Sunday, May 21, 2017

I will not leave you orphaned

You are not alone.
This month’s Bible study in the Christ women’s group was on this theme. Then women of various ages wrote on various situations: “You are not alone when you are at a crossroads,” “You are not alone when you’re sure you are right.”  “You are not alone… when you are afraid.”
A teacher named Norma shared this story about that third one. “You are not alone… when you are afraid.”
When she was just 11 years old, she was home one mid-August evening. She was reading Little Women. The phone rang. “Mother said we had to go quickly to the hospital; she found a neighbor to take them. There they sat in a hallway for a long time waiting for someone to tell them something. Finally, Mother stopped a doctor passing by and said, ‘They brought my husband in, but I don’t know what’s happened to him.’ The doctor responded, ‘Don't you know he’s deceased?’ I didn’t know what that word meant—until mother cried out, ‘You mean he’s already dead?’” Norma writes, “To this day, I fear I will suddenly hear those words again. I feared I would hear them before my fiancĂ© and I could marry… Burton and I have been married 55 years.”
The Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist, Summary of story from Gather, May 2017… page 23
You are not alone…
In response, Judy Nass shared her own story, and she’s given permission to me to share it with you this morning. When Judy was seven years old, she lost her Dad. When she was 22, she lost her Mom. When she got married, a great-uncle came to stand in for her parents. Maybe I already knew this story from years ago when I first sat in Judy and Dave’s home and asked them about their story… but this week, it sank in deeper, maybe because of these words from Jesus, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Judy is not the only one in our congregation who has had the experience of losing both her parents at a young age… of moving through some of life’s major milestones without beloved family members there to cheer her on… whether it was because of death or broken relationships, many of us have had these experiences of loss… and it’s from that deep place (whether we faced it with courage and determination or not)… that Christ promises, “I won’t leave you there.” Like Norma’s lifelong sense that this might happen again, many of us have a nagging sense that something has happened to us that no one else can understand… that in some way, we are on our own… and directly to that unspoken assumption and question, “Where are you?” Jesus speaks the Spirit of truth, “I will love you and make myself know to you.”
On Friday and Saturday, Pastor Elizabeth, Spence Blum, Kathy Kostad, Eric Miller (one of our seminarians who was invited to lead in worship) and I were at the synod assembly. Throughout 2017, our Bishop has been inviting us to reflect on a Bible passage from Matthew 9 where Jesus has compassion for the crowds and then says this to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The Bishop’s report was crafted around this theme… of all the hard things we’re facing as church together, of all the hard things we’re facing as neighbors and communities, nations, globe, as a whole creation… and then, how God (the Lord of the harvest) is providing…
She told several stories and this was the third one…
She shared how she goes out regularly for breakfast with a particular friend, and on this day, their breakfast was at the French Hen. Right at 8 am, they walked in when their server unlocked the door. They sipped their coffee, opened the menu, and she began to imagine the dish she would order… maybe coconut lime French toast, or maybe biscuits and gravy with a cheddar chive biscuit, or maybe the quiche Lorraine… Then, their waiter, Ben, came over to take their order. He leaned right down to their eye level and said, “I have to be honest with you. The chef didn’t make it in today. So… I could give you a yogurt parfait or we have some pastries. I definitely have coffee, but if you want to go somewhere else, I would understand that, too.”
I’ve got to be honest with you. This is what we’ve got. Maybe it’s not what expected or hoped for but it’s enough.
Our church building was built 100 years ago with a capacity of 400. Our worship is typically 120, although if we all showed up at once, we would be more like 300… we could look at this as a reason for disappointment, shame, or embarrassment—that we’re not filling our space except when we host large groups who meet to advocate with legislators across the street… but this story of Ben-the-waiter’s honesty in the circumstances gives us a glimpse of how we might respond…
I’ve got to be honest with you. Changing patterns of religion, faith, and life mean there are those who aren’t showing up. So, look around. This is who we’ve got to reach out in this amazing neighborhood, along the Green line (with an average of 30,000 riders each day). This is who we've got and it's enough. Our Synod has just received a grant to gather young adults (19-29) to do local immersions such as the one Craig Dokken is doing right now in Tanzania in Atlanta, Georgia, and then, right here, along the Green Line, to imagine how to engage more actively with the diverse neighbors who travel the Green Line daily. We are going to want to be a part of that… to send young adults on our behalf and then listen deeply to what they learn together.
Recently, our youth members brought a resolution to Council to make even more clear our welcome to all people by making sure our congregation is included on websites promoting welcoming churches to GLBTQ+ people throughout the area. The Council passed this resolution, and at the Synod Assembly, I went to a workshop about welcoming where the need for this public welcome became even more clear… Did you know that in 28/32 states, if you are GLBTQ+, you can be fired or evicted for that reason alone? Did you know there is a travel advisory throughout Texas—that it might be dangerous to travel there? Did you know that by far, the majority of people 40 and under look for this marker—an openly welcoming church—because it matches their values around who should be welcome in our churches? So… as a congregation that has always quietly welcomed all, as we move into a time of having a more public welcome, how much are we willing to learn in order to be filled with compassion, again and again, as we learn more and more about God’s great diversity? Or as visiting Bishop Guy Erwin put it, "What's our capacity for change on behalf of the neighbor?"
“I will not leave you orphaned,” says Jesus in times like these, when there are crowds of people on the Green Line train, maybe feeling harassed and helpless… maybe wondering if they are all alone, going through whatever they’re going through…
Bishop Guy Erwin, visiting from the Southwest California Synod said that they joke in his synod that if every Lutheran would simply become an Uber driver and share the good news of Jesus’ welcome with one passenger, they would have an unprecedented wave of evangelism (that’s the churchy word for sharing the story of God’s love and welcome)… I think that’s true here, too. So, think about your own daily life… maybe you’re not a talkative Uber driver, but you do encounter people who need to know, they’re not alone. Though they may have been orphaned through death or rejection... God has not left them. God’s with them, and you’re with them—the body of Christ, the hands and feet and voice of Christ.
Jesus says today, “It’s true, people can’t see me. But you can… the Spirit is living in you. Because you love me, you will do what I have said… (and remember last week, “You will do even greater things…”). Through sharing God’s outpouring, life-expanding love with others… it may be that we will know God in Christ far better than we have ever before, the God who will never leave us orphaned, the God who promises to be there for you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

