How Will You Measure Your Life?

Sermon – Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA. June 26, 2016 – Text: Luke 9:51-62

Luke 9:51-62

51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

 

Freshly Plowed Rows

Freshly plowed and unplanted rows in a farm field. An oak tree and hills are in the distance.

 

Our reading from Luke’s gospel today is a narrative of change – of the old falling away, and new ways of being coming into existence.

It’s also a narrative of persistence – of staying the course, minding one’s path ahead.

In the first paragraph, when Jesus and his followers come into a Samaritan village, he shifts the image of God from what is expected.  Samaritans and Jews, as we’ve heard, didn’t get along, and so they were not received.  James and John figure this is an excellent time to see about invoking some divine retribution.  But Jesus will have no part of it.  This is a new day, and Jesus is the new covenant that God makes with God’s people.  The vengeful response is no longer in the playbook.  Over the next two Sundays, we will hear Jesus outline a different way of engaging with those who don’t like you.  We’ll also hear Jesus describe a person who in his society was “othered” but who was the true neighbor.

And so they continue the journey to Jerusalem.  A journey that began when Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem, “when the days drew near for him to be taken up.”  Interesting how this is not a reference to anything like Passover or any other kind of holiday.  Instead, Jesus sees his destiny before him.  The lyrics of the song we use during Lent, “Jerusalem, My Destiny” express it well:  “Though I cannot see the end for me, I cannot turn away.”  Jesus sees the end, but he cannot turn away.  The Greek in our text for “set his face” reflects a Hebraic image of “fixedness of purpose.”

Through the journey Jesus is teaching about the challenges that this will hold – what WWII-era Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.” Jesus is being gut-level honest with those following him, letting them know that they likely won’t be welcomed.

But he also is reminding them that this journey is one that requires concentration and attention.  Distractions, being only partway-in, and devoting more time to getting out of the work than to getting it done are what pull the journey off-track.  The allegory Jesus uses is a plow.

I saw an interesting reflection of that allegory this week.  The old spiritual “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On” was sung during the civil rights movement, but that song began in the era of slavery with slightly different words:  “Keep your Hand on the Plow, Hold On.”  The call is to keep focused on the goal, on the mission before you.  Distraction and abandonment could, in that era, lead quite literally to death.  There is a subtle reference to the subterfuge of the Underground Railroad as well: keep your hand on the plow, that provides a cover.  The oppressor will think all is well.  Hold on.  You will make your escape.

You may have seen some of the footage of the sit-in in the US House of Representatives earlier this week.  Disgusted with the lack of a bill or a vote on some of the less volatile aspects of the gun control discussion, House Democrats staged a sit-in and pledged to continue until such time as a bill is voted upon.

ht_elizabeth_esty_house_dems_sit_in_jc_160622_16x9_992

 

Here’s the thing.  This sit-in was led by Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who is in the foreground.  Representative Lewis is a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who worked and marched with Dr. King and endured beatings, police dogs, fire hoses, and a host of other abuses.  But his hand has remained on the plow all these years.  His eye is on the prize, which in this instance is substantive action to address the epidemic of gun violence in the US.

When I think of someone “setting his face to go to Jerusalem” in our day, I think of John Lewis.  He knows this journey will be difficult, and that there will be consequences for him politically and maybe even personally.  But that is not the point.  People are dying needlessly, and thus Representative Lewis knows that he must set his face for this particular Jerusalem.

If you look at his face, you can see it.  The decades of patience and persistence.  The concern for others of God’s beloved children.  And above all, the conviction that non-violent resistance is how the status quo can be upended.

However, I think it’s important to realize that Representative Lewis has by no means abandoned the past.

He has not “let the dead bury the dead.”

No, John Lewis has remembered and honored the past.  He has drawn from its lessons and lived into its implications.  His experience as one who sat in then, and who sits in now, tells us that he does not live IN the past, but rather lives FORWARD FROM the past.

