Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

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!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Everybody Get a Sabbath

Sermon 6-3-2018

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.

Welcome to the Sundays after Pentecost! … yeah, I admit, it’s not the most exciting of the season of the church year… it’s not refreshingly contemplative like Lent. It’s not festive and joyful like the season of Easter.  It’s not hopeful and expectant like Advent.  The time after Pentecost is the Long Green Season of the church, and it just seems to go ON AND ON AND ON… all the way until we get to Christ the King Sunday after Thanksgiving. Needless to say it’s the longest liturgical season we have….

But not to worry. We have a few blips of “special” to dot the liturgical landscape for us from now until then – Reformation Sunday in October for example. For now, we are back in the Gospel of Mark after a really long time in John, which is good because this is THE year of Mark’s Gospel, which is the snappy, fast moving, tweetable gospel with a very grumpy Jesus. Here we see, right from chapter 2, Jesus is making the rule-makers and the rule-keepers of his day angry by messing up their little world of regulations created from commands that actually comes from God, which we know as the Ten Commandments.

Our reading from Deuteronomy describes God’s full explanation of the 3rd commandment – honor the sabbath day and keep it holy. God says that “Six days you shall… work. But the seventh day… you shall not do any work.” Not you, not your husband or wife, not your kids or your farm animals or your pets or the immigrant in your towns, not your slaves. The Israelites were to remember that THEY were once slaves in the land of Egypt, forced to work day and night without rest… until God sent Moses to free them and lead them to the promised land.

In the 3rd commandment, God reminds us that God is about liberation. God hates slavery and bondage of any kind.  THAT is why God invented the Sabbath day… which, by the way, means that the Sabbath was the first ever labor law. God invented the first half of the weekend… not too shabby.

Fast forward a few thousand years…and we humans have done what we humans do best – make what is simple and life-giving into something overly complicated and difficult! What began as a safeguard of life and liberation became compartmentalized and regimented. If we are not allowed to work… then what constitutes WORK? It’s an excellent question… is plowing a field work? Definitely! What about preparing and cooking a meal? Usually, that’s work, right? … Doing laundry? That is definitely work…but what about driving a car? Pushing an elevator button? Flipping on a light switch?

Which begs the question…. At what point does avoiding work become WORK? It seems easy for those of us in the Christian faith to pass judgement on our Jewish brothers and sisters on some of the customs around the sabbath that I’m sure some of us have witnessed. But before we congratulate ourselves on our so-called liberation from Old Testament Laws, we should remember that we Christians were the ones who instituted things like Blue Laws...  and are the reason I can’t get a chicken sandwich from Chick Fill -A on Sundays, even in airports. And one of my pastor colleagues admitted at our weekly text study that it really bothers him when his neighbor mows the grass on Sunday, because when and where he grew up such things just weren’t done.

Many of us can remember a time like that. But it seems to be less and less our current reality. More and more opportunities crowd into our Sundays. Church is no longer the only building that is open on Sunday morning. On Sundays we are FREE – free to shop, free to cook, free to work, free to eat out, free to see a show, free to play sports… so much freedom! We are free to do so much! …or are we? Does THIS kind of freedom really free us?

We seem to be stuck between too many rules about how to rest so that resting is hard work, and too much freedom and choice so that we don’t get any rest at all. Neither of these options are actually life-giving. And that is EXACTLY what the sabbath was designed to do for us: to be a source of life for all of God’s people.

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, God tells God’s people that we have two choices before us – the path of death and the path of life.  It’s pretty obvious that God wants us to choose life. And the point of Shabbat – sabbath – is a means for us to choose life, and to have life abundantly.

You are free to choose where to spend your Sunday morning, and you have chosen to spend it here. Congratulations – and also, I’m sorry…. you are rewarded by hearing the words of crabby Jesus, challenging people like us – people like the Pharisees - who like to have ways of living clearly laid out.

I just love the trick question that Jesus asks the Pharisees. He doesn’t ask if it is lawful to do an act of good work on a day where work is not supposed to be allowed. He instead asks – what is better to do on the sabbath, something good or something bad? of course, the “RIGHT” answer is to DO NO WORK on the sabbath. Except for the little fact that the RIGHT answer is totally WRONG. Somewhere along the way we forgot that God is not about rules; God is about people and relationships and love.

