Slippery Strands of Faith

Faith is a funny thing.

For some faith is just a lifelong journey beginning with the waters of baptism. It is a beloved relationship. Spirituality may not be something completely understood, but there is nowhere else we are likely to be found on a Sunday morning than right here with our eyes fixed on the cross.

For others, faith is like a wrestling match – trying to reconcile all the pain and suffering in the world with the belief in a loving God. Worship and time spent with the Scriptures is equal parts soothing for the spirit and fuel for the flames of our questioning as faith is both loved and something with which one struggles.

For others, faith is a lot like a love story. At some point or another, this person falls deeply in love with the Gospel – perhaps through some life-changing experience. But like all love stories, after the initial swooning and falling and deep, sweeping emotion, and after all the fire of first passion has burned away, hopefully there is still enough heat left in the embers to keep the flame alive over the years.

Faith is different for each of us. There are different reasons that bring you and I to this place each week to think about God and thank God and show our devotion to God and wrestle with God.


Many famous words have been written about faith to try to convey the many different facets and understandings of faith.

Martin Luther wrote: God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything, and whoever does not have faith will have nothing.

Oswald Chambers wrote: Faith for my deliverance is not faith in God. Faith means, whether I am visibly delivered or not, I will stick to my belief that God is love. There are some things only learned in a fiery furnace.

And my favorite is from E. Stanley Jones: Faith is not merely your holding on to God–it is God holding on to you. He will not let you go!

I really like Nicodemus, the Pharisee leader of the Jews central to our Gospel for today. Here was a man who was publicly a religious leader, kind of supposed to have matters of a religious nature figured out. So when you think about it that way, perhaps it is no surprise that he comes to Jesus by night to ask him questions. He has seen the amazing things Jesus can do, he has seen his miracles and he wants to know more. He is drawn to Jesus.

To tell you the truth, I’m so jealous of Nicodemus. I covet what he gets to do here – because he gets to share this quiet moment with Jesus and ask him the deepest questions of his heart. Just he and Jesus, alone together, sharing in conversation about the kingdom.

And I love how Nicodemus peppers him with questions and Jesus is trying to explain his answers and Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” And Jesus says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Because I know that if I were ever to have a quiet evening conversation with Jesus, I would be asking Jesus questions like this and many others and eventually he would say to me something like that, too – “Ruth, are you a pastor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church, and yet you do not understand these things?”

But I am certain he would say it with a twinkle in his eye – because he would know already how desperately little I understand. He would know already how slippery the strands of faith can feel on my fingertips some days. He would already know that every day I long to feel closer to him and my only comfort is the knowledge that he is closer to me than my own heartbeat – whether I feel him near or not.

There’s an old story that illustrates this thought pretty well. I’m sure you may have heard it before. One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Our vision is small and we can only see so far. This life is such that we are oftentimes only given glimpses of the glory of God. We spot him in those moments of grace or deep truth or mercy, when we witness true, selfless love, the perfection of sunlight rippling on the water or the scent of a baby’s cheek next to our face. We catch glimpses of God all the time. And yet, for those countless times when we do not, there is something else – and it is quite something. It is a promise.

Jesus and Nicodemus, I don’t know how long they were able to speak that evening, but we know that after spending a great deal of time talking about the questions in Nicodemus’ heart, Jesus finally tells him what it all comes down to.

It’s a verse we all can probably quote by heart, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

But it doesn’t stop there – praise God it doesn’t stop there. Verse 17 reads, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I think about the context of this conversation, it is so particularly beautiful. Nicodemus, a man coming to Jesus in secret at night, because he doesn’t want everyone to know how he questions and how he feels a desperate need to know Jesus more deeply – and Jesus tries to explain all these inexplicable things to him patiently and with care – but finally he sums up everything for Nicodemus and for us saying, “I didn’t come to condemn you, I came to save you.”

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our questions, or for our lack of faith. He came to love us and save us in spite of those things. Although faith may feel like wandering in the dark much of the time, may we never doubt that Jesus is right there in the darkness beside us, closer than we could ever know.

When my mother was dying back in 2011, I was surprised the moments of comfort that would come. Of course, none of them could take away the pain that I was going to lose her, but they helped me catch glimpses that even though I had to travel this road of her death and the grief to come, I was not forsaken. I would be okay. Mom would be okay. I wouldn’t know how until I journeyed into that unknown – but we would be okay.

And out of nowhere, the lyrics of old hymns that my family used to sing together when my brother and I were children, those lyrics would run through my mind over and over. “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul.”

I took those moments of peace and comfort as the gifts from God I know they were. I held tight to them and hold them close still. There have been times in life when God has seemed remote to me – but that was not one of those times. And I know that peace wasn’t given to me because I am good but because God is good.

Brothers and sisters, the good news for today is that no matter how you feel about your faith or how near or far God seems to you, he is here. God is journeying with you and holding you close – and God will not fail to remind you of that just when you need it most.

