Sunday, January 27, 2013


Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 4:21-30

A long time ago when I was a very young pastor just starting out, an older woman pastor took me to lunch.  I don't remember where we went, what we ate, or even very  much of the substance of our conversation that day.   But I do remember this.  Before we left she offered this very sage advice, "When things get hard, and they will, don't assume that people are resisting you because you are a woman.  It's as likely to be because you are young.  Or because you're the assistant pastor."

I was grateful for her wise words and have repeated them more than once. I expect it kept me from going down a path of bitterness which others, no doubt many justifiably, had not been able to avoid. Even so, her words didn't take away the truth that often we are judged by things over which we have little or no control.  Often others will say, 'But she's only... he's only..."  Others may echo the thoughts which are lurking in the corners of our own minds as well: 'Just who does she think she is?!?"  And yes, it appears that is part of what is happening in the violent scene which plays out in today's Gospel where Jesus' listeners ask among themselves, "Is not this Joseph's son?"  "Isn't this the boy Jesus, now somehow grown up and changed right before our eyes?"

For yes, I too, am prone to go to 'only.'  I'm only one person. I only have this much time, this much staff, this many resources.  It's been some time now since I've said, "I'm only a girl..." and yes, I need to watch in myself that tendency to discount the words, the gifts, the abilities, of others who haven't yet acquired the gray hair and the forming wrinkles which are now mine. Still, I do know what it is to feel Jeremiah's hesitation when he voiced his reluctance, "Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."  I know what it is to wonder about where one's authority to do, to speak, to be comes from.   And I do find it to be great comfort that it comes from outside of me. And not just outside of me, but that this call has the authority of the voice of God all over it.  At least in the case of the call that was placed upon Jeremiah, which has also been placed upon you and me.

For the work we have been given to do will not always be easy.  It wasn't for Jeremiah.  It certainly wasn't for Jesus.  And yet, it is a call, an authority, which I need to remember to carry humbly.  (I speak now of my experience as pastor, but I expect we can all find parallels regardless of where life has led us: in our professions, to be sure, but even more so in our lives of faith.)  Indeed, how often have I seen my colleagues assume that since they hold the title of  'pastor,' people ought to automatically follow them.  No, I am not among those whose experience has shown that was ever the case.  Perhaps in another generation, but not today.  Rather, I would venture to say that at least in part, my authority comes from holding the hand of a frightened parishioner as he undergoes an unexpected medical test.  My authority comes from answering the call in the middle of the night to sit alongside an old man while his wife undergoes emergency surgery.  My authority comes from simply showing up day after day, week after week, and trying to live the words of Paul's call to love today --- and yes, failing, and then remembering to ask for forgiveness and trying once more.  In some ways, this was also so for Jesus, I realize.  He may have been proclaimed God's beloved Son at his baptism, but from there he went to the wilderness to be tested and from there he was thrust into his ministry teaching and preaching and healing, living and dying.  He was given the authority, but he earned it, too. And I am still learning that like Jesus, most of all, what authority I have, first and finally comes from turning to the One who gave me the authority, the one who issued the call in the first place.  And so yes, I am strengthened whenever I remember that this call is bigger than only me. And it's bigger than only the people I serve alongside.  It is bigger even than only all the calls ever answered by all those given authority all the way back to Jeremiah and before. 

And so we are left with this today.  In the end, it is simply this:  the call is from God.  This call to speak as Jeremiah did... loving the people enough to call them to account.  This call to love as Paul urged the people of Corinth to do. This call to live and serve and heal and teach and die as Jesus did.  For all the ways in which it is lived out and earned in and among flesh and blood people here on earth, it is still bigger than only that.

So for me to say 'I am only' is not really to speak poorly of me --- for us to say 'we are only' is not really to speak poorly of our congregations, our communities.  For it will always be so that alone I will be 'only.'  It will always be so that even as a congregation we may well be 'only.'  That even as a synod, a church body, a federation, we will be 'only.'  Only one, only this much time, experience, gifted-ness, energy, money, focus, passion.... Only.  No, to say, "Only," is not to sell ourselves short.  It is actually, finally, to sell short what we believe God can do, what God has already been doing, what God promises to do.

Indeed, you are never 'only.'  Along with Jeremiah, along with Jesus, along with all those who have answered the call before, you are called by God.  Remembering that and with that alone, we can leave 'only' behind.

