Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June 24th Sermon

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

It was a natural disaster of national proportions. The entire country was permanently blanketed by the bleak snows and icy coldness of winter. The talking animals and magical creatures were trapped in a perpetual twilight brought on by an evil witch, who had declared that it would “always be winter, but never Christmas.” I don’t care who you are, now THAT’S just mean!

I am of course talking about the magical land of Narnia, created C.S. Lewis, which is the backdrop for his famous “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” books, which you should really read if you haven’t already. The first book begins with four ordinary children in England during the Second World War who live with their uncle to be out of danger. Lucy, the youngest, stumbles upon Narnia through an ordinary wardrobe.  And, of course, only these children hold the key to defeating the witch and her endless winter.

But Narnia is also ruled by a good and mighty king, a lion named Aslan. The trouble is, no one has seen Aslan for a hundred years. And some of the citizens of Narnia are - understandably - wondering whether Aslan still cares about them, or even if he still exists. For all they know, Aslan could be taking a nap somewhere across the sea and not even know that his kingdom and his people are in trouble. 

C.S. Lewis made it no secret that this Aslan in his stories was a creative representation of God. And his books, though full of magical characters and fanciful lands, are brimming with events taken right out of the pages of the Bible, and even right out of the pages of our own lives. 

Jesus had just finished telling some fanciful stories of his own, in the form of parables, when he decided to take his followers for a trip across the lake. It WAS getting dark, but they got into the boat and began their journey across as Jesus wanted. Now, they were headed right for the country of the Gerasenes, an area full of non-Jewish people. I imagine that the disciples might have been both puzzled and anxious to be making their way to such a place. 

Anyway, they weren’t left long to their worries, when a great storm came upon them and threatened to sink them. The wind and rain and waves beat down on their little boat - they must have thought they were going to end up at the bottom of the lake for sure! Where was Jesus when they really, really needed help?

Oh, that’s right. Jesus was sound asleep in the back of the boat, on a cushion. Not cool, Jesus. Not cool.

I must have been thinking something similar about nine months ago, when I experienced my first-ever, real-live hurricane. Now, thunderstorms and tornadoes are common in the Midwest, so we have that routine down pat – listen to the radio, get to the basement or a windowless room or hallway, and wait till it’s over. What we didn’t know until last year was that sometimes tornadoes can form INSIDE of hurricanes, and that’s exactly what happened. It’s three A.M. and the weather radio is telling us to take cover, funnel clouds have been spotted. 

We had just moved to New Jersey to begin this new adventure God was calling us to. But we hit a few bumps along the way. It was definitely hotter than we were used to. Our furniture showed up a week late. And when it did arrive, some of our things were broken or in a new shape. One of our cats decided she couldn’t keep her food down. And then… we heard that heard that hurricane Irene was on its way. 

As we sat in our closet at three in the morning, we were pretty anxious. We didn’t know what was going to happen – if our downstairs neighbor would be flooded out, if one of our many windows would be broken, or if we would have power in the morning. And yet, by the time the tornado warnings had expired and we crawled back into bed, I wasn’t nearly as worried as I had been before. 

As we sat on the floor in our closet with the wind howling and the rain pounding, our cats did not seem the least bit concerned. Now, these are cats that will jump a foot if you make a sudden movement. And yet, they seemed more concerned about what WE were doing in the closet than what was happening outside. We tried to get them to stay with us, to make sure they would be safe – but cats will be cats, and they didn’t want to stay put. To them, it seemed more like a game. And somehow that put me more at ease. If they weren’t overly worried about the scary weather outside, then maybe I didn’t have to be either. Maybe, just maybe, we would be ok.  

In the midst of that storm on the lake, it may have seemed to the disciples that Jesus was asleep on the job. But, I might be so bold as to say that sleeping during a storm is an example of showing ultimate trust in God in the midst of a frightening situation. But Jesus also didn’t stay asleep once his frightened disciples called out to him. No – when they called out to Jesus, Jesus came to their rescue and calmed the storm. 

