Sunday, November 26, 2017

Next Year in Jerusalem

Next year in Jerusalem!

“You can be miles away from Jerusalem even while living there. And you can be on the other side of the world but only a step away. Because Jerusalem is much more than a city. It’s an ideal that we are struggling to reach.”

“The Jewish story can be summed up as a long journey from Egypt to Jerusalem. Beyond being just geographical locations, they symbolize two opposite spiritual states. The journey from Egypt to Jerusalem is a spiritual odyssey. Both as a nation and as individuals, we have always been leaving the slavery of Egypt and heading towards the freedom of the Promised Land. By analyzing the psychological Egypt and the inner Jerusalem, we will see how this is a road that we are still traveling.”

“The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means limitations, restrictions, obstacles. It represents a state in which our souls are trapped in our bodies, enslaved to material desires and tied down to physical limitations. It is a world in which righteousness, justice and holiness are held captive to corruption, selfishness and egotism.”

“Jerusalem means “the city of peace”—a place of peace between body and soul, heaven and earth, the ideal and reality. When our body becomes not a prison for the soul but rather a vehicle for the soul’s expression; when we live our lives according to our ideals rather than our cravings; when the world values goodness and generosity over selfish gain—then we are in Jerusalem, we are at peace with ourselves and the world.”  (Next Year in Jerusalem . . . Really!  By Aron Moss)

I stumbled across this peace, first just trying to verify my quote "Next year in Jerusalem" only to discover much more.  I love Google.  Sometimes it is a spiritual director for those searching.

We live in Egypt, and even as we are called out by our Moses toward the promised land we long for that which we know.  

"4 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.""  (Numbers 11:4-6)

Even as we are nourished for the journey by the Bread of Heaven we long for that which we crave.  

"We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?"  (John  8:33)

We live in "a state in which our souls are trapped in our bodies, enslaved to material desires and tied down to physical limitations. It is a world in which righteousness, justice and holiness are held captive to corruption, selfishness and egotism." When I read those words I couldn't help but think of the political realities of our culture today, and not just the political realities, but the overarching reality of our materialistic, capitalistic worldview that masquerades as freedom but which is an incredible bondage.  And make no mistake about it, there is no greater bondage than the bondage we cannot see, and willingly submit to, for it holds captive our very souls.

Next year in Jerusalem!

The quest for peace of body, mind, and spirit is a yearning that captivates me personally.  We were not intended to live in Egypt.  I am one who has been captive to many masters.  One need only read my medical charts.  Bipolar disorder with its depression and manic episodes shaping the contours of my life.  Alcoholism.  An addiction to tobacco.  But even more than this I have been captive to a restlessness of the soul that will not allow for the 'peace that passes all understanding'.

Next year in Jerusalem!

It seems to me that the hope that sustains both Christian and Jew is that God has indeed heard our cry as we labored under our taskmasters in 'Egypt' and has come, is coming, and will yet come to deliver us.  At the core of that hope is the belief that the way things are is not the way things always shall be, for indeed God is doing a new  thing.  

Next year in Jerusalem!
Perhaps the greatest challenge of being a Christian in this country, perhaps also a Jew, is that we have convinced ourselves that we are currently in Jerusalem.  That this is the promised land to which God has led us.  It is un-American, un-patriotic to acknowledge our bondage and captivity.  So much so that I probably could not get away with preaching this message without experiencing significant blowback.  How dare you suggest that "righteousness, justice and holiness are held captive to corruption, selfishness and egotism."  This is the greatest country on earth!

Which makes my yearning even greater.  Next year in Jerusalem!

There is something more.  And yet, it is still out of reach.

The problem for us is that there lies a wilderness in between us and the promised land.  Things will get worse before they get better.  And even though God promises sustenance for us on the journey, manna gets old after the third day.  We cannot see beyond that which lies immediately before us, the Red Sea, and then the wilderness, to the promised land.  And perhaps, for many of us, the truth is that we have not yet suffered enough under our current bondage to accept God's invitation to take the next step in the journey.  We are like the alcoholic, clearly in bondage, but not yet entirely out of control or languishing at rock bottom, and so we refuse to acknowledge even that we have a problem, yet alone accept the solution.

And when we do, we are afraid.

There is risk along the way.  We will find ourselves trapped between the Sea on the East, and Pharaoh's armies approaching from the west.  What shall we do?  "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today!"

Just stand there.  And watch.  You will see God's salvation.

