Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, July 17, 2017

Wonder Seeds


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

What new crop did the farmer plant? (Beets me!)

Why shouldn't you tell a secret on a farm? (Because the potatoes have eyes and the corn has ears!)

There is a joke in my family, who are farmers, that a farmer is a man who is outstanding in his field. Or out, standing in his field.

And let me tell you, farmers earn a meager celery, come home beet and just want to read the pepper, turn-ip the covers, en-dive into bed! (I got all these jokes from a website) 

Let anyone with ears…. Listen!

While it is true that a week of running around with 35 kids of all ages probably effects one’s mental state, these jokes DO have a point. Much like the stories that Jesus told his followers, like the one that we heard today, which often gets the name “the Parable of the Sower.” 

These stories get a fancy name – parables – which comes from a Greek word that originally means “to throw alongside.” Sort of like when you have two rows of three to five-year-old lined up facing each other, and get them to gently toss water balloons to one another until they fall and pop. It has varying degrees of success.

For those of you who are gardeners or have experience farming, think about the parable that Jesus just told for a minute. Is this how you plant your gardens? Is this how your rows of crops in the fields get planted? Even during the time of Jesus, this was NOT how people planted their crops. Jesus’ people didn’t have big farm machinery, but they still took great care with their seeds, vineyards, and livestock. After all, this was their livelihood, and could mean the difference between being full or starvation.

So, what is Jesus getting at when he tells this story? What two (or more) things is he casting side-by-side for us to link together?

When I was a youth, I remember hearing this story at a youth event and the leaders asking us what kind of soil we thought we were. However, at this point in my life, I am less interested in that question. Thinking this way reminds me of those funny online personality quizzes I take every now and again. Can’t you just picture this going around Facebook? “Which kind of soil are you? Take this quiz NOW!”

My theory now is that if we are asking ourselves what kind of soil we are, we probably aren’t rocky soil, soil on the path, or soil with weeds. Or maybe we are all of these things at the same time, or we even have been all of these kinds at different stages of our lives. This is not an all-or-nothing label, which sticks to us forever and ever, amen – “Too bad, you are rocky soil… good for you, you are good soil.” Like a personality quiz with an obvious right answer.

I also think Jesus left something out when he – or Matthew writing after – tried to make sense of this story. What I wish would have been added is an explanation for good soil. 

My Dad could tell you about good soil – while out standing in his field, ha ha ha – and every day he does go out to his fields, to make them good soil… by spreading cow manure.  That’s right. A key component of good soil is a waste product that are left over from what the cows could not digest, and smells bad, and is gross to talk about, is exactly what makes soil rich and robust for new life to grow out of it.

The rest of the world sees something that should be thrown away, cast out, criticized, forgotten, disregarded, and shamed.

But God sees… good soil.

Good thing for us… that God is actually a terrible farmer. God sees the good soil, and casts seeds like crazy, looking and hoping for growth. But then God sees the rocky soil… and does the same thing… and the same with the soil on the path! And the soil with the weeds! God’s idea of farming is not unlike being a guest on an Oprah show… YOU get seeds… and YOU get seeds… EVERY SOIL GETS SEEDS!!!

This seems incredibly wasteful! Especially when God only seems to expect a 25 percent success rate. Image, for those out there who are teachers, that your students need just a 25 percent to pass.

It’s outrageous, it’s irresponsible, but it is also who God IS. God is a farmer who takes chances. God is a wasteful fool who takes an infinite amount of chances on us, as much as it takes for as long as it takes.

This week our heroes learned a verse from the Psalms – “Do good, seek peace, and go after it.” That became our hero code to inspire us to be God’s heroes… because that is what God does for us. Even when we don’t always act like heroes. Even if we don’t always feel like we deserve it.

Last week I mentioned how many super hero movies are coming out now. I of course had to go see the new Wonder Woman movie, for research purposes. Diana is Wonder Woman, and she is raised by women who are strong and fierce, chosen to protect humanity. Young Diana wants to train for this too, but her mother, the queen of the Amazons, won’t allow it. One night, the queen tells a disappointed Diana, “be careful of mankind, Diana, they do not deserve you.”

Later, of course, when Diana grows up she defies her mother and goes off on a quest to save human kind, seeking to defeated the god of war himself to end World War One. She collects along the way her posse – a rag tag bung of heroes who are brave and loyal. At once point the group is trapped in a trench, and hear the cries of innocent civilians – women and children – who are trapped on the other side.

Diana tells her new friends, “We need to help these people.” But she is told, “We can’t save everyone…this is not what we came here to do”

Diana sheds her coat and brings out her shield, ready to go into the fray. “No.” she replies… “but it is what I’m going to do. I’m willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” Then she stepped into the no-man’s-land, and with her shield she took all the fire while her friends charged the trench on the far side, and liberated the captives.

In that movie, Diana had to learn the hard way that humanity would too often rather scatter bullets of hate rather than seeds of love. We are capable of truly terrible things. We would rather bury the son of God in a tomb rather than face this God who relentlessly loves us, and also loves those we don’t think deserve it.

But still, God the bad farmer keeps throwing seeds at us, hoping that at some point, someday, something will take root. Because when it does…. AMAZING things happen, and the yields are AWESOME.

We certainly threw out a lot of seeds this week at Vacation Bible School. Most of these kids were members of this community. And we have no idea if they will EVER darken the doorway of this church on a Sunday morning. But we were faithful heroes of God, scattering the seeds just as Jesus did, not knowing what kind of soil they were landing on…. But trusting that God does give the growth.

