Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas music: sing now, sing then

Advent IV
Lessons and Carols
12.21.14/Westwood Lutheran

It has been a week of music making at Westwood, I’m learning that’s pretty typical around here.  Last Sunday our Sunday school children filled the chancel area to sing Advent songs and give us a little glimpse into Christmas time.  Then, last Sunday afternoon about fifty people left Westwood in different groups to go Christmas caroling.  Young and old set out to sing to those who are not able to leave their homes and brought the sounds of Christmas to them.   We caroled to people who recognized their church friends quickly, we also caroled to people who could not remember– each recipient of the caroling groups were at differing stages of memory loss and old age. It did not matter – because music has the power to transcend memory loss, our brains are wired in such a way that music stays with us longer than names and dates and even longer than the recognition of beloved faces.    Music, in mysterious and powerful ways, cuts through disease and isolation and brings people of all ages together in the simple, bodily act of singing.  So many that we visited last week moved their lips and even made some sound with words like "O come let us adore Him" or "Hark the herald angels sing", they were signs of the power of story, music and healing. 

And this is the time of year to be brought together in song.  The music making continued on Tuesday morning when all our children from the Westwood Early Childhood Center filled the commons for the “Come as Your Are” luncheon – a lunch to gather and honor our most elderly church members – our youngest family members were singing the songs of faith to our oldest family members (picture?).  They sang the most simple songs of our faith, yet the words “He’s got the little bitty babies and the grandmas and the grandpas in his hands” seem to take on some other meaning when they are shared between such a span of generations.

I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but all week I’ve been pondering this strong connection between the story of Christmas and music – we cannot possibly separate them! Have you had the yearly argument with your loved ones as to when it is proper to turn on the Christmas music in the home and car?  Could we really gather on Christmas Eve and not sing “Silent Night, Holy Night all is calm all is bright?”

In the bible, the Christmas story is carried through narrative and song: much like this service of lessons and carols has been shaped.  This pattern of word and music, word and music is nothing new – the church has always been responding to the Word of God with song, especially at this time of year.

Could the compatibility of music and Christmas have something to do with the way in which God is acting in the story of Christ’s birth? Could it be that the Word became flesh, the Divine God becoming bodily and then dwelled among us as close as the voice which rises up from within us? The coming of the Christ child first entered the world, not in loud, majestic ways but in a woman’s womb – mysteriously taking up residence in a way that demands such intimacy, such feeling of the whole body.  Not unlike music. 

Of course Mary poured out in song after hearing what God was going to do in her life – it is so often how we make meaning, how we process, how we move through experiences or emotions which we cannot explained.  Music takes our ordinary words and gives them lift and power and resonance, music follows the lead of God who takes the ordinary, like Mary and gives her life and power.

Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwan spent much of his life living in intimate communities, he says it this way…

God became flesh for us to show us that the way to come in touch with God’s love is the human way, in which the limited and partial affection that people can give offers access to the unlimited and complete love that God has poured into the human heart." -Henry Nouwen

Perhaps we cannot separate music and the Christmas story because we need music to help us enter into this story that is intimate and holy, calling us to God and mysteriously saving us at the same time.   And this story, of the Holy One coming into our lives needs to take residence deep in our being, sung so far into our memories that this miracle, this presence of God will be the final reality we know while on earth.
There are countless ways to find your voice in the story, consider all these sounds of Christmas:

The song began with the prophet Isaiah: giving warning and hope to a nation in disarray, his melody is filled with longing and beauty (Cellos play“Lo, How a Rose")

Then Zachariah carries the story through his song that burst out from his own doubt: the dawn from on high will break upon us, he sings through a determined melody (Flute play "Joy to the world")

The angels and the whole hosts of heaven sing the promise that no human can fully understand, (brass section plays "Hark the Herald")

Mary, so plain and unassuming, sings her song of revolution and upheaval, with leaps of sound that portray the upheaval God’s kingdom will bring 
(violins play "Canticle of the Turning")

The story of Christmas moves through all kinds of people, even the story of the shepherds give us a tone of searching and yearning (clarinets play "In the Bleak Midwinter")

The Wiseman, invite in the generous and confident (piano plays "We Three Kings")

And all creation that falls silent when the glory of the Lord shines from the star upon the place where he lay (silence)

Every voice has it’s place in the symphony of Christmas, for God’s story includes melody, harmony, counter point and ostinatos.  Dynamics that carry us through every season of our life with this promise: the Word will dwell in your life, in intimate, soul-healing, world upturning ways.

