Sunday, June 26, 2005

Pentecost 6 - Year A

Martin Luther once summed up the Christian life this way:

“A Christian is a perfectly free person, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

This paradox lies underneath each of our three readings for today. Paul writes to the Romans that they are to be enslaved to God, so as to avoid sin. Abraham, the old man prepares to kill his son at God’s behest, no less. And Jesus suggests that even a cup of cold water may be enough to show one’s welcome of Jesus and those who would speak in Jesus’ name.

Slavery is not an easy image for us. We love the bible’s freedom language. We claim freedom as our right, as if it is something we can hold on to or demand. Freedom is known most fully when it is lived with conviction and conscience, not brandished like a sword. We contrast freedom with the slavery of the past 300 years - forced migration, chains, abuse, separation, brutality.

In Paul’s day slavery was part of the on-going economic system, more tied to debt than the slavery we picture. Slavery meant you owed your labour to another. You could still determine who you married, what you did with your spare time, your identity and your religious faith - but of course you would do better if you found a master whose values matched yours. In a world where you had little capital to place against debts, your future labour was a bargaining tool - and if you lost the bargain, you became a slave.

Still, it did mean a loss of choice - of what you laboured at, where you lived. And it certainly meant service - doing the menial work that freed persons wouldn’t do, toiling away for long hours for little or no pay.

This is not something we typically embrace, yet Paul says that in fact we are slaves, whether we admit it or not. We’re either slaves to ourselves or slaves to God. As Bob Dylan puts it, “You gotta serve somebody.” We might hate to admit who or what claims mastery over our lives; materialism, alcohol, work, sports, or whatever - our pursuit of those things can be our masters to whom we become dutiful slaves. Or deeper still, we are enslaved to ourselves, our own self-interest, or our own narrow way of looking at the world.

We can spend our time nurturing ourselves, stroking our egos, satisfying each desire. Or we can acknowledge with joy that servanthood means that we, with all our petty wants and desires, are not the centre of all things. God is the centre, and in the Spirit of Christ we can attend to God by serving one another.

We may be able to see ourselves as slaves as Paul meant it, even maybe embrace it. But sacrifice is something else altogether.

While we heard Jeremiah exposing a false prophet, the lectionary’s other OT reading for this morning is the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son. For many Christians, the image of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac is too abhorrent to try to understand. It comes from the past - a past long gone from most of this world. In ancient Canaan, the sacrifice of the first born was a commonplace ritual. Cemetery excavations from that time unearth many infant skeletons in jars. Jews, back then, changed this from sacrificing the child to presenting the child at the temple along with an animal sacrifice. And so this history and rejection of infant sacrifice stands behind the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

Well and good. But - that niggling “but” remains - the story remains as one of the most difficult stories in the bible, exceeded by the story of Jeptha’s daughter in Judges, a similar story, where she is actually sacrificed because of her dad, Jeptha, vows to God that he will sacrifice the first thing he sees if he arrives home victorious in battle. The first “thing’ he sees is, of course, his little girl who comes out to greet her daddy. But thinking that a hasty vow to God trumps his love for his daughter, he sacrifices her to God. There is still a tradition among Jewish women where upon they remember this girl -this sister - who was needlessly killed by her father. Today, we’d wouldn’t hesitating in calling that murder. Back then, it was tragic, but, hey, a vow is a vow.

But here, Isaac is saved. A ram appears and replaces Isaac on the altar. Yet, if we dig deeper, the story of Abraham and Isaac speaks to us differently than what is presented.

In those days, a child was considered property of the father, to dispose of as he wished. Here Abraham offers up his most precious possession. One time I wondered why Abraham did not offer himself in Isaac’s stead when God demanded a sacrifice. Yet, because the first born son was so important at that time, the way to secure your own legacy, the security of eternal life, Abraham is in fact offering more than his son. Abraham is offering God his future, his legacy, his memory, and his name. To offer Isaac meant to offer his own life over and over again - no longer would Abraham be an ancestor, a patriarch, no longer would he have any lineage, no longer would his grave be attended to and his life preserved in memory and in worship. In other words, he would disappear from the earth with no one to remember him. That’s what he was offering to God.

