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Sunday, February 26, 2012

February 26, 2012 Gospel: Mark 1:9-15 1st Reading: Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10 2nd Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Last year, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world watched the Decorah Eagle Cam—a camera system set up next to an eagle’s nest to monitor a breeding pair of eagles and broadcast it on the internet, day and night. There were so many people watching on the day the eggs hatched and on the days the adolescent eagles sat out further and further on the branches getting their nerve up to try to fly that the site crashed several times. Many of us watched the mother and father eagles as they sat on their eggs, the three eaglets as they were born and through their development over the months, and then many of us tuned in again as they prepared to leave the nest.

There would be many tests ahead for the little eagles that the cameras would never see. They would test the wind on their wings. They would be challenged to find food and catch it. They would encounter predators and people and cars and pollution. They would be challenged to find a mate and build a nest and start a family of their own.

When I went to the website to prepare this sermon, I found out the mother eagle is getting ready to lay more eggs, so we can watch another year.

I see this morning’s Gospel reading as Jesus’ experience of being ushered out of the nest. He goes from being unknown for the most part. He is in the safety of the nest. He is feeling and knowing in his core where he belongs and who he is—he even hears it in his baptism that he is God’s beloved Child and that God is pleased with him.

That happy moment of calm and contentment doesn’t last. Jesus immediately goes out into the desert to be tempted—I’d rather use the word tested, like the eagles are tested. And it isn’t that God is testing Jesus, but that life will test him. Mark doesn’t go into what exactly the tests were, like the other Gospel writers. I bet we could fill in the blanks from our own lives.

When a child is baptized, it can be easy to focus on the protection of baptism. It sometimes gets used as an insurance policy to make sure that people will go to heaven. It is a moment when that child is assured that he or she belongs to God. Wouldn’t it be nice to freeze everything in that moment? But that child is a part of our broken world. There will be many twists and turns in the child’s life—many tests—and that is why it is especially important for that person to have heard that they belong to God and be reminded of it by family and community and be equipped in the faith to handle the tests that will come. Godparents promise to place in the child’s hands the Holy Scriptures and to teach him the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. The community agrees to support the child and the family.

None of us can live that protected life. It would pretty boring anyway! All of these things are put into place on that day of baptism to build a strong support system around that little person so that when he does come to a time of temptation or testing or trouble, he has the systems in place to help him navigate. There will be times when he will be away from all those support systems and we hope that he will have received messages growing up that help him when he feels he’s all alone in the world.

That’s why today my theme is “Returning to the Self.” Eagles are a good example of this. They have a reputation of going it alone. You don’t see a flock of eagles. They don’t fly in formation. They are mainly solitary creatures.

We aren’t solitary creatures. Humans tend to gather in groups. Some of us are more social than others. No matter how social we are or aren’t, there are going to be times we need to be able to go it alone. We need time alone and away from other people to really know who we are. We need times of silence to listen to God’s voice and to sort out all the voices that rattle around in our heads to decide which ones are worth listening to and which ones are telling lies and trying to damage us.

That is why I am encouraging you to take some time for yourself for lent. We get so busy, some of us might go for days without spending time alone. Or if we are alone, we might spend that time watching TV or playing Sudoku. I invite you to let yourself just be alone. It is probably going to feel awkward at first. It is going to take some time to get used to, to quiet your mind from going over everything else you have to do. It isn’t that you can’t be doing anything at all. I find gardening and sewing to be especially good activities to do in solitude, to quiet my mind, to pray, to listen to my dreams, to listen to God, to remember who I am. I would guess fishing would be a similar experience.

And it isn’t that you don’t think any thoughts, during this time, since that is nearly impossible. You could go through a list of everything you’re thankful for. You can go over a mental list of goals and dreams. What else would you yet like to accomplish in your lifetime? How might you move forward on your goals? You can go over your regrets—what wounds still remain? What amends need to be made? Where might you be able to forgive yourself or another? What can you let go of? What do you need to say that you haven’t said? You can let your mind wander, taking note of the images and thoughts that cross your mind. You can wonder about God’s purpose for your life and what that might look like. You can look at yourself through the eyes of yourself as a child. What would your child self say to your current self?

