Sunday, July 30, 2017

July 30 am bulletin

The 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Pastor Scott E. Schul

In a rapid fire string of parables, Jesus endeavors to teach us about the kingdom of heaven.  The parable that most intrigues me is this one: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  In other words, the kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure.

As a seminarian in Gettysburg, I was surrounded by historical treasures.  Each day as I walked down Seminary Ridge to class from my home at North Hall House, I was overwhelmed at the thought of the people who had walked those same steps, and the events that had unfolded there.  Robert E. Lee, John Buford, and John Reynolds were just a few of the Civil War notables who had once traveled the Ridge.  Giants of American Lutheran history like Samuel Simon Schmucker, Charles Porterfield Krauth, and Abdel Ross Wentz made their homes there too.

But of all the wonderful things I saw, felt, and experienced on Seminary Ridge, one wish remained unfulfilled during my time there.  I never found buried treasure.  My wish was modest.  I wasn’t seeking anything monumental, like General Lee’s binoculars.  I just wanted to find one single bullet there on the battlefield.  Buying a bullet from a store just wouldn’t have been the same.  I wanted to find it myself.  That’s harder than you’d think.  Generations of treasure hunters have picked the battlefield clean, and federal law protects the battlefield’s integrity by prohibiting folks from digging it up or sweeping it with metal detectors.

Still, I wished that I could find just one bullet.  I wasn’t willing to risk committing a federal crime to get it, so I dreamed up another idea.  All it required was convincing the Seminary to sell North Hall House to me and draining my savings to buy that rundown, old building.  That way it’d be perfectly legal for me, as the owner, to dig the grounds to my heart’s content until I uncovered the old bullet I longed to possess.  Fortunately, I did come to my senses.  It would’ve been foolish to sacrifice everything to buy an old dilapidated house just so I could dig up the yard to find battlefield bullets.  No buried treasure is worth that kind of sacrifice, right?

And yet Jesus offers us a parable, advocating that very course of action: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  Is there something – anything – that is so special that you’d sell everything you own and sacrifice everything you possess just to have or experience that one thing?  Is there really anything that important and that precious that you’d surrender everything to have it?

For example, would you give up everything just to have one more day with a dear loved one who has died?  Would you sacrifice all of your money and all of your possessions in exchange for a cure for a terrible disease or the end of a war?  Would you sign over everything you have just to ensure that your kids get a good education and good jobs?

We could sit here all day and come up with worthy causes that might justify that kind of sacrifice and that kind of commitment.  But let’s be honest.  Actually doing this would be really hard.  Imagine giving up everything you possess for just one thing.  No matter how great or meritorious that one thing might be, it would be so hard to part with everything else we have.  Buried treasure seems so alluring, so inviting, so necessary and so important… But when we look at the true price of obtaining it, we hesitate, we hold back, and then we walk away, unable and unwilling to make the sacrifice… because it costs too much.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Do me a favor.  Take a look at your hands.  Think for a moment about all the things that pass through those hands.  Those are the things we really hang onto.  Those hands hold calendars filled with work deadlines, social events, family obligations, and a nearly endless parade of things that consume our time.  Those hands hold smartphones that demand our attention.  Those hands pilot the TV remote that captivates our eyes and imaginations.  Those hands hold money and credit cards that give us access to all manner of stuff that we have to have.  Those hands hold on tightly to the things we really treasure.  What, if anything, are we willing to let go of so that we can hold on instead to the treasure that is Jesus?