May every song we sing bring us closer to God’s life among us.  Amen.

Not resolutions...alignment.

Christmas I Sermon
Luke 2:22-40

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word; 
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

Today’s Gospel reading features two pillars of faith who never get a starring role in the telling of the Christmas story.  I’m guessing many of you are packing up your nativity scenes and no one is carefully rolling their Simeon or Anna figurine up.  These are two people who are glorious parts of Jesus’ infancy, but only the few get to hear the story – because only on the Sunday after Christmas, once every three years do they make a public appearance.   And today is their day, you get to hear about Simeon and Anna today – consider it your door prize for coming to church just three days after Christmas, I am really glad you are here. 

Jesus was born into a Jewish home, and in keeping with the Jewish law his parents brought him to the Temple to be circumcised and dedicated to God on his 8th day of life.  It is from this practice that our modern-day practice of baptizing babies finds it’s origin.  And that day at the temple, led by faithful Joseph and carried by a still-recovering Mary, Jesus is laid in the arms of an old man, Simeon. He takes Jesus into his arms and proclaims that now he is ready to die, for a promise he heard from God some time ago is now fulfilled.  Simeon says it like this,
          ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word; 
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
31   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel.’

Simeon’s whole life has been lived in faith, trusting that this moment, of holding God’s promise for all people would occur! And, when it did – he knew it, recognized it and praised God.    And then the other, even lesser known character of Anna makes an appearance.  She is known as an old prophetess, widowed and devout as she spent her life worshipping and fasting in the temple.  Anna too, tells of this child and what redemption will come to all the world because of his life on earth. 

Simeon and Anna, they got it.  
This is a rare treasure that we hear from Jesus’ life as told in the gospels.  We are used to hearing about disciples asking frustrating questions and misunderstanding, and religious leaders who are blinded by arrogance.  But today we hear from Simeon and Anna – they acknowledge God’s faithfulness and glory right there in the temple in the form of a baby!  What a gift, for his first week of taking on flesh, Jesus is known and praised, and what an affirmation for Mary and Joseph who stand there, in the temple, stunned at what these two elders of the faith are saying.   In this little known story in the Gospel of Luke, the people of God are aligned with what God is doing and they talk about it, they lift their voice and praise. 


It is not often that we get that kind of clarity, is it? Maybe it is more often in hindsight that we can look back on chapters of our lives and point to God’s presence there.  And we’re in a hind-sight kind of place in our year, with only 3 days left on the 2014 calendar.  On this Sunday between Christmas and New Year, we are at a time of taking stock, reflecting on what’s happened- counting the regrets against the victories, scanning the horizon of our life and the life of the world to wonder what this year has been, what does this year say about us as a person, family, nation, world, what does this year say about us as a church?

Over the weekend I was reading up on headlines and followed a link to see the best photos of the past year and then was led to a link provided by Google which reviewed the year through the lens of their search engine.  Google even made up a little video that you can all go home and check out later – but for now I will share one of the top five list they compiled, the top 5 searches that occurred world wide, of the past year: Robin Williams, World Cup, Ebola, Malaysian Airlines and the Ice Bucket Challenge.  

Now, I think we could have some fascinating conversations about what these searches say about us, the global family (or at least the members of the global family who are connected to the internet).   But just at first glance I hear sweeping themes of tragedy and hope...the defeating death of a loveable movie star and the disappearance of an entire plane of passengers and their crew.  The threat of spreading disease and losing control – these hold 3 of the top 5 spots in searches.  The world cup also holds a spot,  which I know close to nothing about and finally, the ice bucket challenge comes in as a grassroots, messy, life of its own movement which raised both awareness and money for Lou Gerig’s Disease research.  The theme of tragedy stands alongside a movement of hope and healing in the list of what people are interested in learning about as they troll the internet.   A common human experience is that we are so often driven by fear and simultaneously searching for hope. Have these two powers had a place in your year?

Simeon’s and Anna’s whole lives were waiting for hope to be fulfilled.  They were not driven by fear, but by faith – could that be why they could see the presence of God in the form of a baby? Was it their faith that gave them eyes to see God’s glory?

This is the perfect day for Simeon and Anna to show up and remind us that our hope and redemption does not come from the tragedies that play out on a global stage, or the ones that we encounter in our most private corners.   As we “take stock” and think about New Year’s resolutions, or failures from the past year or even from counting the successes of the last year…I hope Simeon’s  story will bring us to know that our hope and redemption comes from being aligned with God in the flesh, in our midst today and every day.

