Sunday, February 28, 2010

Citizens of Heaven

As we continue our Lenten journey, our spring journey to Easter, this second Sunday in Lent has some "interesting" text (that is pastor code for I have no clue why they were put together and I'm really glad these text only come around once every three years." The text are Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 13:31-35. This sermon focuses mainly on the Philippians text.

Before anyone starts heckling I just wanted to clarify something about my sermon last week. Last week I talked about how the word Lent means spring and spring is a season of hope and how between Ash Wednesday and Easter we will gain 2 hours of daylight a day and the average high temperature will increase by about 15 degrees. Well this last week hasn’t been that spring like. The snow, the cold rain has felt more like winter than anything else. We haven’t really seen the sun at all much less the additional half hour of daylight we are suppose to be having each day. But spring doesn’t happen at once, it is a gradual process that takes a few months. Meteorologically and astronomically speaking, spring last from March 21st through June 20th. Most basic calendars will lump March, April and May together as spring. So why not liturgically, in the view of the church, spring last for these 40 days before Easter.

Because again spring is a gradual process that brings us from the depths of winter’s cold grasps to the warm bright days of summer. And Lent brings us from the despair, the focus on our human sinful selves at Ash Wednesday to the joyous, glory-filled days of Easter. We are in this process now. And this process takes time. We are moving from focusing on ourselves to focusing on God. There will be set backs, times when we turn from focusing outward on God to focusing inward on ourselves, just like during spring there are still cold fronts that blow through. But we have been given the hope and the promise that we will see the Easter glory.

Jesus promised to continue his work in today’s gospel, regardless of what Herod was threatening, regardless of how many warnings he received. Paul reminds us that we are citizens of heaven and that is where we are expecting a Savior who will transform us. But again these things take time and there are different levels.

We became citizens of the United States at our birth or at a naturalization ceremony. But what does being a citizen mean, can there be different levels of citizenship? Does it mean just living in a particular geographical area? In October Bob and I finally became Connecticut residents and therefore citizens when we got our drivers license. Or maybe being a citizen of a town, state or country means having a sense of hometown pride? People have been cheering for the US Olympic team in sports they have never heard of – WooHoo go curling! As a nation we have been cheering for people that we have never heard of and whose names we won’t remember the next day, all because of the flag on their clothing.
Or maybe being a citizen means knowing certain facts about the history of the area and how the government works? That is what we require of anyone who is becoming a naturalized citizen. Maybe being a citizen has to do more with what is going on in our heart. People get emotional listening to the national anthem. And I believe that one of the biggest reasons there is so much partisanship currently in our government has mostly to do with how emotional everyone is about the issues our government is facing, we realize the policies the government sets directly effects us and there is a heighten level of emotion. So maybe it is the fact that people care enough to be emotional about what is going on that makes them a citizen.

So then what makes us a citizen of heaven? We were claimed as daughters and sons of God at our baptism when water was poured out upon us and we were marked with the cross of Christ forever. So is it just baptism that makes us citizens? Maybe being a citizen of heaven means taking residence, having a place to claim. So maybe it means having a church “home” even if you only come once or twice a year to maintain your residency. Or maybe being a citizen of heaven means having a sense of pride in the place. Many of you have a sense of pride in Bethlehem. You are proud of what this little church accomplishes, in this calendar year alone, the Sunday School has raise about $200 to purchase health kits and another $100 plus a few grocery bags full of food were given to Redding Social Services and the people of Bethlehem have donated over a thousand dollars to Lutheran World Relief for Haiti. And the ELCA as a whole has donated over 5.2 million dollars to Haiti. That is something to be proud about. Is this level of pride what makes us a citizen of heaven? And many Christians can easily recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, a few bible verse, and many of the members of this congregation know various facts and stories about its history. Is it this knowledge make a citizen of heaven?

And how does being a citizen of heaven make us emotional? Where are the heated debates about what is right for heaven? Where do we cheer on team heaven? Where do fight for the church? Maybe that happens when we stop just going to church and start being the church. When we stop making going to church an activity that we do on Sunday mornings and instead become the church which is who we are and not just something that we, it is then that we are truly citizens of heaven. When we stop compartmentalizing our lives into the secular and the sacred which keeps going to church in one little box and instead realize that we ARE the church and everything we do is sacred, we are citizens of heaven. When we just go to church these relationship that we develop with our fellow congregation members and with God are just surface relationships, but when we become the church we take risks as we enter gospel centered relationships and these relationships with other and with God become deep, personal, lasting relationships. When we just go to church we pretend that everything is okay and that we are perfect, but when we become the church we admit that we are human, broken, in need of healing, in need of prayers and we trust that those around us will support us in our weakest hours, just as we have support them.

