Thursday, January 19, 2017

You'd best get out of our way

The very first sermon I ever preached came close to not happening. Forty-one years ago on January 25, I had prepared to preach on the Conversion of St. Paul at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio. As I recall, it wasn’t a great sermon, but I was a first-year seminary student, and I was relatively clueless and, as the saying goes, we all have to start somewhere. 

I woke up that morning to find the world encrusted in two inches of ice. Despite the fact that the church was on the other side of the city, I was determined to get there. As sleet pelted my cheeks, I skated from my apartment, through the parking, and into the side of my ’66 Plymouth Fury. After chipping through the ice on the windshield while the engine warmed up a bit, I was ready to go. I slowly crept out of the parking lot and drove a couple blocks before I realized it wasn’t gonna happen. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the ice forming on my windshield, and every time I got out to scrape it, my feet slid under the car. 

Should I call the church to tell them I wasn’t going to make it? Did I have a choice? Part of me would be relieved to stay home; I was terrified of speaking in public and couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be able to preach a sermon. But then, I knew this was part of becoming a pastor. I needed to get past it so I could move on. I had to find a way to get to the church. 

So, I called Paula. She was my only hope. And she came through. Somehow, she managed to drive to my place, pick me up and deliver me to St. Mark’s. 

Paula was a year ahead of me in seminary. Our relationship was complicated. When I arrived at seminary, Paula had made a name for herself as an outspoken advocate for women seminarians. She wasn’t one to suffer in silence while the seminary fumbled around figuring out how to prepare women to become pastors. I was na├»ve and so out of the loop that I didn’t even realize ordaining women was a new thing, so I was trying my best to understand what was happening. I didn’t always appreciate the ways my life was easier because Paula had come before me. In a sense, the way she rescued me so I could preach my first sermon on that icy Sunday morning was representative of the role she played in my life. 

Through the years our paths have crossed from time to time. Once, when I was on the bishop’s staff and we were discussing potential pastoral candidates to serve at Trinity in Lakewood, I suggested Paula. This open, somewhat funky congregation seemed perfect for someone like Paula who was smart, creative and a little cray-cray. It turned out to be a great match, and I was gratified to be in a position where I could repay her in some way. 

I haven’t always appreciated the women who have walked before me and beside me as I’ve found my way in the world, but as I’ve aged, I could weep to think of how much they mean to me. Childhood friends, sisters, college roommates, pastoral colleagues… I can’t begin to imagine who I would be without them. 

On Saturday, I’ll be participating in the Women’s March in Washington, walking alongside my daughter Gretchen. My emotions are reeling just thinking about it. I’ll need to pack some tissues to get me through the day. So many of the women I treasure will be marching with me, in Washington and in other cities around the world. Paula will be among them. 

I feel compelled to participate in the march because not marching is unthinkable to me. This is our time and I’m not about to miss it. I must add my body and my voice to the millions of others. We will march together, and we will be heard. The Women’s March is not an end in itself; it’s the beginning of a movement. We will resist any power that pushes us backwards or threatens to advance its agenda at the expense of the poor and vulnerable in our society. 

Women will lead the way. I expect nothing less of us. I learned long ago that when times are desperate and I’m ready to throw in the towel, I can find the strength and support I need from other women. When we march together, you’d best get out of our way.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come and See

Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church on January 15. Text: John 1:35-42.
If you’ve ever watched a cop show on T.V., you’ve seen how the police follow someone. A couple of them will sit in a car outside where the suspect lives and wait for them to leave. Then, when they come out of the house and start moving, whether by car or by foot, the police officers pull out of their parking space and trail behind them. I always have to wonder… how could anyone not notice that? Wouldn’t you notice two people sitting in a car in front of your house? Wouldn’t you notice a car pulling out as soon as you left the house? I don’t get it.

Well, apparently, Jesus’ first disciples were really lousy at tailing him because they didn’t have him fooled for any instant the way they were ducking behind corners and trying to blend in the with crowd. Although they were following at some distance, Jesus was onto them from the get-go.

They had been disciples of John. One day when they were with John and Jesus walked by, John pointed him out and said, “Do you see that guy over there? He’s the Lamb of God.” Well, the two of them weren’t about to let this Lamb of God out of their sight. They had to know more. So, they followed him.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asked them.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and see,” Jesus replied.

Now, they weren’t interested in seeing how Jesus furnished his home. They wanted to be with him where he lived. They wanted to experience who he was. So they went with Jesus and spent the rest of the day with him.

