Okay, God, What Next? (a sermon from June 28, 2015)

I was ordained almost sixteen years ago.  I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota.  My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached.  Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination.  My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders.  Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee.  It was a gorgeous September day.

A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.

There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office.  I arrived early – the sun was just coming up.  I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint.  I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am.  Now what.

Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do.  But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.

But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”

It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.”  Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own.  I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that.  I need God’s guidance in all things.  I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind.  Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it.  So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.

What am I going on about here?  I don’t know.  It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important.  Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang. 

But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal.  This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it.  In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.

So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me.  He loved the fire and brimstone.  He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side.  And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace. 

I didn’t understand this.  To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God.  Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”    I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are.  Period.  From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay.  He was so scared to tell me.  I hated that he was so scared to tell me.  But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing.  He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker.  They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore.  They would distance themselves from him.  And many did. 

Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out.  All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves.  I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever.  But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves.  And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.

I knew it.  I knew it like you know a good melon.  I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant.  I just knew. 

But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon.  You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant.  You just know. 

In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic.  Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice.  I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010.  In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them.  They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA.  They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction.  About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown. 

It was so hard for all of us.  I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it.  I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay. 

But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people. 

Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:

Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.  Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.   Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.  And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.  The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things? 

How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before.  And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today?  A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed.  A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks.  A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights.  All these things seem like healing to me.  All these things seem holy to me.

People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion.  I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too.  I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other.  As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move.  As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church.  If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too.  That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.

This is what we need.  We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us.  Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end.  That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all.  That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?”  The answer is always going to be grace.  Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth.  Amazing Grace.

A More Honest Liturgy (post by Misuzu)

A heartfelt liturgy for these troubled times…

Living in the Tension

The white evangelical church’s relatively more organized response to national tragedies such as Wednesday’s massacre at Emanuel AME Church is noticeable.  The response could have been worse. It has been worse.

One thing I spotted on the Twitters was a link to onechurchliturgy.com. I clicked, anticipating a liturgy that would unite the church in calling out the sins of our culture and center those who are suffering.

It’s a beautifully written liturgy, but when I didn’t see a single reference to race, power, and privilege, I knew we could do better. I sent it out to my girlfriends, and a writer friend Kathy Khang went immediately to work, revising the liturgy to name specific pains and groans.  Here is our revised and hopefully more honest liturgy.

A LAMENT FOR THE TRAGEDY IN CHARLESTON

(appropriate for multicultural and non-black homogeneous congregations)

[Leader]

We stand before you today, oh Lord

Hearts broken, eyes…

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The Little Ominous Church in the Vale

Yesterday the boys and I went to find Bethania Lutheran church outside of Perley, MN.  I heard about this congregation from one of my current parishioners who grew up in Perley.  Since the boys and I were already in Moorhead for some other errands, it wasn’t far to get to Bethania from there.

We could see the short, weather-worn steeple of Bethania from far off as we approached on the flat country roads.  The church is set far back from the gravel road and has a thin driveway leading to it surrounded by corn fields. A small cemetery sits behind the church and the cemetery grounds were mowed and looked to be well-kept.

However, the church building, which closed in 1990, has since fallen into complete disrepair. Of course, I had to see if the door was unlocked and it was.  The sun was setting – and granted, it was a bit ominous going in to this abandoned, empty building far off a gravel road to take pictures. I shrugged off those feelings as being merely the remnants of a few too many scary movies.  Likely the only thing I had to fear was seeing a rat or perhaps falling through a rotting floorboard.  The boys were totally creeped out by going inside but they also didn’t want to stay outside and be away from me in the gathering darkness.  So we all crept inside to get a quick look.

How the church is set up, one can’t just open the door and look in and see the altar.  There are some steps right inside the doorway that go up to the level of the sanctuary. When I got to the top of the stairs, I was quite surprised to see the altar, hymnals, Bibles, chairs – so much just left behind and rotting.  Someone had placed some of the chairs in a large circle with a hymnal on each open to the page of a particular evening service.  Also, in the middle of the floor, a cross been constructed out of Bibles.  Everywhere there were piles of trash, cloth, broken glass, and smashed relics of this church’s life.

I took a picture of the whole sanctuary and then walked up close to the beautiful, relatively unscathed altar that bore a painting of Jesus on the cross and in Norwegian underneath it reads, “Blessed are those who hear God’s Word and obey it.” We were probably inside the church all of 3 minutes and didn’t even attempt to go up in the balcony or look in any side rooms. I like abandoned places but it was all really was a little too eerie to linger.  We left and then took just a few more pictures outside and ran to the car with seemingly a billion mosquitos chasing us.

I didn’t think much more about it.  I was glad that we had found the church and I planned to go back sometime during the daylight.

