Thursday, August 31, 2017

Hurricane Harvey Response


Friends in Christ,

Over the past week, the people of the Texas and Louisiana have suffered one of the most destructive and deadly natural disasters of our nation’s history.  The losses of property and livelihoods will be felt for years, if not decades, for potentially millions of people.  In the cries of our fellow human beings, we hear the voice of Jesus calling us to serve our neighbors in their moment of most desperate need. We know Jesus is near to all who suffer, especially those who are most vulnerable.  As people of God, we will not turn away.

Here are the ways you can help:
1. If you have family or friends who have been impacted, please email me (pr.jim@comcast.net) so that we may hold them in our prayers and listen for the Holy Spirit to inspire us to share our time, talent, and treasure for their healing.  Thank you to everyone who has already notified us about their friends and relatives.
2. Give a financial gift in any amount to Lutheran Disaster Response, www.ldr.org.  You can give with confidence that 100% of your gift will go directly to those in need.  An insert will be provided in this week’s bulletin.
3. If you are unable to make a financial donation, remember that by doing the good that is nearest to you to do, you are still making a difference.  Jesus will be leading you to people, or leading people to you, so that together you may witness his amazing grace at work in this world.  We would especially welcome persons to serve in our clothing closet, which continues to grow in its reach and reputation.

Just in the last 48 hours, our clothing closet served a family of 5 from East Vandergrift who lost everything in a terrible fire, and several men and women of our congregation came to their aid as volunteer firefighters and emergency responders.  Yesterday, our clothing closet assisted another family with a young child who had only the clothes on their back.  In addition, the Leechburg Food Bank served over 100 families at their August distribution.  Community PATH will continue to serve the children of the Leechburg Area School District.

These ministries would not be possible without your support.  Thank you for all you give and all you do.  In all the tragedies and trials of life, we trust that Christ will lead us safely through our sorrows into the light of a new day.

In Christ,
+Pastor Jim

Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/Lutherans

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Showing Your ID: Matthew 16:13-20 - Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost


13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. (NRSV)
Mirror by Antonio Janeski.  Creative commons image on flickr
If you’ve visited West Haven Manor recently, chances are you’ve met Gloria, their “official greeter.”

Gloria is a resident at the home.  She is only in her late sixties, and suffers from severe cognitive and/or physical impairments that I cannot identify.  She is wheelchair-bound and sits somewhat slouched on her right side.

Despite her many ailments, God has given her a purpose and an identity.  She will sit by the main doors for most of the day and greet everyone who enters.  And she is not shy about sharing her love for Jesus or her devotion to her Catholic faith.  The joy of the Lord absolutely radiates from her.  In fact, every time I’ve ever visited, she’s asked to pray for me and for our church. 

Gloria’s name, in Hebrew, means “Glory to God!”  She is a miracle in a world where a person’s identity is defined by your strength, self-sufficiency, wealth, race, gender, or creed—and so much more. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are in the city of Caesarea Philippi.  There, Jesus asks Peter: “who do you say that I am?”  Peter, who almost always speaks before he thinks—gives the right answer.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Then, Jesus reveals Peter’s true identity: “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

Wow…

However, just minutes from now, Jesus will say to him, “Get behind me Satan!” after Peter rebukes him for speaking of his death and resurrection.  Later, Peter will deny knowing Jesus three times when Jesus is on trial before the high priest.  Ultimately, the one thing Peter refused to accept about Jesus happens: Jesus is crucified.  Jesus dies.

It is only after Jesus’ resurrection, after Jesus’ three-fold reaffirmation of Peter’s identity, after Jesus’ ascension—that Peter finally embraces the truth of who he is and who Jesus is.

Just as he does for Peter, Jesus tells you who you are.  At your baptism, he says, “you are sealed with the sign of the Holy Spirit marked with my cross forever.”  Your identity is a child of God, and your purpose is discipleship.  Your value to God is measured in the life of God’s Son given for you. 

And while this is wonderful news and something to celebrate, these are truths that are much easier spoken than lived  Peter had to suffer through the traumas of his own failures, the trauma of Jesus’ death, and crisis of his resurrection and ascension.  You could say Jesus put Peter through a spiritual meat grinder.  To put it more bluntly, the Peter who was had to die in order for him to live into his God-given identity and know the truth of who Jesus is.  You and I are no different.

The Christian life is no cakewalk.  Jesus makes it very clear that unless you take up your cross and follow him, you cannot be his disciple.  The only way to truly know Jesus Christ is to be crucified and die with him.  You’re handing over to Jesus your plans, your pursuits, your values, and your whole sense of self—in order that Jesus may transform them into whatever he desires.  Don’t think for a second that transformation will be painless.

What makes this even more complicated is that you live in a world where your identity is defined by your strength, self-sufficiency, wealth, race, gender, or creed—and so much more.  So, if the world says you are significant, you must become a nobody.  If, on the other hand, the world says you’re a nobody, Jesus is going to liberate you from that false sense of inadequacy and the dehumanizing labels others impose upon you. 

In God’s Kingdom, Gloria the Greeter is no more important than someone else who’s rich, successful, and strong by the world’s standards.  Gloria lives in the promise Jesus speaks here today, in spite of all her limitations. 

In this bitterly-divided, dog-eat-dog world we’re living in now, Jesus is gathering all people to himself to know the truth of who he is in order that you may live your true, God-given identity.  As a church, we play a vital role in this work…

Now more than ever, Jesus is calling his church to be a community that does not play by the same rules as the kingdoms of this world—and there is nowhere else on earth where someone can go to be loved, accepted, and valued as in the Church.  Nowhere else on earth are you set free to be your true self.  Jesus nurtures your identity through the people who know and love you.  We belong to each other in Christ so that we can bring out the Christ in each other.  The people who know you and love you will you to live out God’s purpose for your life. 

