Unity in Christ

Group of human hands showing unity

May 28, 2017

John 17:1-11

I am going to let you in on a little secret! I get a little uncomfortable when people do not get along with one another. At times, I can just walk away from the situation and perhaps pray for the relationship. At other times, I try to think of ways in which the people that are living in disagreement can come together and live into a unity. An example of unity which is with us from the very beginning.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1:1-5

These verses are familiar. Of course, they come from the beginning of John’s Gospel. These verses point us toward a unity of the Trinity, and a call for unity among all of God’s people. In Jesus is life, and in this life, is a light which shines for who? For all people! In Jesus, many hope for a perfect life.

In reality, we have come to learn that not everything is going to be perfect. We have learned that not everyone gets along with each other. Unfortunately, we have also learned that there is evil in the world that appears at times to overtake us.

In the midst of this, we hear the prayer of Jesus. He has been teaching the disciples for the past few chapters in the Gospel of John and he now concludes this time with a prayer. Jesus has come to the point where he has instilled enough for now with his disciples and his last hour is approaching. The prayer is full of love and compassion for those that he has walked with for the past few years. However, the prayer is not just for the remaining eleven disciples, but all that have picked up their crosses to follow Jesus in his footsteps and those yet to follow.

Our lesson concludes in the midst of Jesus’ prayer, and it leaves us with questions. “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (vs. 11).

If we look at the world around us, it appears that Jesus’ prayer has not yet been answered. We are not living as one. Not in the sense that we think of oneness. There is still plenty of division that happens and it can be overwhelming. You name it, humans can and will find a way to divide. The church is no exception. Can you believe that out of the teachings of Jesus Christ, and The Way as St. Paul refers to it, the Christian church has grown to 2.2 billion members. The more surprising fact is that out of those 2.2 billion members, they belong to 41,000 different denominations. Whenever the church has had a disagreement through the years, we decide that we will just start our own denomination. Lutherans are just as much responsible for this. Did you know that in North America alone, there are close to 40 different Lutheran denominations?

How do our actions as followers of Christ lead us to such a split? We have left out the room for the mystery. The mystery that comes to us in the Word, that is with us from the beginning and is in unity with creation. It is an organic unity and oneness. A unity that has been fostered and nurtured from the very beginning of time.

We cannot expect to have the same unity and oneness in our time if we do not foster and nurture it from the ground up. Let’s look at it from the very beginning of a relationship. Two people fall in love and decide that they want their lives to become one. They may perhaps decide to have children and in this the family unit lives together and is one. As a family, they may decide to attend a church or find a place that supports and loves them as they are. From our birth, we continue to grow into our environments. It is here that we seek out love and acceptance. It is here that we look for the unity and oneness that Jesus prays for.

The problem is, we are on this side of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are in a place where the Kingdom of Heaven has not fully come into being. There are struggles along the way. We feel at times that our prayers are not being answered. We cry out to God, asking why we have been confronted with various challenges.  Where is this unity that Jesus speaks of, we wonder?

This is where the mystery gets good! “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them” (vs. 7). When Jesus prays that his followers may be one as he and the Father are one, he is praying all of us into this mystery too!

It is in this prayer that we can begin to imagine what a oneness in Christ feels and looks like. What if the church could be this place? It is at the cross and in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension that we are able to behold the great mystery that has been present since the very beginning of creation in the Word. It is here that we come to know and experience the love of God.

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Are You an Advocate?

advocate

John 14:15-21

When you grow up as a white heterosexual male in a middle-class family most everything you need is within your grasp. You are in the majority and there is very little that you can do to erase that privilege you receive when you are born.

Therefore, in the first half of my life, the idea of an advocate was foreign to me. I honestly did not face any struggles or challenges that I didn’t think I couldn’t handle. I had no need for an advocate. I am not saying this because I am lifting myself up. I am saying this because I was naïve. An advocate is someone that walks alongside you to comfort you. An advocate is someone that walks alongside you to help. An advocate is someone that speaks for you when your voice is not being heard and encourages you to raise your voice.