However, I had the most unsettling dreams last night – dreams filled with violence and rage and fear.  Usually, I only have dreams like that if I eat too much pizza or nachos before bed – but last night I didn’t even eat all my calories for the day, or a drop of alcohol.  And I didn’t wake up at all during the night – which is unusual for me.  I slept the sleep of a dead woman and when I opened my eyes I couldn’t place what day it was or where I was for a disturbing minute.  My first inclination was to go check on my children to make sure they were safe.  They were.

But something hung in the air. Why did I feel as though I had been visited by something dark? What had been different about the night before that was unlike any other night?  Could it be something about that church – that abandoned, sad, broken down church building and our few minutes there?

The only other time I have felt this same way was long ago when my seminary friend, Lisa, and I were walking in downtown Minneapolis and we stopped in a store that sold all sorts of cool stuff – incense and icons and trinkets of all kinds.  While in there, I felt the most oppressive and frightening feeling – just like there was some evil, something sinister lurking in that space.  I didn’t say anything but when we left, Lisa said to me, “Did you feel that in there?”  She had felt it, too!  We talked about it and the only way we could describe it was to say we felt a sense of evil there.

This morning, as I was thinking about all this and the dreams I had during the night – I found myself remembering what Martin Luther wrote about yelling at the darkness, “I am baptized!” when he felt tormented by temptations.  It was his proclamation against any evil that might be attempting to surround him.  So I quietly said the same thing in my kitchen this morning.  “I am baptized.  You can’t touch me, evil spirits.  You have no claim over me. I know the One to whom I belong.”  Perhaps it sounds dramatic?  I guess that is why Lutherans don’t talk like this very often.  We like to keep quiet about our demons and usually call them by other names.

I’ve always been the same way – I am not one who thinks much about ghost stories or evil spirits.  It’s not that I don’t believe they exist – I very much think they do exist.  The Bible talks about them. One has only to turn on the news or talk with a neighbor to know evil happening everywhere in the world. Also, many of the things we wrestle with in life – depression, sadness – these are their own form of “evil” with which some of us have to wrestle and we find help through the faith and medicine.  But rather than spend too much time considering evil spirits, I would rather give my energy to the things that are living and to entrust the dead to God’s care and keeping, and trust that the Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than any evil spirit.

That’s what I’ve always done. In fact, it almost seems like a philosophy that was taught to me by my stoic Norwegian Lutheran parents.  Don’t think or talk too much about the bad stuff, focus on the good stuff.  If we don’t talk about the bad stuff maybe it will go away.  It seems like we have done the same thing with thinking about evil in our world – we treat it like just a loud, troublesome vagrant on the corner who maybe if we don’t meet his eye, he will leave us alone.

However, this philosophy has done so much damage to so many.  Ignoring evil has never made it go away.  There’s a lot that can be said about this but I won’t do that now.  That will be another post.

Anyway, there’s no way to say just what it was I experienced last night. Likely it was nothing more than the building stirred up a few too many memories of the Blair Witch Project.  Probably it’s a perfectly peaceful place where God’s people used to gather.

But I don’t think I will ever go back.

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Parables and Promises (a sermon from June 14, 2015)

Well, it is summertime – and summer means all sorts of things.  It means Bible School and there are beautiful days to be out on the lakes, it means family vacations and time with friends, it means mosquitos and woodticks, and it means that we are to the season of Pentecost in which we get to hear Jesus speaking in parables.

A parable is a short story that teaches something.   It is different than a fable because fables usually have animals or plants or inanimate objects or forces of nature as characters, but parables usually have human characters.  A parable is similar to an analogy.

Let’s take a look at some parts of the parable of the mustard seed.  In the gospel of Mark it says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds but when it is sown it grows to become the greatest of the shrubs.  Similarly, in the gospel of Matthew –  first, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its’ branches.  And the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

I have to admit that for much of my life, I’ve read these parables as something like a proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings” or “don’t judge something based on its size.” Makes sense on a superficial level, as each parable talks about something small – a mustard seed or a bit of yeast – growing into something big.

Until we remember, however, that actually – neither mustard seed nor yeast was viewed positively in Jesus’ world. Mustard was a weed, and farmers loathed it. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Similarly, In Jesus’ time, yeast or leavening was something that people understood as unclean or evil. Unlike the handy packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients.

So…why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed or something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life? Well, it may be because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined.

And God’s kingdom is like that!  The Holy Spirit is far more potent than we’d imagined and it usually spreads in surprising ways, always in ways that are not controlled, oftentimes even in ways that disturb us and far from the way we think it should be. 

Think about it – a rag tag group of disciples, most of them probably teenagers, none of them professionally trained or educated – chosen by Jesus to be the first to go and share his word and make disciples of all nations.

Think about it – we could listen to the best public speaker in the world give a carefully crafted sermon about the deepest meanings of a text, but it would most likely not be as moving as when we hear the words of scripture being read out loud plainly and simply by a young child.

