Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Sermon 2009

Luke 2:11 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

When I hear those words from Luke 2:11, especially in the King James Version, I think of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special where Linus stands on the stage and recounts our Gospel text for the actors in the Christmas pageant. I hear the words in the voice of Linus as he reminds his friends of the true meaning of Christmas.

We spend weeks and weeks getting ready. We clean the house and decorate, we shop and shop and shop, then we wrap and wrap and wrap. We cook and we bake and we plan. We work so hard at getting everything just right so that our friends and families will enjoy Christmas. But what is Christmas? What are we ready for?

That is what has happened at the pageant – Lucy and others have planned and have these plans for a huge, elaborate pageant. Charlie Brown has been sent out to find a Christmas Tree. He brings back a small, pitiful looking tree and the others make fun of it – and of Charlie Brown. He can’t even bring back a decent tree! Then Linus reminds them – “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” The tree doesn’t matter, the size of the pageant doesn’t matter, nothing that we do matters – it is what God has done that matters.
We get so caught up in the preparations for Christmas, that we forget what we are celebrating. We forget that it is God’s gift to us that gives us reason to celebrate. It is God’s action, not ours, that is important.
As we hear the Christmas story – we hear about Mary, and about Joseph, and their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We hear about the birth, and the angels and the shepherds, and we have Christmas pageants and nativity scenes depicting the story, with all the characters and all the animals, and the star – don’t forget the star! We make costumes and decide who will be shepherds and who will be angels and who will be wise men and we try to think of new and interesting ways to tell the story. We get caught up in making it special. We get caught up in the doing.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” A gift is given. A gift from God, a gift of God, given to the people of God.

Usually, when we receive a gift, we express gratitude for the gift – we say thank you, or we write a thank you card, or send a thank you email, or sometimes we even reciprocate with a gift of our own – another way of saying thank you. But how do we thank God for the gift that he gave us, in that stable long ago? What kind of thanks does God want for this gift? Where do we send the thank you card?

The Christmas text is only the beginning of the story. It is the giving of the gift. Through the reading of the gospels we find out what this gift is all about. We find that through this gift, God is reconciling the world to himself. Through this gift, we learn what it is to be obedient to God. Through this gift, we see what it is to have compassion. Through this gift, we know what it is to be loved. Through this gift, we know what it is to be freed – from slavery, from sin, from the powers of evil. Through this gift, comes our salvation.

In the end, this proclamation from the angels is not just about God’s gift to us, but also about how we give thanks to God for this gift. We don’t have an address for that thank you card because we aren’t meant to send on. Instead, we are to do as the angels did – proclaim the story! Tell others what God has done. The gift is not for us to keep to ourselves, but to be shared with all who will listen.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” A gift – a gift to be shared. A gift that shows us what it is to be completely unselfish. A gift so big, so perfect, that it only gets better by sharing it with others. Pass the word around! Unto YOU is born this day in the city of David A SAVIOR, which is Christ the Lord – the messiah – God incarnate – the Word made Flesh.

6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Celebrate! Sing Hosanna! Share the Good News with all the world! Christ the Lord is here! Amen.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and of the world that we often become weary and faint, and sometimes we also stumble. Therefore, the Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle but become ever stronger and stronger." From the Large Catechism Part V: The Sacrament of the Altar.

A FaceBook friend posted this as his status today, and it struck me how appropriate these words were for today. We were having a discussion just yesterday about how hard we see Satan working in the world today, and here we are reminded - in Luther's words - about the temptations of the devil and how weary we become.

Here we are, approaching the 4th Sunday in Advent, preparing for Christmas Eve service and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and Satan is working so hard to make us miss the whole point of what we celebrate. For we celebrate not a cute, cuddly baby born in a barn with cute, adorable animals, but the coming of God in the flesh - incarnate - not because it is "cute" but because we are such wretched sinners that we need God to be among us - the word made flesh, to show us how to live, and to die for our sins.

As we celebrate Christmas, we should take a look at the temptations that we have let lead us astray - success, personal agendas, our need for power and control, money - and instead look at what we are called to give up. Jesus came to give up his life; what are you called to give up? In last Sunday's Gospel text, John calls on anyone who has two coats to give one away. Rather than looking at what you might get for Christmas this year, why not look at what you can give away instead?

It is easy to fall into the temptations of the devil and the world - they look good, they feel good, but they are just that - temptations of the devil and the world. Look instead to the manger - look at what God gave us, look to the cross - look at what Jesus gave up.

May you be blessed during this Advent season, and may this time give you the opportunity to look at your own life. See what you can give up, how you can help someone else, rather than looking to your own wish list for Christmas gifts.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


What does it mean to wait, and to watch, and to prepare for the coming of our Lord? Does it mean that it is time to push our own agenda? Or does it mean that it is time to take seriously our discipleship?

These are issues that the church struggles with. These are issues that some people struggle with. They are also issues that some just shrug off, pushing their own agendas no matter what. The coming of the Lord is not something they either believe in or take seriously. Live for today, for tomorrow is someone else's problem.

For some, Advent is a tired and worn out effort by the church to delay Christmas and to get people to give money to charity rather than to spend it on gifts. Advent just gets in their way. Some even wish the church would just drop Advent and start singing Christmas carols right after Halloween, just like the stores and radio stations have done this year. Do you ever wonder why our economy is in such trouble when businesses are actively competing with the church for your Christmas dollars?

