Thursday, December 31, 2009

This Far By Faith

This year has been sparse in my blog. I stopped my posts about the 50 most essential Biblical passages, I hardly acknowledged any saint's days and I never really commented on what was going on in my life.

In the past 12 months, I spent 8 full months pregnant, my husband left for Iraq on Good Friday, I had a C-section, a very close friend left me right after my son was born (and hasn't spoken to me since) and my husband missed the first four months of our son's life.

When I am really having difficulty dealing with situations, I can't even write about them. It takes almost all my energy to actually deal with what's happening and so I can't bring myself to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Many people offered to help me and many people did help. There are several people without whose support- I might have pulled the covers over my head and refused to get out of bed.

Recently, someone suggested to me that I was trying to be perfect or that I might be depressed. I looked at the person carefully and said neither of those were the case. I recounted the tale of "The Canoe Trip of Near- Death", in which my husband was swept out of the canoe, the dog nearly drowned, we got growled at by bears and I had to paddle on my own to save us all. My commentary how that related to the current situation was this, "I'm almost to shore. Please don't push me out of the canoe now."

And so, I've made it to shore. Not really by my own power, but by the grace of God and the support of lots of caring people. But sometimes there is nothing else to do, but keep paddling and hope the stream is clear around the next bend.

My husband is home safely. My son has made it through the most dangerous of the SIDS windows and is a fat, happy baby. My dog has survived the introduction of a new family member, being kicked off the bed and relegated to floor sleeping and reduced attention. And I have survived all of this. Some of the events hurt more than others (I'm not sure when I'll be over my friend's betrayal). Some of this will fade in time. And some of this will always be just what happened then.

In church, we lost some faces that I'm going to miss dearly. That adds to the pile.

However, I have survived to write again. No matter what I wanted in these situations, I couldn't control much of them. So I just kept paddling.

And I'll keep paddling right into 2010, which has no promises to be an easier year. And maybe there's no such thing. They are what they are.

The main point is that, regardless of what a year brings or doesn't, God remains. With us, far and near. Carrying us. Steering us. Captaining our boat- even if we're sure we're doing the navigating. Always.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Poem

After Psalm 137

by Anne Porter

We're still in Babylon but
We do not weep
Why should we weep?
We have forgotten
How to weep

We've sold our harps
And bought ourselves machines
That do our singing for us
And who remembers now
The songs we sang in Zion?

We have got used to exile
We hardly notice
Our captivity
For some of us
There are such comforts here
Such luxuries

Even a guard
To keep the beggars
From annoying us

We have forgotten you.

"After Psalm 137" by Anne Porter, from Living Things Collected Poems. © Zoland Books, 2006.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pastor, Talk to me about...the Second Sunday in Advent

Malachi 3:1-4

1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. F13 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Luke 1:68-79

68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Philippians 1:3-11

3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Luke 3:1-6

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "

1. One of these things is not like the others. What's up with the Philippians reading?

2. A psalm does not have to be a Psalm. Discuss.

3. What does John the Baptist mean to you?

Stranger! Stranger!

In Anchorage, there is a gentleman who visits churches and writes up his experiences for the Anchorage Daily News.

He recently visited our sister church, Central Lutheran. You can read his warm and positive review here.

When he visits churches, he looks for warmth and friendliness to visitors as well as an organized service, Bible-based preaching and meaningful music.

Do we offer these things? What kind of review would he give us? What kind of review would Jesus give us?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pastor, Talk to me about the First Sunday in Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36

25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pastor, Talk to Me About...

I've been thinking about sermon writing lately- my process and congregational involvement.

This website has been somewhat helpful to me. It offers people the chance to look at the text's for a coming Sunday and ask the questions that come to mind.

If I'm not answering your questions (with the help of the Spirit) about the text, God, life and death- then what am I doing in preaching? Of course, it's not always about answers, sometimes good preaching leaves you wrestling with questions (I hope NOT "What was she talking about?").

So I thought I would try this for a couple weeks. I'll post the texts for the coming Sunday here, though you can find them in many places. You can ask questions publicly by commenting on Facebook or on the blog site. Or you can email or message me with private questions. I will try to answer all the questions even if I don't do it in the sermon.

Daniel 12:1-3

1 "At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. 2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Psalm 16

1 Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. 2 I say to the Lord, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you." 3 As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. 4 Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. 5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. 7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.

8 I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. 9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. 10 For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. 11 You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Hebrews 10:11-14, [15-18], 19-25

11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," 13 and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

[15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," 17 he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.]

19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" 2 Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

5 Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, "I am he!' and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

I look forward to your questions.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friday Five: Our Favorite Music

The Friday Five come from here.

Martin Luther said:

"I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor."

On this Friday before Reformation Sunday, let's talk about music. Share with us five pieces of music that draw you closer to the Divine, that elevate your mood or take you to your happy place. They might be sung or instrumental, ancient or modern, sacred or popular...whatever touches you.

1. My favorite hymn is "My Life Flows On". See my sermon about it here and another post here. I love this hymn and it brings me great comfort to hear it or to sing it.

2. Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" is one of the pieces of music that relaxes my mind and body. I think I listened to it, looped, for a couple hours once when I was very upset. With the calming flute melodies, the piece also brings to mind the peace of Christ and the grace that comes from believing you are part of the flock of the Good Shepherd. You can listen to the song on Youtube here.

3. The soundtrack to "Little Women" (1994, starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder) has been the soundtrack to many meaningful moments in my life. I listened to it alone on the last night I spent in my dorm room before my college graduation (when everyone else was out partying). I listened to it as I prepared for my wedding. I've written many sermons with the airy instrumentals of that soundtrack playing in the background. I like the movie, but the soundtrack has been even more special to me- apart from the story.

4. My favorite song of all time is "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." I have more versions of that song in my collection than any other. (At last count, around 22.) I can recognize the strains of it anywhere. But it's not just the music. Consider these lyrics:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

I want to comment, but there is nothing I can say to improve upon those lyrics.

5. When a soldier/airmen/Marine/sailor returns from a deployment, it's called "reunion". At our reunion in 2007, Rob was supposed to arrive on a Sunday morning at 11 am. Then it was 3:30 pm. Then 10 pm. Then around midnight. During what became the longest 30+ hours of my life, I walked on the treadmill, I made cookies, I went to the store, and I listened to Queen's "Somebody to Love" about 80 times. Again, I listened on a loop and danced around my kitchen, shaved my legs, drank a beer, singing: "Can anybody find meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee somebody toooooooo looooooooooooooooooove?" Because of this association with this song, I don't listen to it that often. And if I hear when I'm not expecting it, I can have a very emotional reaction.

This happened the other day when I watching something on a friend's recommendation. The closing number of the show was "Somebody to Love". I sucked in my breath at the opening "Caaaaaaaan...." It's hard to hear the song right now because reunion is still over two months away this time. But it's coming. In less than 80 days (I hope), I should once again be able to my dance (preferably for fewer hours), shower, bake, shave and change the baby and then get in the car to know exactly where I will find somebody to love.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reliquary relinquished

I recently read this article about the return of relics to the Roman Catholic Church (or to some RC churches). Within the piece, the author has this to say:

After all, these spiritual accoutrements were a large part of the Catholic experience for well over a millennium. But a quiet groundswell of Catholics won't give up this time-honored tradition of praying to a saint's bodily remain. Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the Latin Mass. So why not bring back an emphasis on relic veneration as well? A French priest is currently touring the United States with the supposed bones of Mary Magdalene, and the faithful are flocking to pray in front of them. In September and October, the relics of a 19th-century nun, St. Therese of Lisieux, went on a 28-stop tour around Great Britain. If the thousands of devotees who came to witness these lovely bones are any indication, the faithful are hungering for a less sterile form of religion.

