Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Real Power

Sermon 7-15- 18
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

There is a theme happening in our last two readings from Mark … and that theme is power. What is power, who has it, where does it come from, and how does it get used.

Last week we talked about trips, and in the adventures of Jesus, we heard how he took a trip to his hometown… and how he could do almost no deeds of power there. Thanks to unbelief of the people Jesus’ grew up with, it seemed like all his power just got sucked right out of him. But when Jesus gave power to his disciples, and sent them out two by two, THEY were able to do what JESUS could not. They healed the sick and proclaimed the gospel of repentance …and it turned out AWESOME! The disciples doing deeds of power in Jesus name, and they are getting RESULTS!! But these results make the people who had political and religious power very, very nervous.

Imagine an episode of House of Cards – have any of you ever seen the show? Back room deals, closed-door discussions, people socially maneuvering, manipulating others and bending the truth to get what they want, using whatever means necessary...  The ENDS always justify the MEANS…if in the END, YOU end up the one with the power. And power always seems to be in such short supply. At least, power that is based here in the world. And those who seem to operate outside of those rules, who don’t “play” the game, like John the Baptist, become easy targets.

John the Baptist, if you remember, is Jesus’ forerunner. At the very beginning of Mark, the prophet Isaiah announces his arrival…. He writes: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord!’.” Then – POOF- there he was! Proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, he was basically a homeless man wearing camel skins and eating whatever he could find – bugs and honey. And, unexpectedly, he was a HUGE hit with the people, baptizing left and right, making the people with political and religious powers very nervous… sound familiar?

They became even more worried when John told the people that there was someone coming after him… MORE powerful than John. And this person will baptize with the Holy Spirit!

And sure enough, after John – POOF! - Jesus arrived, showing a kind of power that humanity had never seen: healing women and children, casting out demons, calming storms … doing deeds of power yet hanging out with powerless people. 

Born to a powerless ethnic group in a backwater town as far as you could get from the shining political power center of the empire, Jesus revealed to the world a new kind of power - a power that did not come from brute force, or intimidation, or violence, or injustice, or discrimination, or bullying, or manipulation. This is not human power. This is God’s power. And God’s kind of power doesn’t play by human rules.

See, it was all coming true, just as John said.  And that make King Herod – the local guy with the power - very nervous, indeed. Not only was John the Baptist getting a huge following, but he was also saying some pretty bad things about him. Herod was already hanging onto his power by a fingernail. So, he threw John in jail – and you heard the rest of what happened to John.

This traumatic little story is actually a flashback. John the Baptist has already been arrested and killed by Herod by the time Jesus sent out his disciples last week. But John’s execution haunted Herod, which must be why Herod believed in the most absurd thing – that John, whom he had killed must be alive again. He’s baaaaaaack…. or at least that is what he feared.  What else could be the explanation? And that thought scared him to his very core.

Because John was SUPPOSED to be an example – an example of what happens to you when you speak truth to powerTHIS (head chopping motion) is what happens to you when you call out the leaders, behaviors, and cherished institutions in this world, those that are built on racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, hate, fear, ignorance, and apathy. Most of the time, if you speak truth to power, you will not get a trophy or metal or pat on the back. You will not win any popularity contexts. There will be consequences.

Now, you might not get thrown in jail and lose your head like John. But you might lose friends, lose face, be labeled as “easily offended” (or as a “delicate snowflake”) by your friends or family, or otherwise get thrown under the bus. So, the power of the world would advise you to “keep quiet, don’t make a fuss, keep your head down, or you WILL lose IT.” (Again, the head chop motion) Lay low, or face the alternative. 

The true alternative to their claim to power in actuality scares the powerful half to death. John knew, and Jesus knew, and we know that God’s power, Jesus’ power, the power of the disciples did not come from this world, from King Herod or the Romans or any Caesar. 

And likewise, OUR power does not come from what others have to say about our worth – from having big houses or cars or jobs or our kids’ accomplishments or putting on the best face of “having it all together.” OUR power comes from CHRIST. The one who carried on John’s work, speaking truth to power, and showing the world power through God’s truth.

This truth is, as Paul writes, that our power comes from being chosen and beloved by God, adopted as God’s children, sharing in the never-ending inheritance of Jesus. This inheritance of being forgiven of our sins, healed of our brokenness, and redeemed from clenched jaws of death. We don’t earn it. We are just part of it… We are part of God’s Family… as siblings in the family of God… sharing in this abundant life together, because of Jesus.

We all know that Herod was wrong about Jesus. John had not come back from the dead, as some thought. But at the same time, Herod was also right about Jesus… just a little too soon. John would not rise again after his death (at least, not until we all do at the last day). But Jesus did rise again. That, I think, is the nugget of good news to be found in terrible little story.

Jesus also spoke truth to power. And the powers-that-be came after him. They murdered him too, like John before him, in another terrible and humiliating way. The powerful killed Jesus, and his body was laid in a borrowed tomb. But he did not stay buried. Three days later his tomb stood empty.

