Welcome to Your Deserted Place!

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In February of 2005 I went off to a deserted place.

It was a locale that many people would have dreamed about going to and wished that someday they may be able to make the trip. However, for me it was a deserted place because those that I loved and cared for were not with me. You see, it was a work trip, or at least paid for by my employer at the time. This deserted place that I speak of was St. Marteen. I will admit that it was gorgeous, and once my stomach went back to where it was supposed to be after I thought we were going to plunge into the ocean when we landed, I took time to enjoy the Island.

This deserted place also provided the opportunity for me to reflect and discern the future. It was in this deserted place that I heard God speaking to me and the call to come and be part of Jesus’ flock. I would say that I was Christian before this, but it was in this time away that I heard God calling me to become engaged in a church community. Little did I know that 13 years later I would be standing here preaching to you as a called and ordained minister in the ELCA.

In our gospel lesson from Mark, Jesus calls the disciples off to a deserted place so that they may take the opportunity to rest. This is not just a sabbath for them. This is an opportunity for them to reflect on everything that Jesus has called them to do. Just a couple of weeks ago, we heard how Jesus sent the disciples out, two by two, so that they may bring healing to those with unclean spirits and anoint with oil.

This was not easy work, and I am sure that the stories that they had to share with Jesus when they returned were amazing. Imagine sitting in that close circle of disciples and hearing of everything that took place over the period of time interacting with the sick and bringing hope and healing in the name of God.

We hear of Jesus going off to pray on his own and that may be what we first think that he has in store for the disciples. However, deserted places are not always good places. Jesus was tempted for forty days in a deserted place. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness and desert for forty years. Deserted places are barren and quite often there are few signs of life. The deserted place that Jesus wants them to encounter is a place of contemplation. It is a place to discern their calling in the greater ministry of Jesus Christ.

The disciples must be overwhelmed. There are people everywhere that are coming to see Jesus and the moment they seem to get away, the people start following them along the shoreline and meeting them as soon as they come ashore. Truly, a sabbath may is needed. Yet within that sabbath is a time to reflect in a deserted place that does not distract.

It is so easy for us to become distracted in the twenty-first century. Probably more so then it was in the first century. We have television and the news to steer attention away from the things that matter most in our lives. We have smart phones that have seem to become our best friends because we can not step out of the house without them. On those phones are games and social media apps to keep us busy for hours on end, at least until the battery dies.

Not only do we have those modern-day distractions, as Americans we tend to overwork ourselves.  We place great emphasis on the material things that can be purchased with those dollars that we earn in those jobs that we pour our time into. Did you know that compared to European countries, Americans work the most hours? Including all employed, Americans work on average 25 hours/week compared to the British at 21 hours/week, the French at 18 hours/week, and Italians at 16 hours/week. In Germany full time workers work on average 35 hours a week and received 24 paid vacation days.

A firm in New Zealand decided to shorten their work week to 32 hours/week from 40 hours/week. You know what they found? Their employees were more productive working just four days because they were more focused and intentional.

Perhaps working long hours and spreading ourselves thin is why America has been a world-leader. What is it costing us to be so? We have become fatigued and are easily distracted by the news and by the material things that are advertised around us daily. We work long hours and take short vacations. Sometimes to get away and enjoy sabbath or simply live into the deserted place and contemplate is counter-cultural.

I am sure that Jesus and the disciples were looked at oddly as well. However, that does not matter to Jesus. It does not affect his decisions or actions. Alone, in Jesus’ words to get away to a deserted place, is a sign of re-creation. It is an opportunity for the disciples to be restored in heart, body, and soul so that they can go and walk with those that need their love and compassion.

It is a chance for them to get away with Jesus and listen for how the Spirit is working in their lives, and by chance get a glimpse of what the future may hold for them. It is a promise that God will be with them in this ministry that they have been called. A calling that is overwhelming. A calling that requires them to stop and seek out a deserted place to be with Jesus and be reassured of the calling that has been placed upon their hearts.

Do you have that place that you can steal away to and be restored? A place where Jesus invites you to that is not only refreshing but also life-giving. It may be a place as simple as your favorite chair in a home office or family room. It may be a local park where you can walk and breath in the beauty of nature and experience God in all of creation. Maybe it was during your last vacation where you were able to experience a sense of peace and love that is unique to that locale.

Wherever that place may be for you, Jesus is calling you away to there. Welcoming you to your deserted place. He wants you to come away with him and be restored and be reminded of his love for you. A love that was bared on the cross in his death. And a hope that is revealed in His resurrection.

