Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Risk Taking

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the fall of 2011 I had an informal interview with several members of the Southwestern Texas Synod Candidacy Committee as I was discerning a call to ordained ministry but had no idea how the process worked and wanted to get some more information. I had been serving as the Director of Child, Youth, & Family Ministries at Emanuel’s Lutheran for just over a year and was getting that little nagging sensation that maybe I was supposed to do more. Over my time here at Grace, I’ve shared with many of you that the nagging sensation began when I was about 16-years-old, but I just kept trying to ignore it or avoid it, telling myself that I didn’t really fit the “pastor” mold, so it couldn’t really be a valid call. I pretty much did everything possible to avoid this life that I now lead.

On that day, I drove to San Antonio, Texas and met with two women who served on the committee at that time. They asked me questions about my sense of call and ministry direction, and explained the whole candidacy and seminary process to me, which as I’m sure most of you have realized by this point – is extensive.

I was very encouraged and optimized by this meeting and was beginning to think the nagging sensation might actually be real, AND, then it happened – one of the women I was meeting with left the room for a few minutes to get me a resource book, and the other woman turned to me and said – “You know, you sound like you have a sense of call, but I do have one concern, your appearance isn’t exactly pastoral.”

I was confused and must of have looked confused because she continued – “You are too thin, you wear too much makeup, and your hair is far too long. You may end up being a distraction.” So, no one ever told me that a love and excessive use of mascara precludes one from having a pastoral calling. The more you know! She also told me that during my internship, there was the possibility that I could be separated from my family for the year, and if I wasn’t willing to do so, then I might not really be called.

I was shocked and horrified and felt shamed and inadequate. I was immediately filled with all kinds of self-doubt and fear. Because of this meeting, I determined I must not really be called, the nagging feeling was not for real, and I did not apply for candidacy. It took me two years of affirmation and encouragement by numerous other people to get me to a point where I felt confident enough to apply. And another year beyond that before I began seminary. Because of this one meeting, I buried my talents and ignored my gifts and my calling. I functioned in the capacity of the third steward that we hear about in our Gospel lesson today.

In the text, Jesus pulls aside the disciples, and begins to tell a parable that is meant for their ears only. In it he speaks of a man who goes on a journey – a long journey – and entrusts his property to several of his slaves. To one he gives 5 talents, to another two, and to the final slave, he gives one.

A talent was a unit for measuring money. And not just a small sum of money – we are talking big bucks. A talent was equal to the wages that a laborer would accrue over a 15-year span of time. So, the slave who received 5 talents received 75 years’ worth of annual income. He was given what we all spend a lifetime working for, today.

This slave and the slave who receive two talents, went and traded with them and ended up doubling the amount that had been entrusted to their care. The third slave dug a whole in the ground and hid his master’s money. This would not have been an uncommon practice at the time – burying ones treasure meant keeping it safe.

Years and years go by and finally the master returns and wants to settle-up with his slaves. He praises, honors, and rewards the slaves who took risk and doubled what they were given. The slave who buried his talent admits that he was afraid and so just kept it safe. Nothing wrong with that, right?

WRONG! The master is angered by this and tells him at the very least he should have invested it with bankers, so he could have gotten some interest. He then takes the talent from this slave and gives it to the slave who had ten and banishes him. Man – HARSH! I mean, it’s not like the guy LOST the money, he just didn’t take any risks with it.

So – why would Jesus tell this parable to his disciples? Just what exactly is he trying to get across to them??? Contrary to what some modern-day televangelists profess, this is not a story justifying a gospel of economic prosperity. Instead, the disciples at the time, and we today, are encouraged to emulate the first two slaves by using all that we have been given for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Jesus knows his time with the disciples is limited, and he is trying to prepare them for the life that they will lead without him. He is telling them that they will need to endure difficult times, times where their faith is tested, when they are criticized, ostracized, detested, and disliked.  But through all of this, they are to live in the anticipation of his return, working daily to continue his mission of feeding the hungry, curing the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, blessing the meek, and serving the least.  Using every gift and resource at their disposal to do so.  Everything they have been given. Everything that they are.  Listening to the nagging feeling inside of them that tells them this is what they are meant to do and to keep on doing it.  This is not a safe vocation. This is not an easy vocation. It involves a tremendous amount of risk.

Risk is something that we are taught to minimize. Sure, it’s okay to take a reasonable amount of risk – particularly when managing financial resources, but we need be cautious. We need to hold back a little. Save some. We don’t want to lose everything, afterall! We take out insurance policies, we diversify, we save.

But this parable is speaking to so much more than just financial resources. Risk is also something we take when sharing our gifts and talents with the world. And just like the disciples, there are times when we will need to endure difficult times, times where our faith is tested, when we are criticized, ostracized, detested, and disliked.  But through all of this, we also are to live in the anticipation of Jesus’ return, working daily to continue his mission. Our gifts may not always be appreciated or welcomed. They may not always be understood. They may not even be noticed. They may be marginalized at the expense of superficiality. And some days we may just be at a loss for how to act or what to do.

Living into Jesus’ mission can be hard and thankless work.  It can be confusing work.  I mean, how much is enough? What truly encompasses giving your whole self? Where is the line between risking the talents that have been entrusted to us and burying them?  It is really easy to get discouraged and to feel doubt and despair and think that there is no point in continuing to try.

It’s very easy to become the third slave just as I did all those years ago. It’s easy to listen to the shamers, naysayers, and enablers. To ignore the nagging feeling that we know to be true. To not take the risks that we know we are called to take. To clock in and out of church each Sunday and call that good enough.  Jesus is telling us that this is not good enough. God comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus offering grace, love, mercy, salvation, and eternal life.  We in turn are called to extend this grace love, and mercy to our neighbors. Empowering one another and bolstering one another.

We are called to get involved, advocate, serve. There are so many ways we can use our talents to show love to our neighbors. Here at Grace we support Out-Of-The- Cold, the Crop Walk, Stop Hunger Now, and Jared Boxes just to name a few.  When the Hurricanes hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, we gave generously and supported the relief efforts.  There are also many, many ways to engage in our community. To speak up in the face of adversity. To advocate both inside and outside of the church. There is an unlimited number of ways that we can serve.  This is what it means to be community. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ – each one of us working for the betterment and fulfillment of the whole. Using our talents, not burying them.

And as we do this – Jesus promises to always be with us. Meeting us both in the waters of baptism and at the table – nourishing us and empowering us to keep going. To keep using those talents.  Sending the Holy Spirit to continuously steer us on this journey.

Don’t bury your talents. Don’t ignore the nagging feeling telling you to act. Don’t listen to those people who cause you to fear and doubt. Give of yourself and give generously. Take risk. God created you, Jesus redeemed you, and the Holy Spirit continues to guide you. Live in the security of God’s love, and share that love with others. When we do this we truly live life and live it abundantly. Amen.

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Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality, Uncategorized

There’s a Place at the Table

Matthew 22:1-14

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Monday night, in Lubbock, Texas, a 19-year-old Texas Tech student named Hollis Alvin James Reid Daniels, III was arrested by campus police because they found illegal substances and drug paraphernalia in his dorm room. While they were processing him at the police station this young man (who was not handcuffed) pulled out a gun and shot and killed the police officer who was with him. The gun was somehow missed when he was arrested. He fled the station which led to Texas Tech being locked down until he was recaptured later that night.  He has been charged with Capital Murder of a Peace Officer and bail has been set at 5 million dollars. This was national news, some of you may have seen or heard it.

This young man, Hollis, is from Seguin, Texas. That city name might sound somewhat familiar to you because that is the town where I lived and served as youth minister prior to attending seminary. Hollis went by one of his middle names, Reid, and he was a member of my youth group. I’ve known him since he was 12-years-old.

It is heartbreaking and devastating to know that the sweet, goofy youth that I knew and who I watched grow into a caring, hardworking, young man, made such poor life choices, that this is now reality.

It was equally as heartbreaking to watch how corporate media painted the picture of Reid and his family; and how people on social media, who don’t know he or his parents, were quick to condemn and judge. Some of what people had to say was just cruel and ugly.

It made me realize how many times in the past, when events like this have occurred, I have been quick to condemn and judge and be cruel and ugly.

But the thing is, Reid, although a horrible sinner who made a devastating choice with hugely expansive and overarching consequences for many, many, many people, is still someone’s son. He is still a brother. He is still an uncle. He is still a friend to many. He is still the goofy, sweet, hardworking, caring person young man I knew. The paradox of his identities makes for a very fuzzy and blurred overall picture. And we in modern America, don’t like blurred lines. We want sharp definition. Black or white. No grey. Good or bad. Not both.

