Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Goliaths in our lives

This Sunday, I preached on the Charleston shooting without a manuscript. The following is a sermon illustration that I had planned to use before the shooting happened. To be clear, this is not an entire sermon. It is simply a story. How would you conclude this story?

Sharon left her doctor’s appointment grief stricken. She had just received the worst news possible: stage IV cancer. She sat in her car in the parking lot, her hands shaking against the steering wheel. Tears streamed down her face as she cried. Realizing that she was not safe to drive all the way home, she decided to go to her son’s house instead.
Only going a few blocks, Sharon arrived safely. She shuddered as she walked to the back door. She tried the handle - it was unlocked. She walked in slowly, tears continuing to stream down her face. As she entered the kitchen, she saw her son George leaning over a table strewn with papers. He had his head in his hands. As Sharon went closer, she discovered that the papers were student loan documents and mortgage bills. 
Her own anxiety set aside, Sharon said, “George, honey, are you ok?”
Not realizing she was there, George jumped out of his chair.
Catching his breath, he said, “Oh, hi Mom. I’ve been better. I’m swamped in debt and I can’t seem to find a way out. How am I supposed to have a house big enough for my expanding family if my student loans are ruling my life?” 
Then really looking at his mom, he said, “Are you ok?”
“I’ve been better,” Sharon replied, “I just came from the doctor.”
“Bad news?” George asked.
“Stage IV. They won’t tell me anything more than that, but it doesn’t look good. I’m scared, honey!” Then Sharon fell into her son’s arms and sobbed. They remained like that for some time until George’s daughter Jamie walked in.
Both Sharon and George looked down in astonishment. Jamie was wearing a Superman t-shirt, and her hair was in shambles. Her usually long, beautiful locks were now ragged and short. It looked like she had tried to cut her own hair.
“Jamie,” Sharon said, “what have you done with your beautiful hair?”
“Not beautiful,” Jamie replied, “Beautiful is for girls. I want to be a boy!”
“A boy?!” George exclaimed. “Are you jealous of your little brother?”

“No!” Jamie shouted, “I am a boy! I don’t want to be a girl.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Challenges of God's Calling

Isaiah 6:1-8, Holy Trinity B, May 31, 2015

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

Our Unworthiness
In our first lesson, we see the vision that the Lord showed to Isaiah. The glory of the Lord fills the Temple, and the seraphim are calling out their praises. The whole place is trembling. Yet amid all this holy beauty stands Isaiah. He is just a simple man. He does not feel worthy to be there in the Lord’s presence.

Isaiah - one of the most prominent prophets of all time - does not feel worthy to be receiving this vision. How often do we too not feel worthy! Some important Christians also have had moments like these. 

First, consider Shane Claiborne, the author of The Irresistible Revolution. Early on in his career, Shane decided that he wanted to meet and work with Mother Teresa. He wrote her a letter that essentially said, “Dear Mother Teresa, we don’t know if you give internships out there in Calcutta, but we would love to come check things out.” (p. 73) 

He wrote about his ideas of what the church can look like. All of Shane’s friends and colleagues hearing of this letter exclaimed, “You are writing who?!” People did not think Shane was worthy to write to Mother Teresa. Even he was unsure if he should be doing it. He wanted to see Calcutta, yet he wondered if he was worthy.

Next, consider the Baptist minister Jeffrey Brown. His first church was in Boston. He had great aspirations to become a megachurch pastor, yet that never happened. He was too busy leading funerals for black teenagers caught in the violence in the streets of Boston. As other churches moved out of the city to avoid the violence, Pastor Brown tried to offer social services for these teens. Yet, nothing helped.

Then a young black man was shot near the church. As this man was running to reach the safety of the church, he collapsed and died. There was nobody at the church to help him anyway. It was at that time that Pastor Brown realized that he needed to take drastic steps to reduce the violence in his city. As he feared what might happen to him, he prayed to God and asked, 
"Why me? Why do you want me to do this?" 

