Sunday, June 28, 2015

As Those Who Are Sent: Just Go!

Mark 6:1-13

I woke up early on Friday morning. I had checked email and poked around on Facebook. While awake, It had been a long and full week though, and I did not yet feel like moving much, so I scrolled across the screen, taking in the other options on my IPad. I had forgotten that some time ago I had installed a "Yoga Studio" and had yet to try the only 'session' I had downloaded. "Beginner's Balance" has been staring at me for some time, but while I know yoga is good for me? It is surely not my gift and so I had declined the invitation to go any further than downloading the free application. 

I had a little time though and so I opened it up and started watching the program. No, of course, one is not meant only to watch it, but somehow it pulled me in. The young woman modeling the poses made it look so easy. The relaxing tones of the music accompanying her carried me into a kind of zone all on their own. However, about halfway through the thirty minute program I grew bored. I closed it out and moved on to other matters. And then I decided to open it up again and try it for myself. I figured no one would know if I quit early.

Some of it was familiar for I had practiced those poses when I was regularly part of a class. Others? They were familiar and just like I couldn't do them before, I still couldn't do them now. At least not well. And others? Well, I'd never heard of them and I remain convinced my body wasn't made to move in those ways.

No matter. The thirty minutes passed more quickly than I would have imagined and as I sat still and breathed deeply as I finished, I felt relaxed and focused. And the next day when I did it again? Though far from perfect, it was a little bit easier...

One can watch and enjoy and yes, vicariously experience some of the gifts. And of course, it always helps to watch someone else who is really good at something in order to learn. But if one only sits and watches? Well, you certainly don't experience all the benefits. It never really becomes your own.

At least in part, I expect this is why we see Jesus sending his disciples out in pairs to be and do who and what they are called to be and do in this week's reading from Mark. They've been tagging along, watching and listening as he preaches and teaches and heals. But just like with my yoga practice, if one only watches another do it? One never experiences the gifts --- or, in this case, has the chance to share those gifts with others.

Now we don't hear the details of how their journeys out into the world went. We don't hear whether they got it "right" the first time or if it took a few attempts before they found their groove. We don't hear whether they were welcomed or rejected --- although Jesus' instructions to them indicate they could anticipate that not everyone would receive them well. We do hear that they did their share of preaching and that they had some success against demons and that they encountered a whole lot of sick people whom they anointed with oil and were able to cure. But first we hear that they went. And preached and stood against evil and brought healing. But if they had not first gone, none of the rest would have happened.

I just completed a day long certification to teach a workshop offered by  Church Innovations called Dwelling in the World. The scripture that grounds this practice is Luke's parallel to Mark's version of the sending of the disciples this week. (Luke 10:1-12)  Luke's version offers more detail, yes, but in both examples the disciples are sent and they go. 

The practice of Dwelling in the World is not complicated. Surely it presupposes that we are sent into the world by Jesus, but the name of Jesus may not be spoken again. At least not the first time one does it. Or the second. Or maybe even the fiftieth. It simply invites us to go into the world to those places we already go, but to intentionally engage those we encounter. To strike up a conversation with the young man checking you out at the grocery store. Or the librarian behind her desk. Or, as in my case this week, the funeral director whose story I did not know before.

This is how it was for me. I officiated at a funeral last week. One of the staff gave me a ride back to the funeral home from the cemetery that morning. While we have worked together before, I don't recall that Debbie and I had ever spent much time in conversation before. Perhaps we'd never have the chance. This time, though, as she drove she marveled out loud at the number of children the deceased had --- eight of them, in fact. She wondered at how one could keep up with the needs of so many when she struggled with her one. I asked her about her daughter. Debbie told me she was seventeen. I asked if she was a senior. "Well," she said. "Actually, she has Down Syndrome." And she went on to share how interesting it is to parent a teenager who, in many ways, has the capacity of a six year old. "What is it," she asked, "what is it that makes any teenager, regardless of their developmental age, feel a need to blast their music?"  

Prior to that moment, I had no idea of the texture of Debbie's life, although I have worked alongside her a dozen times before. All it took was one question and I had an opening into her world. One I can follow up on the next time we meet.

Or this. The other day I met a friend for lunch at Panera. We were deep in conversation about our two congregations when the young man at the table next to us interrupted to ask if we would watch his computer while he went to the restroom. As he made his way, I glanced at where he was sitting and noticed he had a pile of theology books there. When he returned, I asked what he was working on. His Master of Divinity, it turns out. He's hoping to obtain a position as a youth pastor at a church in southern Minnesota next year. His name is Dave. We promised him our prayers. I may never see him again, but I expect all of our days were fuller in the best kind of way because we encountered each other. At least I know mine was.

