Pentecost 2014 Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

  Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

So says Walt Whitman… and the Apple Corporation. While I must admit I am a bit skeptical that Apple’s new tablet will play a crucial role in the answer to Whitman’s existential musings, their ad does leave us with an interesting question… The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. “What will your verse be?”

In our reading from Acts we catch up with the disciples now apostles after the resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension to the heavenly realm. Perhaps experiencing a bit of whiplash they are hopeful but a bit puzzled. Jesus had died, but is now risen and they are his witnesses! Great! Now what… How are they supposed to witness anyway? What is to be their verse? So they return to Jerusalem… and now they wait. They are all dressed up and have no place to go. They sit around asking each other… “So… now what?” They don’t have much time to contemplate this before a blast of wind and tongues of fire fill the house. They are suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in every language of the known world, Parthian, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, even some in the Arab and Roman tongues. Each of them speaking to a gathering crowd, a crowd that hears about God’s deeds of power; God’s work in this world, God’s powerful play… they hear it each in their own language and vernacular. By the power of the Spirit the apostles are able to speak in many languages and spread the good news to those present that day and eventually all across the Roman world.    

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we get another glimpse of what the Spirit is like. It’s more than some Holy Rosetta Stone for obscure languages. To be sure language and the work of translation is a crucial one but it is not the only work that there is. Instead, the Spirit manifests itself and it’s power is made known in different ways and gifts found in various people. To some are given wisdom, to others knowledge, to another faith, to another healing, and yet another prophecy Paul says. He goes on to say that each of these Spirit filled people are a member of one body. Yet where there is unity there is not uniformity. Each person functions as a hand or foot, eye or nose, lung or kidney. Each of them different but each of them part of one unit functioning together for the benefit of the whole. Through each member, each part’s unique work, God’s deeds of power are retold and reimagined in the world to which the one unified body is called. Each member contributing to the powerful play upon the world’s stage. It is God’s play, but we are given, we are blessed, with a precious verse.

And so we arrive again at our question. What will your verse be? It is by no means an easy question. It is a question that is asked of us early and often as we grow and develop and usually takes the form of a more familiar question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  We spend our lives pondering that question and have many false starts and dead ends along the way. I know in my own life as a former student of natural resources the answer to this question is not one easily discerned.  And despite its narrow frame we know that it is more than question of occupation or career, it is a question of identity. The question is really, “who are you?”. Author and Pastor Rob Bell wonders: “How much of our pain comes from not knowing how to answer that question?” How much of our brokenness and capacity to hurt others comes from our own insecurity and uncertainty? The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse… What will your verse be? Yet a deeper, more fundamental question lingers… Who are you?

Answer

You are God’s child. You belong to God in whom, and through whom you live and breathe and have your being. You are here, you exist and have identity, an identity grounded in God’s love and care. You the faithless, are made faithful by the power of the Spirit, given gifts and called into one body, the body of Christ.  You are one of many members each proclaiming God’s deeds of power; power that come to us through weakness, through the cross, through resurrection and new life.

We each have our own gifts, our own purpose to discern. Yet we do not do so alone. We discern, test and hone our gifts in the context of community. Just as it is with a limb or organ, one’s true purpose cannot be known until it is integrated into the whole, into the body, and so we live and learn and grow together, as one.

 

Most importantly, we have God’s Spirit that fills us with these gifts, who encourages us from within the community and sometimes from without. It is God’s Spirit who strengthens us for our journey of discernment. It is the Spirit who speaks words of encouragement and hope through the scriptures, who helps you to hear that the body and blood, the bread and wine are truly “for you”, and it is the Spirit, who helps us to understand, if only in part, that in baptism we were claimed by God, a God that will not forsake us, and will not let us go. It is the Spirit who reminds us that though we may not fully understand who we are becoming, we know to whom we belong.

And so God’s powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? What is it that you will write? What is it that you will do? And you the congregation of Central Lutheran Church what will  you have to say? How will your words and prose take shape in God’s powerful play? Will it come in engaging the issues of homelessness or human trafficking? Will it come in being a place of refuge for a new wave of immigrants? Or will the verse take shape as we journey forward on paths as yet untrodden?

We like the apostles find ourselves in the wake of the resurrection, we find ourselves not at the end but at the beginning, at the trailhead of a path into that which is yet unknown… Yet, we need not fear, though our path is uncertain, our identity is not. We belong to God. We are a part of Christ’s body. We are redeemed and have been given new life. It is then from this, this identity as God’s child, this core of our being, that our verse is written, that through our own unique experiences and gifts, as people, and as a congregation, that through all this the words come together and the prose begins to take shape. And so child of God, member of Christ’s body, heir to life and salvation, the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? Amen. 

Sermon May 11th 2014 John 10:1-10

It’s Billy Joel who once sang:

Good night my angel time to close your eyes

And save these questions for another day

I think I know what you’ve been asking me,

I think you know what you’ve been trying to say,

I promised I would never leave you,

And you should always know

Wherever you may go

No matter where you are

I never will be far away

That’s what we want to hear isn’t it? That voice. No, not Billy Joel’s specifically… but rather that warm, clear, life giving voice that says “No matter where you go, I never will be far away.”

When it comes down to it, after all is said and done, we want to know unequivocally that we are cherished, that we are treasured, that we are loved.

