Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pack Light

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Welcome to summer! Summer means trips – to the shore, the Poconos, to camps and vacations and visiting the grandkids. And for all these fun trips, we first need to get through the not-so-much fun part of packing.

Now, when I pack to go somewhere, this is how I usually do it…This is pretty fresh for me too, since I was in Namibia about a month ago. So this is how packing usually goes…

…. (here I simulated packing my carry on back with too much stuff)

Does this seem familiar at all? Or is this just me? I’m pretty sure I’m not the ONLY ONE who does this – at least I hope not!

Jesus was sending his disciples out on a trip too, but they were NOT going to the Poconos or to the shore. They were being sent by Jesus out into the world, not as tourists and visitors, but to go on behalf of Jesus to reach people for the kingdom of God.
Last week, we found ourselves reading from the very end of the Gospel of Matthew, with a mandate and a promise from Jesus. Jesus left us with a command – GO and make disciples – and with a promise – I will be with you. Today we rewind back toward the beginning of Jesus ministry.

After Jesus announces this trip, he then tells them what NOT to pack. No bringing extra credit cards just in case one of theirs gets stolen, no extra shirts or shoes, no walking stick, not even a bag! You get to have a belt, but that’s about it. Come on Jesus, what gives? Is Jesus setting them – and us – up to fail? That doesn’t seem like a very messiah-like thing to do.
Jesus’s part of the world at the time was steeped in a strong hospitality culture. If someone knocks on your door – friend, family, complete stranger - you welcome them, cook them dinner, and make up the guest bed.

But even back when this was common, welcome was not guaranteed. When Matthew was writing this, a strong division had erupted between the Jewish leaders and the Jewish Christians. Many – though not all – Jewish groups were hostile to those who followed Jesus. Members of the same family found themselves estranged. Perhaps it is no wonder that Jesus began his ministry with his own people, before moving on to the Gentiles, people like us.
And after all, it’s not like CHRISTIANS are the poster children of unity, either. Our track record has not very good.

In any case, the culture of hospitality no longer exists. We are no longer welcoming the stranger in our midst, but instead we are told at every turn to fear them. Locks, security systems, guns for “protection.” Anything can go wrong, after all. We need to be ready for anything.

And on the flip side, we also want to capture all the GOOD things that happen in life too. We script and plan every moment of ourselves and our children, terrified of a moment of boredom or the Fear of Missing Out. So we pack our lives like we pack our carry-on luggage. Too full and a big pain to lug around.
But perhaps the heaviest things we carry around with us are not seen, are not physical. We carry plenty of other things that weighs us down, things like:

-         FEAR and suspicion of our neighbors, especially if they seem different from us. (Here I put signs with each word in bold in the bag one by one)
-         SHAME and our feelings of inadequacy, feeling that we are not doing enough or being enough, just as we are.

-         WORRY about the future of ourselves, or the future of the church, or of this country, even.

-         ANGER and frustration about the way “things used to be” and how the world is changing faster than we can keep up.

-         DESPAIR over the violence that has seemed to be flooding the news lately, and the lack of compassion that is growing more and more common.  

These things are heavy, too! And yet, we persist in carrying them with us all the time, for one reason or another. But Jesus tells us to kick these things to the curb.

We are called to turn our backs on all that draws us from God – the devil, all that defies God, and from the ways of sin. Fun fact: The part in the baptism liturgy we call “The profession of Faith,” – the renouncing part -  comes from an ancient rite of exorcism. That’s right. This morning we were casting out the demons like sin, evil, and selfishness that steer us away from God and infiltrate our luggage.

Jesus tells us to leave these things home. We won’t be needing them where he is calling us to go. And you know what? We can just leave them right here – right at the foot of the cross… and walk away.

Instead, God will fill our hands with the hands of others, in partnership, healing, and reconciliation. God will fill our hands with body of Christ given to us in the sacrament of holy communion. And God will also fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit’s fire for justice, to right all the wrongs in the world perpetrated against God’s beloved children.

Jesus goes with us on this journey, and is better than anything we could bring along of our own devising. And we are going to need lots of Jesus’ help on this road. Because we are being called straight into the mouth of the wolves, called to be doves of peace into a world where fear and hate and racism and sexism and all kinds of phobias reign supreme – or at least they think they do. We are marching straight into a world of brother betraying sister, heterosexual betraying members of the LGBTQ community, white betraying black, cis gender betraying those who are trans gender, rich betraying poor.

