Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

English as a First Language

Or: An Uncomfortable Portrait of White American Privilege.

I knew going on the plane  in Philadelphia to attend the Lutheran Word Federation assembly in Namibia that I had what would be a really tight connection in the States, so I wondered if I would make it. I told myself that the airport is not O'Hare by any means, so it might be fine, right? My luggage probably won't make it, but there is a chance that I might. Right?

Not so much.

As we took off from Philly, we were already 30 minutes late, and we never made up the time as we few over the stark deserts of the Middle East, which I was seeing for the first time. As we landed, I still believed that I would not actually step on the Middle Eastern continent before heading to Africa. Until, that is, we were told to exit the plane to board waiting buses... and we were parked on the tarmac, and not directly at the airport. And, of course, being at the back of the plane, I waited with about 20 other people for more buses to arrive (in the 90 degree heat at 7 AM local). After the 10 minute bus ride and speed walking across the airport, my rush to make it by the last boarding was in vain.

I was by myself in another continent, watching the very nice Air Qatar people working on finding new flights for me, and I wondered how this was going to work out, especially when they offered to put me up in a complimentary hotel for part of the 18 hours it would be until my next flight, directly to Windhoek Namibia.

I found myself kind of bumbling from one person to another with my reservation clutched in my hand, looking for this hotel (which I thought was within the airport). I was told to follow the signs (there were none) then found myself being told to go through customs (which took a solid hour), then wandered into the hotel shuttle shepherding person, onto a bus, driving into the city of Doha, and praying all the while that someone knew what they were doing and that I would end up in the right spot. Everyone spoke English to me and I asked them English questions, and they all somehow took care of this one lost American.

A lady from India waited in line behind me through customs, and she asked me in broken English if this was the right thing to do to get out of the airport. I told her I thought so. And I began to realize that every person I talked to and would talk to for the next 12 hours spoke my language, and that I had no clue how to even say "thank you" in Arabic. I consider myself to be a pretty competent traveler, but I would have been totally lost if it had not be for these kind, bi- or tri- lingual airport staff.

This was only the beginning of directly experiencing something that I had knew intellectually - I am privileged that the world speaks my native language.

On Air Qatar, all the announcements were in Arabic and in English.

Though the Lutheran World Federation operates in 4 languages (also French, German, and Spanish), most of the speakers presented in English, and most of the discussion occurred in English (though instant translation was offered, I rarely had to use it).

On the last night a group of German graciously invited me to join them for dinner, and spoke to me in perfect English, and I was very aware that my one semester of German in college was woefully inadequate to converse with them in their native tongue. I imagine that it would have been much more comfortable for them to speak in German with one another, after speaking English all week.

Pastors from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa and Asia discussed complex theological concepts in a language not their first, or maybe even their second. I certainly can't do that. These African pastors are so much smarter than I am.

When the world speaks your language, you are not motivated by necessity to learn another. So it is so easy to feel entitled to your own language.

I was told, thought, that American English is a fairly easy version of English to understand. I hope that during my sermon on Tuesday night, I spoke slowly and clearly enough to be understood by those who spoke English, even though copies of my sermon were distributed in all four languages. That's why I thought it was important that for the moment I went "off script" I said "one moment please" in all the languages (and I asked native speakers how I would go about saying it, so I hope I got it right!).

For my fellow English as a First Language Speakers, we do not get that many chances to experience lingual diversity. It feels uncomfortable to us when someone speaks a language we are not fluent it. But it's a good discomfort. It means that we are not the rulers of the world. It reminds us that we don't know everything, and don't deserve everything. It reminds us that we have a place in this world, and that the world is not required to make a place for us. Being a global citizen begins at home with our attitudes with those who are different than us. Embrace the discomfort - for it means we still have much to learn and discover about one another. And then go download a language-learning app and at least become fluent in "Thank You."

Thank you to all those who showed kindness to this mono-lingual, wide-eyed white American thrown  into the (Lutheran) world spotlight. I so grateful to have received such grace. I certainly didn't deserve it.

View of Doha from the shuttle bus. It was 100 degrees outside!

This sorry-looking American is TIRED!!

View from the hotel. I didn't get to explore the city - someday!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"I'm Not Jesus"

Sermon 5-21-17

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

Dirk Lange
Because I was not an official voting delegate at the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Namibia this last week, I did not always have to be in the plenary sessions the entire time. For a little while I was able to help my friend Dirk Lange with his worship committee of awesome people. Dirk Lange was one of my worship professors at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, and he was also the worship planner for the Joint Commemoration service with both Catholics and Lutherans last year in Lund Sweden for the 499th anniversary of the reformation. That service was led by both Pope Francis and the previous president of the Lutheran World Federation Bishop Munib Younan, who I also met last week.
Bishop Younan

Dirk asked me to help with worship last week as I was available, in addition to preaching Tuesday night. Another night I was asked to help distribute communion, which was no small task for a congregation of about 1000 people who spoke or understood English as a second or third language. It was a beautiful and holy chaotic mess, with much patience and graciousness required.

At one point, I tried to flag down one of the hard-working volunteers who was running around with extra bread. Unfortunately, I ran out before he could get to me, and I had to say to the next person in line – Sorry, I’m not Jesus! I hope they understood that I did NOT have the power to multiply the loaves as Jesus did, and in any case, they laughed. And thankfully in a moment, we had more bread.

I am not Jesus, obviously. But that night, giving the body of Christ, Jesus was IN me and WITH me. In the bread and in the wine, Jesus was present IN us and WITH us that evening in the worship tent in Windhoek, Namibia, with a thousand Lutherans gathered together from all over the world. Even when we ran out of bread and had to wait for more, or were confused about which line to be in, or perhaps a little hungry or tired from late dinners and long days, after traveling across continents through far too many international airports to get there.

