Sunday, August 21, 2016

Free to flow


River Sunday 

We are about 60% water, unless we are infants and in that case, it’s more like 75% water. So when people say, “Babies bounce,” I’m guessing that if there’s any truth to that, that must be why. Those are two of the little facts I learned this week as I thought about this day – River Sunday – and how intimately we are connected to our closest rivers.

If we live in Saint Paul and throughout whole metro area, our water sources are the Mississippi River and three main aquifers… so it’s at least partially accurate to say that the Mississippi River not only runs to the south of our church, but it is present right here (in us) – we are the Mississippi and it’s health and our health are intimately tied together.

August is a month that is sometimes so hot and dry… usually, I would think of this as a month in which the imagery of Isaiah, “I will….. in parched places...” would be such good imagery. We’re hot and thirsty. God will provide water to quench our thirst. But this August, although we’ve had many hot days, we have also experienced an abundance of rain. Not only here where our grass and plants are green and growing abundantly (did Minnesota suddenly turn into the tropics?) but basements have been flooded… and in other parts of the U.S., the over-abundance of water has been even more serious. In the Gulf Coast Synod of our church, these kinds of messages have been sent this week:

Dear Gulf Coast Synod Leaders,

This morning we began daily check-in calls with our Baton Rouge and Lafayette pastors on the ground and our Disaster Team. Here's what we know:

Twelve dead; fourteen arrested for looting. Thirty thousand rescued and 40,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Authorities have instituted a curfew from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. There is still water in South Baton Rouge, which will remain there until it is pumped out.

Our congregations, Our Saviour and St. Paul in Baton Rouge and First in Lafayette, and their pastors are all high and dry. St. Paul has 7-8 families flooded. Our Saviour has 14 families who have lost everything. First has 12 families flooded. The congregations are helping their families and also looking to their neighborhoods.

St. Paul and First Christian Church are partnering right now to house and feed Red Cross workers. First is offering gift cards. The Synod Disaster Fund will be available to help support gift cards and possibly a shower house for First, as they host work groups.

They are not ready for volunteers yet, but soon. The number one need will be volunteers to help muck out. We will be organizing some groups to participate in mucking out days. No firms plans yet, but soon. We are considering August 27 and Labor Day weekend.

Donations have been slow. Please consider giving to the Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund ( Things are changing by the minute. Keep up-to-date through our website and Facebook disaster page (


Bishop Michael Rinehart (Gulf Coast Synod, ELCA)

And so we might feel like “River Sunday… this week? Is this really the right time?” Or at least I’ve wondered about the timing… and isn’t that just like a religious leader, to wonder about the timing?!

The religious leaders surrounding Jesus’ healing of the bent-over-woman said that same fear aloud in the story we heard today. Sabbath—a day for rest, a day to remember that God’s work and activity are what sustains us (not our constant work and activities, however important they might be…), a day to “be” instead of “do”… this is the Sabbath. And so in one way, I can totally see why they would question people’s timing. Isn’t there another day we could tend to this in order that the Sabbath could really be God’s day? I get their fear, their sense of protection, their wanting to keep a sacred space for Sabbath…

But Jesus reminds these worried, fearful people… who wonder about the right timing, who are fearful about losing sacred times and spaces… that God’s timing is kairos (καιρός) time. For ancient Greek culture, there was chronos (χρόνος) time – that’s clock time, chronological, sequential, scheduled time – and kairos time –  a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens, or we might say, “the opportune moment,” the “just-right” time. And kairos ongoing, eternal…

So, this argument is kind of a chronos/kairos argument. When should healing happen? Jesus reminds them that it is always the right time for God’s healing. It is always the right time for setting a “bent-over” woman free. True… the slippery slope fallacy might make us say (or think) “Don’t break our traditions… because if you make that small change, what will it lead to?… maybe a total erosion of the whole bank, the banks that hold this river to its course, the banks that control and direct the water when the waters get too high…” Maybe, God, we are in the fearful places we are today because You, in the person of Jesus, and in so many other ways… keep breaking all the rules!

Or maybe, it’s not actually our rule-breaking God who is the problem, but it’s our unfair rules for ourselves, for others… rules that keep us from being the people that Jesus and Isaiah imagined…

They imagined us as people who say “No” to some things—pointing the finger, speaking evil, etc., etc.

