Monday, October 28, 2013

Ghost Stories

Romans 3:19-28, Reformation C, October 27, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

It was a dark, stormy night in late October. The wind was howling through the trees and sending a chill down the backs of the people gathered. They stood in front of an old brick building. Their leader, Anthony, held a lantern high, revealing the stone that read, “61 Seminary Ridge.” As the crowd stared into the darkness of the building, Anthony described the horrible bloodshed that occurred one hundred fifty years ago at that very spot. He told of the Battle of Gettysburg and how this building was used to house the dead and dying.

Then Anthony began to describe the life of one soldier, Theodore, whose greatest joy in life was playing the piano. Even in death, Theodore haunted this building, creating sounds of a piano even though not one piano ever was kept in this building. Anthony said, “Sometimes we can hear the ringing tunes that Theodore played most.” Almost on cue, the crowd heard the distant sound of a lilting piano melody. At the same time, some lights within began to flicker and flash. A young girl in the crowd screamed in fright. Even Anthony jumped back, not expecting his words to ring so true.

This was a common occurrence on Seminary Ridge. Ghost tours walked through campus almost every evening when the weather was fair. The tour guides had rules that they were supposed to follow. They needed to stay so many yards away from the entrances to the buildings, and they were expected not to disturb the residents. These rules were set in place by the borough government to protect our privacy.

The ghost tour guides did not respect we residents nor our privacy. They would stand so close that their lanterns shone into the first floor dorm rooms, disturbing our peace. Because they disrespected our personal space, we felt no need to respect them. We preferred this “eye for an eye” mentality instead of “turning the other cheek” as Jesus taught us to do.

So, we had fun with the ghost tours. They said that Valentine Hall didn’t have a piano, but it did have a very out of tune piano right near where the tours would congregate. They also said that Valentine Hall existed during the Civil War, which is a blatant lie – it was built thirty years after the war. When they would shine their lanterns into our buildings, we would flash the lights at them. It was our way – I mean the ghosts’ way – of telling them to leave us alone.

During our ghost tour antics, we embraced Martin Luther’s encouragement to “sin boldly.” As good seminary students, we knew Luther’s whole quote. He said, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”[1]

Just as Luther told us to do, we did rejoice and believe in Christ many times more. We studied the law of the Bible in detail – even in Hebrew and Greek. Maybe even more than others, seminarians know the law well. We have read parts of Leviticus and know how strangely specific some Jewish laws are. We have studied the gospels closely, learning how counter cultural Jesus’ expectations are. The laws of the Bible are profound, and there is no possible way any of us can follow them all.

The law shows us how sinful we are. God in Christ Jesus sets the bar so high we can never reach it. We can never fully become the people that God wants us to be. In Luther’s understanding, we are worms, pathetic, hopeless creatures impossible of becoming saints. This sinfulness overwhelmed Luther. He was known to confess his sins multiple times a week. He lived in a monastery – how much trouble could he get into?

Having such an overwhelmingly negative opinion of himself, Luther then found the grace of God to be incredibly uplifting. On his own, he could not reach the bar that God set for him, yet with God lifting him up, Luther could reach that bar. Of his own doing, Luther was a sinner, yet God also made him a saint. We all are fully sinner and fully saint. God does this for each of us, calling it grace. Despite how terrible we are at following God’s law, God loves us. God wants us to have a good relationship, so God has forgiven us of all our sin.

This forgiveness – this grace – is a gift from God. There is nothing we can do to earn it. There is nothing we can do to buy it. There is nothing but to receive it gratefully with open arms. This gift was enacted through the cross, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Luther wrote, “Therefore we exult and rejoice that God’s Son, the one true God together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, became man, a servant, a sinner, a worm for us; that God died, and bore our sins on the cross in His own body; that God redeemed us through His own blood.”[2]

Through this grace, this forgiveness of sin, through death on the cross, Christ gives us life everlasting. Life. Forever with God, forever experiencing the depth of love that God has for us. This life is with God, beginning at our baptism and continuing through our earthly lives and beyond.

Our Christian lives are rich with experiences of God in our worship and in our prayers. The Holy Spirit moves in us in mysteriously beautiful ways enabling us to serve our neighbors. For what is impossible for us as wormlike sinners is possible for God.

