Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pentecost: In the Valley of Dry Bones

Readings for Pentecost:  Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104; 24-34, 35b; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
Look to the left, bones everywhere.                  

Look to the right, bones everywhere.

Bones ahead of you, bones behind you.

Bare white bones gleaming in the sun,
the life baked out of them. 

Not one drop of moisture remains.  These desiccated bones are a grim reminder of life that was.

Ezekiel stands there in the middle of this valley of dry bones, waiting expectantly for the Lord.

The children of Israel in exile know all about dry bones. 

Israel is stripped to the bones, scattered in exile.  They feel as if they are living in this valley – where life has been ripped away, where hope has vanished, where God feels absent. 

They cry out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”[i]

They are these dry bones, waiting…

I think we understand what it’s like to be standing at the edge of the valley of dry bones.

In the ten months I’ve been here I’ve heard the laments of a community in mourning:

·        The very community, our way of life is changing;

o   Our young people leave for college and stay for jobs.  Very few will return.

o   There are empty houses where there once were families.

o   There are empty classrooms where there once was the noise of children.    

·        Our congregations are changing. 

o   I’ve heard lament on the lack of 20 and 30 and even 40 something adults active in our congregations.

o   We are aging, graying, getting slower, less able to carry on. 

o   Who will make the quilts and serve the funeral suppers?

o   Who will run the church?

·        In the past, our children have been our future, our sign of life, but now there are so few children;

o   I’ve heard the lament for children. 

o   We’re doing VBS and there are so few children that we band together to do VBS. 

o   Our Sunday school limps along. 

o   Today we would be confirming a new group of bright-eyed 8th graders, but we have none this year.

We look for new life in our dying community.

 We look for new life, new leaders, new disciples for our congregations.

 We yearn for the sounds of life – of children singing Jesus loves me; of crying in the nursery; of the bustle of Sunday school.

 I read a story last week about Aal Lutheran Church in Hillsboro, ND.[ii]  It will be celebrating its 140th anniversary on August 11th.  That is also the day that the church will have its very last worship service.  They are closing.

That’s been happening all over rural areas.  Churches are closing, or merging with other churches, or sharing pastors.  I have a colleague in western South Dakota with 4 congregations.  A friend of mine interviewed at a 7 point parish.

If we are honest with ourselves, this is where we fear our congregations are heading.

We cry out “Our bones are drying up.  Hope is hard to find. Will we survive?”

We are waiting expectantly…

We are waiting for God.

And God comes.

God meets Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones.  And God asks one question:  “Human, can these bones live?”

“No!”  Logic, reason, the very laws of nature screams the response.  There is no way for those bones to come together.  There is no life here, just death and despair.

Yet, Ezekiel answers, “Lord, only you can know, because only you who created these and breathed life into them at the beginning can re-create and breathe life anew.”

It’s a surprising answer.  It flies in the face of all reason.  It’s just not rational. 

It’s the answer of faith.                              

It’s the answer of hope.

It’s the answer open to possibility.

It’s the answer open to God.

The bones do live. 

God speaks and they come together, bone to sinew, sinew to tendon, tendon to flesh. 

God breathes and the wind of the Spirit rushed over them, into them, Life returns.

God re-creates.  God does a new thing.

The children of Israel in exile hear God’s promise:   “I will bring you back.  I will breathe my Spirit into you once again.  You will live.”

And the Spirit hovers over the children of Israel in exile.  The Spirit moves over the land and the children are returned.  Israel lives again – but it’s not the same life, they are not the same as before.  God does something new.

The disciples are waiting expectantly for God.  They too have stood in the valley of dry bones as they listened to the thump of the stone sealing their hopes and dreams in the grave with Jesus.  And they have experienced new life - Jesus, returned from the grave, full of life – but not the same life as before. 

The disciples hear Jesus’ promise:   “I will breathe my Spirit into you.  You will live the life abundant.  You will be my witness.”

They wait expectantly…

And then…

The rush of wind brings God’s Spirit. 

