Congregational Positioning for Ministry with Seniors – Powerpoint Presentation May 20th, 2018 Zion Lutheran Church

As part of my congregation’s visioning process, I created a powerpoint presentation about some of the implications of an aging population in the U.S. and the implications on congregational life.

On Sunday, May 20th, I  shared a vibrant conversation about ways older adults contribute to the life of the congregation. The focus of the discussion was about what spiritual needs exist in the lives of older adults and discovering the value of ministry with the older adults in the congregation.

I included slides from my powerpoint presentation in this post. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to link the embedded videos into the slideshow.

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Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

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Increasing as I age, I become more aware of my sinful nature. It’s not as if I’m a terrible person, but I realize the powerful effect sin has on my life and the world God loves. Perhaps it is the realization I have that I have the power to destroy and great potential to create distress and havoc. Not that I would ever wish to access my ability to create harm and hurt others, but I am aware of my power and limitations.

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St. Ignatius described sin as putting our hope in the wrong things. From this perspective, I can see how far off my inner drive and thoughts are from the will of God. I think for some it would be just easier to give into sin and live a life without any internal examination to discover the beauty of one’s self. In other words, it is so tempting to live life in these times of transition with the motto, “Do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone.” After all, it is the beginning of the age of authenticity. The point in time where our own experience directs our life and if we don’t like doing something we might as well quit the practice because the cost of missing out on something else is too significant.

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The world is getting smaller every day and more focus on the self. Losing sight of the inner relatedness of life is easy.

As Dr. King taught, “all people see in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In other words, what affects one person impacts us all. We might not consciously be aware of, but we are all, as Dr. King suggests, woven together into one fabric of life.

Moving away from our self-centered way of living to a concern for the Commonwealth of all people was Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved community” in which he meant the Body of Christ dwelling together under the Reign of God. The sin manifests itself when we divide the world into the “good” and the “bad.” Of course, we are always the good ones; the others are bad. The ones who have a problem are still outside of us, and therefore we tell ourselves we must struggle against those outside our group.

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But a real community is different because of the realization that the evil is inside of us – not just inside the community or group, but inside of me. Jesus talks about this as thinking about the need to remove the speck of dust from my neighbor’s eye but overlooking the log that dwells within my eye. Sin dwells within me. Warfare is within me, within my community. We confess that we aren’t living the life God desires for us and that we place our hope in things that do not create an experience for all.

Jesus calls us into living a different vision for life. A life where, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too are called to live a different narrative. A narrative where we are called to be agents of peace amidst the violent nature of the world while recognizing the warfare that is going on inside of me.

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Jesus calls us to seek the wholeness, in that our souls are restless until they abide with God. Nothing else will satisfy this longing. Many will attempt to fill their spiritual needs with things that are not spiritual, and as a result, they can never find that inner peace as they continuously battle their own self.

Jesus gives us words of great hope this Ash Wednesday. He tells us that he is God’s “Way, Truth, and Life.” There is a need in all of our souls that we cannot meet. It’s impossible for a human to be completely satisfied on our own. We seek for meaning and life outside ourselves.

This is the day we remember how we have placed our hope in those things that are not God. That we have all wondered from the Truth, Way, and Life that God desires for us. This is the day we remember that we are not at peace. We wrestle with far more matters of life than we care to admit. This is the day where we remember that we have neglected God’s call to live peacefully in community with the world God loves. And because of all this, one day our life on earth will eventually come to an end.

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This is a heavy day. But there is hope. Hope is found in the alternative vision Jesus offers in which there are many places to dwell in God’s house. In Jesus, there are many kinds of people who stay and live out what Dr. King called a “beloved community.”

This Lent, we will dig deeper what it means that Jesus is the “Way.” Not “one way” or “a way” but “The Way.” Jesus words in the Gospel speak to us in ways that our culture cannot and will not talk. So, remember to listen to his words as if you were hearing them for the first time. Think about what you are seeing in your life and what God wants to show you. For God is there, ready to receive us and forgive us even in spite of ourselves.

Hear his invitation to repentance and the possibility of growth in your faith again. Trust that where Jesus is, there we may also be. Amen.

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Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

God’s Great Reversal – Matthew 20:1-16

I’m going to share a truth that we know is true, but for some reason, it’s easier for us to deny it.  The truth I’m speaking of is that sometimes life just isn’t fair.  It’s a reality that sooner or later we’re all going to face.  It’s best that we are learning this fact while you are in your first half of life than waiting until old age to discover this truth.  In fact, you can learn this truth in nursery school – Sometimes lives deals us lemons.