John_Lewis

In 1965, John Lewis’ face was set for Jerusalem.  In 1965, that Jerusalem was Montgomery.  In 1965, he put his hand on the plow and he has not removed it.

I have heard many people wrestle with this text, trying to figure out if Jesus is telling them to literally let the dead bury the dead.  (Not sure how that works.)  I’ve heard people yank this text sideways into a social justice talk about homelessness.  And sadly, I’ve heard this text used as a weapon to guilt people into sets of rules meant to force their hand onto a plow and keep it there.

 But I see different things.

I see a world where the living bury the dead, and in so doing, proclaim the kingdom of God.  It’s a “both/and” dichotomy, not an “either/or” dichotomy.  The action of burying the dead proclaims the kingdom of God because when we bury the dead, we proclaim not only the cross, but resurrection.

 Karoline Lewis, preaching professor at Luther Seminary and to whom I am indebted for inspiration, writes of an epiphany she had with this text when she imagined it from Jesus’ point of view.

Suddenly, she said, she began to realize that perhaps what Jesus is saying here is that every moment counts since God made the decision to become one of us.  Even seconds matter to God – not for the sake of our service alone, but for the sake of our being in the kingdom God imagines. Every moment matters because every one of us counts.

 In a both/and kind of world, a realization that every moment counts is profound.  And I think that realization may also remind us how easy it is for us to step away, saying “well, it’s not quite the right time” or “I need to get my act together first.”

That’s an aspect of thinking in terms of scarcity.

Jesus urges us instead to operate from the mindset of “let’s see what happens”.

That is thinking (and acting) in terms of abundance.

When I wrote about prayer for my blog last week, I mentioned that the structure of our corporate prayer is one that calls upon God for God’s action, but includes wording that reminds us that we are to act as well.  This too is thinking and acting in terms of abundance, living fully into the people God has called us to be.

If every moment counts, then we must ask ourselves:

*Am I waiting for someone else to call for righteousness?  Or will I step into the moment and proclaim God’s promise of justice?

*Am I waiting to follow someone else’s lead in standing up for those in the margins?  Or will I proclaim that God’s love is for everyone?

*Am I figuring that someone else will handle the environmental stuff?  Or am I living in a way that respects, honors, and restores God’s creation, and helps others to do the same?

*Am I standing at the Red Sea, waiting for God to do something?  Or am I standing at the font, dipping my fingers into these living waters and reminding myself of my baptism that calls me to love of neighbor?

If every moment counts,

Then how do we measure a life?

 

In what increments will you measure your life?  Because every moment counts, says Jesus.

You count. You matter. And God counts on you.

How will you measure your life?

 

 

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In These Waters

 

This week in worship, I’ve decided that instead of explaining an aspect of my diaconal project in a speech form, I will locate it within a rite.

We have many options as we begin worship, and one of them is Thanksgiving for Baptism.  We collectively give God thanks for baptism, for its saving nature, and for our being able to die daily to sin and rise daily to new life.  We are baptized once, but we live into our baptism every day.

Our rite this Sunday will not only be one of thanksgiving, but also one of confession and forgiveness, one that acknowledges our failure to live into the promises of new life that come with baptism.  However, one of those promises is forgiveness, and so we dip our fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross to remind ourselves: we are baptized, forgiven children of God!

All of our life in Christ symbolically flows from baptism – both gift and responsibility.  We are gifted with new life and grace, and we are given the responsibility to pay that forward in love of neighbor.

What do we discover in baptism?

*Celebrating adoption by God.  We hear language in our liturgy like “by these waters and your Word, you claim us as your own.”  I’m adopted myself, and I remember my mother saying when they came to get me at the adoption agency, it didn’t matter to her at all that I was not her flesh and blood.  It seems to me that God thinks this way too – but with the distinction that God is our creator, deeper than flesh and blood.  As the psalmist writes, “you knew me in my mother’s womb.”

