Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, December 30, 2013

End of the Year Book List

My top 10 favorite books that I read in 2013, in no particular order:

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. This is a novel for literature nerds, no doubt about it, and I loved every minute of this book. It's like Roald Dahl's Matilda, only in an apartment building in France.

2. Who is This Man?The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, John Ortberg. This guy does good work, and this book was no exception. I haven't read Bill O'Reilly's book about Jesus, but I would say to read this book instead.

3. What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell. Again, another book that did not disappoint. I have used this book in at least one sermon this year.

4. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof. Not at easy read, but one of those eye opening books I'll never forget.

5. Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Saw her speak just over the river in PA. My only complaint was that the book was not longer!

6. Buck: A Memoir., MK Asante. A young black man finds his way in out of drugs and violence through education. A must-read if you are a human being.

7.  The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman. How a no-win situation tears everyone's lives apart. Couldn't put it down.

8. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. I actually started this one last year just after the movie came out. It takes awhile, but it's ok to skim some of the philosophical bits

9. State of Wonder: Ann Patchett. Sort of weird, in a really interesting way. A scientist living in MN finds herself in the Amazon searching for the female version of Dr. House.

10. A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans. A great blend of humor and sound Biblical scholarship.

And one that disappointed:

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver. The premise of this book was interesting, and she has some lovely characters with a couple of great scenes. But the rest of the book is pretty unfocused and feels like a paper that I once had to write for history class my Junior year - the assignment was to write a narrative that incorporated five world cities and important historical and geographical information important to each. Sometimes it felt like a bunch of important facts about climate change that just so happened to be coming out of a character's mouth. It had almost no plot and the ending was such a let down.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Advent Meditation 12-4-13

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

How are you keeping track of Advent? Are you counting the time with one of those chocolate-filled countdown calendars? I remember having one of those one year. Each day I’d get to pop one of those babies open and eat the little chocolate piece in the shape of a sheep or a star. My brothers were not as patient.

This year, I’m not rationing chocolate for Advent. I’m participating in a sort of interactive Advent calendar, one of many that are floating around on the internet right now. It’s called Advent Photo-a-day, and you share a picture of something related to the word of the day. And wouldn’t you know it: today’s word is patience. Which is fitting, because tonight we heard the first of three ancient songs sung by people who have been waiting patiently to for God.

The first song in our Advent midweek series is sung by a priest named Zechariah. Both he and his wife Elizabeth were descended from priests, so you could say they were continuing the family business. And their deepest wish would have been for that family tradition to continue. But though they were righteous before God, and waited patiently, no child came, and they starting to get on in years.

But one day, as Zechariah was doing his normal duties in the temple, he was interrupted by an angel, who told him that he and his wife would have a son. And he would not grow up to be just any man, but he would be the one to prepare the way of the Lord. Upon hearing this awesome news, that the patience of he and his wife had been rewarded handsomely, did Zechariah jump for joy? Shout it at the top of his lungs? Phone a friend to tell them the good news?

No, he did none of those things. He didn’t believe the messenger, and so he was struck mute until the day Elizabeth would give birth. With was kind of a problem for him in his line of work.

Nine months later, Elizabeth gave birth to a little boy. And after decades of childlessness and nine months of silence, the first words out of Zechariah’s mouth were words of praise. Their patience had been rewarded. They had been given a son, who was to prepare the way for the coming dawn of the Lord.

This Advent, what are you waiting for? Are you sitting in the darkness of strained relationships, of loss and grief, of loneliness and depression?  Do you feel overshadowed by overwhelming schedules and demands, by illness or sadness, by the violence and woes of a turbulent world?

Are you waiting with patience? Or are you perhaps a little more like Zechariah, who missed seeing the very fulfilment of his hopes because he had accepted the darkness as the way things always would be.

We shouldn’t really be so hard on Zechariah, though. He at least got to witness the answer of his prayers. But as he sings this song of praise, his son John is still just a baby. He still has to grow into the important role he was born into, as John the Baptist, the preparer of the way. So for them, even though their deepest longing has been fulfilled, more patience is still required.

It’s hard to be patient, when we are so used to getting what we want or need right away. But if we really believe, as Zechariah believed, that the dawn from on high will break upon us, that God who has promised to be faithful really will be faithful to us, then I think it might be worth it. Because the dawn has already broken on those of us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. So in a sense we wait for what we already have – the presence of the Lord in our midst. Sometimes that presences is easy to miss, sometimes we don’t believe it because it’s too good to be true, and sometimes we miss it because darkness is more comfortable and familiar than light. And sometimes, God even uses us in order to shine the light for others.

In my photo for my Advent Picture-a-day, today I included this candle. You see it’s not an actual wax candle. It’s one of the “pretend” ones. I bought it last year for Holden evening prayer, when it was dropped and broken, and then I broke it more in trying to make it not look funny. I could have gotten another one, a new one that was whole, but I decided to keep it. I’ve used it in a few things – like this summer when nineteen youth from across the state met in Brick for the hottest week ever in order to help people still suffering the effects of Sandy. It shone for us as we shone line for others. I keep it because it reminds me that even though it’s not perfect, it’s kind of chipped and even, it still does what it’s supposed to. It still gives light to those who are in darkness.

And you child, shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. Amen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thank God for Batkid, Pope Francis, and Chocolate-Covered Popcorn

Every year the Windsor Hightstown Area Ministerium (WHAM) has a community Thanksgiving service. They usually pick on, I mean pick the newest person in the group to preach at Thanksgiving, meaning this year it was yours truly. But it was kind of fun to preach at an interfaith service at a Catholic church!

Thanksgiving Service 11-24-13

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

So , thanksgiving sort of already happened for my husband and I. It was a couple of months ago, when a hug package showed up at the church in Hamilton where he served as pastor until recently. He called me up, and told me I’d better come over since this hug box was directed to me. The package was to me, with his churches address, with a return address that neither of us recognized – at least, it was not from anyone who were members of either of our churches. AND, to boot, the name of his church was spelled as though a kindergartener had spelled in phonetically. So, it was a mystery as to why it was there, and a miracle as to HOW it got there.

Eventually I remembered why the sender’s name was vaguely familiar. Weeks before, the local funeral home had called my husband up at the request of a local family, unconnected to a congregation, who desired to have their beloved “Meredith” given a Christian memorial service and burial. And they wanted a minister. And they wanted to do it at that church. Ok, well, since he couldn’t do it, I did. I guess you can do that if you’re married to a pastor from your own denomination, right?

So I presided at her memorial service, which for me, not having known this woman, was not all that memorable. I don’t remember saying anything particularly profound in the homily I gave, and no one was extremely overcome with emotion during the prayers. They might have invited me to a local restaurant for the family lunch after the burial, but I thanked them and politely declined, and went on with the rest of my day.

Fast forward now to that phone call and package in my husband’s office. We opened it up, and discovered a huge Harry and David’s gourmet gift basket. And I really do mean gourmet. Never before had I known that things like chocolate covered popcorn could taste like manna from heaven. Well, never before had we ever heard of Harry and David’s. We googled the company, found their website, and our eyes popped out when we saw the price of the gift basket we had been sent. For doing a service for a woman that I had never met. From people that I had only met once, probably for the sum total of an hour and a half. From a family that for all I knew had rarely darkened the door of a church, at least not until the day of their mother’s/sister’s/aunt’s/friend’s funeral. From people that I have not seen since. That day, in our own way, thanks to this family, my husband and I had celebrated the feast of Thanksgiving.

