Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Books I Read in 2012

In no particular order:

Life Together: A discussion of Christian fellowshipDietrich Bonhoeffer

In The Time Of The Butterflies Julia Alvarez

Theirs Is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America - Robert D. Lupton

The Flight of Gemma Hardy Margot Livesey

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story - Susan Freinkel

Spiritual Writings - Leo Tolstoy

The Next Christians - Gabe Lyons

The Language of Flowers - Vanessa Diffenbaugh 

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine - Peter Rollins

Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God Christian Scharen

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gospel According to Charles Dickens

My husband is reading a book about Christmas traditions, and he told me that our modern concept of Christmas celebrations date back to around the time of Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol. It seems like every year someone is putting it on as a play or a new movie version is coming out. But my all-time favorite Christmas movie has to be The Muppet Christmas Carol. It's just classic. It follows the book fairly accurately and the dialogue is just great. But as we were watching it this Christmas (the first time in a while since I've seen it), I was struck by how deeply Christian A Christmas Carol actually is. Let me show you (and so I get to take on the role of Omniscient Narrator!).

I think that A Christmas Carol is actually a modern retelling of the story of Zacchaeus of "wee little man" fame from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19. According to the song, poor vertically challenged Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus and solves his problem by climbing a tree. Jesus surprises him by inviting himself over to Z's house. What the song doesn't tell you is that our friend Z here is a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated at that time because not only did they collect taxes from the oppressed people of Israel to go in the coffers of the oppressing Romans, but tax collectors made their living by collecting extra. They got rich from charging their own people an exorbitant "handler's fee." That's why "tax collectors and sinners" usually went together in the mind of people at the time.

Luke tells us that Z was RICH. (Hmmmm, sound a little familiar?) What the song also doesn't say is what happened next:

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:7-10)

Remember for a moment Pre-Ghost Scrouge and his attitude toward the poor and needy in a nutshell: 

“If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” 

Now note his actions toward the needy Cratchet family Post-Ghost: 

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

In the Muppet version, Scrooge (a rich and powerful man in London) is seen giving a generous donation to a fund for the homeless, giving gifts at a nursing home, and giving his long-suffering assistant a generous raise while providing his family (and it looks like the entire community) a sumptuous Christmas feast. Hmmm, sound familiar? 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, 
to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:46-55)

Scrooge clearly experienced a salvific conversion event, (like Zacchaeus) and he will never be the same. He is using the wealth that he had greedily squeezed out of everyone he could take advantage of, and using it to repay the damage it had done. He was a person in power but began to use that power to help people. Salvation came to the house of Scrooge that day, and in the process he gained the family that he might have had but lost. The message that I take away from this tale is that no one is beyond redemption. And that is the power of a good story. 

So the next time you roll your eyes at yet another adaptation or a corny reference to this Christmas classic (it's so tempting I know!) think on this wise but oft overlooked Christmas sermon by Tiny Tim, as retold by Mr. Cratchet:

"[Tiny Tim] told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God the Peace Warrior

A preface: It's the reality of preaching that sometimes what you have prepared during the week just isn't going to fit come Sunday, especially when something major happens, either in the life of the community or the outer world. What I had already prepared just didn't seem to fit with what I was feeling this last weekend, and I know that there were people who needed to hear some words of hope about the death of those kids. So this is my "Saturday afternoon special."

During Sunday morning worship it felt like everything we did, every song we sang and word we spoke as a congregation had taken on a special meaning. Everything we did had taken on this weightiness, a deepness that felt like what we were doing was a matter of life and death (which it is, really). And in the end, it was deeply cathartic and healing, like something evil had been flushed from the air and we could now lift up our heads without fearing what we would see. 

Anyway, here is what God used me to say: 

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

Today it’s hard to feel like celebrating. The Christmas lights are still going up, the cheerful holiday music is still playing, and the malls are still as packed as ever at this time of year. And yet, open any newspaper or log-in to any social media site and you cannot escape the horrible details of what happened two days ago in that school in Connecticut.  The festive holiday carols seem to turn bitter in our mouths as we think about the families for whom this Christmas will be unthinkably heartbreaking.

Every death is tragic and a cause for sadness by family and friends. The death of a child is especially agonizing.  But the death of children as victims of a senseless and violent act is nearly incomprehensible.

This tragedy rattles us to the very marrow of our trust in God; it penetrates to the very core of who we believe our God to be. It causes us to ask ourselves, how could a truly good God allow such a thing to happen to the most innocent and helpless among us?

There are no easy answers to be found. For countless centuries, we have been hurting and killing one another even as we have tried to understand why. And for just as long we have wondered why God doesn’t just get completely fed up with us and either turn us into do-gooder robots or completely leave us alone to destroy one another. Apparently God refuses to do either, and our best guesses can never adequately explain why.

But there is one thing we do know, one thing that we profess even in the midst of intense suffering and even despair - we cling to the hope that the Lord is near and is in our midst. And this is how we can rejoice even in the midst of tragedy. This is why we can still light our third candle, the joy candle, in our Advent wreath today.

In less than two weeks’ time, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Lord and savior. On Christmas Eve we will be singing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” and “joy to the world.” Truth be told, though, the world that Jesus was born into was not very joyful at all. The moments of calmness and brightness were few and far between. By this time the people of Israel had been under the subjugation of one empire or another for hundreds of years. Israel’s latest oppressors, the Roman Empire, enforced peace by their military might, and generally treated them as second-class citizens in their own country. Any other child born the same night as Jesus had a short and harsh life to look forward to, and that’s only if they succeeded in keeping their head down and doing what they were told. If they didn't, the punishment was brutal and fatal.

