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Darkwater

This is a semi-fictional account of two events: a spiritual quest I went on in Schuylkill County yesterday, and a session with my spiritual director this morning. There’s no need to try to discern how much of it is “true.” In a way, it all is.

Continue reading “Darkwater”

Memorial Day: Apology and Dream

I am sorry. To the brave men and women who have given their lives in service of this country I call home, I am sorry.

You sacrificed for the ideals of this nation, for the ideals of freedom and liberty and justice. You gave your lives with those ideals in mind, sometimes defending the freedoms I enjoy, other times fighting to enable others to enjoy those freedoms. And I am sorry that I have not done my part.

On this Memorial Day, I am sorry that I have not been brave enough to take a stand for what America is truly supposed to be about: the truth that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I have not stood up as the rights of people in the LGBTQ community (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened. I have not stood up as the rights of Muslims (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened. I have not stood up as the rights of the poor, of people of color, of immigrants (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened.

Dear brave, fearless fighters we remember today, I have been so distracted this past year by the ugly, cruel bigotry I see growing throughout this country. And I have been reminded that it’s nothing new. The country some of you fought for in 1776 was a country that enshrined the sin of slavery. The country some of you fought for in 1941 was a country where Jim Crow was the law, and women were expected to stay in the home, raising the children. From the very beginning of European settlement in America, the story of “freedom of religion” was the story of “freedom of religion for Puritans, but nobody else.” There has always been nastiness in America, there have always been fear and bigotry. And I am sorry that that’s all I’ve remembered lately; I’ve just given into that, and started to bitterly accept that that’s just who we are.

And while our nation does indeed have this underbelly, that’s not all that we are. And I believe it’s not at all what you fought for.

I believe you fought for something better. You fought for the America that declared independence from a “tyrant prince,” not seeking selfish gain, but seeking freedom for a whole people. You fought not for the America that has kept people of color down, but for the America that has actively fought that all along, breaking down the chains of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation; the America that continues to proclaim, despite any evidence to the contrary, that black lives matter too. You fought not for the America that kept women in their place, but for the America that has actively fought that all along, the tens of thousands of women who have always persisted; and those certain men who saw that the women were right, who supported them or quietly stepped aside to make room. You fought for the America that is always growing in its understanding of what liberty really means, always growing in its understanding of who is included in those who are “created equal.” Always growing, and always pushing and pulling and fighting if necessary.

I think you fought not for America as it was, or as it is, but for America as it could be. This grand experiment is one that will never be fulfilled; this shining beacon on a hill is always just around the corner, never here now. For there will always be injustice. There will always be poverty. There will always be bigotry. But America always pushes itself forward. The true hope of America is that tomorrow might be a little more just than today. Tomorrow, life might be a little better for an immigrant than today. Tomorrow, the people who are oppressed might be more free. Tomorrow, the people who enjoy power over others might be toppled. I had almost given up on that hope. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I let your sacrifice be in vain in my life.

I thank you for your service, your sacrifice, your belief in the goodness of the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I will try to do better in the coming year. I will try to do my part to make this nation worthy of your sacrifice. I will try to believe in the tomorrow of America, and do what I can to make that tomorrow a better day. The Dream of America is something that we need to work for. And I think it’s worth it.

I Know That You’re Here (poem)

I know that you’re here. I feel you in the air.
The frost in the trees. The taste in my hair.
I know you’ve come back. You fool me no more.
I know what you smell like. I know what you’re for.

I feel depression crawling, clawing back to play.
I feel my eyesight change, from vividness to grey.
I feel the sleepy, creepy cold that coffee cannot slake.
I feel the touchy, tetchy mold that makes my brain cells ache.

I will give in. I choose not to pretend you’re gone.
I will give in. I acknowledge the control trip that you’re on.
I recognize my weakness, and I recognize your skill
You suck away my stamina and drink away my will

But I will not give up; giving up ain’t giving in.
I will not give up. This ain’t a game you’ll win.
I know that you’re here, and I’ll play on tonight,
But soon you will vanish, drift out of my sight.

So I pray for forbearance as I wait through the dark.
I seek now the patience of Noah on his ark.
The storm will soon end, and I will emerge.
For now I will nap, and just write this dirge.

 

Never Abandoned

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 14:15-21

A word of explanation: I always invite the “young and young at heart” forward for what I call “Story Time.” I usually find a creative way to tell them the gospel story of that day. Today was different, though. Instead, I invited the kids up front to help me tell everyone a little about malaria. I told them that malaria is easy to prevent, and easy to treat, but nonetheless, one child in Africa dies every two minutes to malaria. Because some countries are so poor, they can’t afford the prevention and treatments. Then we demonstrated that for the congregation by ringing a bell every two minutes while the scripture readings were read. Each time a bell rings, one of the children was taken out of the nave, to represent a child who died. By the time we got to the sermon, four children had been taken out. I invited them all back in, and began the sermon.

