Tuesday, November 10, 2015


I'm reading the Book of the Prophet Jonah. We named our first born son after this guy.  To say that I identify is an understatement. Here is the abbreviated version:
The LORD God calls and Commissions the prophet to be the voice of God.
The Prophet despises the people to whom God sends him and, therefore, rejects call.
Prophet attempts to flee/hide from the presence of God.
God finds and chastises prophet by making life uncomfortable for the prophet and those who unknowingly participate in the prophet's flight.
Prophet brings peace to his co-conspirators by choosing to go out alone.  He literally enters the abyss, (point of death), believing that he has achieved absence from God.
God rescues the prophet from the abyss.
Prophet spends 3 days in limbo.  Solitude. Neither fully alive, nor dead.
Prophet prayerfully gives thanks to God for gift of salvation and promises to sacrificially "pay what he owes" in allegiance for the gift.
God releases prophet from limbo, restoring prophet to life.
God re-issues call and commission to prophet.
Prophet obeys call.
Prophet enters city and publicly announces God's Word; a word of judgment and potential condemnation/punishment against them.  (The city is a 3-day journey for the prophet.)
Sinful people immediately and surprisingly accept God's judgment, repent, issue a kingdom-wide period of fasting, and faithfully wait for God to act.
God changes God's mind (repents) and does not punish the people.
Prophet becomes angry with God for sparing the people he despises, believing them worthy of divine judgment, anger, wrath, condemnation, and destruction.
Prophet begs God to end his life, so that he does not have to see the mercy and abundant love of God offered to an undeserving people.
God asks, "Is it right for you to be angry?"
Prophet sulks and waits for God to act.
God produces a bush to shade the prophet from the sun.
Prophet is pleased.
God sends a worm to kill the bush.
Prophet grows faint in the hot sun and begs to die.
God says, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
The End.

The Lesson:  Jews and, by adoption, Christians are called and commissioned by God to go to the people who do not know God; God's ways, God's laws, God's intentions.  
We may not like them, agree with them, or trust them.  We may despise them, fear them, or misunderstand them. We may be prejudiced against them.  We may neglect or ignore them, create walls and borders between them and us.
We may resist, decline, or outright reject our calling and commission.  We may hide in the boat (read church building and our friends).  We may surround ourselves with people who don't rock the boat, who prefer maintenance of status quo.
We may think the city is a scary place that we dare not enter.
We may rather drown than speak in public.  
We may feel justified in our disobedience, because we think we're right about them.  And we have evidence to support that.
But, we have no right to be angry.  Because we are no different from them. Our disobedience, our hiding, our prejudices, our reluctance means that we are just as broken as they are.  Maybe more so. Because we know.  We know God.  We know what is right.  We know better.  

God, on the other hand, is committed to restorative justice---setting things right between God and us and them.
God is committed to a process of healing that requires something akin to death and resurrection.  For all of us. The broken human condition affects all of us; Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists...and everyone else.
We can't set it right.  Not personally.Not systemically.  Not globally.
But God can.  God does.  God will.
God has changed God's mind about you and me.
God chooses merciful restoration, not punishment.
God chooses reluctant, stubborn, disobedient people to do God's restoring work.
There is a pattern, a way, a transformation process.
The 3 days.
Day 1= death (end of former self, grief, loss);
Day 2= limbo.  Start of healing process. Reconnection with God is established;
Day 3. A resurrection. A new way of life, a new pattern, a new relationship emerges.
This pattern is repeated in the story of Jesus, a prophet mighty in word and deed who declared forgiveness to all the people.  (See the gospels)
Jesus announced and enacted the restorative, healing justice of God.
Jesus was crucified for it. He died and was buried.
On the 3rd day he was raised from the dead.
That we might also live a new life.
This is what God has done.
For you.  For me.  For them.
Even for the animals.
The end.

widowslivesmatter. the power of hope

Based on two bible stories.  1 Kings 17:8-16; Gospel of Mark 12:38-44.