Things had not improved much by the time Jesus had grown up. The people still prayed that their messiah would come and deliver them from their bitter existence, to mightily kick the Romans out of their land and establish a great kingdom of their own. But I imagine that they were getting very tired of waiting by now. God had seemed to be silent for so long, they must have begun to wonder if God had indeed forgotten them. Then enter John the Baptist, stage right.

It’s not hard to see why the people began to think that John the Baptist might be their man, with his booming voice and fearless truth-telling. I would probably never be brave enough to begin a sermon: “You children of snakes!” But John had no fear. He was not afraid to call out the religious authorities on their hypocrisy. He was also not afraid to call out the immorality of those in power – and it is his critique of King Herod that lands him in prison and leads to his beheading later on.

John was not afraid because he knew that the Lord was near, and was in their very midst. When the people began to hope that John was the Messiah they had been hoping for, he immediately set them straight. John told them – you think what I’M doing is radical and life-changing? Just you wait! I’m only the warm-up act. The one coming after me is the main event, and because of him, EVERYTHING is going to change!

Fast forward two thousand years, and how much has really changed? For all of our modern marvels of technology, our breakthroughs in science, our fast travel and even faster means of communication, are we better off now? In many ways, yes, our lives have vastly improved compared to those in the past. But instead of being a slave to Caesar, we find ourselves slaves to consumerism. Instead of short lives of hardship, we are slowing dying of excess.  Instead of physical isolation and separation, we now hide from ourselves and others inside our computers. And with all our technological prowess, we have also found more efficient and elaborate ways to hurt one another. In all this time, we have not really changed.

But in all this time, God has not changed either. And that’s a good thing. The faithfulness, the love, and the goodness of the Lord toward God’s people have remained the same, today, tomorrow, and always. The Lord is always near to us, and our God is always in our midst, even in the midst of pain and suffering. ESPECIALLY in the midst of pain and suffering.

 God has always been in the thick of it with us. No amount of misery, no amount of self-destructive tendencies, no amount of violence could ever make God turn away from us. No life is too broken, no sorrow is too deep, no death is too tragic for God to be near.  

To cut a young life short in such a violent way is a wrong beyond imagining. It is upsetting and infuriating. Be angry. Yes, even be angry at God. Shake your fists at the heavens and yell, even. “God, how could this happen?” But cling even tighter to the hope in the nearness of God, even if you are barely holding on by your fingertips. And hope even more boldly that violence cannot and will not triumph forever.

In the words of the prophet Zephaniah, our Lord is a warrior, but not one who wins victory for himself alone. Our Lord is a warrior, but one who saves the lame and gathers the outcast and makes them part of the community. Our Lord is a warrior who takes away shame, and restores, and renews. Our Lord is a warrior who does not use weapons or force, but instead reveals himself to us in the form of a helpless baby to show us that oppression and violence are unacceptable. Our Lord is a warrior of peace.

And this indeed is cause for rejoicing.

Though songs of praise may stick in our throats today, Zephaniah says that God sings for us even when find we cannot. Disasters can and will still come, but we do not need to fear them. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

At this time and in all times, I pray that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another mediation on the F word

So I finally watched the documentary "Miss Representation." It took my far, far too long to watch this, though I am grateful that it is now on Netflix, because there are rarely screenings nearby. There is way too much to talk about as a whole, other than to say it was pretty life-changing. Take a look at clips on youtube, order it from Nexflix, or go to a screening and see it for yourself. Like the title implies, it is about how women in media are being misrepresented. When shows, movies, and ads show women as beautiful objects to be desired with no depth of character or agency of her own, this is harmful to how women are viewed in society at large and whether or not she will be take seriously. This is nothing new, but the detail in this documentary is just staggering. 

But this documentary hit home for me the other day in a way that on the surface may seem really trivial. Basically, I wanted to go see a movie. Now, not just any movie. I didn't want to see shoot-em-up, action-adventure, explosion filled movie, though I easily could have. There are about 5 playing at the local AMC right now. I wanted to see Anna Karenina, the new movie with those famous people in it, based on the book by Leo Tolstoy (who wrote some really great Christian essays, did you know that?). Seems pretty easy to just waltz down to my local AMC three minutes away and get some tickets, right?

Wrong. (Warning: rant ahead, if you couldn't already tell.)

Anna Karenina is a "special" movie. It's a movie with a woman in it. Not just any woman, but a strong woman. A woman who makes choices (even bad ones). A woman who's a mom. A woman with conflicting feelings. A woman who is the MAIN CHARACTER. (Notice the title?)

So this "special" movie is in "limited release." That means that you'll have to drive out of your way or into the next state to see it, because your local AMC theater does not carry it. Because they don't think it will make much money. Because of, as "Miss Representation" revealed, a deep-held belief in Hollywood that women will see movies of stories about men, but men will not see movies with stories about women, and therefore there is little money to be made.

To them, I would say, have you SEEN how much "Twilight" has raked in?

And even though there are two very famous actors in Anna K, I have a feeling that it is in limited release because it is a "women's movie." Even though it is supposedly "Oscar material." And so, AMC will miss out on my $10 because I will be seeing it at a theater that WILL play it. But really, everybody loses when this kind of thing happens.

