A Red Stole

A new pastor needs a new red stole, symbolizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit and to be worn in worship on Pentecost and other spirit-infused days.

My new red stole will be made by Janet Armstrong and the materials have been gathered from among the cloud of witnesses who have guided me on my journey of faith and life.

Can’t wait to see how these beautiful neckties come together as a symbol of God’s spirit guiding my walk and guiding my work with God’s church!

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Healed to GO

Isaiah 58:9b-14 ~ Hebrews 12:18-29 ~ Luke 13:10-17

I’ve always had pretty good health and I try not to take that for granted. But I’ll never forget one back day in 1992… I tried to stand up straight…and I couldn’t. My back was suddenly wracked with pain and I just couldn’t straighten up. This happened while I was pregnant, and after a few days’ very uncomfortable rest it went away almost as suddenly as it had come on. But I sure had a new appreciation for what people with back pain have to endure!

I was reminded of my few days of excruciating pain when I thought about the woman in today’s gospel story who was bent over for eighteen years. I was bent over in pain for a couple of days—but I can’t imagine what it would be like to be bent for 18 years—it would color her whole way of life. She may have been bent so far she couldn’t even look people in the eye. Couldn’t glance up at the sky to see where the sun is, or if there’s cloud cover. And think about the trouble it was for her to walk around. No question, life was hard for this woman, bent over for 18 years.

But we have to notice something important in this story. This bent-over woman, bent for so long she’s probably given up hope for any other way of being, was at the synagogue listening to Jesus teach. She didn’t approach Jesus.  She didn’t ask him to heal her.  She was just listening, when Jesus noticed her! And he didn’t ask her if she wanted to be healed, to stand up straight. He didn’t check to see that she had the right belief, or had prayed hard enough. He simply he called her over to where he was, and spoke. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then he did something even more surprising…he touched her.  Here he was, in the temple. And remember there were lots of rules about being CLEAN in the temple. And touching a sick person was a sure way to become unclean. But Jesus didn’t care about that. He only cared that this bent-over woman, this “daughter of Abraham,” needed to be healed and needed to know his loving touch.

And the woman immediately stood up straight and began praising God. IMEDIATELY!  She didn’t look around to be sure Jesus really meant her.  She didn’t ask him any questions. She just embraced the joy and gratitude she felt at Jesus’s touch, at being able to stand up straight.

Perhaps she used the words we prayed earlier from psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” She couldn’t keep it in. Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Of all the healing stories in the Bible, this one seems to me to be the most “Lutheran.” If there’s one thing we Lutherans like to talk about, its grace. We don’t earn the gifts God gives to us. We don’t earn our salvation. We don’t have to get the prayers “just right” in order to receive blessings from God. God gives gifts freely.  We don’t even have to ask! God offers us the chance to live as God’s children, to be enfolded in God’s family.  Because, really, how many of us would even think to ASK for the blessings God heaps on us.  Would we dare to ask for God to send God’s own son to live among us?

Just like the bent-over woman didn’t ask Jesus for healing…we don’t have to ask. But God delivers! God will straighten us out, heal us, without our even asking. That’s our Lutheran grace at work.

The next things is really Lutheran too. The woman’s praise and thanksgiving…that’s how we respond to the good that God pours into our lives. With gratitude and praise. I noticed that Psalm 103 rolled off our tongues pretty naturally. God reaches out to us…welcomes us…heals us…and we sing God’s praises in return.

And if we were to look more deeply at the text, we could learn that in the original version, the woman doesn’t just praise God once, or for a little while. The way it’s written in the original language, it tells us that she begins to praise God AND KEEPS ON DOING IT. This isn’t just a one time “thanks a bunch, God”. It’s a new way of life for her, a new way of being in the world. She’ll live every day expressing her praise to God for the miracle of being able to stand up straight, to look people in the eye, to see the sun, moon, and stars in the sky.