"Come, Lord Jesus, Come!" and "Next year in Jerusalem!" are the same prayer, just different voices.  We long for the salvation of our God, and for generation after generation we wait in expectation.  

In the meantime we sing:
There will be peace in the valley for me some day
There will be peace in the valley for me
I pray no more sorrow and sadness or trouble will be
There'll be peace in the valley for me

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Year A, Christ the King, Matthew 25.31-46 “One Nation, Under God. . .”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.
This text frightens me.
‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
‘And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
What we do matters.
A day of judgement.
A time of reckoning.
Perhaps the final judgment might be summed up with this, that we will stand before our Lord, and look into his eyes, and in the eyes of Jesus we will see ‘the least of these’, and then we will hear Jesus say simply:  “Well?”
But for all that, this is not what frightens me the most about this text.
You see, to a certain extent this lays out everything in a most manageable way.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
  • ·         Feed the hungry.   Check
  • ·         Give a drink to the thirsty.  Check.
  • ·         Welcome the stranger.  Check.
  • ·         Clothe the naked.  Check.
  • ·         Take care of the sick.  Check.
  • ·         Visit the imprisoned.  Check.

For those of us who like to make lists, and check things off, one by one, this is pretty manageable.  Six items.  Six check marks.  All in a day’s work.
Just do it. 
I have nothing to worry about.
  • ·         I have fed the hungry.
  • ·         I’ve given a drink to the thirsty.
  • ·         I’ve welcomed the stranger.
  • ·         Clothed the naked.
  • ·         Cared for the sick.
  • ·         And even visited the imprisoned.

Check, check, check, check, check and check.
Got it covered.
What’s frightening about that?

The most frightening thing about Jesus’ words here, for me, can be summed up in three words:
The “nations”, “people”, and “we”.
You see when Jesus describes this day of judgment, we do not come before the throne of judgment one by one, each being judged according to our own individual lives.
It’s the nations that will be gathered before him.
He will separate the ‘people’, not persons, one from another.
And the question asked will be “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?”
It’s unnerving enough to think of being judged for my own sins, but here Jesus indicates that the judgment will be rendered on the nations.
Think about that.  It’s not just about what we do individually.  It’s about being accountable for our nation’s actions, or lack thereof.
We’re all in this together.
We stand or fall, together.
That’s quite different from the way we tend to think.
Especially during these highly polarizing times.
When the Democrats are in power, Republicans have tried to wash their hands of responsibility.
And likewise, with Republicans now in power, Democrats are quick to distance themselves from what is happening.
“One nation, under God?”
Well not so much.  Actually, we are more prone today to look at each other from across the political divide and see each other as the sheep and the goats.  The righteous and unrighteous.
But what Jesus says is that we will stand or fall as a nation, based on how we responded to the “least of these”.
That should give us pause to think.

I think I’ve shared with you before about a conversation that I had in Russia with the members of St. Nikolai’s Lutheran Church that we were visiting.  We were asking questions about each other, and our nations, in an attempt to better understand each other.
I will never forget the question they asked us:
“Is it true that there are poor people in America?”
When we replied that yes, there were poor people in America they came back with another question:
“How can it be, that in a country as rich as yours, you still have poor people?”  “We’re poor,” they said, “but we’re all poor.”  “We don’t understand how you can be so rich and let others in your country be poor.”
That question will stay with me for a long time.
And I find myself wondering if Jesus will ask the same question of us.  “How can that be?”
Of course, similar questions could be asked of them.
How can it be that Russia spends so much on the military when so many throughout their nation have nothing?
I mean, Russia is and probably always will be a land of great contrasts.  Most of the people live in what we would call ‘slums’, and yet you can walk into the Hermitage and see Rembrandts just hanging on the walls, room after room of Picassos, and every other artist imaginable.
How can that be?
When the “nations” of the world are judged by how they treated the “least of these”, will any be left standing?
I hope not.
I hope not.
That, I believe, is the Good News associated with this text.
Against the backdrop of the history of the world and all the warring madness of the nations, with the rich and powerful always overlooking the least of these, there will be a judgment of all the nations.
And when God is done judging the nations of the world there will be nothing left but the smoldering ashes of empire after empire, that failed to be righteous in his eyes.
And in the end—there will be only one enthroned in Glory.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
There is the promise.
There will be only one Kingdom left standing when the judgment is done.
No borders.
No divide between the peoples.
There will not be ‘the greatest of these’ or ‘the least of these’.
There will not be rich and poor.
Imprisoned and free.
There will not be black or white.
They will not hurt or destroy.
The kingdoms of this world will have had their day.
And none of them will be found to have been righteous.
All of them, including our own, are destined to the dung heap of history.
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

