Sunday, July 31, 2016

Where Your Treasure Is...

Luke 12:32-40

I am working these days on a funeral sermon for a 93 year old.

Jesse was a 'true original' -- one about whom everyone he encountered had a story. This is one of mine:

It was Easter morning a couple several years ago. Nearly fifty of us were bundled up against the cold for the early service at Fairview Cemetery in DeKalb --- always my personal favorite. For me, while there are other places where the Easter Message is so needed, the cemetery seems like a good place to start. Just like on the first Easter so long ago. And so it was in those last weeks of Lent we had asked members of the congregation to share the names of loved ones who are buried at Fairview. Part of our gathering would include speaking aloud those names, one by one by one.

I read those precious names in groups of eight or ten --- pausing in between each grouping to repeat the Easter Proclamation: "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!" As expected, those gathered enthusiastically responded, "He is Risen, Indeed!  Alleluia!"

I had made my way through the list and paused to ask if there were other names to share. And Jesse piped up with this:
"I forgot my gloves! I forgot my wallet! I forgot my hearing aides! But, I'm having a great time!"
And we smiled and responded, "Alleluia! Christ is Risen!" "He is  Risen, Indeed, Alleluia!"

As we sit with both the promise and the expectation articulated in Jesus' words before us now and as I reflect back on Jesse's life, this memory is front and center. For it seemed to me that in his 90th year, Jesse had it right. His "treasure" was in just the right place. For while he may have left behind a whole lot of things that normally would matter that morning, not cold hands nor muffled hearing nor even the fact that he had left his cash and driver's license behind, could get in the way of his utter joy of being with God's people and celebrating the Easter Promise!

Now it is true that as I listen to Jesus' words for us once more, I found myself wondering as I always do. For why it is that God's Reign is not already ours to celebrate in all of its fullness if, in fact, it is "the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom?"  And then I read the next line. For with his next breath Jesus seems to imply that while God is waiting to hand it to us, these amazing gifts of God are perhaps already residing within each and all of us. All we have to do is pick up our heads and see what is already so; that the things of this world which 'wear out and fail' do not reflect the Reign of God. They just don't. And perhaps as you and I come to recognize and embrace and live like this is so, this Kingdom God can't wait to give us will gain a foothold in our hearts and in our lives.

I don't know if it took our friend, Jesse, nine decades to figure this out. I do know that he offered a wonderful glimpse into our shared future that brisk early Easter day a few years ago of a time when the things we count on and think we need in this life now will become entirely unnecessary and will be entirely replaced by the joy God is yearning to give us even now.

I can't help but wonder if God is just waiting for you and me to wake up and recognize what is truly "treasure" and what is not. Indeed, I can't help but wonder if as we live into and are embraced by the gifts of this promise, perhaps the Reign of God might be glimpsed more fully even now. Even as it was at Fairview Cemetery that early Easter Morning a couple of years ago.

  • I have offered here a story of one who recognized "treasure" in a way that perhaps ninety plus years can surely teach us. What similar story would you offer?
  • How is it that you and I can gain that kind of hard earned perspective now? How would our lives look different if this were so?
  • Do you think you and I are part of 'bringing in the kingdom' which God is yearning to give us? Why or why not?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Being Rich Toward God...

Luke 12:13-21

The parable Jesus offers now is surely about an individual and choices he has made. And yet, I have found myself thinking instead about the choices we make collectively as God's people about our 'barns' and all they hold. About what matters and what doesn't. About what it means for us together to be 'rich toward God.'  Yes, certainly the words of Jesus now are worth sitting with a good long while as we consider our priorities in our own individual lives and in the lives of our families. And yet, this time through I find myself thinking about lives together as congregations.

And so it is that the memory I share today is an old one.

I was a young adult, working with the youth at my home congregation in that season between graduating from college and starting seminary. Now mind you, youth ministry was not then and is not now God's best gift to me, but it was a good and needed balance to my front desk job at a local hotel before I headed off to St. Paul and the rigors of "Summer Greek." But that is for another reflection.