It may take months…years… or even decades to sprout sometimes. We may never see the yield that comes with our planting. But the words about the love of God that we spoke last week will not return to God empty.

God’s word returns full, and the tomb is empty. The seed that was buried sprouts and yields a hundredfold. Manure becomes good soil. Mountain and trees burst into song and clap their hands. Death becomes life. All soil gets a chance. Let anyone with ears… listen! Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Heroes and Villains

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

When was the last time that you went to see a movie? I’m willing to bet that it was either super hero movie, or at the very least one of the trailers before it was for a super hero movie.  We sure do love our super heroes and heroines, don’t we? We wear their logos on T-shirts and are inspired to be more like them. Our entire Vacation Bible School theme next week that is entirely about super heroes!  

 We like heroes, because heroes are strong. They beat the bad guys. They rescue people. They always save the day, without fail. All of those hero movies make the world make sense - the bad guys are bad, the heroes are good, and for the most part it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.

Sadly, real life is not like this at all. For us regular, non-super-hero types, the epic battles we face are not external, but inside our very selves. In the real world, I find that I have the capacity to be both hero and villain, sometimes in the same moment.

There are times when I know that I shouldn’t do something, especially when it will hurt someone else, but I do it anyway. I know that I shouldn’t buy clothes that are made by children in sweatshops, but I want them anyway. I know that the poor and the homeless need help, but I turn from the man with the handwritten sign asking for help. Sometimes it’s like watching myself from the outside do what I don’t want to do. And those times I DO want to do the right thing, something keeps me frozen in place.

I think that most of you know what I’m talking about. The Apostle Paul knew all about this, which he shares in his letter to the Romans from our readings for today. He writes to them, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He goes on, “Now if I do what I do not what, it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells in me.”

I know it’s hard to talk about sin sometimes, because it is so sneaky. It’s more than just when we do bad things or don’t do good ones. Sin is part of all of us – it is the cause of the broken world that we live in. Our relationships are broken – relationships with our family, friends, the earth, and even with God. This sinful state creates all the things that you see on the nightly news: war, violence, greed, discrimination, oppression, and extreme disparity between rich and poor. We “should” know better, and sometimes we DO know better, and yet, here we are. Doing the very things we know we shouldn’t do.

I read an article a few years ago about computer viruses that really stuck with me. It was about a kind of virus program called a “worm.” A “worm” will sneak into a vulnerable spot in your computer. Then, while inside your machine, it lies in wait for a message from whoever created it. The worm could theoretically do anything it wants to your computer, and once that happens, there is nothing that you can do to stop it.

How could it be that the computer that I own, that I purchased and use every day, could somehow be out of my control? It’s mine. We could very well ask the same question of ourselves – how can I not be in control of myself? I belong to me. How could it be that, as Paul says, we do not understand our own actions sometimes? How is it that we sometimes play the villain, even when we should know better?

“Wretched man am I!” Paul rightly exclaims. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Who is going to save us from ourselves, from the wreckage of broken humanity that we find ourselves in?

To our plight, Jesus Christ says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

While this text is beautiful for funerals, Jesus is not just speaking about those who have lost a loved one. Jesus is speaking to us, right here, right now, wherever we find ourselves in our own stories – hero, villain, or somewhere in between.

Just before this passage from Matthew, John the Baptist is in prison, wondering if all his preaching and angering the people in power been worth it. Is Jesus the one that they have been waiting for? Like John, we too wonder, is Jesus the hero that we want? Or is Jesus the savior that we actually need?

To the religious leaders of his day, neither John nor Jesus measured up. John was too preachy, harsh, and had weird dietary habits and fashion choices. Jesus came along on the scene, eating with sinners and breaking rules, and they labeled HIM as too free and irreverent. Like a new twist to the story of Goldilocks– this one is too hot, and that one is too cold, but in their eyes, NO ONE can EVER be “just right” to be the messiah, or their super hero.

In our own world that loves superheroes and superhero movies, Jesus just doesn’t measure up, either. In fact, Jesus would make a terrible superhero. Heroes aren’t supposed to be weak, let themselves be beaten, and hand themselves over to die…. which is that is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus gave up his power, gave up his life, gave up everything in order to prove that his love for us was stronger than anything. Stronger than human hatred and fear. Stronger than the burdens we carry. Stronger than the struggle between hero and villain that we find our selves in. Stronger than death, symbolized in the cross, an instrument of death and brokenness that weights on us so heavily.

What has been the cause of weariness in your life lately? What heavy burdens are you carrying? Perhaps you have been worried about money and financial security. Maybe you are worried about a family member’s health or upcoming surgery. Perhaps you don’t know if you will be able to pay the rent or the light bill, or feed your family. Perhaps you or a family member or friend is having a hard time with a harmful addiction. Maybe you have a son or daughter in the military who may be facing dangerous situations while doing their duty to their country. Perhaps you are missing someone you have lost, either recently or years ago.

You know very well the burdens that are weighing you down, and there is nothing that you can do on your own to give you peace and help you sleep better at night. “Wretched men and women are we” is our lament along with Paul. Who will free us from this body of death?”

Come to Jesus, and Jesus will give you the rest that you so desperately need. Not because Jesus will take away all your worries and make your life perfect with the wave of a magic wand. No, Jesus gives you rest because Jesus takes on our burdens for us. Jesus took on YOUR burdens, YOUR sins, YOUR fears, YOUR broken relationships. All these things that bring death to you were all nailed to the cross, along with our lord Jesus.