Another cue for us, isn’t it? We don’t just say “thanks, God” and then get back to business as usual. Living as God’s children, loved and forgiven, changes the way we see the world, changes the way we go about our daily lives.

But I think there’s something else to learn from this story. There are other ways to be bent over.  Maybe we can think about ways that St. Peter has been living “bent-over”. Is there an “ailment” keeping us from living fully as God’s church here in Trenton? Are we unable to look around us? Are we missing opportunities to share God’s good news?

For much of the past 8 or 9 years you’ve been struggling to be God’s church without consistent pastoral leadership. You’ve cared for one another, worshiped together, and served the community with the Agape Free Store. But there’s a limit to what you can do without a pastor who’s here regularly. I hope that in the coming weeks and months we’ll feel able to stand up straighter  as together we praise and thank God, and explore what it can mean to live as God’s church here in Trenton, Ohio. Just as the woman from Luke had a new way of living, we’ll figure out a new way of living…and we can know that we’re not on our own. Our God is with us every step of the way.

Many of our ELCA brothers and sisters recently returned from New Orleans, where they met in our church’s national assembly. This great coming together of Lutherans happens every three years and is a time to do the church’s business, to worship and serve together, and to remember who we are and whose we are. The assembly’s theme this year was “Freed and Renewed in Christ: 500 Years of God’s Grace in Action.” Freed and renewed…doesn’t that sound a bit like what we’ve been talking about?  Freed and renewed…thanks to God’s grace. ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has a vision for the ELCA that centers on standing straight and tall as God’s beloved children, but not just standing…she wants us to take the gifts that God has given us and get busy. To live that transformed life of praise and thanksgiving, which has to be also a life of action. She closed the assembly with these words: “We have work to do. God will give us energy and the courage and the will to do it. Let’s go, church.” Let’s go, St. Peter! AMEN.

Preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio, August 21, 2016

 

Spirit Surprises

Genesis 15:1-6 ~ Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 ~ Luke 12:32-40                         

I’ve always tended to be a pretty cautious person. As a child, I was never the one to rush up the ladder to the top of the high slide; I always waited and watched a few other kids make the journey successfully. Once I saw how much fun they had whooshing down the hot metal, I would carefully make my way up.

In school I was always attentive to my assignments, and when I graduated from Valparaiso University ready to enter the world of work, I accepted a job with a big, solid company: GE. If I took risks, they were calculated, I would carefully evaluate before jumping in.

I’ve also always been a person who spent a lot of time in the church. I was baptized as an infant, always attended church with my family, and stayed busy with choir and youth group. When I arrived at Valpo as a freshman, I was excited that we got a break in the class schedule each morning to attend chapel, and I was elated when I was accepted into the choir that sang for most Sunday chapel services. After I graduated and moved to Cincinnati, Good Shepherd became my church home, and I stayed busy worshiping and serving there for most of the next 30 or so years.

Given my history in church, it maybe shouldn’t have been surprising that God started tapping me on the shoulder with the idea that perhaps I should serve God’s church as a pastor. The first tap actually came while I was in college, but, ….remember my reluctance to jump into something risky? Back then, of course, it was a new thing for women to be ordained. And to make matters worse, I had come from the Missouri Synod, where they still don’t recognize women as clergy.

Some years later God reminded me that the church could use me as a leader; by then I had young children. I was consumed with taking care of them, working part-time at Good Shepherd, managing the household, so I talked myself out of it again.

Then, our kids got to high school, and I was rapidly approaching that half-century birthday. I saw that I’d probably want to have more work to keep me busy, and as I looked around it seemed that work in the church would be the right direction.

The Holy Spirit finally drove my innate caution away…and at the age of 51 I found myself beginning a 4-year degree program. I’d be traveling to Columbus every week since I couldn’t go to seminary locally. I’d be very busy, facing many new challenges. My family would have to learn to manage things like meals, laundry, grocery shopping.  And at the end I’d be starting a new career …at a time in life when many people are thinking about retirement.