This is exactly what Jesus is trying to get across to his disciples during the last night they are together, the night of the Last Supper – though the disciples don’t know yet that this is what it will be called. Judas Iscariot had just left the group to go get the chief priests, scribes, and the detachment of soldiers that will arrest Jesus in only a few chapters. Night had just fallen, and the darkness of evil and death were drawing closer to cease their chance to pounce.

Jesus knows what is about to happen. We know what is about to happen. But the other disciples don’t know. For them, the arrest, torture, humiliation, and death of Jesus is still in the future. The disciples will very soon abandon Jesus, but they will also feel abandoned BY Jesus. Jesus here is trying to get them ready for this future that looks as though darkness will win the final victory.

This is a passage that speaks to us as well, right here and now, though we of course know the story ends with resurrection. But even so, we don’t get to see the risen Jesus walking around in our midst. He’s not wandering the globe in his sandals in a world-wide game of “where’s Waldo?”. So how can Jesus be present with us when he seems more absent, especially in the world we live in that is hurting and divided by the powers of darkness and death?

In many cultures around the world, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, come from traditions holding that loved ones who have died have gained higher knowledge and wisdom, and therefore become present to us and guide us. To theologians who come from these parts of the world, Jesus returns to his disciples through the presence and guidance Holy Spirit. And to a science fiction nerd like me, this very much sounds like the brilliant and moving story-arcs from the Star Wars movies saga.

Because I had a lot of time on my hands as I flew across the world to get to Namibia, I watched through ALL the Star Wars movies, including the 2 recent ones. The original trilogy will always be a favorite, you know, the one with Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, and Princess Leia. There is just something about hearing a good story from a galaxy far, far away to make something about your own story even more clear.

As young Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker is put through his paces by the small green Yoda, Yoda teaches Luke the nuances of the Force. When Luke yet again doubts the Force, Yoda takes him to task. “Judge me by my size, do you?” Yoda asks. “As well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is…  Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere.”

In this universe far, far away, this all-embracing Force gives Jedi masters the ability to commune with the living after they have died. So, again and again, whenever Luke is in dire need of guidance, Luke’s other mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi return to guide him. Sometimes Obi-Wan leads Luke where he needs to go, as when he tells Luke how to find Yoda to receive training. Other times it is to teach Luke hard truths about his past and his identity. But no matter what, neither Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor the Force, abandons Luke. Not even as Luke comes face-to-face in a battle against the galaxy’s darkest evil… in which he finds the true evil he must combat is not the galactic empire, but within himself.

In universe of the Force, we are luminous beings, and not this crude stuff of flesh and blood. But in OUR universe, we believe that we are BOTH luminous beings and flesh and blood, created as all of this, by a loving God. This loving God sent his son to us, who was both the word of God and the light of the world, so that he would become flesh and live among us – crude matter and all.

Jesus came to live WITH us and AS us to show us that GOD LIVES in us too. Jesus came to live with us, to die as one of us, so that when he lives, we will also live. Jesus came to show us that we are also part of one another, that we are all part of God’s Family, and that God does not abandon God’s children.

Jesus had to come to remind us, because the littlest thing makes us forget. Even Lutherans from around the world need help remembering. This is why the overall theme of the Lutheran World Federation Assembly was “Liberated by God’s Grace.” And the three sub-themes reminded us of what we too often forget – Salvation, Creation, and Human beings are Not For Sale.

These were the themes for the assembly because all-too-often we forgetwe forget that ALL people have been created for freedom and dignity, from the girl who are trafficked to the untouchables from India to African Americans whose ancestors were slaves less than dozen generations ago. We forget that Creation is not a magical never-ending resource, especially if we don’t in our own country don’t directly see the high cost of our throw-away culture. We forget that it is not Wealth and Money are not our gods, but the God of Love gives us our salvation freely and abundantly.

We forget that our command is to love one another. We forget that we are to love the Lord our God by loving our neighbor. Our Republican neighbor and our Democratic neighbor. Our gay neighbor and our straight neighbor. Our neighbors who are women and men and transgender, our neighbors who are black and white and Muslim and Jewish and not-religious.

If we as global Lutherans – Namibians with Indonesians, Canadians with Bolivians – can find common ground and break bread with one another for an entire week, can’t we do the same with the people who are right here, around us?

So if Jesus seems to repeat himself and seems a little wordy, especially in the Gospel of John, it is because we don’t seem to be listening the first or the fortieth time.  And we don’t have to go half way across the world to keeps these commandments of love. The Holy Spirit is always at work, looking out for us over our shoulder, pointing us down the right way, and sometimes telling us the hard truths.

But the Holy Spirit is also the one who says, You are a child of God, and I am a child of God, and together, we are all part of one family of God. We breathe the same air that God has created. We are part of one another, just as Jesus will always be part of us.

“Sorry, I’m not Jesus,” – but Jesus does live us me, and will use our hands and feet. And together as one family we are called to walk into God’s unknown but exciting future. We live, because Jesus lives. Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Abundant Life for All

Grace to you and peace from God our Shepherd and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

If I were to ask you what your favorite Psalm was, what would you say? Yes, the 23rd Psalm, a very popular answer. It’s the one many of us know the best. How many of you memorized it in Sunday School as kids? Actually let’s see if we can remember the whole thing together!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Well done! We got through it, using one version or another. But the images that we find there are the same, no matter how we say it. Life-giving pastures and waters, safety through dark valleys, and feasting at the banquet table, all provided for by the Lord our shepherd, which is a great beautiful for God. It’s so awesome that every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear the 23rd Psalm and call it “Good Shepherd Sunday”!

The Gospel of John, which we are revisting, also has most of the well-known metaphors and “I am” statements” that Jesus uses for himself, including “I am the good shepherd.” Also included in John are I am the Light of the World, I am the lamb of God, I am the bread of life, and today we have…. I am the gate.