All power that these things had over you was SHATTERED that early Easter morning when Jesus burst from the tomb, ALIVE. Your BURDENS couldn’t hold him. Your SINS couldn’t hold him. Jesus defeated them all and so YOU are truly free. This is how Jesus became the super hero and savior that we need.

And like any good super hero, Jesus has super friends in a hero league to help to justice in the world. We all become super heroes in our baptism – and Emma is the newest hero in our ranks, sealed and marked by the Holy Spirit forever, as we all have been before her. She is a newly minted superhero for Jesus, called to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world. She will grow up to learn from the example of Jesus’s love and sacrifice, wearing Jesus’ yoke of freedom and grace along with us. She will join us in working for justice and peace in a world where both are desperately needed.

 Now, neither Emma nor we will be called on to leap tall buildings, or defeat bad guys with a magical truth lasso, or dramatically save the world with lots of explosions. But we WILL be called to scale over the walls the divide us. We will be called to tell the truth about things like hate and fear. And we will be sharing the news about the savior OF the whole world… with explosions of love, perhaps.

It’s a tall order, but we won’t be doing it alone. Jesus bears the yoke of heroism with us, and stays with us through all parts of our superhero journey, through our burdens, from baptism… the cross… and beyond. So that the world will say,

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its…. God’s super heroes!” Amen. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Hurry Up and No Waiting

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

A few weeks ago, I shared with you about the Global Reformation service I attended in Windhoek, Namibia. Along with the thousand Lutherans from around the world there for the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, about nine thousand other Lutherans from all around Africa came by the bus loads. They had warned us ahead of time that this service was expected to be about 4 hours long… and they were pretty accurate.

That day was full of Hurry up and Wait, as my mom calls it. Hurry up and wait to get to the busses on time… only to go through security before you get on. Hurry up to get on the bus… only to sit and wait for all the buses to be full before all leaving together in a bus caravan. Hurry up to get in the stadium to be seated… to wait for the Namibian President to arrive in state. And don’t even ask me about how the distribution of communion went. It was beautiful, holy chaos, that’s all I will say about it.

Though we were only half way through the service after we were done with communion, we all had already been awake for hours and hours, sitting – under tents, fortunately, but still outside on a warm day – and most of us were hungry. Actually, by this time, I think many of us were quickly reaching the state of mind that is now called “Hangry.” Which of course is the combination of hungry… and angry.

Soon the volunteers began passing out boxed lunches down the rows. I was sitting with some other Americans, and we hungrily waited as they drew closer … and closer… to our row… only watch them be delayed. A clearly upset white man had accosted the African volunteer, wanting his food sooner rather than later. The volunteer very patiently told the man that she would get to him, if only he would sit back down. Like the rest of us.

Finally, we got our boxes, opened them up, to find a boiled hot dog, a buttered dinner roll, a bag of chips and a muffin. No Ketchup, mustard, relish, nada. Just a dog and a roll.

As we received our boxes, a pastor from one of the Namibian churches greeted us from the pulpit and welcomed us in the name of Jesus. She said, “When you receive guests into your house, you feed then whatever you have in your kitchen. This is what we have in our kitchen. It’s not fancy. But it’s what we have ‘from our kitchen.’ You are welcome guests, and we are glad to have you.”

At the then of Jesus’ long pep talk to his followers as they are about to go out on his behalf, Jesus reminds his disciples of what it means to welcome and be welcomed. Whoever welcomes the one who comes in Jesus’ name welcomes Jesus. And whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes God. And whoever gives even a plain hot dog on a buttered roll to one of these little one in the name of Jesus will not lose their reward.

I learned a lot about rolling with the hot dogs that came my way on this trip. There were so many parts of this experience that were beyond my control – more accurately the whole experience was a wild ride where I could only buckle up and hang on. I was smartly prepared as much as I could be – snacks, water, extra tissues, and so on - but for the most part I as a disciple of Jesus was often called on to graciously accept what I was handed. But doing that is not easy, is it?

It’s much harder to be a guest than it is to be a host, if you think about it. Yes, when you host someone at your house overnight, you have the inconvenience of having someone else using your towels and eating your food. But you know what’s in the kitchen and have control of what’s coming out of it. But as a guest, you sleep on someone else’s pillows and drink from someone else’ cups. You eat what comes out of someone else’ kitchen.

We as followers of Jesus may find ourselves in kitchens pretty different from ours. And it’s going to feel really uncomfortable. Like a pair of old shoes that we have outgrown, and it’s time to get some new ones.

The followers of Jesus found themselves traveling during a very uncertain time. They didn’t know if or when they would be welcomed or rejected. We, as disciples of Jesus live in some uncertain times as well.

As our country turns 241, there are citizens of our own nation, even of our own Lutheran denomination, who don’t know if, and when, they will be welcomed or rejected by the country they belong to or the denomination they love.

When I was in Namibia, often the only American or even the only white person in the room, this thought crossed my mind– “The great great, great, great grandparents of people in my country could have enslaved some of the great great, great, great grandparents of some of the people in this room.”

African American Seminary Student Lenny Duncan, in addition to studying to be a Lutheran pastor, created a documentary called “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?” Now, why would he have to even ask such a question? Because the ELCA is the whitest denomination in the United States,according to the Pew Research Center. Even the MORMONS are more racially diverse than we are.

So, do black churches matter in the ELCA? When Mr. Duncan posed this question to our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, she replied – “[Black churches] matter to God, and therefore they should matter to us, but we don’t treat them that way.” Certain people don’t have access to our kitchens, and we are not willing to go to theirs.