We Americans forget that we did not invent the concept of giving thanks. We may indeed be blamed for pairing it to turkey, stuffing, parades, November, and football. But thanksgiving was not born three hundred years ago in a celebratory meal between pilgrims and Native Americans. Nor was it created back in the Old World to celebrate the time of the harvest. As long as humankind has wondered at the mystery that is a seed growing and bearing fruit, we have been giving thanks.

And even though fewer and fewer of us these days actually work the land from which our food comes from, like clockwork, every fall as the leaves change and the air grows cold, we still have the urge to take stock of the blessings we have been given.

This year, though, has been a hard year to give thanks for. So much destruction and turmoil has happened in such a short time: the bombing of the Boston Marathon, nuclear testing in North Korea, the government shutdown, a bombing in a mall in Kenya, the collapse of a massive building in Bangladesh, lethal shootings at the Los Angeles Airport and the Washington DC Navy Yard, the cuts to food programs like food stamps in the continuing recession, and last but not least devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. How can we really serve the Lord with gladness? How can we give thanks and bless God’s name in the midst of such a year?

There is plenty of good that has happened this year, too. Pope Francis. Three women were rescued after being kidnapped and held against their will for ten years. The election of the first female presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A teenager saved a nine-year old boy from going over a massive waterfall in Yosemite national park. And just last week, a five-year old Make-a-wish kid got to dress up as Batkid and save the city of San Francisco alongside his favorite superhero, Batman.

 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” These are words written long ago from a man in a jail cell to a fledgling Christian community long ago. But his words still ring true to us today, in a world fraught with fear.  He continues, “ Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It is so easy to miss the good things when the world tells us to focus on fear, anxiety, violence, and destruction. Because the scary things can be far more memorable than the good things. Case in point: I had to ask my friends to help me with the list I just shared of good things that happened this year, for two reasons. Because Wikipedia listed almost all negative events for 2013, and frankly I was having trouble coming up with them on my own. I had something like “good news amnesia.”

Bad news gets our attention. Good news is not as sensational or exciting, and therefore we must work harder in order to notice it. But if anything is worth of thanks, we must think on such things. In the responses I got from my friends, in addition to the big events that effected all of us, were plenty of reasons to give thanks that were more personal and mundane: – getting married and having children, landing a job they wanted, or have access to affordable health care, and even celebrating  the victory of a favorite sports team. Together we remembered what one person was not able to remember alone.

This is probably the reason that Thanksgiving is a holiday that is not about eating Turkey and stuffing by ourselves. It is a day we feel compelled to celebrate with others, with family and friends, with our communities. Because what is the use of all the blessings we have, if we cannot share them with one another? God is not the shepherd of a flock of one.

ThanksGIVING may be one day a year. But THANKSgiving can happen every day, every hour, every moment, when we remember who we belong to - that God is our shepherd and we are God’s flock. THANKSgiving used to happen with grain and produce from the field; now it happens with turkey and pie, and sometimes even with Harry and David’s chocolate covered popcorn.

Perhaps it is a good thing that every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, we make ourselves remember not just what we should be giving thanks FOR, but who we should be giving thanks TO. At least once a year we wake up enough from our “good news amnesia,” to pool our memories in order to see our double blessing. Not just the fact that we are blessed, but that we recognize that we are blessed and give thanks for the blessings that we already have.

The Samaritan leper healed by Jesus did not need a reminder – he can already see what the rest of us often miss. And so we take our cue from a healed invalid with no name. For he himself was his own tithe, his own thanks offering, as he shouted his praise to God, for all to hear, both near and far:

Thanks be to God! 
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Advent Photo-a-Day

I found this on Facebook, and thought it would be a great way to mark the passage of Advent. I'm planning on participating via social media, posting pictures on here, Instagram, and Facebook. The season of Advent is usually just too crazy to try to do a full-on devotional, and I really like the interactive nature of this idea, of being able to participate and craft my own meaning out of it. And it will be less fattening than chocolate. :)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Fairytale for Grownups, Only True

Sermon I preached on All Saints Sunday,11-3-13, at St. Mark's

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen
This is going to sound completely random, but bear with me, please. Do you have a favorite show that you MUST WATCH and you just CANNOT MISS an EPISODE? For me, I am totally addicted to a show called Once Upon a Time. Every Sunday at 8 PM, the TV had better be turned to that station OR ELSE. Don’t talk to me, don’t ask me anything, don’t make any loud noises, don’t even look at me for that whole hour. I just can’t miss a single minute of that show. I’m only a little obsessed, I think.

I think it’s a great show because it’s like a Disney fairytale for grownups. And who didn’t like Disney fairytales growing up? The princesses were beautiful and compassionate, the princes were brave and dashing, and all the woodland creatures were available to help you with basic household chores. We just had Halloween, and I’m sure you had your fair share of Disney princesses knocking at your door. This show, Once Upon a Time, keeps to the spirit of that classic fairytale structure – a baby, a princess by birth, the product of true love, is sent out into the world as the only hope to save her people, who are under wicked queen’s curse. But the twist is that the princess grows up in “the real world,” with cars and computers rather than magic and fairy dust, and she has a hard time coming to terms with her enchanted past.

But we all know that life is way more complicated than what happens in a fairytale. At some point we put away the gowns and crowns and magic wands. We grow up and realize that we were not actually secretly born a princess or a prince, and that we are not actually called to embark on a thrilling quest to save the kingdom.

Or are we?

If we truly outgrow fantasy, why is it then, that we are so drawn to “rags to riches” stories? Not just in fairytales but also played out in real life? Why were we so caught up in stories of people who started out with nothing and now are wildly famous and successful? Could it be that, no matter what age we are, we can’t help thinking “maybe, just maybe, this could be me”? That there is more to who I am than meets the eye? That I really might have what it takes to be a “hero” in my own story?

As it turns out, we have our own kind of “heroes” in our Christian tradition, don’t we? We typically call them “saints.” Think for just a moment: what does the word “saint” mean for you?.... Does it mean for you some sort of holy person? Someone who is kind and compassionate? Larger than life? Wholly devoted to God? A bit stuffy, who doesn’t like to have fun? Someone who makes you feel kind of like an inferior Christian compared to them?

In the Catholic Church, there are a lot of criteria that come with being a saint. You have to “qualify” in order to have that special title. I’m not sure what all the qualifications are, but I know that it involves miracles and many, many good deeds over the course of a lifetime. The point is, for them it’s very hard to get to be a saint.

For us, there is just one thing necessary to being a saint in the Lutheran Church. Do you want to know what it is? Do you? I hope you do, because I’m going to tell you anyway. But are you ready for it? Are you REALLY ready? You sure? Ok, here it is…

The one thing necessary to being a saint is…


Yup. You heard me right. Jesus is the one thing that you need in order to be a saint. And because of Jesus, we have ALL been made saints. Not the “holier than thou” kind of saint that is unattainable for most people. But instead, the kind of saint to is a forgiven and redeemed child of God.

So let’s forget about those Disney movies for a minute.  Let’s forget about all the things you think that you think make up a truly “saintly” person. You have been called to be a saint. I want you all, right now, to turn to your neighbor and say to each other, “You are a saint…”

Because the most amazing story ever told is actually true: each and every one of you was chosen at birth to be something extraordinary: a beloved child of God. You have been promised an inheritance that is better than any land or wealth or title of prince or princess. And you got the advance of this inheritance in the form of a measure of the Holy Spirit and the mark of the cross on your forehead, as we heard Paul talk about in his letter to the Church in Ephesus. This was the pledge you received at your baptism.

