Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mary's reflection on the flight to Egypt

It’s terrifying to attract the attention of a king.

Especially a king like Herod.

I don’t blame our visitors.  Strangers from Persia, it’s no wonder they didn’t know who they were dealing with when they went to Jerusalem asking to see the new born king of the Jews.

They couldn’t have known what lengths Herod would go to maintain his power.  This is a man who had his sons murdered.  Who ordered the death of his most beloved wife because he was afraid of her schemes to put one of her sons on his throne.

The throne he held courtesy of the Romans.  For he was no Jew.  He was not in the line of David.  Hearing that there was a king born in the line of David must have terrified him.

I admit it.  I was naïve too.  The danger in the angel’s words never occurred to me.    “Son of the Most High, God will give him the throne of David” – how did I miss in those words the challenge to the powers that be!  I guess I just thought that God would keep us hidden from notice until Jesus was old enough to reign.  It’s hard to think of swords and blood and death when you’re feeling that first kick, when you’re consumed by labor pains, when your newborn nestles in your arms.

But there were swords and blood and death.  As we fled to safety, warned by angels, soldiers devastated Bethlehem.  How many dead?  How many mothers and fathers died protecting their children?  How many men gave their lives in a vain attempt to fight off this invasion of their homes?  Had the soldiers crept quietly into town and tore people from their beds, herding them into the center of the village like so much cattle to be slaughtered?

All because one small family attracted the attention of a terrifying king!

I had a lot of time to think on that long journey to Egypt.  We would find a welcome in one of the Jewish communities on the banks of the Nile, far away from the reach of this deadly king.  Egypt meant safety for us.  

The irony was not lost on me.  We were fleeing to Egypt.  Odd that this place of safety for us is the same place of slavery and danger we remember each Passover.  There was a terrifying king then too – a king who feared Hebrew babies enough to send soldiers to rip them from their mother’s arms as soon as they were born.  It was a land of swords and blood and death that we left behind for the land God promised to us.  And now, Joseph and I, to save our son, are fleeing the Promised Land, desperately trying to outrun death.

The news of the massacre caught up to us on the road.  I fell to my knees at the news, crying out in anguish.  I thought of the women I chatted with at the well every morning, of their toddlers playing next to Jesus as we talked together, worked together, relaxed together.  My family!  My friends! 
I clutched Jesus close to me as I cried – as if I could protect him from danger and tragedy.   And I wept, for the children, just as Rachel wept for her children as they went into exile.

The sorrow followed us.  We lived quietly in Egypt.  We were safe, but for how long?  The sound of soldier’s feet sent me scurrying to grab my son, to hide him once again.  Joseph was careful - traveling to a far off city each time we needed to exchange Magi gold for the smaller coins peasants like us could be expected to have.  We never talked about Bethlehem, saying we were from Nazareth.  It was true, even if it hid the terrible truth.

We never talked about angels, or dreams, or shepherds, or Magi.  Except very late at night when we could whisper in each other’s ear, confident that Jesus was safely asleep, and there were no other listening ears to betray our secret. 

Finally, Joseph had another dream.  Herod was dead and it was safe to return.  I dreaded it.  How could we go back to our home in Bethlehem, with our strong little boy, knowing that the children he once played beside were dead?  It was a relief when Joseph told me about another dream, instructing us that the danger was not past- Herod’s son was just as terrifying as his father – and we should return to Nazareth instead.   

It was a relief, filled with dread.  Is this what our life will be like?  Always looking over our shoulder for danger? 

It’s been quiet since we returned to Nazareth.  Of course, Nazareth has always been a quiet village.  Slowly, we have relaxed our guard, let go of our fears.  It’s only late at night, when I dream about Bethlehem’s children, that I relive the terror.  And I fear for him.  What will happen when he is old enough to claim his throne? 

Last Sabbath, the portion read in synagogue was from the prophet Jeremiah -  the same words that came to me when I first heard the terrible news from Bethlehem – Rachael weeping for her children for they are no more.  That day, prostrate in the dust, crying inconsolably, I could not remember the rest of the prophet’s words:  Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country.

I looked from the women’s section over to my son, worshiping next to Joseph.  Hope for the future – that’s what God has promised.  That’s what this boy fast becoming a man will bring – hope for the future.

For now, he is the living, breathing proof that God had not forgotten us, that God is with us today.

It is enough.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Taking the Little Things for Granted: a reflection on Giving Thanks

There’s so much in life we take for granted as we go about our daily lives.  Until something stops us in our tracks and makes us take notice.

November 4th was an ordinary day that stopped me in my tracks.  My husband collapsed and had to be life-flighted to Sioux Falls.  The fear, uncertainty and confusion of those first few days really put in focus what’s important.  Those days showed me just how often I take the many blessings I have in my life for granted. 
A few days before, I would almost carelessly kiss my husband goodbye before I went out to do some visits or to go to a meeting.  Suddenly the memory of that morning’s kiss became precious.  The simple act of making lunch for him that afternoon was transformed from chore to gift.
 I had a lot of time to think sitting at his bedside about all the things I had to be thankful for:  our life together, our children;  the myriad little things that make life full of joy – a crispy starry winter night, a sunset, our pets;   the congregations who have called me to be their pastor and the wonderful communities which welcomed us and now showed so much love and support in our time of crisis;   the EMT’s and paramedics, doctors and nurses and all the hospital personnel who gave my husband such good care.

