Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Pack Light

6-18-17
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