Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The long and winding road

a little pre-vacay pampering!

Tomorrow we are escaping our reality! I am feeling equal parts excited and stressed out as I pack our bags and work my way down the check list. I realize we are taking way too much of our reality with us. I am not sure we can call this trip a vacation, its just changing our surrounds for a few nights.

The princess is on a much needed spring break. She has had a rough month with nerves and nightmares, growing pains and a nasty fever. So, the chance to sleep in and relax is well deserved and much needed.

However, the work load for the pastor is on the rise! Spring break and holy week should never be neighbors. So, no light reading, no fun movies (for me) – just work, work, work.

This is one of those weeks when the intersection of mom and pastor does not work so well. But, we'll make the most of it and enjoy a little cabin tucked away in the woods (with a great pastor's discount!). Hopefully, I will return feeling renewed to tackle Holy week, Easter and the final months of internship.

But, so much more, I am hoping the princess returns feeling at ease, joyful and having left some of the teenage sass in the woods!  

Saturday, March 24, 2012

By Heart

While reading Jeremiah 31 I came across the image of having something "written on our hearts" and it really struck me this week.  I think, so often what truly marks our hearts and souls are the painful experiences or situations we endure and survive.  So, while I did not reference this at all in the sermon, Eva Cassidy's "By Heart" song played through my mind all week long.  She is my all time favorite female musician...if you do not know her voice and music already, you need to: so here is an introduction...(you're welcome!) 

3.25.12 FUMC: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12

What can you do “by heart”?
Drive the route home from church by heart?
Dial a familiar phone number by heart?
Recite a favorite poem by heart?
List the names on the family tree back three or four generations by heart?

We learn things, commit them to memory either cognitive memory or muscle memory, and then proudly say, “I know it by heart!”

This notion of knowing something by heart gives the sense of knowing something more than just memory, more than just something you have done a few times. When you know something by heart it is a part of your essence, something you do not need reminders or aids for.

Like a farmer knows the soil, like a mother knows her baby's cry, like a pianist's hands know how to move, like a child knows how to run free and wild...we all have people, places, elements of life that we just know by heart.

And how do we know God? Do we memorize God? Do we recite the ten commandments, some bible verses and the Lord's prayer and then claim we “know” God? Or is it a perfect attendance record at church, is that how we “know” God? Is it the right clothes? The best behavior? The most eloquent prayer? Is that how we “know” God?

No, in none of the things I've just listed does there exist a promise. No where in scripture is the promise, “I will be with you once you dress or act or learn the way I want you to.” Those words do not exist in God's holy book. So, how do we know God?

One of the most life-giving and exciting promises of God is that God is all about being made known. God is always revealing another side of God's-self and this revealing happens in so many ways. In the reading from Jeremiah we hear a promise that God will make God's-self known fully to us one day...

33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

This is the promise of full disclosure. There will be a day when we will not need to read the ten commandments on a slab of stone, a day when we will not attend bible studies or come to worship to hear the word read and the gospel proclaimed. There will be a day when we will know God by heart...fully, down to our core. The word of God will be written, not on stone, not on paper...but on our hearts. And notice in this promise, there was no prerequisite. There was no if the people do this then they will know me, or only the affluent, or only the nice people, or only the poor, God was clear... “all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.” All. And this is how God will make God's-self known to us...we believe in a God who reveals and moves closer to us all the time.

Today we also heard a strange scene from the gospel of John. Jesus is feeling the weight of what is to come and his soul is troubled. And then, in that moment of doubt and worry a voice resounds from the clouds, “I have glorified my name and I will glorify it again.” God is reassuring Jesus of what has already been done and what will be done, God is reassuring that promises made are promises kept by God. Understandably the crowd has no idea what has just happened, was that thunder, an angel, a voice in their own heads?

Jesus says, “The voice has come for your sake, not for mine...when I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself” Jesus tells the people what kind of death he is to die. So, God is at it again, revealing what kind of God this is that knows and loves us so well. A God that sends Love to the earth and a God who turns what is certain death into certain life. What kind of death will Jesus die? A painful and sacrificial death to be sure, but also a death that leads to life, a death that loves us a death that makes a way for grace and mercy to be upon us. A death that draws us closer to God. That is the kind of death Jesus dies, for our sake.