I think this sacrifice is something we can learn from. We can learn to offer up our lives. We are freed from relentlessly pursuing the myth of happiness in the self. We can give up our cultural goals in order to offer ourselves to other values. We can hold on to the self, but it will naturally diminish and die. Or we can hold on to God’s gifts. We can offer ourselves - in service - to the on-going life of the world just like Jesus asks us to; “however may be my follower must take the cross and follow me.”

So, the cup of cold water that Jesus talks about is more than just a one time event, a grudging gift to these “little ones” offered to satisfy a requirement.

Who are the “little ones”? Most biblical scholars think “little ones” refers to children, or other people who weren’t worth anything in the eyes of most others -the weakest - those least likely to be able to offer anything back. Strangers. Folks who are not tied to the community. One theologian calls them “the little, the least, the lost, the last.” Jesus is talking about hospitality in its deepest, most biblical sense. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia. “Phileo”- kinship, or family love - and xenos, meaning “stranger.” Jesus is saying that the cup of cold water is family-love offered to strangers.

Maybe Jesus is saying that we need to begin somewhere - a cup of cold water on a thirsty day. If your hearts can be opened even that wide; God can keep prying it open - wider and deeper - opening us up so we can pour ourselves out for others; poured out like the wine of Christ’s blood to quench a thirsty world. Maybe then, we will know what real freedom looks like.

I recently heard a story where a journalist visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He watched with disgusted as one of MT sister’s cleansed the wounds of a leper.

“I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he exclaimed.

“Neither would I,” the nun responded.

That’s what freedom and slavery look like when live together.

Hailey Louise Iwassa, today you begin your life of freedom and your life of slavery. You parents are offering you, not to continue their name and legacy, but to continue God’s. But you’ll spend your whole life learning the mystery of what that means.

The slavery that Paul talks about is the same that Abraham lived; the slavery of knowing God’s will is built on love for the world, which is freedom. As weird as that sounds, slavery and freedom are two sides of the same coin in God’s economy. Like the slave masters of the bible, God asks for your labour in return for what you have received - salvation in Jesus. But perhaps most importantly, God asks for your heart; for the songs that you sing and the tears that you weep. God is asking for your very life. Because God’s own Son gave his life so that you might live in the freedom of God’s band of slaves; both today and into eternity.

May this be so among us.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Children's Message: Pentecost 5 - Year A

Jason was standing at his locker at recess when a book dropped out of his knapsack.

“What’s this?” asked Sam picking up the book, as he happened to be walking by Jason’s locker.

“That’s my bible,” Jason snapped, snatching the bible from Sam’s hands.

“Do you go to church?” asked Sam with a small laugh in his voice.

“Um. Sorta,” said Jason closing his locker, turning away and not looking at Sam, a little embarrassed by his question.

Later, in class, Sam sat right behind Jason.

“Hey, God-boy,” Sam whispered for all to hear, “where’s your bible?”

Jason felt his ears turn red. He didn’t know what to say. He knew others would make fun of him if they knew he went to church.

That Sunday, Jason was in church with his parents and he heard Jesus say in the gospel reading, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge them before the Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

“Is that true?” Jason asked himself. All of a sudden he was very scared. He remembered back to Sam and the bible incident. Should he have told Sam proudly, “Yes! I’m a Christian! I go to church,”? Is that what Jesus wanted him to do? Then he looked around the church and everyone seemed so sure of what they believed. He wasn’t sure that he could believe the same way.

Jason felt ashamed that he didn’t tell Sam he went to church. Although he didn’t exactly lie, he wasn’t exactly forthcoming. Sam wasn’t sure he deserved to be in church with all those people who had no trouble believing who Jesus is. Jesus DID say that that we need to tell folks that we are his followers or he won’t tell the Father about us.