Part of my preparation for becoming a pastor was to serve a one-year internship. God was good, and I was able to travel just 20 minutes from home to Hope Lutheran Church in Colerain Township. It wasn’t much of a drive, but if you know anything about Cincinnati, you may know that traveling from the east side, where I live, to the west side is almost like going to a completely different city. So I got to experience a new culture, and work in a very different congregation than I was used to at Good Shepherd.

My supervising pastor, Lisa Arrington, was very attentive and intentional about the time we spent together developing my skills for ministry. Each week we met to discuss and pray about a different topic. In our last official meeting together, she shared an Old Testament scripture with me. She began with a verse in Genesis: Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…’ Pastor Lisa was reminding me that as I left Hope and moved on in my journey, I’d be moving forward in faith, not always knowing where I’d be heading, but that God would be guiding me, and that God can be trusted.

As a preacher I always look to God for guidance, and sometimes, honestly, it can be tough to figure out what a particular word of God should say to God’s people in a certain time and place. Other times, we get the gift of a set of readings that seem to be perfect! When I first looked at today’s readings and put together that I’d be preaching on them on this Sunday, I immediately knew that they could help guide us to understanding God’s will in our lives: for me, as I continue on my journey in faith to becoming a “real” pastor, and for you, as you consider moving forward in faith to issue a call.

You, God’s people here at St. Peter, have a marvelous history of moving forward in faith. For one hundred fifty seven years you’ve been gathering as God’s people here in Trenton. Your founders had left their homeland in Germany to find a new home here—a great act of faith. Those early Lutherans built a sturdy house for God’s people, then enlarged and improved it many times through the years. You trusted God as you blazed a faithful trail in the 1980’s by calling a woman as your pastor. And if you vote next week to call me, you’ll join a rare group of congregations to call your FOURTH female pastor. Not bad for a little small-town congregation!

All of our lessons today remind us to live faithfully. We visit Abraham and Sarah in our first lesson from Genesis. The writer of Hebrews points to them as an example of living by faith. And in our gospel, Luke encourages the followers of Jesus to live fearlessly and faithfully, focusing on the things of God.

There’s a verse in that lesson from Luke that is one of my favorites: “… where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” One of my mentor pastors used to put it this way: “show me your calendar and your checkbook, and I’ll tell you what’s important to you.” A person or organization can talk all they want about what really matters…but it’s how we spend our time and our resources that really tells the story.

And so, St. Peter is preparing to make a decision. I don’t want to sound like I’m lobbying for a particular outcome, although I do have my not-so-secret hope of how you’ll decide next Sunday. But what I know is this: you’ve walked in faith these last 157 years. You haven’t been afraid to take risks. You haven’t been afraid to follow where you feel God is leading, even when the outcome is unclear, the future unknown.

So now you’re deciding whether to put your treasure on the line: commit to moving forward with a called pastor and all that that means: working side-by-side as we learn how God will have us serve in the coming years and decades. Commit to follow God, trusting that God will lead. You could choose to keep your treasure safe, to not take the risks of calling a pastor. You could choose to continue with supply preachers, not risk having to work with someone with new ideas and different ways of hearing God’s will … and maybe you could stretch that financial treasure out as long as you can. My prayer is that you’ll make whatever decision that God guides you to.

The important thing to remember is that we’re not gathered here for our own sakes. We’re not gathered here for God’s sake. Certainly we each receive a benefit from coming together and worshiping God as a community. And God is worthy of our praise as we sing and pray together. But God’s church exists for the sake of God’s mission. And God’s mission is to serve God’s world, to love God’s world, with that special kind of love that God teaches us, wherever we go in the world. The love that sent Jesus to live among us, and that still guides us by the Holy Spirit each day of our lives.