I asked at first, how do we know God? And then we heard from Jeremiah, and then we heard from Jesus and still that question of how do we know God is not really answered. No, I have not revealed that 5 step program or the magic answer to shoring up your relationship with God. That is because what Scripture tells us is that our relationship with God is about being known by is the experience of God revealing God's-self to us. The promise of God is being known by God's heart, fully, down to our very core, our very essence...being known that intimately and being loved anyways.

To be loved is to be known and to be known is to be God.

Jeremiah says the day is coming when we will know God fully and we will know God by heart, but that day is not yet here. So, while we wait, while we walk on this earth and are loved and known by God...what do we do as disciples, as children of God who wait for the promise to be fully realized?

We do as Jesus commands and we strive to walk as children of the light. God knows us and loves us already, otherwise we would not be here. It is not happenstance that we are in worship today or any day, no random moves that push us to help and serve others, it is not coincidence that prayer and reading the Bible are food and drink for our is the Spirit of God already at work within us. So, we do walk in the light and engage in the relationship God offers to us.

We have very brave adults and youth that are participating in our faith basics class and seriously considering what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. And for every person, the discovery of relationship with God and the definition of “disciple” is very different. Each of these people could tell you a story, an experience or a conviction which defines what being a discipleship means to them. There are similar disciplines, similar traditions, similar beliefs that we share as children of God, but how we walk in the light of Christ looks so different. Sometimes we dance in the light, sometimes we stumble, sometimes we fall flat on our face...yet we get back up and follow Jesus' command to walk as children of the light.

We read God's word, we talk to God, we gather in worship to support one another and glorify God's name, we live and breath and exist for the sake of those who do not know God. The day will come when bible studies, mission trips, worship services and the church itself will no longer exists. But that day is not yet, the promise is not fully we walk as children of light.

Why does Jesus put that before us, as disciples? Here in the middle of such a heavy and world-altering moment as Jesus thinks about the cross and what is to come, Jesus turns to his disciples and says “walk as children of light”. Could it be because Jesus knows the darkest dark? Could it be that Jesus knows the darkness of our hearts and our world?

To be loved is to be known and to be known is to be God. And this God knows that there are many things we do and say “by heart”, but many of the things we do and say are not of God and they are not words or actions that are becoming of a person walking in the light of Christ. We have pasts, we have painful memories that are etched so deeply that we know the scene, the feeling, the despair by heart...whether we like it or not. God knows our hearts, God knows what defines and informs and scars and feeds us. God knows the darkness within us and the darkness around us. And God sent Jesus to shine a bright and brilliant light – which is good news, yet that can also be scary news. Because if that bright and brilliant light is shining on our darkness, then we are caught, exposed, fully known down to the smallest detail. Now, that is intimacy and that is scary. The light of Christ is not only to expose and to know, but it is to transform and it is to heal. To be loved is to be known and to be known is to be God.

“Walk as children of light” are Jesus words to his disciples then, in the days before the cross, and they are words for us now, as we linger here before the cross.

We do not walk perfectly. Even the farmer encounters weeds, even the most accomplished pianist hits a wrong note from time to time, even the most loving mother loses her cool, even the best church person really screws up from time to time. We strive to walk as children of light, and we do so knowing there will be major bumps in the dark. And we strive to walk as children of light trusting in the promise that God knows the way and God knows us by heart.

To be loved is to be known and to be known is to be God, by heart. That is good news. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Its the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded...

I have been experiencing a major writing block.  It could be the current state of life, it could also be that in addition to all the writing that my job entails I also have an online class (my LAST one!) and my approval essay (a mere 20+ pages) all demanding many, many written words.  

So, this sermon was hard fought, and still feels a little scattered, yet very much reflective of the INCREDIBLY BRAVE conversation the churches I serve are having these days...and it finally did come together with a little help from Brad Pitt.

[John 3:14-20] 

When I read the story of Nicodemus, I feel strangely comforted. He is my kind of guy, he had an experience that I can relate to. Nicodemus was a leader in the synagogue, probably trying to live his life of faith the best way he knew how. He was following the rules, getting to worship, from the outside he was a stand up man of God – a goody-goody church man. And then, one night he lays down to sleep, when all the duties of the day are done, and as he lets his calm and collected exterior relax and any false pretenses wash away, Nicodemus is left with only himself, that moment of raw honesty as he drifts into sleep...and then the real questions of life, existence and what he has been doing with his life all come to the surface, Nicodemus experienced that moment where nothing stands between himself, his life and God.