There is a power at work in these stories we hear today.   We can see the connection between the first reading and the gospel today.  The plight of widows.  It might be more difficult, with retirements and social security, to appreciate their plight.  In the developing world, conditions for women are still very challenging.  Women and children are more vulnerable and have less economic opportunity.  In recent times, microloans have provided women with opportunity to start cottage industries and small businesses out of which they might sustain their households; especially in the wake of the AIDS crisis and civil wars in Africa.  But widows with children are particularly vulnerable to the predatory behavior of men.  A widow’s life is harder. 
I don’t want to dismiss the challenges vulnerable people, like widows and children face in the US.  They do face them.  But they are more likely to have access to necessary resources here.  Widows need not die from starvation here.  Bu we know some widows who depend on compassionate family to care for them as they age.  Arlene’s son and daughter-in-law care for her and Carol Royer is caring for her mother. 
But in the ancient neat east?  Life was hard. Survival was a daily challenge.  The Jews had laws that instructed them to care for widows and orphans and foreigners.  The Book of Ruth is a parable about the Jewish community’s treatment of widows and foreigners.  Boaz acts righteously and obeys the law by providing access to food for Ruth and Naomi.  He goes further by establishing a relationship with the widowed Ruth that provides economic shelter from poverty, for her and Naomi.   It’s a beautiful story about the law of compassionate economics that lifts up the poor and vulnerable.   
In the first story, Elijah the prophet is running from King Ahab, because he has publicly denounced the throne as cursed by God.  God is withholding rain as judgment against Ahab’s unfaithful leadership.  Elijah is in a vulnerable situation, hunted by the King.  The clarity with which God speaks to Elijah is amazing, isn’t it?  Direct.  Provisional.  God is personally going to meet Elijah’s needs.
Go to Zarapheth.  I have already directed a widow to feed you there.  Thing is, she’s poor.  Desperate.  Facing her last meal.  There has been a famine in the land.  She has little hope to survive another day. She has a child.  Imagine the anguish, not being able to feed your own little boy.  And now a man comes commanding you to give water and bread.  And to give all that she has left to him first.  To a stranger who promises that the LORD will provide for her and her son until the drought ends.  Do you trust him with your life? She does.  And her faith is credited to her with sustained provisions, miraculous and effective.  God is concerned for the prophet; God is concerned for the widow. God provides for them. 
Mark 12 is a chapter in which Jesus has challenged the temple leadership, priests and scribes.  He has asserted that the Messiah’s authority exceeds that of King David’s.  Messiah is not only a descendent of David, but His Lord. Jesus elevates the status of Messiah above that of the King.  He will also rule the temple.  Jesus has denounced the economics of temple, the way that the poor are neglected and the wealthy honored.  The religious elite devour widows’ houses, he says.  Religious ritual practiced by a royal priesthood cannot replace compassionate justice for the poor.  Temple worship must be balanced by greater justice in the land.  And then he teaches by the example of a widow.
I’ve never thought of her actions in this way before but, I believe the widow’s act is an act of intentional public defiance.  Civil disobedience.  No one would have blamed her if she withheld her tithe to live. She goes up to the treasury with the wealthy men.  The contrast is visible and noticeable.   She drops in her two cents.  And walks away.   And her message is clear.  What they give is nothing in comparison to what she gives.  She gives 100% of her poverty, they give 10% of their wealth.  She is shaming the system and the men who benefit from it.  She is shaming the wealthy, who give for appearances and to ameliorate their own guilt.  She is giving as an act of courage, an act of power. She is not weak.  Her vulnerability becomes her strength.  I like to think she knew the story of the widow of Zarepheth. She dares to trust God and the law of Moses to protect her.  She dares to announce her dependence before the people of Israel in the temple.  She dares to say aloud, care about me, show compassion to me and women like me.  While you give to the temple treasury, women and children starve. 
We give out of abundance.  Maybe this text makes some of us uncomfortable. But that’s not the point.  Everyone can give.  Everyone ought to give.  Generosity is human. It starts with the parent/child relationship. We need to give, in order to see our dependence and descendent thrive.   
Giving is also a reflection of gratitude.  If one is thankful, one is giving.  It’s not the amount that matters, it’s the percent.  What percent of what you have is to you a gift you have received, for which you are thankful?  What percent of that is worth giving to others?  We give out of our abundance.  What would it be like to give out of gratitude?  What would it be like to give from faith, trusting that God provides?  What sort of giving might we do that is an act of justice, of civil disobedience, that raises the awareness of the plight of a particularly vulnerable people?  Is Peter’s Porch like that? Could it be? 
The power at work in these stories is the power of hope brought about by faith in God.  A God who rasies the dead and creates a new future of provision and peace.  May we experience the generous provision of God and be compassion toward those who are most vulnerable among us.  May we see in them the power of hope to give as an act of justice and faith. Amen.         