This is Christ the King Sunday.  It points us forward toward the end of all time, and the beginning of eternity.
It points us forward to the day when God alone will reign.
We have that promise, and it is our hope.
For now, though, we live in ‘in-between times’.
We have our feet in both Kingdoms at once.  We are at one and the same time American citizens, and citizens of the Kingdom of God.  It’s like those who are born with dual citizenship.
But know this, that one day, one of those Kingdoms will come to an end.
And the other will not.
And then Jesus will say:
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Year A, Proper 28, Matthew 25:14-30, Stewards of God’s Mysteries

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
When the word “stewardship” is spoken in Church, almost without exception what we think of is that there is another fund raising campaign going on.  And to be quite frank, every formal stewardship program I have experienced has had one primary purpose, which is to raise the level of giving for the congregation’s budget.
There is an entirely different understanding of stewardship that is often overlooked in the Gospel.
Our Gospel lesson today points that out.
Stewardship is asset management.  We are entrusted with the care of a great treasury of assets, and the question of stewardship is what we will do with what we have been given.
Now, if one is a business person, and you want to talk about assets, the conversation starts with the balance sheet of the organization.  What do we own?  What have we been entrusted with?
We are a small congregation here at Peace, and we often think of ourselves as not having much.
But then, thinking of assets, if we turn to the congregation’s balance sheet we discover that we have over half a million dollars worth of assets, primarily this building, that we have been entrusted with.
The value of those assets alone should not be overlooked.
Back in 1979 Karla and I joined Agnus Dei Lutheran Church in Gig Harbor, WA.  It was a new congregational start, and we had nothing.  Nothing.
We met for worship, first in a school gymnasium, and then subsequently, in a Masonic Temple.
(One of my interesting ‘claims to fame’ is that in the entire history of the Lutheran Church, I am probably the only pastor to ever have been ordained in a Masonic Temple.)
At any rate, one of the things I appreciate about this congregation, based on my experience of being in a congregation that had nothing, is that we have property, a building, furnishings and some money in the bank.  Assets.  Resources for ministry.
The question of stewardship is in part how will we manage those assets for the sake of the Gospel?
When Karla and I traveled to Russia to visit the Church there we had the opportunity to sit down with Bishop Ratz and Bishop Springer of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and Other States.
We talked about the resources that the Church in Russia had for ministry.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Christian Church across Russia was able to come out into the open once again.  The Evangelical Church in Germany took a lead with respect to reestablishing the Lutheran Church’s presence in Russia.
Bishop Ratz and Bishop Springer shared with us that one of the gifts the German Church had shared with the Church in Russia was a two million dollar grant.  This money was used to pay the salary of all the clergy in Russia.  It was running out.
What struck me at the time, was that my congregation, First Lutheran in Sandpoint, had four acres of undeveloped commercial land in Sandpoint, with a value of approximately two million dollars.  My mind was racing.
What I shared with them, was that if we could do something with the land in Sandpoint, perhaps selling it and creating an endowment, our congregation could support the salaries of all the pastors throughout Russia for years to come.
When we returned home, one of the things that happened was that our congregation started to receive offers to purchase our land.
One of the offers, which was too little, resulted in a member of our counsel saying “we should develop senior housing.”
My thoughts then were that yes, we could develop a senior housing ministry, and not only provide a much needed service to the seniors in our community, but could also, then, with the proceeds of that ministry support the church in Russia.
When the dust settled, we built Luther Park at Sandpoint, an 87 unit assisted living community.
Unfortunately, they have yet to realize any additional income from Luther Park like I had hoped, but they have this very important ministry that has been established.
The congregation contributed exactly $15 dollars toward Luther Park.  $15 dollars.
The rest was all the result of using the assets we had, to accomplish our goal.
One question that has been raised here at Peace is whether it might be possible to do something similar in Otis Orchards.  We have this property, most of it undeveloped.  Could we do senior housing?