The Spirit hovers, tongues of fire descend. 

The Spirit falls on them, seeps into their very being. 

They are filled. They are refreshed.  They are energized.

God is doing something new, creating life where there was none, creating community that reflects God’s love for the world. 

Creating the community of believers that did go and spread the good news to the corners of the earth, teaching and preaching and making disciples.

That very same Spirit continues to blow, as relentless as the South Dakota wind.

The Spirit has blown through the centuries, bringing renewal when needed, refreshment to parched souls, re-creation when the community of God seems lifeless.

That Spirit continues to blow today.

How may the Holy Spirit be blowing over, through and around us?  Where is Pentecost happening?  Where might God be bringing new life in this place? 

This is new life, resurrection, re-creation – a new thing.  It most likely will not be what we expect.  It may not be the way we’ve always done things before.

At Pentecost, Peter proclaims the words of the prophet Joel:   “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”[iii]

What are those dreams and visions that God is pouring out on us today?

I’ll admit it - I don’t know what God has in store for us, what plans God has for us.  I do know that Pentecost is coming, the Spirit is descending.  God’s kingdom will come.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Wait – dreams and visions and figuring out God’s plan – that’s what you’re here for Pastor.”  Well, yes, but… this dreaming and visioning work is not a solo act.  It’s the work of the community, some dreaming, some visioning, some prophesying, some taking those ideas and figuring out how to run with them.  It’s to the community together that God will pour out the Spirit.  The God rescued the community of children of Israel, the Spirit descended on the community waiting and praying in the upper room.

Let’s wait for the Lord together.  Let’s spend some time in prayer together.  Together let’s find out where the Spirit blows.
 Let’s see how God makes these dry bones live.

[i] Ezekiel 37:11
[iii] Acts 2:17

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ascension/7th Sunday of Easter: Christmas Reversed

Readings for this Sunday are:  Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

The Ascension of Christ is mostly overlooked as far as church holy days go.  The calendar doesn’t help – Ascension is 40 days after Easter, and Easter is always on a Sunday, which solidly places Ascension on a Thursday.  Every single year.  And, along with most of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, we don’t worship on Thursday.  So mostly we overlook the Ascension.

Of course, we do mention it every week.  Jesus’ ascension is considered important enough to have it in our creeds:  “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right and of the Father.”  It’s in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and even in the Athanasian Creed – in exactly those words, in all three of the major creeds of the Church Universal.

As important as that makes the ascension, we just really don’t know what to do with it.  It doesn’t seem to really have any relevance for us right here and now.  Sure, Jesus ascended to heaven and lives now with the Father, and someday we too will be in heaven with him.  How does that promise for the far-off (we hope) future help us today?

God the Son goes back up to heaven where he belongs and leaves us to carry on.

But there's more to it than that.  At Christmas, we celebrate the awesome mystery of God becoming one of us.  Jesus came to earth, took on humans flesh, lived among us, died among us, was one of us.  Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still had a human body – a resurrected body, but still human, the kind of body we can look forward to having when we too are resurrected at the end of the age. 

And it’s that resurrected-human-flesh-Jesus that goes back to heaven. 

Jesus goes back to the Father and takes our human flesh, takes the earthiness of creation with him.

If we say that God comes down to us at Christmas, then at Ascension, God draws us to God’s self.

There’s an old story told by one of the desert fathers, Abba Sayah.  No one really knows where the story comes from, but the way I heard it, St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazienzus as they sat around the campfire. It’s a story that can’t be verified, but it’s most certainly true.[i]  It’s an Ascension parable. 

It was time for Jesus to leave.  He had been back from the grave, walking around in his resurrected-human-body, popping in on a couple of disciples here and a few there, and then popping back out again.  He had watched them shake off the fear of those horrible days between the cross and Easter morning.  He saw how his encouragement in the last forty days had given them hope.  They were ready to take over his mission.  It was time for him to go back to his Father.