What? Huh? What happened to “I am the good shepherd?” So why aren’t we calling today “Good Gate Sunday”? I guess because it doesn’t have as nice of a ring to it. It’s not one of the more popular I AM sayings of Jesus. So what is it doing here? What is Jesus talking about?

Well, with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Easter, and Doubting Disciples Sunday, it’s been quite a few weeks since we heard from John what came right before this. It was the story of the man born blind. Remember that guy?

Jesus saw him begging by the road, healed him, and disappeared for a while, while this poor man was grilled mercilessly by his neighbors and then by the religions leaders and Pharisees. No one could not believe that Jesus had healed him. The once-blind man was then cast out for a second time from the community by the very people who were supposed to be acting like shepherds on God’s behalf. The first time for being blind, and the second for believing in this upstart preacher from Galilee. But Jesus came back to this rejected member of his flock.

A shepherd takes care of his sheep. The sheep hear his voice and follow. This man heard the voice of Jesus and followed, even though it cost him dearly.

But what does a Gate do? And why is Jesus calling himself a gate?

An illustration from the “Revised Comic Lectionary,” which is of course a play on words from the Revised Common Lectionary, our three year cycle of readings, shows a man exploring all these Jesus metaphors. “Oh, wait, I got this one!” the man exclaimed so Jesus, “you’re the FENCE, keeping all the sinners from the good people!”  Jesus looked at him, aghast. “No! I’m not the fence!” He says. “Never the barrier! But, I am the Gate, breaking through the boundaries you set up!”

Gates are supposed to close AND open, letting the sheep INTO the safety of the pen, but also opening to let the sheep back OUT to follow the voice their shepherd to good pasture. OUT to experience abundant life.

This kind of abundant life that Jesus is opening up for us and leading us to is not just about what happens to us after we die. Green pastures and still waters and banquets and experiencing the abundance of God is for our lives right now, too. Yes, the 23rd Psalm gives us comfort when we have lost a loved one, after they have been led into the presence of God for their eternal rest.

But. Goodness and mercy are for our lives as we live them NOW. In fact, goodness and mercy are not just following us, like a game of Simon says or follow the leader. Goodness and mercy are CHASING us down, pursuing us with the intention of running us over with God’s abundant life, pretty much. This is the kind of shepherd that is leading us and calling us, one who is concerned about our lives RIGHT NOW.

We follow in Jesus’ steps, and are called to follow his lead in love, service, and suffering. But not all suffering is created equal. I was reading some material from the Lutheran World Federation Assembly I will be leaving for early tomorrow morning. Next week’s week’s theme is “liberated by God’s grace,” and one of the day’s themes is “Human beings are not for sale.” One of the essays I read was by Ebise Ayana is a lecturer at the Makene Yesus Seminary in Ethiopia, a country that sees a lot of human trafficking. This is not just a problem in places far away like Ethiopia. Human trafficking happens right here in THIS country too.

Ebise Ayana wrote in an essay that the idea of Christian women are taught that any kind suffering is acceptable, because Jesus suffered. This too often keeps women in harsh and dangerous situations, like being trafficked. They blame themselves instead of their captors, and lose their God-given sense of self-worth.

Instead, she calls on all women to resist oppression and exploitation in all its forms, because we are called to follow in the footsteps of a liberating God. We may be called to suffer in this resistance for the sake of following Jesus, but suffering does not save us - only Jesus does that. Ebise Ayana insists that when one person is oppressed, the whole human family is diminished. Abundant life means that all people get to live the way that God has created us to live – liberated by God’s grace to work toward the liberation of others.   

Choosing suffering for the sake of becoming like Jesus, in being open gates rather than building fences…..suffering for the sake of breaking DOWN the barriers of race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, perceived disability, religion, and other things that divide us….THIS is the example that Jesus gives us, THESE are the steps we are to follow as part of Jesus’ flock.

There are plenty of other voices out there to try to lead us astray. Voices telling us to give into selfishness, fear, hate, closing our ears, & building fences instead of gates. The voices are everywhere, and they are persuasive, and they will lead you down the wrong path, and away from the abundant life that you deserve.

And at times it seems that we are powerless to resist them, and end up being led down the wrong path anyway, despite ourselves.

But Psalm 23 reminds us that Goodness and Mercy will always be there to chase after us, to pursue us even when we follow the wrong voices down the wrong paths. Even as we walk through the darkest, death-filled valley. They will find us.

So where is the voice of our Good Shepherd calling us to go, right here and now?
In a few weeks, we’ll be having a town hall meeting to check in on how we’re doing as a church so far this year. Between now and then, I will be greeting our Lutheran sisters and brothers from around the world in the city of Windhoek, Namibia. Between now and then, I would like you to think about the direction you think our Shepherd might be calling Family of God.

I believe it is a direction that causes us to lay claim to our name – Family of God – and to embrace who we are as PART of the LARGER Lutheran and Christian community, the ONE WHOLE family of GOD.

What if God used us to draw all those around us into that family? What if God used us to remind all people that there is a place for you here in this family, and that there is a place for you in this flock. After all, we are not a flock of ONE, but we are ONE flock, under ONE shepherd, whether we are in Windhoek Namibia, Delhi, India, or Buckingham, PA. Just as together we said the 23rd Psalm, together we can help each other in following the voice of our shepherd Jesus.

The gate is open, and together we are about to begin the next phase of our new and abundant life in Christ. Jesus is our Gate, too, because it is THROUGH Jesus that we are given this life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Under the Foreshadow of God's Wings

Women from South Africa in WI on '05!
Every synod in the ELCA has a companion synod somewhere in the world. I grew up in the the East Central Synod of Wisconsin, and their companion synod is South Africa. One summer (2005), while I worked at a Lutheran Bible camp (Pine Lake, Waupaca) a delegation of women from South Africa arrived, stayed at the camp, and visited churches from around the synod. We had such a wonderful time with them! The synod that I am now a part of, South East Penn (SEPA) has a partnership with the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. My previous synod was the NJ Synod, and they have a partnership with all 3 of the Lutheran denominations in Namibia!

