Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ashes to Ashes, and Dusty Hearts

Ash Wednesday 2-14-18

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

Lent really snuck up on us this year, didn’t it? It seems like just yesterday we were taking down Christmas decorations… and frankly my Christmas wreath is still up on my door! Sure, it’s getting browner and browner by the day… but have I had time, mental headspace, or the energy to take it down…? not yet obviously! And now, here we are. It’s Ash Wednesday already, and I don’t think I AM ready for Lent to start!!! Are you?

I feel SLIGHTLY better that Christian mystic Henri Nouwen felt the same way… he wrote, “I am certainly not ready for Lent yet…. I could have used a few more weeks to get ready for this season of repentance, prayer, and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus.” And yet here it is again, like it is every year.

It’s a heavy season, not to be traveled lightly, and I feel like I could have used a few more weeks, too. I’m not ready to go back into the wilderness when so much of my life is spent trying to get out of it. I’m not ready to take a hard look at where I fall short. I’m not ready to wear ashes on my head and to remember that I will die someday and become so much dust. I’m not ready to take a close look at my unclean heart. I’m not ready to let go of the things in my life that I should let die. I’m not ready for this journey, even if it is with Jesus at my side.

But ready or not, Lent happens. Just like life. Ready or not, life happens. Like Lent, life arrives like an unwelcome guest. We go about our days and regular routines and whoa - suddenly our lives have been interrupted our own personal Ash Wednesdays, when we become marked by death, grief, and pain. When we are suddenly not the person we were before, but aren’t yet the person we will become. And this feeling is certainly not fun.

As Lent sneaks up on us, like a thief in the night, the rest of the world has been reminding us CONSTANTLY - the moment that Christmas is over, really - that another holiday is coming… Today the world celebrates a holiday full of red hearts, flowers, and chocolate gifts, romantic love. Today seems to be a strange clash of a “holiday” and a “Holy Day” 2 days that seem to have nothing to do with one another… much like the premise of so many romantic comedies. Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day. What a strange couple. Or maybe… just maybe…. They go together better than we might have originally thought.

Imagine a valentine for such a day - “Valentines are Red, Wednesdays ashes are gray… You can’t spell valentine without LENT on this day.”  Or:

“Ashes to Ashes, and dust to dust. Being my valentine is an Ash Wednesday must.” These cards might be pretty hard to find at the Hallmark store. Which is a shame, because maybe the rom-coms are onto something…. Opposites attract in this case because love and death are two sides of the coin we call human experience.

After all, God IS LOVE… right? God created us to love one another. And as Mr. Rogers, Presbyterian Minister and beloved children’s television host, was known to sing on his show – “there are many ways to say ‘I love you’. There are many ways to say ‘I care about you.’” And it’s true.
There are as many ways to show love to one another as there are people on this earth. However, what Mr. Rogers did not sing about, is that too often there just as many ways to HURT one another. And by now, we have had thousands of generations of practice at it, and we have thought of every way under the sun to cause one another pain.

Not even our children are immune from our desires to hurt one another… it’s in our homes, our schools, we cannot seem to get ourselves from death’s grip, as reports came in this afternoon of yet another school shooting in Florida… yet more deaths because we cannot seem to agree as a species to priorities the health and safety of the youngest and most innocent among us over the widespread availability of instruments of death and destruction.

Even this holiday of love is not escapes the shadow of death. The origins of today are lost to the eons, but according to legend, today is the death day of Saint Valentine.  He was a rogue priest who supposedly performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, while also ministering to persecuted Christians… but he got caught. The story goes that he wrote a letter before he was executed and signed it “Your Valentine.” This was no cute note saying “be mine” with candy decorated with hearts. This was a heart-wrenching letter written by a man marked for death. And so weirdly, his holiday has become famous for being full of everything “cheesy LOVE” related - shiny, red, cute, and heart shaped.

I’m guessing, if you are human and have lived on this planet for more than a few seconds, your heart is not pristine red, shiny, or intact like the decorations. If you are human, your heart has become a bit smudged and wrinkled from life.

Of course, we all know that love and other feelings don’t originate with the half-pound blood-pumping muscle in our chests. But our hearts CAN so full of love we might burst. Our hearts can ache with compassion and empathy, or with longing or loneliness. Our hearts can sting from being hurt. Our hearts can get bruised. Our hearts can even get broken.

We have a saying that we “put our hearts into” things that we care deeply about. Some of these things seem innocent enough – family, friends, country, living a comfortable life, freedom. But, as Jesus says about treasures being stolen and rotting away… these things we think we should love above all else WILL fail us. Our homes and our cars, our careers, our health, our stuff we buy to fill the empty void we sometimes feel in our hearts…. They will let us down.

We are human. We love what we shouldn’t. We cling to what will consume us. We possess what eventually will possess us. We become lost in a wilderness of our own desires. Like the seductive tunes of the Pied Piper, our hearts lead us down a path that will end in our destruction and death before we know it.  We tend not to realize what is happening until we are already well on our way through the wilderness. It sneaks up on us, like Ash Wednesday, the start of our 40 days in the season we call Lent. Perhaps, on a day like today, with the headlines of death we hear all too often, it seems like we are already there, and there can be no hope for us.

One meaning of Lent is “to lengthen,” like the daylight hours in the coming spring, that hopefully will arrive someday soon.  We long for right spirits that love what will not leave us dusty or damaged. We long to stop causing and receiving heartbreak.  We long to be out of the wilderness and we long for the coming dawn. We long for hearts that are clean so that we can love as God has called us to love. We long to be able to store up treasures not of this world but treasures worthy of heaven, true treasures like love and justice and mercy and forgiveness and kindness and working toward the safety and well being of all people.

Ready or not, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is the time to take stock of our dusty, sore hearts. And we often find what we don’t want to find. We find our sinful and broken human states have left scars on our hearts. We find we are lost in a wilderness we don’t want to be in. We find that, like St. Valentine, we are marked by death.