How many of you remember when you were baptized? … If you were a baby, and DON’T remember, let me remind you what happened that day (and what happened earlier in this service). In the service of baptism, we are publicly acknowledging the fact God loves you and has chosen you to be his beloved child. If you were a baby, your parents promised to raise you so that you could live into this reality, both with their help and with God’s help.

And at the later service, we will witness some of our young people publicly affirming their baptism. They have decided that the reality of “beloved child of God”- that they had been brought to as babies - is something that they want to buy into for themselves. And so they will be claiming that inheritance given to them at baptism, and we will be promising to help them as they continue the next phase of their journey of faith.

In the show, Once Upon a Time, the baby princess grows up, and finally comes to terms with her birthright, and she is finally able to break the curse that holds her subjects captive. But that is not the end of the show – it’s only the end of season one. In season two she struggles with the implications of who she is, and tries with mixed results to live into her calling, not just as “savior” to her people, but also as a daughter - and a mother. And she doesn’t always get it right.

But the truth is, we’re still going to mess up. Being a saint, a beloved child of God, does not mean that we are going to be perfect and nice all the time. We’re still going to get frustrated at our kids. We’re still going to yell at people in traffic (which I do far too often). We’re still going to screw up our relationships and spend our money on things we don’t need and make judgments about people who are different from us.

But this is why Jesus didn’t just die for us. He knows that we need help, because we can’t do it alone. That’s why he walked around for three years with a crew of young, clueless blue collar working guys, saying stuff like “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Stuff that really is pretty obvious but is actually really hard to do. This is why Jesus taught us how to LIVE.

The Gospel of Luke really is a lot like a fairytale for grownups. Instead of the boy getting the girl, the lame get to walk and the blind get to see. Instead of the evil queen getting her just desserts, outlaws and outcasts are told that they matter to God. And that true love of God really does conquer all.

God loves you. And God chose you. You are a beloved child of God. And a saint. I want you to turn to your neighbor one more time and say to each other, “You are a saint”…

Because you really are ALL SAINTS. Amen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"We're moving to Trenton!"

 “We’re moving to New Jersey!”

Almost 2 ½ years ago, Beau and I found out that we were being called to an awesome synod on the East Coast. But the reactions we got were… interesting. Our friends and family took the news ranging from “That’s nice” to flat out “Why would you go THERE?” To resident New Jerseyians, it would be reasonable to be affronted by such reactions. How dare they judge a place they’ve never lived, or probably have never visited? But to those who live elsewhere, there is only one image that New Jersey conjures up: gritty industrial sprawl populated by rude people (ala the show “Jersey Shore”). Of course now, I have had first-hand knowledge that this state is not (all) like that. New Jersey is unique, and beautiful, and diverse.


“We’re moving to Trenton!”

Trenton? That place we read about in the paper with violence happening nearly every day? That place with the abandoned buildings and dangerous streets and drugs and gangs and corruption and problems and people who don’t look like us? “Make sure you are careful.” “Don’t go out at night.” “You might want to get some Mace.”*

(You see what I did there?)

Beau and I want to discover sides of Trenton that few people dig deep enough to see. Because in between those articles in the paper about drugs and violence, there are also stories about people trying to help, trying to make Trenton a better place. God’s up to something in this place that seems to have been abandoned by the leadership of this state. Beau will be devoting himself fully to this exploration and I will be accompanying him as much I am able, along with my normal pastoral ministries at my congregation. 

But it's going to be different. Some things are going to be challenging, and others will change. Like my commute. My commute has not just increased in time, but it has increased in socio-economic range: on my way to church I now pass multi-million dollar houses and homeless people on the street. Every day now I get cultural whip-lash, but I fervently pray that I will never not see the injustice in it. 

Pray for us. We're going to need all the help we can get!!

*Of course Beau and I are going to be careful. This kind of situation is not one to take lightly. We have been so thankful to all of those who live and work in Trenton who have given us some really good advice, which we gratefully accept. It is when general advice is offered, coming from a place of fear, from those who have had little to no contact with the city that I frankly find grating. I was completely unprepared for all the unsolicited advice. We may be crazy for doing what we're doing, but we're trying not to be stupid about it!! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Grandpa's Last Gift

As an ordained minister, I have the blessed and humbling privilege to witness important and personal moments in the lives of families, some of whom I barely know (some of whom I get to know well). Some of these moments are so raw and so personal that no other person would ever be invited to see such a moment, not in a million years. And yet, here I am, invited to pray with families as their loved ones are dying, as people struggle with illness and recovery, and other times to join in celebrating the union of two people in matrimony (which I did for the first time last weekend!).

But is one thing to be the (mostly) calm, gentle minister in their midst and then go home to my own whole and unsuffering life, and it is quite another when trauma hits on a personal level. Last month my Grandpa had a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak or swallow. It should have taken him the moment it struck, but by some blessed design, my grandpa was able to spend twelve days saying goodbye to his very extensive family. I was able to fly back to Wisconsin and spend five precious days with him and with my family.

The greatest gifts that my grandpa gave to me were those days I was able to be at his bedside, holding his hand, reading to him from his devotional, laughing about favorite memories, reading to him some of my past sermons about the farm. Being with someone who is dying is both holy and disconcerting, and a gift I was able to share with my family is what I had learned over the course of my seminary education and eighteen months of ministry. But it was Grandpa who did the teaching this time, teaching us how to hold his hand and not let go, teaching us how to understand what he wanted to say to us with his eyes, teaching us what a life well lived looks like, teaching us how to die well.

Every grief is different and the same. Having experienced this grief of mine has made me a more compassionate and aware human being, though it is still painful. But that is also where we tend to find that God is most visible, leaning on our family and friends for support through the tough times. And that's what transforms them into something beautiful.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sermon 10/6/13: A Trip to the "Faith Store"

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

One time a friend’s four year old daughter expressed her desire for world travel. She went on and on about places she would like to see, and then asked her father to take her.  Not wanting to directly disappoint her, he told her that such trips cost a lot of money, which they didn’t have at the moment.

“But why can’t we just go get more money?” She asked.

“Because money doesn’t work like that.”

She thought about this for a moment. And then, smiling at her own genius, said, “I know where we can get more money! We can go to the money store!”

If only it were that easy.

But if there were such a thing as “the money store,” I would hope that right next door would be a business called “the faith store.”

For all the times that we give the disciples a hard time for being clueless, I think I’m actually with them on this one. For them, following Jesus was not like watching your favorite weekly series where you tune in for an hour and then life goes on until the next episode. For them, following Jesus was a daily reality, where they constantly heard Jesus saying very difficult things, like: “Whoever does not hate father and mother and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled.  Take up your cross and follow me. Count the cost. I bring not peace to the earth, but division. No one can serve both God and wealth. Or, as you just heard, if your friend wrongs you and repents, you must forgive, even seven times in a single day.

Yikes, Jesus. This is a far cry from peace on earth, good will to all humankind. This kind of life that Jesus has called his disciples to (which by the way includes us too!) is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It causes our friends to think we’re weird. And it’s doesn’t always feel “good.”

