Sunday, June 26, 2016

No Turning Back: Luke 9:51-62 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

51When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Plowing the Fields by Phil.  Creative commons image on flickr
Looking back, I don’t think the people who’ve known me since childhood are surprised that I’m a pastor.  What does surprise people—and me most of all—is that I am not a pastor in the strict, Lutheran denomination in which I was raised.

When I was being confirmed, I remember the pastor saying that he would not confirm “any long-haired boys.” 

For a long time, I believed that my church’s brand of Lutheranism was the only true faith. 

It was only about a year or so before I entered seminary that I began questioning the beliefs I had long held as true—at about the same time when some ELCA pastors—and the people of my grandmother’s ELCA congregation—began encouraging me to think not just about a vocation in ministry in the ELCA. 

When someone from my old church asked me why I’d gone ELCA, there was only one answer I could give: “because that’s where God wants me.”

But I can honestly say that my journey into the ELCA and pastoral ministry was anything but the path of least resistance…

Everything I thought I knew about God, the Bible, faith, and ministry was shattered to pieces in the summer of 2008, when I began an eleven-week unpaid internship as a hospital chaplain.  I didn’t have a clue how someone as shy and inexperienced as me could make people feel better in the worst day of their life.

In time, I learned that there was nothing I could say or do to make people feel better.  All I could do was show up, listen, pray, and stay.  And that was enough.  I learned that Jesus could take me, with all my weaknesses and fears, and do something good for those people.  At the same time, I had never felt as close to Jesus as I did when I sat beside those hospital beds and in those dull, loathsome waiting rooms. 

I’m glad I was made to work there those eleven weeks—because if I had the choice, I wouldn’t have gone through with it.  And I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. 

There’s always reasons not to follow Jesus—even good ones

Today, Jesus encounters a man, and invites him to follow him.  The man makes a very reasonable request: to go home and bury his father.  Jesus replies that “let the dead bury their own dead.”  Later, he says “no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for God’s Kingdom.”


Now I’m only speculating—but I highly doubt Jesus was indifferent to the man’s loss.  I believe his loss mattered to Jesus a lot.  But what this man does is something we Christians do all the time: we put Jesus off.  When Jesus upsets our plans, we reject him.  When we can’t feel comfortable, secure, and in control, we don’t follow.  When all we have is disappointment, brokenness, and failure, we give up

This is how you fall into a spiritual rut. 

But—the problem with ruts is that the more you travel through them, the deeper they get—until you can’t go any further and you’re stuck. 

Jesus doesn’t call you to follow him through the same old rut.  But he does show up if you’re in one…  He comes in your most awful days, amid disappointments, brokenness, and failure, when everything feels chaotic and out of control…  He says “follow me;” and not to spare you from the troubles of life, but to show you the power of his love from within them.  The same Jesus who brings life out of death can bring about radical transformation on your very worst days. 

When comfort, knowledge, control, and security all crumble away—there is grace.  This same Jesus can work wonders in you simply by your willingness to show up and be present. 

Looking ahead to my future as your pastor, I’m praying to witness that same amazing grace with you, knowing that we will face even more difficult challenges and painful changes—but they will not upset Jesus’ mission in this community.  We could go on with the same old, same old…

Or, we can pay attention to what Jesus is up to: this week, three churches came together to give our children a week of hope and celebration at VBS.  But it grieves me—and it grieves the Spirit—that we’ve all retreated back to our own churches…

Seeing all the terrible things happening and all the people hurting, it’s time to ask Jesus, “what can we do?”  Will you and I take chances, risk failure, endure disappointment, and move forward towards what Jesus wants rather than what we want?  Can you and I let go of the things that are not as important to Jesus as they are to us?

Sooner or later, we all get stuck in a rut.  We find ourselves stripped bare of everything that brought happiness, security, and purpose to our lives.  All we’ll really have is our brokenness, our chaos, and our Jesus.  And that is always enough.  The cross proves this as truth.