Unfortunately, there are significant problems here that likely cannot be overcome.
First, the land isn’t worth as much. 
Most importantly, there is no sewer system, and without that it is not possible to build a large facility.
But the question is a good one.
What assets do we have, and how can we manage them to advance the ministry of the Gospel?
Now, consider this.
The greatest assets that we have do not show up on the congregation’s balance sheet.
The greatest assets we have are not material.
In 1 Corinthians, chapter 4, Paul writes:
“Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.”
Stewards of the mysteries of God.
What a concept.
We have been entrusted with a treasure far more valuable than any piece of property, or balance in a bank account.
The mysteries of God, and the message of Christ Jesus.
As faithful stewards, what will we do with those treasures?
As I look back over my years in ministry, one of the most special experiences I’ve had with my congregations occurred during Lenten services.
I got an inspiration.
As I visited with people they shared with me one story after another about their life of faith.
What I recognized was that they did not have the opportunity to share those stories with each other.
And so on three separate occasions we had Lenten services that offered the opportunity for our members to share their faith stories.
What was most amazing to me was that over the course of those three Lenten series I invited 22 people to share their stories, and only one declined the invitation.  It wasn’t that he wouldn’t share, but simply that at that time he was simply too overwhelmed with responsibilities at work and so he wouldn’t have time to prepare.
The other amazing thing, was that as our members shared their stories of faith, the attendance at the Lenten services grew week by week.
One of the great treasures we have as a Church, one of the most important assets that has been entrusted to us, is the story we have to tell.
How has God been active in your life?
Can you tell that story?
Or is this a treasure that you are content to bury in a field?
The importance of this sharing cannot be overstated.
I’ve learned more about evangelism from AA than from any other place.
When alcoholics gather, often in church basements around the community, what they do is share their stories.  One after another, they tell, and tell again, their story about how they had been delivered from their addiction to alcohol. 
Often, it’s the same group of people, meeting week in and week out, that share their stories over and over again even though they’ve all heard them before.
But there is a purpose in rehearsing in this way the telling of their story.
And that is because one day, a newcomer will show up, perhaps even drunk, and will need to hear that there is hope.
In my group, what happens when a newcomer shows up is that the meeting becomes a ‘first step meeting’ and everyone shares how they were powerless over alcohol, too.  But that though they were powerless, God was able to deliver them from their addiction.
It’s this story telling that saves the alcoholic from their addiction and disease.
Stories are powerful and have the ability to change lives.
Our stories of faith are the greatest asset we have.
With them we write the Bible of a new age.
That is, we do, if we take the time to share them.
To bear witness to Christ and our experience of the love of God is the single most important thing we can do as Christians.
Imagine if the first disciples had kept their experiences of being with Jesus to themselves.
Imagine the loss to the whole world if they had not witnessed. 
There would be no Church, no Christianity, and no saving grace for us. 
The same holds true for each and every generation.  We are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
“But,” you might respond, “I don’t know what to say.”
This is the thing about being a faithful witness.  We are only called to share the story about how we have experienced God’s grace in our lives.
In order to be a faithful witness, the first thing we have to do is simply open our eyes to see the many ways God has touched our lives. 
It’s not always obvious.  And sometimes it takes years for us to fully comprehend.  After having his conversion experience and vision of Christ, the Apostle Paul stepped back and took about ten years to reflect on what had happened and what that meant. 
Many of us will have to do the same.
I can tell you stories today about how God was active in my life that I couldn’t have understood at the time.  For example, due to some conflicts with a staff member in my congregation in Baker, MT, I ended up being fired.  But, immediately, I received a call to First Lutheran in Sandpoint.
I see now God’s hand in all of that.  I didn’t at the time.
What are your stories?
What treasures do you have to share?
The future of our ministry will have more to do with whether we are faithful stewards of those stories than anything else.
No amount of money can share those stories.
Only you.