Another favorite verse follows the one about treasure. It says: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit…” Last Sunday before worship I helped Bev check the liquid paraffin in our candles. Since we have these modern ones we don’t have to worry about dripping wax. As long as they have enough liquid, they’ll keep burning. So we keep them topped up. We want to have our lamps lit, ready for wherever God will lead us.

When we end the service and Bev puts the candles out, she’ll re-light the taper from the Christ candle before she snuffs it out. She’ll carry it down the aisle, right to the door. When we’ve said our good-byes to one another, we’ll follow that light down the aisle, out the door.

That’s how we live in faith. Following God’s light, without any assurance, without any guarantee, but trusting that God is good.

I’ll follow the light, waiting for God to guide me into the next step of my ministry.

You’ll follow that light, just like you have for 157 years, faithfully shining it in Trenton and beyond.

Little St. Peter in the small town of Trenton, Ohio has big work to do—and you can trust God to guide you each step of the way.

Preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio, August 7, 2016

Refocusing the Picture

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 ~ Colossians 3:1-11 ~ Luke 12:13-21

Our family lives in Montgomery, a suburb of Cincinnati on the northeast side. If you’ve ever eaten ribs at the famous Montgomery Inn, you were just a few blocks from our house.

From its founding in 1795 until the middle of the 20th century, Montgomery was a village with fewer than 500 houses centered on a small downtown, the 12-mile stagecoach stop northeast out of downtown Cincinnati. Our neighborhood was built beginning in the late 1940’s, and each decade since then has seen new subdivisions added. It’s a popular place to live, and some of the smaller houses have become what’s known as a “teardown.” You’ve probably heard of it, maybe even seen examples here in the Trenton area. The older, smaller house is sold either to a new owner or a builder. It’s torn down, and a larger, modern house is built on the lot.  Sometimes the neighbors don’t like this big, new house in their block…but some neighbors see the opportunity to cash out and go ahead and sell to a builder as well.

I couldn’t help thinking of this “teardown” phenomenon when I thought about the farmer in today’s lesson from Luke. The original teardown! His barns weren’t big enough to hold the year’s harvest, so he just knocked them down and built bigger ones. It was an easy solution.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with building a bigger barn or a bigger house. If you need the space to store what you’ve grown or to hold your livestock, or if you have a big family or entertain a lot, or need a home office or workshop…nothing wrong with building the space to accommodate it.

But there’s another detail in our story from Luke that hints at what bothers me about the idea of erecting ever bigger buildings. Did you notice the pronouns in this story? Every time the rich man speaks, it’s the classic “me, myself, and I.” Even as he summarizes, preparing to “Eat, drink, and be merry”, he’s talking only to himself. “…I will say to my soul, SOUL, you have ample goods laid up…” In fact, some versions state it even more clearly: “I’ll say to myself, you have plenty…”

This is a solitary man: he has no one to share with, no one to consult in making the decision about what to do with his abundance. He doesn’t even consider that he might share some of his excess grain.   Surely there are people around who haven’t had the same good fortune and would love to have a bit of his bounty.

Sometimes I look at the people living in the huge houses and wonder…when 2, or 3, or 4 people live in a house of more than 3,000 square feet…might they be a little bit lonely?  When everyone has their own bedroom, bathroom, TV-watching room…maybe there’s a bit of me, myself, and I going on here too.

Again, I don’t mean to sound critical of people who live in big houses and who have lots of stuff—believe me, if you came to visit us you’d see plenty of stuff in a fairly big house– but I think all of us can stand to evaluate the state of our relationships. That’s the poverty in this story of the rich man with his barns, and in the lives of lonely people who live in big houses—or really, people who live in any kind of home. You don’t have to live in a super-sized house to be lonely.

Now, the way Jesus tells this story, he’s pretty hard on the guy with the big barns. “You fool” he says. “You’re going to die”—(in this story very soon)—and then who’ll take care of all this stuff? Jesus wants us to know that our real purpose, the reason we were created, wasn’t so we can collect stuff.

