and became a part of this congregation…and I love hearing the consistent message of grace and forgiveness. It’s changed my heart and my life. My son has grown up here. It’s a wonderful place.”

Some of the women nodded…they appreciated Jeannette’s tale of redemption and they liked the congregation too. Then Jeannette said, “You folks have heard this message all of your lives and it seems to me that you don’t get it.” At that Mavis, proud of her St. Olaf heritage, was ready to interrupt. No one was going to intimate that, with her Lutheran background, she didn’t get anything. But Jeannette didn’t let her speak, she was on a roll and said, “You people don’t know what it’s like to live in the streets. You don’t know oppression. You don’t know what it’s like for poor African Americans. You say “yes, yes, yes,” to the gospel because you’ve heard it all your lives….and then you don’t do anything to show that you’ve heard it. Instead of loving and understanding you preach judgment and intolerance. I may have had miserable parents and an awful childhood. I may have lived off my body as a prostitute…I never went to Luther League…I didn’t go to some private college…I never graduated from high school. But I do understand mercy and forgiveness…and I do know what Myrtle Brier stood for. And it isn’t what I’ve been hearing here the last two weeks!” By this time Jeannette was in tears…she had finished what she had come to say and now she got up to leave.

It would be wonderful to report that Mavis got up from her chair to intercept Jeannette and keep her from leaving, that she gave her a big hug and told her to stay…but that’s not what happened. The women’s book study group sat silently as she left…and when she was gone they looked at each other with knowing eyes. One said, “I didn’t know Jeannette was a prostitute….that explains a lot.” Mavis said, “Myrtle swore me to secrecy but I guess now the cat is out of the bag. She was so upset when Jim picked her up from that bar and started living with her.” And so it continued with those who had said “yes” to Jesus and then lived as though they’d never heard anything he said.

When Jeannette got home she was still crying. When Michael got home from school her eyes were red and he asked what was wrong. “Oh, nothing, Sweetheart, nothing, I’ve had a bad day with allergies.” Michael loved youth group and he worshiped Brad Zeinart, the youth director. Jeannette didn’t want him to get a negative view of Crown and Cactus…because she really does love that message of grace. And she’s not going to let anyone drive her out of the community where she had found her salvation.

Late that evening Jeannette got a phone call from one of the women in the group. She said, “I’m so sorry about what happened. I want you to know I hope you come back. It was hard to hear, but I believe we heard a powerful word from the Holy Spirit through you today.”….. And from her prepared place at Jesus’ side, Myrtle heard…and smiled!

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are committed, the women are faithful, and the children are all growing in grace.

Resentment is as American as apple pie! We especially hate it when people get benefits that we think they don’t deserve. Rather than being content with the blessings we have we’re always keeping score and comparing ourselves to others. No wonder unhappiness is rampant!

Based on Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Janice Porter continues to ride high after the return of Andrew Briggs to the choir…it’s not just his voice, but his presence. Because he has a ready smile and friendly eyes, everyone is lifted up when he’s around. She continues to wonder who it was who left the demeaning note for him, but since he’s operating with a spirit of forgiveness, she’s trying to do the same. Pastor Baldridge is once again kicking himself for not being a better planner. He’s known that this is the 500th year since Luther’s publication of the Ninety-five Theses for a long time, but he hasn’t made any special plans for Reformation Sunday. All of his pastor friends have been talking for months about things they are doing, but he’s never gotten around to making a plan…and now there’s only a month left. At this point about all he can do is arrange for a showing of the Thrivent film on Luther that’s been airing on PBS…it’s pretty well done…and maybe that will be enough. Since it’s a two hour movie though, he wonders if anyone will come out. He mentioned it to the staff last week and someone suggested that they figure out a way to combine a showing with whatever Halloween observance they do. Brad Zeiner said that they could just make this the 500th anniversary of Halloween and somehow work Luther into that. More people might come! No decisions were made!!!