Being a citizen of heaven takes time. We are constantly growing in our relationship with God, we are constantly learning new things about ourselves, about our fellow citizens, about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When we are citizens of heaven, when we ARE the church, we are constantly learning more through prayer, through scripture, through worship. And we hear and trust in God’s promise. We trust in the hope of the resurrection, we trust that Jesus will continue his work regardless of threats and warning. We trust that the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ will transform our bodies into his glory.

It is these promises that we hope for this Lent. It is these promises that we look forward to at Easter, at the resurrection. We know that these promises will not happen instantly much like winter does not instantly transform into summer. Sometime these promises will take longer to fulfill then we would hope for, like Abram waiting for a child. Sometimes the work seems to be in vain, like Jesus trying to gather the people of Jerusalem. And sometimes those promises will not be reveled here on earth but in heaven, like the promise of our citizenship in heaven. But we still live in trust and in hope of those promises.

Let us pray:

God of the covenant, be with us this Lent. Transform us. Allow us to live in trust and in hope of your promises. Guide us as we become the church. Remind us that we are citizens of heaven today and each day. In your holy name we pray, Amen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Magnificent Creation

I'm reading Entering the World of the Small Church but Anthony G. Pappas and I had to stop and post this quote because it is just so beautiful and I felt I needed to share it.

"[Quality leadership] cares about the small church. It believes that each congregation is a magnificent creation of the almighty God and that each congregation is called to a ministry that it alone can accomplish. It believes that each congregation, no matter how small, is a mission outpost in its time and place. And it believes that each congregation has its own wonder and beauty that, by believing in it can be released."

I have been trying to put how I feel about Bethlehem in words for awhile. The other week when I was at a first call event in Massachusetts I was trying to describe how strongly I felt about the need for small churches and the life that is in Bethlehem. Many people may write off Bethlehem as not worth the time and effort to keep it alive since it worships "only" 30. But this quote hits the nail on the head.

Bethlehem is a magnificent creation of the almighty God that is called to a ministry that it alone is able to accomplish. It is a community of beauty and wonder and I hope for the entire world to experience that beauty and wonder.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reclaiming Lent

For this first Sunday in Lent, we hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil (Luke 4:1-13). For many this symbolizes the start of our forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil but maybe this text has a different meaning, which is what this sermon explores.

I really can’t say that I am a fan of today’s gospel reading. I think my dislike for it does not stem from the story itself, Jesus being tempted by the devil, but my dislike for it has developed after hearing many a sermon about how Jesus was tempted by the devil and resisted so we can resist the devil and all evil too. Umm last time I check Jesus was fully human but also fully God; I think God might have an easier time resisting the devil then us humans.

Plus I can’t say that the devil has personally appeared to me and tried to convince me to do his bidding. Normally temptation comes more in the form of little daily things, consuming more than my share of natural resources, running a red light, boasting about something I do not deserve credit for, putting things of this world – sports, movies, money, work – higher than God in the list of my priorities, putting God to the test. These are the ways temptation seeps into my life, not through a vision or physical appearance of the devil.

But maybe that is what this gospel text can tell us, instead of the “Jesus resisted the devil, you can too” mantra. Jesus had just been baptized, he had just started his public ministry. But he didn’t start his ministry by curing the ill and raising the dead. He didn’t even start his ministry by teaching and preaching. He started by going out into the wilderness to be alone with God. Jesus needed time to pray, to commune with God, to discern his ministry, his calling, his path in life. And this is not the last time Jesus finds time to be alone with God in prayer. He walks on water to catch up with the disciple who he sent on ahead of him while he stayed back on the shore to pray. He prayed in the garden before he was captured by the authorities and was put on trial. Throughout the gospel we get these brief lines, these transitional statements like: “at daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place: (Luke 4:42), “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16) or “Now during those days, he went out to the mountain to pray and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). A quick glance through Luke I found at least 10 different references to Jesus being alone in prayer. Jesus did not just prayer during these forty days in the wilderness and then continued on with life never stopping to pray, to commune with God, to discern his calling, to hear God’s will. Instead he was constantly praying, constantly in communication with God.