That’s stewardship.  We are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.  Amen

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Justice, Righteousness, and Mass Murders.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
These are the words of Amos.
Another prophet, Micah, wrote similar words:
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Karl Marx famously wrote:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.[2
OK, so by now, having quoted two Old Testament prophets, and Karl Marx, a founding father of communism, you are probably wondering where in the world this sermon is headed.
Well, let’s start with last Sunday.
While Christians across the nation gathered for worship on All Saints Sunday, many taking time to remember the loved ones that have died, a gunman, Devin Kelley, entered First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and killed 26 of the parishioners worshipping there.
It’s not the first time Churches have been targeted.
Parishioners at a Bible study in Charleston were gunned down, not so long ago.
And though another shooting took place at a school back in 2006, it was the Amish people that were targeted.
When Christians become a target for mass murders, there are countless questions that are raised.
One is, are we safe as we gather here for worship?
Another is, how do we respond?  What should we do.
I was asked this week if I'd start packing a weapon in Church to protect my flock. My response: "Hell no."
I wrote on Facebook:
“I refuse to surrender to fear.
I refuse to resort to evil.
I believe that peaceful resistance is the only way to follow Jesus.
I believe that two or more shooters will do more harm than one.
I believe that policing the community, including the Church, is a government responsibility, not something to be assumed by everyday citizens.
I believe that the only way the frequency of violence will change is if we finally realize that reasonable gun controls are our moral mandate and do something. (Which we won't because we love guns more than we desire to protect one another.)
But most importantly, I believe that selling one's soul and adopting a reliance on violence to counteract violence is worse than being a victim.
In other words, I'd rather die than sell out and become one of "them". Yes, there is a fate worse than death, and that is to become the very evil you abhor. This I learned from a Quaker friend.”
There is another response that has become too frequent as our nation has dealt with one mass shooting after another.
Politicians and religious leaders alike have declared to the survivors: “our thoughts and prayers are with you”, as though saying that in some way makes anything better.
I rather imagine that if the prophet Amos was alive today his words might be:
“I despise your thoughts, and take no delight in your prayers, but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
This is where the critique of religion that Karl  Marx comes in.
Too often, religion is used to comfort people in their suffering, and as a result, to prevent  people from taking appropriate action to actually end the suffering.  It’s a pain killer, an opiate.  It relieves the pain, but does not address the underlying issue.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you”, but, we’re not going to do anything else.
There is a part of me that wants to say “No!”
We cannot with integrity consider ourselves to be Christians if all we are willing to do is think and pray, but not take any action in the face of such evil.
But the problem for many of us is that we simply do not know what action we can take.
Every time such a tragedy happens many people raise the issue of gun control.
There is some legitimacy to that concern.
I mean, if I wanted to commit such a crime, all it would take is a fifteen minute drive over to Cabelas and I’d have access to a full arsenal of the type of weapons, assault rifles, that are being used in these mass shootings.
Reasonable gun controls might not eliminate the problem entirely, the argument goes, but on the other hand we don’t need to make it so easy to get those guns. 
Others lift up the issue of mental illness in our society, and the need for a greater emphasis on taking care of the mentally ill.
The problem with using mental illness as an explanation is that the vast majority of people who are mentally ill are not a threat to anyone, except in some cases to themselves.
The truth is that these people committing mass murders are not insane, they are enraged.  Anger, not mental illness is the problem.
But there is a deeper issue, and one that we don’t want to face.
In ‘family systems theory’, there is an “identified patient”,  a term used in a clinical setting to describe the person in a dysfunctional family who has been unconsciously selected to act out the family's inner conflicts as a diversion.
In other words, often the family prefers to identify one member of that family who has been acting out as the problem when the real issue is that there is a greater problem that involves the whole family.
And so you might have a child who has developed behavioral problems, failing in school, or doing drugs, and the family identifies that person as being the problem.
What they don’t see is that the identified patient, the problem child, is merely reflecting the sickness that permeates the entire family.  It’s much easier to say “Johnny has some issues” than it is to say “we have a problem”.
I believe that these people committing these horrendous crimes are actually acting out the sickness that pervades our entire society.
In the church, we call that sickness “sin”, and we are all guilty of it.
“Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
These words of the prophet Amos are a call to repentance.
What does sin look like?
Part of the problem is that it is easier to say that we have all sinned and fallen short of the will of God, than it is to actually identify the ways that we have sinned.  Not only that, but even when we try to identify the sin that pervades our society our perspective is colored by the very sin that is part of who we are. 
Having said that though, I’m going to be bold and identify three things that I believe run deeply throughout our society, and which are at the root of the problems.
First, we are a divided people.
This polarization pits one against another and it affects our families, our churches, our governments, in fact, the entirety of our society.
Secondly, we are an angry people. 
And we seem to have lost the ability to deal with our anger in responsible ways.  You don’t have to seek out these murderers to find this anger.  All you have to do is drive across town.
You want to make people angry?  Try getting in line in the express lane at the supermarket with more than ten items in your basket.  Try driving the speed limit in the left hand lane of the freeway.
And thirdly, we are a fearful people.
I work with a number of people who are so afraid that they will not drive anywhere without a loaded pistol in their car.  Think about that.  In order to go out of their house, they have to pack a weapon.  That’s fear.  And then, knowing that the roads are full of people with loaded weapons in their cars, the rest of us have reason to be afraid.
Divided.  Angry.  Afraid.
That’s the sin that permeates our society.
We view others as an enemy, we too often get angry, and our fearful response can be devastating.
The mass murderers who make the headlines are simply acting out the divisiveness, anger, and fear that permeates our society.
That’s a tough pill to swallow.
“Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
Those are the words of God given to Amos.
Jesus put it differently.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
And love does more than offer “our thoughts and prayers”.
Love overcomes all divisions.
Love dispels anger.
And love casts out all fear.
But most important of all, love is more than an emotion.
It’s more than just how we feel toward one another, its about how we act. 
So here’s a challenge for you, a way to make a difference.
Instead of viewing others as the enemy, instead of allowing anger to run rampant, instead of being afraid—find a way, anyway, to act toward one another with love.