Thursday, November 05, 2015

All Saints Day

Its All Saints day.  We are tempted to think of all the saints as the spiritual all star team.  You know the holiest ones, the best examples of our best human selves.  Someone that is not me, but I aspire to be like.  The saints are those we might strive to imitate in their faithfulness, their generosity, their kindness, their humility, their grace, their selfless contributions to the world.  We could name these people---from St. Peter to Martin Luther.   There are famous ones in every century, including our own; we could name some personal saints, ordinary men and women who touched our lives personally by their faithful devotion to the way of Christ and his church.  Sunday school teachers, pastors, grandparents, etc… I’ve met some of them right here.  Most of these folk are the All Stars in our estimation or in the world’s.
 When we think of the saints, we think mainly of the faithful departed. Those buried in our cemetery.  We think of the ones we have lost in the last year; namely our faithful sister Perette.  We give thanks for her life and witness as a believer. We remember our hope in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Perhaps we spend this morning in our grief, reminded of those loved ones who have gone before us.  We light a candle to honor their memory.   We stand comforted, perhaps, by the Word of God; a word that promises us a heavenly banquet and an end to suffering and death.  We might think that these promises are too good to be true or are too far off to consider.   We might observe and remember those who have died unjustly in the last year.  Those who have died in war and in attempts to flee from it, from gun violence on streets and schools, in occasions of police brutality, and drug crime.  We might remember that death is the enemy, threatening to rob us of the joy and abundance of life.  We come to this day as a day to look back.  We fall back in time and think about our history as a Christian people here.  1889-2015. 126 years of Lutheran faith on Main Street in Akron.  Who do you recall on All Saints Day, for their faithfulness to this congregation? Let us give thanks to God for them.  All of them.   For those charter members, the many pastors and baptized people of God who assembled on this spot, in this and the former building.  For we would not be here in this assembly today were it not for the years of faithful service by those who came before us.  But this day is not only about our past.  In fact, the Word points forward.     
Isaiah describes the making of a feast for all people; this is indeed a multicultural banquet at which every tribe and race eat and drink together in peace.  He envisions the destruction of death.  The people who wait for God will see salvation on that day.  The revelation to John announces a whole new creation; where there are no more tears and no more dying, echoing the hope of Isaiah.  Perhaps only on the other side of death, in the heavenly realm, will this become a reality. Imagine that this reality took place in this generation, in our lifetimes.  How wonderful to consider.  No more wars, no more hunger, no more sorrow.  The Gospel of John tells a personal story of triumph over death in the resurrection of Lazarus.  John gives Jesus the power of God to defeat death. It is both anticipated and unleashed in this scene from John 11. One day, all the dead will be raised to new life.  No zombies or ghosts; real living, breathing, alive people. Restored, whole, new.  This is the Christian dream, our hope in a future that has not yet come.
As a community of both history and hope, the church lives in between what we were and what we will be.  We are a living organism and so, we breathe and move.  We are not an institution or a corporation.  We are a body.  And so we have organic properties; we change and age over time.  We mature.  We can die.  None of the churches St. Paul started exist today.  We also have reproductive properties.  Institutions and corporations do not have that. 
This church is undergoing a cycle of reproduction.  And even at the age of126, this is possible with our God.  Zion Lutheran may not be as large or active a body as we once were; but we have given birth to a new expression of church.  Peter’s Porch has been a bridge between Zion and the neighborhood around us; people who are struggling, suffering, seeking help.  It has also been an example of the church in action, on mission, in service to others and not in service for itself.  As a pastor/evangelist, I am energized by engagement with both long-time faithful Lutherans and seeker/newcomers struggling to see God in their lives. The Peter’s Porch bridge has opened access between us and allowed us to share our hope with them.  But we have learned that the bridge did not act as a way for people to get into church.  Though the fellowship hall has people in it during the week and on Saturdays, the pews are mostly empty.  And there is little we can do to change that. There is little we ought to do.  Instead the bridge and the people we have met have challenged us to become a church outside of this space.  Dinner Church emerged as a worship practice that connects with unchurched and dechurched people.  It is an entire liturgy within the context of a meal.  Between 30 and 40 people attend; many children.  They are mostly not members of Zion, Akron. But they belong to one another and see themselves as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  We have baptized at dinner church.  We pray and sing.  We eat and drink.  Last time, there were more people at dinner church than at Sunday morning church. It is a viable expression of church and an extension of this body in the world.  Christ is present around this table in the morning and around the dinner table at night.  Both gatherings make us who we are as a community of history and hope.  We remember ancient stories and faithful people who have passed and we hope for a day that is promised for all of God’s people in a future that is not ours.  We are one of a few Lutheran churches in the country to give birth to a fresh expression, a new way of being church.   

