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.

    

First Sermon based on Amos 8:4-7, Luke 16:1-13

Here is my first sermon from Sept. 22nd 2013. Enjoy!

 

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

There are a number of great reasons to become more familiar with the particularities of the Bible. It is a great source of daily encouragement and hope. It strengthens and challenges our faith. It teaches us about a loving and merciful God… It also enables you to avoid volunteering to preach on a tough judgment text during your first Sunday in a new pulpit. But alas some lessons are learned the hard way. So land mines, here we come! But enough complaining, onto the sermon.

When I read this text I can’t help but conjure up images of Ebenezer Scrooge gripped by paralyzing fear as he stares into the lonely chasm that will be his grave. He has come to understand that no one cares for him and in fact despises him. His life’s work of amassing a large fortune will come to naught. He will not be missed and will be quickly forgotten. I imagine this dishonest manager foresees a similar fate as he hears the stinging words of rebuke from his master. Interestingly he and Scrooge come to a similar conclusion. He needs to right the wrongs he has committed. And so he goes to each of his master’s debtors and cancels a significant portion of their debt to curry their favor. Now, lest you think he is further squandering or mismanaging the Master’s affairs it is important to note that the debt he is cancelling amounts to his own cut of the profits. That which he levied unfairly from his tenants is being returned with interest. For this the manager is commended by the master for acting shrewdly and prudently. Indeed the Master says: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” He goes on, turning to address the larger audience: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

Jesus hits us right between the eyes. He asks: “Have you been faithful, or dishonest in what you have been given? Are you to be trusted with the true riches?”

The prophet Amos doesn’t seem to think so. He declares: Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,
6 buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.”… Though these words are intended for the nation of Israel, it’s not hard to read them into our own context.

Indeed, I ran across an article the other day that discussed a plan in Columbia South Carolina to deal with the growing problem of homelessness. The plan did not include an expansion of services, nor did it seek to humanize this marginalized segment of society. No, the plan called for criminalizing homelessness. If passed, those found in violation of this new law have two “choices”. They either go to prison or can be bused to a mandatory “shelter” outside the city from which they cannot leave unless given permission by local authorities. The reason cited for this forced migration… It’s good for business… You see local business people are complaining that those people struggling to survive are scaring away customers the presence of the homeless is driving down sales and profits. It seems they are more than willing to trample the needy and do away with the poor.

While such actions in the name of profit are rarely this egregious I suspect we have all looked the other way at one time or another, chosen not to notice or have insulated ourselves from the reality of our broken world. The reality is that although Wall Street is booming, a record 46 million Americans are at or below the poverty line according to the latest US Census. That figure includes 1 out of 5 children.  We insulate ourselves from this reality I suspect because we are quite comfortable with the way things are and are afraid of losing our place. Or maybe we insulate ourselves because we don’t know what to do or are afraid to speak up. Or possibly we insulate ourselves because we suspect that we may be part of the problem.

Regardless of the reason, the bottom line is we have not been trustworthy with what we have been given. We have not been trustworthy what is not ours.   

Amos was frustrated that Israel was behaving in much the same way. They had forgotten where they had come from. They did not remember their heritage and how it was that they came into the Promised Land. The Israelites had been a people enslaved under a cruel Pharaoh in Egypt and had been delivered by God through the Red Sea and the Wilderness to a land that they could call their own. However, though they were to possess the land, it was not because of their own doing or work. Indeed we hear God’s Word to this newly liberated people in Deuteronomy 6:   “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, 11 houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, 12 be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”

This is what the manager forgot and what we all too often fail to remember. We like the Israelites forget that this creation was never ours to begin with, it is simply on loan. It is from the formless void that God brought about the good gifts of creation, the resources and the means from which our wealth comes. We are called merely to steward these gifts faithfully according to God’s good and gracious will. Therefore, to horde wealth for one’s own purpose is to dishonestly manage God’s creation. In so doing we do not trust in God’s goodness but instead in our own ability to garner resources. In the end we cannot serve God and money because by pursuing money we worship that which is made instead of the maker. Indeed, we are reminded in this text that hording wealth and resources is idolatrous. It puts us in the place of God as rulers of our own destiny. God cannot and will not be worshipped in this way.

Now…. Before you are burdened with a mountain of guilt, or more likely, send this presumptuous intern packing for St. Paul, I want to you to hear one more thing… You are enough, and you don’t need wealth or status to prove it. You are good, because that’s what God created you to be. You are trustworthy. Indeed God has already entrusted you with the true riches, the riches of His Kingdom, that no rust can tarnish and no moth can destroy. So live in the abundant promise of life from God and share in the goodness of creation with all of God’s children. Amen.

Bishop Eaton and the Future of the ELCA

As many of you know the ELCA has elected a new presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, the former bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. She will succeed Bishop Mark Hanson after his 12 years of faithful service. This of course is an exciting milestone for the ELCA and Lutherans in general as she will be the first female to hold the office of presiding bishop in any Lutheran denomination.

This past Sunday I led the adult forum and we discussed an article in the Pittsburgh Press Gazette covering the story of the election and speaking to the future of the ELCA. I recommend it to you if you have time the link is as follows: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/us/new-lutheran-bishop-elizabeth-eaton-focuses-on-gospel-699867/

Surprisingly, our discussion did not focus on Eaton’s gender, nor did it center on her support of the Human Sexuality Statement adopted in 2009. Instead we engaged the challenges that Eaton and the ELCA faces moving forward. As the article points out the ELCA, like most mainline Protestant denominations, are steadily declining in membership. Indeed, the average ELCA member is eligible for social security retirement benefits. In addition, many congregations are woefully under equipped to deal with the realities of an increasingly electronic and digital world. Eaton points out in the article that most people don’t look in the phone book anymore, they look for websites, which many Lutheran churches still do not have.