When this happens, we lose a part of who we are. Without the mutual love and support of ALL of our diverse members – black, white, straight, gay, trans, rich, poor, differently abled, young, old - the body of Christ is incomplete. The outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face. But when we sing the hymn, as we did this morning, “all are welcome,” do we truly mean it? Do we extend the welcome that we ourselves have received from Jesus?

In Jesus’s kitchen, all are welcomed, and all are fed around his banquet table. From his kitchen, we are given “nothing fancy,” just some bread and wine, everyday things that are easy to find. And yet, in this simple meal we are given life… we are given welcome…. and we are given a new kind of family. We are given the body and blood of Jesus, a body that was broken so that humanity might be made whole, and blood that was shed so that someday treat one another as blood kin. This is what keeps us going, so that we may continue the work that Jesus started, of building houses “where all are named… where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew.” (from the hymn All Are Welcome)

This reign, this kingdom is God’s kitchen, and we are welcome to it. As Benedictine monastic Father Daniel Homan wrote in a book that is aptly titled Radical Hospitality, “…we are all guests, we are all travelers, we are all a little lost, and we are all looking for a place to rest awhile…. God is the host, but God also becomes the guest we received in others.” (xxxvi) 

When we welcome others, we welcome God, as God has welcomed us.  This is a welcome that is relentless in pursuit of us, in pursuit for love, peace, and justice in this world that God has created. Nothing will get in the way of God’s radical welcome in God’s kingdom. Not our own prejudices and biases, not institutional racism or white privilege, not travel bans or walls - not even sin, human brokenness, and death can stand in the way.

There is no Hurry Up and Wait in the kingdom of God. This radial welcome is knocking on our door right now, and won’t leave us alone, like the worst kind of houseguest – respecting no boundaries we put up or excuses we make. Always getting in our faces. Always pushing us out and making us uncomfortable. Making demands on us we don’t always want to fulfill. And we will find ourselves doing things we don’t normally do, things we never expected we would be doing. Like eating hot dogs in Namibia. Like helping to welcome those who are homeless on a cold night. Like welcoming more than 30 rambunctious kids from the neighborhood through our doors for a week of VBS.

There is no Hurry Up and Wait in the kingdom of God. The welcome of the kingdom is right here, right now. We are being called out of our comfort zones and into other people’s kitchens. We are being called to eat the hot dogs of hospitality, in whatever form they come. Amen.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What's worth fighting for?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Not your grandma's Revolutionary War!
Before last year, Alexander Hamilton was just the dead white guy on the ten-dollar bill who did some stuff during the Revolutionary War but we really can’t remember what. He wasn’t as famous as Washington or Jefferson or Paul Revere. At least, not until Lin-Manuel Miranda read an eight-hundred-page book about Hamilton on vacation and thought to himself – this would make a great musical!

It tells the story of the young and ambitions Scottish immigrant Hamilton and his heroics in the Revolutionary war and his complicated role in setting up this country for success. Hamilton was a brilliant man, but, when he took a side, he was all in… and he made some enemies along the way.

In beginning of the musical, Hamilton is gathered at the pub with his friends in the thick of the Revolutionary war. He wants to fight so badly he can taste it, and he says this to his fellow soldiers - “I am not throwing away my shot! …I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot!”

Hamilton’s friend Aaron Burr, however, is NOT anxious to stick his neck out, and responds - “Geniuses, lower your voices. You keep out of trouble and you double your choices. The situation is fraught…If you talk, you gonna get shot!”

I’m more of an Aaron Burr than an Alexander Hamilton. Burr is observant, checks out all his options, looks before he leaps, sees where the wind blows before deciding the best course of action. Gets all the facts. Doesn’t rock the boat unnecessarily. Burr says of himself, “I'm not falling behind or running late. I'm not standing still, I am lying in wait.”

So, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in finding today’s quotes from Jesus very uncomfortable. After telling the disciples what NOT to pack last week, Jesus informs his followers – and us - of some bad news. Following Jesus, the Prince of Peace, does not always lead to a life of peace and harmony, ice coffee and cupcakes. In fact, most of the time, it WILL be the cause of conflict.

Following Jesus means that we don’t follow other things. Following Jesus means that we have priorities that seems strange to the world. Following Jesus means we have to be a little less Aaron Burr and a little more Alexander Hamilton. Following Jesus is going to ruffle some feathers. Following Jesus means that the world will make us pick a side. And I for one really do not like that one bit.

And I am sure that Jesus’s hearers didn’t like that at all either. After all, Jesus was putting the thumbscrews on the primary source of identity at the time – the family unit. Your family was your security, your social status, your comfort zone, your whole world. When Jesus monkeys with that system, he sends shockwaves across society that causes divisions across even families – daughter against mother, father against son, people who grew up in the same house.

But the Prince of Peace who brings a sword isn’t the oxymoron that it seems to be. Jesus doesn’t bring division for the sake of division. Jesus causes division because of OUR LACK of UNITY. Us verses them. We’ve had thousands of years to become really really, REALLY good at that.

The world makes us choose sides. Or really, the world tries its hardest makes us choose THEIR side. The world tells us daily and even hourly that some types of people are worth more than others - that some should be hated and feared because of the color of their skin, because of what part of the world they come from, because of the name they call God, because of the kind of people they love and want to marry, because their bodies don’t fit the “right” body shape or ability.