And then panic, questions have come that do not have answers. He thinks over his life work as a religious leader and begins to doubt what he has been doing all along! Nicodemus, the goody-goody church man is questioning his faith, his behavior, his beliefs...and he runs out of the house, into the darkness of the night.

Nicodemus runs until he finds Jesus, because Nicodemus has questions and he is hoping against hope that the Jesus has answers.

The connection between Jesus and Nicodemus begins with a confession of faith; Nicodemus arrives in the night and confronts Jesus by saying, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’” Nicodemus addresses Jesus with respect, “Rabbi” and affirms Jesus as a man who has power that could only come from God...Nicodemus wants to believe, but before he can believe he needs to understand. So, the questions come.

How can anyone be born after growing old? Jesus had just told Nicodemus that only those born from above can see the kingdom of God...only those born from above. So the natural cycle of life is completely flipped around, be born again? Be born from above? No where in Nicodemus' understanding of faith and righteousness is there talk about rebirth or being born from above. Yet, Nicodemus is in the middle of a real crisis of life, he has heard of this Jesus man, he believes God is present in this Nicodemus has arrived with real questions and he takes the seemingly crazy answers seriously.

Something about Jesus had caught Nicodemus. Something worth sneaking out at night, something worth asking these provocative questions, something worth the risk of having his life's work dismissed or his understanding of God turned upside down. Something about Jesus made this conversation worth it.

This is why I jive with Nicodemus.

Sometimes, in churchy circles, he gets a bad rap, he is a Pharisee after all! We could criticize him for only thinking with his head and never engaging his heart, we could say he is asking too many questions when he should be listening and learning. Maybe Nicodemus was just a man who talked the talk and never walked the walk...

But I think he was brave. Incredibly courageous to encounter Jesus and know that this man, who clearly embodied the presence of God, this man was worth reflecting over Nicdemus' own life, questioning his own work, risking having his understanding of God and life turned upside down. Nicodemus was brave enough not only to ask very difficult questions, but then... to wait for the answer.

For the sake of the church, for the sake of our own walks with Christ...I hope each and every one of us is a lot like Nicodemus. Today, here in the year 2012 our church is in a very “Nicodemus” place. We have a long history of the church, we have our liturgical traditions, our institutional organization and our church has spent years, decades, centuries solidifying these historical stories, liturgical traditions and our very own institution.

And yet, the church remains in steady decline, the world's view of the church grows increasingly suspect. So, those who have invested in the church, those who do find being held in a community of faith meaningful have these Nicodemus moments! We work and serve all day long the best we know how and then, when the day is done and all the pretenses wash away we are left with a moment of honesty, when nothing stands between ourselves, our lives and God. And... cue the questions!

Are we willing to have that Nicodemus experience? We are willing to ask questions of Jesus that will challenge the way the church has existed? Are we willing to risk having our understanding of church and God turned upside down? Are we willing to ask these difficult questions of Jesus...and then listen for the answer?  

(If Nicodemus played ball)
Now, I am not much of a movie goer, at least not movies that aren't G-rated and animated. But a few months ago I did manage to see the movie, Moneyball. This movie is based on a book which tells the story of baseball team – Oakland A's and their general manager, Billy Beane. Billy Beane manages this mediocre baseball team with limited financial resources – after a devastating loss Billy Beane is determined to turn things around. So, he picks up on a new way of forming a team. He uses a new philosophy of skill analysis which is non-traditional and goes against the entire philosophy of trading and training players! Billy Beane is questioning the history, the tradition, the institution and comes out with a new kind of team...a team that actually wins baseball games! It wasn't always pretty and Billy Beane didn't do it for fame and glory – he was determined for the sake of the game he loved.

Being a part of human institutions; be it baseball teams, churches, families, name it and constant reforming and wondering about a better way is part of the deal. In order to stay engaged with other humans we need to be like Billy Beane, looking at the status quo and believing there is truly another way.