If I am remembering right, I had coached the high school youth through some kind of worship experience where they dressed up as clowns --- complete with clown white make up and grease paint. (This was at least familiar to me.) We had been in the nave for this experience. The carpet around the altar was white. And as you can well imagine, by the end of our sharing, at least one spot on that carpet was not as white as it had been only hours before.

This is what stays with me now: the sight of my normally dignified and calm pastor on his knees frantically trying to get red grease paint to let go of its hold on that formerly pristine white carpet --- all the while mumbling the name of the church custodian almost under his breath. But not quite. Not quite under his breath that is.

This came to mind this week as I settled into the familiar words of our Gospel lesson and its constantly needed message that bigger barns and all they promise to hold will not save us. This came to mind as I considered the lesson Jesus offers to me and to those I serve, individually and collectively as a congregation. Oh yes, this unsettling memory came to mind as from time to time I recognize myself in my old pastor now --- caught up in the anxiety of others' anxiety about protecting and preserving our 'barns.'

It should be an easy case to make in churches, of course, for all that we are about is not finally about the 'barns or what those barns contain.' And yet, who among us has not gotten caught in the battle about preserving what finally doesn't matter at the expense of what does?

Indeed, in the place where I serve we are blessed with a profoundly beautiful 'barn.' This very summer, in fact, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the building itself. (The congregation itself is, in fact, much older.) We have been fortunate that previous generations have kept it up well and it is, to be sure, a beautiful place to worship with ample room for most any gathering you can imagine. And yet, you who serve in old buildings know the struggle well:

  • The cost of maintaining old 'barns' too often precludes us from being about meaningful mission. 
  • The anxiety associated with keeping those 'barns' pristine too often keeps us from welcoming into our holy 'barns' those who would perhaps benefit the most from the gifts we are called to share.
It is not easy balance, this one and I, for one, don't think the struggle will ever fully go away: perhaps not until 'our very lives are demanded of us.' No, in fact, the tension that is illustrated in Jesus' parable for us now is one before us and within us every day, in our own lives and in our life together as God's people:

Take a moment to think this through with me:
  • What is the balance between 'tending the barn' and letting it be used for mission and ministry? 
    • Doesn't it matter that the carpets are clean, the roof is not leaking, the garbage is properly disposed of, the altar rail is dusted?
    •  And does it really finally matter that there is clown make up on the carpet around the altar? Does it?
I do know this. My heart still aches to remember my old pastor who gave me many a positive example of what it means to serve God and God's people well -- kneeling on the floor anxiously trying to remove that stain from that white carpet. My heart aches, too, when I recognize that same kind of anxiety in myself. For nothing about it, then or now, boasts of 'richness towards God' which is where Jesus' words finally point us now.

Oh yes, Jesus' story of one rich man compels us to examine ourselves, our congregations, our lives and our life together, and while I don't imagine that worry about 'having enough' in this life will ever fully leave us, if we could but allow ourselves to be shaped by the question of what it means to be 'rich toward God' in our own lives and in our life together, perhaps our 'wealth' might just begin to accrue where it really matters.

What do you think?

  •  I have chosen to consider here how the 'barn' itself may just be a parallel for all the 'barn holds' --- at least for many of our congregations. Is this a logical path to take? Why or why not?
  • In your experience, what does it mean to be 'rich toward God?' How does that contrast with our anxiety which has us 'building bigger barns' or just protecting the barns we already have?
  • Might it be enough to start by simply asking the question about what it means to be 'rich toward God?' How might the right question asked faithfully and often begin to change our values and priorities?
  • What might it look like in your own life or in your life together with your congregation --- at a council meeting, a finance committee meeting, a Sunday School Class --- to ask the question of what it means to be 'rich toward God?' And how do you see yourself leading others past the blank stare which is typically our response to such a question never pondered before? How might this very important conversation change everything?
  • Are there other ways in which we as leaders put our energies into matters which do not lend towards 'richness toward God?' How are you being called to reconsider your priorities in your life and ministry these days?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Lord, Teach us to Pray...With Whom Shall We Pray?

