Welcoming Vicar Liz Koerner

 

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I am excited to work with my third pastoral intern who starts with our congregation in July 2018.

Vicar Liz Koerner, from New Britain, Connecticut, is a seminary student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Liz is a graduate of Thiel College ( a Lutheran College) in Greenville, Pennsylvania. She shares she is excited about her journey toward ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and looking forward to her year-long internship in Muscatine.

She loves to craft, read, hanging out with her friends, and LOVES tie-dyed and rainbow and the combination of the two!

 

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.

 

“Keeping the Edges Hot” a Reflection on Matthew 25

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Each year, after we hear God’s promise of eternal life on All Saints’, we focus our attention on the return of the Son of Man. When we reflect our awareness to what happens around us, it seems to be fitting that following our remembrance of God’s promise on those who have already entered eternal life through our commemoration of the saints, at some point, all we have known and will know will come to an end. We call this the cycle of life, and while our culture does it’s best to distract us from thinking about the end of things, the gospel calls us to be aware of the reality of life.

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         Jesus tells the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as a way of inviting our attention to the details of our life. In a real sense, it is a parable about spiritual literacy which, according to our passage means being alive to what life is telling us and an awareness of the presence of God in the darkness of the night.

         There are all kinds of delightful and essential things that are happening in front of us, but we often miss most of them because we are either too busy to notice or not awake to realize what is happening. Which seems to be Jesus point in telling this parable.

         This past week in our confirmation class, our class discussed how Christianity is similar and dissimilar to other world religions. Our youth talked about Buddhist and how meditation can lead to Nirvana or an enlightenment as a life path. Buddha says everything in life comes down to one thing- staying awake and being aware. And you remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Watch and pray,” Jesus says. “Remain with me.” He tells the disciples. And yet, the Bible reports that the disciples are unable to remain awake.

         God is in the details, and if we are not paying attention, we will miss the message. Paying attention requires disciple and practice. As a community of faith whose core is the Gospel message, we lift up and affirm our spiritual practices as a way in which we remain aware of the presence of God as a way to express our faith in Jesus Christ as a different way to live and be in this complicated world.

What does it mean to pay attention? Being alive and awake in the case of Jesus parable is to live intentionally without reservation in the here-and-now. To be attentive, we must put ourselves in a place where we are open and receptive and entirely present. This takes work and practice. There is no one “right” way to practice an awareness. Psychologist tells us based on brain scans that people who have a spiritual practice of consciousness and alertness have created more Alpha waves in their brains which in turn translates into a less stressful life and peaceful feeling. And conversely, if we are not aware and alert we can be distracted and eluded from what is supplying energy to our lives a thousand times over.

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         How often has each of us not fully embraces those moments of grace, epiphanies, and great insights because we have been too wrapped up in a hurried pace of life? Too busy to slow down to appreciate the good stuff that gives our lives meaning.

         Spiritually, too many Christians are just playing church. Just going through the motions. We say we want to follow Jesus as long as following Jesus fits nicely into my schedule and doesn’t require any time or monetary commitment from me. We might show up on a Sunday morning, but the message we come away with doesn’t do for us what it does for some of the other folks. We might not be aware of God’s presence in our life because we haven’t given any thought to the matter. And then we are in a rush to start the week ill-prepared because we’ve been so busy during the weekend that by the time Monday rolls around, and we get to the office, God’s message of life and meaning is as distant to us as last year’s vacation. Like the foolish bridesmaid who was ill-equipped for the darkness of the night, they were not alert for the moment at hand.   

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         Each day, each moment has its own needs. Each day has its own set of thoughts and words. Are we living in tune with what God is speaking to us? Because as the parable expresses no moment is trivial since each moment in time contains a spark of the divine. If we are not aware and present, we miss what God is speaking.

         Jesus parable of the bridesmaid is like our reminder of God’s grand banquet that is spread out before us, and God desires that we partake and seize the present moment to recognize God’s presence with us without any regret for the past or the future. Pledge to yourselves this moment and let the moment teach you. Surrender yourself to the moment and make it preach to you because the quality of each moment we are aware of the Life inside us determines the quality of life we lead.

         Where do we start? “Pastor, how can I be more in tune with the life that lives inside of me?” How can I be like the bridesmaid who was alert and awake? The starting point in the recognition that we are already on the journey. We can’t attain the presence of God anymore because we are already entirely in the existence of God. What is missing is our awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us with every breath we take in. Maybe the best way to be aware is not so much about what we need to learn or even attain, but rather what things do I need to unlearn so that I am more aware of God’s presence?

         I mentioned that our confirmation students class time was about world religions. Some might wonder why it would be essential to teach the students about other religions when we are instructing them in faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a fair question to ask, and I would answer that all religious teachers without exception have recognized that we humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.

         And what that might mean for many of us is that to be aware of God’s presences in our lives, we have to accept what is often difficult to realize that it is God who walks alongside the problematic moments in lives. That’s why Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Stay awake! And Remain watchful.” We have to learn to see what is there because if we want to remain awake and engage in spiritual practices remember what a spiritual exercise is designed to do – religious traditions help us to get rid of the illusions we hold so that we can be fully present. Spiritual methods exist to help us see who we are, what is happening in life and what is True. On the contrary, our mass culture is like scales over our eyes. We only see life through the material eye which will always desire to acquire more and more.

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   So then, if we are to believe and take to heart these words of Jesus, then we must start with what spiritual teachers coin a “beginner’s mind.” That is to be aware of the voices inside us that presume that we already see what God wants us to see. A beginner’s mind starts with the reality that I know nothing and has everything to learn. A beginner’s mind understands there may be no sufficient answer and that the questions we ask or more important than any answer given. A beginner’s mind is merely an awareness. An awareness that we cannot live in the presence of God, but rather that we are entirely surrounded by God.

         St. Patrick said it like this: “God beneath us, God in front of us, God behind us, God above us, God within us.”

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         To be aware and live means that we cannot earn God. We can’t prove ourselves worthy of God, but rather than that to be awake and alert is to be attentive to the reality that God is already present and because of that, we can enjoy the present moment. Right here. Right now. For sure, there are moments when this happens smoothly for us. When life makes sense, and all is right with the world.

         But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. Jesus pushes us further to see past our social edges. Can you see the image of Jesus in the least of your brothers and sisters? How about your enemies are those whom would cause you harm? Notice this parable says nothing about commands, or church attendance, nothing about church law. Jesus parable is only about our ability to see.

         Perhaps what it means to have oil in our lamps is when we can see the image of God where we don’t want to look and see, then we know not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus. Amen.

 

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.