Some of us might feel selfish taking some time for ourselves. Aren’t we supposed to spend our lives helping others?

It is crucial for us to center ourselves and to remember who we are and what our priorities are. How can we help others if we haven’t been able to help ourselves? How do we have anything to give others if we don’t take care of ourselves? . I always think, too, that when I take my day off, I am setting an example for others, that is it okay to practice good self care. Maybe your loved ones will see you taking that time and remember to do the same for themselves. Jesus took time for himself. He spent those forty days in the wilderness, essentially alone, to learn that he was God’s beloved Son, not just in that moment of baptismal blessing, but in trials and temptations, too. In that desert, nothing could hide. The sun shown down bright on all Jesus’ insecurities and failures. The sound of his empty, rumbling stomach called for him to use his power to serve himself. Day after day of no one to talk to must have made him doubt his relationships, his importance. And yet he came through it, ready for ministry, ready to heal, ready to love. He was assured that no matter what he faced, he would always be God’s precious child

Just like the eaglets, Jesus takes flight in today’s Gospel. He soars through the sky. He meets his tests with courage. Eventually he comes up against a test he cannot survive, a trap set for him because of the broken world we live in that can’t handle such a wide and gracious love, such a creature of beauty soaring so high. And Jesus breathes his last and gives up his spirit. But Jesus is pure love, which cannot die, and he rises to give love and life to all creation so that we can share it with one another, so we can live in love for all eternity know that we also are God’s precious children.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sermon for February 19, 2012

February 19, 2012 Gospel: Mark 9:2-9 1st Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6 2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

When I was growing up, since there were no VCRs, we looked forward to watching the Wizard of Oz once a year on television around Thanksgiving or Christmas time. We always watched so closely during the part when Dorothy goes from the inside of her house into the land of Oz, when the film goes from black and white to color. We’d watch with anticipation through the whole first part of that film, eager to see the colorful costumes of the munchkins, the vivid lollipops, and of course, the yellow brick road! What an exciting transition that was! I’m going to call that the Transfiguration moment of the Wizard of Oz.

And that moment “colors” the rest of film. There are the red apples and poppies, the Emerald city, the green witch, the horse of a different color, and the Ruby Slippers. I don’t know if this film could have been made without color, it is so crucial to the characters and plot. If the whole film had been in color, it would not have been so dramatic, but that moment of transition makes you realize how special it is to get to see all the colors.

When we go through transitions, it can be disorienting. Sometimes it is that our eyes are opened to what was right there in front of us. Sometimes something new comes into view and changes how we see everything after that. In those transfiguration moments, we are changed, our view is changed, and we’ll never be the same.

Maybe you’ve sat with someone who was dying and held their hand. Those are holy Transfiguration moments, and you will never be the same after that experience. The same goes of being at a birth. It changes you forever. Or maybe you’ve had a religious experience, seen an angel, or heard the voice of God. Or if you’ve overcome addiction or come through a serious illness, you know what transfiguration is. Sometimes it is a moment of seeing something beautiful in nature—a mountain shining in the sun, a fall tree on fire with the sun blazing through the leaves, a formation of clouds so dramatic and stunning—when that image sticks with you for the rest of your life and colors how you see the world around you.

Peter stood in that moment and was disoriented, as we all are in moments like that. At this transfiguration, this disorienting moment, he sought to orient himself and try to steady himself. He was trying to make sense of this holy experience. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew he wanted to capture this moment forever. That’s why he suggested building some tents for Moses, Elijah, and God and keep them all there. That’s the thing about transitions, they don’t last. They are a link between the past and present, moving us from one to other.