Like a seed from a tree that fell to the earth and became a new sapling, so dinner church has emerged from you.  Without your support and prayers, we cannot nurture this new plant.  But it is the way of the Lord, to make us fruitful to multiply.  So rejoice saints, your faithful service has produced a new body, a daughter or son.  Their ways are not yours, but you gave birth to them.  Like Sara and Abraham gave birth to Isaac; like Elizabeth and Zechariah gave birth to John.  You are part of God’s new creation. You are part of the great and promised heavenly banquet as as we gather at tables to anticipate that future glory. Do not be afraid, children.  This is a time of resurrection and rebirth.  And we get to be part of it.  

Good Samaritan

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.* ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

In this story, Jesus suggests that to show one’s love for God (UP), one must show love to a stranger in need.(OUT).  I read this with a different set of eyes today.  And I noticed that Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan has two aspects to it: 
One, Jesus contrasts priests and Levites (law-abiding, religious, faithful worshiper types---read pew sitting church goers)  with a Samaritan (read Arab Palestinian, non-Jew, aka the enemy). The former pass by on their way to temple (church/worship.)  The latter comes alongside the victim. 
Two, the Samaritan takes action—triage, ambulance, hospitalization, medical bill payment.  To follow the command to love the neighbor means to show mercy to a stranger in need.  And to show mercy is not a one-off toss of a buck in a hat.  It means to accompany, to go the extra mile, to risk and sacrifice on behalf of the other. 
So, here’s what I heard that applies to the dinner church movement and our desire to live on mission together.  Our UP life (love of God/worship) is practiced wholly in our OUT relationships.  Worship is not enough, especially if it prevents us from attending to the needs of our neighbors.  Dinner Church, oikos, and huddle are ways that we are called to be a church (extended family in God’s mission together.)   BUT, if we are called to love God and love our neighbors, we need to practice diakonia (service).  For some of you, this is the part of becoming church you are most interested in. Church taking action to love others with grace, hospitality, relief from suffering...   
This morning, I called the Good Samaritan Shelter in Ephrata (homeless shelter for women and children).  I asked them if we could come and do dinner church there on a Sunday night.  I’m hoping to go there on December 20th.  We would bring food and share the meal with the residents.  Worship would be Christmas carols and Christmas lessons (like Christmas eve worship) during the meal.  The staff is going to discuss.  But initial response was super positive.  Also, the woman I spoke to knew all about Revolution! 
God placed this story in front of me today. I’ve been thinking about Dinner Church and Diakonia for some time.  I’ve been interested in finding a place to offer dinner church that will also serve.  Good Samaritan Shelter might be a place.  Are you interested? 
How do you react/respond to this reflection? 

Friday, October 02, 2015

Turning the world upside down

Acts 17:1-15.

After Paul and Silas* had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah* to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah,* Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.’ Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers* before the city authorities,* shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’ The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go. That very night the believers* sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing. But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Beroea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers* immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him.