The Grace of God's Blessing
We all have times when we feel unworthy. How can we come before the Lord who created the world and not feel unworthy? Yet Isaiah’s story doesn’t end with his cry that his lips are unclean. One of the angels in Isaiah’s vision brings a live coal and touches his lips. This is a ritualized way of clearing Isaiah of the guilt of his sin. Now that his lips are clean, he is able to hear the Lord cry out, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” and Isaiah replies, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8-9)

So, the Lord who is greater, more mysterious, and more beautiful than we can imagine chooses us to serve. We can’t even look at the Lord’s face, yet the Lord sends us out to prophecy. Just as the Lord sent a live coal to clean Isaiah’s lips, so also the Lord sends affirmation to us.

Consider Shane Claiborne. He waited for Mother Teresa to reply to his letter. Eventually, he got her phone number and called her. Amazingly, Mother Teresa answered! After mumbling through who he was and why he wanted to visit, he said that he would like to stay for the summer, but a few weeks or even days would work, too. 

Then Mother Teresa replied, “Come for the summer. Come.” Shane then asked her were he would eat and sleep? She responded, “God takes care of the lilies and the sparrows, and God will take care of you. Just come.” (p. 74-5) Shane was so nervous he could barely speak, yet Mother Teresa exuded God’s grace and invited him to come.

Next, Jeffrey Brown. Pastor Brown began to walk the streets at night to see for himself what it was like for these gang members and drug dealers. Yet, he couldn't change anything on his own. God affirmed his needs by sending the other clergy in town to walk with him. He and these clergy walked the streets in the most dangerous neighborhoods from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. each weekend. The violent youth eventually agreed to talk with them. 

These youth showed Pastor Brown and his colleagues that they were not hard hearted but simply were trying to make it. The pastors came to value these youth and no longer saw them as a problem to be solved. Life-changing ministry was happening right there on the streets of Boston.

The Hard Work of Ministry
When we feel at our weakest, the good Lord is often there to bring us to our feet, brush off the dust, and send us on our way. The Lord sends us out to do the Lord’s work, yet it isn’t always easy. Certainly Isaiah’s message was hard to share.

Our lesson today ends before we hear the prophecy that the Lord gives to Isaiah. He is to share with the Israelites this message: “Close off all your senses lest you try to repent. The Lord will send you all away after letting your land be destroyed. Even if some of you try to stay in your land, the Lord will let every little bit be demolished.” (Isaiah 6:9-13, summarized)

No wonder why some prophets run away from the Lord. This is no easy task. Isaiah must proclaim to his people that they will watch their beloved holy land be brought to ruin. Sharing such disturbing news must have been exhausting.

So also, the ministries that we are called to are not easy. The Lord sends us to the people who make us the most uncomfortable, and then the Lord tells us to love them. That is exactly what Shane Claiborne did. While he was in Calcutta, he spent every morning in an orphanage. He cared for disabled children who were abandoned by their parents. 

Then every afternoon he worked in the Home for the Destitute and Dying. He helped the people there to die with dignity by providing comfort care. Shane followed Mother Teresa’s example as he followed Jesus’ teaching. Shane did not have an easy time caring for abandoned children and those dying on the streets, yet he did the Lord’s work with grace. A grace only the Lord can provide. 

So also, Jeffrey Brown worked with violent youth that others considered a lost cause. Pastor Brown and his colleagues sat down with these youth and with some of the local police force. Together, these three groups of people who normally never valued each other worked for a common goal. Instead of simply sending in more cops or providing more social services, the community listened to the needs of the youth.

We may be unworthy to see the Lord’s face, yet even Isaiah was able to see the hem of the Lord’s robe. Despite our sinfulness, and despite our failures, the Lord calls us to great tasks of mercy. The Lord calls us to form relationships with the least among us. We can follow the Lord’s calling - with God the Father to guide us, Christ to redeem us, and the Holy Spirit to strengthen us. Amen.

The Spirit is Moving Among Us

Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost B, May 24, 2015

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

The Uncertainty of a Foreign Place
During May Term 2007, I went with Dr. K and a group of fellow Wartburg College students to visit Germany. For three weeks, we toured all of the Reformation sites. We walked in Martin Luther’s footsteps as we remembered all that he accomplished there. We also spoke with people from former East Germany who shared the great challenges that they faced everyday under Soviet rule. We also discovered what the Lutheran church looks like in Germany today.