While there's no scholarly consensus on when relic veneration began, many historians point to the year 156 A.D. and the death of Polycarp, then bishop of Smyrna (in modern-day Turkey). He got on the Romans' bad side by praying to Jesus instead of the Roman gods, and he was burned. After the pyre cooled, Polycarp's followers scurried over and scooped up his remains and ran off with them. With that, the cult of relics was born.

I'm wrestling with the idea of relics. Can I call them holy souvenirs? What is the point of a relic? To remind the believer of an encounter with the divine, to enrich one's faith, to collect?

I'm struggling to separate the tangential symbol from the non-tangential experience. I like to things to commemorate places I've been or people (usually living) I've seen. However, I get the most spiritual peace from the blessing that is on something, from a medal to the elements of Holy Communion.

Perhaps that is what brings comfort to those who are seeking the bone fragments, pieces of cloth or strands of hair. Perhaps belief in the closeness of a saint gone on to that item brings a spiritual strength that I can't understand, but it doesn't make it any less real to that person.

Part of the reason we have water, bread and wine in our sacramental practice is so that we have earthly elements, which we understand, to bring us to a deeper understanding of, faith in and nourishment by the promises and actions of God in Christ. We call baptism and Holy Communion the means of grace, for they are means by which God communicates grace to us.

However, we can also have strict rules and ceremonies around the means of grace, some of which can strip away the grace. Perhaps the veneration of relics offers a glimpse of grace to some people, the knowledge that God has performed miracles in the past and has promised to continue to do so.

So I have a definite statement about relics. I suppose I don't, though I thought I did when I started writing this.

I'm not one who leans toward saying "to each his own" when it comes to matters of faith and faithful living. I believe the Bible offers us hope through Christ and that's the place where I hang my heart. However, without some relic veneration, we might not have preserved copies of the letters of Paul, the book of Revelation, the hymns of the early church. So somewhere in there is the place where the Spirit works so that the evidence of faith may be preserved. Thanks be to God.

Serving the Children (10/18/09)

Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

“Hey, I want you to do me a favor.” When I say that to you, how do you respond? Are you inclined at all to say, “Sure” without hearing what the favor is? That’s essentially what James and John asked of Jesus. “Hey, Jesus. We want you to do us a favor.” Despite all that Jesus has revealed to them about the coming of the kingdom of God and the miracles they have witnessed, James and John are most concerned with their reward.

They are essentially asking Jesus to tell them that they are the greatest among the disciples (and you better believe they’ll make sure the others hear about it). James and John have heard Jesus’ message, but they haven’t listened to it. When Jesus asks if they are up for the sacrifices they will have to make to have such a reward, the brothers eagerly assure Him that they are. However, Jesus says, “You may be able to make those sacrifices and you will. But the seats at my right and my left are not mine to grant. And you shouldn’t be interested in them anyway. If that’s all you guys can think about, then you missed the point.”

Even though that’s how Jesus answers the request, the other disciples are angry when they hear what’s happening. They might be mad because James and John asked such a question or they might be upset because they didn’t think of it first. But Jesus replies to all of them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

What is Jesus telling the disciples? What is He saying to us? “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” Jesus offers the reminder that most people with power let it go to their head. Think of the other rulers we read about in the Gospels, Herod Antipas beheading John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Jesus, Herod the Great and the slaughter of the innocents. The disciples knew that power did not necessarily mean goodness. And having power certainly did not mean being in the right place with God.
We too know people whose power goes to their head, people who take a position of authority as an opportunity to do whatever they please. Sometimes we suffer under those people. Sometimes we are those people, using and abusing the power we have in our workplace or at home, in a volunteer position or in an appointment.

Jesus goes on to say that kind of behavior has no place in God’s kingdom and between His followers, “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” In order to achieve greatness in God’s kingdom, we must become like children. Being a child is different than being childish and seeking our own way.

Rather, we are called to innocence, to openness and to the main lesson of childhood- sharing. As followers of Christ, to show that we do share in His cup at His table and in his baptism, we are called to share the story of what God has done for us. We are called to share the gifts that God has given us. We are called to serve the neighbors God has placed around us. This isn’t a slavish service wherein we take pride in being beaten down, but a joyful service that bears witness to the joy and hope that has been poured into our hearts through Christ Jesus.

The seed of that joy is evident in what Jesus says next, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The point of that slightly confusing reading from Hebrews is to remind us that Jesus is different from anyone else whom God had sent to God’s people. Jesus is a high priest, but His place also as the servant and the Son of God makes his service and his sacrifice different than what any other priest could achieve. Jesus did not have to ransom himself, but He came for the children of God.

We, with James and John, are precisely those children. We see the world’s models of power and we can be tricked into believe they are more than fool’s gold. We can be derailed by the power of the forces that oppose God and come to think that we are unworthy of grace and mercy. We can get a little power and we can all too easily forget whence it came. We, like sheep, go astray. And we, like children, can easily get lost.

So Jesus reminds us here that the path is one of service and humbleness. We are called to a vision of mission to God’s whole creation. We must work together to achieve God’s mission for our lives, for the church and for the world. And we are able to do that because of the One who gave his life for us.
So that we would be free to be servants, Jesus came and showed what service looks like. He came and reminded the disciples and world of what real power looks. He came so that we might know the peace that passes all understanding. When he had done all those things, Jesus died for all. In his last act of service, Jesus returned to the Father and said, “I’m home. And I brought the children with me.”


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Miss Havisham, I presume

My computer has been telling me, "You have not backed up your information in 50 days..." 51 days, 52 days, 53 days...

My kitchen calendar was still on August and, I discovered this week, so was my office calendar.

This past Wednesday I finally finished reading a book, my first since 17 August. I think I get bonus points because said book was neither about child development nor breastfeeding.

I'm eating cold leftover steak out of a baggie and typing quickly, listening to the new sounds around which my life rotates... the grunts, squeaks, and sighs that mean I have only so many minutes before Daniel, my baby, wants something.

All the familiar markers of my life are completely disordered and, at this time, unhelpful. When each day is a blur of feeding, sleeping, changing, playing, trying to go to sleep, changing, feeding, and paperwork... I don't really need a calendar or even to back up the things that used to seem so important.

In a week or so, I will be going back to work, which means now I need to consider how to have some semblance of a schedule. The coffee maker that is on my counter is representative of all the friends and relatives who have come to help me. I don't drink coffee, so it only appears to give the caffeine fix to those who are living the schedule-less life with me. Now they have gone and I have to figure out when to shower (at 4 am when I know he's sleeping?). How to make sure the dog gets enough exercise. How to eat dinner in 5 courses... an apple at 5 pm, a porkchop a 5:30, mashed potatoes at 6:15, a handful of spinach at 7:30, half a bar of chocolate with a glass of milk at 8:45.

It's all new every day and I just wait to see what happens.

I did update my kitchen calendar last night. Moving ahead to October (skipping September) was more exciting than I thought it would be. It means there are only two more calendar pages until 2010. It's less than 80 days until Christmas (do you know where your sermon is?), but that also means it could be less than 100 days until my husband returns from deployment. We don't have a date and won't until two weeks out.

But the days are full of possibility, rolling over, smiling, sleeping 5 hours in a row... and as each day passes, Daniel, Ivan and I get closer to the date when we can be the family we were meant to be with Rob at home.

So did you call me and not hear back? Did you email me and receive nothing in return? Slowly, I'm coming back to the rest of the world. Slowly, I'm moving up to October. Slowly, I'm regaining strength. Slowly, I figure out how to be a mother and a pastor. And slowly, I move more fully into God's grace, though that movement has very little to do with me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Five at the "Perfect Church"

I haven't done a Friday Five in a while. The prompt(s) come from here and this Friday's is:

Please pardon me for talking about church in the summer when many of you may be on vacation. However, the church we are talking about today is the one you dream of. I've been thinking about this because I miss pastoring and preaching, because I am sending in resumes, and because...well...jut because. So have some fun with this. Tell us five things that the perfect church would have, be, do...whatever.