There will be times when we are overwhelmed and are required to work an unreasonable number of hours. We want to ensure that there is a roof over our families’ heads and food on the table to prevent hunger.  Those are exactly the times that Jesus wants us to come away with him, even if it is just on that car ride home. It is even in these little moments that we can hear God’s love for us and the wonderful things that God has in store.

Let us pray. Restoring God, we give thanks for the calling you have placed on our lives, even if we have yet to fully discern it. May we continue to see you in the little moments and be intentional in stealing away to our own deserted places to be renewed. Amen

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Love Changes Everything!

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June 24, 2018

Mark 4:35-41    

 

The wind picked up and the smell of rain hung in the air as the disciples began to fight the waves that battered the boats. They would soon be drenched by the rain that poured down. Through it all, Jesus remained sleeping in the stern of the boat.

While the storm in our story is physical, we can be battered by storms of all types as we live our lives. The storms ebb and flow as we interact and learn how to live into relationships and community. We can be a witness to the storms that others encounter as we stay in touch with the news.

There are times as a pastor that I struggle to discuss current events. However, I would be failing in my calling to share the gospel and would be complicit to current events if I did not speak to the instances of actions counter to God’s Word in our world. You would have had to be completely unplugged this past week or two to miss the news around the separation of families at the borders of our country. We can argue about specifics, but it is true that families have been torn apart and in the midst of it Jesus weeps.

I’ll admit that the immigration process in the United States is far from perfect. However, nothing justifies separating a family. Doing so, closes our hearts to the sharing of God’s love with our neighbors. When we open our hearts to Jesus, he calms the storms and reminds us that we are not alone.

The storms that the disciples encounter in our gospel text are not the first. While we cannot know for sure, I don’t think that I would be far off from saying that they experienced many other adversities. Life is full of adversities and I am sure that they had experienced deaths and sicknesses where they came to God in their despair. Not only did they encounter those storms, they traveled with Jesus and would occasionally enter villages where they were not welcome. If you recall, Jesus himself was not welcome in Jerusalem and Mary and Joseph had to escape with him to Egypt as refugees. Imagine what would have happened if Jesus had been separated from his parents.

In the storm, the disciples are overwhelmed with a sense of fear. A fear that encompasses their very beings that entices them to call on Jesus. The fear that welled up is not an uncommon emotion. That fear is also visible in the book of Job and our reading from it this morning as God calls out to him and more less asks him, “Who do you think you are?” Job’s fear pushed him to a point that he was not thinking right and thought he could do everything on his own.

Humanity is not too different than Job. Many times, the first inclination is to do it on our own and question those that tell us differently. I know that I have fell into this camp on more than one occasion. We look beyond what God has to say and the call that Jesus has placed upon our hearts as disciples. The fear that pushes us to do so wells up in the storms that disturb our comfortable lives.

There are many children that know nothing but storms. The overwhelming majority that seek safety in the United States are doing so because they are escaping their own deaths. Rosa, 9, and Juan, 12, came from the same village in Honduras. They reported that a gang running in their neighborhood was known to kidnap children, kill them, and sell their organs on the black market. The gang was also known to kidnap children, cut them open, put drugs in their bodies, sew them back up and use the bodies as containers to traffic drugs. Both children said their teachers in Honduras would warn the students about this gang and instructed children to interact with nobody during their walks to and from school. Both children said they knew children from the neighborhood that had been kidnapped and never seen again.[i]

In the meantime, we argue about who should and should not be allowed into the country. We argue over the wrong questions. Instead of being welcome and walking alongside those that are seeking a place to feel safe, they are separated and placed into detention centers, which Michigan has its own share. Battle Creek, Monroe, and even Port Huron all have certain levels of detention centers.

The ELCA is working to walk with these children. To show them that they are loved and not treated like animals that are put into a cage. AMMPARO, or Accompanying Minor Migrants with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities, is a commitment by the ELCA to walk with children that are forced to leave their homes because of violence, the threat of death, and other issues that rob them of their childhood. Because of AMMPARO, both Rosa and Juan are now doing well in transitional foster care, have been connected to legal services, and have been found eligible for relief.

Through the love of Jesus, the ELCA is reaching out to change their lives for the better. I had an opportunity to meet Mary Campbell, the director of AMMPARO, a couple of weeks ago as we toured Southwest Detroit with the Immigration Team of the synod. We shared opportunities of how we could connect with one another in ministry. Our youth and adult leaders going to National Gathering this next week will have an opportunity to learn more about AMMPARO and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Just yesterday I received notice from Samaritas, that they are seeking support and homes to house some of these children that have been separated from their families with the goal of reuniting them with their parents. This is God’s Work in our world today through our own hands.