God uses a mark of death, however, in order to claim us for new life. In a dusty cross smudged across our foreheads, we are marked for love, a beloved treasure that belongs in the heart of God.

We are not left in our dusty, heartsick state. We are not abandoned to the wilderness of our own misguided treasures. Our damaged hearts are not cast aside and thrown away, like unwanted valentines on February 15th. Instead, God renews our hearts, minds, souls, our whole being. The good, the bad, the ugly, the parts that feel unlovable and unworthy. All of it. All of us.

And so, we wear the sign of the cross in ashes on the outside to remind ourselves of the work that God is enacting on the INSIDE Of us. The confessing our sins. The embracing of our brokenness. The naming of our grief and disappointments. Beginning the slow and painful process of the transformation of our dusty and broken hearts into ones that are healthy and whole…. All the better able to love the other dusty and hurting hearts out there in our lives and in the rest of the world.  To love one another with our whole hearts… with hearts that are broken AND healed. With our Valentine’s Day selves AND Ash Wednesday selves.

We know that will likely take more than forty days. It will likely take our entire lives. But forty days is a good start.

It helps us to remember that at the end of these long, dark forty days -  or however long our particular transformation may take -  at the end of this journey there is hope. There is resurrection. There is light. There is love. There is life. And we aren’t doing this alone.

Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. God loves you always, and in that you can trust. Amen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Transfiguration: "Don't hide yourself away... let it shine!"

Sermon 2-11-18 Mark 9:2-9
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Frankly, sometimes the Bible can be pretty gosh darn weird. Every year, at the end of the season of Epiphany, right before we cross into the of the season of Lent, we get this strange little story from three of the four gospels - Matthew, Luke, and this year we hear from Mark– where Jesus - literally - lights up brighter than the Griswold’s house at Christmas.  It just seems particularly strange on a dark rainy day like today!! 

But perhaps it’s not quite as weird as we may think. After all, the season of Epiphany is all about light shining in the darkness, remember? It began with the shining of a star high up in the sky, which led wise men from far away to a child with the face of God, who would grow up to be the king and savior of all. And so, it kind of makes sense in its own way, that Epiphany ends with that same child, now all grown up, whose clothes and face and whole being are shining as bright as any star…. And this is something to celebrate.

Forget for a moment that the Eagles won the Super Bowl last week…forget all the Valentine’s Day candy and the onslaught of President’s Day sales. THIS is a story to get psyched about! Because it isn’t just a story about Jesus. It’s also a story about us. It’s a story… about… you.

For Mark, Jesus’s story begins with his baptism, where the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven says, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Doesn’t this sound familiar? Today we find ourselves right in the middle of the story of Jesus that Mark tells, at the event of Jesus’ transfiguration, where Jesus is transformed before his disciples and revealed his true resplendent nature.

Did you catch that word - “resplendent” - in the prayer of the day? I think it’s such a great word: Resplendent – adjective; attractive and impressive through being richly colorful or sumptuous. Synonyms: splendid, magnificent, brilliant, dazzling, glittering, gorgeous, impressive, imposing, spectacular, striking, stunning, majestic; splendiferous.

Yeah, I think it would be fairly accurate to say that Jesus is splendiferous, as well as resplendent. Up on that mountain top, God made Jesus resplendent and God called him Beloved, just the same as God did on the day of his baptism.

The day that YOU were baptized, you likely wore a brilliant white gown – perhaps not quite AS white Jesus’s was. But you might have still had a special glow about you, the glow that comes from being surrounded by the love of your parents, the love of your family, the love of your sponsors and congregation, and the love of God. That day, YOU became beloved, AND YOU became resplendent.

But the glow fades, and life moves on. We grow up, and it becomes easy to think that over time we tend to out-grow our baptisms, like we outgrow our baby clothes the fancy little white shoes that we might have worn. But what if our baptisms are something that we are always growing INTO? –sometimes (maybe too often) in fits and starts… hopefully, though, always moving forward, more or less, toward working out what it really means to be BELOVED and RESPLENDENT.

So perhaps THIS is why the baptismal gowns that we put on our babies tend to be much too long for the babies who are actually wearing them. As if it’s going to take a little time for them to grow into their baptism and figure out how to wear it out in the world. And for most of us, this is a process that we’re still figuring out, year by year, day by day, moment by resplendent, transformational moment.

But most of the time, I don’t FEEL very resplendent. Being resplendent, LIVING resplendent is kind of uncomfortable, and even scary at times. People notice. Much easier, much more comfortable, is it to stay up there on the mountain, where we feel safe and secure. After all, that’s exactly what Peter suggests. He knows full well that the world down there is a very dark and fearful place. Better to dig in and put off dealing with that scary world for as long as possible. Better to hang out with shiny Jesus where no one else will notice him up here on the mountain top, where it’s safe.

I think that the poet Marianne Williamson, who I have quoted in the past, shines a spotlight on our fear being noticed. She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” (Here I would add RESPLENDENT and AWESOME) But she goes on: “Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God….We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”

I’ll say it again – YOU were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. Year by year, day by day, moment by resplendent, transformational moment.

Now these moments look different for everyone. Sometimes they are big, resplendent, beacon-on-the-mountain-top experiences. Other times, it’s more like a small candle that bravely burns in the blackest night. You can have them at five, fifty-five, or a hundred and five. And they tend to happen to us when we are least expecting them. But once they happen, we are often never the same again. And often they become part of our “call” stories.

