Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How to Forgive (And sometimes not forgive)

Sermon 9-17-17 

I didn't read the gospel - I used this youtube video instead using our new HUGE TV!

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.

Thank you for bearing with an extra-long gospel reading this morning, but I think you might agree that it was worth it! We just heard one interpretation of some adorable, but also very theologically astute children.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches A LOT, and this week we hear yet another snippet of one of his longer lesson that take up most of chapter 18. Last week, Jesus taught how sin is handled in the community.  But much before that, at the beginning of chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus, probably rolling his eyes, bring in a child and says “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As we can see, kids can also be pretty smart.

But Peter seems to be hung up on verse 15 from last week – “If another member of the church sins against you…” Peter seems to be less interested in the reconciliation that forgiveness would bring, and more interested in how many times he might be sinned AGAINST. So, Jesus told then a story.

 And if you were following along, these kids get most of the details right – minus, Narnia, “Let it Go,” and the inaccurate details about middle-eastern jails from about two thousand years ago. But other than that, they’re pretty dead on.

For example, the bit about the amounts these two slaves owed their king. The first slave, the unmerciful one, if you recall, he owed “A jillion and twenty” dollars, which is a completely ridiculous amount. Well, so is ten thousand talents -  an amount that no person could POSSILBY work off in their entire lifetimes.

The other slave, if you remember, owed the first one “a thousand and twenty dollars”, very manageable and small by comparison.

But the first slave does not forgive this comparatively small amount, even after his enormous debt is forgiven. And the children conclude that the moral of Jesus’ story is: “If you don’t forgive, God won’t be happy. Since God forgives you, you should forgive other people.”

This should sound familiar since, as the children pointed out, from one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This gets really tricky. This can easily be interpreted as the opposite being just as true – “If I do not forgive those who sin against me, God will not forgive me.” Does this also mean that if someone sins against me, for any reason, I should do like the song from “Frozen” and “Let it Go?” Even seventy-seven times?

For many of us, we don’t even have to get to the seventy-seventh time to find this hard or even impossible. Sometimes, one sin against us is all it takes for us to get stuck – and here we’re are usually talking a BIG SIN. Betrayal of trust, sexual assault, spreading a lie, bullying or meanness, destruction of property, infidelity, threats and violence…. What about sins of this magnitude and scale? Jesus tells us to forgive from the heart. What happens when our hearts have been so destroyed that we just don’t have enough piece left to be ABLE to forgive?
One of my seminary professors, Dr. Craig Koester, shares this helpful insight: " Forgiveness is not acceptance of the past. . . Forgiveness is the declaration that the past will not define the future. . .”

Case in point – the story of Joseph from Genesis we heard as our first reading
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one of my favorite musicals. When I was in Wisconsin this summer, my neighbor’s daughter Molly played in the pit orchestra for her high school production, and it was awesome. On the surface, this is a fun retelling of Joseph’s story. But there is so much more going on than just peppy songs and a cool costume. It is also a story about forgiveness.

We heard the end of the story a few minutes ago, where Joseph is able to say, “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good.” But we have an entire musical, an entire story that got Joseph to this point. Today we didn’t hear about the years and the struggles and the dark moments that Joseph lives though be able to say this. We didn’t see Joseph grappling with how the actions of his brothers removed him from his family and homeland, took away his freedom, exposed him to violence, and got him thrown in jail. At the same time, we don’t see Joseph reconcile these same actions that allowed him to eventually rise to be the pharaoh’s favor, and allowed him to eventually save his family from starvation. But we did see the forgiveness.

His forgiveness didn’t happen when Joseph was at the bottom of the well his brothers had thrown him in. Forgiveness didn’t happen in his dark jail cell. Forgiveness didn’t even happen when he saves Egypt from a famine and is promoted to the second highest office in the land. Forgiveness didn’t even happen the moment that Joseph sees his brothers again.
Forgiveness happens when Joseph secretly tests his brothers by framing the youngest for theft and threatens to take away HIS freedom. Forgiveness happens when his brothers object and offer to take their brother’s place. Forgiveness happens when they show repentance from their sin against Joseph. In that moment, Joseph’s heart is healed, and he CAN forgive his brothers from his heart.

Only God is in charge of when that moment of healing happens… if it is a single moment at all. Most of the time, it is a series of little moments. Sort of like forgiveness. One day, you are mad, hurt, and betrayed, and the next day you are still mad, hurt, and betrayed…. But twenty days, a hundred days, a thousand and twenty days, or a bajillion days later, you may find that the anger and hurt are no longer there. They no longer have you in their grip. You are free, your heart becomes whole, and you CAN forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Maybe you too will be able to sing “Let it Go” with Elsa, and be able to say, “the past is in the past.”

But maybe today is not that day. Maybe today the past is far too present. Maybe today you are in the bottom of the well. Maybe today you are in the darkness of a lonely prison cell you can’t get out of right now. Maybe you are on your seventy-eighth go-round with a loved one. Maybe today your heart is in too many pieces.

But every week we say together in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in (among other things) the forgiveness of sins.” And, as we heard Jesus tell us last week, “…if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus is among us, when we gather to believe in the forgiveness of sins even when we can’t do it yet. Jesus is among us, neck deep in our story with us, and does things for us that we can’t do on our own.

There is no person or event that God cannot (eventually) use for good. There is no heart that is too broken to be healed. There is no time limit on forgiveness. You can’t keep track, and you can’t rush it. Forgiveness can’t be counted, only journeyed through. As Martin Luther once said, we may not know the way, but we know well our Guide. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How to be a Good Neighbor


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.