Now if you know me, you know that I am by nature an introvert. Meeting strangers has never come easily to me and I have spent most of my life avoiding it. It is only in these last years that I have found the courage to more deeply engage the stranger, across the counter, at the next table, even in the car seat next to me on the way back from the cemetery. And yet, the mission we are called to today has us encountering strangers. And I have discovered that much of the time, when I do so, my day becomes richer. I hope it is also so for those I encounter in this way. In this way, to be sure, we have a chance to embody God's kindness. In this way we get a more nuanced sense of the lives of others around us. In this way, we know more deeply the needs of our neighbors whose names we may not even know. In this way, perhaps we begin to go exactly where Jesus' disciples went so long ago --- carrying nothing but their hearts, their spirits, and the example of Jesus, they encountered the world. They were sent. So are we.

And it's hard to say who benefited most --- the disciples or those they encountered --- when they returned.  This much must have been so though. They were never going to experience the power of following Jesus if they didn't just go. Oh yes, what a difference there is between only watching and doing.  And today? Along with those disciples, we are sent.  We are called to go, too!

  • I offer my experience with yoga as something that can't only be 'watched' in order to reap all of its benefits. What experience do you have in this way? How does this serve as a parallel to the disciples' experience today?
  • How do you imagine it was for the twelve who Jesus sent today? Do you think they 'got it right' the first time? Why or why not?
  • What stories can you tell of times you have encountered strangers? Were you sent by Jesus? What makes you answer as you do?
  • Where are you being 'sent?' Where is your congregation being 'sent?' What would it mean to 'just go?'

Sunday, June 21, 2015

On Charleston and the Gaping Wound of Racism and the Cloak of Jesus

Mark 5:21-43

Along with many of you, I have found myself devastated in these last days at the news of the murders of the nine who had gathered for prayer and study last Wednesday night at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. As Presiding Bishop Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America so eloquently wrote in her statement of June 18:
It has been a long season of disquiet in our country. From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence. But this... the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism.
The church was desecrated.
The people of that congregation were desecrated.
The aspiration voiced in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are "one nation under God" was desecrated.
"Why does this seem worse?" asked a member of my congregation at our coffee hour this morning. We pondered it for a moment and only came to this. It was in a church. A sanctuary. A place where one and all should always be safe.

And so yes, not unlike the two described in the stories before us now, it seems as though this gaping wound will never heal. Indeed, these two or those closest to them at some point must have despaired --- not believing that life in all its fullness would ever be theirs again. How this must have been especially true for Jairus once he received news that his daughter had died. Oh, how we are like them --- for we --- all of us in small towns and cities, in our communities where we all look alike and most certainly in those places where the colors of our skin are more diverse. How we are like them. And yes, it seems to me, we have been hemorrhaging for a whole lot longer than twelve years. And I myself wondered for at least a moment this week if all hope of anything different had finally died.

I find myself to be so very blessed to serve in a community where we don't all look alike. Oh, like most every place I know, we have not yet found a way to welcome greater diversity into our pews on Sunday mornings. However, if you are living in this community, it is simply not possible to be so isolated that we are not deeply aware of the differences between us. Differences which begin with the pigment of our skin which all too often painfully end in markedly different experiences of this world. At least our common experience of living with such differences makes it easier and more immediately important to talk about it. I know this is not necessarily the case for all of you.

So it is that last fall I sat at a volunteer hospital chaplain's lunch with a colleague who is African American. We were trying so hard to talk about what had happened in Ferguson in my congregation and we found ourselves stumbling in our attempts --- feeling as though we were just talking to each other. And we were. I leaned over to Pastor Joe Mitchell and told him what we were trying to do. I pleaded with him, truly, asking what we could do. And the next day I got a call asking if we would host the next Beloved Community Dinner.

These monthly gatherings have been a start at least. We gather in one church fellowship hall or another. We bring food to share. We do our best to 'mix it up' --- sitting with people we don't know who don't look just like us. We have listened to one another's stories. We are starting to know one another's names. And histories. And hopes.

Last Thursday afternoon I called up Pastor Joe. The news of this horrific event in Charleston was the only thing on my mind, and yet I found I did not know what I would say to him. When we did connect on Friday morning, I was stumbling all over myself trying to find words. I knew, I know of course, this is not about me or us and I did not want to sound as though I thought it was. And yet, I knew we needed to talk about it. Or at least I knew that I did. I hoped he would think so, too.

Mercifully, he stopped me. And he suggested that we worship together.

And so on Tuesday night at 6 p.m. we will gather at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church here in DeKalb for worship.