"These men, who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them; and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another King, Jesus."
Wow.  The first Christians were turning the world upside down with their message about Jesus.  It was a message that the one God, the creator of heaven and earth, had sent a Son of man to become King and to usher in a new age of peace and compassionate justice for all people.  This King lived among them as a humble servant; he gathered a following, taught disciples, healed the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead, and challenged the religions and cultures of exclusion that denied people access to the means of grace.  This King Jesus was crucified by the Romans.  His followers believed that he had been raised from the dead and that his resurrection was vindication for his execution and validation of his divine authority and Kingship.  A power swept through the community of his followers that propelled them to act.  They took action in the streets throughout the Roman Empire.  
When we read this part of the Book of Acts, we can notice a few things. 
1.  First, the church was a movement that included men and women, Jews and Greeks. It was like a tornado when it hit.  People's lives were changed, their perspective changed, their hopes changed when they met Jesus' followers. Their way of life together was infectious. They began to see themselves as part of a bigger conspiracy to remake the world as God intended.  God's intentions were revealed to the Jews in the law and prophets; but now God's intentions had been revealed to everyone in person, in Jesus.  To summarize God's intentions, Jesus says we are made to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are made to love one another.  Those who are the most vulnerable and victimized are of particular concern to God. Dorothy Day says our love for God is demonstrated in the way we love the person we love the least.   Jesus challenges us to love our enemies and those who hate us.  In so doing, we reflect the image of God. And when we fail to do so, God forgives us, suffers with those who suffer, and promises restoration and new life where there is sin (the opposite of love) and death (the opposite of life). Jesus' death and resurrection teaches us that God's love for humanity is stronger than the worst thing we could ever do. It's stronger than our deadliest acts. God will do whatever it takes to reclaim all of humanity as sons and daughters.  
2.  The church is not confined to one location.  It travels. The church's work is public and urban.  Population centers are the soil of the movement.   This is not a stagnant church.  It is not constrained by buildings or budgets. They are not afraid to tell the story, to invite others into the story, and to share the gifts they have to offer.  They are not afraid to face doubt, skepticism, or rejection.  They are aware that their message has political implications, when it is misunderstood.  King Jesus' allies are not interested in executing a military coup.  They are not interested in a holy war. They are interested in acts of mercy for everyone, everywhere.  They want to share the story of Jesus, inspire life change, establish a community of practicing believers, and move on to the next community.  
3.  There are people of peace in every community, ready to receive the church's message and embrace it.  In this story, it's Jason. Little else is known or said about him.  But we know a church was started in Thessalonica, maybe in Jason's house.
4. The leaders of the church were sent by and for the church as representatives of King Jesus.  They worked collaboratively.  There was a team approach.  And they intended to raise up local leaders who could continue practicing ministry after the team moved on.  They started in synagogues, where they may find natural friends and people of peace.  After all, the gospel is set within the Jewish story. But they didn't stop there.  They also included non-Jews, the ones we might call "the Nones."  And the message catches the, too.  Why?  Because people are spiritual.  We are theologians.  We long for something and someone beyond our humanity that gives meaning to life.  We are curious creatures. 
5.  The church turns the world upside down.  We worship a crucified 1st century Jewish Rabbi and call him LORD.  Our highest holy day celebrates His resurrection from the dead--an astonishing claim, unprecedented, unreasonable, and implausible.  We live to serve as he taught by loving the unloved.  So we stand with criminals on death row and beg for their lives.  We spend time with people who have recently been released from prison. We feed hungry people.  We take in refugees and those displaced without a home.  We break bread with addicts and offenders.  We care for widows and orphans.  We plant gardens and share the harvest.  We rebuild homes and lives after disasters. The church's acts are demonstrative and point to King Jesus.     

So, to whom does God send us?  How does the church reclaim its energy as a movement? In what ways are we called to turn the world upside down? 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why the Common Roots of Faith Matter

