Tuesday, October 30, 2007

November Newsletter

A small moment of fear strikes my heart when I announce “Time for the Children’s Sermon” because I wonder if today will be the Sunday when some well-meaning child asks me a huge theological question. I envision everyone sliding forward in their seats to watch Vicar Julia squirm and answer, “What was before God?” or “What happens when we die?” or “Why do bad things happen?” Yet that fear quickly dissipates when I see all the children squeezing out of pews and scrambling to get to the front of the church. The joy of children who are still excited about coming to church is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.

How can we encourage that joy and excitement? Parents, pastors, teachers and the whole church family promise at baptism to help children learn about their faith and what God has done for them and for the world. When we baptize children, we are witnessing the miracle of God’s claiming them and joining them to us as fellow children of God. Since they are part of this family, it is right that they participate in the activities of the family- including our weekly reunion in worship.

When children are present during the worship service, they are learning about what it means to be in the family. Just like they might imitate their parents’ home or work activities, so they learn to follow your church habits. They learn to stand up to sing, to offer prayer requests, to help with ushering or communion, to kneel at the rail and receive a blessing of words or the sacrament, and they learn that church is important.

In the recent weeks, we seen a way that children are also longing to imitate their parents. Several young children have made a point of giving money to the church for their offering. They are eager to be participants in the ministry of the congregation in ways we might not have thought they understood and that is something we, as a congregation, can encourage. Let us, then, create an opportunity for the children of Gloria Dei to demonstrate their desire to participate and to share what they have.

Beginning in November, we will make a space for children to bring tithes and offerings forward during the offering portion of the service. As the plates are passed throughout the congregation, children will be encouraged to bring whatever they have forward. For the month of November, we will be asking children to bring canned goods of all kinds to help with the various food ministries in which Gloria Dei participates.

Food is concrete image that children can understand and explaining why we bring food to different organizations appeals to children’s sense of fairness. If possible, you might even ask younger children what kind of canned goods they think other people might enjoy or encourage older children to figure out how many cans they could buy with a certain amount of money. It is our hope that this month will help establish a habit and enthusiasm for giving to the church that will remain with the children of Gloria Dei as they continue in life.

We can only imagine the enthusiasm with which children must have hurried toward Jesus and the eyes of love he turned toward them, saying, “Let them come to me.” We can help our children keep that same enthusiasm by teaching them about the gift of faith and how we can use that gift to care for those people around us. May we all remember and share the joy of being children of the heavenly Father in the coming month and beyond!

Reborn Free

Reformation Day Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK
October 28, 2007 Vicar Julia Seymour

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.

Is there anyone else here who grew up in the American South? I don’t know if you had this experience, but more than once in my life I’ve had people who were not from the South and had never been there ask me one question. This question was not “What are grits” or “Why do you talk like that” or “Why is your tea sweeter than pop”. People will ask if they can make a personal inquiry and then lean in and quietly ask, “Do you still have slaves in the South?”

That’s the equivalent of asking an Alaskan if he or she lives in an igloo or sees penguins all the time. I was usually tempted to put on my thickest drawl and go on and on about the joys and trials of household help, but I never could because of the serious edge to the question. Despite slavery’s end over one hundred and forty years ago, people still believe it might exist in pockets of the South and they want to know about it.

My surprise at that question probably is not even close to how Jesus must have felt when the people to whom he was speaking said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Jesus was able to resist sarcastically naming the people who had enslaved the children of Abraham over time- the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians… it was a long list. He could see that his audience needed to understand themselves as never having been slaves. Those of us hearing the gospel today may well feel the same way, but we too are slaves.

We are shackled to a world that tells us our worth is in how much we can do in a given amount of time, how much we have at any moment, and whose side we are on in a given situation. It may seem strange in this day and age to talk about evil as a spiritual reality, to mention the old satanic foe. However, that is how that Darkness, capital “D” darkness, the frigid emptiness seeps in- through the cracks we do not think are big enough to let anything slip. There is a brokenness that surrounds us, that we see and experience every day- in relationships with one another, with creation and with our Creator God. That brokenness is sin and we are in bondage to it and cannot free ourselves.