What if the Sabbath was not about NOT working… but instead was about making room for God to work? What if the sabbath wasn’t just about what we SHOULD NOT do… but instead be about what we CAN and SHOULD BE doing for others?

I am especially thinking about those who cannot afford to rest, who cannot afford to take a sabbath or a day off on Sunday because they need to work long hours or multiple jobs to both feed their families and pay the rent. What is it that brings life-giving joy for those whom a day off TODAY is not always an option?

Today is the day where we take a break from thinking that the priorities of the world make the rules. And sometimes we need to be reminded relieve other people from the “rules” we impose on them.

People are hungry and need to be fed TODAY. Single parents are working three jobs without a living wage, who need justice TODAY. The earth needs a break from our addiction to fossil fuels TODAY. Our children need a respite from the incessant treadmill of higher and better achievement TODAY. New mothers need the right to rest their bodies and care for their brand-new babies and not lose their jobs TODAY. People of color need relief from the constant worry from people’s suspicions and prejudice… TODAY.

I once heard a story of a church who raised money to give a needy family a nice refrigerator, since this family could not afford one. But this family decided to take the money and go on a really awesome family trip instead. The church was understandably upset – after all, who wouldn’t be excited about a new fridge? wouldn’t the quality of life of this family greatly improve? Wouldn’t the family save money?

Now I won’t say if this family was right or wrong, but really, after all, doesn’t every family deserve the opportunity to spend time together and to build memories that will last their entire lives? What is more important – improved food quality? Or improved family quality? What if – totally hypothetically –this trip revived their bond as a family? What if the children grew up treasuring this memory of renewal and grew up inspired to give back to others?

As Jesus might ask, is it better to give a family nothing or to let them spend their money on something life-giving that we might not have chosen for them?

Everyone needs sabbath. And everyone deserves sabbath. That is why today is so special. Today is the Lord’s Day. Today is the day we remember that God created us and gives us everything that we have. Today is the day that we remember that Jesus died and rose again so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Today is the day we receive Jesus’s body and blood to keep us sustained for the ongoing work of justice for all of God’s children.

We cannot do it all the works of God’s justice in one day. And that is why the Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, comes to us every seven days. Every seven days, a chance to be reminded of who made ALL our days. Every seven days, a chance to be renewed again, and to work to renew others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Everything this is to Know about God in One Sermon! (JK)

Sermon 5-27-18 Trinity Sunday

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

It’s that time of year again, when our weekends from now until the end of July are suddenly booked with graduations and their celebrations. Cake… and cards, and cake, and poster boards full of pictures and awards, and cake, and signing yearbooks, and…. Cake. Seven years ago, around this time, I was among the graduates across the country receiving one sort of diploma or another. I and my seminary classmates, however, had the onerous distinction of receiving our master’s degrees. But not just ANY kind of Master’s degree. Upon receiving our hoods and diplomas, we became…. Masters of Divinity…. !

(With heavy sarcasm) After four years of study, I now know everything about God, including - but not limited to: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, whether or not our pets go to heaven, why bad things happen to good people, why GOOD things happen to BAD people, and most importantly, what WAS God thinking when he created mosquitoes and ticks?

Seriously though, there are just some aspects of our Christians faith that seem to allude easy answers. And it just so happens that today, on Holy Trinity Sunday, we celebrate one of the most perplexing parts of our Christian faith. Libraries full of books and papers have been written about the Trinity. Scholars and theologians have dedicated their lives to parsing out and trying to pin down exactly what it means that we believe in a three-in-one, one-in-three kind of God. The Trinity it is the kind of thing that makes your head hurt if you think about it for too long. And we all know, summer is NOT for thinking!

This is why I feel for Nicodemus from our Gospel reading; because our friend Nick here doesn’t always “get it” either. Nicodemus is a learned man, a prominent and respected leader in his community, probably with a very deep and mature faith. Nick is no novice. This guy knows his Torah. And he STILL has a hard time grasping what Jesus had to say about the kingdom of God. Poor confused Nick can only throw up his hands and give voice to what we ALL are thinking: “How can these things be?”