Brad and Lacey Zeiner had an interesting evening last Tuesday. Brad’s mother had gone out of town for a few days to visit her mom who’s in a nursing home back in Ohio, and they had invited Brad’s dad to have dinner with them in the evening. Tracy likes to cook and she put together a tasty chicken and rice dish using a recipe she’d picked up in Guatemala. Brad hadn’t thought his dad would like it, but he did and ate with gusto…there were no leftovers! Afterwards they sat in the small living room that doubled as Lacey’s office and talked for a bit about life. Brad’s grandmother is not doing well and Harold shared the latest news from his wife…they’re having conversations about what life-sustaining efforts should be taken in an emergency and he wanted to know what Brad and Lacey thought. That conversation triggered some talk about health care and before Brad could stop him, Harold got going on one of his favorite topics, our country’s slide down the slippery slope into socialized medicine. He’d been watching a discussion about the issue on one of his favorite cable news programs and he had fresh ammunition. He said, “What really gets me are all these people saying that everyone should have the same quality of health care. Don’t they know how expensive that would be? I’ve got good insurance and it covers everything…but I’ve earned it. A lot of these folks are on welfare and work minimum wage jobs…why should they get the same coverage that I do when they haven’t paid anything in? And some of them have abused their bodies all their lives…they haven’t taken care of themselves like I have…why should I be taxed to pay for their health care? It’s just not fair.”

Brad knew that Lacey couldn’t just listen without responding…she’d have to say something, and she did. “Mr. Zeiner,” she said, “I’m sure you do have great coverage…but why would you begrudge someone else who wants the same? Why shouldn’t the poor have the same benefits as the rich?”

“Because they haven’t earned them,” Harold was adamant. “What incentive is there for anyone to work if we all get the same reward?”

Tracy spoke kindly but forcefully. “I just don’t understand why you can’t just rejoice in the blessings that you have without worrying about whether others are somehow getting benefits they don’t deserve. Why do you have this need to compare yourself to others?”

Harold had an answer for her. He always did. He came from the comparative school of life. There wasn’t any way for him to know if he was successful unless he had more…that’s how society measures winners and losers…and he wanted to be a winner. Lacey knew from experience that she wasn’t going to win this argument. She just smiled and said, “Thanks for coming over tonight. I hope you enjoyed the dinner.” That was Harold’s signal that the evening was over…and he got up to leave. Later, when he was gone Lacey and Brad debriefed a bit. They know that Brad’s dad doesn’t get them…that’s nothing new…but they keep hoping that there will be some mellowing. As Tracy put it, “He has so much…but he’s never happy. He can never be content when he thinks others are getting more than they deserve. So the more generous our health care system gets the madder he is…he thinks he’s being robbed.”

As they talked Brad brought up another topic…some of the youth who went on the mission trip were saying that they wanted to impose a smart phone ban for youth meetings. They hadn’t been allowed to bring them on the trip and found that they liked it. Now they wanted to extend the ban. Brad asked what Lacey thought about it.

Of course she was supportive and said that it was a great idea. “Why wouldn’t you?” she asked, “It seems like a no-brainer.”

Brad said that he had thought so too but the younger kids were totally opposed and some had said they wouldn’t come to youth group if they couldn’t bring their phones. They talked a bit about smart phone addiction and Lacey mentioned that she’d read an article which indicated that the constant interconnection afforded by the phones was actually increasing the stress levels in college students. She said that she thought there should be classes on proper cell phone etiquette and usage that kids should take before getting them…that there should be warning labels on the packages.”Caution! Regular use of this device can cause severe psychological dependencies and may induce stress.”

It really is an issue from Brad’s perspective…and it’s related to the whole fascination with social media. He’s aware of the bullying that takes place…and the shallowness of the posts. Lacey thinks that regular exposure causes real self esteem issues. She said, “Kids see the pictures and the posts and compare what they’re seeing to the realities of their existence. It’s like your dad…constantly comparing what they have to what they think others have…and then feeling bad because their life doesn’t measure up.”

The two of them talked late into the night…never even checking their phones…and decided that maybe there could be some information classes on smart phone usage offered for youth and their parents…that just banning the phones wouldn’t work. The class could even be a part of the confirmation curriculum…it certainly is related to the commandment on idolatry. Both felt that if they could do a good job in showing the dangers they’d be doing everyone a big favor.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are committed, the men are faithful, and the children are all growing in grace.















It turns out that there is a treatment for the cancer in the choir, one that Janice Porter hadn’t thought of. The prescription came from an unexpected source and needed a boost from a triumphant saint, but so far it seems to be working. Prospects for healing are excellent!