The world tells us constantly that buying more stuff will make us happy, and to blind ourselves to the high cost to creation and to people feeling the effects of climate change in third world countries. The world tells us to be busier, make more money, put ourselves first, to use people and things up and throw them away. We see this every day, and we know how this plays out in our lives.

But let me tell you about Jesus’s side, what we call the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it is harder to see, because the works of this kingdom don’t often make the news. This kingdom tells us that all people, regardless of country of origin, skin color, orientation, gender, economic status, ability or disability is a beloved child of God created beautiful and worthy of being treated with dignity and love. The kingdom of God is for righting the wrong, freeing the oppressed, healing bodies and relationships, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, resurrecting what has become dead, and losing our lives for the sake of others.

This kind of thing doesn’t get a lot of press. But this is the side Jesus calls us to mobilize for.
Hamilton, as in-your-face and brash as he was, and as much as I don’t like him because of it, was actually right. In the musical, he confronts his friend Aaron Burr with words that still ring true: “The revolution’s imminent. What do you stall for? If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

Jesus tells his disciples – which includes us – that if they don’t stand for the kingdom, they will fall for the lies of the world. 

We have to pick a side. And the side we’re supposed to pick leads us down a road of misunderstanding at best, and outright hostility at worst. The world rejected Jesus when he picked God’s side. They even nailed him on a cross for the audacity of his choice.  How dare he choose love over family and country?

The world has much more power, more funding, more stealthy and crafty, has more support, and is better equipped and armed than we are. The odds seem overwhelming to little old US, when even Jesus did not escape their wrath?

The odds seem overwhelming, both then and now. How can we possibly have any chance of going up against all this? Do we have any chance at all?

When the movies we watch or the books we read are at their darkest, when it seems that there is no hope at all for the characters to get out of this mess, that they are going to give up and succumb to the darkness…. In the stories that we remember, at that moment, they are given just a little bit of hope.

In the Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and his friend Sam seem on the brink of being defeated by the evil that seeks them, Frodo is about to give up. But Sam says to him, “I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were…Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”

Frodo asked, “What are we holding on to?”

Sam responds, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

Yeah, not this! 
In another part of the Return of the King, Aragorn sees the signal of his people that they are in trouble, and runs to his friend the king of Rohan, shouting “Gondor calls for aid!”

To which the king of Rohan responds: “and Rohan will answer.”

The good in this world, the kingdom of God, is worth fighting for. The world… NEEDS us. The downtrodden and disenfranchised call for aid… Jesus answers…..and so WE will answer.

Someday we hope that we will get the beat our swords to plowshares. Until then, we hold onto the cross, our weapon of love and hope and new life conquering death. Until that day, we fight and persist. Seminarian Lenny Duncan, a student that the Lutheran seminary in Philly, wrote this psalm:

Free us in mind, free us in Spirit.
Resurrect these bodies, resurrect this nation….
Your voice rises in my throat
Your justice is true
Your servant is ready
I will worship you until my legs give out
My lungs rise and fall one final time
I will stand on the watchtower until your kingdom come


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pack Light

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

Welcome to summer! Summer means trips – to the shore, the Poconos, to camps and vacations and visiting the grandkids. And for all these fun trips, we first need to get through the not-so-much fun part of packing.

Now, when I pack to go somewhere, this is how I usually do it…This is pretty fresh for me too, since I was in Namibia about a month ago. So this is how packing usually goes…

…. (here I simulated packing my carry on back with too much stuff)

Does this seem familiar at all? Or is this just me? I’m pretty sure I’m not the ONLY ONE who does this – at least I hope not!

Jesus was sending his disciples out on a trip too, but they were NOT going to the Poconos or to the shore. They were being sent by Jesus out into the world, not as tourists and visitors, but to go on behalf of Jesus to reach people for the kingdom of God.
Last week, we found ourselves reading from the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, with a mandate and a promise from Jesus. Jesus left us with a command – GO and make disciples – and with a promise – I will be with you. Today we rewind back toward the beginning of Jesus ministry.

After Jesus announces this trip, he then tells them what NOT to pack. No bringing extra credit cards just in case one of theirs gets stolen, no extra shirts or shoes, no walking stick, not even a bag! You get to have a belt, but that’s about it. Come on Jesus, what gives? Is Jesus setting them – and us – up to fail? That doesn’t seem like a very messiah-like thing to do.
Jesus’s part of the world at the time was steeped in a strong hospitality culture. If someone knocks on your door – friend, family, complete stranger - you welcome them, cook them dinner, and make up the guest bed.

But even back when this was common, welcome was not guaranteed. When Matthew was writing this, a strong division had erupted between the Jewish leaders and the Jewish Christians. Many – though not all – Jewish groups were hostile to those who followed Jesus. Members of the same family found themselves estranged. Perhaps it is no wonder that Jesus began his ministry with his own people, before moving on to the Gentiles, people like us.
And after all, it’s not like CHRISTIANS are the poster children of unity, either. Our track record has not very good.

In any case, the culture of hospitality no longer exists. We are no longer welcoming the stranger in our midst, but instead we are told at every turn to fear them. Locks, security systems, guns for “protection.” Anything can go wrong, after all. We need to be ready for anything.

And on the flip side, we also want to capture all the GOOD things that happen in life too. We script and plan every moment of ourselves and our children, terrified of a moment of boredom or the Fear of Missing Out. So we pack our lives like we pack our carry-on luggage. Too full and a big pain to lug around.
But perhaps the heaviest things we carry around with us are not seen, are not physical. We carry plenty of other things that weighs us down, things like:

-         FEAR and suspicion of our neighbors, especially if they seem different from us. (Here I put signs with each word in bold in the bag one by one)
-         SHAME and our feelings of inadequacy, feeling that we are not doing enough or being enough, just as we are.