Those Kids Are Our Kids (Sermon from 5/3/15)

When I was in my early twenties I traveled for a couple years with Youth Encounter – an organization that sends out teams of 5-7 people to churches throughout the United States and other countries and the teams put on programs to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ through music and story and puppet shows.  The first year I traveled in the northern U.S. and in my second year I was assigned to an international team that traveled the eastern half of the U.S. and two countries in West Africa.

I was overjoyed to be a part of this – and especially the opportunity to go to Africa.  I just couldn’t believe my good fortune.  I was so excited to experience a place so far away and so different from where I had grown up.  And I can’t say enough good about the months I was there and how that time affected my life and my outlook.  It turned out to be so good for many reasons but particularly because of the things that were difficult.  And what was most difficult?

Well, I’ve always been the kind of person that enjoys time alone – love going for walks by myself, exploring things on my own.  I love people, too, but as a die-hard introvert, I just get energy back by time spent in quiet and alone.  Because I was traveling with this group of five people all the time, my alone time was to escape whenever I could and go for a long walk by myself.

But I found as soon as we got to Ghana that I no longer blended in anymore when I was out on my walks alone.  Men would call out to me “obruni, obruni” – the word for white person.   Children would come up and touch my skin or my hair and then run away giggling.  Often people would just start walking with me because as I came to find out, there it was seen as simply brazen or an invitation for trouble for a woman to go out walking alone.  I could no longer enjoy my walks because I was suddenly a spectacle with my white skin and being a woman in that culture.  I slipped into a good amount of culture shock in the first few weeks there and I was upset that I couldn’t just enjoy my time there without feeling so noticed and judged because of the color of my skin and my gender. 

Now contrast my story of having my world upset for an exceedingly short period of time because of being a white girl traveling in Ghana with this story:  

Chris Lollie, a black father, gets off work at Cosettas, an upscale Italian restaurant in St. Paul and goes to pick up his kids from school.  He gets there a little early and so he sits down on a bench in the skyway nearby.  After a few minutes, he gets up to walk toward the school to get his kids and he is stopped by an officer who asks for his identification.  He objects because he has done absolutely nothing. His interaction with the officers is recorded in a cell phone video and we hear him respectfully objecting to being asked for his identification when he hadn’t done anything wrong – he had only been sitting in a public area, alone, waiting for his kids.  Because he refuses to show his identification, within just a few minutes, this man is tased, handcuffed, and arrested.  We hear him being led away from the scene, frustrated and angry because now there was no one to pick up his kids, he would likely miss work, and all of this happened because he sat down in a public area and someone reported a black man loitering.

Stories like this cause all sorts of reactions.  My first reaction is to think about how I am certain I could go sit in a public area in a skyway in St. Paul all day long and not have anyone ask me for my identification.  There are those whose first reaction is to quickly jump to the defense of the police – and why shouldn’t we?  They are here to defend and help and I’ve only known truly great and honorable officers of the law.  But there are those who hear this story and nod their heads in recognition because they live it all the time.  They often experience being treated differently, more noticed, and oftentimes treated with general suspicion or judged more harshly, because of the color of their skin.

I always like to keep my letter of call hanging in my office so I am reminded daily why I am here.  The letter summarizes the foundation of everything I am to do in your midst – and it boils down to these key things:

  1. Preach and teach the Word of God
  2. Administer the Sacraments
  3. Lead Worship
  4. Provide Pastoral Care
  5. To impart knowledge of the ELCA and its’ wider ministry
  6. To encourage people to prepare for ministry of the gospel
  7. To guide the congregation in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed
  8. To speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed

None of these are likely surprising to any of you – they seem like right and good things for a pastor to be doing with her time.  However, over the course of my 16 years as a pastor I have been surprised to realize how complicated the last one, the speaking in behalf of the poor and oppressed, becomes at times.

Mostly because being a white, middle-class, educated, mainline Protestant who has served only congregations made up of predominantly white, middle-class, educated, mainline Protestants, it’s really easy to put the blinders on to what is going on in the rest of the world.  And we get so busy with our own stuff – we have all our own obligations and worries and victories and defeats to be concerned about right here – and all those things matter, too, right?  Let Ferguson worry about Ferguson and let Baltimore worry about Baltimore and we’ll worry about our own thing right here. 

We may never say something like that out loud but sometimes that seems to become the unspoken sentiment in too many communities.  Not meaning any harm, of course, yet also not going out of our way to care too much, or offering our opinion on a matter without ever really listening to the voice of the oppressed. 

But I was convicted by what Julia Blount wrote about on her blog this week, she said, “If you (as a white person) are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.”

If you have been watching the news lately you know that rioting broke out in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray who died on April 12th shortly after being arrested. The facts about what happened that day are still being revealed but what we know is that he was alive when he entered into a police transport vehicle handcuffed and  when he came out he was comatose and his spinal cord was nearly severed.  His death fanned the recurring flames of unrest in our country regarding issues of race.  Over the last nine months we’ve listened to the reports from Ferguson to North Charleston to Baltimore and the people who live in these cities and others like them cry out that for every occasion we hear about on the news there are hundreds of other stories that aren’t reported. 