To the congregation: How that made you feel? Was it hard to pay attention to the readings? Did anyone feel helpless? Did anyone feel hopeless? Those are understandable emotions in the face of the malaria situation in Africa.

To the kids: Thanks for your help. You did a great job helping me share the bad news with the congregation. But there is some great news. We have made a difference. And by we, I mean Lutherans in the United States. Over the last five years, we, together with Lutherans across the country, have raised over $15 million to fight malaria, and it has made a difference. We did this same exercise three years ago, and that year, we rang the bell once a minute. This year it was once every two minutes. That means that fewer and fewer children are dying of malaria, and that’s partially because of what we have done. That’s really good news. There’s more work to be done, but this gives me hope that we’re not helpless. We can make a difference in the world.

 

I invited the kids to go back to their families.

To the congregation: So, you felt hopeless and helpless. Like I said, those emotions make sense in the face of malaria. But I think those are emotions that come very easy to us anyway. How many of you are used to feeling hopeless? Helpless? Abandoned? Alone? There are many things that can lead us to those feelings. How many of you, know them?

I truly hope that none of the kids who were up here feel like they’re abandoned or alone. I know that they’re not, and I hope they know that too. They have us caring for them. Us, their parents, grandparents, godparents, and fellow members of Prince of Peace. We love those children, and we are watching out for them. They are never abandoned, never orphaned. But what about us? Who’s watching out for us? Part of growing up seems to be learning that nobody will take care of you anymore. That nobody really cares for you. That you can’t, perhaps shouldn’t, rely on others. That you’re all alone in the night.

That’s how we feel sometimes. But it’s not true. Jesus said so in today’s gospel. Jesus had just told the disciples he was about to leave them. They were scared. They didn’t want to live without him. Just the thought of it made them feel abandoned and alone. But Jesus said, You won’t be alone. You won’t be orphaned or abandoned. The Father will give you another Advocate. I have been your Advocate, but you’ll soon receive another one. One who will be with you forever. Who will stand by you. Who will lift you up. Give you comfort. Give you guidance. Give you direction. Give you hope. Give you peace. Give you grace. Every day, forever and ever.

Who is this Advocate? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of Jesus himself, the Holy Spirit of God. John tells us the Holy Spirit did come to the disciples on Easter day, as Jesus breathed that Spirit onto them. Luke tells us the Holy Spirit came fifty days later, the day of Pentecost, in the form of tongues of flame. Either way, the Holy Spirit came. And on that day, the disciples did not feel orphaned, even though Jesus wasn’t with them anymore. They did not feel alone, even though they would never see Jesus again. They did not feel abandoned, even though life was often incredibly difficult for them. They received the Holy Spirit, their new Advocate. And they felt loved. They felt chosen.

We have received this same Holy Spirit. You are not alone. You are not abandoned. You are not orphaned. You are not helpless. You are not hopeless.

You are children of God. You have been chosen. God chose you. You. And God didn’t choose you in the sense that you’re the only ones God loves. God loves the whole world. God made all of creation, and loves every molecule, including you. But you have been chosen to be the ones who tell that to the world. The ones who show that to the world. The ones who make a difference. Who are signs of hope in the world. Agents of light in a world with so much darkness. You may not defeat malaria, but you, along with God’s children from all over the world, have already together cut its toll in half. And that is indeed a sign of hope. And you have so much more to do.

God is with you. God came in Christ and was willing to suffer and die on the cross in order that we – yes, even us – might know how much God loves us and how far God is willing to go for us. And God raised Jesus from the dead to show us – yes, even us – that nothing – not even death itself – can keep God from loving and redeeming the whole world.

And God sent the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to us – yes, even to us – in order to encourage us and look out for us and care for us and stay with us and walk along side of us. God comes in the Holy Spirit to be another Advocate, our Advocate, who will not give up on us…ever.[1]

God will never give up on us. Don’t give up on each other, or on yourselves. You are not alone. You are loved. And you are chosen. Receive the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and share that love with everyone.

Amen.

 

[1] This and the preceding paragraph are based on (plagiarized from) David Lose’s essay, “Easter 6 A: You Have an Advocate!” found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-6-a-you-have-an-advocate/.

United, Following the Way

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 14:1-14

I was curious. I just wanted to learn about the United Way. Find out what they did. That’s all I wanted.