That night as Jason and his parents were getting ready for bed and to say their prayers, Jason became nervous. He wasn’t sure he should tell his parents because they might get mad at him for not telling Sam about Jesus and about how he went to church. And he wasn’t sure that he should pray. But here were his parents in his room, and this was what he was expected to do. So Jason stayed quiet.

“Mom, I don’t think I should pray today,” Jason finally said. He figured the easiest thing was to be upfront with them.

“Why’s that, dear,” his mom replied.

Jason told his parents all about what happened with Sam, about what he heard at church about Jesus demanding that we acknowledge him before others, and how everyone but him were so easily able to believe and tell others about Jesus . Jason was sure that didn’t deserve to pray or go to church.

After he was finished, his mom and dad looked at each other and smiled.

“Thank you, Jason, for being so honest with us,” said his dad, “I think the fact that you’re thinking about how Jesus wants us to live shows how much you do want to follow Jesus.”

“It does?” asked Jason.

“Yes,” continued his mom, “You want to be honest with you faith. You don’t just want to play some game. I think Jesus is more interested in what is in peoples’ hearts than what people say. For Jesus, saying and doing and thinking and believing are the same thing.”

“But the people at church, they all seem like they never have any trouble believing,” said Jason.

“What makes you say that?” asked his dad

“I dunno, it’s just what it looks like to me.”

“Well, I can tell you, there are some people at church who are very certain, and that’s good. But others are hanging on by a thread, and they come to church hoping that the thread will become stronger.”

“Does the thread become stronger?” asked Jason.

“Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t,” replied his dad, “But many of them are the most faithful followers of Jesus. But you must remember, being a follower of Jesus isn’t saying or believing or even doing the right things. Being a follower of Jesus is about being part of God’s family. Some days that’s easy. Some days that’s hard. But God’s love for us never wavers.”

That gave Jason something to think about. But it was getting late, so they said a prayer like this as we do now,

Dear God, thank you that we are part of your family. Amen.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Pentecost 5 - Year A

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;” says Jesus, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if this is the “kind of statement that makes us Christians wonder if [we] are hearing right. Is this really Jesus? Is this the prince of peace who taught us to love our enemies, the gentle shepherd who taught us to turn the other cheek? It is the kind of statement that makes you wish someone had forgotten to write it down, but even if we didn’t have it in Matthew, we will find it in Luke, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. (Luke 12:51)”

What are we to make of such a pronouncement? And where exactly is the good news in it?

“Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Again, tough words. Jesus seems to be setting up an “us against them” posture for his followers. But this passage is odd, some may say “unique” because these divisions that Jesus is talking about seem to fly in the face of everything else Jesus taught. There is no other passage in the gospels where Jesus uses this language.

So what’s going on here?

You need to remember that the first Christians were Jewish. Christianity was just another sect among many in Judaism. Like many family squabbles, they often turned nasty.

Matthew, in his gospel liked to emphasize the Jewishness of Christianity; but he was also very aware that such emphases would upset other Jews. Back then, it was important to publicly declare what one believed. Spoken proclamation bore tremendous weight. That’s why Jesus asked his followers to acknowledge him in public.

But today, when words are so cheap, public declarations are just another blip on the radar screen of a 24 hour news cycle. Today, belief is not just what you say, belief is how you live. And living as a Christian today, or in any age, bears some consequences.

Some of you might know personally what those consequences look like.

In my first parish, there was a woman who very involved in the life of the church. She had grown up in the town and was baptized in the church. I figured she had been around the church forever. The kitchen was her territory; if you didn’t know whereto put the cups and saucers after coffee hour, she would tell you.

But it turns out that she stopped going to church about a year after she was married. Her husband didn’t like her going to church. He drank, and he “just knew” that folks at church were talking about him.