This has been made most clear to me in Hawai’i, where the concept of ‘ohana is strong.  ‘Ohana is Hawaiian for ‘family’ but it stretches beyond blood relatives – it is the people you love and those who love you.  ‘Ohana combined with living aloha is close to how I think of adoption by God.  Living aloha is summed up well by the poster at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha on O’ahu, one of the best shave ice places in Hawai’i:  “With an open heart and an open mind, I will unconditionally love every person who crosses my path in life as a fellow member of our one world ‘ohana.”

*Justification through Jesus.  Through baptism we die to sin and rise again to new life.  Some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever found describing this comes from Canada:

 

For you, little one, the Spirit of God moved over the waters at creation, and God made covenants with God’s people.

It was for you that the Word of God became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

For you, Jesus Christ suffered death, crying out at the end, “It is finished!”

For you Christ triumphed over death, and rose in newness of life.

All of this was done for you, little one, though you do not know any of this yet.

But we will continue to tell you this good news until it becomes your own, because this good news is for you, and for us, and for all people.

And so the promise of Scripture is fulfilled: “We love because God first loved us.”

 

*New birth in the Spirit.  The Spirit works to activate and grow faith in us.  One of the promises God makes to us in Baptism is that the Holy Spirit – Jesus refers to the Spirit as an “advocate” – will be with us, enlivening our journey.

*Liberation from sin and death.  I need to emphasize that this is in the eternal sense.  We are simul iustus et peccator – simultaneously saint and sinner – and so we will mess up again!  (And again, and again…..)  But for freedom Christ has set us free.  We are freed from punishment for those sins because of God’s promises in Christ.

Ray Makeever has a song entitled “Death Be First, But Never Last.”  When we gather for a funeral, we acknowledge that death is real, but we preach resurrection.  My late husband Michael died during the Easter season, and his funeral was held during the Easter season.  What a powerful witness it was to all those at his funeral to hear, even in the face of death, that “we know that Christ is raised, and dies no more!”

In such worship together we discover that we have the ability to confront the reality of our own death AND the promise of the resurrection.  The baptismal journey that brings us into this place instills in us the virtue of courage.

What skills do we develop in baptism and in our remembrance of and thanksgiving for baptism?

*Naming our own sin.  Confession and Forgiveness, typically at the beginning of worship, is led from the baptismal font to remind us that we are washed and forgiven.

*Recognizing our participation in systemic sin.  Our baptismal call to love and serve the neighbor helps us to develop eyes that see where our privilege or situation draw us into systemic sin.  This is sin that is so entrenched in a society that only those who are oppressed by that sin notice it.  If baptism makes us new in Christ, then it is certainly possible for new eyes to be a part of us as a new creation.

*Releasing that sin through prayer, penitence, and/or spiritual discipline.  Many times we hear the words of forgiveness, and we know intellectually that we are forgiven, but it takes longer to feel it.  Our baptismal assurance of forgiveness gives us space to work through prayer and other disciplines to fully release that sin and its impact on us.

*A vocation to a life of prayer and service.  By having the font at the center of the worship space, on the same axis as the table and the cross, we are reminded constantly not only of our need for God’s love, but of the assurance in baptism of God’s abundant love and forgiveness AND of our being set free to love our neighbor.

A couple of weeks ago during the sending hymn, Pastor Laura and I were about to head outside to greet everyone.  One of our young friends was sitting with us, and she reminded us to dip our fingers in the font and make the sign of the cross before we left.  What an astute little theologian she is!  It’s a great idea to do this as we leave, as a reminder that baptism frees us for that neighbor-love.

Whenever you “wash up” this week – remind yourself that you are called and loved by God.

Be Constant in Prayer

 

This is the first real step into the meat of my diaconal project!

This summer I’ll be looking at the primary arenas of public worship – Gather, Word, Meal, Send – together with that which precedes it all (Baptism) and the two things that are present throughout in some form (Prayers and Sharing of Peace).