So Jesus called them all together on the mountain top, and made his farewells. It was a tearful moment. Mary was crying. John was crying. Jesus was crying. Even Peter, the immovable rock, was reaching for his handkerchief. 

Jesus was sad too, but he was glad to be returning to his Father, and he knew it was all part of the plan. And so he began to ascend. 
As Abba Sayah told the story, as Jesus began to rise, slowly and gracefully into the air, John just couldn't bear it. He grabbed hold of Jesus' right leg, and refused to let go.

"John?" said Jesus “What are you doing?”

And John shouted back, 
 "If you won't stay with us, then I'm coming too." 
Jesus calmly continued to rise, hoping that John would let go. But he didn’t. And then, to make matters worse, Mary suddenly jumped up and grabbed hold of Jesus' other leg. 
"I'm coming too," she shouted.
By now, Jesus’ big exit had obviously been ruined, but he looked up into heaven, and called out:
"Okay, Father... what do I do now?" And a voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.

"Ascend!" the voice said.

"Ascend?" Jesus asked

"Ascend!" the voice replied.

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, with John and Mary holding on until they too were lifted off the ground. But the other disciples couldn't bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board…and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in the middle of the sky. Jesus at the top. John and Mary next. The other apostles hanging on below. Quite a sight, if anyone had been watching...

And then - what was this? Suddenly all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere…friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people who just knew that he was something special…Young and old, - men, women, children, Jews and Gentiles…a huge crowd – and they too refused to be left behind…So, they made a grab for the last pair of ankles and hung on for dear life. One way and another there was quite a commotion -people squealing “Wait for me” -then startled yelps as they felt themselves seized by the ankle -and above it all the voice of God calling out, “Ascend!" 

But all of a sudden, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the voice of a small child. 

"Wait!” he shrilled, “I've lost my dog! Wait for me” 

"I can't wait," Jesus called back, "I don't know how this thing works."

But the little boy wasn't going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. 

For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air - Jesus pulling upwards, and the little boy holding on to the tree, scanning the horizon for his lost dog. But Jesus couldn't stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven. 

At first it looked as if the tree would uproot itself. But then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it. Sort of like when you pull a rug up in the middle, the soil itself started moving up into the sky. And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow.

Jesus DID ascend to heaven, He went back to his natural habitat, living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. But, as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation – the whole kit and caboodle – everything that ever was or is or ever will be – he pulled it all up into heaven with him. 

Each of us is clinging to the ankles of the ones who have gone before us – those witnesses to the resurrection.  We are being pulled into heaven – redeemed by Jesus, renewed by the Holy Spirit, re-created by the Father. 

That is the story we witness to the ends of the earth.  And the story we tell to our children and share over coffee and remember at a hospital bedside.

And that is why Ascension made it into all three creeds – it’s not that Jesus went back to where he came from, but that he takes us all with him.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Graduation thoughts: God goes with you

I was asked to do the baccalaureate for the local high school graduation.  Who knew they even did such things any more?  I was deeply touched by the seniors' request.  I only hope that my offering here is worthy of the confidence they place in me (yes, I know - I'm taking myself way too seriously).  At least I have confidence that the Holy Spirit can use my words anyway she pleases. 

I selected three readings for the day:  Jeremiah 29:11-13; Psalm 139:1-5 and Matthew 6:25-34.  Here are my thoughts for the day:

Congratulations!  You’ve worked hard over the past few years.  I pray that this day is full of excitement and joy for you! 

I am honored that the senior class asked me to share this day with you.  I thought a long time about what to say to you today.  

It wasn’t all that long ago, that I was seated where you were now.  OK it was a long time ago, but I remember the hopes and fears that go with this day.

It’s exciting to move from 8th grade to high school – to put away the last bits of childhood, to look forward to pep rallies, Friday night football games, band concerts, homecoming, prom, all sorts of fun to be had.  Maybe you’re excited about some of the new classes you can take, or maybe you’re just excited that there’s only 4 years until you get to sit where the seniors are today. 