Fear and confusion gave way to giving thanks for the smallest improvement - that he started responding to pain, that he opened his eyes, that he was able to talk, that he began to regain strength. 

I had a lot of time on my hands, sitting at his bedside.  I passed the night watches reading.  I had just starting reading “The Year of Living Biblically; one man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible.”  One of the things that really stood out to me was his encounters with giving thanks.    He had been raised in a non-practicing Jewish family and had never really prayed before.  So he found daily prayer difficult and awkward.  There were two kinds of prayer that worked really well for him – praying for other people, and praying for his blessings. 
As he began to daily give thanks, he noticed that he became “obsessed with gratefulness.”  He began giving thanks for the smallest, most ordinary, things.  That his wife left the door unlocked and he didn’t need to dig for his keys.  That his young son was sitting on the floor, eating pineapple.  He says, “I’m actually muttering to myself, ‘Thank you….thank you…thank you….’  It’s an odd way to live. But also kind of great and powerful.  I’ve never been so aware of thousands of little good things, the thousands of things that go right each day.”
    That resonated with me, sitting at my husband’s bedside, giving thanks for each breath he took.  These last few weeks for me have been emotionally draining, even terrifying at times.  But they have also been curiously filled with thanks.

Was it that thanks that got me though? 

In the Bible, there are Psalms of lament.  These are songs of deep anguish, heartbroken cries to God.  Songs that contain the most desolate of human emotions. But something curious happens at the end of those laments.  These psalms end in praise and thanksgiving – an outpouring of trust in God, the giver of blessings.  It’s like the psalmist is saying, “God, I have seen your many gifts to me, your outpouring of grace and mercy in the past.  And I also know that someday I will be able to thank you again, no matter what I am going through now.  So I’m going to start thanking you right now.”  For the psalmist, giving thanks is an act of faith.

Last week, I was reminded of the mission trip to Nicaragua I went on last summer.   The people I met had very little in the way of material things.  But they had absolute confidence in God’s loving care and daily blessing in their lives.  Is that what it looks like to live as the Apostle Paul teaches us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

We’re at the time of the year that we focus on giving thanks.  After all, today is Thanksgiving.  But what if we practiced Thanksgiving every day?   What if we lived in a way where we are continually aware of all our blessings, big and small, going around muttering, “Thank you…thank you…thank you”?

What if we took time every day to notice all those blessings we normally take for granted?

I pray for God’s blessings to you and your family on this day of Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Knowing the Whole Story

I’ve been working my way through the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.”  For those who have never seen the show, it’s about a man, Ted, telling his kids the story of, well, how he met their mother.  But the story starts way before he actually meets her….there’s nine seasons, and she doesn’t appear until the last one.
Now, I’ve watched an episode here and there throughout the nine seasons, but I never really watched much of the show, until I decided to watch the whole thing from start to end on Netflix.  About halfway through the series, I discovered something interesting.
There are little inside jokes, and symbols that a casual viewer would not understand.  For example, in the very first show, there’s a blue French horn.  I won’t say too much about this French horn - no spoilers here.  But the blue French horn shows up here and there during the series.  It becomes a metaphor for Ted’s love for Robin (a girl he meets in the first show who ultimately becomes a major character in the show).    Or when they do a flashback to their college days, if you see someone eating a sandwich, well… let’s just say it’s a very different college pastime that Ted doesn’t want to tell his children about.
I like the consistency of the story line – the episodes build one on another.   They do a good job of filling you in on what’s come before, especially if it’s important to the storyline of the particular episode. But to really enjoy the story, to really understand what’s going and, to get the full impact, you have to watch the whole thing.  From the beginning.  In order.
It got me thinking about the Biblical story. How long has it been since you’ve read the entire Bible, cover to cover?  When you sit in church on Sunday morning, or you read your devotional book, do you remember the story that surrounds the small snippet of scripture you get that day? It can really made a difference!
I decided once to read my way through the Bible.  Now I’ve done this several times, but this time was different.  Instead of reading chapter by chapter, I decided to read the stories in their entirety.  I read Genesis 1-3, creation and fall.  I read Noah in one sitting.  I broke Abraham into a couple of sittings – it’s a long story!  And so on.  Joseph, Moses, Wilderness.  Yeah, Leviticus and Numbers were pretty hard to read through, but soon I was entering the Promised Land with Joshua.  Settling the land with the Judges.  Following young David’s rise from shepherd to giant-slayer to king.
I was humming along pretty well, but then I got to the books of Kings and Chronicles.  Those books overlap, telling the same story from different viewpoints.  Fortunately, my study Bible had a chart of how the stories overlapped.  Plus it had another chart that had which kings were in power when the prophets were preaching.  Since I was reading the Story in the order it happened, I read about a king – say Ahab or Josiah, then I read the preaching of the prophet that was working at that time.
Let me tell you – I had read the prophets before, but it had never meant as much as it did reading the prophet in conjunction with the king.  When I read the words of the prophet God sent to preach at that place and time, I knew what exactly what was going on in Judah and Israel.  It made so much more sense!
When we hear the Story, the whole Story in it’s context, we understand it better.  When we immerse ourselves in the Story, we get those inside joke and metaphors.  When we hear John say to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29), we hear as John’s disciples would have:  this is the Passover Lamb, the sacrificial Lamb that saves us from death and brings forgiveness.  
We hear when you read John 3:16, “For God, so loved the world” – this world that God created and called good, loved and provided for; this world that God cleansed through the waters of the flood and then promised never to destroy again, but instead started working through Abraham, the children of Israel, the line of King David, to bring a Messiah, his son, whom he sent to save that world that God so loved.
I encourage you, as we get close to the end of the year and the time for resolutions, to find yourself a chronological reading plan, or even a chronological Bible (I recommend the NLT One-Year Chronological Bible).