And this time of prayer, of discernment is what the season of Lent was historically about. The word Lent actually means spring and after living in Minnesota and Wisconsin and now Connecticut for over 10 winters, I have learned to love spring. Spring is a season of hope, of seeing the ice and snow melt away, of seeing the flowers start to pop out of the ground, of enjoying longer periods of daylight and warmer temperatures. In fact this Lent, between this last Wednesday, Ash Wednesday and Easter on April 4th we will gain over 2 hours of daylight each day. And our average high temperature will increase from 39 to 53 degrees. Oh isn’t that something to hope for. But yet even with the word Lent meaning spring and us living in this hope warmer temperatures, and more daylight, Lent has come to mean something completely different.

Starting the middle ages Lent became a time of penitence, or confession without absolution, of giving up good things in life, things like fat and butter and meat in your diet but also joyous celebrations. In the medieval church there are no baptisms during Lent, no weddings, no flowers. Lent became this 40 day long Ash Wednesday or Good Friday when you focused on the fact that you are this sinful human creature doom to the depths of hell. Lent was a season of shame, of guilt, of seeing a bloody, emaciated, dejected Jesus on the cross, of pretending that there was never a resurrection, of pretending that we are people without hope. And this sad, depressing version of Lent is still found in many churches to this day.

This isn’t what the early church had in mind during the 40 days before Easter. In the early church, in the churches founded by Peter, James, John, Paul and the other apostles, in the church before it became a hierarchy of power, Lent was a time of preparation. Lent was a forty day period before Easter when the new converts who were going to be baptized on Easter morning would spend intense time in prayer and reading the scripture. They would spend time discerning their call as Christians, opening their hearts and minds to hear God’s will in their lives. It was also the time when church leaders would spend time discerning God’s will for the individual congregation. Who was God calling them to preach to? Was it time to split into two separate congregations in order to reach more people? How could they demonstrate God’s love to the community around them? This is what Lent was for. A time of prayer and discernment, a time of abated expectations, a time to prepare and wait in hope for Easter and the promised resurrection.

And that is what Lent is and should be for us today. Lent is not about giving up the joys in life. It is not about pretended that Easter never happened or never will happen. Lent is not about focusing on the pain that we caused Jesus or shaming and guilting us because we are not always able to resist the devil like Jesus was able to.

Lent is a time to prepare, to step back and be in prayer and communication with God. A time to discern God’s will for our lives and our church. A time to wait in hope of the resurrection, in hope of the Easter promise, to wait in hope for Christ’s glory, knowing that at our baptism as water was poured out upon us, we were claimed as daughters and sons of God, marked with the cross of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. This Lent we are a hopeful people, waiting with great expectations for the joy and celebration that will come in the Easter promise. Lent is a time for preparing our hearts and minds to hear God’s will for our lives. A time of prayer and discernment. So let us begin this Lent in prayer.

Let us pray: Lord of all hopefulness. Be with us this Lenten season, open our hearts and minds to hear your will for our lives, our church and our community. Turn us from shame and guilt and instead allow us to show your love to others and wait in hope and expectation, as we prepare for your resurrection. In your holy and everlasting name we pray, Amen.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why these Ashes?

Here is my Ash Wednesday sermon a few days late. The sermon was based on the Gospel lesson which was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I find this gospel text that was chosen for Ash Wednesday so odd. Each Ash Wednesday we read about how we should not be like those hypocrites who give money, pray and fast in such a way that others see them and praise them for the good things that they have done. Yet every Ash Wednesday a cross of ashes is put on our forehead and we then walk around with a black smudge on our head for the rest of the day. Are we not doing an act so that others may notice what we are doing?

In the text people are giving money, praying and fasting not to give glory to God, not so that others may see God’s good works but they do these things so that they may be praised by others for their own good works. People are much the same today both as individuals and as corporations.

I think the example that is most striking and annoys me the most is the food companies that will donate to a certain charity 5 cents for every one of their labels that you mail into them up to 10 thousand dollars. The company could just donate the money; you know more than likely they will donate the full amount. Or they could donate a certain percentage of their profits with no limit on the amount that will finally be donated. But instead they use their donation as a marketing tool as a way to get people to buy their product. Many people will buy that yogurt or candy or boxed good instead of the competitors’ because they support the charity.

Or a corporation or individual will donate a large sum of money to a charity or school with the arrangement that their logo will appear in a pamphlet or the back of a t-shirt or that their name will grace a new building or room.