For a while she went to church anyway, knowing that an angry, mean, drunk was waiting for her when she got home.

It took some doing but he finally wore her down. She stayed home on Sunday mornings.

Probably the biggest gift he ever gave her was leaving her for another woman. She got her life back and came back to church.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;” says Jesus, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Harvard professor and Christian author Robert Coles tells a story about a young boy who was brought to church one day after his parents decided he needed some moral guidance in his life.

Downstairs at Sunday School he learned all about Jesus, and how Jesus lived a life of poverty. The boy heard how Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead, how he told his disciples to sell all they have and give to the poor, how he said that the greatest in the kingdom of God is the lowest, the slave of all in the eyes of the world.

The boy heard all these stories while his parents were upstairs in the worship service, listening to glorious music and praying wonderfully poetic prayers.

The boy took these messages home and started asking his parents some uncomfortable questions, about why we have so much food when so many people downtown go hungry, especially when Jesus taught to give what we have to the poor and hungry.

The boy did other strange things. He would pray spontaneously for his friends who were sick and would ask God for healing.

For a while, his parents chalked his behaviour up to good ole youthful enthusiasm. But his strange behaviour stretched on. He continued his hard questions and prayed even more often. One day he even gave away his lunch to a boy in his class whose mother couldn’t afford to make him one after her welfare cheques ran dry at the end of the month.

“This is getting out of hand,” his parents said to one another. “We have to do something. A little religion is okay, but he’s taking this Jesus thing far too seriously.”

So his parents took him to see a psychiatrist hoping that their boy could be “cured” of his religious fervor, so he would begin to live a “normal” and “healthy” life.”

“Those who find their life will lose it,” says Jesus, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This boy knew what Jesus was talking about. He found out that following Jesus might get him into trouble. But he also saw what it’s like to see God’s love actually doing something.

So, what consequences do you bear as a Christian? What does your life proclaim?

Whatever cost we pay as followers of Jesus, BBT reminds us, “There is good news here for those with the nerve to hear it. The gospel is not a flashlight but a fire. It can warm and it can burn. The gospel is not a table knife, but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pabulum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not finally to be feared.

“The peace of God is worth anything it takes to get there, and anyone knows that [peace is not merely the absence of conflict]. The good news is that in Christ God has given us someone worth fighting about, and someone with enough clout to end all our fighting, for his word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces.”


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Children's Message: Pentecost 4 - Year A

It was Sunday morning and her mom and dad were getting their special church clothes on, but Donna was plopped down in her favorite Bean Bag chair, watching her favorite cartoons. Donna didn’t get her clothes on because she was hoping that it would her parents wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t ready until it was too late. Then she would be able to stay home. Donna had plans this Sunday morning, and church wasn’t a part of them

“C’mon, Donna, you need to get dressed, we’ll be late.” Donna’s mom shouted back.

“I don’t want to go today!” Donna shouted back. “Janet and Kate asked me to come over this morning then we’re going to the Mall.”

“Yes you are and no you’re not” shouted dad, confusing everyone. “Yes you are coming to church and no you aren’t going to the mall this morning”

“But I don’t want to! Janet and Kate go to the Mall every Sunday and they tell me how much fun they have. For once I want to have fun with them.”

“Donna, it’s getting late.” Her dad bellowed from the top of the stairs. “I had to go to church when I was your age so doggonnit, you have to go to church too, just like I did!”

Donna sat at the back of the church with the other young people. That way the pastor couldn’t see what they were up to. But Donna was in a bad mood and couldn’t concentrate on the service. She was thinking about Kate and Janet at the Mall trying on funky clothes and slurping down Orange Julius, and she was missing out on all that.

After church, the drive home was very quiet.

That night, when Donna was getting ready for bed her mom came in to say their prayers.

“Donna, did you have fun at the back of the church today?” ask her mom brushing the bangs from Donna’s face.”

“I guess,” muttered Donna.