But here is what Pastor Joe was really suggesting. He was saying that together, like the woman in our story now --- together we touch the cloak of Jesus.

Will the devastation that racism causes be immediately healed as this woman experienced so long ago? Oh, I expect not. But it must be so that the simple act of turning to Jesus together will go a long ways. And perhaps, as with her, doing this together will at least stop the hemorrhage and then maybe we can get on to the work of restoring life between us and among us.

For beyond the miraculous physical healing this woman experienced in the presence of Jesus, this was perhaps her true healing: this being able to again be fully a part of life in her community. And as long as we are separated along racial lines? We are all as cut off from the life God intends for us as she was before she made her way through the crowd and touched the cloak of Jesus.

And this we can be sure of. There were, no doubt, a whole lot of things to be figured out for her as she found her way back into life in her community. It probably was not all easy. But once the bleeding stopped? Once she experienced that first healing? All the rest was possible as well.

  • In your setting, in your worshiping community, how have you responded to the horrific event at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in  Charleston? Has this prodded you to further action? Why or why not?
  • Very often illness isolates. This can be especially so when it is suffered over a long period of time as it was by the woman in our story now. Is it fair to compare our experience of and with racism to the illness which isolated her? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean to you to touch the cloak of Jesus? What is it that you will be able to do once the bleeding stops?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Power over a Storm

Mark 4:35-41
I have been a pastor nearly half my life now and for the first time in these last weeks I have found myself in conversation about safety plans in the event of extreme weather. Of course, this has been prompted by a recent tornado whose path missed us by mere miles as well as another last year which made its way across central Illinois while people were at worship on Sunday morning. It could happen here, of course, so plans are in the works for keeping safe the two hundred or so who gather for worship at First Lutheran Church at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning. We will conduct a tornado drill in two weeks. We have invited our local chief of police to be present this Sunday when usher teams will gather to strategize. Indeed, we need to be prepared before we practice, else even such a drill could have unpleasant if not tragic consequences.

It strikes me now that this is often the best we can do when storms threaten. We do our utmost to prepare and when the time comes, we take cover. Oh, perhaps we build our houses which will withstand the elements. We cut down trees --- as I did last summer --- which could be felled by wind and rain or snow and whose falling could put people and property in harm's way. Mostly though? We have little choice but to just get out of the way and when necessary to do so quickly. For storms are dangerous. Water can rise quickly. Lightning can strike before the first raindrop falls. Driving rain can impede eyesight and make our footing less secure.

As I read again the familiar story before us now, I have to believe that it must have been some storm which had even these seasoned fishermen certain death was near. For it surely could not have been the first time they found themselves at risk on open water. They must have exhausted all their other usual options and now that panic has set in all they have left is to turn to the one who is sleeping on the cushion --- seemingly oblivious to the violent wind and driving rain. Not to mention the commotion of his fellow travelers. Indeed, all they seem to know to do is to call out their anguish to Jesus who, with just a word, muzzled that wind and rain which had been so threatening just a moment before.

Now, I have to say that I can't blame the disciples for being afraid. The boat which held them was starting to sink, after all. I surely would have been afraid --- perhaps even to the point of panicky paralysis, wouldn't you? And I'm not certain I immediately know what it looks like to have faith in the face of a storm like this.

Perhaps it is worth noting that in the time of Jesus such extreme weather was thought to be the work of evil spirits. Maybe this is the direction we go as we discern the meaning of this certain truth that Jesus has control over that which no mortal being has had control. At least not until now. Indeed, neither your nor I nor those disciples so long ago had the power to still such a storm. So is it any wonder then that at first they ignore his challenge about their faith and simply stand still exclaiming their awe and wonder at what they have just witnessed? And yet,our abandoning hope and giving in to our terror surely isn't God's intent for us either whether an actual storm is swamping our boat or we find ourselves threatened by a myriad of other things which all too often appear to be entirely out of our control.

So what are we to do with the story before us now?

  • Do you suppose it is enough to recall that Jesus was actually in the boat with the disciples? That he wasn't dictating to the waves from the shore? Is it for us to recall that when the storms come, Jesus is right here with us?
  • Is this a directive for us to stand firm and keep believing in the midst of all the storms we inevitably face? Yes, be smart. Do take cover. But panic is not ever faith-full. Bowing to our terror most likely will only make things worse.
  • Or is this example from the life of those who first followed Jesus simply a memorable reminder that the power of God is beyond our imagining? Is this to be the comfort and the hope that we are to take from it? Can I sleep better knowing Someone is, in fact, more powerful than all that threatens? And yet, I'm not certain how that speaks to lives devastated by all sorts of storms --- both those which threaten us from outside and from within.
Even so, perhaps we are changed if we allow ourselves, even as the disciples did, to simply stand still in awe when in the presence of such power which muzzles the worst that can threaten us. Which is all the time, if we are paying attention. Indeed, perhaps it is so that I do walk away re-empowered to hold fast in the storm if I am able to trust that somehow our benevolent God holds us all. Even in the storms. Especially in the storms. What do you think?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Reign of God: Something New Under the Sun!