In you, I seek refuge

Psalm 31 and John 14 

Gracious God, you are a place of refuge for all who seek you. You long to gather us like a hen gathers her chicks, and when we are grown you send us out to be fearless witnesses to Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection. Speak to us now, as a mother comforts her child, but also boldly fill us with confident trust that we need to do whatever you call us to do. Amen

I’m glad to be back. For those who don’t know, I was recently away for a two-week pilgrimage to Israel and Israeli-occupied parts of Palestine. It was a wonderful trip. Funded by an organization called Macedonian Ministries, and given continuing education time through our ministry Covenant, and supported by my family who all took on extra home responsibilities, I was able to be away… That included not only visiting countless biblical sites, walking where Jesus walked (which I will try to tell you about over the coming weeks and months, so you can benefit too)… but also the gifts of rest, beautiful meals, warm summer-like weather, and long, uninterrupted conversations with pastor colleagues from Minneapolis and Scotland who became new friends. It was truly a gift to be a tourist in such a beautiful part of the world, and at the same time… we were not completely immune to the kinds of socio-political forces that formed the State of Israel and that continue today.

After a beautiful, restful week in Galilee (where there are few visual reminders of the occupation), we traveled to Jerusalem. We walked the route that Jesus walked from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and through the stations of the cross. We saw pilgrims from all over the world doing this same walk. It was crowded and sometimes, people pushed. We saw soldiers, young adults with automatic weapons. We were there for Israel’s remembrance day and independence day. Think fireworks, think rock music… one group’s celebration and another’s catastrophe.

We went to Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, is a part of the West Bank. Here’s a very quick summary. In 1947/1948, Israel was formed, backed by European nations and the U.S. (people newly horrified by and regretting their complacency toward the atrocities of the Holocaust where two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was killed—6 million Jews). Israel was placed within a territory where people already lived. At the time, it was called Palestine… but the native inhabitants of this land had been occupied by various outside forces since at least 400 BC. So, the state of Israel became one more occupier… and the agreements of giving half of the land to Palestinians have never been honored. Today, a separation/security barrier (which is sometimes an electric fence with barbed wire and sometimes a 40-foot-high cement wall) surrounds and cuts people off from one another, from their fields and sources of water, as well as from means of communication (such as access to wifi). In Bethlehem, I got to meet up with Samantha Ea, who has been serving for 8 months as an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission (tutoring English and learning Arabic, and learning far more in-depth about the joys and challenges of life in the community where the angels came and told people to spread the news that God had come among people—Immanuel—God-with-us, a God who saves.