A few years ago, during one of the NJ synod assemblies, I went to one of the break-out session on their partnership with Namibia, and about the last trip they took, which was quite a few years ago, I think. I remember sitting in on the session, and thinking about how amazing it would be to someday go to Namibia!!

And now look what happened! I had no idea that I would actually be going on a trip like this!

God has a hilarious sense of humor. Back in college 7 of us drove all the way from Wartburg College in Waverly IA to Audubon NJ to visit the home of one of my friends for spring break. It took us about 17 or so hours to drive, but hey, we were "crazy college kids." Little did I know that I would eventually be called to NJ, less than an hour from where I had been 6 years or so before.

A few years ago, when visiting Peddlers Village (near my current church in Buckingham PA), I wondered what it would be like to live in this area, and then decided that the roads were too windy and I would probably spend every day getting carsick. I have since learned which roads to avoid.

My former colleague in NJ has connections to the nearby Doylestown area, and joked in his sermon at my installation that my coming to PA was "a 'trade' that was dozens of years in the making"!

Coincidence? I don't think so.

"Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord." Psalm 31:24

As I prepare and slowly fill  up my bags, my cats suspect that something is up. Shhhh, don't tell them. I have some good people to check in on them, they'll be fine. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Upcoming Globe Skimming

I feel as though with my travel itinerary, I will be globe-skimming (or surfing) rather than globe-trotting. I will probably take five whole steps in Qatar before taking off again. Here is what my travel to and from Namibia will look like.

Depart for Philly on May 8- probably around 6 - 6:30 AM to get there by the 3ish hours before international flights. (1 hour drive)
Leave Philly - 10:40 AM  (6:40 PM Qatar time and 3:40 PM Namibian time)
Arrive in Qatar - 6:30 AM local
Depart Qatar - 7:15 AM local (that's 45 minutes!)
Arrive in Johannesburg South Africa - 2:40 PM
Depart J'burg - 5:40 PM local
Arrive in Namibia - 7:00 PM local
1 hour drive to Windhoek, means I'll probably get to the hotel by 9 PM local on May 9th.

My trip back is even easier, with a flight from Windhoek to Qatar to Philly, but once more with 45 minute layover, leaving May 17 and arriving at 8:40 AM Eastern time on May 18th! Who wants to have brunch with a half-crazy-tired, jet lagged me to help me stay awake and reset to to this time zone? :) Namibia is 5 hours ahead of us, for the record.
This is kind of what I feel like I'm going to be doing. Whee!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Preparations Galore

Imagine that you are told that you will be going on an amazing trip to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event to a country on another continent, in a whole different hemisphere. And you have 4 weeks to prepare! So much to do! Fortunately most of the major stuff is already arranged, like my shots, travel plans, hotel stays, and my sermon. I'm staying at the Safari Court Hotel next to the conference center in Windhoek (pronounced Wind-Took or Vind-Took like in German).

To make things even more wild, one of my layovers will be on a entirely other continent. I get to spend a whole  45 minutes on Qatar, in the Middle East! (North America), Europe, Asia, and now the Middle East and Africa are the continents I will have under my belt after this trip! Now I just have to figure out how to pack my alb in my checked baggage with minimum wrinkles. I'm only allowed 1 checked bag on Qatar Airlines! On the way there (but not the way back) I also have another layover in Johannesburg South Africa. I leave on the 8th and return on the 19th.

I've also reading a lot - like catching up on a class I didn't know I was signed up for! I am reading a few of the essays written specifically for the main theme of the Assembly - Liberated by God's Grace, and for the three sub themes: Salvation: Not for Sale, Creation: Not for Sale, and Human Beings: Not for Sale. You can find it all online on the LWF website, or in book form on Amazon. Great stuff!

I've been reading up on Namibia too - in May the weather is cooler, the highs running in the 70s F, as they head toward the dry season. Around half of the country is Lutheran (90% of the population is Christian). Namibia has 3 Lutheran denominations, and is the companion of my previous synod (NJ). How cool is that?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Grace is free, but shots are not.

I got all my shots today! I got so many because it has been 7 years since my tetanus, and they recommend getting it early to be on the safe side, and also Heb A since it is standard for most kids now and good for most international travel. Typhoid and yellow fever complete the mix. They even gave me cool bandaids. And the barista at Panera gave me a free coffee, even though she had no idea I was about to get jabbed in the arm 4 times. At least they gave me some rad bandaids!

The price tag was a much bigger ouch, though!

Today I also picked up a good deal of  supplies for the trip. It certainly is piling up! Snacks, luggage lock, luggage tags, Dramamine, earplugs... and I ordered a converter and adapter for my electronic devices...also an SD card for my digital camera, since I seem to have lost mine in the move.  I found my neck pillow, and I'm borrowing a travel bag for my alb and stole.

This is not my first rodeo traveling internationally. In January 2011 I traveled to Hong Kong and the Sichuan province in China with Dr, Theresa Latini, newly elected President of the United Lutheran Seminary. It was for a cross-cultural class where we spent a week in Hong Kong and a week in China, visiting churches and seminaries, talking to local pastors, and seeing local sights, like beautiful temples and pandas! THAT trip boasted a 16 hours long airplane trip!

However, this will be my first international trip going solo!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Out of the tomb, and off to Namibia...

Not that long ago, I spent a lot of time in the darkness of tombs. Much of my life was in a whole lot of limbo, like a seed waiting to find some new, fertile ground to thrive, but for a while not much happened. By the grace of God, and on the shoulders of many wonderful friends, family members, colleagues, and therapists, I made it to 2017.... where Resurrection has pretty much been smacking me in the face every. single. day.