More often than not, we will follow Jesus down the path of most resistance.  But the way of the cross is the way of most grace.  So we move forward with the promise of that grace going before us, with no looking back.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Legions of Light: Luke 8:26-39 - Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

26Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. (NRSV)
Fire, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 
It makes no sense why people are angry…

One of their own was being tormented by demons—literally thousands of them.  He had no name except the name Legion, because an army of six thousand demons had taken him over.
He wore no clothes; he lived in tombs.  The people tried to keep him chained and under guard, but he broke the chains and ran amok in the wilds. 

Once Jesus shows up, the demons beg Jesus for permission to enter a large herd of swine.  They know their power is no match for Jesus.  So Jesus gives them permission.  They enter the swine, and drown the herd in a lake.

The man is finally free and in his right mind—but nobody’s celebrating, except the man.  A large herd of swine is destroyed.  The swineherds are out of a job, as are the men who kept him under guard. 

The way the townspeople saw it, things were better before Jesus showed up.  If someone was possessed by a demon, you chained them up, out of sight and out of mind.  Everyone slept well at night knowing that the problem was, for the most part, under control. 

To them, it was better when the six thousand demons were in the man and not the pigs. 

Exorcisms, healings, and miracles are all great if people can control who gets them and when.  But they can’t.  When Jesus shows up, the power shifts—from demons, from people, from institutions—and into Jesus’ hands.  This is why the people are angry and afraid!

Jesus disrupts the balance of power—and the local economy.  So they beg him to leave. 

What they miss out on is a freedom that they’ve never known before—because whether or not they care to admit it, what happened to the man formerly known as Legion could’ve happened to them.  Yet Jesus demonstrates his ultimate power even over a legion of demons.  Evil can’t stand Jesus.  When Jesus comes near, evil runs away. 

There’s demons in our world, too—and Jesus is not silent as precious human lives are tormented.  Jesus exposes them, Jesus draws them out, Jesus destroys them—and sets God’s children free. 

So what are they?

For starters, they are the violent hatred we saw early last Sunday morning as a crazed gunman massacred a nightclub full of innocent people in Orlando…

They are the greed that’s making it harder and harder for so many simply to get by…

They are the drugs poisoning this community, particularly the heroin overdoses which I learned continue to climb past historic levels right here in Armstrong County…

They are despair, frustration, fear, bitterness, and division paralyzing us in the face of all this calamity.
They are in our church, too.  They are words and deeds of desperation and defeat, like:
·         I have to because no one else will”
·         I am the only one who can do this right.” 
·         Our best days are behind us and our future is death. 

These demons are real.  They isolate us from community, cut us off from ourselves, and send us into places of death. 

But you and I are claimed by a Savior who has ultimate power over all the demons of this world.  When the demons are present, Jesus is too.

Jesus was there in that Orlando nightclub, suffering and dying with the victims.

Jesus is there when the money runs out and when the doctor tells you the bad news.  He is there with the addicts who can’t break the addiction on their own, and even with those who die from it. 

Jesus is here in our church, even as we and so many faith communities like us look with fear and uncertainty of what the future holds.  We must stop believing that because we are smaller we are weaker…

Jesus puts us here because he knows all the terrible things that are going on in this community—and you and I are being raised up to cast out demons.

So can you and I be bold enough—and confident enough in the power Christ over evil, to proclaim “Jesus is here!”? 

You name the demons, one by one; you fall before Jesus in prayer, and you and you seize the grace to destroy them.  The grace comes in the Word, at the Table, and even in the mission.  Then go to the dark places, where demons haunt and God’s children dwell.  Learn people’s names.  Hear their stories.  Accompany them on their journeys.  In Christ, we are a legion of life. 

We can’t wait until there’s time, because there is no time but right now

This is my prayer for you and me as I begin my sixth year as your pastor.  This is my prayer for our community and for our future.  Make no mistake—the need has never been greater for our church to exist.  You and I are a sign that Jesus is alive when so much is dying or dead. 

The only peace and the only freedom you will ever know is at the feet of Jesus and going where he sends you.  It’s not about security or control, but faith, hope, and love.

So will you walk with Jesus and me as a legion of life?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sins and Souls: 2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:10, 13-15 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
  But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12:1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
7Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” 13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” 15Then Nathan went to his house.
  The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. (NRSV)
One of Armstrong County’s most celebrated daughters is Elizabeth Jane Cochran, more famously
known as Nellie Bly.  One of the first female investigative journalists, in 1887 she wrote a scathing expose on the conditions of a New York City mental asylum, having faked a mental illness and being admitted to the institution for ten days.  Her work spawned a number of much-needed improvements in mental health care.

