Kids' art wall

Healing

Lenten reflection for April 2.

Andy* is an energetic, inquisitive little boy. He would come into my office and play with my stuff while I tried to work on a sermon or prayers. He would sit on my bike and see if he could touch the pedals. His mom works for the church, so the building is like a second home to him. He knew that I wouldn’t be at that church long, but that didn’t stop him from becoming my friend anyway. He has that smile and glow about him that makes you wonder what happened to your own youthful energy.

Andy also has ITP, or Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. ITP is a condition in which the body’s white blood cells become confused and begin attacking the blood’s platelets, killing them off. Platelets are the cells that clot bleeding, so as their number drops, the body is not able to stop bleeding if it occurs. If the number of platelets drops too low, spontaneous bleeding can occur.

Most cases of ITP are either mild enough that only some treatment is required, and in most cases, it fixes itself on its own in a few months. Andy is not one of those cases. Andy’s platelet counts had, at times, dropped to the point where he was at risk for internal bleeding. While he responded to treatment, it did not last, and his count would plummet again. The use of steroids, another form of treatment, made him violently ill. It has been two years since he was diagnosed, and it looks like he may have this condition for the rest of his life.

It is hard to look at Andy and wonder why God doesn’t just heal him. God could. It is certainly not from a lack of faith or prayer—his family and the church pray for him all the time. In our story tonight, Jesus says that faith can heal. So when it doesn’t, what does that mean?

Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, tells this story about a trip she took to Rome and the aftermath:

“The last day in Rome I caught a lulu of a cold. As I lay in bed the Friday after we returned searching the TV for a football game, I came across a televangelist. I was mesmerized. He was preaching to a packed house in a converted NBA coliseum. His text was from Matthew 21, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, the disciples’ wonderment at Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ teaching about faith being able to move mountains.

The televangelist’s exegesis (explanation) of the passage led him to conclude that Jesus said we must “speak to the mountain” — prayer was not enough. If we wanted a better job we needed to “speak to that mountain” and all the heavenly forces would be set in motion. Poor health? Fear of foreclosure? Troubled marriage? “Speak to that mountain” and get it fixed.

Wow. When my father was dying why didn’t I speak to that mountain? When Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh be taken away, why didn’t he speak to that mountain? Here it was, the “Name It and Claim It Health and Wealth Gospel.” The people in that arena were cheering.”

I don’t know why God hasn’t answered our prayers and healed Andy. It can’t be because we never “spoke to that mountain”. I know his family has. I know his church has. They’ve put all of their faith into loving and supporting him and his family. Maybe there is no easy answer. Maybe prayer answers don’t  I don’t know.

But I do know this: when Andy is in the hospital, it is God holding his hands, whispering, “I’m right here—I’m not leaving your side.” When Andy has to sit out in gym class because any hard hits could cause him to bleed internally, God sits next to him and says, “That’s okay, they never let me play, either.” And no matter what happens to Andy, God will be there with him, walking with him, caring for him, as God does with all of us who love Andy dearly. That is where God is in suffering and pain–right there with it.

*Name changed to respect privacy.

Willow tree

Sermon–March 30, 2014–Lent 4A

Fourth Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

On the morning of August 24, 2013, volunteers from Love Wins Ministries in North Carolina arrived at the park at Moore Square, like they had been doing every Saturday and Sunday for the past six years. For six years, with the help of cooperating area churches and volunteers, they provided a hot breakfast and coffee for the poor, hungry, homeless, and anyone who needed it.

Except for that day. That day, as they were setting up for their weekly breakfast, a police officer informed them that if they passed out food, they would be arrested. No reason was given why, after six years, what they were doing was suddenly illegal. They weren’t even told what law they were breaking.

Given the choice that day between doing their ministry and going to jail, or walking away for the time being and trying to figure out what was going on, they chose the latter. Dozens of people that morning left hungry.

The situation of Love Wins is not unique. According to a the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, more and more cities are instituting bans on feeding the homeless. There seem to be two reasons for these bans. The first is a public safety concern, that there is no way to regulate the food being given out.

The second seems to be to motivate the homeless to seek assistance from regulated services—even when those services don’t exist. One of the main reasons Love Wins gave out breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays was because Raleigh’s official soup kitchens or other options are closed on the weekends.