Which is why I think many modern Christian traditions are often drawn to this morning’s Gospel. They like what comes across as hierarchy and justice.  They like the perceived judgement and condemnation.

In it, Jesus tells a parable. In the parable there is a king whose son is getting married. He invites all of his friends and colleagues to the wedding banquet. He does this as convention at the time dictated – first with a formal invitation that one would accept or decline (almost a save-the-date, if you will) and then reminds them with a personal summons the day of the event.

For some reason, the guests who formerly accepted, do not come. The King even tries enticing them with descriptions of slaughtered oxen and fatted calves.  Because we all know people show up for barbeque!

This still doesn’t work. In fact, some of the invitees go away – one goes on a business trip, another to his farm, and the rest – well they just seize, mistreat, and kill the slaves delivering the message. Because that’s a rational and normal response to a wedding invitation!

The king is furious (obviously!) and destroys those who slighted him. He burns their city to ground. Then he tells some of his slaves – we’ve got to have guests, clearly those I just smote were not worthy – so go out and find me some people! The slaves go out into the streets and gather everyone they can find, both good and bad and fill the wedding hall.

When the king arrives he notices one guest who is not dressed appropriately. He is not wearing a wedding robe – the king asks how he got in??? When the guest does not answer – he has him bound and thrown out.

Upon first review, it seems pretty harsh, at least for those who offend the king. Often this is interpreted that those people who reject God and/or do bad things in the world are the ones who get destroyed or thrown out of the banquet. It fits into modern societies need for vengeance, justice, judgement, and absolutes.

The only problem, is that this, like all parables, is not meant to be taken literally. It’s allegory. Matthew had a strict Jewish piety and therefore minimalized the use of the word “God” and instead chooses “King” which was a common metaphor for God.  The wedding was also a common metaphor for God and God’s relationship with Israel. This is meant to tell the tale of salvation history.

So, the king represents God. The original guests are the Kingdom of Israel, God’s chosen people. Whom God sent prophets and messengers to, informing them that the Messiah was coming. Yet many of them still rejected him and killed him when he arrived. The son who is getting married represents Jesus. The wedding is his act of salvation on behalf of the world. The guests who are gathered from the streets are Jews and Gentiles alike. Good people and bad people.

And the wedding clothes that they wear – is the cloak of love, grace, forgiveness, mercy and salvation that we receive when we are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Sharon Ringe states that: “The final invitation that will fill the banquet hall is inclusive in the extreme. In that sense it mirrors other instances of Jesus’ table community that embodied the hospitality and inclusiveness of the divine project or empire he proclaimed. Questions of social status or observance of Torah regulations, or even ones ethical behavior are set aside in favor of the urgency of the host’s plan.”

Erick Thompson states that: “Our culture resonates deeply with Christopher Nolan’s Batman when he says, “it’s what we do that defines us.” For many of us our world creates jobs and family situations where our performance is deeply tied to our sense of worth. Many people in our culture want to be the best employees or best parents because that will dictate whether or not they are okay… For many people, we know that we are okay, that we are justified, because we have fought the good fight, done our duty, been a good person, etc. In the parable, the king responds by turning our systems on their head. By sending out his troops to destroy the people and their ‘city,’ the king is destroying our human notions that what we have done and built has value when it comes to the wedding banquet, the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the king invites everyone in the main streets: the good and the bad, the non-elite. No longer are we worried about the elite, the wealthy, or those who control society. Instead God is declaring [God’s] preference for the marginalized. This might be like hearing that one’s workplace is giving bonuses to everyone; even the bad employees, or even employees who have been fired… If we remember that God’s grace is what saves us, we won’t worry about how we are clothed, or who else God has decided to include in the Wedding Banquet. There is no room for piety or first-rate Christians in the kingdom of heaven. There is only room for those whom God has chosen.”

We are really good at creating hierarchy and structures of moral superiority. We are really good at passing judgments. At criticizing others. Of telling ourselves that our sin is lesser or that we are better people because – well – it’s not like we’ve killed anyone.

I know I have done my fair share of making assumptions and forming opinions based on media stories or perceptions. I’m sure we all have.

We want that role of first-rate Christian. We want to condemn and cast aside the Reid’s of the world.  In this parable we are being told that we can condemn and cast aside all we want, but God will not do this.  No sin is greater than another, and in baptism, we all receive an invitation to the wedding banquet. The good and the bad. God doesn’t care how great we are or how much we fail. There is plenty of room for everyone. God has chosen all of us. Me. You. The highly successful. The abysmal failures. The criminals. The socialites. The rejects. The scholars. The middle-of-the-roaders. Everyone has a place. We are all invited to come and eat.

This is the comfort and security that I have clung to this week. Earthly consequences are appropriate and necessary for Reid, but that doesn’t negate God’s love for him. He will always have a place at the banquet table. He will always be clothed in Jesus’ grace, mercy, and forgiveness.  We all will. Every last one of us. Thanks be to God this. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality, Uncategorized

Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan

I realized that this sermon from September 10th was never posted… a month late, but here it is.

Matthew 18:15-20

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Conflict Telephone5 years ago – in the Spring of 2012 – I received a telephone call from one of my youth minister friends. She was a graduate student and part-time youth minister at a small congregation in my synod. Her congregation was located in a neighborhood that had once been affluent but was not any longer. She had done a lot of amazing ministry with the local neighborhood youth who as I’m sure you can imagine, did not fit the typical membership demographic of this small, traditional, German Lutheran Church. These youths had never experienced traditional liturgical worship. They had never engaged in the standard pew aerobics that we take as common and normal. (You know – stand, sit, kneel, repeat.) They didn’t know what was considered appropriate or not. My friend would often sit with them and help coach them through worship. This was going very well, until one Sunday she was asked to play guitar for worship.

This Sunday no one sat these youths. No one helped shepherd them through what was still a rather foreign service. And as teenagers are apt to do – they were off task and a little noisy. The cultural differences between the congregation and the neighborhood became very apparent. Rather than kindly address behaviors that were deemed inappropriate with the youth directly, or even with my friend shortly after worship, a small faction of the congregational members instead started up gossip-mill. They wanted these youth expelled from worship and began the process of trying to make this happen.

When word finally got to my friend, via the pastor, the suggestions were – create a youth only worship service that she was responsible for leading so that they wouldn’t bother anyone else, or tell them they were no longer welcome. Obviously, my friend was very upset.

As we talked about this she was at a loss for what to do and was looking for any perspective I could offer. She didn’t want her hurt, anger, and frustration to cloud her judgment when engaging in a meeting with her Pastor and the ring-leader of the upset congregants. I told her this:

#1) I don’t believe in fractionalizing the Body of Christ. We don’t separate out subgroups of people and cast them into corners. We worship as a community. So noisy children, people with special needs, people with mobility issues, people from different cultures with different standards for what is socially appropriate, people with different stylistic worship preferences, and people who are “normal” are all welcome and necessary for the body to function at its best.

#2) If we say: “All Are Welcome” – one of those quintessential Lutheran catch-phrases – Conflict welcomethen we really have to mean that! We can’t just say all who look, act, behave, and function like us are welcome. And when new people enter our community, part of what it means to welcome them, is to help guide them. And to incorporate in their what they bring to the table.  Even for longtime Lutherans, entering a new community invokes some anxiety. No congregation does things the same… there’s always a learning curve to try to figure out how worship functions, how communion is served, where you go after worship is over, etc… This is exacerbated by about a million for non-Lutherans.

#3) It is never okay to complain and stir up conflict when you have not addressed an issue with an individual first. It may not go over super well because they won’t want to hear it, but you need to quote Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan when you meet with this group.

By Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan, I meant this morning’s Gospel. In the text the author of Matthew depicts Jesus as addressing conflict amongst the body of believers. Our translation states that: “If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It’s noteworthy to understand that in the time of Jesus, “the church” did not exist. Commentators argue that a more accurate translation or portrayal of this would be – if a brother or sister sins against you. The intent is to portray a deeper level of intimacy – not necessarily just some random stranger or acquaintance.

Conflict-Resolution-Puzzle-PiecesAs Jesus is giving these instructions to the disciples it is highly likely that he was trying to give them guidance for how to proceed in the future when they are more active leaders. Not only with those whom they are helping to guide, but also amongst one another. We know that Peter, James, Paul, and many of the other early church leaders, did not always get along, and did NOT always follow Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan.