God’s love for us is shown most profoundly in Jesus’ victory over the grave. Our lives are complete in him, so we need not fear our own graves. We also need not fear over ghost stories. For all we know, there is a silly student inside an old building flashing the lights. Amen.

[1]Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ;  Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 48  : Letters I. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1963 (Luther's Works 48), S. 48:282
[2]LW 15:343

Monday, October 21, 2013

Jacob wrestles

Gen. 32:22-31; 22nd Sunday after Pentecost C, October 20, 2013/Bread for the World Sunday

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Jacob’s story begins long before he wrestles with God. When Rebekah was giving birth, Jacob grabbed onto his twin brother Esau’s ankle. Even his name, Jacob, means heel-grabber. From then on, he tricked his brother into giving him everything that the firstborn rightfully receives. With his mother’s help, Jacob, although second-born, received the birthright and the blessing of the first-born.
Jacob first tricks Esau when they were teenagers. Esau comes home after a very long day hunting. He has not eaten all day, so he is starving. When he walks into his home and sees Jacob stirring a great pot of red lentil stew, he asks his brother for a bowl of it. Jacob responds, “Only if you give me your birthright.” Although a silly reason to give up all of the land and property that a firstborn is due to receive, Esau’s hunger overwhelmed his sense of reason. He gave his word, and Jacob gave him a bowl of stew. Only later did Esau realize how severely unbalanced a trade that was.
Esau’s hunger blinded him from comprehending all that he was giving up. Intense hunger can do this. Studies have shown that children who are hungry can have shorter attention spans, lower test scores, more aggression, and more time away from class. Their bodies react to the physical and emotional stress of hunger in extreme ways. Hungry adults have these problems, too. Constant, underlying hunger changes people into mere reflections of themselves. Even if they do not want to be less attentive and quick to anger, they cannot help how their hunger impacts them.

We are all at risk of experiencing this. Over half of all Americans will live in poverty at some point in their lives. Each of us is only one life event away from being hungry. A house burning down, being fired from a job, or losing in the stock market all can eat up investments. Even going to graduate school can send someone into hunger. I know from experience.
My senior year in seminary, I miscalculated how much I would need in student loans. Without loans to cover my expenses, all of my savings went straight to school. I worked fifteen hours every week, but that wasn’t enough. I don’t know how I would have fed myself if my seminary didn’t offer a food pantry. I could eat each day only because of the generosity of strangers.

We are like Esau. When we experience times of great, persistent hunger, we cannot help but be quick to anger and quick to judge. When one’s income doesn’t fully cover the cost of living, one needs to take matters into her own hands. Esau would give anything to fill his belly, even his birthright. Esau was a victim to Jacob’s trickery. So many in poverty today are faced with similar, difficult decisions – giving up future hopes of retirement and financial security to feed their hungry families now.
As much as we can relate to Esau, we also can relate to Jacob. Jacob was tricked by his mother Rebekah into believing that he truly deserved Esau’s birthright and blessing. Societal expectations told him that he only was due one third of his father’s property, yet Rebekah told him that he deserved twice that much. With his mother’s help, Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the firstborn’s blessing, too. When Esau found out, he was so angry that he wanted to attack Jacob. Scared, Jacob ran away to his uncle Laban. There he stayed for almost two decades as he married Leah and Rachel and started his family.
When he wanted to return home, he gathered his family and his livestock in the night. On his way back to his father’s land, he discovered that Esau was approaching. So, he sends his family and all who were with him across the stream. He waits on the far side of the river for his brother. Alone, he spends the night, worried for how his brother will feel after all these years.  
During the night, a man attacks Jacob, and they wrestle until dawn. Neither is able to overcome the other, so the man asks Jacob to stop. He replies, “Only if you bless me.” Once again, Jacob is looking for a blessing that he doesn’t deserve. Even so, the man of God does bless him, after he knocks Jacob’s hip out of joint. This person of God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning, “One who strives with God.” The next day, Jacob and Esau meet, and they reconcile their differences.