Spend a year immersed in the Story.  God’s Story.  The Story that gives us life.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Theology of the Funeral Dinner

I make it a habit to stop by the kitchen when there’s a funeral to thank the ladies (and occasional gentleman) for their service. On this occasion I was stopping by at the end of the meal, and when I thanked the ladies, one of the ladies indicated that it was really no big deal.

I told her that it was a really big deal, and then said, “Someday I’ll have to give you my theology of the funeral dinner.”

“I’d really like to hear that, Pastor.” 

I think it’s too easy sometimes to look at simple ways you serve and think it really isn’t a big deal. It’s easy to not recognize the sacred space your care for someone else is creating. So I offer here Pastor Ramona’s theology of the funeral dinner.
  1.       The funeral dinner provides a transitional space from grieving to moving back into day-to-day life. It is pastoral care – providing a place for continued mourning, for remembering, for connecting with friends and loved ones, and for starting the process of learning how to live without the loved one who has died.
  2.        The funeral dinner practices the presence of Jesus.
  3.        The funeral dinner practices God’s hospitality. This is a space where all are welcome, all are cared for, and all are fed.
  4.        The funeral dinner provides a foretaste of the feast to come. I believe that every time we gather around a meal as the body of Christ, we are getting a little sample of the wedding feast of the Lamb.
  5.       The funeral dinner affirms the hope for the resurrection. We gather after the funeral and committal, and we engage in a practice essential for life – we eat. We acknowledge that there is life, that death is not the end-all and the be-all.

And that’s why I think that making a cake, and setting a table, and dropping off salads, is every bit as important as the prayers, and writing the sermon, and preparing the committal service. The funeral dinner is every bit as important as a family prayer service, and in my opinion just as profound and meaningful as a funeral and graveside service.

So I want to say thank you to all the hands and hearts that go into preparing and serving the funeral meal. Thank you for taking the time to bake a cake or pan of bars when you got home from work, or dropping off a salad or pickles. Thank you to everyone who comes early in the morning to start the potatoes, who takes time out of their schedule to come and serve, who stays to wash the dishes. Thank you also to 
those of you who run out to set up the tables and make sure the sanctuary is clean (and that goes for you guys whose wives ask you to go to out and help out).

You may not have realized it but that morning, your hands were God’s hands, your work was God’s work, and your arms were Jesus is comforting arms.

Monday, June 9, 2014

They Say Half the Fun Is Getting There??? Travelling to Nicaragua

So we arrived at the Sioux Falls Airport on May 27 at 10am, eager to start our adventure.
 Nine of us, raring to go to, ready to serve.

Sometimes God has other ideas.

It was going so well until we got to Denver.   This was the first of 2 connecting flights.  We got into Denver - ahead of time!  Really - about 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

So how did we leave 2 hours behind schedule?

Houston had some bad weather.  Really, really bad weather.  They called a ground stop just as we were getting read to take off.  So we sat on the runway.  The pilot tried to reassure all the anxious passengers - if we couldn't take off for Houston, no one else could, so the connecting flights would most likely be delayed as well.

No, our flight wasn't.  It left Houston on time - 15 minutes before we landed.  The airport was a zoo - we weren't the only ones stranded there.

The airline had our boarding passes for the rebooked flight ready for us when we got off the plane.  I have to say United was on top of things.  The downside was that the flight wasn't for 24 hours.

After waiting in a long line for customer service just to make sure we had not other options and there was no earlier flight to Managua, we resigned ourselves to an overnight stay in Houston.  I contacted a few local colleagues to see if there was someplace in Houston where we could volunteer the next day and we headed for our hotel. (BTW - travel insurance is worth it!  Our hotel and meals were paid for.)

