Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

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.

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.