Monday, May 18, 2015

The Big Four

1 John 5:9-13, Easter 7 B, May 17, 2015
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Have you heard the poem by Linda Ellis titled, "The Dash"? You probably have. It is commonly used at funerals and visitations to celebrate a life lived well. The narrator of this poem considers a tombstone, including the person's birthdate, deathdate, and the dash in between. Here are three lines from the poem:

"He said what mattered most was the dash between those years. 
For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth. 
And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth."

"The Dash" is a powerful reminder of the importance of our lives and how we live them. When we grieve for a life ended, we are reminded how precious our few years on this earth can be. We will be remembered by our dash. Ultimately, our birth and death dates don't matter much. It is the time between that matters.

Yet when we look at Jesus, we see that his dates matter more than his dash. We will spend the entire second half of the liturgical year considering that dash. We will read about his ministry, including the lessons that he taught, the sermons that he preached, the miracles that he performed, and the people that he healed.

Jesus had an amazing dash, and we need six months every year to learn from him and follow his example. But Jesus doesn't give us eternal life primarily because of the life that he lived. Those dates surrounding the dash are what matter. 

If you think about it, Jesus has two dashes representing his time here on earth. Jesus doesn't have a tombstone, yet I wonder what his would look like? Would it say:

Christmas Day dash Good Friday
Easter Day dash Ascension Day

Jesus has four important dates marking his life, not the two that we have. These four dates have encompassed the first six months of the liturgical year. We started our retelling of Jesus' story last November when Advent began. We waited - a bit impatiently - for Christ to be born. 

Then all too soon Lent came when we were preparing for his death. We grieved for Christ, only to celebrate on Easter morning. Then Jesus remained on earth resurrected for some time before he ascended into heaven. This past Thursday was the official feast day to celebrate Jesus' ascension. 

We take six months of every year to relive Christ's life and giving of life. These events from over two thousand years ago are so important that we recall every last detail. We act it out. We sing about it. We cherish these beloved stories. 

These four moments in Christ's life need to be held together to comprise his saving act. We have eternal life not just because of Jesus' life or even his death. We have eternal life because of all four of his dates surrounding those dashes. 

In 1 John, we heard this morning: "This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son." So, God gives us life eternal because of Jesus' birth, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Just as Jesus' life didn't end at his death, so also our lives won't either. After we leave this earth, we will remain with God forever. Our eternal life doesn't begin at our death, though. We experience a better life now because of what God did for us through Jesus Christ. For eternal life does not just mean never-ending. It also represents the quality of life that we experience now because of Christ. 

We have a special opportunity right here and now. We can help each other experience this quality of life. Whenever we show God's love to each other, we are sharing eternal life. Whenever we help our neighbors, whenever we receive communion, whenever we brighten someone's day, we are helping others - and we as well - experience eternal life. Right here. Right now.

So this brings be back to that poem titled "The Dash." It concludes by encouraging us to live our lives well. Listen to these verses:
For you never know how much time is left, that can still be rearranged...
If we could just slow down enough to consider what's true and real
And always try to understand how people feel...
If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile,
Remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

This poem describes well what it means to experience eternal life on earth, but it doesn't express why. This poem beautifully encourages us to experience the quality of life that we find in Christ and to share that with others. But we can only do this because Christ enables us to. We can only experience and share this eternal life because Christ was born, died, was raised, and has ascended into heaven. 

One day we will be united with Christ in a way that we cannot imagine. For now, we will enjoy this life that we have together. We will celebrate all four of the dates in Christ's life and the dashes in between. Amen.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Peace for Baltimore

John 15:1-8, Easter 5 B, May 3, 2015

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

A few weeks ago, I attended the Breathe clergy event sponsored by our synod. It was meant to be a time of renewal after the stresses of Lent. Yet, that event was not relaxing for me. It all started when I received misinformation. Thus, I started in the wrong frame of mind. 

Because so many of my closest colleagues were not in attendance, all of my conversations were superficial. More often than not, I kept to myself, tatting out of the way. Despite our synod’s best efforts, I did not feel that event was a safe place for me to genuinely express my joys and concerns of ministry.

Then this past week I was at a different synod event. This one was the First Call Spring Gathering. Instead of a conference center, we were at a Christian camp far away from the stresses of home. Five experienced pastors led about ten of us first call pastors in valuable dialogue. 

What struck me most was that this was a safe place to be myself. The committee pastors confessed some of their mistakes and failures, opening up the safe space for us to express our challenges without judgment. We established from the beginning that the entire retreat would be confidential.

