Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Here Comes Lent!

I totally did not feel ready for it. Like my colleague Jim admitted in his sermon at noon today, Ash Wednesday has a tendency to sneak up on us. When others are revealing their inspirational, extensive, and completely serious plans for what they are going to give up and add to their lives, I haven't really given it that much thought. Our lives here are so new still and we are just beginning to feel settled in a lot of ways, but I suppose we have still fallen into old ruts. One new rut that I have fallen into, partly due to the part-time nature of my call and partly due to laziness, I have been very lax on getting up at a regular time (that is before 8 AM). That's something that I want to change, even though I REALLY like sleeping. Maybe the "excuse" of having Lent can help me with that. 

This morning though, I got up early for a different reason - some dear friends from internship stayed at our place last night, and we took them out to breakfast before they had to go to the airport. What a blessing! 

I guess I don't have anything extremely profound to say about Lent. Maybe I can make it a time of forging some good habits in this still-very-new call, like getting back in the habit of reading Daily Texts. On internship, when we were "full time" interns, it seemed so easy to just start my morning that way, in the quiet of my office. It's like it created the time and space for me. Now I have to figure out how to do that on my own. 

Tomorrow I will be leading a Bible study with the youth group about Psalm 51 ("Create in me a clean heart, O God...). I've made it multi-sensory and multi media by including a game, some well-written Christian music, and an art project. I'm excited - we'll see if they are too!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I promise this blog will not just be my sermons, but for now, here is my latest...

Feb. 12

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

My internship year was spent in a Minnesota town called Owatonna, just an hour south of Minneapolis. This town was doing pretty good compared to the dying towns around it. But I heard an interesting story one day, relating to the famed Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, a big town about 45 minutes away. Apparently way back when the Mayo brothers were scouting for sites to build their clinic, Owatonna was on their short list. But, as it turned out, Owatonna didn’t want any sort of clinic to be there. The reason? Too many sick people around. I mean, if you think about it, who wants to attract sick people to your town?
What Owatonna didn’t know at the time was how health care would truly become an industry. A world-class hospital like Mayo would attract more than just people who need medical attention. It attracted restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, housing developments, malls, conference centers, and more. It’s almost single-handedly keeping Rochester from becoming like some of the other dying towns around it. People come from all over the country come to the Mayo Clinic to be treated by some of the very best doctors of our day. If anyone can heal all your ills, Mayo can.

Unless it can’t.

Naaman, the mighty warrior, had access to the best doctors in his country that money and power can buy, but his embarrassing illness still wouldn’t go away. What is described here as leprosy could have been any number of skin diseases, but the fact remains – this famous and successful army general had something like a really bad, unsightly rash that could not be cured. Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger had contracted a stubborn case of the chicken pox, and you might have something close to this situation.

The king that Naaman served would stop at nothing to get his favorite general healed, sending a small fortune to the king of Israel to sweeten the deal. And Naaman practically brought a parade with him when he arrived at Elisha’s house, loaded with gifts as well. It’s not too hard to translate this into modern times, with rehab centers reserved for the rich and famous, expensive cutting-edge treatments on a moment’s notice, and the smartest specialists on the planet on speed-dial.

But most people don’t have access to those kinds of resources. The person with leprosy in our Gospel story certainly didn’t. He wasn’t a prominent or powerful person by any means. He was just a regular guy with a terrible skin disease, which actually made him worse than a “nobody.” It made him “unclean,” which basically means not only is his skin ailment contagious, but also his disgrace as well.

Nobody wants this kind of person around, do they? So people like this man with leprosy tended to live on the outside, looking in – outside of cities and market places, outside places of worship, outside of any kind of communal life.

Who are these people today? I don’t think the list has changed that much in two thousand years. Then, like now, those who are “healthy” do not want to be around those who are “sick.” “They” shouldn’t have to be seen. They can all go to Mayo Clinic – that’s great – as long as they are not in our day to day lives. Our obsession with the appearance of health and vigor alienates those who do not measure up. So, too often, we end up treating them like non-people.

But our God is in the business of healing and wholeness. While the Mayo Clinics of his day failed the man with leprosy, Jesus did not. Though he was in the middle of a preaching tour, Jesus stopped and listened with compassion to the request of a sick and lonely man.
That day Jesus saw more than just a man with leprosy, a leper, an outcast, a disgrace. He was more than just a stubborn medical mystery to be cured. To Jesus, he had name and a face and a history of suffering a mile long. Jesus saw him. Jesus touched him. And Jesus made him whole again.