The first time I truly remember hearing that word was in my home congregation when I was assisting in worship one Sunday. While preparing for worship with the supply pastor, an Eaton County Sheriff’s Victim Advocate walked into the church. She informed us that one of our member’s sons took his own life in the early hours of the morning. I did not know what it meant to be an advocate at that time and since I was the first connection to the members of the church, I was left speechless. I had no clue what to say or do. I had not been to seminary yet and felt immobilized by fear of what to say. Fortunately, there was a member in the congregation that was a trained lay minister and he went to sit alongside the family and be their advocate.

How naïve we are to think that we can do everything on our own. That is what our dominant culture would like us to believe. The truth is, that in the midst of trying to hide our true selves, and putting on the mask of our false selves, we can feel abandoned and orphaned. There comes a point when we realize that we cannot do everything on our own and are then afraid to ask for help. We do not want to appear weak. We do not want to be looked down upon. Yet, this happens in our work lives. It happens in our political lives. It happens in our social lives and with family. I am sure that we all have at least one experience of this that we can recall. Being abandoned. Being orphaned. It hurts.

This is when we must be open to the inbreaking of the Spirit. Jesus tells us, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (vs. 18-19). In this, the light breaks through the darkness. It is not God’s will to leave us orphaned or abandoned. God’s will is to love. A love for all of creation. For every plant and animal. For every bird of the sky and creature in the sea. For all of humanity as we are created in the image of God.

It is because of this love that God is not done with us yet. God’s love is continuously gracious and generative. There is no deadline that we have to meet or no requirements of being perfect in any way.

It is because God loves us so, that Jesus knows we cannot carry-on in this world without some help. As he professes that he will be leaving the disciples soon, he promises to send an advocate. Not just any advocate, but the Holy Spirit. This Spirit of truth abides with us and is in us. Are we open to the workings of this advocate that Jesus sends to walk alongside us, comfort us, encourage us, and intercess on our behalf?

The Holy Spirit is a reminder of God’s love. How do we respond to this love? Jesus says in the first verse of our gospel lesson, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Out of God’s graciousness we should be compelled to share that love with our friends and neighbors. One way to share this love is to follow the Holy Spirit and be an advocate for someone else. Just like the victims advocate that came to my home congregation looking for support for a family in need.

To advocate is to walk alongside our brothers and sisters. Be present to comfort them. Give them words of encouragement. Help when we can. This past Thursday, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton called on members of the ELCA to join her and Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church in making the 21st of every month a day of prayer, fasting, and advocacy for those living in hunger and poverty in our country. Why the 21st? Because this is when 90% of the money runs out each month for families receiving support from the SNAP food program, and with recent proposed cuts in the federal budget, this could get much worse. One in five children in the United States are already wondering where their next meal is going to come from.

In caring for one another, through fasting, prayers, and advocacy, we show Jesus how much we love him. While the world may not be awake to the Spirit at work, we the church know that the Spirit helps, comforts and encourages us to share the love of Christ with our sisters and brothers.

Let us pray,

In God’s everlasting promise, may the Spirit of Truth continue to guide us in ways yet seen. May the Spirit of Truth evoke us to reach out and love our neighbors. May the Spirit of Truth be a constant presence of comfort. Amen

 

Who?

questions

May 14, 2017

John 14:1-14

About ten years ago, I was entranced into the candidacy process for the ELCA. I did not know what God had in store for me in the future. In the present, I sensed a call to ordained ministry and had been affirmed by many people in my congregation. There was one thing left to figure out, how was I going to pay for seminary. Imagine my joy when I received a call from the admissions office at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and they told me that I had received a partial scholarship from the ELCA Fund for Leaders, and the seminary was going to pick up the rest of my tuition.

If we fast forward a decade now, my seminary that guided me, shaped me, and sent me into the world is facing drastic changes. In the midst of changes across the country in theological education, Capital University will take over Trinity Lutheran Seminary. What that has come to mean is that nearly all of the staff that I came to love during my time there have been given their walking papers.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells us. My heart has been troubled since I heard the news more than six weeks ago.