With every fiber of our being, we want our mysteries to be defined. We seek know the unknowable and to measure the un-measureable. We are driven to explore the height and depths of the earth because we don’t like seeing blank spots on the map. Similarly, we persist in plumbing the depths of faith – because if we can get a handle on God, then perhaps the confusing world that we live in might actually make sense.

So, we end up coming up with some strange ideas about God being a Trinity. Perhaps you’ve heard of a few of these: The Trinity is like an apple. The Trinity is like H2O water, ice, and steam. The Trinity is like a four-leaf clover. The Trinity is like how I am a daughter, a sister, a pastor, and a friend. Really, reallyweird stuff if you think about it too much.

All these strange ideas we’ve come up with are just ways we try to answer the important questions that have plagued humankind for centuries: Who is God? And how do we see God at work in the world? 

The many writers of the scriptures have spent their lives wrestling with those very questions. For the prophet Isaiah, he experienced God as a larger-than-life being on a throne. For the Apostle Paul, who wrote letters, including this one to the Roman Christians, his experience of the power of God literally blinded him while on his way to persecute followers of Jesus. And Nicodemus is seeing but not comprehending as he stares the true answer to “who is God?” right in the face.

Though their experiences are very different, they have one thing in common. To them, God was not an apple, water, or a four-leaf clover. God was a Someone whom they encountered, who met them face to face and wanted a relationship with them. And these people are never quite the same every again. Our encounters with God change us.

While imagining God in Trinitarian form may be helpful, you can’t have a relationship with a doctrine or set of beliefs. God does not desire to remain an idea or belief or theological construct in the mind of us, his children. How can we know this? Because God so loved the world – so loved us – that he gave to us a way by which we can know him, deeply and directly. For God so loved the world that God gave us Love Incarnate: Jesus.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God swept away the curtain of mystery once and for all. No longer do we have to grope around in the dark for bits and fragments of the divine. In Jesus, the light of God has shown out in the darkness. In Jesus, God came to us in a way we can understand. In Jesus, we all have become “Masters” of divinity because Jesus reveals to everyone the very essence of “who God is.”

Who is God? God is love.

This time of year is also wedding season in addition to graduation season, isn’t it? How many of you got up early to watch the royal wedding last weekend? If you haven’t already, go listen to Anglican Archbishop Michael Curry’s wedding sermon. Bishop Curry described the power in the love of God, as the source of our being and the guide for our lives. He reminded the bride and groom… and all of us who were tuning in around the world… that Jesus started this revolutionary movement grounded in the unconditional love of God, which has the power to save the world.

… “For God so loved the world that God sent his only son” …to reveal to us a loving and forgiving God who wants to be in a relationship with us. This is what we know: Jesus came to us in a way that we would find most relatable – in a body that could laugh and cry, teach and embrace, heal and feel pain. Jesus is our brother, because we both share the same loving Father. Jesus is our Lord because he calls us to emulate the life that he lived here on earth – an existence of love and sacrifice. And Jesus is our savior because of his final victory over the forces of sin and death through his death and resurrection.

But we can know all we think there is to know about God and still completely miss the boat. Like Nicodemus. But Jesus didn’t not throw his hands up in frustration and end the conversation at the first sign of confusion. No – Jesus patiently teaches on, determined to get his message across.

I suppose we should give poor Nick some credit, because he had enough wisdom to know that there was something different about this Jesus. So, Nick took a chance and arranged this secret meeting that would forever change him.

Our friend Nick may not have fully absorbed the significance of his encounter with Jesus, even when confronted by “John’s greatest hit” John 3:16. But we do know that he WAS changed by his experience with Jesus that night. Because Nick pops up again at the END of the Gospel of John, at Jesus’ trial before the Jewish council. In fact, he was the only naysayer in their otherwise unanimous “guilty” verdict. And later on, John writes that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus a respectful burial when his body had been taken down from the cross. He is not quite the man that he used to be. And we too, when we encounter the Risen Jesus, are never quite the same afterwards.

Jesus didn’t walk this earth to answer every question we’ve ever had about God. God is still at work in the world in ways we cannot yet understand. The wind of the Spirit will blow where it will, and carry us with it. But we can’t go wrong with Jesus as our trailblazer and navigator.

Are you ready for all the awesome things that the God who created you has in store for you?

Are you ready for THE Master of Divinity to take your hand and guide you down the paths of your life?

