Saturday, June 25, 2016

Year C, Proper 9, Luke 10,1-11, 16-20, Ekalaka Harvest

Ekalaka is a gem isolated in the Southeast Montana prairie.  Depending on the time of year, there might be 1,500 or so people who live in Carter County.  Mostly, there are cattle, a few buffalo, and a lot of open space.  Actually there are forests there, too.  And medicine rocks.  The town was established when an entrepreneur headed west in his covered wagons laden down with the fixens for establishing a bar farther west in Montana.  When he got to Ekalaka, his wagons got stuck in the gumbo.  Unable to free them from this eastern Montana clay, he exclaimed "Hell, any place in Montana is a good place for a bar!" and he unloaded and built his bar, and the town of Ekalaka was born.  Of Ekalaka it has been said, "Ekalaka, where every night is Saturday night, and every Saturday night is New Year's Eve."

I was asked to serve as the pastor for a small group of people meeting in Ekalaka during my time at American Lutheran Church in Baker.  I think there were 10 people at my first service there.  We gathered in the Catholic Church at that time.  A couple of mothers had a Sunday School for their children who were in 1st and 2nd grade at the time, three children.  I started a bible study Wednesday nights for the adults that was well received.

One Sunday, the lone 4th grade girl approached me.  Valorie was a bit precocious in a good sort of way.  "Pastor, I've been thinking about our Church a lot.  We have services on Sunday.  They have Sunday School for the little kids.  And you're doing a Bible study for the adults.  But there is nothing for kids my age.  I think we should start a youth group for my age."

"That's a great idea Valorie, but I see one problem.  You're the only youth your age, and its hard to have a youth group with only one kid."

"Pastor, I told you I've been thinking about this a lot.  And you know what?  I knew you would say that.  (As she shook her finger at me.)  So, I have a deal to make with you.  If you will come and start a youth group, I'll bring my friends."

So we started a youth group.

The first day Valorie was disappointed and discouraged.  She had invited here whole class from school, and only her best friend Sam (short for Samantha) came.  And so, Valorie, Sam, and I had a youth group meeting.  They insisted that we start with a bible lesson of some sort, and then we could play games.  Soon, Sam's little brothers and sisters came.  I'm still tire when I think of trying to keep up with them.  Their favorite game was a form of tag, and I was always "It", and they would escape from me under the pews and every which way.  In order to keep up with them, I'd use my long legs and run over the top of the pews.  Rowdy behavior, I know, but hey, this was Ekalaka.

What was amazing is what happened the next Easter.  10 people were baptized, including three generations of Sam's family.  Later, St. Elizabeth's Lutheran Church was formally organized as a congregation with about 60 or more members.  This in one of the most isolated, rural, areas in our country.  A few years ago, I was blessed to attend the dedication of their new sanctuary which they had built with all sorts of volunteer labor.  Quite an amazing building.

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few."  What Jesus meant, quite frankly, is we need more Valories.  "You bring the message, I'll bring my friends."

The problem is we don't actually believe there is a harvest to be had.  And so many of us simply think that we are off the hook as evangelists.  The result is that congregations are dying in communities that have hundreds of thousands more people than Ekalaka.  I mean, if anyone had reason to be pessimistic it would have been the Ekalaka folks.  No one in our Church's evangelism offices would have tagged Ekalaka, a small isolated rural community with a dwindling population, as a good place to start a Church.

Perhaps the reason why St. Elizabeth's worked, was the make up of the farmers/ranchers there.  You see, Ekalaka is not Iowa with deep rich loam and abundant rain fall.  For soil they have this gumbo.  And what rain they do get, evaporates quite quickly in 100 degree temperatures with 30 mile per hour winds.  But somehow, against all odds, they've learned to prosper on this land.  Harvesting a crop that many would think impossible.

"All, hell, any place in Montana is a good place to start a bar."

Can it be true for the  Church as well.  Any place is a good place to start a church.

That is, if you'll make the same deal as Valorie.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Year C, Proper 8, Luke 9:51-62, I will follow, but . . .

"First let me go and bury my father."
"Let me first say farewell to those at my home."