We could see this transition a couple of different ways. We could see Jesus as replacing Moses and Elijah. We could see this as Jesus getting the approval of those important people who came before: His story a continuation of what they had started. We could see this story as providing a vision of what is to come, giving hope for a future when God’s glory will be revealed.

Immediately after this Jesus is making a bee-line for Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and killed. This moment of seeing where he came from, and being reminded that he is God’s beloved son, would sustain him for what he was about to face: the cross, great suffering, rejection, and the grave. The disciples, too, will face a very difficult time. Maybe that vision will sustain them, too. In a way, the Transfiguration gives a glimpse of the end of the story that gives strength to get through the hardest part.

In the same way, the transfigurations we experience, those holy moments when we are reminded that we are God’s and God is with us, can give us the push we need to go do what needs to be done, the strength to move forward to face difficulties that we must encounter, and to move into the future with hope, and to be bearers of God’s Kingdom into this world. We know the end of the story, that we are God’s and God has the last loving word, so everything else no matter how hard can be seen as leading to that good outcome of new and abundant life.

I was wondering who might be the Moses and Elijah of our congregation, who we might picture as the matriarchs and patriarchs of our community and what they would say to us about our future. Maybe it would be Lovetta and John Wittrich and maybe John Morris. What if they suddenly materialized out of thin air here in the sanctuary? What would they say to us? Would we invite them to pull up a chair and stay a while and get them a cup of coffee? Do we see our forefathers and matriarchs casting a vision of what will be, urging us on to be who we need to be in this changing world and that it is okay to go to the cross, to take risks for the good news to be meaningful and heard by a new generation of potential believers?

Jesus didn’t have the choice to stay on the mountain. He had a mission to fulfill—a purpose from God to draw us all to himself, to show us love, to make us one. It is a false choice for us, too, because of course we can’t go back. Really I think we are all aware of that, only we don’t know how to move forward into unknown territory. There is no yellow brick road to show us the way. More important than which direction we go, is that we move forward. There is no harm in remembering and learning from where we’ve been just like remembering what Moses and Elijah came to do and that was to lead the people forward. There is more than one road we can take to get where we’re going. The important thing is to move forward, trusting that God is with us on the journey, looking to God for guidance, and remembering that we belong to God as beloved children, and knowing the end of the story that God’s love endures.

In The Wizard of Oz, I was always afraid of the flying monkeys. There is just something terrifying about that. But because I knew the end of the story, I was able to make it through the scary parts with that vision of Dorothy clicking her heels together and finding her way home.

Dorothy always wanted to get back home and she was finally able to do so. Maybe it seemed she went back to life just as it was before, but she was changed forever by her experiences in Oz. She had stood up to the Witch. She had asked for what she needed from the Wizard. She had made new friends and helped them. She had overcome many obstacles. She had done a lot of growing up. Now she was more prepared for adulthood and the obstacles she would face as a young woman.

When we go through transfiguration moments, we, too, are changed. We may head straight back into ordinary life and all the hubbub, but always with a renewed spirit, recommitted to our goals, aware of our status as children of God no matter what, able to see God all around us—not that God is sometimes there and sometimes not, but that God is always with us, just now we are more aware of it because we have seen a vision of his glory and been transfigured.

Have you ever had a transfiguration moment? What was it like?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