You see, most of us don’t wear our terminal illness on the outside. Most of us don’t go about our day to day activities with a medical chart around our necks. But if we did, they might say things like: lonely, consumed with worry for aging parents, miscarried, lost my job, failing grades in school, recently divorced, the list goes on. We could all use a trip to the Mayo Clinic of the mind, body, AND spirit.  But would they welcome us there? Would we find the help we need?

We think that this list becomes who we are. You may think that there is no way a person in your situation could ever find healing and wholeness. There is just too much pain to ever find healing, too much hurt, to many broken promises or relationships to even imagine it. The wound is just too gaping and fresh. The leprosy is just too widespread. We’re just not eligible, we say; we have a pre-existing condition. We tend to think we belong on the outside, looking in.

I don’t think the man with leprosy got that memo. What in the world was he thinking? To have the audacity to approach Jesus and ask for healing so boldly? Who does he think he is, Naaman or something?

Both men with leprosy got the healing that they sought after. How ironic is it, though, that the powerful Naaman never got a glimpse of the face of the prophet who healed him, but this poor nameless man got the attention and the healing touch of Jesus. But that’s how God tends to work – humbling the strong and mighty, seeing the invisible, hearing the silenced, and touching the contagious.

God is in the business of healing and wholeness. Rich or poor, American citizen or not, married or single or somewhere in between, God is not afraid of staring our sickness straight in the face. In this cosmic staring contest, God will never blink. God is willing to go places we don’t even want to go ourselves. While we are still afraid to ask, God says to us: “I DO CHOOSE!”

But this choosing and this healing may not look entirely like healing to us. Naaman and the other nameless man seem to have gotten off easy. Their healing involved a curing of their visible illness. Other types of healing take years for the wound to knit closed and for the scars to begin to fade, both inside and outside. And sometimes, healing looks like dying.
Let’s go back to another experience I had while I was on internship, this time, at a hospice center, not worlds away from the Mayo Clinic. Mary was a saint of the congregation, but I had only known her for a few months before her health took a turn for the worse. She was going fast – barely conscious, barely able to hear. But in her life she loved taking communion, and when she was still able to speak she would ask for it. So one morning, a few days before her death, I found myself in her hospice room, practically shouting the words of institution at her. Only for a moment did I think it strange and wonder what the staff might think. But I wanted her to hear as well as see the healing presence of Christ there in that room with us. And after, I sat with her in silence, holding her hand. She seemed to like that too.

Jesus said to this man in the beginnings of his ministry, “I do choose.” And Jesus said it again with his death on the cross, “I do choose.” And again three days later, when the stone rolled away, revealing an empty tomb, “I do choose.”

God is in the business of healing and wholeness. God will never overcharge you or turn you away. God has chosen, and he has chosen you. So come to him and be made clean. Amen. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pre-Ordination Sermon

January 15th 2012
Grace to you and peace from our God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I was able to catch up on a lot of reading last fall – that was one of the unforeseen blessings of waiting during the call process that brought me here. One of the books on my list was Watchman Nee’s book The Normal Christian Life. Nee was an author and church leader in the early part of the twentieth century. He planted churches and suffered under the Communist government in China at the time; he was imprisoned for twenty years until his death in the 70s.

In this book, which is his best known work, he wrote about an experience that haunted him, and haunted me too after I read it. Nee was once staying with some other Christians in a place with no bathing facilities, so he and the other men (or “brothers” as he called them) took a daily dip in the river nearby. One day, one of the brothers got a bad cramp and began to sink. As it happened, only one of the brothers knew how to swim. And to Nee’s astonishment, the man sat and watched the drowning man from the bank. They ALL watched as the drowning man flailed and splashed and cried for help, until his splashing and his cries began to grow weaker and weaker.

“Don’t you see that this man is drowning?” cried Nee out of desperation, amazed that this man who CLAIMED to be a Christian was just going to watch the man drown. But the swimmer stayed where he was, until the drowning man began to go under. In a moment the swimmer dove in, grabbed the man, and brought him to safety in under a minute.
Nee was still very upset. When he got the chance, he gave the swimmer a piece of his mind – “I have never seen a Christian more selfish than you. Just think of the mental trauma you could have saved our poor brother if you would have decided to save him earlier.”
Nee - and I - never forgot what the swimmer said next. “Had I gone in earlier, this poor man would have clutched me so hard that we both would have drowned. Someone who is drowning can’t be rescued until they are exhausted and stop trying to save themselves.”
Let me say that one more time. Someone who is drowning can’t be rescued until they are exhausted and stop trying to save themselves.