It is interesting that this text falls on mother’s day of all days. After all there are few people more comforting in many of our lives than our mothers. They are with us from the very beginning.  They know us well before we are even born. It is an intimate and sacred bond. At our birth, her voice is one of the first that we hear and we seek it out, crave it even.  We want to hear our mother’s voice we want to hear them say to us “No matter where you are, I never will be far away”.

I give thanks for the families, particularly my own, in which these words are spoken, in families where these promises are lived out in life giving and healthy ways. But mother’s day also reminds me of all ways in which these words go unspoken. Unspoken to the people who can no longer hear and find comfort in their mother’s voice. It reminds me of those women who have tried so hard to be mothers for so long, whose voice longs to speak words of comfort to a child, yet the nursery stands empty. I think of all those people who heard their mother’s voice, their mother’s promise, clinging to it, only to discover it was a superficial and empty one.

Even in “healthy families”, relationships breakdown, tensions rise, and words cut like a knife; our voices filled not with promises of love but rather with anger and scorn. Our voices, all of our voices, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, the voices meant to bring comfort and love, all too often destroy, tear down and isolate, as brokenness begets brokenness.  

But this is not the voice we hear today is it? We hear a different voice don’t we? We hear the voice of Jesus. The one through whom all things were made. The one who is the Word, the voice made flesh, who was spoken into the darkness at the dawn of creation. The one who knew us before we were even born. It is Jesus our Shepherd who speaks to us today. We hear his voice. He calls to us, calls us each by name. He gives us a new name, forgiven, holy, beloved. Jesus comes to give us life, to bring us back to the God who will not let us go. It is that voice that leads us beside still waters, green meadows, and beautiful open pastures. It is that voice that gives us strength and courage in life’s dark valleys where the voices of hurt and broken promises abound. It is that voice that brings us together, gathers us in to break bread with one another, to pray with one another, to share our lives and our hearts with one another. That voice gives us abundant life. It is that abundant life, that voice that we seek, that we crave, that comes to us through death, death on a cross. It comes to us from a God that would not forsake us, who would suffer complete humiliation and death instead of being separated from us. That is the voice we hear today. The voice of one speaking words of unfettered and unequivocal love. It is the voice of Jesus our Shepherd speaking to Central Lutheran Church, speaking to each one of you, saying:

“I promised I would never leave you,

And you should always know

Wherever you may go

No matter where you are

I never, never will be far away”

Amen.

Sermon on John 11:1-45, Psalm 130 4/6/2014

 

Lord, if you had been here, they would not have died. All of those Mothers, Fathers, Daughters, Sons, Husbands and Wives. Lord, if you had been there those people would not have died. That wall of water and mud would not have cascaded down, burying dozens homes, dozens of people. Lord if you had been there those people whom you claim to treasure whom you claim to love would not have died!

And is not just up in Oso. Lord if you had been there when my son overdosed. When my daughter got behind the wheel. When my spouse got cancer. Lord if you had been there they would not have died. And Lord if you had been here, here in this place, you would not have let this congregation dwindle and it’s pastor leave.

 Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord. Out of the depths of anguish, unspeakable pain, and soul numbing loss. We cry to you Lord watching for the morning… but there is not much hope of that at this dark hour.

And frankly, I’m not impressed, I don’t buy your response, Jesus. You say, “It is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” You mock our pain, trivialize it, you use it for your own advantage, your own glorification. How about you just show your glory by ending suffering and loss, stopping death before it happens? Before it destroys and scatters everything we have and everything we know… I mean where is your glory in the unspeakable tragedies of life? Where is it?!

I don’t why God lets these things happen. I don’t know why God allows evil and darkness to persist. Sure there are theological formulas, biblical proof texts, and various justifications. But when it comes right down to it, they all seem to fall flat as I look out into a world so needlessly marred with such deep sorrow and pain. I don’t understand why God won’t just end human trafficking, why he continues to allow people to become addicted, why he still lets parents and mentors abuse the very children they were entrusted to protect. I don’t understand why this all powerful God allows evil to continue to have its way, seemingly unchecked. I don’t know why people have to go through so much pain.

But, I do know one thing. Jesus wept. When he was faced with the death of his dear friend and the overwhelming grief of his family, Jesus wept. His spirit was deeply moved and his compassion poured out, out from his eyes and down his cheeks, both sorrow and love flowed, mingled down. “See, how he loved them!”

I don’t why bad things still happen, why evil is allowed to persist, but I know we don’t gaze alone into that breach, I know we don’t stand alone in our sorrow. Jesus stands with us, he grieves with us in our darkest night. He remembers, he knows, what it feels like to be alone, isolated and in the dark. Singer songwriter Andrew Peterson puts it this way:

The man of all sorrow,

never forgot,

what sorrow is carried

by the hearts that he bought.”

 

Jesus, the man that prayed alone in the garden, who was abandoned, beaten and crucified remembers, he knows what it’s like to experience pain and loss. And so we may not know why these things happen, but we know we don’t go through them alone.

We also know that Jesus doesn’t just grieve with us in our darkness. He ends that darkness. He brings light. He shines in our darkness and is not overcome. He raises Lazarus, heals the blind and lifts up those who are on the margins, those who have lost their homes, their loved ones, and even their pastor. Jesus waits with us as we watch for the morning, but he also brings about that morning, that glorious and hope filled Easter morning.

