Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Porch Community


This is the historic front porch of the Lutheran House at the Chautauqua Institution. Lutherans have been a part of the Institution for 125 years and in that current building for 90 years. There's something interesting about every home, apartment house or inn at Chautauqua. Each and every one of them has a porch.

While I was chaplain there last week, I was encouraged to occasionally just sit on the porch. Inevitably people would walk by on their way to a lecture or some other event. Conversation would ensue, even if it was just an exchange of greetings. We don't see as many homes with front porches anymore. More often we see back porches or decks where we can escape into our own little worlds.

I have been doing some reading about this phenomena and its impact on community and sharing the gospel with our neighbors. In a conversation with Jake Jacobson, an assistant to the bishop of the Northwest PA Synod, I first heard the term, "porchin.'" He has written a workbook about reaching our neighbors entitled Front Porchin': (Making Disciples and Forming Faith in Exile). It is a very practical guide for reaching out to our neighbors with the God news of Jesus Christ. In it he writes:

For the past 25 years I have been discovering one of the benefits of  small town living is that of the front porch.  It is not only a vantage from which to watch the world go by but it is also a place of interaction with that same world.  In a world where the front porch has been replaced by the secluded deck (I have both!) I would like to offer the metaphor of the front porch as a particular style of doing outreach in the name of Jesus Christ in the world in which we live.
So what do we do if we do not have a front porch? I am not suggesting we all run out and get materials to build porches. There are other places that can have the same kind of meaning and impact as the front porch. It can be any place people gather and talk together. For some it is the coffee shop down the street. For others it may be the grocery store. What is important is creating community. If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we will find this happening virtually anywhere.

Porchin' as a way to reach out to others with the good news involves our story of what God has done in our lives, God's story [as revealed in scripture] and others' stories. How do they overlap and intersect? Ultimately, we want God's story to be an integral part of everyone's stories. As we are all out and about this summer, let's look for opportunities God is presenting to us. Don't be afraid to offer prayer for those in distress. People are often more open to God than we may think.

Happy porchin' 


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

God's Plan Revealed

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Last week I was away in Gettysburg at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary for a wonderful week of continuing education, fellowship, rest and worship. I did not have the opportunity to post my sermon from that Sunday. Below is the sermon from Sunday, July 19th. It is based on Ephesians 1:3-14. This is the message I shared with St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church.

Have you ever been in a meeting that is boring you to tears? And you look outside the window and it's a beautiful day, the sun is shining. Birds are chirping and bunny rabbits are hoping across the lawn. And you would much rather be outside with the bunnies than inside in this boring meeting. Now certainly, none of you feel that way at this moment.

Author and church renewal consultant, Kelly Fryer, tells about a time in seminary when she was listening to an uninteresting lecture on a beautiful day when everyone would rather be outside. Apparently the professor sensed that nobody was being attentive because suddenly he closed his notebook and stopped talking.  “He wasn’t going to waste one more breath on us,” she writes.  But before leaving the lecture hall, he picked up a piece of chalk and going to the blackboard he drew a huge arrow pointing straight down.  He stood back and told the class, “If you understand that, you understand everything you need to know about what it means to be a Christian...”  and with that he left the room.   Everyone remained for a time staring at the arrow pointing downward. Fryer admits that the most logical thing she could think was, “He thinks we’re all going to hell.”   But the next time the class met, the professor began his lecture by drawing the same arrow on the board.  This time he had everyone’s complete attention.  “Here’s what this means,” he told them.  “God always comes down.  God always comes down.  There is never anything that we can do to turn that arrow around and make our way UP to God.  God came down in Jesus.  And God still comes down, in the bread and in the wine, in the water and in the fellowship of believers.  God ALWAYS comes down.”

This is fleshed out in today's reading from Ephesians, which begins with a flood of poetry. It is filled with many images, promises and challenges. The passage is like a rushing stream that looks easy to wade in, but sweeps us off our feet by its power. Numerous times Paul speaks of our relationship in, through and on Christ. In each verse that speaks of this relationship, there is something we receive because of it. Lastly, Paul explains why God did all of this.