Sometimes that’s the way things happen, isn’t it?  Sometimes life isn’t fair.  So we learn to deal with the unfairness.  So, let me tie this life reality in with the Gospel text today.  It’s a crucial point that I don’t want you to miss in the text.  Saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying that God isn’t fair for two reasons.  First, of all, because God doesn’t owe you and me anything at all.  Like Luther said on his deathbed, “It’s true.  We’re all beggars.”  And second, God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s justice works.

Saying life is not fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair because God doesn’t owe us anything at all.  In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, the very opposite is correct.  We owe God everything:  our time, our talents, and our treasures.  The very life that lives inside each of us has been gifted to us; even the breaths that you take, the clothes on your back, the food that is prepared for you, even your health to some extent is a gift from God.   The simple fact is:  God doesn’t owe us anything.

As active disciples of Christ, we commit our lives to God.  We resist the urge not to show up or to sleep in on our Sunday morning to worship God.  We spend our hard-earned money and resources to support the work and ministry of our congregation.  We spend time in prayer and the study of Scripture when we could be golfing or some recreation.  Our confirmation students could do something with their one hour on Wednesday nights other than talking about faith formation.  You see, as active Christians, we follow Jesus, the landowner into the vineyard, where we are called to do the work of God.

For us, active disciples of Christ, things may not always seem the way we would like.  It doesn’t seem fair to us that some deserve God’s grace when they don’t even show up or participate.  We are the ones, after all, who’ve done most of the work, we tell ourselves.  The laborers in the parable that began picking the first hour of the day picked more grapes than those who started picking the last moment.  If that were to happen today, there would be an uproar; labor strikes and unions would lash out. It is only right that the reward for our work should be consistent with the time we put into our efforts.

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But this parable has nothing to do with economics, at least in the sense that we understand the economy.  It is not a description of how employers should treat workers.  It is, after all, a description of how God works in the kingdom of heaven.  God’s goodness may or may not be entirely understandable.  We don’t fully understand the grace of God.  And based on this parable, we may indeed think that God doesn’t operate fairly.

God’s not fair, according to our limited human reasoning.  In fact, if we put ourselves in the place of the laborers who started at sunrise or midmorning or even early afternoon, we have missed the point of the parable.  Jesus is the one who works from sunup to sundown.  Jesus is the one who has borne the burden of the day and heat.  Only Jesus has earned us salvation.  The grace is that God still calls us towards God’s self and gives us the full wage.   God offers you the promise of salvation, not because you have worked hard enough but because Jesus has done it for you.

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God gives us more than we can ever earn.  The Bible teaches that the wages of sin are death, but it is God who gives life.  The laborers in the vineyard all received a full day’s pay regardless of the hours they worked.  We have all been given salvation, irrespective of the sins we’ve been under.

And perhaps even more remarkable is that God has entrusted us to do God’s work.  In baptism, we’ve been given the work of a lifetime, and at the table, God renews us and then sends us out as labors to plant the seeds of God’s word, to speak to those who have never heard and to proclaim the word anew to those who have fallen away.

ripe-47423__480.jpgRemember that the kingdom of heaven is a gift, and in a way, we’re all latecomers, aren’t we? In Christ, it’s never too late to come home to the mercy of God. Thanks, be to God.  Amen.

 

 

A Survey of World Christianity

Mark Noll begins in his book, The New Shape of World Christianity, with the following observations:

  • This past Sunday more Christian believers attended worship in China than in all of Europe.
  • This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined.
  • This past Sunday there were more members of Brazil’s Pentecostal Assemblies of God at worship than the combined number in the two largest U.S. Pentecostal denominations.
  • This past Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly back congregations, and half of the churchgoers in London were African or African-Caribbean.
  • This past Sunday the largest congregation in Europe was in Kiev pastored by a Nigerian Pentecostal.
  • This past Sunday there were more Roman Catholics at worship in the Philippines than in any single country in Europe.

From: Mark A. Noll, The Shape of World Christianity, pp. 20-21

Experiencing the “Wild Goose Festival” July 13-16, 2017 |Hot Springs, North Carolina

After my family returned from our time in Mexico, we hopped in the car for the nine-hour drive down to North Carolina to experience the “Wild Goose Festival” located in a small mountain town of Hot Springs.

If you haven’t experienced the festival, you should.

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What is the Wild Goose?  Simply put – the Wild Goose is a Celtic image for the Holy Spirit.  The metaphor of a wild goose is one which evokes the image of an active, beautiful and utterly unpredictable pattern of flight.   The wild goose is about adventure and surprise with a new variable direction.  The flight of the goose is one that is taking in a community.  Geese share a common direction, and they honk together in a manner that supports the other geese.

The festival is committed to being an inclusive community rooted in the Christian tradition of radical hospitality (welcoming all people – of faith, or no faith), non-violence, always evolving, and relationships between people matter.   Conversations are bold, and questions are most important.