Indeed, we are like Jacob. We have our times when we do not realize how vulnerable the hungry are. We have full stocks of food in our own homes, yet we are shy to give generously to our neighbors. Sometimes, this is not entirely our own doing. Like Rebekah, we are inundated by ads and our consumer culture that tell us that we always need more. Our neighbors are going hungry, but we don’t notice. As long we have enough, why do we need to worry about others?
As we struggle with our guilt that we are not hungry, we strive with God. We pray that God might feed the hungry, yet God won’t do this without us. God can only feed the hungry when God works through us. God works through us as we fill our shelves in preparation for Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets. God works through us as we prepare for the Harvest Feast.

Social ministry comes in two forms, charity and justice. We are good at charity. We give food to the hungry through the Princeton Presbyterian food pantry and through Virgil Grissom. We feed the hungry during the holidays. Our government is also good at charity. It has the SNAP and WIC programs. Our government feeds children lunch and sometimes breakfast.
Charity is just one half of social ministry, though. Justice through institutional change is the other half. This is where Bread for the World comes in. Bread for the World advocates for social change so that the poorest in our country and around the world can be fed. Bread for the World advocates for government and social institutions to encourage living wages, affordable education, and other important means for people to get out of poverty.
We can help Bread for the World. Our donations of money help keep this organization running. Even more important than our money is our help in advocacy. Even just signing the bulletin insert can make a difference. Sign the petition on the back underneath the letter encouraging President Obama to fight to feed the hungry. Then put that piece of paper in the offering plate. We will mail those to Bread for the World where they will be combined with thousands of others from congregations across the country. Then Bread for the World will take them directly to the president. Each of our signatures combined together will make a difference.
This is a small way that we can fight for justice for the hungry. I encourage you to call your representatives in local, state, and national government. Each phone call and each email matters. Persistence matters. The man of God blessed Jacob because he never gave up wrestling with him.

Jacob stubbornly refused to let God leave him, and God rewarded him for it. May we also be as stubbornly persistent in our work against hunger. God will bring about justice and deliver the poor and oppressed through our work. May it indeed be so. Amen.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Naaman Washes

2 Kings 5:1-15; 21st Sunday after Pentecost C, October 13, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
The story of Naaman is an odd one. He is a foreign commander, known for raiding the Israelites, yet he goes into Israel to be healed of his terrible skin disease. Every step of the way, Naaman thinks he knows what is going to happen. Each time, he is surprised by what actually happens. God is revealed in the mundane waters of the Jordan and in the lowly servants. Listen again to Naaman’s story.

Naaman was an important person in the country of Aram, which in modern day is Syria. He is the commander of the royal army, a mighty warrior high ranking and in his lord’s high favor. His uniform is covered in medals and ribbons because he wins many battles and takes many prisoners. He is a great man, honorable and proud.
Yet, despite all of his achievements and his high regard, he suffers from leprosy, a disfiguring skin disease. His face is pocked and pitted with sores. His skin all over his body is ugly, sore, and uncomfortable. The social stigma of leprosy is just as bad as his lesions.

One of the prisoners of war that Naaman captured from Israel is a young Jewish girl. She is smart and quick-witted and wins favor in Aram. The king of Aram sets her as servant for Naaman’s wife. This servant girl learns to like Naaman and his wife, even though they worship different gods. She is kind to her masters and privately worships the God of Israel.
Seeing how much Naaman’s leprosy holds him back from his life in Aram, she tells her mistress about a wonderful prophet in her home country. This man named Elisha miraculously heals many whom he encounters. She describes how with a simple prayer he cleaned a spring of water. Elisha also helped an old woman to conceive a son. Then, a few years later when that son died, Elisha raised him from the dead. Through his many miracles, Elisha fed the hungry and helped the widows and orphans.
The slave girl says that Elisha can be found in Samaria, the capital city of Israel. Naaman is persuaded. He approaches his king and asks to see this amazing prophet. Because the king thinks so highly of the commander of his army, he writes a letter to the King of Israel, asking for permission for Naaman to see this prophet, Elisha. Considering that Naaman and his army plundered part of Israel, this is an off-putting request.
Naaman takes the letter with him as he travels to Israel. He brings with him much gold, silver, and expensive clothing as gifts; and he had a number of servants and chariots riding with him. Now he approaches the king of Israel and presents the letter from his own king.