Baby Jesus was brought to the worship space by his parents, to follow the commands of God and to be claimed by this God.  So began his earthly ministry, as he grew and then became baptized it all began with this early affirmation and alignment right there in the temple.  Today We have all had the privilege of bearing witness to ___ babies being brought to the waters, where each of us are aligned again and again and again by God’s promises and presence.  It is a time to take stock, a time to begin again, a time for faith and lives transformed – all because so many years ago another baby came into this world and was brought to the temple and God’s Spirit fell upon him just has the Spirit falls on all of us.

And so our year begins, will we have the faith of Anna that is spurred on by a hunger for God’s Word?
Or could we have the clarity of Simeon and so ardently search and wait for God’s presence in our lives?
Will our lives be led by the hope of the Christmas promise or the fear of the unknown future?

May the resolutions of our lives and the google searches on our screens point to hope and open our hearts to hear God’s promises…like the words from the prophet Isaiah who spoke these, stunning words that give voice to hope from tragedy…

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations. 
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

For the sake of the world, do not keep silent, raise your voice, raise your voice in praise. 

May our entrance into the new year be marked by Jesus, the Word who dwells in us, may we see, recognized and praise God who is worthy.  Amen.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

Our time with a puppy and the police

I am a big fan of Family Systems Theory.  A frame of understanding human relationships as a massive system with predictable patterns.  My study in this field has been eye opening,  helping me personally and in ministry. 

I think it also explains my dog.

Somehow, without much advanced planning I managed to adopt a dog that is frighteningly similar to my daughter.  Parker was 10 months hold when we met.  The kid and I drove to the human society with the goal of “just looking” and checking into some options.  We took a couple of dogs into the play-n-greet area to get a sense of their personality, but the dogs were terribly afraid and skittish, making me afraid that they would be too touchy around a child. 

We were about to leave when a volunteer said there is one more we just had to meet.  We took Parker, a big-eyed, black and white border collie to the play area.  Instantly he was crawling into Micaela’s lap, chasing balls and persistently offering kisses.  It took less than one minute to decide this was the guy for us.  

We adopted Parker on a Friday, the entire weekend was devoted to getting him settled and teaching him to do his business outside.  On Sunday night, two nights later, we were broken into.  Parker had been in a crate in my room, my sweet girl slept in her room just down the hall. Somewhere around 3AM a man cut open a screen to our porch, lifted a window (that was barely open, but visible from the street if you were really looking for it) and climbed into our house.  He opened the door from the porch to the living room, walked through the living room, dining room (about 3 feet from my daughter’s door) and into the kitchen.  He found my purse hanging on a door knob and left the same way he entered.  Leaving the door to the porch wide open, the screen cut and ravaged and the window fully opened.   

Parker didn’t make a sound, I heard nothing.

6 AM I rose to let the dog out, walked from the back hallway and into the living room.  I glanced over at the porch and saw the door ajar.  Immediately, I thought there was a raccoon in my house (because this was a more plausible answer to the door being open than a human), but then I saw the window.  The world went spinning for a second while I wondered if there was another person still in my house.  I ran back to my room, grabbed my phone and called 911. 

After hanging up with the dispatcher I had to take 5 very heavy steps into my daughters room, the door, only partially closed blocked my sight of her.  I had to find out if she was still in her bed, unharmed, but I was terrified.  Like ripping off a band-aid I flung open the door, turned on the lights and saw her beautiful form on a heap of stuffed animals. 

I followed the dispatchers instructions to open the front door and wait there.  I took a moment to attached Parker to his long line in our large side yard.  It wasn’t until I had walked across the driveway that I realized, that’s where my car had been and now it was gone.

Within thirty minutes my driveway was full of men who kept politely lifting their feet while my new puppy and his leash wove all around their feet. I sat on the drive way holding my computer so we could see purchases on my credit cards mounting up.

We stayed in the house for the next ten nights, I slept about 2-4 hours each night, holding some sort of vigil to help us all feel safe.  My daughter and our dog (now liberated from the crate) slept in my bed, it was a crowded,  yet secured sleep.  8 days later the police found my car, no damage done, no prints to be lifted, no arrest to be made.  So we closed the book, it was a crime of convenience, it wouldn’t happen again.

But this asshole still had my wallet, address, identification, all my keys and my peace of mind.