February 12, 2012 Gospel: Mark 1:40-45 Psalm 30
1st Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-14 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Dear Lester,
How are you and how is the weather there in Capurnaum? We are all well and everyone from the family says hello. You have a new nephew and he’s a little butterball. Your brother has a new job and the family farm is flourishing.
It seems like forever since we’ve seen you and it is too bad that isn’t likely to change, now that your illness has progressed so much. How are you feeling, by the way? Have you made a lot of friends there in the leper colony? I suppose you start to build your own family with those around you. Although, I’m sure you miss us a lot, and we certainly miss you, I’m sure with time you will forget us and move on to your new life.
We’ve often wondered what it was you did, or we did, that brought this disease on you? Was there something we did or didn’t do? Did you forget your prayers or complain against God? Did you touch someone who was just coming down with leprosy? Some questions we may never know the answer to. One can spend hours and days going over it in one’s mind, trying to understand. What’s the use, though? We all know it is a disease which can never be cured, so we might as well accept it.
I have heard rumors, but I am sure they are too good to be true. There are rumors of a Messiah who can heal people of even the most grave diseases—cast out demons, heal people blind from birth, and take away addictions and madness. It seems like every few years these rumors erupt and it never turns out to have any truth to it. It probably isn’t even worth looking into. I suppose you don’t have anything to lose, though, and maybe someday one of these healers will turn out to be the real thing. Anyway, I heard his name is Jesus. He isn’t that special—just a regular guy from Nazareth. He’s wandering all around the countryside, drawing crowds and supposedly doing miracles. That’s probably an exaggeration—feeding 5000 people! Who knows?
I guess it isn’t impossible since we’ve all read in the Holy Scriptures about Naaman, a Gentile, healed by the prophet Elisha. It couldn’t really be as easy as washing in the Jordan river 7 times, could it? I’m sure you’ve tried that already.
Anyway, if you happen to get a chance to meet this guy, Jesus, you should. Who knows if he’d heal you, since you probably deserve what you’ve got, but it is worth a shot. Your mom would love to see you again, as would we all. We’ll try not to dwell on it, though.
Cousin Carl

Dear Carl,
It was good to hear from you. Please keep sending these letters. I look forward to them. Many people have stopped getting mail. Their families have given up on them. They are completely abandoned and alone. Say hello to everyone from me. I miss you all so much.
I often wonder, too, what I did to make God angry. I go over it in my mind a hundred times. I am not perfect by any means, but it doesn’t make any sense. I know people who have done a lot worse things than me who are perfectly healthy. I probably shouldn’t question God’s plan. But maybe my leprosy isn’t God’s plan. Maybe it is just a random accident of nature. Or maybe God will use it for God’s glory, somehow, or use me to help others. It is hard to say.
Here in the leper colony we read that Bible story about Naaman all the time. For some, it helps us not to lose hope. Others say it is just an ancient myth, that doesn’t mean anything for us. Those are some who have been here 20 or 30 years. Whether it is true or not, there is a lot going on in that story. I always like that it is an army general who has leprosy. There are some people here who used to be important, but leprosy puts you all on the same level. I love how it is a slave girl who knows the solution to his problem. The one you think is powerful is battling a serious illness and needs the help of a girl with no power at all. The general goes to the king since there is no way he’d go the lowly prophet but the king who is the most powerful man in the land has no power of leprosy. Then he is told to go wash in the Jordan River, but he thinks that isn’t good enough for him. It just shows you to expect the unexpected and that what we think of as powerful isn’t necessarily and what we think of as weak might not be.
So, I’m trying to be ready and open for anything—to look for healing in unexpected places from unexpected people. To be ready to be healed or not healed, bodily. To be open to another definition of healing—to be part of this community where I can hopefully make a difference. To remember that God created us all good so we’re never far from God’s care. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am not willing to give up hope that something good can come out of this.
Give my love to the family,

Dear Lester,
You are stronger than I am. I certainly would have given up hope by now. Keep your spirits up and I’ll write you a longer letter when I have more time.
Your cousin,