Are you ready for the Holy Spirit to lead you into freedom from fear into a spirit of love for the world?

This is not graduation. This is only the beginning. Oh, the places you’ll go (with the help of our Trinity God).

You better buckle up, Buttercup, because it’s going to be one exciting ride - or should I say a “three-in-one” - exciting ride. Thanks be to God. Amen. AMEN.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Spirit who Calls and Reminds

Pentecost: 5-20-18

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

You may have noticed that time within the church doesn’t quite follow the same rules as time OUTSIDE the church. We don’t start celebrating Christmas until December 24th. Some years we slather ash crosses on people’s foreheads on Valentine’s Day if it falls on Ash Wednesday. Easter is not just a day, but it is a season, seven weeks long. We can skip years of Jesus’ life between Sundays, and we can spend weeks talking about what happened on one single night.

Just today even, we get the story of the arrival of the Holy Spirit in a totally weird order. Because we’ve been reading through Acts as our first reading, we heard FIRST about the actual arrival of the Holy Spirit, with the wind and the flames and the languages and the confusion, which hopefully you followed along with what the choir sang. Then, in our second reading, we get the apostle Paul’s take on the continuing works of the Holy Spirit. Last, but not least, our Gospel reading takes us all the way BACK to Maundy Thursday, the night Jesus was betrayed… to hear how Jesus gives his disciples the first announcement that the Holy Spirit would be arriving. Kind of a little bit backwards.

But, here we are. Still back at Maundy Thursday. The night where so much happened, because Jesus knew he had so little time left with his disciples before he would be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and put to death on a cross. Jesus knew that, even after his resurrection, his time as a bodily presence here on earth was limited. Jesus knew that, after he left, the disciples would be facing some new and scary things.

When Jesus was at his lowest point, and his disciples were about to be at THEIR lowest point very soon as they abandoned Jesus and fled from the religious authorities out of fear at Jesus’s upcoming arrest… as Jesus was about to leave, Jesus gives them hope. He gives them something… someONE to hold on to.

Jesus was leaving… but Someone was coming to be at their side when life gets scary and unfamiliar. Jesus was leaving…. But Someone was coming would lead the way into the abundant life and exciting future that God was calling them to.

I think most of us have experienced what its like to say goodbye to someone we love, whether that means they have died…. we are separated from them by distance …or the relationship has ruptured through some other means. It is something that most adults, and many children even, deal with while growing up. And I think in the last few years we’ve been blessed by children’s movies that have not shied away from dealing with the hard stuff, like grief and loss. I’m thinking of movies like UP, Inside Out, Coco, and one of my personal favorites, Moana.

Moana is the daughter of the village chief on an island in the Pacific Ocean. While most of her people are more than happy with their land-based life, Moana yearns for more, and … big shocker… doesn’t quite fit in. Only her grandmother seems to understand her connection with the big scary ocean… And when her grandmother dies in relation to a mysterious plague that is affecting her island, Moana is devastated. She sets out onto the big ocean on a quest to set things right, facing challenges with the help of cute animal sidekicks. At one point the odds seem so great, and the hardships seem so insurmountable, that Moana is on the verge of giving up, turning her little boat around, and going back to her island. She holds her oar out over the ocean to begin her way home… but she hesitates. Her grandmother’s spirit appears behind her, and… you guessed it… her grandmother starts to sing.

Her grandmother’s spirit sings to her to remind her WHO she is: Moana is the daughter of the chief, who loves the sea and her people, descended from world travelers. But her grandmother’s spirit also reminds Moana how she is strong enough to overcome the journey ahead. Her grandmother says, “Sometimes the world seems against you. The journey may leave a scar. But scars can heal - and reveal- just where you are. The people you love will change you.  The things you have learned will guide you.”

As the music swells, Moana sees a vision of her ancestors speeding past her small boat, leading the way forward into the dark and unknown path to where Moana is called to go. Moana turns to her grandmother and says: “I will carry you here in my heart, you'll remind me That come what may, I know the way.” The next moment all is dark and quiet around her, and she is alone… but not really.