When Jesus speaks these words to the disciples, they have to be thinking, seriously Jesus. You have just told us that you are going to die and one of the twelve that have been journeying the country side with us, appears to have left to betray you in some manner. “Do not let your hearts be troubled!” You’ve got to be kidding me!

Jesus can and does speak these same words to us today. “Do not let your hearts be troubled!” We are bound to respond the same way. Not to mention the struggles that happen within our own inner circles, have you seen the news lately, scrolled through the headlines on your computer or smartphone, or even picked up a newspaper?

There are enough bad things happening in the world, not to mention in our own country to trouble our hearts all day long. Jesus is aware of the troubled hearts, otherwise he would not have said it. Through Christ, our troubled hearts are even felt to this day. In the words of Jesus, we should be comforted as we learn to walk with one another.

As the disciples lob many questions and requests at Jesus, it is only natural. First, Thomas, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” After Jesus responds that he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” Philip wants some visuals. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

We have the habit of doing the same thing when we are not quite sure of what is going on. When we are struggling with what is right in front of us, we quite often will ask, why is this happening? Or, we will look to blame someone, who did this? When someone’s life is cut too short, the question is often asked, why did they have to die so young? When a relationship is broken up, why don’t they love me anymore? When faced with a diagnose, we want to know what caused it. We look for answers in the midst of our troubled hearts.

I am not sure if it is really the answer that we are looking for though. We want to make sense of what has been placed in front of us, yet we also want to know that we are not alone. We want to be reassured that we are going to be surrounded by people that love us and care for us.

Questions are not a bad thing. To ask why, draws us into a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. To question and doubt is at the heart of our humanity. Society has been transformed over thousands of years as we have asked how, what, where, when, and why. Sometimes for the good, and sometimes for the bad.

However, people start getting a little nervous when you begin to question the church. All we have to do is look back in our own history as Lutherans. As Martin Luther turned to scripture and studied and prayed, he started asking questions. He wanted to know why the physical church seemed to have a greater importance over and against the grace of God. He was persecuted for his teachings and had to disappear for a while. We still witness it today. If someone starts asking questions of the church and wondering if there is by chance a different interpretation, they are chastised and persecuted.

Honestly, how are we going to delve into a deeper relationship with God? Just like we get to know others better by asking questions, we get to know God and be in relationship with Christ by asking questions. In the midst of our questions, Jesus answers the most important one.

Who? Who is this Jesus that walks among the disciples? He is God in flesh, walking with us, guiding our way with his light. He is the one that loves us unconditionally. He is the one that longs and desires to be in relationship with us, even when we don’t think we are worthy. He is the one that calms the troubled heart. He is the one that went to the cross to defeat death, so we may have life eternal and walk with the saints. It is in the who, that our whys can begin to fade away.

 

Life of Abundance

May 7, 2017

John 10:1-10

What does it mean to have an abundant life?

Is it something that is promised only in the future?

Or, is it something that we can live into right here and now?

This Sunday has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We are immersed into the image as Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Not only that, he also says that he is the gate. So, what is it? It is all of the above. While the disciples struggle to understand what Jesus is telling them, he tries to relate to them in terms that they should be familiar with. The image of a Good Shepherd standing over his flock of sheep makes sense. When Jesus says that he is the gate to the pasture, this is where he seems to lose them.

To them, it makes about as much sense as if I were to tell you that I am the car that is parked in the garage. While we have time to interpret the metaphor of him being the gate, they are left in the moment scratching their heads. Truly, what does it mean for Jesus to be the gate? A gate provides access to whatever is in the enclosed area. Yes, we can be like the thieves and bandits and jump the fence, but this gets us nowhere. We know who those fence jumpers are, and we are confronted with them on a daily basis. Those people or things that attempt to distract us from a calling that has been placed upon us by God. They bombard our lives and entice us with their promises of providing something better or perhaps something we have never had. We are marketed to through the media, both television and radio, and now even through targeted advertisements on Google or Facebook. It is amazing that one moment I can be looking up socks on Google, and then go to Facebook and have suggested advertisements for the best and greatest yet men’s underwear. We cannot get away from it, unless perhaps we want to go and live as a hermit.