And someday, OUR tombs will be empty too. Someday, death and the grave will no longer have power over us either. At the last, we too will be raised with Christ in power and glory.
Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. We still live in a world ruled by King Herods and Ceasars and Herodiases and innocent children who get stuck making difficult decisions, shouldered forever with the legacy of their parents’ sins. We still live in a world where the consequences of speaking truth to power range from losing Facebook friends to losing your life.

We hope and long for the coming day of God’s reign, where the power of God makes the world a place of equality, justice, compassion, and enough for all.

Until that day, between now and then, we have the promise of God’s love to go with us along our way, no matter what happens. During our week of VBS, our theme verse was also a quote from the Prophet Isaiah: God tells us: “When you go through the waters, I will be with you.” When we feel powerless, this is a promise we can cling to, that will give us comfort no matter what happens. And because of this promise, we can’t say it any better than one of our VBS songs:

 I will hold on to you and the promises that you make, ‘Cuz it is well with my soul, no matter what comes my way.”

This is the ASL sign for “anything,” which the kids used as they sang this song. Anything can happen. But our power comes from the promise that God is with us “no matter what comes my way.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Pack This, Not That.

Sermon 7-8-18

Grace to you and peace from God our creator from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

To me, and maybe for some of you, one of the most fun things about summer is traveling. For example, just this month I’m going to St. Louis and then driving through Illinois to WI to see my family. But before I became a pastor and moved to the East coast…. while I was still in college, I usually stayed home all summer and worked as a camp counselor… and loved every minute. However, even though I was in one place all summer, I still did just a little packing and a little traveling, at least around the camp itself. Every counselor was assigned to a different cabin each week. So, my colleagues and I quickly learned that the mores STUFF you brought with you… the more STUFF you had to shlep across the camp from week to week. The best packers among us had it down to a science – just enough to only have to make one, or MAYBE two trips tops. Or…. You just made a lot of friends to convince to help you do it for you.

Pine Lake Camp, WI, circa 2004

Then once the campers arrived, often there would be at least ONE in every cabin each with that just packed WAY too much stuff… hair straighteners and footballs and board games and nearly every pair of shoes in their closet. WAY more than they could ever use for just 5 days at church camp.

I think we’ve all been there when preparing a trip, or going to camp, or camping, or going to the beach, or any kind of travel really – we have every intention of packing light. But then we second guess ourselves - maybe we really do need three books instead of two… that extra sundress… a few more pairs of socks… six spare sunglasses…. another towel… and pretty soon, our suitcases are pretty big and pretty heavy. All in the name of “being prepared” for “just in case.”

Fortunately for us, the gospel of Mark is a master class in being no-frills and to the point. No word is wasted here. Mark is the shortest Gospel - you can easily read all of it in one sitting. There is no nativity scene or story of Jesus’ birth, no Sermon on the Mount, no Jesus in the temple at age 12… and Mark only takes 3 chapters to describe the evens of Jesus’ last week, compared to 8 chapters in the Gospel of John. There is not even TECHNICALLY a resurrection story, if you remember my sermon ALLLLLL the way back on Easter.

Mark does not mess around. So, it’s not entirely surprising in Mark, Jesus gives us a packing list of what we will and won’t need to do ministry… and Jesus is pretty much telling his disciples – and us – to pack light.

Do you remember a book that came out a number of years ago, called “Eat this, not that?” People went nuts over how it debunks some of the health food myths out there. And following that book’s success, a whole series spun off – “Cook this, Not That” …. “Drink This, Not That” … you get the picture. Well, as you might have guessed, Jesus has his own version to give to the disciples as they are about to embark in this ministry adventure in Jesus’ name. “Pack this, not that.”

What does Jesus tell us to bring along on this mission? A staff for walking…. Sandals on their feet…And that’s about it. No money. No extra clothes. No snacks, not even a backpack. So really, mostly “…Not that”!

On the surface, Jesus’ packing list is going over-board on this “minimalist, packing light” idea at best, and actually dangerous at worst. Traveling back then was very different from traveling today. Anything could happen to the disciples while out there on the road – they might get hungry, they might get robbed, they might need a place to stay for a night – and there was no Google to help find the nearest Motel 6. What Jesus is suggesting here seems to be pretty foolhardy – the very mission to spread God’s kingdom seems to be utterly dependent on the hospitality of complete strangers.

But look what happened…. Where we might think that Jesus sets up his followers for failure… instead, they are wildly successful! They cast out demons! They anointed the sick and cured them! People welcomed them into their homes! I would call that a BIG success!
Jesus knew something that we tend to forget… or ignore – the more we bring with us…. the more stuff we gather around us in the name of “being prepared” … the more things to surround ourselves with in the name of trying to be “successful,” the more we are burdened and weighed down, both physically and mentally. We worry too much about stuff, what we do have and what we don’t have, and what we may think we need.

Now, Jesus is not saying that we should not be ready and prepared AT ALL… but instead, Jesus is helping us differentiate between what is necessary and what is not. Or, to put it another way, what to pack on this journey of discipleship, and what to leave out of our suitcase. “Pack This, Not That.”