The church can no more stop celebrating Advent than they can stop celebrating Easter. Christ came, Christ died and was raised from the dead, Christ will come again. How can we take that statement of faith and ignore the part about Christ coming - the first time or the second time?

Together with the all the church and all of the saints, both past and present, we shout, "Come Lord Jesus!"

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Ministry never slows down, never allows a lot of free time, and can at times, consume every waking hour. It has been like that lately. In spite of this, we take this time to be thankful - thankful for a couple of days off, thankful for time with family, thankful for an abundance of food, thankful for time to slow down and relax.

We all have much to be thankful for - jobs, a place to live, food on the table, friends or relatives safely back from active duty in the Middle East, family, and so much more. We are especially thankful this year to have our nephew back home from his last tour, thankful to spend time with my sister and her husband, thankful for a weekend spend with the twins, thankful for Thanksgiving dinner with aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, thankful for our playful puppy.

What are you thankful for this year? Think about it, post something if you don't mind sharing, and praise God for all that He has given you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:31–34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19–28
John 8:31–36

People of God, I have something to tell you this morning that you are not going to like. We are nothing but slaves – you and I – all of us – are slaves – we are all slaves – to sin, to the world, and as slaves, we are all condemned. None of us are worthy to be here, to come to the altar and receive the body and blood of Christ – none of us!!!

We sin, we choose our own wants and desires over the needs of others. We hoard our time, our money, our family, our resources. Daily, we let people around the world starve. We even let our neighbors right here go hungry, go without food and shelter, even though we have enough – for ourselves, our families, and even enough to share.

We demand that things be done the way that makes us happy, no matter what. Our happiness comes first – over and above the needs of others. We pay lip service to keeping the commandments, but don’t really care that we break them – daily. We don’t even pay lip service to keeping the laws of the land – like speed limits and traffic laws. How about the command of Jesus to love our neighbor? If they are good neighbors, we might at least try to like them, but if they cross us just once, we don’t even speak to them anymore.

And yet, somehow, God sees fit to bless us anyway; sees fit to create a covenant with us, claiming us as his people; through the means of grace, God cleanses us, washes away our sin, frees us from our slavery, and justifies us by his grace, through his only son, Jesus.

This is the mystery of salvation that Martin Luther struggled with so greatly. Luther could claim himself as a sinner, unworthy of any attention from God whatsoever. Luther understood the need to confess his sins and be forgiven, and his need to forgive others. Luther understood that he could not keep the law, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he punished himself, no matter how hard he studied and prayer. But deep down, Luther also understood that through his baptism, through the covenant God made with his people, that is was God who had the last word.

For all that we hear about Martin Luther and the Reformation of the church, we don’t often hear about Luther’s struggle in life – the same struggle that each of us has. We struggle daily with sin, our desire to be our own person, to do those things that satisfy ourselves, rather than those things that might satisfy God. We may not spend hours each day in confession as Luther did, but we certainly, at the end of the day, can look back and see those things that we are (or at least should be) ashamed of. We know our own imperfections, and even if we don’t there is surely someone who is willing to point them out for you.

Luther understood all of this, but he also understood who and whose he was - a child of God. Luther, through much study, despair, and soul-searching, found that God had not abandoned him to slavery. Through Luther’s study of the writings of the apostle Paul, he realized that God had not just made a covenant with Israel, as we read about in the first lesson, but had indeed made a covenant with all of his people.

If you will turn to page 1162 in the back of your hymnal, and read Luther’s response to the second article of the creed with me:

"I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true. (hold your finger in this page)
Here, we see that Luther found that his salvation, his redemption, was not dependent on his own actions, or even his own understanding, but completely dependent on what God has done, through Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote, “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
Redemption – forgiveness – cleansing – freedom – all these gifts we receive through the actions of another, not through our actions, not through anything that we could possibly do, not through our own self-righteousness, but through the selfless act of Jesus, the messiah, on the cross. Through this one act, so Luther tells us, we are saved (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 1162)."

Now the question becomes, saved for what? Jesus did the hard work – we are forgiven and redeemed children of God. Now what?

That seems to be the question that has plagued Christians ever since the Reformation. While Luther mourned the loss of unity, others reveled in it, even going so far as to split off again and again and again – any time they disagreed over something. Many of these dissenters would even point to Luther and say that he led the way, and that when we disagree on theology, or doctrine, or even the color of the carpet, we should pack up and leave, finding or creating a place where our viewpoint is accepted.

I would imagine that if anyone actually asked Luther about this, it would be to find that Luther’s greatest regret was that the church had split, rather than worked toward reconciliation. Even today, almost 500 years later, we as Lutherans still look for the opportunity to reconcile with our sisters and brothers in other denominations.

For Luther, the “now what” question had much more to do with this, how am I – sinner by birth and saint by the grace of God – to live a life that in some meaningful way shows God that I have accepted His gift of Grace and want to respond to it in such a way that it shows how much it means to me? How is it that I – a sinner – can live a life that shows that I am also worthy of being called a saint?

If anyone understood how hard this would be, it was Luther. Luther most certainly knew that his justification by grace did not let him off the hook. How does one thank God for a gift this great? This wonderful? This unbelievably fantastic? Certainly not by saying, “Oh thanks” and then just going on with life like nothing had happened. This gift does come with a string attached – no, not something that we have to do in order to earn or keep it – but a string that ties us forever to Jesus, a connection that cannot do anything but change the very core of our being. Sure – we can try to ignore it, or even try to cut it, but there is a problem. You have been claimed through your baptism, and marked with the Cross of Christ forever. You are branded! That string won’t go away just because we don’t like it. You have been made holy. Turning back to page 1162, here is what Luther says in his response to the third article of the creed on being made Holy:

"I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true (ELW, 1162)."