One respondent moment of transformation that happened in my journey changed the course of my life and I believe leave led be directly to the path of ordained ministry. It was such a small moment at the time, but I can remember it as if it happened yesterday.
Let me set the scene for you: The summer after my freshman year of college. My first week of my first summer of as a Counselor at Pine Lake Lutheran Bible Camp in central Wisconsin. Believe it or not, I used to be a shy introverted college kid who loved confirmation camp as a teenager…. but at this point during staff training I was wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. I was being stretched and coaxed out of my comfort zone. 
Let's play, Find Pastor Lydia!
One afternoon was spent in team-building activities as a staff, and our camp director LOVED to throw in a wrench here and there, to make them even more challenging and make us work together!  She would suddenly jump in and blindfold one person, or tell another they can’t speak or use their right arm to finish an activity, to up the ante for every challenge!

In the middle of one game, the camp director suddenly yelled “for the rest of this activity, Lydia is the only one with the ability to speak!”

After the initial moment of panic, I wanted to call a time out, remove myself from the game, insist that I am a much better follower than a leader. Surely, she didn’t mean for ME to be in charge.

But in that moment, a spark lit a light that God had created and instilled in me from the moment of my baptism, just waiting for the right moment to ignite. Before I even knew what was happening, I was putting a plan into action, guiding the group to a solution, and suddenly the task had been successfully completed. I … did it. That was around fourteen years ago, and I still remember how accomplished I felt at this moment. And I believe that this resplendent – transfiguration – transformation moment is what God used to launch me to where I am today.

Now your story is going to be different. And it’s your job to come down off the mountain in order to tell the tale.

When we tell our resplendent stories, the light of God that shines in us gets brighter and brighter. And the fear, though it might not go away completely, seems to become just a little dimmer. We can say, I am resplendent, and you are resplendent, because Jesus is the resplendent one shining out from our hearts. Through Jesus, we are witnesses to the shining, resplendent, lavish, dazzling love of God that refuses to be extinguished, even in the face of the dark powers of this world who try to snuff it out. We are resplendent, because we know, that, in the end, they cannot and do not succeed.

Arise, shine, for your light has come. “Don’t hide yourself away…. Let it shine.” Go out into the world… and be your resplendent self. Because, God knows, the world could use a little more light in it.  Because, God knows, it’s time to come down the mountain. It’s time for you to be who you are. Thank be to God. Amen. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Words that Matter

Sermon 2-4-18, Mark 1:29-39
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.

Every so often an article by Sojourners magazine from a few years ago resurfaces and makes the rounds on social media. It’s called “Thetop 10 reasons men should not be ordained for ministry.” This list includes, but is not limited to, these reasons:

“The physique of men indicates that they are more suited to […physical work]. It would be ‘unnatural’ for them to do ministerial tasks."

“Man was created before woman, obviously as a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment rather than the crowning achievement of creation.”

“Some men are handsome, and this will distract [some of the] worshipers.”

“The New Testament tells us that Jesus was betrayed by a man.”

And perhaps my favorite reason, appropriate especially for today: “Men are too emotional to be pastors. Their conduct at football games” such as the Super Bowl, clearly demonstrates this.

It’s easy to think this type of humor is funny because we think we’re passed all this…. It’s 2018, and little girls can grow up to be anything they want to be, including pastors, right? Especially when we contrast this world with other periods in our history, even recent ones, when women rarely held roles like senator, surgeon, or the owner of a prominent national newspaper like the Washington Post. Kay Graham, owner of the Post who faces many doubt that she could handle the crisis described in the movie of the same name, she uses a quote by Samuel Johnson to make fun of her detractors: “A woman's preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.”

We laugh at this line… But really the joke is on us…. Though this is not the 1700 when this quote originated, or of 1970s of Kay Graham and the Pentagon Papers…. but we’re actually still stuck in a world that CLEARLY is not a safe place for women and those who identify as women, especially in leadership roles. We sometimes forget that there are still denominations that call themselves Lutheran who do recognize women’s ordination. I remember being shocked to learn that 18% of the member churches in the Lutheran World Federation do not ordain women, and just 2 years ago the Lutheran Church in Latvia voted to rescind women’s ordination entirely, after women have been ordained there for over 40 years.

As women in public ministry, myself and my female colleagues over and over again have been forced to defend our calls to other people who doubt that such a call could possibly come from God TO US. All too often, their interpretations of the “word of God” is used against us. All women I know have experienced inappropriate comments about how much we weigh, how we do our hair, the clothes we wear, how young we look. We have been mansplained, stalked, harassed, and called names online and in real life. Our calls are belittled when the culture automatically assumes that the operative pronoun for “pastor” is obviously “he.”

Fixed it. 
For example, the internet meme that makes the rounds this time of year that goes “You should be as excited about church as about the Super Bowl. So, when your pastor makes a point this Sunday, pour Gatorade over HIS head.” Did you notice what’s wrong with that sentence?

Words matter. And word choices matter. Especially when writing supplies are limited, and stories passed on must be copied by hand or remembered by heart. The Gospel of Mark is a short Gospel, and there is not a single word wasted. Do any of you remember the homework I have you a few weeks ago? How many of you have read through all the Gospel of Mark yet? Or even started? Don’t worry, there is still time…. We have Mark until Advent.

Mark isn’t wordy, but Mark knows what he’s doing. He’s painting for us a picture of Jesus who is a man of both words AND action. Jesus chooses his words carefully. He means what he says and leads by example. And when he calls us to follow, he expects us to do the same.
Marks is called a “cosmic Gospel” highlighting the battle between good and evil, such as last week when Jesus encountered the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue. But today we’re going to cut through the cosmic to get to the core of the Gospel… Jesus’ encounter with a single person person, Simon’s mother in Law, in this case… and focus on one single, vitally important word Mark uses in reference to her, and why that single word changes everything.