One of these two was a man named Andrew. And as soon as he left Jesus, he ran to tell his brother Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” It was quite a claim for one Jew to make to another. Their people had been waiting for the Messiah for just about forever. “You gotta come and see this guy!” Andrew told his brother.

As we enter this season of Epiphany, we draw our attention to the whole idea of sharing our faith with others, particularly those who might be struggling to find their way in the world. The churchy word for that is evangelism. It’s a word that sometimes makes us squirm because it calls to mind men on TV with bouffant hairdos asking us to send them money, or over-zealous Christians out to convert you so they can add another notch to their belt.

But evangelism is really about sharing the good news. In fact, that’s what the Greek word evangel means. Literally, good news. It stinks that in our culture, the label evangelical has come to mean something that we’d like to distance ourselves from because the word evangelical is a part of our heritage as Lutheran Christians who are all about the grace of God. Whether we use the E word or not, we know that, as Christians, we’re expected to share the good news with others. And if that scares the bejeebers out of you, you’re not alone.

I’ve always liked the definition of evangelism that says it’s like one beggar telling another beggar where they can find bread. It’s not about someone who is holier-than-thou telling a miserable sinner how to save their soul. It’s not about someone who has all the answers telling a poor ignorant soul how it is. It’s not about someone who has it all together explaining to another person how they too can get it all together. It’s about someone who has desperately longed for the love of God and experienced that love in her life showing another person who desperately longs for the love of God how he might experience it, too.

In today’s gospel, that’s expressed in three simple words from Jesus. “Come and see.” And that’s it. There is no coercion, no threat, no intimidation. It’s a simple invitation.

Jesus invites Andrew to come and see. And Andrew invites Peter and, over time, Peter will invite others. All this from three simple words. Come and see.

The first leg on our three-legged strategic plan at Ascension is invite in love. A simple invitation we might extend to others is, “Come and see.” And yet, we need to ask, what exactly would we like people to come and see, and why?

Back when I served as an assistant to the bishop of my synod in Ohio, I had the opportunity to visit a lot of congregations that were in crisis. Their numbers were shrinking and they couldn’t pay the bills and they didn’t know what to do. When I would meet with their leadership, I often heard these or similar words, “We need to get more people to come to church.”

“Why?” I would ask. They never liked that question. Because it was clear that the reason they wanted more people in the pews was so that there would be more money in the offering plate. And that’s what it was going to take for them to survive.

So, how many of you would want to join a church like that?

When we make it our goal at Ascension to invite, I hope it’s not so that we can get more fannies in the pews, so we can in turn get more dollars in the plate. I hope our invitation has nothing to do with preserving an institution. I hope we’re inviting people to see Jesus. I hope we’re drawn to Ascension because this is where we see Jesus.

Now, by that I don’t mean that we’re the mirror image of Jesus. But that we’re trying our best to embody a way of life that is the way of Jesus. We don’t have to live the way of the world—ruthless, vengeful, self-centered. We can strive to be like Jesus, together, as we encourage one another along the way.

As your new pastor, I’m very aware of the fact that you’re hoping I came here to grow Ascension. You may be disappointed to know that’s not the reason I came to be your pastor. If you’re talking about numbers, I’m not feeling called to do that. It would be cool if we grew, and that may happen, but that’s not my calling… or yours.

We’re called to grow in the way we embody Jesus in the world, so that when others come and see us, they see Jesus.

The thing about institutions is that they take on a life of their own and they become all about self-preservation. At Ascension, we’re a congregation of about 750 people. Not too many years ago, we were a congregation of 1200 people. Our numbers have gone down. We’re not alone. Many congregations are in the same boat.

There are lots of reasons for that and I can’t get into them in the limited time of one sermon. There are also lots of reasons to hope in the Christian church today, although the church of the future will not be like the church of the past. But the point I want to make today is that when the institution bleeds, the institution fights for survival.

As much as we may love the institution, we need to remind ourselves that Christ’s Body on earth is not an institution. Churches, and buildings and denominations are not forever. Yes, we need to think about that, even in our 75th anniversary year. Built on rock, the church will stand, even when steeples are falling. Steeples do have a shelf life. Eventually, they fall. That doesn’t mean that the people who gathered for worship under those steeples failed. It’s not a measure of their faithfulness to the gospel.

Last week I was at a pastor’s Bible study group with pastors I haven’t gotten to know very well since coming here, and one of the pastors said, “The most remarkable thing happened in worship last Sunday. We had a young man join the church.”

