No Power, No Control

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

One of the professional hazards of being a pastor is the temptation to think that you’re a superhero. Many of us slip into thinking that we can and should fix all the problems facing our churches. That it’s our job to heal every broken heart; it’s our job to get everyone to worship; it’s our job to fix every conflict that arises; it’s our job to make everybody happy. But, of course, none of us succeeds at this. It’s just not possible. And it just leads to feeling out of control. And powerless.

I don’t think it’s just pastors. I think teachers sometimes feel that it’s their job to get every kid to learn, even the ones who just can’t, or just won’t. I think farmers sometimes feel it’s their job to make every crop yield in abundance, no matter the weather or the growing conditions. I think retailers sometimes think it’s their job to make sure that every customer is happy, even the ones who make demands that nobody could fill. I think parents sometimes think it’s their job to make sure their children are completely safe, and always making good choices. I think older people sometimes think it’s their job to be as busy as they were when they were younger, even though their bodies aren’t the same as they used to be. And when someone close to us dies, how often do we say, “I should have done something differently.” As though we could have stopped death. In the face of death, and in the face of life, we so often feel responsible for so much, but we can’t do it. We feel out of control. Powerless.

A landowner sowed wheat in his field. It was going to be a beautiful field, full of life, full of grain, full of hope. And his workers, they were ready. They knew their job. They had the skills and the strength and the know-how. They were in control. But overnight, things changed. Overnight, an enemy came and planted this poisonous weed. Why? Who knows. But now the field was different. It still had life, and grain, and hope, but now it also had poison. And misery. And confusion. And the workers, they wanted to fix it right away. But the boss said no. No, don’t do that. The wheat and the weeds look the same. You’ll pull out the wheat too. And even if you could tell the difference, their roots are all intertwined. If you pull out the evil, you’ll pull out a lot of good too. The boss said no. Be patient. I know about the problem. I know what I’m doing. I will take care of this. But in my time. And in my way.

And that’s the world we live in. A world that is beautiful, that does have life, and hope, and joy. But a world that also has suffering. We live with disease and worry. Our marriages are strained. Our children break our hearts. Our churches are divided. Our nation is divided. There is war, there is hunger, there is injustice, and there is nothing good on TV. And we feel out of control and powerless.

But our faith tells us that God is like the boss in the story. God knows about the suffering and evil in the world. God knows every leaf on every tree. Every hair on your head. And God cares. And God will fix it. But in God’s time. And in God’s way.

Our faith tells us that we are out of control, but God is in control.

Our faith tells us that God has a plan, even if that plan has a timeline different from ours. Now that doesn’t mean that God’s plan includes suffering. Remember, it was the enemy who planted the weeds, not the householder. But God’s plan means that despite those weeds, justice will be done, and every sin will be brought to light, and every person who suffered unjustly will be redeemed. God will take care of judgment. And God will take care of the harvest, and when that harvest comes in, we will be invited to a heavenly banquet.

But we don’t have to just sit here and wait. God invites us today to the first course of that banquet, a course of bread and wine.

This tiny wafer, and these drops of wine, are not just a tonic pill to get you through the week. They are the first course of the banquet that awaits us at the harvest, when God’s will is made complete. The Lord’s Supper is literally a taste of heaven. It’s an hors d’oeuvre. Holy Communion is the cocktail hour of heaven. And when we share it, when we ingest heaven together, we are proclaiming together that the full banquet is coming. We don’t know when. But it’s coming. When we share communion, we are proclaiming that this is but the beginning. We are proclaiming that God is in control. And we are proclaiming that we are not, and that we don’t have to be, and were never supposed to be.

And that sets us free from being powerless. We may not be in control, but we are not powerless. We are the seed that the landowner planted. And we have a job to do. Our job is to grow. To bear fruit. To become the people God made us to be.

And that means we do the best we can, but then we trust God to actually take care of it. In the case of parenting, I do my best with my children, and that’s not always enough. But my best is all I’m ever supposed to do. I have a very important role to play in raising these children, but it’s not truly my job to take care of them. That’s God’s job. The same is true of me as your pastor. And the same is true for every aspect of our lives. We’re not in control. God is. And that is freedom.

And God calls us to share that freedom with the rest of the world. Here’s one simple way to do that. When someone tells you that we don’t have control over this world anymore, you can tell them, “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. But God does. I can’t always see that. I can’t always touch that. But I believe it. And this morning, I tasted it. I trust God. You can too.”

God is Like a Dandelion

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel reading was Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I am no expert on farming, but it seems to me that the guy in this parable is irresponsible and wasteful. He goes out to sow seed, and what does he do? He just throws it everywhere. Everywhere! The rocks, the thorns, the road. In those days sowing was done by hand. And I’m no expert on farming, but if I were sowing by hand, then I think I could at least avoid the road.