Sheep,_drystone_wall_and_gate_near_Drumkeeragh_forest_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1581666

In light of this, what does the abundant life look like?

Those advertisers, certainly entice us into the thoughts that if we were to buy their products and use them on a daily basis, we must be living the abundant life. Surely, to live the abundant life means that we can provide for our families whatever their heart desires. Surely, it means that we have the nicest car available to us with all of the bells and whistles. Surely, it means that we will encounter no problems and little resistance in our lives. This abundant life is what is marketed to us on a daily basis.

However, how do we equate that to the life of a person that is struggling or to the church member that has lost all hope that God is answering their prayers? How do we share the abundant life with someone that has had to go through major surgery and is facing a completely different way of life now? How about the members of our community that are spending the rest their days in assisted living? Does their hope of an abundant life vanish?

Those thieves and bandits that jump the fence and choose not to come through the gate, would definitely have us thinking that. Those thieves and bandits can lead us to sin and deter attention away from the gate. Those thieves and bandits are sin in our midst.

We though, are called by name to enter through the gate. It is through the gate that we find life and we can find it abundantly. Remember, Jesus has taught us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” It is through the gate that we are able to get to know Jesus and experience the way, the truth, and the life. As we live into an abundant life with Christ, it also means that we are protected, provided for, and surrounded by his presence.

It is the good shepherd that does all of these things. The good shepherd protects his flock from the thieves and the bandits; the people and things that come to distract and cause us to sin. The good shepherd provides just what we need, even when we do not know we need it. The good shepherd surrounds us at times with his presence, even when we are not sure if he is present.

The abundant life comes to us in the midst of our calling to live as children of God. In the midst of the calling of our vocations. In the midst of our calling as children, siblings, and parents. In the midst of our being. The abundant life is not material. The abundant life is one that is centered on Christ and is led by the Holy Spirit.

The thieves and bandits concept of the abundant life only distracts, misguides, and leads us to sin. Jesus has come to bring us a different option. We enter through the gate and are saved and are free to come in and go out. In this we find life. A life that Christ has given to us abundantly. In this we come to know God’s love.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: A Review

lincolnbardo

Be prepared for you mind to be stretched and your heart to be tugged.

Many of us wonder what it must be like once we leave this earthly world at the time of our death. As a Christian, I have faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and know that he died so that death itself maybe conquered and we won’t suffer. However, what comes after this? Even within the Christian faith, their are disagreements.

Saunders first novel brings us to the night of the burial of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie. This is historical fact that Willie died while Lincoln was in office and it paid a toll on both him and his wife Mary. Yet, Lincoln still had a country to run and was in the midst of the Civil War. Saunders ventures into that death and the evening of the burial. Lincoln spends most of the night in the cemetery, and through ghosts that inhabit his body, we hear the thoughts of Lincoln as he contemplates his sons death and what that may mean for his future in the White House.

Saunders takes great license as the story unfolds and can be quite provocative at times. The characters that live within the cemetery come to life on the pages as they converse with one another and even try to converse with Lincoln.

This is a thought provoking look into the time during the Civil War and especially into the perceived feelings of Lincoln. It brings about the true human struggles that we have with death. It also brings about hope and love.

Christ Shows Up!

Des_Plaines_River_Trail_Lake_County_Illinois

Luke 24:13-35

We were walking long before we got into cars to drive anywhere. Walking was Jesus’ and the disciples chief form of transportation. Walking is healthy and can burn a lot of calories. No wonder we have many stories of Jesus sitting down to eat, he needed to replenish his energy from all of that walking.