But here’s what happened. It started with troubles. I got a survey in the mail from the Berwick Area United Way. The survey asked for my opinion on what the biggest troubles were facing the Berwick area. Well, I had just arrived in the Berwick area a few weeks earlier, when I began my ministry across the river in Nescopeck. I didn’t know yet what the problems were. But I also realized I didn’t know much about the United Way. So instead of throwing the survey away, I wrote a note on it, saying I would like to sit down and chat sometime. Just to learn.

Well, before too long, I had a meeting with the CEO of the Berwick Area United Way. She told me about the difference the United Way had made in the community. And then she told me about the future. She said they could do even better, and she believed they would. She told me about a new United Way program called Community Impact, which was a new way of doing business that identifies the problems and the opportunities in the community, and very deliberately funnels resources directly towards those opportunities, to fund programs with measurable impacts. A Community Impact United Way harnesses the money and the passions and the skills of a whole community to make that community better in specific and measurable ways. She saw Community Impact as the future of the Berwick Area United Way. It sounded pretty exciting to me. And then she said, “We are looking for new board members right now. And we’re actually looking for a clergyperson [like me], and for people in their 30’s [like me], and for people from the Nescopeck side of the river [like me].”

I had just wanted to learn.

But I agreed to serve. And as I got involved, I soon discovered that the United Way board was not committed to transitioning to Community Impact. There were conversations about it, but it wasn’t a reality. And guess who got involved in those conversations. Yep, me. And guess who became the chair of the Community Impact committee. Yep, me. And once the board did fully commit to it, guess who was elected President of the board. Yep, me. And guess who was instrumental in making the cultural shift to Community Impact. I had just wanted to learn.

Today’s gospel story opens with troubles. This story takes place at Jesus’ Last Supper. Right before our reading today, Jesus had just told his disciples, I’m leaving you very soon. Certainly, the disciples were troubled by this. We can relate to them. Just look at all the fears we listed a few weeks ago. We’re troubled. Yet our gospel story opens with these words from Jesus’ mouth:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He’s saying that to us too. And then he goes on to say some wonderful words, words that we often hear at funerals.

“I go and prepare a place for you.”
“I will take you to myself.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

That’s good news. At funerals, we hear that as good news that our loved one is in the arms of Christ, and is at peace. At a funeral, we celebrate that all the troubles our loved one lived with have now ended. But we mourn, and we worry about ourselves, and about each other. Because our troubles continue. It’s good to know that paradise awaits us at the end, but what about now? At funerals, people want to see God now. They want a sign that God will be with them, and help them, now. Don’t we all want that?

Philip did. So he said to Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He wanted to see God now, see what God’s doing now. And Jesus said, “God’s right here. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. Right here. Right in the midst of your troubles. If you’re waiting for God to show up on a cloud and take all your troubles away, you might wait a long time. But look. God is here. Just look at what I’ve been doing, Philip. And then watch out. Because you’re going to do even bigger things than I. You’re going to do things you never dreamed of. Because, Philip, I’m not just the destination. I am the way. Come and follow me, and along the Way you will see great things. Along the Way, you will do great things. You’ll see what God is doing. Because God will be doing it with your hands.”

I just wanted to learn what the United Way was doing. I did learn about it, because I became part of it. I got caught up in something I didn’t totally understand, but which I believed in, and through me, God made a difference in the Berwick area.

Have you come here today with questions, wondering where God is, what God is doing? Good. That’s a great place to be. Those questions are good. But I’m going to warn you. Ask those kinds of questions, and God just might answer you. You might just find out that what God is doing right now is forgiving you. And healing you. And calling you. And lighting a fire underneath you. And you just might find out that what God is doing tomorrow is done with your hands.

And you just might find out your life is full of meaning, and full of life, and full of joy.

And then next week you’ll get confused and troubled again. And that’s alright too. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re the church. We figure this out together, by together listening to and talking about God’s Word. We figure this out together, by sharing these gifts of bread and wine with one another, and trusting that Christ is truly present there. We figure this out together, even though we don’t fully understand any of it. Even though we disagree on some of it. We figure this out by listening to God, and following Christ, together. By being UNITED as we follow the WAY.

Amen.

Sheep Tales

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 10:1-10

Once upon a time there was a pen full of sheep.

Continue reading “Sheep Tales”

It’s Hard (Poem)

It’s hard to hear all the anger
It’s hard to live with the strife
It’s hard to learn that conflict and hatred
Are the backdrop for living this life

It’s hard to talk with each other
It’s so hard to listen and hear
It’s hard when the very thought of someone
Can paint your emotions with fear

It’s hard to trust in the process
It’s hard to remember God’s promise
It’s hard to believe that divine light shines
From people who show forth no oneness

It’s hard to let go of harsh words
It’s so hard to hold onto patience
And it’s tragic how hard it always becomes
To hold on to kind affirmations

Anyone who told us that life would be easy
Was a fool or a liar at best
But why is it we all, no matter how privileged
Feel like we’re being oppressed

Sigh.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was Luke 24:13-35. In last week’s sermon, I invited people to write down their fears on index cards, and get them to me. Many people did, and I incorporated some of them into today’s sermon. 