Following Jesus can feel a lot like struggling with a mediocre baseball team. In the life of faith and life in the church success or victories are difficult to measure, there is no fame or glory, and it isn't always pretty. This is not a baseball game, and we are not trying to win anything – we are not trying to reach or achieve our own salvation, but that following Jesus and living a life of service and love is difficult. And now, we're talking about blazing a whole new trail! Why would we purposely make this walk of faith even more difficult?

Jesus does have an answers, Jesus does hear our questions and this is his answer to us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life! The Son did not come into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The church is called to exist for the sake of the world! That great love of God that is given to each of us is a gift, pure gift and it is meant to be given away again and again and again. Just like Nicodemus, there is something about that Jesus guy that catches us – is it the free gift of grace and you cannot believe is being extended to you? Is it the passion for the poor and the least among us? Is it the presence and power of God that brings healing and wholeness? Somehow, someway Jesus comes to each of us, while we are wandering around at night...and the way we understand our lives, our own individual little lives, is completely turned upside down. And now, the way we do church, the way we embodied God's love, the way we organize and reach out is up for question. And why do we bother with the question? Because of Jesus, because God so, so, so, so loved the world...and the church is called to exist for the sake of the world.

The Nicodemus experience begins with our own relationship with Jesus Christ, that something that draws us in, loves us up, forgives and blesses and heals. And then, our Nicodemus experience will spill over to our way of life, our way of being the church and our history, our traditions our institutions will all be called to reflect that something – that love, that forgiveness, that blessing, that healing.

God is not done with us. God is not done with this world. So the church still needs to have a voice, the church still needs to be present and engaging with the world around us...we need to be Nicodemus, honest, real and questioning. It is time for us to look at the status quo and believe there is a better way.

It takes faith, but so much more than that, it takes the love of God for the whole world and the grace of Jesus Christ as a pure and free gift to every person.

May you lay your head down in peace tonight and may you rise as Nicodemus – willing to run to Jesus for the sake of the world. Amen.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Out of chaos comes...?

Last Sunday I did an information session on seminary and internship for our congregations. Given that I am the first intern these churches have worked with, we thought it would be helpful for them to have a glimpse at the bigger picture of the whole journey a seminarian embarks on.

During the session someone commented on all the waiting, and unknown and how much is out of the seminarian's hands. To this astute insight I retorted, “Yes, if a person doesn't have faith before going to seminary, they certainly do by the time they are done!”.

The retort was meant to be funny and make light of the reality of the unknown.
However, in the midst of the unknown, funny doesn't really cut it.

What is happening for us after internship (a mere 3 and a half months away)?
The ugly truth is – I have no idea.

We have this terribly awkward waiting period – could be 4 months, could be 8 months, could be longer (yikes!). The last step to seminary is approval, and I cannot be approved until most of internship is done. So, next month I have an interview via Skype, in May I have an interview in Fargo, ND and if all goes well...I'm approved for ordination! And then I wait and wait and wait for the bishops of the ELCA to meet...which will not happen until late October. See? Really, awkward waiting period.

The unknowns have quadrupled lately and the Princess is really struggling with the rise of anxiety. So, for the next step, I feel the pressure to snuggle us into a place of security, comfort, stability, love and fun. Yet, I am painfully aware that I am not in control (that's the Holy Spirit's work) and I cannot create something out of nothing (thats God's work – ex nihilo) and I really do not know what is best (again, leaving that one to God).

So, I have to have faith. But faith and calm are lacking.

Meanwhile, I keep this poignant prayer close...

Lord, God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
 (Lutheran Evening Vespers)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wade in the Water

sermon 2.26.12 -- Mark 1:9-11

Today's gospel story is full of water. And this water is going to give Jesus some trouble. We usually hold baptism in a bright and spiritual light, baptism is good and forever and an incredible gift of God. Yet, it is because of this baptism, this water, that Jesus is cast out into the desert. Because of water Jesus is tormented and tried for 40 days...and where does all of this happen? In the one place where this is no water!

Our story is full of water. And this water is going to give Jesus some trouuu—ble.


Water gives us trouble, too. In different ways, I am sure we each have stories of water that hurts, water that has destroyed or threatened, water that has left us changed and different. And that is just our experience, our urban, developed, first world experience. Water gives all sorts of other trouble to the rural, third the weakest of the weak, to the most desolate of communities, often their biggest struggle is the struggle for a drop of clean, pure water.

Water is trouble...if you do not have any.