Considering things we cannot do ourselves lead me to thinking about reunions. My husband, Rob, is scheduled to be home in less than a week and a half. In fact, I might be with him at this time next week. There are not words to describe to you how excited I am. He has been in Iraq since late April, flying cargo planes. We have been able to talk on the phone and email, but I am overcome to think that I will hear him laughing again soon and to know I’ll be able to sit next to him and just reach out and touch him. And I know there are those here who have recently experienced that kind of reunion and those who are waiting for one- whether in this world or the next.

If that is the kind of joy we have in being joined with the ones we love, when nothing else at all matters, we cannot comprehend how God feels to be reunited with us. Yet God is always with us, always rooting for us, always fighting for us and always forgiving us. The reunion happens when we have those moments of clear faith comprehension. When our eyes widen and our hearts break in overwhelming awe as God meets us in how someone else cares for us, in words we hear, in our life experiences and in the sacraments.

Without our own effort, request or even knowledge, God forms and reforms us. Giving us faith and feeding it, God is with us in our wanderings as the prodigal and in our realization of where we belong. There is a place for us at this table, at the Son’s table, where we are always welcome and where we bring nothing- except ourselves as God’s own claimed children. Here is always the greatest re-union

Though we live in a world bound by sin, it will not and cannot win. So hear the words of our emancipation proclamation: You are beloved by God. God’s covenant with you is this: God is always with you, hearing your prayers, giving you faith, and crying with you in darkness. God loved you enough that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, died for you so that you might be a child of God. As the Son, Jesus’ death has won for you a place in God’s house-forever. It’s the best name drop or recognition, ever. You will never be asked to prove your worth for this gift, because Christ’s own righteousness covers you. And because of Christ, God reformed and reforms the covenant with all his people.

This is the truth and all other ground, all other ground, is sinking sand: Welcome the the reunion.You are God’s beloved. Your sins are forgiven. You are free indeed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Taste and See

It's been awhile, but the fat, white flakes have me in a reflective mood. All week long I have been waiting for the snow to accumulate and I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother.

My grandma taught me how to make snow cream- a delicious combination of evaporated milk, sugar, vanilla and snow. Since I grew up in North Carolina, the opportunities for snow cream were few and far between- but the sweet, creamy goodness is a strong gustatory memory of my childhood. I've been waiting this week to make this year's first batch of snow cream.

Thinking about that taste memory led me down a dreamy path of other reflection. The scent of Deep Woods Off makes me think of summer camp. The smell of cold jet engine fuel takes me back to deplaning in Nome. The sound of studded tires slowly rolling over pavement reminds me of the crunch of gravel under my bike tires when I was young. The sight of children playing with dolls outdoors brings to mind how my sister and I would sneak our "babies" out the window to each other and bring them inside the same way- thus evading the fact that dolls were supposed to remain indoors.

Our senses play a strong role in our lives- both in memory and in day-to-day living. We are usually astonished and impressed by people who live without one or more of the five main senses because we are so accustomed to them and the life we are able to live with those faculties.

I think this is why the earthly elements of the sacrament are so important. These are tangible realities to which God has attached promises of forgiveness, faith and forthcoming blessings. As we experience the touch of water and the taste of wine and bread again- the spiritual memory is formed to associate those experiences with God's word. When we receive the body and blood of Christ and hear the words "for you"- we experiencing a miracle most of us can see, hear, feel and taste. It's an experience God made for us- so we can remember what has been done for us and to create a way for us to encounter God.

It's a tiny meal and a tiny bath, but large in significance. The sacraments are the washing of our hearts and food for the good of the soul. We're grateful for the tangible impression that they make, which also helps us remember that grace is God's gift. We might be able to bring the elements, but God brings the promises- making God the Host, the Guest and the Presents.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What to do?

I was recently asked about how ELCA Lutherans handle difficult passages in the Bible, particularly ones dealing with women's ordination. Do we dismiss them as being from a different cultural context or should we take them literally? So today I want to take a look at one of those passages and one way we might consider it.

1 Timothy 2:9- 14
[A]lso that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. "

The easy way to deal with this is to say it is from a different time and is no longer applicable. This is not the word of God for us. However, that does not acknowledge the reality of this passage as part of our scriptures. If we believe God has inspired the words of the Bible, how do we deal with cultural issues and changes in common understanding.

This is a little bit easier with slavery in that very very few people today believe the passage "Slaves obey your masters" should serve as an obvious Biblical call for a social structure that includes slaves. Yet it be that easily dismissed? And why is that this is easier to do with passages about slavery and not with passages about women in church leadership?