The next morning Josh O. gave an amazing devotional.  I love having someone else do the devotional - it's so nice to be able to just receive the Word!  He reminded us that even when we don't know what's going to happen or why, we need to just listen to what God is telling us.  Words we very much needed to hear that morning.

After several calls to several places my local colleagues had recommended for service work, we discovered that you can't just drop in and serve at most places in Houston.  We came to serve and we couldn't!  So disappointing.  So we decided to follow Josh's devotional and listen to what God was telling us to do - which was team building.

So we headed off to downtown Houston to the local aquarium, where we bonded over the novel experience of feeding sting rays.

Group building...

                                                        and serving some fishy snacks to the sting-rays!

We hustled back to the airport to make sure we got there in plenty of time.  We didn't want to miss our flight again!


Finally, we boarded and the flight took off on time.  Amazing cloud formations bid us adieu as we flew away from the States.  Finally we saw the lights of Managua.

The weary travelers received a warm welcome from Mike, the synod missionary, Helen, Maria and Luis.  Mario brought the bus around and we loaded up and headed for the retreat center.

We gathered on the veranda for our evening devotion.  We had felt so rushed in the morning and Josh's devotion was so perfect for us that we asked him to give it again.  

We needed to be reminded once more to slow down, and listen to what God was saying in, with and through the journey we were about to begin,

Nicaragua and Me

I was in Nicaragua on a mission trip from May 27 to June 4.

It was an amazing experience.

And I'm still processing it.  It may just be a good thing that I was not able to blog the trip each day while I was there.  I could have written each day's experiences and been done.  This way, I have to think about it, reflect on it and ponder on what it means for my life and my faith.

So I'm blogging now.

This a view from the plane after we left our day-late connecting flight in Houston.  The clouds formations were amazing from the top.

This is a view of Managua from the air as we landed.

We stayed in Managua at the Iglesia Luterana Fe y Esperanza's retreat center in Cedro Galen.  Don't let 'retreat center' fool you.  This is a working farm which also is the youth camp.  Delegations from the States stay there, as well as the local pastors when they come in for training.  It's rustic - it's a camp

We traveled in the western part of the country.  I can't figure out how to mark this picture, but Managua is on the smallest of the large lakes.  We also traveled to the villages in the north, past the bumps that is a range of active volcanoes almost to where the massive mountain ranges begin.

That gets the details of what I was doing in Nicaragua out of the way.  This is a post on what I learned about me - specifically my body - on this trip.

First, Nicaragua is very hot.  It was in the mid to upper 90's during the day and the coolest it got at night was a brisk 77.  And it was humid.  Very humid.  So humid that when you dry off from the shower, you're still wet humid.  Hair doesn't dry humid (my hair was wet for about 4 days solid!).

Which means sweat - a lot!  I hate sweat.  I hate things that make me sweat.  But I loved Nicaragua.  Because it taught me something about sweat (it taught me a lot of things, but we'll get to those!):  the body needs to sweat.

After a few days I noticed that I felt good - really good.  My skin was softer.  My joints didn't ache.  I did have some problems with my bad knee on the steeper climbs, but I felt good.  Sweating out all the toxins was good for me.

And I drank a lot of water.  I drank more water in one day that I sometimes do in a week.  That's not to say I'm drinking a lot of soda or tea.  I'm just not normally thirsty.  Drinking water is good for me too.  I hadn't realized how dehydrated I normally am.  It made me feel better.

The food was plain - simple but delicious.  Every meal we had rice and beans, but those were seasoned expertly.  We had corn tortillas -handmade from just corn, nothing else.  In the villages the meat was fresh - my daughter observed that the chicken we had for dinner probably was roaming the yard that morning - and consumed in small quantities.  The eggs were fresh from under the hen.  My digestive system worked better than it has in a long time.

Lots of water, plain fresh food, exercise and sweat - there's nothing new here.  I know that these are good for me.  But it took Nicaragua for me to actually experience how good.

The Lutheran church in Nicaragua does holistic ministry - caring for body and soul, human and creation.   They take very seriously the inter-connectedness of all creation and the fact that we are embodied beings.  When we were leaving El Rodeito and our host families, I prayed that God would bless Pastors Gerzan and Emperatris and bless their ministries.  Pastor Gerzan asked me to pray for their health too - because without health, nothing goes well.

We say that too - if you don't got you heath, you don't got anything.  But how often is that only lip service.  We say we value health, and then pursue an unhealthy lifestyle.  At least I know I am guilty of this!

I realized that I need to confess my lack of care for the body God has given me.  I get too wrapped up in the mental and spiritual aspects of life, and ignore the physical.  But the physical is God's good creation, a gift to us to care for and enjoy.  This is part of the stewardship of creation which God entrusted to us humans back in the garden.  

How will this work out in the coming days and weeks?  I don't know.  It's hard to change habits, to alter your lifestyle.  This lesson from Nicaragua is one I want to hold on to - to let it seep into my being and change me.  