Our society is full of so many enticing things that compete with Jesus for our attention.  Are we willing to sacrifice a little sleep, a social event, a weekend away, or a sporting event so we can experience the treasure of encountering Jesus Christ here on Sunday mornings?  Are we willing to sacrifice a little time so that we can actively serve our neighbors and participate more fully in the life of the church?  Are we willing to sacrifice a little money so we can support the ministries of this congregation?  What’s God calling us to let go of so that we can cling to Jesus and the kingdom of heaven?  Or is that not really our treasure?  Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

We’ve been spending most of our time today thinking about what we might sacrifice and surrender in order to experience the kingdom of heaven in joyful fullness.  But as I hope you’ve heard me say before: in matters of faith, it’s not about us – it’s always about Jesus.  So let’s consider this parable from a fresh angle, by focusing on Jesus.  You see, we’ve been assuming that the person who found the treasure is us.  But what if that person is Jesus?  And what if we are his buried treasure?  Oh, I know we aren’t literally buried underground, but as Pastor Lynn said last Sunday, we are all a little “weedy.”  We are spiritually dead because of sin.  We have buried ourselves with our selfishness, our self-centeredness, our faithlessness, and our greed.  We are as good as dead if getting to heaven depends upon our righteousness.  And besides, there will come a day when each of us will take a final breath, and shortly thereafter, we will be committed to our final resting place: earth-to-earth, ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust.  As our remains enter the columbarium or the backhoe pours the dirt upon our casket, is that the end of our story?

The answer from Jesus Christ is a resounding “NO!”  Whether we are metaphorically buried in sin or literally buried in dirt we remain his beloved treasure, and that will never change!  This world may discount, devalue, and diminish us, BUT despite our brokenness, our stubbornness, and our faithlessness Jesus never will.  We are treasure in a field, but treasure that has become captive to sin, treasure the evil one desires to seize.

What would it take to rescue, redeem, and liberate us?  Everything.  Jesus looked at the cross and knew full well the price.  But he never hesitated, he never held back, and he didn’t walk away.  He was willing to sacrifice everything he had: his possessions, his dignity, his comfort, his status, his blood, and even his life because no cost was too dear when it came to us.  With his final breath, his purchase was complete.  The treasure was his.  And in his emergence from the tomb he joyfully claimed us, unearthed us, and continues to mercifully lift us back up whenever we fall to the ground.  Why?  It’s not complicated.  Jesus loves us.  We are his treasure.  And he is our Savior.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 23 bulletin

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

The first paying job I ever had was working for my grandfather. I was nine years old in the early summer of 1963 – and my grandfather hired me for 25 cents per hour – to pull weeds and hoe his garden. At that time, Pap was retired from the Pennsylvania Railroad. Pap always had a big garden – when he retired it got bigger. But in late May that year, Pap fell off a ladder and broke his arm. That‟s why he hired me to hoe and weed. The garden was already planted when he broke his arm, but the seed vegetables weren‟t up yet. But I was anxious to get working – I wanted that 25 cents. So I would go down to the garden and look for things to pull. One day, I saw some green breaking through the soil – Good! I started to pull. Pap was there – he was always there when I was – smart man – and he said – “Wait Steve, don„t pull those. Wait awhile – give them a chance to grow, let‟s see what happens.” In today‟s parable, the farmer said, “No, don‟t pull the weeds, you may accidentally pull some of the wheat. The farmer didn‟t want to damage the future harvest just because weeds were growing there too. So the farmer asked for patience, and a “Let‟s allow everything to grow, and see what happens,” attitude.

Jesus’s parables are artful pictures. In this parable, like most of his parables, Jesus was drawing a “word picture of God‟s grace and mercy for us. God doesn‟t go out and chop weeds with a machete, God waits and sees what happens. In the same way, God has patience and mercy with us, allowing us free will to do and choose and hopefully make a good response to his love and mercy.