We can dream, right?

So, my initial reaction is that there is no such thing as the perfect church on this side of Christ's return. As we strive for wholeness in and as the Body of Christ, we also struggle with the realities of our humanness, the fallen world and the forces that oppose God and God's kingdom (see Satan).

However, I am also in a transitional call and my congregation could and should ask me what I would like to see in a church, so having given this some thought and prayer- here goes:

A congregation working toward wholeness in Christ and acknowledging the on-going work of sanctification by the Spirit would:

1) Have more than one kind of service on a semi-regular basis. I don't like segregation of services or music. I think as a congregation we are called to embrace similar visions and understandings of Christ and of the people's work in liturgy. That being said, most people are spiritually fed by different things. Some people like world praise music, some people never want to hear a drum or see a dancer, some people want to feel free to lift their hands, other people would prefer not have clapping. We can't always accommodate everyone, but an occasional service outside of the "regular" worship could open the doors to people within and without the congregation who seek a different kind of spiritual nourishment now and then.

2) Embraces and encourages children to participate and be seen in church life- from worship to Sunday School to church projects. Jesus said, "Let the children come to me." I love to see churches where all children are encouraged to do all kinds of things. Too young to offer the cup- carry a pick up tray. A child who can't be seen over the podium or pulpit, but who speaks and reads well can still lead the Psalm with a hand-held microphone. The more involved children are at a young age, the more likely they will be to be involved after confirmation (which is NOT the end of church). I know kids are very busy these days, but we either say to them that they are important and church participation is too (by creating opportunities for them in the church)... or we keep lamenting the absence of young people in our congregations.

3) Does not think the pastor does everything. Said church also doesn't let the pastor do everything. The Spirit longs and strives to use everyone. In the perfecting church, there is shared empowerment, encouragement and mutual support for ministry.

4) Has at least two regular adult education offerings, one of which might be taught by the Pastor. I LOVE to teach about the Bible, but the pastor's Bible class doesn't have to be the only educational option. And I'm not the only one who has Biblical insights. And there are well-written books, discipleship studies, hands-on group lessons and all kinds of other things that incorporate Biblical messages and can and should be explored for the growth and life of the church. A perfecting church also exhibits excitement about the Bible, Biblical teaching and discussion! :)

5) Exhibits forgiveness. Church people can really hurt one another, intentionally and unintentionally. A church that is growing can only begin to experience fullness by letting go of the binding pain of the past. I realize it doesn't mean that people forget what happened, but grudge holding doesn't move anyone forward.

Again, I would say that there is no perfect church on this side of the resurrection, but we are called to acknowledge and believe in the eternal and constant work of Christ in and through us- bringing His perfection into fruition through the Church on earth.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Shame, shame

Genesis 3:8-10

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
9 Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”
10 So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

Yesterday I was listening to commentary about this article in the New York Times. The author was being interviewed about how to talk to patients about weight issues when it is clear that she struggles with this issue herself. She mentioned that it isn't simply an issue of people feeling shame about being overweight. She said, "If shame would work, we would be the thinnest nation on earth."

I think about shame a lot. Another pastor I know frequently talks about the loss of shame in our culture as a value and as a shaper of behavior. In recent decades, we have come to view shame as negative, something that doesn't contribute to our well-being and should be shed and pushed aside.

Shame: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another

Guilt: the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law; culpability

I think we have moved to embrace guilt because it can more easily be dismissed. If you are (eventually) able to reason that your offense was not real or not as great as you imagined- then you can move forward.

Shame is a different feeling. To admit to being ashamed of one's self is to acknowledge one's guilt and the understanding of transgression. Shame is to acknowledge not just the presence of sin in one's life, but the truth and the reality that one can, does and will sin. When we talk about sin as a separation from God and that we are all guilty of it, we can have some distance from the painful chasm that is created by this separation.

When we honestly admit that our sin, our things done and left undone, have moved us from where God desires us to be and from where we are fully able to understand and grow in relationship with God and with one another. Feeling ashamed of our sin can move us forward into the real confession of bearing our souls (to the One who already knows them) and of embracing the cleansing and creating of a new heart.

Is there a way we can re-incorporate shame in a healthy way into our Christian understanding? It would involve a celebration of knowing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and, simultaneously, knowing that we take advantage of that fact daily, to our detriment.

I don't want to endorse a Puritanical notion of shame and constant mea culpa, but I do think there is a place for shame in our lives and in our spiritual self-understanding and practice.

Monday, July 6, 2009

God's Recreation

Yesterday, we enjoyed a little hymn sing at church. For many of the hymns I was listening to how many people were singing and enjoying themselves through praising God. We had the church doors open and it was a fantastic service.

Afterwards, someone asked me about the spelling of "recreation"- as in playtime. I spelled it and then noted it was the same as re-creation. That's when the person pointed out that we sang about God's "recreation" (playtime) at the end of "Morning Has Broken".

The last verse of the hymn is:

Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God's recreation of the new day.

Now, in my hymnal, re-cre-a-tion is drawn out just like that for singing ease. However, I suppose it could be sung either way. God is re-creating us and the new day, every day and we celebrate that each morning.

On the other hand, I do like the idea of the morning as God's playtime- the time when there is freshness, opportunity and grace abounding as God walks through the garden.

This is a beautiful arrangement of the song with pictures of lovely animals. They sing "re-creation".

Sufficient (5 July)

EZEKIEL 2:1-5; PSALM 123; 2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-10; MARK 6:1-13

When I was 11 or 12, I thought 16 was a magical age. I dreamed that when I turned 16, I would wake up and have beautiful hair that bounced around my shoulder. I assumed I would have stopped biting my fingernails and they would be long and gorgeous. I thought I would be taller, trimmer and tanner. When that didn’t happen on my 16th birthday, I figured it would on my 18th. 21st? 30th?

Learning to accept how he looks is hardly the thorn in the flesh that Paul describes in today’s reading. We know from his other letters that he wasn’t a terribly good-looking guy and by the time he is sending this letter to the Corinthians- he has been beaten several times and bears the scars of those bruises. In addition to his struggles in mission work, he has been afflicted with some kind of chronic ailment that makes his life a bit difficult.

Lots of hot air and ink have been used to speculate what that ailment might have been. However, Paul reveals that he has prayed several times to be relieved from the pain and since it has not happened, he interprets God’s answer to be “no”. Just as God said no to Moses about entering the Promised Land, to David about healing the first child born to him through Bathesheba and to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes God does say “no”.

Paul interprets God’s no to mean that God wants him to continue in this situation. Whatever the thorn in his flesh is, Paul comes to see it as God’s way of tempering him and keeping Paul focused on God’s words and God’s mission. As Paul writes and dictates his letters, we see his love and frustration pour out for the congregations he loves, but he has to be held back- so that his zeal does not overwhelm the message that he has been sent to carry. This thorn gives him pause and makes him remember that he is not the one with the power. God is shaping the Corinthians, the Roman church, the Philippians. God’s own grace should be and is sufficient for Paul, for each of these churches and for us. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.

What does it mean to be weak? Or, even, what does it mean to boast in weakness? Does it mean that we should brag to one another about our physical or emotional struggles? Or about our hardships? See how the Lord has blessed me with this hardship. Oh, how fortunate for you that God has seen fit to bless you with financial struggle. While we are called and we must remember that God causes all things to work for good for those who love him, we don’t necessarily have to embrace a thorn in our side as a desirable part of life. Inevitable, perhaps. Mysterious, certainly. Desirable, never.