How Did We Get to Be Who We Are?
The key to understanding our own identity is through our relationships. We are children of our parents. We may be a brother or sister as well as a parent, grandparent and so on. The same is true in our spiritual family.

Our relationship with God's Son, Jesus Christ is at the crux of today's reading. As a result of our relationship with Jesus, we are recipients of numerous benefits. Among them, we are given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (v. 3).
We often speak casually about blessings. Ephesians would have us understand that we don’t know the half of it. We are blessed in ways that are literally of cosmic dimensions.
God’s blessing toward us is expressed in three ways. First, God chooses us: “. . . just as he chose us in Christ. . . . He destined us for adoption” (vv. 4, 5). We are blessed because we have been chosen, adopted, and incorporated into both God’s earthly and heavenly families.

God is praised for having chosen and adopted us as God's own people before the foundation of the world (v. 4). We were destined to be adopted as God's children through Jesus Christ (v. 5).

Adoption was a common practice in antiquity.The adopted person gained social status through association with the adoptive parents. Adopted children gained wealth through their inheritance (v. 11). By using the word inheritance, Paul is reinforcing the communal and familial nature of our relationship not only to God, but to one another.

In the same way, our adoption by God, was an action planned by God (vv. 5, 9, 10, 11), which is pleasing to God (v. 5). It results in the praise of God (vv. 6, 14) by the adopted ones, who have a share in an inheritance from God (v. 14). The Holy Spirit which is  received in baptism guarantees the inheritance until full possession is acquired.

The second blessing is that, God redeems us. We are, by the riches of God’s grace, fashioned into new creatures, our past sin and brokenness is left behind. Whatever we may have been before—is put behind us, covered by his redemptive grace.

The final blessing is that God unites us. God brings unity to all things in his creation: the mystery that is revealed is God's plan for the fullness of time: to gather up all things in Christ--things in the heavens and things on the earth. We no longer wander aimlessly through life because we have a destiny according to God's purpose (v. 11). It is not something we have to strive for because God accomplishes it all according to his will. We have set our hope on Christ and can live for his glory (v. 12).

So, what difference does this passage of Ephesians make in our daily lives? This spiritual inheritance doesn't help us with our bills or our kids' college tuitions.

What if orienting our lives in the promises of God, and in the community of God led us to seek equality and justice so that all may know that they too are beloved children of God?
The last few weeks have given us a lot to think about. In Charleston, at Emanuel AME Church, Our brothers and sisters in Christ were killed while in at a Bible study. The accused shooter was a baptized child of God. Their worlds and ours were turned upside down with the horror of the shooting.
We still have a struggle with racism. Have we made any progress since the 1960s? Some would say yes and some would say no.

A symbol of the Confederacy was flying over a statehouse. People on each side of the issue were equally passionate in their feelings as to whether the flag should come down or not. If a Confederate flag hurts and offends our brothers and sisters, shouldn't it be obvious that it needs to be removed?

In Paul's letter to the Romans, he teaches that "it is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble" (Romans 14:21).  Certainly symbols of racism and prejudice fall into this category.

We've lost sight of one thing in the argument over the flag. Simply taking down the Confederate flag is not going to miraculously cure all the racial problems in our country. In order to solve the problems of racism and prejudice, we have to change our hearts, not a flag. Jesus said that all people would know we are his disciples if we love one another.

What if the words  "marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit" were not simply words recalled in baptism, but were a means to live our lives and to treat others as we would want to be treated? As we leave church today, let us not only look for opportunities to share the gospel, but for ways to treat those we meet with dignity and respect.