We have been all over the gospels in the Easter season, but we have seen fear at every turn. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s story of the women on Easter morning, and while they had great joy, they also had fear.

Last week, we heard John’s story of the disciples on Easter evening, who were so scared that they kept the doors locked, and how Jesus came to them and offered them peace.

Today, we hear Luke’s story about two disciples on Easter day. Two sad and frightened disciples, one named Cleopas and one named…well, we don’t know. We know nothing about this second disciple. Man or woman? Old or young? Tall or short? So I’m going to take some artistic license here, and give that second disciple a name: the name you. And I’m going to tell this story again, the story of Cleopas and you walking to Emmaus.

It was a Sunday, and you and Cleopas were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened. It was a journey you walked in sadness, a journey you walked with fear, but a journey you walked together. Perhaps you were trying to escape your problems, put distance between you and Jerusalem. Perhaps you just needed to get some fresh air, clear your thoughts, and talk to someone. You were just so scared.

While you were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with you, but your eyes were kept from recognizing him. He said to you, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

You and Cleopas stood still, looking sad. Then he said, “Are you the only stranger who does not know about the things that frighten us?”

Jesus said, “What things?”

And you said:

  • Poor health
  • Growing old
  • Going blind
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Losing my husband
  • Dying
  • Being alone

And you said:

  • World peace
  • War
  • Climate change
  • My grandkids growing up in a fearful world
  • So many people hate each other
  • Security in our community

And you said:

  • Losing my job
  • Losing my home
  • Losing family
  • Losing things
  • Our family may never be together again

And you said:

  • Darkness
  • Wolves
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Lightning storms
  • Clowns

And you said:

  • Not being good enough
  • Not taking enough risks
  • Disappointing others and myself
  • Not understanding my purpose
  • Letting my anxiety overcome me

And you said:

  • Never knowing God the way I desire
  • Stepping up or standing up for my beliefs
  • God not being real

There were so many things to be frightened of.

Then Jesus said to you, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that is declared in scripture.” And he began to interpret for you all the good news about him in scripture.

He quoted the Psalms and said:

  • The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

And he quoted Isaiah and said:

  • Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

And he quoted Ezekiel and said:

  • And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

And he quoted Paul and said:

  • For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And he quoted the angels and said:

  • Do not be afraid.

And he quoted himself and said:

  • I am with you always, to the end of the age.

His words made you feel a little better. But they also added a little guilt. Why did you have so much trouble believing them? Why were you still afraid? What was wrong with you?

And then the three of you came near to the village to which you were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But you and Cleopas urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us.” And he did. When he was at the table with you, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to you.

Then your eyes were opened.

You recognized him.

And he vanished from your sight.

And in that moment, it all changed. You and Cleopas now saw that your hearts were warmed, burning even. Things began to make sense. The fear you felt began to wash away. Because Jesus was there. He was alive, and he had been right in front of you. You found that you were confident, you were courageous, you were excited, you were alive. You and Cleopas were no longer walking sadly. The two of you were running excitedly all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Your fears were still there, but they didn’t hurt as much. The burning in your heart shrank those fears, moved them off to the side, gave you hope and life. Because the risen Christ was there. Just as the risen Christ appeared to Mary, and to Simon Peter, and to Thomas, and to Cleopas, he appeared to you.

Last week I asked you to share with me your fears, and I am honored that you did. They are your fears, and they are real. I know that I can’t stand up here and say, “Don’t be afraid,” and expect you to just say, “Oh thanks, Pastor, I feel much better now.” It doesn’t usually work like that. What I can do is tell you this: the risen Christ says, “Don’t be afraid.” And whatever journey you are on right now, he is walking with you. You may not be able to recognize him right now, and that’s okay. You may know in your head that he’s there, but you just can’t feel it, and that’s okay. That’s the way it often is. But he is there. And sometime, someday, at some point along your journey, your eyes will be opened. You will recognize him. On that day, your heart will burn. On that day, your fears will be burned away. That day is coming. Christ is risen, and he has promised it.

But for now, let us keep walking together. And keep discussing with one another all the things that we are scared of. Together, we will get through each day, reminding one another to trust. Reminding one another that Christ is risen. Reminding one another that he is coming.

Amen.