Words matter. And the words we choose to use in every moment matters. And we’ve had two thousand years to pars to death the words written about Jesus… and we will still never know all there is to be know about him. Jesus will always still surprise and confound us. Like this week, when I actually cracked open my Greek New Testament. It was a little bit dusty…

Now, I’m going to get nerdy on you, and if you bear with me, I promise this will be worth chasing Greek words through the Gospel of Mark. We heard today about how Jesus healed Simon’s mother in law from a fever. Jesus took her by the hand …. And lifted her up. He touched her, and he raised her…. She was on the edge of death, and he gave her back her life.

And then she got up and began to make everybody some sandwiches… oh wait, what? The feminist in me rankles a bit at first to her response to the gift of new life…. as she seems to repeat the broken systems in place in her old life. Until, that is, we dig into Mark’s word choice.

After the fever left her, she began to serve… “serve” from the Greek word “Diakoneo…” where we get the word deacon (and deaconess). It means to serve, to minister, to wait at table, especially as a servant to other people. So, at first glance, not terribly counter-cultural…

But how and when words are used matters too, and this word diakoneo is used other times in Mark’s Gospel…. Going back in chapter 1, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, he was driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan. After his ordeal, angels came to wait on him… diakoneo.

And it turns out Simons’ mother in law, though she was the first woman to minister to Jesus, she was certainly not the last. After a man betrayed him, and Roman men had mocked and murdered him, and after all the other men disciples had run away and fled… the women stayed and kept vigil and mourned from a distance…the same women who had provided for Jesus over the course of his ministry…. diakoneo again.

And last, but not least, Jesus himself uses this word… about himself. As Jesus and the disciples walked along the road to Jerusalem, to where Jesus would be crucified, James and John – who also featured in today’s story – asked Jesus if they could be his wingmen in the coming kingdom. And the other disciples where ANGRY. So, Jesus called a “time out,” made them huddle up, and told all of them that those who want to be first should be last, and that he came not to be SERVED but to SERVE, and to give his life as a ransom for many… Diakoneo, yet again.

Clearly, James and John completely missed the point that day at Simon’s house. What they thought they saw was a woman healed and restored back to her previous role in a patriarchal society. What they didn’t realize they were actually witnessing was a woman who WAS healed and restored…. healed and restored, to respond out of her gratitude as a mode of true discipleship, following in Jesus’ footsteps. She is raised up by Jesus, to follow his call to service, and shows us the way by then opening her home and her doorstep to be the staging ground for the healing of an entire city in need.

Though Simon, Andrew, James, and John were CALLED first, SHE is first to live out her call - freed, restored, healed, and made whole again. SHE, who was not even given a name in Mark’s Gospel. SHE is the one who shows us the way – the way of Jesus. The way of service to our neighbors in need. And we would all do well to follow her lead.

She was the first woman who followed Jesus, and she certainly would not be the last. Women ministered to Jesus and even stood vigil at the cross. Women were the first to witness the empty tomb on Easter morning. Women like Priscilla, Tabitha, Junia, and a pretty cool one from Greece named Lydia, and also many, many others worked solo or side by side with their male counterparts to help be midwives at the birth of God’s kingdom here on earth. This is what all of us are called to do – members of the family of God with no exclusion for gender, orientation, income level, race, color, language, zip code, marital status, or age. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Meeting Jesus

Sermon 1-28-18, Mark 1:21-28
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Who here likes meetings? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? I know, silly question. I’m pretty sure just about everyone here has never had the thought, “You know what I could use more of in my life?... Meetings!

Unfortunately, meetings are how we roll. We have monthly council meetings to do the business of the church. We have annual meetings once a year to see where we’ve been and figure out where we’re going. The pastors in the Lower Bucks Lutheran conference meets monthly. The council of our synod, the Southeastern Pennsylvania synod, has a meeting every couple of months… and then every year in May we get together as a synod for our Synod Assembly. Every THREE years representatives from across the entire ELCA get together too… Whew…. We Lutherans have a LOT of meetings!!

There were a LOT of
Imagine, though, if your annual meeting happened every seven YEARS, can meet anywhere in the world, with almost a hundred countries represented and more than that many languages spoken …. With translator headphones and points of order and amendments to amendments … I am of course talking about the Lutheran World Federation worldwide assembly, which I got to witness up close and personal last year…

THAT puts OUR annual meeting in a little perspective, doesn’t it?

Meetings are very necessary to keep us organized, to get the bills paid and keep the heat on, to focus our energy and attention on important issues, tasks, and preparing for the future… but we should never forget that it is the meetings beyond the meetings where the real work of God’s kingdom gets done.

At the start of Jesus’s ministry in Mark, Jesus gets right to tossing out the old agenda and surprising everyone with an agenda of his own – that the time has been fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has arrived here on earth, and big things are about to happen.

Jesus knows that he can’t go it alone, so last week Jesus started his movement by forming his discipleship committee. He nominated Simon, Andrew, James, and John from the floor – or rather from the wharf, and they accepted the positions for one three-year term with an eternal opportunity to re-up. It’s all right here in the minutes (holds up Bible).

The first item on Jesus’ agenda? To show the powers of evil in the world that he means business, and that he’s not going to put up with anything that comes between us and God’s abundant life promised to us as baptized and beloved children of God.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and walked through the baptismal liturgy. If you recall, there is a remnant of an old rite of exorcism buried right there in our baptismal service. After the presentation of the person to be baptized, the parents, sponsors, and everyone gathered are asked, “Do you renounced the devil, all the forces that defy God… the powers of the world that rebel against God… and the ways of sin that draw you from God?” …To which the desired response is, of course: “I renounce them…. I renounce them… I renounce them.” We are to respond three times. That’s probably significant, because the next thing we do after these renunciations is to confess our faith in our Triune God in the words of the Apostle’s Creed.

There are forces in this world we cannot explain or control. There are forces at work around us that seek to draw us away from the abundant life that God has in store for us, powers that we are helpless against. And Jesus comes face to face with a kind of manifestation of that evil in the form of the unclean spirit who has decided to interrupt Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue that day.