So the disciples for once acknowledged their own feelings of inadequacy. They were self-aware enough to question if they truly had what it takes to live such a life. They counted the cost, and felt that their faith-account might be running a little short of the necessary funds. And they are smart enough to go right to the source in order to request their faith-deposit.

After all, they have heard Jesus talk of almost nothing else – “your faith has made you well,” “oh where is your faith?” “You faithless generation,” “blessed are the faithful slaves,” “Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.” Jesus is setting the bar high, and the disciples just want to make sure they’re “ready.” After all, Jesus said “ask, and it shall be given to you,” right?  It might not be a bad idea to put a little faith in reserve – you never know when you’re going to go through a tough time and might need that little extra faith surplus.

Now, of course we all know that faith is not a tangible thing that can be measured. Have you ever seen a faith scale? Do you measure it on pounds or in grams? Can you count how much you have? Does it have volume? Can you put the excess in storage? Can you make a faith withdrawal or deposit?

And yet, the first thought that crosses my mind when I encounter a difficult challenge or something is not going my way, is: I must not have enough faith. If I had enough faith, this would be much easier. If I had enough faith, I wouldn’t feel so anxious. If I had enough faith, I would be able to see what the heck God is up to at this time in my life.

So what do I do? What is the prayer that leaps so easily from my lips? “Lord, increase my faith!”
Because more is better, right? Think of that AT&T commercial where that that random lone adult in the kindergarten classroom asks the children “who thinks more is better than less?” They all of course raise their hands. When asked why, one girl responded “when you really like it, we want more!” Because if 3G is good, then 4G is better! So if faith the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed can make a tree jump into the ocean, what amazing things could the faith of a walnut, or a baseball, or a pumpkin do? How much then, is enough faith? When do we stop searching for the elusive “faith store”?

I heard that “The Wizard of Oz” is coming out in theaters in 3D – because if 2D is good, then 3D is better! But if you remember anything about that movie, recall that all through Dorothy’s journey she was searching for something – a way to get home – and the whole time she had in her possession the very thing she needed. But in her worry and hurry, she never thought to wonder about the amazing powers of those magic shoes she wore.

Bigger is not better, because it is in life’s small victories that faith is made visible. If you got out of bed this morning and are here – congratulations! You have at least a mustard seed of faith! And that tiny speck of faith is enough, because your speck of faith and my speck of faith and all of our specks of faith combined can really add up to something amazing.

It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that in the United States the wild mustard plant is considered a noxious weed. In my youth, plenty of hours were spent as a family out in the alfalfa fields, dragging 5 gallon buckets behind us filled with weeds we already picked. But it had to be done.  However, if we put the task off for too long, the mustard would go to seed. And we knew that this had happened, when, as we yanked the mustard plants from the dirt, flurries of tiny yellow seeds fell like snow to the ground, hundreds of them from each single plant. And each of those tiny seeds promised that in a year’s time, a fully formed mustard plant, laden with seeds would be ready for us.

Somewhere along the line, a mustard seed of faith got lodged in you.  And like Timothy, in your life and in my life we have our own Loises and Eunices and their specks of faith that helped to get us here. And even before that, before even time itself, this gift of faith had already been given, and it was just waiting to be revealed through the death and resurrection of the one in whom we have placed our faith, Jesus Christ.  And this was done out of love for us.

You can’t love in the theoretical. There needs to be something or someone on whom you bestow that love. And likewise, trust cannot exist without something or someone to trust IN. Faith, then, for us is both loving and trusting in the one who has called each of us to a holy calling, which, according to The Message translation of the letter of 2nd Timothy, “We had nothing to do with it. It was all HIS idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus long before we knew anything about it. But we know it now.”

And like Paul writing to Timothy, we too can know the one in whom we have put our trust. And so we can fully devote ourselves to following him in all that we do. We are the slaves – devoted servants in the name of Christ – who go about the Master’s business, so that when something does go well with us, we are able to point beyond our tiny speck of mustard seed faith to the one that we serve.

I pray that you like Timothy would guard your tiny mustard seed faith, and that you would not be surprised that someday you may find yourself to be a Lois or Eunice in the life of someone else. AMEN.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sermon 8-25: God's freedom always wins

Eighteen years is a very long time to see only the dirt under your feet. A few moments ago, I had you all stand up during the children’s message, and for the briefest moment, we reenacted with our bodies this woman’s daily reality – she was unable to fill the basic role that her society had prescribed her gender. She could not carry water or wood to cook with; she could not chase after children if she had any; she could barely see where she was going, and probably moved very slowly and carefully. Perhaps that was why she seemed to arrive at the synagogue in the middle of Jesus’s sermon.

She certainly didn’t seem to expect that Jesus would be there, or that Jesus would even take notice of her, much less free her from her condition.

My great-aunt Norma, in the years before she died, was also completely bent over. I remember seeing her at family reunions in the summer when I was very young, and being both curious and a little horrified. I think one time I must have asked about her, because I remember my mom telling me that it was from many, many years of carrying heavy milk pails on the farm, and that now her back was just like that.

What I noticed was that she seemed so much shorter than everyone else. Fully upright she would have been pretty average, of course, but because of her back problems, everyone else stood about a head taller than her. In a crowded room or in line for the jello salad at the family reunion, you might run right into her if you weren’t careful.

While for Norma, her back problems were caused by her hard work as a farm wife and came on gradually over the course of a lifetime, this woman Jesus met at the synagogue was prevented from being of use in the only ways she was allowed to be in her time. She could not carry a bucket of water for anyone, not even for herself.

And yet she caught the notice of Jesus. When others perhaps would have ignored her or looked away, Jesus called her over to him. And she followed his voice – perhaps knowing that she had interrupted the sermon, but certainly not expecting what happened next: to be healed. After eighteen long years, her back is now straight, and the first words out of her lips are used in giving thanks to God for freeing her from her bondage. Her first act of freedom was to worship.

She praised God because Jesus had freed her from the yoke of her pain. She praised God because Jesus had freed her from the stigma of uselessness. She praised God because Jesus had not just seen her, but had taken notice of her.  She praised God, because the first face she saw in eighteen years was the face of Jesus.

Yet this woman’s tribulations were not over yet. In the face of this wonderful miracle in their midst, there were those who could not see past the violation of the strict practices of the Sabbath day. After all, there are rules to be followed, traditions to be observed, and protocols to adhere to in what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath. Order must be maintained. The Sabbath is a day of rest and a time to hear the teachings of the Torah. The preacher does not simply stop the sermon in order to perform a healing. Disruption of the norm should not be tolerated. Where would it end???

For the leader of the synagogue, a true follower of God should “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” which for him meant following the rules of the law. After all, they were the sons and daughters of the tradition of Abraham, set apart by God to be a blessing to all the nations. And Sabbath-keeping set them apart from all the nations around them. This was especially vital in Jesus’s time, when the empire of Rome controlled nearly every other aspect of their public lives.

Healing had an important place in God’s work, of course, but only on the proper days. According to the traditions of the law, not even healing should encroach on the sacredness of the Sabbath.

But Jesus knew that humanity has a talent for muddling up things that are good for us. Something is seriously out of balance in any tradition when a rule becomes more important than a person.

In a way, these religious leaders were bent under their own burden, and so were unable to see something amazing happening right in front of their eyes.

They had forgotten that the Sabbath was not about rules; it was something God created for us to take delight in. They had forgotten that the Sabbath was about liberation from the burden of work, not working so hard at NOT-working. They were bound while the woman was set free.