Helpful in considering parts of scripture is the understanding that various parts were written for different reasons. Histories tell of God's people fighting various enemies for various reasons. Wisdom literature sings God's praises and points out hard truths about the reality of life on earth. Prophecy talks about God's expectations, disappointments and work among people. The gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ on earth and Acts tells the story of his disciples after his ascension. Epistles are from disciples to various faith communities- advising, consoling and exhorting. Revelation is, well,... revelation.

When we read Scriptures, we should go into it preparing to be challenged, comforted and questioning about what we meet. We must also remember to think about all scripture together- the Bible is our whole canon- the parts we love and the parts we'd like to leave out.

The letters to Timothy are written, to our best understanding, by someone writing in Paul's name. They may not even be to someone named Timothy, but rather general letters written to faith communities in the names of Paul and Timothy. This was a common practice in that time to write in the style of a particular leader or teacher and to continue to use (usually) his name.

By the time the letters to Timothy and from Peter are being written, people are becoming concerned with the growing church and the development of Christian practices. By now the Christians are still a sect of Judaism, but are more frequently recognized on their own and for their different beliefs. Many Christians by this time would have also begun to adjust to the idea that the return of Christ might be further away than previously thought. The letters we believe are genuinely from Paul (Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are similar in writing style and deal with understanding the nuances of faith and living in community until Christ comes again... an event that seems imminent. The later epistles, written in the Pauline style, are concerned with church practices and establishing respectability for the growing faith (1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians).

With this information, we have to look at the Scriptures with the eyes of two audiences, those of the original readers and then our own contemporary eyes.

In the whole of Scripture, women have various leadership positions and play significant roles in the development of faith. Where would the lineage of Jesus be without Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Mary? But it is not only through sex (or retained virginity) that women make a difference, but also through proclamation, hospitality and evangelism. Deborah (Judges 4), Lydia (Acts 6:14), Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Susannah and Joanna (Luke 8:3) all play a significant role in the lives of the people around them and further the spread of the word of God through their actions.

If we know that women play a successful leadership role in Scripture, then what does it mean for our reading of texts that say women should not have leadership roles (over men) in churches. For the time at which it was written, women did not often have access to as much education as men had. Also, other major religions at the time (namely Judaism) did not have women leaders and having them might have made Christians less respected or accepted culturally. In contemporary understanding, the message is that our church leaders (and our own behaviors as church members) reflect not only on ourselves, but on the gospel. Our lives are not merely our own, but may be the encounter people remember with a person who described themselves as a Christian.

The larger message is that there are parts of the Bible that may seem irrelevant or confusing, but when we dismiss them, we lose the chance for God's spirit to work in our hearts and increase our understanding of the Word. So don't shy away from that Bible or the wrestling. Jacob might have limped away from the angel, but he did so with a blessing. So do we when we spend time read God's inspired Word to people then and now.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ordinary Time

Yesterday when I was putting on my alb (the white robe) before church, I reflected, a little disappointedly, on the service to come. I confess that I had the thought, "It's kind of a boring Sunday." There were no baptisms, no special recognitions, I wasn't preaching... so nothing new, just the same, same, same service that happens all the time.

The service began with announcements as usual, the confession and forgiveness and then a hymn, etc. You know how it goes. Yet it was somewhere around the children's sermon that I felt that thrill of ecclesial excitement. It's hard to describe, but it's like the Holy Spirit blowing up my spine and saying, "Wake up! Look, look! Here's something else!" (In my mind, the HS has to use Dick and Jane syntax- otherwise we might miss the point. See the sunrise! Taste the bread! Grace is good! Count the blessings- 1, 2, 3.)

Back to the church service and my tingling spine, as I heard about the words of the children's sermon (Scott was preaching), I thought about the idea of "ordinary time" (which is what some denominations call the Sundays between Pentecost and Advent) and the ordinariness of a church service. In Ordinary Time, we receive the most challenging gospel texts. Not the stories about the life of Jesus, but the heart of his teachings- about money, faith, prayer, and neighbor love. We wrestle with the parables, rather than floating in the details of the baptism or the walk to Jerusalem before the crucifixion. We hear the confusing predictions about the end of time. Ordinary time does not provide liturgical holiday breaks and is only accented by baptisms or other special services that vary from year to year and in different congregations.