On a more individual level there are still people who give, pray and even fast for personal praise. People who fast or abstain from a certain food during Lent not as a spiritual discipline but as a diet tool. People who pray long elaborate prayers or stand on the street corners asking people if they have been saved not in order to spread Christ’s gospel but to let others know how great they are to do such things. And then there is money, a touchy subject if there ever was one. There are the people who give lots of money to churches and/or charities and therefore feel that they are able to control how things are done, not willing to listen to the Holy Spirit or even the whole of the group. And there are the people who donate their trivial amount to a church each year yet they claim to give much more, or they give in order to stay on the church roles in order to warn off the satan. Not a whole lot has changed since Jesus’ time, there are still hypocrites doing godly things for personal gain.

So what about the ashes? Aren’t we kinda like those hypocrites doing a godly thing, worshiping, so that others might see and think better of us. Well my guess is that most of you will leave here and go straight home. I mean it is already about 8 o’clock and well really there are not a whole lot of places open around here much later. If anything you might stop at Ancona’s or Carluzi’s on your way home and your smudge, your cross, might open a conversation about why you have it after the check out clerks mentions that you have something on your forehead. Most of us, in fact most everyone who is participating in Ash Wednesday services today, are not going to go parading up and down busy streets with our black smudged foreheads in order to make other people either feel bad about not going to church today or are going to want praise from others about what great Christians they are for going to church when it isn’t even Sunday. Granted there are a few exceptions to that, but most of us will receive those ashes for a different reason.

So why the ashes? When the ashes are placed on our forehead we are told “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those are not the most uplifting words, the most grace-filled words, that will ever be said to us. Those are harsh words, filled with death and despair. But today on Ash Wednesday, we are beginning our Lenten journey, we are beginning to travel with Christ towards the cross, towards Jesus’ death. And at the beginning of this journey we are remembering our baptisms. When we were baptized a cross of oil was placed on our foreheads and the pastor said “_____ child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

Those ashes, that black smudge is a reminder of our baptism. For in baptism we were given the gift of eternal life, but first we died. We each have been drowned in the waters of baptism, we each have been baptized into a life with and like Christ but also have been baptized into his death as well. So today on Ash Wednesday, at the start of this Lenten journey, we are marked with a cross of ashes to remind us of our baptismal death.

But our journey does not end here. On Maundy Thursday our feet will be blessed so that we may walk in the ways of Christ, and on Good Friday our hands will be blessed so that we may do God’s work in this world. And at Easter Vigil we will be marked with a cross of water, those ashes will be washed clean as we remember the new life that is given to us in baptism. Even on this Ash Wednesday, this start to Lent, there is still the Easter promise.

Monday, February 15, 2010

SnB Shout Out

I mentioned last week that I was participating in a group blog during Lent. Well I just wanted to give a quick shout out to that blog, Many But One, because my first devotional, published today, talks about all the skillful women who I know at Stitch and Bitch. And since I know a few of those ladies read this blog, I wanted to point them over there so they can read what I wrote about them.

Ladies, this is the first time I have used you in a sermon/devotional but it probably won't be the last. I promise to always say good things about you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Living in the Past

It is Valentine's Day and Transfiguration Sunday, the day in the church year where we commemorate Jesus being transfigured on the mountain. Okay so I have never really understood what it means to be transfigured, other than what it says in our reading from Luke 9:28-43, that Jesus' clothes became dazzling white and the appearance of his face changed. Maybe I'll explore that more next year.

But Transfiguration Sunday is also the last Sunday before we begin our Lenten journey. As we travel with Jesus from the top of one mountain at the Transfiguration to the top of a hill when Jesus died on the cross. The journey is not always easy, it is not always one we want to take, but if you take that journey you grow, change and learn in ways that that you never thought possible. So here is the sermon for the start of that journey

Many of you have learned by now that I am a bit sarcastic and occasionally I have to bite my tongue in order to keep myself from getting into trouble. Well one day while I was an intern at a 100 year plus old congregation in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a gentlemen was talking about the church’s glory years. First let me describe this gentlemen, he was not actually a member of the congregation, he officially was a member at a massive Presbyterian church about 10 miles away, but he sort of grew up in the congregation I did my internship in and has been attending there off and on for his entire life. And he was one of these people who looked, dressed and talked much older than he really was. He probably was only in his mid to late 60’s but when you first talked to him you would think he had to be closer to 90. He wore tweed suits, often with the elbow patches, yellow button down shirts and a tie and he was bald, though he tried to hide it with the three or four strands that were strategically combed over his head.

