Words from Partners

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain [1 Corinthians 15:58]

Texts:  Luke 10:1-9; Isaiah 55:8-13

On the way to Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp in Colorado, we drive through eastern Colorado.  Before even seeing the mountains, we see desolate landscape and distant horizons.  One time as I was driving that stretch of state highway, we came over a hill.  In the far distance, I could see the road.  Between those two high points, however, the way rolled over a series of lower hills.  I could see the distant road.  I could see several crests, where the road would rise to the top of a lower hill.  I could not, however, see where the road would go beyond that crest.

For this day, I selected readings that are favorites of mine.  More importantly, however, I believe these passages describe the essence of Christ’s Church.  I specifically included the reading from the Gospel of Luke, which has been the foundation of our working together these past years in Partnership for Missional Church.  As we have been Dwelling in this Word, I have continually heard new insights.  I encourage you to continue dwelling in this passage.

Anticipating this day, my mind kept picturing that desolate stretch of highway in eastern Colorado.  With that image, we trust the ultimate destination can be seen.  That is the promise the Apostle Paul exclaims – that we know that in spite of the transitory nature of this world, when we are doing God’s work, we know our labors are not in vain.  That also is contained in Jesus’ words as he sent out the seventy.  They were to go to places he himself would be going.

With that image of a distant goal we can see, yet portions of the road unseen, we also may wonder about the person walking along side – sent two by two.  We wonder what it means to encounter a person of peace.  There are so many ways I have been guided and strengthened as each of you saints has walked along the way with me.  We can trust all of this is part of God’s big picture.

We are about to go over another one of those lower hills, where we cannot see the road that is right before us.  Yet to help us be confident in the future destination, I share with you three conversations, two with strangers, one with a long-time member of Saint Andrew’s.  These were persons of peace.  These became companions along the road.

The first I mention happened as we were renovating and expanding our building.  I always enjoyed seeing the work that was going on. One day, I encountered one of the dry-wall finishers.  After a couple of introductory words, he began an ongoing conversation with this assertion:  It is all about grace.  In our world, we hear so much that we have to do it.  Even in the church, we beat up on people about the need to do it right, to make sure our beliefs are correct.

So, over the months, this person of peace, who has become a partner along the way, has asserted that grace is hard.  It is hard because we keep taking back the controls.  We keep saying something like, Ok, God, I understand now, so I’ll just take over again.  It is all about grace – God’s creating grace, God’s forgiving grace, God’s grace that continually gives us life.

Which leads to the second person of peace, who became a partner along the way.  I first met him, the conversation started, in the county jail.  Here was a great kid, raised in the Lutheran way of confirmation instruction.  Assessing how he got to where he was, he said, I knew I had faith.  I had not learned how to be faithful.

As we emphasize grace, we are quickly tempted to ignore what God wants to do in our lives through grace.  We easily think that grace makes us passive.  Or, we misunderstand grace to be a blank check, so we can do whatever we want.  But grace calls us to walk along the way as Jesus leads us, as Jesus pushes us, as Jesus walks beside us.  For me, this person of peace made clear, that our role is to support one another along the way.  This support may be the way God’s grace works in us.  Sometimes we need to share questions, even challenge one another:  What we are doing here, is this truly of God’s gracious way?  We also get to encourage one another:  Yes!  What you have done is a God-moment for me, and, I hope, for you!

The third is a person of peace who was already part of Saint Andrew’s when I arrived.  I do not recall the first time Perry Morgan emphasized John 17:3.  From Jesus’ prayer on the night of his betrayal:  And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  We do not just get to know about God.  We do not just try to imagine some future heaven after we die.  We get to know God here and now.  We get to experience eternal life, here and now through Jesus Christ.  In this world where religion is used, misused, and abused, we are challenged to focus on Jesus Christ.  Through him we see what God is like.  With Jesus, we walk the way.  With Jesus, we truly live here and now.

A song from some time back was entitled Closing time.  The song has a rather melancholy tone.  It suggests that the desired companionship, the reason one entered this place, has not happened.  As the end comes, as closing time comes, will one have to leave alone, and lonely?

There is also a phrase in this song that points forward in a way I find hope-filled.  Closing time, time to go out to the places you will be from.  So we depart from here this morning.  We see the next rise on the road in front of us.  What lies beyond that next rise?  God only knows.  Yet because God does know, we continue on, walking with the next partner, awaiting the next person of peace.

God has shown us that far distant goal.  So we walk forward faithfully, trusting it is all about grace, the grace of knowing Jesus Christ.