Yet ordinary time is no less miraculous than Easter or Christmas. In fact, I daresay, ordinary time is more miraculous. In those two big holidays, or even lesser commemorations, we are remembering the events of Christ's life and what they mean for our faith. Christ's coming, death and resurrection are part of the mysteries of our faith. Ordinary time offers, constantly, the miracles of our faith: that God promises to come to us in the sacraments of communion and baptism. That God always forgives our sins and, through Jesus, accepts us as children. That we are able to gather and worship without fear and hearing the good news in our own languages.

The celebrations of the liturgical year can seem more important because they are big, but we must remember that the greatest portion of the year is devoted to ordinary time and to the miracles that happen during any ordinary worship service.

What Shall I Say (October Newsletter)

The first time I ever talked formally with a pastor about my sense of call to ministry that pastor prayed with me. The second time, she handed me a book called “What Shall I Say?” This was a slim black paperback with a leaf pictured on the cover. It is the book put out by the ELCA that describes the various opportunities for ministry in the church. “What Shall I Say?” describes what an ordained pastor does, what a diaconal minister does, and so on. When I read the book, for the first time, I really saw in print what someone would expect of a pastor and how the church will guide people in different ministry roles.

The funny thing is that “What Shall I Say?” could be the theme for my ministry training. That phrase comes into my head all the time. If I know I am going to meet with someone, what shall I say? Will the words come that are helpful to this person? When I am preparing a sermon, what shall I say? How can I make this text clear and relevant to the congregation? When I am praying, what shall I say? What are the words that convey the emotions, experiences and expectations I have? Then I have my blog, the newsletter, daily conversations, Sunday School and the whole host of encounters that happen on a daily basis, what shall I say in those?

In my short time here so far, I have been encouraged and excited by the number of people who participate in the ministries of Gloria Dei. People are eager to help with AFACT, with youth, with church gatherings and with other projects. I have also met people who have good ideas about ministry opportunities and are unsure about what to do. There is a desire in the congregation to begin a ministry of visitation, both to members who might be homebound for various reasons and to people who have visited Gloria Dei for worship. Another fruit of the spirit blooms in helping with worship on Sunday morning. If ever there was an easy “burden” or light “yoke”, ushering, lecturing or assisting with communion all fit that description.

“What shall I say?” sums up Moses’ reaction to the burning bush (Exodus 3). The Lord, in the form of the flaming shrubbery, appeared to Moses and told him to go to Egypt, speak to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from slavery. Moses was worried about not being believed and about not being eloquent enough, but God assured him that all would be well and taken care of. As we know from the story, through the actions of a tongue-tied leader (and his siblings!), the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

“What shall I say?” could be the refrain of our lives as Christians. Happily, we never have to say, “What shall I say to make God love/forgive/save me?” We have the blessed assurance that God, through Christ, has done all those things out of love for us and all creation. I realize we are not (too often) freeing people from oppressive slavery, but participation in various activities allows many people to benefit from your talents and for our congregation to grow in many ways. Despite the lack of blazing rhododendrons in my life, I believe God has provided many blessings to me, including the chance to learn from this congregation. As the year progresses, we will all continue in the ministries of this family, Gloria Dei. With God’s grace, may we continue to learn that God provides us with a way to answer “What shall I say?”

Monday, October 1, 2007

Idol Chatter

Lectionary 26
September 30, 2007

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Idol Chatter

Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us together here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does the pursuit of happiness entail? How will you know when you have attained that which you pursue?

Our culture tells us there are many things we need to make us happy. Maybe we are not receiving advertisements for beds of ivory or wine bowls, but we do need a Victrola…a hi-fi…an eight-track player…a cassette player… a Walkman… a CD player…a Discman… an I-Pod. There is always something newer, better, faster, bigger to be had. It’s not even to keep up with the neighbors anymore. It will make our lives better. We’ll save time, be healthier, be smarter, have shinier hair, whiter teeth, a better marriage, deeper sleep, a free pet turtle… it’s always something.