This past Lent, I remember driving back to my apartment after a church meeting one evening, and being startled by a strange sight as I pulled into my parking lot – a 6 foot, light-up, lavender Easter Bunny, prominently displayed in front of one of my neighbors’ doors. Now, technically we are not allowed to put up flags or any kind of political signs, though some people do have small “welcome” signs or little flags that say “spring.” But…really? A giant purple rabbit?? Every night last Lent, there he was, ready to greet me. And sure enough, by the time Easter Sunday arrived, that rabbit was nowhere to be seen. I guess they forgot that Easter is a season that is seven weeks long, and not just one day!

So, I assumed, in comparison to THAT, this little variety of welcome sign would be small potatoes. It reads, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in English, Spanish, and Arabic. But sadly, I was very wrong. It was up for 10 days before I received a voicemail from my apartment complex office. “During the last grounds inspection, we noticed your sign, which is violation of your lease, so we would like to you take it down.” So I did.

 But I had another sign that I had planned to put up that says, “Hate has no home here” in Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Hebrew! But I am not even going to try. Apparently obnoxious giant rabbits are ok, but not super specific welcome signs that will tell my neighbors that refuse to show hate to anybody.

So this is one instance that my Midwestern passive-aggressive heritage will come in handy. No, I will follow the letter of the law in my apartment complex – by NOT displaying these signs outside of my apartment. BUT. They cannot prevent me from hanging them on the INSIDE in my living room. They cannot prevent me from LIVING the ideals of radical welcome, and “Hate has no home here,” for the benefit of ALL my neighbors, who are black and white, Asian and Latino, right around the corner in Doylestown. They cannot prevent me from loving my neighbor, as Jesus has taught us to do.  

Jesus was once asked which one of the ten commandments in the most important. Jesus answered by giving two – Love the Lord your God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. (MT 22:36-40)

Years later, Paul wrote a letter to all the Christian communities active in Rome, representing a wide swath of the population – Jewish converts, Romans who are gentiles (or non-Jews) who formerly worshiped the gods and goddesses of Roman mythology, members of society of all stripes: slaves, masters, women, wealthy, poor. All rubbing elbows at the Lord’s table with varying degrees of success. Perhaps not surprisingly, this diverse group of people were having trouble being the body of Christ. Specifically, between the Jewish Christian and the non-Jewish Christians. Things were tense. Tempers flared.

So, in this part of the letter, Paul reminds them – and us – that the point of the commandments is not to impress God or pass a test. The ten commandments, specially commandments four through ten, are for the benefit of our neighbors. Specifically, in showing them welcome and love, as Jesus himself did all through his life.

I confess that I don’t always remember all the commandments in the correct order, or have Luther’s explanations of them as part of the Small Catechism memorized. But for people like me, there is asmartphone app available for free that has the entire Small Catechism at your fingertips. I know, you have been in desperate need of a smart phone Small Catechism app.

But thanks to this app, when I am out and about, and wonder what Luther says about the 5th commandment – “You shall not murder,” Lookie here, there it is! By the way, Luther’s explanation of the 5th commandment goes like this – “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” In other words, it’s not enough to follow the commandment by “just” REFRAINING from murdering them.  According to Luther, as good neighbors we should also “help and support them” by loving them as we love ourselves.

It’s harder than it looks. This was really difficult for the communities of Jesus-followers in Rome… and it seems like it isn’t any easier now. Old conflicts die hard. We do horrible things to one another out of fear, and injuries fester and poison our relationships. As time goes on, divisions between individuals, families, races, cultures, nation, and faiths can seem insurmountable.

Sixteen years ago tomorrow marks a day that I don’t think anyone will soon forget. Growing up in the Midwest, my experience of September 11th is very different. That night I went to my church for an impromptu prayer vigil, as did many people here on the East Coast. But, it wasn’t until I moved to NJ six years ago that I met people who were first responders stationed on Ellis Island later that day, or former parishioners who worked blocks from the towers and got out of the city that day on the last running train.

Amid all the horror and loss of life, in an article I read one man racing down the thousands of stairs to try to get out of one of the towers: “Everybody helping one another. We coached one another down those stairs. We were teammates and we knew we were going to get out.”

A group of Muslims in New Jersey were also asked what theirexperiences of the day had been. Rafiq Chaudhry shared this: “Later, I and other people went to the mosque. The imam prayed for everybody, prayed for all the people in the United States of America…. Two days after September 11, there was a fund-raiser in Jersey City for the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center. I said, ‘I definitely have to go, I’m part of the community.’”
Neighbor helping neighbor get out of a deadly situation. Neighbor helping neighbor through prayer and lifting up those in need in the community. Neighbor helping neighbor no matter what difference may exist in skin color, language, religious practice, gender, or legal status. Neighbor helping neighbor, coming together, and Jesus is there among them, members of the body of Christ, making up God’s holy neighborhood.

One translation of the beginning of John’s Gospel goes like this: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14, The Message Translation). That’s Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the word made flesh, took on our being, becoming fully human – who by the way, as a child was taken by his parents to a foreign country as an illegal refugee to escape the violence that Kind Herod had in store for him. When Jesus grew up, he healed and he taught and he fed and he cared and he loved – and he did not let anyone or anything stop him. Not evil. Not darkness. Not sin. Not even death. Just so that Jesus would be our neighbor forever, and that we would be good neighbors with one another, in Jesus’ name, with all the power of love that name brings. So that, when two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, Jesus is there with us.