So one day this gentleman was going on and on about young people in the church and how they no longer “dress” for church – wearing jeans and baggy clothes. And try as I might to counter him with discussion about God loves us as we are not as we are “suppose to be” and that the teenagers in questions were there, without complaints most Sundays, there to worship, and I would rather have them there in whatever clothes they felt comfortable than not there in suits and dresses. But no matter what I said it was not good enough, because it was not what had been done in the past. So needless to say this guy was irritating me since he was so focused on the past that he could not see the good that was being done today.

And just when I thought he couldn’t aggravate me more, he then said “oh and women used to wear veils over their heads when they were in worship, it was so dignified” To which I almost replied, almost replied but I bite my tongue quite hard to keep myself from saying “Well I’m not sure about you, but I have more than enough hair covering my head that I don’t need a veil up there as well.”

This man was living in the past, he was Peter, wanting to stay up on the mountain, wanting to bask in the glory of what was and stay there for the rest of life. Unfortunately in the church, and not just my internship congregation but the Church universal, there are many people who are like this man. People who see pews that no longer seem as filled as they once were, people who think the congregation is one week from closing – depending on how much is received in the offering plate, people who always see things as how they once were and not how they are and can be.

But there is a funny thing about focusing solely on the past: our memory gets a little fuzzy. Past worship attendances slowly grow to be greater numbers than they ever were; financial stability is made out to be much firmer than it ever was; secrets, strife and conflicts that torn the congregation apart fade away into minor disagreements. When we live in the past, we glorify it, we remember only the good things and nothing that happens today, or that happens in the future will ever measure up.

Peter wanted to stay on the mountain, he wanted to freeze the moment, commemorate the transfiguration, stay in that glory. But being faithful followers of Christ, faithful disciples, is not achieved by freezing the moment, by living in the past. Instead faithfulness is achieved by following God wherever we are led, down from the mountain, to the cross and eventually to the resurrection. Faithfulness is realized when we have the confidence that God is leading us to places that are far greater than where we have already been. That God will lead us to bigger mountains, and not just to the transfiguration, a one time moment of Christ getting a glimpse at future glory, but to the resurrection, an eternal, everlasting, heavenly glory over sin and death.

Being faithful means living in the present, seeing Christ and hearing God’s voice around us now. It means realizing that Jesus is with us even when we do not measure up to the past. It means realizing that Jesus is with us on this journey, this journey to new places, to new mountains, to new heights.

Being faithful means looking to the future, to plan, envision, dream about where God is calling us as individuals and as Bethlehem Lutheran Church to journey to. To which mountain tops God is calling us climb, and to start taking the steps on that journey.

Being faithful means learning from our past, remembering the glory that once was and living in the hope and the knowledge that not only will we see that glory in the future, but that we will see and experience even greater things that what we have already experienced.

Being faithful means realizing that all journeys are not smoothly paved, that there are struggles, that in order to bask in the glory of the resurrection, we must first journey to the cross. And being faithful means realizing that while the cross is not a place that we particularly want to visit, it is a place that is important to visit. It is on the cross that Jesus reminds us that he is with us even in doubt and sadness, even in the lowest times of our lives. It is often at the foot of the cross that we most profoundly experience God and it not until we look up from the foot of the cross, look up to a very human Jesus hanging from those wooden beams, breathing his last breath so that we will not have to suffer that we are then able to look towards the resurrection. It is not until we fully experience the power of sin, the power of death, the power of despair that we are able to truly see the glory, the majesty, and the triumph that happened in the resurrection.

On the mountain top it is easy to be faithful, in seeing Christ’s future glory, it is easy to think that everything will be wonderful from here on out, but being faithful means traveling with Christ to the cross, to the hour of darkness and to realize that there is still a tomorrow, that there is still Easter, that is still a promise and a hope in the resurrection.

Being faithful means traveling with Christ from one mountain, into the valley and up to the next. We may want to skip over the valley, to hop from one peak to the next, but we can’t. The disciples came down from the mountain that struggled to heal a boy, struggled to truly hear Christ’s warnings about his death. And we too have come to a valley in many ways. We struggle with worship attendance, with finances, with learning and following our mission. But it is in the valley when we struggle that we grow, that we learn who we are and that we learn who Christ is also. It is in the valley, where Christ starts leading us back up the mountain and towards new greater experiences.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lenten Devotions

So a pastor friend of mine, Joe, organized a group of us to do a daily Lenten devotional blog. Each day of the week a different person will write a short reflection based on one of the bible passages from the daily lectionary. I encourage you to check us out at and make reading the devotions part of your Lenten practice. This week we have been introducing ourselves, the writers, to our hopeful readers. Next week the devotions will begin.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Preaching Hope in an Anxious World

I have one last workshop to talk about from Baby Pastor School. The last workshop I went to was Preaching Hope in an Anxious World. This workshop was probably the most useful but also the most dangerous.