My friends, WE are the drowning man here.  WE are drowning in our very own personal ocean of pain and confusion. Sometimes we are able to convince ourselves that we’re doing just fine, we’re treading water, keeping our head above sea level. But it only takes one small cramp, one small hospital stay or car problem or family crisis to cause us lose our illusion of control and send under.

WE are the drowning person, and we exhaust ourselves by grabbing on to what we think will save us - money, status, shopping, food - you can fill in the blank. But in the end, our energy is depleted, and we’re still flailing around in the darkness, in the waters of chaos.
But a wind from God is sweeping over the waters. A wind from God is blowing, and sent to God’s people a man named John. This man refused to live by the world’s rules. He brought people to the river to baptize them – to immerse them in the water to die to their own sinful selves and to arise out of the water a new living person. “Now don’t you focus on me,” John told the people he baptized. “There is someone else coming on the scene, more powerful than me. I am just the warm up act – he is the headliner, the main event. HE is coming to change EVERYTHING.”

And sure enough, here comes Jesus, son of Mary, who was a baby to us just a few weeks ago. We don’t really know what he was doing for the first part of his life, but we do know that he is here, now, at the water’s edge with John about to be baptized. No angels, no shepherds, no wise men. Mark’s birth narrative is just Jesus, John, and the Jordan River.
Jesus went down into the waters. Jesus went down into the swirling waters of chaos. He was immersed fully into the chaotic waters of humanity. He was enveloped in it, all of it – the laughter and tears of pain, the suffering and the joy, taking on skin and emotions and doubts.

And all doubts were swept away when Jesus came up, dripping from the waters. To Jesus, his life, his identity, and his mission became clear, as clear as the jagged edges of the torn sky. As clear as the voice he heard from his Father: “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

And with still soaked with river water and with that voice still ringing in his ears, Jesus was off like someone lit a FIRE under his behind –driven into the desert, being tempted, calling his disciples, healing a crowd of people, and going on a preaching tour - all before we even get to the SECOND chapter of Mark! But the truth is a fire WAS lit inside of him - the fire of the Holy Spirit, which alighted on him as a dove would. I like to think that the dove gave Jesus a little wink that said, “Go get ‘em, tiger. Your work has just begun.”

Sometimes we forget that, when it comes to our own baptisms. Sometimes we forget that our baptism was a beginning, not an ending. An invitation, not a graduation. The church is not in the business of handing out “heaven insurance” by “getting the kid done” to please grandma. Splashing some water in a baby’s face doesn’t guarantee them a ticket on the Heaven Train. Your baptism doesn’t tell you WHERE you’re going. Well, what DOES it do?
Well, just look at what it did for Jesus. Baptism tells you WHO YOU ARE. Whether you were baptized as a baby, or as a child, or as an adult, the result was the same: like Jesus, OUR identity is spelled out for US, if we take the time to listen for it.

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 you 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.

At our most vulnerable, when our heads are dangling above the waters and we are about to be overwhelmed, God acts. Like the expert swimmer, Jesus dove into the water after us and rescued us. And, while we are still dripping, he kicks us back into the world to be his followers. In other words, your baptism is a license to live, because WE as people of faith take OUR cues from Jesus – the one who clutched to his baptism with both hands and wouldn’t let go for one minute, even when it lead him into the very maw of death.

Some of us are just at the beginning of this journey. Others are somewhere in the middle. And still others have gone before us, finished the race, and have heard God’s words face to face: “you are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.” And there may even be some of us here for whom baptism is a celebration still in the future. No matter where you are on this adventure, know this: You belong to God. God has staked a claim on you and is not about to let go.

We can remember this claim on us, not just when a baby is baptized or we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord once a year. Remembering our baptisms is so much better than a New Year’s resolution: instead of starting anew at the beginning of every year, we can begin anew at the start of every MORNING. We can thank God for the gift of baptism when we wake up, brush our teeth, or drive to work. We have a new opportunity EVERY MOMENT to re-grasp our baptisms when our grip momentarily falters. Because our grip WILL inevitably falter. But God has promised that, in even those moments, you are still God’s beloved daughter or son, and God is DELIGHTED to know you. Amen.