The plan itself seems fairly simple – if conflict exists. If someone sins against you – TALK TO THEM ABOUT IT! Direct communication. Work it out.  When my kids were little they would often come to me tattling about something that one or the other of them did. You know, because reading their book without permission or looking sideways at a beloved stuffed animal was a grievous sin and completely tattle worthy. I would tell them – “I’m sorry. Mommy doesn’t understand tattle. My ears don’t hear it. You’re going to have to go figure it out!”

If for some reason direct one-on-one communication doesn’t work, then you bring in another member of the community. Have another set of eyes and ears. Get additional perspective. It’s definitely possible that you have been seriously wronged. It’s also possible that you are completely overreacting. Extra perspective often can bring about resolution.

If the private intervention doesn’t resolve the issue, bring it before the entire church. Sometimes it takes hearing that we are wrong from many, many people before we are willing to accept our sin.

no-passive-aggressiveBasically, Jesus is saying – no passive-aggressive behavior, no triangulation, no “parking- lot” conversations, no gossip. Just forthright communication. It’s much easier to complain to others about our perceived offense than to address it with the offending party. Elizabeth Johnson stated that: “Jesus leaves no room for self-absorbed grudge-nursing. Restoring a broken relationship must begin with conversation between the parties concerned.”

Finally, Jesus states that if this still doesn’t bring about any kind of resolution, then treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the context of the Jesus’ ministry, Gentiles and tax collectors were often part of the fold. Friends. Followers. Contributors to the ministry. People who Jesus reaches out to regularly. So, this is a very tongue-in-cheek comment.

Karl Jacobson stated that: “Being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep. If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times, that’s how many times you forgive him.”

So – If neighborhood teenagers are disrupting worship, you talk to them and you guide them through worship. If a child is being noisy, you walk them around the sanctuary or get them a book or crayons and paper. You help their quite possibly overwhelmed parents get through worship.

If your least favorite hymn in the history of ever is sung, you sing joyfully because your least favorite is someone else’s absolute favorite. When the scary crotchety kitchen dragon lady fusses at you, you respond in kindness and point out that she could have been gentler in her approach.

Eric Barreto pointed out his is commentary of this text that: “This is no mere handbook for resolving conflicts. Simply following this order of confrontation will not ensure a result consonant with God’s hopes. It is not as simple as moving through these steps. We know that the mechanics of decision making do not always reflect our values. Checking off these duties step-by-step will not guarantee a decision rooted in God’s love for us. This process could so easily be co-opted by selfishness and dislike and so many other human frailties. Instead, what matters here is the concern for the other and the community.”

gathered-in-my-name-prayer-fullUnfortunately for my friend – concern for other did not prevail. Shortly thereafter she decided to focus on her studies and I suspect the relationship with those youth diminished.  Jesus knows this is a possibility and continues with saying that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by the Father in heaven. This is a promise. He finally ends with: “Where two or three are gathered in my name I AM there among you.” I AM – God. Jesus. The Trinity is among you. Present. Really present. Not just where two or three are gathered and getting along. Not where two or three are gathered and in complete agreement on doctrine, liturgy, and mission. Just, where two or three are gathered.

It certainly includes all of those things, but it also includes where two or three are gathered and not acting as their best selves. Where two or three are gathered in conflict. Where two or three are gathered and cannot get along. Where two or three are gathered and are unable to come to any sort of resolution.

Because no matter how great the plan that is laid out for us is. No matter how much sense it makes. No matter how clear Jesus was… ultimately, we almost never do it that way. We do gossip. We do triangulate. We do act in passive-aggressive ways. We do look out for ourselves first and community second. We do ostracize and isolate those who are different from us. The noisy neighborhood teenagers are often NOT welcome. And in all of that Jesus is present. Especially in these times, Jesus is among us. In our times of joy, in our times of sorrow, in our times of peace and harmony and agreement, and in our times of contentious conflict, Jesus is with us. We are called to do our absolute best to live lives according to the Gospel – and when we fail – and we do!… Jesus is with us. We are loved. We are forgiven. We are extended grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Nevertheless, She Persisted!

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve gone back and forth all week on what I felt called to proclaim this morning. I mean – it’s been a heck of a couple of weeks. So much drama, violence, anger, lament, and sadness all packed into a very short span of time. Just over a week ago we all saw the protests that were taking place and getting very ugly – ugly to the point of injury and death – in Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m sure many of you were thinking the same things that I was – how is this our country? How has it come to this? How can anyone spew that much hate rhetoric? How can anyone claim that God has sanctioned and condoned words and actions such as these?  Why as humans are we so conditioned to hate one another – purely on the basis of being different. Purely because someone else is the “other”. Where is God in all of this? Where is love?

When situations like this occur scripture is often one of the first places I go for comfort and understanding… I’m not saying that I singlehandedly flip through the Bible and find the perfect passage that applies… I’m fairly biblically literate, but I’m not a perfect passage savant. Besides, I have plenty of Facebook friends who do that for me! But somehow, in some way, that is always one of the first things that happens.  This week – I didn’t actually have to look very far for that passage that spoke to me and to the situation I was praying about.  As it so often does – our Gospel story this week is prophetic in its ability to speak to our modern world and these situations today.

Jesus is teaching his disciples that true purity is a matter of the heart rather than outward religious observances. You see – they were being criticized by the religious authorities for not washing their hands before eating, and sharing meals with those members of society who were considered “unclean.” Cleanliness codes were institutionally obsessed over. The slightest wrong move could cause you to be physically, emotionally, spiritually, and/or ritually unclean. The book of Leviticus is full of all of the ways that one can potentially fall into the uncouth and shameful realm of the “unclean.”

According to the religious authorities, by not washing their hands before eating, the Matt 15v11disciples and other followers of Jesus had defiled their food therefore defiling their inner selves by consuming said tainted food. Jesus’ response to this accusation – “well that’s just crazy talk!” “Listen – and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” He’s then pressed to explain himself further, because the disciples are often dense, literal, and slow to pick-up on things, and most likely think when he says it’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles, that Jesus is speaking to some gross bodily function.  So, he further explains – “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” (Because – we haven’t had enough bodily function imagery already in this text. Lovely. Thanks Jesus!) He then goes on to say – what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and that’s what defiles. We can externally put up a great front. Amazing projections of ourselves. Look at me – I’m pious, I’m pure, I’m a dedicated servant. I’m a good person. It’s easy to fake the world into believing these things.

But what we harbor internally – well that’s where we find evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. And these are the things that defile a person. To eat with unwashed hands??? Nah… not so much.

As I read these words all I could think about was the angry, ugly, judgmental comments I’ve read and heard almost non-stop. From all sides and all people. Now don’t get me wrong – I will NEVER condone the words, actions, mindsets, and behaviors of White Supremacists and Neo-Nazi’s. There is nothing about what they stand for that correlates with the God that we profess to believe in. And we are called as loving Christians to speak out against oppressive forces such as these, but there are ways in which we can do so without stooping to the level of those whom are acting in the role of the oppressor. And this is something that I’m sorry to say I failed to see anyone execute well.

Hatred seemed to be met with hatred. Anger with anger. Fear with fear. Judgment with judgment. We are right and you are wrong. Defiled from within. Where was God in all of the responses? Where was love?

Fortunately for all of us – we have Jesus – God and love all combined into one awesome package. And if this were ANY other story in the book of Matthew, that would come with some great life lesson or parable or human interaction where we can look to Jesus to be the model for us on how we should behave and how we should respond.

However – this week, we get the stand-out story.  The story where Jesus doesn’t come across so hot. In fact… he comes off quite poorly.  Almost immediately, after the lesson on what defiles, Jesus’ teaching is tested when a gentile woman, considered to be all kinds of unclean, approaches him for help.

This woman is said to be a Canaanite. It’s of note to know that in Mark’s version of this ethnic slurssame story, she is identified as a Syro-Phoenician. During the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel, Canaanites were no longer a functioning independent civilization. The term “Canaanite” was basically just a dirty word, or ethnic slur, meaning Gentile. This word choice would have invoked a visceral emotional reaction similar to what we experience when we hear ethnic or racial slurs today. Only that audience would have most likely used, accepted, and agreed with said slur.

The woman’s daughter is sick. Tormented by a demon. I’d imagine she has done everything she can. Exhausted every option. What loving parent wouldn’t? And here comes, as luck would have it, not just a great prophet and healer, but the Lord… son of David himself. She recognizes and acknowledges Jesus as Messiah before his disciples do! And in response – Jesus gives her the silent treatment. Completely ignores her. She is afterall – just an unclean Gentile.

She keeps on – won’t be deterred. Finally, the disciples ask Jesus to make her stop. Send Persistedher away. Shut her up! So, in an attempt to do just this, he tells her he only came to save the house of Israel. She still will not be deterred… She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted. Jesus’ next argument is that it is not fair to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.