VIDEO: charitywater

So many in our world are without water and only know that water makes them sick and water is brown...not clean and pure. There are so many in our world that hear the story of Jesus' baptism, or any biblical story with water, differently. Of course, I cannot say how. But I imagine the picture of Jesus stepping into the river has a sense of danger, and contamination. Jesus stepping into a earthly filth and emerging as a beloved child of God. Is that possible? Did it happen?

There is injustice and corruption in our world – we all know that. Facing a reality like no water, puts a fact and a face on that injustice. Do we realize the gift we have every time we take a drink from the sink? Do we thank God for the hot shower and the fresh laundry? I often see these daily tasks as chores...not blessings. Yet, for so so many, water is not always a blessings or a friendly this story of Jesus' baptism sounds very different for those with another worldview.

Every time we encounter the bible and the stories of the bible, we do so from our own worldview. So, we, being people with access to clean and immediate water hear the baptism of Jesus and the presence of the River Jordan and think little of the relationship between the two. I imagine, in my mind's eye, the water being clean and pure, powerful and inspiring. I imagine the presence of God being so heavy upon the baptism that all we're aware of God and the Spirit and the water.

I imagine that hearing that Jesus is the living water and that there will come a day when no person, no man, no woman no child will ever be thirsty again, I imagine that is a promise that seems too good to be true!

Water is trouble....if you do not have any.


Water is trouble...if you have too much!

I grew up in East Grand Forks, Minnesota. This little town sits on the boarder of North Dakota and Minnesota with only the mighty Red River to separate them. We were used to flooding in the Red River Valley, it happened, to some extent, every year. In 1997 we experienced a winter like none other, blizzard after blizzard happening late into the spring. So, with a quick thaw and tons of snow our entire city was flooded. Nearly every home on the Minnesota side of the river experienced some damage — mostly in the basement. There was one neighborhood, Sherlock Park neighborhood, where every home was devastated. That is where I grew up.

The night the neighborhood flooded our community came out in droves. With the assistance of the national guard we built a sandbag dyke twice as high as the existing dyke. We formed a line that began in the back of a truck and wound four blocks down with the raging water lapping over our feet, the pool of water in front of the dyke getting dangerously high. And then the sirens went off. The dyke had broke, it was too dangerous to stay...we were all forced to evacuate immediately.

Four hours later I stood again with my neighbors, this time we were standing on the backside of Sherlock Park looking onto what seemed like a peaceful lake. It was, actually, our houses and yards completely covered by the Red River.

For three weeks the Red River filled my home – now the river was disgusting! From year of flooding it was great polluted and contaminated, so watching the water swirl through my home was to know that nothing to going to come out in tact.

This is not a story of injustice. This is a story of the power of creation, a power that is so much greater than we are. When I hear the story of Jesus stepping in the river, I imagine a river filled with my belongings, a river filled with a town, a river filled with anger and rage and power.

I imagine Jesus stepping into a force of nature so great that it destroyed and polluted our home. The water chased us out of our town for months and it was nearly a year until we were in a house again. The water made the floors and houses and cars and playgrounds into its own play things. The water gave great, great trouble.

Water is trouble...if you have too much.


Water is trouble. It was trouble for Jesus. It is trouble for those who go without. It is trouble for those who have too much. Water is a powerful element of nature that is not to be messed around with.

With God, however, we do not have only water. With God, we have water...and a promise!

That troubling water that Jesus steps into is just the beginning. As Jesus emerges from the powerful, raging, dirty, contaminated river Jordan...Jesus hears these words, “This is my son, the beloved.”

Jesus is claimed as a child of God, Jesus is told that he is loved. The promise that is made with the water will last much longer than the water itself. The strength and power of the promise, is stronger and more forceful than the power of the water.

That is what baptism is. It is water and a promise. Baptism is the hand of God taking an earthly element: an element that can give life and disease, that can heal and destroy. God takes this element and says “this is where I will meet you” in the healing and the illness, in the strong and the this element I will meet you and claim you and name you and give you strength for the great journey head.

Water is trouble. With God, we have water...and a promise. And that promise is more than trouble, it is blessing, it is promise, it is new life, it is transformation, it is the “I will be with you wherever you go. With whatever injustice, in whatever trial.”

Go ahead, children of God. Wade in the water...because with God, we have water...and a promise.