Throughout her career, she took on the powers-that-be, at great risk to her personal safety, in order to expose grave injustices against the poor and vulnerable.  She did all this at a time when it was considered wholly improper for a woman to write about anything but fashion and being a good housewife…

She spoke truths that a lot of people didn’t want to hear…

This is what Old Testament prophets did, including Nathan, whom we encounter in today’s first reading.

The drama begins with David sitting on top of the world.  He’s the wealthiest and most powerful king on earth, because God has blessed him in everything he did.

Then one day, while Israel is at war with its neighbors, David decides to stay home, instead of accompanying his soldiers into battle.  That’s when he looks out his window and watches a beautiful woman bathe.  Her name is Bathsheba, and she is the wife of Uriah—one of David’s most dedicated soldiers.

He sends his men who deliver Bathsheba up to him like room service.  David has his way with her, and she becomes pregnant with his child.  Desperate to save face, David schemes to have Uriah sent to the front lines of battle, where he is killed—this way, Uriah can’t deny being the father of the child.

Unsurprisingly, God is greatly displeased by what David has done—so God sends Nathan to tell David the hard truth.  Nathan speaks a parable of a rich man with many flocks and herds, and a poor man with one lamb who loved it like child.  When a traveler visits the rich man, he was loath to take from his own flock to prepare for his guest—so he takes the poor man’s lamb instead. 

David is furious and says the man deserves to die.  That’s when Nathan points to David and says “You are the man!”

I give Nathan a great deal of credit—because David could have killed Nathan for insulting his honor.  But that’s not what happens.  David sees the gruesome truth.  Nathan announces God’s forgiveness—but also that the violence that David perpetuated will remain in his house for the rest of his life.  The child they conceived will die. 

What a loathsome, horrible story this is…  The God we encounter is not a huggable, loveable God…

All that being said, this is the God who is—a God who reveals and convicts us of sin.  But as sinners, we deny this.  The cross drives home this fact better than anything…

Most of us are willing to own up to some degree of personal imperfection—but that’s usually as far as it goes.  We do, however, see the sins of those who are most different from us.  We see the sins of the rich and powerful.  Occasionally, we see the prejudice and bigotry.  Usually, we see the sins that impact us—and offend us. 

Now it is important for us to expose and condemn crimes and injustices being committed against the poor and marginalized.  But you and I must especially look within ourselves.

One big way we sin is by thinking and acting as though the world should conform to your needs and desires.  Many of our political leaders promise you the freedom to pursue everything you need and want as your right.

But is it your right or mine to buy food, clothing, and merchandise at low prices—while the people who grow, manufacture, and sell these goods practically starve?

Is it your right or mine to accumulate way more stuff than you can ever possibly need?

Is it your right or mine to waste food and water, and ravage God’s creation?

Is it your right or mine to pursue success and happiness, and let someone else worry about the poor and vulnerable?

Fact is, all people have souls—whether they be the people we despise, the people we pity, or the people whose labors bring us our needs and wants.

King David brutally violated many innocent souls and destroyed precious lives.  Yet God saves David’s soul—by revealing the bitter truth of his sin and forgiving him for that sin before he could even ask for it. 

I still hate how God strikes down the innocent child because of his father’s iniquity.  But surely the God who restores David’s soul restored that innocent child’s soul as well—along with the souls of the murdered Uriah and his wife Bathsheba.  We just don’t know how or when…

That’s why God brings your sin and mine into the light—not to condemn, but to restore our souls. 

So I submit to prayerfully consider these three questions:
1.      Where in your life is there excess and waste?  What do you have or what do you do too much?
2.      What is it that other people do that angers you most?
3.      What do you want most in your life—and what are you willing to do to get it?

In all three, there’s sin.  But God’s forgiveness brings freedom—not the freedom to have or do whatever you want, but the freedom of peace with God—and the freedom of belonging to a community of persons who value one another and thus care for one another in times of need.  It’s freedom from anger and hostility translating into a passionate desire to work towards change and renewal in the world.  It’s a freedom that brings you and I deeper and more fully into the life of Jesus Christ.