I am not saying progress is bad. That we should shun technology and retreat or that we need to divest ourselves of all our belongings, but what good is it if we gain the whole world and lose our souls? Too easily life can become about what we have. Please look at the back of your bulletin at the second lesson. “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

Godliness combined with contentment? What does that mean? Let’s think of contentment as satisfaction- a fullness of heart and spirit. Godliness can be described as humbleness in communion with the Creator. So there is a deep sense of fulfillment in knowing one is walking with God. Yet that phrase still is a little troubling. We know it is God who meets us, who comes to us, who gives us the gift of faith, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. So godliness is an attribute that comes from the top down- from our Maker to us. How can we be anything but content to know that God walks with us in our daily lives?

But what about that parable? Where the rich man goes to Hades? And the poor man, described so graphically, goes to be with Abraham? This parable is preceded by the woman who finds the lost coin, the man who finds the lost sheep, the father who finds his prodigal son and the dishonest manager who was extravagant in forgiving debt. Still when the Pharisees heard all these stories, they scoffed at Jesus. Luke 16:14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Jesus tells them, “… God knows your hearts…” and then this parable comes abruptly.

This parable is interesting for many reasons. There is no introduction or conclusion. Hades was the Greek term for hell. Lazarus doesn’t go to the Father, but to Abraham. There is no mention of faithfulness. What is interesting is that the rich man still thinks he can give orders from Hades. Oh, Abraham… how about sending that man to cool me off? No? Well, send him to my brothers, so that they might be saved.

Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “You fools! You just don’t get it. Amos said your possessions mean nothing if you do not grieve for the wrong that is in the world. Micah said do justice and love mercy. Isaiah says how beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, good news and salvation. Everything you need is right in front of you, but you will continue to believe that you are better than others because you dress well, eat well and offer more expensive sacrifices. You just don’t get it and I’m beginning to see that you may not ever.”

While we are able to see Jesus’ point, we can easily forget it. As Martin Luther reminds us, the first commandment is always the easiest to break. We do not mean to have other gods, but when we are distracted by the offerings of the world, when we idolize what is offered here, our hearts are not in the right place. We end up not grateful and we are not content.

This morning we have a baptism. Some of you may be able to remember your baptism, but many of you may not. Baptism is a mysterious of work of God that we have the chance to witness and in which we can participate. We are always encouraged to remember our baptisms daily. And what of those baptismal promises?

The strangest one always seems to be “Do you renounce the Devil and all his empty promises? The forces of evil?” What are we renouncing? That promise reminds us that nothing else in this world can offer us what God offers us in baptism- life, salvation and mercy. We baptize infants because God has called us to welcome all in this way into the family of the Church. When we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Before we have the chance to sin, God’s power cleanses us, showers us with love and fills us with the Holy Spirit.

Here where we are claimed as God’s own- there are certain truths that are self-evident. We are all equal in God’s eyes- beloved and blessed. Through God’s promises we can take hold of the life that really is life. We are freed to love the people around us- to use our possessions, our talents, and our time to help our neighbors. And we are called here again and again to remind ourselves that we are God’s own. That reminder serves as a beacon to guide us in pursuing godliness and contentment. Let your light shine before the world, so that they may see the good things you do and glorify your Creator in heaven.

We all have things, but we must remember they are just that… things. They have no value beyond what they can do for our lives in the very short term. Let your heart be moved by all that God has done for you and do not be swayed by the empty promises of the Devil. Remember God’s miracle for you in the waters of baptism. Solid and sure are those promises combined with water. They do not fail.

In fact, there is only one empty thing that God has ever given the world- the tomb.

Jesus Loves Me

This Sunday, there was a grace moment in church- a moment so filled with and blessed by the Holy Spirit that I will always remember it.

The pianist played a beautiful version of 'Jesus Loves Me' during the offertory. As the notes rippled throughout the sanctuary, so did another sound... the soft sound of voices singing the hymn, quietly and gently. As I looked out at the congregation, I saw so many people, young and old, singing the song together. Parents encouraging their young children with the words, older people with smiles on their faces at the familiar tune, elderly members silently moving their lips to a song they've known for years.

It was such a powerful visual. Almost a liturgical Norman Rockwell painting- the family of God gives their offerings and rejoices in song. Yet there was more than just a nice visual and a sweet sound. There was a genuine sincerity in the music. These weren't lyrics to puzzle over or a new melody. The song was sung from memory of life experience and spiritual understanding. So, it will always stand as one of the most profound theological moments of my life- watching the group of people I have come to love and feel a part of singing with blessed assurance, "Yes, Jesus loves me."