Botanically speaking, if I plant a sunflower seed, I‟ll get a sunflower plant. A tomato seed – a tomato plant will emerge. But what is not possible in the world of seeds, often occurs in the world of human beings. Though a bad seed cannot change, an evil-behaviored person might. Though a daisy seed will always produce a daisy plant, a woman named Daisy, who is behaving badly might change behaviors. A seed is a seed. Seeds do not change. But people are God‟s children and with the power of God‟s Holy Spirit around and with other good behaviors as examples and being treated with love and justice, people can change. Though a good gardener, like my Pap, can judge between carrots and weeds – even early, as they break ground, it is not fair to judge how a person will end up as you look at them during their life stages. Throughout the Bible, the people God used to accomplish God‟s mission – sometimes looked pretty weedy, until they grew a little bit and blossomed into flowers in God‟s garden. Look at Moses. He killed a man. Consider a man named Saul. He rounded up Christians to have them killed. But one day Saul encountered a blinding, life changing light and soon Paul was the most fervent missionary Christianity ever saw. Thankfully God did not pull Moses and Paul early in their growth development because they didn‟t look promising. God didn‟t pull them because God can take weedy behavior and transform it, change it into beautiful flower behavior. In our world, we are called to resist evil. But doing that is not always clear cut. People don‟t wear signs identifying themselves as weedy or evil. And that person who looks weedy to you, may end up producing some beautiful fruit if given love, patience and justice.

For as I see it, from my almost 64 years of living, all of us are pretty weedy – right? All of us do and say things that aren‟t good. But how does God deal with us? God is patient with us, feeding us with Word and Sacrament, drawing us in through prayer, helping us as we relate to and love each other, and patiently waiting for us to come home – much like the prodigal son‟s father waited for him. The power of God‟s love and forgiveness and grace can change people. The love of God can change all of us from weedy behavior to flower and fruit behavior. Because all of us are sinners, all of us fall far short of what God expects, all of us are weedy – so that means all of us could be pulled and thrown into the fire; but thanks be to God for Jesus and forgiveness and love and grace. I thank God, that early on, he didn‟t pull me – how about you? I‟m glad God didn‟t pull you too.

Back to my Pap‟s garden and the greedy grandson who coveted that 25 cents per hour. Remember the “weeds” I started to pull? They grew into healthy-looking green rows of plants. One day in August, Pap said: “Hey Steve, now you can pull that row of weeds you wanted to pull a few months ago. OK! Things to do – 25 cents to be made, so I grabbed and pulled. Do you know what came out? Nice, orange, healthy carrots. I‟m glad my Pap told me to wait.

I‟m real glad God loves us and waits for us, even when we never develop into all God wants us to be – Even then, God still loves us and gives us grace and mercy, and God still can and does use us, weeds and all – for good purposes.
The Gospel today is a word about God‟s love and patience; and it does have a strong element of judgment in it. And, I can get into that. Sometimes I think in my mind – God, throw that weedy person into the fire. I want to hear their teeth gnashing. But this lesson clearly tells us – we have no authority to do that. God is the judge – not me – not you. It is not my job to judge someone else into damnation. And what does that even mean? I think it means – that when I try to do that – then in my mind I have judged that person as worthless. It‟s not that I don‟t like them, that‟s too tame. I have judged them to be useless – with no value. And that truly kills them in my mind. That is the judgment I have no right to make! Neither do you.

What does the last line of the Gospel lesson say? It says: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of God.” OK. What „s that mean? Well, who is righteous? Am I righteous? No! I‟m pretty weedy, Are you righteous? Sorry – No, you‟re pretty weedy too! So, who is righteous? No one!

That‟s the point. We are all weedy. We are all made righteous through the cross. That‟s how we become righteous. This righteousness is free to us. It wasn‟t free to Jesus but it is to us. It‟s a gift. It‟s grace. So we, who are weedy, have been given grace and love and forgiveness – and we are made righteous. So, what now? All we can do as weedy, righteous people – is respond. Respond to God‟s love. Respond to God‟s patience and mercy with us. Respond to God not pulling us. And we do that best by trying to produce a pretty flower or an edible fruit – and we do that best by not judging but by caring about and loving our weedy neighbors.

Happy Gardening! Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

July 16 bulletin

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Pastor Scott E. Schul

A path visited by birds that gobbled up all the seed… Rocky ground with no depth of soil… Thorns that surround and choke anything that tries to grow in their midst… and lastly, good productive soil that yields a bumper crop.  This is the setting Jesus constructs for his parable about the power of God’s Word.  It’s a classic example of Jesus as the master teacher, who uses vibrant, accessible imagery about agriculture and subsistence farming that is guaranteed to be understood by the people he taught, people living in rural Galilee who don’t have the luxury of going to Wegman’s for their food but who, instead, have to scratch out a living from the ground… Ground that might be good soil… but soil which also might be a path where all the birds eat the seed… rocky ground where nothing grows for long… or untamable ground filled with thorns.