Photo Credit: By H. J. Myers, photographer - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b22819.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Praying and Staying: Luke 7:11-17 - Third Sunday after Pentecost

11Soon afterwards [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. 13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (NRSV)
Nitobe Memorial Garden-4 by Ariane Colenbrander.  Creative commons image on flickr
Our society has a rather unusual relationship with death…

At Halloween, we have fun with it.  We dress up like ghosts and zombies; we decorate our yards to look like graveyards.  Movies replete with gore and bloodshed earn millions at the box office; TV shows containing much the same top the ratings… 

On the other hand, when death actually happens, society expects you to be unaffected.  Crying and sadness are considered signs of weakness.  If you’re sad, lonely, or depressed, you’re supposed to “get over it.”  Bereavement leave is practically unheard of in this dreadful 21st century economy.  I’ve known people who’ve worked full shifts on the day their loved one died, rather than risk losing their job. 

Even within the Christianity faith, we get it wrong.  Grief gets treated with clich├ęs like “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle…” “He’s in a better place…” “God needed another angel…”

The one I’m guiltiest of: “is there anything I can do for you?”

First of all, this question is nearly impossible to answer, because grief is so overwhelming—and because you’re culturally conditioned to be self-sufficient. 

At the end of the day, I wonder: do we really care?  Or, are we too wrapped up in ourselves?  Too busy to grieve; too busy to care; too secure in illusions of invulnerability…

In Jesus’ day, when life was so much more fragile, people took a little more notice when someone died…  Everyone in town would show up to accompany the bereaved from the place of death to the place of burial.  Instead of buying flowers, professional musicians and wailers would be hired accompany the procession.

This is precisely what Jesus encounters when he enters a town called Nain.  A man was being carried out who was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow.

If you’ve ever been through it, or you know someone who has, you know that losing a child (at any age) is the most painful thing that could ever happen to a person.  But this woman also lost her husband.  In a world where women were treated as property, this widow’s only hope for survival was the kindness of others. 

And if that wasn’t awful enough, people thought they could speak for God.  Most would assume that she must’ve been really some awful person for God to cause this to happen…

But Jesus enters into her world.  He is present with her.  Any notion that she was under God’s curse was dashed to pieces because God’s Son was ministering to her.  And notice how we didn’t ask “is there anything I can do for you?”  Jesus did what was in him to do. 

Unfortunately, you and I can’t raise the dead.  When someone’s hurting, you can’t fix them.  But you can still be with them.  Sometimes I think saying nothing best—because if you’re not thinking what to say, you’re better able to listen and even discover what you can do!  Don’t speak a word prior to speaking to God, calling the Holy Spirit to guide you and inspire you!

As a Christian, you already know the answer to the question “is there anything I can do for you?”  You can pray—for them, or better yet, with them.  And you can stay with them.  There’s nothing that helps quite like praying and staying.

As Christians, we all need to rethink how we think about pain and suffering.  The way of Jesus does not lead us to the pot of gold at the end of your own, personal rainbow.  The way of Jesus is not in the avoidance of suffering—and it is especially NOT in the avoidance of those who are suffering. 

To be one with Christ, you must take up your cross.  You must suffer with him—and one of the most significant ways that you fulfill this is by walking with his suffering people.  Even though you can’t raise the dead or make problems go away, you will be amazed what Jesus will do simply by you showing up.  The Holy Spirit will use not only your spiritual gifts, but even your wounds and brokenness to give healing.  You, too, will find healing.  You will find and receive the life from God that depends not on circumstance.  We are the presence of Christ to each other. 

Where there is a Cross, God makes for resurrection. 

This is why we are a Church.  This is why we exist as part of our community, and not apart from it. 

We are a people raised to new life in Jesus Christ, amid our brokenness, weakness, and need.  Healing is what we give and receive from each other through Jesus Christ.  We are a healing people.  We are a healing Church.  It's all about praying, staying, and trusting in the power of Jesus to bring us healing, hope, and a new beginning.