This is when I saw the similarities between dog and daughter.  Parker is so very smart, endlessly sweet and a little needy  He wouldn’t eat unless I watched him, he wouldn’t pee unless we were standing outside with him.  Both canine and offspring love to sit close, so if we’re all on the couch, we’re all on the same third of the couch.  Both love to play and both make really loud noises when their upset (she sasses, he howls).   Micaela has often been too afraid to be in a separate room from me, this was never so true as after this break in.  So, in these days post break-in we’d make family trips out to the yard so the dog could do his thing, and then family trips into our tiny bathroom so the girl could do her thing.  Sometime we giggled through this little parade, other times it was terribly annoying. 

Two months later, he stole my car again.  I had just let the dog out, then put my daughter to bed, walked back into the kitchen and saw that the driveway was again empty.  While the police were checking the house they discovered other signs of tampering that had happened a few weeks prior.  This time, I could not bring myself to stay in the house, we stayed with family for the next two weeks.

Two weeks later the police found my car, no damage done, no prints to be lifted, no arrest to be made.

We seriously considering moving, but I love our house which has enough room to hold my baby grand piano, gives us our beautiful porch-room and big yard.  We adore this neighborhood and we have neighbors that actually know my name and watch out for us. So I decided to make my house less convenient for unwanted visitors and I traded in my wandering car.  Motion alarms, motion lights, window locks and door alarms now decorate our darling house.  I sleep alright, Parker sleeps on my feet.  About every third night my daughter needs to sleep in my bed and I don’t really fight it.  If she’s right next to me, I know she is safe. 

I won’t be getting back my old wallet or keys, but slowly I am regaining peace of mind.  And we’re all getting better at using our respective bathrooms alone! 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Our Stories of Scars

Vocation: Week 5
The Book of Ruth

This is the final week of our intensive study on God’s call and claim on our lives: or in a word, vocation.   So, this is the week in which all your questions will be answers, your life’s purpose will be revealed and it concludes with a tidy, fortune-cookie kind of prescription of how you shall now live.
Or not. Not here, and certainly not from me. In fact, quite the opposite…sorry! This is the week we lay all our wonderings and wanderings in their proper place, at the foot of the cross of Jesus.   But first, a closer look at the book of Ruth.  

This is one of my favorite stories from the bible because it feels so real.  Ruth is a real illegal alien, the author never lets us forget it by always referring to her as Ruth-the-Moabite.  Naomi falls from her place of honor about the women of the community – she was married and mothering two sons and now she is grieving the death of them all.  This story allows us to stay in the suffering of her story, hearing her change her name to Mara – the name of bitterness and emptiness and the reality of being a widow, the reality of being a woman who cannot support herself is real.  And though it was tamed for the telling this morning, there is the moment of compromise – Ruth offering herself to Boaz that he might continue to feed her and Naomi and maybe claim them as family so that they can survive.   Just because the bible is really old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t reek of our current, life-tensions.  Immigrants, grief, regret, fitting in, fearing the future, being hungry, compromising self for the sake of moving up in the world…somewhere, somehow we enter this story too.   It is a hot, holy, mess…just like us!

I’ve often wondered where the cultural practice of dressing up for church came from.  Could it be that an attempt to appear right and blameless before God, we dress up a bit for the occasion of worship?  Or is there a thought that in order to fit-in at church, one must appear put together?  There is a little quote that has been attributed to everyone from St. Augustine to Dear Abby, I don’t know who said it first, but the truth is still there.  The church is not a museum of the saints; it is a hospital for sinners.  One of the major beliefs of Lutheran is that we are fully both saints and sinners all the time – so hear that quote knowing that you fully, at all times, belong in both categories.  I raise this, because I think it could be easy to think that in our five week intensive study of vocation we, your pastors, are hoping that everyone will grow in such a way that we will all progress together from sinner to saint, from messy to all cleaned up. 

This is not the call of God on our lives.  And that is not why we believe these past 5 weeks and the coming ventures of vocational study are so important.  None of us will get to a point where we are cleaned up enough for God nor will we reach a point of being wise enough or good enough – but that is not a statement of hopelessness, it is the beginning of our faith.  The one who brings us into relationship with God, the one who says that with him, we are enough is Jesus.  Here, at the foot of the cross your stories, your messes, your scars, your illness, your doubt, the vast complexities of your lives are welcomed here.  And that is not our welcome that we extend, it is the reality of the cross of Christ – arms of mercy and sacrifice splayed wide open to take on all we are…the saints and the sinners.