Tomorrow is a little-known holiday called Juneteenth. In about a hundred and fifty years ago, on June 19th, slaves in the south were informed they had been set free by the Emancipation proclamation… which had become official TWO AND A HALF YEARS before. White people had delayed the news, so that the freed African Americans would bear the weight of oppression for an extra two and a half years. Brother betrays brother.

Two years ago, yesterday, a white gunman entered a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston South Carolina and killed 9 people who had welcomed him. The pastor had received his Master of Divinity at a Lutheran Seminary. The shooter Dylan Roof grew up in an ELCA Church. Brother betrays brother.

Almost a year ago, a black man was fatally shot in his car with his wife and 4-year-old child watching him bleed out and die. The police officer who shot him was just cleared of all charges. Brother betrays brother.

Also just over a year ago, a gunman opened fire at the Pulse night club in Orlando, and almost 50 people died in the largest attack on the LGBTQ community. Brother betrays brother. This is the world we are living in. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

So much violence. We certainly have a long way to go. And the way seems overwhelming at times. A pastor colleague is completely right when she wrote, “The world is a violent, unjust place, and Jesus tells us to go out and proclaim the good news to it anyway.” And I would add that we we are carrying with us exactly what we need to face the wolves.
WE CARRY the mark of the cross of Christ on our foreheads, just like Anna, the newest member of Family of God, of THE WHOLE family of God.

WE CARRY the body and blood of our Lord Jesus to sustain us from week to week.
WE CARRY OPEN HANDS, so that we can reach out to our neighbors in welcome: our black neighbor, our white neighbor, our police neighbor and our military neighbor, or Jewish and our Muslim neighbor. Our brothers and our sisters, transgender, straight, gay, rich, poor, citizen, and immigrant neighbor.

WE CARRY one another, so that we never have to carry our burdens alone. And through it all, GOD CARRIES US. Always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

"In the Beginning"

6-11-17, Trinity Sunday

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

True love’s kiss broke the curse…the queen of the magical kingdom brought peace to the land… and they all lived happily ever after… the End!

No, I’m not accidentally starting with the last page of my sermon. It’s just that most of our readings for today are either beginnings or endings – the beginning of Genesis, and the end of Matthew. We tend to remember good beginnings and endings of things, don’t we? books, movies, classic fairy tales. And at the end of the very best stories, the ones that stay with us, we love how the messy bits are all woven together to a satisfying resolution. And they all lived happily ever after.

How things begin is almost as important as how things end… we tend to remember those, too. And it’s not just the famous fairy tales we keep telling our kids and grand kids. Our stories begin in those familiar ways too, with, “On the night that you were born…” or “This is how Grandma and Grandpa met…” or even the story that started ALL our stories, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”

This creation story from Genesis we just heard is probably a familiar one to many of you, with seven days of creation each in order, and the repeated refrain which we said together “and God say that it was good.” I got to hear a creation story from Namibia, which you’ll hear has some striking similarities to the one we just heard from Genesis.  

(The following story has a lot of .... and [ ] because I shorted it a bit and edited it for clarity)

“On [the] first day, Njambi Karunga, [which means] “Giving God” called the first ancestors from the trunk of the omumborombonga tree. One by one, they stepped from the sacred tree.”

“Mukuru and Kaman-garunga, the first tate (pronounced "tah-tay" and means daddy) and mama, stepped from the tree. Then…. the first tate and mama of every tribe on earth [stepped from the tree]. On [the] first day, Njambi Karunga also called out the first tate and mama of cattle. The first tate and mama of kudu. Of lions and leopards. Of wildebeest and baboons. On first day, the first tate and mama of every living thing stepped from the omumborombonga tree.”

“[The] First day was darker than a night with no stars or moon. All the ancestors hugged the omumborombonga tree and each other so they wouldn’t get lost in the darkness. The first tate of Berg-Damara made a fire. That made the first tate and mama of lions, kudus, giraffes, and other wild animals run away. But it was hard to see, even with the fire, so [Giving God] sent light. For the first time, the ancestors saw each other and the animals that stayed.”

“When the first ancestors saw the animals, they chose which ones they wanted. Mukuru and Kaman-garunga chose wisely… They chose cattle!” …

 “That’s why we give the ancestors milk – to thank them for giving us life, and for choosing cattle. And to thank them for talking to [Giving God] for us. When we give the ancestors milk at the holy fire, they know we remember them and we remember [our Giving God]. They know if we forget them, we will forget [our Giving God called] Njambi Karunga. And we will lose who we are.”