Together, we are a powerful force in the world when we go and show people their value and worth in God’s eyes—especially those whom the rest of the world abuses and excludes. 

Here, it’s not about me versus you or us versus them.  Here, your sins and your failures go the way of your feelings of inadequacy and the dehumanizing labels the world imposes on you. 


Here, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.  Here, we come out of the darkness and into the life God intends.  Here we are to be known and loved; healing together and tasting the kingdom that is to come.  Here we are to thank God for creating us, and to look forward with hope for the people we shall become.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Grace Supremacy: Matthew 15:21-28 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost


Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)
Farming God's Way Ministry - Valley Points Family YMCA, New Kensington.  Photo by author.

I don’t like going into New Kensington.  I don’t feel as safe there as I do here in Leechburg or in Lower Burrell.  But I visit their YMCA branch several times a week.  When I walk from the parking lot into the building, I always feel a little nervous—particularly if I see people walking nearby—most of whom are persons of color.

Now in five years, nothing bad has ever happened.  A few people asked me for a dollar, and one woman even asked me for a ride (which I refused, much to her anger).  Most recently, I was approached by a young African American man and a white woman when I got out of my car.  I was dressed in clerics, which is why he probably said, “Excuse me, father, can you help me?”

In my mind, I’m thinking, “oh, great.  What have I gotten myself into now?”  But I say, “what do you need?”

His name was Tyrell, and hers was Melissa.  He tells me that they haven’t eaten in two days—and that it was his birthday.  He asks if I would buy him a cake. 

I ask him to walk with me three blocks to the Shop-N-Save.  On the way, he tells that he’d spent his previous birthdays in prison for drug offenses.  And he tells me how hard he is praying for God to provide him a job so that they won’t be homeless again…

At the store, he selects a small cheesecake and a half gallon of iced tea.  The total cost was less than $10.  I ask him if they needed more food, and he smiled and said, “this is all I need.”  Then he hugs me and tells me that this was his best birthday ever.  They then walk to a nearby bus stop shelter and eat the cake.

These two remind me of the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel—frantically begging Jesus for mercy to her daughter, who was possessed by a demon.

She was a Canaanite—an enemy race God’s people despised.  And she was a woman; likely a peasant woman with nothing in the way of wealth or social standing. 

Here, you have her crying and shouting at Jesus—making all kinds of ruckus and showing none of the honor or respect that should’ve been afforded a Jewish rabbi.  All the while, Jesus’ disciples are trying desperately to shut her up.  They’re ready, at Jesus command, to drag her away, kicking and screaming.

Surprisingly, Jesus is extremely unkind toward her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” he says.  I will not be wasted on dogs like you.”

But she persists.  She doesn’t ask for a place at Jesus’ table; just to be lick up the crumbs on the floor.

I believe her faith to be the greater miracle here.  She had nowhere else to turn; nothing else to lose and saw in Jesus as her best and only hope. Through her faith, Jesus not only healed her daughter but forever broke down the wall that kept people like her outside of God’s family.  In this brief exchange, the truth about Jesus is revealed—that he is not just the savior of proper Jews but of everyone who calls on his name.  There are no boundaries for who’s in and who’s out.  Everyone belongs.

But as sinners, you and I don’t like this.  We resist this. 

We human beings love to build walls to ensure our exclusive enjoyment of God’s gifts while keeping out everyone who would threaten that exclusive enjoyment.  This is true in your preschool sandbox, your high school lunch table, your workplaces, and the divisive political climate we’re experiencing today. 

Whether you realize it or not, you make judgments on what people are worth—and treat them accordingly.  You act as though it is your divine right to dominate and plunder those people.  If they don’t serve your interests, then it’s in your best interest to be rid of them.  And when you have a passionate majority making like judgments about those most different from themselves, you get social, economic, and political systems that perpetuate oppression.  Life cannot flourish in such an environment.  The one best word to describe this is hell.

This was on parade last week in Charlottesville, Virginia: people carrying torches, waving Nazi flags, and brandishing weapons—for the purpose of claiming this nation for their exclusive benefit.  Most white supremacists believe it is their God-given right to plunder and destroy all those they believe are beneath them. 

I can see myself as a disciple holding the Canaanite woman down as she cries out for Jesus—because she was rattling the system.  She was rude and obnoxious.  She was sticking her nose where it didn’t belong and interrupting the important work we were doing.  She wasn’t following the rules and waiting her turn.

My own white supremacy showed itself in my attitude towards the people of color I encounter in New Kensington: that they are not my neighbors, but people to be feared and avoided.  Yet I believe it was Jesus who brought them to me that day—and though that encounter cost me ten dollars, some time, and some discomfort, it was also a moment of supreme grace.

No matter what people may say, God showed you your worth at the cross.  Your salvation comes with no conditions or strings attached.  It comes to you in bread and wine that you are invited to receive without cost. 

When you leave this place, Jesus will send you to people or send people to you for you show them how much they matter to God.  Jesus is going to exorcise you of your prejudices, fears, and suspicions of other people so that you may receive them not just as a neighbor but as a gift.  On both sides of the boundaries we create there are people in need of grace—and it is in giving that grace to each other; be it in breadcrumbs or cheesecakes, that we taste God’s kingdom. 


The salvation we all long for is not about domination and elimination of peoples.  It’s about mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  These will bring us healing.  These will bring us life.