I met a contemporary Ruth a few years ago.  During my time as a chaplain intern at a hospital here in Minneapolis I was called to a secured mental health unit.  After passing through two locked entry ways and getting clearance at the nurses stationed I entered a dark, cold hospital room and saw a young, terrified woman sitting on the bed.  Her knees were drawn up in protection and her eyes were, at best, skeptical of my presence in the room.  Like it or not, I knew a bit of her story.  She attempted to take her own life by swallowing too many pills in hopes of escaping her controlling, abusive boyfriend.  She was an immigrant, she was alone and the messiness of her life was displayed all over her chart and this room for everyone to see.  With no delicate language, she determined I was too put-together, too prissy, to understand where she’d been and she was angry that her shoes and jewelry were taken away.  This young woman was beautiful, but her dignity and identity as a beautiful young woman was covered by the fragile, angry person before me. 
In an attempt to level the playing field, I kicked off my shoes revealing my socks and their many holes.  She laughed.

I heard her story, full of danger and fear.  No support to be found, only dead ends.  And in hearing her story, I saw portions of my own come to life in a different way. I saw the scars of my life not as something to be hiding and covering all the time, but could it be that this was a time that God was working in my story, and in her story to make something new? To turn scars into new beginnings? To replace shame for hope?

I told her I knew about this cycle of abuse and fear, I knew about hiding and being embarrassed and only finding dead ends.  And she looked at me for the first time and said “You were here….and now you’re there.”  I don’t know where “there” was exactly – not perfectly healed and whole, not without pain and regret to be sure.   But together, through the healing power of God, we both took a step closer to “there”.
It is a miracle what Jesus has done for us.  Loving us so much that we won’t be able to stay exactly where we are when we are constantly being dragged and shoved into the direction of life.  The cross raises us to new life, not old way.  And, as Nadia Bolz Weber says in our vocation reader, “Resurrected bodies are always in rough shape.” Our scars are not gone, our experiences stay with us – but they are made into something new.  This is the story of the cross, the ugliest point of God’s story – the place of abandonment and pain and sacrifice – and it is now our sign of Divine presence, hope and healing.   

This whole life of grace thing? It is a miracle.

So, as promised, the life of faith is only going to get messier.  But we live into this because our God invites us.  We are called to live as people of the cross of life….not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are and all that we bring with us.

There is one final promise in the story of Ruth which comes right at the end, the very last sentence.  Did you hear it? It sounds like a bunch of genealogy. The last line of Ruth reads,  ‘A son has been born to Naomi.  Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, father to Ram, father to Amminadab,  father of  Nahshon,  father of Salmon,  father of  Boaz,  father of Obed,  father of Jesse, and Jesse of David.” 

Who comes to us from the line of Jesse, from the lineage of David? Jesus does. Yes, the promise at the very end of Ruth and Naomi’s story is that they have been folded into the greatest story on the earth: Jesus entering our world through families lines that include illegal immigrants, bitter grief, generosity and loyalty.  Into this life does Jesus enter and make something new.

And into our lives Jesus is calling us rise into new life with him, because of who we are.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Raising My Voice

Last week I was able to vote.
This week I wrote a letter to my president and senators.
I am filled with gratitude to those who went before me and made these steps possible.

This morning I heard from my preaching-colleague about stewarding the gifts of God, and it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with the footprint we will leave on this earth, on our loved ones and on every life we touch during our brief time on earth.

So, in my simple understanding as a child of God who was asked to care for our earth-home and with help from (borrowed their talking points!) these brief words came...

President Obama,
Thank you for your leadership and service to our home country, we are humbled to live in such a place as this. I am writing to ask you, as mother, concerned citizen and person of faith, to veto the bill which legalizes the Keystone Pipeline.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is dangerous, dirty, and destructive.  America's best climate scientists have said that the pipeline will lead to a substantial increase in carbon emissions, as well as threaten America's credibility as a climate leader.
Processing heavier, dirtier tar sands oil will increase the amount of toxic pollutants in communities near refineries that are already suffering from high rates of asthma and cancer. Processing heavier, dirtier tar sands oil will increase the amount of toxic pollutants in communities near refineries that are already suffering from high rates of asthma and cancer. The pipeline will cross more than 1,000 water bodies across 3 states and 875 miles threatening drinking water for people, farms, and ranches with a devastating tar sands spill. The pipeline will cross more than 1,000 water bodies across 3 states and 875 miles threatening drinking water for people, farms, and ranches with a devastating tar sands spill.

In hope,
Pastor Elizabeth Damico

St. Louis Park, MN

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

All the firsts...