Based on Matthew 18:21-35

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. The “God’s Work, Our Hands” event last Sunday went pretty well though some of the traditionalists didn’t care for the disruptions in the scheduling. They like things to be pretty much the same from week to week and this felt disorderly, almost like no one was in charge, and for a few it actually felt chaotic. They weren’t sure of where they should go or what they should do…a few of the older folks just went to worship, had a cup of coffee and then went home to watch the Cardinals, which in reality probably counted for most of their grumpy mood the rest of the week. Lacey Zeiner was pleased…with three different sites it was hard to keep a finger on things but the major goals were accomplished…there was cleanup at the Preserve, repair at the playgrounds, and thousands of meals were prepared for the hungry at Feed My Starving Children. She even got a nice letter from the Mayor of Gilbert expressing his gratitude and thanksgiving.

The week was spent in the usual planning and programming that goes on during the busy times of the year. Snowbirds aren’t back yet but numbers are up and everyone is appreciating the possibility of cooler weather ahead. Janice Porter had been really down at the start of the week…Pastor Baldridge knew why…but she really didn’t feel free to share at the staff meeting. Even though she felt the pain of the cancer in the choir it wouldn’t be helpful to make it public…at least she didn’t think so. So she suffered mostly in silence…though Pastor Baldridge did give her a hug after the meeting…he had assured her that he would be praying for her and the choir.

So Wednesday she was dreading choir rehearsal…all she could do was imagine who the person was who had done such a hurtful thing. But she’s a professional and she was ready with all folders prepared and distributed on the chairs. Members strolled in by two’s and three’s and by 7:30 they were ready for warm-ups. She had just begun working through scales with them when the door opened and Andrew Briggs walked in with a big smile on his face, saying he was sorry to be late. She was so startled that it threw her off…and she forgot she hadn’t put his music folder out…she just didn’t expect to see him. But it was no problem for him….he found his place among the tenors and joined in the warm-ups. So far as she could guess from the smiles on people’s faces everyone was glad to see him. When they were ready to start working on the pieces Andrew just went and got his folder…no big deal was made of it…even though it was missing some of the songs. He just looked on with Sean O’Conner who happened to be standing next to him.

Janice’s mood changed instantly…it was as though a dark cloud had been lifted and joy restored. The rehearsal went very well…and the blending was wonderful. When it was over she couldn’t believe it…the time had flown by. Andrew had sung with enthusiasm, a big smile on his face the whole while, and his presence had lifted everyone. She wanted to talk with him afterward, but one of the needy altos had a question, and he got away.

The next day she sent him a text telling him how happy she had been to see him…and he had replied, “no happier than I was to be there.” In the course of their texting she set up a time to meet with him late Friday afternoon at a coffee shop. She was so curious about what had happened.

When they had ordered, gotten their drinks, and sat down Janice again told Andrew how happy she’d been to see him, that she hadn’t expected to see him back. “What happened?” she asked.

Andrew said, “Credit Fred with this one. I’d been grousing around in a terrible mood and saying that we needed to find another congregation when he sat me down for a little face to face. Basically, he…the one who’d always struggled with faith…called me back to my basic beliefs. He reminded me how important grace and forgiveness had been in my life and asked why I wasn’t willing to draw on those basic principles now. Of course I had an answer for him….I’d be very willing to forgive if the offending person would come to me and repent of what had been done. But in lieu of that action…my hands were tied. I’d just have to leave the choir. Which is basically what I had told you.”

“So what did he have to say to that?” Janice was curious. She too had thought that reconciliation was impossible without a confession.

“Well, Fred’s a kind of newcomer to faith,” Andrew said. “And he’s got some different ways of looking at things. He told me that I was giving the offender all the power….and that really forgiveness didn’t begin with him, but with me. He said that one of the things that he liked about our congregation was the fact that it was grounded in pure grace. He reminded me that Pastor Baldridge is always talking about a spirit of forgiveness that under girds everything we do and say together. In his eyes that meant that we would never wait to extend forgiveness to anyone….that forgiveness would be the benchmark for all that happened. In other words if someone sins against us, we instantly tap into that spirit of forgiveness…if later that person said that they were sorry we’d be able to say that they were already forgiven. But Fred’s last point was the one that turned me. He said that he had learned among us that God’s forgiveness and love is always present…even in the midst of our sinning. God doesn’t decide to forgive us over and over…it’s already been done…even before we ask for it.”