When rules get in the way of God’s work, one of them has to go.  And though it may not happen on our time, Jesus shows us that freedom will always win out in the end.

Fifty years ago this coming Wednesday, over a quarter million people filled the streets of Washington DC to rally around the Civil Rights movement and to hear from a Baptist preacher from Alabama talk about his dream. Like the visions of the prophets of the Old Testament, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a day when all people - black, white, Jew, Gentile, Protestant, Catholic – would join hands and sing “Thank God almighty, we are free at last.” In a time when the color of your skin barred you from certain human rights like access to education and voting and even certain restaurants, King dared share his dream with the nation and the world. As the saying goes, no one is free while others are oppressed.

And so the non-violent breaking of the rules began, with Rosa Parks’ refusal to move on the bus to countless young people who sat at white-only lunch counters and refused move as they were verbally and physically assaulted, spat on and ultimately arrested. And later that year, the Civil Rights Act was passed, making discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, or religion illegal, and ended segregation in public places. There has been lots of progress in fifty years, and there certainly is still a long way to go.

Though we are still caught up and weight down by the injustices and oppressive burdens, every week we gather together to remember that Jesus’s death and resurrection has freed us from fear of death and the grave. It is not a rule or a requirement to be part of worship; it should be a joy and a delight to meet and share the great things that God has done for us, about how once we were bound, but now are free, once was lost, but now are found, blind, but now we see.

I hope that the woman who was bent over continue to attend synagogue regularly, to share how her world has been completely changed by Jesus. Though we will never know her name, Jesus gave her a title – he called this once-crippled woman with no worth in her culture a “daughter of Abraham.” She is a daughter of the promise, proof that the God of Abraham kept a promise to a childless couple so long ago.

We rejoice with daughter of Abraham and the rest of the crowd that day as Jesus liberates one more burdened soul, and let’s be on the lookout for where God is at work liberating those in our midst – and where God is also liberating us too. AMEN.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Bent-Over Prayer

Found on the internet:

Banish the bent-over spirits:

memory of red guilt or
a long-ago foolish choice:
wrong marriage or
bitter divorce;
small crimes or
little legal brutalities;
a legion of torment
of additions.
Sexual abuse, manipulation,
domestic violence;
losses of mind, sight,
hearing, mobility,
self-doubt or
its grand mirror—

Banish the bent-over spirits:

and good things, too:
obsessions now that
began healthy and
twisted a whole life;
professional demands,
creative dreams;
caring for an
ailing, aging parent,
proud-pushing an achieving child;
beautiful homes
shopped to sparkling,
beautiful bodies
jogged-starved to thin;
even church-work
where faith eats
its children.

Banish the bent-over spirits.

My shoulders sink,
and my spine curls
under the weight, while
my eyes turn in until
I cannot recognize
the one who heals.
See me here,
and call me, Christ.
Lay your hands on
the human meaning
beneath distortion.
In spite of a world
that disciplines healing,
in spite of people
who do not want
others well,
say the words
that set me free—

that I may straighten into praise.

from An Improbable Gift of Blessing: Prayers to Nurture the Spirit 
by Maren C. Tirabassi and Joan Jordan Grant

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Crabby Jesus, My great x3 grandpa, and Churchwide

August 18th's Sermon

Wow, Jesus, you’re really being a downer here. This probably would have been a great week to have gone on vacation! This is certainly not the Jesus that we are used to - baby Jesus, meek and mild and drooling, who comes to us on Christmas; or grown-up Jesus, meek and mild, welcoming children and letting himself die for us on the cross, who comes to us on Easter. But we are about as far from Christmas and Easter as week can get - it’s mid-August, and it’s hot, and all we really want to do right now is go to the beach, or at least coast our way into the beginning of September. The last thing we want is to hear some hard words, especially from Jesus.

Well, this Jesus we follow holds the patent on paradox. He is both human and divine; both powerless peasant and commander of countless angel armies; both homeless wanderer and enthroned on the right hand of God, both lifting up the low and bringing down the great; both prince of peace and divider of families; and both kind and crabby, I guess.
Perhaps we should cut Jesus a little slack. Ever since he set his mind to go to Jerusalem early in Luke’s gospel, he has seen the end of the story, and knows that it will not end well for him, at least initially. Before he can be resurrected, he has to go through that very unpleasant business of being painfully crucified. He is going to die, and that is what he has to look forward to. Knowing that was on the horizon, wouldn't you be a bit stressed out, too?

But Jesus still presses on, traveling the path marked out for him, all the way to death on the cross.

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus tell the story of the rich farmer and his barns. At St. Paul I talked about my family’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, about how expanding a farm is always about providing something better for future generations and not about living it up in the present. When one of my younger brothers fully takes over the farm from my dad, he will be the fifth generation of my family to run that farm. But if we go back even farther, past my brother Tony and my Dad Jeff and grandpa Raymond and great-grandpa Walter and great-great-grandpa Ernst was my great-great-great grandpa Fredrick, who came over from Germany to settle in central Wisconsin not long after it became a state.

At that time, there were no barns, or silos, or farmhouse, or even fields to plant. Just trees, trees, and more trees as far as the eye could see. So Fredrick and his wife Ernestine began the slow work of clearing the forest to get to the rich soil underneath. It took hard work and many years, horses and saws, and even dynamite to get the gently rolling fields that you would see today.

But for some, Wisconsin was not wild enough, no remote enough. Some who came off those boats traveled right passed the comfortably settled East, through the partially settled Mid-West, right on into – literally – the edge of the map. They forged their own paths, blazed their own trails, and generally fended for themselves, since no one had invented Wawa or Shoprite yet. They were the pioneers who paved the way for those who came after them, the way becoming just a little easier, just a little more passable with every traveler since. Pretty soon, the Oregon Trail is a national park and a computer game played by those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s.

The game of life; life is highway; life is but a dream; life is like a box of chocolates; life is a journey, not a destination.  To the writer of Hebrews, life is a race. Let’s his words again:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Jesus is literally our trail-blazer – not the SUV, but of the intrepid explorer variety. While we were stuck in the tangled wilds of sin and brokenness, Jesus cleared a new path of sacrificial living, a way of love to its fullest extent. He knew that way lead to a cross, but brushing off the humiliation and agony that came with it, he plowed on, full speed ahead, setting a collision course with death itself.

I don’t think I need to tell you which one was left standing when it was all over. I’ll give you a hint: all that was left were some wrappings and an empty tomb.

This is the same path that Jesus has cleared for us to follow. But we aren't the first to travel this way, nor are we traveling it alone. The writer of Hebrews calls up the giants of faith in the Old Testament to cheer us on, and we could add plenty to the list in our own generation: Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, C.S. Lewis, Nelson Mandela, and more. They are our witnesses and companions, not present to make comparisons, but to cheer us on so that we can let go of the fears that weigh us down.

This “cloud of witnesses” idea was remarkably lived out this week through modern technology during the biennial ELCA Churchwide assembly. Over a thousand people from all over the country came together to Pittsburgh to “do the business of the church” which is not always the most interesting task. But there were also people around the country who tuned in on their computers and participated using social media. At one time twenty-five hundred people were watching the assembly live who were not able to be there in person. And so together we celebrated the election of the first female presiding bishop in the twenty-five year history of the ELCA.