How would we conduct ourselves if we remembered that Jesus is here with us? 
How would we do the business of the church, and go about the business of our lives? Would we act any different? 
What kinds of things might we try if we knew that Jesus will be with us?

As on of my preaching professors Dr. Karoline Lewis recently shared: “When you are in your staff meeting, a session meeting, a hospital room, fellowship time, bible study, Jesus is there among you. When you are making decisions about where your benevolence will go or whom your church will welcome, Jesus is there among you. When your church questions if it will speak up or stay silent, Jesus is there among you. When you are discussing your vision, your mission statement, your future, Jesus is there among you.”

And when Jesus is present – things start to happen. Lives are transformed. People are healed. Sins are forgiven. Warriors put down their weapons. Enemies reconcile and live together in peace. Neighbors come together and build God’s holy neighborhood. Strangers are welcomed and become neighbors, and together we work in the name of Jesus, and nothing in heaven or on earth will be able to stop us. Amen.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Jesus Is Not Nice

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.

A former colleague of mine can’t stand the word “nice.” At least, when it was used as a bland description of something or a generic comment about a person. “He is a very nice young man.” “It was a nice day.” “Nice job on the test.” Something that is mildly pleasant, but perhaps unremarkable.

We tell our children to “play nice” at recess, meaning to take turns, share, and say please and thank you. We remind one another with sayings like “It costs nothing to be nice,” “its nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice, “It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.” “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”As I typed up this sermon, my grammar check was going crazy, trying to get me to use more descriptive adjectives in place of all the times I used “nice”!

Being “Nice” can mean hedging your bets, avoiding “taking sides,” not rocking the boat, a good thing to do to not cause a fuss or to be viewed as controversial.

So, it comes as kind of a surprise when Peter, the “leaps out of boats before he thinks” kind of guy, wants Jesus to stop saying these ridiculous and audacious things….when much of the time it’s the other way around. And its just last week, too, Peter got a Gold Star for correctly identifying Jesus’ secret Super Hero Identity as the Messiah.

Flashback to last week: Jesus is with his disciples Caesarea Philippi, a Roman town full of statues and temples to every god and goddess under the sun. It is here that Jesus asks the hundred-thousand-dollar question – Who do YOU say that I am? The disciples take a stab at it, but only Peter gets it right – “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” – God who is not a dead stone statue but a living creative force who created the world and is loose in it. A God who gave Peter his new name for his correct answer – Petros, or Rocky.

Though we heard those words a week ago in our time, only days, hours, or even minutes elapsed before Peter puts his foot in his mouth. Just as Jesus begin to explain to his disciples what it MEANS for him to the son of the Living God, Peter, thinking he’s on a role, opens his mouth to protest. “God forbid it, Lord!” “Stop talking like that! That’s not how it’s going to be when YOU are in charge! Suffering and death? You must have gotten the pages of the script mixed up. What you are describing is NOT what power looks like!”

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Simon the Zealot leads a cheering crowd in praising Jesus. Simon, like Peter, tries to get Jesus to toe the “Messiah line,”  - saying, Jesus, “You'll get the power and the glory, for ever and ever and ever!” Like in Peter’s confession last week – only in a big epic musical moment

But instead of accepting their accolades, Jesus is a big party pooper. Jesus responds, “Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, Nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the Priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself…. understand what power is…. understand what glory is… understand at all.”

News flash Peter and Simon – and the rest of us - Jesus is NOT here to set up his own kingdom made in the image of the world, with power, glory, and might. Jesus came to set up God’s kingdom here IN this world, but not OF it. And we often have trouble understanding God’s kingdom when we encounter it, because it IS so different from the kingdoms of the world we are so used to.

We are surrounded by messages of this Kingdom of Might – where power comes from strength, influence, and affluence. If we do not have access to power in one of these ways, we seek to emulate those who do – we follow in the footsteps of the powerfully, hoping that some will rub off. Power by association.

Most of the time this is unconscious, or so totally ingrained in how we live that we don’t notice. It is even built into the very fabric of this country – pervasive in our founding narrative. We are a nation built on the idea that a scrappy band of colonists forcibly wrested the right to their own freedom out of the clutches of the most powerful empire in the world. We are now in control of our own destiny, and we will use all force necessary to keep it that way.

But there is a dark side to this power, bought at a steep price, leaving wounds in our society that have never fully healed. This is power that excludes, divides, and ignores the humanity of some to elevate the few.

The source of Jesus’ power could not be more opposite… It is the power of God, power found is vulnerability. It is strength found in weakness. It is might found in non-violence. It is the certainty found in mystery. It is gaining the whole world by throwing our entire lives away. It is the way of the cross, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was called to die for our sake, so that we may die to ourselves for the sake of others.

We as followers of Jesus are not called to merely be nice. We are called to die. We are called to die to our own wishes of self-preservation, pride, and comfort. We are called to die to the wishes of the world, the ways of power and privilege. We are called to die to participation in institutions and cultural norms that benefit some, but not others And we are called to die to the desire to hate and vilify those who hate everything we stand for.

Picking up our cross does not look like “being nice” for the sake of not rocking the boat – for example, staying in an abusive relationship, enabling the poor decisions of a family member, or NOT asking for help when we are overwhelmed. I know last week I told you all that you were heroes for God. But this week I say to you – don’t be a hero. Don’t overextend yourself in a way that is damaging. Don’t carry a cross that was forced on you by someone else.