Consider the people of Nazareth in the gospel story. They are blinded by the Jesus they believe they know. Didn’t he make our table? Didn’t he work on your house? Are his brothers miracle workers? Is his mother so special? The shelf he made for me broke after three months of use. They are unable to approach him with faith and, for the most part, he is unable to reveal the glory of God to them.

I do always find that line interesting within the gospel, “And he [Jesus] could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” So somewhere in the town, there were people who had heard and believed in who Jesus was and the power of God within him.

The unbelief of Nazareth and their rejection of Jesus, however, is the fire stoker that the disciples need. They have struggled with believing who Jesus is and understanding the power source of his abilities. However, when they see his inability to work with the people who have no faith- they are suddenly more clued in and, thus, are able to go out teaching and healing.

They are sent out with very little, but armed with the good news of Jesus Christ, God with us and the whole world. The thorn in their flesh may be their initial uncertainty in what to say, worry about acceptance, ability to heal or cast out demons or any other variety of concerns. Yet God goes out with them and people are healed, fed and the Word is preached.

There are many things that can stop each of us from going out and sharing the gospel. The thorn in our flesh may be that we are not as able to leave the house as we once were, that we are afraid to speak of what we believe, that we worry about what people may think about what we have to say or about us when we say it.

We have an idea of someone to call or to visit or to whom we could send a card, but we worry and then a week or two passes and we try to forget. But the Spirit doesn’t let us. That memory of what we need to do becomes a thorn in our side. And even as we wrestle with God to say we don’t think we can, God says to us as to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Each of us has been shaped by God-given special and specific gifts. As we age or encounter new difficulties, what God asks of us, specifically, may well change. However, God is still always seeking a relationship with us and a response from us. We look to the cross, where Christ’s own broken body did the reconciling work so that our relationship with God would be healed.

We must carry that knowledge in our hearts, believing that God’s grace is greater than our mistakes and that the Holy Spirit works with us and through us so that we can do the work God desires from us. Jesus is still sending us out, giving us power and preparing people, somewhere, to hear God’s good news. We are called to be like Paul, to persist beyond the thorn in our flesh, and to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for all our needs and for the needs of the whole world- this day and forever. Amen.

Disregard the Message (Sermon 28 June)

LAMENTATIONS 3:22-33; PSALM 30; 2 CORINTHIANS 8:7-15; MARK 5:21-43

There are two very interesting lines in today’s gospel text. The first come from the disciples when they say to Jesus, “You can see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” The second comes when Mark is describing Jesus’ reaction to the news that Jairus’ daughter is dead. A better translation than what we have for this verse is “Ignoring what they said (or disregarding the message), Jesus says to Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

Let’s think about the settings of those two lines for a minute. Jesus has come back to the land of the Jews after being with non-Jews. There are crowds that are waiting for him. Most likely, there are people who have camped on the lakeshore, awaiting his return. As soon as he gets out of the boat, there are people around him- full of requests, desires and hopes for what he can do for them. The crowd parts a little to allow a leader of the synagogue to come through. They would have recognized the quality of his clothing and his official status. Jairus cares enough that he doesn’t send a messenger for Jesus- he comes himself to ask for aid for his daughter.

In the same crowd is a woman who is elbowing her way through the people- one crowded layer at a time, probably with her face covered so no one will recognize her,. She doesn’t want people to see her and know who she is because, according to Jewish law, she is unclean and anyone who touches her is as well. She sees Jesus as her last hope and she is determined to get to him and just to touch him.

Both Jairus and the woman are commended for their faith and urged to hold onto it. They have claimed their gift from the Spirit, this gift of faith, and the Spirit is using it within them. It would have been easier for Jairus to stay with his daughter and send someone else. It would have been easier for this woman to decide her life was over and would never improve. However, from within them, their faith cried out, moved their feet and pushed them through the people to Jesus’ side.

Then we find the disciples, who can’t believe Jesus would know that someone had touched him and want to know who that is. Let’s keep in mind that by this stage in Mark, which is only chapter 5, the disciples have seen Jesus cast out demons, heal Peter’s mother-in-law, heal a paralytic, heal a leper, calm the storm on the seas and respond to the pleas of Gentiles, non-Jewish people. That’s just the stories for which we have details. I would say it’s safe to assume there was much, much more.

Nevertheless, when Jesus lifts a hand to silence the crowd and ask who touched him, the disciples deride him. “Lord, people are constantly touching you. Why bother asking?” However, Jesus knows who has approached him with faith. Jesus knows that someone has come to him, not with the desire for magic, but with the desire for genuine healing that only he can offer. He has felt that healing leave his body and he seeks a relationship with the recipient.

Many times in our world, people who do not believe look at those of us who do try to live lives of faith with similar derision to the disciples. To these people, our prayers, our expectations and our seeking of answers makes no sense. Clearly, if God wanted people to believe, God would make them. They would say, “People are constantly asking God for things and telling him about the world’s situation. Why would God listen to you?”

However, we see in this story, and throughout the Bible, that God is pursuing us with goodness and mercy, that God is fighting for us, that God is sheltering us, and that God desires a relationship with us. God as the Trinity is constantly initiating and re-initiating relationship with us, so that we are constantly presented with chances to respond, to strengthen our faith, to participate in the coming of the kingdom.

Jesus felt that kind of response in the woman, who risked everything, one more time, to reach out and touch him. God in Christ felt the presence of that faith and responded so that the relationship could be deepened. The disciples are still unable to see that and, often, the world is watching us to see if we will give up or if we will push through, again, to ask for the impossible and to believe we can receive it.

Which bring us to the second line, “Disregarding the message that was reported, Jesus says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”” Servants have come to report that the leader’s daughter is dead. There is nothing more that Jesus can do. There is a fear in Jairus’ eyes that this message is true. There is nothing more that Jesus can do. However, we are never called to decide when Jesus’ abilities have run out, when he can’t help any more.

His constant breaking of barriers, touching unclean people, offering new interpretations of scripture, welcoming outcasts and disrupting the comfortable, reveals to us that we are not the determiners of when and how God will work. Jesus shows us that these things do not, cannot and will not affect our relationship with God.

In the face of cancer, disability, war, poverty, exclusion, hopelessness, and so many other factors that are present in this world, we are called, like Jesus, to disregard the message that has been reported. The message that God is dead. That God does not care. That there is nothing that can be done. That no further healing is possible. That the end is near.

Disregard the message that has been reported. We don’t believe in a magic God whose healing is a presto-chango elixir. We believe in a healing God, whose mercy and grace are restorative, who delivers in ways we do not expect. We have come to know this does not always mean we get what we want or even what we think we need, but we do receive what God knows we need in a measure that we can handle.

We are called, through our faith, into that relationship with God, wherein we can say, “This is not what I wanted. Where are you? Help me to see you. Forgive me. Please be with this person. Give us your promised peace.” And we can ask for these things with the same level of expectation that caused Jairus to leave his daughter’s side and the woman to leave her home and try one more time for healing.

When people ask how we manage in difficulty, we can respond with faith, “I know who has touched me.” Through faith, we are able to disregard the message that life ends at death, that there are no more miracles, that physical well-being is the only desirable outcome and that God is not active in the world.

Many people who do not believe want faith to prove something. They want to have God’s presence proven to them. God’s action obviously revealed to them. However, faith is that hope in things unseen. Who touched me? She is only sleeping. This mustard seed can grow to a great plant. God’s gift of faith to us doesn’t prove anything. But it does everything.