Through the Holy Spirit, we – the church – this gathering of believers – we are called, enlightened, and made holy. Can you imagine? That is what happens to those who are redeemed by the Cross – we are made holy.

We are called through the gospel to do as Jesus taught the disciples to do – to feed the hungry, care for the poor, to share the good news with all people. We are called to keep the commandments, especially the two great commandments – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor – just as much as we love ourselves. We are called to care for the widow and orphan, and all who are oppressed. We are called to give for the mission of the church – not as we want, but as the widow gave with her mite. We are called to follow Jesus – all the way to the cross. We are called, like Paul, to have our lives transformed, and to suffer for the sake of the gospel. We are called, to be Christ to one another. Not so that we will be saved, but because we have been saved – by faith, through, through God’s amazing grace. This is most certainly true. Amen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

After the return

I've been back for two days now, and am still exhausted - too much driving and not enough sleep while I was in New Orleans. I would like to think I will get caught up soon, but as Rusty and his family is arriving tomorrow for a visit, and then we are keeping our granddaughter for the next week while we have Vacation Bible School, the chances are pretty slim that sleep will be any more plentiful for the next several days.

As I read various posts of friends who were in New Orleans with their youth groups, and see pictures posted on FaceBook, I am in awe of all the people who were there and of all of the projects that were worked on. More info can be found at

For now, the memories of last week will feed sermons for several weeks, and hopefully vitalize our youth group into more servant activities. It was good to see many, many friends, but more importantly, it was good to see so many gathered to do God's work.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The trip home

Well, after 15 hours on the road, three major thunderstorms, and a lot of miles, we pulled into the church parking lot at 2:30 a.m. today. I got home about 3:00 a.m. and did the minimum unpacking and went to bed and slept till almost noon. After waking up and unpacking, the rental van was returned and life began returning to normal with a trip to the grocery store.

It is late and I am not quite recovered, so it is off to bed. In the next day or two I hope to upload a couple more pictures and final thoughts on the youth gathering. For the moment, just reading about all the various experiences via Facebook tells me that pretty much everyone had a great time and really felt the impact of the Servant projects. Thanks to all who went, and all who planned. Thanks be to God for all of you!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Day Four - Jesus, Justice, and Jazz

Day four - hard to believe that we have been here that long - it seems like just last night that we arrived, and now it is time to start packing up to head home.

For breakfast this morning, we (and several hundred other Lutherans) went to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and coffee ( or oj in a couple of cases). For our last dinner in New Orleans, we went to The Gumbo House for gumbo and bread pudding (at least, that is what I had). These are New Orleans treats that every visitor should try. The other is a good shrimp po' boy, but we took care of that on the way into town on Tuesday.

The last night in the dome was wonderful, with great music and moving speakers, but it was made even better by the opportunity I had to reconnect with a seminary classmate who has been in Texas for the last year. In fact, I saw more friends from seminary this week that I have in the last six months! It was great - especailly to see some whose ministry has called them to places far away from the Carolinas.

Our youth - and most of the youth here - have been deeply touched by this experience. They have seen a new side to poverty, to desparate situations, and realize anew how lucky they are and how much it touches other people to have even simple things done for them. This week has been full of amazing stories and events, capped off tonight by a visit from the mayor of New Orleans and a letter - sent by President Obama and read by Presiding Bishop Hanson. An exciting week; an opportunity to be a part of history; an opportunity to learn about serving others; an opportunity to grow in our faith. Thanks be to God!!!

Day Three - Jesus, Justice, and Jazz

If you are reading this, then the hotel Internet has become cooperative again. Last night, I was writing a blog post and as I tried to upload the first picture, the Internet connection went down and never really seemed to recover. I reconnected a couple of times, but could not upload any photos.

This photo is of the school (Charles R. Drew Elementary) in New Orleans where we spent the day painting classrooms and hallways. This school, built in 1907, had flood damage on the first floor from Katrina, but the upper two floors had just been neglected, as we were told, since integration occurred in New Orleans, 40 some years ago. These rooms (we were on the third floor) had not been painted in a very long time, and the walls and bulletin boards had graffiti all over them.
This photo shows the crowd that we painted with on Friday - 5 buses brought us to the school. We painted from about 8:00 a.m. till around 2:00 p.m. It then took almost an hour to clean up; when we left, the floors were 10 times cleaner than the were when we arrive. The walls also looked great!

This school is just outside of the French Quarter, in a fairly low-income neighborhood. Since Katrina, about 40,000 of the 67,000 kids that used to attend New Orleans parish schools have returned. Most have returned to find that their schools are in worse shape than they were, and that supplies and teachers are in short supply. Tyson, the 9th grade science teacher who now heads up the recovery effort for the school system, is one who stayed. He did not evacuate, did not leave (at least, not for very long), and has worked since Katrina trying to help re-open the schools so that kids have a place to learn when they come back.