There’s somewhat of a disparity between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

I had read this story when it first came out, and it came to mind again reading our Gospel lesson for this morning. It is an amazing story of healing and a witness to the transformative power of God working in the lives of human beings. But it is also a story of blind obedience to the letter of the law and all the little rules we have.

It is important to note that the religious leaders in this story aren’t upset that Jesus healed a blind man. Not a single person would argue that giving this man his sight for the first time in his life was a bad thing. On the contrary, the healing itself was nothing but a cause for celebration.

No, what the religious leaders objected to was the fact that Jesus healed the man by mixing mud on the Sabbath.

According to the Sabbath laws, work was forbidden on that day, especially creative work. Mixing dirt and saliva creates mud. Therefore, Jesus broke the sabbath, and that’s all that matters.

This happens to Jesus all the time. In this story, he is accused of breaking the sabbath by mixing mud. In another story, his disciples are accused when they walk through a field and pick some grain to eat. Jesus heals multiple times on the sabbath, usually to the ire of his opponents. They didn’t care that what Jesus was doing was actually healing people. They cared that he was doing work on the day of rest—he was violating the “proper” way of doing things.

There is a word for this type of approach: legalism. According to the dictionary, legalism is the strict adherence to a law, especially to the letter rather than the spirit; or the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws. In theology, the term has come to mean that salvation, healing, and wholeness come through specific works. One of the injustices that the 16th century reformers fought against was the legalistic approach to the saving power of God.

Our society is no stranger to legalism. Because of the letter of the law, a woman who fires a warning shot in her own home to scare off an attacker is set to go to retrial and face 60 years in prison. Or someone who swindles millions of dollars out of people in the stock market can get away with it on any number of technicalities in the letter of the law.

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus isn’t a legalist. There’s a reason the Pharisees and religious authorities keep harping on Jesus—he doesn’t seem to care if his actions are in line with their interpretation of the laws. It’s just not his concern.

What is his concern is bringing healing and wholeness—salvation–to those who need it most.

Jesus has this annoying tendency to do the uncomfortable, the unexpected, yet at the same time, the most obvious, direct, and necessary things. Last week, he intentionally crossed the boundary lines and sought out a Samaritan woman.

We hear stories of him bringing healing and wholeness to lepers, people infected with a highly contagious skin disease, by touching them.

He welcomes it when little kids, rambunctious little balls of energy, come and interrupt his sermon because they want to be close to him.

In the temple, he throws over the tables of merchants and bankers who are willfully and, with the blessing of the authorities, robbing people of money.

No, Jesus doesn’t care what the “proper” procedure is. He is the light that shines in the darkness, and he is not going to wait for darkness’s permission to shine. He has this unbelievably radical idea that those in need should have their needs met. He teaches this absurdly simple notion that if someone is hungry they should be fed; if homeless, they should be sheltered; if poor, provided for.

In Jesus’s eyes, if the rules and regulations we’ve set up are no longer guides that shape our lives, but are instead prisons that trap us, then the rules are wrong, and another way must be found.

Can you imagine if the church was like this? I’ve talked about communities and rules before, and I will affirm again that all communities of human beings need rules in order to function as communities.

Yet I’m sure most of you could think of a time in which the rules, laws, and policies of a church got in the way of the work the church was trying to do. Constitutions, bylaws, boards and committees can just as easily hinder, stall, and kill community projects as they can facilitate them. The last synod assembly I attended, in Michigan, was stalled for nearly a half hour because the voting system was unnecessarily complicated, and even the counters didn’t know how it was supposed to be done.

It is easy to get bogged down in the technicalities—who has the actual authority to do what, who is in charge of this or that, what procedures need to be followed, and of course, that most uncompromising, unbending rule of all, “the way it’s always been done”.

God has as response to our preoccupation with the “proper” way to do things: and it’s called Grace, or “God finds a way”.

When creation falls well short of God’s expectations, God finds a way to salvage and redeem it.

When the law says that a person must suffer for their entire life because of something they or their parents “did”, God finds a way to relieve their suffering anyway.

When the rules say that a person who has sinned is no longer welcome at the table of the Lord, God finds a way to welcome them anyway.

When the books say that a person or people is not worthy of basic human dignities, God finds a way to provide them anyway.

Recipients of grace have one thing in common: they desperately need it.

The only person in the story of the blind man given sight that stands up for Jesus and witnesses to the incredible miracle is the man himself. No one else, not even those who witnessed it, are willing to speak the news.