Andrew paused for a moment….he had tears in his eyes. He continued, “I was so proud of Fred…he had nailed it. Even though I was the one who had gone through confirmation and been raised in the church….I had never seen it so clearly as he did. Then he said that since I loved singing so much I should go back to the choir with a spirit of forgiveness in my heart…and just see what happened. So I did. I don’t think I’ll ever get an apology…but that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned he’s forgiven.”

Now Janice had tears…she had new admiration for Andrew. She didn’t know if she’d be able to do what he had done. She’s always thought of forgiveness as being contingent on confession in our relationships….even though she knows that’s not the way it is with God. In fact sometimes she’s even had trouble forgiving when people have asked for forgiveness…it’s never been that easy for her…she’s never forgiven her ex-husband for walking out on her when Lacey was a baby…and she doesn’t know that she ever will. Andrew’s given her a lot to think about. She asked, “So how was it at choir? You had a smile, but how did you feel?”

Andrew said, “It wasn’t easy…that’s why I was late. I was sitting out in my car before the practice…but then something happened. I saw what appeared to be an old woman sitting out on that bench in front of the church. She was watching me…and then she stood up and motioned to me, it was as though she was beckoning me to get out of my car and come in….so I did. And when I got to the bench…no one was there! I went on in then. You welcomed me and so did everyone else. It was so much fun to sing again.”

Janice breathed under her breath, “Thank you, Myrtle!” She would have to tell Pastor Baldridge that Myrtle was still working her magic out on her bench. She’d tell him that when she reported on what Andrew had told her about forgiveness. He might even be able to work this idea into a sermon sometime.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are faithful, the men are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

Well, it finally happened. There’s an issue at Crown and Cactus and there isn’t a good way to deal with it. It seems at least one of the good people there has some homophobic feelings…and under the surface it’s causing some real pain.

Based on Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Now that the Labor Day weekend is over the fall program can begin in earnest, but first comes the day of service, God’s Work, Our Hands, that is scheduled for this Sunday. Word has gone out to the congregation via email and members are being given three different options for work. Everyone will meet at the church where there will be a worship service and childcare options. After the worship people will be given instructions and directions to the site where they will be doing the work. Some will be doing cleanup at the Riparian Reserve, others will be fixing up some playground equipment at one of the elementary schools, and the rest will be at Feed My Starving Children preparing meals for the hungry. All the arrangements were made by Lacey Zeiner and she has, as usual, handled the details well. She even was able to get people to respond in a timely fashion so she could make the work assignments. Even though it seems chaotic to Pastor Baldridge, she assures him that everything will run smoothly…she even has contingency plans in case it rains.

Janice Porter has been meeting with the choir on Wednesdays for the last couple of weeks and has gotten in some good practices, though they won’t be singing until the 17th. Her numbers are down this year and that has been a concern. At first she thought it was just because people were out of town but then as she’s made some contacts it appears there have been some hurt feelings. This isn’t unusual among musicians but this year there is a bit of an edge to the under-currents and she discovered that there has been at least one major issue. She had missed Andrew Bates last spring…she had seen him at worship with Fred, his husband, but he had quit coming to rehearsals and he didn’t sing at Pentecost. They were gone a lot during the summer but she had thought maybe he’d come back to the choir this fall…so she had sent him a special invitation telling him how much she missed him. Andrew’s response seemed evasive to her and she followed up with a phone call. Again he seemed to walk all around the issue and his reasons for not singing seemed inauthentic. Finally she arranged to meet him for coffee.

Andrew greeted her warmly and they spent some time talking about the trip they had taken back to Missouri for a high school reunion…a big deal for them because Fred had been with him and he had introduced him to his classmates as his husband. Most were okay with that…though some had a pretty cold response. Janice told him how much she missed him in the choir and he smiled wryly without saying anything much. Then he said, “I miss the choir too.” There was a pause…Janice sensed he had something else to say. Then he said, “I promised Fred I wouldn’t say anything…but I don’t think it’s right to not tell you what’s going one.” He sighed deeply and went on.