This girl has had some big beginnings to each school year! This year may have been the scariest, going to a "big" elementary school and enduring 90 students on the playground and in PE class.  But she is brave and persistent and will make this transition just like the many that have come before! 

My growing girl....

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Cages or Wings?

Sermon 8.24.14
Matthew 16:13-20
Westwood Lutheran Church

I have had the privilege of being a pastor here at Westwood for a whole month! As we get to know each other a bit better, you will find that in my love for the liturgy – which is the name of the ebb and flow of our community worship is a deep love of ancient ritual.  Throughout each worship gathering we speak words which do not often appear in our weekly vocabulary: mercy, alleluia!, righteousness, baptism.  And, as Betty Lou Nelson reminded me this week, in our worship we say we believe in a communion with all the saints – the saints of our lives, and all the saints of the long story of God’s mission on this earth.  What we claim when we gather together to hear the Word and share the meal and therefore the liturgy, our ritual places us in a practice that is much, much bigger than our time and place – from this understanding I believe we, the contemporary gathering of God’s people gain strength and wisdom. 

Many of the ancient rituals which we still partake in today are contrary to the rhythms and patterns of our daily living; where else do we come together to be a part of community singing, intergenerational gatherings, to say words of confession and forgiveness– all unique, almost entirely, to Christian worship.  But they are different than many, if not most of the encounters we have with each other day in and day out.  For instance, have you ever noticed that at the end of the worship service you are kicked out of church? Every week we are dismissed, and not with a soft mid-western suggestion, but a whole hearted boot out of the door with the words, “Go in peace, serve the Lord”.  The dismissal piece of the liturgy tells all of us that we are not to dwell or hang around too long, rather it is time to take the Word we have heard and the faith we are gifted with and get to sharing it with all the world…just outside these church walls.  Go – get out!  And that is our concluding rite…the beginning may be even harder to align with our contemporary social understandings.

We begin…(begin!) our worship with what is formally referred to as the brief order for Confession and forgiveness.   At the very start of our gathering we take pause for introspective reflection – not riddled with the failure that the culture of magazines and social media want to tell us about.  Rather we look at ourselves and see our participation in a world that is deeply broken, systemically dysfunctional and we acknowledge that we have a place in it.  And for this place we name our failures, individual and corporate and we name our disappointments, personal and global and we acknowledge the idols that stand present in our relationship with the God of all life.  

What a peculiar practice to begin our worship with -- naming our hurts and confessing to our God the strain we feel in our relationship with God, with each other, with creation.  In a word: we are naming our sin.  What follows in the worship liturgy is in response to this cosmic disconnecting that we experience in our own way.  Step by step we practice being brought back together through our hearing of the common Word, our singing together and praying together, the passing of the peace, the sharing of the meal and even that rude dismissal which kicks us out with a common mission, to live lives that respond to God’s love for us.  The whole liturgy is looking back on the truth of the confession…and forgiveness comes again and again as the Spirit carries us through worship.

What a powerful practice we gather for here today.

This is the power and the movement of God’s story, carried through the whole community of saints from Peter to us gathered here today.  In the gospel reading for today Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am” and Peter responds “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”.  Messiah means the promised deliverer, the one who saves us from the brokenness and the isolation that we confess each Sunday morning. 

After Peter’s bold confession, calling Jesus the Messiah, Jesus begins the movement of the Christian church with these words recalled in Matthew’s gospel, “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.  I 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.”

The keys to the kingdom? Now we’re talking! Jesus gives the church the authority to bind and to loose…or we could think of it as cages or wings?  This phrase comes from one of my favorite musical theater pieces from the musical “Tick, tick…boom!” by Jonathon Larson, better known for his composing of the rock musical “Rent”.  
The full phrase of the song asks…“Cages or wings? Which do you prefer? Ask the birds.  Fear or love? Don’t say the answer…actions speak louder than words.”  

Binding or loosening?
Cages or wings?
Fear or Love?

What do we, as the body of Christ, the church of Christ profess with our lives?

It begins with our corporate confession – we bind up all that brokenness and isolation, or all that sin that we confessed this morning.  Through our confession we grieve the reality of pain, we lament the power of injustice and rail again the grief of death and all the ways these experience manifest in our lives and in the systems of the world.

We, as the body of Christ, bind that which is not the ways of God, that which hinders the grace-filled mission of God.