After saying goodbye to a well-loved but part-time call with a great colleague, I had just moved to a new town, a new state, a  new apartment, and a new call. Things were busy, but going great! Lent was about to start, to add to the craziness of starting a new call.

Ash Wednesday morning, my world moved again.

I woke up.

I checked my email.

I nearly fell out of bed.

I JUMPED out of bed.

I may have yelled really loudly and scared my cats.

I was one of the top ten finalists in a preaching contest I had completely forgotten that I had entered. At the time, back in October, I was part time and figured there was no good excuse for me NOT to enter. Plus, I really wanted to see a woman preach at this event, and so I had better contribute my part.

Fast forward to the Monday of Holy Week. Much the same as Ash Wednesday:

I woke up, checked my email, and promptly went into shock. More crazy yelling.

Everyone is so thrilled, I'm thrilled, my congregation is thrilled, my family and friends are thrilled....


I'm leaving on an international trip to an African country that I had not planned for...

..in less than 2 weeks now.


To keep my sanity, and to chronicle the before, during, and after adventures and reflections, I'm going to share here, on my blog, which has sort of turned into mainly a sermon blog, which it should not be limited to anyway. So stay tuned for further hi-jinks in "Pastor Lydia Goes to Namibia"!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Joy to the world, the Lord has come.... back!!!!"

Easter Sunday 4-16-17

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

Merry Christmas! ….  “Joy to the world, the Lord has come… Back!”

“Hark the Herald Angels sing! Glory to the resurrected king!”

“Oh come all ye faithful… to the empty tomb.

Well, I haven’t actually lost my marbles, though this week I probably came close, between Holy Week prep and my first ever Easter here, and also planning a surprise trip to Namibia! So, ya know, not all THAT much going on this week!

This is the most special day of the most special week of the Christian calendar. On Palm Sunday, just one week ago, Jesus entered Jerusalem in a festive parade. On Thursday, we gathered around the Lord’s table to remember the night that Jesus ate his last meal surrounded by his closes friends – friends who would later go on to deny, betray, and completely abandon him. And on the Friday that we call Good, we heard the rest of the story of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, and death, as darkness fell inside a tomb sealed with a stone.

But today, “It’s beginning to look a lot like.. Easter!” Because, after all, today we remember how we received the Best. Gift. Ever.

When I went Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, I attended a downtown church that drew members from the white retired social justice involved crowd and those who were born in West Africa. One year, Easters fell really early, and as we sang our Alleluias, we saw snow starting to fall outside, in big fluffy, Christmas-card-worthy flakes. It seriously felt like Christmas morning, made me want to sing some “Joy to the World” rather than “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

After all, Christmas is the holiday that most of us say is our favorite. There aren’t too many “count downs” to Easter Sunday, unless you are a big church nerd like me. Though, we still try to make Easter into a cute holiday, like Christmas, and cover up talk of tombs and death by crucifixion with chocolate and bunnies. Babies are much easier to deal with than crosses anyway. And don’t get me started on CHOCOLATE Crosses. Bah Humbug!

So why not just skip Easter and celebrate another Christmas? If one Christmas is good, two are better! Right? All the same elements are already there: we have an angel who announces good news of great joy to some unsuspecting people – shepherds, women – both pretty far down on the social latter.  Mary the mother of Jesus is there too, as “the other Mary,” at least according to many scholars. The angel tells them to “fear not.” Then the women GO to SEE what the angel has told them. (go to Bethlehem) “Come and see the empty tomb…”  And Lo and behold – they find Jesus, just as the angel said. And you know what? SNOW is even mentioned today – the clothing of the angel is described as being as white as snow! “I’m dreaming of a white… Easter!”

Oh yes, I almost forgot. At both Christmas and Easter, someone is also trying to kill Jesus. You probably forgot about that part of the Christmas story. King Herod attempted to kill baby Jesus when he heard about him from the Wise Men, and Herod tried to put the kabosh on Jesus’ potential political career at its start. (kill motion) Try putting THAT on a Hallmark Christmas card.

Jesus obviously escaped death as a baby, but it looked like here it finally caught up to him. The Roman government, in partnership with the Judean leadership in power, thought they had finally gotten rid of this troublemaker. They even put his grave under surveillance, so that his followers could not steal the body and claim resurrection. But we just heard how about how that plan failed BIG TIME.

This is what Jesus had been saying his whole ministry. Over and over Jesus told his disciples, that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Mtt 16:21) That third day, that’s TODAY. But where are his disciples? We haven’t heard from them since Friday. The only people who showed up, the only people who believed the word of Jesus, were the WOMEN.

Dorothy Sayers wrote that women “were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross,” and I would add that they were first again to witness the resurrection. Women were the first preachers of the good news. The men, the soldiers at the tomb didn’t stand a chance. They came to “work” that morning expecting the cushy job of guarding a dead body. The women came to see a dead body, hoping and believing that they would be disappointed. Then boom. Resurrection happened.  Same event, totally different reactions.

Just imagine for a moment these big, tough men with weapons at the ready fainting dead away like proverbial Victorian ladies at the sight of ONE SINGLE MEASLY angel. One. Not even a heavenly host. Just one was all it took to pass out from fear. But for these women, they were not overcome by fear, because they already expected to see the impossible. For them, believing was seeing.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all be so overcome by fear of the darkness around us that we miss out where new life is happening. There is so much fear and so much TO FEAR in the world – racism, sexism, violence, war, bombing, homophobia, fear of our neighbors, of refugees, and strangers – so many things that would set us to shaking in our boots and fainting dead away in dismay.

But what if we looked at the darkness around us with resurrection eyes, like these women. Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “...new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb.” What if we could hear through our fear, and see in the dark? What if believing is seeing? What if Easter is Christmas? What if Christmas is Easter?