But we are not very far down the path when we realize that not everyone we know are walking the path with us. There are a lot easier and nicer paths to take in life, following happiness or success or likability or security or self-reliance or activity, or even progress.  There are still plenty of place to trip up, still a few obstacles to overcome now and then, still a few places to get tangled up on this road.

And indeed, if Jesus had not already paved the way, we might never have even started. And if this Jesus were not also walking with us on our way, we may have easily given up long ago. Just check out the at list from the rest of the reading from Hebrews: torture, floggings, lions, chains, poverty, being stoned to death or sawn in two – which if the saints who have gone before us, in their right minds would ever have gone through all that if not for the one who ran the race ahead of us?

Who in their right mind would ever have picked a state full of trees in order to build a farm? My 3rd great-grandpa’s faith, at least in the potential of his descendants.
And why did Jesus press on, despite twelve clueless followers and stubborn religious leaders and the fickle crowds of people and a murder plot? I believe that the joy that was set before Jesus was US. Clueless, stubborn, fickle, tender, determined, adaptable US.
So let’s put on our running shoes and get going. AMEN.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mine, Mine, Mine: last Sunday's sermon

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

Posselt Farm, Circa 1900s
I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get the family farm. We haven’t really ever talked about it, at least not yet, since my parents are still in good health.  As it turns out, farming was not my calling, though growing up I had my own allotment of daily chores, and I did enjoy playing with the cats and dogs and watching the baby calves grow up. Farming turned out to be the calling of my younger brother Tony, who is a very competent agribusiness man and a great help to my dad. He will be the fifth generation to work that land back in Wisconsin, which my grandpa calls “Maple Acres.” Me and the rest of my siblings were called elsewhere, though I am by far the “farthest flung” among them. I wouldn't know what to do with a farm if I had one, and I would be more than happy to leave it in Tony’s capable hands.

Posselt Farm, Circa 2012
But I do know a thing or two about barns. In twenty-first century Midwestern American, and at Maple Acres, the barn (the big red part) is where the hay bales are kept, and under the barn is where the cows are kept, and in the silos are where the grain is kept. There originally were two silos on our property, but when I was in grade school we built another one.  And many, many years before that, the barn where the cows are milked was also expanded. It’s what farms do. As your productivity increases, you can afford more cows. And more cows mean more milk, but also more to feed. So with more cows, more grain storage is needed. And so on, and so on. Always trying to make the most out of the hard work you put in. And the farm that Tony would inherit is larger and more productive than the one that my dad inherited, which was bigger still than the farm my grandpa inherited, and so on. And hopefully this will continue for generations to come.

But there was once a rich farmer, Jesus said, whose land produced abundantly, so much so that he could not store all of his harvest in his existing silos. A big problem, but a very happy one. Does he consult his father and seek his wise council from his many years of farming? Does he join with his son to brainstorm solutions? Does he confer with his farmer-neighbors over a celebratory beer at the local bar?

No. He said to himself, “What should I do with MY CROPS?” He seems to be the only one he cares about in this picture. We don’t know if he had family, a wife and kids, or even friends in the community, because they do not even merit a single thought in his mind. He is not thinking about leaving a legacy for his children, or even about celebrating with his neighbors. For all intents and purposes, he was alone with his abundance. Rich Farmer with Windfall, Party of One.

But someone was listening in on the little heart-to-heart this man had with himself. This someone was the one who created the rich earth so that the seeds of the crops would sprout and grow. This someone was the one who caused the rain to fall to water the ground at just the right times and in the right amounts – not to be too dry or too wet. This someone was the one who formed the sun billions of years ago so that it would shine those crucial months so that those crops would photosynthesize like crazy and produce that abundant harvest.

That rich foolish farmer didn't seem to know the Johnny Appleseed Grace, did he? You probably know the one: “Oh the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need: the sun and the rain and the apple seed. The Lord is good to me. Amen…” hmmm, must not have gone to camp as a kid.

So just as the rich farmer was wondering what to do with all the wonderful crops that HE grew, how to put HIS grain and HIS goods into HIS bigger barns, God – Poof! – shows up to tell him that HIS LIFE will be demanded of him. But the truth was, by the time God shows up in this story, this man is already dead. At least he was in his heart and in his spirit. He had turned the gifts that God had given him into gods themselves, and believed that he was the end of the line for these gifts rather than one stop along the way to benefit the larger community. He had forgotten that he brought nothing with him into this world, and learned the hard way that he can take nothing out of it.

But not many people these days are farmers like my dad and mom and brothers. Not many people can say that this year the harvest was so good that they’re gonna need to build bigger barns in the back yard. But the accumulation of “stuff,” be it crops or land or houses or cars, seems to have been a distraction to humanity since time immemorial.  Ever since the human race invented the pronoun “mine,” we've had problems. You know, like those seagulls in Finding Nemo – Mine, mine, mine…

But what is already “mine” is not really enough, is it? I look in my closet, and I find nothing to wear. So I go to the mall. Oh gosh don’t these pillows go great with the couch? You know, dear, we really could use a new dining room table, that one we already have was a hand-me-down and the chairs don’t quite match. Wow, look, the newest iPhone just came out. My upgrade is still six months away, but I just don’t think I can wait that long.  You know, little Sally’s friends all make fun of her for having that bike that was her older cousin’s, maybe we should get her that new model ten speed Disney Princess bike with the streamers and basket, she’ll just love it. And little Bobby is starting school now, and he could really use the Spiderman backpack with special water bottle and lunch box, with the GPS app and roller wheels…

Gee our house is beginning to feel really small. Maybe we need to rent a storage unit? Or maybe move to a bigger house? …At what point to we become possessed by our possessions? As the founder of “Bread for the World” Arthur Simon once wrote: “We are human beings, not human havings.”

Jesus said that life does not consist of, is not made up by the abundance of possessions. Well, of what then does life consist of?

Our lives are made up of the things that we really can say “mine” to: God’s love is yours. God’s forgiveness is yours. God’s presence in your life is yours. The life God gave to Jesus in the resurrection is yours. These are the treasures of life that can never be lost, that will never decay, an no one can ever steal from you.

All that we are, all that we have, and all that we love was given to us out of God’s love. Love is the one thing we need. It cannot be stored or traded or hoarded. But it can be shared. And it is the one thing that we have that grows more abundant the more we share it with others. Thanks to God, we already have everything we need… so what are we going to do with the rest of it?

I do know one more think about barns. You cannot build a barn alone. While nowadays when you want to build a barn, you hire a construction company. In the old days, barn raisings were community events, where the whole town might show up. The men would roll up their sleeves and lift the walls and raise the roof, while the women saw to cuts and scrapes and made sure everyone was fed, and the children played underfoot, thinking it was just a big excuse to get together with their friends. Everyone was there to help, in one way or another. They all had a hand in something no one person could accomplish alone, even now; something meant to last, something that would perhaps endure beyond themselves.

I think that the idea of being rich toward God is something like that: using what you have been given to help someone who needs helping. That is the kind of riches that give meaning to our lives and make life worth our toil for another day. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

God is our refuge and strength...

My top 10 favorite moments of the ROAR 2013 senior high servant trip, where youth from all over NJ helped people still affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In no particular order:

1. Even campfire at Cross Roads Camp. Brought back a lot of fun memories.

2. When we were cleaning a street in Ortley Beach, within 20 minutes we had three offers of cold water from the neighbors, plus the lady who's yard we were weeding cut up some watermelon for us - best watermelon I ever tasted! This woman was 85 years old and had been living with one of her nieces for the last 6 months after Sandy. She said that after Sandy, she couldn't function, couldn't write her own name. Her sister, with whom she had lived in that house, completely shut down and stopped talking to anyone to this day, and now lives in a nursing home. But she was so glad to see us, and so glad for the help.