I’m sitting there thinking, why is this a big deal? I don’t see anything remarkable in that. People join the church all the time. But then, I came to learn that he serves at the interim pastor at Second English Lutheran Church in Baltimore. And today, the congregation of Second English in Baltimore is closing. So, yes, it was mind-blowing to think that on the Sunday before the congregation closed its doors, they received a new member.

It seemed he had been visiting the congregation where people showed him Jesus, and he felt called to join them. On the Sunday before they closed.

And that’s why we invite people to come and see.

Today we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If ever there was a man who took being a disciple of Jesus seriously, it was this man. He understood the darkness of this world only too well. But he also knew that darkness is no match for the light of God. He understood that while sin is present in the heart of the individual, it is also present in the systems of society. And one cannot change the realities of life, without changing the systems of oppression. Motivated by the unconditional love of God, he was called to show others Jesus, particularly those on the margins of society.

Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of people who identify as Jesus’ followers these days who are showing the world someone who is not Jesus. These are challenging times if we want to show the world who Jesus really is.

When we’re baptized, we’re charged to “let our lights so shine that others may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” Letting our lights shine so that others may come and see Jesus.

As God’s beloved, we have light to shine on the world. Dr. King once said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” There is good news to share with the world around us. The light we bear scatters the darkness. It brings an assurance of God’s love to those who live in fear. It’s the light of Christ. In our words and in our actions, we’re called to invite the world to come and see.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Ministers of Music with whom he is well pleased

It’s the day before the day before Christmas, otherwise known as December 23. It’s also a Friday, which is my “day off”, but really, how can a pastor relax the day before what must be the ecclesiastical equivalent to the Superbowl for us? I’ll spend today doing laundry (down to my last pair of underwear), tinkering with my sermon, getting as much rest as possible... And reflecting on the fact that no matter how stressful Christmas Eve is for me, it could be worse. I could be the Minister of Music. 

Sometimes I delude myself into believing that people come to worship on Christmas Eve to hear my sermon. They don’t. I could have the best sermon I ever preached, or neglect to preach at all and I’m not sure if it would matter to most people. That’s not why they come. They come for the music. 

The faithful who have been worshiping with us throughout the month of December, patiently enduring the Advent season while hopefully waiting for what comes next, have more than earned the right to cut loose with Christmas carols. After all, they’ve been hearing Christmas music at Walmart since before Halloween, so it’s high time they get to enjoy it at church. And for those who skip Advent, maybe don’t even know what Advent is, it’s the music that lures them into a pew on a frosty winter night to experience the mystery of the Incarnation once again. 

I suspect a church musician could succumb to the stress of this night and call in sick if they had time to think about it. Instead, they push through, one stanza at a time, looking forward to crossing the finish line when they’ll be able to breathe again. I honestly don’t know how they do it; I stand in awe of them. 

Joy is our Minister of Music at Ascension. (Really, that’s her name. How perfect is that?) On Christmas Eve she will be leading the children of the congregation in their Christmas musical at 4:00. They’ve been working on it for months. This is our best attended worship on Christmas Eve and you’ll need a shoe horn to get in. No pressure there. Then, for the next two worship services, at 8:00 and 10:30, she will be working with a brass quintet, timpanist, handbells and Senior Choir. How does she juggle all those groups on the same night? Of course, she’ll also be poised for action from the organ bench throughout, ready for every cue, prepared for variations with each hymn, leading the congregation through the liturgy, without even a moment to let her mind or her hands wander, from beginning to end. 

I can hardly get my head around what that must be like and wouldn’t trade places with Joy for a bazillion bucks. Well, that’s not exactly true. The fact is, I couldn’t trade places with her because I could never do what she does. Few people could, and even fewer than that could do it as well.

I know that when most people worship on Christmas Eve they are unaware of all the work that was involved in making the sacred portion of their Christmas celebration possible: a janitor who cleaned before they arrived, the office staff who printed the bulletins, people who prepared the altar, decorators who tied the bows on the wreaths and decided just where to place the poinsettias, a choir that is rehearsed and ready to sing, ushers greeting them at the door… A team of faithful people, many of them invisible to people in the pews, comes together to make Christmas Eve worship happen.

Of all those who make our Christmas Eve worship possible, the ones who have put their heart and soul into the evening above all others are our church musicians. Try to imagine what your Christmas worship would be like without them, and be glad you won’t have to experience that. As you're recognizing those who share gifts with you this Christmas, don't forget to thank your church musician.