We all can experience God through the stories we tell. And we also experience God through the things that God has created.

After all, who has NOT at one time or another felt inspired or awestruck by something out in God’s creation – whether it’s a gorgeous sunset, walking around the lake at the park in the spring, visiting the mountains or the ocean, seeing a swath of stars in the sky on a dark night…. I spent plenty of nights at the Lutheran Bible Camp that I worked at during my college summers in evening worship at the lake shore, singing praises to God as amazing colors filled the sky. Church is a place where we worship God, and it does not have to be limited to a building. After all, Martin Luther once wrote, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”

There is a car in my apartment parking lot with a bumper sticker on the back of it that says, “Nature is my church.” Every time I see this bumper sticker, I wonder. If this is true of whoever owns this car, why is this sticker on a VW Bug and not on a hybrid or electric car? But then again, I am not doing so hot at treating his or her “church” very well either. We may not always think about nature as our “church,” but I think we would never treat THIS building in the same way as we have tended to treat our environment, God’s creation.

The bumper sticker, the creation story from Namibia, and our familiar one in Genesis tell us something about the GOD we worship. These stories reveal that our God is a creative God who makes space for and cares for creation. We are welcome, and we are loved by the one who created us, whether we were created out of dirt, or created from a tree.

These stories also tell us something about ourselves, too. We were made in God’s image, male AND female, both together. Not just one or the other. But everyone, men, women, people of all races and ethnicities and cultures, WE ALL are God’s image, and we are all part of the creation story, not separate from it. We are to care for creation, not use it up and throw it away.

On the label of the package of some carved wooden animals I bought in Namibia, on one side it said “Animals of Africa.” On the other, it said “Please take special care of our animals, or soon there won’t be any real ones left.” This was written in English, and it was meant for people like me, a tourist and foreigner, overly dependent on fossil fuels, and far away from the consequences of how much I use up and throw away every day. People like me who have lost my way and are trying to find it again by doing little things like recycling and reducing my car trips.

Even when we do lose our way – and we will - God refuses to be a far-off God, and Jesus is proof of that. The beginning of the Gospel of John says THIS about JESUS: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….  All things came into being through him…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Jesus came to us as God in a way that we can see and talk to and experience and touch. Jesus healed people when they suffered physically, he fed them real bread when they were hungry, he ate and drank with people who were on the margins, experiencing all the things that humans do. Even death.

So when Jesus tells us, after he is raised, at the end the Gospel of Matthew, “I will be with you always.” – we know that this means that in all things we experience, God will be with us. In our beginnings and in our endings, and all the unpredictable plot twists in between, Jesus will be with us.

We may not always live “happily ever after” like in the fairy tales. But in fact, we have something better than a fairy tale ending – the assurance that no matter where our stories take us, Jesus promises to be with us through all the chapters, good and bad, to the end of the age.

If you flip all the way to the very end of the Bible, at the end of the book of Revelation, we only have another beginning: “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” 

Jesus is WITH YOU. Jesus comes to us, in the form of the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.  From Genesis to Revelation, Jesus is with us, here in church, and out there in the world. Jesus does not tell his disciples to bunker down somewhere. We’re supposed to get out there and change the world. And so, what we have taken for an ending in the Gospel of Matthew is actually a beginning, a “once upon a time” in disguise. Surprise! Talk about an ending with a twist!

Well, this is the end of the sermon. But it’s NOT the end of the story. It is, after all, yet another new beginning. Where the worship service ends, your story picks up.

So, what’s that going to mean for YOUR story?  What is your next chapter going to be like?

Get ready, because it begins RIGHT NOW! Amen!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wade in the Waters of Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ, the over-the-top love of God, and the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, amen.

