Category Archives: Life in the church

St. Matthias, Patron Saint of Ordinary People

Actually, I made it up that Matthias is patron saint of ordinary people. But he should be.

Today is the feast day for Matthias, Apostle. If you’ve never heard of him or taken note of him, there’s no shame.  You’re probably not alone. He was the one chosen to replace Judas after Jesus’ ascension. Coincidentally, yesterday in church, we read the few verses from Acts that tell the story of his election. If you want to call it that. There were only two candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus. The one qualification was that they had been a part of the larger band of those who followed Jesus from the beginning. Luke reports they both filled the bill. But there doesn’t seem to have been any search committee, any careful study of their curriculum vitae, no checking the references. There was no vote. They simply flipped a coin, or the first century equivalent. That’s it.

And then we never hear of either one of them again. We can speculate that both of them went on to serve in some capacity in the early church. Matthias now carried the authority of an apostle. But there is never any report in the canonical scriptures of where he went or what he did.

Not even the tradition agrees about Matthias. The Greeks say that Matthias did missionary work in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. Nicephorus records that he first preached the Gospel in Judea, then in what is modern day Georgia and was there stoned to death. Still another tradition has him in Ethiopia. I know enough about geography to know that both of those traditions are probably not true. Take your pick. What seems more clear is that Matthias was an ordinary guy who became an apostle, and went about doing his work faithfully. Ordinarily. Not even 15 minutes of fame. More like 5 verses of fame (Acts 1:21-26).

For a long time now, I’ve gotten to work with ordinary people in the church. Like the couple who shows up early every Sunday to make sure everything is set for the service, even if it’s not their job. More often than I’d care to admit, we have no ushers assigned, so they step in. Because someone needs to do the job. I hear frequently that she has offers to give someone else a ride to Green Bay to the doctor or shopping or whatever. That’s a 3 hour round trip. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

One of my colleagues got up yesterday and gave eloquent testimony, sharing the stories of the people who are struggling in our community. She challenged the rest of us to see them and to be the hands of Christ for them. She is kind and generous, passionate about serving others. She knows everyone in Door County, it seems. I think she is extraordinary. Yet, she is probably not known outside of northern Door County. I’d be surprised if anyone at the denominational headquarters has ever heard of her. There have been no articles written about her service. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

I’ve heard over and over at funerals the sentimental notion that our loved ones will be remembered forever. While I get it that we want our lives to count for something and for those we love not to have lived in vain, the truth is that very few of us will be remembered beyond a few decades after our deaths, if that long.

Yet, the work of the church, the work of the kingdom, could not be done without the countless ordinary followers of Jesus, thousands of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I think about you today as we celebrate Matthias. I give thanks for what I’ve learned from you and for the profound gift that our lives have been graciously intertwined.

You ordinary followers of Jesus, I honor you and celebrate you. Lift a glass to yourself. We could not be church without you.

An Odd Day, an Odd Faith — a Sermon for Ash Wednesday When It Falls on Valentine’s Day

This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.

What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence.  One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.”  Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.

While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.

Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.

For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.

Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.

See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.

This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

With Gratitude for Those with Burning Hearts

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
1601
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839
NG172
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG172

I walked into the gallery and immediately was struck by the size. Seeing a painting in a brochure doesn’t prepare you for a confrontation with a near life-sized painting. The Michelangelo Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus”  was on loan from The National Gallery in London to The Art Institute of Chicago.

There’s the calm, peaceful countenance of Jesus at the center, his eyes serenely closed, his right hand extended in blessing. And I love the different reactions of the three sitting at table with Jesus. For the guy standing behind him, everything is reduced to a profound sense of wonder. The guy seated across from Jesus leans forward trying to believe the unbelievable, ready to reach across the table to verify with his hand what his eyes are telling him. The guy seated at the side of the table is retelling the story with his wild, broad gesticulating as if in the retelling it will make more sense.

The one detail that consistently grabs me is the dish teetering on the edge of the table. At the Art Institute, the crowd studied the painting from a carefully demarcated viewing area, stanchions separating the humans from the painting. I had this urge to reach across the divide and push that dish away from the edge.

For me that dish is the locus of tension. Is the dish going to hold or fall of the edge? One little bump on the table — which I can assure you I would have done inadvertently had I been there — and it goes crashing to the floor. Maybe it’s a visible sign of the tension still in the hearts and minds of those disciples. Was the Jesus sitting across the table real? Was the story he told them really true? Those questions and that tension are palpable in their postures and gestures. I can only imagine how acute the tension must have been when shortly after the moment captured in the painting  Jesus vanished from their sight.