Andrew told Janice that there had been an incident during the rehearsals for the Good Friday cantata. He had been given one of the solos and he sensed that there was some jealousy, though nothing was said. Then the week before the performance, he had gone to get his music folder, and when he had opened it up there was a note on a small piece of paper. It had been typed in capital letters and said, “YOUR KIND AREN’T WELCOME HERE!!!” Andrew had been shocked, but said nothing to anyone, though he showed the note to Fred. He had sung in the cantata but the experience had poisoned his feeling about the choir…and he had decided not to come back.

Now it was Janice’s turn to be shocked…she had not dreamed that there were some who felt that way in her choir. She had never noticed a thing, and had in fact  been proud of the way Andrew and Fred had been welcomed in the congregation. She asked if there had been any other notes. Andrew said that there hadn’t. Then he had paused and said, “I think I know who it was.”

Of course Janice wanted to know who…but Andrew wouldn’t say anything. He said that he didn’t have any proof…but that he had a feeling, the kind of sixth sense that gay people have about things like this. She insisted that he tell her but he wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t budge. He just said that even though he loved to sing he didn’t want to cause a problem in the choir. Andrew said, “We’re not leaving the congregation…yet. But we might start looking…there could be another place where people don’t have these kinds of issues.”

Janice left the Starbucks with a sick feeling in her stomach. She couldn’t believe that Andrew had gotten a note like that…oh she knew he had…but she couldn’t imagine who might have stuck it in his folder. In her mind she ran through the members of the choir…how could she look any of them in the eye again without wondering? They had a practice on Wednesday evening…but her heart wasn’t in it. Could it be one of the tenors? They would have the most reason to be jealous. She didn’t think any of the women would have done it.

Thursday she took her problem to Pastor Baldridge. She started to cry as she recounted Andrew’s story. He said, “Did Andrew say why he suspected some particular person?” Janice only replied that he had refused to talk about it…just that his suspicions made it impossible for him to feel comfortable around this person.

Pastor Baldridge said, “These things are so destructive for the community. Even if Andrew doesn’t come back the choir will never have the same unity it once had. There will be an undercurrent of resentment…even if no one knows what it is about. Prejudice is like a cancer. I wish I knew who it was.”

Janice said, “If you did know, what would you do?”

Pastor Baldridge said, “I’d do what Jesus advised, I’d go to the person directly and confront him or her. I’d point out the difficulty just between the two of us.”

“And what if he admitted it? What would you do then?” Janice pressed him. “Would you tell me to kick him out of the choir?”

Pastor Baldridge shook his head. “I don’t think so…I don’t believe that kicking people out of a congregation or a choir is the answer to anything…though sometimes I suppose it might need to happen. I just want people to love each other…and not hold prejudices…and forgive. That’s what I hope would ultimately happen.”

Janice didn’t know that they were getting anywhere. As long as they didn’t know who had written the note there really wasn’t much they could do. She said, “I guess the only one who could actually do anything is Andrew…and he isn’t interested in trying…’cause he doesn’t know for sure.” She started to cry again…finally she said, “I didn’t think mythical congregations had problems like real ones…this just sucks!”

She was right…it’s an awful situation. Relationships are crucial within the community of faith…and when they get messed up, the whole body suffers.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are faithful, the men are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

Brad Zeiner has another uncomfortable conversation with his father…the latest in a long series. His strongest desire is to be a follower of Jesus…and his dad just doesn’t see the point of self-denial.

Based on Matthew 18:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. In fact, it has been exceptionally quiet! The Sunday of Labor Day weekend is not known for packed pews…so many are away on their “last gasp of summer” holidays…and generally there are no classes or other activities scheduled. At Crown and Cactus Pastor Baldridge has often used this day to focus on vocation and has asked members to talk a bit about how they see their job or profession as a mission from God. Response to these “lay sermons” has generally been overwhelmingly positive and he’s been wondering why he didn’t schedule speakers for this Sunday too.  He doesn’t have a good answer to that…he just didn’t think of it…and when he did ask someone on Monday…at the last minute…they were already going to be out of town. So folks will just get him this weekend…and he’s working hard on a sermon. He wants it to be a good one so that those who skip worship will be disappointed that they missed out when they hear how good it was from those who came. They still haven’t gotten around to recording sermons and putting them on the website at Crown and Cactus…if a person want to hear what’s said, they have to be there!