Lutherans, along with everyone else, have gotten excited about the Pope.  The last time a Lutheran got this excited about the Pope, he wrote 95 theses that got him kicked out of the Catholic church.  I think this excitement tells us something; there is a hunger, a longing in our hearts for unity, for harmony, for peace.  We long to be reconciled.  We desire healing.  We wish for a world free from violence and war and poverty.  And we believe it is possible through embodied love.  We love that he skipped a breakfast with lawmakers to dine with the homeless.  This is kingdom power.  Power with, beneath, and under.  It is love power.  And we want it, too.  It’s not that we all long to return to Roman Catholicism.  It’s that we long for this Jesus—the one who embodies perfect love on the cross for everyone. 
Today I want to clarify some things about the church, Christianity, and the ministry of the gospel.  Religion is at the center of so much of our lives these days.  Whether one is religious or not.  And the Pope’s visit seems to highlight this, because Catholics and non-Catholics seem to appreciate his message.  There is a desire for greater peace, for shared prosperity, for increased global health, and for a more secure future.  That future, in part, lies in our shared past. 
I’ll use the analogy of a tree.  Roman Catholics are Christians. So are Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, United Church of Christ, African Methodist Episcopal, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostals, Disciples of Christ, Moravians, and a few others I didn’t mention.  I’m saying this aloud because I have people ask me about compatibility.  And we may not realize how much we have in common with people who practice their Christian religious faith under these other names.  The Christian family tree is big, many branches, some thicker than others, some longer than others, some more tender shoots. Some of the branches have smaller branches.  Some have broader, greener leaves.  Some leaves have an autumn hue. And some as brittle as winter.  Some of the branches don’t touch the other branches.  Nevertheless all one tree; many branches.  Same roots.  Jesus of Nazareth, the God of creation, the God of Israel, the God of liberation and justice, the Spirit that gives life and breathes new life into dry bones.  The God of prophets and priests and kings.  The people of the book.  The Jews and Muslims are also on this tree.  Not three trees.  One God, three faiths, many denominations and practices.  We are not so much divided as growing in different directions.  But our roots are the same.We have far more in common than we tend to acknowledge.  Hubris and damaged egos look at our own brothers and sisters with suspicion and disdain.  Our shared roots matter more than out many colored leaves. 
We may think about the human body too, with its many parts.  Paul uses this analogy to describe the church in first Corinthians.  Not all parts have the same function.  But they are an organic and integral piece of the whole.  I wonder what life would be like if we all viewed each other as different parts of the same body.  Does it matter if you are a leg or an eye?  Sure, but not in terms of one being greater than the other. 
In all three readings a single theme emerges.  Cooperation.  Shared leadership, shared ministry.  Looking outside of one’s group to see the work of God.  Eldad and Medad were not with the group of elders called out for spiritual anointing into leadership.  And yet they prophesied.  Moses was in dire need of assistance.  He didn’t need more followers.  He needed leaders, speakers, those who would do the work of God beside him.  It didn’t matter to him who they were or where they came from, just that they shared the rights and responsibilities of bearing he covenant.  Jesus says, whoever is not against us is for us.  He says this in response to John’s concern about non-disciples casting out demons.  Anyone who is confronting the wickedness threatening God’s good creation is on our side, okay?  We don’t have to only play with members of this congregation or denomination to participate in God’s mission.  I thought about the Central PA food bank conference I attended on Thursday with Pastor Rodney Martin from Lititz Mennonite church, our Peter’s Porch mission partners.  We met up with the leadership of OMPH’s food bank. They want to work more collaboratively with Peter’s Porch as we serve our neighbors.  Jesus said whatever is preventing the body from working together as a whole, get rid of it.  The mission is too hard to undertake divided.  I can’t believe how hard it is to get Lutherans to join together.  For worship, fellowship, or ministry.  Maybe the letter of James gives us a way forward.  Prayer.  Corporate prayer.  Prayer that includes anyone.  The prayer of the just is powerful and effective. We believe that those with faith have been made right with God.   You and I are called, all of us to pray for one another in the body of Christ, the church.  Prayer begins with an expectation that God will change the circumstances about which we are praying.  Prayer presumes a desire to change. To pray for every branch of the tree, to pray for healing.  The tree does need healing in so much as we compete with one another, avoid and neglect each other, reject and demonize other believers,  and fail to demonstrate holy love for the body.   And we are called to seek first the kingdom of God, perhaps by seeking the ways in which that kingdom breaks into human lives untouched by the church’s work and witness.  God is indeed actively engaged in the world to heal, restore, and save it.  As I’ve said before, the church does not have a mission, the mission of God has a church. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