Friday night was also North Carolina's night to
fill the dome with matching t-shirts. Ours were yellow, as you can see and were designed by one of the youth members from NC. We met after the Friday night gathering with Bishop Bolick to celebrate the group of 1100 Lutherans who came from NC to spend the week in New Orleans. As I understand it, our synod has one of, if not the largest, contingent from any single synod. Quite a feat! We spent about an hour hanging around and meeting people and finding friends from LYO and other gatherings.
All in all, a very busy couple of days. Today was much quieter - we spent the day at the Learning Center, with a last visit to the Old Lutheran store for souvenirs of the gathering. We also visited the Thrivent Builds display, which was great since part of our group took part in a Thrivent Builds Habitat House last year in Lexington.
Now - off to the dome for the last night! Rumor has it that there is a live feed available during the gathering (from about 6:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m. - CDST). Click the link above and check it out!
Also - if you have not seen any of the news articles - look to the right of the blog and click on the ELCA News Links - there are several good articles listed there.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Day Two - Jesus, Justice, and Jazz

First off, no pictures tonight - I don't have time to download them and get them ready to post as we launch for our servant project at 6:30 a.m. I somehow feel that some sleep is in order, so no pictures tonight - just a couple of links and a few thoughts.

First the links - I went looking for news articles on this event and found a couple that are worth reading, as they explain quite a bit about what the planners of this event hope to accomplish. The local New Orleans paper had this article and AP had this one. Both are good articles.

Today was our day to spend time at the Interactive Center. There are many, many activities to do here, but with 1/3 of 37,000 people also there, the lines were long and so many things did not get done. But, we met many people - including many friends that were here. I think most of us met someone we knew, along with many new people.

One of the highlights of the day for me was ending the day at the Marriott where Lost and Found were having a concert. I first heard of Lost and Found after the last Lutheran Youth Gathering three years ago (San Antonio). Later that year, they played a concert at Camp Victor in Ocean Springs, MS while we were on internship with Luther Disaster Response. Michael and George put on a great concert, and as an added bonus, a fellow NC pastor and a band he is in was the opening act for Lost and Found. Great job, Brian!

All in all, a good day, with a little down-time to get ready for tomorrow. An early morning and a long work day are in store, so check back tomorrow for pictures and another update.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Day One - Jesus, Justice, and Jazz

Day one began with registration. We walked (20 minute walk, according to directions) to the convention center (entered through this mall - as a long way around, but air conditioned). Our early trek through the mall did bring us back later for some shopping (especially after I lost my sun glasses in the convention center).

After registration, we walked, ate lunch, and toured the Jax Brewery area of the French Quarter.

Later, we headed for the dome, where we and the other 36, 996 Lutherans in NOLA gathered for song, fellowship, and encouragement. Opening night was great! Lots of good music, good speakers, and great entrance by the bishop (wish I had a video of that!).
It was also a good day for meeting friends. I ran into no less than six friends from seminary, plus several other pastors I have met over the years. While the national youth gathering brings many young people together, it also reunites many of us "older" youth with friends.
Tomorrow, the events begin. One day will be the Interactive Center; another will be a Servant project, and the third day will be a Learning event. We begin in this order - with our Interactive Day being tomorrow.
It is hard to describe what it is like to be in one place with 37,000 other Lutherans, singing, praying, and preparing for our time here in New Orleans. It is especially moving when you realize that this whole event was planned and is being carried out by the youth of our church, along with dedicated staff and adults. I look forward to tomorrow, with great anticipation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

News from New Orleans

I just arrived in New Orleans for the National Lutheran Youth Gathering. For the next few days, I'll try to upload some thoughts, photos, and news from the event - from the perspective of an older, but new pastor attending for the first time. This should be interesting!

First of all - how did we get here? We started out months ago, 6 of us planning to make the trip. By the time we were ready to leave, we were down to 4. Many issues played a part in this, but this is the reality we are dealing with. We drove - about a 14 hour adventure. The good news - it was uneventful. The bad news - I am so tired I can't seem to settle down to sleep.

When we arrived and checked into our hotel, it was to find things not quite like we thought they were. Of course, over my many years of business travel, I have many, many horror stories about hotels and this one in comparison is pretty mild. We have rooms, they are reasonably clean, and mostly quiet. We'll survive.

We went for a walk - no one else in our group has ever been to New Orleans. We strolled down Decatur (where we are staying), up St. Peter, then down Bourbon St. to Canal St., down Canal to Decatur and back to our hotel. My first impressions is that the French Quarter seems to be well on the road to recovery after Katrina. This is my first visit since before the hurricane and while there are many changes, most of the business spaces seem to have shops/restaurants, etc. which are open for business. The only down side I see is that Bourbon Street seems to have slipped from where it was - less restaurants and music - more bars and adult entertainment. What used to be a street where the adult side of things could be ignored or giggled at is now more in-your-face. That is a shame. As well, one of my favorite restaurants which always had a good Dixie-land group playing seems to be gone. Of course, businesses do change - even without a Katrina to help - but I mourn the loss of businesses that were more family-oriented and their replacement by adult-only businesses.

The upside of our walk tonight - I saw several familiar faces as we walked about the French Quarter. I am looking forward to seeing many old friends over the next few days - as well as making some new ones.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pastors' Puppy

Many of you know that we have long shared our home with a lovable, increasingly elderly, mostly black, mixed-breed dog named Smokey. We have occasionally discussed adopting another dog, but never made any decision to pursue the idea.

About two months ago, as Ray was driving from home to the church for a meeting one evening, he saw two dogs running loose by the road. In a hurry, he told himself that he would stop on the way home if he saw them. But later, in the dark, he didn’t see them. The next morning we were riding together on the way back to the office, when he suddenly pulled the Jeep over. There they were. With the help of some dog biscuits as bait, we were able to coax one small white puppy to us, but the other, larger dog evaded us.