 “Lord if you had been there they would not have died.” I don’t wish to brush aside this accusation, it runs deep, it comes from the depths of the soul. Know that it is a normal question, a human question. Know that God can handle your doubt. Know also that God through Jesus is bringing resurrection, beauty from ashes, new life from a mountain of mud.

Amen.

 

Sermon Matthew 5:38-48, Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

I am sorry again for the long wait in between posts but this is a sermon I gave two Sundays ago:

 

Well, there it is. Be perfect. I don’t think Jesus could be any clearer. You just gotta want it. You gotta try harder. You have to do more. Be perfect.

LONG AWKWARD PAUSE…

Oh… you uh didn’t start the hymn… I suppose you were expecting a little more… I guess should say something…

The truth is that this verse, this command to be perfect, makes my stomach churn. It is frightening, monumental and downright impossible. I suppose I should have seen it coming as Jesus has spent a good many verses tightening loopholes. Last week we heard that anger, a wandering eye and divorce were all out. And just in case you made that first cut, Jesus adds more this week, do not retaliate when you are wronged but instead love your enemy.  And of course the grand finale to cap it all off “Be perfect”….

I think Jesus must have taken a nap after helping to create the world. He obviously missed the bulk of human history up to this point; a history fraught with war, avarice, lust, anger and death. Even the people of  Israel despite receiving God’s divine law, the Torah, have consistently wandered away, doing their own thing, having little or no regard for God. Moral perfection was not even in the equation. So either Jesus is naïve or something else is going on here…

As we look at the text in Leviticus we find that it bears some similarity to the words in Matthew.  God declares through Moses, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” God’s chosen people are to be holy and emulate the holiness of their God.  However, for the Israelites the word “holy” was not strictly relegated to the concept of morality but was more broadly used to describe something or someone as “set apart” or “different” from the world around them. Moses is reminding God’s people that they were set free from Egypt for a purpose to be “holy”, to be set apart and actively involved in God’s work in the world; in the work of a God that is holy, that is different, a God that is interested not in conquest and subjugation but in peace, in establishing Shalom. The Israelites were called out of Egypt, out of slavery to live not for themselves but in a radically different, in a holy way, to partner with God in establishing justice and peace.

 So as we look again at Matthew we see Jesus doing much the same thing. He is calling his followers to live in a community that is set apart… that is “holy” so to speak. It is a community that does not allow anger to become a divisive force. It is a community that promotes and encourages healthy and life giving relationships. It is a community that values honesty and integrity. He is saying:  you are set apart and these are your trademarks, the things that define who you are to be. In this way perfection or holiness is to be understood as wholeness. As things that build up the community.

Alright, that makes sense but what about this text for today? How does it support community?

Are we really supposed to allow people to strike our face without resistance? Are we to let them walk all over us like a doormat, let them take all of our things and boss us around? Do we really have to pray for and love these people? I am no sociological expert but to me these commands seem to advocating for a sort of victim mentality. How healthy can this community be if perpetrators are not held accountable?! How is that perfection?!

Consider these words from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

This is what Jesus intends when he advocates for these non-violent responses. In offering your left cheek it meant that the aggressor would have to use their right hand to strike you with a backhand and in so doing defiling their hand or slap you with an open palm with the left which in that day was a sign of equality. Either way the aggressor loses their place of dominance. Similarly if someone were to sue you for your coat and your cloak you would essentially be rendered naked, and it was a great dishonor in that day to see someone’s nakedness. The dishonor would be doubled by the fact that they had caused your nakedness. These methods are used to demonstrate to those in power that their abuses and attempts to control are undignified, dehumanizing and most importantly do not define those whom they victimize. They change the conversation bringing about tension that leads to dialogue to honest conversation and in time a change for the better. It is Jesus who uses this to greatest effect, allowing us to beat him, to mock him and nail him to a cross so that we may realize just how ugly and terrible our quest for power and control had become. Jesus allowed himself to be crucified to demonstrate that we have no interest in mercy, in weakness. We would destroy it if we could and that we would kill God’s own Son to do it. What’s more he prays for us “forgive them father for they no not what they do” and continues to love us saying to the disciples after the resurrection “Peace be with you”. The perfection of God is God’s perfect love demonstrated in Christ. We are shown our sin, shown our ugliness but loved anyway, loved perfectly.

Now as we look to our own lives I don’t envision a cross in anyone’s immediate future. Even if we were called to it I don’t think we can love perfectly as Jesus did.

In the end I think the “perfection”, the “holiness” Jesus is talking about is not some moral perfection or some glorious blaze of martyrdom but it is living in the joy that God’s love is perfect, that our relationship with him is not contingent on our own ability to achieve perfection. Rather we are made holy, made perfect by Christ’s perfect love for us. And in our new found holiness, we are set apart to share that perfect love. That perfect love calls us to lift up what is weak and lowly to shame what is strong.

That perfect love empowers us to demonstrate that the systems of dominance and control do not define a person’s worth.

That perfect love illuminates our way and shows that hate and bitterness and oppression are not the way and that God has made for us a new way in Jesus.

That perfect love reminds us to live in the promise that we are loved perfectly by a God that will not let us go. That will not forsake us.