Not unreasonable requests.  For each of us who have answered Jesus call to follow him, I would imagine that there were many 'firsts' that delayed answering the call.  And tending to family matters at home would certainly rank high up there on the list.  

As clergy lay out their priorities and boundaries one of the most common convictions is that, first, they are called to be husbands/wives, fathers/mothers.  Their vocation as pastor is seen as secondary to their vocation as spouse and/or parent.  Its a reasonable conviction.

The church has struggled as women, once a seemingly endless supply of volunteer workers, entered the work force with careers of their own.  I'm not blaming women, here.  They have a variety of vocations, as men always have had, and its simply a fact that with women now being gainfully employed, there are simply not that many people left to do the Church's bidding Monday through Friday.  Two things:  I don't think we appreciated the extent to which women were the backbone of the Church throughout those years that they were available for the countless hours of volunteer service that they so selfishly put in.  And second, it is clear that vocational obligations for both men and women, are the 'first' in their lives.  "I have to work." is seen as a valid reason for not being available at Church.  Period. 

Not an unreasonable request.  

"I will follow you wherever you go, as long as my schedule allows."

But in the face of all these reasonable allowances, there stands this radical invitation to follow.  And make no mistake about it, it is an invitation to something that will lay an ultimate claim on our lives.  

Dare we believe that the call to enter into the Kingdom of God is so compelling as to trump all other concerns and obligations in our lives?  

The  Social Gospel movement of the last century was motivated by a deep seated conviction that working to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth was the primary call of all Christians.  That this was conceived of as even possible was a sign of the unbridled optimism of the pre-war years.  All of the ills brought about by the industrialization of this country were seen as solvable.  Unfortunately, that optimistic outlook that the Kingdom of God could be realized within our society was shattered by the confrontation with reality that came with the two world wars.  

In response, the neo-Orthodox movement replaced the Social Gospel movement.  Theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr began writing books such as "Moral Man, Immoral Society" and largely laid to rest the notion that the Kingdom of God would ever be realized in our societies.  That the world would remain essentially as it always has been.  "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." was Niebuhr's prayer.  And perhaps we've embraced that first line about accepting the things we cannot change, too much.  

What has been lost in all of this is a sense of urgency around the kingdom work, and the belief that the Kingdom of God has anything at all to do with this life.  

If we would follow Jesus we would do well to realize and remember, that at the center of all his teachings was this matter of the Kingdom of God being at hand.  

Back to the notion of burying our father.  This seems like such a reasonable request because we have so watered down expectations regarding the Kingdom of God, that it goes without saying that such matters can wait.  Today, we have a funeral to attend. 

The Church will likely bury a lot more people in the coming decades than we will baptize.  I believe that there is a simple reason for this.  We have become caretakers, not crusaders for the Kingdom of God.  We see our primary obligation as caring for those in the pews, our family, and rarely go beyond that to the transformative work that is at the core of what Jesus talked about as the Kingdom of God.  

If we expect people to leave everything and follow Jesus (and us. . .) we have to rethink our dismissal of the Kingdom of God as only a possibility in the afterlife, that is, it is far off, and embrace Jesus' teaching that it has indeed "come near."

Related to this teaching about the Kingdom of God, what people long to hear is the promise that following Jesus will actually make a difference.

Then, and only then, will they be content to let the dead bury the dead, and seize the moment to follow this one we call Jesus. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Year C, Proper 8, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Bound to be free, and free to be Bound

"For freedom, Christ has set us free. . .
       .  .  . but through love become slaves to one another."

Free to become slaves.  

Love is a strange thing.  One the one hand, it is by necessity tied to freedom.  You cannot demand love.  It cannot be coerced or compelled.  It cannot be controlled.  You cannot force it upon another.  You cannot demand it, even of yourself.  For love to be  love at all it must by necessity be freely given, freely received.  And so there is  no greater freedom than that which is experienced in love.

"The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  Imagine living in a land in which there is only one law, this law.  An oxymoron at its best, commanding love.  

