Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

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.