That’s right – Jesus just called this woman a DOG. I don’t know about all of you – but I would not take terribly kindly to being referred to as a canine. (Particularly of the female persuasion.)

With what I’d imagine to be a profound amount of sass and swagger the woman responds – “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the table.” Awww snap. Take the shame – Jesus – take the shame! Jesus responds “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. Jesus’ mission is impacted by this brave Gentile woman.

In this story we see a very human Jesus. Marilyn Salmon states “We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude toward the woman, but not our best selves. We know very well the tendency to define and fear an “other” on the basis of skin color, nationality, class, or creed, deeply ingrained stereotypes that go back centuries. We resent being bothered by the concerns of those people… we are very good at justifying our actions rather than admitting the prejudice that persists. The story is about Jesus, and in Jesus we see the very best of human potential in relationships with others, even those we avoid and fear. We see in Jesus the possibility of perceiving common humanity where we could see only difference. And when we encounter the “other” as one who shares our humanity, we can never see them as “other” again.”

This exchange broadens Jesus’ mission in the world. At the end of Matthew when he commissions the disciples – he sends them to ALL nations, not just to Israel. Jesus heals this woman’s daughter just as Jesus heals us too. In these times of trouble and torment we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves – even those neighbors whose ideologies and mindsets we find abhorrent. This is not an easy task. Particularly while simultaneously living into our call to speak out in the face of oppression. To stand up for the metaphorical Canaanite Women of today. All we can do – is our best.

Fortunately for us, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all have redemption. We all have salvation. We all receive grace and forgiveness and mercy. God is always present. Love always wins.  Amen.

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Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Generation to Generation

Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

 

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

Proud to Be LutheranGood morning. I guess I really don’t have to introduce myself too much to you because I’m pretty sure my mother has been waxing poetic about me and my mad clergy skills for the past several months. If for some reason you somehow missed all of the hype and lead-up to my coming… I’m Ariel Williams, Cherie’s daughter. I’m a seminarian in my final stage of the candidacy process – and I’m a Lutheran. I was briefly Episcopalian for a few years in Texas, but it didn’t stick. As my priest at the time told me, Lutherans are Lutheran because of their theology. Episcopalians are Episcopalian because of their liturgy. You’re such a Lutheran, Ariel. I’ll never convert you.” So, thank you for inviting my Lutheran self here to worship with you all and for giving me this opportunity to share God’s Word. I am blessed and I’m honored.

Over the past week or so, as I was preparing this sermon, I kept coming back to the same thought… I’ve got NOTHING! And this is my mom’s church so I can’t just show up and say “Jesus Loves You, Amen.” Crud… what am I going to do???? My mom has most likely told this congregation that I’m about one step away from being a rock-star and I’m going to be terrible! This is a Shakespearian tragedy waiting to happen!!!!

Fortunately, as she often does, the Holy Spirit made an appearance and that tragedy has been averted.  So, as I read the text this past week the phrase that kept jumping out at me was the very first sentence – “To what will I compare this generation?”

 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about generations lately. I was born in 1980 which Xennialstraddles the line between Generation X and the Millennial Generation so I’ve never really felt like I fit one description or the other… I have characteristics of both.  This past week several articles appeared in my facebook feed that addressed this and there is new claim that this is actually a Micro Generation, the Xennial Generation, which encompasses those like myself who straddle that line.

 

 

All of this has led me to think about how we classify and group ourselves. How we differentiate, isolate, and segregate groups of people based on when they were born and lived. Collectively assigning attributes and personality traits to groups of people born around the same time. According to some extremely academic and highly official internet research that I did this past week, there are 6 different generations of peoples who are currently alive.

There’s the Greatest Generation which is sometimes also known as the GI Generation – These peoples were born between 1901 – 1926.  They fought and died in World War II and were young and formative during the Great Depression. This led to a strong model of teamwork and a strong sense of achievement and superiority. As Dr. Jill Novak stated: “Their Depression was The Great One; their war was the Big One; their prosperity was the legendary Happy Days. They saved the world and then built a nation.” Moral standards were uplifted, civic duty was honored and respected, and loyalty knew no bounds.

Next came the Mature Silents – these are people who were born from 1927 – 1945. This groups formative years occurred during an era of strong conformity. They fought in both Korea and Vietnam. Many early forms of activism came from this generation – Civil Rights, Feminists, Peace Demonstrators. This generation continued to hold to the moral standards and loyalty that was instilled in them by the Greatest Generation. It was not uncommon for someone to work for one company or institution for their entire career.

The Baby Boomers which are the products of the Greatest Generation and the Mature Silents came next. This generation spans from 1946 – 1964. As this group is SO large it is often split into two groups – the “save-the-world” revolutionaries or hippies of the 60’s & 70’s and the party-hardy career climbers or yuppies of the 70’s and 80’s. This is often referred to as the “me” generation or the “rock-and-roll” generation. In this generation women went to work and civil rights issues were brought much more to the forefront. Typical societal norms changed and moral standards began to shift. Divorce began to be widely accepted as did the norms of having intimate relationships outside of the confines of marriage.

generation-x.jpgNext came Generation X which is also sometimes called the Baby Bust. This generation was born between 1965 and somewhere around 1977-1980 (the end time is not super clear).  These are the “latch-key kids” who grew up street-smart but isolated, often with divorced or career-driven parents. They are known for being entrepreneurial and very individualistic. Government and big business mean little to them. They want to save the neighborhood, not the world. This is also the generation that is often associated with having a chip on their shoulder – they claim to be misunderstood, and are known for their rampant cynicism. This group was raised in the transitional phase of written based knowledge to digital knowledge – most remember being in school without computers but had them introduced in middle school or high school. This generation averages 7 career changes in their lifetime, unlike previous generations who had few if any. They were later to marry, often after cohabitation, and quick to divorce. Single parenthood rose significantly with this generation.

Generation Y or Millennials – Born between 1980ish and 2000ish this generation has been nurtured by omnipresent parents (sometimes known as helicopter parents). They are optimistic and focused. They respect authority. Crime rates and teen pregnancy rates have fallen with this generation, however, with school safety problems; they must live with the thought that they could be injured or even killed at school, they learned early that the world is not a safe place. They schedule everything. They feel enormous academic pressure.

They have great expectations for themselves because they have always gotten a trophy and have always been told they can do anything. They have been told over and over that they are special and expect the world to treat them that way. They are incredibly digitally literate. Most have never known a world without computers! They get all their information and most of their socialization from the Internet. They tend to be assertive with strong views. They are used to having immediate answers and can be impatient for change to occur. They do not live to work, work is a means to live and experience life.  Experiences are more valuable to them than possessions.

Finally, there is now Generation Z or the Boomlets –  These are the children who have were born 2001 or later. They are so young there is not much of a collective cultural personality yet.  What is of note is that in 2006 there were a record number of births in the US (I contributed one of them!) and 49% of those born were Hispanic. This will eventually change American societal behavior and culture as we have known and experienced it up to this point. The number of births in 2006 far outnumbered the start of the baby boom generation, and they will easily be a larger generation someday.

This means there are a lot of people with very different world views, very different priorities, very different ideals, different expectations, morals, and values all coexisting together. And not always super well. There is often misunderstanding and suspicion of one generation to another. Blame for the problems of society are thrown between the generations and age groups like darts.

In our text this morning Jesus in encountering a similar reality. He is met with many different groups of peoples all from different places and spaces with different ideals and accepted societal norms. The staunch and strict religious authority. The disciples of John the Baptist who are all trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is. The disciples of Jesus himself who are trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is. The mobs of people who are following him around trying to figure out exactly who Jesus is and what exactly is going on… I mean, is this guy a prophet, or the Messiah, did they all just join some weird mobile cult??? Seriously – what just happened???

Jesus addresses these questions as to who and what he is in metaphor… because as we often know… he is incapable of just giving a straight answer. Everything has to be a teachable moment. Thanks Jesus.

He tells them that this generation is like children sitting in the marketplaces and callingPalestinian_children_in_Jenin out to one another “We played flute for you, and you didn’t dance…. Well, we wailed and you didn’t morn.” Because at that point in time children often played wedding and funeral games. The metaphorical children who wanted to play wedding played the flute but the others didn’t engage… the metaphorical children who wanted to play funeral wailed, but the others didn’t engage. Because they all wanted to do things their way. They wanted to play by their rules. They wanted to be in charge… any of that sound familiar???