Father's Day Sermon (21 June)

JOB 38:1-11; PSALM 107:1-4, 12-15; 2 CORINTHIANS 6:1-13; MARK 4:35-41

There’s been a lot of fighting in the news this week from here in Anchorage to the streets of Iran- people have been arguing about rights and routines. Some of this fighting has been physically violent and some of the fighting has been through strong words and emotional struggle. With this fighting in the back of our minds, we look at some of the texts for this week and think about how and why God fights and what that means for us in our life of faith.

In the text from Job, God tells Job to get ready for a fight. That’s what it means to “gird up your loins”. Job, like other men of his time, would have worn a long loose robe. To prepare for battle or for a physical altercation, they would pull up the back of the robe and tuck it in their belt. Thus they would be ready for the fight. After thirty-some chapters of listening to Job’s friends explain how he must be less righteous than he thinks and listening to Job lament the state of his existence, the Lord has had enough.

So He tells Job, “You want the truth. Get ready for it because it will knock you over. Come on out and let’s talk about what you have to say. You have questions; well, boy, do I have answers.” The answers Job got may not have answered the questions he thought he was asking, but they shed light on a different kind of truth- the truth by which he had lived and, more importantly, the truth by which God abides.

Certainly Job had been afflicted and seemingly without cause, but God said, “It is not that you haven’t been righteous or that you have been, but that I have a picture and a plan that is larger than you. Do you know all the ways of the world? Are you intimately acquainted with how the universe works? Do you have the kind of knowledge and love that can only come from being the creator of such works?”

Job’s personal agony brought out a fight in him that covered up the real matter. Because his friends and family offered suggestions for why such terrible things were happening to him, Job lost sight of what had given him stability before. What he thought had been solid faith shook a little when God turned out to act in unexpected ways.

However, unexpectedness is always God’s way, even though we, like Job, can forget that. Let’s think for a moment about the story of David and Goliath. That story is part of the semi-continuous lectionary this week. While we are not specifically hearing that reading, the whole Bible ties together and that story provides a good example of the fighting God. When we think of the story of David and Goliath, we often see it in our minds as the triumph of the underdog, a small shepherd, over the mighty, in this case- a Philistine giant.

Yet, that’s not actually the message of David and Goliath. Yes, David was a small shepherd whose abilities were doubted even by Saul, the Lord’s anointed. Yes, Goliath was a giant among men and a fierce warrior among warriors. However, the triumph over him didn’t come from David’s own determination. Listen to David’s words to Goliath before he winds up the slingshot, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

In a political fight against a seemingly overwhelming enemy, the gift of victory belongs to God for it is God who ultimately has the power. The triumph of David over Goliath points to the faith, that mustard seed to bush-and-tree-faith, that believes in the long-ranging strength of the hand and in the plan of the Lord. That faith calls us to lean not on our own understanding because our understanding can cause us to be Job’s friends, looking for unrighteousness where it might not be, or to be the army of Israel, doubting the power of God to demonstrate his strength against his foes.

Of course, the disciples, in their own understanding, had every reason to believe they might drown, every reason except for one. Didn’t Jesus just take them aside and explain the seeds of faith to them? In private, did he not reveal to them that God had planted these seeds within them? Had they not just learned about whom this Jesus the Christ was? And yet they immediately cling to the side of the boat and start yelling for Jesus to wake up and do something, lest they die, “Rabbi, do you not care that we are dying?” You’d think these fishermen had never been in a storm before.

Jesus stands and calms the waves. Well, that’s a little mild. In this passage, the words in Greek are the same fierce words Jesus uses when he casts out demons. “Be still” is no gentle calming, but an intense invective- one that can only come with authority, the authority that is within the Creator of the universe, whose power the universe recognizes and whose authority that creation obeys. “Be still!”

Jesus then speaks to the disciples, “Have you no faith?” What happened here? Haven’t we talked about what God has sown in you? And this is your response- cowering in fear and wringing helpless hands?

In the song “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is this line, “For God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit.” This means for those who believe, in the midst of struggles and our joys, God’s own self is fighting for us. When we are like Job and overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives, God’s Spirit battles on our behalf so that we will not feel hopeless. God engages us, as he does his servant Job, to bring our attention to the larger message of creation and the continued work of God’s hand in obvious and mysterious ways.

God’s Spirit shores us up, like David, so that we can face the insurmountable foe of the world and the forces that oppose God. Rather than let us be overcome by helplessness or fear of death, God fights to remind us that the cross is the most powerful weapon and we live in, with and through the power of the resurrection- the triumph over the grave, as well as all political and worldly powers.

And we are reminded in Jesus that God is the ruler of the universe. When we feel nearly swamped, we do not need to call for God to wake up and notice our peril, for God is awake and is right beside us in our travels and our travails.

Far too often, we believe that we fight alone and we become exhausted. Today’s texts point to a different reality and the real truth. Not only do we not fight alone- we are not leading the fight. We wrestle with fear, faithlessness and foes that are unimportant. God our Father is the fighter and He fights on behalf of the whole creation.

We are called to be supporters in that fight. We are called to use our gifts and our faith to point others to the true power and ruler of the world. Like Job, we are called to remember who made this world and loves it. Like David, we are called to stride out in faith and give the glory to God in all things. Like the disciples, we are called to open our eyes and to live by the words that Jesus has spoken. Consider God’s power and rejoice that the pressure of that power is not upon you, but rests solely with the one who made you. On this day and all days, we are called to celebrate and dedicate ourselves to God, our fighter and our Father.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Holy Trinity Sunday

ISAIAH 6:1-8; PSALM 29; ROMANS 8:12-17; JOHN 3:1-17

This may be the Sunday that you determine that your pastor is crazy. Holy Trinity Sunday is my favorite festival of the year. (It is a festival.) I get more out of this day than Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or even, dare I say it, Reformation Day. All other church festivals either commemorate something God has done for the world, send the Messiah, raise him from the dead, or the other festivals acknowledge aspects of history or of the life of faith, like Reformation or All Saints’.

Holy Trinity Sunday is different. The only festival that is celebrated around church doctrine, this day asks to look at who God is and our experience of God over us, God with us, and God in us. Born from this day are the other days we celebrate a God who cared enough to send His only begotten Son, a God who cared enough to die on the cross, a God who remains with us interceding with sighs to deep for words.

The Trinity is mysterious and crazy-making. Not in that the Three-in-One God is in the habit of making people crazy, but that trying to understand it could definitely stretch the limits of one’s sanity. We believe in one God made manifest in three persons. What? The Father, our Holy Parent, birthed creation, but the Son and the Spirit were present and active in that same act. The Son died on the cross for our sins, but spoke with the authority of the Father and through the inspiration of the Spirit who also gave of themselves on Calvary. The Spirit gives us strength and power to live our lives, but does so with the inspiration of the Father and with the love of Christ.

No one person of the Trinity is limited in their role or power. For us to say otherwise is heresy. For Three-in-One God to do otherwise is not in God’s nature. Confused? The Trinity is confusing, challenging and beautiful all at the same time. Let’s break it down as though we were going to give a report. Let’s look at the who, what, when, where, why and how of the Trinity.

Who is the Trinity? The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. One God, now and forever.

What is the Trinity? The Trinity is how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have chosen to relate to one another and to the world. Because of the great love that is within God and is God, there is a relational aspect, a relationship, within God’s own self that needs these three expressions. Who you are has several expressions: child, parent, spouse, former spouse, employee, employer, parishioner, volunteer, etc and each of those roles makes up your entire person. You are able to be more than one thing at a time because of the gifts you have and who you have been created to be.

God was not created, but has always been. However, due to the gifts that are God’s own- the Trinity is formed- a relationship that pours out love, mercy, judgment and forgiveness. It is three expressions of one great God, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.