I must admit this verse “Be perfect” is still unsettling…but maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it should make me a little uncomfortable with myself and the world I live in. Maybe it should remind me that I am holy, set apart for the sake of the gospel. But I know that it also reminds us of a perfect and holy God who wholly and perfectly loves us.  Amen.

A Long Time Coming

I apologize for the long break in my writings. Much has happened since my last posting and it is difficult to know where to begin. I guess I will start by saying that my supervisor at Central Lutheran Church has gone on leave indefinitely. At this point I will not talk about the reasons why so as to protect his privacy. I will say though that it has been hard at Central in any case. There is much shock, sadness, anxiety and fear. I can only imagine how much they must be going through as a congregation. I knew Jeff Russell for 3 months but they were blessed by his ministry for over 20 years. He was their pastor and for many a close friend. To have him leave so suddenly and with little warning has been hard to navigate for them.

As for me, I had the joy and the struggle of leading a congregation by myself for a week and a half. Thankfully the schedule was light but it was hard to concentrate on much of anything particularly before we made the announcement to the congregation on December 1st. The bishop was on hand for the announcement and planned to make it directly after service. This meant that the synodical bishop for the NW Washington synod was present at the service to observe me run the service solo including preach a sermon (no pressure right?!). After the service he gave the news and their were audible gasps from the congregation and as I looked around the sanctuary I saw inconsolable sadness on the faces of many. Those faces are still burned into my memory. When I delivered the news to our local clergy text study later that week it was much the same reaction, grief, sadness and numbness. Jeff’s ministry clearly touched people on a deep level and the love and respect for him ran deeper than I could have ever imagined.

I am deeply grateful though that despite their grief, both the congregation and the local pastors have not lost sight of the intern in all this. The amount of love and support I have received from them is overwhelming and I feel very confident in the ability of Central to remain a viable intern site for Kandice and I.

There will be many lessons to be learned at Central this year. However, there are two which come to mind immediately. First, pastors mean a great deal to the people they serve. It was clear that Jeff was extremely gifted for ministry and had a deep impact on the congregation and his fellow clergy. The emotional outpouring in the past couple of weeks has been overwhelming and I feel blessed to witness first hand the effect that one person of faith can have on those around them. I am beginning to feel that a bit myself as the people of Central continue to affirm and encourage my efforts to help them through this time.

The second and equally important thing I have realized is the necessity to rest. In this time I have already began to feel the ill effects of stress, anxiety and taking on too much responsibility. We have had two pastors now in our cluster in the past 3 months who have gone on leave because of overwork and stress. Thankfully, Central has brought on an Interim Pastor Mike Swain and I have a new supervisor Paul Hoffman who some of you may know as a former Pastor of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle. Mike has helped to ease the load and Paul is a fantastic mentor. Also, the clergy have pledged their support of me and Central and are looking for ways to better support each other.

 Yet I still worry for those who carry too much. I hope that for those of you reading this would consider your own life and calendar. Do you take time to unplug and relax? Do you take the time you need to relieve stress and disconnect from your responsibilities? Furthermore, I would ask that for those of you who are church goers, please consider your pastors and other leaders who love you and deeply care about you but need time and space to recharge. Social service work such as pastoring can be the most joyful and rewarding but also mentally demanding and exhausting work that there is. So when the pastor asks for a vacation or a sabbatical please bear in mind that these are necessary and fruitful opportunities for clergy to unwind and come back reenergized.

Well, that’s all I have for now, stay tuned as I should be blogging more regularly again.

Sermon November 10th Luke 20:27-38, Job 19:23-27

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

It’s easy to demonize the Sadducees, the religious leaders in today’s text. Indeed throughout the gospels they and the Pharisees are trying to trick, trap and otherwise confuse Jesus and his followers. Yet, I am not so sure we should throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. It is their questions, their nagging, annoying and probing questions that bring to light some of Jesus’ most profound and insightful teachings. Furthermore, if we look at these questions and examine their doubts we often find that they are a voice for our own questions and doubts. Today is no exception. There is perhaps no bigger question in all of Christianity than that of the resurrection of the dead. We will profess our belief in that resurrection in a few minutes yet, I suspect I am not the only one who is a little unsure when it will happen, how it will take place, and what it will look like. Indeed I imagine we all struggle with the uncertainty of what the bodily resurrection means for us. It is in these moments that the distinction between faith and certainty are most clear. This lack of certainty inevitably leads to questions, serious questions, even cynical and pessimistic ones.  One can become jaded and even hostile to the promises of God.

Such is the nature of the Sadducees’ question before us today. In the text they question Jesus about the practice of levirate marriage set down by Moses. According to this practice a widowed woman without children would marry the brother of the deceased husband in an attempt to produce children in the name of the deceased husband, and in so doing carry on the family line. So the Sadducees present Jesus with the following case study. Woman A, marries Man B but Man B dies before they have children. So Woman A marries Man C who is the brother of Man B. However, before Woman A and Man C can have children Man C also dies. Therefore Woman A will now marry Man D who is the brother of both Man B and Man C. But Man D dies before Woman A and Man D can have children So, well…. You get the point. So then their question to Jesus is this: in resurrection which man will be this poor woman’s true husband? A perplexing riddle indeed… Perhaps it would be clearer if I told you another story first:

Let’s say you are driving a bus for Everett Public Transit. The bus is empty as it rolls up to the first stop. At the first stop 10 people get on. At the second stop 4 people get off and 7 get on. At the third stop 8 people get off and 5 people get on. At the fourth stop 9 people get off and 13 get on. Does everyone have all that? Alright, now my question is this: what is the bus driver’s name? Well, you were driving the bus remember so what’s your name? You tell me!!