The invocation I just said was from Zephania Kameeta, one of the Lutheran Bishops of Namibia, spoken to us at the beginning of the sermon he preached on May 14th in Sam Nujoma stadium with 10,000 Lutherans from all over Africa and the world.  Beforehand we were told that the entire service that Sunday morning would be about 4 hours long. I wish I were kidding. I wish THEY were kidding! But they were pretty right on the money with that estimation.
Me and the Bishop of Hong Kong

It was very long, but it was very awesome. There was the usual sermon, scripture, and big holy amazing confusion of Holy Communion. In addition, Lutherans from the 7 regions of the Lutheran World Federation gave testimony to the mixed bag of the Lutheran legacy around the world, how we have been simultaneously saint and sinner over the centuries. There was also a time of sharing with the youth and young adults in the LWF. And the singing. Lots and lots of singing. We sang hymns and songs from just about every continent that day, and even a few that some of us Americans were familiar with. I saw surprised that we sang Wade in the Water. But not surprised to sing A Mighty Fortress. You can’t have a commemoration of the Reformation without singing A Mighty Fortress!

But in addition to the old Lutherans favorites, we learned NEW favorite songs over the week, songs that came from all corners of the globe, like the Namibian ones we learned to day. The songs we learned seemed to cross cultures and unite language differences.
Take this hymn, originally written in Farsi by Roozbeh Najar-nejad, called Con Rizad. In English, the words go,
As the rain of your spirit pours out, over my desert heart,
gardens spring from wilderness and flowers bloom with your touch.
A surprise healing comes near, I’m renewed, fully alive.
A new song flows from my lips, and its sound counters my fear.
My success found in his name, all the dry places made green,
and the green busting with flowers.

It might seem a little weird to talk about water on Pentecost Sunday, when most of the time we hear about the tongues of flame on the disciples and the fire of the Holy Spirit that burns within us. But there are plenty of times that water is associated with the Holy Spirit too, and we heard plenty of references today – Jesus talking about living water from the Holy Spirit, and Paul saying we drink of one spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to live as much as we need H2O.

The Middle East is a place of dry desert, as I saw as I walked off my plane in Qatar into the 100-degree heat. Jesus lived in a different part of the Middle East, one just as dry back then as it is now. Thirst was an ever-present companion as Jesus traveled the hot and dusty roads of Palestine. And it was just as true when Jesus visited the annual Festival of Booths in Jerusalem. The last day of this festival included ceremonies around water and praying for rain, so Jesus’ call to the thirsty makes sense. And just 3 chapters before this, in John 4, Jesus spoke to the woman at the well as she drew water for herself in the thirstiest part of the day – and Jesus tells her then: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  If you remember back to Lent, this woman’s dry life suddenly burst into bloom as a new song filled her lips and drowned her fear, just like in the hymn in Farsi, sung centuries later.

Namibia too is mostly desert. In fact, the Namib desert, from where Namibia gets its name, is the oldest desert in Africa. Almost nothing grows there, and the few plants there survive on the fog that rolls in off the ocean each morning and condenses into a few drops of precious water. Almost right next door to the Namib desert is yet another desert – the Kalahari! I’m sorry to say, the real Kalahari is pretty much the opposite of an indoor water park!

May is the dry season in Namibia, moving toward fall, with cooler mornings and evenings. There was a drought going on, but in the hotel and conference center, we were fairly isolated from life out in the city of Windhoek the capital city, where the drought was real. For us, we took showers, brushed our teeth, drank coffee or tea, and filled our water bottles, like at home.

We can have water whenever we need it.  We turn on the tap, run to the store, grab some out of the fridge without thinking. We buy a bottle of water, drink it, then throw away the bottle when we’re done. We throw things away then we are done with them, or when they are inconvenient for us. But water, and our planet, is too precious to treat this way.
One of the daily themes was “Creation not for sale.” Martin Kopp from France told us, “All creation groans under the weight of imbalance, overuse, and misuse…As people of faith, we are called to live in right relationship to creation and not exhaust it.”

Creation belongs to God, and was given to all of us, at it is not for sale.
During the week we learned that our drinking water, renewed daily in large containers used to fill our reusable water bottles, had been donated to us fresh every day from a local. At no cost. Absolutely free.

This precious gift in our coffee, tea, in the water we drank, every single day came from the Namibian soil. It’s part of me now, and it’s also part of you now too. As I have been exhaling in this room, you are breathing part of what I exhaled, and have taken part of Namibia into you too. It’s part of you now. This water unites all of us.