At Christmas, we often call Jesus Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Remember that great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Immanuel?” “And ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Well, Immanuel IS HERE and Immanuel has ransomed us, so that mourning and death and exile are no longer our reality.
Maybe Easter feels like Christmas because the two are bookends of the same story –which is the story of God birthing light out of darkness, life out of death, resurrection out of Good Friday. This story is also OUR story. Easter is the culmination, the completion, the last note in the final movement of the symphony, the nail in the coffin for death. Birth, death, resurrection – you can’t have Easter without Christmas, but without Easter, Christmas is more like a gift of a pair of socks rather than a BMW.

At Easter, Jesus give us the greatest gift of all – not chocolate crosses, but eternal life with God, made possible by Jesus defeating the REAL cross, it’s power of sin, death, and the grave. Jesus’ resurrection is OUR resurrection too, and THIS is why it is GOOD NEWS. Because this gift is FOR US. It is FOR YOU.

Last week I went with a friend to hear Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony #2. During the final movement, two soloists and a choir accompanied the orchestra, and sang these words, translated from German:  

O Sorrow, all-penetrating! I have been wrested away from you!
O Death, all-conquering! Now you are conquered!
I shall die, so as to live! What you have conquered Will bear you to God.
O believe, my heart, oh believe…
Tremble no more! Prepare yourself to live!

The disciples hid, and the soldiers fainted, but the women took a page out of the shepherds’ book and MADE HASTE, skedaddling out of that tome so fast that they crash headlong into the risen Jesus. 

Because Jesus lives, we live too. We live, not to hide away or be paralyzed by fear, but to boldly put one foot in front of the other, knowing that Jesus, Immanuel goes with us, and sometimes lets us crash head on into resurrection without realizing it. Immanual comes with us, so that we may live.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come back!”

Christ is Risen!
(He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!)

Thanks be to God! Amen. 

Good, not Great

Good Friday 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

For nearly every great person of history who is no longer alive today, remembering the time and place of their death is a vital part of telling their story. Especially if that person was cut down in the prime of their life while working for the cause of justice and reconciliation. What biography of Abraham Lincoln would be complete without mentioning the tragic night at Ford’s Theater? What account of Martin Luther King Jr would be worth its salt if did not include a chapter set on that hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee? And, though Malala is still alive, any future biography of hers will surely include her nearly successful assassination while fearlessly crusading for education for women in her native country of Pakistan.

But we can safely say that no other death in human history is as important as the death of a Palestinian Jewish peasant who lived in relative obscurity and died on a cross over twenty centuries ago. At the time, he was nothing more than another failed messiah, yet another victim of senseless violence in the name of the Empire of Rome. Here is a man who claimed to be a king, and look at what those in power did to him.

The area of Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus were already under the thumb of about a half a dozen successive empires by now. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and now Romans, with a few minor empires scattered in between, with hardly a break. Oppression and subjugation were old hat to the Jewish people. They groaned from one generation to the next, longing for deliverance, looking for the day when the Messiah, the holy one, anointed by God, would take up the cause and forever send all empires packing.

And Jesus, at least for a while, seemed to be shaping up to be a pretty decent contender for the title of Messiah. He healed people of their illnesses, cast out demons, miraculously fed people, flouted all authority, whether governmental or religious. True, he also had some disturbing quirks like eating with sinners and hanging out with women and children and talking too much about the kingdom of God. But as long as he kicks out the Roman Empire, much can be forgiven.

And this week also started out so well –  On Palm Sunday, we heard how the people crowded around and showed their support in the “Jesus parade,” as Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, the headquarters of power in the region, presumably to take it by storm and finally route the Roman oppression.

But that didn’t happen. Almost a week later, Jesus is hanging on a cross, not sitting on a throne. Almost a week later, there is no revolution, no overthrow of the oppressive government of Rome, no political victory. He is failure in the eyes of the Jewish leadership. A failure in the eyes of history, presumably doomed to obscurity, yet another failed king.

But Jesus didn’t come to be a great king of history. He wasn’t born to be prince over an earthly realm. He wasn’t born to be great. He was born be good. He was born, lived, and died to show that the goodness of God is for all people, not just the rich, not just the righteous, not just the powerful. And that is why we call today Good Friday. Jesus chose what was good for the entire world, even though it led to his death.

While Jesus was still in the garden, praying that this cup of suffering would be taken from him, Jesus still had a few options left open to him. He could have called on his disciples to fight for him – one would already chop off an ear, why not try to do more? Or he could sneak out of the garden and become a hermit. He could have called one those legions of angels to his aid and proven beyond a doubt who he really is. He could have struck an agreement with the religious authorities and worked to reform the religious institutions from the inside.

But Jesus did none of those things. He didn’t fight, or hide, or amaze, or bargain. He decided to obey God, even unto death. He decided to die. He decided to choose us.

Just a few weeks ago we heard about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, where Jesus says the most famous line in all of scripture, the most quoted Bible verse ever: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus was talking about this moment. He was talking about his death. He was talking about the cross. Here is that man, that moment, that cross.

The cross was not always one of them most recognized symbols of our faith. The Roman Empire used it as a symbol of intimidation, a deterrent, a sign that reads clear as day “This is what happens when you go up against the “powers that be.” You WILL LOSE.”

 On this Friday that is called Good, though, the symbol of an instrument of torture and humiliation and death is transformed. It becomes a symbol of life and repurposed as the sign by which God wants to be known in the world. It is transformed into a sign of a divine love that holds nothing back.

Today on the Friday we call Good, we remember that we worship this suffering God, and we follow this crucified man. Jesus shows us that God is willing to take on the worst the world has to offer, to experience it in a human body that can feel pain and can bleed and can die. Jesus is willing to take on the worst that WE have to offer – our selfishness, our fear, the broken mess we’ve made of our lives – to transform that too into something beautiful and precious and to be repurposed – chosen - as beloved children of God.