Clever tweets and flashy websites only go so far however. Indeed, Eaton was quick to emphasize the importance for congregations to reestablish their presence in the neighborhood. Not pretending to have all the answers but going out and listening; listening to stories and to needs and responding with the promise of the gospel.

We grappled with these challenges and how Central Lutheran Church was seeking to address them Central Lutheran is a textbook case of the larger trend in mainline Protestantism. Central is a Norwegian Lutheran Church established in 1904 by a determined group of immigrants. It steadily grew up until the 1960’s when church attendance and participation began to decline. The church now worships 100 on a Sunday. Not surprisingly a sea of grey hair gathers in the pews faithfully worshipping but ever fearful of the seemingly bleak future of the congregation. They wonder why people have left and not come back or why their new members are few and far between. They wonder what happened to those “Good Old Days”. As I discovered on Sunday though, these people are not naïve. They know that their website is basic. They know that their confirmation classes have dwindled to two or three each year, if that.

It was more difficult however to determine what to do about it. It is easy to update a website, but visibility only gets one so far. The tougher question however remains: How is Central Lutheran meaningfully engaging people? How are they speaking the hope of the gospel into people’s lives? The church is located in downtown Everett. This community has a disproportionately high rate of homelessness. In response, the church has set up a parking lot feed ministry in conjunction with other neighboring congregations to address the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness. They also have a low cost preschool available to the public to provide education for young children. The members gathered at the forum were quick to point to these ministries as their congregation’s response to the community’s need. However, I think they also were also aware of the short comings. Both programs kept those served at arm’s length. There is very little personal interaction between members and clients of these services. There was still a formidable barrier that prevented
those served from joining the worshipping community.

I recently finished reading a book entitled Crossing the Bar, Home by Another Way by Jim Johnson. Johnson is a former ELCA pastor turned bartender in Northwestern Montana. In his book he speaks to the mind set of those who find themselves outside of the church community. It is not that they are not interested in God or spirituality. On the contrary, they may well have a great deal to say about God as Johnson recalls in his numerous stories and anecdotes. The issue is that those who come to a bar or some such place find no other place in which they are accepted for who they are. They carry a deep abiding shame that is all too often reinforced in faith communities that shun those who struggle with character flaws, the deep pain of divorce, or the prison of addiction. The church community to them is not a place of welcome and graceful acceptance. Rather it is a place in which their sins are exposed, judged and where they are ultimately rejected and dismissed. It is no surprise then that Jim’s customers have no interest in darkening the doorstep of a place of worship.

While I cannot speculate on the thoughts of every unchurched person in Everett, I suspect that the weight of shame and self loathing has stopped a good many from finding their way to a church. Perhaps it is the embarrassment of homelessness, a struggle with cocaine or perhaps the stigma of a teenage pregnancy. In any case they need to hear that the God that they have come to know, a rule maker and judge is quite simply fiction. It is not the God we believe in and profess.

A wise seminary professor of mine once said, “God doesn’t make junk!” That is to say we are created in God’s image and are his good creation. As is it is written “God saw all He had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) Indeed we believe in a God that does not make worthless or defective people but rather treasures them, so much so that He recreates them anew in His own Son Christ Jesus, remaking us once more and for all time in His perfect image. This is the gospel. This is the hope we have to share with those whom we encounter.

So how will Central Lutheran Church respond to the gospel in this new time and place? It’s hard to say for sure what it will look like. However, I suspect the answer lies in deep listening; Listening to stories, stories of deep hurt and loss and shame, the stories of people longing to feel worthy, longing to feel whole. Most of all, it is important to expect to be surprised as we encounter God at work in the lives of people outside the walls of the church.

Week 1: The Adventure Begins

Well, I am wrapping up my first official week here at Central Lutheran Church. Though Pastor Jeff warned me of the need for my own personal Kleenex box, I have found the transition into intern life to be tear free and relatively easy. I have my own office, desk, phone, and even labeled parking spot. I have hit the big time now! After settling into my office on Tuesday I have been working on familiarizing myself with the workings of the congregation and the community. Central Lutheran is a relatively small congregation worshiping about 100 on a Sunday but they have a large impact on the community. Some of their better known ministries include their care packages for local merchant marines and also their parking lot dinner program aimed at feeding the numerous people experiencing homelessness in the Everett area.
This week I have participated in a council meeting, music/worship planning, and a clergy text study. The text study was quite a treat as a number of pastors from varying denominations came together at Trinity College to discuss the texts for this coming week. I am grateful for this time to come together with colleagues to share in the joys and challenges of ministry, and their collective insights will undoubtedly inform my sermon preparation. I will also be leading an adult education hour this year and hope to bring some new insights for consideration.
The highlight of my week however has been the opportunity to get to know the members of the congregation and have them share their experiences with me. Over the course of numerous conversations I have gained insight into their involvement in the church and the wider community. Most importantly I was allowed to see the church through their eyes, where it came from, what is means to them now and where they see it going into the future. Having time this week to simply share stories has been a wonderful blessing and I hope that it will continue as the year progresses.
Well that’s about all I have for now. I will try and get pictures up in the next few days or so. As I said this blogging thing is new so please bear with me!
Blessings on your week(end)!