“You wanted to go to the Mall instead of going to church, didn’t you?” asked her mom.

“Yes” replied Donna.

“Do you not like church?” asked her mom?

“Its not that I don’t like church, it’s just that I like a lot of other stuff as well. Do we have to go to church every Sunday?”

“We try to,” said her mom. “Its all a part of what it means to follow Jesus. Its like what the bible story said today, that Paul tried to tell his friends in Rome why it is important to worship Jesus, and that following Jesus may not be what we always feel like doing, but it is the only time during the week we get to pray and sing and with other Christians.”

“So, going to church is what it means to be a disciple?” asked Donna?

“It’s part of it. Besides, you can see Kate and Janet at school. Donna, I don’t want to make you go to church because that’s not what church is about. But I do what you to grow in your faith and love of Jesus, and big part of that is going to church and learning more about him. Do you understand?”

“I suppose,” said Donna not completely convinced, but her mom did give her something to think about.

Then they said a prayer like this as we do now: “Dear God, help us to be disciples of Jesus. Amen.”

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Pentecost 4 - Year A

Recently, Business Week ran a story on the phenomenon of megachurch marketing. Many religious commentators made a huge deal over the sheer size and scale of some of these churches. The biggest of them all: Lakewood Community Church in Houston, Texas pastored by Joel Osteen, expects weekend attendance to top over 100 000 souls by this July. According to the article, Osteen is laying out $90 million to transform the massive Compaq Center in downtown Houston -- former home of the NBA's Houston Rockets -- into a church that will seat 16,000, complete with a high-tech stage for his TV shows and Sunday School for 5,000 children.

The article goes on to say that the three biggest churches in North America are, right now, in the midst of building campaigns, with the total cost for three new facilities running almost a quarter of a billion US dollars. That’s a lot of money for three buildings. Of course, none of these churches are Lutheran so it’s easy for us to look down our noses at such excess.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I use many resources published by these megachurches. Many of these pastors have written books that I’ve found helpful in my ministry.

Having said that, after reading the Business Week article, I felt like I needed a shower. Church as Big Business. God for sale. Jesus as a marketable commodity. One pastor goes so far as to label worship at his church, “the product.”

But still, something inside me was a little envious. It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of worldly success. Most pastors dream of huge church packed to the rafters. Size equals strength.

The gospel doesn’t live in a vacuum. The gospel needs a vehicle, and the vehicle that these churches use is the consumer culture of the affluent suburbs. But I have to be honest, upon hearing testimonies of people whose lives have been transformed by the power of gospel through the ministry of these churches, people who testify of relationships healed, addictions brought under control, the lonely finding community, I have to say that God working powerfully through these ministries.

Yet, I also have to ask myself if they’re missing a second step. At what point do we use culture, and at what point do we challenge culture? If we distance ourselves too far from our culture we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, an island unto ourselves speaking a language no one can understand. But if we use too much of our culture, we risk losing our distinctiveness, our prophetic witness to the alternative way of living that Jesus call us to. Either way, the results will be the same; we will become irrelevant.

I wonder if we Lutherans can fall into the same traps set for us by the world that surrounds us. What makes us different from the rest of the world? Are we a “counter-culture” that lives in sharp distinction to the rest of the world as many of the theologians suggest, or is our faith merely an accessory to compliment our lifestyles? How do we live our faith that proclaims the good news we have received in Jesus Christ? Is our common witness to the life-altering, world-changing power of God evident in how we live our lives as a congregation? Do we use the resources that God has so graciously give us on ourselves or do we share abundantly with a world outside our doors, a world starving for grace?

Today’s gospel asks some of these same questions, although not explicitly, but underneath the surface. Jesus calls his twelve disciples and sends them out to do his work, giving them these instructions,

“Go…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…”

Travel light, Jesus says. Take nothing with you but the power of God. Do the Kingdom’s work.