Kelly A. Fryer, Reclaiming the "L" Word: Renewing the Church from its Lutheran Core
Susan Hylen,
Margaret Y. MacDonald, Sacra Pagina Series, Volume 17: Colossians and Ephesians  

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Markan Healing Sandwich

Jesus is Lord over sickness, the elements and death. I have really enjoyed the past few weeks we've spent in Mark's gospel. This past Sunday, 6/28, the text was Mark 5:21-43.
This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy's and St. Mark's.

Are you hungry? Is your stomach rumbling and you can hardly wait for coffee hour with all its goodies to begin? In today's gospel, Mark serves up another of his Markan sandwiches. The two stories which compose the bread and meat of this sandwich have a number of similarities and a few differences; complementing each other and providing commentary for each other.

The first slice of bread is Jesus being approached by an important man named Jairus. He wants Jesus to come and heal his daughter. Jairus was a religious leader who could have been at odds with Jesus. Instead, he turns to Jesus, risking the health of his daughter and his own relationship with other religious leaders. Jairus was likely a man of wealth as well as being a man of position.

Jesus responded to Jairus' need and started walking home with him. Then something happened. This is the meat part of Mark's sandwich. A woman enters the scene with a mantra she kept saying to herself as she was trying to approach Jesus. "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." Her faith was active and she was willing to take a chance. What did she have to lose?

The woman was unclean and was thereby an outcast. For the ancient Hebrews, uncleanness was considered infectious. One could become unclean by coming into contact with any unclean person or thing. for the Hebrews, anything unclean meant certain animals, foods, diseases, body fluids and dead things. One became unclean by touching such things. Anyone or anything you touched became unclean as well. Sometimes when we see something disgusting, we say, "Ugh!" Parents may add, "Don't touch that!" You may be walking in the woods and see droppings on the ground. You say, "Ugh!" and try to avoid stepping in it. You certainly don't want to touch such things. There are some icky things in the world we just want to avoid."Ugh! Don't touch them!"

Being unclean was the opposite of being holy. This excluded you from worshipping in the temple. You had to go through a rite of purification and cleansing to be restored to society and the presence of God. Unclean does not mean dirty, like a 2 year old playing in the mud, but is more like a "dirty old man."

The woman was crossing a boundary by going through a crowd which would make anyone she accidentally touched unclean as well. The woman keeps on until she reaches Jesus' cloak.

Jesus is interrupted by this undesirable woman's touch of his clothes or is he? For Jesus, people were not interruptions. Jesus did not make up some excuse as to why he could not help this woman just then. We don't hear Jesus say, "I've been called away to a life or death emergency" (which he had been).
Instead, Jesus persistently worked to find out who it was who touched him. The woman was equally persistent in reaching Jesus. This woman wants a cure, however, Jesus wants a personal encounter. There is no anonymous sneaking a feel for healing. Jesus does not just quickly heal her and run off to Jairus' house. In the kingdom of God, miracles lead to meetings. In a way the woman may not have realized the desire for healing and wholeness is the desire for meeting with Jesus. The woman has an encounter with Jesus and her life would never be the same. No longer an outcast nobody, Jesus tenderly calls her "daughter." Not only does Jesus restore her physical health, but he changes her situation in such a way that she is restored to an active role in her community. She's family now, one who belongs to Jesus and to her community of Israel, the people of God.

Jesus is always turning things upside down. He does not become unclean by coming into contact with unclean people. Jesus' holiness transforms uncleanness into cleanness and wholeness.

Jesus had a dilemma to contend with. Both requests for healing were urgent. Either Jesus keeps his promise to Jairus or he stops to heal this woman. Jesus is also facing a potentially dangerous situation--from being crushed by the crowd and being infected with ritual uncleanness. He either helps an important person of rank and power who could help Jesus further his ministry or Jesus can help someone who has no resources to offer Jesus whatsoever.

Before Jesus is completely finished with the formerly unclean woman and before he can get back to Jairus' concern, it's already too late for the little girl. People came from Jairus' house with the news that his daughter is dead. "Why trouble the the teacher any further? But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the [Jairus], 'Do not fear, only believe" (v. 36 ).