Think about it – of all the books written over time and distributed by great publishing houses – books written by great minds and backed by powerful corporations and lots of money to distribute them – still, it is the Holy Bible that is most printed and most quoted book by far.  Even people who claim to be atheists can quote scripture – because there is something about this Word that sticks, that captivates even those who want to call it hogwash.

It doesn’t make any sense and it never has and yet we who have experienced it know it to be true.  God’s Word isn’t just words. 

It reminds me of a book called How to Do Things with Words, – it is by J. L. Austin who makes the claim that words don’t simply describe things but actually make things happen. In other words, words aren’t merely descriptive but are evocative, even creative. When two persons say, “I do” in a marriage ceremony, for instance, they are not merely describing the relationship they are entering into but actually creating it. And when some says “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon us. Words, in short, are powerful. For this reason, Austin contends that you ultimately know what a word means not from what it says, but from what it does.

David Lose, president of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia expands on this – he says, “Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we preach and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that continues to change lives. And sometimes the only way to get beyond our head and into our hearts is to, as Emily Dickenson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And so parables come at us sideways, catching us by surprise to take our breath away at the beauty and depth of God’s promises.”

Words can do that!  And always and especially, God’s Word.  I’ve had that in my mind all week.  We could take all sorts of time to dissect what each parable means and the imagery Jesus used – but he used images and experiences people could understand in these parables so that we would know that the value to be found in these parables isn’t something we have to dig deeply for – rather our understanding of them comes from how the words fall on our ears, how we experience them.   

And perhaps mustard seeds and yeast and treasures buried in fields were great images for the times in which Jesus was teaching, they probably are still, but for those of us who love words, and I am one of those people, I wondered how it would be if we were to take a cue from Jesus and construct a few of our own parables.  How would that sound for each of us to try to describe those moments we have glimpsed the breaking in of God’s own kingdom into our daily lives?  I thought I would try my hand at that this week.  How’s this:

The kingdom of God is like a little boy who cannot sit still and is infinitely more interested in his red balloon than listening to the lesson or singing the songs in Vacation Bible School –and yet, when you ask him to tell you the Bible stories from the week, he knows every one of them in order.

The kingdom of heaven is like a small group of people gathered at the graveside of their friend.  Ancient words of scripture are read and as hot summer breezes move like a brush through the grass and the trees, they whisper that even in death, all things are being made new.

The kingdom of God is like when you are dead tired after a three days of Bible school but then you hear a small child as she walks by you in the grocery store singing the words to one of the songs she learned and the lyrics are, “My heart will sing no other Name, no other Name, Jesus.” 

Or one more:  The kingdom of heaven is like the people of God gathering together – and some are happy, and some are sad, and some are angry, and some are full of faith, and some hardly believe, and some are tired, and some are old, and some are young, and some are rich and some are poor, and some are stressed out, and some are content – they all come together hungry for different things, but they come to Jesus’ table, and all are fed.

Prayer for today:  Dear Lord, be near to us this day and in all our days.  Inspire us with your Word, give us strength and energy to serve You and love one another.  Help us to trust you are with us always in all ways.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

Saron Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church, rural Audubon, MN

Saron Lutheran Church was organized in 1889 and closed its’ doors in 1960 due to lack of members.  However, its’ cemetery grounds still remain on a beautiful, quiet hill surrounded by fields but its’ building was moved about twenty miles away to another location where it is used for worship during the summer and for weddings.  (It is now called Chapel on the Hill and is non-denominational)

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The bell from Saron Lutheran was destroyed when thieves tried to steal it.  Now it is all that remains of the church in the Saron Lutheran (Hamden) cemetery.  The bell is inscribed in Norwegian with the name of the church and the verse from John 15:12 (Love one another as I have loved you).

If you want to find this cemetery, head north out of Audubon, MN on highway 13.  When the road turns to gravel, take the first left.  The cemetery will be one mile ahead on your left.

saron angel  This sweet statue sleeps next the grave of a baby buried at Saron Lutheran Cemetery.

Letter to a Colleague (On Leaving the Parish) – beautiful reflection written by Peter Boullata

Held In The Light

So it seems I’m not alone among our colleagues. This year, there are fewer available ministers than there are Unitarian Universalist congregations seeking interim ministers. The reasons cited for this situation include a bumper crop of retirees and a fair number of ministers who are leaving the parish.

And I am one of them.

There was a time when celebrity clergy were publishing memoirs about “leaving church” and we both rolled our eyes at that. Thanks for the vote of confidence, friend, and for dissing the institution we are pouring our lives out for.

And yet here I am reflecting publicly on my reasons for leaving my current parish ministry as I move on into something else. Not leaving ministry, and certainly not “leaving church,” just going back to school to get what I need to do ministry in a different setting.

Part of it, for me, is being spooked…

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