We often get the idea into our heads that once we become followers of Jesus, our lives will be all daisies and roses – all of our questions will be answers and all of our doubts will be put to rest. That the storms of our lives will cease to rage and it will be nothing but smooth sailing from here on out. Alas, this is not the case. Just look at the lives of Jesus’ closest followers. This storm was peanuts to what they would face as they brought the message of Jesus out into the world. They were often beaten, put in jail, and even killed for their trouble. But that didn’t stop them. They must have learned the lesson of the storm – that true faith means trusting that God is in control even then it seems like he isn’t.   

But don’t just take it from the disciples – take it from Job, who saw and heard God speak out of a storm, assuring him that even when things go wrong, God is still very much in charge of his creation. Or even better, take it from Daniel, who will be visiting us this week during VBS. The entire week’s theme is about how God is with you when things change, and when you are lonely or afraid.  We will hear how God is with us even though, as one of the songs go, “the storms of life will push and pull.. but God is in control.” We will hear how God was with Daniel and his friends in some pretty scary situations. We will hear that, though life’s storms may rage around us, God has not forgotten his people.

Aslan didn’t forget his people, either. Sightings of him increased as the witch’s power waned, but the children who found themselves in Narnia were understandably apprehensive when they thought about meeting him face to face. Seeing a lion in a zoo is one thing. Meeting Aslan would be quite different. 

One of the children asked the talking beaver, “Is he… quite safe?” 

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”  

Following God is not a life of stability and comfort. You may not always feel safe. Some days it might seem that the storms have the upper hand. 

But our God is good. And this is something we can stake our lives on. And because of this we too, can sing along with this year’s VBS theme song, which goes:

“Through it all, God is faithful. Through it all, our God is true. God never fails, never changes. When we rise or when we fall, God is with us, with us through it all.” Amen. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Hanging Gardens of Nelson

Our balcony garden is making excellent progress! I've harvested a few green beans already, and some of the snap peas are getting close. I've learned a few things along this journey of suburban gardening, like how to keep squirrels from digging in my plants (sprinkle some chili or curry powder on the dirt) and that green bean stalks will fall over and break with the weight if not propped up (extra wooden disposable chopsticks work well). Here is how much progress has been made in the last few weeks:

These were taken in the middle of May.

This is how it looks today: 

Fantastic, huh?

And here are our kitties, enjoying the nice weather and birds from a sunny window:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Trinity Sunday Sermon

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

It’s that time of year again, when our weekends from now until the end of July are suddenly booked with graduations and graduation celebrations. Cake, and cards, and cake, and poster boards full of pictures and awards, and cake, and signing yearbooks, and…. Cake. Last year at this time I was among the vast number of graduates across the country receiving one sort of diploma or another. I and my seminary classmates, however, had the onerous distinction of receiving our master’s degrees. But not just ANY kind of Master’s degree. Upon receiving our hoods and diplomas, we became…. Masters of Divinity…. Oooooooh!

(Head shake) After four years of study, I now know everything about God, including by not limited to: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, whether or not our pets go to heaven, why bad things happen to good people, why GOOD things happen to BAD people, and most importantly, what WAS God thinking when he created the mosquito?

Seriously though, there are just some aspects of our Christians faith that seem to allude easy answers, And it just so happens that today, on Holy Trinity Sunday, we celebrate one of the most perplexing parts of our Christian faith. More books and papers than could ever be read in one lifetime have been written about the Trinity. Scholars and theologians have dedicated their lives to parsing out and trying to pin down exactly what it means that we believe in a three-in-one, one-in-three kind of God. To be honest, it is also the kind of thing that makes your head hurt if you think about it for too long.

I think this is why I feel such a kinship with Nicodemus from our Gospel reading; because our friend Nick here doesn’t always “get it” either. Nicodemus is a learned man, a prominent and respected leader in his community, probably with a very deep and mature faith. This guy knows his Torah. And he STILL has a hard time grasping what Jesus had to say about the kingdom of God. Poor confused Nick can only blurt out, “How can these things be?” Had I been there, I think I would have done the same thing.