When is the Trinity? One God, now and forever. From Genesis, we know that the Spirit moved over the waters at creation, bringing forth God’s desire from chaos. From John, we know that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. We come to understand, through faith, that Word is Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. From Paul, we learn that our heavenly Father extends to us an inheritance for which we did not work, but so that we might understand and believe that we have a place to belong and a family everlasting as children of God. When is the Trinity? One God, now and forever.

Where is the Trinity? Everywhere. Not only limited to the sacraments or sacred locations, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God above us, God with us and God in us. Our Three-in-One God is always inspiring us to go forth, meeting us on the road and completing the work we cannot finish because of our human nature. Isaiah believes he will die because he is seeing the hem of God’s robe. He believes this because the Lord told Moses that no one could see God and live. Then the Lord moons Moses. (See Exodus 33, where the Lord does indeed show Moses his backside.) Rather than dying, Isaiah is called into the presence of the Lord so that he might know his own calling, his own sinfulness and God’s plan to send him out into the world. God reveals the plans for us in the same way, calling us, forgiving us and sending us out- but never alone. Always we are accompanied by the richness of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit in all that we do.

Why is the Trinity? Maybe the best way to explain the “why” of the Trinity is to say something personal. I have almost always found the person of Jesus comforting. If I am mourning, I know that he wept over Lazarus. If I am rejoicing, I imagine him smiling at playing children and celebrating with the families of the healed. If I am tired, I imagine him sleeping in the boat during the storm. I cannot be the person Jesus was, but I appreciate that He understands the person I am.

When I found out that I was pregnant two days before Christmas, it was very overwhelming- to say the least. As the first weeks went by, it was hard to fully celebrate this miracle of life because I felt so surprised and very upset that Rob was going to be gone and we would not be together for this experience. So I began to think about Jesus. And then I felt frustrated. Jesus didn’t know how I felt about this. Jesus did not have a baby. He didn’t have mood swings, have to run to the bathroom all the time, worry about missing his spouse and think about the 900 foods he couldn’t eat. (Well, he might have done that. He was following Jewish dietary laws.)

I also thought of this congregation. Jesus did not get elderly or watch a spouse struggle with a terminal illness. All of this began to boil in my mind. This is where some people find comfort in the lives of the saints or Mary or the other apostles, but not me. Not only am I crazy about the Trinity, I am stubborn about the Trinity. If this is how God has chosen to express God’s self, then there is a good reason why.

The thing is, Jesus doesn’t cover all the bases. Jesus is God-with-us, but Jesus is not the only way that God accompanies us or the only way that God understands us. There can only have been one Messiah and so he was sent into the world, not to condemn the world, but that it might be saved through him. When I desperately want to know that Jesus understands what I’m experiencing, I forget that was not the only purpose of God’s human life on earth. Because God has made each of us, out of care and love, God does know what we are going through. We are pointed not only to Jesus, but to the entire Trinity so that we might have confidence that the One who made is us is also the Three who understand and are present with our every emotion and experience. Jesus the person might not have known what I felt or what you feel, but God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is always with us, in the thick of it.

How is the Trinity? They’re fine, thank you. In all seriousness, the how of the Trinity is where people get hung up, stopped and close their minds to God or to God’s full expression. The how of the Trinity is the aspect we don’t have to understand. We believe that Christ is present to us in the bread and wine. We don’t know how, but we believe through the gift of faith. We believe that God adopts us through baptism, when we cannot act on our own, and makes us. How exactly that works, we couldn’t say for sure, but we believe through faith. We believe that the Spirit ever creates in us a clean heart, sanctifying us throughout our live. How? God only knows, but we believe through faith.

So also through faith do we believe in a Three-in-One God, a God above us, God with us and God in us. This is the God who made us, who saved us through the cross and resurrection, who breathes life into us. Holy Trinity Sunday- where we are brought together to acknowledge that we don’t have the control, but God does and God reveals that strength to us in many, many ways. Here we learn that God’s own love and mercy are so great- that it takes three intertwined expressions to show it. Ever creative, comforting and compassionate- the Holy Trinity, the one True God, has the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever.


Holy Spirit at the Bat (Pentecost)

EZEKIEL 37:1-14; PSALM 104:24-34, 35B; ACTS 2:1-21; JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4B-15

The valley was deep and wide in front of Ezekiel that day:
The bones lay bare and dry; he knew not what to say.
And then the Lord questioned, and Ezekiel did reply,
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “Lord, you know better than I”.

Ezekiel drew in his breath and made his voice heard well
“Oh, dry, dry bones. Dry, quiet bones, hear what I do tell
Knees and elbows, thighs and hips- all a skeleton has to give-
Hear this word from your Lord, receive sinews and flesh and live.”

Before his eyes, the bones did rise and stand upon the ground-
Bone met bone, from head to toe, with a fierce rattling sound.
There were bodies standing with ears open, waiting to hear
The word the Lord wanted sent forth about his presence, near.

Ezekiel called forth the wind, as he had been told to do,
The standing bodies inhaled and breathed with life anew;
They were a sign for Israel of what the Lord had done.
The bodies showed that in the end, always, the Lord has won.

How did those bones together come and how were they alive?
God’s Spirit works in strange, new ways and causes all to thrive.
The same Spirit moved on Peter, who was the church’s rock.
Reborn, on fire, the disciples seemed drunk at nine o’clock.

Jerusalem gathered for Pentecost celebration.
Annually, they recalled God’s own gifts unto their nation.
Jesus’ followers were together, waiting on God’s word.
Then tongues of flame descended and, oh!, the noise that was heard.

Each person began to speak in a language not his own.
The Spirit’s power gave them ability, voice, strength, words and tone.
The crowd was surprised, hearing their languages spoken.
To simple Galileans, this gift from God was no mere token.

Then Peter stood, began to preach and the Spirit supplied the words:
As Ezekiel to dry bones, here too God’s power was heard.
Prophetic children, young men with visions and old men with dreams,
Spirit outpouring, all the world knows comes apart at the seams.

And what now does this matter, this strange, spiritual power?
Breathing on bones, at Pentecost and here in this hour?
Oh, why and how does this Holy Breath move within the world unbidden?
Its gifts are so public, so out there, and so unhidden.

The Lord God revealed unto Ezekiel the Spirit’s end goal.
Jesus told the disciples earthly life can and does take its toll.
The Advocate is for comfort, guidance and intercession.
If God seems hands off, that’s absolutely the wrong impression.

The Holy Spirit re-wets us. It baptizes and reforms our flesh-
So God’s will for creation and our understanding might mesh.
The dry bones received holy breath so they would know God anew.
Peter said to those listening, “This work is done for you.”

On this day, here in this church, we are called to recognize
The work of the Spirit is ongoing, right in front of our eyes.
Not just dry bones nor drunk with new wine, we do have more to give.
The Spirit among us, drives and compels you and me to live.

The Spirit gives us power now to hear the Truth, walk the Way, see the Lord.
Here we have so many gifts. There is so much need. How could we be bored?
So get up from your seats, share this news through song, speech and shout:
There is great joy in Anchorage- the Holy Spirit is let out!

Healing (24 May)

ACTS 1:15-17, 21-26; PSALM 1; 1 JOHN 5:9-13; JOHN 17:6-19

This week we mark the ascension of Christ into heaven. It falls in the church calendar right before Pentecost and we hardly ever notice it. Jesus speaks to his disciples again (Acts 1:4-11). After hearing this, the disciples go back to Jerusalem and do what? (They pray, they talk about Judas, they decide to elect a twelfth disciple.) The election of a twelfth is important because they were correlating the twelve apostles with the twelve tribes of Israel.

So they pray and come up with two names: Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus and Matthias. Then they essentially roll some dice or draw straws to confirm their selection. This was not that unusual at that time- remember the sailors casting lots to discover that Jonah was to blame for the storm at sea? The lots confirmed for the believers how they believed God was guiding them. They were leaning toward Matthias and the lots confirmed that choice.