Which brings us to the question: What do we do about this unclean spirit? Do demons exist? I think I’m with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on this one. She is a pastor in Colorado, is a self-described wrestler of the demon of her depression and is the pastor of a Lutheran congregation, who has written books and speaks at a lot of Lutheran event. What are demons? she wonders. Who knows? What she does know is that demons are that which Jesus does not want for us, in whatever form they may take. She says, “Our demons what nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them, and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And those are the lies that Jesus cannot abide.” (from her book Accidental Saints)

Whatever we may feel or believe about unclean spirits, demons, or manifestations of the power of evil, we have something and common with the man with the unclean spirit. There are things that seize us, bind us, and make us powerless. They whisper in your ear in the dark at 2 AM and remind you of every dumb thing you’ve ever done or said… tells you that you are worthless because you didn’t get that raise or that promotion… says you are a failure because your child can’t break free from their addiction…. Convinces you that you are not strong enough, or young enough, or smart enough, or beautiful enough, or successful enough to be worth of love.

To ALL THAT Jesus says, “STUFF IT, SATAN. Enough with your LIES. Shut your trap and GET OUT.”

The unclean spirit in this man was rightly terrified. It knew this was only the beginning of what Jesus had in store for them – an all-out assault on everything that holds humanity captive – sin, brokenness, fear, ever “ism” under the sun, hate…. Even death itself would not escape this battle unscathed.

With this exorcism, so begins the final phase in the cosmic battle between God and evil, one that still rages today, with our attempt at participation. And yes, sometimes God even uses meetings to birth the kingdom near. At the Lutheran Federation Assembly last May, Lutherans from all over the world ACTUALLY AGREE on some issues that need to be confronted: violence perpetrated against women in all varieties, the lack of care we have for God’s creation, the end of war and conflict in all it’s forms, human trafficking, rampant consumerism, and extreme nationalism. This meeting set a common agenda for all the member churches in the Lutheran World Federation, including to the ELCA, in how we can all work together in bringing God’s justice for all. Not bad for a Lutheran meeting.

And so the work continues and expands… with the Lutheran World Federation, with ELCA and the Southeastern Pennsylvania synod… and with Family of God. The original committee that Jesus started might originally have had 12 seats, but the mission expanded - we are all on it now, and our terms never expire.

So many things still bind us, though. Plenty of forces keep us from living fully into our lives as God’s beloved children. We are still possessed by so much that holds us back, we are paralyzed by fear of more things than we can even count. Fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of missing out, fear of change, fear of leaving behind the familiar, fear of running out of time.

Right in the middle of being bound by our fears - THIS is where Jesus meets us. And THESE are the meetings that really matter in the end – where we are freed to live as the Family of God, to “Share the embrace of God’s love as a family who welcomes, supports, and nourishes all … as a part of the body of Christ.” Which, by the way, is part of the Family of God mission statement.

As Jesus welcomes, supports, nourishes and makes us whole, we are called to go out and do the same. We begin by meeting Jesus here, in water, bread, and wine, and then by going out to meet Jesus in the faces of our neighbors. That is Jesus’ agenda… and ours too. So let’s get to it! Amen.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Elbows Deep in Fish Guts

Sermon 1-21-18, Mark 1: 14-20
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our risen lord and savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Credentials. It starts from the moments that we are born –is my baby making her milestones on time? Are we using the right reading plan? Is he in the most academically rigorous pre-school program?

Credentials. Whether or not our resumes are transcribed on paper, in our consciousness, or on social media, our credentials are always with us. what schools we've attended. upward mobility in our employment. How many friends we have on Facebook. How big of a raise we got last year.

Credentials. And we are always checking each OTHER’S against our own.  HER youngest son is a star athlete and just got accepted to Princeton. She spent three years in Indonesia feeding starving orphans. HE was a Julliard grad.

Credentials. We love them, we hate them, we build them, we strive for them, we compare them, we try to ignore them. But we cannot seem to escape them, whether we lived back in Jesus time, or now.

Unfortunately, in the church world… this kind of thinking gets jacked up to eleven. We can focus too much on the “credentials” of other congregations and too easily feel down on ourselves, comparing our small group of faithful to other church’s jumbo-tron screen, fancy lighting arrangements, flush children’s programming, slick advertisements…

…Which, if you recall, is exactly the opposite of where the Christian movement started. As we heard from the Gospel of Mark today, Jesus began the work of God’s Kingdom by collecting a small, scrappy band of bench-warmers to help him usher in the Kingdom of God. 

Imagine Jesus, walking along the beach. Now, this was not any old ordinary, relaxing stroll in the surf, taking, enjoying the scenery. This would have been more like a wharf then a beach: instead of people having fun in the sun, it was full of smelly fish and smellier people. But, undeterred, Jesus walked along, fresh with a blessing from his baptism, fresh with a mission from his time in the wilderness. Jesus was ready to do his own kind of fishing, to start his movement of bringing the love and justice of God’s kingdom into the world.

Who to choose for this brand-new faith movement? Perhaps the smartest theologians of the time from the biggest houses of worship. In addition, those with good communication skills would be a wise choice. Great orators and preachers would be a great asset, as would great historians, famous and powerful people with lots of influence, and also people with deep pockets to be financial supporters. People with good credentials. THAT’S who Jesus needs. Right?

But… that isn’t exactly who Jesus ended up choosing. Simon, Andrew, James, and John were certainly not theologians, great communicators, knowledgeable, powerful, wealthy, or even literate. After all, where did Jesus find them?... At the wharf, slogging through a day’s work at the family business, elbows deep in fish guts. In the middle of a shift at a minimum-wage, blue-collar job with no benefits, no pension, and no options. From a dump of a backwater part of the Roman Empire, where no one wanted to be from.
By artist He Qi

And yet, Jesus called THEM. Here was somebody who thought they were good enough, someone who thought that they were WORTHY to be his students. I imagine in that moment that their hearts jumped for joy. And then, a moment later as they dropped their nets to follow, their hearts might have dropped to their stomachs in utter terror. What would be next for them? They had no idea that during the next three years they will misunderstand, try to correct, question, and finally abandon the very person who called them. But Jesus called them anyway.