The presenter was Chuck (sorry I don't have his last name) who is a retired pastor from Upstate New York. Chuck apparently is quite a preacher and a little crazy in his preaching style. While giving very helpful information like a list of "Ten Holy Habits toward more effective preaching" and some breakdowns of where he sees hope in the text for this Lenten season, he also put great thoughts in my mind about how to create lasting images for people when preaching. According to Chuck, he has never preached about Zacchaeus except from atop a ladder. He has also thrown seed packets at people when preaching on the parable of the seeds, among other things.

Some of these ideas seem crazy but to me they also seem freeing. I don't preach from the pulpit. Some of the best sermons I have every heard may not have been the ones I remember, but I remember the ones that had an image that was shown either with great verbal imagery or through props. In many ways I would rather have someone remember a sermon that was mediocre then forget a really good sermon.

So will I start preaching on ladders or throwing seed packets? I don't know yet but I do feel like it is a possibility. Let's see what everyone's response is to that.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It Doesn't Always Make Sense to Trust

The test this past Sunday were: Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Luke 5:1-11. These sermon was mainly based on the text from Luke. I also did something fun and used more storytelling techniques while reading the Gospel. Didn't really get any feedback on it though since I stood at a different door in order to catch someone when they left.

Oh and on another fun note, yesterday afternoon I went to the ordination of three women: Judy Converse, Sandy Demmler-D'Amico and Peggy Yingst. It was the first ordination that I went to since my own ordination back in September. Congratulations ladies! You are and will be wonderful pastors.

But now on to the sermon:

I would love to know exactly what was going through Simon Peter’s mind when Jesus told him to go out into the deep waters in order to catch some fish. Was Simon sarcastic? “Oh sure we will go out fishing some more. It is not like us professional fishermen have not been out all night and haven’t caught anything. But of course by all means, if a carpenter says that there is fish, well then there has to be fish.” Or maybe he was eager to please the man who had jut healed his mother-in-law. “Yes master, we haven’t caught anything but you must know where the fish are for I have seen you heal many people” Maybe he thought it was worth a chance “Sure master, I mean we haven’t caught anything but as long as we are out here, what harm is it to put out the nets one more time?” Or maybe he was just plain tired and wanted to go home after a long night of unsuccessful fishing and thought if he just did as Jesus told him, then he could go home and take a nap. “Oh Lord, I’m so tired, we haven’t caught any all night, but if it makes you happy I will cast down my nets, but then can I go home and sleep?”

But regardless of his mood, regardless if he wanted to prove Jesus wrong, or just get home to sleep, there was a level of trust Simon had in Jesus. He didn’t rebuke him entirely, telling Jesus that he must be crazy, nor did he refuse to cast out his nets. Instead, whether with complete conviction or just half heartedly, Simon trusts in Jesus.

And sometimes it makes no sense to trust Jesus. Simon was a professional fisherman, Jesus was a carpenter from a land locked town. Why would Jesus know where the fish are to be found when Simon spent all night without a catch? Jesus was a man who lived two thousand years ago in a Jewish culture and we are living here today, in the year 2010, in America, with economic uncertainty, constant influences from media, in a county with one of the largest income per capita. Jesus knew nothing about modern-day living. About current pressures on our time, our finances, our families. Trusting Jesus doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you look at it from a critical perspective. In fact it makes about as much sense as Simon trusting that Jesus knew where the fish were. Maybe that is why so many people do not attend church: because it doesn’t make sense to trust in Jesus.

But Simon does trust Jesus, maybe not willingly, maybe not with all of his heart, soul and mind. He was probably thinking about other things, he was probably thinking it was a waste of time or wouldn’t lead to anything. But Simon Peter did trust Jesus. He cast out his nets.

And boy was that a fruitful cast. The nets were so full of fish that they were beginning to break. The nets were so full that he had to call to his partners James and John in the other boat to help him. The nets were so full that both boats almost sank under the weight of all the fish. Simon then trusted Jesus and left everything to follow him. Simon trusted Jesus and became Peter. Simon Peter trusted Jesus and became one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples. Simon Peter trusted Jesus and saw Moses and Elijah on the mountain top. Simon Peter trusted Jesus and became the rock on which the Jesus’ church has been built. Simon Peter trusted Jesus and he was never again the same.