Before the selection, however, how did they come up with the two choices? They looked at the men who had been with Jesus and with them, from the time of Jesus’ baptism through to the witnessing of the resurrection. That last part was crucial. They didn’t want someone who had witnessed most of the miracles or the teachings. The apostles knew that the witness and experience of the resurrection was crucial to the ability to minister to other people.

That’s something for us to think about: a witness to the resurrection, to the power of the risen Jesus, is crucial to the ability to minister to other people. After all, that is what brings us here. Beyond our parents or our grandparents, our habits, our social needs or anything else, the experience we have had with Jesus- the One who and the One who is to come- is what brings us back to this place, to be nourished and fed and what sends us back into the world.

This is even what Jesus is praying for his disciples and for us in today’s Gospel lesson. He asks the Father to sanctify us in truth, to make us holy through the reality that only comes from the Word that is with God and is God. That resurrected Word offers conviction, consolation and healing.

Healing. Ultimately, when we pray for one another- we are asking for a renewal of the experience of the resurrection and the joy of salvation. We long to see the restoration of the body and the return to life, as we’ve known it. However, life as we know it is not always God’s desire for us. God longs to sanctify us in truth, to make us more than we are and more than we thought we could be.

When we look to the resurrection and to one another as witnesses to that miracle, we are also looking to the God of unexpectedness and mysteriousness. The disciples chose Matthias to complete the twelve and believed that choice to be the will of God. How many of you know anything about Matthias beyond today’s story? Church history says he may have been a missionary to Ethiopia and what may be his remains rest in Germany today.

The disciples believed they knew God’s will and selected a reasonable candidate to fill their ranks- a man who had experienced Jesus as they understood Him, from beginning to beginning, baptism to resurrection. However, God completed the ranks of the apostles through calling Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul. Paul’s experience of the resurrection was a completely different witness, overcoming him in the middle of his intense opposition to Christianity- the risen Christ knocked him from his mount, turned his day into night and set him off in a completely new direction. Paul never got over it and neither did the message of Christ to the world. Sometimes witnesses to the resurrection don’t fit the mold we expect, the stories we know or the experiences that we have had.

And so, when we pray for one another for healing and restoration, we must keep this in mind. The healing may not look like what we desire. The restoration may not meet our checklist of requirements. It may not come in a time frame that we desire or in through the means we choose.

Yet, the resurrection experience comes to those who seek it and to those who are not expecting it. Healing does as well. We are called to be with one another, to pray for one another and share our experiences of resurrection with one another. We are called to ask for experiences of the resurrection for one another. This is how we are apostles and disciples to each other today. In the mutual caring of one another, God reveals His truth and we share together in the miracles that come through life daily- miracles of physical restoration, miracles of peaceful deaths, miracles of intensely shared pain, miracles of grief survived, miracles of quiet hope and faith.

Together we seek God’s will, we pray for healing, we share our faith. Together we proclaim, “Christ is risen.” (He is risen indeed.) Believing that, together we are witnesses to the resurrection- yesterday, today and forever.

You Know What's Right (17 May)

ACTS 10:44-48; PSALM 98; 1 JOHN 5:1-6; JOHN 15:9-17

When I was growing up, my father had a phrase he would say when I was preparing to go on a trip or away from home for any amount of time. He would look at me and say, “You know what’s right. Do it.” My mother would ask if I had enough toiletries and then if I had enough clothes. I always assumed the order of her questioning was if I had to run around naked, at least I could be clean. However, my father’s advice was applied regardless of cleanliness. No lists of “Call us”, “Don’t spend all your money on something stupid”, “Don’t go anywhere with strangers”, but “You know what’s right. Do it.”

I thought about that phrase this week in a scary situation. There were no moral choices to be made, but more some quick decisions. My brother David and I were walking my dog down by Eagle River when we spotted a cow moose, which (as it turns out) had a very young calf. She charged at us on the trail and we went leaping into the woods, just like you’re supposed to. Well, David and the dog went leaping into the woods. I waddled quickly into a little stand of trees. Over the next 30 minutes, we slowly made our way back to the car, stopping, calling out, listening and discussing other options. We wanted to be out of the situation, but we also knew the moose was not enjoying herself.

Once we finally got back to the car without incident and then got home and debriefed the situation, David and I both settled down for the worst night’s sleep we’ve both had in a while. It was one of those nights where you wake up, sweating, thinking about what could have happened. As I lay awake on Friday morning, in the few hours of darkness, I thought about how automatically we had reacted. We didn’t debate the situation or the nuances of different options. As we started to make noise and the moose started for us, we immediately moved into the trees. We knew the right thing to do and we did it.

As we saw her go up the trail, pushing the calf in front of her, we knew to move slowly and not crowd them and to give plenty of indication of where we were and to keep our eyes peeled for where they might have gone. We knew the right thing to do and we did it. Granted David and I have been in some wild and hairy situations before (and I do mean wild and hairy), but to a certain extent- you just know what to do in the majority of them- what your options are, what your capabilities are and what you can do in the situation with what you have.

This applies to today’s gospel lesson in two ways. The first is that we, as Christians, often spend a lot of time agonizing over what the right thing is in a given situation. The second is that we don’t often act on what we definitely know to be the right thing to do. Why in our walk of faith do we so often feel paralyzed by indecision?

Jesus tells the disciples in today’s passage, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” So what is the right thing to do? (Love one another as Christ has loved us)

Why does this matter? In the gospel according to John, this is the last command that Jesus gives his disciples before the trial and crucifixion. In the days between what seemed like the end and the new beginning in the resurrection, Jesus knows the disciples are going to point fingers at one another, bicker and blame. He is reminding them, urging them, encouraging them not to do this, but to hold one another in love. To remember the truth and to remember Him as their friend and in that remembering to love one another.

Through John, today, Jesus reminds us that He is our friend and that what was right for the disciples is the same thing that is the right thing for us to do. And we’re called to make it so automatic in our lives that we don’t stop to think about, but that we find ourselves leaping into the woods, leaping toward one another, hurrying to repair breaches, to show justice and mercy- to do what is right in a way that we are surprised later at how it happened.

But, Pastor Julia, don’t you always tell us that we can’t do what is right. That our best efforts are still weak and we cannot save ourselves. You’re right. I do say that. You can’t do what is right.

When we stop there, we are sitting at the foot of the cross, singing “What a Friend We have in Jesus” and that’s all that happens. When we stop with “Well, I can’t be perfect, so I won’t do anything”- nothing gets done. No one is fed, no one is visited, no one is healed, nothing is built and, essentially, we negate the whole purpose of the cross.

Jesus is our friend, our confidant, our supporter, our God-with-us because we’ve been told what to do. Further instruction is not necessary. We have enough to do to keep ourselves busy, and, theoretically, out of trouble. Has anyone here ever reached the end of day and said, “I’ve loved everyone I could today. Good night.”

We need a friend who listens to our venting, our supplications, our charges, our needs, our hopes and our dreams. We need a friend who responds to those with love and compassion, a friend who walks with us. In Jesus, we have this friend, one who laid down his life for us on the cross, so that we might have life.

That friendship calls to us- in our waking and in our dreaming. That friendship binds us together. That friendship goads us and comforts us. That friendship sees where we fall short and makes up the difference in our lives and in the world around us. We are cleansed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, according to Paul, and therefore we are not called to be concerned with those details.

Knowing this, we are called to be friends in the same way to one another and to all those whom God loves. In this world, there are daily people being charged by loneliness, oppression, fear, doubt, anger, hurt and so many other forces. You aren’t called to help them alone. Your friend goes with you- on the trail, in the wilderness, in the city, in your home. And, yes, things can get wild and hairy- but we’re never left without help.