Living water, the one spirit we all drink in our baptisms, makes our desert hearts bloom and drowns our fear. This water makes us grow so that we can bear fruit for the world, growing like trees planted and tended by Jesus. But not fruit we get to keep. We thirsty people are quenched for the sake of others, to bear fruit that we will be giving away.
There isn’t a lot of fruit native to Namibia. But Makalani nuts are plentiful, and come from a tree native to Namibia. Each of us were give a nut, hand carved with the theme for the week by a local artisan from Windhoek, to wear during the assembly. We worshiped together among trees in the cool of the morning and evening in a huge tent set up in the parking lot of the hotel, planted to shade the cars that were normally there. Trees, in the middle of a parking lot, in the middle of a desert country, suddenly found itself in the middle of a thousand Lutherans.

We who were gathered that week weren’t Cretans, Medes, and Elamites, but there were representations of us from the modern-day Middle East, parts of Asia, Rome and most of Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Indonesia. We spoke as many languages as the disciples at Pentecost did, and more.  We were united in the language of the Spirit, in song and in worship, in the bread and in the wine, all together sheltered under the tree of the cross.

We are the legacy of the disciples on the day of Pentecost, by the very fact that WE ARE STILL HERE. We are still herenow, in THIS place -  thousands of years after them, on foreign soil, speaking a language that didn’t even exist yet.

The Spirit poured out on us leads us to see visions and dream dreams, and draws us forward into a future we can’t quite see yet. The waters swirling around us seem dark and scary, but here is exactly where we are called to be – wading in the water, as the old African American spiritual challenges us. By way, thousands of Africans sang that song during the Global Commemorations, singing with the voices of another century and another continent. Wade, in the water, Children, the song goes. God’s gonna trouble the water. God’s gonna lead us into that future.

As we wade, we ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, along with Namibians, Indonesians, Germans, Bolivians, Tanzanians, Canadians, Koreans, Swedes, Americans, Pennsylvanians. Today and every day, we have need of you. Come Holy Spirit, come to be in us. Amen.

LWF Assembly Sermon

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Coffee: International Third Lutheran Sacrament

I wrote this for our quarterly e-newsletter, summer 2017 edition:

There is a joke among Lutherans that coffee is the Third Lutheran Sacrament (after Baptism and Holy Communion). Though I was a life-long Lutheran, I did not begin to drink coffee until I had an 8 AM Hebrew class in Seminary five days a week. After that, I was hooked! So one of my concerns in traveling to the 12th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Namibia was of course - what will the coffee situation would be? I needn't have worried. At least four times a day the assembly had a coffee and tea break, with hospitable hotel staff setting out hundreds of coffee cups and saucers for jet-lagged participants such as myself. We conversed over our coffee. That is how I met bishops and pastors from Canada, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Guyana. Every day in the Omatala "Gathering" tent, women from Ethiopia shared a special coffee ceremony in the "Katie Luther Corner" every day at 2 PM. Extra-strong coffee was served to us in special cups with a generous helping of sugar by Haregewyn Moges Kidanewold, director of Gudina Fumsa Training Centre in the Evangelical Ethiopian Church. She made us feel connected to this special part of the Ethiopian culture. Because we are ALL part of the body of Christ together, Lutherans and Christians from all parts of the world.

The next time you partake in the Third Lutheran Sacrament, whether coffee or tea, I encourage  you to think about our connections to one another. Do I know where in the world my coffee came from? Who harvested it, and were they fairly paid? Did I grab my coffee while on the go, or am I able to use my coffee break time to make connections with friends, co-workers, or even strangers? Especially over the summer as we disperse in all directions, we can still remember that we are all connected to this same family of God, no matter where we may find ourselves - working, at the beach, with family, traveling, or drinking coffee. Safe travels this summer and enjoy your coffee! 

Yours in Christ,
Reverend Lydia Posselt

Monday, May 29, 2017

In the International Fishbowl

As I went through security at the airport in Namibia to come home, one of the security people checking our bags through the X-ray machine quipped "Say hi to Trump for me!" I tried not to betray how mortified I felt. "I'd rather not!" I blurted out before I could stop myself. He looked aghast. Was that rude of me to say? (Probably true.) Or was he surprised that he had found a non-Trump supporting American? (Definitely true.)

It's easy to forget that our own fraught political situation is not just something we have to put up with every day. This is a new age of instant news, and people from all over the world get to watch us and judge us for what goes on in our country.

 At the 12th Assembly, I suddenly found myself in the midst of conversions - very uncomfortable conversations - about what was going on in the United States. And just about all of them mentioned Trump by name. I was not expecting to be called on the carpet for some of the actions of my country.