Even when the night has fallen, all hope seems lost, and it looks like the darkness will win in the Fridays of our lives - death cannot win, not forever. We cling to hope. We cling to the cross. And we wait for the light that shines in the darkness. We wait for the Sunday we know is coming. Amen.

Strawberry Jello and Jesus

Maundy Thursday 2017
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

Family, friends, and food just seem to go together. Here at Family of God, we live this like it is Gospel itself!! Between Dine and Donate, my installation celebration, the 55+ Group, Soup and Sandwich, you just can’t turn around in this church without bumping into a “food and fellowship” related ministry.

Food is how we take care of one another, and also how we celebrate. While both of my grandparents were alive, they would host every holiday many birthdays at their large house, with folding chairs and tables scattered everywhere, surrounding one huge table with leaves to make it huge. Food filled the kitchen, and no family gathering would be complete without Grandma’s strawberry Jell-o with bananas in it. And so, no plate would be complete without a helping. Now, strawberry Jello and bananas aren’t my favorite flavor combination, but eating this special desert was like eating with her, especially since there eventually came a time when strawberry jello with bananas was no longer on the menu.

What are some of your favorite food memories? Perhaps it is the smell of Grandma baking homemade bread, or the taste of fresh marina sauce at your favorite restaurant as you celebrated a birthday or milestone, a Champaign toast at a wedding. And then there are the special food traditions that become staples in our lives for family get-togethers and holidays, like my Grandma’s strawberry and banana jello. Like turkey on Thanksgiving. Mom’s sugar cookies at Christmas. Honey ham and Aunt Marge’s cheesy potatoes at Easter. Ice cream birthday cake from Dairy Queen.

Food makes us remember. The Jewish people used the Passover meal to remember that God had led them from slavery in Egypt to freedom, that God had guided them through years of wandering in the dessert, and eventually gave them to a home to call their own. Each item in the Passover meal jogs their memories of God’s saving acts and faithful presence in the past, to remind them that God will continue to be faithful, no matter what the future year holds.

This is the reason why strawberry Jell-O is actually more than just strawberry Jell-O. And bread is more than just bread and wine is more than just wine Like common Jell-O, here is nothing inherently special about bread and wine. Just walk down the bread aisle at ACME or GIANT sometime. There may be more varieties NOW than were available to Jesus, but really, bread still is just bread and wine is still just wine, no matter where you are. Like a package of Jell-O, neither are hard to find. They are common, familiar, everyday things, nowhere near on par with extraordinary.

And yet, God chooses the ordinary over the extraordinary, the common over the rare, the everyday and familiar over the exceptional - every time. God has a habit of taking what is ordinary in the eyes of the world and making it into something holy, special, set apart for a sacred reason.

Jesus embodied this during his lifetime, and that’s what got him into trouble. Jesus was always hanging out and eating with all the “wrong” kinds of people: lepers, Roman centurions, the demon-possessed, women at wells, children, foreigners, the blind, and the lame – all people who were on the outside of power and status. Jesus chose to be with them, just ordinary folks, rather than to hang out in the halls of power and influence. And in doing this, he showed that God was for THEM too.

But there were those in power in Jesus’ time who could not abide the thought that God welcoming everybody, that God would use ordinary people and ordinary things for God’s holy and sacred purposes. Jesus’ message of God’s extraordinary love for ordinary people threatened the established and excepted order. Therefore, naturally, Jesus and all that he stood for must be destroyed. And they would do so by any means necessary, even if it meant using one from his own inner circle, Judas, to betray him.

But that didn’t stop Jesus, not even for a second. Jesus came to show the world that God’s extreme love does extend to everyone, that God’s extreme welcome brings everyone to the table. Just look around at the people who are Jesus’ closest friends, the people he chose to spend his last meal with: common working men who didn’t always understand him, political zealots and hot-heads, those who would later desert him, one who would later deny him, and one would hand him over to death. And yet, there they all are, sitting around the table with Jesus, sharing a meal together.

And I ask you this night, to look around, to see who is gathered around this table. As Lutheran Pastor and writer Nadia Boltz-Weber (in her book Pastrix) often says about her own congregation: “I am unclear about what all these people have in common.” It just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Except, of course, that we know that it is Jesus who has brought us all here to this table of welcome: young and old, rich and poor, children and parents, liars and deniers and betrayers, imperfect people all. All brought to this meal because of Jesus. All are welcome at God’s table.

That night that Jesus shared his last meal with his closest friends, as they sat down to break bread as they had always done, they were expecting this night to be like all the others. They did not know that with them Jesus was making a memory – one that will be passed on, remembered throughout the ages, remembered again tonight.

That night, Jesus took ordinary bread and ordinary wine and gave it to ordinary people, and something extraordinary happened.

Jesus makes a promise with us with eating and drinking, an activity that unites all of humanity to meet a most human need – our need for sustenance, our need for life. We may eat to live and keep our bodies alive and healthy, but through Jesus’ broken body and blood poured we are given life in God’s Kingdom, where Jesus is giving us a place.

Jesus promised to be present with us in the sharing of bread and wine. And this he does boldly, while sin and betrayal and fear are sitting right there with him at the table. Jesus breaks a loaf of bread and shares it with his friends, just hours before his body is to be broken on the cross. Jesus then shares a cup of wine, just hours before his blood pours forth from his wounds, caused by flogging and splinters and nails.

We don’t have to understand it. In fact, most days we won’t be able to wrap our minds around it. But we remember it, believe it, trust it, and grasp it tightly and do not let go. We reach out our hands and receive it – the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.

You and me, who are sometimes Peter and sometimes Judas, and sometimes the rest of the disciples, asleep on the job or running the other direction in fear. But still, always welcome.