We took the pup straight to the vet’s office and after a busy morning of bathing, deworming, shots, and flea treatment, she was ready to go home and meet Smokey! It took us a few days to settle on a name, but SuzyQ had entered our lives!

She seemed very smart, learning quickly to sit for a treat, enjoying a good cuddle, and sleeping very soundly, but she didn’t learn to answer to her name or come when we called her. After a couple of weeks, we realized that is because she can’t hear us. Now that the vet has checked her again, we are certain that she is indeed deaf.

So now she is training us and sometimes trying our patience, as the usual commands like “Come” and “No” have ABSOLUTELY no effect. Instead we are learning sign language. Fluttering fingers get her attention, a pointed index finger means sit, shaking your finger at her means no, and a thumbs up is “good girl!” The challenge is often in getting her attention, so that she will see the signals. For now, large arm gestures usually work during daylight, and Ray is teaching her to follow the beam of a flashlight so that we can call her after dark.

Needless to say, the joys and frustrations of housebreaking a puppy are keeping us busy. Now about 20 pounds and 18 weeks old, the vet told us to expect that she will double in size. That will make her about the same size as Smokey when she is full grown, so we are busy trying to teach her good habits while she is small!

We have to remind ourselves that -unlike the familiar saying - she isn't ignoring us, she really is deaf! One thing is for certain: SuzyQ has certainly provided a distraction for us from the busyness of ministry.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seeing the kingdom of God

Some Facebook friends and family members 'heard' me lamenting about the sermon that just refused to be written last Saturday evening. At their request, here is a portion of the sermon that finally emerged after I got out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work. In a time of struggle in our congregation, our denomination, and the whole world, it was a profound joy to declare that God's kingdom is indeed visible!

Ezekiel 17:22–24
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Mark 4:26–34
[Jesus] also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

There is something we pray for every week in worship, maybe even every day in our personal prayers, yet we don’t have any idea what it really means – or what it would really look like. That something is the kingdom of God. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But which one of us has any idea what God’s kingdom really looks or feels like? We may have a good idea of the outcomes we hope for when we plan and pray, but we don’t know God’s will.

In the gospel text for today, we find that Jesus has already gotten his ministry organized. In the first three chapters of Mark, we read that he has been baptized by John; he has announced that the kingdom of God has come near; he has called his first disciples; he has been on a preaching tour of Galilee; he has already begun his healing ministry. He’s been very busy.

Now he has returned to Capernaum and begins teaching large crowds by the sea. Such an extremely large crowd has gathered, to see him and hear what he has to say, that Jesus gets in a boat and puts out onto the water and begins to teach the crowd gathered all along the shore.

So what does Jesus teach – and how? He begins teaching about the kingdom of God; but he teaches in parables. This fourth chapter of Mark begins with the familiar parable of the sower, and an explanation for that parable.

You probably remember that story. Seeds fall on the path, on rocky ground, among the weeds, and on good soil. Those on the path are snatched up by birds. Those in rocky ground start to grow, then wither away. Those among the weeds are choked out and yield no grain. Only the seeds sown in good soil flourish and finally produce a plentiful harvest. Jesus later explains what he meant to the disciples, describing each situation in terms of people who hear the word of the Lord and their responses to that word.

Then we reach today’s text – two short little stories that are practically riddles. Stories that can be very difficult to understand. And this time, no explanation is included in the gospel. In the gospel text for today, we have two short little stories that are practically riddles. Stories that can be very difficult to understand.

What do those parables tell us? How can we understand or recognize God’s kingdom through those two short little stories? Is the kingdom of God present now, in times of struggle and strife? Here’s one way we can understand them:

First: The kingdom of God is growing and changing even when we don’t understand how it happens.

Second: The kingdom of God is like a small country church which grows and flourishes and through its life does the work of the Lord, providing ministry for the least of God’s creatures. Ministry like feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and caring for the sick and the grieving.

What does the kingdom of God look like or sound like? How does the kingdom of God affect us here and now? All I can do is to share these examples with you:

I recently saw the kingdom of God at work in a large group of people – over 500 of us - who gathered from across the entire state at synod assembly to worship God and serve God together in spite of our differences of opinion about serious issues facing the church.

I’ve seen the kingdom of God in the company of those I have visited this week, as I have listened to their stories of pain and fear, and then prayed with them and shared Holy Communion with them, rejoicing in God’s love and grace.

I saw the kingdom of God Friday afternoon and evening, in a group of people that worked together to prepare, serve, and clean up after a meal in our fellowship hall; and in the group of people who gathered to enjoy that meal and support the youth ministry of this congregation.

I saw the kingdom of God Saturday, in the smiles and service of small groups of people who gathered to feed the homeless and help with projects here at church.

I have heard the kingdom of God in the music and laughter and conversation and prayer shared at the table in these gatherings.

Where have you experienced the kingdom of God this week? What stories can you tell others? Of course, we don’t see the fullness of the kingdom yet, but it has already drawn near and we definitely see glimpses of it if we look for them.

We see the kingdom of God when we gather to do ministry together in groups, large or small, for the benefit of others. We see the kingdom of God whenever we gather for prayer and study, when we cultivate the “good soil” and nurture the seed of the word.

We see the kingdom of God when we gather for worship and ministry together even when we don’t all agree about the important issues. We see the kingdom of God – we are the kingdom of God - at work in the world in our prayer and service, study and worship. The kingdom of God is growing and changing even when we don’t understand how it happens. The kingdom of God will yield a surprisingly plentiful harvest, in God’s time, according to God’s will.