But heroes DO willingly make pledges to something… to defend the city, to save the planet, to protect the innocent. One hero that I have been talking about ad nauseum lately is Martin Luther King Jr. In a book of his quotes, curated by his wife Coretta Scott King, I came across a pledge written by Dr. King for those who were participating in the 1963 sit-in demonstrations in Birmingham. At lunch counters all over the South, African-American young people were sitting at segregated lunch counters, putting their bodies on the line, to non-violently protest segregation and Jim Crow Laws. They were shouted at, spit on, and sometimes dragged out and beaten, but they did not lift a finger to defend themselves in the face of such evil.

The pledge that these brave men and women followed included some of these “commandments”

-         Meditate daily on the life and teaches of Jesus.

-         Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

-         Sacrifice personal wishes so that all men might be free.

-         Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, and heart.

Just to name a few. These heroes, these brave women and men were not being “nice” or “polite.” They were sitting where they didn’t “belong.” They put their bodies into harm’s way and often they paid for it. And Martin Luther King Jr certainly paid for his stand for justice – he paid with his life. Dr. King lost his life, but the movement lived on, and his speeches and writings still inspire us today.

It’s not too late to join the non-violent, non-nice, non-polite movement of Jesus. We may not have the ability to join demonstrations or protests. We may not have the opportunities to physically put our bodies in harm’s way. But I am comforted by what comes at the end of Dr. King’s non-violent pledge: “besides demonstrations, I could help the moment by… run errands, drive my car, clerical work, mimeograph, distribute leaflets…. circle [all that apply].” In other words, carrying the cross in all the boring ways that don’t get a whole lot of press. But perhaps might be just as hard, because of the pushback we may receive from friends, family, and even totally strangers.

Jesus calls us to let go of what is “nice” and instead, as Paul wrote – hold fast to what is good. Hold fast to the cross. Hold fast to Jesus. Amen.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Super Heroes and God's "Dream Team"

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

Thanks to the VBS theme this year… I’d like to inform all of you that I’ve decided to change my official title here at Family of God. From how on I would like to be known as Pastor Lydia of Awesome, or just Pastor Awesome for short. What are my superpowers? I can baptize faster than a rushing river! I can lift high the cross! And I can leap tall Bibles with a single bound! And now, I am just waiting around for Hollywood to discover me and make the next big blockbuster movie out of my adventures assisting the good people of Bucks County.

Every good superhero has a good origin story, too. Some of my fellow superheroes and heroines were born with their special powers. Others got them in all kinds of strange ways – they were bitten by radioactive bugs, exposed to mysterious cosmic space rays, or injected with strength serum. Still others came to be super heroes by using their brilliant use of technology and gadgets.

What’s MY “origin story”? When I was a baby, I had my forehead splashed with water three times, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever. I grew up in a group of other baptized super hero people, being nurtured and encouraged in my faith by my family and other caring adults in our community.

Me – and YOU - we are part of a very special league of super heroes. Many of us have different origin stories. Some of us might have begun our super hero journey in another tradition, or no tradition at all. Some were baptized later in life, as teens or adults. Others in this league wandered away the community of super heroes for a while, but eventually found our way back.
Those of us gathered in this building today, and are gathered to worship in communities around the world…. baptized part of this community of faith and named as God’s children forever and ever, we, who have been saved from sin and death by the mercies of almighty God…. We are part of the League of the Living Lord.
Also in this League of the Living Lord are all kinds of characters with interesting backgrounds and unique super powers. There is Abraham and Sarah, who became the father and mother of God’s people, both by blood and by their faithful examples.  The prophets of old, like the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah, were given wisdom and prophesy to speak truth to power in the face of injustice. Mary refused to give into fear and took a bold risk when she accepted her calling to give birth to and raise Jesus.
Besides our Bible heroes and heroines, Martin Luther turned the Christian world upside down with his stubborn belief in a merciful and loving God… and his ability to write his books, including a translation of the Bible in his language, with incredible speed. Martin Luther King Jr., named after him, preached his dream of a world where both black and white could be free of racism and segregation. Mother Theresa cared for the most forgotten and unwanted people in the slums of Calcutta. All these people are card-carrying members of the League of the Living God.
Today we heard about Peter, disciple of Jesus, bold talker and water walker. When Peter reveals Jesus’ super hero name of Son of the Living God, Jesus in turn gives HIM the Superhero name of Petros… but not a super impressive one, it seems. Petros means small rock or little pebble... Today Peter becomes “Pebble Man.”
While Pebble Man SEEMS like a weak superhero name… but Peter is a chip of the old bedrock that the Church has been built on – the rock being Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith.

Peter…Abraham, Sara, Mary Martin Luther, Mother Teresa…. this is quite an intimidating list of faithful people in our Super Hero League. These people have indeed left us some mighty big shoes to fill. But, like all heroes, our faith heroes have mighty flaws to go with their mighty powers. Abraham and Sarah tried their own “creative” ways to fulfill God’s promises. Most of the prophets were pretty reluctant to take the job as God’s Super hero. Martin Luther was stubborn to a fault, and Mother Theresa struggled with spiritual dry spells. And even among Jesus’ own disciples there are deniers and deserters and betrayers. So, I guess, we are in some pretty good company. 

Which is a pretty good thing for us, because we are all too often distracted from our super hero duties. Like Jesus and the disciples in the town of Caesarea Philippi, filled with stone statues of every kind of god and goddess… we are daily surrounded by statues, real and imagined, that entice our attention and devotion.  Status, success, stuff, salaries, stocks, sports, schedules – these are the dead stones that hold sway over US.