-         WORRY about the future of ourselves, or the future of the church, or of this country, even.

-         ANGER and frustration about the way “things used to be” and how the world is changing faster than we can keep up.

-         DESPAIR over the violence that has seemed to be flooding the news lately, and the lack of compassion that is growing more and more common.  

These things are heavy, too! And yet, we persist in carrying them with us all the time, for one reason or another. But Jesus tells us to kick these things to the curb.

We are called to turn our backs on all that draws us from God – the devil, all that defies God, and from the ways of sin. Fun fact: The part in the baptism liturgy we call “The profession of Faith,” – the renouncing part -  comes from an ancient rite of exorcism. That’s right. This morning we were casting out the demons like sin, evil, and selfishness that steer us away from God and infiltrate our luggage.

Jesus tells us to leave these things home. We won’t be needing them where he is calling us to go. And you know what? We can just leave them right here – right at the foot of the cross… and walk away.

Instead, God will fill our hands with the hands of others, in partnership, healing, and reconciliation. God will fill our hands with body of Christ given to us in the sacrament of holy communion. And God will also fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit’s fire for justice, to right all the wrongs in the world perpetrated against God’s beloved children.

Jesus goes with us on this journey, and is better than anything we could bring along of our own devising. And we are going to need lots of Jesus’ help on this road. Because we are being called straight into the mouth of the wolves, called to be doves of peace into a world where fear and hate and racism and sexism and all kinds of phobias reign supreme – or at least they think they do. We are marching straight into a world of brother betraying sister, heterosexual betraying members of the LGBTQ community, white betraying black, cis gender betraying those who are trans gender, rich betraying poor.

Tomorrow is a little-known holiday called Juneteenth. In about a hundred and fifty years ago, on June 19th, slaves in the south were informed they had been set free by the Emancipation proclamation… which had become official TWO AND A HALF YEARS before. White people had delayed the news, so that the freed African Americans would bear the weight of oppression for an extra two and a half years. Brother betrays brother.

Two years ago, yesterday, a white gunman entered a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston South Carolina and killed 9 people who had welcomed him. The pastor had received his Master of Divinity at a Lutheran Seminary. The shooter Dylan Roof grew up in an ELCA Church. Brother betrays brother.

Almost a year ago, a black man was fatally shot in his car with his wife and 4-year-old child watching him bleed out and die. The police officer who shot him was just cleared of all charges. Brother betrays brother.

Also just over a year ago, a gunman opened fire at the Pulse night club in Orlando, and almost 50 people died in the largest attack on the LGBTQ community. Brother betrays brother. This is the world we are living in. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

So much violence. We certainly have a long way to go. And the way seems overwhelming at times. A pastor colleague is completely right when she wrote, “The world is a violent, unjust place, and Jesus tells us to go out and proclaim the good news to it anyway.” And I would add that we we are carrying with us exactly what we need to face the wolves.
WE CARRY the mark of the cross of Christ on our foreheads, just like Anna, the newest member of Family of God, of THE WHOLE family of God.

WE CARRY the body and blood of our Lord Jesus to sustain us from week to week.
WE CARRY OPEN HANDS, so that we can reach out to our neighbors in welcome: our black neighbor, our white neighbor, our police neighbor and our military neighbor, or Jewish and our Muslim neighbor. Our brothers and our sisters, transgender, straight, gay, rich, poor, citizen, and immigrant neighbor.

WE CARRY one another, so that we never have to carry our burdens alone. And through it all, GOD CARRIES US. Always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

"In the Beginning"

6-11-17, Trinity Sunday

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.

True love’s kiss broke the curse…the queen of the magical kingdom brought peace to the land… and they all lived happily ever after… the End!

No, I’m not accidentally starting with the last page of my sermon. It’s just that most of our readings for today are either beginnings or endings – the beginning of Genesis, and the end of Matthew. We tend to remember good beginnings and endings of things, don’t we? books, movies, classic fairy tales. And at the end of the very best stories, the ones that stay with us, we love how the messy bits are all woven together to a satisfying resolution. And they all lived happily ever after.

How things begin is almost as important as how things end… we tend to remember those, too. And it’s not just the famous fairy tales we keep telling our kids and grand kids. Our stories begin in those familiar ways too, with, “On the night that you were born…” or “This is how Grandma and Grandpa met…” or even the story that started ALL our stories, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”

This creation story from Genesis we just heard is probably a familiar one to many of you, with seven days of creation each in order, and the repeated refrain which we said together “and God say that it was good.” I got to hear a creation story from Namibia, which you’ll hear has some striking similarities to the one we just heard from Genesis.  

(The following story has a lot of .... and [ ] because I shorted it a bit and edited it for clarity)

“On [the] first day, Njambi Karunga, [which means] “Giving God” called the first ancestors from the trunk of the omumborombonga tree. One by one, they stepped from the sacred tree.”

“Mukuru and Kaman-garunga, the first tate (pronounced "tah-tay" and means daddy) and mama, stepped from the tree. Then…. the first tate and mama of every tribe on earth [stepped from the tree]. On [the] first day, Njambi Karunga also called out the first tate and mama of cattle. The first tate and mama of kudu. Of lions and leopards. Of wildebeest and baboons. On first day, the first tate and mama of every living thing stepped from the omumborombonga tree.”