Now why did I tell you this, besides to perhaps annoy and confuse you? Well, in each of the two scenarios it is easy to forget an important piece of information. In our bus scenario many of you may have remembered who was driving, but keeping tabs on the passengers was likely a distracting part of the story that made it more difficult to remember. Similarly, the Sadducees try to confuse Jesus with the details of 7 separate marriages and ask him which one is valid at the time of the resurrection. However they themselves forget that they are presupposing that ALL eight of these people are to be resurrected. They are all to have new life in the Body of Christ. They are as the text says: like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” They will experience true and lasting wholeness for all time. So that in the joy of the resurrection, not even the blessed institution of marriage given to us by God will define our existence. Indeed, the Sadducees got bogged down in the details of the law and forgot what is truly important. It is, in the end, not who we make ourselves to be through relationships but who God is and what He has done for us that ultimately matter.

Now don’t misunderstand me. First, I fully endorse marriage, it is a lovely institution given to us by God to strengthen families and communities and we should not cast it off even as we look to our own resurrection someday. Secondly, I do not wish to simply dismiss questions about the resurrection that still naw at us on this side of eternal glory. To do so would be cheap and disingenuous. After all, while we may laugh a little at the Sadducees we too might wonder, what will my spouse or parents look like? Will they remember me? Will we finally be reconciled? Will I even be me?

Furthermore, as we live in this world filled with brokenness we too are prone to skepticism and question whether there is any resurrection hope to cling to at all. Indeed we struggle to find hope in our own community in which hundreds deal with the reality of soul crushing poverty and drugs that steal their lives away. We struggle to find hope in our graying and declining churches that were once full to the brim. And maybe especially, we struggle to find hope in our own lives in which we all too often find instead, a lack of purpose and meaning. It is a situation not to different from that of Job in the first lesson.

For I know my redeemer lives, Job exclaims. Yet his confession of faith is not one that is made on solid ground. Indeed, it is not a statement trumpeted from the pinnacle of a mountain but is rather a defiant cry from the depths of Job’s despair.  You see, God has allowed for Job to become ill, lose his livelihood and even his family. Yet he has the faith to say: “then in my flesh I will see God!” But how? How can he possibly be so sure?

It reminds me of a patient I visited during my summer of chaplaincy in the Twin Cities.  She was a woman in her early 80’s on the oncology ward. As we sat and talked she related to me her circumstances. She had been in and out of the hospital for quite some time with a rare form of leukemia. “The doctors have tried everything” she said (tears welling),” and they are out of ideas…” she paused “and I want to go home for the last time”. She told me how she had made a bucket list and was sad to say she wouldn’t finish it. “Although,” she said “at the top of my list is getting to live out my last days at home”.

 I asked her how she felt about this tragic end to her life. She paused for a moment and said “God has been using it to teach me.” Teach you what? I asked skeptically. “I have learned to appreciate the little things, the blessings God gives us every day,” she said with a smile. She went on, “He has also been using me to help others. I have read wonderfully encouraging books about heaven and have shared them with my friends”.

I was blown away… how can this woman be coping so well at the end of her life? This cruel and painful cancer had made her a prisoner in the hospital and the victim of a myriad of blood transfusions and other procedures. How could she be so hopeful?

I’ve thought about it, and to be honest given all she had been through I still don’t quite understand. Until I am in her shoes I don’t think I can. What I do know though is that the faith she shared with me that day was contagious. She reminded me that God’s loving presence does not waver in the face of adversity on the contrary it intensifies and fills a dim hospital room with the radiating glow of hope. This woman, whom I had just met, helped me to remember that in the end it’s not evil but God that has the final word, indeed as Paul triumphantly proclaims to the Corinthians “O death, where is thy sting?”

So as we go forth today, do not fear your questions and your doubts. There is much we do not know about the life that is to come and questions are normal part of growing in our faith. Indeed, to stop the questions and “simply believe” cheapens faith. That being said, do not doubt, but take heart that you have been chosen by God, you are a child of resurrection. When you despair and questions overwhelm you, and they will, look to God’s Word of promise in scripture and the sacraments. But also look to one another as the Holy Spirit works to bring about faith in us in surprising and unexpected places, even on the oncology ward. These glimmers of hope may only last for a moment but it is in these moments that our fears are stilled and our faith is rekindled. It is in these moments that we catch a glimpse of the Promised Land and of the life that is come. Amen.

 

Haunted by Matthew 25

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.       Matthew 25:42-43

                These verses have been ever on my mind the past few months as the reality of my surroundings set in. Everett, WA, as I may have mentioned before, is a community that struggles with rampant poverty. This is not surprising as it is a burn out paper mill town whose mills have long since shut down and have been bulldozed. Despite this the cost of living is still relatively high here as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest. As a result, homelessness, drugs and domestic abuse are common in this place where many people have lost hope along with their livelihood.