Pastor Rozella Haydee White wrote in the Free Indeed Lent Devotional that the ELCA published for Lent year, “In a world that divides things into sacred and secular, Christianity offers an alternative, one that has the power to bring about restoration… by choosing to become human, God shows us that we are worth restoring.”

In our world of violence and fear, of division and indifference, of tight schedules and frazzled nerves, our God comes to us in a way that we can see and touch and taste. How amazing is that? And together this night we

break bread,


and remember

that Jesus is here with us. Today we remember the goodness of the Lord, as we look ahead to tomorrow, that Friday that we call good. Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hosannas and Rejected Stones

4-9-17 Palm Sunday
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Welcome to Holy Week, where up is down, and down is up. Where a crowd shouts “Hosannas” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next. Where bread becomes Jesus’ body and wine becomes his blood. Where a king is killed for not being the right kind of king. Where a criminal walks free and an innocent man dies. Where disciples deny and run away scared and women and soldiers stand witness at the death of Jesus.

This is it. We made it. This week is what the forty days of Lent have been leading up to, the most important week of the Church calendar. This is why we wear purple: the color Jesus wore to be mocked, the color of royalty and bruises. We are about to enter a week where time gets wibbly-wobbly and hours in the life of Jesus stretch out. We are about to enter a week of reversals and transformation: where enemies become allies against Jesus, where a rejected stone becomes the central foundation block, where an instrument of torture and death becomes the very way we are rescued from death.
By artist He Qi

This week begins… with a parade. Jesus comes down the road into Jerusalem, like kings of old, riding a colt and surrounded by his disciples laying their cloaks before him like a royal procession. They are filled with amazement for all Jesus was doing, preaching sermons that are both challenging to the status quo and uplifting for those who are without hope, for his choosing a Samaritan woman to be his evangelist, and for healing a man born blind. So, the people, filled with hope, cry out along the parade route, “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Now, the last time we heard those same words wasn’t all that long ago, back in December - when the sky was filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, appearing to some shepherds late at night. These poor shepherds, scared out of their wits, witnessed the first proclamation of the good news of great joy for all the people, the birth of a savior, a messiah, the Lord. That night, the sky was filled with the shouts of angels: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

THAT night, Christmas night, shepherds bore witness to the arrival of God’s glory being birthed into the world. On THIS day, Palm Sunday, Jesus’s followers are the ones shouting for joy, heralding the time has come, the king has come, to bring peace to heaven and earth.
But not everyone is shouting for joy. The Pharisees, too, have seen these deeds of power that Jesus has done, and they are WORRIED. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are YOU doing these things, and who gave YOU this authority?”

They were worried about this upstart preacher man from Galilee, who won’t play ball and give them a straight answer, a teacher who teaches that God is for the meek, poor in spirit, AND that “shady people” like prostitutes and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom before properly religious people like themselves.  This Jesus person was acting too much like a new kind of Moses, freeing people under a new law of love come down from God THIS TIME in the form of a person, not ten rules on a stone tablet.

And they were absolutely RIGHT to be worried. The Jewish people at this time were under the oppressive thumb of Rome. Whose idea of peace was subduing the people with threats, violence, might of the sword, and death by crucifixion. You don’t mess WITH ROME. Especially by proclaiming that there is another kind of peace out there, another kind of king, another Lord who rules heaven and earth, one that is NOT ROME

So, it makes sense that the advice of the Pharisees to Jesus is for everybody to just chill out, man. Put a lid on it, people. “Ix-Nay on the Osanna-Heys.”

 “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” comes from Psalm 118, verse 26. Jesus quotes from the same psalm to the Pharisees: “22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

What if what Jesus saying is true? What if the “one who comes in the name of the Lord” says that the Lord is for everyone? What if the people we think of as the “wrong kind of people,” people who are marginalized by societies and nations, are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of us? People like refugees refused entry into this country, people like trangeder kids who don’t feel safe using a public restroom, people like the homeless, those suffering from mental illness, welfare moms and drag queens, the powerless and trampled on? What if the likes of these are first in line in the kingdom?

A Kingdom of POWER, MIGHT, and RIGHT makes sense to us. A hard stone with rules come down from the mountain makes sense to us. Bombing our enemies and making them suffer, instead of welcoming innocent victims into our borders, in the name of “safety” for ourselves, that obviously makes sense to us.

A king who empties himself of his divine and cosmic power does not make sense. A ruler who was rejected in order to save the dejected does not make sense to us. And yet, here Jesus is – on a donkey, then on a cross.

Up is down and down is up. Enemies – the Romans and the Pharisees – team up and become allies to get rid of Jesus. Time is suspended and stretched. The King of the universe comes to die. This king that we welcome, we then abandon and reject. We reject this king, but he becomes the stone on which our very hope is built.

For those us already broken, and in pieces, this is good news. Peter, our favorite “open-mouth-insert-foot” disciple, the same who denied Jesus three times, his very names means “Rock” or stone. And this rock – Peter - would later write about Jesus as a living rock, a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight. He says that we are God’s own people, living stones, stones that are at the same time dead and alive. Peter tells us, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:10-12)

Down is up and up is down. Welcome to the week we consider the most holy of the entire year. And it starts right now.

Please join us on this road through Holy Week, through the festival of the Three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Come and see what this week has in store:

Come and see Jesus, who comes in the name of the Lord, as he rides on to face his death.

Come and see Jesus, surrounded by people who cheer him on – for now.

Come and see Jesus, who eats his last meal with those who betray, deny, and abandoned him.

Come and see Jesus, who did not resist when he was mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross.

Come and see Jesus, who was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb.

Then, come and see, three days later, a stone that has been moved,

a grave with no body,

and death that has been turned upside down, transformed into eternal life. Amen.