Here is Jesus’ packing list:
First, before they even leave on their journey, you hopefully noticed that Jesus didn’t send the twelve out one at a time. He sent them out two by two, so that no one person would shoulder the burden and the stress by themselves. Having partners in ministry is important to encouraging us when times get tough, to keeping us on track and accountable, to pray for us, and to labor next to us – “work smarter, not harder.”

Next, Jesus says told his disciples to bring a staff, or a walking stick, and a pair of sandals. For when the path ahead gets rocky and becomes hard to climb, or when the way gets dark and difficult to navigate, we could all use some support and assistance. Sometime this takes the form of a supportive posse of people who love us. And sometimes this takes the form of some comfortable walking shoes.

That’s it for the physical items Jesus tells us to pack. But there are some intangible once that don’t weight a lot but are essential. The most important thing that Jesus gives us on our journey is the call to do his work in his name… in other words, the most important thing we pack is our baptisms. Jesus gave his disciples the authority to heal and to cast out unclean spirits. When we were baptized, we officially turned our backs on the empty promises of the world, and all the powers of the world that draw us away from God. God chooses us as beloved children, then sends us out into the world with the power and presence of God.

Your baptism is pretty portable. In fact, you carry it with you wherever you go. And it takes up less room than your toothbrush. There, on your forehead, is the invisible mark of the cross that was drawn on your forehead on that momentous day. From then on, the promise that God is with you is there forever, no matter what where you go, or if your journey takes you far or near. No matter if you succeed or if you fail.

I would argue that Jesus gave his disciples one more item on his packing list: a spirit of openness. Jesus hinted to the twelve that not everything would go the way they wanted, and not everyone would welcome them. To quote the great modern prophet Taylor Swift: “Haters gonna hate (hate, hate, hate, hate, hate) … and the fakers gonna fake (fake, fake, fake, fake) …. But baby, I’M just gonna shake (shake, shake, shake, shake) Shake it off, shake it off.”

Or, as Jesus said it first: “If any place does not welcome you… shake the dust off your feet.” Because sometimes you can do everything right and things still don’t work out. Look at what happened to Jesus at the beginning of this section of Mark – Jesus showed up in his home town and it turns out that there he could do diddly-squat. And that kind of gives me just a little bit of comfort. 

But Jesus continued the work, even in the setbacks. And sometimes our hard work will actually pay off. But not because we bulked up and packed everything and the kitchen sink. It’s because we remembered to pack Jesus.

There are lots of things we don’t have. But there are lots of things that we DO. We have generous hearts. We have an eagerness to learn and to try new things. We are willing to work hard and work together. And those things, I think, will be extremely useful to take along this journey with us. Thanks be to God, amen.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Jesus Leaks

Sermon 7-1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This past week, over thirty thousand ELCA youth gathered in Houston for their Youth Gathering, which happens every three years in different cities around the country. During this week, they learned together, worshiped together, and served their neighbor together. If you haven’t already, go and watch the videos of the nightly speakers, they are amazing. 

But in the days and weeks before the Youth gathering, my Facebook feed was flooded with the travel preparations questions of my pastor friends, on how to be ready for everything: from minor injuries, sunburn, dehydration, Hangry-ness, and boredom. As you can imagine, that’s a lot to stuff to try to pack in one bag. Like putting too many toppings on your sandwich… with things falling everywhere when you try to take a bite.

The gospel of Mark, which we are reading through this summer, LOVES to pack too much into his sandwiches. You may have noticed during the reading that there is a story within a story here – a story sandwich – where story A is interrupted by Story B, then we hear the end of Story A again. For a short Gospel, Mark packs a lot in his sandwiches.

I remember packing my bag the last time I went to the Youth Gathering 3 years ago in Detroit. A friend who was a Youth Gathering Novice asked us what not-obvious things she would need. My suggestion is something that you will not normally here in a sermon AND related to today’s healing story. I told here there is one thing I ALWAYS bring on a youth trip: menstrual products. Yes, I’m talking about pads and tampons.

Are you uncomfortable yet? We should be, because we pretty much avoid this topic at all costs. Even the translators shy away from it, using the euphemism “hemorrhaging.” Which is just a fancier way of saying “on the rag,” “Aunt Flow was visiting,” or, according to one study… about 5,000OTHER slang terms for saying “period” around the world. I bet you REALLY wish you had stayed in bed today.

Are we uncomfortable yet? OUR discomfort is nothing compared to what this woman was going through. And I am not just talking about the pain that must have been horrible from having a period for twelve straight years. For the Jewish people thousands of years ago, “that time of the month” wasn’t just inconvenient and awkward. There were strict rules in the Old Testament saying what you could and could not do at this time. Bear with me as we get a little “Levitical” for a moment.

Back then, when a woman is menstruating, she is considered “unclean” for seven days. Everything she touches, including people, becomes unclean too. And everyone who touches what SHE touches becomes unclean. Imagine what that does to your family life and social life. Fortunately, when that time of the month is over, she takes a ritual bath and becomes “clean” again (Lev. 15) and resume regular life. … But what do you think would happen if “that time of the month” never stopped? No one would want to be near you. No one would want to touch you. Sooner or later, you would be completely alone.