It may seem silly, but is it really so wrong to want access to stories about people like me? I don't think so. It's also making me seriously consider wearing my collar more, when I'm out doing things after being at the office, like shopping at Target. Because "You can't be what you can't see." Or, at least, it is much harder. And who knows? There may be a little girl out there who later in life feels called to ministry, who may or may not remember seeing a woman with a collar in a Target in some NJ suburb.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Whispers in the Dark

I was up to preach on Nov. 4th, less than a week after Hurricane Sandy hit. The church had no heat or light and no actually bulletin either, but both services were packed. Here is what I said about Lazarus and the hurricane.

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

I’ve always know that I can be pretty impatient sometimes. It’s hard for anyone to wait for something that they really, really want. But the other day, what I really, really wanted was electricity! Some of us already have our power back, and some of us are still waiting. But a few days ago, we were all pretty much in the same boat, waiting for the storm to go by and for the winds and rain to die down, and in many parts of the state, for the floodwaters to recede.

Some of us made it out better than others. I know a few people who didn't lose power at all. Others, like ourselves, got it a few days ago, after only a few (but very long-feeling) days without it. But others still don’t have it, and still others have homes and property that suffered damage, and still others no longer have homes at all. At a friend’s, we watched the news which showed people being rescued from their homes by boat, carrying in their arms whatever they were able to save – a bag, a pet, their shoes. We are all waiting for life to return to normal, though for many of us, the “normal” may be long in coming, and life in the future may look very different than it did before.

Waiting is not a new thing, unique to the situation of Hurricane Sandy. As long as there have been people who are unhappy or suffering, there has been waiting. Waiting for things to change, waiting for the suffering to pass, waiting with a hope that life will someday be better and that our distress will be a just memory.

Sometimes, our waiting is rewarded. The power comes back on. The pop quiz is postponed. The biopsy comes back negative. A potential employer calls and wants a second interview. There is just enough in the bank account to make ends meet this month.

But sometimes we wait and we wait… and we seem to wait in vain. Either nothing happens at all, or worse… the thing we fear the most comes to pass.

Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, was not just sick. He was dying. And his sisters Mary and Martha knew that his only hope was for Jesus to come and heal him on the double. They sent word to Jesus, urging him to come quickly. Then they waited. And waited. And waited some more… until it was too late.

When Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus has been dead and buried for FOUR DAYS. There was no mistaking it for a coma. There was no chance of a sudden recovery. The memorial service was long over and the luncheon had long gone cold. He was beyond any miracle that Jesus seemed capable of. Mary and Martha have resigned themselves to the fact that they will never see their brother Lazarus again in this lifetime. Their waiting and their hope seem to have been in vain.  

Then suddenly, they heard that Jesus is just outside of town, that he just heard the news of Lazarus’ death. Martha heard first and dashed out to confront him. She is the first to say what is also on Mary’s lips, which we heard a moment ago: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

We don’t have audio cues, so we can only guess how these words were spoken. Was Martha angry at Jesus? Was she crying and grieving? Or had she cried out all her tears by that time and was just accepting of the reality of her brother’s death? Mary, we read, was still crying when she repeats her sister’s words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

We join in asking their question:  Where were you, Jesus, when Lazarus breathed his last? And where were you, Jesus, when Grandma Louise got cancer and chemo failed time after time? Where were you when Mom got laid off the same week that the car broke down? Where were you when a life is cut short too soon, leaving a young family behind to pick up the pieces? Where were you when wind and rain combined into a rogue mega storm that ripped a path of devastation across the eastern seaboard, where people lost power and property, and some lost their homes and even their lives? Where were you, Jesus?

 “Lord, had you been here.” …

Jesus, amid his own tears of grief, went to the place of Lazarus’ burial. And in front of the giant stone shutting the cave where Lazarus lay, Jesus said, “Take that stone away.” It is no longer needed here.
Undeterred by the heavy stone, by the four-day-old grave, the reluctance of the sisters, the heckling of the crowd, unaffected even by the smell coming from Lazarus’ decaying body, Jesus called forth

“Lazarus! COME OUT!”

And Lazarus… CAME OUT.

Nobody was expecting THAT. You see, when our loved ones die, no one in their right minds expects LIFE to come from DEATH. But with Jesus, that is exactly what we should expect.

Mary and Martha thought that Jesus’ job was to PREVENT bad things from ever happening. Jesus was supposed to come and SAVE their brother from having to die – well, really just postponing the inevitable. Jesus was supposed to heal Lazarus BEFORE his illness became fatal. But we all know, deep down, that life IS fatal. There is no escape. Life leads to death.

But with Jesus, death … leads… to lifeIn Jesus, we trust that, even in the midst of grief and suffering and death, Jesus IS present, and he is also working through us to bring about new life.

Jesus has been our pioneer. He blazed a new trail across the landscape of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Jesus has “been there” in every sense – grieving the loss of loved ones; physically suffering pain, ridicule, and abandonment; and dying a death that the whole world saw as pointless. He knows what it’s like all too well. In fact, at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus shows the disciples the marks of the nails on his body to show them that it really did happen.  

Death may have left its mark on Jesus, but that is ALL it was able to do. No grave could hold him; no stone could keep him in. Behold – all the first things, the way that things were, have passed away - have DIED. See, all things are being made new! Even destruction and death.

This was my second hurricane. And while I would never desire to repeat this experience, I can say that I have learned a lot. I have learned that a time of crisis really does reveal who people are at their core. I have seen God can and does use the compassion and generosity of people in times like these, and I hope you have seen these moments too. And I encourage you to share these moments with one another. Where have you seen God at work amid the storm and its aftermath?