After reading the letter, the king of Israel is understandably upset. Why should he grant this after all that has transpired? Some of his people are forced to be slaves in another land, and the raids leave others to suffer in hunger. He is angry at being thrust into this situation, but he also feels socially obligated to accept Naaman’s wishes. The last thing that the king wants is to stir Aram to attack Israel again.
After hearing of this, Elisha sends word to the king to allow Naaman to see him – for evangelism’s sake. Elisha sees this as an opportunity to show this bold, proud foreign man who really is God. The king allows it.

So, Naaman goes to Elisha’s house with his whole company in tow, horses and chariots and all. This must have been quite the sight going through the center of the city of his enemy. When they arrive, Elisha is inside. He does not invite them in or even come out to greet Naaman and his traveling party. Instead, he sends a servant of his household to share the message: Go to the Jordan River, wash in it seven times, and then you will be fully healed.
After all of his effort, Naaman feels shunned by Elisha. This is not what Naaman wants to hear. After all that he had heard about Elisha, he expected a big show with flashing lights and grand effects. When he was riding over to Elisha’s house, Naaman dreamed that Elisha would come right out to him, shout loudly to the Lord to heal him, and then use his “magic hands” to wave over his body and cure him on the spot. What he got was quite a let down after the spectacle that he had imagined.
Also, Naaman wonders, why the Jordan River? Why such a small, muddy, pathetic river when the rivers running through his country are large, clean, and impressive? Naaman leaves Elisha’s house in a rage. He is disappointed, resentful, and embarrassed. He is so offended by what transpired that he wants to go back to his country.

Naaman’s company follows him away from Elisha’s house. A few brave servants approach and try to reason with him. They say, “Consider this: if this prophet had told you to do something difficult to cure your disease, wouldn’t you have done it? Isn’t it special that Elisha’s messenger simply commanded you to wash and be clean? Sure, this is not what you expected. Yet why not do what he asks? What do you have to lose?”
Persuaded, Naaman decides that it is at least worth a try. He brings his company to the Jordan River. As he was told, he steps into the river. Standing waist deep in the water, he bends his knees and leans back until his entire body is submerged in the water. Then he rises again. Seven times, he immerses himself in the water.
This time in the water did exactly as Elisha said it would. When Naaman rises the seventh time out of the waters of the Jordan River, he is completely healed of his terrible skin disease. His skin is good as new, cleared of sores and soft as a baby’s bottom.
Amazed, astounded, and overflowing with gratitude, Naaman and his company return to Elisha’s house. Newly humbled, Naaman speaks to Elisha, “Now I know that your God in Israel is the only god in all the world.”
In this lesson, we see God working through ordinary people and ordinary experiences. Like Naaman, we often expect God to be revealed to us in flashes of thunder and grand experiences. More often than not, God is actually revealed in the simplest people around us. God worked through two servants, first when Naaman’s wife’s servant suggested that they go to Israel and second when Naaman’s own servant encouraged him to wash in the river. These people did not need to act at all, yet they showed Naaman how to trust God.  These lowly servants showed Naaman that God could be found in a simple, mundane washing in a dirty river.
Naaman isn’t an example of strong faith. When he washed in the Jordan, he didn’t believe that God could heal him. He only went to the river because his servant encouraged him to. Afterward, Naaman saw God in the washing, and he worshipped God. From that day forward, Naaman only worshipped the God of Israel, the one true God whom we worship today.

After all we have seen and heard in this story, I wonder: When have you seen God in unexpected people and places?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Faith and Trust...

Luke 17:5-10; 20th Sunday after Pentecost C, October 6, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Jesus said, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” Doesn’t this sound a bit odd coming from Jesus? I realize he is using hyperbole here, but why would we want to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea? I have heard that mulberry trees are an invasive species, so I get why someone may want one uprooted. But why should it be put in the sea? What good does that do? I’ll be honest: I don’t have an answer to that one.