Those who experience grace are the ones who truly understand the love and greatness of God. In their hopelessness, God finds a way to love them regardless of what anyone else thinks or say.

Nothing can stand in the way of God. Not our own ideas, not our rules, not our boundaries, not our laws. Not even death itself could stop God’s grace.

When Love Wins had to stop feeding the hungry or be arrested, they worried that their ministry in that area might be over. But God finds a way.

A week after the incident made national news, the Raleigh temporarily suspended the ordinance banning feeding the poor in public places. A few months later, the city agreed to build a new indoor facility for Love Wins, so that they could continue to feed the hungry without breaking any ordinances.

Not every story ends this way. But the good news is that, when it comes to salvation, healing, and wholeness: God finds a way.

Lake Muskegon rocks

Water

A Lenten reflection for March 26.

There’s an old children’s song that goes like this:

“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,
There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, a hole.
Then mend it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
Then mend it, dear Henry, dear Henry, mend it.

With what shall I mend it, dear Liza, dear Liza?
With what shall I mend it, dear Liza, with what?
With a straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,
With a straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, with a straw.”

And the song goes on like this. Henry can’t mend the bucket with the straw, because the strong is too long. Liza tells him to cut it with a knife, but Henry can’t cut the straw, because his knife is too dull. When told to sharpen the knife, Henry says that he can’t, because the sharpening stone is to dry. In order to wet it, he needs water, and the only way to get water is in the bucket, which, as we already know, has a hole in it. What a nightmare!

Water is precious. It is absolutely essential to every form of life we know exists. We need to drink fresh, clean water every day in order to survive—while we can survive a few weeks without food, we can only survive 3-5 days without water. We take it for granted that water will always be available to us. This is Three Lakes, after all, which sits on the world’s largest chain of inland lakes. Water is all around us. And look out the window—frozen water wherever you look.

In other parts of the world, however, water is scarce. While water covers 70% of our planet’s surface, only 2.5% of that water is fresh, not salt water, and able to be drunk. The collection and conservation of water is, literally, life or death. In many places, deep cisterns are dug to collect rain water and store it for use. As the world becomes more globalized and more advanced, however, access to safe drinking water is actually -dwindling-, not increasing. It is estimated that, by 2025, more than half of the world’s population will be facing a water shortage.

The prophet Jeremiah describes God as a fountain of living water, and in our Gospel reading from last Sunday, Jesus uses the same imagery when talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. God is our foundation of life, without which we cannot survive. The problem is, like poor Henry, we aren’t always good buckets that can hold the living water. We try to capture the essence of God in inferior, but flashy buckets of our own making. And when they fail, we try, on our own to repair them—we stuff the holes with more money and possessions, because that always makes us happy, or with politics, or our own sheer willpower, the American way. But the more we try to stuff the holes, the more the water seeps right through, and we are left with empty buckets once again.

Poor Henry and Liza keep trying to fix their bucket, and nothing works. I’ve always wondered why Henry and Liza just didn’t get a new bucket. Maybe it’s the only one they’ve got. But that’s not the case with God. We can exchange our “holey” buckets for “holy” ones, recognizing our need for God to quench our thirst and drinking sweetly of the living water.

It’s time to turn in your buckets, and drink.

WCC Chapel

Sermon–March 23, 2014–Lent 3A

Third Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

When Pastor Bob arrived at a church in suburban Columbus to begin his call, the church had been in decline for a good number of years, but was still doing okay. A number of well-to-do business folks belonged to the congregation and kept the church afloat. But one of Pastor Bob’s primary goals, according to the church, was to bring in new members.

Pastor Bob worked hard, visiting out in the community, getting to know people, building relationships with them, and when he next celebrated the sacrament of baptism, many new children, adults and families were welcomed into the Christian faith.

Over the next few months, however, Pastor Bob noticed that these new Christians and members of the church all stopped coming on Sunday morning and stopped participating in church activities. It seemed he was back to square one. There was the very real possibility that maybe the novelty had worn off, and the families were no longer interested. Or maybe life had become too busy, and as is too often the case, devotion to the faith community was set aside. But he called up each family, just to be sure it wasn’t something he himself had said or done that was keeping them from being active members of the faith community.

What he heard shocked and disgusted him.

