Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

If Not Now

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

I could sum up the gospel for this Sunday in one sentence. Here it is:

We are each given gifts from God, and we are expected to do something with those gifts in order to grow them, however we can – not for the benefit of only ourselves, but for the benefit of our community and world.

Boom.

But I ought to break it down a little more than that – so here we go:

First – we are each given gifts from God:

We might notice or feel occasionally that someone else’s gifts seem to be bigger or more interesting than ours, but spending too much time thinking about someone else’s gifts rather than our own is never very helpful.

This counts for both material gifts and the gifts of talents.  A professor of mine told a story of going to see a talented pianist play. He was blown away by her performance, so much so that he and his wife decided to go again the next night. But he said he noticed that something began to change in him – while at first he was just appreciating the music and enjoying being in awe of her talent, in time something shifted and during the second performance he began to feel bad. He used to play piano. What if he had kept up with it? Here was this lady with so much talent and a concert hall of people wanting to see her play. He couldn’t do anything like that. He began to feel worse and worse about himself and more and more jealous of her.

He was surprised at himself that he felt such strong negative feelings, but he summed it up in saying that all of us can be guilty of coveting in our own way if we begin to focus too much on what someone else has rather than on what we have.

Do you ever do that?  You are perfectly satisfied with your car, it runs well, it has heat, it goes forward and backward – it’s a fine car. But then your friend gets a new car that is shinier, has heated seats, a sunroof, maybe video screens in the seats for the kids – and suddenly your car seems a bit shabby.

Or maybe you are proud of the work you are doing in your career, you work hard and you give your best to it, you feel a real sense of satisfaction and meaning in it. But then you notice someone, maybe someone you know well, getting a promotion just like the kind you have dreamed of, or maybe he’s getting interviewed on the news as an expert in your field – and suddenly you feel small and wonder why your work isn’t being noticed in the same way.

It’s hard in moments like that to know exactly what to do. Sure, there is room for being inspired by the success of others and letting it inspire us to work harder, but we have to be careful to monitor exactly what we are working for.  I’ll come back to that….

When we feel the gremlin of comparison starting to bug us, I am convinced the best antidote is thankfulness. Start listing to yourself all the blessings you do have. Get your focus off the object of your jealousy and back onto all that God has given you. Concern yourself with those things, because those are your talents.

Now, what are you doing with them?

That’s the next part. We are given gifts in order to do something with them, to grow them, to experiment with them, to change our community and world with them in ways only we can.

This takes some bravery – because if we worry that our gifts aren’t all that spectacular to start with, there is the temptation to hide them, bury them, keep them a bit secret so that others won’t see we only have what we have.

A friend of mine who loved to write put all her spare time into writing – it was a book about her experiences as a music teacher. I can’t tell you how her face used to light up when she would talk about the latest story she was relaying, how her piece of work was taking shape. The only thing was that she kept revising it, would never let anyone see it because it “wasn’t ready yet.” Years and years went by and when I talked to her I would always ask her how her book was coming and she would say, “still working on it.” But she talked about it less and less. It’s like the fire in her eyes went out about the project. I always wondered if it was because she lingered with it too long and never let it out into the world. This friend of mine died from cancer about seven years ago and I often thought about that manuscript she was working on. What happened to it? And who might have been touched, moved, or inspired by that book if she had stopped revising it, stopped stalling, and just put it out into the world?

The time is now to share what God has given you. Who you are, your story, your abilities, your unique, quirky ideas, they matter. How can you work a bit harder this week to take exactly what God has given you and grow something new, bigger, different, interesting out of it?

And do that not just for yourself, but for your community and world. That’s the third part. And it is so important – because our efforts grow empty pretty quickly if we are only seeking recognition or gain for ourselves.

So as we work hard to develop what God has given us, it’s good to pause now and then and monitor, observe, and reflect upon why we are doing what we are doing. Are we working so that others will notice us and compliment us, reward us with money or prestige? Or are we working so that we can make the world better, help our neighbors, be followers of Jesus?

I was remembering a story I heard about nine women who live in Tennessee and call themselves the 9 Nanas – they gather at 4 am to begin their daily routine. It’s a mission that all begins with baked goods.

Over the next three hours, the 9 Nanas whip up hundreds of pound cakes. And then, before anyone gets as much as a glimpse of them, they’ll disappear back into their daily lives. Even the UPS driver, who picks up hundreds of packages at a time, has no clue what these women are doing. They are working on a plan that began 35 years ago.

Back then they had decided to find ways to set aside a bit of money each month, pool it together, and then find ways to help others. They soon had about $400 each month they were setting aside without their husbands knowing – and then when they heard about a widow or a single mom who needed a little help, they’d step in and anonymously pay a utility bill or buy some new clothes for the children. They bought supplies for the local women’s shelter, a new refrigerator or stove for the family that just had a house fire – they did everything anonymously and always were keeping their ears to the ground to find the next people they could help.

When their husbands found out what they were doing, they offered to help. Eventually they told their grown children and the children encouraged their mothers to start selling their pound cakes online, so they could raise money to help even more people. It wasn’t long before they were receiving more than 100 orders in a day.

These days, the 9 Nanas are able to take on even bigger projects, given their online success. In the last 35 years, the 9 Nanas have contributed nearly $900,000 to their local community…and it all began with just the desire to help, and the money and energy they had.

We are each given gifts from God, and we are expected to do something with those gifts in order to grow them, however we can – not for the benefit of only ourselves, but for the benefit of our community and world.

What will you do?

This week?

Today?

What will you do in Jesus’ name?  

 

If Not Now

By Carrie Newcomer

If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.

I see sorrow and trouble in this land
I see sorrow and trouble in this land
Although there will be struggle we’ll make the change we can.
If not now, tell me when.

I may never see the promised land.
I may never see the promised land.
And yet we’ll take the journey
And walk it hand in hand
If not now, tell me when.

If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.

So we’ll work it ’til it’s done
Every daughter every son,
Every soul that ever longed for something better,
Something brighter.