Surely he could have focused more, paid more attention. After all, that would be a much better use of his seeds, a much better use of his time. Better stewardship. This sower acts as though he has all the seeds in the world, and as though he has unlimited time. He acts as though has far more than he needs, so he can be wasteful like this.

Yet somehow, he reaps an extraordinary harvest. I have read that harvests of four-fold to ten-fold were considered pretty good in Jesus’ day, and fifteen-fold was an exceptional year. But here this irresponsible, wasteful sower reaps a harvest that’s thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundredfold! Unheard of!

It seems to me that this sower is an image of God, showing us that God sometimes seems to be irresponsible and wasteful. God throws grace around on the good and on the evil, on the wicked, on the lazy, on the kind, on the peaceful, on the cruel, on everyone. God pours rain and sunshine on the whole world, and grace and love and every good gift. God doesn’t always focus where we think he should. Sometimes we see good things happening to others, and it even feels like God isn’t sowing among us anymore. And somehow, despite all this, God always reaps an extraordinary harvest. God’s Word just grows and grows.

See, I think God is like a dandelion.

Dandelions are irresponsible and wasteful too. When their flower goes to seed, that seed flies wherever the wind takes it, or wherever a child’s breath takes it. And you know, some of that seed ends up on the sidewalk. And some of it ends up in the rocks. And some of it ends up in the thorns. But you know what? There are still lots of dandelions next year; heck, there are still lots of dandelions next week! More and more and more and more. There are just so many seeds to go around, and they go everywhere. And sometimes, even the ones that land on the sidewalk, the most useless ones of all…well, they grow too, right through the crack. Dandelions seem to know that there’s enough soil around. There’s enough wind, enough water. And there’s enough seed. When they go to seed, they just let go, and their seed flies everywhere, and it yields a hundredfold, or seems to. Ever try to get rid of dandelions?

What if the dandelions are right?

What if they’re right that there’s enough to go around? What if God is right? What if God is right that there’s enough to go around?

We are taught to believe that things are scarce. Act now, because this deal won’t last. There’s not enough money. Not enough time. Not enough work. Not enough people. Not enough faith. Not enough of anything to make the future okay. Not enough, not enough, not enough.

I once went to a workshop called “Do What Matters.” One of the exercises was to talk about what you remembered from childhood. We all remembered that things were really good back when we were kids. But here’s what was fascinating: we all grew up in different decades, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. And we all remembered the decade of our childhood as the time when everything was okay, the time when we had enough.

And many people who grew up earlier than that have told me about their memories of the Great Depression, a time when things certainly seemed scarce. Unemployment was 25%! But almost without fail, these people have told me that things were good then. Because people got along. Or because people helped each other. Or because parents took care of them.

Kids who are loved are like dandelions. Kids who are loved always just know that there’s enough. Kids don’t question that. Oh, sure, kids can be greedy and want more, more, more. But it’s because they really think that there’s enough. They think their parents have enough money, enough time, enough of everything. Kids are the ones who blow dandelion seeds all around.

What if the kids are right? What if the dandelions are right? What if God is right?

What if it’s true that even in the midst of times as tough as the Great Depression, God always gives us everything we need? What if it’s true that even then, there’s enough?

I’m not saying there are no problems. There certainly are problems, some of them serious. But what if we have everything we need to solve those problems? What if God has given us every tool, every skill, every person we need to solve the problems we face? What if we can face our problems, without being afraid and worried? What if we have enough? What if God’s right?

How would your life be different? If God were right that you have enough time, exactly as much as you need, how would you spend that time differently? What would you stop doing, or start doing? If God were right that you have exactly as much money as you need, how would you spend that money differently? If God were right that he has provided everyone with every good gift they need, then how would you allow God to use you to provide those gifts for others? If God were right about this, what would you stop worrying about? What problem would you face head on? How would your life be different this week?

I invite you to write an answer to that right now. Keep it with you throughout the week. Share it with your family if you like. Look at it each day, and allow God to remind you that there is enough.

Amen.

They Worshiped, but they Doubted

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, a day known as The Holy Trinity. The gospel reading was Matthew 28:16-20. The elephant in the room this morning was a very contentious vote the congregation took last week. Had the motion before the congregation passed, we would have become a Reconciling in Christ congregation; the motion failed. The congregation is fractured; many are hurt, some are angry.

Matthew tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

In fact, in the original Greek, the word that is translated here as “some” can also just mean “they.” When they saw him, they worshiped him; but they doubted.

I wonder what they doubted. These are the last words in Matthew’s gospel. Right after the resurrection. We have recently heard Luke’s words, and John’s words, about what happened then. This is Matthew’s version. When they saw him, they worshiped him. But they doubted. Did they doubt that this was really Jesus? Did they doubt that he was really alive? Did they doubt that he was he would really be with them? Did they doubt his promises? Perhaps they were just so hurt, traumatized, by his death just a few days earlier. Perhaps they doubted that things could ever be the way they once were. And they were right. They worshiped, but they doubted.