The families had nothing but praise and love for Pastor Bob. But each of them, every single one of them, had received calls from an elderly lady in the congregation that made it absolutely clear that they were not welcome in her church. None of them ever came back. And a few years after Pastor Bob left, the church closed its doors.

Then, there is Hope Lutheran Church. Hope was founded in 1918 in the Columbus neighborhood of Driving Park by the descendants of German immigrants. It was a stable, working class neighborhood, and the church enjoyed the benefits of being in that environment.

When the neighborhood began to change, and more African-Americans were moving in, the neighborhood faced a crisis. The phenomenon knows as “white flight” swept through the neighborhood, and many of the white people, who could not stand the thought of living side by side with blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities, simply moved. White flight had a negative impact on the church as well, uprooting many of its members and causing a steep decline in numbers and income.

Eventually, in the 1960s, there were calls for the church to also leave Driving Park and “follow the people”, reestablishing itself in another neighborhood where its people had gone. The debate was lively, to say the least. But when the vote was taken, the church made a decision—they would stay in Driving Park and continue to serve the community. They would be an integrated, multicultural church.

Today, Hope Lutheran is a poor church in a poor neighborhood, but it is the neighborhood church. And every November, on All Saints Day, the church reads aloud the names of the saints in their midst who have died since the church voted to stay in the community.

Last week, we heard the story of Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus is a well known man, an important official, a Pharisee. He comes to Jesus in the midst of a crowd, at night, a righteous man who doesn’t really get it.

Today, we hear a much different story. Jesus is all alone at a well in Samaria, of all places. For a Judean to be caught in Samaria is like someone from the north suburbs of Chicago being caught in Englewood on the south side. Not where you want to be. Judeans considered Samaritans to be mongrels and would never associate with them.

Yet, here’s Jesus, sitting at a well in Samaria, all alone—he’s sent his disciples away to get food. It’s the middle of the day. And a Samaritan woman comes to the well. She has no name. She, too, is alone. She’s not very important in her community—we don’t even know her name. And apparently, she has a problem with marriage.

People have been quick to jump on the woman as some sort of adulterer, a promiscuous woman who reminds them of Mrs. White from the movie Clue, who insists that “husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and disposable”. But, nowhere does it say that. We are told that she has had five husbands in the past and is with a man who is not her husband right now. But we don’t know anything about the past husbands or what happened to them. Jesus clearly knows her situation, but he doesn’t condemn her or tell her to sin no more.

She was a woman who, for whatever reason, couldn’t catch a break in life. Woman, Samaritan, unmarried—outcast. Not at all like Nicodemus. She is very much “outside the lines”.

The lines define who we are. The lines of a picture give it shape and meaning, and so too do the lines we’ve set up in our lives. I am a young, white, Swedish-Italian-German-
English-Polish-Dutch-American male living in Three Lakes, WI, and serving as pastor of Faith Lutheran Church. I play the tuba. I have a terrible memory. I’m in love. I’m emotional, but can also be cold stuck up here in my head. All of these lines help identify me as a person, and without them, I wouldn’t be me.

I am very comfortable when I meet and interact with people whose lines shape them in similar ways to mine. It’s easy to identify with them and to get along with them. But, obviously, not everyone has the same lines and shapes that I do. There are people in the lines, and there are those outside the lines.

How we respond to those “outside the lines” says a lot about who we are, just as much as those inside the lines. What lines we focus on also says a lot. There are all sorts of lines all around us. Some of them are physical—the shoreline of a lake, the county line, a road that marks the boundary between “our” part of town and “their” part.

Some of the lines aren’t so easy to see—lines between family members who’ve had a falling out, cultural differences, socio-economic and income differences, emotional wounds.

Pastor Bob’s church, the church with the elderly lady chasing people away, was quite comfortable to sit well within its lines. It had no intention of looking beyond its lines. The lines became walls, and from those walls they built their church. You heard what happened to them.

Then, there’s Hope Lutheran. They looked outside their lines, their walls. The picture that they had painted changed, and they made the choice to step outside the lines and change the picture. The church is not “successful” by the standards of money and numbers, but I daresay it is living into its calling, sharing the good news with the poor and oppressed and standing with them.