                I won’t be telling you anything new by suggesting that the mission of the church as a whole is to minister to these people. Indeed, the story from Matthew 25 suggests just such a thing and even goes so far as to claim that when we serve those in need we encounter no other than our risen Lord. That being said, all too often when people come through my office door asking for assistance and my tired reply is all too often “we don’t do that here, you’ll have to try somewhere else”.

                I don’t want to throw Central under the bus. It is a lovely congregation with an aging although warm and welcoming demographic. They offer a meal twice a month for 90-120 people and collect food for Trinity Lutheran’s Emergency food shelf. They also have a mission of the month in which a portion of the month’s offerings go to a particular cause, many of them local. They know there is a need out there and are trying to fill it. Yet, it is a small comfort to me when I have to look into a person’s empty tired eyes and say “sorry, I can’t help you.”

                I am not suggesting Central create a giant slush fund to meet the need of every person that comes in. It is not practical and is probably not efficient. Yet, more must be done, more must be accomplished. I think it starts with the attitude about the people that we serve. There is a latent distrust of those who come to our door, that they are trying to get money out of us to feed an addiction to drugs or alcohol or that they in some way won’t use the resources properly. Perhaps more heart breaking is that this develops into a sense of fear of being taken advantage of but also of elitism and of paternal/maternalism, that  we will only fill the needs these people “ought” to be concerned about.

                These are not unfounded concerns as anyone who is close to a person struggling with an addiction well knows. We will and probably do “get played” or “used” to fuel their addiction or self destructive behavior at times. However, I think this concern boils over into an attitude of superiority and dismissal. We, although perhaps not consciously, begin to think of them as less human or less worthy. We are even encouraged by American Protestantism to think this way. That God helps those who help themselves. To be fair there is some truth in that, if you play by the rules, God’s law, things will probably tend to go better for you in society. However, what about a job loss, or mental illness, or raging medical bills or any number of personal catastrophes? I think most people would be hard pressed to blame all of these outcomes on a lapse in “following the rules”.

                Now, I am not sure where to go from here or what being more “helpful” looks like. I don’t claim any particularly keen insight nor do I offer a clear solution. However, I think it has to start with how we regard the people whom we serve. Will we see them as lazy sub-human scum or are they a suffering and afflicted child of God, through whom we can see the face of our redeemer? I think the conversation must start there. These people are also created in God’s image and are loved by Jesus our redeemer. Furthermore, we too were lost and all too often still are and it is not by our actions but by God’s actions that we gain the title of worthy, precious and holy.

                I imagine I will have to say “no” many more times to people who walk through my door. The church has limited resources and limited time. We simply can’t serve them all. However, my hope and prayer is that I will not forget their humanity and whose image they are created in.   

Sermon from October 20th Jacob wrestles the angel

Hello everyone,

Sorry for the lack of material lately, business is picking up so to speak and with a visit from both sides of the family and an intern retreat these past couple weeks have been a bit hectic. As a result, the blog has been on the back burner. Here is a transcript of my sermon from this past sunday. I will have a more substantive post up soon though sorry for the delay!

The Sermon:

Grace and Peace from God our Father and our Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

“What is your name?” Jacob can still feel the question ringing in his ears. It may seem like a simple question, what’s a name after all? But you get the sense that the angel isn’t asking which letters he should write down on an adhesive sticker. No, the question runs deeper, it cuts Jacob to the core. The angel is really asking, “Who are you?”

 Indeed, in the ancient near East your name was your identity. It defined who you were and told people about your character. In the book of Genesis we see this in the names of the Patriarchs. For instance, Abraham means “father of many”, an apt description of a man who will be a blessing to the nations; or his son, Isaac, which means “she laughs” because Sarah laughed at the thought of God blessing her with a child at the ripe old age of 90. So we come then to Jacob’s name, what does his name mean, what is He all about?

His name means “he usurps” it means “he cheats”.

You see when the angel asks Jacob for his name he must face his sordid past, a past riddled with greed and deceit in which he stole the family blessing from his older brother Esau and cheated his Father-in-law Laban out of a large portion of his flock. In today’s reading we find Jacob, having parted ways with Laban, is making his way back home. However, we get the sense that this homecoming may not be a happy one. Jacob is on the eve of meeting his brother Esau whom we can only assume is full of bitterness and wrath over his lost blessing. But the conniving Jacob has one more trick up his sleeve. He sends half then all of his great wealth on ahead of him as tribute to Esau, hoping to assuage his brother’s anger.

His wealth and pretensions having left him, Jacob stands alone in the dark, by the river, deeply regretting the past, and looking anxiously toward the future. Jacob is still unsure how Esau will receive him.  It is then that the angel descends upon him and the two of them struggle into the night and on through the morning.  Even though the angel succeeds in injuring Jacob, Jacob will not let him go and insists on a blessing… his OWN blessing not the one he stole so many years ago. Indeed, Jacob is not simply struggling for a material blessing like food or land but is struggling for his identity, the meaning of his existence. His persistence pays off, he is blessed by the angel and he is no longer Jacob the cheat but Israel; the one who has struggled with God and prevailed. It is a trait that is to become a hallmark of his descendents, the nation of Israel, who will struggle with God through the Wilderness, in the Promised Land, into Exile and back again. It is a rocky relationship in which Israel is constantly grappling with the God who blessed them.