We don’t wake up every morning and say to ourselves, “You know what? Today, I’m going to be too busy to be kind to a stranger. Today I’m going to benefit from racist institutions and laws. Today I’m going to make decisions that will hurt our planet.” Unfortunately… it just happens. The Reverend Doctor James Forbes, a Baptist minister who spoke at our Rostered Leaders Gathering recently in Atlanta, said we don’t have to decide to participate daily in the injustices of the world… it happens because of sin and the broken state of the world. That is why transformation is needed, to be living sacrifices.

From Dr. Forbes, we heard that leading up to the 1992 Olympics, the United States would always get soundly defeated in basketball… until the 1992 “Dream Team” was assembled. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and more led the way to Olympic gold, winning games by 44 points or more.

Then Dr. Forbes wondered, if WE at the Rostered Leaders Gathering, had be brought together as “God’s Dream Team” for this time and this place.
Rev. Dr. James Forbes

And I wonder too, though OUR team may be small, if God has not been gathering together a dream team, right here in Buckingham.

But first, before we can become this dream team, we must be transformed. And then Dr. Forbes showed us how we do it. This 82-year-old man laid down flat on his back, like a person laid out in their final rest. We were all stunned, and you could hear a pin drop. He informed us that we need to die to ourselves. Not a graveyard death, he said, but a living sacrifice. That way, we can present our wholes selves to God. That way, we will be ready to be on God’s Dream Team. That way, we will be ready to do our part in the League of the Living Lord.

Our God is a rock that is alive, dynamic, and on the move. Those other things that claim they have power over us? They are lifeless, powerless, and have been overcome by the mighty and loving arms of God.

Dr. Forbes told those of us gathering in Atlanta with white skin, that if there is any advantage to be gained by the color of our skin, to use it to restore community with all people, and to use our privilege to fight the white supremacist movement.  He reminded us that in order to become part of God’s Dream Team, we are to undergo a radical reconstruction of to the infrastructure of our being. And it is certainly not very comfortable to be reconstructed. But it is necessary for being a baptized superhero for God.  

 In our baptisms, we have died to our old selves, and we rise up as new sons and daughters in God’s chosen family, God’s Dream team. And so, as God’s superheroes, we are sent into the world as a chip off the old boulder…to, as the affirmation of baptism (or confirmation) liturgy goes, “… to follow the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” To which, we as a church respond, “I do and I will, and I ask God to help me.”
We as members of the League of the Living God have been given this mission: to not be conformed by the powers in this world that defy God, but instead to be transformed into living sacrifices of God’s justice and deliverance for the sake of the whole world.

What’s the Church’s superpower? Resurrection. The broken being made whole. Hate turning into love. Light shining through the darkness. Death transformed to new life.  Jesus transforming the cross as an instrument of death into a symbol of hope and new life, the symbol that all of us baptized superheroes carry on our foreheads. Invisible, like a secret superhero identity, but still always present.

Only our secret superhero identities are supposed to be public. To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God… in a way that others can see.

And others WILL see… and some may not like it, not one bit. But we let our light shine. We are transformed and we witness the transformation of others. We are part of the Dream Team, with son of the living God at our side. Amen.

(The last picture is one of the white supremacist who was targeting St. John Lutheran Church in Ambler, PA - about 30 minutes from FOG - for having a sign outside their church that said "fight white supremacy." This person then shared one of their member's profile pictures and called him names, and posted pictures of knives on his FB profile. On Sunday morning no violence happened, and the church was overflowing with people and support from the surrounding community.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nevertheless, Justice Persists

Sermon 8-20-17
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Every year, my parent’s get a calendar from the local farm co-op as both a Christmas and Thank You gift for being loyal members. As you can see, it’s filled with all kinds of farm pictures you might expect… tractors, farm animals, and amber waves of grain. Last winter, they received this calendar, and as one of my brother flipped through it, something about the August picture nagged at him. It seemed familiar, except not. Time after time, he, my mom, and my dad would gaze at the picture and wonder why it stuck out to them… until it hit them. It was a picture from OUR FARM. Not from the front or even from the side. It was a picture taken… from the back. Everything was there… the silos, the barn, the cows, the tractors…. The different angle just made it harder to see.

As F. F. Bruce wrote his book Hard Sayings of Jesus –– “His yoke is easy and his burden is light, but his sayings are often hard.” And the ones we heard from Jesus today are certainly no exception.

So much ink has been spilled over the centuries to explain, soften, or justify what Jesus does here, and I don’t think any of them are completely satisfying. Figuring out this text turns out to be rather elusive, like the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price. Perhaps what we need to look for is more like a crumb, or rather, a trail of crumbs.
For this Canaanite woman, the hope of just a crumb was enough for her. It was all she felt that she deserved. She was, after all, an outsider in nearly every possible way.

This woman was descended from these indigenous people, isolated to the backwater of her own country. She was the “wrong” race to be asking for Jesus help. She was likely a single mother in the wrong century, and her only child was the wrong gender, and if that wasn’t enough, her daughter was suffering from a very wrong-sounding illness. Even this woman’s whole approach to getting Jesus’ attention seems all wrong. Nevertheless, she persisted.

In fact, this woman could not have been more right about Jesus.  She called him Lord and Son of David while the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people despised and rejected him. She knelt before him and engaged in spirited dialogue with him, while his own disciples seemed almost totally in the dark. She knew what she needed from Jesus, and was not afraid to do whatever she needed to get it, for the sake of her daughter. Even when facing a tired, frustrated, and over-booked savior. Nevertheless, she persisted.