Let me tell you the story of Lucy. It started when I was in seminary, almost twenty years ago. Lucy was a classmate of mine there. So one day, my friend Justin and I were sitting on the porch of one of the seminary buildings, talking about some nonsense or other, and we saw Lucy walk by, walking and talking with another seminarian. And Justin and I made a joke about Lucy and the other guy. I don’t recall what it was. I’m sure it was dumb, and quite possibly crude. I don’t recall because it just wasn’t important to me. But apparently she overheard us. The next day, I got a phone call from her demanding an apology. Justin got one too. Apparently she accepted Justin’s apology, but not mine, because mine didn’t sound sincere. Fair enough; it wasn’t sincere. I really thought she overreacted, and I wasn’t going to apologize for something so stupid.

A few weeks later, I was called into the Dean’s office. Lucy had contacted him to bring sexual harassment charges against me. I was floored. It was just a dumb joke. And I guess the dean agreed, because I just had my wrist slapped, and had to attend a sensitivity seminar. But what a pain. Something so minor, and now my life was affected by it. I was glad when graduation came around, and I wouldn’t have to think about Lucy ever again.

Several years later, I was in the process of being commissioned as an Associate in Ministry in the Southeastern PA Synod. Associates in Ministry, now called Deacons, are people who are called and trained for a ministry of word and service. The last thing I had to do was have a meeting with the bishop. So I went to his office. He and I had some small talk, and then he said, “I received a phone call from a pastor who knew you in seminary. She said that you had sexually harassed her, and she thought I should know about that before agreeing to commission you.” That pastor, of course, was Lucy. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t thought about her in years. Now she was trying to ruin my career. I got my wrist slapped again, and the bishop made it clear that he’d be watching me. I just wanted things back the way they were.

A year or two after that, I attended a retreat for Associates in Ministry and pastors. We were assigned into small groups for part of the retreat. Guess who was there, and assigned to the same small group as I. When Lucy walked into the room and saw me there, she turned around and walked out. I was stunned. It had been six years now. And I made a decision. I decided that I was going to apologize to her, sincerely this time. Whatever I had done or not done, she was hurt, and I wanted to try to end this. I was going to let go of my pride, and apologize. I just wanted things back the way they were. So after the session, I sought her out. I called her name. She turned to me, and said, “What do you want?” I said, “I owe you a long-overdue apology. I’m sorry.” The frown fell off her face, and she said, “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear,” and she hugged me. We talked, and we sat together at worship that evening. We never became friends, in fact I never saw her again. But I have never forgotten that moment, or the lessons I learned. I learned that I don’t get to decide how other people take my actions. I don’t get to decide whether she should or shouldn’t be hurt. She was hurt. It was never my intention to cause her six years of pain, but it happened, and I finally realized that reconciliation was more important than pride. I have found apologies easier to give since that day. And I also learned that forgiveness and grace are possible in any circumstance. A six-year grudge fell away in an instant. Things didn’t go back to the way they were. They were better, better in a way I never imagined. In that moment, just in that moment, Lucy and I worshiped, and I did not doubt. I believed in grace and hope.

I told you that story today because there are a lot of people hurting in our midst. Some who are here, some who are not here. And while I believe it was nobody’s intention to cause that hurt, it happened. At this moment, we are a fractured congregation. Fractures can heal, and I truly believe that this one will. But it takes time. Healing and reconciliation will come. But not yet. Forgiveness will come. But not yet. I believe that God has some real plans for us, and that through this, we will grow stronger than we’ve ever been. But not yet. I believe there will be a moment when we will worship together, and not doubt at all. But not yet.

Today we are like the eleven apostles. We worship, but we doubt. We doubt if these words of hope are true. We doubt if we will heal from this. We doubt if it was worth it. Those doubts are normal. But I have great hope that this hope is true. Because you are here. Because even though you doubt, you also worship. You have gathered here. And while today’s attendance may be smaller than usual, you are here. I see people here who disagree with one another. I see people who have hurt one another. I see people here who voted differently last week. But you are here. You are here. Together, worshiping the God who will get us through this.

As time goes on, I may have some suggestions, some guidance for you. But for now, my only suggestion is this: share and listen. Share how you are feeling, honestly. If you are feeling hurt, share that, but as much as you can, try not to lash out at others while you do so. And if someone shares their feelings, honor them. Try not to tell them they shouldn’t feel that way. Let them have their feelings. And if someone does lash out at you, as much as you can, try not to respond in kind.

And one more thing: continue to worship together. Even though you doubt, worship together. Worship the God who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age. I promise you, the age is not over yet. Christ is still here. The Holy Spirit is still flowing. There is healing ahead.

Amen.

 

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.