When Martin Luther made his pilgrimage to Rome he was disgusted by its excess, hedonism, and worldliness. He saw the worst of political maneuvering displayed among the people called to lead the church. He saw hordes of ecclesiastical flunkies building their own little empires instead of shepherding God’s people. He saw the universal church turned into a marketplace where money from his hard working parishioners went to extravagant palaces and ornate cathedrals. Luther wondered how these people could justify their bloated lifestyles when they say they follow poor man Jesus and confess to walk in the footsteps his apostles, the ones who walked dusty roads with nothing in their hands but the message of the Kingdom.

It was Luther’s experience in Rome that planted the seeds of the Reformation.

Luther knew the perils of power and the temptation of treasure. “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose their souls?”

Today’s reading is a hard one. But I think its message is to haunt and challenge us. At least, that’s what it does for me. Sometimes I let my dreaming, my ambition, my hunger for influence and status in the world, distract me from where God wants me to be. I often get caught up in how my life will impact the world I forget how God’s world will impact my life. When I mark an achievement in my life, this text reminds me of how fleeting worldly success is. When I hear the siren call to worldly power and status, this text calls me to greater humility. When I am tempted to wonder if the grass is greener in another pasture, this text calls me to stronger commitment among the people I am called to serve.

I think, for us, as a family of faith, God is asking us ponder what it means to be people of God for these days. Gerald Daring from the St. Louis Center for Liturgy asks his people, "What difference does our practice of Christianity make in the lives of people? Are the suffering and dying comforted because we follow Christ? Are the hungry and homeless finding their lives improved because we follow Christ? Do children have a brighter future because we follow Christ?"

In many ways, we can answer “yes” to those questions. But we have room to grow.

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd is a congregation of deeply committed and joyously faithful disciples of Jesus. There is much we can and should be proud of. But I’m always wondering where our next step should lead us. How can we build on the strengths we have so carefully nurtured? How can we be more effective witnesses to the Kingdom of God, the presence of the Risen Jesus alive in our world?

This work is not easy, perhaps because it is never finished. There will always be illness and suffering; a need for healing and forgiveness. There will always be poverty and pain; and the need for food and comfort. There will always be war and death, and the need for forgiveness and resurrection.

But because we have the courage to begin, we have been promised an abundant harvest.

May this be so among us. Amen

Monday, June 06, 2005

Children's Sermon: Pentecost 3 - Year A

James was sitting in class one day when Anthony came in and sat beside him. Anthony hadn’t been in school for a few weeks. James was curious to know where Anthony was all that time, but didn’t ask.

“Do you want to come back to my house after school and play video games?” James asked.

“Sure,” replied Anthony, “that sounds great.”

James loved playing video games. It was even better when there was someone else to play them with. His little sister Emma just liked to play with her lego.

When Anthony and James got to James’ house, James pulled out two pops from the fridge then fired up his game boy.

About an hour later, James’ dad came home. He walked past James and Anthony and grunted hello. Then disappeared into his workshop downstairs.

Soon after that, James’ mom came home. She had groceries in her hand. She plopped them down on the kitchen counter and looked into the living room where the two boys where playing.

“Oh…hello…James you brought a friend home…” James’ mom said smiling. But it didn’t look like a real smile. It looked like she was faking it.

“This is Anthony,” said James before turning his head back toward the screen.

“Nice to meet you Anthony,” said James’ mom in voice that seemed like she didn’t really mean what she was saying.

James’ mom disappeared downstairs and James could hear his parents mumbling something to each other.

Then James’ dad came up the stairs. “Okay boys, game’s over. I’m sorry, Anthony but it’s time to go home.”

James and Anthony looked at each other puzzled. It wasn’t supper time yet. Why did he have to go home?

“I’ll give you a ride,” said James’ dad. “Now hurry, put your jacket on. James, I’ll see you when you get home.”

“See you tomorrow, Anthony,” James said.

“See ya, James,” replied Anthony as he was leaving. James’ mom watched as they pulled out of the driveway. Then she went outside and worked in her garden.