At the same time, one person's hopes have soared while another's have been dashed to pieces. One has been claimed as a daughter, while another's daughter has died. Jesus' response of "Do not fear, only believe" (v. 36), is better translated, "Stop being afraid. Go on living by faith." The present tense verbs call attention to the transforming power of Jesus' word to change lives from fear to trust, a transformation in which the prospect of life and salvation now appears in a whole new dimension.

The second slice of bread in our Markan sandwich is when Jairus and Jesus finally make it to Jairus' house. They could hear the commotion from a distance as they approached the house. People were wailing and crying as is typical of Middle Eastern mourners.

The girl was dead and the mourners laughed at Jesus when he came to visit. They thought he was crazy to take time to see the girl. Didn't Jesus know It was too late for Jairus' daughter? What if Jesus had gotten there earlier and hadn't been delayed by the woman who was hemorrhaging? Jesus did not wring his hands, lamenting the fact that he had not gotten there earlier. Jesus saw this situation as another opportunity to transform the lives of the people he met.

Since the girl had died, Jesus was able to perform an even greater miracle. Only God can do that, so Jesus, God in the flesh heals the girl, raising her to life and makes sure she gets something to eat.

In both of these healings, we see the role faith plays. Jesus told the woman that her faith made her well (v. 34) and Jairus was told to go on living by faith. There is no magical power of healing in faith itself. It is God who is present in Jesus who heals. On the basis of these stories, no one who is sick and prays for healing and does not receive it should think that it's because they don't have enough faith; in spite of what those who falsely teach that you can have whatever you want from God, that you can demand healing from God because of what Jesus did on the cross. These are the kind of prosperity teachers who lay the blame for sickness on the sick because they didn't have enough faith. Is that what you hear from Jesus in today's gospel or anywhere else in scripture?

God is telling each of us to allow God to transform us so that God can use us to transform others.

In the face of Jesus' power, there are no either/or propositions. Jesus' power is enough to provide new life for both Jairus' daughter and the poor woman. How often do we assume that God's power is not enough to bring life out of the seemingly impossible choices we have to make?

God is challenging us to open up the so-called interruptions and hard choices of our lives to Jesus' power. After all, he is Lord over nature, over sickness and over death. Perhaps the interruptions we face are God-incidents.

As a church, do we see interruptions and intrusions upon our time as always bad? In the gospels, Jesus was continually interrupted.  We have those days where we have in mind what we will accomplish, then it all gets turned upside down. It can be challenging for us as a church to prioritize procedures, processes and ministries. When do we allow mission to interrupt our work? What are the ways we allow our work to interrupt mission?

These are not questions that only apply to pastors and others in "professional ministry." These are questions that each of us as children of God and as the church have to face. None of us is the church by ourselves. We are the body of Christ, the church together.

Don't be afraid to reach out to others with the love of Christ, with the story of Jesus and how your life has been changed. Believe that God is able to work through each one of us, not just the pastor.

Jesus' behavior with unsavory, unclean people was shocking for his time.. What everything points to throughout the gospels is who Jesus is and what does that mean for us. That was the case in Jesus' time, throughout church history and today as well. Is Jesus simply a healer who makes us feel better or is he the Lord or heaven and earth, the faithful, all present, all powerful savior of us all? Let the way we respond to interruptions to the sick, the unclean,  the unhealthy, the unwanted be shocking to our community and to the world. 



James Boyce,
Fred B. Craddock, M. Eugene Boring, The People's New Testament Commentary, Kindle Edition.
New English Translation notes
Marion Soards, Thomas Dozemen & Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary
Brian Stoffregen,

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Boating With Jesus 2

Amid the horror and sadness of Wed. evening's killing of those at a Bible study in Charleston, SC, the gospel text for Sun., 6/21, Mark 4:35-41 seemed so applicable to the situation. I really sensed God's direction as I prepared to share with St. Timothy's and St. Mark's. I received a lot of positive feedback. See what you think. I would appreciate hearing from any of you via the comments. We continue to pray for all who have been impacted by this event, including the shooter and his family. Lord have mercy.