Want to learn just a little bit of Hebrew? Co amar Adonai. That’s the beginning of today’s first reading from Ezekiel. Co amar Adonai. Thus says the Lord. When we read those words in the Old Testament, we know that God is speaking directly to the chosen people.

And in this passage we read a promise of what God will do. A promise of surprising things, in a text that sounds much like the parable of the mustard seed combined with a touch of the Beatitudes:

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will do surprising things… I will take a sprig and create a new tree, and cause it to grow into a noble cedar. Everyone will be able to take shelter in the shade of this mighty tree.

All the other trees will know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I will surprise people by drying up the green tree and making the dry tree flourish.

And the final line, the reason we know that it can happen:
I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Co amar Adonai! Thus says the Lord!. The almighty God, creator of heaven and earth has declared it so – and he will do it.

We can pray gladly for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done. God will cause surprising things to happen. God will bring a bountiful harvest from unexplained places. God wills it, and it will be so. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What does it mean to be Lutheran and why does it matter?

That sounds very much like the title of an essay I had to write in seminary, but this one has more to do with the state of Lutheranism today as written about in this article:

This topic was brought up at our recent synod assembly, and the bishop said that in a recent survey, over 50% of the Lutherans surveyed responded that Yes, they had to do something to receive salvation. Our message of grace has somehow been trampled by the prevalent American version of Christianity that believes we somehow control our own destiny.

Martin Luther is most likely rolling over in his grave (or would, if he could), to find that in a mere 500 years, all that he argued for in the reformation was being lost to Americanism (or simply ignored). For Luther, it is only by God's grace that we are saved, for we are incapable of saving ourselves. In his response to the third article of the Apostles' Creed, Luther writes, "I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith..." In other words, not only can we not work our way into heaven, but without the Holy Spirit, we cannot even believe in heaven.

For far too long, the Lutheran church has tried to compete with other denominations by becoming just like them. If the church across town has a program that is successful, then we had better have one too, no matter what the theology of the program. Any time we remove the liturgy, or reduce the liturgy, to become more like "that other church," we not only remove a vital part of who we are, but we lose the theology that makes us Lutheran. The liturgy helps us to remain grounded in who and whose we are. It keeps God at the forefront of our worship, not the band or the choir, or whatever else we have changed to "bring more people into worship."

This is not to say that just being Christian is not important - it is, and professing Jesus as Lord and Saviour is just as important for us as it is for our brothers and sisters in other denominations. However, we need to remember that as Lutherans we bring something to the table that is unique, and important. We bring the understanding that we are who we are not because we choose to be, but because God chose us. We understand that life is not about finding Jesus, but is a product of being called and claimed. Jesus is not lost, and when we need God in our lives the most, God is already there - not waiting for us to find him, but waiting for us to acknowledge his presence.

There are many things about being Lutheran that are good, and which have helped keep Christians on track for over 500 years. Maybe it is our moderating voice that has helped others to remember that it is by God's grace that we are saved, not by our works. It is by faith that we believe, and that faith is a gift of God, not of our own doing. It is God who finds us when we are wandering in the wilderness of life, not we who find God.

So - what does it mean to be Lutheran? It means that we are saved by faith, through God's amazing grace, and not by anything that we do or try to do. We are both saint and sinner - at the same time. We constantly fall short of the glory of God, and stand in need of God's abundant mercy.

Why does it matter? Because we all eventually realize that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, earn salvation. As Lutherans, it is our calling to remind our brothers and sisters that life is not a contest to see who can do the most good so that we will be saved, but life is a response to God's amazing grace and we do as much good as we can because we know that God has already washed and claimed us in our baptism, fed us with the body and blood of Christ at the communion table, and has readied a place for us - not because of what we do, but so that we will know God's love, and so can share that love with one another.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


It is telling that there has not been a post since Lent. In between Lent and Pentecost, there was the great 50 days of Easter, and not a word was written here. One of the reasons might be that we have been very, very busy. Another might have something to do with an uncertainty about what to write and share in this space.

This has probably been the most difficult Easter season of my life. From the understanding that Easter is not one day (just like Christmas is not one day), but a season of the church year where we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus not once, but many times, it should have been a joyous time. Two things have hindered that this year.

The first is the same that I wrote about during Christmas, Advent, and Lent - that is, this being our first year through the cycle of the church year in this place, where some traditions are the same and some are different. The learning curve has been huge, and there has been much time discussing, learning, researching, and planning for all things to happen in some reasonable, liturgical sense.

The second is that we have hit one of those points in our ministry where there are some who are not pleased with what we are doing. While a small number, they are vocal. Any time conflict arises in the church, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to deal with it. While this is not over, and is not really for public discussion, it is only fair to mention it in response to all of you who have wondered why the blog has not been more active. The reason is simply that there are not enough hours in the day, or enough energy in either of us to deal with everything else and still post something there. Neither of us are the type to publicly air disagreements, especially not in a forum where we are the only ones with a voice, so you won't get any details here. Suffice it to say that we are in the midst of a difficult time and your prayers would be appreciated.

Now that I've told you what is going on in our lives, maybe we can post some thoughts (which may not be as upbeat as we would like) and you'll understand where we are coming from. On the up side, serving God amongst his people here continues to be a blessing to us (even on the bad days), and we look forward to being able to devote all our energy into positive things.