This church is NOT awesome

This church is not awesome.  We are not special.  We are not uniquely called to grow.  We do not offer worship or programs that inspire.  Your pastor is not so funny or super generous or really kind or an amazing preacher.  I will not entertain or make you feel good.  We are not awesome. If you’re looking for something more awesome, you’ll have to go somewhere else.  Sorry to burst your bubble, if I did.   
When Jesus returns to his teaching about suffering, death, and resurrection the disciples, according to Mark, did not understand him and were afraid to ask.  In Greek they were literally frightened agnostics. An agnostic is someone who is uncertain about their beliefs, on the fence as it were.  Agnostics lean on empirical knowledge, evidence, scientific facts.  Maybe the disciples get tripped up about the rising again bit.  More likely they don’t understand the suffering and death part.  It didn’t jive with their version of the future with Jesus Messiah.  This Kingdom of God movement has a leader, if he dies so dies the movement.  We’ve been over this.  They were expecting greatness.  Power.  Authority.  Demonstration of divine might—plagues, fire, brimstone, armed angels ready to battle.  They were expecting a superhero.  And they believed that Jesus was him.  And they expected a personal reward for choosing or being chosen as his followers, his men.  Why were they afraid?  They didn’t want to look stupid, doubtful, incompetent.  And certainly not in front of the other guys.  Can you imagine being the guy on the team who still doesn’t get the game plan?  Nobody wants to be that guy.  That guy sits the bench.  That guy gets ridiculed.  That guy gets dumped from the team.   
So, along the way they argue about rank and position and rewards for fidelity and proximity to Jesus. Who knew him the best? Who did he trust the most?  Who was his lieutenant?  Who was his favorite?  Who was the strongest?  Smartest?  Most loyal?  I don’t think this was a fight, more of a playful game of male dominance and pecking order.  Everything’s a competition here. Everyone is vying for attention and the right to be where they are.  Everyone wants to have their seat at the table, to prove their worth, that they deserve to be here.   
When they get home, Jesus sits down to teach.  He says, “Whoever would be the greatest must be the last and servant of all.  And he brings a child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes a child like this one, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  I don’t think this was the most offensive thing Jesus ever said or did. Even though children were disregarded, undervalued, and dismissed in that culture.  Especially by men.  I don’t think that was the point this time. 
I think congregations are acting like agnostic disciples.  We don’t get the whole suffering, death, and resurrection bit as it applies to ourselves and the advancement of the Kingdom.  And we are in competition with all the other congregations for resources, people and money.  We’re silent about this, would never pray that God send us more people and money, but we wish it.  I think Lutherans are competing over which congregation serves the best. Who does the most serving, giving, feeding, etc…Our badge of honor is how many people we serve.  Same as McDonalds.  Over a billion served.  People always ask, how big is your congregation?  How many members?  And we tend to say something like:  “We’re a small congregation, but we do a lot of good things.”  We have to prove ourselves with empirical evidence, like agnostics.  Because of our insecurity.  When only 40 people show up on Sunday, we feel disappointed. I know I do.  I’m embarrassed to say that I get frustrated still when there are “only 40 people here”.  We have a purpose because we served this many people, gave this much money to Malaria, assembled this many kits.  We should exist.  We’re still a church with value.  Maybe most of you don’t care about these things at this stage.  Maybe you don’t think about the future of Zion, Akron much.  Maybe you’re content to come when you feel like it or when you’re not out of town.  Maybe you’re not reminiscent for the good ol’ days.  Maybe you just love one another.  And that’s good enough. 
Don’t get me wrong, I am impressed by the production of this congregation.  I brag about us more than I should.  And today I am grateful for every person who participates.  I’m grateful for Pastor Bob and Dodie, who bring wisdom, servant hearts, and the high calling of the gospel to us.  But none of this matters. It does not matter how many baptisms or new members we receive.  It doesn’t matter how many people we served at Peter’s Porch or failed to serve.  That is not the gospel. The good news is not that Zion is growing, that we have enough money to pay the bills, that worship is so awesome, dinner church is thriving, Malaria goals are reached. 
 The gospel is Jesus the Messiah was crucified and raised from the dead.  The gospel is Jesus is in the house and on the way with us.  His death and resurrection joins God to this world of suffering and joins this world of suffering and death to the God of life.  This is so because God loves what God made, all of it.  And love does what love must do to insure the life of the beloved.  We are safe.  Jesus is always in the house.  God is always with us where we are.  And a sign of it is one child in our midst.  So long as there is one child to welcome, we have a calling and a purpose and a way to live.  We are servants of all. Nothing else makes us church.  Servants of All.  A disciples question is only this one:  “How may we serve today?”  We are not awesome, powerful, and super good. But the one I’m following is.  And that’s the only thing that counts now and in the end.  Amen.