“[The] First day was darker than a night with no stars or moon. All the ancestors hugged the omumborombonga tree and each other so they wouldn’t get lost in the darkness. The first tate of Berg-Damara made a fire. That made the first tate and mama of lions, kudus, giraffes, and other wild animals run away. But it was hard to see, even with the fire, so [Giving God] sent light. For the first time, the ancestors saw each other and the animals that stayed.”

“When the first ancestors saw the animals, they chose which ones they wanted. Mukuru and Kaman-garunga chose wisely… They chose cattle!” …

 “That’s why we give the ancestors milk – to thank them for giving us life, and for choosing cattle. And to thank them for talking to [Giving God] for us. When we give the ancestors milk at the holy fire, they know we remember them and we remember [our Giving God]. They know if we forget them, we will forget [our Giving God called] Njambi Karunga. And we will lose who we are.”

We all can experience God through the stories we tell. And we also experience God through the things that God has created.

After all, who has NOT at one time or another felt inspired or awestruck by something out in God’s creation – whether it’s a gorgeous sunset, walking around the lake at the park in the spring, visiting the mountains or the ocean, seeing a swath of stars in the sky on a dark night…. I spent plenty of nights at the Lutheran Bible Camp that I worked at during my college summers in evening worship at the lake shore, singing praises to God as amazing colors filled the sky. Church is a place where we worship God, and it does not have to be limited to a building. After all, Martin Luther once wrote, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”

There is a car in my apartment parking lot with a bumper sticker on the back of it that says, “Nature is my church.” Every time I see this bumper sticker, I wonder. If this is true of whoever owns this car, why is this sticker on a VW Bug and not on a hybrid or electric car? But then again, I am not doing so hot at treating his or her “church” very well either. We may not always think about nature as our “church,” but I think we would never treat THIS building in the same way as we have tended to treat our environment, God’s creation.

The bumper sticker, the creation story from Namibia, and our familiar one in Genesis tell us something about the GOD we worship. These stories reveal that our God is a creative God who makes space for and cares for creation. We are welcome, and we are loved by the one who created us, whether we were created out of dirt, or created from a tree.

These stories also tell us something about ourselves, too. We were made in God’s image, male AND female, both together. Not just one or the other. But everyone, men, women, people of all races and ethnicities and cultures, WE ALL are God’s image, and we are all part of the creation story, not separate from it. We are to care for creation, not use it up and throw it away.

On the label of the package of some carved wooden animals I bought in Namibia, on one side it said “Animals of Africa.” On the other, it said “Please take special care of our animals, or soon there won’t be any real ones left.” This was written in English, and it was meant for people like me, a tourist and foreigner, overly dependent on fossil fuels, and far away from the consequences of how much I use up and throw away every day. People like me who have lost my way and are trying to find it again by doing little things like recycling and reducing my car trips.

Even when we do lose our way – and we will - God refuses to be a far-off God, and Jesus is proof of that. The beginning of the Gospel of John says THIS about JESUS: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….  All things came into being through him…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Jesus came to us as God in a way that we can see and talk to and experience and touch. Jesus healed people when they suffered physically, he fed them real bread when they were hungry, he ate and drank with people who were on the margins, experiencing all the things that humans do. Even death.

So when Jesus tells us, after he is raised, at the end the Gospel of Matthew, “I will be with you always.” – we know that this means that in all things we experience, God will be with us. In our beginnings and in our endings, and all the unpredictable plot twists in between, Jesus will be with us.

We may not always live “happily ever after” like in the fairy tales. But in fact, we have something better than a fairy tale ending – the assurance that no matter where our stories take us, Jesus promises to be with us through all the chapters, good and bad, to the end of the age.

If you flip all the way to the very end of the Bible, at the end of the book of Revelation, we only have another beginning: “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” 

Jesus is WITH YOU. Jesus comes to us, in the form of the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.  From Genesis to Revelation, Jesus is with us, here in church, and out there in the world. Jesus does not tell his disciples to bunker down somewhere. We’re supposed to get out there and change the world. And so, what we have taken for an ending in the Gospel of Matthew is actually a beginning, a “once upon a time” in disguise. Surprise! Talk about an ending with a twist!

Well, this is the end of the sermon. But it’s NOT the end of the story. It is, after all, yet another new beginning. Where the worship service ends, your story picks up.

So, what’s that going to mean for YOUR story?  What is your next chapter going to be like?

Get ready, because it begins RIGHT NOW! Amen!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wade in the Waters of Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ, the over-the-top love of God, and the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, amen.

The invocation I just said was from Zephania Kameeta, one of the Lutheran Bishops of Namibia, spoken to us at the beginning of the sermon he preached on May 14th in Sam Nujoma stadium with 10,000 Lutherans from all over Africa and the world.  Beforehand we were told that the entire service that Sunday morning would be about 4 hours long. I wish I were kidding. I wish THEY were kidding! But they were pretty right on the money with that estimation.
Me and the Bishop of Hong Kong

It was very long, but it was very awesome. There was the usual sermon, scripture, and big holy amazing confusion of Holy Communion. In addition, Lutherans from the 7 regions of the Lutheran World Federation gave testimony to the mixed bag of the Lutheran legacy around the world, how we have been simultaneously saint and sinner over the centuries. There was also a time of sharing with the youth and young adults in the LWF. And the singing. Lots and lots of singing. We sang hymns and songs from just about every continent that day, and even a few that some of us Americans were familiar with. I saw surprised that we sang Wade in the Water. But not surprised to sing A Mighty Fortress. You can’t have a commemoration of the Reformation without singing A Mighty Fortress!