Luke 11:1-13

Most weeks, I have the 'prayers of the people' written by Wednesday. I always send them on to our assisting ministers by Thursday afternoon so they have a chance to look them over before worship on Sunday. (Yes this may seem early, but my normal day off is Friday and some weeks I can actually stretch it through Saturday without going into the office.) Almost always I include the caveat that things could change. And almost always they do.

Sometimes it is a last minute phone call, an email or a hand written note handed to me just before worship which has me penciling in a special need. Lately, the world  has seemed to blow up all over again between Thursday afternoon and Sunday morning and I am adding in names and places where the suffering is beyond profound. Orlando. Florida, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Dallas, Texas. Nice, France. Istanbul, Turkey. And on and on and on we pray.

Oh, it is so that on occasion, I have heard and resonated with those who have wondered if prayer makes any difference. And, if honest, I have confessed the truth that sometimes my promise of prayers is only that: a promise unfulfilled. And in the end, I can't help but wonder if the point of prayer is not to change God's mind --- no matter what our Gospel lesson offers today --- but to change us.

And yet, as God's people in the midst of doubt and fear and questions, still we pray. For we follow in the footsteps of the one, Jesus, who prayed.

It is these experiences of prayer which my memory has been revisiting in these last couple of weeks:

In the days after the massacre of the Charleston 9, I was in communication with the pastor of a local Baptist Church whose membership is mostly African American. I was mortified that the one who brought such carnage to a holy place was a confirmed member of the denomination I call my home. Pastor Joe's reply was, "Let's gather our people for worship and prayer." And so we did.

After Orlando, I received a text from Joe. His message was the same. "Let's gather our people for worship and prayer." This time people representing Muslims and Unitarians and Presbyterians and Jews and Methodists and Lutherans and United Church of Christ and Episcopalians and others all came together for a night unlike any other.

After the tragic deaths of Anton and Philandro and the targeting and killing of five police officers in Dallas, I texted Pastor Joe once more. This time I asked permission for some of our people to join them for worship on Sunday morning. I asked for a minute to speak. In spite of his own struggle in the wake of all of this, his response was immediate; "You are welcome." And 14 Lutherans and others from area congregations showed up for the 7:30 service. Some of us made it back for much of the 2 hour and 45 minute 10:45 service as well.

I can't say I was not afraid, for I was. For the most part that fear was rooted in a sense of uncertainty about how we would be received, no matter the pastor's kindness. More than that, I wanted my words to be true and to bring comfort, not offense. And so I spent much of Saturday walking and fretting and praying and mulling over what I would say. And praying. Finally what I wound up offering was this:
     Thank you for allowing me a moment to speak to you this morning.
     The world has felt especially broken to me in these last days.
     And if this has been so for me, I can only imagine how it has felt to you who have lived with very real terror --- perhaps all of your lives. For I know that it is so that you have grown up in and lived in a very different experience of this country than I and others who who look like me have. I know this. I say it out loud to you in a spirit of deep sorrow. And I ask your forgiveness for having held my silence in the face of it for far too long.
     Which is why today it did not seem as though it would be enough to only send my thoughts via text message to your pastor. Or to only pray in the safety of my sanctuary across town. It seemed important to come and stand with you. And hear God's Word with you. And pray with you. And sing with you in the face of the fear that threatens to overwhelm us all.
     For I know that we hold a great deal more in common than that which makes us different. I know that we are loved by and seek to follow the same God. I know that we are family in all the ways that matter.
     I also know that in spite of the brokenness we all are experiencing today, God is not done with us yet. I believe that God promises to be our strength in our weakness, our faith in the midst of doubt, our stubborn hope driving out all fear.
     I do not know what it will mean if we can see a way to stand strong on those promises together. But today I want you to hear me say that I  --- and others from First Lutheran and other communities of faith --- are standing with you and beside you. And we are listening hard to what it means to be 'children of God' as peacemakers alongside all of you.
     Indeed, may we never forget those who have senselessly died at the hands of violence and fear in these last days:
  •    Alton  Sterling
  •    Philando Castile
  •    Patrick Zamarripa
  •    Brent Thompson
  •    Michael Krol
  •    Lorne Ahrens
  •    Michael Smith
  •    Others whose names and memories we hold in our hearts.
  •    And countless others, perhaps known only to God.
     May our pain be a catalyst for new hope and not despair.
     Finally, I would offer a blessing that was shared among Lutherans in Chicago as they gathered for prayer and lament a few days ago:
   May God give you grace to never sell yourself short,
   grace to risk something big for something good,
   and grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love. Amen.
And as for my first fear? It was entirely unfounded. For as I checked with those from the congregation I serve who made their way to worship with these dear people across town, their over-riding response was one of being overwhelmed at the welcome we received. It was, indeed, something to behold.