And we say “No” to those things in order to make space for other ways of being—

Removing heavy yokes, removing burdens that bend people over until they are unable to stand up straight…Feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted. We’re invited into a life of being people who restore, people who mend, people who heal… and we’re invited to all that because God is the one who models it, so we’ll want to be a part of that work, too.

This week, ten youth and four adults went on an adventure called “Three Days of Awesomeness.” Let me tell you how the first evening of our trip went… One of our drivers happened to turn on the radio and heard the weather report when there was no obvious sign of bad weather. This was incredibly fortunate because he learned that there was a powerful storm on its way, traveling 55 mph, scheduled to arrive at our destination at the same time as us. We had to adjust our plan on the drive, skipping the stop at DQ (disappointing news to most participants…), but when we were 10 minutes from our destination, we could finally see why. A dark green, foreboding cloud was rising up in the west. We kept things light and cheerful but all three drivers were focused, racing this storm. In the last curves, we turned directly into it and the rain began. “Okay, girls, here’s what we’re going to do.” I told my vanload, “We’re going to leave all our stuff in the van, and we’re going to get in the cabin. We’ll get our stuff later.” That’s what we did. Not 15 minutes after our arrival, the wind was whipping and trees began falling. They fell all around us… across the path to the house, across the driveway, across the road. One hundred-year-old trees took down 20- and 50-year-old trees. Whoa! The power flickered once, twice, and then was out. We weren’t scared, actually there was a kind of calm excitement at the time, and we really didn’t know what was happening all around us… but after the storm had passed, after the power company employees had come and gone, restoring power in a fairly quick timeframe, when we walked around at dusk to see the first glimpses of the damage… and the next morning, as we saw the extent of the fallen trees and worked together to clear the driveway… it was only bit by bit that we became more and more in awe and grateful… for the series of what felt like small, insignificant, accidental choices and decisions and timing that allowed us to be completely safe rather than blocked out of the driveway in the storm or  still there, unable to come home, or a variety of other scenarios we wouldn’t even want to imagine…

The cabin was not crushed—only a nick on one small part of the roof. The vehicles were not crushed. Even the Tree Farm sign had trees down all around it, but stood.

In fact, although the one of the workers said, “Oh, you must be heart-broken…”  and indeed, it is heart-breaking to see strong, old, living trees taken down in a storm, as well as formidable to think about the hours and hours of work ahead, we felt like we witnessed so many miracles in a row… far more than we could have asked for or imagined. Neighbors in the area kept pulling up to the driveway and asking Sam, “Where did you get your work crew?” as they noticed our little team of 14 working together and clearing the driveway in record time.  How could we have known that this weekend was the kairos time, the “just right” weekend for us to be there, ready to serve?

It’s true that rivers both sustain us and they are powerful beyond measure… they give us life and they take it away. They are icy cold, refreshing, invigorating… and this is the image that we hold onto not only on this Season of Creation River Sunday, but it is an image that we’re diving deeper into as we imagine how God is calling us to Christ the Tree of Life, whose roots stretch across and deep into the river of the water of life.

We are rooted into God, our source. From God’s living waters we drink… and maybe we can imagine that we become about 60% those waters. We are saint and sinner, we experience loving creativity and fearful brokenness. But it is God’s intention to set us free, free from fear, free to do good, free to flow with love like the river that flows through us.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tourists Look, Hikers Walk, Pilgrims Search