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Worship this weekend

When people look at me what do they see? Our readings today ask us to consider what is on the outside.  How is my outside (appearance, attitude, actions) affected by what is inside?  Or, how does what we see on the outside affect our attitude about what we perceive to be on the inside?  Jesus describes a guy.  Does he reflect my personal priorities? Does he reflect the values of our society?

Epistle Lesson – Colossians 3:1-11:  The Jesus who died on the cross is Ruler of the Cosmos (chapter 1).  This Jesus invites us into a relationship that sets us free from powers that coerce and destroy (chapter 2).  So, what does this mean for the thoughts and actions of my everyday life?  The earliest Christ-followers did not limit the kingdom of God to sometime after we die.  The kingdom of heaven was much more than some layer in a universe that consisted of hell < earth < heaven.  In looking at this list of sins, do we rank them in a way that is honest or in a way that is convenient?  What does the assertion, that greed is idolatry, say to the priorities of our nation?  What does the last verse say to our society’s attitude towards others who are different? Continue reading

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What to Say?

[Jesus] said to them, “When you pray, say…

Text:  Luke 11:1-13; Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Psalm 138

Once again I have the pleasure of watching an infant develop.  This time, I have noted particularly how an infant responds to facial expressions.  Then, at a certain point of maturing, the child starts to move the tongue.  Is the child learning, practicing the communication that is part of relating to another, part of being a human, part of being created in the image of God?

In our Gospel we overhear the disciples ask of Jesus, Teach us to pray.  I think that is question still asked.  I believe this question is asked more, now, than perhaps a generation ago.  We are a can-do society.  Yet we are realizing that our can-do has not resolved the big problems of the world.  We are a wealthy society.  Yet we are realizing that material wealth is not spread evenly, and what to do about that?  There are many who may not consider themselves in the one percent, who have more material goods than is necessary, and yet in the words of a great prophet of the last century, are realizing money can’t buy me love.  So, to what, to whom do we look?

Our readings invite us to consider what prayer might be.  Our reading from Genesis, at first glance sounds like two guys bargaining.  It’s like a question I often am tempted to ask:  What is the minimum required to get my desired result?  Now if one thinks we must not let prayer sound anything like bargaining – I suggest that prayer can take any form of interaction.  In those times our desired outcome seems remote, it is ok to ask: Lord, what must I do for you to act?

At the same time, we must grow to a broader and deeper picture of God and of God’s ways.  Prayer is not about seeking the adequate number of pray-ers.  Prayer is not about finding the right formula to unlock heavenly action.  Perhaps we are saying, Lord, here is what I think I need.  Now, tell me what you want from me?  If that is what we are doing, I believe that is at least a step into the relationship that God wants with us.  Two persons starting into a relationship that leads to love and marriage may well begin with a sort of bargaining.  For better or worse, it seems natural to ask, who is getting the better deal in this?  Yet if that relationship is allowed to mature, the sense of bargaining becomes less and less as there grows the connections which build up both.

In our reading from the New Testament, the Apostle invites us to trust this relationship with the Creator of the universe.  Prayer is not trying to line things up so they are in proper alignment with the forces of the universe.  This is basically superstition and fear.  Rather, through Jesus Christ we can trust that the Creator of the universe offers us freedom.  Through Jesus Christ we can trust, that this Creator of the universe desires a relationship of freely offered mutual love.

So we ask, with the disciples, Lord, teach us to pray.  In order to appreciate the lesson Jesus offers, we look to his full response.  That includes two stories about the way humans respond when someone makes a request.  Yes, these stories emphasize that prayer does grow out of human need.  When we fail to acknowledge before the Creator of the universe that we stand in need, we then are closing ourselves into our own little space, a space which quickly becomes too small for living.  Look at the experience of needs we humans have.  Sometimes the response comes because we have to keep banging on the door.  Sometimes the good that humans are able to do will point to the even greater grace of the God Jesus called Father.

And the words Jesus taught:  We find the version here in the Gospel of Luke a bit shorter than the words from the Gospel of Matthew, the words recited as The Lord’s Prayer.  We remember Jesus did not give these just to memorize and mumble.  These words are to be taken into our memory so they reside deep in our hearts and minds.  As the petitions are deep within us, they guide us to deeper reflection and faithful action.

Father… The name is not about gender, but is about the loving relationship we have had or regret not having with a parent.  We remember, that when Martin Luther became a father, he was able to see how the grace of God takes us from the image of an angry judge, or a harsh parent, to see that God’s heart beats like that of a loving father.

hallowed be your name.  Religion is a huge part of public and political discourse today.  In our nation’s elections, in conflicts around the world.  We must ask:  Are we seeking to live our political lives faithfully?  Or are religious claims being made only to secure power.  Between the two may be a very fine line.  Yet it is a question we must continually consider.