  • When did you last say, "But I am only..."  What were the circumstances?  Where did things go from there?
  • Where does your 'authority' come from?  What does it mean to you to 'carry the call lightly?'
  • What difference does it make to you to remember that you are called by God?  When, specifically, has that mattered to you?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stepping Towards the Pain

When I was in high school I played on the girls’ volleyball team.  Not that I was all that good at it or even had any real passion for it.  I wound up on the team because a friend asked me to try out with her.  The uncomfortable irony was that somehow I made the team and she didn’t.
So there I was in a room full of people much more gifted for the sport than I was.  Still, even then I was stubborn and when I didn’t know to do anything else I worked hard.  So I did the drills with the other players every day after school.  I ran the steps in the gym day after day, week after week.  I was young enough still that I don’t remember it being particularly painful. But the sport itself? Well, I still recall going to set the ball at one of our first practices and in that instance I sprained both of my thumbs.  From that time on, even after my thumbs had healed, I shied away from the ball.  I wasn’t tall enough to spike. My serves were only adequate, I wouldn’t or couldn’t set the ball.  And so I resorted, once more, to what I knew best: just plain hard work.  Day after day, week after week, and on game days when the coach would actually put me on the floor, I would fall to my knees to bump the ball to a place where someone else could finish the play.  And now today, nearly forty years later, my left knee still pays the price for what I did to it back then.
I look back now and find it interesting that no one ever really bothered to work with me to get me past my fear of setting up the ball.  No one encouraged me to move towards the pain instead of away from it.  No one pushed me to really develop my skills.  And so by my junior year it all didn't seem quite so worth it to me any more. On game days, I was sitting on the bench all the time.  By then it was clear they were keeping me on the team for the way in which I would push harder at practice than anyone else, not because I would be an asset in the actual game.   A vital part of the team?  In that way, perhaps. But all these years later I wonder how it might have been different.  By my senior year I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and decided to put my after school energy in other places. And for the next 35 years or so I honestly didn’t pay nearly as much attention to my physical body as I did back then.  I haven’t tended to staying in shape like I should have --- something I’ve begun to work at again now only in these last years.
And so today we have before us these marvelous words of Paul about the body of Christ.  We are reminded through these familiar words that the body is all connected: which, I expect we all know from personal experience every moment of every day.  When I have a toothache or an earache, I feel it down to my toes.  When my left knee swells up then my right one goes weak as well as it compensates for the pain.  Indeed, it’s the pain in the body that I find myself paying attention to now --- whether it is in how I feel staggering away from my weight training class or as it cries out to me from some part of the body of Christ in this place.  Yes, Paul reminds us today that when one suffers we all suffer together. And that is so.
Indeed, I found myself needing to pay attention to pain in the body of the congregation I am now serving a few days back.  This one came in the form of an email from someone who was not particularly happy with me.
Now if I had been paying attention to my own body in those moments after I first opened the email I would have noticed a rather classic response.  As I read the words on the computer screen I’m certain my pulse quickened just a bit.  I wouldn’t be surprised if my face flushed and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  I shifted in my chair.  And I hit the reply button and began composing a response.  I don’t recall being particularly angry as I wrote --- but I was anxious as I found myself bearing down trying to explain myself.  And then, after having written only a couple of sentences, I backed away from the keyboard. For I really do know better than to use email for anything I have to think too hard about.
I stepped out into the outer office and spoke to a coworker.  I told her what I was working on and she just calmly nodded, not saying a word.  I said, "I’m thinking I should call this person and not just reply to the email."   And she just nodded again. And then I said, “I suppose I should do that now.”  And she said, ‘Yes, or you won’t sleep tonight.”  Clearly after these months of working alongside me, she knows how my body works.
So I went back to my office and picked up the phone.  I was doing all I could to step towards the pain and not away from it.  Still, I confess that I was more than a little grateful when I got the answering machine.  I left a message in as gentle a tone as I could muster.  I said I had gotten the email and wanted to address the concerns expressed.  I hung up the phone wondering what would happen next. Would the person respond? If they didn’t, what would that mean?  And if they did, how would that go? 
Later that night I checked email again.  The person had responded saying he had gotten my message and that by then it was too late to call. He promised to call on Wednesday.  And I wondered how I would deal with this anxiety for two more days.
But on Tuesday morning the person came walking into the building.  I stepped out of our staff meeting and chased him up the stairs.  For what seemed like an eternity, but was probably all of ten minutes we stood and talked face to face.  It turned out to be a good conversation where concerns were expressed and while we did not come to agreement, I think we left that moment understanding each other more deeply and perhaps at least knowing we’d been heard. 
Thinking back on it I knew this as well.  One of the reasons I don’t like to use email for important conversations is that the encounter then is not full enough.  For one thing, I find I assume ‘tone’ in emails.  And usually in ways that are not helpful.  But I think back on that conversation with one of our own and I remember still the flush in the face.  The pause to think before replying.  The catch in his voice.  It was a face to face encounter with another member of the body. And we are both, I imagine, better for it.
Not that I wasn’t afraid. But a long time ago --- at least when it comes to working in the church --- I learned the hard way to pay attention to my fear, to my own pain, and to step into it --- gingerly sometimes perhaps --- but to move towards it still, or it will never go away, it will only get worse.  And eventually that part of the body will be broken, cut off, or simply not functioning at all.
It’s part of being the body of Christ together.  Any good coach will tell you not to avoid the pain.  Sometimes you work through it. Sometimes you compensate for it.  Always you seek to strengthen that part of the body or the parts around it.  If you avoid the pain, like I did as a member of the high school volleyball team so many years ago, eventually you sideline yourself from the game altogether. And one way or another you pay a price for that.  And that is surely not what God intends.  Not for high school athletes.  And not for us as part of the body of Christ.
And so today I’m grateful today for Paul’s reminder that we are all part of this together.  And I’m grateful for his urging to pay attention to the suffering of others who are in this with us.  Oh, sometimes that pain will come across as bluster, or as anger… it is true that then, most of all, I find myself most wanting to avoid it altogether. And it is then I find myself especially grateful for the folks beside me who say to me --- yes, make the call now or you won’t sleep tonight. Or another who quietly tells me there is nothing to fear.  Or another who simply listens and lets me work it out before I respond.  Oh yes, these are wonderful gifts of being part of this body as well.
We are indeed Christ's body together, you and I. This is who we are. This is who we are privileged to ever more deeply become.  It will be a journey worth taking even or especially as we step into or towards pain in ourselves or in another. We won’t be worse for it.  No, the promise is, that in the end the whole body will be better and stronger for it --- and even more fully all that God intends us to be. 
  • How do you find yourselves thinking about these familiar words from 1 Corinthians now?  How does Paul's image of the church as the 'body of Christ' live for you in your context?
  • How do you understand the assertion that 'if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it'?  How does that live out in your context?
  • In your experience, how is the body strengthened?  Injured? Weakened?  How is it healed once more?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Going Home Again...