And then we hear the forgiveness, the mighty act of God to loosen on earth all that binds us and the whole world! This is the work of the church, to proclaim such endless mercy to all the bound up places of our lives and our world!  Of course, it is never done perfectly – much harm, much division, much hatred has been done as the church declairs the keys to the kingdom.  But the keys are not the authority we hold, nor are they the core truth of Christ mission.  It is on the faith uttered by Peter that day, “Jesus – you are the Messiah, the son of the living God” It is upon Jesus alone that we stand and continue on in love and loosening. 

Let’s consider Peter for just one more moment, just in case you worry that this call to be the binding and loosening church is not a call you are up for.  After Peter is called the Rock upon which Christ will build the church, immediately following Peter tells Jesus he forbids that Jesus should suffer and go to the cross at all! And Jesus calls him a stumbling block, yelling “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me for you are thinking about human ways and not divine ways.”  There was Peter’s beginning of the church, confessing Jesus as Messiah, the great deliverer and then standing firmly in the way of God’s mission because he was afraid.  Cages or wings, Peter?

And yet God continued to use the life of Peter, and Christ continues to use our lives – broken and isolated though they may be.  Christ calls us to be the church to bind up which kills and to loosen that which brings new life.

Cages or wings? Binding or loosening? This is the question put before the church both then and now.  The summer is coming to a close, the academic year and the programmatic year of ministry here at Westwood is quickly, very quickly approaching and as always, the Spirit moves and surprises us with change and new life.  And so, body of Christ called Westwood Lutheran – this seems a proper time to consider the question…Cages or wings? Which do you live with your lives? What pain will you be binding…what life will you be loosening as Christ’s church?

To consider this question I would like to revisit the words of confession and forgiveness that we began our worship with this morning.  Perhaps some of the words could be more specific for you – perhaps you could ponder the brokenness and isolation you feel or witness.  What if our confession were a fill in the blank? I will read through the phrases and leave a moment for reflection, for you to imagine what other words come from your hearts and complete the sentence…

Gracious God, have mercy on us. We confess that we have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of ____________. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion forgive us our ­­­­________, known and unknown___________  What have we done? What have we left undone?  Turn us again to you, and uphold us by your Spirit, so that we may ___________________ in newness of life through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Cages or wings church? In the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ we are called to fly! To loosen on earth that which is loose in heaven – the love of God, the grace of Jesus, the surprising and life sustaining movement of the Spirit.   And with this call will you all join me in loosening the cages of our lives (remembering that which we just confessed) We proclaim together...

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us, even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.  In then name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

This is the work of the church, gathering to name our reality, speaking to declare God’s new day in our world and getting kicked out to speak such a word beyond these walls.  May God give us faith for such an incredible, faith-filled adventure as this.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

What good is walking on water?

My poor neglected blog.  There is so much to share about our new home, ministry and community.  But first, a sermon.  It feels so good to be back in the saddle of bible study, textual study and sermon writing!

Sermon Lectionary __ Year A

August 10, 2014

Westwood Lutheran

1 Kings 19:9-18

Matthew 14-22-33

I grew up in northwestern Minnesota, most of my childhood was spent in the Red River Valley.  I did not grow up a lover of nature or the great outdoors, because to be honest, the most exposure I had to wilderness was the smell of the sugar beet factory and the sight of the Red River, which is not red so much as a mysterious, murky brown.   The most popular activity that takes place on this ugly-duckling river is the summer festival Cat-Fish days – which is apropos considering that one of God’s oddest looking creatures is pulled out of a homily rushing river.  My little hometown of East Grand Forks has some treasures to it, but natural beauty simply is not one of them.   As a growing girl I would hear people talk about finding God as they spent time in creation – it was an equation that simply did not add up for me.  Finding God in mosquitoes and river rats? This Creator-God was even further from my understanding in 1997 as I watched the Red River outgrow its banks in a dramatic way and witnessed it flow all over the little town, the neighborhood and my childhood home where it then swirled around for weeks before leaving us with little more than its nasty smells and dried mud floors.  What I grew up knowing of creation was its danger, its destructive powers.  

After college I moved out to the Pacific Northwest.  And there…day after day I was astounded by the natural beauty that surrounded me – mountains that stood mightily along my drive to work, countless trails primed for weekend hiking, waterfronts to sit by and lush, abundant green all year long.   One of the richest experiences in those years was the discovery of a new side of creation…one that is beautiful and restorative, a side of nature that challenges and somehow beckons humanity to sit in its wonder and just be astounded at its beauty.