Do you know what the proper name is for the place where you all are sitting? It's called the nave, which is Latin for boat. Think of the word navy. If you look up at the ceiling, you can see how this space resembles an upside down boat. Throughout the centuries, the church has been considered an ark of safety, a lifeboat for God's people, which carries us in safety across the seas of life. In today's gospel reading, Jesus is in the boat with his disciples
Jesus had an idea. In the evening, he wanted to go to the other side of the lake. Sounds like a good idea. What I find interesting is that no one questions the wisdom of that move in the first place. It gets dark earlier in the Holy Land than it does here. Not only does it get dark earlier, but once it's sundown, the darkness quickly falls.
We are not talking about an era with electricity.  It would become pitch dark. They wouldn't see lights from houses on the other side of the lake. This would not be an experience like one we would have crossing Chautauqua Lake.
Why didn't the disciples suggest that they wait until morning? Wouldn't that be safer? Darkness can be frightening. Whatever their reasoning, the disciples did as their Lord commanded and set sail.
Journeying across the lake, the disciples encountered a problem. There was a storm and Jesus' disciples were afraid of drowning. Some scholars doubt that such a storm as serious as the one Mark describes could happen on the Sea of Galilee. After all, it's only a small lake. However, the lake is located in a depression some 700 ft. below sea level and it's surrounded by hills. Frequently, a rush of wind and the right mixture of temperatures can cause a storm to come very suddenly on the lake. Those storms were known for their suddenness and violence. At least four of the disciples were professional fishermen who must have experienced such storms before. Their terror indicates the severity of this storm. The sea was thought to be the abode of forces hostile to God (Ps. 74:13-14; 89:9-13; 104:5-9; Job 38:8-11). Just as the sea monster represented the powers of evil, so the raging storm here reflects all the powers of chaos and evil.
Secondly, there is the presence of Jesus with his disciples. Jesus was in the boat with his disciples as the storm grew, albeit asleep on a pillow. And it became very scary as the boat was tossed around and started to take on water. We're not talking about big boats either, but just small fishing boats that could get beaten up pretty badly from this kind of weather.
Why didn't the disciples wake their Lord and ask for his help? Were they panicking--yes. After all, this trip, at night, was not the disciples' idea. It was Jesus' idea. It was Jesus' fault that this was happening, so they accused him of not caring about them. Maybe they thought he would help bail the water out of the boat. He should certainly be doing something other than sleeping!
Aren't we sometimes like the disciples in our relationships? When we panic, don't we expect others to share in our panic or distress? If they can't do something to help in some way, at least they could sympathize with us and see what a big problem we have. If they seem detached, we accuse them of not caring.
How could Jesus sleep while the boat was being assaulted by foul weather? He may have been thoroughly exhausted after the ministry and teaching he had done. Or it could be that Jesus was so secure in his Father's faithfulness and care, he didn't need to lose sleep over a storm.
Next, in the story, we encounter the power of Jesus, the One who can do something about the storms.
The power of Jesus was demonstrated in quieting the lake and the wind. Throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms, we read of God's authority over the elements. We heard it in the reading from Job and the Psalm  By rebuking the wind and sea, Jesus was making a statement about who he was.
Jesus was not simply a good teacher, a healer and an exorcist. This was nothing new. There were others at the time, like magicians who did the same things. But controlling the elements is something only the Lord God almighty could do. Jesus is the teacher who exorcises and the exorcist who teaches.
Can't you just see the disciples standing there with Jesus with their mouths wide open? They had witnessed Jesus doing many things. Right before this incident, Jesus had bluntly taught them who he was. Yet this storm was somehow something unexpected. Only God can still the seas and make the wind stop. It was no wonder they were afraid, but in order to transcend that fear, the disciples must see that Jesus is not simply a man with unusual abilities, but instead that he is the Son of God.
During the storm, the disciples were afraid, but after the storm the last verse says they were "filled with great awe." That's one way the Greek can be translated, however another translation is "they feared a great fear." As scary as the storm was, they were now in the presence of the One with power greater than the storm.