I know that tension. I experience moments of extraordinary clarity, when God’s presence and God’s goodness are so real I can reach out and touch God’s wounded hands. And I experience moments when I wonder whether any of it is true,  when I feel acutely God’s  absence.  In those moments, I wonder if it will all hold together. Or will it go crashing to the floor? Is the resurrection life that Jesus promises more than just wishful thinking? 

Luke tells us that after Jesus disappeared, their hearts were burning within them, as if he became more real in his absence than in his presence.

I have my own version of Cleopas and his companions. They accompany me on the road with the risen Christ, who, by the way, is there whether we recognize him or not. Sometimes the road is only 7 miles; sometimes it feels like a lot longer. I’m grateful not to have to walk the road alone. Companions hold me up with their excitement at seeing the risen Christ, telling me how their hearts burn within them, even when whatever it is that I possess feels more like a flicker than a flame.

I met this week with a couple of nonagenarians whose faith had the quality of a fine, aged wine. They have endured the trials and can see God’s goodness and presence with the sharp-eyed vision of an eagle. They are the very incarnation of what last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Peter 1:3-9) described as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” faith that has been refined by trial and has come out the other side as pure and precious as gold. I also had coffee the other day with a guy who told me of his deep prayer life and how God was answering his prayers and about the opportunities for ministry that came out of those prayers. The burning quality of his faith was contagious.

I don’t very often experience my faith with that kind of sharp clarity. My experience is more like Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass dimly. More like a dish teetering on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Why is that, I sometimes wonder. A function of temperament? Personal defect? Not trying hard enough? I never come up with an answer.

Which makes me all the more grateful for those with burning hearts. My fellow pilgrims and their witness are often the proof of the presence of the risen Christ. I’m grateful that my faith is not just a me and Jesus thing. My fellow travelers have seen the risen Christ, and that is enough encouragement to keep walking.

Wednesday in Holy Week

With the gospel lesson for Wednesday in Holy Week, we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. The reading brings us the intrigue that takes place after what we will read tomorrow on Maundy Thursday, the account of the foot washing Jesus performed for his disciples and his teaching about their performing the same kind of loving service for one another.

Strikingly, the story begins by reporting that Jesus was “troubled in spirit”. That’s nothing new. He said the same thing in the story we read yesterday when he felt the burden of his coming hour of death. The reason for his present agony is the imminent betrayal by Judas. Announcing the approaching betrayal, Jesus wore his emotional pain on his proverbial sleeve while catching his disciples off guard.

When Judas left the room and went out, “it was night!” I suppose it’s possible that the gospel writer was indicating the time of day; but I think there’s something else going on here. Remember way back at the beginning of this gospel, when the author announced that light appeared when Jesus appeared? He even reported Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” In yesterday’s reading, after identifying himself as the light once again, Jesus promised his disciples they would become “children of light.” Now with the arrival of the Evil One in one of Jesus’ own disciples, “it was night.” Jesus, the light, was about to enter the darkest corners of human existence. Jesus would allow the prince of this world, the ruler of darkness, to have his moment, brief though it would be.

In fact, while the disciples were baffled that Judas would go shopping at this time of night, Jesus announced the moment for the Son of Man to be glorified and with him for God to be glorified as well. The hour has come for his death, his resurrection, and his ascension—all to the glory of God.

Our attention today is drawn to the plan and purpose of God in sending the eternal Word to become incarnate and live among us. The evangelist interprets the crucifixion of Jesus as God’s deliberate and purposeful act, not a divine resignation to the failure of humans to accept his Son. Jesus’ own motive was not a suicidal desire but a faithful commitment to ensuring that God be glorified.

Indeed, “it was a dark and stormy night.” There’s something deeply theological going on here. Jesus was entering the darkness of human evil, fallenness, and brokenness. We know what the night means — it is the evil, fallenness, and brokenness we experience in our own lives. When Jesus enters our darkness, we can be assured that we are never alone; in fact, it may be in those moments of our deepest darkness that we are closest to the crucified Christ.  In the darkness of the impending doom, Jesus is being glorified and God is being glorified in him. Night will have its moment, but God will have the day.

Tuesday in Holy Week

When I was a young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches, I got to know an older ELCA pastor who was at the historic church downtown. His name was Priit Rebane; I had the greatest respect for Priit; he was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and seemed to be full of pastoral wisdom. At one of our meetings, he told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination. He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. A young theological hot shot, he was headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His mother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.” 