I should explain that the terms “unclean” does not equal dirty or messy. The ancient Israelites divided everything into two categories: “Holy” or “ordinary,” “Divine” or “earthly” and heaven forbid that the two should be mixed. Blood was believed to be the source of life (Lev. 17) – they didn’t have any biology classes back then – and that is one reason keeping kosher does not involve eating any blood. Blood is holy, and so you do not eat it.

But women have blood monthly - and do not die – and that does not fit nicely into these categories. So, these women during this time were “unclean” – a dangerous mix of holy and human, and the ancient Israelites dealt with this by ritual separation once a month.  

Fast forward a few thousand years, and these rules still applied. And pile on the prevailing medical ideas stated that healthy bodies were balanced, controlled, strong, and dry. And this woman, with her bleeding, was none of those things. (from the article "The Man with the Flow of Power: Porous Bodies in Mark 5:25-34" by Candida Moss, JBL 129, no. 3 (2010) 507-519)

Her cultured viewed her (apparently incurable) condition to be a disability. Everyone in her life up to this point seemed to fail her. Her family had abandoned her, her doctors had taken her money and left her with no cure, and her religion had no place for her. And so, cut off and alone, she came to Jesus – to what she might have thought was her last hope.

She came to him in secret, because she had no reason NOT to believe that Jesus, would fail her too, as all the other men in her life had up until that point. She had no reason NOT to think that, once she knew what she was, Jesus would reject her and cast her off too. Surely, he would not notice a small touch on his clothes. Because that’s also all she thought she was worth.

Well, Jesus DID notice…. He felt the power go out of him, in an action that he could not control. Jesus ‘s body leaked power, just as the woman’s body leaked blood. Blood that represents divine power and the gift of potential life. Jesus… power…. Blood…. Life…. Is it really a stretch to say that in this moment Jesus felt what it’s like to have a period? I don’t think it’s much of a stretch at all.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of sermons… my own and other people’s. But I do remember the first time I heard this idea, at a conference through an organization I’m a member of called Young Clergywomen International. An episcopal pastor who would become a friend preached a sermon on this very text and this very thought just blew me away.

Because if this is REALLY TRUE… Jesus has also experienced something that is such a central aspect to what it means to have a female body. Jesus has experienced the very thing that biological women spend at least 25 percent of their lives worrying over, preparing for, having discomfort due to, and using precious resources over. And Jesus knows what it’s like struggle with having other people have agency and power over your body.

In other words, Jesus knows what a period feels like – and that sounds totally weird to us. Because he body of Jesus is not safe – Jesus is leaking power all over the place and ruining our perfectly ordered and controlled lives. Jesus is breaking down the boundaries between earthly and holy, between sacred and ordinary. Between men and women. Between black and white and brown. Between the Haves and the Have-nots. And things GET. MESSY. When this happens. And we don’t like it AT ALL.

The ancient Israelites tried to control this boundary by shutting their women away. But WE in our technological and “egalitarian” societies are not much better. Yes, the technologies of pads and tampons are awesome to help make one quarter of the normal lives of female bodies less challenging. But we can do better. The stigma is still there, and injustices are still happening. Pennsylvania is one of ONLY 9 states in the US that DOES NOT TAX menstrual products…. Let me say that again: 41 states TAXES things like tampons, but does not tax dandruff shampoo, candy bars, and Viagra. This is called the “Pink Tax,” where products that women and biologically female bodies NEED to do normal human daily things … if TANG is not taxed, neither should be tampons.

And beyond this, some people still suffer in silence from illnesses related to menstruation and reproductive health, isolated by embarrassment, being ignored, or being taken advantage of.

So… Jesus WAS a dude. But more importantly, Jesus was a human being, who encompassed ALL of our humanity: the messy parts, the embarrassing parts, the holy parts, the parts that contribute to new life. And the truth is, Jesus’ maleness didn’t heal her… her faith, and the power of God healed her.

Jesus’ own body crossed represented the crossing of borders, the pouring out for the sake of others, and contaminating others with the love of God. In short, Jesus leaks…. He leaks God’s love all over the place, and as followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. This includes working for justice for ALL bodies, including women’s bodies, and especially vulnerable bodies.

Youth at the gathering did this by putting together two thousand toiletry kits for women escaping human trafficking. But we don’t have to travel half way a cross the country to be with 30,000 of our closest friends to do it. Right here, right now, we can ask ourselves – how are we contributing to menstruation justice?

Like this story having too much to talk about in one sermon, there is too much do for one person. But we can do something… like work to end the pink tax or donate toward organizations to help women and girls around the world.