Hebrews 12: 1-2 and Luke 12        
Pastor Joe Lees is a new member of our Bishop’s staff and just last week, he got back from doing an epic journey. 500 miles walking the traditional pilgrimage journey called Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a journey that begins in many places and ends on the west coast of Spain. He had been planning this journey for 3 years; he was invited by his niece… and on that walk he learned this phrase, “Tourists look, hikers walk, pilgrims search.” It’s a journey with no maps. Pilgrims simply follow the trail until they see another sign with a shell or an arrow. Pilgrims are not alone but surrounded by others making this journey… young adults, people turning 50, people at a moment of needing to reimagine their life with intentionality, people hoping to know God better through the challenges and benefits of the journey. Pastor Ralph Baumgartner, who is a member here at Christ (although you may not have seen him very often since he’s been serving as an Interim pastor at Hope this past year) is going to be traveling the Camino beginning in mid-September. On September 11, we will bless and send him… but today, I bring this up because of this Bible image from Hebrews of running in a great race.
It’s a marathon image, and specifically an ancient Greek marathon image. It imagines a huge stadium where all the runners who have finished are surrounding those who are still coming in, who have not yet completed the race, cheering them on…
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us, those who still join us around the table each time we share Communion… since there are onlookers, watching us, hoping for us, wishing good for us… let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.
How do we practice that, laying aside the heavy weights, the brokenness, the problems, the barriers within and around us that threaten to bury us? In the gospel from Luke, Jesus says we’re divided. We’re divided in families and across generations, and this is just reality, despite our best efforts to connect.  A colleague shared a joke… “Do you know why grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? Well, because they have a common enemy.” And I thought… I think this will be more funny when I’m about 70 years old. We’re in conflict as church, despite our best efforts for unity. We are divided between those who want most deeply to hold on to our most cherished traditions and those who want most deeply to break new ground. We have many opinions about what are the most important tasks of church and how to best use our time and money. We are divided politically and we experience very different versions of life across our diverse community… we are pressed down, and sometimes, when we are longing for peace, when we are longing for Jesus to be our Prince of Peace, it is unnerving to come on a Sunday and hear Jesus’ words, “I have come not to bring peace but to make people choose sides…” or as it says in another translation, “I have come not to bring peace but with a sword.” What?
But the fact is, when Jesus calls people to follow, there are inevitably ways that we will be called to new life that will cut deep. We will no longer have just the same priorities, we will be called to a way of life that will sometimes be in contradiction with what it seems like “everybody else” is doing… and the fact is that it can be incredibly difficult to discern Jesus’ call, so sometimes, we’ll even disagree about what is going on right now and what in the world we out to be doing… or even praying for in response.
It reminds me of this week’s Olympic games in Rio… on one hand, what an amazing event, in which amazingly talented people from all the world are brought together for games. The stories of this year’s  Refugee team have been particularly moving…  and then on the other hand, there have been a few stories of the deep poverty of those who live around the Olympic sites, on the hillsides… children and adults whose lives are considered worthless and expendable… and a whole nation of citizens who have watched stadiums be built, roads and waterways be sanitized, and all the while, the country is in such a mess that they are working to indict and remove their president.
Easy enough to look at another country… more difficult to see the ways in which our daily life is build on injustices that we have trouble really seeing… ways that we are hypocritical and unable to see what is going on right now that Jesus would describe this way, “I am going to be put to a hard test, and what stress I am under until this work of changing the world is completed.” And if we really do imagine that we are the Body of Christ (which Jesus has said that we are…), this means we could say the same, “We are going to be put to a hard test, and what stress we are under until it is completed.”
What does this look like? Well, I don’t know for sure what it might look like in your life and in our shared life together… but maybe it is going to work each day with perseverance and being salt and light in an environment that is soul-crushing, or maybe it is taking steps to make a change so that your daily life and work is more in line with God’s vision, God’s reign… or maybe it is being faithful to the promises you made at baptism and renewing your commitment to taking up new practices that will help you treat family members, neighbors, and strangers as the beloved children of God that they are (however challenging their current behavior)... or maybe it is taking a risk to give money or time as an act of faith that God will provide… I don’t know but whatever it might be that God is calling each of us to take up or let go of… we do so, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who somehow had such a vision of God’s abundant love that he was even able to endure the cross.
For those of us who want to avoid pain and shame… or who seek it out… I wonder how it changes things that Jesus moved through pain and shame over to the other side? We don’t have to avoid it, or be stuck there, we don’t have to immerse ourselves in it… we move through pain and shame, noticing it, being honest about it, learning… and we follow Christ to a new place, looking to Jesus who the letter to the Hebrews describes “has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Like a beacon, like a mountain on an otherwise flat landscape, we look to Jesus who has made it through, and we follow… somehow, mysteriously, holding on to the promise that Christ walks with us as we search.
Life is difficult, filled with distractions, difficulties, divisions… and today we find Jesus wishing for a refining fire, something that would help God’s beloved and frustrating people (that’s us!) to be able to know and to see what is going on… inside and around us. We are called to attention, invited to watch the clouds not only for signs of how the weather is changing, but to recognize how we are not at all alone in our suffering, in our inability, in our challenges. No, others have suffered and are suffering, right next to us.
We look to Jesus, like a mountain by which we can set our course, and we’re invited to continue the search, setting aside every weight, every sin; to walk, to run even… forward where Jesus calls us to go. We aren’t alone. We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, waiting breathlessly to see where we’ll go, Body of Christ, looking to Jesus who is right there with all we need to keep moving until the race is done.