That night, as James and his parents where getting ready to say their prayers, James asked,

“Why did Anthony have to go home early today?”

His parents looked at each other, wondering who was going to explain it to him.

“We’re just not comfortable having you play with him,” said his dad.

“Why not?” asked James.

“Do you know anything about his parents?” asked his dad.


“Do you know that he lives with his grandparents?”

“No, but what’s wrong with him living with grandparents?” replied James.

“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just why he’s living with his grandparents?” replied his dad.

“Why is he?”

“His parents are in jail for credit card fraud,” said his dad.

James was silent.

“James, we just want to teach you to make good choices,” said his mom, “and part of that means choosing good friends. Do you understand?”

James was still quiet. His eyebrows scrunched downward.

“How about we pray?” asked his dad.

“No,” said James. “Did Anthony break the law?”

“No,” replied his mom.
“Is it his fault his parents did?”

“No,” replied his dad. “But my dad had a saying, ‘The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.’”

“But what did Jesus say?” asked James.

“What are you talking about?” asked his dad.

“At Sunday School we heard that when Jesus had supper with the tax collectors and other bad people some of the religious leaders told him he shouldn’t do that. The he told them that the sick need a doctor, not the healthy. I think Jesus wants us to be friends with people most other don’t like.”

His parents looked at each other, smiled, then said,

“You’re right, James. Thank you.”

Then they said a prayer like this as we do now,

Dear God, help us to be friends with those who nobody else will. Amen.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Pentecost 3 - Year A

“Do not take off your jacket,” I was told. “Do not stop at the office. Head straight to neo-natal intensive care. The baby might not last the hour,” my supervisor at the hospital told me on the phone as I was leaving my office at another hospital site.

I had finished a year of seminary and had just begun what is called “Clinical Pastoral Education” or “CPE” in seminary-speak. Another good name for it might be “tear the seminarian’s heart out and show it to him.”

At CPE, they slap a badge on you and call you a chaplain. Whether it be in a hospital, prison, or transition home, you are parachuted into battle. You learn by doing. And I learnt a lot those 12 weeks.

I arrived at the hospital and did just as I was told. I made my way up to neo-natal, the rain was still dripping off my jacket and my shoes tracking mud on the floor.

I asked the nurse where I could find the baby and the family. It was then I was told that the baby had died. A stillbirth

The nurse told me that the family wanted the baby baptized. But there was a glitch: the mother didn’t want to know what name I would put on the baptismal certificate.

I called my supervisor because it either by custom or policy or just good theology, at least two people had to be present at any baptism.

I met my supervisor in the morgue. It was my first time in there. And it looks just like it does on TV.

The attendant, who knew we were coming, ushered us into a cavernous vault. She opened a drawer, and gently but methodically lifted the tiny body of a baby girl, placed her on the gurney, uncovered her head. Then she left us to our business.

The baby was smaller than I expected. And much more beautiful.

My supervisor and I hovered over that little girl. I read from John’s gospel “’I am the resurrection and the life,’ says our Lord.” I asked my supervisor what I should name her. He said, in these situations, the chaplains usually give his or her own name. So, as I poured water over that little girl’s head, I whispered in her ear, “Kevin George Powell, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

I waited. But I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for. The silence was broken by my supervisor’s gentle command: “Go with God, little one.”

Despite all appearances, that was the easy part. The hard part lay waiting in a bed five floors above me.

Before I went in to visit with the mom, my supervisor sat me down and asked me what my strategy was. I hadn’t thought of any. So we talked for awhile just outside her door.

She had headphones on and was watching TV when I went in. Her eyes were deep red. This wasn’t the first time this happened to her family, she told me. She showed me pictures of her kids and her husband. Who, for whatever reason, wasn’t there.

“We did everything right,” she said. “We read that damn What to Expect book through a thousand times. Why do things like this happen?”