We too are challenged to examine our own faith when the disciples show lack of trust in God's power to save believers even in the worst situations. Have we been blind to God's care about us? That suspicion that God does not really care what happen to us will corrode our faith life.
God is calling us as a community of faith into deeper relationship with the God who never leaves us unchanged. We may fear getting too close to God because we're afraid it will change us. Ignoring encounters with God will change us too.
In this gospel story, we see the disciples' weaknesses, something Mark does not whitewash. They were humans just as we are. The disciples' missteps encouraged later believers suffering persecution from the Romans. They were able to persevere despite doubts about God's saving presence.
Jesus gives his followers a promise of salvation, not simply a strategy of coping with life in this world. Jesus makes good on his promises for this life and the next. The gift of the Holy Spirit, fellowship with other believers, God's word, the sacraments and prayer are all ways that help our trust in God to grow. God's salvation is at work in our lives and the lives of others in the here and now--and yet we don't see its full culmination until the end of the ages. That is the now, but not yet experience of life in the kingdom of God.
We can take the safe route if we want. We can stay tied up on the shore rather than risking the dangerous, stormy crossing. There are churches like that-- peaceful, restful club houses on the shore rather than a boat following Jesus' command to risk crossing the lake. Are we more often willing to be safe than to answer Jesus' call to the other side?
I came across a quote from a 1991 edition of "The Lutheran" that ties in with this image: "The church is not a "luxury liner, granting passage and comfort to all who qualify and clamber aboard" but rather "like a rescuing lifeboat, sometimes listing, or even leaking, but always guided by the captain, Jesus, at the helm" (Bishop Lyle G. Miller in opening worship at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly, 1991, quoted in "The Lutheran," June 19, 1991, page 38).
A word of hope that we find in the gospel, Job and the Psalm is that God has the power to control the chaos. The control may not happen according to our timing. It may seem at times that God is distant and asleep in the boat while our world is falling apart, but that doesn't mean that God doesn't have the power to calm the storm.
While we may pray that Jesus works miracles in our lives, neighborhoods and in our world; such miracles probably won't let us off the hook from doing some of the hard work required to do what God has called us to do.
What would it mean if Jesus didn't stop the storm? The kind of faith this story calls us to is not only that Jesus could save his disciples from the storm, but that if he was with them, in the same boat, he can save them even if he and they go under. It is the kind of faith in the Lord of the storm who saves through and beyond death, not necessarily from death.
We witnessed such a storm and a response this week. On Wed. night in Charleston, SC, at Emanuel AME Church the faithful had gathered for prayer and Bible study. What happened that evening was an evil, callous devastation of life. And yet, right in the middle of the horror, and following it, people were praying. I was moved while watching the evening news as I saw black and white people praying together and white folks comforting their black neighbors and sisters and brothers. Then on Friday, family members spoke to the accused killer and even in the midst of their great sorrow, forgave him. That is God's church at work doing God's will--offering forgiveness to the sinner.
Christians and the church get lumped together with those in our society who are narrow-minded and judgmental--who are anti a whole host of things. As awful as the killing was at Mother Emanuel church, in the sorrow, we saw the church at its finest, oozing with God's love.
Where was God when this was happening? He was right there with his people as they prayed and cried. God was crying with them and holding them close.
Where does that leave us? Our story ends with a question that we too must struggle with. When God comes among us, how will we respond? He meets us in the waters of baptism and feeds us his very life in the bread and wine. Where do we sense the presence and call of God ? We never know what kind of changes an encounter with the living God can make. The question of how we will respond is left open in today's gospel.
Will we respond with violence or anger or hatred or will we respond with love and kindness?

Resources used:

James Boyce,

Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B

David Lose,

New English Translation notes

Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VII: Mark

Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes,

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