Back to Jesus' teaching about prayer today:
  • We hear a lot about the faithfulness of God in today's Gospel reading.
  • We are offered words which give us a way to frame our prayer.
  • I wonder now what Jesus would have to say about who it is we are to actually pray with.     And I wonder if it makes a difference. I surely hope it does.
For these days when so very much threatens to drive us apart? It does feel like an answer to prayer to find myself praying with those whose backgrounds and and experiences and often at least nuances of belief differ so from my own --- among those who pray to the same God but where perhaps the substance and style of our prayers differ. In spite of all that would drive me to my knees in despair, this gives me hope. It does. Indeed, perhaps this answered prayer alone gives us the strength to keep on praying. And who knows what will happen next?
  • What do you think? Jesus surely doesn't address this in his teaching today, but does it make a difference with whom we actually pray? Why or why not?
  • What do you think is the main point of Jesus' teaching on prayer today? What gives you hope? What raises more questions for you?
  • This question may be unrelated to the text, but I am wondering how you and/or your faith community have responded to the challenges we face in the world today. What has been your experience? What would you offer the rest of us who are trying to find our way through this time which feels like no other?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sitting in the Presence of the Holy: Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38-42

I found myself walking under pine trees one day last week. The sight, the sound, the smell of that moment took me back to when I was seven years old.

I grew up in a family where there were four of us girls --- all close together in age. From time to time our household expanded to include others --- cousins, sometimes --- a grandparent at others: all together in a four bedroom house with one bathroom. My parents were easy with us, yes, but sometimes the pressures on them had to be great. Without a doubt, they, like all of us often found themselves in Martha's corner today: "worried and distracted by many things."

Of course, I am quite certain that my seven year old awareness could not fully comprehend this at the time. What I do know is this. Once a year we would go on vacation for Family Week at Pine Lake Bible Camp outside of Waupaca, Wisconsin. Somehow, more than the swimming and the playing and the music and the nightly campfires and the daily Bible stories, I remember this. I remember being stretched out in the way back of our family station wagon looking at the sky passing over head as we made our way north. I remember the sound of our tires hitting the ruts of the gravel road as we turned onto the drive of the camp. I remember the first sight of pine trees overhead. And I remember the deep sense of well being that filled me up as I anticipated the week to come. No doubt this was partly because of all the fun adventures which were in store. But it was also this. In that week when my parents were able to rely on someone else to be sure there was a meal on the table and where there would be learning and refreshment for them as well, they were different, too. More present, somehow, in a way they simply were not able to be the other 51 weeks of the year.

I think of that now and I realize how you and I as leaders in any system set the tone. And I am deeply aware that if I am 'worried and distracted by many things' --- no doubt that also potentially adds to the anxiety of everyone else around me. Ironically, too, when my heart and mind get that 'busy,' I also become less clear about what it is I am actually called to do.

Now in spite of the way this story is too often heard, I am not convinced that the ways of Martha and Mary are necessarily an either/or option. All of us, much of the time, have to be 'doers' as Martha was. It's just that worried and distracted part we must learn to let go. And yes, sometimes, the contemplative practice modeled by Mary leads to action. Sitting in the presence of the Holy can well give clarity to what we are called to do next.

This is how I saw this play out in these last difficult days.