Jesus then goes on to address the fault and questioning that society has found with both he and John the Baptist’s ministry. John came neither eating nor drinking and was accused of being demon possessed. Jesus came and ate and drank and befriended sinners and tax collectors and was accused of being a glutton and drunkard. They were both damned if they did… and damned if they didn’t. Does that mentality sound familiar?

Jesus then goes on to announce that Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds and offers a prayer to God giving thanks that wisdom has been hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to the infants. Those young ones who play and accept the world at face value and understand deep mystery and truth have so much wisdom to share, but their perspectives and understandings are often discarded and ignored. And likewise, the years and years of knowledge, wisdom, perspective and understanding of older generations are often laughed off as old fashioned, unenlightened, or out of touch by the younger generations.

coexistThe problem with this lack of regard for one another is that we will never coexist with one another well if we don’t grow in our appreciation and acceptance for each another.  To be the body of Christ in the world means that we are called to engage as a collective unit – a colony of bees if you will – all working toward the common goal of spreading the love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy of Jesus Christ.  There is no one generation that knows how to do this better than another. To reach the world we must work together. One person alone cannot bring about the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. It takes ALL of us.

This is not an easy task nor is it an easy life. Jesus goes on in the latter half of the text to explain that although this isn’t going to be all rainbows and sunshine and fluffy bunnies, God is with us as we go.  The Rev. David Lose stated that: “God is the one who bears our burdens. God is the one who shows up in our need. God is the one who comes along side of us. Nothing demonstrates this more than the cross – God’s willingness to embrace all of our life, even to the point of death, in Jesus, to demonstrate God’s profound love and commitment, love and commitment that will not be deterred…by anything.”

God’s profound love and commitment will not be deterred by ANYTHING. Not even petty generations of squabbling unenlightened children who all think they know best. The Holy Spirit will continue to guide us as we journey together on this life of discipleship, helping us to learn from and appreciate one another, maybe just a little bit, as we go. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

To Boldly Go…

Matthew 28: 16-20

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday – or as Pastor Schul and I deemed it a few weeks ago – Holy High Heresy Sunday. Because there is no way you can possibly begin to talk about the Trinity without committing some form of heresy or another. Given this fact – instead of speaking to the infinite mystery as to the nature of our Triune God, I’m going to you about Star Trek. I’m sure you’re all sitting there going – wait… – WHAT???

Here’s the thing. Two weeks ago, Patrick discovered that through his Kids Access on his Kindle, he can stream Star Trek the Next Generation episodes. Now, both of my kids – ARE OBSESSED! If we are social media friends, you’ve probably seen evidence of this through some of the pictures I’ve posted this past week. This newfound obsession led to some pretty funny conversations in my home this week: “Hey mom, have you heard of this show???” “Ummm – yes, yes I have.” “Did you ever watch this show when you were younger?” “Why yes, it was one of Situ (my mom) and Papa Lee’s (my dad’s) favorites. We watched it EVERY week.” As my children have grown in their love and appreciation for Star Trek TNG, it’s reawakened a love and appreciation that I had forgotten about. Because, deep down, at the core of my very being, I am an uber nerd.

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Growing up, when the opening credits would roll, my entire family would recite the Star Trek Mission Statement: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

 

 

In our Gospel this morning, post resurrection, the eleven who have heard from the women that Jesus is risen, go to the mountain in Galilee that Jesus told them was the meeting point. The place they should gather. And when they saw Jesus there, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Jesus is literally right in front of them, but they still have doubt. One commentary I read had this to say: “Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshipping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.”

therefore-goJesus tells the disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. “Therefore – GO and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit.

The translation of “make disciples” honestly isn’t the greatest. In this text, the world disciple is actually a verb, not a noun. So really Jesus is telling them to Go, therefore, disciplizing all nations, baptizing them in the triune God, teaching them.

So, what does disciplizing mean??? According to Dr. Rick Carlson, one of my seminary professors, disciplizing includes going / journeying to all nations and all peoples; baptizing them into the new triune reality; and teaching them – nurturing and fostering all of Jesus’ commands, particularly to love God and love one another, on a daily basis.

The active ongoing nature of disciplizing means that this command to GO doesn’t ever have an end. They were and we are to go and keep on going. Jesus tells them to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

This command wasn’t only for the eleven. This was a command for every human being who is baptized into the love, grace, and relationship of our Triune God. Every single one of us is called to boldly go. So what does that mean? Does that mean that every single person here is supposed to uproot their families and go to seminary or to become missionaries? No. Some of us are called to that life, but not everyone.

Sometimes disciplizing can be on a much smaller scale. It can be in caring for our neighbors. Or educating our children in their Christian faith. In keeping our baptismal promises to one another. Advocating for those who are oppressed or marginalized. Being good stewards of God’s creation. Inviting someone we know in our lives who is searching for that connection or relationship with God, to come and see.

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Did you know that on average a Lutheran will invite a friend, acquaintance, or family member to church once every 33 years. And on average it takes 3 invitations before someone will actually accept. So that means that the average Lutheran MIGHT bring a friend to church once every 99 years. Assuming we actually live that long. Not the most effective form of disciplizing. What’s holding us back? Why are we afraid to go and disciplize?

Friends, I don’t have the answer to that… all I know is that we are commissioned to do this. We can do this. We must do this. Go, baptize, teach. We all have different gifts and talents and so when we do this, we do it as both individuals and as community. Which makes it, maybe, just a little less scary.

I am

What also makes it a little less scary is that Jesus didn’t just throw out this mission to boldly go where no one has gone before and then, peace out. Jesus left them with a promise. “I Am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I AM – Jesus says God’s name. I AM. Our Triune God is with us – always – to the end of the age.

 

This promise to always be with God’s people is no mistake. Jesus knows that this is not an easy mission, it’s not a safe mission, in fact, it’s an incredibly dangerous and frightening mission, so he concludes with the promise of God’s eternal presence.

I’m not sure we always actually sense God’s presence in our lives, which makes boldly going that much more difficult. The Rev. David Lose said: “I am not at all sure that most people sense that God is with them. Oh, maybe in times of tragedy or loss, when even the most infrequently religious of us call on God for some extra help. (Though now that I think of it, calling on God and experiencing God with us are not the same.) But what about all the other times. Good times, not so good times, joyous times, sad times, expectant times, anxious times. Do we sense God’s presence? I know of one friend anxiously awaiting the outcome of a surgery on a grandchild. And another who has recently lost her job. And one more who is celebrating a much better semester than he’d imagined possible. And yet one more who is navigating significant changes in her roles both at home and work. Do they sense God’s presence? Some, I expect, do, but others perhaps do not.”

That is what is so important about gathering and experiencing God in community. When one of us struggles to sense God’s presence there are others here to sense God for them. Even among the eleven, some worshiped and some wavered, doubted what they were seeing.  We need each other. We need to gather in order to disciplize. We need to share in water, word, and a meal. Knowing that Jesus is fully present with us in these times and places. Renewing, reinvigorating, and replenishing ourselves.

We have the joy and privilege of sharing God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to everyone we know and to those whom we don’t know. Christ has commissioned and empowered us to continue his mission: to explore, to seek out, to boldly go… and has promised to never leave us on this journey.  God is with us. Jesus is with us. Spirit is with us. Right here, right now. Always. We have been promised this!

Thanks be to I AM – the Trinity – God. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Jesus’ Graduation Address

John 17: 1-11

GraduateGraduation season is upon us… my Facebook feed is inundated with photos of friends, classmates, acquaintances, even a few complete strangers… all smiling in caps and gowns celebrating their accomplishment of completing one level of education or another. Preschoolers, Kindergartners, 5th graders exiting Elementary School, interestingly enough – no Middle School graduations have shown up for my viewing pleasure… apparently, that’s not a big thing. And of course – High School & College graduations are all over the place.

The most prominent pictures that I have seen are those of my fellow seminarians. The last graduating class of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg as LTSG is in a merger process and I will graduate next spring from United Lutheran Seminary. All of these pictures exhibit a sense of hope for the future, but a finality for the past.

Then there are the videos of people giving the epic graduations speeches that we all just love! Celebrities, politicians, really, really smart people with impressive degrees… some better received than others… all speaking to rooms and stadiums packed with optimistic graduates who are going out into the world and living into new roles and a new identity.

I have never heard a graduation speech that didn’t say basically the same thing – your time here is finished, it’s now time for you to go do what you have prepared to do, to walk into the scary realm of newness, to embrace the world around you, to be an implement of change.

This can be a very, very scary reality to face. Moving to public school from preschool is a big step for a small child, as is the transition from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school to college or the workforce, and from college to the world beyond. That step from high school or college into the “real world” may quite possibly be the hardest and most frightening transition. There is no fall back or security blanket anymore, just the knowledge that we have to enter the world and create a place for ourselves within it.