Through the love of Jesus, change can happen. It is here that we find the theme of the National Gathering: This Changes Everything! When we come to talk and meet each other with open minds, arms, and hearts, Jesus becomes a part of the equation. It is here that we learn to talk with love for our sisters and brothers and fear starts to vanish. The storms that we had previously encountered are calmed and we find Jesus right beside us, where he has always been.

The disciples also discovered that Jesus changes everything. They knew who to turn to when the storm started battering their boats and the ones that had gathered near them. They may not have fully understood what Jesus could do, but they had faith in him and knew that somehow, he would be able to calm the storm that had engulfed them.

Jesus continued to approach storms throughout his ministry with the disciples and he knew how each one needed to be addressed. Welcoming Jesus into the storm is where true change began to happen. The change did not first happen in the weather that rocked the boats, but in the hearts of those that came to Jesus. They had placed their faith in him.

Jesus chose to weather the ultimate storm to show his love for all of humanity. He did not approach his death on the cross lightly and at times had reservations about it. However, he made the decision to be battered by storms that filled the disciples first with fear. On the other side of the storm, the Resurrection, the disciples are reassured that they do not enter their storms alone. Through Jesus they encountered the ultimate love and hope. A love that changes everything.

Let us pray. Life changing God, you give us everything we need when we need it. We do not walk alone in our storms and we give thanks for you accompanying us. May you be with us as we learn to accompany those that seek refuge and your love. Amen.

 

[i] AMMPARO, 40 stories for the 40 Day Bible and Prayer Challenge,

http://www.elca.org/ Resources/AMMPARO#ForSynodsAndCongregations

Who are you serving?

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July 2, 2017

Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

It is wonderful to have the freedom to walk outside and not worry too much about our safety. Sure, we are not immune to violence and terror in our country. However, in most of our cities, we are not surrounded by it daily. Our sisters and brothers around the world are not always as fortunate.

Diana and Julio and their daughter Elena fled violence in Colombia and were on their way to seek refugee protection in Canada when Diana was arrested in Detroit because she could not show her passport, which had been stolen. Alone in a strange city, Julio happened to meet a local store owner who told him about Freedom House, a Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service partner that provides temporary housing for those seeking legal protection in the United States or Canada. The staff of Freedom House, which is partially funded through LIRS’s Asylum and Immigration grant program, was stunned by the story and immediately offered shelter to Julio and Elena. They facilitated phone calls and visits while Diana was held for four months at a women’s prison three hours away. A Freedom House attorney arranged to represent Diana and helped the family navigate the legal channels to get to their destination in Canada. When Diana was finally released, staff and other residents gathered excitedly in the Freedom House kitchen. When she entered the house, everyone began to clap and cry as Diana held her daughter and embraced her husband again.[i]

Rehema Ngoka has had the opportunity to come to the United States, specifically Northwest Arkansas. In this, he has experienced the grace of God. He came to the US from Congo and said of the US, “We are free. We are free. There is no genocide here!”

The United States has been a country of welcome and that is what the Statue of Liberty symbolizes. This long fourth of July weekend gives us the opportunity to not only give thanks for our independence, it also is an opportunity to celebrate the diversity and welcoming nature this country was built on.

While we have turned caring for the stranger into a political issue, it truly speaks to the heart of the gospel. The gospel in which Jesus Christ lived out for each one of us present here this morning. Every one that is not with us. Every one that has been created in the image of God. The gospel is for all of creation.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning he brings a message of hope. First, we must face the reality that we do live in sin as a called people of God. We are far from being perfect and as I preached last week, we will go right out and commit the same sins we did the week before. That is part of human nature. We can grow in our relationship with Christ as much as we want, however, we will still sin. It will help, but we will once again slip up and do the things we know we shouldn’t.

The problem as Paul underscores in this selection from Romans is that we are not to be slaves to sin. To be honest with ourselves, we are all slaves to something. This is a hard truth to digest when we live in a country that has had such a negative connotation to slavery. Another possible translation is servant. What are we serving in our lives? Are we serving our own personal desires, or are we caring for others and sharing when the opportunity presents itself?

The amount of support that came together for the recent Iraqi Christians that were detained in Detroit reflects the gospel. To send these undocumented immigrants back to Iraq in the current environment of their home country would most likely equate to a death sentence.

The question that we should be asking ourselves is to whom or what are we being a servant? Are we serving God through our words and actions, or are we serving something else that does not represent Christ in this world? Are we truly living out our calling as people of God in this world, or are we bowing down to those ideas and material things that benefit us most?