Dear Carl,
A guy in our camp met this Messiah you mentioned in a previous letter and he’s been healed! It is truly a miracle. He came dancing back to show us how he’s better. He was out begging and someone said that was Jesus who could heal people, even leprosy. He said he approached him cautiously. He didn’t want to contaminate the poor guy. And he tried to be really polite about it in case it wasn’t meant to be. But Jesus invited him right over and was compassionate and even touched his skin. We’re all holding our breath, thinking he could be thrown in our camp any day now just for touching my friend. Anyway Jesus chose to heal him. He wasn’t supposed to tell, but how could he not? Everyone wanted to know how it happened. He’s been asked to tell the story again and again. He was supposed to go the synagogue and show the priest, but he says he’s never darkening the door of the synagogue again after the way he’s been treated. I thought for sure, if I was healed, I’d never go back to the colony, but that’s what he’s done. He’s there trying to help all of us and to give us hope by sharing the story of a man who is going to change the world, who is going to change the systems that keep people down and who wants us all to help change those systems. I’m starting to think my life might not be a total waste—that maybe I have something to offer, even if I’m not ever healed. There are lots of people who need to know there is hope, even when you are sick and rejected. We’ll all be in that place someday, so how can we live with our shortcomings and still have hope and give hope to other people. I think it can be done.
Talk to you soon,

Dear Lester,
It turns out Jesus wasn’t the Messiah after all. He was arrested last week and crucified, so that’s the end of that.
I’m sure you wondered why he healed your friend and not you if he had the power to do it. We’ve all wondered it and had our suspicions that he wasn’t all that people said he was.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I hope this isn’t too much of a blow to you. I know you hoped to meet him and be healed, too. Still you are doing a lot of good there in the colony and for leper’s rights in the community. Keep up the good work.
Your cousin,

Dear Carl,
We’ve been discussing Jesus’ death here at the colony. Because we’ve experienced strength in our weakness, we don’t see Jesus’ death as a blow at all. God can work through a situation of weakness and even death to bring life. Whether he was the Messiah or not our lives have been changed for the better and new life is coming out of a difficult situation. Even though we are suffering, we give thanks to God and persevere. I hope you won’t lose hope and faith. Just because I didn’t experience a healing of my leprosy I have a meaningful life and a lot to look forward to.
May you find meaning and purpose in your weakness, too, and experience God’s healing in the many forms it takes.
God bless you,

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sermon for February 5, 2012

February 5, 2012 Gospel: Mark 1:29-39 Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1st Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him.” I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I used to enjoy hunting with my family. We learned, even as little kids, how to move through the trees and sagebrush quietly. If we were going to have deer to eat that winter we’d have to be. We’d watch where we stepped. And while we were watching our feet, we could look for deer sign, footprints and droppings that could tell us how long ago a deer passed by that way.

Hunting involved a fair amount of walking, but it also involved a lot of waiting. We learned to sit quietly. Maybe hunting was good practice for church and church good practice for hunting.

In the Old Testament lesson, the Israelites had been taken into exile. They were complaining against God. And God answers them. “Don’t you people know anything!? I am in charge,” God says. God reminds them of everything he’s done, such as stretching the heavens and other important jobs. God reminds them that God is powerful and strong. God reminds them that they are faint, weary, and powerless. But God’s power is relational, it is for sharing. It is love. “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Those that wait quietly and watch for God will see God’s power and receive it. Power is for sharing. If you read about how the Israelites got taken into exile, you’ll see that they had been powerful, but they misused their power, so God took it away. Now that they find themselves powerless and calling on God, even in an accusing way, God will respond and share power to tip the power balance back to them.

Their waiting was a long process. Most of those who were taken died before they could come back into the land of Israel. Much like the waiting and wandering that happened in the wilderness before the Israelites came into the land of Canaan, where the generation that left Egypt was not the one that inherited the land.