On the other hand, there is no greater compelling force in all of life than this simple thing we call love.  With it we become vulnerable.  Once experienced, it changes everything.  Nothing else is important.  Everything else becomes subject to love, and what love entails.  Love becomes our Lord.  That which I would have never dreamed about doing while I was 'free', I cannot imagine not doing now that I'm in love.  Love calls us to surrender, to submit, to become slaves to one another, freely.  Its hard to imagine 'freely' becoming a 'slave'.  

Love makes no demand of us, except to demand of us everything, even to giving our lives. 

We live in a land in which we are willing to go to any length to defend our freedom.  Wars have been fought.  "Freedom doesn't come free."  People arm themselves with weapons and a whole list of other things, such as security systems, police forces, constitutions, all with one purpose -- to protect our freedoms by restraining others.  (One of the greatest ironies of all in today's political climate is that the right to bear arms is resulting in our police forces being 'militarized', so as to not be outgunned.  In the name of freedom, we are becoming more and more subject to a militarized rule.  The local constable is being replaced with SWAT Teams.  And we call this freedom."

I learned something from a Quaker colleague a while back.  We were discussing non-violence, a central tenant of the Quaker faith.  And we couldn't resist pushing her, seeing if we could get her to admit that there were some situations where she would in fact resort to violence.  "What if you were being raped?"  "Or your child was being raped?"  "No." was the response.  "Never resort to violence in resisting violence, for to do so is to become one with the very thing you most despise.  Its not that you cannot resist, you just do not do so violently."  

Love means that we are willing to be vulnerable.  

This is the thing we do not understand.  You see, if you want to be  truly free, you cannot respond to the threat of someone with an AR-15, by purchasing two for yourself.  

"He could have called, ten thousand angels, to destroy the world, and set him free.  But he died alone, for you and me."

You see, that is what love does.  

This is the mystery.  It is counter intuitive.  To be truly free, you must freely accept vulnerability, for that is what love involves.  This freedom cannot be defended.  

It is a gift.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Year C, Proper 7, Galatians 3:23-20, "But only Jesus."

"This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:7-8)

Mother Teresa said:

“I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”

And Paul wrote in our Galatians text: ". . . for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

The focus of the Transfiguration Story, from which the first quote above comes, is how Jesus' appearance was changed from his earthly body, and clothed with the heavenly glory of God's shekinah, or glory. But perhaps there is a more important change that happened on that mountain. They looked up, and saw only Jesus. Now the most obvious way to interpret that statement is that Moses and Elijah were not there anymore. The cloud from which God spoke vanished. And then, there was only Jesus.

But what if a more profound thing happened. That as the disciples left that mountain and rejoined the crowds below, they still saw only Jesus. When their eyes fell upon the hungry, with Teresa, they saw Jesus. And the sick and lame, only Jesus. They encounter Jews and Gentiles, but see only Jesus. There are slaves and free, but they see only Jesus. Men, women, and children are all around, but they saw only Jesus.

The church wrestles with what to do, what to say, about our GLBT friends -- but looking up, they saw only Jesus. The country struggles with what to do about undocumented 'aliens' in our midst. But looking up, they saw only Jesus. A man lays down his prayer rug in O'Hare Airport and commences with bowing toward Mecca. And those who stood around saw only Jesus.

A child of God, created in the image of God, each one "in Christ", and in that we are One.

Part of me feels the need to focus not on being "in Christ", but on being a Child of God, created in God's image. Its more inclusive language. "Jesus" is as much a source of division in our world, and not so much a cause of unity. But the point is that amid all of the religious plurality in our world, we share a common humanity, each of the same Creator, a child of God, created in God's image -- and therein lies our unity.

The problem is that when we look up, we do not see "only Jesus." We see Jews and Greeks. We see slaves and free. We see men and women. We see white, and black, hispanic and Asian, we see Arabs. When we look up we see the poor and the privileged. We divide the world between friend and enemy. And in our eyes, we are not one.

Would that there were corrective lenses for that. Would that we could see as Teresa saw.

For then, we would see God.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Year C, Proper 7, Luke 8:26-39, Do not torment me.

Name the names if you must, just do not torment me with but another promise of a cure if all you can offer is a diagnosis.  