Maybe your teachers have told you what mine did:  “You have to be serious now.  High school is for real.  Now your grades will count toward college.  Maybe you’ll be good enough at football, or volleyball or band, or choir, or science to get a scholarship.  You have to work harder, so you can go to the college you want.”

Great – now high school doesn’t sound nearly as much fun! 

 You have hopes and dreams for your high school years.  But under those dreams and hopes may be just a bit or worry or fear.

It’s exciting to move from high school to the adult world and for many of you college.  Now you can do what YOU want to do – no more parents telling you what to do.

Sorry – that never changes, no matter how long you live.

But still, you get to make the choices now.  And the world is at your fingertips.  You get to choose what you do at college, what profession you want to learn.  Maybe you want to explore other parts of the world. There’s so much out there for you to learn and experience.

Maybe your teachers have told you what mine did: “Those professors at college won’t baby sit you.  You have to be responsible for doing the work on your own.”

Suddenly, you realize that it’s time to get moving on what you want to be when you grow up.     

And that can be a little scary. 

I remember what it was like – all those hopes and dreams, and maybe more than a little fear and worry underneath.

So I thought about what words would encourage and guide you as you step out on this next leg of your journey.  And I came up with three scripture readings – three promises God has made to you that go with you throughout your life from childhood to teen to adult and beyond.

The first promise is found in the reading from Jeremiah:  God has a plan for you to bring good to you, to go with you into your future and bring you hope. 

That day so long ago, when your parents first looked on your scrunched-up little baby face, they dreamed of this day.  They dreamed big dreams for you, of the places you would go, the things you would accomplish.  As they sit there, proudly watching you today, they are still hoping and dreaming about you and your future.

That’s nothing compared to what God has dreamed for you.  Even before the beginning of time, before you were born, God thought of you, loved you, had a plan for you – a plan that brings a future full of hope. 

The second promise is from the Psalm we read this morning.  If Jeremiah promises that when you search and call for God, God is there ready to hear you, this Psalms reminds us that you don’t have to go far to search for God or shout for God to hear you – because God’s hand is already on you, and God knows you completely and goes before you and completely surrounds you with God’s love.

The psalmist goes on to say that there is nowhere you can go that God isn’t already there before you.  Even at those times in your life where you think God is far, far away, God will be there with you. 

The third promise is that the God who is always with you, who always loves you, who knows you completely, God will take care of you.  Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount admonishes the crowd not to worry about their life, but to rely on the God who values and cares for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air and who values you much higher than these.  

Jesus encourages us to live in the present and not worry about tomorrow.  Instead he encourages us to live out our faith each day, following in his footsteps, loving God and loving neighbor.  It’s one of those ironies of life that when we serve others, we are also blessed.  When we live as children of God and citizens of God’s kingdom, God provides for all our needs.

I could have ended the reading there, with “seek God’s kingdom and all these things will be give to you”, but I decided we needed to hear the next verse too.  It’s a bit ominous for a graduation – tomorrow brings its own worries and today’s troubles are enough on their own.  I almost didn’t include it in the reading.  You’re sitting there full of hopes and dreams – the future looks so bright you need sunglasses!  But then that last verse takes us right back to those secret worries hiding under all the hopes and dreams.  Tomorrow does indeed have its own worries.

And by now you’ve seen enough of life to know that every day does have troubles of its own.

I pray that you have also seen enough of God to know that God is greater that the troubles you have each day.

I pray that you have experienced God’s love in ways that strengthen you as you meet each day’s challenge.

I pray that you have heard how God has worked in the lives of your family and friends to trust that God will also be present in every step of your life.

 I pray that in addition to all the math and English and science and history that you have also learned that this God who is right next to you when you search, who hears even the smallest whisper when you call, goes with you as you begin to discover the joy and wonder of the future God holds for you.