With every fiber of our being, we want our mysteries to be defined. We seek know the unknowable and to measure the un-measureable. We are driven to explore the height and depths of the earth because we don’t like seeing blank spots on the map. Similarly we persist in plumbing the depths of our faith – because if we can get a handle on God, then the confusing world that we live in might actually make sense.

All these strange ideas we’ve come up with, like this three-in-one business, are a way to answer the important questions that have plagued humankind for centuries: Who is God? And how do we see God at work in the world?

The many writers of the scriptures have spent their lives wrestling with those very questions. For the prophet Isaiah, he experienced God as a larger-than-life being on a throne, who cleanses and calls Isaiah to a holy task. For the Apostle Paul, who wrote letters, including this one to the Roman Christians, his experience of the power of God literally blinded him while on his way to persecute followers of Jesus. And Nicodemus is seeing but not comprehending as he stares the true answer to “who is God?” right in the face.
Though their experiences are very different, they have one thing in common. To them God was not an idea or a construct. God was a Someone whom they encountered, who met them face to face and wanted a relationship with them. And these people are never quite the same.

Who is God for you? If you were to think about this question, I would bet that your answer would be connected to an experience you had. Perhaps to you God is Love because of the love you have found after many years of marriage. Perhaps God is Peace because of the comfort and peace you have received after the death of a loved one. Perhaps to you God looks like your grandma because she embodies generosity and kindness.  I once heard a poem where the poet was convinced that GOD, G-O-D, must look like his DOG, D-O-G, because of the unwavering faithfulness and devotion of his pet.

Who is God for you? I bet very few of you would think first of “the Trinity.”
While imagining God in Trinitarian form may be helpful for some, you can’t have a relationship with a doctrine or set of beliefs. God does not desire to remain an idea or belief or theological construct in the mind of us, his children. How can we know this? Because God so loved the world – so loved us – that he gave to us a way by which we can know him, deeply and directly. For God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God swept away the curtain of mystery once and for all. No longer do we have to grope around in the dark for bits and fragments of the divine. In Jesus, the light of God has shown out in the darkness. In Jesus, God came to us in a way we can understand. In Jesus we all have become “Masters” of divinity because Jesus reveals to everyone the very essence of “who God is.”

And just what kind of God does Jesus reveal to us? A loving and forgiving God who wants to be in a relationship with us. This is what we know: Jesus came to us in a way that we would find most relatable – in a body that could laugh and cry, teach and embrace, heal and feel pain. Jesus is our brother, because we both share the same loving Father. Jesus is our Lord because he calls us to emulate the life that he lived here on earth – an existence of love and sacrifice. And Jesus is our savior because of his final victory over the forces of sin and death through his death and resurrection.

But we can know all we think there is to know about God and still completely miss the boat. Like Nicodemus. But Jesus didn’t not throw his hands up in frustration and end the conversation at the first sign of confusion. No – Jesus patiently teaches on, determined to get his message across.

I suppose we should give poor Nick some credit, because he had enough wisdom to know that there was something different about this Jesus, something holy and powerful. So Nick took a chance and arranged this secret meeting that would forever change him.

Our friend Nick may not have fully absorbed the significance of his encounter with Jesus, even when confronted by “John’s greatest hit” John 3:16. But we do know that he WAS changed by his experience with Jesus that night. Because Nick pops up again at the end of the Gospel of John, at Jesus’ trial before the Jewish council. In fact, Nicodemus was the only naysayer in their otherwise unanimous “guilty” verdict. And later on, John writes that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus a respectful burial when his body had been taken down from the cross. He is not quite the man that he used to be. And we too, when we encounter the Risen Jesus, are never quite the same afterwards.

Jesus didn’t walk this earth to answer every question we’ve ever had about God. God is still at work in the world in ways we cannot yet understand. But we can’t go wrong with Jesus as our trailblazer and navigator. Are you ready for THE Master of Divinity to take your hand and guide you down the paths of your life? I hope you are, because it’s going to be one exciting ride. Oh, the places you’ll go! AMEN.