And see what happens.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Funeral Sermon for Dad 'And make me love you as I ought to love. . .'

Luke 24:13-35

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
When Dad died, it was both sudden and unexpected, at least as much as it could be for one who was 94 years old.  Thankfully, he was still quite healthy up to the end, able to do his crossword puzzles, and still keeping up his daily walks.
In fact, the last couple days of his life Dad had decided that his walks were boring so he would memorize a hymn a day on his walks.
As he recited those hymns during those last two days, Dad ended up leaving us with the prayer that was on his heart, and a promise to which he clung, and also, in a conversation I had with him the last night, he shared a sermon that he wished he could preach.  A powerful witness to conclude his life of faith.
First, this is his prayer:
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
stoop to my weakness, strength to me impart,
and make me love you as I ought to love.

Conversations were difficult with Dad that last month.  His hearing aids were a constant source of frustration.  But on Tuesday of the week he died, Karla had gotten them cleaned and he could hear again.
Wednesday evening after supper Karla suggested I should take some time to visit with Dad.
A bit later I poked my head into his room to enquire what he was watching.  It was the Science channel.  He was delighted that Karla had given him a list of all the essential stations on our cable TV.  I went outside for a smoke.
When I came back in, Dad was waiting for me in the living room.
“What?  Didn’t you like what was playing on the Science Channel?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s about the Big Bang, part of the Cosmos storyline.  But actually, I thought I’d come out and be with you.”
“Dave, could we talk for a while?”
“Sure, Dad.”
At this point I was bracing myself.  You see, sometimes a conversation with Dad would turn into a ‘talking to’, and I wanted to shy away from that.
“I was wondering,” he continued, “do you have any favorite scripture verse?”
“Well, yes, I guess I do.”
I fumbled with my phone as I looked it up.  “Ah, here it is, it’s from 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5”
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
I was going to continue speaking about how those verses form the basis for my understanding of ministry.  Specifically I wanted to talk about reconciliation.  What I didn’t realize was that in that moment, what I was experiencing in that conversation with Dad, was a final reconciliation with him.  But before I could go on, Dad lifted up his hand and stopped me.
“Could you go back to verse 15, because that’s my favorite verse.”
And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
For Dad this verse summed up his theology.  Christ died for us, so that, and the SO THAT was important to Dad, so that we might live for him.  God loves us, SO THAT, we in turn might love him.  Hence the prayer:
And make me love you as I ought to love. . .

