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/.

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”

Unbind him, and let him loose!

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. It was my first Sunday back after my twelve-week medical leave. The gospel reading was John 11:1-45, which I recited from a paraphrase of scripture called The Message.

It is good to be back from my medical leave, and hearing the story of Lazarus again moves me to say something bold:

Continue reading “Unbind him, and let him loose!”

Labyrinth of the Week #5: Kirkridge Retreat Center

I enjoy walking labyrinths. Labyrinths are maze-like structures that have been used as spiritual tools for centuries. There are many of them around, and I have started the habit of trying to visit them, perhaps once a week. For more information on labyrinths, check out The Labyrinth Society

There’s a big snowstorm coming tonight. It’s supposed to drop 1,347 inches of snow on us, so I figured I’d better get this week’s labyrinth in today. It might be a few months before I can walk a labyrinth again, or even go out my front door. So today I went to the nearest public labyrinth to my house, the one at Kirkridge Retreat Center. If you’re interested in going, please know that Kirkridge is private property, and unless you’re a retreatant there, you’d be trespassing to walk through Kirkridge’s property to get there. However, the labyrinth is very close to the property line with Columcille Megalith Park, and that is publically accessible. Kirkridge allows visitors to Columcille to come onto their property as far as the labyrinth. I’ve walked this labyrinth at least a dozen times or more, and that’s how I always do it. Besides, Columcille is amazing. If you live in the Lehigh Valley or the southern Poconos, and you haven’t been there, go!

The labyrinth at Kirkridge is very much like the one I walked at Holy Cross Monastery. It’s a 7-circuit classical design, with walls made of rocks. (Fits very nicely in the neighborhood with Columcille, which is basically an enormous collection of creatively placed stones.) It has a central stone at the middle, which seems to attract junk. (Again, like the one at the monastery.) You can’t see it in the picture below, but there was a Starbucks Gift Card on it today. Sheesh. To each his own, I suppose.

Photo Mar 13, 2 11 34 PM

So, I walked into the slightly snowy labyrinth today with the question: “What is the most important learning I received on my medical leave?” I’ve just started to go through my old journal entries and blog posts, to get an overview of the work I’ve done these past few months. As I walked in, I found myself going through the reflections I’ve already done…was the most important learning that I don’t have to feel stuck and follow patterns that are already laid out for me? Was the most important learning that I can say “no” to the dark voice inside me? Was it that Christ lives within me?

Inside the center, I continued to ponder, and I didn’t really receive any sort of answer. I wondered if perhaps the most important learning was that I can’t really see how rich my own past and present are until I have taken the time to reflect upon them. Therefore, maybe as I walk out, I’ll get it…

As I walked back out, nothing. Just a pleasant walk. No insights or wisdom. But then I stood outside the labyrinth, looking in, and I felt…peaceful. I looked at the center, and wondered what it might have been that gave me this peace. I looked at the whole of the labyrinth, and noticed how it vaguely resembles the contours of the human brain. I wondered if I might be looking into the hidden depths of myself, deeper than thinking can think, deeper than feeling can feel. The insight I received from the retreat…the insight that there are depths hidden inside us that we can never truly reach, depths where the hidden Christ lives with us. And I wondered…could that be the answer? Could the most important learning I’ve received be that there is such a hidden place? Or…could the most important learning be something else…something I just received an intimation of…something that exists in that hidden place…and therefore something that I can’t actually touch with my mind? Is the greatest learning of these few months something I can’t even see? Is it something deep inside that will give me peace in moments when I didn’t expect it? And does that mean it’s…grace?

I’ve sometimes compared snow to grace…snow falls everywhere, covering everything, changing everything into a glistening white wonderland. It falls on the good and the bad equally, the beautiful and the ugly. It slows everything down and brings a sublime peace to the world. We’re getting quite a pile of grace tonight and tomorrow. Bring it on.