This woman knew what it was like to barely scrape by on crumbs. She was used to having men ignore her, dismiss her, and shoo her away. But not this time. She was going to be heard by Jesus, no matter what it took. She was going to lay hold of the grace that Jesus has to offer, even if the people of her time thought she was no better than a dog. Nevertheless, she persisted.

One poem by Jan Richardson begins by imagining the woman saying these words to Jesus: “Don’t tell me no. I have seen you feed the thousands, seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine, seen you with… crowds pressed around you and not one soul turned away. Don’t start with me...”

She knew that in the end, he would not and could not go against his nature. She knew he would do the right thing – that he would “throw her a bone,” so to speak. And she was right. She called Jesus out, and Jesus listened to her, and I think that’s why he called her faith great.

I wonder if Jesus remembered her as he blessed the bread and broke it, and watched the crumbs from the broken pieces fall onto the table and roll to the floor. I wonder if he thought about her great faith, as he was breaking bread with people who would later betray, deny, and abandon him in the coming hours.

And apparently, even Jesus needed to take his own advice sometimes, to stop and listen to someone else preach to him. Even Jesus needed to be reminded to see people from a different perspective. This woman reminded Jesus of a different angle in God’s story – that even though God had chosen the Jewish people, that all throughout history God has never ignored the needs of the “stranger,” the foreigner, the immigrant among them. Stubborn women throughout the Old Testament have faithfully and persistently gained God’s ear, and wrestled a blessing in their own right. The stories from the margins, from the edges, from underneath are just as important as the stories of God’s chosen people.

While it is true that all lives matter to God, some lives are treated as mattering less than others. That is while throughout the Bible God has stood with and continues to stand with the oppressed and the downtrodden. While we say with our actions that certain lives don’t matter, Gods insists that they do. To God, oppressed lives matter. Canaanite lives matter. Jewish lives matter. And in our own time, LGBTQIA lives matter. Trans lives matter.  Women’s lives matter. Differently abled lives matter. Chronically ill lives matter. Latino, Middle Easter, and Black lives matter.

I have the privileges of looking back into my family history. I have the privilege to know that my ancestors voluntarily left their homes in Bavaria and Saxony to immigrate to the United States, to settle on this farm that my family has owned for five generations – featured on the cover of the Co-op 2017 calendar. My past can be celebrated. I can go to German Festivals and eat German food and wear German things. 

Imagine that you come from a people who could never know their own history. This group of people had ancestors that were kidnapped from their homes, hauled on a filthy ship for months at sea, only to be sold into slavery once they got to the United States. It is nearly impossible to tell from which country in Africa their ancestors came from – Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon? There is no way to know. But their past, it matters to God. Their present matters to God, and their future matters to God too. Just as much as all of ours lives matter to God.

The Canaanite woman knew that, while her voice and her experience did not matter to the people around her, they mattered to God, and she refused to leave Jesus alone until he listened to her.  

The Canaanite woman would not wait patiently for salvation to be granted to her “in due time.” She instead persists in laying hold of what she knows to be true:

That there is enough Jesus to go around. There is enough room in the Kingdom of God for us to make room for the experiences of our neighbors, no matter how different their experiences may be. Their experiences matter. And when we have heard the stories of our neighbors and hear they have experienced injustice, we must do as Jesus has done – we act. We heal the injury where we can. We cast out the demon that have harmed others where we encounter them – the demons of hate and fear.

First, we listen. Then, we speak. The time is now. No more waiting. No more ignoring the truth or shooing it away.  Justice will not wait until it’s “more convenient.” Truth will not be unseen.

Right now, though, we may only be able to see a glimpse of the vision of peace and justice that God has for the world. Right now, we only get a crumb, just a taste, really, of the final victory feast over sin, death, and the evil in this world. Right now, we are only getting sips of the freedom Jesus has in mind for all of his people.

But the crumbs and the tastes are enough – because we know there is plenty more where that came from. We know what Jesus can do with a little bit of bread and some persistent faith.

On his deathbed, Martin Luther said – We are all beggars. Much later, Sri Lanka pastor D. T. Niles continued his thought by saying - "We are beggars telling other beggars where to find bread." There is more than a crumb for all. There is enough. Amen.  

Rosa Parks was my kids sermon

Monday, August 14, 2017

Standing against the Storms of Hate

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

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beachville NJ – which is about 45 minutes from where I used to live - has a beautiful sanctuary that is shaped like an upside-down boat. Actually, there are a lot of churches around the country that have sanctuaries that look like upside-down boats, inspired by ships such as the ones my ancestors took to reach America as immigrants from central and Northern Europe. Take a moment and look up… doesn’t our sanctuary remind you of being underneath an upturned boat?

Three years ago at St. Paul in Beachville, I was hanging out with sixty Lutheran youth from the Nebraska Synod who were in NJ on a mission trip. They drove two straight days cross-country – one way - through East Coast traffic to spend 3 days in New Jersey - to literally flood the Jersey shore with their time and presence. They arrived to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, still very much present even two years had passed. They their days spent clearing logs at a Lutheran Camp in North Jersey, and canvassing entire neighborhoods to find out their needs, all in the in the hot July sun.

These young people got out of their comfortable little Nebraska boats about as far as humanly possible. Jesus said, “Come,” and they responded. In fact, their pastors who I met that week I ran into again this past week at the clergy event in Georgia.