We of course feel compassion for the people who lost their homes and their loved ones this week. We mourn with their families, but we also TRUST that those who died are in the presence of God, that their crying is forever over, and God has wiped away their tears. We also place our HOPE in God who mourns with us and will someday remove from us the shroud of sadness and loss, even as we literally pick up the pieces from our lives. Together we wait and we watch for how God continues to be at work in our midst. AMEN.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Surviving Sandy

So, how did my second hurricane go? Much more lively that the first, that is for sure.

Actually, in real life it wasn't very funny at all. At first it did sound funny - a hurricane making a left turn in NJ, impossible! LOL etc, but pretty soon we knew Sandy meant business. We were at a pastor party on Sunday night and we were all laughing about the "curfew" but the next day we woke up and it was already windy and rainy. The wind and rain got worse throughout the day and our power went out about 5:30 PM, earlier than I had expected. We had our downstairs neighbor over for dinner by candlelight and ate some of our leftovers and some other things we bought that we didn't have to cook. We played some games and read by candle, but I was really uneasy about the wind blowing. We went to bed, and through the night we could hear the wind and also trees cracking. The next morning, still windy, but not as bad. Then we looked outside.

Nearly all the trees right outside our apartment complex had collapsed right on top of the power lines. Power lines and trees in the street. For a while we weren't even sure we could even get out. But PSE&G was there pretty soon and blocked off a place to drive that was safe. Then we got to our first intersection - no power. Treat it as a 4-way stop, right? Wrong, according to so many drivers around us. I was really freaked out about that. Fortunately by the end of the day most busy intersections were being directed by cops or left turns were blocked off. But I guess I didn't expect Jersey drivers to be..., well Jersey drivers! Not all, mind you, but enough to make me nervous!

Just about every day for three days straight we warmed up, charged up, and ate up at a friend's place nearby (the Clarkes - they live very close!). I never really knew the value of a HOT meal until this week. You never really know what you can and can't live without until you have to live without it.

Slowly as the days went on more and more power came back on in the neighborhood, and more and more things opened up. We just about did a happy dance when we were able to get some Wawa coffee! We even got mail and UPS before we even had power! I was a little annoyed that down the street from us one house used their power to light up their Halloween decorations. At a time like this, light up decorations just don't seem to matter very much, not when Halloween has been postponed out here until Monday night.

We got lots of offers for aid and comfort, for which we are thankful. At our friend's house we were able watch the news and see the devastation on the shore - people being rescued from their houses by boats, walking through the water barefoot and holding their shoes in their hands. Not an image I will soon forget.

On the night that our power came back, we had a feeling that it might be SOON - we had been watching the guys deliver the poles and string the new lines earlier that day. Our downstairs neighbor, who works with one our our friends (the Clarkes) and he called a coworker who called her who told us that our power was back! We turned up the heat, ran the dishwasher, and played our Wii!

Beau's church has power, but mine does not, nor is it likely that it will be getting power very soon. But Sunday we will be having a regular schedule, though no bulletins. I was able to write a sermon but I will have to print it elsewhere!

For some, the saga is over and things will be pretty normal on Monday. For others, things will never quite be normal again. Please keep the people on the shore and in NYC in your prayers as they literally pick up the pieces.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why my balcony garden was not a failure

... even though all I got out of my plants were a few green beans, decent chives, teeny basil, and a misshapen green pepper that I am trying to coax along until it frosts. No tomatoes (from two plants) no cherry tomatoes (two almost ripened, then fell off), and no peas.

And yet, I don't really consider that to be a failure, at least not a complete one.

There were a few things that I couldn't account for - the torrential rains, then baking sun, then torrential rains again. And the July squirrel attack.

A few things I could have done better - I tended to underestimate the pot size needed for most of what I planted. And I didn't fertilize at all when I should have.

Not only was this a learning experience that hopefully will help me next year, but it is also good for our God-given earth. A few weeks ago, we invited a local expert on climate change to speak at our adult forum time on a Sunday morning. She not only spoke about the things that we as a species are doing to mess up our planet, but she also talked about what we can do to help. Even our littlest choices, if made consistently, can at least help slow the damage that we have done.

Living in the suburbs, I have seen first-hand how our lifestyles can wreck havoc on our environment. I have been stuck in rush hour traffic many-a time and thought about all those vehicles with one person inside, and also felt guilty myself, as I drive home from church. Granted, at least I don't have an hour or more commute like many people, but I do my fair share of driving, and thus polluting. In order to get around out here, a car (usually one car per person) is required, because nothing is within easy walking distance of anything else (and frankly I would be terrified to cross most roads around here - much less bike them). We have built our society on convenience and individuality, and I fall into that just as much as the next person.

But I'm trying. I try to bundle as many trips to the same strip mall as I can so that I only have to go there once a week. I pack a meal with containers that I can wash when I have a late night meeting. And I planted a failed garden on my porch that did nothing but take just a little bit of CO2 from the air and replaced it with just a little bit more oxygen.

The earth is God's gift to us. And this is a gift that should not go into the trash.

Psalm 24:1-2 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
   the world, and those who live in it; 
for he has founded it on the seas,
   and established it on the rivers. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

"If I were a rich man...deedle deedle dee...."

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

What would make you get up and go? To make you get up out of your seat and leave, right now? Or what would make you leave work in the middle of the day, or to immediately scoop up your kids and pack them into the car, or to just get up and walk out of class?