Given how broken and isolating and confusing our world can be, it is no wonder that this transition is scary. But we are told by modern culture and society that we must buck up, put on our big-boy or girl pants, place a smile on our face, and wade into the muck without complaint. And so we do. We create a façade, we mask our fear, and we play the game that has been laid before us.

Love Warrior
Love Warrior

I’ve recently been reading a book entitled Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. In the book she speaks of all of the years where she tried to hide behind what she refers to as her “representative”. Her “representative” is the woman she broadcast to the world as confident, happy, competent, and whole. The only problem was, deep inside, her true self was none of these things, and the battle between her representative and true self became oppressive.

As I’ve read this book, I have significantly identified with her on many levels. Her story is my story. Given the fact that this book is now part of Oprah’s Book Club and a New York Times bestseller, I suspect, it is MANY of our story, if not all of our story. A story of broken people in a broken world, desperately trying to convince one another that we are whole. Because this is what we are told to do. This is what is ingrained in us through all of our life transitions, milestones, events, and changes. Smile pretty, the world is watching.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives his own graduation speech, of sorts. The past few weeks we have progressed forward in John’s version of Jesus preparing to leave the world. This week, we get the final layer of this story.last-supper.gif

Jesus and the disciples are gathered together. Sitting around a table eating a meal. John’s depiction of the last supper. At the end of the meal Jesus begins his graduation address. This address is prayer. A prayer that glorifies God.  That states: Jesus’ time here is finished, it’s now time for him to go do what he has been preparing himself and others for.  It’s time for the disciples to go off on their own – to walk into the scary realm of newness, to embrace the world around them, and to be implements of change.

Unlike in other Gospels, this final prayer or graduation address isn’t offered up as a private conversation between Jesus and God. He doesn’t slink off to a quiet space alone. He does it in front of all of the disciples.  He remains with “his people” just a little longer before everyone departs and goes their separate ways, like graduates who linger for that one last picture or conversation.

Jesus’ farewell address is a prayer, but not a prayer for himself, rather a prayer for all of those whom he is leaving behind – making sure that they know they are loved, they are important, and they are not alone.

This prayer is asking God to create a shared community of honor and relationship between Jesus, and the disciples, but not just the 12 sitting there. He asks this for all generations.  All whom God gave to him. All who are in the world. Jesus asks God to protect them, to empower them to carry on his works of justice and mercy, and to make them all one.

Jesus knows what’s coming. He knows what is coming for himself. He knows what is coming for the disciples.  He knows that unity and community will be essential for them, just as it is essential for us.

Samuel Cruz writes: “Good works of justice, mercy, and equality were in stark opposition to a world in darkness. This must have created a sense of insecurity for the disciples. In all probability, the priority for this community must have been to safeguard against the dangers of the world around them. How would one support and protect the individuals who labored for the establishment of the Kingdom? Jesus knew that his time was limited. Prayer was needed and welcomed by the disciples of that community. Jesus prayed for his beloved … I think Jesus’ prayer should be accepted for what it was – a sincere petition asking for the help that his loved ones needed at that time and would need in the future.”

identity crisisJesus knows what all of his disciples will need in the future.  He knows what is coming for future generations. He knows that several thousand years into the future communities of people will still struggle with issues of identity, fear, stigma, and isolation. Jesus knows that there will be a world full of people who present their “representatives” to the world around them giving off the image of having it all together, when they are really frightened and unsure underneath the disguise.

When Jesus offers this prayer he is certainly praying for the 12, but he is also praying for you, and for me. Much like a parent prays specifically for their children’s wholeness, happiness, and future, Jesus prays for all whom God has given him, including us.

For our lives. For our existence. For our ability to glorify God and to love our neighbors through works of justice, mercy, and equality. For us to go do what we have prepared to do, to walk into the scary realms of newness, to embrace the world around us, and to be implements of change.

None of that is easy, none of that is secure, and much like it was in Ancient Palestine, this work is contrary to our societal norms and cultures. It’s not normal to share love, grace, and mercy with all the world, with no motive or agenda.  But we are called to attempt to do so, because that is what we have received. Unconditional grace, love and mercy.

Jesus knew the struggle would be real. He knew that societies would continue to counteract his mission. He knew the difficulties that his disciples would face then and in future generations. He could have prayed for any number of things, but he chose to pray for unity and community – because HE KNEW!

And that community is what we have today. We may not all know each. We may not all like each other. We may not all agree with each other all the time, but for a few moments each week, we can cast aside our “representatives” and be our broken, frail, insecure selves. We can gather together and we can experience Jesus together.tapestry.jpg

We share in bread and wine knowing that Jesus is present with us, equipping us to once again go out and face our fears in the world around us. Empowering us for the work that Jesus began and that we continue. In staff meeting this week Pastor Schul stated that: “Small actions all over make an impact and weave a greater tapestry of hope.”

Jesus prayed for all of this during his graduation address. And because of his prayer, we are stronger. Our true selves shine a little brighter and our need for our “representatives” diminishes.

Jesus’ time on earth was finished. Now it’s our time. Together each week we prepare to walk into scary realms. To embrace the world around us. To be implements of change – both large and small. To weave that beautiful tapestry of grace and love. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Sermons, Spirituality

Havering to Jesus

Luke 24: 13-35

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This is one of my absolute favorite Bible stories, so I was very excited when by the luck of the draw, I got to preach this Sunday.

This morning’s text has always immediately brought to mind a song for me (Don’t worry – I’m not going to spontaneously burst into it.) In 1988 the Scottish band, The Proclaimers, released a song entitled “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” This song was popular in Great Britain but completely unknown in the United States until in 1993 the movie Bennie and June used it in its soundtrack. From that point on it was an immediate Top Ten Hit, and was all the rage at every middle school dance I attended that year.

500 milesThe chorus of the song is – “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more, just to be the man who walked 1000 miles to fall down at your door.” Although this chorus certainly gives a lot to think about as far as the emotions and dedication Jesus’ followers may or may not have had at this exact point. The imagery of walking for miles and miles in the song and the imagery of walking on the Road to Emmaus is NOT why this song makes me think of this morning’s text. You thought you knew where I was going with this didn’t you?

It’s actually a line in the first verse that makes me think of this passage the most. During the verses the lyrist states things like “when I wake up I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you” “When I go out, I’m gonna be the man who goes along with you”, etc.… etc.… It’s catchy and repetitive. It’s all about things these two people do together.

But there is one line that used to baffle and confound me. That line is “When I haver, I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you.”

For the longest time, I had no idea what this was talking about. Honestly, for a pretty long time I couldn’t even understand what the singer was saying because of the Scottish accent. My ex-husband, Roger, and I became obsessed on a road-trip with figuring out what that line was. Finally, we figured out that “haver” was the word being said.

Roger promptly got on the telephone to his friend, Phil, who is from Scotland, and asked him if haver is Scottish slang or something. Phil’s reply – “Och, I forgot about that word, that’s a great Scottish word, mate. It means to have the verbal diarrhea. You know, that person that just talks incessantly on and on about nothing. It’s to haver.”ha·verˈhāvərSubmitverbSCOTTISH1.talk foolishly; babble.-Tom havered on-nounSCOTTISH1.foolish talk; nonsense. (1)

The English Oxford Dictionary’s identifies the word haver as being Scottish in origin and its definition is: to talk foolishly or to babble.  So, Phil’s description was spot on.

The thing that always struck me as funny about all of this, is that Roger and Phil were the kings of havering. They could talk to each other for hours about absolutely nothing. Well, okay, soccer – but still – hours and hours of incessant chatter to one another.

In our text this morning, two disciples are on the road walking to Emmaus. One is named Cleopas and the other isn’t named. It’s about a 7 mile walk and while they go, they are talking to each other about all the trauma and drama that has gone on and now the recent gossip and word on the street. While they’re “talking” and “discussing” or “havering” Jesus walks up to them – but they don’t recognize him.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but somehow, I’m thinking that all of the dead-heads who followed the Grateful Dead on Tour probably would have recognized Jerry Garcia if he’d come walking up to them. But Cleopas and No-Name are completely oblivious!
Jesus asks them what they’re talking about and they kind of give him some attitude. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” “The things about Jesus of Nazareth… was a prophet mighty in deed and word… and how our leaders handed him over to death… crucified him.” I’m sure they were thinking – who is this guy? How does he not know about all of this???