3. One night at the church we were staying at there was a meeting that wanted to meet in the church where it was cool (that week the temps were in the upper 90s!), so we had evening worship in the lounge where we ate. While singing "Trouble won't go," some of the kids really got into it, and kept the beat (gently-ish) on the tables... it sounded awesome! Gave me goosebumps.

4. Seeing the giant bucket-brigade-like line the kids created to unload loads of food at the PERC shelter in Union City. We boxed up enough food to feed 340 people. And our youth got to hear the "homeless homeless" story from one of the staff who was there the night it happened

(The "homeless homeless" story, in case you haven't heard it from me before, is about the night after Sandy hit Union City area, and one homeless shelter in one part of the city, in order to make room for the displaced people with damaged homes, put 90+ homeless people on a bus and dropped them off in front of PERC, which was already full. No warning or anything. They found room by clearing their dining area. We also learned that this happens on a smaller scale all the time - people just released from prison or the hospital are often given a free taxi ride directly to PERC.)

5. Debbie leading yoga for us in the evening at the YMCA - relaxing and rejuvenating!

6. Communion at our closing worship - seeing everyone gathered around the alter in one big circle!

7. Being at the beach in Point Pleasant and seeing a rainbow. And then driving just a little way down the road, toward Mantoloking, where you can still see piles that once were houses. Mind-blowing.

8. Helping St. Barbara's Orthodox Church in Tom's River prepare for Camp Noah... getting two entire rooms painted and gift kits sorted. The kids worked so hard, even on the last day. And getting to see their awesome sanctuary. It's huge and completely covered in beautiful icons. Just gorgeous.

9. Helping out Covenant Church in West Long Branch get ready to host volunteers - we made them look beautiful by weeding, and set up some cots (which are super comfortable, being the good helpers we are we tested them out a bit...) and learning about the congregation. The picture from my last post was taken there. One of my youth had the idea, and I took the pic with her phone. Neat, huh?

10. Getting to meet the pastors of St. Thomas in Brick where we stayed... a clergy couple! They were wonderful. And the church was great - most rooms had AC!!!

Many other things happened, but those were definitely the highlights. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers this week, it was big success!!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

#ROARNJ 3013

God's Work, Our Hands

July 14 - 19

Cross Roads Camp, PERC Union City, Brick, Tom's River, and more...

Monday, July 8, 2013

An M.A. in marriage. :)

Six years. That's like getting your B.A. then going on for  your M.A, right? :) Believe me, we are no masters, but I think that we've done pretty well for ourselves making it to 6. Maybe we should think of it more like our marriage can now go to kindergarten!

We celebrated early by spending the 4th holiday in Philly, which was pretty cool beyond cool for these two mid-westerners. We sat outside of Independence Hall and watched the the festivities and dignitaries, which was surprisingly sparsely attended.  My theory is that all the locals stayed home, and the audience was full of non-jaded people like us, tourists or people not from the East Coast. It was fun to be there and see the commemorations, speeches by Mayor Nutter and his wife, and a performance by a marching band from Wisconsin and also Ben Taylor. Then came a parade that was fun - full of performances by cultural and ethnic groups around the city - but it never seemed to end! We had lunch nearby, and when we went back outside, it was still going on!

Later that night we were going to be at the big concert in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art - with the Roots!! and other bands. But it was so hot, and so crowded, and kind of smelled, and it was loud but we couldn't hear anything, so we went back to our cool, quiet hotel room, and watched it on TV. Great sound. Best decision ever.

The next day we went to Love Park - of course.

Last night we watched our wedding video, I think for the third time ever. Though we figured out that the service itself was actually only 50 minutes or so, we still apologize to everyone who was there for not shortening the communion liturgy and prayers! What were we thinking, including ALL the parts of "Now the Feast" in an un-air conditioned church service in July! But we promise, that was the only time we'll ever get married, and we'll never do it again. ;)

We still agree that our reception was the most fun reception we've ever been at, before or since (yes, we are probably biased). My maid of honor's toast was still the best: "...and to top it all off, she's LUTHERAN"! (she was quoting Beau). And yes, he is still my Mr. Darcy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Left To Our Own Devices

Devotion – Midweek Service – Wed. June 19, 2013
Text: Isaiah 65:1-9

It was raining heavily on highway 78 that day, when my husband and I found ourselves suddenly tailing a slow car in the left hand lane. At first I couldn’t quite tell, but as we pass her my sight confirmed my gut feeling – sure enough, she was texting while driving. HeLLO! I wanted to tell this woman. Didn’t she know that not only was this illegal and dangerous, but also downright rude? Sure, she may have been connecting to a long lost friend or a family member in need, but it was at the expense of the safely of those around her. It was as if the rest of us didn’t exist, or at least didn’t matter enough to warrant her consideration. For her, following her device mattered more.

Now, in Hebrew, the original language for this text, there is no word for smart phones or iPods or laptops, but the beauty of the word of God is that it is alive. Because the biblical scholars who dedicate their lives to this work decided to translate a particular Hebrew phrase a particular way, and because English is a nuanced and ever-changed language, these words written thousands of years can speak to us today.

Humanity has been inattentive to the words of God since the beginning of time, but never before had we so many devices, so many activities, so many plans to distract us before. Summer especially seems to be a time where too many voices vie for our attention, where it is easy to notice that God is calling out and reaching out to us. Because who really needs God when there are beaches to lie on and sports to be played and movies to watch and places to go and people to text?

Understandably, God sounds a little annoyed at getting the brush-off over and over again from the very same people who God saved from slavery in Egypt and set apart as a holy nation. Any parent would feel the same in a similar situation - showing nothing but love to a child who returns nothing but… nothing. It might be tempting to disown such an unresponsive child. But instead, though hurt and frustrated, God shows his children the patience of a gardener.

A friend of mine, avid gardener herself, recently bought a house with her husband, and in the backyard was a patch of what looked like unruly weeds near their compost pile. She had been on her husband’s case about cutting down a small tree in the patch… until just the other day day she noticed small purple berries growing on the tree. It turns out it was a mulberry tree, and she’s been making delicious jam ever since.

A more logical God might have given up on his easily distracted and impatient people. But luckily our God thinks in the future tense. While we only see clusters of grapes, hanging on the vine, a gardener can imagine the wonderful wine that will be the final product. While we may only see a crazy mess of weeds today, God sees what we cannot – that in the mess that we often create for ourselves, God is still calling our name and reaching out a steadying hand.

We may not be fine wine yet – we may yet have a lot of growing to do – but God is going to stick it out with us. God’s not going to stop reaching, and he’s not going to stop calling, day or night, winter or summer. Amen.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Jesus, you are soooo unreasonable.

Sermon, June 30th, 2013

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

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways acknowledge him.
And he will make… your path straight!”

That song is from a Vacation Bible School year, way back when I was young. I don’t remember exactly what the theme was for VBS that year, but I still remember this song. How many of you who’ve been to VBS as a kid still and find yourself occasionally humming a song or two?