On the Schul side of my family, I come from a long line of Kansas farmers.  I have many fond childhood memories of driving across country, visiting those classic family farms.  It’s there that I developed my love of tractors, and there that I enjoyed the unforgettable experience of being in the back of a dump truck as a combine rode alongside us, harvesting wheat and pouring that golden grain over our legs as we laughed and laughed in the bright Kansas sunshine.

That romanticized, rose-colored view of the farming life stuck with me long after Grandpa died and the farm was sold.  It resurfaced with a vengeance when I was practicing law.  As a lawyer, I spent most days frustrated by the drudgery of thick, mind-numbing books of statutory regulations, the unrelenting pressure of billable hours, the challenge of high-maintenance clients, and the perpetual atmosphere of conflict created by combative partners.  I longed for a better and simpler life.  And so I’d come home after a long day and say to my wife, “I’ve had it!  No more lawyering!  I just want to be a farmer, ride on my tractor all day, and not have to deal with this nonsense!”

Eventually though I came to my senses.  I had a nice indoor job with a desk, air conditioning, and no heavy lifting.  Even I could see that the farmer’s life was nowhere near the paradise I’d falsely formed in my imagination.  Farming is a tough life, filled with the unpredictability of weather, the unreliability of soil, the likelihood of equipment break downs, and the reality of rigged commodity markets.  In the face of so many obstacles, it’s a wonder to me that we have any family farms at all.

A path where all the birds eat the seed, rocky ground where nothing grows for long, and untamable ground filled with thorns… Jesus of course wasn’t merely describing the challenges of farm life.  He was really talking about the challenge of the Christian life.  The seed in his parable is the word of God, and I bet that as you heard the parable today, you couldn’t resist evaluating how that seed is doing in the ground of your faith.

Perhaps you became uneasy as you convicted yourself for having faith soil that’s a well-worn path where the seeds of God’s word land for only a few moments before they are carried away by disinterest or temptation.  Or maybe you grew a little despondent as you assessed your faith soil as rocky ground that willingly receives God’s word but is too shallow for that word to root and thrive, and is easily dislodged by adversity.  Or perhaps you saw yourself in Jesus’s description of the thorny soil.  That’s the faith soil where the word is quickly choked off by the distractions, cares, and amusements of the world.

Even if you heard today’s Gospel and celebrated your faith soil as good ground that yields an abundant and holy harvest, you aren’t immune from concern… because you run the risk of becoming complacent and taking undue credit for that soil and that harvest… because it is in fact God’s work in our lives that produces such a sacred abundance.

Whatever you think your soil might be at this very moment, don’t get too conceited if it’s good, or too despondent if it needs some work.  Truth is, soil is a dynamic thing.  I’m no farmer, and the closest I’ve ever come to owning a tractor was a John Deere riding lawnmower… but if you know me at all you know I baby the lavender plants in my yard.  I carefully weed them, water them, and protect them from hard rains and stifling snows.  Bad ground can be improved.  Rocks can be excavated.  Topsoil can be replenished, fertilized, and watered.  Thorns can be pulled.

Our faith soil is just as dynamic as real soil.  There are times in our lives when we are receptive to God’s word and feel intense and heartwarming closeness to Jesus.  But there are other times when we are consumed with other concerns, distracted by our work and our hobbies, and sidetracked by worries and anxieties.  As one simple example, how many times have we resolved on January 1 to carve out intentional time for prayer every day, only to reach July 16 and discover that our good intentions have fallen by the wayside?  Some days we are good soil, and some days we are bad soil.  Most days we’re a little bit of both; one minute we find ourselves fidgeting in worship and resistant to God’s word, and the next we feel inspired to treat a stranger with kindness.  We all want to have good faith soil, but some days are harder than others.