Luke 4:14-21

I would not presume to lay my experience alongside that of Jesus.  And yet, I do know what it feels like to try to 'preach' in one's hometown.

I can remember preaching in a congregation not far from where I grew up.  Afterward a woman came up to me and asked me if I was "Tom Hunt's daughter."  It turned out she had worked with him and in those first years after he died to know he was still remembered simply made me glad. Still, I wonder now if she actually heard a single word I uttered that day as she sat and tried to put together the pieces of who I was and where I had come from. 

Some years back I was called upon to lead a communication skills workshop in a congregation which had been torn apart by conflict.  In the room were people who had known me since I was a preschooler --- and others who remembered me best in my awkward adolescence years.  I felt uncomfortable all the way through it -- not knowing how these people could think I had anything worth saying. 

At our family Christmas dinner a few weeks ago, I felt as though I got a sense of what this will be from the other side.  My 18 year old nephew, Andrew, sat down beside me and began to regale us with stories.  I look at him and still see the toddler he was, toting everywhere his special case filled with Thomas the Tank Engine locomotives and cars.  The day will soon come when he will bear even less resemblance to who he was then and I wonder if I will be able to fully embrace who he is becoming.

And so I wonder as we listen to Jesus today if we don't find ourselves in much the same predicament as his first listeners so long ago.  For you and I also know Jesus well.  Many of us have been hearing these stories for a very long time and I would guess by now many of us have our own particular favorites which capture at least some aspect of our "preferred" Jesus. Maybe it is the tender baby Jesus --- God coming to us in the very human, the very vulnerable.  Perhaps it is the teaching Jesus, speaking words of blessing whose perspectives turn our understandings upside down.  Maybe it is the tender, healing Jesus, or the one who notices the widow in the temple.  Or maybe it is the Jesus who breaks the bread, pours, the wine, and kneels to wash the feet of his disciples.  Perhaps we cannot think of Jesus without picturing him on the cross with all the struggle and all the meaning and and all the hope that offers. 