The hardest thing is the recognition and acceptance of diseases, chronic in nature, and which allow only a promise that you can learn to live with them, manage them, but never cure them.

I am drawn to these texts about demonic possession in the bible in a different way since being diagnosed with a variety of mental health disorders.  I'm one who believes that in Jesus' day, such disorders were personified as 'demons'.  Our world view has changed.  We are less likely to personify such things.  Diseases not demons.  But by whatever name you call them, or how you personify them, the simple truth is this:  that they can take over our life in ways that our very identity with which we have lived is replaced by another whom we do not know.

Dysthymic disorder; major depression, unresponsive; suicidal  ideation; chemical dependency; chronic insomnia; post traumatic stress disorder; general anxiety disorder; bipolar disorder;-- and the list of names could go on: first tier, second tier, third tier, etc. .  Each one of those manifesting symptoms, such as manic episodes, defining the days of our lives and shaping our behaviors in ways that do not seem to be true to who we actually are, or at least who we thought we were.  Personal identity is the ultimate casualty of such suffering.  This is who I am.  Live with it.

And then comes the one who calls out the demons, naming them by name.  

And into the swine those demons go.  Ever wonder what a bipolar pig is like?

There is something missing in this text, implied but missing.  We know this man only as the Gerasene demoniac.  What is your name?  And the man said "Legion", for many were the demons that had possessed him.  What I wish were there is Jesus speaking the man's true name, and in doing so, calling forth his true identity.  


And might we add to that "David, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, forever."

Of all the things that could be said in response to mental illness, perhaps this is the most important.  The "you" is sealed by the Holy Spirit, sealed off from the threat of all those other spirits that would seize our identity.  Sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked with the cross of Christ, our identity forever rooted in him.  

Interesting that the swine rushed down the hill, plunged into the lake, and were drowned.  I never heard a baptismal sermon preached on this text.  But there it is.  And out of the water comes a man, in his right mind, or shall I say, "righteous".  

It is dangerous for one who is mentally ill to declare oneself healed.  Many a bipolar person has experience disastrous consequences because they became convinced they were healed and ceased their medication.  The truth is that some of these diseases are chronic, they will not just go away.  But, they need not define our identity or claim our souls.

I am not my disease.  That is not my name.  I don't know who "Legion" is, but it is not me.

"David, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, forever."

That is healing enough for me.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Year C, Proper 6, 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3, "That she is a sinner. .."

Rule #1:  It is not about what you do.
Rule #2:  Nothing you can do, changes rule #1.

To be a family means many things to many different people, I suppose.  When I think about family, and particularly the relationship between a parent and a child, what stands out to me is a simple truth that most of us intuitively understand.  To be family, is to be loved, and to live in the assurance that you always have been loved, and always will be loved.  A mother never withholds her love from the child within her womb, pending the child's demonstration of just what type of person they will become.  Nor does a father withhold his love because of the choices a child makes.  The heartache, disappointment, even anger a parent feels toward their child, at times, are felt precisely because their child is loved.  The love that binds us together, simply is not in any way related to what we do, or do not do.  It is a gift.

"If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner."

And so. . . your point is?

"We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners."

And so. . . your point is?

Lutheran have prided themselves on having a theology that is unapologetically Christocentric, and in that context, maintaining that 'justification by faith' is the article on which the Church stands or falls.  This I do not deny, but I have a bone to contend with it.  Too often we see Christ and the justification that is ours in him, as a remedy for what we have done or left undone.  In doing so we continue to see human action as the determining factor in the relationship between God and humanity.  Even our most evangelical proclamations focus on  "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;  they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,".

More and more I have come to the conclusion that something is missing in this Christocentric focus.  Namely, that our relationship with God began in the garden, not on the cross.  It began with creation, not with redemption.  Justification by grace, as a gift, can only be fully understood within the context of our being from creation, children of God, created in his image, and that nothing in all of creation "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  This love of God is a gift of grace from the beginning.

Justification, then, needs to be understood in the context of a family relationship, not a courtroom.  " And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."  I believe that our relationship with God is all about the love that God has, always has had, and always will have for us as his children -- and, the great length that God will go to in order that we might be fully embraced by that love.  It is about love and reconciliation.