But in addition to the old Lutherans favorites, we learned NEW favorite songs over the week, songs that came from all corners of the globe, like the Namibian ones we learned to day. The songs we learned seemed to cross cultures and unite language differences.
Take this hymn, originally written in Farsi by Roozbeh Najar-nejad, called Con Rizad. In English, the words go,
As the rain of your spirit pours out, over my desert heart,
gardens spring from wilderness and flowers bloom with your touch.
A surprise healing comes near, I’m renewed, fully alive.
A new song flows from my lips, and its sound counters my fear.
My success found in his name, all the dry places made green,
and the green busting with flowers.

It might seem a little weird to talk about water on Pentecost Sunday, when most of the time we hear about the tongues of flame on the disciples and the fire of the Holy Spirit that burns within us. But there are plenty of times that water is associated with the Holy Spirit too, and we heard plenty of references today – Jesus talking about living water from the Holy Spirit, and Paul saying we drink of one spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to live as much as we need H2O.

The Middle East is a place of dry desert, as I saw as I walked off my plane in Qatar into the 100-degree heat. Jesus lived in a different part of the Middle East, one just as dry back then as it is now. Thirst was an ever-present companion as Jesus traveled the hot and dusty roads of Palestine. And it was just as true when Jesus visited the annual Festival of Booths in Jerusalem. The last day of this festival included ceremonies around water and praying for rain, so Jesus’ call to the thirsty makes sense. And just 3 chapters before this, in John 4, Jesus spoke to the woman at the well as she drew water for herself in the thirstiest part of the day – and Jesus tells her then: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  If you remember back to Lent, this woman’s dry life suddenly burst into bloom as a new song filled her lips and drowned her fear, just like in the hymn in Farsi, sung centuries later.

Namibia too is mostly desert. In fact, the Namib desert, from where Namibia gets its name, is the oldest desert in Africa. Almost nothing grows there, and the few plants there survive on the fog that rolls in off the ocean each morning and condenses into a few drops of precious water. Almost right next door to the Namib desert is yet another desert – the Kalahari! I’m sorry to say, the real Kalahari is pretty much the opposite of an indoor water park!

May is the dry season in Namibia, moving toward fall, with cooler mornings and evenings. There was a drought going on, but in the hotel and conference center, we were fairly isolated from life out in the city of Windhoek the capital city, where the drought was real. For us, we took showers, brushed our teeth, drank coffee or tea, and filled our water bottles, like at home.

We can have water whenever we need it.  We turn on the tap, run to the store, grab some out of the fridge without thinking. We buy a bottle of water, drink it, then throw away the bottle when we’re done. We throw things away then we are done with them, or when they are inconvenient for us. But water, and our planet, is too precious to treat this way.
One of the daily themes was “Creation not for sale.” Martin Kopp from France told us, “All creation groans under the weight of imbalance, overuse, and misuse…As people of faith, we are called to live in right relationship to creation and not exhaust it.”

Creation belongs to God, and was given to all of us, at it is not for sale.
During the week we learned that our drinking water, renewed daily in large containers used to fill our reusable water bottles, had been donated to us fresh every day from a local. At no cost. Absolutely free.

This precious gift in our coffee, tea, in the water we drank, every single day came from the Namibian soil. It’s part of me now, and it’s also part of you now too. As I have been exhaling in this room, you are breathing part of what I exhaled, and have taken part of Namibia into you too. It’s part of you now. This water unites all of us.

Living water, the one spirit we all drink in our baptisms, makes our desert hearts bloom and drowns our fear. This water makes us grow so that we can bear fruit for the world, growing like trees planted and tended by Jesus. But not fruit we get to keep. We thirsty people are quenched for the sake of others, to bear fruit that we will be giving away.
There isn’t a lot of fruit native to Namibia. But Makalani nuts are plentiful, and come from a tree native to Namibia. Each of us were give a nut, hand carved with the theme for the week by a local artisan from Windhoek, to wear during the assembly. We worshiped together among trees in the cool of the morning and evening in a huge tent set up in the parking lot of the hotel, planted to shade the cars that were normally there. Trees, in the middle of a parking lot, in the middle of a desert country, suddenly found itself in the middle of a thousand Lutherans.

We who were gathered that week weren’t Cretans, Medes, and Elamites, but there were representations of us from the modern-day Middle East, parts of Asia, Rome and most of Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Indonesia. We spoke as many languages as the disciples at Pentecost did, and more.  We were united in the language of the Spirit, in song and in worship, in the bread and in the wine, all together sheltered under the tree of the cross.

We are the legacy of the disciples on the day of Pentecost, by the very fact that WE ARE STILL HERE. We are still herenow, in THIS place -  thousands of years after them, on foreign soil, speaking a language that didn’t even exist yet.

The Spirit poured out on us leads us to see visions and dream dreams, and draws us forward into a future we can’t quite see yet. The waters swirling around us seem dark and scary, but here is exactly where we are called to be – wading in the water, as the old African American spiritual challenges us. By way, thousands of Africans sang that song during the Global Commemorations, singing with the voices of another century and another continent. Wade, in the water, Children, the song goes. God’s gonna trouble the water. God’s gonna lead us into that future.

As we wade, we ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, along with Namibians, Indonesians, Germans, Bolivians, Tanzanians, Canadians, Koreans, Swedes, Americans, Pennsylvanians. Today and every day, we have need of you. Come Holy Spirit, come to be in us. Amen.