If Jesus had never stepped out of his lines, past his walls, across his boundaries and borders, what would his message have been? The Samaritan woman was a precursor to the apostles—she shared the good news. Jesus went out to HER. By crossing the lines, by drawing a new picture with new boundaries that included everyone, he tore down walls and brought the good news of grace, mercy, and salvation to everyone, not just the “in crowd”.

Have our lines become walls? Look out the windows set in our walls. It’s a beautiful view. But there’s just one problem with sitting here looking out the window: it means we’re in here, and not out there. As one commentator put it:

“People of faith ought to leave their churches every now and then — not to abandon their communities or religious institutions, but to venture out in expectation that God will appear in a different setting. This passage in John 4 gives no support to views that say a person must come inside a church’s walls and traditions to meet God. It speaks against any community that shields itself from the mysteries of a God who operates freely in all sorts of places, not exclusively on this particular mountain or in that specific temple.”

Perhaps it is time to color outside the lines.

Justice on top of the Buttercross, Market Place, Bungay, Suffolk by mira66 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

Mercy

A Lenten reflection for March 19.

In 1950, the Population Registration Act, the first large-scale act of apartheid legislation, was passed in South Africa, mandating that all people living in South Africa be registered by race with the government. A few days later, the Group Areas Act was activated, mandating the separation of South Africans by race and establishing the areas where each race could live. Intermarriage between races was expressly forbidden. The segregation that was all the rage in the United States applied to South African public areas. Separate, inferior education and nominally autonomous governments were set up for non-whites. Non-whites lost the right to vote and their citizenship. In every way, the white minority suppressed the non-white majority.

The international community allowed and even encouraged these moves by the white South African government, on the basis that it was a democratic country standing against communism, and apartheid reigned nearly unchallenged for over 30 years. Even the United States, ever fearful of the communist red herring, refused to speak out against the injustice. Yet, by the 1980s, as the Soviet Union teetered on collapse and the international community could no longer justify their support of apartheid, opposition to the South African evil grew and grew. The laws started to be repealed, and new ones took their place. In 1994, the first elections in which all South Africans could participate took place. Apartheid as a legal system had come to an end, but the devastation of its legacy as well as the bloodshed that resulted from the transition threatened to tear the country apart.

In the wake of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was organized to let the truth be told about the human rights violations, abuses, and evils that had occurred under apartheid. It sought to bring about healing, not restitution, and had the authority to offer amnesty to all those who committed these crimes for political reasons and who fully disclosed what they had done. They had to fully realize the extent of the pain, suffering, and death that they caused, and they, personally, had to apply for amnesty.

It seems like an odd way of doing justice. The new government could have easily reenacted the Nuremberg trials and punished the offenders harshly for their crimes. It is possible and even likely that such a victor’s approach would have appeased the need for revenge, but would also erase any chance of healing, reconciliation, and moving forward. Whether or not the TRC actually succeeded in carrying out its mandate is still debated (12% of the requests for amnesty it received were granted, which, depending on your view, is either too many or not enough).

Ezekiel, a fiery prophet not afraid to “tell it like it is”, describes a God more interested in reconciliation and the mending of broken relationships than punishing. God openly flaunts the sins of the Israelites in front of the, how they’ve profaned God’s name and made a mockery of God. God could’ve chosen to wipe them all out for their evil. Instead, God chooses to increase their blessing, to take them out of their exile and back to their homeland, to make the earth abundant for them again, to take care of them, to give them “a new heart”, and to release them from suffering. It is God’s hope that such love will cause the Israelites to confront their own sinfulness and, ultimately, to mend the relationship between them and God.

Similarly, when the scribes and Pharisees bring an adulteress to Jesus, she deserves to be punished. Nevermind thinking about how the scribes and Pharisees caught her in the very act of adultery (creepers), but instead think about the assumption that the only proper response to the situation and the woman is punishment. That there might be another way never crosses their minds. He confronts both the woman and her accusers with kindness, reminding them all that, in the game of sin, there are no winners and losers—we are all losers. The accusers are brought face to face with their own shortcomings, and the woman, who knows well her own sin, is blessed with mercy. This story sticks with us for its powerful message—imagine how it stuck with the woman.

God’s idea of justice and ours don’t always go together. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s are better. Lent is a time to think on that, and be grateful for the mercy of God. And to ask ourselves—if God repays our cruelty with love, with what to do we repay God’s love?

Featured image: “Justice on top of the Buttercross, Market Place, Bungay, Suffolk” by mira66 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.