We walk when we are happy. We walk when we are sad and grieving. We walk when we are angry and cannot decide where to go. I am sure that at least a few of us have gotten into an argument with their spouse and said I am going out to get some fresh air and went for a walk. Walking seems to calm our minds and settle our anger. Walking can also help us think and work through problems. Steve Jobs, one of the greatest minds in technology, liked to go on walks to talk with those he disagreed with and try to come to an understanding. Inspirations came to him on his walks.

What do you think the two disciples walking to Emmaus had in mind when they slipped on their sandals and headed out the door? Did they need some fresh air? Did they need to walk off their lunch? Were they simply just trying to cope with Jesus’ death?

Whatever their reasons, the conversation turned towards the happenings of the last few days and they shared their grief with one another. There was possibly even some anger that had built up, because everything they had hoped for died with Jesus on the cross. Or so they had thought. How often do we put our hopes and dreams into something, only to find out later down the road that things just did not pan out? This is how the disciples are feeling. According to Jewish thought, they were hoping for a Messiah that would save them from everything and make the Kingdom of Heaven come to earth. Instead they got a teacher that suffered death on a cross and left them feeling empty. It is true that the women had found the tomb empty earlier in the day, but they still have not seen a sign from Jesus.

Remember, this lesson comes from the gospel of Luke. Jesus does not appear to the disciples in the upper room first as he did in our lesson from John last week.

Some walks are longer than others. The two disciples in our story start out on a seven mile walk to Emmaus. A walk that is very doable. A distance that some of us may perhaps go every day. I know we put in those miles almost every day while on vacation last week. These are literal miles. Figuratively, we can walk for many miles to encounter a faith that is even just the size of a mustard seed. And, you know what, some of us put in many more miles than others. And at times, it may feel as though we are going backwards.

While the disciples are gripped with doubt, fear, and grief, they still desire to continue on in the journey that Jesus started; not sure where it may lead them. What are we doing in our own lives while we are on that walk? Like the disciples, we walk many miles with blinders on, where we do not even recognize the presence of Jesus in our midst.

It is not realistic for us to place our expectations of what it looks like to be Christian or Lutheran upon anyone else because everyone’s walk is different. The expectation for others to pick things up as quickly as we may, is unfounded. All we can do is continue to proclaim our faith in the Risen Christ and share our story.

In the disciples walk, we witness a healing of sort. One that many of us are hoping to encounter in our own walks. First, their doubt, fear, and grief is revealed as Jesus shows up to walk with them. Have you not heard what happened in Jerusalem? They are dumbfounded that this stranger has not heard the news and possibly a little irate. They share that their hope for the redemption of Israel died on the cross. Jesus’ response is to quote scripture and point towards the Hebrew Bible where it prophesizes the death that he died, so that salvation is made possible.

Their anger and hurt runs deep and it is hard to judge whether or not they have truly listened. It is not until they sit down to break bread together that their eyes are opened and they truly see Christ for the first time.

Our entire service every Sunday could be considered a walk along the road to Emmaus. We walk together as we come to worship. We welcome the strangers within our midst. We hear the word proclaimed. We share a meal together. A meal in which we recognize the Risen Christ. With this Good News, we go to proclaim it to others.

Our walk reveals the opportunity for open and honest conversation. It is in our walk that we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and bear all. We too experience doubt, fear, and grief. Some of us more than others. In our walk, just like the walk of the discples, JESUS CHRIST SHOWS UP!

How will we recognize him when he does? We will move from doubt, fear, and grief to a space of faith, hope, and love? Remember though, this walk is longer for some than for others. Even families are on different parts of the journey.

What can we do along the way? We can provide a space for open and honest conversation. Are we listening to others before we quickly interject our own stories? Are we allowing room for the Holy Spirit to breath within our relationships?

In the Good News of Easter Morning and the empty tomb, may we be a place open to doubts, fear and grief.  Yet as we reveal our vulnerabilities, may Christ reveal to us a faith, hope, and love that can change hearts and minds, and foster community.