The Wild Goose festival is perhaps best described as a gathering for the arts, music, spirituality, community, social justice and for those who are seeking a common humanity by breaking down stereotypes and the social imagination of North America culture.

 

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Participating in the conversation, “The Spiritual Parenting Revolution” with Lynyetta Willis

 

I attended a few workshops during my time at the Goose, although there are over 200 such workshops that attendees can pick from what is of interest to them.  On Saturday morning I attended a workshop entitled, “Conservatives are from Mars and Progressives are from Venus:  Finding Our Way in Another World.” The speaker, Jennifer Ould, invited us to think about what it might look like to invite and welcome those who are against us, and to include those who would like to exclude us.

If we want any sort of meaningful change in the world, we have to practice new ways of engaging each other and recognize in our own selves our anxieties and defenses that diffuse our ability to remain open to dialogue and to meet our fears with loving nonviolence.

I enjoyed participating in “Jams and Juice” with my family.  “Jams and Juice” is like karaoke for kids, or Beer and Hymns and hymns (minus the beer).

 

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My daughter, Linnea, along with others singing at “Jams and Juice.”

 

Another great session was one on personal relationships entitled, “The Value of Burning Bridges” hosted by the speaker, Melissa Greene.  Melissa spoke about the importance of burning bridges when, at times, it is necessary to move on from a relationship that is no longer healthy and life giving to allow a stronger, sturdier bridge to be built in place of the unhealthy ones.

 

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Melissa Greene discussing the value of burning bridges

 

I really enjoyed Beer and Hymns held each night at eleven.  It’s a beautiful thing when people sing together.  For many, this is a spiritual practice.  “Beer and Hymns” is the event that is just what the name indicates.  Local musicians including guitar, mandolin, according, banjos, djembe drums, washboards, play ‘spirit’ lead hymns that are played faster and louder than normal.

 

Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.

Water and the Word: Lutherans and Baptism

From the looks of it, baptism may not appear to be a miracle, but it is the most important step in the faith of person.  It can looks so ordinary – a couple of ministers in robes, a couple of parents, gathered around a bowl to say a few words and splash some water on a baby who many times is a sleep.  Who’d ever guess that this might just be the most important event in someone’s life?

But, isn’t just like God, you know….the God who was born in a manger, to hide what might be the most miraculous event in a simple ceremony.

Baptism is a miracle in it we hear the Word of God and the washing of water in which God declares each of us to be God’s own beloved. Where we are taken into the communion of other saints, and are given a future that God promises to us that not even death or the devil will be able to destroy.

To understand the importance of this sacrament, we need to back-fill the biblical story all the way back to the first chapter of the first book in the bible, Genesis.  Where Adam and Eve experience the fall from paradise.

Christian understanding is that it was because of turning their back on God that God cast them out of the garden and because of this, everyone is born into what St. Augustine calls “Original Sin”.

The bible speaks of the wages of sin as death.  In that we all will die as a result of the fall.

St. Paul talks about the “old self” before baptism, as being the Old Adam, as in the Adam before the fall.

And I think we can carry this a step further in Lutheran’s understanding of baptism.  The Old Adam in each of us loves to attach baptism and ignore the promise that God has made to us in the water and the word.  “Water”… humph…   “Water!  Whoever heard of water and God coming to us?  We flush our toilets with water and now you’re telling me that God is coming to me through means of water? Ha!

Hear how silly of a claim that is for a non-believer?

But baptism isn’t just water for Lutherans, it is water along with the Word of God.  The water and the Word cannot be separated.  Apart from the Word of God, the water is just water.  Apart from the water, the Word is still God’s Word, but the sacrament isn’t there without both.

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Make disciples of all nations” Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel.  How does this happen?   We make disciples through baptism, “baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit.”

Let’s face it.   That’s the easy part.  The sacrament is the easy part.  But that’s not where Jesus ends it.

And teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you, remembering I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20

Go therefore” The syntax of the text is a command.  We receive Jesus’ command to go.

So why is it, if our baptism into Christ is so full of grace and gifts, isn’t it hard to understand why the world isn’t clamoring for it, shouldn’t our calendar be so full of scheduled baptisms that we find it hard to fit them all in?

Actually though, the truth of the matter is quite the opposite.

There isn’t a gift, next to Jesus himself, that the ‘Old Adam’, the world, and the devil have a deeper hatred.  Baptism, as we say in our liturgy is about a death.  It is the funeral for the Old Adam, but it’s also about a birth.  It’s the birth of your new identity.  So, it’s no wonder that the Old Adam in us wants to attach God’s promise to us in baptism. 