Now, as we take a step back from this story, an important detail stands out. God’s blessing did not come to Jacob until Jacob admitted to God and himself just the kind of person he had been, a cheater and deceiver. Jacob knew he had wronged Esau and as a result found himself on the run. He realized that when he tried to go his own way, taking another’s blessing, that it brought nothing but strife in his relationships and emptiness in his soul. Jacob found himself alone by that river, isolated by his own scheming designs. He was a shell of a person, with no identity. Indeed, He was not himself but only remnants of what he had taken from Esau and Laban. It is when Jacob put these things aside, sending them on ahead of him to Esau, that he could truly grapple with God and discover the blessing that was in store for him. He is no longer a cheat but a descendent of Abraham and heir to the promise of the great nation of Israel that is to come through his twelve sons.

Well that’s great for Jacob, but what about us? What does God have to say to us in this story? I think it’s that same thorny question the angel posed to Jacob, “What is your name?” “Who are you?”. You probably would respond as Jacob did with our given name but like Jacob would also realize the question runs deeper. It might be more like: “What else are you known by?” “What is your reputation?” “What do others call you or do you call yourself?” Perhaps you are called “powerful”, “attractive”, or “successful” and you pretend that you have it all together. Or you may dwell on different names… ugly, unworthy, or disappointing. In either case when we are asked the question “What is your name?” We come to our own Penuel, standing face to face with God, examining our lives. We become acutely aware that we are not who we claim to be.  We try so hard to be someone or something that we are not. Or we let our failure and brokenness define us. In the end we have to give both of these up. In our wrestling and struggling with God we come to our true identity. Indeed, God will not let our false pretensions or our self loathing go unchecked.No, God will give us our identity. God and God alone will define who we are.

So as we stand before God we realize that we are not in control, that God is not to be mastered or contained. He will be what he will be. Yet, It is in this moment of complete humility, we remember who it is that God is on account of Christ; A God of abundant grace and compassion. By his gracious will, You are given a blessing, You are given a new name. Indeed because of Christ you are no longer called ugly, rejected, or shameful and instead you are made beautiful, accepted and honored. You are a new creation in Christ. THIS is your new name. THIS is your blessing. You are claimed as God’s child.

And as Martin Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, as beloved children of God we can come to Him with our plea, like the plea of the widow in today’s gospel. We are allowed and indeed encouraged to struggle with God the judge, petitioning him ceaselessly. Demanding justice, mercy, and compassion; for his kingdom come, his will be done. Indeed, we read today that the Son of Man will come again, and so we pray to God with confidence, in faith, knowing that one day all things will work for the good and all creation will be made new. We pray with persistence not to annoy an indifferent judge but rather because we find hope in the loving arms of God our creator.

Moreover, it is in our persistence that we find ourselves exactly where we were intended to be. Not looking out at what we can grab but looking up, to where our help comes from. Amen.

 