In his fantastic book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics Anglican priest Samuel Wells talks about each of these arenas as places of discovery and development for the purpose of forming character.  My premise is that in such formation, what we actually experience by the working of the Holy Spirit is transformation.  We are changed by an encounter with the living God and formed to be the people of God in service to the world.

One of the most basic ways to enter into such an encounter is through prayer.  In all of our life together as Lutheran Christians, there is prayer, even if we don’t specifically take on a posture or speak words that look or sound “prayer-y.”  Martin Luther’s theology of vocation (what we feel we are called to do as our life’s work) saw all of daily work as a form of prayer.

In worship, prayer is very diverse.  It weaves in and through the entire ordo (order of service) and can be a direct address to the Divine or something more abstract, such as a time of silence.  Our prayers might be individual or corporate (by the entire assembly).  They might be a plea or they might be intercessory (praying for the needs of others and all creation).

What do we discover when we pray?

*A sense of embodying care for the other.  One of the suggested intercessory prayers for this coming Sunday is:

“Gracious God, we pray for the nations. (A brief silence.)  Work in and through governments, humanitarian organizations, and local partnerships to cast out the forces of evil and establish your life and peace.  Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

Notice how the petition calls out to God to be active through human institutions to effect change – yet by naming the institutions we are reminded that we are co-workers with God in effecting that change.  We don’t sit idly on the sidelines; we care for others.

*A sense of embodying patience.  “The arc of the universe bends slowly – but it bends toward justice.”  When we pray, it is important not to see God as a capricious puppet-master, but as Emmanuel – God-with-us – walking with us patiently.  The reality of evil and sin means that change for the better is a time-intensive process, but it is one that we are called to undertake.

Understanding our work in the world as a partnership with God is critical.  Are we praying to ask God to act, or do we need to be moved to do our part?  Patience gives us the space to discern.

*A sense of embodying persistence.  This is another angle on discernment.  Persistence in prayer can be like persistence in other areas of life – new skills are developed and new vision is made possible.  There are lots of references to persistence in prayer in Scripture, particularly in the Epistle letters.

*An experience of the providence and the kingdom of God.  When we sing an offertory response, the lyrics speak of our gratitude to God for all of God’s gifts.  This is a form of prayer.  One option in the intercessory prayers, or Prayers of the People (the prayers offered on behalf of the assembly by the pastor, assisting minister, or reader) is space for prayers of thanksgiving.  This is a nice contrast to a series of petitions (sections of the prayer) that take the posture of request.

The intercessory prayers are comprised of petitions that lift up the images of the in-breaking of God’s peaceable kingdom.  This Sunday’s images include “how much you have done for us”, “the vitality of lands and waters”, and “Christ’s freedom and healing” among others.  We acknowledge where these things are happening and look towards the day when they will be our way of life.  This is the Lutheran paradox known as “already/not yet” – God’s peaceable kingdom is happening and is still yet to happen.

*The idea of an advocate.  When we intercede (pray for) someone else, we are advocating for their needs.  This can go forward in countless ways, but the formative thing happening is our understanding that we are called to be advocates, following Jesus’ example of giving voice to the voiceless.  I love how Wells uses the term “the IDEA of an advocate” – it’s intentionally vague, so as to get us thinking about what it means to be an advocate.

What are the skills we develop when we pray?

*Distinguishing pain from sin.  One of my professors did his dissertation on the healing rites in the Lutheran Church, and cautioned us to be careful not to allow the language of pain/illness and sin to become conflated.  A theology of an earlier era would tell me that my ankle pain must certainly be punishment for something I have done, when in reality my ankle pain is because I have terribly flat feet and they’ll hurt if I don’t wear my orthotics.

The opposite can be just as damaging.  If we “mask” sin by calling it pain or illness, we hurt those with genuine pain and illness.  If we deny that sin exists, whether in ourselves or others, we aren’t being truthful and that in itself can be damaging.