I really liked feeling good!

PS - my plantar fasciitis pain was completely gone while in Nicaragua.  I give part credit to my orthoheel flip flops and the Keen sandals and hiking shoes I wore on the trip.  But I also noticed that I did very little walking on concrete or asphalt or other hard surfaces.  Most of the walking I did was on hard packed earth.  Another thing to ponder.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pentecost Sunday: Finding Pentecost in Nicaragua

Readings for this Sunday: Acts 2:1-21 and John 14:16-21

Can you imagine being a visitor to Jerusalem that day?

Far from home, in a land with a strange language - one you don’t know very well or not at all perhaps?

You’ve been struggling all week to communicate.  You mime your needs.  You speak slowly, hesitantly one word, maybe two.  You rely on the others in your group who knows the language better than you to say what you need to say.

Then suddenly you hear someone speaking in your language from the middle of a crowd.  

It’s irresistible - with relief you are drawn to the crowd, delighted to hear words you actually understand.

Suddenly you notice the Phrygian standing next to you nodding his head in agreement with the speaker.  Clearly he understands what the speaker is saying in your language.  

So does the Mede on the other side of you.  You turn to ask her a question, but she doesn’t understand you.  Neither does the Phrygian, although they both seem to understand the speaker.  

How can this be?

Slowly you realize that each of you is hearing your own native language coming from the mouth of a speaker speaking his native language!

A miracle.

Would it make you pay attention to the speaker and what he was saying?

Or would you try to find any other rational explanation for what was happening?

There were some in the crowd that morning that looked for other explanations - they are drunk, speaking gibberish, making a commotion.  

Others stopped and looked at each other - what does this mean that we each hear in our own language  about God’s mighty acts of power?  Is this of God?  Are we eye-witnesses to God’s power coming again?

How hard is it for us to recognize the Spirit blowing in our midst?  To recognize God’s power in our lives?

Sometimes we have to get totally out of our comfort zone, like a visitor to a strange land, to be able to see God in our lives.

I struggled last week with not understanding Spanish.  I caught a few words here or there, read road signs.   I struggled to remember newly learned Spanish words, often coming up with long forgotten high-school German instead.

Out in the villages, with my host family, I couldn’t understand a single word.  And apparently, I’m not very good at mime.  Thankfully, Tristyn studied a phrase book on the way down, and was much better at picking up the language.  She communicated to the host family for me.  Mike, the missionary, and some of the local youth from the central church, translated for us.  But still, I felt so left out not understanding the language, painfully aware I was a stranger.

Sunday afternoon, the local folks gathered at Pastor Gerzan’s house for worship.  We gathered with them.  There was a simple altar in the central living space of the house.  The room was dimly lit with a candle and a single light bulb.  The light streaming in through the open doors began to fade as a storm moved in. As the wind picked up, we closed the doors, shutting out most of available light.  

The wind blew and the rain poured as we began worship.  Those gathered began to sing.  Since I didn’t have a hymn book and wouldn’t have been able to read it even if I had, I close my eyes and listened to the singing.  And through sound of the wind and the rain and the Spanish singing, I heard peace, comfort, grace.

The Holy Spirit was blowing in that place.  The Spirit was speaking in words too deep for understanding (Romans 8:26   Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.), yet my soul responded with joy.

We read the Word of God, in Spanish, and in English.  Pastor Gerzan preached, Mike interpreted.  Pastor Gerzan invited me to preach a bit, and Mike interpreted for me.

We prayed together, in Spanish and in English.  Mike doesn’t translate prayers, but we knew that the Father of us all understood the prayers even if we didn’t and that somehow those prayers were the prayers of our hearts too.

Then came the Lord’s Prayer.  And we prayed:

Padre nuestro que estas en los cielos
Santificado sea Tu Nombre...

Our Father who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name…

Spanish and English mingling as one.

It was Pentecost.

It was holy.

The Spirit was blowing.

The Holy Spirit blew that long ago day through the upper room, fire and wind filling the disciples souls.  Bringing power to proclaim the good news of Christ crucified and risen to simple men and women.
The Spirit blew them right out into the street, into the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.  Blew their words into the hearts of 3000 people who did indeed call on the name of the Lord and were saved and baptized.

The Spirit blew last Sunday in a house in Nicaragua,   hovering over us, wrapping us in the communion of saints.  We were no longer orphans but hermanos y hermanas, brothers and sisters - in Jesus.

That Spirit still blows today, filling us with fire and wind and God’s power.  And the Spirit comes gently in the night giving us dreams and visions of the world the way God created it to be.  And the Spirit bubbles up in us and around us in the most unlikely of places, making God known to us and giving us the words to prophesy - to speak God’s words of grace and love to others.

Friday, June 6, 2014

If we build it, will they come?

If you build it, they will come….