If it were not for these ordinary, flawed, credential-less people, WE would not be here, in 2018, at Family of God, listening to Mark tell the story of Jesus to us now. WE are here because THEY DID fish for people…. Who fished for people… who fished for people… who eventually caught US. … so that we may be CALLED by Jesus to follow him too, and fish for people ourselves.

For Jesus, it doesn't matter what school we attended or how much money we make or what our children amount to. We don’t have to fill out an application showing how many committees we've served, how many years we've faithfully taught Sunday school, been in youth group, or sang in the choir, though these are all worthwhile things. To be called by Jesus, to follow him as his disciple, you only need one thing on your resume: being a child of God. Which, by the way, if you haven’t noticed, you already are, by virtue of your baptism.

Perhaps your heart too has done that little dance in both joy and terror at the same time to hear the news that you are loved by God and called to follow. Yes, you. Whether you are young like Samuel, stubborn like Jonah, eloquent like Paul, thoughtful like Mary, brave like Moses and Miriam, faithful like Mary Magdalene, eager like Peter, curious like Philip, or a bit slow on the up-take like the rest of the disciples…Whether we are old, young, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, A-list or B-team …. From one of the richest countries in the world… or from a place that people in power insult and belittle, … Jesus has a place for you here…  among his students.

And he has called you for a reason…. to learn from him how to fish for people. And lesson number one, so far, which we learned from these four disciples in their very first minutes on the job, is this – everyone has a place. No extra credentials required.

The second lesson that Jesus teaches his followers is to be ready at a moment’s notice. You just never know when and where Jesus is going to show up. This can happen in the middle of your shift at your 9 to 5 job, elbow deep in fish guts, as it were. For some of us, the fish guts might be more like being knee deep in school students in classrooms, or insurance jargon on computers, or two-by-fours on a construction site. Where ever we find ourselves out in the world, that’s exactly where Jesus can show up.

The third lesson is that we don’t get good at “fishing for people” all at once. A more accurate translation of what Jesus says here is actually “I will make you BECOME fishers for people.” We aren’t instantly good at it. It’s still hard, especially at first, and we of course can’t get good at it unless we PRACTICE. This doesn’t mean get out the boat and the fishing tackle, obviously. But are there skills, interests, talents, relationships, and passions that we already possess that we can use, to share our faith and help connect people to the Kingdom of God?

Lesson four is to learn from Jesus’s example, as we follow in his footsteps.  What comes to mind for me when I think if following in someone’s footsteps is a sign that hung on the door to the barn on my parent’s farm. It was supposedly a quote from an old farmer, who said, “Don’t follow in my footsteps… I think I stepped in something!” You can pretty easily guess what this old farmer must have been talking about!

If we are truly to follow Jesus though, I think that we must walk exactly were Jesus walked, even it takes us to places and to people we perhaps would rather not go, and step into thing we would rather not step in. Jesus walked with people who were on the margins… people who were neck deep in dealing with the muck of the world… forging relationships with people of all kinds from all kinds of places…. Treating all people with dignity and respect. 

This will probably mean getting a little messy, stepping into places that might leave a mark on us, slogging through some muck with people, entering into the mess of what it means to be human with one another. After all, this is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus stepped into the mess of being human, to be with us, whether we are wading knee deep through our muck or are elbow deep in fish guts. 

So, hold on tight, because this adventure might get a little bumpy and messy at times, like it did for the disciples…. And you just never know what’s going to happen – you might bet wax on your pants! But God has called us to these ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown, But God gives us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that the outstretched hand of Jesus will be ready to catch us if we stumble.

I don’t know of any better prayer to pray at this time than one of my personal favorites, called the servants prayer. It has been a great source of comfort to me as God has lead me through this journey. Let us pray.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Stroll Through Baptism

Sermon 1-14-18
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

According to our readings Mark this year, Jesus has the shortest childhood ever. Just a few weeks ago, he was born, then last week for Epiphany he’s still very young when he’s visited by the wise men, and now, just a week later – BAM - he’s an adult. But then again, that’s pretty par for the course when it comes to the gospel of mark, which is the Gospel we are reading through this year. Mark tends to move very fast – going from scene to scene without time to take a breath. Since this is the year in the three-year cycle that we are in Mark, I challenge you to read the entire gospel straight through, preferably in one sitting – then you’ll notice a few things: it’s fairly short and Mark writes like he’s pulling an all-nighter and his Gospel is due at 8 the next morning.  

You will also notice: no birth story. No shepherd or angels, no Bethlehem or manger, not even Mary or Joseph get a mention at the beginning. Here, Jesus just appears on the scene, in fulfillment of the prophecy proclaimed by a camel-pelt-wearing, bug-eating prophet named John who baptized people out in the middle of nowhere. So, Jesus joins the line to get baptized, but when he does… something different happens. The heavens are ripped apart, the Holy Spirit descends on him, and he is called beloved child of God.

Wait minute here. This is not actually all THAT different than what happens to YOU when you were baptized. Well, maybe not the part about the heavens being ripped open. But we believe that when we are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes to us and we are called beloved children, welcomed into the family of God.