It will take a change of heart for this to mend.
It will take a change of heart for this to mend.
But miracles do happen every shining now and then
If not now, tell me when?

If not now,
Tell me when.
But miracles do happen every shining now and then.
If not now tell me when.
If not now tell me when.
If not now tell me when.

 

What to do When You Just Can’t Get Along… (sermon – 9/10/17)

For the better part of two years, she didn’t speak to me. When I saw her at church or downtown, she pretended not to see me. She skipped the line to shake my hand after worship.

I suppose I’m normal in that I hate conflict – I loathe it with the fire of a thousand suns. Yet, I knew I needed to do something. I tried to reach out to her by brightly saying “hello” when I would see her; then, by calling and leaving her messages to call me back. She responded with more silence – for months and months and months – until one day she the phone rang and it was her.

“You ignored me,” she said. I asked her when and she said that one day, shortly after I arrived at that church, I had walked up to a group of people where she was standing. “You said ‘hello’ to everyone in that circle of people except me.”

I remembered the day she was talking about. It had been a beautiful, warm fall day. I saw the group standing outside as I was on my way into the church from the parsonage. A friend of mine from home was visiting and I wanted to introduce her to the group – so as we walked over I was going over everyone’s names in my head. I remember being proud of myself because I could remember each name. When we got to the group I introduced her to each person by name…or so I had thought. In my nervousness I forgot her, or maybe because I had been practicing all the names in my head I thought I introduced her but I didn’t – and anyway, in the end, I had apparently overlooked this lady. And she had never forgotten it.

I did the only thing there was to do – I apologized to her. I admitted I can be so scatter-brained sometimes and to please forgive me. I was sorry I had hurt her, so deeply sorry. (Even though to tell you the truth – inside I was feeling hurt and angry, too – because of getting the silent treatment for so very long.) But I said, “I’m sorry”. And She said, “I forgive you.”

Saint Matthew writes in the Gospel today about how we as Christian people are to deal with conflict. In fact, in our own church constitution and in the constitution of the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it has this as our method for dealing with any conflict in the church. First, you talk face to face. Then, if it isn’t worked out, you talk about it in the presence of one or two others, and try again. Then, finally, in the presence of the church. Now keep in mind that “the church” here was often groups of people who met in homes, so it wasn’t like bringing it up at a huge congregational meeting – rather it was like discussing it with a living room full of people and trying to work it out.

What’s interesting is that in the New Revised Standard Version, verse 17 reads, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Often when we hear that we might think the scripture is saying it’s time to cast that person out, put them outside the community – but then we stop and remember how Jesus treated the outsiders, the tax collectors, that Saint Matthew himself was a tax collector – and we remember that Jesus was always, always, always still trying to draw everyone into community over and over again. That’s why I like how this version of scripture puts verse 17, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”

So we understand this scripture not so much as a quick and easy recipe for conflict resolution – but an unending process. It’s like when we soon come to the text about when Jesus is asked how many times are we expected to forgive and he says seventy times seven. He wasn’t telling them to do some mental math and then forgive others exactly 490 times. Rather, those numbers signified an infinite amount – that’s the way to forgive. And in turn, when we look to heal hurting relationships we keep trying.

This is never to say that an abusive relationship should be allowed to continue. There has to be mutual love, mutual forgiveness, mutual humility, mutual grace. Sometimes that never comes and we must entrust that person to God and move on.

But sometimes reconciliation happens – even in the most surprising ways. Even when we never thought it could. By God’s grace.

Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on the older brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence — an 8-foot fence — so I won’t need to see his place anymore.” The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job.

The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge — a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work — handrails and all — and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.

Do you have a relationship that you think can never heal? Has so much time and hurt happened that it is just impossible for things to mend? Maybe you have no idea what to do anymore. Don’t give up. Because you never know what God can do. And because there is always something you can do, something healing.

My apology to the woman from my church was either too little or too late because our relationship didn’t improve. We had said the I’m sorry’s and the I forgive you’s – but something had been damaged permanently it seemed. Maybe I continued to be scatter-brained and forgot something else. Maybe she just realized she wanted a different pastor. Anyway, she slowly drifted away and began to worship elsewhere. I moved away…and nearly fifteen years have passed since I last saw her.

But I still think about her. I think about how she clung to her hurt, and I did, too. I think about what I might have said or done differently. I may never see her again in this life. I may not ever be able to have understanding about why we were like oil and water – but I can pray for her – and I do. I pray for her joy, for her family, that her life is good and peaceful. And that brings a healing of its’ own.

So there is something we can do when relationships seem broken beyond fixing – we can pray for that person. And it is quite something the peace that can bring.

God doesn’t call us to be best of friends with everyone – God made us too unique for that to be possible all the time. But God did create us to seek peace, to work toward understanding, to, as Paul says in Romans, “love other people as well as you do yourself.”

Let’s do that with our words. Let’s do that with our actions. Let’s do that with our prayers. In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

 

Roots – (White Supremacy is Sin. Say it. Sermon 8/20/2017)

jostedal

Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day. On our trip to Norway these past couple weeks, there were 34 people plus a guide who led us through the mountains, valleys, and fjords of the southern part of Norway. It was meaningful for me to see the places where my own family members had come from – to stand in the church and on the roadside where generations before me had stood, to smell the air, to feel the weight of the time that had passed. My great-grandparents who left Norway were people I never met but it was important for me to know something about those places they left. It reminds me of something the tour guide said one afternoon. She was talking about how so many come to Norway to learn more about their roots and that is important, because just as a tree dies if it is cut off from its’ roots, something inside us dies as well if we lose touch with where we come from.

Perhaps that is the only way to explain why it was so meaningful to catch a glimpse of the homeplaces of my ancestors. While I may know next to nothing about Johanna and Halvor Haugen and Jonas and Ane Hetland, now I’ve seen places they walked, felt the sunlight on my skin there, touched the baptismal font that held the spirit-filled water that was placed on my great-grandfather’s head the day he was baptized. These people and their lives are strangers to me and yet they are part of me. Our roots matter in complex ways and throughout all our lives we will find various ways to connect to our roots. That is important.