But again, it’s not the stuff that’s the problem; it’s the way we deal with it. The problem is when we spend all of our time and energy on our stuff: earning money to buy it, shopping for it, building bigger barns or houses to store it, counting it, taking care of it…and we don’t take time or energy to pay attention to our relationships, to living in community.

That’s how God wants us to spend our time and energy. That’s why God created humans in the first place. Being in community—with God and with God’s children around us—is why we’re here, and why Jesus lived, died, and rose. In community we find sustenance, comfort, help, and hope. And it’s in community that we experience life with God. Right here, in this community of St. Peter. Or in the community of our family, where we might be lucky enough to experience unconditional love—the human kind, anyway, which sometimes falls short of being truly unconditional.

Sometimes it’s hard to find this community—sometimes we have to dig ourselves out from our pile of STUFF to get to the people who are our community. This week the author of one of my morning devotions gave me an idea for doing it. I’d like to share the author’s lovely words to set the scene…

For once, the weather forecasters were right. The ice storm hit just when they said it would and just as hard. The entire middle part of Indiana was hunkered down, hoping that the ice buildup and high winds would not result in massive power outages and in people finding themselves stranded in their cars out on stretches of rural roads. At the farm the wood was stacked, food stashed in the fridge and water bottled just in case. For our part, we were lucky. Our power stayed on. And there was no place we had to go. We stayed put and listened to the ice hit and the wind howl.

The next morning I woke to the amazing vista of ice. Everything was covered and glistening—trees, windows, pickup truck, rocks, fence rails, bird feeders, light fixtures, an old wagon. I beheld a world wrapped in crystalline dazzlement. I knew I’d have to brave the wind and cold and venture out with my camera. I needed to capture these scenes that sparkled from what little light poked through the leaden clouds.

After breakfast, I struggled into my…coveralls, pulled on a stocking cap, grabbed my camera and headed out. As I stepped off the relative warmth of the windowed porch, an amazingly vast scene overwhelmed me. I began snapping away.[1]

He shares that his first photos just didn’t really capture the magnificence of the icy scene—both its beauty… and its danger. After taking some time (back indoors, where it was warmer), he realized that he needed to REFRAME the scene. He was trying to take a photo of the whole view, trying to see it all. But if he would find some detail to frame in his viewfinder, that single image might better express the amazing sight before him.

So he shot a photo of a single ice-crusted tree. You’ve seen them—a thick layer of ice glistening on each and every branch. This reframed photo was better, but still, not quite expressing what was so amazing to see in person.

Finally, he remembered about focusing…if you’re a photographer, you know about “depth of field.” How you can change the way the camera sees the scene so a single item is in focus, while everything in the foreground and the background stays a bit fuzzy.

And that did it. A shot up close, with only a single branch in focus, became a powerful image of the storm’s impact on the landscape.

*****

What if we try to reframe and refocus our view to make it easier to focus on God and on those around us? Like the photographer, we might be so sure that our usual way of viewing the world is right that we can’t really SEE what’s out there. Maybe we have to look from a different perspective, or with a different kind of focus. If we can look beyond our house or barn, whether big or small, to the people in the next room or down the road…we might SEE someone who needs our love—or our extra grain. If we look outside of our house or barn, we might SEE a bit of God’s creation that will show us how God IS REALLY present in our world; among us all the time.

My neighbors have resigned themselves to the big new houses that’ll keep popping up on our street, probably until all the little, old houses are gone. Maybe I can reframe and refocus the way I see those houses…after all, they’re occupied by PEOPLE; people who are also children of God. People who may be hungering for community, who might need a friend in the neighborhood.

I bet… you can find a way to reframe and refocus the way you see the world around you. Change your viewing angle; look up close; check your focus. You can find a new way to see God and find new ways to live in community with all those around you. Because that’s how God wants us to live.

[1] J. Brent Bill & Beth A. Booram, Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012) 69-70.

Preached at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Trenton, Ohio on July 31, 2016