Brad Zeiner had a slow week…there were no youth meetings scheduled…and he and Lacey are going to be among the absent ones on Sunday. They’re driving up to Sedona to do some hiking for the weekend…they got a screaming deal at an Air B&B for two nights. Lacey has things pretty much worked out for the “God’s Work, Our Hands” activities on the 10th so she was free to go too. He did have lunch with his dad at the Golf Club in Mesa on Wednesday. He opted not to golf but he did meet him there at 11:30.

Brad has been connecting with his dad periodically through these last months…there’s been a lot of healing in their relationship. And of course it helps that his dad just adores Lacey…he always makes embarrassing comments to her, like “I know you could have done better than Brad…I’m glad you chose not to. Still don’t know what you see in him when you could have had anyone.” He means the words as a joke and doesn’t realize how cutting and demeaning they are to Brad…but that’s just how he is.

The Golf Club in Mesa is very nice, gated, with an attendant on duty to monitor those who come. Brad is always embarrassed by his old beat up car…he’s always resisted his dad’s offers to but him something nicer…and he has never been at ease in the dining room either. It’s quite nice and the servers all treat his dad with great respect…and he responds with an easy familiarity. On Wednesday his dad had arranged for just the two of them to eat together, a signal that he had important things to say to Brad. The hostess had shown Brad to the assigned table, brought him water and a menu, and he waited while his dad freshened up in the locker room…it had been a hot morning. He looked around at the other diners…men like his father…only a few women…everyone had a certain air about them. This was their space…their place to hang with their peers. There was loud talk…raucous laughter. Every part of the room oozed with a scent of wealth and privilege. Brad felt like an outsider…like he didn’t belong…and truthfully he didn’t.

His dad joined him with a smile…he’d had a great round and was in a good mood. He addressed the server as “Sweetheart” and ordered a drink. They talked for a bit before ordering…Brad got a club sandwich while his dad asked for the special…a barbecued pulled pork that he said was always delicious. When their food came his dad steered the conversation to a discussion of Brad’s future…a topic that almost always came up. He just couldn’t understand why Brad refused to get a “real job,” as he put it. He’d offered many times to pull some strings and find a slot for Brad in some lucrative business, something in finance or banking. And Brad had always put him off.

Brad said, “I know you don’t understand, Dad. My plans don’t make sense from the perspective of our society and culture. I know that you and your friends have done well in business, that you could easily retire, and that you have plenty of money.  You enjoy your travel…and I know you love this club. According to the world’s standards you have it made.”

His dad interrupted, “And what’s wrong with that?”

“There’s nothing wrong….it’s just that, well, it’s had to explain,” Brad struggled to find the right words. “It’s just that…I want to be a follower of Jesus!”

His dad said, “Good…do that…but why can’t you also get into business?”

Brad answered, “I suppose I could…but it’s pretty plain that the way of Jesus is different from the way of the world. He said that it involved self-denial…and taking up the cross. He said,” the words came quickly now for Brad, “he said that those who lose their lives will save them, and asked what a person would profit if they gained the whole world and forfeited their life. I think about these things all the time. I really want to live, Dad. And that means saying “no” to a lot of the things that you value. I’m sorry…..I hate saying this to you. It makes me seem so judgmental.”

His dad said, “Well, it really does…but then I’ve spent your lifetime judging you…so maybe we’re even. I just don’t understand.” He looked around the room and gestured with a wide swing of his arm, “What’s wrong with this world?”

Brad said, “This is going to sound harsh. This is a pretend place….it’s based on wealth and status…and I don’t feel comfortable here at all. I want to live among people where I can relax and laugh and feel joy in relationships….a place where humility is the prime virtue and people aren’t always showing off for each other….a place where power and privilege aren’t the main objectives…and where everyone supports and loves one another.”

His dad was silent…he didn’t get Brad at all. Signalling that the conversation was over, he called over the server and signed the check. He asked, “What are you doing for Labor Day?” adding with a bit of a sneer, “Going to church?”

Brad said, “Actually we’re going up to Sedona to hike…I think we’ll worship at the church up there on Sunday. We’ve got a great deal on an AirB&B.”

His dad frowned, “You know I’ve got a timeshare up there, you could have stayed for free.”

Brad said, “I know…but it’s so opulent. It’s just not who we are.”

The two of them pushed away from the table. Brad thanked his dad for the lunch…and they went their separate ways.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.