Friday Five: Pesky Pests or The Mosquitoes Here Think I'm Foreign Food

The Friday Five at RevGalBlogPals made me chuckle. I've been here in South Dakota almost a year and have had my own battles with the creeping things of the earth.

Here are my answers to the Friday Five -

1. There's pretty much the same insects here as in Ohio and Indiana. But there are some different habits:

2. I was told shortly after I got here that the ants 'mound' (build dirt mounds around their holes - most noticeable on concrete and hard dirt drives and roads) just before it rains. I've watched, and it appears to be true.

2b. For some reason in late summer, the cricket population just explodes. There are crickets everywhere - I thought it might just be a plague! In our basement, hundreds and hundreds gather around doorways at night. And the size- I'd never seen a fat, shiny, black cricket the size of a half dollar before!

3. As noted in #1 there's nothing really new here. Although, since this is ranch country, the flies get really thick late in the summer. We want to plan an outdoor service this summer, and my ranchers reminded me we have to have it in June - otherwise the flies will drive us crazy!

4. I'm allergic to mosquitoes, but it was fairly mild until I got here. We arrived in the height of mosquito season - July - and for some reason, the skeeters found me particularly delicious. They left my husband alone, and my son got some bites, but they devoured me! It was like they had discovered a foreign food - Ohio human instead of South Dakota human. And the bites swelled up, itched for weeks and took over a month to go away. I tried baking soda, hydrocortisone cream and a variety of home remedies I found on-line and nothing seemed to help. All the while I kept getting new bites. Bug spray only reduced the number of bites and by late August, I didn't even want to go outside! I hope that this year, I won't seem too tasty to the little blood-suckers.

5. I sympathized with Jan on the fleas. We had our first ever flea outbreak after we moved here. I don't know if the cat picked something up as we travelled across country - since she's always been indoors, I didn't think to flea treat her before we left, oops - or if the new dog (flea free when we got him) brought them in from outdoors. I do know that everyone said the fleas were really bad last summer. Both pets were miserable, scratching and twitching and the cat's fur started to fall out. Fortunately, the fleas preferred the pets to the humans, so we weren't getting bitten. We flea-dipped and treated both pets, and I tore apart the house cleaning and flea spraying and them flea- bombing - TWICE!! Finally, about November we got it under control. The cat's fur has grown back in and there's no sign of fleas now. But spring is here and I've heard the wood ticks are really bad this year....

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sixth Sunday of Easter: A Friend Request

Readings for this Sunday:  Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6, John 15: 9-17

My friend Jenny serves as youth and family minister at the congregation my family attended at seminary– Christ Lutheran Church in Bexley, OH.   One of the first things Jenny did after starting there was to move the church into the social media age by setting up a congregation Facebook account.

Once she had set up the account, she sent “friend requests” to everyone she knew who would be interested in what was going on at Christ Lutheran.[i]  So one morning I checked my Facebook and saw this message: 

“Jenny is friends with “Christ” and thinks you may know “Christ” too.” 

Of course, I did know Christ – both the Savior and the church - so I clicked on the box to click on to send a friend request. 

Who knew it was so simple to be Christ’s friend?

Wait – there was more to it than just a click.  The next message to pop up said:

“Christ will have to accept your friend request.”

I was a little worried - would Christ accept me as friend?  Wait - wasn’t I already Christ’s friend?  I certainly thought he was my friend.  What if Christ didn’t accept my friend request?

Curious to what the next message would say, I checked my email several times over the weekend.

Christ never accepted my friend request.


Jenny had realized that Facebook thought the church was a person whose first name was “Christ.”  The reason “Christ” never accepted my friend request – Jenny closed the account and re-entered all the information on a ‘page’ – which is the correct way to set up a Facebook presence for an organization.

End of confusing messages about my friendship status with Christ!

It’s so easy to be friends on Facebook.  Just a click and as long as the other person accepts your request, you’ve got a friend.  As of yesterday, I have 236 friends on Facebook.  Most of whom are either family, friend in real-life, people I’ve worked with, gone to school or college or seminary with, parents of my children’s friends and a couple of my children’s friends.  There are a very few people I’ve never met in real life, mostly other clergy whom I’ve corresponded with online. 