I mean, seriously, if the Kardasian family does something slightly outrageous, it’s all over supermarket tabloids and social media. Whether we want to or not, somehow, we know about it.

So, post-crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, it would be mind boggling for someone to not know what happened to Jesus.

Cleopas and No-Name then continue with what they’ve been hearing from Mary and the men who went to the tomb and how Jesus might be alive. – They’re havering. They’re havering to Jesus about himself.

EmmausRobert Hoch wrote: “It was a seven-mile walk, a walk you would notice in your ankles and calves. But the real path they were walking was vastly longer and more difficult – it was the walk of hopes in shambles. It was the walk taken through the valley of disillusionment. It was a walk burdened with perhaps accusation or shame.”

On this walk of disillusionment, they haver. They are so distracted with what they’ve experienced, and all of their emotions, and their traumas, and their hurts, their disappointment and dashed hopes, that they don’t see Jesus standing right in front of them.

I think often in our lives, this can be true of us as well. We get busy, we get distracted, we have work or school or both. We have schedules to coordinate and meetings to keep. We experience pain and disappointment. We suffer trauma and disillusionment.

We haver about soccer or football or baseball or the latest acclaimed Netflix Series. And we completely miss Jesus’s presence in our lives. We have no concept of where Jesus intersects with us on our road.

As the Emmaus story continues, Jesus begins to teach Cleopas and No-Name, interpreting scripture and things about himself within it. When they arrive in Emmaus the disciples invite Jesus to stay with them, and so he does. And at dinner he takes bread and breaks it, and suddenly they know exactly who he is. And then he vanishes. At which point they say to one another – “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road???”

I can’t begin to count the number of times in my life, especially times of extreme hurt, pain and disappointment, where I didn’t sense Jesus’s presence, but later, realized I had that burning sensation within me the entire time. Jesus was always right in front of me, I just let all of life’s havering get in the way.post-its-photo2

What about you? Can you think of a time when you didn’t recognize the burning? When you didn’t see Jesus right in front of you? When life’s havering was just too loud?

Finally, Cleopas and No-Name return to Jerusalem and proclaim Christ as risen and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Just as he is made known to us in the exact same place. We may not always sense Christ in our lives, especially when we are walking through valleys of disillusionment, but we know that he promises to always meet us at the table. Even if we are too busy havering our way through life to recognize him anywhere else.

Thanks be to God for the constant presence of our Risen Lord. I pray that we all slow down, haver less, and see him in our lives. And if we just can’t seem to do that, I give thanks for his constant presence at our table. Amen.

Posted in Christian, Christianity, Faith, Faith Formation, Lent, Seminary, Sermons, Spirituality

Questions Not Answers

John 3: 1-17

When I was a teenager, growing up in Salem, Oregon, there used to be a man who would stand on street corners in the downtown area, yelling about the end-of-times and passing out pamphlets. My friends and I all knew that if we hurried past him in a small herd, he would leave us alone. So most of the time this is exactly what we did.

Unfortunately for me, one Saturday afternoon, when I was about 16-years-old, I was separated from the herd. Or maybe, going to meet the herd. I honestly don’t really remember why, but I was walking by myself. And the Street Corner Proselytizer pounced.

He blocked my way, shoved a pamphlet at me, and asked “Have you been born again and accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior???!”

Seeing how I couldn’t get around him I figured I’d have to speak, so I answered, “Yes??”

Apparently my answer was unconvincing because he replied – “Have you, have you really? Don’t lie, young lady, God will know. You don’t want to be damned to hell for lying!”

The snarky thought that ran through my 16-year-old mind at the time was “TOO LATE!” old lutheranIn a moment of uncharacteristic restraint I did not say this, instead, my response was, “Dude, I’m a Lutheran.”

He got this look of disappointment and resignation on his face, and moved on to the next unsuspecting passerby. I promptly recycled his flyer (yes – Green Team, in the mid 1990’s, Oregon had public recycling containers) and I walked on. I’m not really sure if my Lutheranism meant that I was saved and therefore a waste of his time, or if it meant that I was so far gone, I wasn’t worth his time. Regardless, on that day, I was incredibly grateful to be a Lutheran.

Pastor Matt Lenahan addressed this morning’s Gospel with this thought: “Faith involves mystery, questions, uncertainty, and conversation.”

I can’t think of a more true statement to frame this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, who came to Jesus under the guise of darkness with questions. It’s unclear if Nicodemus is skulking over to Jesus at night on his own, because he is curious about Jesus and doesn’t want anyone to know, OR if he has been sent as a representative and the darkness that John refers to is actually Nicodemus being in a state of unknowing. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

The fact that he says, “Rabbi, WE know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” would indicate that he is speaking on behalf of himself and others and that THEY want a concrete answer as to whether or not Jesus is from God.

Unfortunately for Nicodemus and the rest of “them”, in this particular Gospel Narrative, Jesus rarely gives anyone a straight answer. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ response to
questions is to answer with seemingly random statements that don’t really answer anything.
questions-questions (2)During my summer Clinical Pastoral Experience, also known as CPE, we were taught not to answer questions for people, but instead have them answer them for themselves. “What do you think?” “How does that make you feel?” Help others discover answers for themselves rather than just feed it to them.

That’s what Jesus does with Nicodemus.  He CPE’s him. Jesus tells him “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” What does that mean??? Nicodemus immediately latches on to the idea of being born and fixates on how a human adult cannot be born again. Because we are all born from a woman’s womb and an adult can’t go back and do that over.

As the conversation continues Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus again most likely would have taken this to describe a physical birth – waters break, a child is born, and that child takes its first breath. Water and Spirit.

But this is not what Jesus is referring to. Jesus is speaking to our rebirth – our moment of being “born again” in the waters of baptism.  For many, this occurs at infancy. For some, such as myself, it happens in early childhood, and for others it is much later. Regardless of when it occurs in Baptism God reaches down to us, establishes relationship with us, claims us as God’s own children, as members of God’s family, and we are born again into this new life.

We know this. Nicodemus did not. As the conversation progresses Jesus continues to give vague and confusing answers and even tells Nicodemus that he doesn’t understand earthly things, so how can he expect to understand heavenly things???

What is going on here? Why is Jesus being THAT GUY??? You know the guy – the one who spouts off things that sound profound, but no one really knows what they are talking about? What purpose is he trying to serve???

In regards to this interaction, The Rev. Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones said this: “What if Jesus is not trying to bring Nicodemus to a place of certainty, but is nurturing Nic’s own sense of the uncertainty and living questions. I am thinking about how much rhetoric of being born again suggests that now the speaker understands all things. This is the opposite of what it means to be born. At birth we know nothing and are just beginning.”

So maybe Jesus isn’t being THAT GUY. Maybe in this whole confusing exchange he is trying to get across to Nicodemus that he doesn’t need someone else to give him all of the answers. He needs time to ponder and question and for his faith to grow through that questioning. That even if a concrete answer was immediately presented to him, he probably wouldn’t accept the truth.

I think we all are a bit like Nicodemus. We think that we should have all of the answers. And like Nicodemus and the Street Corner Proselytizer we prefer concrete answers.  Yes or No! Facts that we can pinpoint.  Keep it simple. We think that we must understand all things when it comes to God and faith and if we do not, then we are somehow lacking.

I’ve seen this repeatedly through the years as I’ve served in Child, Youth, & Family Ministry. Parents who are afraid to have intentional conversation with their children about God and about faith because they are afraid they won’t have an answer to a question. We are afraid to say – “I don’t know.”  We forget that faith involves mystery, questions, uncertainty, and conversation.

In our Gospel this morning Jesus reminds us that questions are everything when it comes to faith. And answers are honestly not really necessary and sometimes block our ability to see truth for ourselves. What we think we know, or what we are afraid we don’t know, gets in our way and we are blinded or paralyzed with fear of uncertainty.what does it all mean

So how do we move beyond this? First of all, we talk about it. With our friends, with our family, with our church community, with our children. The more we discuss faith, the less intimidating it becomes. We ask questions, we answer questions, we encourage questions. We utilize the resources before us – literature, theological writings, people who know things. Grace has a group called Questions Not Answers that meets to ponder and discuss tough topics. Join them sometime.

We think. We pray. We gather in community to hear the Word and to share Sacrament. We embrace the mystery. We grow more comfortable with uncertainty. We tell our inner Street Corner Proselytizer that concrete answers are unnecessary. We embrace and grow more comfortable with the phrase “I don’t know.”

And in this process we will more fully know, appreciate, and understand the loving and forgiving God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Amen.