Would you do that for a family emergency? Of course you would. Would you for the chance to meet a really famous person? Hmmm, Maybe?  Or for a really short but awesome sale at your favorite store, or for the chance to get free tickets to your favorite show? What if it was for the chance to see a person who you KNEW was from God and could tell you if you were going to heaven when you died? Would YOU drop everything and see this person? And more importantly, would you leave everything you owned, leave everyone you loved behind, in order to follow him? Not exactly an easy decision, is it?

We’re just past the midpoint in the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus is about to set his sights toward his final destination: Jerusalem, where rejection and death await him. Jesus has been trying to clue in his disciples that this is where he is headed, but so far they haven’t been very quick on the uptake. But Jesus knows what he has to do, and he is going to carry out his mission all the way to its conclusion, no matter what the cost.

So Jesus is about to take the first step toward his death and resurrection … when this rich guy flags them down before they've even left the city limits. A man, probably well dressed, ran up to Jesus, knelt down, and asked about the one thing in his life that he had left to worry about - the one thing that we all have wondered about, at one time or another: he wanted to know about the state of his afterlife. Had he, by his good deeds, in fact, been able to secure his place in eternal life? Inquiring minds want to know, Jesus.

After Jesus quizzed the man about the 10 commandments section of his confirmation exam, the man assured Jesus that he had kept all that since he had been confirmed. He had not stolen or defrauded, killed, or committed adultery; he had honored his parents, gone to church every Sunday, and often left a large check in the offering plate. He may have even been serving on a committee or two.

But in order to go to Jesus, the man must have felt that this was not enough. He might have felt a growing sense, deep in his heart, that there had to be something more to this “eternal life” thing than doing good deeds and avoiding evil ones. Even though this man had done everything right in the eyes of the world by becoming a rich, successful, church-going man, he still felt that something was missing. And he was right.  His abundance had become his lack.

In middle class, suburban America, I would guess that most of us could sympathize with this man’s quest. Most of us do not want for enough food or sufficient shelter, as most of the people of Jesus’ time did. Yes, these recent times have been rough, but I doubt that most of us know what it feels like to have gone hungry for more than a meal or two. For the most part, we’ve made it. Good houses, good cars, good jobs, good vacations. Life is good.

An yet… you have a nagging feeling that this can’t be all there is. Otherwise you would not be here today, in this place, at this time. Life can’t just be about the commutes and the carpools, the endless meetings and tournaments and bills. There has to be more than the endless traffic and long lines at the grocery store. There has to be more than the exhausting cycle of church, work, school, homework, dinner, practice, burping, changing, bedtime… and doing it over and over again, week after week.

We’ve done everything that we feel we’re supposed to do in this life, and yet… has it been enough? Have we been good enough people? Is God pleased with who we are and how our lives have turned out to be? This is what the rich man wondered – has it been enough?

It wasn’t enough for the man who had everything he needed and had done everything “right” in his life. Jesus, though he loved him, demanded something more. And if the life of this man was not enough, then whose life is? If this man did not get the divine stamp of approval, then who can?

The rich man left in despair, grieving for what he could not do on his own, and we will never know what became of him. But we at least have the benefit of hearing what Jesus said to his followers, after these hard words. Jesus did not end his tough teachings on the note of impossibility, to leave us in a place of despair. Instead, he gives us hope: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”

For God, all things are possible!

With God, it’s possible for the blind to see and the hungry to be feed and for the demon-possessed to be healed. With God, it’s possible for a poor teacher and healer from the middle of No-Where’s-Ville to be the face that God chooses to show us. With God, it’s possible that his oblivious students would become the mouthpieces of a movement that changed the world. With God, it is possible that thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, people like us can hear the same good news that those disciples preached.

And with God, it is even possible to find new life out of something as impossible as death.

The rich man despaired, because he knew that he couldn’t do it by himself. But he did not know that he wouldn’t be going it alone. He did not trust that all things are possible for God. He did not see what Jesus saw: that he was enough – a created, beloved child of God.

WE trust this God who knows what it’s like to struggle and to suffer. Jesus has felt what it’s like to be homeless and misunderstood, to be tested and mistrusted, to be abandoned and friendless, to be tempted to take the easy way out. Jesus gets it.

And Jesus gets that is a hard thing to ask when he calls us to follow him. He knows that it is a hard thing to follow him every single day of our lives, not just for one hour on Sunday mornings. He knows that it is a hard thing to give up the stuff we cling to, though we know they will just get in the way. He knows that it is a hard thing for us to follow Jesus on HIS terms, not our own.

But what if we really did live as if “for God, all things are possible”? What if we saw that we are part of a new family of faith that God is creating here among us? Take a look around you – see your mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters in this community of faith. Go ahead, take a look. These are your companions in Christ, here to persevere by your side, shoulder your burdens with you, and to do the impossible when we all respond to God’s call.

Responding to this call is not easy. To be here today, you may have had to leave nice warm beds or leisurely Sunday breakfasts or soccer tournaments. A life following Jesus will not be without challenges, but it will not lack in rewards. A follower of Jesus will gain much more than these things back – we will receive eternal life itself. For God, all things are possible. AMEN

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

May God Bless You With Discomfort

WHAT A WEEKEND! I can't remember the last time since I did so much and saw so many people and states in just four days! And, after visiting both my Alma Maters too, I now understand the term. It really felt, in so many ways, that in this trip we were (at least briefly) going back in time, back into the womb, to different formative places from our past.