Last week was the NC Synod Assembly, and was a great opportunity to listen, learn, meet old friends, make new friends, and see just how big and wonderful is this body of Christ that we belong to. Even amidst the many discussions about sex and policies of the church, we were able to worship together and leave proclaiming Jesus as Lord! Alleluia!

Friday, March 6, 2009


Hard to believe that we are approaching the Second Sunday in Lent, and we have yet to post anything about Lent. Just goes to show how busy it can be, especially in the church. While for many, January and February are slow times, they are not so here.

Right after Christmas, we go into the season of Epiphany, bracketed by two festival Sundays - Baptism of our Lord and Transfiguration. Immediately after the last Sunday in Epiphany, we celebrate Shrove Tuesday, followed by Ash Wednesday and straight into Lent.

On a personal note, all of these things were complicated this year by my coming down with pneumonia and being out of commission for the better part of three weeks. During those three weeks, I was the recipient of much ministry, rather than the provider. It certainly gives one a different perspective.

Now I am back to work (and mostly back to 100% health), and we are working diligently on getting caught up. There are visits to make, blog entries to post, articles to write, planning to do, and many, many preparations for Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday to make.

One of the joys (and tribulations) of the first year in a parish is learning the traditions, examining our own theology, and merging the two into something that we can all live with. For those of us who have spent many years in one congregation, it is pretty easy to assume that we all celebrate, for example, Palm Sunday in the same way. In reality, each congregation develops their own traditions - some based on the liturgy, some based on the space, some based on context, some based on regional traits. All of these merge together to become "the way we have always done it."

For a new pastor, these become traditions to be examined, an opportunity to learn about the community being served, and a way of merging ourselves into those traditions. They also become teaching moments, as we discuss the traditions of the historical church, other traditions with which we are familiar with or grew up with, and the theology associated with the tradition. We realize that no - we don't all do things the same way, and we search for balance.

It is in the search for balance that we are reminded that God is here among us, that God was here before any of us arrived on the scene, and that God will be here after we have all died or moved on to other places. It is in this time of examination (which is what Lent is all about, anyway) that we discover the things that God has done, is doing, and promises yet to do. Praise be to God!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

of Prayer Shawls and Preemie Caps

One of the ministries that heard about when we arrived here was the Prayer Shawl ministry. What we heard was that there used to be a group who met to knit and crochet together, making shawls for those who were sick or mourning and needed the comfort of the these shawls. The group also has created cotton bandages and premie caps in the past.

Just a few weeks ago, one of the members who had organized this ministry before approached me, wanting to begin meeting again. We gladly helped to schedule a time and place for this group to resume meeting. Since I love to knit and crochet, I also made time for a shopping excursion to purchase yarn so that I could begin a shawl, and join in this ministry of our congregation.

Even before the very first meeting time, I was handed a completed prayer shawl, with the request that it be dedicated and given to a recent widow in our congregation. Before the week was out, four other completed shawls appeared in my office. That next Sunday morning, as we were announcing the first meeting of the revived ministry, five shawls were blessed with prayer by both of us and passed among the members of the congregation for their prayers. What a marvelous way to re-introduce such a wonderful ministry!

During our first meeting, as I knitted and purled my way along on the shawl I had already started, I also asked about a pattern for premie caps. I was given a lovely but challenging pattern, which requires using 4 double-pointed needles – something I have only used once or twice in my years of knitting. Never one to say ‘never,’ I took a copy of the pattern home and began work on my first premie cap, with yarn I had on hand.

Working on these during quiet evenings by the TV at home, I have now finished three caps, and have yarn for several more. These are really quite fun to create – and my work is certainly based in gratitude and prayer, as I am profoundly thankful that our twin grandsons were not born prematurely. So I am quietly creating these, hoping that they may bring comfort to tiny babies born too early and too small.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Busy times

It’s been a hectic week! As the end of each month rolls around, we are busy working on the monthly newsletter along with the weekly bulletin along with the weekly Bible study and Sunday school and sermon preparation and visits to the hospitalized and homebound members of the congregation and all the other chores that pop up.

We’re now going on three weeks without a full day off. Come to think of it, that last one doesn’t really count, either – it was the day after Grandma Nellie’s funeral. Fortunately, we have been able to eke out an afternoon or evening here and there to run necessary errands and accomplish some things here at home. We just haven’t been able to get a complete ‘sleep in, catch up on chores and errands, and then relax’ day off.

In fact, we had scheduled two or three vacation days this week and watched them disappear from our calendar after a member of our congregation died. Instead of spending our days working here at home, we spent time with his family, preparing for and participating in the funeral.

That’s ministry for us. Knowing that the opportunity to be there for a family in sorrow is more important than us getting chores caught up at home. And I don’t think either of us would change that for anything. We have been called to full-time ministry and given an incredible opportunity to serve the Lord in this place!

Right now, as I type this entry, Ray is watching the Super Bowl. I need to get some things packed as tomorrow morning it will be time to head back to camp for a short retreat for all first call pastors in the synod.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Time of Healing

This past Sunday afternoon, we offered a Service of Healing. It was, as far as anyone can remember, a first for this congregation. While the number of attendees was small, the presence of the Holy Spirit was over-whelming.

The service was simple - readings from scripture, prayers, laying on of hands, and annointing with oil for all who wished. Knowing some of the struggles and illnesses that face some of those who came made the service all that much more powerful, and makes one wonder why this is not a part of more churches - especailly Lutheran churches.

There are many references to healing throughout scripture (all quotes from NRSV):
Genesis 20:17 "Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech..."
2 Chronicles 30:20 "The LORD heard Hezekiah, and healed the people."
Psalm 30:2 "O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me."
Matthew 8:8 "...but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed."
Luke 14:4 "So Jesus took him and healed him..."