Indeed, you and I sit in the synagogue today and we know Jesus very well.  No, our memories are not those of neighbors and townsfolk who remember Jesus as a toddler, who recall an awkward adolescence, who just saw him as one of a passel of kids in the household of Joseph and Mary.  Even so, we are challenged for a moment now to set aside everything else we think we know of Jesus and to simply hear what he has to say today.  For what he offered in the synagogue so long ago is the picture of who he had become and of all that we are called to as well.
The words spoken in the synagogue that day carry the certain truth that Jesus came bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and sight to those who cannot see.
These words hold the wonder of the truth that with Jesus all who are oppressed know freedom and that something entirely different is happening now: the "year of the Lord's favor" is ours not only to experience for ourselves, but also to share.  As Jesus did and does.
And yes, these words from the Prophet Isaiah serve as the striking reminder that Jesus does not come of his own authority, even as you and I do not do so on our own as we seek to follow him.
Oh yes, those who first sat and listened to Jesus in the synagogue probably thought they knew him well.  We hear something of their surprise as we listen to what happens next.

I wonder if our believing we know Jesus well leads us not to truly hear him at all --- not to deeply comprehend who he was and who he came for.  I wonder if as we hear Jesus reading in the synagogue if we forget to hear his words as our call as well.  Does our familiarity with Jesus stifle our imaginations?  Does our long acquaintance make us less sensitive to the radical nature of what he calls us to now?  Are we, in some ways, like his first listeners?

  • What must it have been like for Jesus' first listeners to hear him reading in the synagogue in Nazareth?  Do we bear any resemblance to them? Why or why not?
  • How does Jesus' reading from the prophet Isaiah speak today? Who are the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed?  Is it us?  Is it others?
  • What does it mean to be anointed for something, to be sent with something?  What does it mean for you?  For your congregation?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

On Wine and Weddings

John 2:1-11

I was out to lunch with a friend the other day.  It was noon on a Saturday and the restaurant was crowded.  After we sat down I looked up to notice the group at the next table.  There were four sitting there. The three women were knitting and the young man was looking on.  It's a little unusual to see a group of knitters out for lunch, so they especially caught my attention. One of the women was a little older, one appeared to be her daughter, and the third was sitting close to the young man.  I was trying not to eavesdrop at first, but the quarters were tight and they were speaking loudly to be heard over the din of the lunchtime crowd.  Soon I could hear they were talking wedding plans... and then the older woman began to tell the story of her own wedding day.  She spoke of the party that was held before the actual wedding itself, about the amount of alcohol consumed, and of how the whole wedding party was late getting to the church. (I cringed in behalf of the pastor who officiated that day.  I'm guessing that after that he found himself making the speech I've made for years at wedding rehearsals.  Pastors, you know the one --- where you remind those bright shining young people to please wait to party until after the wedding itself!)  And then she went on to talk about the 21 bottles of cognac which were served at the actual wedding reception.  From there, the details don't much matter, but as I leaned back in my chair I found myself wondering about how many of our wedding stories go like that.  How many of our stories center not so much on the ceremony itself, but on the celebrations which precede or follow the time at the church.  Indeed, how many of our stories: both those we tell and those we don't, carry memories of what was imbibed by the guests.

For it is also so in the wedding story that is ours to share in today.  The story here, too focuses not on the actual wedding itself but on what came later.  Only in this case, the wine gave out before it was time for the guests to go home.

So I find myself now thinking not so much of the potential embarrassment of the host, nor of the wonder of the guests who would have enjoyed that fine wine.  Rather, I am thinking of those on the edges of the normally main memory itself.  I am thinking today of those presumably strong young servants who carried the stone jars and filled them with water.  You know, those folks who would be standing on the edge of any wedding reception still today, waiting to serve, to clear, to carry the individually sliced pieces of cake to the tables of the guests.  Those same ones who, in the case of the story I overheard above, had the unenviable task of cleaning up after those who had enjoyed the party perhaps a little too much.   In Jesus' day, I expect they were the permanent underclass: those servants, those slaves.  In our day, perhaps this is also so.  It strikes me on this reading, though, that those servants on the edge of the celebration were the only ones to actually witness the miracle here.  To be sure, the chief steward tasted it, and apparently his taste buds were still sensitive so he was able to enjoy the fine quality of the wine.  And the bridegroom and the bride and all their guests enjoyed the gift of the miracle before us now.  Still, it was the servants who saw this wondrous miracle of abundance play out right before their eyes.  It was the servants who saw it all  --- those who most likely never actually even got a sip of the 180 gallons of fine wine that was now being stored in those stone jars.  Indeed, they were, they are those who go mostly unseen, un-noticed by the rest of us.  And yet, they are the ones who went home with a story that night.  They are the ones who first glimpsed the promise of Jesus.  They are, indeed, as we hear throughout the Gospels --- they are  the ones for whom the gifts of God are especially meant.  And so whether they ever tasted this wine or not, they must have gone home with the dawning recognition that in the simple act of 'saving' a party, the world itself was about to change in Christ Jesus. Indeed, in Jesus the world itself was about to change.