We are the body OF Christ. I can’t put it better than to borrow the words from the newest ELCA draft social statement on “women and justice.” In this draft, people smarter than me have written:

“As this church seeks to value the bodies of all people and recognize that we depend upon one another, we will not dominate or politicize other people but respect them, promote their health and well-being, and suffer and rejoice together as we strive for justice for all bodies.  …We must continue the task of embracing our unity and diversity so we welcome and uplift people of every sex and gender—indeed, every body—in our work together as the Body of Christ in the world.”

To that we can roll up our sleeves and say, we can do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Life in Narnia

Sermon 6-24-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Why did Jesus cross the road? (To get to the other side…. sorry that was kind of a bad joke) Well, that’s ok, it’s more of a story than a joke anyway… and Jesus’ disciples didn’t think it was very funny either. And it wasn’t a very funny thing that happened to them in the middle of the lake, on their way to the other side.

I used to live in an in-between, middle, magical place… called Central Jersey. You may have heard of it… very recently, if you are a fan of Stephen Colbert. The new governor made news for something that New Jersey-ians have known since forever: Central Jersey exists. It’s different from both North and South Jersey, and neither want to claim it. It’s a strange place of both Eagles and Giants fans, where I didn’t quite know whether to listen to NPR from New York or Philly (so I listened to both). It was described most recently as the “Narnia” of New Jersey – a place not everyone is convinced is real.

But I believe in Narnia…and I loved those books growing up. The first one I read as a kid, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” written by C. S. Lewis, tells the story of four ordinary kids who stumble upon this magical land of talking animals. The kids’ home in London is not safe, so they seek asylum from their eccentric Uncle, who owns the wardrobe in question.  

Inside, they find an entire country permanently blanketed by snow.  An evil Witch had forced everyone to live in a permanent winter, with never any Christmas. Now THAT’S mean!! Though honestly, after a few days this week, snow might have felt pretty nice.

The witch, however, is not the rightful ruler of Narnia – that’s Aslan, of course, a fearsome talking lion. The trouble is, no one has seen Aslan for a hundred years. And some of the Narnians are - understandably - wondering whether Aslan still cares about them, or even if he still exists. And this is where the human children enter the story.

Jesus too liked to tell stories, and if you remember he had just finished telling some tales of his own, in the form of parables. Last week we heard two short ones about seeds and mustard plants. Afterwards, Jesus decided it was time to go across the lake. Even though it WAS getting pretty dark, they left anyway, headed right for the country of the Gerasenes, an area full of people who were not at all like them. And they were not exactly eager to go there, either.

And to make matters worse, a big storm came along while they were in the middle of the lake. The wind and rain and waves beat down on their little boat - they were going to end up at the bottom of the lake for sure! In all their panic, trying to keep the boat from sinking, they remembered they had Jesus! But wait, where WAS he?
Um... excuse us, Jesus...

Oh, that’s right. Jesus was sound asleep in the back of the boat…. on a cushion. A CUSHION. Not cool, Jesus. Not cool.

I’ve never experienced a storm while at sea. And until I moved to Jersey, I had also never experienced a hurricane before. Give me raging thunderstorms or even tornadoes – I have experienced plenty of both growing up in the Midwest. But hurricanes? Hurricane Irene seven years ago was my very first. It ended up not being so bad, of course, but when it is 3 am and the weather channel is telling you to take cover because there are tornadoes forming INSIDE OF THE HURRICANE, things seem pretty serious.

Hurricane Irene happened only weeks after moving to New Jersey from seminary in Minneapolis that summer. I had recently moved, which did not go exactly smoothly either – the furniture was a week late, some my stuff arrived bent or broken, one of the cats couldn’t keep food down, and now Hurricane Irene. Welcome to New Jersey!

And yet, by the time the tornado warnings had expired that night, and I crawled back to bed, I wasn’t nearly as worried as I had been. Because while I sat on the floor in the closet, with the wind howling and the rain pounding outside… my two cats did not seem the least bit concerned.
"Excuse me... I AM NOT A SCARDY CAT"

Now, my cats are big wimps. One of them, Patches, will hide under the couch during a regular thunderstorm, like she did just this last week.

And yet, both of the cats seemed more concerned about what I was doing in the closet than what was happening outside. They poked their head in, like they were wondering what I was doing in there… and then wandered away to other night interests. And somehow that put me somewhat at ease. If these two scardy-cats weren’t overly worried about the scary weather outside, then maybe I didn’t have to be either. Maybe, just maybe, it would be ok.
In the midst of that storm on the lake, it may have seemed to the disciples that Jesus was asleep on the job. But Jesus didn’t stay asleep once his frightened disciples called out to him. No – when they called to Jesus, Jesus came to their rescue and calmed the storm. 

Similarly, Aslan, true king of Narnia, didn’t forget his people, either. Sightings of him increased as the witch’s power waned, and winter started to lose its grip. But the children visiting Narnia were very nervous when they heard that Aslan wanted to meet them. Seeing a lion in a zoo is one thing. Meeting Aslan the lion face to face would be very different. 

Before meeting Aslan, one of the children naturally consulted his new friend the talking beaver and asked, “Is he… quite safe?” 