Our roots matter. That is why we take time to acknowledge roots in various ways. We celebrate anniversaries. We take time to mark birthdays. It’s why New Years Eve always has a little bit of a haunting feeling to it – because we think back over all that the last year held and the years before it, too. Where have we been? Where are we going? What is being written on the pages of the stories of our lives? How can we make the next chapter the best it can be?

Our roots as Christian people matter. If it weren’t so we wouldn’t spend time every Sunday recounting the stories from the Bible. We find our history as God’s people and our direction for how to live by studying God’s word.

And our roots as a nation matter. We remember those roots – not just the good stuff so we can pat ourselves on the back – but we remember the bad stuff, too because hopefully it can help us make better choices now. Hopefully. You would think this would be, true, but human beings seem to have short memories about certain things.  That’s the only explanation I can think of for why in the news the last weeks we have been hearing about things like white supremacy and neo-Nazi gatherings. If you watched the news at all, you heard about how in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of White Nationalists chanting, “White Lives Matter” and “We Will Not Be Replaced” met at the same time as there was another group there celebrating peace and diversity – many of our ELCA brothers and sisters were there in the group advocating for peace and diversity. I was told about how they were gathered in a church and singing and praying and the white nationalist group surrounded the church, yelling and bearing their torches and refused to let those in the church come out. Those who were there say it was terrifying and like nothing they had ever experienced before. This was just the beginning of the terror as in the days that followed there was much bloodshed and injury and even the death of one of the peaceful protestors, Heather Heyer, by a white, racist terrorist driving a vehicle through a crowd.

And my first thought when I heard about it was that, well, it was far away from our little church here in MN.  However, then I saw an interview with a white supremacist in Fargo – and it is becoming clear that maybe while this is one of those things that feels like an earthquake far away, the tremors of it are much closer than we think.

I have been guilty myself of thinking that racism isn’t actually a thing anymore. I remember saying that. Because I have friends of all races, and you know segregation and all that was a long time ago and we are all supposed to be equal, right? – so why are we even still talking about this?

But then I learned that point of view is a luxury of people who enjoy privilege. Because people who are marginalized don’t ever get that luxury.

I studied for a while at a diverse little seminary in Denver. In my class, there was a variety of faiths represented – one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, a couple Unitarians, a Buddhist, a Baptist, and a United Methodist – we also had a variety of races.  The summer seminar was on racism and I was deep in my thinking that this was all kind of “ho-hum” – that racism wasn’t really a thing anymore.

But the professor did an exercise with our class that I will never forget.  She asked us to each tell what our first impression of other members of the class would be if we only saw each other on the street or had just briefly met each other.  I thought it was so ridiculous and probably a waste of time. I glanced at my watch as the first person who tried this practice, Veronica, a black woman, offered to give her first impression of me.  She said she assumed I was wealthy and had always been wealthy, that I probably lived in a nice suburban house, that I liked to shop, that the church I served was probably all white and in a nice part of town.  I forget everything she said but I remember feeling a little like I had been punched.  Even though I knew this was just an exercise for a class, I was angry that she judged me just based on the color of my skin and what she thought she knew of me – guessed that I was rich and I had never wanted for anything.  How dare she think my journey had been one of ease and security when the truth was that my childhood had known its’ share of food stamps and government cheese and wearing the same pair of jeans and shoes every day because that is all I had for school.  How dare she think that she really knew me…

And then I got it. I realized the exercise our professor was trying to do with us had worked perfectly – because for the first time I understood the smallest speck of what it felt like to experience racism.  That thinking that something can be known about another person just by the color of their skin.

That exercise informed me of my privilege. Most of us probably don’t feel like we are super privileged, and yet most of us have more privilege than we realize. I am a good example – as a middle-aged white woman, I could probably go walking anywhere, linger in any aisle of a store, sit on a park bench for any length of time, and go relatively unnoticed. Few people would stop to question if I am up to something. This would not necessarily be true if I were a black teenager. It’s unfair but it is true – and this kind of thing is called privilege – an advantage someone carries around not because they earned it but because they were born into it. And with privilege comes responsibility, with being followers of Jesus comes responsibility, to stand up for those who do not share in that privilege. Jesus always, always, always was on the side of those who were marginalized – and so we must be as well.

White supremacist gatherings are a cancer, an infection – they need to be called out and cut out, recognized and eradicated as quickly as possible or they can slowly poison the rest of the body. While we might feel far away from racism and all of that in our own thinking and in our own family, or church, or community – we must be on guard and be vocal for the sake of others who still experience it every day. We Lutherans, have a history of wanting to be so nice and not wanting to make waves – but we have to be brave to say, “that is not okay” when we hear the racist joke or remark – because otherwise we contribute to the cancer of racism. It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Dear God, help us to not be silent when faced with racism.

One of the most chilling things about this news story for me was seeing several of the white nationalist young men wearing crosses around their necks – as they held their torches, as they shouted their hate – they wore crosses. And I thought, “Shame on us.”  Shame on us – if we don’t teach our children better than that. To be a Christian is the opposite of hate like that. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to promote love and peace and all God’s children. Dear God, help us to raise up our children in the church better than that.

And while we need to be vocal to shut down voices of hate, we need to learn to be quiet and listen when those who are oppressed are trying to speak. Everyone needs to be heard.  We all need to know our stories matter – to one another and to God. There’s a great example of this in our gospel. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus.  She needs help for her daughter, yet she just doesn’t count as a real person. Nor does her daughter. Jesus’ disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus seems to agree. Jesus refuses to meet her, dismissing her because she is not an Israelite, he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”.  She kneels before Jesus, and he calls her a dog. Jesus and his disciples deny this woman’s humanity. It’s a difficult story. It doesn’t paint our Jesus in a pretty light.

The Canaanite woman struggles to be heard. She cries out. That doesn’t work. She kneels, begs. Jesus rejects her. Finally, she says something so clever that Jesus grants her request – she is the only person who wins an argument with Jesus.