How many of you were baptized when you were a baby or really young? How many of you were baptized when you were older or an adult? Baptism starts Jesus’s ministry, much like it starts OUR lives -  at whatever age - as part of God’s family and the body of Christ.
Today, we commemorate The Baptism of our Lord, is a great opportunity to talk about …. Baptism of course. When was the last time you thought about your baptism? Martin Luther taught that we should think about our baptisms daily… but how many of us do? After all, some days it’s hard to feel like we have been chosen by God… in much the same way, it’s sometimes hard to see God’s constant and sustaining presence in our lives. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. So, at some point, the Church came up with the idea of “sacraments.” One of the early church teachers named Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “the visible form of an invisible grace.” Think of sacraments as giant post-it notes that can remind us of God’s love in our lives.

Lutherans, along with most other protestants, have two sacraments –one being baptism, and the other is the Lord’s supper. If you’re familiar with the Catholic tradition at all, you might remember that they add five more to their list - marriage, confession, confirmation, last rights, and ordination. No one would argue that these aren’t all good things to do, things that could enhance our lives a Christians and followers of Jesus in many ways… but it’s just that WE do not consider these other five things sacraments… or rather, they are not quite as central to our faith as Baptism and Holy Communion.

So… then what makes a sacrament a sacrament? Luther defined a sacrament as having two parts. First, it must contain: First, a word from Jesus, and second, some sort of early element, something tangible and of visible substance.

For holy communion, Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me,” and the elements are – (bread and wine). For baptism, Jesus commands us to baptize us in his name and promises to be with us, and the tangible early thing is – (Water, of course, very good).

Luther wrote a lot about this in his Small Catechism – which you might also say is the Lutheran Handbook for Dummies. It’s got all the basics of the Christian faith in there – the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, and short explanations on the sacraments, of course.

You can even have access to the  Small Catechism right at your fingertips, on your smart phone! The next time you get into a deep theological conversation about baptism with one of your work colleagues, friends, or family, - because I’m sure it happens a lot! - you can pull out your smart phone, and go right to Luther’s explanation of Baptism. Because of course you have all downloaded the Small Catechism app, which is completely free! And if you haven’t, this app can be found in both iTunes and in Google Play. Feel free to download it after the service though. But seriously, you never really know when you might need to look up something about baptism. After you’ve downloaded that, and also have read the entire Gospel of Mark, you can move on to reading what Luther wrote about baptism. It’s short, I promise.

Now we’re going to do something a little different… we’re going to take this time to walk through the baptism service and explore why we do what we do. If you would turn to page 227 in the front of the hymnal, that’s where our baptism liturgy begins… of course with prayer. Both options summarize what baptism is and why it’s important – how it connects us to new life in Christ.

Flipping over to the next page… you’ll see at the top, an option for either the parents and sponsors to present their child for baptism, or an option for the person to respond for themselves, if they are old enough…..

With baptism comes promises… the most important promise of course is that we are God’s beloved children and God is always with us… but with baptism also comes the call to live as God’s people out in the world. Look at that list here… how are we doing?

How have we been at living with God’s people and treating OTHERS as beloved children of God?

How have we been at listening to God’s word and coming to the Lord’s supper?

How familiar are we with the basic teachings of our faith?

How often to we crack a Bible open, or at least read a devotional book or email?

How often do you talk to God?

How are we doing at nurturing the younger generations in all things?

This is quite a list. Of course, living in a world where we a bogged down by sin, temptation, limitations, brokenness, and injustice… living the baptismal promises is easier said than done. So many things get in the way… and so that’s why there is an exorcism included in the baptism service. That’s right! I bet you didn’t know that! … at the top of page 229 is the remnants of parts from an ancient exorcism rite. At this point, we proclaim together what we are turning our backs on or renouncing – the devil, the forces that defy and rebel against, and draw us away from God… followed by the creed, which of course is the proclamation of what we DO believe.

Flip the page… and you’ll see the Thanksgiving at the Font, and hear a prayer written by Martin Luther that’s called “The Flood prayer.” Here we get a thanksgiving of all that God has done, with and through the gift of water throughout the ages… starting at the very beginning, back in Genesis, which we heard in our Old Testament reading for today. What began at creation culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism we are baptized into Jesus’ death… but we are also raised up to new life in Jesus’ resurrection.

….and THEN we get to the actual BAPTIZING part… finally! For something that takes about five seconds to actually do… it certainly has a BIG IMPACT. Whether you were sprinkled with just a little water, or dunked into a pool… whether this happened when you were 5 days old, 5 years old, or 50 years old… whether you were wearing a white gown or a white tux or just a white onesie…. Once you are baptized, you become God’s child forever, and you now belong to Christ.

In the ancient tradition of anointing with oil, a cross is drawn on the forehead of the baptized person, along with a prayer for the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, which comes from the prophet Isaiah. In the words of another, modern prophet, Stevie Wonder, here is where we say: “here we are… signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours, God.”

But baptism does not happen in a vacuum. We get baptized with other people from our faith community present for a reason – because we all need help in living out the baptismal life. As the family of God, we support and sustain one another in this work, in “bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” It’s a big job… but we’re all in this work together… with Jesus leading us and guiding our way. He has walked this way before us, and we could not have a better guide.

You may not remember hearing it, but on the day of your baptism, God whispered this in your ear, “YOU are my child and I love you!” We may not have SEEN the heavens rip apart above us, but on your baptism day God burst into your life and you would never be the same again. You may not remember FEELING the Holy Spirit descend on you like a dove, but on that day the Holy Spirit lit a fire inside of YOU, to let this light shine. You are daughters and sons of God, beloved, and nothing can take that away. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Star Words and U-Turns

Sermon 1-7-18
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

“In one thousand feet, take the exit on the right. Continue for three quarters of a mile. In five hundred feet, turn. Left. Left…..LEFT. Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn. Recalculating route.”

Have you ever felt that going through life can be a little like following the directions on your GPS? Everything seems to be going just fine for a while – when suddenly she doesn’t warn you until it’s too late you just passed the turn you were supposed to make. Or she wants you to take an exit that doesn’t exist. Or tells you about the traffic jam AFTER you’ve passed all the alternate routes.