Sermon from 10/6/2013 Luke 17:5-10 Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus the Christ Amen.
Ouch! In today’s gospel we encounter a Jesus who is irritated, snarky and downright mean. The disciples simply ask for faith and Jesus brings down the hammer hard, mocking them as if to say: “You want more faith?” You only need faith the size of a small seed! Why are you asking for more faith?” As if this weren’t bad enough, Jesus continues to talk down to them, comparing them to simple house servants, slaves even, who are simply expected to do what they are told without special treatment or consideration. They are not even granted a bit of faith… What gives Jesus? Where is this kindly shepherd and relentless coin searcher we’ve been hearing about?
I mean it’s not as though the disciples’ request seems all that ridiculous. In the verses preceding the gospel text for today Jesus commands his followers to avoid causing people to stumble on His teachings. If this is too hard, Jesus says to them, why don’t you just tie some bricks around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. Furthermore, if you are sinned against, you are to forgive the offender each time they repent, no asterisk, no qualifying clause, no excuses, simply forgive every time. So in the very next verse, the first verse of our text, we can’t fault the disciples for asking for a little help. We might say along with them as they do in chapter 18: “This teaching is hard! Who then can be saved?!”
Habakkuk is having his own crisis of faith in today’s first reading. The prophet is finding it hard to trust in a supposedly merciful and just God. A God who lets the wicked and evil doers prosper and allows justice to come forth perverted. Habakkuk is made sick by those in Judah who do evil and who go so far as to manipulate the law and render judgments in their favor at the expense of the people. Perverting the very law given by God to serve and sustain these people. Habakkuk hits home here. He gets at a deep and troubling question. God, why do you let bad things happen? Why do you let evil people do as they please? God, If you really love us, where do you go when the winds howl and the rain starts to pour? It’s a hard world we live in. Even more so when we must do what you require.
Indeed as we look to our own lives, we see a government that is shut down leaving many people without services or jobs while our well compensated leaders refuse to collaborate. We in record numbers are experiencing poverty and hunger in a nation that is also experiencing economic growth. We continue to struggle with disease and loss while health providers make large and unseemly profits. And so we ask God along with the prophet, why is it that you let the wicked prosper and let justice be manipulated for those who can afford it?! Furthermore, why is it so ridiculous to ask for a little help to go against the grain; to bring your hard teachings to a world who is unwilling to hear it, a world that is ready to pounce on those who show weakness and compassion? Why can we not ask for a little help to do your will? Why is it so unreasonable to ask for a little fortitude… a little faith?
We are left lingering on this question as we turn back to the parable. What is getting Jesus so riled up? Why the heavy hand and the angry and impatient parable? Why not just give the guys some faith…?
The thing is, I don’t think Jesus is opposed to nurturing faith. Rather, as we read about a couple weeks ago it is Jesus’ intention to bring in the lost sheep and the missing coins. Indeed earlier in Luke Jesus lays out his purpose plainly saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” All this is a glaring contradiction to the proposition that Jesus is opposed to creating faith. So why does he rebuke the disciples here?
You see in Jesus’ estimation the disciples had all they needed for faith, even if that faith was only the size of a small seed. Indeed, Jesus had been proclaiming loudly and decisively in front of them that God is for them and not against them. God binds up the injured and seeks out the lost and helps them to carry their heavy burdens. Up to this point he had preached the coming Kingdom, performed miracles and healed a multitude. So when they ask for faith, Jesus is irritated thinking, “How much more proof do these guys need?” After all, they had all the proof they needed standing right in front of them in the person of Jesus who IS God. The very same God they witnessed going to the cross to suffer, die and be raised defeating the powers of death and sin. Indeed how much more do the disciples need?
But what about us? We were not there to witness one of Jesus’ miraculous healings or to hear him preach powerfully about God’s coming Kingdom. We were not present with the disciples to see the empty tomb and we have not put our hand in Jesus’ side as Thomas did. What do we have? How are we to have our faith increased?
We still have signs, tangible proof of God’s loving faithfulness… It is the water in the font. Our proof comes to us in that common everyday compound with God’s word: “You are my son, You are my daughter in whom I am well pleased”. It is the bread and the wine on the altar. With these common things and God’s Word we hear once more from Jesus “this is my body broken for YOU…This is my blood, shed for YOU… Not just him or her or that guy over there but for YOU.
It is in these things we can take heart and grab a hold of the hope we have from God. Indeed, we gather together in community as the body of Christ to experience, Emmanuel, God with us, who is permeating our relationships with love. It is in these sacraments we know that God is for us and not against us and that he has not given up on this broken world.
Alright, we have faith… so now what? What about the rest of the parable? What is Jesus getting at with all this slave business…? How does faith have anything to do with it…? I think he is saying that with faith, which God provides, we are empowered to do great things, even if that faith is as small and seemingly inconsequential as mustard seed, and is founded in simple, every day things like water or bread and wine. Moreover, in these things we are reminded once more that we are loved by a God who created us in His own image and though we have strayed has recreated us in that image once more and for all time in Christ’s death and resurrection. Our faith, our hope is built on nothing less. This is how we can live as obedient servants because we know by faith that though we were once worthless slaves, slaves to sin, we have been set free; that though we were lost we are now found. You see we obey our Lord and Savior not to garner favor or to prove our faith but rather our faith in a loving God moves us to do great things. We live for God because God lived and died for us and set us free to truly live for Him and for one another. Our guilt is assuaged, our shame is lifted and our brokenness is made whole. You are free on account of the gospel, so go and live as you were called to be, servants of our living God. Amen.

Remembering All Creatures of our God and King

I am writing this post with a heavy heart this week. I found out on Wednesday that our family dog of 12 years has terminal pancreatic cancer. Libby is half yellow lab half golden retriever and is, as my dad says, 100% crazy. I still remember the day we got her. I had been at a Brewers game with a friend and his family and was waiting to be picked up from their house. My parents rolled up in the minivan, they threw open the sliding door and out bounded Libby, an irrepressible and ridiculously exuberant puppy. Needless to say her inexhaustible energy and dynamic personality quickly won us over. Indeed, she has been a welcome addition to our family and my parents without hesitation think of her as their third child. We were blessed to have her be a part of our lives for so long and I am thankful for her ability to love, comfort and make us laugh.

It seems a happy coincidence that the day celebrating St Francis of Assisi is this coming Friday. St Francis was born into a wealthy family of merchants but as he matured became disillusioned and renounced his place becoming a monk dedicated to serving the poor. He founded a monastic order in the 13th century known as the Franciscans. It is an order predicated on mercy and kindness through service. He also developed a deep compassion for creation in its entirety. Indeed, the words from the great old hymn “All Creatures of our God and King” are credited to him. Francis had a profound sense of the interconnectedness of creation and its relation to God in a way that we modern Christians are only now beginning to rediscover. Through disciplines like ecology and climatology we are coming to understand just how tightly the web of life on this planet is nit together. We although powerful and innovative, are fellow creatures and are dependent upon God’s good creation.

Being a nature and outdoor enthusiast I have had the opportunity to see this reality first hand. The intricacies of creation and its superb design and craftsmanship point to a loving and thoughtful creator.  The book of Job says it best:

  But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. Job 12:7-10

The glory of our creator is attested to in the wonder of creation. The animals and plants do this by being what God created them to be and in so doing they glorify God. As we read in the text we have a thing or two to learn from the animals and plants who live for the God who gave them life.

At Central’s Sunday service on October 6th we will be holding a service to” Bless the Pets” to honor the animals that enrich our lives and brighten our days. Although she will have passed on by then, I will of course be bringing a picture of Libby to be a part of this special service. It seems a fitting way to honor a beloved member of our family and a faithful witness to the goodness of God.