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”

Yearning and burning, but always learning

Day 11 of my medical leave. I learned a few things today. Some good, some less good, but all hopefully helpful in this journey to wellness.

First, I learned that I have a vitamin D deficiency. Among all the things I was tested for, this was probably the least serious, and the easiest to remedy. I’m now taking a daily supplement, and my level should stabilize within a few months. Apparently vitamin D is connected most clearly to bone strength, and this deficiency, if not remedied, may have put me at risk for several bone diseases. There is some evidence, however, that a D deficiency is correlated with depression. From what I’ve read, it seems like it’s not clear which is the cause and which is the effect, however. Does this vitamin deficiency lead to depression, or does depression lead to the deficiency? (One thing I read even suggested that folks who are depressed tend to stay indoors, so that could lead to a lower level of vitamin D, which is produced by the skin in response to sunlight.) Either way, it doesn’t hurt to take the supplement. Either it will help the depression, or it will reduce the chances of developing something else as a complication of the depression. I don’t think I’ll ever know if it helps, actually, because of the timeframe. From what I’ve read, it takes months for the body to restore itself to normal levels of vitamin D. By that point, I will have tried so many other things to work on this. (In all honesty, I am being a terrible scientist. Trying a bunch of things at the same time is no way to learn anything. However, I’m not in this as a scientist, but as a person who just wants to feel better.)

I also learned (again) that deleting all the games from my phone in an attempt to stop playing doesn’t accomplish anything. Within an hour, I’d downloaded a new one.

I learned that I continue to struggle with what God’s grace means in my life. I have so many good things going for me…a good childhood, wonderful parents, wonderful children, a wonderful wife. Many good friends I can rely on for anything. Plenty of money for what I need and a lot of what I want, a job I usually enjoy, a congregation who is so supportive and caring. Not to mention all the privileges I was born with: I’m a white, straight, cisgendered middle-class American man. It doesn’t get much more privileged than that. And while I am glad that I have all these privileges and relationships, I find it hard to attribute them to God’s grace. And here’s the reason: not everyone has this. I am comfortable saying that God is with us no matter what, because that’s something I can say (and have said, in many sermons) to anyone, no matter their station in life. And I do believe that God is with me through this journey, walking beside me, holding me at times, kicking me at times, but always there. But it’s hard for me to attribute good things to God. Why would God gift me with this, but not you? This is the question of evil that theologians have wrestled with for centuries…I know I’m not breaking any new ground here. But it’s hard. If I can’t attribute my blessings to God, then what are they? Just luck? On the other hand, if I do attribute them to God, then what does that mean? Why am I the recipient of these special gifts? Why me? I’m grateful for them, truly I am. But I just want to know why me?

Another, somewhat connected, thing I learned is that I don’t view joy or happiness as a normal part of my life. I certainly experience them, but they don’t linger. They’re fleeting. Feelings of sadness and self-loathing and fear have a nest inside me; they roost comfortably in my soul, but joy? Happiness? They’re just passing through, spending a night while they migrate elsewhere. Psalm 30 says, “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” My experience is the opposite. For me, joy may endure for a while, but guilt and sadness are here to stay. I’m going to work on this with my spiritual director over the next weeks and months.

And finally, I learned that I’m not out of the woods yet. I’ve had a nasty low today. Started this afternoon, and I’m still in it now. Frankly, I’m surprised that I wrote anything. But I’m grateful that I did. I’m on the path. Still near the beginning, but I’m on the path. I think.

 

Jesus Said it Would Be Like This

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 13, 2016. It was the first Sunday after the 2016 presidential election, and I tried to address some election-related concerns without being partisan or inflammatory. The gospel reading for the day was Luke 21:5-19.

“Vince said it would be like this.” When I was growing up, that was an ad campaign for channel 28 news. The weatherman on channel 28 was named Vince Sweeney. I can remember many commercials with people standing outside in the sunshine, or in the rain, saying, “Vince said it would be like this!” It was a way of saying, “Our forecasts are reliable. You can trust what Vince says. He said it would be like this.”