Some conversations are relatively safe no matter where you are. We all can talk about the earthquake in Nepal without worrying about others’ reactions. The earthquake has caused a terrible tragedy where thousands of people have lost their lives. Experts from around the world are helping the people of Nepal recover. 

Yet so many of our interactions are much more like the first event where it is not safe to express genuine opinions. In our daily lives, we often encounter groups of people who are quick to judge. So, we keep our true thoughts to ourselves or we jump in and fight. Everyone has their own opinion - why do so many have to shout it so loud? 

This past week, Facebook has not been a safe place for me. Everyone has something to say about Baltimore. Each person thinks they know what is the truth when in reality anything they know is biased and terribly manipulated. Only one of my friends has participated in the peaceful protests in Baltimore. All the rest are judging from afar.

After returning from my retreat, I have spent a lot of time watching videos and reading articles from a variety of sources. I have tried to get a rounded view of the events unfolding in Baltimore. I have tried to decipher between those who are rudely shouting their opinions and those who are sincerely confessing their true experience. The fact of the matter is that everyone thinks the other is wrong. That is no place to start an honest dialogue.

That is what I think the poorest of Baltimore are yearning for - honest conversations about the hardships that they experience every day. There are pockets of people in Baltimore who feel they are being oppressed. Without enough jobs or opportunities, the poor of Baltimore feel hopelessness and despair. 

They want to be heard. They want to be valued. They want to be treated with respect. Isn’t that what we all want?

So here we are half a country away from Baltimore and half a world away from Nepal. We are in a completely different context. How can we relate to these strange people in a strange land? We turn to the good news.

Jesus tells us that God the Father is the gardener, and Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. God tends us so that we bear good, plentiful fruit. We can only bear this fruit when we are connected with Jesus. Jesus is our source of life. In a way, Jesus is saying that we can only do ministry and other good works because Jesus gives us the ability and encouragement to do so.

Jesus is our connection to the people of Baltimore and Nepal. Jesus gives us the ability to do miracles, and Jesus is empowering the peaceful protestors in Baltimore and the survivors in Nepal. Jesus is there, just as Jesus is here. 

From afar, we can admire how the people of Baltimore are cleaning up the terrible mess that their own foolish have created. For every terrible story that comes out of Baltimore, there is another that gives us hope. 

From afar, we can financially support the people of Nepal. Lutheran World Relief is already there, and our support can pay for medical kits, tents, and clean water. Yet most importantly, we can have tough conversations about race and poverty in our own area. We may not be able to make a big difference in Baltimore or Nepal, yet our conversations around these big issues of race and poverty can lead us and our communities away from despair and hopelessness.

In her Lutheran article titled, “We Need to Talk,” Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton writes, “Not talking about it won’t make it go away. Some might argue that the church is no place for such a ‘political’ issue, that we should be concerned with the spiritual, not the temporal. But I’m convinced that not only is the church the appropriate place for this conversation, it might be the only place where the deep, honest, even painful conversation about race can take place so people feel they have been heard, and change and healing can happen.” (Feb. 2015 Lutheran, p. 50)

So, after this worship has ended, I invite you all to talk about the greater issues in our American culture that has led to the protests and riots in Baltimore. But first, I invite you outside our back door. The Delaware-Maryland Synod has requested that we spend time outside our walls for silence and prayer. I will take a picture and send it to our fellow Lutherans in Maryland to show that we too pray for peace in Baltimore.

Then I invite you back inside for fellowship. Over your coffee and treats, I pray that you have kind, fruitful conversations about what is happening here and elsewhere. I pray that you find ways to listen to each other so that each of us may be heard. Claim your own experiences and don’t pass judgment on others. These conversations are the first step to true peace. May Christ be with you, nurturing the fruit of your discussion. Amen.

God's love is ours to give

1 John 3:16-24, Easter 4 B, April 26, 2015

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

“Let us love one another.” This is a phrase that we hear so often in scripture especially from the gospel according to John and the epistles from John. We hear so frequently that God is love, that we are to love our neighbors, and to love ourselves. What does that love look like?

To be alone is to be lonely
The following are a few short stories that show unique ways how one person showed God’s love to another, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. The first story goes back to an article in the Gather magazine (from March 2013). The author tells a story from when she was a young mother. She had a daughter who at the time was about five. 