Maybe that’s how this last year felt for you: like one big recalculation. Perhaps it started out fine, but took a few detours here and there, and you ended 2017 in a part of the map you weren’t expecting, and you’re finding that the map is unclear, and the usually dependable GPS lady is suddenly at a loss. Am I going the right way? Do I have the right directions? How in the world did I end up on this road, and how do I find my way around, now?

January 6th began a new season of light we call Epiphany. While the rest of the world has already finished up the after-Christmas sales and New Year’s parties, and put away the Christmas lights and decorations, today WE are observing the last element to the Christmas story. Wise men from the East finally show up on the scene followed a blazing star, looking for a child born a king. Today we too give honor to a king who so often comes into our world as a blazing light, surprising us in our hopelessness, and shining on us when we seem to have lost our way, like a bright star on a dark night.

Often we are too busy to look up at the stars anymore – and especially around here there is so much light at night that they are hard to see. And we have our fancy GPS devices and apps, anyway. Do you remember the last time you looked up at a night sky full of stars?
When I was a camp counselor at a Lutheran camp in Wisconsin, one night during the week every cabin went out into the woods for a camp-out. It wasn’t very far at all from the main camp, and it was only for one night, but for every cabin of teenage girls I took out there, I may as well have been talking them to the Canadian wilderness. After it got good and dark, we would go on a hike to find a nice dark spot. Then… I turned the flashlight off. After a few moments I pointed out the North Star and why it was special.

Before there were such things as cars and GPS ladies or even reliable maps, people used the stars to find their way. Here in the northern hemisphere, people navigated by something called the North Star. Now, the North Star is NOT the brightest star or the easiest to find. However, while all the other stars travel around the sky during the night, the North Star stays fixed in place… making it so very helpful to find out which way is north… which can help you find the other directions. For slaves in the South a hundred and fifty years ago, the North Star was both a beacon of hope and a map to show them the way to freedom.

Each of those teenage girls lived in a world that was constantly changing. They were trying to figure out who they are and who or what they should follow. They were trying to find their way in a world that was often not very kind. But while everything around them swirled and shifted, the love that Jesus has for them will never change. would never shift or change or falter or dim, like a kind of North Star shining in our night sky.

In many ways that world hasn’t changed. The world was a dark place back when the wise men followed a very special star on a long journey far from their homelands, and it continues to be a dark place today. Then, like now, there was political intrigue and power plays.

Perhaps the wise men who followed the star had felt like it had steered them wrong like faulty GPS, when they arrived in Jerusalem. They expected to find a prince, born to be king. They certainly found a king all right, but one who was frightened out of his mind at the news that there was someone out there who would threaten his position.

Magi by Chinese artist He Qi
For people like King Herod, the darkness was just fine, thank you very much. The way things are is just great - the powerful would continue to rule the powerless, the strong would oppress the weak, the rich would lord it over the poor. All would continue as it “should” be, with the Herods of the world living it up while the hopeless continue with nothing.

But a light shown out in the darkness, a star appeared and rose in the night sky, and things started to happen.

The wise men had to keep following the star, and the light stayed with them until they arrived at their destination – Jesus, the one who would shepherd his people, who had been called Messiah and Savior and Lord by an angel to some shepherds working the graveyard shift in a field with sheep.

The life of this Jesus when he grew up seemed to take a few unexpected detours, too. He did not grow up to be the king that others expected him to be. Instead of wearing fine robes and dining in palaces, he broke bread with poor people and hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, the sick, and the forgotten. Instead of wielding a sword as a warrior, he used his words to teach and to heal and bring peace. Instead of being crowned and venerated as king of his people, he was worshiped and given gifts by wise men from another country. And later, he was crowned with a crown of thorns and enthroned on a cross… and not even that could make Jesus waver. The light that he brought into the world blazed on, and could not be snuffed out. 

These days in Epiphany will continue to grow brighter, little by little, by precious minutes each day. But while we’re in the midst of it, this little increase of light can be hard to notice. We all need reminders that the light is indeed growing in our days, and that the light of Jesus is with us, shining in the darkness of our hearts. We also could use a reminder that that Jesus wants us to let this light shine out so that others can see it.

For the wise men, this reminder was a star. But for us, in these days, it can be something smaller and less interstellar. It can be something physical, perhaps something that you use often or see every day.

Last year I was introduced to something called “Star words.” Star Words are like the opposite of a new year’s resolution – instead of a goal you choose for yourself because you feel deficient in some way, and failing at it before February… A star word is a gift that you receive that you carry with you for your whole year. You receive a word, not of your own choosing, to listen to how God is speaking to you through that word 2018. Last January, my star word was “release,” and God spoke to me a lot through that word this year, I think.

In 2017 God showed me how to release my fear of the unknown and doing lots of things for the first time by myself. ….to release my worry about the things that I can’t control. To free myself from over analyzing and second guessing myself. To stop gripping both mistakes and successes too tightly, and to give them both to God instead. All that, from one little Star Word.

This year I got another Star Word from another friend. I can’t wait to see where this word will show up in my life this year. For 2018, my word is “illumination.”

You’re going to get a star word today too, if you would like one. There will be a couple of star stations set up, one on each side, so that you can take a star as you go back to your seat after communion, if you wish. This is for any and all ages, and you can feel free to share what your star says, or keep it to yourself. Take this star, and hang it somewhere you can see, so that you may be reminded in the coming year that God loves you, and Jesus arrived into this world to give life and love to all of us – even the dim bulbs and the broken lights that we may feel like sometimes. Even when we feel lost and our lives are in constant need of U-turns and recalculations and detours.

May this star word, and the coming light of this Epiphany season, give YOU some illumination this year. May Jesus enlighten your life in 2018, and guide you as a light that never dims, never wavers, and will always brighten whatever in your life seems dim and hopeless. Amen.