I realized very quickly that by participating in this event, I got to experience something that is very rare for people in my country. I was often in a room, sitting at a table, or in a small group conversation with people from all over the world, in which I was the only person present from my own country.

On the one hand, in the US it is far to easy to only see what effects us immediately, when there is literally a whole world out there with different problems and issues. At the same time, people NOTICE what is currently happening in the United States. And I found it to be very uncomfortable sometimes in conversation. One night, at the welcome reception hosted by the President of Namibia, I talked for a while with a pastor from Sweden who knew very well what was going on in the Unites States. But this conversation, which happened on my first night in Namibia, was only the beginning.

During one of the presentations on the day with the theme "Creation Not For Sale," Pastor Monica Villareal, of Flint Mich, shared about the Flint water crisis. For many of us, this is not "new" news, though it is of course unforgivable that this crisis is still going on. But for the international community, this was NEWS. People sat up and took notice. What? Something like this was happening in the UNITED STATES of all places?

But that wasn't the last of the discomfort for that morning. During the plenary, the presenter shared this slide:

I felt my face get really hot, and the rest of my body went ice cold. Though cleverly generalized, we all knew EXACTLY what this slide was about. I wanted my chair to swallow me. THIS is what intellectual people and world-famouspresenters from other countries think of us, folks. And they are not wrong. 

Pastor Monica Villareal, when asked a question that named the elephant in the room (at least for me), gave a very articulate and diplomatic response, and made it clear that not all Lutherans in the United States voted for or supports the present regime. A few minutes later, it a small group I was part of, with people from Zimbabwe, Russia, and parts of Germany and Norway, one of the German participants pointedly asked me to go further into the situation of Lutherans and current United States politics. I attempted to explain that our churches are deeply divided and contain people on all sides, though many pastors find themselves leaning toward social justice concerns, and thus tend to be more left-leaning. She seemed visibly relieved by my answer. 

The world is watching us. They see what's going on, how we treat our own. 

In the international politics that go on (Yes, even Lutherans have politics, even at the international leve1), I learned that there was discussion of combining the North American region (which just has the ELCA and the ELCIC) with the South American region. But if that came to pass, we (the US) could never host a regional gathering. 

Think about that. There is no way everyone could get visas to come, given our current political climate. And there is also no way that the United States could EVER host a Lutheran World Federation Assembly. Most of the attendees would not be allowed entrance into the country. 

For me, that was a sobering thought. For as "forward" we (the ELCA) are on some things like women's ordination, racism, gender justice, GLBTQI support (or at least trying to be) we have a lot of work ahead of us. 

God's Name on Us

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

I apologize in advance for the next few months or so, if many of my sermon illustrations come from the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Namibia. It’s kind of amazing how much can happen in just a week and a half. Anyway, last week I talked about helping during one of the evening communion services. After communion was distributed, I came back to my seat, where I had left my bag and my worship book, only to find my bag had been moved and my book was gone.

I wasn’t as annoyed about losing my seat as I was losing my worship book. They had only printed so many books in each language to save on paper and costs. English materials were snatched up quickly and hard to come by, which would be a problem for me, being mono-lingual. I tried not to let myself spend most of the rest of the service feeling irritated and sad that my book had been taken, at a Christian conference, no less. Something of MINE had been taken from me. It was very hard to focus on the rest of the service, I’m sad to say. And when I did get another worship book – I scrawled my name on the back in huge letters like a kindergartner as a deterrent. This book is MINE, and no one was going to be tempted to take it from me. That is perhaps not a very Christian attitude to have, either.
Like the “men of Galilee,” focusing on staring up at the sky where Jesus had just ascended into heaven – when all the women present had probably already left to get to work being these witnesses – I was missing the point. I had forgotten that earlier in the service together we had spoken these words together during the opening liturgy, words like: Reconciliation, the gift from God. Wholeness, the gift from God. You don’t need a worship book when you have these words on your heart and a neighbor to share their book with you.

On our last Sunday in the season of Easter, as we wait to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost next week, we again find ourselves in the Gospel of John.  Jesus is still with the disciples on the night of the last supper, the night he was betrayed, looking forward to his suffering and death. During this last meal with his closest friends, where Jesus tries to both explain his upcoming absence and prepare his disciples for it, Jesus prays for them, and lets them overhear.