But it took Jesus a while to get there – perhaps his humanness was coming out a little more than usual that day.  And it may take us a while, too.

But make no mistake – racism is still a thing.

In the twisted, tangled roots of our nation, there is a history of strife between races. Horrible injustices have happened – most at the hands of white people – but there has also been healing – a healing that is slow and was fought for by so many. We’ve seen great strides happen. But now we get to guard the healing that has begun so that it continues. We have a holy and urgent task – to make certain our children and grandchildren grow up knowing that every person – regardless of race or religion or social status or ethnicity or gender has unsurpassed worth in the eyes of God. We say it out loud again and again so that there is no mistaking whose we are – followers of Jesus Christ, a brown-skinned, middle-eastern Jew, who taught us unequivocally that God’s love is for all – and that white supremacy is sin.

In Jesus’ name we pray – Amen.

Rest and Grace (sermon – July 9, 2017)

Last Tuesday, the Fourth of July, was a blissfully inactive day at our house. It was one of those rare, precious days when we were all at home the whole day. We made no plans for any of it and just did what we wanted – which, for me, included about three movies, a walk, eating, and a nap. I tried to read part of a book but the nap quickly overtook the reading. For a little while the boys and I sat out on the deck just talking about nothing. For a moment, I was transported to summer days when I was a kid – most of which seemed to be filled with nothing and a lot of sitting outside with my parents and brother to try to catch a cool breeze when the house was hot and stuffy. Sometimes I remember getting very bored, aching for something to do, but my parents believed too many extracurricular activities were unnecessary and learning to enjoy quieter pursuits like reading and going for walks in the woods built character. Looking back now from the vantage point of my often overscheduled days, I know I was lucky to have those long, quiet days, plenty of time to think, to create, or just to sit and talk about nothing with my parents.

It seems like usually at least once every summer there is a text that comes up in our Sunday morning readings that includes something about the importance of rest. It often seems to come at just the right time, too – about this time of the summer when all I hear people saying is that summer is going too fast and they just want it to slow down!  But there is so much fun stuff to do and only so many gorgeous days to be outside! We schedule ourselves from dawn to dusk – mostly loving every bit of it – but with hardly any time to breathe, to be, to rest.

Sometimes we need a reminder like the one Jesus gives us. I’ll read a couple verses of our gospel for today from Matthew – but this time from another version of scripture, The Message – as I love this paraphrase…  Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Are you tired? The National Center for Sleep Disorders estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. Often, our sleep deficit is related to too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. Many times it’s related to work – stress from work, putting in long hours at work, working night shifts, working on the home computer until the second we go to sleep.

Sleep deficits have been linked with poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems, and mood problems like anger and depression. The growing list of health risks has been documented in recent studies, too. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have all been linked with chronic sleep loss.

But we know that we can be and feel tired more than physically – we can grow tired emotionally and spiritually, too. No matter how we are attacked by weariness, each of us have experienced it in our own ways – whether it is the exhaustion that parents of a newborn can feel; or the bone-tired hours, days, weeks spent at the bedside of a loved one who is sick or dying; it could be the flagging energy and depression that comes from being overworked or just doing work that doesn’t suit you, or the draining, heart-rending work of trying to save a dying relationship – every person has faced days and nights when we understand to our very core what it means to be weary and heavy-laden.

To us, to all, Jesus says, “I’m here.”  “You don’t have to struggle so hard to carry it all by yourself because I am already here – let me help you carry those things weighing you down.” “Rest.”

David Whyte writes, “To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right.”

Are you guilty of thinking that everything rests on your shoulders? Do you ever fall into the trap of self-important thinking where you can’t stop racing around and fixing things, because if you stop, everything will surely fall apart?

And In the church we are so good at talking about all the things we need to do – to pray, to serve, to study scripture, to meet for worship, to live out our discipleship – but our gospel for today blows in like a cool summer breeze and reminds us that resting is holy and necessary, too. When we do not rest, we suffer – not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally.  To rest is not self indulgent.  Rather, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and perhaps, most importantly, to pause to appreciate everything we have already been given.

What is something you could do this week to slow down and rest? Could you find a way to leave some open spaces in your schedule for blissful nothingness, some open spaces to be surprised by the beauty of a sunset, a conversation about nothing with a friend or a stranger?

Or if you are at a stage in life where rest isn’t as hard to come by, is there some gift of your time or energy you can offer to someone who is stressed out, overworked, bone-tired? When my friends Terry and Amy had their first born child nearly twenty years ago, one of our mutual friends, Cathy, offered as a gift to them to babysit once a month so that Terry and Amy could have a date night. And while of course that gift of time alone together was a gift to Terry and Amy, Cathy talks about how offering to do that blessed her so much as well with a decades-long relationship with this baby girl and eventually that baby’s siblings as they grew up. An older couple in Colorado Springs offered to do something similar for Chad and I when we had a toddler and a newborn. The words had barely come out of her mouth, “We’d love to watch your children sometime if you and Chad would like a date night,” when I practically shouted “yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!” and I was digging out my planner to figure out a time that worked.

Sometimes we are able to give each other the gift of rest or help each other carry a burden. Sometimes we are the ones needing a break.

But truthfully, resting in Jesus is more than taking a nap – it is leaning into Jesus’ love. Ultimately, this scripture is about much more than just self-care. It’s about discipleship, really. It’s about grace. Jesus tells us, “I am with you as you live as my disciples.” Self-care matters, of course, but we have to be careful not to confuse the good news with good advice.  Good advice is nice, but it doesn’t save. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way to his students: “God’s intention is to bear or sustain us, not to teach or improve us.”

So hear this, church: Jesus is beside you, loving you and forgiving you – helping you weather it all – the good days, the awful days – the sunny and rainy days and every other day. And we as a church community are here to support one another as well…to do our best at loving each other and the world as Jesus taught us.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love that picture from 1946 we have hanging in our hallway out there – the picture of the whole congregation then. The picture we are going to try to recreate after worship today. They are sitting and standing side by side – the people of Saint Peters in that time. So many different people. So many different gifts. Perfectly flawed and perfectly beautiful. God brought them together – to love and serve God as best they could.  God called them. And today God calls us.