Your kingdom come…  Yes, the world needs to be fixed.  We must ask, however, what is God’s picture for that.  And, how did God, in Jesus, set about to fix the world?

Give us this day our daily bread…  How do material wealth and spiritual satisfaction really fit together?

And forgive…  A good relationship can talk about anything, including what went wrong.

And do not bring us to the time of trial…  Whew.  If we are not in a time of trial now…  Of course that depends on who is talking or where we are looking.  Maybe we are thinking of global concerns.  Maybe we cannot look beyond what is happening in my own heart and home. We pray this prayer remembering the Psalm…  Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me.

I hope you recognize the name Jackie Robinson.  He was the first African-American to play in major league baseball.  Perhaps you know the name of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  A little know story has been told about that, by the family of the pastor of the church where Branch Rickey was a member.  (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/04/14/how-church-helped-sign-jackie-robinson-to-brooklyn-dodgers/)

One day, Rickey walked into the pastor’s office, stating, Don’t let me interrupt.  I can’t talk with you.  I just want to be here.  Do you mind?  The family goes on…  The two men passed the time without a word – the minister going about his work; Rickey frenetically pacing the floor, stopping only occasionally to peer out the window on the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood that surrounded the church.  Amid ongoing silence, more pacing, more stopping, more pacing, more stopping from Rickey, [for about] 45 minutes.  Finally, “I’ve got it,” Rickey yelled emphatically as he banged his fist on the desk.  “Got what, Branch” [the pastor] asked….[The response,] “I’ve decided to sign Jackie Robinson.” [Branch Rickey went on to say] This was a decision so complex, so far-reaching, fraught with so many pitfalls but filled with so much good, if it was right, that I just had to work it out in this room with you.  I had to talk to God about it and be sure what he wanted me to do.  I hope you don’t mind.

I cannot say I have experienced anything like that in my ministry.  I am confident that in this Centrum, in our prayer room, in our offices, people have been able to communicate with God and hear what God would say, how God would guide them.

Watching an infant experimenting with his tongue, the very start of learning to talk.  Even if you feel your prayers are nothing more than an infant trying to talk, know that your prayers are greeting with a smile, from the God Jesus calls father.

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Which one?

Make me to know your ways, O Lord.

Text:  Psalm 25:4; Luke 10:25:37; Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14

When I was in fourth grade, we learned American history.  Early in that story we learned about the explorers, seeking a faster trade route to bring back spices.  So, our teacher had us do a project.  This was not required, rather for extra credit.  I knew about it because my sister had been in that class two years earlier.  Most of the kids got a piece of cardboard, put a bit of spice on the cardboard, covered it with see-through tape, and then wrote the name below it.  One girl went all out, making a fancy boarder with cloves and another spice, a real over-achiever.  Me?  I didn’t do the project.  Mrs. Shank looked at me and asked why.  I responded that it was extra credit and I didn’t need it.  I like to think that I was not being a smart-alecky kid.  Rather, at an early age I was a deep thinker, evaluating what is truly meaningful in life.  I have told that story in other settings to suggest that I only do things that are really important.

I do, however, think of that story when, like today, we hear the young man ask of Jesus, what must I do.  I hear his question with the sense of will I still get a passing grade if I don’t do a certain act.  Yes, I know I am supposed to love my neighbor?  But that can be hard and I really don’t want to if it is only extra credit and I am going to pass anyway.

Before we go into that, I want to address an important question raised by our first reading.  As we read the Bible, we do find two lines of thought.  Especially in the book of Deuteronomy we find the emphasis that, if we live according to God’s law, we will have prosperity.  We do need to remember that the commandments of God are given for our good.  The Creator made the world to work in a way that supplies all needs abundantly.

The challenge comes when someone appears to not have that prosperity.  In our nation we associate this promise, such as in passages like this from Deuteronomy, with health and wealth.  Then, if something seems to be askew, we assume the person did something wrong.  We do need to consider personal responsibility – do my actions contribute to good health or hurt my health?  Do my actions help me have all that I need for living, or do my actions lead to insufficiency; do my attitudes contribute to anxiety?

In Deuteronomy we find this if/then promise of prosperity.  In scripture, we see another, I would suggest even more powerful message.  That is, what happens when things go wrong?  The whole story of the Bible is about what God does when things go wrong.

That is the Gospel – the Good News.  For the times when we did not pay attention to the rules, even defied the rules, the Gospel is the good news that God wants to put things right again.  And God will do this, no cost, as we simply trust.