He doesn’t say - hold that thought, I’ll be right back, and then go off on his own. He doesn’t close his eyes and pray silently. He prays – out loud – in the middle of their conversation – so that they are able to hear him as he prays. This prayer is not private. Jesus WANTS us to overhear.

And during his prayer, he reminds those of us who are listening of two things – the first, which he mentions last, in typical Johnish “Yoda-like” fashion, is that those of us who follow Jesus belong to God, and God calls us his. The second thing, which Jesus mentions first, is the reminder that eternal life is not just about what happens to us when we die. It’s about knowing who we belong to (which is God) and knowing the one whom God sent (which is Jesus). Eternal life is about living into the fact that God calls you “mine.”

Two different Pixar movies come to mind – one that shows us what being claimed by God IS, and one that shows us what it is NOT. God calling us God’s own is NOT like those really annoying seagulls in Finding Nemo - you know, the ones who say to everything in their line of sight MINE. MINE. MINE.  Which is a familiar refrain for many nieces, nephews, and grandkids we all know and love. Only, we never seem to grow out of this phase. As we grow up, we continue claiming and hoarding what we see as MINE. MINE. MINE. The earth – mine. Stuff – mine. Other people -  mine too, to treat as I see fit.

But God does not see US that way. Instead, God’s claim on us is more like in the movie Toy Story, where the boy Andy loves his toys so much that he writes his name on the bottom of their feet. That way, if they are ever lost, everyone knows who they belong to. Andy, however, did NOT know that his toys were alive and sometimes looked at the bottom of their feet for encouragement when they experienced their own toy version of “dark night of the soul.”

I showed a clip from Toy Story at a youth event once, and shared that Andy’s care for his toys is like the love God has for US, and the promise that WE belong to God. The theme for the event, ironically enough was “MINE,” which was written in big letters on the event T-shirt. Later I found out that some of the girls from another church had taken a sharpie and written “God” on the bottom of their feet. As silly as that sounds, I realized they GOT IT. They GOT that God calls them his own and has claimed them and has promised to be with them. They wanted to remember this in a way that made sense to them in that moment. Even if their parents might have been less than thrilled.

So what if WE all lived as if “God” was written with a sharpie on the bottoms of our feet? What might our lives look like? Would they look any different?

This promise – that God has written “MINE” on us – is both a gift and a charge. God is going to be with us no matter what. But it also means that God might ask us to go places that we wouldn’t normally go, places that might frighten or surprise us. We are not just HIS. We are to be HIS witnesses.

On the night before his death, we hear how Jesus prays for the protection of all who belong to him, knowing that they will be called to some pretty scary and surprising places. And again, in the days before the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.” For us, that might mean to be his witnesses in Buckingham, Bucks County, and the greater Philadelphia area, and even beyond, in places that feel foreign or outside of our comfort zone.

A witness tells others what he or she has seen. We, as Jesus’ followers, are his witnesses in all that we say and do. And this is definitely a daunting task. And I can at least say for myself that many times I am not a very good witness. At the worship service that day I felt more outraged over my missing worship book than the fact that other countries that are devastated by our global addiction to fossil fuels, or the women and children around the world who go missing each day to be trafficked. I have not been a very good witness lately.

In fact, sometimes I feel that I am what they call on Law and Order a “hostile” witness. When a witness is not cooperating in the way the lawyers expect, they often ask the judge in a very serious tone: “your honor, permission to treat the witness as hostile.”

Fortunately for us, Jesus will never treat us as hostile witnesses, even though we often DO let him down in our witnessing. Too often we forget that belonging to God is a life-long calling. Too often we forget that the mark of the cross on our foreheads given to us in baptism is always there. When the pastor said the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” God was writing on you a big ol’ M-I-N-E.

Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter.  It’s also Memorial Day Weekend, and all too soon summer will be upon us, with all the many directions that summer takes us – sports camps, vacations at the shore, trips, family reunions and obligations – and it’s gonna feel like these things OWN you. It’s gonna feel like you are at their mercy, that you belong to the busy-ness of your schedule, and there is nothing you can do about it. Or is there?

God doesn’t take a summer vacation from claiming you as a beloved child. We NEVER stop belonging to God, and we don’t stop being his witnesses, even if we many find ourselves in some pretty scattered places in the next few weeks. Because you can bet that if Jesus says you will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, Jesus is going to be with you, opening our hearts and minds, no matter our destination - whether it is the next continent, just the next county, or even just next door. AMEN

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.