She tells what starts as a simple, ordinary story. She is cleaning her house, going about from room to room. She is picking up toys and doing laundry, dusting and vacuuming. Every step of the way, her daughter is there beside her. Her daughter is mostly minding her own business, but always nearby. 

Then, while the mother is cleaning in the kitchen, the daughter sits down on the floor with her dolls. The mother gently encourages her daughter to go play elsewhere, but her daughter responds, “But Mom, I cant. I don’t want you to be lonely!” 

So that was why her daughter was following her around. That simple-minded five year old could not bear for her mother to be alone, for in her mind, to be alone is to be lonely. That little girl showed God’s love to her mother by simply being there.

A cake of empathy
The second story is from my internship supervisor. PF and his wife had two pets, a dog and a black cat named Midnight. This Midnight wasn’t fond of strangers, yet he was fond of Fred.

One evening, PF saw that Midnight was acting strange, almost as if he was having seizures. So, his wife drove to the veterinarian as PF held his beloved cat in his lap. Midnight died there in the car in Fred’s arms before they arrived at the vet.

PF was terribly upset at the loss of his cat. He didn’t show it at church, yet everyone knew how much he loved his pets. Many people shared their sympathy and sent cards. There was one gesture of support that stood out, though. Kathy, one of his parishioners, showed up to his house a few days later with a cake, beautifully frosted and dotted with cherries. 

You see, Kathy wasn’t the best at using words to share her feelings, but she was a baker. Her gift of cake was her most genuine way to show her sympathy. She didn’t want to give the usual casserole or salad. When someone is in distress, we share what we can do best. For Kathy, that was cake. PF was awestruck by this beautiful symbol of sympathy. Kathy shared God’s love with PF by sharing her spiritual gift of baking.

Toys of friendship
The third story comes from a podcast that I heard a while ago. The speaker, let’s call her Grace, told the story of a friend that she had in grade school. This friend was from Japan and continued many of the traditions that her parents learned overseas. So, when Grace eventually had to move away, her friend gave her a parting gift. 

It was a wooden apple that opened up to reveal a tea set small enough to work in a doll house. Now the apple was scratched in a few places, and the little table was missing a leg. It was clearly second hand. Unsure what to think, Grace looked up at her friend. 

Then her friend said, “In my culture, we do not give away new toys. Instead, we share our favorite toys. I have loved this apple tea set for most of my life. I have spent hours playing with it. Now I would like for you to have it. Think of me when you play with it.” So, Grace cherished that little apple play set for many years to come. She then passed it along to a younger friend who could appreciate such a marvelous gift. 

This simple gift is a powerful way to share God’s love in truth and action. She didn’t just give away her favorite toy, knowing that she would never see it again. In a way, she gave part of herself to Grace with that toy. 

HGTV healing
We don’t always show God’s love to those we cherish. Sometimes, we are called to share God’s love in action and truth to those we don’t know at all. This fourth story comes from a photo on the internet. The photo is of a young(ish) man pulling down the collar of his dress shirt to reveal a scar along the bottom of his neck.

The caption of this photo describes how this man came to have this scar. A registered nurse in her free time was watching HGTV. She noticed that this man, the host of that show had an unusual lump at the base of his throat. From her experience, she knew that this gentleman had a tumor on his thyroid.

Even though she did not know this man personally, she wrote to that HGTV show’s production company. They shared that nurse’s message with the host. After reading her letter, he went to his doctor, where he learned that he had thyroid cancer. As soon as he could, he had his thyroid removed. Now he is cancer free. Who knows how far his cancer would have progressed if this good samaritan hadn’t told him to go to his doctor? 

This is the perfect example of loving one another in truth and action. That woman did not have to write that letter. She was under no obligation. Yet she went out of her way to care for this stranger. And what a blessing she became for him.

These are all simple stories of regular people doing seemingly ordinary things. A daughter keeps her mother company. A parishioner shares cake with her pastor. A friend gives away one of her toys. A woman writes a letter to her favorite TV show. 

In each of these cases, we see how these ordinary actions become extraordinary to those who receive them. The mother is touched by her daughter’s care. A grieving pastor is flabbergasted by how his church family cares for him. A young girl remembers her best friend every time she plays with that toy. A young man is cured of cancer thanks to one small letter.

This is how we can love each other in truth and action. Sometimes our most ordinary actions can show how deeply we care for one another. When we care for those dearest to us and for those who are complete strangers, God shines through us. On this day, and in the week to come, may you realize how your smallest of actions can make a world of difference. Amen.