And yet, when I read this lesson, I can’t help but think of the Once Upon a Time season opener from last Sunday. This fairytale based fantasy show takes the audience to Neverland, the place where Peter Pan is forever young. “Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust” is all that Pan needs to fly. In this episode, Henry and a new friend are at the edge of a cliff, desperate to escape their attackers. His friend shows him some pixie dust but fears that it won’t work.
Henry said, “Everyone knows pixie dust is for flying.” His companion said, “Don’t you remember, the dust doesn’t work!” Henry replied, “That’s because you have to believe.” His companion responded, “I definitely do not believe.”
“That’s ok, because I do.” Henry said as he jumped off the cliff with his companion in tow. They fly off, safe from their enemies.
Sometimes, I think we expect faith in God to be like this. The disciples say, “Increase our faith,” as if what they really want is some pixie dust. They don’t necessarily want to fly, but they do want some physical evidence of their faith. They want something that they can use to make their faith stronger, better, more reliable. Like in the tv show, they want to have a little tube full of dust hanging from their necks. Then all they would need is more dust to show the world how great their faith is.
But, as often happens, the disciples don’t really understand the dynamics of faith. They want faith to be like magic, but it isn’t. The magic of Once Upon a Time is quantifiable. In the show, they perform magic with spells, potions, and pixie dust. They can increase their magic, and pixie dust can be measured. But magic is fake, only existing in our imaginations.
Faith, though, is real. Faith uses the Bible, water, bread, and wine to develop our relationship with our one Lord. These elements of baptism and communion do not increase our faith, but develop it. We can count how many times we have received communion during our lives, but that does not amount to how much faith we have. For faith is not quantifiable. Faith as small as a mustard seed can move a tree into the ocean, but faith as large as the tree can’t move a seed.
I am sure that many of the characters in Once Upon a Time have the ability to move trees. When they came to Neverland, that wasn’t what they came to do; they came to save Henry. They are Emma Swan, who is Henry’s mother, Captain Hook, Snow White, Prince Charming, and the evil witch – quite an odd combination. When they arrived on the coast of Neverland, Emma gave them a pep talk before they ventured into the island.
She said, “This land is run on belief. All of us have been too busy at each others’ throats to be believers. I was as wrong as anyone else, but it is time for all of us to believe. Not in magic – but in each other.”
The witch replied, “You want us to be friends? After everything that has happened between us?”
“I don’t want or expect that,” Emma commented, “I know there is a lot of history here, a lot of hate…We don’t need to be friends. What we need to know is the only way to get Henry back is to cooperate.”
Charming interjected in disdain, “With her? With him? We need to do this the right way.”
Emma responded, “No, we don’t. We just need to succeed. And the way we do that is by just being who we are: a hero, a villain, a pirate. It doesn’t matter which because we are going to need all those skills whether we can stomach them or not.”
The witch sarcastically responded, “And what’s your skill, savior?”
Emma concluded, “I’m a mother, and now I’m your leader. So either help me get my son back, or get out of the way.” Then, one by one, they drew their swords and followed Emma into the forest of Neverland.
To Emma, pixie dust was just a fairy tale. Magic would get her nowhere, just as magic can do nothing for us. Yet, Emma knew that faith and trust were what mattered most. Not faith and trust in magic, but faith and trust in each other. They needed to trust each others’ strengths and overcome each others’ weaknesses to reach their united goal – to save Henry.
Emma knew that faith is a behavior, not a possession. She has no need to own pixie dust to save her son. What she needs is to believe that she can save her son with the help of her four companions. When these people trust in themselves and in each other, they can work together to complete their common goal.
Isn’t it funny how a common cause can throw out our complications so that we can work together? Sometimes, our faith in each other keeps us going through the best and the worst. Yet, our faith in each other only goes so far. Our faith in God is what we truly need. And the best part? Our faith is a gift. God gives us faith. God gives us more than we need.
When the disciples said, “Increase our faith,” they were being foolish because they didn’t need to have their faith increased. None of us ever should feel like our faith isn’t enough, because you can’t quantify faith. Faith is not dependent upon believing certain facts in the Bible. Actually, doubt and questioning are important parts of faith.

Also, faith is trust. We live out our faith when we trust in God, when we trust that God is in control, when we trust that Jesus has already saved us through his death on the cross. The amount of our faith is irrelevant because God has already given us what we need. God has given us new life in Christ. What is more important than that? Amen.