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
                no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
 no angel visitant, no opening skies;
                but take the dimness of my soul away.
“I have another favorite,” he continued, “one that I haven’t been able to preach on for quite some time, which is a shame because I have a great story to go with it.  The road to Emmaus.  You know when they say "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?"
“Well, in 1943 a man walked into a drug store and asked the clerk for a tube of tooth paste.  ‘Where’s your old tube?’ the clerk responded.
‘What do you mean, where’s your old tube?’
‘You have to turn in the old tube, to get a new tube.  Where have you been, young man, don’t you know there’s a war on?’
What the clerk didn’t realize was that the man standing there was Jimmy Doolittle, who had just returned from leading the first bombing mission against the main islands of Japan.  They had launched 16 B25 bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  Unable to return to the carrier with the fuel they had on board they flew on to China where they parachuted out and were recovered by the Chinese underground.
‘Yes, maam,’ Doolittle responded, ‘I am aware there is a war on.’
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
Dad imagined Jesus responding much as Doolittle did, “well yes, in fact I do know what has taken place these last few days.”  He talked about how Jesus, just as Doolittle had been on the frontlines of the battle in the Pacific, had been on the frontlines of the battle, winning salvation for all of us.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
We went on to share how each of us wished that we might have listened in on the conversation that followed, when Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
And make me love you as I ought to love. . .
Have you not bid me, love you, God and King;
 all, all your own, soul, heart, and strength, and mind?
  I see your cross; there teach my heart to cling.
                Oh, let me seek you and, oh, let me find!
Last summer, while Dad was visiting us prior to moving in with us this fall, our grandson, his great grandson, Jasper came over to visit.
Jasper did, what Jasper always did, which is run into the house and climb up into my lap.
Dad looked at him and said, “I hope one day that he will run to me, like he runs to you.”
One of the differences between Mom and Dad is that Mom absolutely loved little children.  If the whole world was populated with kids five years old and younger, Mom would be in heaven.
Dad, on the other hand, was never quite sure how to show his love to a young child.  It just didn’t come as naturally to him.
But he tried.
One of the first days he was with us in Sandpoint, he picked up Jasper on his lap and began to teach Jasper how to count to five on his fingers. 
And as the weeks rolled on, Jasper began to seek out Dad, to hug him and kiss him.  For Dad it was a final wish, fulfilled.
One of the struggles both our parents had was with being outwardly affectionate.  One of our in-laws once described their behavior as “matter of fact South Dakotan”. 
They were typical Norwegian Americans, deeply faithful and loving, but not exceptionally expressive of that love.  I’m told, however, that Dad was quite the romantic guy when he was dating mom.  Poems, love letters, and the like.
I can see now, the depth of their love for us.  It was not always possible for me to see through that Scandinavian facade.  But they showed it in their own way.
Dad did it, in part, as a builder, something that I can relate to as a builder myself.
His first major project for the family was the living room furniture that we lovingly call the ‘egg’ furniture.  It’s all elliptical.  Quite an engineering feat.  Also during this, his egg phase, he built a camping trailer, also an ellipse.
In Ronan, his first call, back about 1960 he began building a boat, which was first launched at Boysen Reservoir in Wyoming in 1964.  A year or so later we would enjoy a vacation cruising about Jackson Lake one of the epic adventures for our family. 
That boat, the Pastor’s Study, would accompany us to South Dakota, which Dad would point out has more shoreline than the State of California.
We fished, we cruised along the lake shore, we played Canasta, especially when it rained, and we swam off the boat while Dad hung over the stern fixing the motor, once again.
The boat made one last journey, and that was to the Flathead Valley where it was originally intended to be. 
In 1976 they bought the lake place at Elmo, built a boat house, and guest quarters, with the intent that like the boat, the cabin would be our gathering point as a family, which it has been.  And his final building project was to have been an airplane, so the two of them could fly to visit all of us during their retirement years.  That plane didn’t get done, but he did complete an ultralight.
“Teach me to love.”
His prayer.
The things he built, were all ways he expressed his love to his family.
For Dad there were two loves of his life that simply could not be separated.
His love of the Lord and his love of his family.
He wrote a poem for Arden’s wedding that sums this up, one verse reads:
“God, grant this grace,
The gift of light,
They may live with Thee
Who dwells in light
And is the light
In the midst of a shadowed world.”
There were times when it seemed as though he was trying far too hard to make us love God as we ought to love.
He would write letters expressing a concern that we were tending to our faith in Christ Jesus.
His fear was that we wouldn’t be faithful, and that we would separate ourselves from our ancestors for all eternity.
There were two sides to Dad’s theology.  There is the Love of God that was poured out for us in Christ Jesus, a love freely and graciously given, and there is the Love for God that we are called to return.
This was the second part of the covenant that Dad was so concerned about.
Dad showed his love for us, by providing a place for us to be together.
First, the living room furniture.
Then the Boat.
Then the Cabin.
And his final hope, was that we would all gather together, as one family, in heaven.
This is how Dad learned to love, cumbersome at times, offensive at times, but it was Dad.
And make me love you as I ought to love. . .
Teach me to love you as your angels love,
one holy passion filling all my frame;
the baptism of the heav’n descended dove,
my heart the altar, and your love the flame.
Our conversation that Wednesday night, went on for a bit longer.  We covered a few different topics.  And then we winded it down.
“Dave, I hope we can have many more conversations like this.”
“I do too, Dad.”
The next morning Dad died. 
For ninety four years he lived, faithfully, ever aware of the love of God from which nothing in all of creation could separate him.
And for ninety four years he sought as he was able to love God, and others, in return.
 “I don’t know if I’m lucky to live so long, or unlucky because I’m not with Jesus.” He would say as he considered his age.
On Thursday, September 28th, early in the morning, he became a lucky man.
A kiss for mom.
A hug for his Dad, Olen, and his step mom, Louise.
No doubt a long cuddle with Alice, his mother, who died when he was but a child.
And I have a feeling that in short order there would be a spirited conversation about things that matter with Maurice, his brother that he loved so dearly.  Each one raising their voice a little louder as they debated the things of the day, as they had whenever they got together.
And then, worship.  Gathered around the throne with those he loved, there would be worship and praise.
And perhaps, many more surprises.
“When the evening gently closes in,
And you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been,
With just one more surprise.”
These were the last words he memorized, likely the last words he wrote down, as well.
The final hymn he memorized was all about the promise.  I was there to hear your Borning Cry.