In Jesus’ name we work and rest – today and every day. Amen.

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The congregation of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 1946
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The congregation of Saint Peters Lutheran Church (with a few missing…) – July, 2017

Anger (sermon from September 13, 2015)

You maybe heard the story about the little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail into the fence. The first day the boy had driven thirty-seven nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it, and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day he was able to hold his temper.

The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a person and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say “I’m sorry”, the wound is still there.”

Our scripture from the letter of James this morning reminds us how much our words matter. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

These are words we can understand. There is no one here who has not been the recipient of pain through something someone has said to us or about us. Words that are spoken in anger are the ones that cut particularly deep.

I learned this young. My father was a good man, but he had a temper. It was rarely directed at mom or us kids but it’s sad that when I remember him, I cannot remember him apart from his anger. He was so angry about many things – mostly the things he felt powerless to control in his life. His health was so bad that he wasn’t able to work and this truth cut at him. He was in chronic pain most of his life and suffered from a head injury as a child that contributed to his anger also in many ways. Sometimes he would be sullen and stew for days and weeks at a time – that was hard, but it wasn’t as hard as when he would explode. He would start yelling – raging at the air seemingly. Because it wouldn’t matter if we were in the house to listen to him or not, he would just keep yelling. He would rage about the injustices he felt the world had given him. He would turn on the television and then rage about something happening there. Our house was very small and there was nowhere to go in it where we could escape listening to him. So I would walk up our country road, even on bitter cold winter days to breathe and see how far I could get away from the house so that I would not hear the yelling anymore.

This was a long time ago, of course and even though all this was hard for me to understand as a kid – I don’t harbor any bad feelings toward my dad because of this – I believe he hated his temper. I really think his temper was something he never learned how to control. It was like a beast that came to visit and it was too big for him to easily keep out. The problem was, his rage didn’t just torment him. It tormented all of us. It damaged our family. Children cannot help but be hurt by harsh words that are flung through the air. Spouses, no matter how understanding, cannot help but receive scars from living with someone with uncontrolled anger.

Anger hurts. We know it. But what can we do about it?

I’ve been reading about this lately and I have found some helpful wisdom here and there. I thought it would be especially helpful for us to look at what the Bible says about anger as we consider how to give it as small a place in our lives as possible.

First, it is important to remember that the emotion of anger is normal. Even Jesus himself acknowledged it. He felt it – I remember Jesus in the temple when he threw over the tables because he was angry that people had lost sight of the purpose of the temple. In Ephesians 4:26 it reads, “Be angry, but do not let the sun go down on your anger.” As long as we are human beings we are subject to feeling anger. We can’t be free of that and we don’t need to feel guilty for experiencing anger if someone hurts us or someone we love or shows us an injustice.

The sin comes in letting the anger have power over us and have a say in our thoughts and our words. The emotion of anger can be so sneaky – because after the initial shock or pain wears off, sometimes we can almost come to enjoy our anger – but that anger is no less harmful to us or to others. Taking a bit of pleasure in your enemy going through a difficulty of some sort, the bit of gossip about them that does not shine a good light on them and you get to pass it on. We’ve all been guilty of relishing and rolling around a bit in our anger sometimes. You know what I’m talking about. The conversations that usually start with something like, “I know I shouldn’t say this but…” or “I know it’s not very Christian but…” or does this sound familiar, “Oh, I just hate to say this about so and so…but it’s true!” – we all do this – and we put that disclaimer at the front or at the end because we know – even if what we are spreading is true – we shouldn’t be saying anything to hurt the reputation of another person. That simply isn’t the kind of behavior our God calls us to. That behavior doesn’t speak well of us or the One in whom we believe. I like how Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the eighth commandment. He writes, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only encourages us to not speak badly about those who have hurt us, but tells us to take one step farther – and search for ways to speak kindly about them.

Oh man, that is so hard!

But Christ calls us to not let our emotions rule us. Anger can come so quickly and no matter how faithful we like to think we are, we are never beyond the temptation to get angry or to hold on to grudges. But God is slow to anger and we need to work to be the same way. Psalm 78:38 says “God turned his anger away and did not stir up wrath.” “Turned away” means God controlled it. Remember, self-control is a fruit of the spirit. It is an aspect of God’s character that God has shared with us.

One of the best ways to learn to control the flare-up of anger is the tried but true – counting to ten. Or counting to 100. Count to 1000 if you need to count that high to calm down. Let emotions subside and then decide.

Breathe deeply. Pause and focus on your breathing. It can be helpful to remember that the word in Hebrew for the Holy Spirit , Ruah, can also be translated as “breath” – picture the Holy Spirit’s presence filling you and granting you peace in that moment.

If your anger is about something big – write about it and get your feelings out, talk about it with someone you trust, if it is a long-term anger, pour energy into something constructive – train for a marathon, spend time doing an activity where you find real joy and with people who energize you.

If your anger is about something small – try to let go of who is right and who is wrong. I Corinthians teaches us that love doesn’t keep track of things like that anyway.

And remember that as Christians we cannot talk about anger without also talking about forgiveness. We are commanded by Christ to forgive one another because God has forgiven us.

How do we do this? First, we desire to do it. We know that desire motivates us to go through whatever we need to go through to reach our goal – but the desire will probably not come immediately. Our gut reaction after being hurt is not to forgive – but that’s when we must dig deep into God’s word which reminds us over and over of the importance of forgiveness – and the desire to be free of the poison of anger comes. When we are fed by God’s word it becomes easier to remember that we are to be people of forgiveness – it doesn’t mean we will change the way we feel right away every time we are hurt – but if we have decided to be people of forgiveness and gentleness and not people of anger, we slowly are shaped and molded into a more Christ-like form.

Another step in forgiveness is to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you do what you have decided to do. Deciding is important, but then we also need God’s help to do something as big as forgiving.