Mark 4:26-34

For the first time, I planted a garden this spring. Oh, I grew up watching my dad tend a huge plot in our back yard. During late summer and fall we always enjoyed the fruits of his labor. Tomatoes and zucchini and peppers and potatoes were ours in abundance to eat and give away. And yet, until this spring I either didn't have the space, or the sunlight, or the will to do so. What a wonder it has been already to walk into my back yard in the early morning and at dusk to watch as these seeds sprout and grow. Yes, I built the boxes and filled them with the right combination of peat moss and manure and vermiculite. Yes, I pressed the seeds into the earth. Yes, I have checked every day to see if they have enough water. And yes, I have been diligent in pulling up the silver maple seedlings which are everywhere this year. Still, it was with no small measure of awe that I took the picture here. For while I had put things in place, the actual growth of a squash seed is still a mystery isn't it?  As much as we can perhaps understand and explain it, we can't ever fully comprehend it, can we?

So it is that Jesus compares the Reign of God to such as this today. And I wonder now just what he is getting at...
  • I mean, is he trying to point out for us the utter mystery of it? Or is it that the Reign of God comes regardless of whether or not we know how it happens?
  • Is it that we are to simply pay attention to the results of the in-breaking of God into our world? Is it God's gift of the harvest, whatever that includes, that is ours to receive and celebrate?
  • Is it that we, like the farmer in our parable now, are somehow partners with God in bringing in the Kingdom? I mean, the farmer did scatter the seed. And the farmer did reap the grain once the harvest came. No, the farmer did not make it grow, but the farmer was surely in on it. 
  • Or is it simply in the ordinariness of all these things and their coming together in unique and life-giving ways? Is it also possible that the Reign of God is right here in our midst --- that we just need to be about "planting seeds in rich earth where the sun shines and where water is adequate?" Is it possible that in the same way with the Reign of God we have, by God's generous hand, already been given all that we need for it to come in all its fullness?  Again, not by our doing, but somehow with our partnership?
Indeed, as I consider this now I think of the way I am called to partner in 'bringing the Reign of God near' week after week --- in my preaching.  For you see, truly, for as long as I can remember, most of the time in much the same way that my garden growing seems mysterious and almost inexplicable to me, I have found this to be so when I craft a sermon. Oh, I 'make the conditions right,' yes. I 'scatter seeds' by finding time early in the week to read the assigned texts, I peruse the commentaries, I let it mull, for days sometimes.  And then, somehow, it seems to come together. In fact, I was struck a few days ago by the similarity of my own experience to Stephen King's take on where story ideas come from in his On Writing where he asserts, 
Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. (King, p. 37)
And so do you suppose that this may be exactly how it is with the Reign of God? For it is, indeed, about previously unrelated ideas coming together, yes? And isn't it simply our job to recognize it when it shows up? And then somehow seek to be a part of it growing and flourishing?

I mean, think of it with me. Seed and soil, sunshine and rain are entirely different elements --- but they come together to make something 'new under the sun.'  And as for this business of the Reign of God? Don't we somehow know its nearness best whenever unrelated things come together? Line when we experience kindness in unexpected places, healing where there was only brokenness, selflessness among human beings for whom selfishness is our instinct, courage where fear would be more reasonable, generosity when our first impulse is to keep the best for ourselves, life where there was only death?  And when they come together don't we also experience something entirely 'new under the sun?'  Do you suppose that was what Jesus was getting at when he told the stories before us now?

  • It seems there is an abundance of learning that is ours to receive from Jesus' comparison of the coming of God's Reign to a farmer who sleeps and rises, night and day and knows not how the seed sprouts and grows.  Indeed, even the fact that Jesus' story telling here causes us to observe this in the world in new ways strikes me as 'something new under the sun.' What do you think?
  • What experiences of gardening --- of watching seeds sprout and grow --- do you bring to this week's Gospel? How does what you already know about these matters inform your take on this Gospel?
  • I am told that Stephen King's On Writing has been used in seminary preaching classes. Have you read it? If so, have you found it helpful as you have thought about preaching and proclaiming the Good News?