So what can we do as followers of Jesus Christ who reject oppression and long for justice for all people – yet we do not live in places like Baltimore or Ferguson?

The first very important thing we must do is listen.  Listen to the stories of people of color.  Those of us who have grown up white in our culture have no idea what it is like to live as a person of color.  We talk too much and listen too little.  We offer our opinions too often on things we know too little about.

Our scripture reading from Acts this morning is an interesting text but there was one part of it that jumped out at me this week as I read it over and over.  Imagine that you are this wealthy, educated Ethiopian official. You are riding in a chariot and reading Isaiah off a delicately copied manuscript. You are pondering the mysteries of God when some stranger appears next to you. This stranger is running along next to the chariot, struggling to keep up, panting as he says the words, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

What kind of question is that?  You would think the Ethiopian should ask his driver to speed up and leave this stranger in the wilderness. Instead, this powerful, wealthy, official asks an important question of faith: “How can I unless someone guides me?”

Indeed, how can I understand the situation of my neighbor unless I hear their pain? How can I unless someone guides me? How can I unless God gives me the grace and patience and humility to hear the witness of those the world tramples?

We must pay attention.  Pay attention to the news.  Pay attention to the stories being written.  Pay attention to what’s happening not just in our own context but in the context of our whole country and world.

I went much of my early life truly believing that racism wasn’t an issue in our country anymore.  I knew everyone was supposed to have equal rights and I knew that I had friends of other races so as far as I was concerned it was all good. I don’t know if I was particularly ignorant or if I was a typical, self-absorbed young, white, educated, mainline protestant who went to a nice Lutheran college – but in these times of social media and 24-hour news coverage and increasingly blended societies we have absolutely no reason to stay uninformed.    What happens in Ferguson, what happens in Baltimore, it affects us. 

It does.  And It must. As President Obama said this week, “[what if] we don’t just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don’t just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped, but we’re paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids.”

That is the heart of how our Christian faith compels us to think meditate on matters such as this.  We can’t read scriptures such as our second reading from I John that is absolutely peppered with words about love and how we show our love for God by how we love one another and then ignore the suffering and hurt of others.

We can’t listen to Jesus in the Gospel for today talking about how God is glorified by the fruit we bear and how we follow Jesus with our lives and then pretend that everything is well because at least our own city isn’t burning – it is some city far away.  At least it isn’t my children in harm’s way – it’s some other mother’s children in harm’s way.

Sisters and brothers, this gospel of Jesus Christ compels our hearts to break for what breaks God’s heart.  And we have to be brave to let that happen, to let ourselves be wounded by the stories of suffering and injustice and at the same time trust that by hearing them we will gain new understandings and lift up to God our sighs and prayers – the kind that can help us begin to build bridges instead of walls wherever we are.

Joe

I was not surprised when I heard Joe’s heart stopped beating.  We all knew that his heart beat in time with Audrey’s heart and when she died a few months earlier, it seemed so had the spark of his own life.  He spent the last few months journeying through the motions of his days.  He sat in church as usual, but without her by his side he always looked a bit lost.  He welcomed us into his home to sing Christmas carols but he wept as we did so – everything reminded him of her.

When I would come to pray with Joe, I told him how when I lost my mom it helped to write down my thoughts about her.  Joe was raised to believe his pastors had wisdom and so he listened to me.  He poured his time and tears into writing down their love story.  With his failing eyesight he recorded the treasured sum of his days with her – his words spoke of true love, pure and sweet. They were married sixty years.

Joe had always known Audrey was the one.  Joe told his friend, Earl, that he was going to marry Audrey shortly before he even asked her out on their first date.  Sure enough, by September of that year they were married.

What followed was a good life – not an easy life, but a good life made beautiful by two people who knew how to be thankful for all they had, to see the blessings all around them, and to pour out generosity and positivity to all who knew them.

I was Joe and Audrey’s pastor the last five years.  I visited Audrey in the hospital and at home many times as her health failed. I presided at her funeral where her grandchildren sang beautiful songs to honor her memory. My sons and I visited her grave often and picked wildflowers to adorn her resting place.

I moved away to a new call at a church in Minnesota just a few weeks before Joe died.  He had been hospitalized with a heart condition and I came to see him in the hospital up until it was time for the moving van to come.  The last time I spoke with Joe it was right before he had a major surgery.  I told him I loved him and I would see him later.  I meant after the surgery was over but he never woke up again while I was still in Texas.

Nobody tells you when you become a pastor how your heart will break for your congregation.  Nobody tells you how you will love them like family and no matter how much you might like to treat your work like it is just a job, it is never just a job.

Today some other pastor gets to commend Joe to God’s care and keeping.  Today some other pastor gets to gather with this family I grew to love and remind them of God’s eternal promises.  While I am certain God has called me to be right where I am, it doesn’t change how hard this is for me.  I want to be counted among those who grieve.  Because I do.  So much.

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face shine upon him and be gracious unto him.  The Lord look upon him with favor and give him peace.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.