Now, I’ve participated in quite a few Vacation Bible school curriculums over the years, and I’ve started to notice a pattern. No matter what the “theme” of the week is, be it rainforest, down on the farm, castles and kings, wild west, beach party, Babylon, or Everywhere Fun Fair, just about every single VBS talks about putting our trust in God. And over the course of a lifetime, hopefully a child will grow up having this message reinforced year after year, so that when life does hand them a tough situation, they may find themselves humming that maddeningly catchy VBS tune from their childhood.

Just last year at this time, we were concluding VBS 2012, singing songs with words like: “The storms of life will push and pull, but we are standing on the Rock that never rolls.” We had no idea that a few short months later we would be facing a real-life storm, the likes of which we had never seen before. We had no idea that some parts of our lives will never quite be the same again.

For a week, or more for some, our lives were on hold. Any plans we had made went out the window when Sandy rolled in. As we waited for the electricity to come back on, we realized that when it got cold outside, we were cold too. We realized that when the sun set at night, it would be dark inside as well as outside. We realized it was harder to get in contact with family and harder to stay connected to the outside world. We realized that without gas and working traffic lights, driving had become very tricky. For a week, we knew full well that we were not in control. And for most of us, that is a very scary feeling, one that we would do anything to avoid feeling every again.

But for some, that feeling of powerlessness could descend at any moment. Your world can change out of the blue, be it from sudden illness, pay cut or job loss, accident, or any other sudden change in plans.

Sometimes, it just takes one tragedy to reveal to us the truth: that we are not in control, no matter how much we think we are. No matter how many precautions we take or backup plans we make, we simply cannot plan for every contingency, and we will drive ourselves crazy with worry if we try. But we still cling so tightly to what little control over our lives that we do have that it’s hard to let go, even when it is Jesus who is asking us to.

Do you remember that face your mom or dad made growing up that told you it would be useless to argue with them? Their mind was made up, end of story, thank you very much. Jesus must have been wearing that kind of look when he decided it was time to get down to business and head for Jerusalem in order to complete the mission that God had given him.

Because of this, the Samaritans in a town on the way wanted nothing to do with Jesus. And so, his disciples, being wonderful examples of loving Christian behavior, turned the other cheek, right? Well, actually…Two of his followers, James and John, were so angry that their rabbi had been insulted that they were ready to wipe this sorry little town right off the map. And they probably weren’t too happy that Jesus wasn’t flattered at their show of devotion. They were probably disappointed that Jesus was actually pretty annoyed, and instead puts the kibosh in their plans for revenge.

No biggy, they’ll just find another town on the next exit along the Jerusalem highway. But along the way, a man recognizes Jesus and is so excited to meet him that he instantly promises to follow Jesus “wherever he goes.” And Jesus turns to him and says, “Yes, that’s the spirit! I like that show of eagerness – come on along with us!”, right? Not exactly… Instead, Jesus responds - not by saying, “poor me, I have no home,” but by revealing that this man may not have completely thought through the implications of such an important decision, and thus might not be ready for the reality of the life of a disciple.
Here, Jesus is saying to the man that following him is not a life of ease and comfort. Discipleship means living a life that the world is uncomfortable with, a life that means you will not find comfort in the ways of the world. If I were this man, I might have responded, “Wow, way to rain on my parade, Jesus.”

The second man they encounter actually gets a personal invitation to follow Jesus – how exciting! Does he drop everything at the chance to follow, like James and John and Peter, and the rest? No, he doesn’t. First he must do what any good and loyal son would do – honor his dead father’s memory. First he must honor his previous commitments, THEN he will be only too glad to follow Jesus.  Is that really too much to ask?

Is it also too much for the third man to ask for just a little down time before his career as a disciple begins, in order to explain himself to his family and say goodbye? Even though, his family may try to talk him out of going - because surely this is too drastic of a change in lifestyle to make, and yes the call DID come from Jesus, but surely this position doesn’t have good pay or adequate benefits, and how will they hear from him to make sure he’s safe and well-fed?

You are right if by now you are thinking that Jesus is being completely unreasonable. After all, we all have commitments to keep and obligations to fulfill. Doesn’t Jesus see that we have convinced ourselves that we are in control of our own lives, that we are the ones who make the plans and sets the schedules? And doesn’t Jesus see that we are ok with that, at least until the next life-shattering event threatens?

Of course Jesus knows that. And he also knows that when we make plans under the yokes of our own desires, the end results are often selfishness, divisions, addictions, suffering, indifference, hate, and fear. The tighter we grasp at control over our lives, the more out-of-control we actually are. Jesus knew all this, and still he submitted himself to humanity’s control. For that is why he had to go to Jerusalem in the first place – to show that there is another way to live.

There is life beyond fear, free from all the reasonable obligations and plans we’ve create for ourselves. Free from the fear that death and suffering are in control of our lives. Free from the burden of thinking that everything depends on us.

Jesus lived that by giving up control over his own life, to show us that our lives are in the hands of God. And Jesus shows us that there is another side, and that Jesus will see us safely there.

That’s what following Jesus means – trusting that he joins us in this adventure that we call life, trusting that we don’t have to have our lives together in order to follow him, trusting that something good is going to come out of all of this.

I’ll admit it – working with children, especially large groups of them, often contains an element of chaos. Sometimes it can be exasperating, but other times I have been pleasantly surprised at how much some kids absorb during one crazy week at VBS. One minute, they might be running around and yelling, and the next, they might be telling one kid not to be mean to another. This just one way God is using us to plow the fields for the Kingdom of God. This is just one way that God is using us to make disciples and change lives. And our lives are being changed in the process. AMEN.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Faith and Social Media (my two cents)

This was my article for our June newsletter.

In April, I attended a workshop held at Crossroads camp about engaging young adults in ministry. Now, you may be thinking, “But Pastor Lydia, YOU are in that category, right? Shouldn’t you naturally KNOW how to minister to your peers?” The trust is, I am rather an anomaly in my generation. While my confirmation class was the largest in my home church’s history (17), almost none of my fellow confirmands has been to church since. But it is also true that, like the rest of my generation (called “Millennials” by many social physiologists) I grew up navigating technologies that were unheard of even in my parent’s generation. 

We are living in a historic moment, where technology is exploding all around us and the world is changing faster than we can keep up with it. Where in the world is God in the mists of Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Pintrest, Pandora, iPhones, texting, and Twitter? 

I recently heard a story about two shoe salesmen who traveled to Africa during its colonial era. The first salesman, depressed that the local people went barefoot, wrote home “Bad news. No one here wears any shoes.” The second scribbled his letter home in excitement: “Great news! NO ONE here has shoes!” This story comes from a fantastic TED talk given by Benjamin Zander (click HERE), which can be found on the TED website (TED talks are short, interesting talks given by experts and creative people around the world), Though Zander‘s talk is about classical music, this story he used has much to say about the world that the church finds itself in today.

We can look around us in dismay and think about those “darn kids” on their phones all the time, or we can wonder along with them about how to use what is available to us to connect TO people. It is true, technology can be an isolating distraction, but it is also a powerful tool that connects and engages people. This workshop I attended opened my eyes to the awesome potential at our fingertips, and the possibilities for ministry with people of all ages. For example, I post my sermons on my blog: 
www.likealutheran.blogspot.com and I’ve been trying out Twitter and Instagram.

 God has endowed us with creativity, curiosity, and the desire for connection. I hope that you will be exploring, trying, failing, testing, wondering, and discovering along with me, and that we can all find ways to grow in our faith together.