In the gospel lesson for Tuesday of Holy Week, some curious Greeks come looking for Jesus. Jesus is transparent about who he is and what is coming. The questions and answers of the dialogue don’t provide much new information. We’ve seen all this elsewhere; we know the story. This encounter is less about having the right answers from Jesus than about seeing Jesus as he makes his way gently, persistently toward the cross. All the dialogue  invites us to see Jesus.

In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. We want to see Jesus.

 But what what are we looking for? It’s not enough to say that he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, an example to follow or even the victim of politics and oppression.

We are invited in today’s gospel to see the glorification of Jesus, the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. We are invited to see Jesus lifted up as king of the universe.

Most importantly, we are invited to see the enthronement of Jesus on the cross. We are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity.

We are invited this week to see Jesus in the humble foot-washing and eucharistic meal of Maundy Thursday, in the trial, death, and burial of Good Friday, and finally, in the triumphant resurrection of Holy Saturday.

Carry those images in your mind and in your heart. They are icons of God’s love.

In Praise of Praise

flyfareellAs the time draws near to take leave of my current call, the days are full and my mind is even more full. In the congregation, there is a never-ending list of details in order to tie up loose ends with the staff, congregational leadership, program, worship, and so many other things. We have our house on the market and when a request comes in to show the house, we have to drop what we’re doing and go home for last minute tidying and vacating our dogs. We are also in the early stages of purchasing a home in Door County, and all the thousands of things on the checklist of a home purchase. You get the picture. A lot going on.

Yet this is also a critical time for me and for the people of Faith to do a good job of saying goodbye. 

Last week, I went to my last church council meeting. We went up the the sanctuary — our version of holy ground — for a ritual of leave-taking. I sat on a chair in front of the altar and one by one, each council member stepped forward, placed a hand or two on my shoulder and recounted something they have appreciated about my ministry and then offered a blessing or good wish for my future. The time concluded with all of them laying hands on me for a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing.

The next evening our Director of Youth Ministry, organized a going away party so that our high school and middle school youth would have a chance to say goodbye in their own setting. Having been here for 15 years, I have baptized a good number of them, which means for them, I have been their pastor for their entire life. We played some silly games, ate together, laughed a lot, and some of the high school kids spoke very specifically about what my ministry has meant to them. The evening ended again with laying on of hands and prayer.

In the nearly month since I announced I was leaving my email inbox has been full of notes of gratitude and remembering. I’m getting them in the mail, too. And in the hallway. And at the door of the nave on Sunday mornings.

It probably sounds like I’m trying to tell you know what a great pastor I’ve been. But that’s not the point.

The morning after the council meeting, Deb Hornell, our congregation president, my friend, colleague, and sometimes coach and mentor, emailed me with this message: “I hope you are able to absorb all the love, gratitude and good wishes coming your way. It struck me last night after Council laid hands on you how emotionally intense this process must be, and also how wonderful for you to experience what you mean to everyone. Few people get the chance to hear how they’ve made a difference for others.”

It’s that last sentence that really grabbed me. I think Deb is right. What I am experiencing is pretty unique. Not many people get the chance to hear how specifically they have made a difference in the lives of other people. For a lot of folks, the nice things that others say about them don’t get said until their funeral. How sad that they never get to hear them in life. All of this has been so wonderful and so wonderfully affirming. I have tried to record much of it in my journaling just so I don’t forget the impact of the experience. Quite simply, it is beautiful and priceless for people to tell you that you have made a difference in their life.

What could happen if we all took a little time in the ordinariness of the day to day to affirm the people who have touched our lives and made our journey more beautiful and vivid and meaningful?

It’s akin to a spiritual practice, and it makes a difference. I have encouraged my staff to join me in sitting down on Monday morning after a busy Sunday and write a few notes to the people who have touched them in the past week or who have gone beyond what they were required or who they witnessed doing something nice for someone else. The last thing on the agenda of our staff meetings has been “Blessings.” We have made space to tell each other when someone has done something well or gone beyond what was required. A culture of gratitude and affirmation is a pretty nice place to live.

So, if you’re still with me, will you do this? Sit down and write an email or, even better, a hand-written note to someone who has touched your life for the good. Tell them specifically what they have done and what it has meant to you. And would you agree to make that a regular practice in your life? As one on the receiving end, I can tell you that it means more than you will ever know.