And finally – what do you think the final step in true forgiveness is? It’s this: Matthew 5:44-45 reads, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you to show that you are the children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Scripture is clear that we pray for blessing on our enemies. Oh, this Gospel of Jesus Christ. It demands so much of us! Keep in mind, it does not ask us to stay in relationship with those who have hurt us deeply or continuously – but it does ask us to pray for them. And in doing so, the damage that our anger has done to us begins to mend. As we learn how to lift all of it – that person, that relationship, that pain into God’s care – the poison seeps out of us and we are free.

Anger is something it is hard to talk about and even more difficult to feel. But we must choose to let go of it. And the good news is that we can do that. God will help us to do that if we keep turning to God’s word and turning to God in prayers for the well-being of our enemies, and the healing of our brokenness.

In the Harry Potter books, one of my favorite moments comes when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all the time and he had dark feelings. Sirius Black tells Harry to listen to him very carefully and said, “You’re not a bad person. You are a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That is who we really are.”
May we choose the Light today and every day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Of Course He Isn’t Safe. But He’s Good.

Sermon from Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2015

Gospel:  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I remember having a conversation with a group of ladies at the first church I served out in Western New York state. We were sitting at a table eating soup and we started talking about table etiquette. Many of the rules for table manners that were mentioned were familiar to me – like no elbows on the table and don’t reach across the table for something but rather ask for it to be passed to you. But others were things I hadn’t heard before – one lady talked about how she had been instructed that it was only appropriate to eat soup by spooning it up away from her in the bowl. She said her grandmother had even taught her a little saying to remind her – it went, “just like ships sailing out to sea, I spoon my soup away from me.” Have any of you heard that before? I had no idea there could be such specific rules about eating soup.

Well, our gospel for today centers around manners and rules. On the surface we might wonder how relevant this text actually is to us – I mean, here are some Pharisees and scribes and they are getting after the disciples because the disciples have ignored some of the traditions and etiquettes – they were eating without washing their hands! This may seem at most a little gross to us but not something worthy of much attention – except that to the Pharisees, this went against the traditions of the elders. They had many traditions that were important to them – some of them are listed in our reading – such as how cups and pots and kettles were washed – and apparently, it was very important that hands were kept clean, too.

So the Pharisees ask Jesus why the disciples don’t live up to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands and Jesus talks about how there is nothing outside of a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out defile – defile means to be unclean or filthy.

Verses 16-20 aren’t printed in our insert – but in verse 17, even the disciples are questioning what Jesus means by this. They say, “we don’t get it, put this into plain language.”

And Verse 18 reads (one of my favorite verses of all time), “Jesus said to the disciples, are you being willfully stupid?” (MSG) I always thought that would be a funny verse to put on my tombstone. People would see Mark 7:18 inscribed on my tombstone and wonder what heartwarming verse I chose and then look it up and it would be that.

Anyway, he goes on to explain again about how these dietary laws don’t matter, we can spend all day quibbling about whether certain things are clean or unclean but none of that matters – what goes into our mouths doesn’t matter – what matters is what comes out of our mouths and our lives.

We show whether we are clean or unclean by what comes out of us – and he lists some of these things: is what is coming out of us things like obscenities, lusts, adulteries, arrogance, slander, envy, licentiousness (that means promiscuity), deceit, folly (that means foolishness), avarice (that means greed). He says it is these kinds of things that are the source of our defilement .

In contrast, the reading from James today shows us the flip side of this – we offer up things that are pure and good to this world when what is coming out of us is that we are slow to speak, slow to anger, quick to listen – and James uses this language about defilement again – he says – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this – to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Here we might do a lot of head-nodding because this all makes sense, right? We understand that we want less of those defiling things and more of what is pure and good. However, in our modern churches still – we are pretty good at being Pharisees. If we pause and observe ourselves for even a moment, we can see that while we may not have specific traditions passed down from the elders about how we wash the cups and plates and bronze kettles and no one gets in trouble if they happen to not wash their hands in a particular way, we still have our own traditions that we hold tight to. Traditions that have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ – yet they become so important to us that if someone threatens them, it’s like they are threatening the very core of who we are.

If you think I’m exaggerating, you really need to serve a term on any church council or most any church committee. I can’t really count the amount of times in my life as a pastor that I have wondered what it would be like if people could get as fired up about feeding the hungry and helping the homeless and immigrants and visiting the sick and the prisoner as I have seen people get fired up about why in the world we chose a particular shade of color for the carpet or why in the world did we change the worship time or how dare we change how we have been doing something for the last 140 years – if it was good enough for our grandparents, it should be good enough for us.

And here I could joke about churches and our difficulty with change – ok – here, let’s do that for a second and get it out of our system. You’ve likely heard the one – How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Change? We can’t change that light bulb – my grandfather donated that lightbulb!

We like to joke about how hard it is for us to change. Garrison Keillor has made a good career out of poking fun at our steadfast ways. Our quirks sound charming as he spins the tales about Pastor Ingqvist at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church – just down the street from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.

I am as prone as anyone to find sanctity in the many things that stay the same in the churches I have served – the lovely stained glass, the cherished hymns, the predictability about the seasonal colors of the paraments (the paraments are the decorative hangings beside the altar and on the altar and on the pulpit); all the beloved sameness we experience on Sunday mornings. If you grew up in the church you understand what I mean. When we sing Children of the Heavenly Father, we aren’t just singing it in this present time but I’m remembering being a five year old girl standing and singing next to my grandmother at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning. And I’d look up at her and see her dab at her eyes with the tissue she had retrieved from her sleeve or from the very top of her brassiere (she stashed tissues everywhere). Oh, how she loved that hymn. Or when we kneel at this altar rail, we kneel not just for this particular day with these people but we kneel along with all the saints of today and yesterday. Even stuff like going on hayrides with the youth group or having a church supper in the autumn or sitting in the same place every Sunday – all these things can take on an air of importance, of sanctity almost – yet none of these things are God. A treasured hymn – sure, it can point to God, but it isn’t God. A precious, old altar rail? Sure, it can be a place where we remember God, but it isn’t God. Any tradition or thing can be a part of our life together as the people of God, but it also can be slowly elevated in importance until it starts to be treated like a god itself.