Along with countless, countless others,  I have been glued to the news coverage: first Baton Rouge. Then suburban St. Paul. With the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on my mind and in my heart I texted a colleague, an African American leader in our community. I expressed my pain. He responded in kind with his own chillingly prophetic prediction that if something isn't done things will get much worse.

That very night I grew weary of watching the Chicago Cubs play (they are in the midst of a painful losing streak) and I switched channels to catch the news. With the nation, I sat up straight, horrified at what I saw living out before my eyes in Dallas.

I hardly slept that night.

In the midst of my angst I sent an email to local colleagues asking if they would gather the next day. I set our meeting time for later in the day as I had a memorial service in the early afternoon and I wanted to be sure the group had a chance to respond. Early morning would likely have excluded some.

A handful responded. We sat down over warm cookies at Panera and stumbled in our sharing with each other. We knew our need to be together. We just didn't know what we needed to do next. Mohammad Labadi, the president of the DeKalb Islamic Center arrived last. He pulled up a chair and confessed that he had not really heard what happened. I was surprised, but in fits and starts we recounted the news.

He listened intently. He shook his head with us. And then he looked up and he said, "Let's go." "Go where?" I asked. "Let's go to the police station. Let's take flowers and cookies."

And so we did.

Now Mohammad prays five times a day. In the absence of an imam, he often leads the prayers for his community. In addition to his responsibilities at the Islamic Center, he runs several businesses. And yet, as busy as he is, he is also one of the most 'restful people' I know. I am imagining now that his faithful and frequent practice of "sitting in the presence of the Holy," much like Mary, gives him a certain clarity about what to do next. At least it did this last Friday afternoon.

We covenanted, too, to go together to New Hope Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday morning. By now I was following Mohammad's lead when I contacted my colleague there to tell him that some Lutherans and others, too, would be coming to worship. I would have to leave early, but asked if I would be able to speak. The day before I did my best to have a 'restful' day so that I could be more fully present to those dear people whose hearts are also breaking now.

So you see, I don't think Martha and Mary are exclusive of one another. Contemplation can lead to thoughtful and authentic action. We need both. No, Martha and Mary are not mutually exclusive. Except that bit about being 'worried and distracted.' And I don't know about you, but I'm still working on that.

  • How do you hear the story of Mary and Martha today? Are the examples they set mutually exclusive one another in terms of their preference for us? What do you think?
  • In my reflection here I have offered the example of a Muslim leader as a parallel to Mary. Does that 'preach?' Why or why not?
  • Although I have not directly addressed this above, I am wondering what helps you to keep from being 'worried and distracted?'

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Samaritan: Where is God at Work in the World?

Luke 10:25-37

I will admit that it can be challenging to hear this parable of Jesus and actually hear anything new. We have heard it so many times, of course, and  more than that, there are so many overlays of interpretation and understanding --- both cultural and otherwise --- that it can be difficult to uncover Jesus' true intent here.

Trying to hear this familiar parable in new ways this week, I spent some time with Amy-Jill Levine's interpretation in her book, Short Stories by Jesus. I would recommend her treatment of the parable especially for her take on the ways in which for thousands of years it has suffered from inaccurate understandings which are rooted in antisemitism. Even more than that, she brings to it a point of view which perhaps only one deeply seeped in Jewish scholarship can bring. If nothing else, reading her perspective will surely slow you down enough that a new angle on this familiar parable might just emerge.

In the end, though, I Dr. Levine puts forth an understanding of the parable which I have always carried. To be a neighbor is to show mercy. It is to act in love, not only to feel compassion for the suffering of another. And in the explosive-for-the-time example Jesus offers, this way of being comes alive through the actions of a Samaritan.

Now it is so that I am given opportunities to emulate the Samaritan most every day --- although it is also so that usually the circumstances of the neighbors I am asked to help do not appear to be as immediately life threatening as the one described before us now.

There was, for instance, the couple living in a van who took up residence in the parking lot behind our church a few weeks back. I went out with a bottle of cold water, some McDonald's gift cards, a gas card, and the suggestion of a better place to park for the rest of the day so as to avoid getting towed. It seemed like the right thing to do, and perhaps was in keeping with what is before us now. but my meager offering does not compare to the Samaritan's who, at his own expense, saw to the long term healing of the who he had come upon on the road to Jericho.