Jesus gives us the Spirit to guide us; even we don’t know what we’re doing. God has given us the Bible so that we have a guidebook with some directions. And we are bound together, through the ties of faith, so that we can help one another.

Even as Jesus is speaking to the disciples, he knows what they are going to do in the days ahead, but he wants to remind them that there is a better way, a way to which he is calling them, a way to which we are called.

As I abide in you and you in me, Jesus says, this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. You know what’s right. Do it.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Evangelicals All

ACTS 8:26-40; PSALM 22:25-31; 1 JOHN 4:7-21; JOHN 15:1-8

What’s the name of this church? (Lutheran Church of Hope) And it belongs to what larger church body? (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) How often do you think about that denominational title? While the age of denominational affiliation may be ending, that title still says a lot about who we are as a church. Or, at least, who we are supposed to be?

Yet, when you think of yourself, on your own terms, do you think of yourself as an evangelical? What does evangelical mean? (Based in and recognizing the authority of Scripture) Evangelical comes from the Greek word, evanggelion, which means “good news”. This is not only the gospel, but all of the good news, the entirety of Scripture, which points to the saving work of Jesus the Christ.

When the smaller church bodies merged to form the ELCA, the foundation for the church was not our ethnic heritage, our emphasis on education, our mission work, our ecumenical outreach or any other extraneous source of identity- the merging congregations went to the church’s one foundation, Jesus Christ our Lord. We are his new creation, by water and the word. Thus, we are rooted in the good news.

The same was true for the early church in the days after Christ’s sending of the Holy Spirit. The twelve apostles suddenly got their legs under them and began to preach in all kinds of places. They then appointed seven other elders to take care of church matters, like feeding people, buildings, local ministries, etc. However, these new elders couldn’t keep the Spirit from moving within themselves. (Nobody can keep the Spirit from doing what the Spirit will.)

The Philip we encounter in today’s reading from Acts is from this new group of elders, appointed in Acts 6. He ended up leaving Jerusalem, the apostles’ jurisdiction, and traveled to Samaria. If Jesus was going to include them in so many stories, perhaps they needed to hear the good news as well. It would seem the Spirit was already at work in their hearts.

Philip was a fantastic success for the Lord in Samaria. People heard his preaching, saw his signs and miracles and came to believe and were baptized. The word of the Samaritans faith got back to Jerusalem and even Peter and John came out to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Then Philip receives a new mission. He is sent out into the wilderness. There’s nothing more specific, just out to a certain road and start walking. The wilderness in Scripture is hardly ever positive. The Israelites wandered in it. Jesus was tempted there. Sheep have to be rescued from it. Things are lost. But Philip is sent and he goes out into this desert wilderness.

Lo, and behold, here comes a chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch inside. Now if Samaria already seemed like the outer reaches for the Gospel, Ethiopia was a whole other world. And a eunuch? The Pentateuchal laws prevented people with certain bodily injuries or handicaps to enter into the presence of the Lord. So this man was as far on the outskirts from what the apostles previously imagined as preaching to Martians or Venusians would be to us.

Yet, there he was and there was Philip. And where two or more are gathered? There is… Christ. In the reading from Isaiah, the eunuch is moved by the Spirit to know that he is reading more than the story of a mere martyr. And Philip is placed there to guide his understanding, by revealing to him the good news of Jesus.

And, so through the work of the Spirit, the eunuch desires to be baptized. What is to prevent him from being baptized? (Being Ethiopian, being a eunuch) EVERYTHING is there to prevent him from being baptized, but nothing can. After the resurrection, all bets are off. Everyone and anyone can hear the good news. God’s work through the Spirit in water and the Word is unstoppable. Even the distances of the known world at that time cannot contain it.

God is calling people to faith and people hear the call. The apostles, elders, teachers and followers of the church guide first one another and then their neighbors in that walk of faith.

God’s calling does not end with the book of Acts. Consider that Philip was moved to be right where God wanted him to be. Maybe it was wilderness, but the Spirit had work for him there. Do you doubt that God will do any less with you, right where you are, right now? Tomorrow? Next week?

We long for the world to understand God’s message of justice and forgiveness, of judgment and grace, but how can they understand it unless someone guides them. And who will guide them?

How about the evangelicals? That’s not the people on TV. That’s not the people at Anchorage Baptist Temple. That’s not missionaries in Africa or Latin America or in Anchorage. The evangelical is every person who has been baptized, who believes, who understands in their heart that the love of God is the greatest gift the world has been given.

If I am not mistaken, that would be you. You evangelicals. Does that mean you know exactly what to say, how to explain the whole Bible, how to make clear the nuances of the Trinity or details about everlasting life? No. You are evangelical because of what you believe, in the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word of Life revealed by God’s Word. And if you believe in that, then you may also believe that you do not go into the world alone.

When the queen uses the royal we, to whom is she referring? (Herself and the Holy Spirit) Well, the use of that we doesn’t come through coronation, it comes through baptism. You are never just a me, you always go into the world as a we. Philip did, the eunuch did, I do, your mother does or did, you do.

Your faith comes to you from God and the God who grants you that will not abandon you, even as you are lead to new places to speak up, speak out and speak for Christ. And so, do not be afraid, of the wilderness or of uncertainty. Do not be afraid to be evangelical. What exactly do we believe? Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.).

After the resurrection, all bets are off. The Spirit moves where the Spirit will and there is nothing to stop it. Everyone and anyone can hear the good news. All they need is someone to guide them. And that may well be you.


What a Friend We Have in Jesus (but what about in each other?)

This week's text, John 15:9-17, talks about Jesus' followers as his friends. John 15:13 reads, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

So needless to say, I've been thinking about friendship this week. Also burned in my brain is the following incident: I was recently chatting with a friend who happens to be a couple years older than me. I don't think of this that often and she doesn't either. In the course of our conversation, a mutual acquaintance came up and mentioned our age difference. The acquaintance proceeded to ask my friend why, since I was younger, I was already married and had a baby on the way. The underlying implication was that there was something wrong with the friend since she was so far behind the curve in these areas.

This compounds my mixed feelings about Mother's Day (Father's Day/Valentine's Day/Grandparent's Day/etc). Everyone does have a mother, but on that particular day- we acknowledge the people who are mothers. While I'm all for honoring your mother (see Proverbs 31), I think these specialized days also detract from the people for whom mothering conversations are painful.

Let me make it very, very clear that I fall into the camp of "not everyone is the same". Not everyone is married, a parent, single, white, purple, pierced, a veteran, peacenik, etc. And I don't believe it is possible to always offend none of the people all of the time. Sometimes, some people just aren't in a group. Sometimes you need to have a Bible study for married people. Sometimes for single people. Sometimes you honor parents. Sometimes you honor teachers. Not everyone is everything, but everyone is something.

We are called to abide in Christ, to bear one another's burdens in love and to lay down our lives for one another- at least those we consider friends. Therefore, beloved, it is important to consider each person as a person. A person's worth comes not from marital status, parenting status, age, rank or serial number, but because they are created and loved by God.

People are generally aware of their life circumstances and probably don't need you or me or anyone else to point it out to them. I know I'm 6 months pregnant. I don't need anyone to tell me or to try to guess how far along I am or to wonder if I am sure I'm only having one baby. Rejoice with me in a healthy pregnancy and give me good wishes for a safe birth. Be my friend.

Laying down your life may mean laying down the expectations that everyone has the same goals or is on the same timeline. It may also mean acknowledging that not everyone's goals are achieved in the time their heart desires. Be their friend.

Branches get intertwined and it can be hard to separate them, but apart from the vine- they bear no fruit. Sever not your fellow vines, but support them in mutual love and friendship. Be willing to lay down your life for them.