Remember that line from Field of Dreams?  A man has a vision.  It captivates him, he cannot let it go – or rather, it will not let him go.  It propels him on a journey, with much hardship and the danger of losing all he has.  Ultimately, he realizes his vision, builds his baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, and they indeed come - from everywhere, inexplicably drawn, a line of cars that fades off into the horizon.

If you build it, they will come…

For a long time, we in the church have acted as if that’s our mission statement.  And so we built. We build a new education wing. We remodeled the sanctuary, in some cases enlarging it, sometimes building a new sanctuary and converting the old one into an attractive multipurpose room. We built bigger and better churches, with well laid out brightly lighted parking lots.

Because, if you build it, they will come…

We continued to build. We built program after program. Small groups. Praise bands. Youth events with  fun and faith intermingled.  We built bigger and better VBS programs. We built programs catered to newlyweds, young families, families with teens, divorce people, addicted people, elderly folks, men’s groups, women’s groups – – – you name it, we built a group for it.

If you build it, they will come…

And they did.

Fast-forward 20, 30 years. The new sanctuary is only partially full. Rooms in the education wing of been converted from classrooms to storage. The small groups dwindled and died out. The youth events got smaller and smaller, until now there’s just a few youth, when they don’t have something else that conflicts with it.

And we long for those days – where we built it, they came.

So we think maybe we don’t understand what “it” is today. We deliberate, and we talk, and we look around at our culture, and we say, “If only we had ….” And we flock to seminars with new programs, new ways of doing things, new ideas all promising to teach us what that elusive “it” is. 

So we can build “it,” and they will come…

But they don’t come.

We don’t understand why. Most of us in the church, in the pews on Sunday morning, are old enough to remember those glory days but when all we had to do was open our doors, or announce a new program, and people came. We remember those days when Sunday was sacred, and church attendance was almost mandatory, even if you personally didn’t really believe one way or another.  We remember how going to church, or Wednesday evening Bible study, or the women’s circle, was an important social event in our lives. It was a way of connecting the world around us, with our community, with our friends, with our families.

On the other hand, we do understand why. We ourselves are busy, overscheduled. We’re tired on Sunday mornings.  We understand the effort it takes to drag ourselves out of bed and go to worship. We understand the lure of other activities – there’s so much more to do on Sundays, be it catching up on work-work or housework, going to the kids games, watching the little sports on TV or maybe relaxing with a little shopping, taking a trip to see scattered family, or a weekend vacation.  We have so many places to be, so many things to do, so many people to see. 

They don’t come – and we assign all kinds of reasons for it, and we lament the dwindling numbers in our pews, the empty Sunday school classrooms, and the lack of younger people at women circles.  They don’t come – and we talk about how faith plays less and less of a role in our country, how people just don’t believe anymore.

They don’t come – and we continue to look for that elusive “it” that we can build, so that they will again come…

Maybe we need to consider that we have the direction wrong.

Maybe we need to consider that instead of expecting “them” to come to us, we need to think about going to them.

After all, Jesus told us to “go” and “baptize and teach” and “make disciples.” 

So what if we changed our paradigm?

What if instead of building it, so that they will come – we go, and build.

We go, and listen. We go, and build relationships, getting to know the people and the community where God placed us.

We go, and learn.  We go, and take what we’ve learned about the people around us, and what their hopes and their dreams and their fears are, and what particular needs of our community is and found ways to be Jesus to them, to meet them where they are, to serve them, to heal them, to love them.

What if instead telling them all the reasons (very good reasons!) why they should come, we go and show them the difference that believing in God makes in our lives.

Go and show.  Go and teach.  Go and make disciples. 

What if that day on the hillside, in those final moments on earth with his disciples, Jesus was giving us a vision?  A vision that captivated those first believers on that hillside.  A vision that so captivates them that they could not let it go – or rather, it would not let them go.  It propels them on a journey, of hardship and danger and losing all they had, with confrontations with rulers and beatings and prison and sometimes even death.  Ultimately, this vision is so grand so captivating, that the people they encounter are inexplicably drawn to it and then they go off on their own journey…, a line of witnesses that extends across the world, through the centuries, to us today.

I wonder if the Great Commission isn’t as much of a “to do” list as a promise: “go,” and if you go, I go with you, to empower you, to teach you to love with God’s love, so that through you, I will “make disciples.”

I think there’s a reason that Jesus didn’t promise, “If you build it, they will come…”

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Breakfast with Jesus, Part Duex

Readings for this Sunday: Isaiah 6:1-8, JOhn 21:9, 13-35

TO: Jesus, Son of Joseph, Woodcrafters Carpenter Shop, Nazareth
FROM: Jordan Management Consultants, Jerusalem

Dear Sir:
Thank you for submitting the résumés of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant. The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully.

As part of our service, we make some general comments for your guidance, much as an auditor will include some general statements. This is given as a result of staff consultation, and comes without any additional fee.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.

Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership.

The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty.

Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.

We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau.

James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new venture.

Sincerely yours,
Jordan Management Consultants

Jesus called them anyway. 