First: Luther, both first to be visited and most recent Alma. After getting over our shock and jealousy of seeing the new coffee shop, we could not get over the feeling that this place (actually the entire Twin Cities) felt like home. They say that you can't go back, and you really can't, but this is the closest we'll ever come. We only caught a few profs, but it was enough (one even said "ok, give me your elevator speech!" like she knew that we were seeing tons of people for a short time and saying the same thing, basically! Gotta love Mary Sue!) And the bookstore was like a mini-Christmas. We even sat in on a Pentateuch class that one of our friends was taking, and it was like the exact lecture I needed to hear, about the "J" source of all things. Sometimes I miss being a student (but not the homework!)

Being back in the Twin Cities was such a bizarre and somewhat heart-wrenching experience. You never really know how much a place feels like home until you leave it for a while... and then come back. But the very reason that we may want to go back is the very reason that we can't, at least not for a while. More about that later (it was sort of a theme of the trip). The overall feeling I got from being back in Minneapolis was... calm. People there aren't in as big of a rush there. Frankly, I was surprised at how much I missed it.

We stayed with some friends who had gotten back from the peace corps literally WEEKS after we moved to NJ, so it had been at least 3 years since we had seen them. We stayed at their house, helped them with a last harvest of their lovely garden and put it do bed. Did I mention it was freaking freezing in the Midwest? 80 to 49 as the high in the space of a day. Anyway, then we road down to Waverly IA for the wedding with them, the whole time talking nonstop about their years in Burkina Faso, our year in NJ, the weirdness of life and seminary, and why the church frustrates us sometimes.

Waverly.... had grown up. And there is no one left we know as a student on campus, so Beau and I only spend about half an hour wandering around campus (we did find Dr. Mrs. Black!!!). We realized that the specialness of Wartburg, like that of Luther Sem, is that of its people and relationships we build there. Really it is nothing more than some nice buildings - but the memories are the important thing.

The wedding was lovely and the reception fantastic as we literally danced the night away. Again, it was seeing the people we had not seen in 3-4 years that made all the difference.

We had breakfast one morning and later lunch with some past beloved Wartburg profs, which were right there with us as we shared with them the frustration and joys of ministry, but most especially we felt their support as we struggled with the location that God has placed us - that the East Coast is such a different animal than anything we've ever experienced. Even after a year, it's still hard some days. But as we attended St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Waverly on Sunday morning and heard the sermon, you can't go right from wheat to bread. The kernel must be broken open, ground up a bit, stretched with discomfort, and more before it can truly become bread, bread that God can used to feed people.

It is because of this desire to go back to what feels safe and comfortable is the very reason we can't leave yet. And that is a very hard thing.

And there's even more from the weekend. (I never promised that this would be a short post). I was able to reconnect to a camp friend I hadn't seen in 4+ years, and we had one of those deep conversations about life and God and peace, justice, and urban ministry, dissatisfaction with the sometimes rigidity of established religion. I hadn't realized how age-lonely it can be in the church, but it is friends like these who give me hope for the future.

It has been a lot to process, and I'm still processing. But I will end with a benediction from that Sunday, St. Francis Sunday, which is attributed to him:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

2012 CROP Walk

Dear Family and Friends, 

This year I will be walking my first ever CROP Walk, and I'll be doing it with my congregation, St. Paul Lutheran Church. 

Just what is a CROP Walk?

CROP Hunger Walks are community-wide events that bring people together in a common mission: helping hungry people at home and around the world. And you can be part of it, too!

Please join me on this journey, ending hunger one step at a time. The CROP walk donations that St. Paul receives goes into the community of Hightstown, NJ. The mayor of Hightstown once met with area clergy and admitted that there are NO government aid agencies at work in the community, though there is great need. And yet, people are helped and fed.

Food pantries are open daily. Hot food is served most nights of the week. Shelter is found for the suddenly evicted. How? Through area churches like St. Paul and non-prophets such as RISE in Hightstown. But they need our help to keep helping others.

If you would like to donate online, my page through CROP Walk is: http://www.churchworldservice.org/goto/stpaulpastor2

It is a safe donation place and they accept both major credit cards and Paypal. Any donation you give will go directly to the East Windsor/Hightstown Ministerium (WHAM) group, which will disburse the funds to area organizations later this year. 

  "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

 Matthew 25: 34-35

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sermon From September 23

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
It’s hard to be a kid these days. First you arrive fresh from the warm safe space of your mother’s womb into a cold and blinding world full of strangers. And it just goes downhill from there. Then it’s learning to walk and learning the word “no,” getting bumps and scrapes and growing pains, and pretty soon you’re begging your folks to get you an iphone 5 and to borrow the keys to the car. And then, it’s time to look for colleges. Which one has the best programs? How much is it going to cost? And so on and so forth.

But all the worries that I just mentioned would seem like a walk in the park to my Three-year-old nephew whose has Prader Willie, (pictured on left) where his brain can never tell him he is full. Or my cousin’s daughter who was born with Cri-Du-Chat (right) and has already endured multiple surgeries. Or the little boy with cancer whose picture I saw in a store at the mall who is donating money to support his medical car.  Or the transgender kid in your son’s school. The child down the street with severe autism. For many of these kids, getting out of bed in the morning has become a miracle.

Jesus really loves kids. Just read the Gospel of Mark – it seems that every other story involves a child, whether Jesus is healing them or welcoming them. And it’s not just the cute and cuddly ones that he likes. Jesus is always healing the sick ones, the ones that no one but their parents care about, who are deathly ill or possessed by demons. He loves the docile ones and the wild ones, the ones that throw tantrums, and I think he has a special place in his heart for the ones who are always asking questions.