A council president I worked with a long time ago at a church established in the mid 1800’s used to say that he thought the best thing that could happen to our church would be if a storm came and blew our whole building down. I was shocked when he said it – but I began to see his point. It probably would have probably been the best thing to drive us deep back into the gospel. The congregation had elevated their building to such a holy status – there were so many rules governing everything surrounding it – and seemingly EVERYTHING in the building had a little metal plate on it that said who it had been donated by so we could never get rid of anything. And I remember thinking that there’s just something seriously out of whack when the mission of Christ’s church on earth is to be about caring for the homeless and the poor and visiting the sick and the prisoner and make disciples of all nations – but instead you find yourself stuck in a room with five other people trying to decide if it’s okay to get rid of the stained and broken picture of the church that was donated by the confirmation class of 1949 because you just don’t want to offend anyone. And again, if you think I’m exaggerating, you really need to spend some time on a church council or any church committee.

What I hear Jesus saying in our gospel is so important for the church throughout the ages. Because we are human, and we like to have order – we establish certain ways to do things, we establish our church buildings, we establish certain rituals and niceties, we may come to expect things or people to look just so – but make no mistake that whenever we put more passion into anything other than caring for those in need, remembering the poor, sharing in baptism and communion and the Word of God and making sure all others are welcomed to do so as well – anything we elevate above those tasks is a false god. And we all have them.

Remembering this is both extremely liberating and terrifying. It means that there is nothing we need except God. There is nothing we need except to love and worship God and serve others in God’s name. We don’t need this church building to praise God – we could gather anywhere to do that. You don’t need me – each of you can read the Word and tell about God’s love, too. We don’t need a Sunday School or circle or ever have another potluck. The church council could pack it up and the treasurer could give away all our money to Lutheran Social services or the Refuge. Our gathering could look entirely different – we could meet on a Tuesday at Pit 611, share in a Bible study and then go out and do service work in our community. We could gather on a Saturday in the park, all ages, pray together and then go pick up garbage or go visit the homebound. We could sleep in on Sunday but covenant to spend an hour in the afternoon reading a book of the Bible in a quiet place.

Could we do this? Can we even imagine doing church differently? Stripping away all the stuff and traditions and the ways we are stuck and moving nimbly forward to just love and serve God? Is the thought of it exhilarating or horrible? Could we let go of our church building, our committees, our traditions, and just be okay to be God’s people – daily fulfilling our mission to love and serve God wherever we are, wherever we happen to gather?

Can we admit to ourselves that any terror we have about letting go of our buildings and our traditions is actually because we have turned these things into tiny but powerful false gods?

Now perhaps we don’t need to toss everything away and start over and I know beautiful things are done in Jesus’ name here – but the main thing I pray for in our life together is that Jesus would keep our vision clear. That we are granted grace to always worry less about being safe and given the bravery and tenacity it takes to keep our eyes fixed on what is good, what is faithful. To keep our eyes and our energy fixed on Jesus. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis when he wrote in the book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Scars

I have a scar on my index finger from a car accident back in 1996.  One minute, I was cruising down a road near Parkers Prairie and the next my car was skating across glare ice until I landed upside down in the ditch.  In the sub-zero November temperatures I assessed my situation.  My glasses were broken.  I had been in the midst of moving to a different apartment and so I had a bunch of my stuff in the back seat that was now blowing across the snowy countryside.  Papers, clothes, a random tube of eyeliner.  My right index finger was bleeding and as I looked closer, I noticed a bone, snapped and sticking out of the skin.  I observed it thinking, “Hmmm…I would think that would hurt more than it does.” 

I grabbed a sweatshirt that had landed next to me among the wreckage and wrapped it around my hand.  I remember it all in slow motion – the nice farmer stopping to help me and giving me a ride to the hospital, then laying in an operating room with just enough anesthesia that I couldn’t feel them putting my finger back together, but I could hear the doctors talking to each other, one said, “That was a bad accident – did you hear her vehicle was completely smashed in?  Did you know she is a seminary student – I think someone is watching out for her.”  And the other doctor said, “Oh yeah – well if someone is watching over her so closely, why did the accident even happen?”  Touche, I thought.

The wound has healed.  But sometimes when I write too much or do a lot of work with my hands, that old broken bone in my finger aches and calls my attention to it.  Nearly twenty years later I didn’t think it would still bother me, but it remains…a tiny, dull ache.

Years ago, I ran across a little article meant to explain to children about scars and why they form and what to do about them.  I saved it because I heard wisdom in it not only for our physical scars – but maybe for others as well.

Dr. Brian Flyer, the author of the article, says, “A scar isn’t always a sure thing. It’s not so much how deep or severe a wound is that determines whether a scar will form, but rather the location of the wound and that person’s tendency to form scars.”

What sorts of scars do you have?  If I asked you this question, I wonder what you would say?  Would you pull up your sleeve and show me the mark on your elbow from your first time out on rollerblades?  Would you tell me about the blemishes that remain from your bout with chicken pox?  The interesting thing is that each scar has a story – and people are usually more willing to talk about the visible scars that remain on their bodies than the invisible ones that have hurt their spirit or their heart.  The thing is – we all have them.  The question is – is there anything to be done about them?

Maybe you heard about the United Methodist minister who had been in a serious accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. He had a lot of pain, and was given shots to reduce it. The procedure was always the same. When the pain got bad enough, he would ring a buzzer, and a nurse would soon come to give him the shot. One day, he rang for the nurse and then rolled over on his side (with his back to the door), pulled his hospital gown up over his exposed backside, and waited for the nurse to come in. When he heard the door open, he pointed to his right bare buttock and said, “Why don’t you give me the shot right here this time?”

After a few moments of silence, he looked up. It was a woman from his church! Following a brief embarrassing conversation, the woman left, and the minister—thinking about what he had done–started laughing. He laughed so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes when the nurse arrived. When he tried to explain what had happened, he began laughing even harder.