But what about those times when we did go by the rules, but things did not turn out.  We tried to live a healthy life, but cancer came anyway?  We worked hard, but shifts in society meant my job was no longer valued.  I tried to be a faithful spouse, a loving parent, but my family is still troubled.  The Gospel is about what God wants to do, when things go wrong.

For that we hear the Good News, especially in 2 Corinthians 13:9.  Saint Paul is dealing with some condition he calls a thorn in the flesh.  We don’t know what it was.  It may have been physical; it may have been emotional/spiritual.  He says, Yes, I prayed about this.  You don’t know how long and how hard I have prayed about this.  And from his time of prayer has come the most powerful Gospel words.  The Lord Jesus said to Paul, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

This week again, our nation has been challenged to ask the question raised in our Gospel:  And who is my neighbor?  The skeptical side of me says, we need much more than a happy ending story to resolve the deep seated problems in our nation.

The other day I was reading a book of writings from Pope Francis, from the time he was Archbishop in Argentina.  He was looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan.  He spoke about this challenge: when we see someone in pain, what does it take of us to come near to the one suffering?  The other two had good reasons why they did not want to risk going near to the one suffering.

Pope Francis then goes on to suggest this is more than a story with a moral about being a good neighbor.  This parable, he suggests, is a profound statement of Incarnation.  This is about God coming to us in physical form, not just passing by on the other side – which certainly was his right.  Rather, in Christ, God left the safety of the other side and came near.  And, Pope Francis emphasizes, this parable calls us to incarnate God.  The needs of the world, and God’s mission to save the world, is about us, being the very body of Christ to come near to those lying by the side of the road.

This week with the news so troubling I remembered something I had heard several months back.  It was in the form of a question:  What matters to the Creator of all matter?  This parable invites us to ask, What difference does it make, that the Creator of all matter is a God of love?  How should that affect the way we look at the effects of sin, of human fear, human hatred, the violence, one human upon another.

When we say God so loved the world do we let our minds picture the very individuals we would prefer to hate, or prefer to ignore.  The priest and the Levite did matter to God.  Jesus tells this story, however, to remind us how God’s love for the world works.  Jesus calls us to show the Good News that right now, that very specific one who is suffering matters.  We are called to embody God’s very specific care for the one who has been tossed to the side of the road.

Last week we considered Jesus’ words:  The Kingdom of God has come near.  Today we hear Jesus be more specific.  The kingdom comes near when the neighbor is willing to cross the road.  The kingdom comes near when we come near to those society tosses to the side of the road and ignores.

Teach me your ways O Lord.  We pray those ancient words, seeking God’s guidance for every day.  As we take this prayer to heart, we realize this is not about requirements for a passing grade or about extra credit.  This is about living within the very heart of God.

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Worship this weekend

Can I get extra credit?  As a student:  Do you want to excel or are you trying to make up for past failures?  If you are a teacher:  Do you get frustrated by an attitude that merely wants to get by?  What did Jesus hear in the question that led to the story we call the Good Samaritan?  What does it mean to come near and show mercy to someone who lies along our pathway?  Might this parable also deepen our understanding of incarnation God with us? Continue reading

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Where in the World is the Kingdom of God

Yet know this:  the kingdom of God has come near

Text:  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

For more than 25 years, now, we have stayed overnight in Sharon Springs, in western Kansas, on the way to Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp in Colorado.  If you have been involved here at Saint Andrew’s for any time, you have heard about Rainbow Trail – a tremendous program, part of the system of camps under the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  If you have gone to Rainbow Trail, you probably remember the breakfasts we have enjoyed on the way out.

Our Gospel reading tells us Jesus sent his followers out, two by two.  Reading this passage as part of our Partnership for Missional Church, we have learned to identify our partners, those who walk with us, those who we may think we are serving, but they are also serving us – a partnership.  For more than a quarter of a century, we have been partners with Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp in ministry, not only for our confirmation class, but also for the older kids and the adults who accompany.  And, part of what makes this so good is that the camp recognizes us as partners.  Over the years I have seen them consistently respond to questions we have asked and concerns we have raised, always to improve the experience for our kids and for others.

Dwelling in this passage from Luke 10, we might raise a lot of questions.  What did Jesus really mean when he claimed that he saw Satan fall from heaven?  We won’t go into that now.  Why aren’t you supposed to greet others on the way? That probably has to do with customs back then, that greetings involved much more than a quick Howdy.