Christ has called each of us into a relationship with him. A relationship in which we become servants for Christ. We are called to become servants of obedience as we listen for God’s word in our life. It is this calling and Christ’s action on the cross that we have been freed from sin.

Will we still commit sin? Of course, we will. But through the grace of God, we are promised eternal life. A life that is fulfilling in this world as well. God is calling us to live into this promise today. To welcome the triune God into our daily tasks and to begin living into our true selves. This is the hope Paul brings to u in his letter.

In Matthew’s gospel this morning, we hear the promise of welcoming Christ into our lives. To welcome Christ means to welcome grace. A grace that moves beyond our sins and makes us new. This grace grows as we reach out to our brothers and sisters, for “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

On July 18 at 3:00 pm here at Trinity, we will begin a journey with our sisters and brothers in the UCC and Methodist churches. We will listen and learn how we can bring the presence of Christ to those in the Immigrant Detention Center in Port Huron. You are all welcome to come and find out more.

As a church, we are called to welcome. What is stopping us from living this in the rest of our lives?

Let us pray…

God of all creation, be with us in this time and place as we struggle to find ways that keep us safe, yet welcome the stranger. May we place our faith in your love and grace alone that to welcome in is to also welcome you. Amen.

[i] Story from Welcoming Families bulletin insert, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

How Rich Are We?

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Luke 16:19-31

I grew up with Bernice. Okay, not literally. However, she was a fixture in my hometown for as long as I can travel back in my memories. You would see her pushing her shopping cart around town and digging through the garbage to see if she could find any cans to return. Did I ever talk to her? Not that I can ever remember. We are so often in the position of the rich man from our parable this morning that we don’t stop to think about it.

Now, this is not just any rich man. This rich man in Jesus’ parable appears to have so much money that he can feast sumptuously everyday. Imagine being able to eat at the most expensive restaurant day in and day out, not just for one meal but for all of them. He is so self-consumed in what goes on within his gated community that he shows no regard for Lazarus, the poor man sitting outside the gate.

Lazarus in our parable this morning really is not much different from the Bernice that roamed around my hometown while I was growing up. I am sure every town has a Bernice, and you may be very well of who that is in your town. Poverty is a real thing that we are surrounded by and we usually do not even know that it is there. Not everyone is like a Bernice that pushes her shopping cart around town collecting cans. Not everyone is like Lazarus looking for crumbs outside the gates. Did you know that the poverty rate in Macomb County in 2014 was 18.3%. Or perhaps you did not know that 42.6% of children in Macomb County are receiving free or reduced prices for school lunches. Before you go thinking that most of those that are seeking assistance come from the southern part of the county, it truly doesn’t matter. When we look beyond our own country, we are truly some of the richest people in the world, even if we have an entry level paying job. How do we choose to use our riches?

Perhaps it is even more amazing that what was considered dirty in Jesus’ time, dogs roaming the streets, are the ones who showed compassion for Lazarus. In the licking of his sores, the dogs showed a greater compassion than the rich man and his family. This could possibly even be seen as a form of healing as they cared for Lazarus. Often times we overlook these little actions. It is also in these little actions that we can witness Jesus working in our midst. Aren’t we told that it is a  child that will lead us. 

We have done a great job of making divisions among ourselves that we fail to see them, unless we have eyes like children. Those divisions are what lead to our perceived inability to help those that are in need. In the parable this morning the rich man managed to place a division between himself and God. This is not just any division. This is a division so great and deep that it is a large chasm. Imagine going to the Grand Canyon and being at the part that is farthest away from the other side. This is the chasm that the rich man has found that is separating himself from God. And yet, he still has the nerve to ask Lazarus to serve him.

Among the chasms that we have constructed in our own society is between the rich and the poor. We use terms like, “those people.” We walk on the other side of the street because we are afraid. We fail to take the time to listen to their stories. While we are called to serve our sisters and brother, we do not have to bridge this chasm on our own. It has already been done for us.

The chasm has been bridged though Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is through the cross that we experience God’s grace and God eliminates that chasms that we have developed in this earthly world. Because of the bridging of this chasm Jesus is in our midst. We are all invited to feast sumptuously at the Lord’s table.

Trinity has a history of being hospitable and welcoming in all people. We have the opportunity this next month to share love as we open our doors to 30 men in the MCREST program. These men have stories to share. These men are not much different from the homeless you witness on our streets today. These men are not much different from us. This is an opportunity to give of ourselves, our time and resources. It is also an opportunity for us to share love and receive love.

I’d like you to think about this. As we open our doors next month, are we welcoming the homeless, or do we welcome Jesus Christ?