This trust was not easy. Simon was still human. Multiple times in the gospels Simon questions Jesus. Simon wants to stay on the mountain and build dwelling places for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Simon Peter questioned about the direction of the early church, after Jesus was no longer there to guide him, he worried about decisions over early converts, eating unclean foods, or how to appropriate worship. Simon trusted Jesus but he also did not blindly follow. He may have left everything he owned behind to follow Jesus, but he did not leave behind the human need and desire to question, to think about, to second guess who was leading him.

And what about us? Many of us say that we trust God, even if it seems ridiculous at times. We second guess God. We run away from what God is calling us to do, whether it is a career, a relationship, a volunteer activity or a social event. We try to over-analyze what is in our best interest or what we can afford and try to go with what others are doing. We do these things instead of listing to our heart, to what God is calling us to do.

Is God calling you to give a few bucks to the Haiti relief efforts because that is what other people are doing and what you can afford, or is God calling you to organize a group of people to go down there and help people in need rebuild their homes. Is God calling you to work in your current field because it is economically secure and you don’t mind the work that much or is God calling you to a different field that might be less pay but allows you to do a greater good in the world? Is God calling you to enjoy the Sunday School program and choir or is God calling you to use your teaching skills or voice in order to be a more active participate in the life of Bethlehem? Is God calling you to tell others about how you trust in Jesus, even when it doesn’t make a lot of sense? Is God calling you to invite a friend or neighbor to church? What is God calling you to do?

Jesus called Simon to trust him, and Simon followed. Jesus is calling us to trust him. And it may not make a lot of sense. But when we trust in Jesus, when we follow where Jesus is calling us, when we ignore what is rational and instead do what God wants us to do the rewards are great. When we trust in Jesus our nets are so full that they are breaking. When we following where Christ is calling us our nets are so full that we have to call on others for help. When we do what is on our hearts and minds our nets are so full that our boats are almost sinking under the weight. When we follow Christ we will never again be the same.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bringing Stories of Justice into the Pulpit.

The second workshop I attended at Baby Pastor School was entitled "Brining Stories of Justice into the Pulpit. This was one of those workshops that talked about two different topics that could have each been their own workshop: biblical storytelling and preaching on social justice issues.

I was really struck by the biblical storytelling ideas. When the Bible is just read straight word for word, often it can come off as boring and things are missed. I think most people have heard a reading done, whether a bible reading or a class lecture, when the text is read word for word with no emotion or emphasis and all pausing is evenly paced. When this is done it is hard to absorb what is important or the emotions that were present. We don't tell stories this way.

As a child, my family would go to Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri about once a year. Sliver Dollar City is a theme park where you step back in time 100 years (now I think it is permanently set in the 1890's). The park hires blacksmiths, leather workers, candle makers and other tradespeople who specialize in creating goods in a historic fashion, but one of my favorite trades people were the storytellers. I would sit and listen to their stories multiple times throughout our long weekend visits to the park. And each year I could hear the same story over and over again and then my siblings and I would try and retell the story to each other in that same fashion. The stories were spell binding - you could never leave during the middle of one. The stories were fascinating - you wanted to hear what happened, even if you already knew the ending. These professional story tellers were telling stories in a tradition that had been practiced for thousands of years, by captivating and truly engaging the audience.

Unfortunately this craft has been deteriorating first as more people were literate and therefore able to read the words themselves instead of having to hear stories retold, and more recently due to competition from movies, television, internet and video games.

But this spellbinding story telling is what biblical story telling tries to capture. No one wants to hear words read to them in a monotone fashion. The bible was originally stories that were told orally over and over again. And the storytellers used the tone of their voice, pausing, actions and possibly props to tell these stories.

I normally do try to add some emphasis and pausing while reading the gospel lesson for the week in order to convey more meaning. But now this is something that I want to experiment with, by rehearsing different ways of telling the story and not being so worry about having to stick to the NRSV translation word for word. Who knows, maybe I'll got to Festival Gathering for the Network of Biblical Storytellers for a future continuing education experience.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Living Abundantly in Times of Sacristy

My first workshop at Baby Pastor School was entitled Living Abundantly in Times of Sacristy. The workshop presenter was Scott Schantzenbach who is the stewardship specialist for the New Jersey Synod.

This was one of those workshops that had so much information that we didn't even get to a quarter of it. Scott suggested many different stewardship practices that work in both periods of financial booms and busts. But first what is stewardship?

Stewardship is giving to God what belongs to God. But everything belongs to God. So in a more hands one approach it is more about giving to God (offering, tithe, whatever you want to call it) out of everything that we have and not out of what is left in our checking account at the end of the month after we have paid all of our other bills.