Sing it with me now. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Sacred Time. Sacred Space.

Sacred time.  Sacred Space.
Jacob declared of Bethel, where God renewed the promise he had made to Abraham:
"How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
Perhaps we don’t appreciate the sacred as much as we should.  Everything and everyplace is so ordinary to us. 
One of my favorite stories is about representatives of the Native American community that were constantly showing up at hearings and objecting to opening up more forest land with logging roads.
“This land is sacred to my people”, they would declare at each and every hearing.
“Is there any place that is not sacred to you and your people?” one logging company executive finally replied in exasperation.
“Now, Sir, you are finally beginning to understand my people”, was the response.
I’m thinking about the sacred these days. 
We have our sanctuaries.  And in time they become sacred to us.  The stairs at the entry are visibly worn from the flow of people in and out for generations.
When we traveled to Russia we were able to visit the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod which has been a place of worship throughout its 1,000 year history.  It is so ancient there are archeological digs within the sanctuary, revealing the original floor.
As is typical, the icons painted on the walls follow a progression from the earth below to the heavens above.  One cannot stand in such a place without having one’s head bend backward as your eyes are drawn up to the heavenly scenes above.
I think also of the little Egland Lutheran Church out on the prairie of NE South Dakota, near the farm of our family.
There, surrounding the church is the cemetery.  There we laid to rest one family member after another.
Grandma Louise played organ in that church for decades.  How many times “Holy, Holy, Holy” welcomed people to worship one can never know, but it’s as though the walls themselves could sing the song.
“This is the gate of heaven.”
My desk now sits in our living room, having been moved from its former place as we remodeled my office to make a bedroom for Dad.
And this morning, as I write, both Mom and Dad’s ashes are in the urn on my desk, waiting to be transported back to Kalispell, and then to the cemetery in Polson. 
I am anticipating moving my desk back to where it used to be, and reclaiming that room as my office.
And yet it has changed.
It has become a sacred space, for there, right where my desk will stand, my Father died. 
“This is the gate of heaven.”
There Dad came face to face with his Savior, and was drawn from this earth into the heavens above. 
And the Divine light will always cast a shadow on the walls.
Sacred Time.  Sacred Space.
The question was raised about whether we should scatter some of Mom and Dad’s ashes at their lake place in Elmo, MT.   I objected.
My concern is that the future of the lake place is still up in the air, and should we have to sell it, it will be much easier if it is not the place where our parent’s ashes are scattered.
Scattering the ashes creates a sacred space.
The irony is that my own home has become such a sacred space.
I anticipate the move back into that space in our home.
There I will study the word.  Sermons will be written.  And through the Word, Jesus’ face will be revealed.
There in that space that Dad saw Jesus face to face, I too will encounter my Savior.
There Angels will ascend and descend on the stairway to heaven, messengers speaking the Divine Word into our ordinary world.
That place where I have often wrestled with God through times of depression and despair will now be a sanctuary. 
No, I don’t plan on erecting an altar there.  There are other places for that.
But I will remember.
I will remember that for one brief but shining moment, it was there that my Father saw the face of God.
I find myself wondering about the future.
Will one day a bed be made there again, only this time for me as I take my final breaths on this earth?
Only time will tell.
For now the Sacred will be found in the ordinary.
A few feet away from that holy space where Dad died, is our dining table.
There we break bread together.
There we gather with family and friends.
There we teach our grandson to pray.
And there amid all that ordinary stuff, we encounter the hidden God.

And the angels sing “Holy, Holy, Holy!”