And so there is this matter of a woman.  A "sinner".  "If this man were a prophet, he would have known. . ."

And to that one might respond:  "And if you were a parent, you might understand. . ."

As a parent, I'm certainly not perfect.  But this I know, that through all of the successes and, on occasion, failures of my children (though I'm somewhat uncomfortable with that language), there is nothing that could ever change the love that I have for them.  In fact, it is often during the most difficult of times in their life that I become more keenly aware of how deeply I care for them.

" And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

This is not about the "works of the law".  Nothing we can do merits God's love.  Nothing we can do can separate us from the love of God.

Rule #1:  It is not about what you do.
Rule #2:  Nothing you can do, changes rule #1.

God's gracious love has been given to us from the beginning, and will be with us through the end.  It is pure gift.  To even consider that it is contingent on our own righteousness, or even our pardon, is to miss a truth that is so clear to any lover;  Love is never, ever, in any circumstance a reward.  It is always unconditionally given.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Year C, Proper 6, 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15, You are the man!

Looking in the mirror can be a painful thing.

In our own mind we fashion an image of ourselves that is acceptable to us.  Perhaps we think much more  highly of ourselves than we ought to think.  Perhaps we simply believe about ourselves what we would like others to believe about us as well.  And perhaps, at times, we are simply not capable of seeing ourselves for who we are.

I believe that most of the time people do what they perceive to be right.  "It seemed like a good idea at the time" is a statement that rings true to me more times than not.  There have been few occasions that I intentionally chose to do evil.

It is as though we spend much of our lives writing our own resume'.  And the image we present of who we are and the list of accomplishments that we would take credit for are both equally flattering.  We spend much of our lives crafting this self identity, and the rest of our lives telling ourselves how well we are doing at maintaining this image that we've created.

And then there is that damn mirror.  And those moments when we look into the mirror and actually see the person that is reflected there, and not just what we would like to see.

"You are the man!"

October 15, 2012,  The first thing I remember about that day was waking up, and reaching over to the bedside stand for my glasses, only to discover that they were a mangled mess.  Next, I recall becoming aware that I had some scrapes and soreness, where it  should not had been.  And then, running to the mirror I saw what there was to see.  And the man in the mirror was not at all who I wished was there.

The night before, in a rage, I had turned to my drug of  choice, alcohol, in an attempt to quiet the beast within.  Still raging at bedtime, in spite of consuming over a fifth of Scotch, I decided that I would take my regular dose of Ativan, an anti-anxiety med I had been prescribed.  Not a good choice.

I vaguely recall reaching for, and missing the bed post, as I tried to undress.  Like a bad dream, I recall a sensation of going down, down, down.  Then there were people there.  My wife.  Friends.  They were doing something to me.  Bothering me, really.  (Tending to my wounds.)  And throughout the night they kept waking me up as a precaution, fearing a concussion.

I had to face them in the morning.  "You need help."  I could acknowledge my depression.  Depression is a convenient 'neutral' thing.  And so I went to the hospital, hoping for help for my depression, and quite frankly, thankful that I'd have some time away to heal before having to show my face to my congregation.

And then "Nathan" spoke.  "You are an alcoholic."

Nope.  Not the image I was accustomed to seeing in the mirror.  "I admit that I drank more than I should have last night and that I've been self medicating with alcohol, but I'm not an alcoholic."

"You almost died."

You are the man!

Finally, I had to admit that the man in the mirror was me.  And with the words, "I am an alcoholic." spoken first to my wife, my child, and my bishop (and a couple others), forgiveness came.  I may have been locked up in a psych ward, but hope was renewed for the first time in a long time.  Forgiveness is a blessed thing.  Especially when it is wrapped in a deep love and compassion.  I experienced that.

But I could not escape the consequences, either.  There was some wreckage to clean up.  And a life to rebuild.  Its been a process of healing that is still unfolding years later.  I'm headed in the right direction.  I can face the man in the mirror.

"You are the man!"

"But I am the Lord, and I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.  Your faith has made you well."