One verse from today’s reading, which we do not always include when we dwell in this passage, which caught my attention, are Jesus’ words, …whoever rejects you rejects me…  I cannot help but think of the ways preachers and other Christians are willing to condemn anyone who does not respond to Christianity in the way they think.  In seminary we had to address the question:  Are they rejecting the Gospel message? Or are they rejecting my obnoxious behavior?  As our culture becomes increasingly non-religious – at least according to opinion polls – the Church has to ask what is going on.  Are people rejecting Jesus?  These studies show that folks are not rejecting Jesus.  Rather, they are rejecting what people are doing in Jesus’ name.  Without getting into the nuances of current party politics, we have to ask what different Christian leaders are really wanting as they try to say, in their own views, which candidate is truly Christian.

One more question that often comes up in our dwelling conversations is:  What about this shaking the dust off your feet thing.  It seems so…  That question could involve a long discussion.  Maybe a quick response for now is to ask this:  What about all the excesses we carry from past failures, from past regrets, from past resentments.  We shake off the dust.  Yet the last word is that the kingdom of God has come near.

To me, there is a sense of God’s timing as we read this foundational passage at this point in the story of Saint Andrew’s.  God’s timing is, more often than not, puzzling.

I was thinking about that last week as we again traveled through Sharon Springs.  Jesus talked about eating whatever they provide…  Our folks go, gee, if it is like the breakfasts in Sharon Springs!  I always think of the hospitality they provide.  Part of that hospitality is the way they engage our kids in conversation as adults.  If this is part of the transition towards adulthood – which confirmation is supposed to be – then to treat kids as adults is so essential.  Yet as I express gratitude for their ministry to us, they always say, this is a big part of their mission.  I am glad our kids are so well behaved and gracious.  I am sure that makes it easier for them to see the care they offer us as part of their mission.  But can you see, with me, the circular effect of being sent out, of finding partners.  There are those traveling.  There is the house of peace.  And, there is the kingdom of God.  For some folks it is a bit of a stretch – a remote part of a fly-over state; the other side of the Missouri Kansas border; off the main road on the way to beautiful mountains – experiencing the kingdom of God there?!

Jesus, sending his followers out…  Later this week another group from Saint Andrew’s heads out to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.  Some of our folks will have difficulty seeing beyond the squalor and the signs of drunkenness.  Some will be challenged by the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre, an event beyond tragic, one of a series of actions that ended possibilities of peace between the person who were already living there and the immigrants from Europe.

On our behalf, the fifteen who are going will continue a partnership begun last year, to provide a better home for a woman who is a leader in her community, Patricia Catches the Enemy.  Last year, our intent was to help move and refurbish a house for her.  That did not work out.  What will be done is to make improvements to the home she has occupied throughout her life.  The house that had been intended for her will become the home of a young family.  The Pine Ridge Retreat Center is another ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The new director of the center, Pastor Kay Ressel, emphasizes this is an immersion experience.  “Mission trip” could imply we go and do for.  Immersion means we become part of the culture, we enter the house and share with partners of peace.  Pastor Kay is developing plans so that our folks will work alongside some of the residents of Pine Ridge.  Her hope is to develop, what she calls, a Lutheran/Lakota Job Corps.  So, in spite of surface appearances that distract, our people will experience, in South Dakota, the kingdom of God.

One of the biggest questions from this passage is this: When Jesus says these are places he himself intended to go, what did he mean?  Did he mean later, perhaps another excursion through there?  Did he mean a lot later, after his death and the Holy Spirit comes?  Or – did this mean that in some way we cannot understand, Jesus was himself going to be there already.  In other words, our mission is not to take Jesus to places he never has been.  Our mission is to go out and discover where Jesus is already.  And when we do that, we find partners to do God’s work.

In Sharon Springs, Kansas – that is easy to believe.

Pine Ridge, South Dakota – that may be more challenging.

What may be even more challenging is to believe that Jesus is already in the place you will be partying tomorrow, that Jesus is already in the place you will be working on Tuesday.  Your mission, is to ask the Holy Spirit to help you help others enjoy the kingdom of God, in our world, here and now.

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Worship this coming weekend

Expectations and Images…  How do we move into the future – especially if we believe God has something to do with the future?  The Bible speaks of the kingdom of God, and Jesus proclaimed the kingdom…has come near!  But who does that include?  And how/why is someone included?  Is the violence that fills our world, especially under the label of religion, a result of fear that the kingdom of God may not include me? What is our role in helping people see that the God. whom Jesus said is a nurturing parent, wants each one of us in that big and wonderful picture?

 Old Testament Lesson – Isaiah 66:10-14:  If we want to know what Jesus was talking about, we must know the Old Testament story of ancient Israel. (This is not completely identical to the current political state).  Continue reading

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