And there is the woman who calls every month or so. Her car keeps breaking down and those repair bills make it hard for her to pay other bills. And so she calls me or (at least) one other pastor in town for help. Her story is especially compelling and the last time she stopped in I took her to lunch. I try to help when I can: sometimes from my own wallet and sometimes from the church's discretionary fund.  And yet, it is also so that sometimes I avoid her calls.

And then there was just last week. I had put on literally hundreds of miles in the last seven days or so and was, at that point, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I was simply exhausted both physically and emotionally from the toll of those last days. Only we got home and realized we were out of milk so I ran out to the store. As I walked in, I caught some movement from the corner of my eye and I looked up to see a young woman with a little girl. The child was sitting in a grocery cart, tucked back a ways beside the building and the woman was on her cell phone. I kept walking. When I came out of the store twenty minutes later they were still there.  I thought about pausing. I did not. As I put my bag of groceries into the back seat of my car, I realized I had forgotten something so I went back in. When I emerged a few minutes later, they still hadn't moved. Again, I kept moving.

I am not proud of this. Perhaps there was nothing I could have done or perhaps there was nothing they needed, and yet it would have been 'neighborly' to at least ask. And yet, in that moment I felt I simply did not have it in me.

And so it seems to me the bar is high as Jesus paints it now. Most days, most weeks, I know I do not come close to meeting it. And while surely grace abounds, that does not seem to be the point of what Jesus offers his listeners then or now. And yet, while it is no excuse, at the same time, most days I feel as though I cannot save 'everyone.' Alone I do not have the resources: the time, the money, the energy, the strength, the creativity, the hope to meet the needs of all those whom life has "beaten down and left to die at the side of the road."

Even so, it has also occurred to me in these last days that maybe this is not mine (or yours) to do alone.

Now, I do not know that this is what Jesus meant when he offered this story so long ago. And I am pretty certain that Dr. Levine might shake her head at this as well.  Still, this is what I am wondering now:

  • I wonder if for you and me the priest and the Levite in the story here represent the organized/established church as we know it. (I know, that is none too original, is it?) 
    • And maybe they are simply tired.
    • Or thinking about something else.
    • Or maybe they are afraid.
    • Or maybe they are discouraged, believing as I too often do that they simply do not have enough to save the lives of everyone who finds themselves "dying by the side of the road."
 And yes, surely they (and the church) are indicted in this telling for they and all too often, we, are surely not coming close to meeting the ancient understanding that to be a person of faith is to love God and love neighbor.

Even with this certain truth, however, I cannot help but wonder if the Samaritan actually represents all the ways God is already at work in the world showing mercy where it is most needed in unexpected places and using profoundly unexpected people.

  •  And I wonder if you and I who represent the church could somehow get over thinking it is all up to us and just started looking for the ways in which God is already working. 
  • I wonder if we just did all we could to catch up with where God is at work in the world and just joined in if we might be doing exactly what Jesus calls us to now. Even or especially when the one we are catching up to is Samaritan. Or Muslim. Or Mexican. Or Republican. Or Democrat. Or.... well, you fill in the blank.
  • I wonder if then we might be given new energy and hope and purpose as we seek to live as we are called to live. Or more to the point, as we seek to love as we are called to love. 
I cannot say for sure, of course, but it is so that this could get us to the place that Jesus points us to now --- to being a people marked by mercy. What do you think?
  • The parable before us this week is so familiar it can be difficult to find anything new to say about it. What helps you to explore stories such as this one in new ways?
  • What keeps you from living and loving as the Samaritan did? What might give you new energy or hope to more closely follow the example Jesus offers today?
  • What do you think of the possibility that the Samaritan represents the ways God is already at work in the world? What would it mean for you and your community to simply 'catch up' with what God is already up to?
  • Do you or your community sometimes have trouble seeing where God is at work in the world? For help in recognizing God's activity all around us, consider looking into the Church Innovations Workshop Announcing the Kingdom.