This wasn’t just a question in the air. She really wanted to know. And I had no answer to give her.

Sure, I could have offered her a pat theological answer; some seminary answer that sounded good on paper. I could have even quoted some scripture, “All things work together for good for those who love Jesus.” But I wondered if that wouldn’t have done more harm than good. Sometimes, even the best intentioned words feel like ashes in the mouth and poison in the ears.

I had never before felt so helpless. So I pulled out the only tool left in my toolbox: I prayed.

She wept. She asked me if the baby was baptized. I said “yes.” Then I asked her why she wanted the baby to be baptized. Why that was so important to her.

“I just wanted to know that God loves her.” She replied. Her voice barley getting out the words.

Then she asked me to leave her to her private grief. She didn’t want me to see her cry.

I think she must have felt like the dad in today’s gospel reading. Losing a child and wondering what to do about it. I think he approached Jesus, not as an act of faith, but as an act of desperation. But maybe faith and desperation are not so far apart.

Just think of the woman who’d been hemorrhaging for 12 years, fearing that she’d been killed if she ever had the audacity to talk to Jesus, simply touched the fringe of his cloak. This too was an act of desperation. 12 years is a long time to be in pain. Chances were that her husband left her. She probably begged on the streets. Folks probably crossed the street and walked on the other side when they saw her coming. Women weren’t allowed to even talk to men without their permission. Also, men weren’t supposed to touch women who had her condition. The bible, the good book said that such women were unclean and anyone who touched them would be unclean.

So she was risking a lot just touching Jesus. Her heart must have jumped into her throat when Jesus turned and looked at her. But instead of condemning her to death, which according to biblical law was his right, even his obligation, he chose a different path. “Take heart, daughter;” he said tenderly, “your faith has made you well.” He then turned, and kept going to tend to a dead girl.

When he arrived, the house was in full mourning mode. Women wailing hysterically. Men weeping.

Children were not considered people under the law. Women were considered property. Girls didn’t even rate a mention in that society. But still, that didn’t stop the grieving dad from tracking Jesus down for his help. If Jesus lived up to his cultural obligations, he would have told the man to stop bothering him. But Jesus saw something more in the child than a piece of potential property.

The grieving dad and the hemorrhaging women took some real risks in getting Jesus’ help. I’m wondering if that’s because they saw Jesus treat another outcast with love and dignity when Matthew joined his band of disciples.

When the Pharisees saw that Jesus called Matthew the tax collector into his group of followers, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick…For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”

No one was a bigger sinner than Matthew. At least that what folks back then thought. Tax collectors were thieves and traitors. They collected taxes for the hated Roman occupiers, collecting more than they were supposed to, and they pocketed the rest. Everyone knew what was going on. The Romans didn’t care because they were getting their taxes. The people couldn’t do anything about it. So the Tax Collectors lived cushy but lonely lives.

Jesus just says two words to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew leaves that life behind. They celebrate at Matthew’s house. Which turns into a huge celebration. That’s when the trouble begins.

He rubbed shoulders with them - he listened to them,
- he put his hand in the same dishes they put theirs in,
these men - and women - who were prostitutes and traitors and
adulterers and thieves,
- he sat with them and loved them and offered them the infinite love and
mercy of God.

And Matthew did follow him after that meal.

Matthew did leave behind his sin - and followed Jesus- a relationship that not only changed his life forever, but through him - - through his coming in from the outside – and then through his going out to bring others in - literally millions upon millions of people have been blessed.

When I think of our Stephen Ministers, I think of our ancestors in the faith like these three. Stephen Ministers use their experiences of grace to offer grace to their care receivers. But perhaps more importantly, they minister out of their pain and weakness, trials and triumphs because they minister where life is lived.

For me, it is a great joy that we are commissioning 5 new Stephen Ministers today. It is my prayer that God will continue to use this ministry of caring to share God’s mercy, love, and healing with a broken and hurting world.