Prayer gives us space to contemplate the difference.  The language we use in our corporate prayers works to enunciate that difference.

*Distinguishing suffering from evil.  This is similar to the previous point.  One is cause, the other is effect.  Discerning suffering calls for a response of accompaniment – praying with, walking with the one who suffers.  Evil, on the other hand, calls for action.  We are seeing both in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre; the response to the suffering has been widespread and deeply felt.  The challenge comes when we must respond to the evil – in the process of defining the evil and figuring out a response, it is critical to be in prayer.

*Distinguishing need from want.  I could teach an entire class on this.  It is far more complex than it seems, or than advertising might want to make you believe.  In our society, a great deal of our identity is wound up in our “stuff”, and so making this distinction takes time (there’s that patience thing!).  It isn’t something to approach from either a guilt-trip or clinically-detached perspective, but rather something about which to be in prayer.

*A pattern of spiritual discipline.  Engaging in regular prayer is a spiritual discipline that can take many forms.  My home congregation, Bethlehem-Encinitas, is home to a wide variety including our quilting group and a new Centering Prayer group.  The repetitive nature of ongoing prayer (that’s the persistence) also gives us a chance to disengage from the fast pace of our lives and learn to listen.  In all fairness – developing this pattern takes time, just like any new habit takes time to anchor (I am told it’s 90 days of repetition to build a new habit).

 

Learning to listen.  That may be the primary skill we develop in prayer.  We tend to be quick to speak; what if instead we worked on listening?

What difference might that make in our world?

I invite your comments, thoughts, questions as we travel this road together.

 

Liturgy 101

 

Thanks for all the encouragement as I get this blog going again, as part of my diaconal ministry project.

I received a great prompt from one of our council members this week – she reminded me by her questions that not everyone is speaking the language I’m speaking!  My bad.

So the first blog post this week will be the start of a glossary.  Each week I’ll offer more terms pertinent to that week’s post, so that when I use a word that might seem “insider” you’ll know there will be a reference to its definition at the end of the post.

This is also a reminder to us all: if we use “insider language” when we talk to folks about church it can seem very exclusive.  We’re encouraged to be conscious of such language and try to minimize it.  There’s a great movement underway among social media-savvy Lutherans called #decolonizeLutheranism.  It’s meant to push back against the white Midwestern Lutheran stereotypes and help us think really broadly when answering the question “what’s Lutheran?”  For example:

Sunday Brunch

Just as it’s not right to assume that all Lutherans are of German or Scandinavian descent, it’s also not right to assume that everyone knows what I mean by the word “liturgy.”  So here are a few definitions, which I’ve pulled from the “Worship Matters: An Introduction to Worship” course materials from Augsburg Fortress. (http://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/17508/Worship-Matters-An-Introduction-to-Worship-Participant-Book)

Liturgy: from the Greek leitourgia, meaning “public work.”  The pattern of text and action used by a Christian community in its worship.  In some settings, the word liturgy is used interchangeably with worship.

Word and Sacrament:  a phrase used frequently by Lutherans to describe the central things of our worship and the central ministry to which ordained pastors are called.

*What do Lutherans mean by “the Word?”

The ELCA Constitution includes a definition of what we mean by “the Word”:

  1. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, through whom everything was made and through whose life, death, and resurrection God fashions a new creation.
  2. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  3. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

When I post about the “Word” portion of the liturgy, I’ll explore how each of these is present.

Sacrament:  the physical sign of an unseen promise.  Sacraments are rites of the church that convey God’s forgiveness, life, and salvation through words and physical means.  Lutherans celebrate the sacraments of baptism and communion.

Worship:  the primary gathering for Christians in which we encounter God.  Such an encounter is marked both by God’s gracious invitation and our Spirit-led response.

Assembly: the gathering of believers (and seekers) in which the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered.