Of course there was no consulting firm vetting the disciples.  Just Jesus, consulting with the Father in prayer, selecting the people who became his closest followers.

There’s been three years of intense on the job training. A final weekend of testing.  Weeks of debriefing.  Now it’s time. 

Time for them to go out on their own.

There’s just one last thing to do.  The disciples are sitting around the charcoal fire, picking over the remains of breakfast.

Jesus taps Peter on the shoulder. “Come, walk with me.”

They walk down to the lake shore and stare out over the water.  Peter can still smell the smoke from the fire, and he shudders.  Suddenly it smells like that night – the night he betrayed Jesus.  He can’t speak – the words just won’t come.  Rash, impulsive, blunt Peter is still and silent.

Jesus turns to him.  “Peter, do you love me more than these?”  Did he motion to the boat and the nets, the life of fishing Peter knew so well - do you love me more than your old way of life? Did he motion to the other disciples – do you love me as much as they do, or more?  Maybe Jesus did both. 

Peter jumped at the chance to prove himself. “Yes, Lord.  You know I love you. More than fishing, more than boats, more than anything else!”

“Good, feed my lambs.”

They stand silent again for awhile.  Jesus asks again, “Do you love me?”

Puzzled, Peter replies, “Yes, Lord. I love you.”

“Good.  Tend my sheep”

Silence again.  Finally, Jesus turns to Peter one more time. “Do you love me?”

Pain wells up in Peter’s heart.  The same question a third time.  Surely Jesus is doing this because he betrayed him three times.  Peter cried out, “Yes Lord.  You know my heart, you know everything.  You know I love you!”

“Good, feed my sheep.

Suddenly it begins to dawn on Peter.  Sheep and lambs – old and young.  Feed and tend – nourish, care for, love. Jesus still wanted him to be a part of his mission!  

He wasn’t going to be left out!  Jesus knew everything, and still loved him.  Jesus forgave him.   

A smile grew on Peter’s face.

Then Jesus said, “That’s right.  You are mine.  You are going to do great things for me.  In fact, you are going to be so good at proclaiming my love and forgiveness to the world that it’s going to get you arrested and killed.

The smile grew bigger.

Peter noticed the beloved disciple standing a short way off.  He asked, “What about him?”

Jesus said, “What about him?  Don’t worry about him.  He has a job too – but that’s not your concern.  You just concentrate on what I tell you to do.  And don’t worry.  The Spirit is coming to give you everything you need to get the job done.”

God doesn’t call the qualified.

God qualifies the called.

It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  It doesn't matter that the world has beaten you down.  It doesn't matter how you think you have failed yourself, your family or friends, or even God.

God has called you.

God loves you unconditionally, warts and all. God forgives you, no matter what you’ve done.

And God sends you to bring the good news of God's love and forgiveness to the world.  To be God’s hands and feet in the world.

Jesus forgave Peter and gave him a job.  And he does the same for each of us.

And God gives us exactly what we need to do the job we are called to do. 

Wherever we are.  Even in those places we never expected to be.  And in ways we never imagined.

Today we bless those who are travelling to Nicaragua.  We will be meeting new brothers & sisters, learning about their work, and ministering to the people of Nicaragua with them. 

We will visit the Women’s Training Center in Managua – where women learn vocational skills.  This is our partnership with the ILFE – we support this training center.  Those five women who will graduate the program while we are there – God equipped us to support them in their goals.

Just like we support the Primary School of Pocho Cuape  where 1st to 6th grade children learn to read and write.  God has used the congregations of South Dakota to provide what is needed for the people God has called in Nicaragua.

When I was taking my Lutheran Identity class in seminary, I had no idea that I would be teaching a workshop to pastors and lay leaders in Somitillo Nicaragua.  Maybe I would have paid more attention!

We don’t know what to expect as we meet Lutheran youth, stay in the villages with our host families, worship with them, visit the farming projects.  What I do know is that God has called each one, and equipped them with the gifts needed to minister.

To do that God first called you.  Gave you the gifts needed to raise up children of faith, to care for the brothers and sisters that gather here.  

God doesn’t call the qualified.

God qualifies the called.

God calls you.

[i]  From Tim Hansel’s book “Eating Problems for Breakfast,” 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Breakfast with Jesus

Reading for this Sunday: John 21:1-14

They say that a bad day fishing is better than good day working.

I don’t know about that, I’m not much of a fisherman.

But the disciples were fishermen, and they had some pretty good days at work, in the last three years with Jesus.  They had seen some pretty amazing things - walk on water, heal sick, cast out demons.  the blind saw, the lame walked, the deaf could hear.  

What's fishing, when the person you are following can take 2 fish and feed 5000?

They saw him raise Lazarus from the dead.

Yep, they had some pretty good days and work.  Fishing just didn’t compare.
But they’ve had some bad days recently.  We’re just weeks after Jesus’ death and crucifixion - those horrible 3 days when they thought all hope was lost.  And then comes the resurrection, and Jesus appears to them, and says “My peace be with you.  I send you as the Father has sent me.