Perhaps the most compelling argument is found in James:

James 5:14-16 "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."

I suppose some Lutherans might argue that since Luther was not too fond of the Book of James, that we tend to not pay it a lot of attention, but the simple fact that Luther did not remove it from his translation of the Bible shows that Luther thought there was need for these words, even if they were not among his favorites. For us, in light of the entire New Testament witness, James has a place and should not be ignored.

As leaders of the church (whether you count your elders as lay or ordained), healing is one of the task that we are called to - healing of the spirit, of the body, of the mind. We may not all have the healing power that Jesus gave his disciples when he sent them out, but we all have the power and ability to pray for one another and to provide comfort in time of need.

Some may believe that Sunday morning worship is sufficient for this, especially in churches where Holy Communion is celebrated every Sunday. There is certainly healing available through the Sacraments, but that does not mean we should limit ourselves to this. A Service of Healing allows us to offer a special time where the focus is on healing, where prayers may specific and interactive, and where friends and family members can join in and lay on hands along with the "elders."

Suffice it to say, that our first experience with this here has been so profound that we hope to find ways to incorporate this service into the life of the congregation on a regular basis. It was healing to us; it was healing to those who came. As we are always in need of healing, for some ill or anguish, there can never be too many opportunities provided for God's people to gather in prayer for one another, and to lay hands on one another, and to be healed through the power of the Holy Spirit. As the promise of Jesus is recorded in the Gosple according to Matthew, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Mat. 18:20)." We simply provide the opportunity to gather and pray. God takes care of the rest. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Getting away

(This post is a bit delayed – it should most likely have come this time last week, but by then we were out of town with Ray’s family for Grandma Nellie’s funeral.)

"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves..." Mark 6:31 NRSV

We began last weekend on retreat at Camp Agape with the congregational council. I know that not all congregations have the tradition of an annual council retreat, but I’m convinced that all should! Of course, I’m always a fan of time away at camp (or I probably wouldn’t have remained a Girl Scout leader for over 15 years)!

This weekend away allows time for the council members to get to know each other and learn to work together. We took time for devotions and completed a spiritual gifts inventory. Several people were surprised to learn what their gifts are; realizing the variety of gifts that this group possesses together as the Body of Christ was very powerful.

In addition to a routine business meeting, we also took time to reflect on programs and events that have been part of the church’s ministry in the past and to brainstorm about a vision for the future. The result was some very basic, practical plans for necessities and some more creative plans for the future, too.

We also had some free time to explore camp, enjoy the fellowship of others, and rest. I pray that everyone serving on the council came away from the retreat as excited about the future of our ministry together as I did. And I heartily suggest this tradition to other congregations!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In times of grief

It is in those times of grief, of personal loss, that the pastor becomes the one in need. During that time, roles are reversed and the congregation becomes the one who ministers to the pastor. It is during that time, that the pastor finds out how well he or she has been getting the message of the gospel across. For the congregation, it is a time to realize its role in ministry - to all who are in need. Thanks be to God that this is so!

Why this odd post? My 97 year old grandmother passed away last week. Not that this could ever happen at a good time, but it was the day before we were to leave on a weekend retreat with the church council. We both went, stayed for most of the retreat, then drove across the state to arrive in time for the funeral and then spend a couple of days with my mother. The council was able to spend time during the weekend being on the giving end rather than the receiving end of pastoral care. It is wonderful to see this process work, and work well.

There will be reflections on my grandmother at a later time (not sure that I could do it yet), but suffice it to say that all of her 9 remaining children (out of 10) were there, most of 21 grandchildren, and I have forgotten how many great grandchildren there are, but many were present. Along with the many, many friends in the community, as well as other relatives and so on, it was a full house for the funeral. There were no less than six ministers present (including us). The grandsons served as pallbearers, which included me. It was the one job I had never done during a funeral. I have been in the choir, assisted with communion, preached, presided, ushered, directed, assisted, etc., but this was my first as a pallbearer. Probably a topic worthy of later reflection as well.

One thing that becomes apparent when a loved one dies, especially in the technically and socially connected world as we now live in - you see how many, many friends you have, all looking out for you. I find that I am very, very blessed, as was Grandma Nellie.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

on the 11th day of Christmas...

Seems like just a few days ago we were putting up the Chrismon tree and hanging the garland in the sanctuary! But today was the Second Sunday of Christmas – the next-to-last day in a twelve day season – and now Advent and Christmas are both behind us. Today was a busy day, filled with both finishing up and planning ahead.

After worship, we had a brief meeting with the congregational council, to make some final arrangements for the annual council retreat next weekend. From there we went on to a covered dish lunch with the Junior, Middle, and Senior Youth groups and their families. After short meetings, we moved into a frenzied time of taking down the Christmas decorations, packing them up, and cleaning in the sanctuary and fellowship hall. Before the afternoon was over, we also had a confirmation class!

There were certainly no dull moments between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm today – and we even missed the chance for fellowship with one of the circles. We also missed a last chance this morning to take photos of the sanctuary while it was filled with garland, the Chrismon tree, poinsettias, and the nativity set. Guess we’ll have to wait about 11 months for our next chance at those photos. In the meantime, the church looks ‘normal’ but strangely empty.

So now, we begin looking ahead – to Epiphany; to Lent and Easter; and with the council, to making plans for 2009 and beyond!