Now, it’s been almost five years since Hurricane Sandy. But I don’t think I need to tell you that there are people who are suffering still, in different ways. Five years out, it just might be harder to see. It’s easy to spot a collapsed house. But it is harder to recover an interrupted life.

There are plenty of other storms that have hit all of us in the meantime. These storms might not show any external damage. But we can feel the devastation all the same. These storms damage the heart: The hurricane-force winds of shame and hopelessness that knock you down, all the while shouting in your ears – you are not enough.

Wouldn’t it great if our little community here in this little boat would be a haven from all the terribly frightening storms raging in the world, and raging in our own hearts? Wouldn’t it be great if there was “Check your Storms at the Door” or a “No Storms Allowed” sign somewhere out in the parking lot?

While this place IS a safe space for us to gather, the storms are still very present here with us, even on this warm summer morning. Being Jesus’s own disciples, and following orders from Jesus’ own lips did not stop the storm for Peter and the rest of the disciples as they battled their own storm that day.

But the mighty winds and waves DID not and COULD not prevent Jesus from coming to their aid. Our storms CANNOT and WILL NOT prevent Jesus from coming to us, or from getting into our boat with us.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached on the last day of our time together of the ELCA Rostered Leaders Gathering in Atlanta. Pastors and Deacons from all over the country from all different kinds of contexts gathered for connection and renewal. Bishop Eaton reminded us that human beings are not meant to walk on water. That part was completely Peter’s idea, she said. Just like when we try to take some things into our own hands that should stay in God’s. 

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
But when it turned out to be too much for Peter, Jesus has Peter’s back. Jesus doesn’t say he had little faith because Peter fails at something that he shouldn’t actually be able to do in the first place. Jesus is reminding Peter of something that he forgot, something that we all forget – Jesus says instead, “I’ve got you.”

And then, Jesus climbed INTO the boat. And Jesus climbs into the boats we find ourselves in too. He climbs into our tiny boats WITH us, through all the storms, and it is only then that the storms cease.

Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer and speaker who also spoke last week at the Rostered Leaders Gathering, reminded us that God has already given us everything we need – word, sacraments, the Holy Spirit, and each other. And we have a God who walks through storms. We have a God who jumps into boats with us. We have a God who jumps OUT OF TOMBS… because "our God knows the way out of the grave." (Rachel Held Evans)

Our upturned boat sanctuary here can remind us that we are all in this boat together. But also, it is not up to us to keep this boat from sinking in the storms we find ourselves in. It is NOT up to us to work up the courage to jump out and chase after the next thing that might save us from feeling like we’re sinking.

You know what else looks like a boat, besides our sanctuary here? Our upturned hands, open and ready to receive Christ’s body. Week after week, month after month, year after year, through all the different kind of storms that life throws at us – Jesus still comes to us. Whether we are ready to jump out of the boat or clutching the railings for dear life, Jesus comes to us. In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of wine, Jesus comes to us. When we come to the table, with hands open, God gives us everything that we will ever need to face whatever storm comes our way.

Jesus gives us what we need for the storms that rage within us. And Jesus also gives us what we need to stand firm against the storms that are raging all around us too. Storms that come with fearing and hating those we don’t think belong in our boat – people who are different from us. People who are of a different religion, a different race, speak a different language, are of a different sexual orientation, or of a different gender or gender expression. We don’t see that we have all been created by God, beautiful in diversity, but equally loved. We don’t see that we are all in the same boat together, one body of Christ, members of one big family of God. We don’t see that our words - and our silences - do damage to other members of the body of Christ.

That storm seems so powerful, so overwhelming, and we seem to be so small and powerless to stand up against it, much less do anything to change it. Why rock the boat for a storm that we personally, a congregation in Pennsylvania from a mostly white denomination, might not even feel the effects of? Why stick our necks out about something that is happening in Charlottesville, Virginia? Or Charleston, North Carolina? Or Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas?

There is a storm that happened yesterday that will leave it’s mark just as clearly on this country as any hurricane. White supremacists and members of the KKK descended on Charlottesville, Virginia from all over the country on Saturday, and clergy from across the region and beyond gathered in protest. The night before, at St. Paul Memorial Church just outside of the University of Virginia campus, a torch-bearing mob surrounded the church during the evening church service as clergy and other people inside prayed for strength to stand for God’s light and justice and truth, to fight against some people’s opinions that other people are not enough.

The disciples were terrified of the storm, and Peter was terrified of sinking into the turbulent waters, Elijah in our first reading was terrified that God had abandoned him, and we also may be terrified of what will come next on the news, and what can we possibly do about it.

Timely words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s are written inside of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, where he was pastor for a time. The words are from Dr. King’s biography. He writes: “..It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And Lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”  Tragically, these words could have been written yesterday.

Some storms must be faced again and again, it seems. But as God’s people, we have been called to never tire for standing for what is right, even in the face of such voracious storms. Now, even in this place, Jesus says to us, his beloved church - “I’ve got you. I’m not going to let you fall. Now stand, Family of God. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. For I will be with you. Always.”

As the man for whom Martin Luther King Jr. is named after spoke nearly 500 hundred years ago – “here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

Well, Family of God… God will… and God DOES. Amen.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A tale of Two Celebrations

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

Wedding season is in full swing, and after the wedding service comes… the reception! With dancing… food…friends and family… and best of all, cake! But with weddings also come comparisons. I’ve attended two weddings already this summer, and they could not have been more different. The service for one couple was relaxed and full of laughter and joy. The other felt much longer than it actually was because the sanctuary did not have air conditioning! I know I shouldn’t complain, since I was not the one wearing a floor-length formal gown! One wedding took a while to serve dinner, but we didn’t mind so much while we were listening to the dynamic live band. The other served us our food impressively fast, and it was delicious, but after dinner in the extended time between dinner and dancing, the party fell flat for a while.