Waiting is more than just wasted time. It has taken a long time for me to learn that and I am still learning it. I was the one who loved geometry because it showed the shortest line between 2 points. I do not take the scenic route, I take the fastest route. There is A and there is B and I just want to get from A to B. I married someone who doesn’t even have A or B in his awareness. Where is the car parked? Who cares? If you wander the parking lot long enough you’ll remember or stumble upon it. Nick enjoys the process. I gain a lot from being around him since I am the opposite. I try to think like him when I am stuck in traffic or in line at the grocery store. It isn’t just about getting from here to there, but I try to see what else is happening in that moment. Maybe I’m supposed to pay attention to a frazzled clerk at the store and offer a cheerful hello. Maybe I’m supposed to hold the door for someone or pick up a piece of litter. Maybe I’m being delayed so I miss a car accident later in the day. Believe me, sometimes it is a stretch to understand why I can’t get from here to there in the quickest way. Maybe I’m meant to see a rainbow or a sunset or a clump of clouds that reminds me that I’m not the center of everything, that there is a bigger plan and a powerful one that is looking out for the powerless and frazzled.

In Paul’s letter, he is also waiting and watching. He has the Gospel to proclaim, the good news to tell. He could jump right in with his stump speech, but instead he looks around him. He thinks about what would make the good news make sense to a certain group of people. He listens to their stories. He finds out what is important. He takes on characteristics that people will identify with. Then he shares the good news.

Some might call that flexibility “flip flopping.” But Paul knows himself and his bottom line. He’s got to get this most important message across. The rest is just window dressing. How you share it doesn’t matter to God, nor does what you eat or what silly rules you follow, or what culture you are part of. I can just imagine Paul trying on different accents, different clothes or disguises. But he’s not trying to trick anyone. He’s just trying to fit in with and understand another person’s thought process in order to help them connect with God.

Often the church says we want young people to come. Using Paul’s example, maybe we ought to dress the way they do, with our jeans falling down or tramp stamp showing. Maybe we ought to try to talk the way young people do. That wouldn’t be authentic. And we would be doing it for the wrong reasons, because we want our church to grow, which is selfish. Paul did it because he wanted other people to hear a word of hope and love. He was doing it for the sake of the other person. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t use more accessible language, so that people who came here wouldn’t need a translator to understand what was going on, but would immediately know God’s love plain and pure?

Simon’s mother-in-law knew what it was like to wait. She had likely been suffering from Malaria for ages. This is a disease that, once you get it, it keeps coming back when you’re tired or worn out. Malaria kills about 1800 people every day and yet it is preventable with nets around the bed. The Lutheran Church has recently rejoined the malaria initiative. We’re so good at this that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation works with us to get mosquito nets to countries where malaria is prevalent. We could go in to these places and preach all we wanted, but people would continue to die. The good news in this situation, looks like a net, so we become nets, we bring nets to protect people.

The people who were sick in the town waited. If you had been in Capurnaum that day, you would have kicked yourself if you hadn’t gone to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house and waited, even if a hangnail was all you could come up with as a reason. And Jesus healed many people, and gave them a certain level of new life. Jesus could have stayed there in Capurnaum and healed everyone. I would probably have been one of the ones complaining that he didn’t. But if he wanted to turn around the system of oppression that caused so much illness and vilified people with certain illnesses, he couldn’t stay there. He had to move on. He had bigger systems to address, leaders to confront, tables to overturn. There were people waiting for a deeper healing—for justice and hope. And if he wanted to extend new life to go beyond the grave and not be limited in time, he had to cross that boundary into death itself and shine the light of life and love there also. And if he wanted to have anything to offer people, he needed to do a kind of waiting, too. He headed out when it was still very dark to pray, to communicate with God, to wait on God instruction, to meditate on a saving word.

Even Jesus had to wait. Maybe that’s what I’ll remind myself with next time at the grocery store. Jesus surely waited with his mother at the market. He waited until he was older to learn the carpenter’s trade. He waited until his 30s to start his public ministry. Jesus even waited on the cross. He made the most of that time with prayer and by reaching out to two criminals on either side of him . Waiting is a fact of life. It isn’t if we will wait, but how we spend that waiting time that makes the difference. We can spend it complaining. We can spend it balancing time alone with God and helping others and we will find God helping us, too, through others.

What are you waiting for from God? What might God be waiting for from you?