Posted in Faith, Seminary, Sermons, Spirituality

Blessed Be…

How often do you feel blessed? Like really and truly blessed? What kinds of things make blessedyou feel blessed? When something good happens? You get a promotion or a raise? When a baby is born? When you eat a really, really good meal. When you accomplish something great like a good grade (hey – trust me… even for adults that’s a big thing) Maybe when you perform in a play or concert? When you compete in athletic pursuits with successful results – be it winning the game you are competing in or just finishing a 5k. Retirement… I’m certainly anticipating that blessing someday.  These things make one feel pretty good… like we are blessed.

Our society elevates and praises, honors, and adores the successful. The wealthy. The attractive. The competitive. The hardworking to the point of workaholic. Those who pursue and obtain the “American Dream”. Who live “the good life”.

We place value and status in the exclusive. The prestigious. The expensive. These are the things that show us and the world around us, that we are blessed.

I mean – REALLY! How many of us have ever thought in the middle of crisis and despair – hey… I’m pretty blessed?

I can honestly say that most of the time when something stressful or tragic happens in my life, I am not feeling terribly blessed or grateful in those moments. I’m not usually giving thanks to God for the drama, trauma, and disappointment.  Not at all.

However – this past spring, I did have a moment in the midst of a very grief filled time when I did. As I was navigating through the process of terminating my marriage I felt out of control, I felt abandoned, I felt all the trauma one feels when a relationship suddenly dies. All the while I was desperately trying to keep it together on the outside for my kids and so I could get through class and because no one on my campus really seemed to want to see me sad or lonely or grieving.

And then one Monday morning, my phone rang, and it was Pastor Lynn. Calling to check on me and see if I was okay, and to see if I needed anything. Anything at all. At this point, I wasn’t coming to Grace to intern. Pastor Lynn and I had had one informal telephone interview prior to my personal life falling apart, and that was it. I figured that that ship had sailed. So, Pastor Lynn wasn’t checking on me as my future internship supervisor and coworker for Christ. He was checking on me as someone who cared.

That afternoon Pastor Schul send me an email… for the same reason. And that evening my very good friend Pastor John Boldt, who lives in Houston, TX, also called me to check on me.

It’s a good thing I didn’t wear mascara that day because I did a lot of crying… and when I went to bed that night, I felt better… I felt less alone… I felt like I didn’t have to keep it all together and put on a front… I could just be where I was and know that I wasn’t alone there. And when I prayed before I went to sleep, I thanked God – because I was very aware of how blessed I am to have these caring people in my life.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus is teaching his disciples about those who are blessed. The crowds of people are there, but he isn’t addressing them (like he does in Luke’s version of this same story) – he instead retreats up the mountain and is teaching only the 12. Maybe some in the crowds can hear him, maybe not. Perhaps, he pulls the 12 aside because the crowd is filled with the kind of people that Jesus is about to teach of. Those who are blessed by God.

Because Jesus, being the radical, counter cultural, unorthodox Rabbi that he was – didn’t bolster the rich and powerful. The strong and successful. The brave and the conquerors.

In a culture and community that deified rulers and generals who were all these things, Jesus didn’t say – blessed are the well-educated, for they will get good jobs or blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will be noticed, or blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it because – God helps those who help themselves.

NO! Jesus reinforced a complete different set of people as those who are blessed. Not necessarily to shame or condemn those who had status and possessions, but to include those who do not. Obviously, the rich and famous are blessed, but so are others.

  • The poor in spirit
  • The mourning
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure of heart
  • The peacemakers
  • Those persecuted for righteousness sake
  • Those reviled and persecuted in Christ’s name

Not the typical crowd that one then or now would think of as blessed. It was important as Jesus grew and developed his ministry, that his disciples know this.

The Rev. David Lose states: “The first thing that Jesus teaches them is how to recognize blessedness. Which I think is really interesting. Not how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God.”

Jesus’ ministry didn’t favor those who had everything… it reached out and included those who struggled and had very little, if anything at all. He made sure that these people knew that they were loved and blessed by God. It was crucial that the disciples see this, recognize this, and understand this early in Jesus’ ministry, so that they could go and do likewise.

It is crucial that we see, recognize, and understand this as well – so that we can go and do likewise. That we can spread the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to all of God’s blessed children.

So, who would this encompass today? Who should we be recognizing and encouraging as God’s blessed children? I would like to think that it’s me… as I’m sure we all would, and at times it I am, and so are you.

If Jesus were here teaching this lesson today, I’d imagine the lesson would go something like this:

blessed-are-the-poorBlessed are the poor in spirit – the agnostics, the atheists, the doubters, those who have
been hurt by and walked away from the church, the Christmas and Easter Christians, those who feel that they have nothing to offer. It’s okay to be in these places and spaces. God’s Kingdom is for you as well. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who morn – those who have lost a loved one. Those who have loved and lost. Those who have family members who are missing. Those who are alienated or estranged from their families. Parents who have lost a child. Those who must keep it all together for others around them. Those who continue to mourn weeks, months, years, and decades later. It’s okay to be in these places and spaces. God’s comfort is for you. Blessed are those who morn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek – the invisible people that no one sees. Those whom the world has forgotten. The ill-treated waitress who cannot defend herself for fear her tip will suffer and so will her ability to survive. The janitors. The shift workers. The single parents. The youth who sits alone in class and at lunch. The low-socio-economically disadvantaged. The out-of-the-cold homeless. The friendless. The unemployed. The marginalized. It’s okay to be in these places and spaces. We are all in this together and this world that we live in wouldn’t be same without you. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – the wrongly accused. The rightly accused. For those who struggle. For those who have no advocates. For foster children. For special needs individuals. For people who struggle through life and can never seem to get ahead. For the abused, the victimized, the marginalized, the oppressed. It SUCKS to be in these places and spaces. It’s lonely, and isolating, and empty. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness – for you will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful – those who put people above profit. Those who give food and water to the homeless man sitting on the corner. The teachers, the social workers, the coaches, the pastors. Those who have a forgiving nature. Those who gently correct. Those who give constructive criticism with kindness. The runners who sacrifice their own win or personal best to help an injured fellow competitor across the finish line. You who are in these places and spaces are amazing. You get it. And the world is a better place because of you. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart – those who refuse to bully or slander or gossip. Those who call out social media trolls. Those who stand up and defend the defenseless. Those who are gifted and cursed with a prophetic voice and unabashedly proclaim truth. The Martin Luther’s. The Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s. The Ghandi’s. The Dr. King’s. The Malala’s. The world needs you in these places and spaces. You help manifest the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Blessed are you who are pure of heart – for you will see God.16196071_866609286676_5761662380735114884_n

Blessed are the peacemakers – The Peace Corp. The Red Cross. The U.N. Doctors Without Borders. Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Mediators. The peaceful demonstrators. The Missionaries and aid workers. Those who take their vacations to go on mission trips to places like Nicaragua. The Mother Theresa’s and the Aung San Suu Kyi’s. The world needs you in these places and spaces. Working to spread peace and justice and love for all of God’s children. Blessed are you peacemakers – for you will be called children of God.

Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake – the honest. The whistle-blowers. The litigated Good Samaritan’s. Truth telling journalists in China and other countries where the government controls the press. You who stand up for others, who stand up for what is right, who speak truth, and suffer because of it. The world needs more people in these places and spaces. People who are unafraid and noble. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted in Christ’s name and who have all kinds of evil uttered against them falsely. The Christians in countries where Christianity is illegal. The Christians in this country who are persecuted by fellow Christians because they have different understandings of theology and Gospel. Non-Christians who are persecuted in the name of Christ. These are horrible places and spaces to be in. Places and spaces that no one should have to encounter. But those who do are blessed. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad – for your reward is great in heaven.

Just as it was important for the disciples to recognize blessedness, it is important for us to recognize it as well. These, and so many others, are the people we should be looking to.

If we are truly going to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must understand who those neighbors are. We must reevaluate our ideas of blessings. Being blessed is not just for the sake of potential joy, but also for the sake of making it through difficult times.

Jesus breaks into our lives in moments of joy but Jesus also breaks into our lives in moments of pain and suffering. Pastor Lynn, Pastor Schul, and Pastor Boldt helped me see Jesus in my life at that really difficult point. We are called to do that for one another and for the world around us.

Jesus has taught us how to recognize blessedness and how to help others recognize it as well. Jesus reminds us to not only reach out to those who are familiar and comfortable, but those who are different as well.

Thanks be to God for blessing the poor, the mourning, the meek, those hungering for righteousness, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Thanks be to God for teaching us how to recognize blessedness. And thanks be to God for creating communities of people who love, support, and encourage one another through all of life’s blessings.

Amen.