Is it not true that our kids seem blessed with curiosity and creativity that we somehow lose once we reach adulthood? One day it is nothing but “what’s that?” and “why?” and the next day it’s not ok to ask questions. An adult who asks questions are seen as not smart enough to be an adult yet. And an adult who asks questions of authority figures are labeled as rebellious and disloyal. And an adult who asks a question about God is judged as having no faith. It is little wonder that Jesus disciples were silent when they were actually bursting with questions at this puzzling teaching of Jesus. Put yourselves in their sandals for a moment: this is only the second time that ANYONE has EVER heard anything like this before. This is a message that WE as twenty-first century Christians hear again and again every Sunday – it is the very reason WHY we gather in the first place. But to Peter, James, John, and there rest, this was unlike ANYTHING they have ever heard before.

But if a kid had been with the disciples, he or she would not have been afraid to ask Jesus for some clarification: Just who is the son of man? Who will betray him? Why will he be killed? And perhaps most importantly: how can someone come back alive after they have died?

But alas, no child was present, and the disciples feared looking stupid or being accused of being without faith. So they lost out. And decided to talk about something that they COULD wrap their heads around – who will be the greatest once Jesus’ “Messiah show” fully gets underway? How will the rankings look – Peter then James then John, then the rest? Who’s gonna be stuck with twelfth place?

How embarrassing – to be caught haggling about the seating chart at the victory banquet instead of trying to figure out what in the world Jesus was talking about. And then having to eat the biggest slice of humble pie in the history of creation: Jesus brings in a child, whose worth to society at the time was even less than that of a slave, and he equates welcoming such a one to welcoming the very Creator of the Universe.

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Who could have seen THAT one coming?

Just about any kid can tell you what it’s like to be last at something – last one picked for the game, last one to turn their test in, last one to be asked what they think about anything. And I bet, if you reach back into your memory banks, you can think of a few examples of your own from your past. But to say that the last-picked are going to be first? That’s like asking the math nerd to go to bat at the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded. Who does that? Who would send an messenger to hand-deliver a message of love to the world in an age without phones, internet, electricity, or running water? Who would think that some annoyingly self-righteous monk named Martin Luther would remind the world about God’s grace? Who would send a young girl from a poor Albanian family to make such a difference in the lives of some lepers in India? And who in a million years would ask two hicks from the Midwest to go to the wild suburban jungles of New Jersey?

God would …and God does. Every single day.

A very wise and very tattooed pastor once said it like this, to about thirty three thousand Lutheran youth: “That’s the God we’re dealing with, people. This God will use all of you, and not just your strengths, but your failures and your failings. Because God’s strength is perfected in human weakness.”

Our God does not always make sense. The priorities of the kingdom of God have things backwards in the eyes of the world. It is the most lowly, the most vulnerable, the most unseen who are first in the kingdom of God.

God can take a humble child, and exalt her as the standard for discipleship. God can choose a rag-tag bunch of fishermen and make them into passionate preachers and teachers of the message of Jesus. God can use a tool of cruel and unusual punishment and refashion it into a symbol of life and hope for millions. And God can use YOU, with all your strengths and all your weaknesses and with all your questions, as a vehicle to bring in the Kingdom of God.

When you ask a young person a question and truly care about their answer, or when ask your child to pray at a meal, you are welcoming Jesus into your midst. When you stop and help a mother with an armful of groceries struggling to unfold her child’s stroller, you are welcoming Jesus. When you buy an extra can of your favorite soup to give to the food pantry or cook a meal for your recently widowed neighbor, you are welcoming Jesus. 

It’s not about looking like we know what we’re doing, because most of the time, we don’t. We don’t necessarily know what God will be calling us to do in the next moment, next week, or even next year. But we’re not in this alone. We have one another, of course, but we can always cling to the trust we have in Jesus, who welcomes into his arms even the least of us, even on our worst of days.  AMEN.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Sprinkle of This and That

So when I started this blog I mentally promised myself that it would NOT turn into just a platform to post my   sermons.... and that's what it's turned into lately. So here is me trying to fix that for the moment.

Once the dregs of Hurricane Isaac (with a week straight of 90% humidity) left us, the weather finally turned decent, and my respiratory system freaked out a little bit. I think my lungs had gotten used to not worrying about being, I don't know, moist enough and suddenly when the humidity is gone my body goes into mucus creating overdrive (not to be gross or anything). I was better by this morning, but it was touch and go for a bit.

Now that the weather is back to "normal" Beau and I have decided to be more intentional about drinking tea, especially in using (green) tea to help us wind down after a late night meeting. It might have helped had we decided to do this last week, between preparing a sermon, leading the youth group kick off event, doing a memorial service and burial for my vice pastor-ship, leading a book discussion, and other random pastor-y things.

But amid the busyness we are getting out and about. The other day we went to the Philly zoo (we watched the otters get fed, the tigers sleep, and listened to a talk on orangutans while contemplating Planet of the Apes) and last week we visited Terhune Orchard in Princeton.  After getting apples, apple butter, and apple cider, and eating apple donuts, we walked around and marveled that we were still in NJ. It was the perfect fall day. Doesn't it look lovely?

Today I learned that a "sprinkle" is what you call a baby shower when someone is having their second child. I attended a "sprinkle" today and realized how little time I get to spend with people (women) my own age. Occupational hazard, I guess. But it is nice when the opportunity comes around!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Rally Day Sermon!!