Scott offered twelve practical ideas. I'm not going to list all twelve but instead touch on a few.

* Remain Missional and Enjoy the Moment. It is very easy for the church to become business like and either dwell on the past or have future outlooks, but when we do so we miss the point that the business of the church is to make disciples and preach the gospel. If the church get hung up about the decor, or a social statement that doesn't greatly effect us or an annual event that only a few people attend, then we are not doing the mission of the church and therefor are not being good stewards.

* Conduct Financial Stewardship Programs Three Times This Year Many people aren't sure if they are going to have a job in year, but 4 months is a little more manageable. So instead of pledging a dollar amount for the entire year, pledge what you are going to give within the next four months, then do it again for the next four.

* Asset Mapping Asset Mapping is a process when you look at what you have and the needs of the congregation and community and then you map and match those assets with the needs. Not all needs have assets and not all assets are needed. But by doing so you see how each person's gifts can be used for mission. What needs do you see in the community? How do you have the gifts and skills to address those needs?

* 10-10-80 Ideally each person/family should share 10% of their income with the church and charity, save 10% and live off of the remaining 80%. Don't think you can do it? For a month save every single receipt and put them in three buckets, one for spending, one for saving and one for sharing. The twist? We have a hard time deciding between what we need in order to provide for ourselves and our family and what we want as consumers. At the end of the month dig through that spending bucket. Put things like the mortgage, car payments and basic groceries in the provide category and things like eating out, entertainment, and the daily coffee in the consume category. Then work on spending down your consuming in order to share and save more.

So how do you see stewardship? Do you regularly give to God? If so, do you give from all that you have or from the leftovers? How would you change the talk of stewardship at Bethlehem or at your own church?

I ended up skipping my second workshop because well, let's just say the food wasn't vegetarian friendly and a girl has to eat so the workshop time right after dinner was used for a better good. Tomorrow "Bringing Stories of Justice into the Pulpit."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Baby Pastor School

This past week I was at the Institute for Congregational Ministry (aka Baby Pastor School). ICM is nicked named Baby Pastor School because it is a required continuing education conference for all pastors, associates in ministries and diaconal ministers in the Northeast in their first three years of ministry post ordination/commissioning/consecration. Yeah it is kinda confusing wording hence the name Baby Pastor School. But shhhh I'm not suppose to call it that.

The conference is and interesting experience because all the hundred or so participates gathered have in common is that they are new to their jobs. There are people from thriving suburban churches who are the second or even third pastor, people in rural communities dividing their time between two or three churches, people in struggling inner-city churches and some who are unique calls developing programs with a specific community. So it is really hard to make workshops and even keynote speakers be relevant to all those gathered.

This year the theme of the conference was "Embodying Hope for an Anxious World." In the midst of economic turmoil, earthquakes, foreclosed homes, high unemployment, sky high health care cost, etc, people are anxious but we as a church are a people of hope. So how in the midst of so much anxiety do we preach, distill, and embody hope?

The keynote speaker, Terry Leib, has many years of experiences as a social worker and counselor. Terry talked quite a bit about the idea of a God image. Basically everyone has an image of God, even non-believers. God could be a loving, grace-filled being; a hateful wrathful God who will turn on you in an instant for doing something wrong; a being who is far, far away and has no relationship with us on earth; or a caring parent-like being who you have a personal relationship with. These are just a few of the many, many God images that people have.

The idea is that we cannot impose our God image onto someone else. If their God image is one of hatefulness and we come with a God image of love, since one God image is so different from the other the new one will be rejected. Instead we must first ask what someone's God image is and get to know that image and work with that image. Often if a person's God image is a negative one, that effects many other aspects of their life. If their God image is one that is never able to be pleased, then they often work to constantly please others or have given up pleasing anyone because there is no use.

So what is your God image? How do you see God? What have been your experiences when someone with an different God image has tried to force their view of God onto you?

I also attended a few workshops at Baby Pastor School that I will talk about in the coming days, so be prepared. And in case you are looking for it, I do not have a sermon from yesterday, since I was gone all week I asked Jack Saarela the pastor of Lutheran Campus Ministries at Yale to preach. This worked out well considering I ended up being extremely sick on Saturday and Sunday morning

Yes I know the Vikings lost the NFC championship. Really the Saints did not win as much as the Vikings lost (5 turnovers!) and yet the Saints didn't win until the stupid NFL sudden death overtime.