No matter how perfect the wedding seems to be, how smoothly everything seems to go, or how well-behaved the family is, something unexpected and memorable usually happens. I have a lot of cousins, so I’ve been to a lot of weddings over the years. At one outdoor service, the bride’s cathedral length train blew straight up in the breeze and almost clobbered the pastor. At another, the unity candle refused to light. At yet another, they ran out of cake. 

But some things about weddings are always the same. Two people get married. And friends and family come celebrate, and there is almost always food – and plenty of it. Have you ever gone to a wedding and left hungry?

There are no weddings in today’s readings. But there are two different gatherings with food and surprises. The first party happened just before the reading we heard day. We begin by hearing of Jesus’ reaction to the beheading of John the Baptist, his cousin and the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John had run into some trouble in speaking out against King Herod, who ruled the region. Now, this is NOT the King Herod that threatened to kill young Jesus earlier in Matthew, but THIS Herod was ALSO bad news. Herod is not the kind of guy you go around criticizing, and that is exactly what landed John the Baptist in prison.

Herod threw a huge party for his birthday, and was so pleased with the dancing of his step-daughter that he swore before all his guests that he would give her whatever she wanted. The girl, prompted by her mother, the current wife of Herod and the target of John’s criticism, told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And because he had made his promise so public, Herod HAD to go through with it, or lose face in front of all his guests.  

Of course, when Jesus heard about it, he wanted some time to grieve for his friend. And perhaps to regroup, since surely once John was gone, Jesus would be Herod’s next target. But the crowds would not let Jesus lay low for long. And instead of sending crowds away, Jesus had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As people compare weddings, we also can compare these two feasts. At Herod’s birthday banquet, the guest list was limited to a very exclusive and elite group of powerful people. In this select assembly were the regions’ rich and powerful, and they feasted on the best food and had the best entertainment.

And in the end this party lead only to death – the death of a prophetic voice at the hand of a king who did it to safe face at his own birthday party.

At the surprise feast of Jesus, what some have named “the feeding of the five thousand,” it was not just the rich and powerful who were given food – all the people present were satisfied. The feeling of being full is so common to us, we don’t realize that it was a rare occurrence for the people of Jesus’ time.

These people at Jesus’ party may not have feasted on rich food, but had their fill of a simple meal of bread and fish. There was no music, expect for the grateful cheering and laughter of people made whole, and no dancing - except perhaps by those newly healed.
This is a party that leads to life – it is a feast where compassion is the host, where all are fed and all or healed – men, women, and the children there too. Actually, some estimates say as many as twenty thousand people – or more! - might have been present, since Matthew only decides to mention the number of men.

Jesus has no guest list. He doesn’t ask them for their credentials, call their references, or demand they prove their need. Instead, he heals. He feeds. He has compassion on twenty thousand people. The menu might not be as fancy as Herod’s feast, but with Jesus we know that our host is kind and compassionate, not driven by greed or self-preservation.
At Jesus’ party, there is always enough for everyone. Even when there only seems to be a little bit – just five loaves of bread and two fish – even that little bit is enough for Jesus to work miracles.

The truth is we would never have been invited to Herod’s party. Maybe, if we were lucky, we would have been servants and gotten to eat the leftovers – if there were any. But in reality, we are like the ones in the crowd, desperate to see Jesus, hungry and dusty and in need of healing.

But we can also be the disciples too. We can look around us and wonder how can Jesus care about all THOSE people, too. Send them away, Jesus. Surely you have better things to do with your time. Surely there could never be enough of Jesus for everyone. Better keep some back, just in case.
But, like the woman in Jesus’ parable from last week, the woman takes just a little yeast and mixes it into dough in order to make it rise, Jesus only needs just a little bit in order to do great things. Five loaves of bread and two fish to feed twenty thousand. Just a small seed is needed for faith to grow. Just a few sproutlets of wheat among the weeds. Just twelve blue-collar common men who would later do miracles in Jesus name. Just a small hope tucked away deep in the heart that the sun will rise on a new day. That’s all Jesus needs in order to do amazing things in our lives.

But the story doesn’t stop there. After Jesus takes the bread and the fish, he gave it to his disciples to hand out the life-giving meal, to do his work. We are the ones sent out. It may be God’s work that we do, but it is our hands that make it happen.

Just as Jesus gives life to people in something as simple as a full stomach, we are called to do the same. After all, there are plenty of hungry people in our own time.

But we certainly can’t feed the whole world by ourselves. Let alone twenty thousand people. But Jesus can take something as small as a two-hour time block and turn it into meals for hundreds of hungry people around the world – through us and using organizations like Feed My Starving Children. In fact, this fall we are starting to put together a group from here to go over to Del Val University to take a shift in packing meals for people all over the world. And all it takes is a few hours of our day.

The feast that Jesus provides for us – rather than the feast of the Herods of the world – is about sharing what we have been given by our generous God, no matter how insignificant the offering seems. Jesus shared his life with the likes of us, giving us his life so that we may live too. And then Jesus hands the work over to us, to keep on healing and feeding in his name, until of God’s people are filled and made whole. 

(Here I impromptu shared my children's sermons, for which I brought 12 leftover containers as a visual of how much God's overflowing love is for us.)

And even after all that, there will still be LEFTOVES. Thanks be to God. Amen.