Moana needed this reminder…. The disciples needed this reminder…. And we need this reminder… we are NOT alone. We have the Holy Spirit to be present with us when Jesus is not. We have the Holy Spirit to remind us that we belong to God. We have the Holy Spirit to remind us that we are not alone when we follow the path that Jesus has called us to.

We are not alone, because we can’t walk this path on our own. The disciples tried, and failed, until the outpouring of the Spirit happened on Pentecost. Every week we say the Apostles Creed, which ends with “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” which Martin Luther explains in this way: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith.” 

This is pretty much just a fancy way to say: when we rely on our own smarts and strength we often miss the boat on following Jesus’s way. It is the Holy Spirit who pushes us out the door, gives us the tools we need, keeps us doing the right things, and of course reminds us that we are loved. And so, we are empowered to love others, as Jesus has done… as agents of the holy spirit, to remind OTHERS that they are loved by God, and to treat them accordingly.

There are so many voices out there telling people that they are not loved, they are not worthy, they are not valued for whatever reason. Sometimes these voices are loud, scary, and occasionally in our own backyard. On Tuesday afternoon, as school let out at Central Bucks West High School, to men stood outside the school with signs, shouting these very lies to the students as they exited the school at the end of the day. Their signs were a “warning” to the following list of people, warning them to “Obey Jesus or Hellfire.” The list included: witches, liars, Muslims, drunks, ankle biters, “homos,” sissies, and the Pope. 

Photos of these signs were taken by a student at the school and was posted in a community Facebook group I am a part of, and it was reported that students were frightened and dismayed by this display.

By that evening, counter protest had been organized for the following day. People from all over the Doylestown community came out with signs to stand in the rain to show their love to the students: old men and women, children, students, pastors, business people, community organizers… to hold signs that said things like: “CB West we love, Value, and Support you.” Standing together, we said: hate doesn’t win. These other people do not represent the Jesus that I believe in. Together, we stood out there in the rain as bus loads and car loads of teens honked their horns and cheered in appreciation for what we were doing… and by the way…These OTHER people didn’t even show up again… I like to think that a shower of rain and downpour of LOVE was just TOO MUCH FOR THEM to handle. 
Photo from Rise Up Doylestown FB page

After all, as one of my college religion professors Dr. Judith Jones once said, “How can anyone who truly knows Jesus… use doctrinal error to justify violent or hateful treatment of another human being?”

The answer to that is, they wouldn’t, and they won’t. Because we carry the Spirit with us, and the Spirit reminds us of who we are, and therefore we know the way.

This way will have some low moments occasionally… or a lot. Sometimes we may find ourselves feeling our very discouraged and disheartened, ready to turn back, like Moana was. Sometimes the journey does leave a scar. But we are not doing this alone. We have the Holy Spirit… and we have each other. And our job together is to remind each other that we are loved, valued, and worthy, no matter what.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Oy and Joy


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

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Joy”? Perhaps you think of the character from the Pixar movie a few years ago called “Inside Out.” Joy, along with Disgust, Sadness, Fear, and Anger, are personified emotions inside the head of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. According to the movie, Joy is a blue-haired, green dress wearing person of unlimited optimism and the voice of Amy Poehler. And honestly sometimes she just seems kind of annoyingly upbeat.

But is that what being joyful really looks like?  How would you describe what Joy is to you? Would you say something like this….?

Joy is… spending time with the people you love, like having dinner with the whole family around the table.

Joy is… working at a job that pays the bills AND provides a sense of meaning… or getting accepted into your dream school or program.

Joy is… hearing a child call your name for the first time.

Joy is… a cat on your lap with a good book and a cup of tea or coffee on a rainy day (like today!).

Sometimes joy is… just getting the laundry finished, or getting a good nights sleep!

Joy is… also my sister’s middle name. We used to tease her about it sometimes when we were kids, and some days say that she should have been named “Katie Not-A-Joy” instead. I hope she might have forgiven us by now. Perhaps if we had grown up on the East Coast, surrounded by so many of our Jewish brothers and sisters, we could have teased her by calling her “Katie Oy.”

The world around us, especially lately, seems to contain so much more “Oy” than “Joy.” Just yesterday, Hawaii experienced historic earthquakes and volcanic activity, and in the last few weeks other things have happened like increased violence and unrest in Syria, superstorms in India, local train derailments, and the sudden bombardment of political candidate leaflets in our mailboxes telling us what is bad about the other candidates running.