  1. Do you think there is any significance to the apparent truth that the servants were the only ones to actually witness this first miracle of Jesus first hand?  Why or why not?
  2. Why 'water into wine?'  What other Biblical references to 'wine' might help us to go deeper into this story?
  3. Can you think of other examples when the presumably 'main memory' was not the main memory at all?  Can you think of other times when unexpected folks have received an unexpected gift of God's grace?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Passing on the Faith

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I sat in a meeting with our Confirmation Guides the other night.  We were kicking around the truth that it's harder to get young people to memorize than it used to be. (For that matter, memorization seems more difficult for all of us, reliant as we have become on electronic devices to store necessary information for us now.)  A number of those at the table spoke of the gift it has been for them to have had to memorize so much when they were young... that they're grateful to have these bits and pieces of the tradition so very ingrained in their memories.

Truthfully, my own Sunday School and Confirmation instruction were lax in this way.  My own memorization has only come through repetition, not through any intentional effort to make these gifts so deeply my own.  I was blessed to be taken to worship every week as a child and so as a result I knew the Lutheran liturgy by heart before I could read it for myself. And while it's not the only one, the bit of scripture that is ours from Isaiah today became my own through repetition, too.

This is how this came to be.  I was a very young pastor --- then the assistant pastor on a staff which included a senior pastor and a visitation pastor.  George, our visitation pastor, was more than a colleague.  In time, he became a friend and a mentor as well.  He and his wife, Mary, would drive into town every week and on Thursdays and Fridays he would make calls: on the home-bound, the sick, the struggling, and the suffering.  And when he would go often he would read this bit of scripture to them.  "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through the rivers,they will not overwhelm you..."  This passage came home to George when he was a young man, serving in the navy during the Second World War.  He told the story that as he was sitting on a PT Boat, he pulled out his Bible, and opened up to these wonderful words.  It was, he later said, as though they were meant for him.  As you can imagine, he never forgot it and for the rest of his life he sought to share this comfort, this promise, with others navigating rough waters.

And so it was when people would die, because George had shared these powerful words with them, in turn their families would request this passage to be read at their loved ones' funerals.  Being the assistant pastor on staff, inevitably it fell to me to read the first and second lessons.  And so at funeral after funeral I read these words until finally I found I could speak them without looking at the page.  And now it is so that when I find myself without a Bible and visiting with people in need of this promise of God's protection and care, I often will share these words with them. And more than once in my own life when the waters have become deep and treacherous I have found myself whispering these words to myself.  Indeed, once when it was very dark I spoke these words over and over again and when I rose the next day I knew that no matter what should happen next, God was holding me in it... and that one way or another the battle I was waging would not take what mattered most.

I wonder now if Jesus also knew these marvelous words first spoken to a people in exile.  I wonder if he heard them echoing in his mind and heart as he waded into the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  I wonder if these marvelous strains of promise carried him through the uncertain times of his ministry and if even as he experienced God abandoning him, if on the cross he somehow heard them, too.  Indeed, for all the ways the world had changed since those words were first spoken and for all the ways it has changed since, these words of God's promised love and protection still speak.  And so we do well to keep passing these gifts along to our children and grandchildren.

It's old fashioned now to memorize such things, I know.  And as I said, I do not stand as an example of one who ever really did so on purpose.   But I'm grateful beyond words that through what appeared to be accidental repetition, these wondrous gifts are mine to hold as well.  Without a doubt, there are days when they make all the difference.

  1. How do such promises first spoken to a people in exile still speak today?   What 'exiles' are your people experiencing?  What exile has been yours to endure?
  2. These words from Isaiah were first spoken to a whole people.  They have spoken to me in individual circumstances and challenges.  When and where do you think they speak best?  Why?
  3. What passages do you know by heart?  Did they become yours through intentional effort or by 'accidental' repetition?   What stories do they carry?  What do they mean to you?  Why?
  4. Can you imagine that Jesus heard the echo of these words on the day of his baptism?  What other passages might he have been remembering then?