While in Bethlehem, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Mitri Raheb, a prominent Palestinian Christian pastor who has done so much to empower interfaith work for peace and justice, to create opportunities for sustainable livelihood under an oppressive reality, and to increase understanding throughout the world of what Palestinians face daily. I had met him nineteen years ago and now, he is less hopeful that things can change. He asked this question in response to the injustices that Palestinians endure, “Where is the world?”

We also went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. This was my fifth visit to a Holocaust museum, and my second visit to this one. Every Israeli young adult is required to do military service, and as a part of their training, they visit this site. In the entry are the words from Ezekiel, “I will put my breath in you and you shall live and I will put you on your own soil.” So, the belief that the state of Israel is God’s fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people is very clearly stated at this place. If you have ever been to a Holocaust museum before, you know that it is horrifying. The plan to eliminate the Jewish people (and all “undesirables”) was so well thought out, so planned, so hateful… In some sectors, the hatred was overt and open, in other places, the plot was to purposefully deceive others on every level. They killed millions of people in hundreds of ways, and kept and catalogued their belongings… which is why we have so much evidence to fill so many museums today…

This time through, I spent nearly all my time watching videos of people telling their stories and here’s one that I remember well. It was a man talking about his mother. He said something like this, “I don’t mean to say anything against my mother, but we were only marginally Jewish. We only worshiped on holidays. She considered herself fully German, so when the change came, the challenge came from within. She couldn’t accept that others would turn away from her. When things got very threatening, she called all her friends. She had far more German friends than Jewish friends. She called and called and called, and not one friend called her back.”
Not one friend called her back.

All the Holocaust museums and memorials were created in an effort that this kind of atrocity might never happen again. The problem is… it does still happen. Humans still separate and wall off and treat others without dignity. We still act hatefully. We can’t seem to make the connection between the evil that we suffered and the evil (or indifference) that we carry out on others.
And it’s easy to point fingers toward Israel/Palestine where this inability to find resolution is so stark—but I thought many times while there, how can this tiny land (about the size of New Jersey, our fifth smallest state) bear all these expectations? All these actors? All these powers vying for power here?

Last Thursday evening, right here at Christ, we hosted speaker Marty Brounstein who shared the story of his wife’s survival of the Holocaust. Her parents were hidden by a family in a rural part of the Netherlands, and her mother gave birth to her in their home. They claimed her (and about two dozen other Jews) as their own family during a time when to do so meant putting their own lives at risk. And Marty asked us, gathered on Thursday night, “Would you be willing to help others whose lives are in great danger, knowing if you get involved, you probably put your life (and the lives of your children) in great danger?” That’s a hard question, but the way Marty described Frans and Mien Wijnakker’s response – two faithful Christians in a rural community – was like this… Could you help?
With a shrug… “Sure!”

That feels like an embodiment of the kind of trust that Jesus invites us to practice in this gospel word from John… words that are often read at funerals… but really, words that we need as we attempt to live in God’s way, in the face of politics as usual, where people do not matter… words that we need as we try to overcome hatred and indifference (not only of those “out there,” but our own failing, those who are closest, those we are most afraid might betray us or that we might betray…)
Jesus says this in troubling times, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” Yes, of course, there are reasons why your heart is stirred up… but can’t you imagine that in this house, God’s house, Christ is absolutely creating a place for you?

And if you need a hiding place, a refuge, you will find that in God… and in this place where we are trying to practice love like God’s… We are gathered (although we’re broken and imperfect and just as likely to experience deep fear as the next person), but we’re gathered to practice loving each other and showing up for each other through whatever may come.
This is what it means to be given faith.
It’s to trust that when God puts someone in our path who needs us, we might have the grace to respond as Frans and Mien did… With a shrug… “Sure!”
Jesus invites us to join in practicing that kind of fearlessness, that kind of love in action – here’s what Jesus says:“I tell you for certain that if you trust me, you will do the same things that I’m doing. You will do even greater things…”  

Gracious God, you are a place of refuge for all who seek you. You long to gather us like a hen gathers her chicks, and when we are grown you send us out to be fearless witnesses to Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection. Feed us now, as a mother comforts her child, but also boldly fill us with confident trust that we’ll need to do whatever you call us to do. Amen