This trip was only my second time overseas. On the plane ride, we all were nervous and excited. We wondered what Germany would be like. None of us spoke German, and we hoped that would not detract from our experience. We were ready to go exploring!

Then we walked off the plane in Berlin and onto the terminal. The complete foreignness of the place felt like a slap in the face. Most of the signs and posters were completely in German; I couldn’t read a word. The few signs that did have English only had it in small print, almost as an afterthought. All of the people around me were speaking German or other foreign languages. I didn’t understand any of them, and I didn’t know where to go. I was completely out of my element and felt quite uncomfortable.

So, I stayed close to my group. Dr. K carefully helped us navigate our way through the airport to our bus. We drove through the city, gazing at all that we could see. Berlin was such an odd mix of beautiful and drab. Along the way, we picked up our tour guide who happened to be named Christian. When he stepped onto the bus, we didn’t know what to think of him. We were struck by how tall he was. He could have been quite a menacing figure. We knew that the quality of our entire time in Germany was focused on this one man. 

Then Christian opened his mouth, and he spoke perfect English. We all let out a breath of relief. Not only did Christian speak English, but he also cracked some jokes and put us at ease. He truly made our three weeks in Germany a delight. He challenged us to look at the Reformation in a new light. Overall, Christian helped us to appreciate his beautiful country and the people therein.

As I experienced during that class in Germany, there is something truly refreshing about hearing your own language in a foreign place. It is that relief of hearing your own language that I find inspiring in the story of Pentecost. Jerusalem was - and is - a metropolis of Jews from all over the world. They may have shared the same faith, but these Jews spoke the language of their native countries. 

The Uncertainty of Pentecost for the Disciples
These Jews were minding their own business in Jerusalem, visiting the Temple and other holy places. They also did not speak the language, yet they hoped that would not detract from their visit. Then they hear a ruckus happening inside a home, and they wonder what is going on! Curious, the Jews start to crowd around this little place. Then the disciples spew out of the front door. 

They are all speaking different languages! The disciples were preaching in languages they hadn’t known an hour before! What a delight it must have been for these foreign Jews to hear someone speaking their language. Immediately there must have been some bond formed. Simply hearing their own tongue in a foreign place must have opened them up to receive the gospel. They were able to believe everything they heard about Jesus because of this powerful gift from the Holy Spirit.

In our time and place, we don’t need the Holy Spirit to give us the gift of language. Pretty much everyone we know speaks English. Yet, for someone who has rejected the church or who has never been to church, sharing the good news with them can be a challenge. 

We can say, “Jesus died so that your sins may be forgiven. You can live forever because of the cross!” Yet those words fall flat. Listeners may not know what sins are or why they need to be forgiven. They may have no desire to live forever. Even if we strip away all of the Christian lingo, the very concept of who Jesus is and what he did for us can be completely foreign. 

Sometimes, we can’t evangelize using words. Sometimes, we need to show the good news through our actions. Even St. Francis supposedly said, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

Confirmation Blessing
The confirmation students have shared with me that you are not allowed to talk about faith in school. You are not able to use the gift of words to share the good news of Jesus Christ. So, I encourage you to take St. Francis' words to heart. Show your classmates who Jesus is through the language of your actions.

Whenever you lift the spirits of a classmate who is down,
whenever you lead a food drive or charity fundraiser,
whenever you are kind to a disabled classmate,
whenever you follow Jesus' example at all,
you are showing your classmates who Jesus is.

Junior high and high school can be tough. Emotions are heightened, classes are challenging, and friendships are hard to maintain. With the Holy Spirits help, you can brighten the lives of your peers. You have a wonderful opportunity to be Christ's hands and feet. We all can do the same, no matter what the context we find ourselves in.

We can show Christ's love to our classmates and colleagues because the Holy Spirit enables us to. We pray that the Holy Spirit might descend on us like tongues of fire. We pray that the Holy Spirit might inspire us to know what language of action we can use to make our community a little better. Amen.