See, the Old Adam in us likes things the way they are because they please us.   The ‘Old Adam’ in us wants to attack God’s promise to make it seem as though we are doing something for God —  not something that God has done and does for us.  As a result, people wind up fearing, loving, and trusting in what they do and what they can do, and it demishishes what God has done for us.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions from pagans, atheists, and unbelievers, that baptism is a magical, good luck charm and a life after death insurance policy so that we won’t be afraid to die.  I can see their point, based upon their observation of laissez-fare cultural Christianity in which one is baptized but that’s the extent of their faith life.

And then, on the other side, the super-pious ignore Baptism as if God can’t do what God has promised, and needs our help in god’s assistance.  This can lead us to believe that we can concentration on our own convictions and decisions for Christ, and to trust in our own “experiences” as being the truth.

At the end of the day, the fact is, Christ has commanded Baptism.  Baptism shouldn’t be scary nor is it malicious…. It is a loving order that God has directed to the Church.

And so, I leave you with this question.  “What’s the point?”  Here again, in the Small Catechism, Luther says that baptism is about the forgiveness of sin, redeems from death and the devil, and the offer of eternal life.  

Our baptism was a mini-judgement.  As the Word of God was spoken to you and the water washed across your face, God has judged you already.  You’ve been told the verdict and what it will be on the last day.  “Not guilty,” and the same words at God’s Son Jesus were uttered, “This is my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”  After God’s judgement, then we receive the gifts of the last judgement: forgiveness, deliverance, and everlasting life.

The old Adam in us hears this and says, “Wait a minute, there has to be a catch somewhere.  Nothing in life is free.  How can god do that?” So, the Old Adam hunts around for a good response.  “This stuff is too good to be true.”  Where’s the catch? What’s the hidden agenda?”

Aha” old Adam finally reads Luther’s response.  “We have to believe it… that’s the price tag.”  There’s a method to this logic.  If we just have enough believe in God.  If we convince ourselves that our believe in God is sufficient, surly God will be pleased with us, right?

God doesn’t work that way, though.  There is no catch, not trap, nor hidden agendas or even a price tag on baptism.  It is only a free gift.

God wants you to believe, but God isn’t waiting for you to come up with enough belief or trust on your own. God gives what God commands– making a believer out of you, and putting to death the old Adam.

Baptism is just the entry point into the Christian faith.  From our baptism onward, God sends the Holy Spirit to work in us each day to make believers out of us.  Then there’s the old Adam that says, “It can’t be a gift. Somehow there’s got to be a catch to everything.  And what about the people who are baptized and never do anything about it? There must be something we have to do ourselves to get what we want from God.”

No” says god.  “There isn’t a catch. All I have to give is yours, and I’ve already given everything you need in your baptism, as a gift.  All I want is to make a better believer out of you.  And I’m doing that myself.  There’s nothing more that can be done.

“I started on you on the day you were baptized, and I’m going to keep at until the day I take you to myself.”

Sisters and brothers, when we are able finally see and recognize the gift God has offered, is what will finally destroy the old Adam.

Finally we can jump off the merry-go-round of trying to self-justify and just be the man or woman, girl or boy who God has created you to be and nothing more.  It is God setting you free from yourself.  Knowing the promise, we are freed from trying to impress God.

You are freed to call on God as Abba. You are free from trying to impress people with your old Adam’s religion.  You are free to speak the word to your neighbors, telling them of all that God does and gives.  You’re free from your own doubts and judgements.  You are free to believe what God has already told you and will tell you each new day:  He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” That’s you.  In our baptism we can be sure of that.

Amen.

“What is War?” An Article for the ‘Voice of Muscatine’ Newspaper

The other day, my preschool-aged child asked me, “What is war?”  I fumbled through an answer that was accurate yet sterilized to match her young age.  It is indeed sad that a preschooler may be asking such a question.  Yet anthropologists tell us that humans have been dealing with violence since the beginning of civilization.  Though just because we may have, deep down, urges to be aggressive and even violent, it need not be the only impulse that shapes our behavior.

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Just as innate as aggression, is our drive to be kind to one another, to lift others up, and to express love.  This same preschooler, who fights with her sibling and has already been exposed to the concept of war, also knows how to share her toys, show comfort and affection.  Just the other day, she, unprompted brought me a tray of canned fruit and granola bars after I told her I wasn’t feeling well.  The instinct both to lash out and to love is a part of the fiber of every human being.

So, it is our responsibility, as leaders, as parents, as mentors, as fellow humankind, to be aware of our inner drives.

During our interactions with others, through words and action, we can choose who it is we are going to be – the one who spreads love or the one who shows contempt.

We have the ability to respond (response-ability) to others with kindness, with goodness of heart, and with actions of love.  And maybe, just maybe, the preschoolers of future generations will not even have the words “war” or “violence” in their vocabularies.