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  

That didn’t automatically take away the children’s fear when they did eventually meet Aslan. But they took comfort that Aslan had a plan to save everyone. Good would (eventually) triumph over evil. Though that doesn’t mean it would be smooth sailing before the victory was complete.

We often get the idea into our heads that once we become followers of Jesus, our lives will be all bubbles and lattes– all of our questions will be answered, and all of our doubts will be put to rest. That the storms of our lives will cease to rage, and it will be nothing but calm seas from here on out. Alas, this is not the case. Just look at the lives of Jesus’ closest followers. This storm was NOTHING compared to what they would face as they brought the message of Jesus out into the world. For sharing this love, they were often attacked, put in jail, and even killed for their trouble. Just look again at Paul’s list in our 2nd Corinthians reading – we will face, afflictions, hardships, calamities, and more.

But that didn’t stop them. They kept going, and they kept rowing.

Since that first year in New Jersey, I’ve been through plenty of other storms, some of them really, really rough. Plenty of times I feared that the wind would knock me over, that the waves would swamp me… that surely, I would go down while Jesus seemed to be taking a nap. But Jesus was never really asleep on the job. Whenever I called out, about to go under, Jesus answered, often in the form of small but precious acts of love shown to me by friends and family. And on THIS side of past storms, I can say NOW – Jesus was with me the whole time.

The same is true for all of us – in our call to follow Jesus, we have left the safety of the shore, and often find ourselves out of our depth in unknown waters. Storms are still going to crop up. It won’t always be smooth sailing. We are in the middle of the story still – maybe right in the middle of some storms ourselves - when the way forward is still dark and unknown, and we will often be afraid.

The same is true for our own little “boat” we call Family of God. There are plenty of storms for us to face along our way where Jesus calls us. We aren’t always sure what’s waiting for us, both over the next wave or when we arrive on the other, unknown shore.

Sometimes we will be afraid. Sometimes we will feel small, ignored, and powerless.
But we do know, that no matter when, even though life is not always safe… God is good. We know that we are loved and cared for. And Jesus is with us always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow-mustard-seed parable

Sermon 6-17-18

Grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Around this time of year, you may also have noticed something about the fields you drive past this summer. When you do, perhaps even on your way home, take notice of the corners or around the edges. It doesn't matter what’s planted in the field – whether its corn, alfalfa, soybeans, wheat, hay - every corner of every field will be the same: The plants in the corners will be shorter, spindlier, and less robust than the rest. You would probably think that the opposite would be true: that because they don't have to compete with others in the middle of the field for sun and rain and soil, so that they would be taller and healthier because of it. But this isn’t the case. In fact, they are pretty wimpy-looking.

This reminds me of a poem that is sometimes quoted on inspirational posters in junior high schools, the one by Douglas Malloch that goes:  

The tree that never had to fight for sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain and always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king, but lived and died a scrubby thing. (Sound Familiar?)

Today, right now, you might feel like a scrubby thing, pre-Forest King or Queen – still a tender shoot, removed from all that is familiar and transplanted, physically or figuratively, to that high and lofty mountain where the air is thin, and the wind blows strong. But you are not on the mountain alone. Growth is slow and hard, but God is the one who is our gardener, and puts people in our lives to help us grow and thrive.

Who in your life has their roots firmly planted in the house of the Lord, as we said in our psalm today?

I once knew a woman in another church who might be a surprising candidate for “Best Flourishing Palm Tree” or “Cedar of the Year.” We’ll call her Janet. In her younger days, before I met her, Janet was an extremely active church member while raising a large and loving family. But when I knew her, she lived in a nursing home specializing in memory care, which she lived for many years before she passed away.

Janet may not be aware of what day or season or year it might be, but her memories of Holy Communion are deeply rooted, still green and full of sap, despite that she could not remember that her sister had preceded her in death, or the names of her grandchildren. But I always brought her communion, and she always knew all the words to all the prayers. One day she noticed a crease in the communion liturgy leaflet we would use together. As she held it in her hands and examined it, she said, “Look, there’s a fold in it. It must be from the many hands who have touched this before today.” The Lord’s promises were so deeply rooted in her, no memory loss could take that away. But someone had to have planted that very first seed in her.

We plant the seeds every single day, but we don’t always know how they are going to bloom… whether it’s days, months, or years later, like in Janet’s case. For example, a few years ago I wrote some reflections for the devotional called “Christ in our Home,” some of them on these very texts. In one of them, based on our 2nd Corinthians reading, was about would be like to be running a challenging course while remembering that Jesus is cheering you on AND running along with you. I send these devotions off and promptly forgot about them, having moved on to the next thing. Weeks after they had been published, I received an email from two women who told me about a road trip they did to run their first half-marathon. They were nervous about it, and took along this devotional. The day of the race, as it happened, was this very text, with my devotion! They found it so encouraging to think about while they ran. They wrote: Your words, God's presence and our faith… made it a day we will always remember.”  

My reflections on Paul’s words went out into the world and someone found meaning in them. I can tell you, there has been very few times in my life where I have actually gotten to see the fruits of my labors, so to speak.