When he was finally able to tell the nurse the whole story, the wonderful thing he noticed was that his pain was gone! He didn’t need the shot, and didn’t ask for one for another 90 minutes. 

You and I both know people who have been through terrible tragedy in life – illness, loss, chronic pain…and there can be a huge difference in the ways people let those sorts of tragedy affect them.  Some become broken.  Some show amazing resilience.  But what a blessing, no matter what our natural response might be, when God grants us the grace to laugh even when things seem most grim.  It may not solve the problems of life – but it makes them easier to bear.

Peter Berger calls laughter a “signal of transcendence” – a sign built into us so that deep down, even if our heads are telling us that there is no God, our hearts tells us different. Laughter tells us that life, despite its seeming randomness and chaos, actually has meaning and purpose.

However, while finding laughter in the midst of hardship is certainly wonderful, one might ask, isn’t there a way to prevent wounds and scars altogether?  Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “The best way to prevent scars is to prevent wounds! You can reduce your chances of getting hurt by wearing kneepads and helmets  – but even with protective gear a person can get hurt once in a while.”  If this happens, you can help your skin heal itself by treating it well during the healing process.”

Enid was a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly two years before she sought counseling with Dr. Rachel Remen.  Withdrawn and distant, she no longer cooked or looked after her garden or her house.  Most of the time she sat in her bathrobe in the living room, looking out the window.  She had been brought to see Dr. Remen by one of her daughters who had told her, “I lost both my parents the day my father died.”

Enid was a lovely woman in her early seventies, but she seemed as lifeless as the chair she sat on. Dr. Remen opened the conversation by asking her why she had come.  “My husband has died,” she replied, “My daughters would like me to talk about it, but I do not think that I care to.”  “No one could possibly understand.”

Dr. Remen nodded in agreement.  “Yes, of course,” she said.  “Only your husband could understand what you have lost.  Only he knew what your life together was like.  If he were here Enid, what would you tell him?”

She considered this for a long moment.  Then she closed her eyes and began to speak to her husband aloud, telling him what life was like without him.  She told him about going to their special places alone, walking their dogs alone, sleeping in their bed alone.  She told him about needing to learn to do the little things he had always taken care of, things she had never known about. She reminded him of times that only he would remember, old memories that no one else had shared.  And then she began to cry.

When her tears stopped, Dr. Remen asked her if there was anything she had not said.  Hesitantly she said how angry she was with him for abandoning her to grow old alone.  She felt as if he had broken a promise to her.  She missed him terribly.

“Enid,” Dr. Remen asked her, “If Herbert were here, what would he say to you about the way you have lived since his death?”  She looked startled.  “Why, he would say, ‘Enid, why have you built a monument of pain in memory of me?  Our whole life together was about love.’”  She paused.  Then she said, “Perhaps there are other ways to remember him”.

Afterward she said that she had felt that if she let go of her pain, she would betray Herbert’s memory and diminish the value of his life.  She had begun to realize that she actually betrayed him by holding on to her pain and closing her heart.

There is no way to prevent the wounds that occur in the course of our lives.   The cost of love and life is that we will end up hurt sometimes.  But we help ourselves heal when we realize that every great loss demands that we choose life again.  We need to grieve in order to do this. 

Even so, we might still ask ourselves if scars are things we have to bear forever.  Aren’t there ways to rid ourselves of them completely and start fresh? Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “Some scars fade over time.  If yours doesn’t and it bothers you, there are treatments that can make a scar less noticeable.”

My mother had major heart surgery in 1995.  At first after the surgery she always wore blouses with necklines that were high enough to conceal the top of the long scar that began just at the bottom of her throat.

Over time, however, she didn’t mind if people caught a glimpse of her scar.  It’s like she almost became a little proud of it because that scar spoke of something she had been through – a tale that she lived to tell.

Could it be that we are wisest when we learn to see all of our scars that way? Not just the scars of surgeries we have survived – but the battle scars that life has given us.  The scars that remain inside us from love lost, from all the hard stuff of life, even the scars that we hardly dare speak of because if people knew about them we think those scars would say something about us that we don’t want everyone to know.  Scars left by things like failures, like bad choices made, like shame at something we said or did that we know was beneath us? 

Could it be that a part of our healing is to be able to show the scars we have acquired – to not hide them but to say “See – see what I have been through. These say something about me.  These scars tell you who I really am.”

Jesus himself knew that it was only by showing his ruined hands and feet to the disciples when he appeared to them after the resurrection that he could prove to them it was really him.  He said, “See my hands and my feet – that it is really me.”

Let me tell you something – your scars are exquisite.  Have you ever noticed how when you come to know someone as a friend – you may initially admire them for their strength or their bravery or their success – but they become real and dear and more and more beautiful as you begin to know the things that have caused them pain, the parts of them that have been broken, and the stories of their suffering? 

There are so many reasons that we only show those parts of ourselves to those closest to us.  We worry about seeming weak.  We worry about people thinking we are fragile or incapable. 

But I love what Paul writes in our second reading for today – he talks about a thorn given to him in his flesh and how he prayed it would leave him.  We don’t know what this thorn in the flesh was.  It could have been some physical ailment or maybe even an emotional ailment.  Whatever it was, it troubled him and even though he prayed for it to go away, it didn’t. 

And yet, he came to understand that even still, God could work through him – writing, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Trying to understand why the scar-causing things in life happen is futile, but we can find comfort in knowing that somehow, God’s strength, God’s provision, God’s grace can still shine through.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a woman who was injured in a diving accident in 1967 – the accident left her, then 17, a quad­riplegic in a wheelchair, without the use of her hands.  Since then she has written over 50 books, and has become an advocate for all those with disabilities.  She has been quoted as saying, “Deny your weakness, and you will never realize God’s strength in you.” 

Tell me about your scars. Let’s be okay with being honest with each other about our flaws, our imperfections – because when we do, we’ll more readily begin to see all the beauty that God can still create even and especially in our brokenness.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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.

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.