This is not to mention the personal tragedies and struggles we each experience every day – depression, fear, betrayal, worry, pain, abandonment, and illness, just to name a few. Exhaustion rules, event-crammed calendars reign, and energy recedes ever faster. Just what IS joy in a life full of all these troubles?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus 
told his disciples. He said this back in John chapter 14, at the start of his goodbye speech, his “last lecture” if you will, on the night that he was betrayed.  He had a lot to say about joy and love, and the disciples desperately needed to hear it - since this would be just hours before they would scatter in fear, abandoning Jesus to be arrested, falsely tried, and sentenced to die by crucifixion. On such a night, talking about love and joy seem terribly out of place.

Love and joy seem terrible out of place when your rabbi and teacher says things like he’s leaving you, and that the world will 
hate you in his name. Love and joy seem nowhere to be found when Jesus tells you that the greatest love, which he commands you to emulate, possibly might mean laying down your life.

Is Joy just a “churchy” word that we use to decorate Christmas ornaments and hear in grand Easter hymns? Or is there a possibility that Jesus might be on to something, that joy can also be found in the everyday, mixed up together in the pain and troubles of the world?

In the movie Inside Out, as I mentioned a moment ago, Sadness and Joy find themselves on an adventure inside of the brain of a girl named Riley to save some of her most beloved memories. You could not have had a worse pairing of heroes, really. Sort of like those mismatched roommate comedies! At every turn, Joy is frustrated by Sadness’s… Well, sadness. Joy refuses to believe that Sadness can teach her something about experiencing joy … that is, until… Joy finds herself trapped in a dark place called The Memory Dump. There, Joy discovers that our most joyful memories only got that way because sadness was part of them too. She learned that even in a dark and sad place, she can find joy, that joy can come from even the saddest nights.

This is the joy that Jesus has given to us, the kind of joy the world cannot give. Joy is… that on the darkest night that Jesus ever had, the savior of the world chooses to break bread with US - rich AND poor, the power-full AND the power-less, with the healthy AND the sick, with insiders AND with outsiders, with men AND women, old AND young children.

Joy is…that Jesus chose to be his disciples a rag-tag band of perfectly flawed human beings, though they be betrayers, deniers, and abandoners.

Joy is…that Jesus chooses US to be his disciples too, also flawed and imperfect human beings.

Joy is… being chosen as children of God, and through us our faith is conquering the world in a revolution of peace and love and understanding.

Joy is… having your sermon interrupted by the Holy Spirit and with a crazy, loud, spontaneous baptism of a whole bunch of people, as we heard that Peter 
experienced in our first reading. Or, as what happened last week right here, joy is also getting your sermon interrupted by our littlest disciples showing off their artwork in the new word they learned, “abide.”

Joy is… the fact that our synod, the South Eastern Pennsylvania Synod is one of the most diverse synods of the ELCA.  Joy is that our synod assembly, which happened this last weekend, contained 17% voting delegates who are people of color, and that together we made history by electing the first ever African American female bishop in the entire ELCA. 

Joy is … seeing the beautiful image of God in the faces of people of all faiths, races, cultures, languages, and sexual orientations.

Joy is… just when you thought that death had won, joy is that NEW LIFE HAPPENS.

Our joy… is not complete without Jesus.

It may have appeared a little odd to still be back to the night that Jesus was betrayed during the celebratory season of Easter. But we know that you cannot have one without experiencing the other. New life cannot happen apart from death. Resurrection cannot happen without crucifixion. Easter cannot happen without Good Friday. Joy cannot exist apart from being open to the possibility of pain. Love cannot endure without anything less than everything you have.

The reason that we have no need for troubled hearts in this troubled world and in our troubled lives is not because Jesus makes the lives of his followers into cupcakes and lattes. Just look at the lives of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Paul, and the rest. Their preaching of the joy of Jesus brought them prison, ridicule, and persecution. Nor does Jesus call us to willfully ignore the troubling realities of the world around us, or when tragedy strikes in our lives.

Instead, we know and trust that, as the psalmist says, “Weeping may linger for a night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) Or put another way, by the musical Les Mis, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” 

Welcome to a new dawn and a new day. Thanks be to God. Amen.