But if the Kingdom of God is like a seed… what kind of seed is it? Well, Jesus, in true Jesus-fashion, tells us that the kingdom of God is like on of the least desirable seeds on the planet.

Must.... pull... weed..... 

As I probably have mentioned once or twice, I grew up on a small dairy farm in central Wisconsin, where my Dad planted fields of corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and hay as food and bedding for the cows that we raise. As you can probably imagine, myself and my siblings had a few chores to do growing up. One of these summer chores was “picking mustard.” How many of you know what a mustered plant looks like? Sort of like goldenrod… it can be found in a lot of fields and ditches around these parts. I’ve never seen a mustard plant become a great tree, but I do know that one plant in a field, if unchecked, will shortly become one field of mustard, since it’s a very invasive weed. When a single mustard plant “goes to seed,” it releases thousands of the tiny little buggers.

Taken by one of my members on a trip in India... holy cats look at all that mustard!!

Have you ever tried to put glitter BACK in the container that it came in? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. So, when we would go out to pick mustard in the field, if we were too late, we would pull up one plant only to witness a shower of seeds falling to the ground…. Knowing that we would just be out there again pulling all of THOSE mustard plants in a few weeks’ time! It was so frustrating!

But isn’t it interesting… Jesus compares the kingdom of God… not to a mighty cedar, but instead, to something like this mustard plant. Stubborn…. Persistent… often with uncontrolled or unpredictable growth… annoying to our carefully curated lawns that we would like our lives to be. Something so small and so insignificant has been elevated, in God’s eyes, to be the star in a parable about the most important kingdom on earth. Because in the kingdom of God, the least important and most overlooked are often given the position of most importance. You know – the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

I’d like to think that the Apostle Paul would be aghast and appalled at how his words have been recently used to justify acting in a way that is the very opposite, while in the name of “the kingdom of God.”

The kingdom of God is NOT support the separation of youth, children, and infants from their parents, when the reason is parents seeking a better life for their children in the first place. The breaking up of families, and the further traumatizing of the most innocent among us – helpless children – in this way abhorrent to the Lord and works against the rules of God’s kingdom.

What Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a rejected, tiny mustard seed, he is saying that God’s kingdom is not built by our hands, though we may do the planting. God’s kingdom is growing, even when we don’t know how or when. God’s kingdom may seem weak compared to the powers and rules of the world… but in the end the smallest, most vulnerable seeds will grow up to be the greatest in the Kingdom. 

The kingdom of God belongs to the weak, the tiny, and the helpless.

The kingdom of God is going to show up when we least expect it, in the very people we would not have anticipated.

The kingdom of God is spread through every act of love we do in the name of Jesus… and sometimes God has to bring forth the kingdom without our participating because of the weeds of fear and selfishness choking our hearts.

The kingdom of God is an infestation of a stubborn weed that we try our hardest to get rid of… and yet, it keeps growing back.

The kingdom of God is invading our lives, and will overgrow and break down our hearts of stone… and that is good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Pastor Lydia Ruins The Bible

Sermon 6-10-18

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Families are complicated, aren’t they? And there is at least one in every family who is always stirring things up, or just rocking the boat by doing something unexpected. It’s sort of comforting to know that in HIS family, Jesus was the “black sheep” …  that even Jesus’ family was complicated.

One of the ways that we cope and explain our own families is to tell stories about where we came from… Maybe that’s why we’re suddenly obsessed with send-away genetic tests like “23 & ME” or from “Ancestry.com.” We have always tried to answer questions like: “Why is my family this way?” “Where did we come from and how does that effect who I am now?” And last but not least… “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons or not?”

Of course, I am referring to THE Story about the whole human family that we have all heard at some point: the one from Genesis, about creation and the fall. It’s a story worth hearing again in its entirety – since we only heard a small part today - so I’m going to give you the cliff-notes/ twitter version. The story of creation, first of all, is so epic that there is not just ONE version of the story but TWO (You can look it up for yourself on Page 1 of your pew bible)… and at the end of the second one, God gave the man free reign of the Eden, but told him, “You can eat from any tree in the garden, except for one. Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or you will die.”

Then Eve enters stage right, and all seems great… until there is trouble in paradise. The snake convinces Eve to try the fruit from the forbidden tree. Eve eats, then Adam eats. Their eyes were opened, and they knew they were in big trouble.

Which is right where our story picks up for today, as written in your bulletin.  God goes for the usual walk in the garden with Eve and Adam, but they hide from shame, and God knows something is wrong.  They point fingers and try to pass the blame but God still lays out the results of their actions: for the snake (No more legs), for Eve (pain in childbirth), and for Adam (endless toil for survival) and eventually, death for all.

Let’s take a look at what is ACTUALLY IN this story… like in our family histories, the retelling gets a little muddied over the years. We’re going to play a short quiz game about the story, but don’t worry… I’m going to make it easy. You don’t have to write down your answers and I’ll even allow this to be “open book” if you want to open your pew Bibles to Genesis chapter 3.