Sermon 9-9-12
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Vacation is officially over. It’s time to come home from the beach, to come down from the mountains, or to leave the city. It’s time to get back to our regularly scheduled lives, with school and work and dance lessons and football practice. It’s Rally Day, so it’s time to start Sunday school and confirmation class and Bible study and youth group. Of course our journey of following Jesus never really takes a vacation, but perhaps now is the time to make our “new school year’s resolution,” to recommit ourselves to a community we may not have seen for a while.  

Jesus tried to take a vacation once. Up until now the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been healing, feeding, and teaching almost non-stop. Plenty of people are impressed by his deeds, but there are also plenty of other people, mostly in those power and authority, who have interrogated, criticized, and rejected Jesus at nearly every turn. I don’t blame him for wanting to get away to clear his head, to a quiet place where no one would find him. Since he went to the seaside city of Tyre, perhaps he wanted to spend some time alone down the shore. This might even be a beach house – who knows?

But despite his best efforts, someone found him anyway. A local woman, who wasn’t Jewish, but desperately needed Jesus’ help.  Her poor little daughter was ill, overcome by an unclean spirit. Perhaps this woman had heard that Jesus can cast out demons. Or perhaps someone had told her that Jesus was a healer. Whatever she heard about Jesus, she went to that house that day determined to seek her daughter’s relief. She got on her knees and begged him to help her little girl. And even when Jesus gave her a hard time, she did not give up. She clung to her hope that Jesus could do something about her daughter’s suffering.

She could have stayed home and continued to pray for healing. But instead she jumped at the chance to lay her prayers directly at the feet of someone who could do something about it. And she was not about to leave until her prayers were answered, even if that meant getting leftovers from the Son of God.

Jesus is not often impressed, but he sure was here. He was moved by the persistence that this woman showed in seeking healing for her daughter. And so Jesus not only healed her daughter, he healed her without touching her or even being near her. And when the woman got home, she found her daughter’s energy and strength had rallied, and she was gonna be OK.

Up until now, Jesus had been ministering to his own people, followers of his own religion, in his own native country. Up until now, it is predominantly Jewish people he has been teaching and feeding. Up until now, it has been Jewish people who had been mobbing him for healings. But it was this woman from modern-day Syria who signaled to Jesus that it was time to think outside the box, time to break down all the barriers, to take this message on the road to serve a wider audience.

And now Jesus is on the move. Vacation time is over, and now it’s really time to get to work. He left the area, but he didn’t go back home, at least not yet. Along the way he met some people with a man in need. They banded together to get Jesus to help their friend who was deaf and could not speak. Jesus listened to their plea, and just like in Isaiah, the ears of the deaf were unstopped, and the tongue of a once-silenced person was now able to sing for joy.

Had they not gathered together for this common cause, this man probably would not have been healed. Because that they cared enough about him to bring him to Jesus, this man’s life was changed.

There are all kinds of things that we gather in support of. Our children’s sporting events or school plays. A benefit dinner for a friend with cancer. Participating in the CROP walk or a protest or a food drive.

But today we rally around our leader, a man named Jesus, who healed the sick and gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and a voice to the voiceless. Today we rally around Jesus, who had everything there ever was to have, even divinity itself, and gave it all up to be a nobody who died a painful and humiliating death on a cross. Today we rally underneath an instrument of torture that we celebrate as a sign that we have be reclaimed from brokenness and evil and death.

But we don’t just gather to rally around this Jesus once a year on the first Sunday in September. Every Sunday is a rally Sunday, a little Easter, a time to gather and remember and celebrate that the God we serve is greater than all the evil in the world combined.

Jesus is still on the move. And we have been given our marching orders. When our worship has ended and we disperse into the world, we do not just say, “Go in peace and act like if nothing happened here today, Thanks be to God!” even though all too often that is often how we live. No, when we leave here today and every Sunday before and hereafter, we “go in peace to SERVE the Lord, thanks be to God!”

And how do we serve the Lord? By rallying around others – the ill, the hopeless, the voiceless, the poor, the weak, and the dying. We’ve been given our marching orders: to fill the ears of Jesus with our cries, and to lay the burdens of ourselves and others at Jesus’ feet. We do this not to inflate ourselves or to fill our need to be needed. We do it because we believe that Jesus is going to do something about it.

Now, our prayers may not be answered in in the way that we expect them to be. I’m sure the man who had been deaf was not expecting a wet willy, nor did the Syrophoenician woman expect her daughter’s healer to be crabby. And neither of them expected Jesus to ORDER them to keep quiet about what he had done. But you can’t keep good news like that under wraps for long – it’s like saying “Here is your check for winning the lottery, but don’t spend it.” Or “Thanks to this new treatment, you are now cancer free, but don’t tell anyone about it.” Or “your daughter just got a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, but make sure that you keep it a secret.”

When Jesus shows up in your life, you’re not going to be able to stop talking about it. In order for us, gathered here today, to hear about what Jesus did for the Syrophoenician woman so long ago, she must have told somebody about it.  Same with the man who was deaf – if not for Jesus, he may never have uttered a single word his entire life. As you can see, telling your story can go a long way.

When Jesus shows up in your life, you’re not going to be able to stop yourself from doing something about it. Because sometimes, God uses YOU to answer someone else’s prayer. No heroics are required, just doing the little things with great love, as Mother Teresa once said.

As you are getting back into the swing of things, whether it’s back to work or school or getting your kids to soccer practice on time, know that God never takes a vacation. No matter what you ask, no matter when or how often you ask it, or for whom, our God never stops listening. Just make sure that you never stop asking. AMEN.