I do not think we can hear today’s gospel and today’s Old Testament reading without acknowledging the manifestation of God’s power and presence in natural elements.  And this is a wonderful and somewhat easy thing to do when nature is tame and attractive, inspiring and alluring.  Acknowledging the power and presence of God in nature becomes much more complicated when nature is unkind, relentless and destructive.  Nature, from a glorious distance, is inspiring and does remind us of God's divine and creative power to make life. Yet, up a little closer we are also reminded of the darkness and harmful powers of our world which cause suffering and death. This is what we call, the hiddenness of God, not the full nature of God, but the hidden side. The side of God that seems to stay silent as nature rages against humanity or the side of God that is difficult to feel during the times we feel so vulnerable to all we are exposed to.


Who is this God when the river is overtaking my home?

Who is this God when we paddle along our favorite Minnesota lake?


Let’s turn back to our readings from today and let God’s word speak for itself…


First, we have Elijah.  Mighty prophet who finds himself with a bounty on his head and is now cowering in a cave, awaiting further instruction from God.  The Word of God came to Elijah and there was a great wind splitting mountains and breaking rocks, and then an earthquake shaking the ground under Elijah’s feet and then a fire – and Scripture says that God was not in the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire.  Elijah is left waiting, trembling after witnessing the destructive, powerful natural elements.


Who is this God? 


Next, we have Peter, the disciple who endures hours of the relentless storm on the sea and the disciples who desires to follow Jesus so closely and so well that he too will walk on water! And the Word of God made flesh, Jesus himself shows up in the storm, commanding Peter to join him on the rough waters.  When the fear and reality sets in and Peter finds himself going under it is Jesus who extends a hand and leads him back into the boat.

Who is this God?


The God of Elijah and the God of Peter and the God of our lives is a God who approaches us -- the encounters between Elijah and the Word of God and between Peter and the Word of God and the encounters we have with God are based on something other than creation.  Though creation certainly testifies to the love of God in a very powerful way…our connection with our Creator is beautifully brought together through Jesus alone.  And this relationship, with God through Jesus, is a relationship that recognizes and embraces our fear, our mortality, our failures and even our hopes.

This is different than our earth and all the creation it holds. You see we cannot become fully engaged with nature to fully know God.   Because God is finally and fully revealed through Jesus Christ and his grace.   The wildness of the good creation will put us in our place as creatures on the earth…it is the love of God in Christ that puts us in our place as God’s beloved and chosen people.  

God, creator of heaven and earth, Jesus the miraculous one, comes to us this morning and wants to be known by us. Elijah finally encounters God in silence, in humble…stilling….silence.  Peter grabs hold of Jesus and is brought back to the boat…delivered from death, saved from fear. God does not want to be known by the destructive power of creation, but by the transforming power of the risen Christ! God does not want to be known by the destructive power of creation, but by the transforming power of the risen Christ!


What happens after Peter encounters the Word of God, walking upon the waters?

What happens after Elijah witnesses the glory of God, both in dramatic fashion and in the silence?

What happens to us after we step off the trail, climb out of the boat or recover after the natural disaster?

Today’s Scriptures are not bringing us to a meal that we can taste and smell and hold on to, nor are they offering healing that brings relief to body or spirit – this is not the miracle today.  Today we hear that the God of all, all of creation is the God who comes to us to reveal Divine power and presence to us – the small, fear-filled children of God. And in such a revelation God is sending us out to communities full of darkness and pain, and in such a revelation Jesus is extending a hand to lead us back to our boats filled with our families and friends, our doubts and our mistakes…and in such a revelation we are promised that the God of all creation, filled with power and presence, is the God who leads and calls us into such places.  Not stopping the storms, not quieting all fear and doubt – but leading us through it, and reminding us of our place in God’s good creation and our place in God’s ever moving mission.


Our hope is in God’s mission which continues in us today…Around the world, bombs are falling – like the storm that tormented the disciples in the boat.  And as a confused, fear-filled child of God I cry out like Peter…I think many of us do.  Who is this God in the midst of this unimaginable storm? Do not be silent, Jesus tells us “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”

We proclaim that God is present and powerful in this unimaginable storm.

In our nation, communities, in our homes and in our hearts there are storms a plenty – who is this God to you? Who is this God made known in the Word, made flesh in Jesus Christ? What boat is Jesus leading you back in to this day, now strengthen by the revelation of such a God of power and presence, God of creation and God of grace?  


As children of God who witness such power and presence as the God we meet in Scripture today, we as called – like Elijah and Peter – to take this revelation and be a part of God’s mission and movement all over the world.


May you know and share the transforming power of the risen Christ, present in the silence, present in the storm.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.