(I had this little quiz on a slide show, and I'll just share the questions with answers in bold:)

1 When did this story take place?
a.     6,000 years ago
b.    More than 10,000 years ago
c.     It doesn’t say, and it isn’t all that important to the point of the story.
What is the serpent?
a.     Just a talking serpent
b.    Satan in a silly mustache  
c.     Santa Claus
What kind of fruit did Eve eat from the tree?
a.     An apple
b.    A pomegranate
c.     No one knows!
Where was Adam when all this happened?
a.     In backyard mowing the lawn
b.    Taking a nap with a tiger
c.     Right there next to Eve
Who is at fault in this story?
a.     Eve
b.    Adam
c.     The serpent
d.    Everybody (including you and me)

Did any of those answers surprise you? I hope that they did. Have any of you heart of the YouTube series “Adam ruins everything”? This show closely examines things we take for granted… and in this case, in this story, we might say this is the ORIGINAL “Adam ruins everything.” If you recall, Adam was RIGHT THERE when all this went down, and, when God questions Adam about what happened, he passes the blame onto Eve AND God, saying, “The woman WHOM YOU GAVE ME, SHE gave me the fruit.” Like a little kid. Then Eve, in turn, SHE TOO passes the blame to the snake, blaming it for tricking her…. And the snake got the short end of the stick because there was no one else to blame.

From the Museum of Biblical Art

Surely NO ONE HERE has EVER passed the blame when they’ve done something wrong… I know, me neither! Haha, just kidding. In reality, this story, originally told thousands of years ago in a distant country in an unfamiliar language… somehow THIS STORY still tells OUR STORY.  A story that tells us about who we are, where we came from, and why we are the way we are.

Going back to what this story DOES and DOES NOT say…  First, what this story DOES NOT SAY…  it does not say that Eve was a seductive temptress and therefore all women are inherently more sinful than men. This story has been used and abused as a reason to mistreat us and keep us from being taken seriously. 

This story is not a science textbook. 

And this story is NOT a primer on WHO IS ALLOWED to get married – if you will notice, no mention of vows, bridesmaids, a white dress, cake, or the chicken dance is mentioned.

So then, what DOES the story tell us? This story tells us about God, and it tells us about ourselves. Families are complicated. Life, love, and relationships are messy and problematic and broken and full of mistakes and blame. Sometimes we are passive like Adam, to stand by and watch while objectionable things happen and do nothing to stop them. Sometimes we are Eve - curious, testers of limitations and seekers of knowledge, risk takers, who sometimes make HUGE goof-ups while daring to wrestle with hard choices.

This is a story about growing up, becoming an adult by moving out from the perceived perfection and simplicity of Eden, to make choices in a thorny and chaotic world. It’s the same story we tell ourselves in just in a million different ways in almost every coming-of-age story.
In one of my favorite of these stories, Matilda by Roald Dahl, the title character finds herself – as many child protagonists do – gifted with special powers but thrust in a world where she is at the mercy of the grownups. Like Eve, Matilda longs to have control over her life, and in themusical version, she and her friends imagine with one another how awesome it will be once they are adults:

“When I grow up,” they sing, “ I will be smart enough to answer all the questions … and… I will eat sweets everyday, and …. I will go to bed late every night… and … I will be brave enough to fight the creatures that you have to fight beneath the bed each night to be a grown up.” 

But we all know, when you grow up… sometimes the creatures under the bed still gets you know matter how brave you are.  

But fortunately for us, this story also tells us about God. God, who hovered over the waters of creation at the very beginning… who created all the land, water, animals, and us… is also the God who walked in the garden with Eve and Adam, the first members of the Family of God. This is a God who created US and who walks WITH US even when we would rather hide in shame over the confusing mayhem we find ourselves in or have created for ourselves and others.

Death and brokenness and sin may be the legacy our first “parents” have passed on to us… but God does not leave us in this state. This may be the origin story of our family, but it is not the end of the story. Adam may explain why we are the way we are, but Jesus tells us a new story about who we belong to and where we are headed.

We belong to a new family because of Jesus. A new family where our siblings do not necessarily share our genes, but instead share our passion for the gospel.  A new family where our siblings might not be related by blood, but instead united through the blood of Jesus. A new family brought together not by the waters of our mother’s womb but by the waters of our baptism and the promise of an empty tomb.

And this is pretty much going to be the exact opposite of the family interactions we are familiar with – not “family” as we are used to with drama, disagreements, hurts, and grudges. This will be family as we are meant to be – God’s Family.

Jesus calls this new family – still full of imperfections –to be a new kind of kingdom, a kingdom where everyone is treated with fairness and respect, where all feel safe, welcome, and valued, both within these walls and without. Every Sunday, every day, every moment, is a “family reunion,” minus the potato salad. Only – it’s a RE-UNION as “members of the Body of Christ, part of one Family of God” as I begin the service every Sunday. “Welcome. There is a place for you here….” …Right here, in God’s Family. 

So, my siblings in Christ…. WE are the Family of God, aren’t we? …. So, let’s get out there and ACT like it! Amen!