That was a week after the resurrection, that evening when Thomas was there with the disciples.  Now it is some time later.  What have the disciples been doing?

If you have great news, who are you going to tell first?

That’s right, your family and friends.

They went home.  They were in Jerusalem, and Jesus sends them just as the Father sent him - so they went back to where it all started, to Galilee.

They went home to tell their families and their friends, and their neighbors...and anyone who would listen the good news about Jesus.

I bet they got mixed reactions.  Cause isn’t that happens when we talk about Jesus?  Some people embrace it wholeheartedly and some people say, ‘oh don’t bother me with that stuff!”  

And maybe they were starting to get a little discouraged.  

That day was a bad day at work in the following Jesus business.

And Peter says, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m going fishing.”

Going back to what they know.

Now I don’t know it that bumper sticker holds true if you are a professional fisherman - that a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work, because work is fishing.   

Whatever, they had a bad night fishing.  They caught nothing.

Then just  after daybreak, when they are doing their last ditch effort to catch fish, because you know you get past the dawning of the day, the fishing only gets harder.  They saw someone on the beach.

And he asked them “Hey lads, have you caught any fish today? Ya haven’t have ya?  Try the other side of the boat”

And they did.

And when they saw the miracle of the full nets, they knew it was Jesus.  The beloved disciple cries out with joy, “it is the lord!”

And Peter, he can’t wait. He’s stripped down out of his robe, because you can’t haul nets with a robe getting in the way.  He throws on his robe - cause he sure can’t met the Lord half naked, can he?- , and jumps into the water and swims to shore.  The rest follow with the boat.

And when they get there, they find that Jesus has anticipated their most pressing need of the moment.  

They are hungry.  They’ve been working hard, out fishing all night.  

And he has breakfast for them, ready on the beach.  Fish on the fire, bread warm on the stones ringing the fire.

So it’s interesting that Jesus says, “Bring some of that fish you just caught.  

This is Jesus - who can take just a few fish and feed 5000 people.  You know there’s enough fish there for seven disciples and himself.
It’s not just ‘oh I don’t have quite enough, bring some more.’  

It’s an invitation.  Here this is the work that I am doing right now:  “I am feeding you.  Join with me in this work.  Bring your gifts- the fish that I have given you.”

It’s not just the work of their hands, but their blessings.  Bring your blessings
so that we can all be blessed with this breakfast.  He invites them in to share the work.

They went and got the fish  - counted and sorted them - so they could bring some fish to Jesus.  They discover that there are 153 fish!

Why 153 fish? No one has figured it out.  But we do know that there were so many fish, that they were amazed that the net didn’t break.  153 fish - a full and abundant catch.  A catch so big that the net should have broken, but it didn’t.

We hear these stories all through John.  We hear of the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ first miracle, 6 jug of water turned to wine - somewhere between 120-180 gallons, more than enough for a wedding feast that was half over.  it’s an abundance of God’s blessings to us, overflowing, running down.

Feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish, every one eating until satisfied, and still 12 baskets left over.

And this last miracle Jesus does has to do with food as well, with these fish and the abundance of this catch.  

This is now the 3rd time Jesus appears to the disciples after he has raised from the dead.  And there is more to this story - Jesus and Peter have a little private chat, which we’re going to hear about next week.  

But today I want to focus on this amazing catch and breakfast with Jesus.  and what it might mean for us?  Because this is an encounter with Jesus for people who were empty.

The disciples were confused, and discouraged.  Jesus had given them a mission - go as the Father has sent me - and they can’t figure out what that meant.  Maybe they tried, maybe they are still trying to figure it out.  So they went fishing. When the going got tough, they went back to what was familiar and comfortable - what they knew.

They can't figure it out without Jesus. They can’t even catch fish without Jesus telling them how to do it.

And how often are we like that, we don't know exactly what it is God is calling us to do, and we do our equivalent of I”m going fishing - we go back to what is normal and comfortable.

And there’s nothing wrong with that - sometimes you need some time to assimilate what’s going on.  And the resurrection is huge news.  The world has changed, and they are not sure what that means.  Jesus, God, resurrection - it has changed them.  They have to have some space to figure it out.

Jesus knows that, and he meets them there - in a garden, in the upper room, on the road, on a beach -  and tells them again and again - My peace be with you.  Now go, as I have been sent, so I send you.  Preach the good news, care for the poor, and sick, love as I love you.  

He sends them after filling their nets, filling their stomachs.  And I think that an important part of the story too.

Just like that morning on the beach, Jesus prepares a meal for us.  In the early church, bread and fish were early communion elements - breakfast on the beach, dinner on the shore of the lake - these were stories of communion as much as the meal in the upper room.

Every time we have communion, we have breakfast with Jesus. We are invited to become the body of  Christ, to bring the gifts God has given us, to allow Jesus to bless them and use them and use us.

Jesus meets us where we are, feeds us, fills us with peace, and sends us as the Father has sent him.