Finding a reliable weather forecast is really important. I used to do a lot of hiking. But it’s no fun to walk in the woods if it’s pouring. It’s no fun to walk in the woods if it’s 104 degrees with 104 percent humidity. It’s no fun to walk in the woods through lightning and hail. At least not for me. So I would always check a weather forecast I trust before I went. If the forecast was bad, what seemed fun becomes miserable or even dangerous. And I wouldn’t go.

Well, what about walking with Jesus? Walking with Jesus is a very different sort of hike. It’s a walk that is more of a way of life. A way of discipleship marked by prayer and scripture reading, by acts of kindness and generous giving, and most of all, by trust in God.

And just like walking in the woods, walking with Jesus can seem different depending on the forecast. If the forecast is good, it’s easy to trust in God, and walk the way he’s calling us. But when the forecast is bad, when there are storms around us and more on the horizon, it’s hard. Trust is hard. Following is hard.

And right now the forecast for many people is bad. How is it for you? Where are the storms in your life? Near, or far? Are you walking through one now? Well, here’s the interesting thing. Jesus said it would be like this.

Jesus said: “The stones on the temple will all fall down.” He said: “There will be wars and insurrections,” “earthquakes and famines and plagues.” “They will persecute you.” “You will be betrayed.” “There will be great distress.” Just like Vince Sweeney, Jesus said it would be like this. He knew. And he wasn’t just talking about 2016. The forecast has been bleak many times before. The forecast was bleak in 1931, as the Great Depression deepened. The forecast was bleak in 1863, as brother killed brother at Gettysburg. The forecast was bleak in 1349, as the Black Death was killing 50% of Europe. Jesus said it would be like that. And he said it would be like this.

But that’s not all he said.

Jesus said, “Not a hair of your head will perish.”

Jesus said, “By your endurance you will find life.”

Jesus said, “Do not be led astray.”

And Jesus said, “Do not be terrified.”

The people who first heard these words soon became the leaders of the early church. And they would understand suffering. Their temple was destroyed. They were persecuted by religious and military leaders. Throughout the book of Acts and other early church writings, we see people who suffer. And yet we see people who endure suffering with heads held high, because they knew that Jesus said it would be like this. And even more, they believed they would endure it, because Jesus himself endured death, yet he was alive. Jesus promised to be with them, and they believed that with him at their side, they could do anything. And they did.

And now it’s our time. Imagine I’m getting ready for a nice long hike. As I lace my boots, I’m watching the weather forecast. And the weather forecaster says, “Today’s forecast is bad. Really bad. The high is 150, there’s a tornado warning for our whole area, and a 75% chance of frogs falling from the sky.” I start to take my boots off, but he continues. “Michael,” he says, “put your boots back on. I want you to take that walk, because I will walk with you. I will protect you. I will keep you safe. Not a hair on your head will be harmed. And together, you and I will change the world through this walk.” I would tell him, “Sorry, Vince, you’re crazy,” turn the TV off, and go back to bed.

But it’s not a weather forecaster saying that to us. It’s Jesus, the King of Creation, the Son of God, the Lord of Lords. And he says to us, “I know the forecast is bleak. But I tell you, walk with me, even now, especially now. I will be with you. I will walk with you every step of the way. You have nothing to fear. Walk with me. Together, you and I have amazing work to do.”

If you are in the midst of a storm right now, keep walking. Keep walking, with your head held high, and hear Jesus’ voice over the wind. His voice is saying, “I am with you. You are safe. You will survive this. Keep walking faithfully.”

And if you know someone in the midst of a storm right now, be the voice of Jesus in their life. Be the church that we are called to be, that we were made to be, the hands and voice of Jesus in a world full of storms, and tell them, “You are safe.” Show them that they are safe. Be that safety.

Amen.