This is a good start!  I’m following this post with one tomorrow talking about prayer as one of the things present in all of liturgy – our ongoing conversations with God.

God’s deep peace be yours.

 

Newly Minted and On My Way

I did it!  I finished my Master of Theological Studies degree!

I graduated on May 21, 2016 with classmates and my former assistant pastor, the Rev. Daren Erisman.  Make that the Reverend DOCTOR Daren Erisman – he received his PhD.

Graduation #2

It was a fantastic, amazing, wonderful day.  Pastor Michael McBride, who is deeply involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was our commencement speaker and he was riveting.

The picture above represents years and years and years of hard work on both our parts, along with a big dose of procrastination and setbacks.  That Daren and I could walk together was HUGE.  We’ve been colleagues for eight years and this was an unexpected joy.

The other unexpected joy was that the three Lutheran women who are responsible for me embarking on this journey got to hood me.

Graduatin #3

Standing directly behind me: my pastor, the Rev. Laura Ziehl; my guide in candidacy, the Rev. Heidi Hester; and my dearest friend, Suzanne Henderson.  They are three of the most amazing women I’ve ever known.  (They also have “Lutheran connections” between them that defy reason, lol.)  The young man to Suzie’s left is my god-nephew and her grandson, Alexander Northrip, who when he hears “family” knows that he is included.

In Hawai’i, “family” is expressed by the word “‘ohana.”  It’s not just your blood relatives; it’s the people you love and the people that love you.  My ‘ohana spans the globe and includes people that I’ve never met, who follow this blog.  My apologies that it’s been TOTALLY neglected over the past year! Grad school/seminary has a way of vacuuming up ALL your writing energies.  But now I am at my home congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, California to do my diaconal ministry project over the summer.

My project is a continuation of the work I began at the ELCA Worship Jubilee last summer in Atlanta, Georgia.  Our theme was “Called to Be A Living Voice: Vocation-Reformation-Mission” and it was initially geared to point us toward the observation of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 2017.  However, the Jubilee took place about four weeks after the horrific shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and so it took on a deeper and more insistent angle.  “Living Voice” – viva vox evangelii – suddenly meant the voice that speaks truth to power.  The voice that speaks for those who have no voice, and then seeks to empower the voiceless to have a voice.  The voice that preaches and teaches that God is love.

So from that point of departure, my project will take my congregation on a journey over the summer through the liturgy and how it forms us to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. I was gifted this year to study the Lutheran confessional documents with two masters in the field, Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein and Dr. Kirsi Stjerna, and that study has re-kindled the fire I’ve felt for this work for many years.

You see, our worship is not a series of tasks through which we progress, checking off boxes as if we were playing liturgical Pac-Man.  (I do realize I’m dating myself with that reference.)

Our worship is an encounter with the living God, present with us in Christ in Word and Sacrament.  This encounter shapes and forms us for service to the neighbor, which is our grateful and joyful response to the amazing, abundant grace poured out from God through Christ.  This is a grace we have done nothing to earn, and will never be able to do enough to earn – and so God urges us to “pay it forward”; take the love and grace we’ve received out into the world.

When Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from death, he instigates this way of operating.  Jesus raises Lazarus, but then he tells the people gathered, “YOU unbind him.”  We are called to participate in the kingdom of God’s love and grace, and our act of unbinding today takes all kinds of forms – but they are all forms that are lived out in thanksgiving to God for God’s lavish grace and love.

My project will culminate in – and I trust the Spirit here! – a deeper and fuller participation in our annual Bethlehem Serves day.  It’s a day when we have a brief worship service, but then move out across the community to be in service to the neighbor. I am just getting started on this, but I am REALLY excited to make this happen.  And I’m really excited to finally be full-time in parish ministry – a dream I’ve held onto for a very long time.

So look for more posts on how particular elements of the liturgy shape and form us for particular service in the world.  It will be a great summer!