In Facebook language, all these people

– from my niece and nephew,

   and my best friend of 25 years

all the way down to a couple of people from high school

who I haven’t talked to in person since I graduated

– are my “friends.” 

No matter how close my relationship is with them, Facebook calls them “friends.” 

Facebook has changed how we look at friendships.  It’s changed how we talk about friendship.  It’s changed “friend” from a noun to a verb:  we “friend” someone on Facebook, and sometimes we “unfriend” them. 

Jesus did not have Facebook in mind when he tells his disciples,

“You are my friends.”

The friendship Jesus was calling them into was deeply intimate, seriously sacred -

and a bit frightening and overwhelming.

Friendship in the ancient world was not taken lightly.  To call someone “friend” was to give them the status of kinship, of equality.  There were mutual obligations to friendship – a give and take of responsibilities:

To be a friend meant to look out for the welfare of the other, to put the other's needs on an equal footing with one's own. Friendship implied reciprocity as well -- to consider someone a friend meant counting on that person to return that level of concern and care. When Jesus calls the disciples "friends" he is investing them with this concern. He has shared with them what the Father has revealed to him, and he has given them the task of going out and sharing this revelation with the world.”[ii]

Remember, these are his students.  Then, as now, there were boundaries between students and teachers.  The teacher has a position of power over the student.  A teacher may care very much for her students, but a teacher is not a friend.  Not a friend in the way Jesus means here.

In effect, Jesus has just promoted them – from servant and student to friend and equal.  It’s graduation time for the disciples.  Time to put what they have learned into practice.

In this passage, we hear Jesus talking a lot about keeping his commandments and loving one another.  Jesus is telling them it’s time for them to practice what he has preached – to follow his commandments.

But Jesus never specifically tells them what commandments he means. For us, reading this passage 2000-some years later, we have to think a bit – what commandments are Jesus talking about?    

We think and remember –

·        the Great Commandment:

o   “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and your mind and your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

·        the Golden Rule: 

o   “Do unto to others as you would have them do unto you.”

The disciples may have remembered those teachings too.  But they are still in the Upper Room when Jesus calls them friends and tells them to keep his commandments.  The commandment uppermost in their mind at that moment is a towel-wrapped Jesus, kneeling and washing their feet, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done to you.”

“You should do as I have done to you.”

“You should serve others in love as I have served you in love, even to the point of laying down my life for you, my friends.”

The disciples discover what that friendship IS a verb.

Friendship is an action – not clicking on a button,

·        but listening to another,

·        sharing another’s joys,

·        carrying another’s burdens,

·        caring for another,

·        forgiving,

·        loving.

It’s hard work being a friend.  It takes time, and effort, and intimacy, and patience. 

Jesus knows this, so he tells his disciples,
           “I have given you these commandments – most recently given you the example of serving one another when I washed your feet – so that you may love one another.”

Jesus’ commandments enable us to love one another, to live in community together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as friends.

That’s what happens when we abide in the vine like the passage from last week talks about.[iii]  Jesus is the vine and we as the branches get our nourishment from him.  We are strengthened to grow and enabled to bear fruit because we are part of Jesus and Jesus is part of God.  That relationship Jesus has with the Father flows through Jesus to us!  God’s love flows through Jesus the Vine into the branches that make up our church and the stems on the branches that are each one of us, and that love flows out of us as fruit to a love-starved world.

[i] This happened a few years ago (2009?), and the ‘script’ Facebook uses has changed since then.   
[ii] Ironically, this quote come from one of my on-line clergy blog friends.  Since many bloggers use pseudonyms, I didn’t realize I was reading a friend’s writing until she posted a link to it on a blog.  Kris Lewis, Witness Magazine, May 2006;
[iii] Our reading this week is a continuation of last week’s reading (John 15:1-8).