But please, don’t give up hope.  No matter how bad your soil may seem, it doesn’t have to remain that way.  People change.  Our faith soil changes.  If you don’t believe that, just grab an old high school yearbook off the shelf.  You don’t dress the same as you did back then, and you don’t have all of the same dreams now that you had then.  We continue to develop, mature, and evolve as humans in all facets of our lives.  I think that’s especially true of our faith lives.

My faith journey, just like yours, is a work in progress – one that will continue to unfold throughout the rest of my life.  But as I take stock of where I am at this moment in time, I can see how, thanks to God’s grace and mercy, even a stubborn old Swede like me has grown and matured.  There was a time when I would’ve heard today’s Gospel and, in a frantic fit of self-criticism and worry, would’ve absolutely worn myself out trying to improve my faith soil.  I would have struggled and strained to do some things with greater vigor, and cease doing other things, all in a vain effort to rescue myself by impressing God with the perfection of my faith soil.  Now, I don’t want to dissuade any of you from wanting to deepen your relationship with Jesus through more prayer, greater engagement with scripture, and acts of loving service to your neighbor.  These are essential ways for living out our faith.  But if we’re not careful, those things can become false idols and works aimed at glorifying ourselves rather than God.  Moreover, it’s just a fact that we aren’t perfect.  We are sinners.  Our faith soil regularly needs tending that exceeds our capabilities.

But in our imperfection, we can still live joyfully, knowing that Jesus loves us perfectly and unrelentingly.  He won’t stop scattering seed in our direction, because the very purpose of his life, death, and resurrection was to create the conditions for us to bloom.  As we heard in our reading from Isaiah, we have a promise that God’s word shall accomplish everything God intends; and what God intends is an eternal relationship with us.  What a blessing that Jesus is tending and preparing our soil even as I speak these words.  Seed is taking root, not because our soil is perfect, but because the sower is.  An abundant harvest is coming.  By God’s grace, we can bloom, my friends. We can bloom.  Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

July 9 bulletin

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

No matter what I do, you’re not happy. I fast and pray, but you say I am possessed with a demon. I eat and drink and you say I am a glutton. What do you want from me? What do I have to do? Jesus was having one of those days. That’s where Jesus was in the beginning of our Gospel lesson.

So in the middle of one of those days, when nothing was going right, Jesus gave us an example of what to do – Jesus prayed. What Jesus knew Jesus wanted all of us to hear and know. All of us who are having “one of those days.” This familiar and comforting invitation that came at the end of Jesus’ prayer is an invitation to you – when you are tired and weary and have no peace. So here it is again: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” For all of us who are tired and weary and fed up – Peace, Rest. Jesus invited you to discover and know the same refreshment which enabled him to bear up under the strain of “one of those days.” Take my yoke, for it is easy and my burden is light.”

 But when we are tired and weary, even the toke of Christ does not sound appealing. It will help at this point to understand more about the yoke Jesus was talking about. One of the wonderful legends that was handed down concerning the years of Jesus, before his public ministry, has to do with his years as a carpenter. The legend has it that Jesus was a master yoke-maker. It was told that people would come from miles away for a yoke – hand carved and crafted by Jesus, son of Joseph. As a yoke-maker, Jesus would spend hours measuring the team of oxen – their height, the width of their shoulders, and the space between them. In a week, the oxen team would come again. Jesus would place the newly made yoke over their shoulders – watching and checking for rough places, smoothing them out and fitting the yoke perfectly to that particular team of oxen. That’s the yoke Jesus wants us to take.

 The word easy is misleading for its root word in Greek speaks directly to the tailor-made yokes: They were “well fitting” – not easy – but “well fitting.” So, the yoke Jesus invites you to take, the yoke that can actually bring rest and peace to your weary souls, is one that is precisely and exactly made for you – exactly the one to fit your heart and mind and body – to fit your life. The yoke of Jesus. Jesus’ yoke fits you perfectly. It does not rub or chafe. And, Jesus’ yokes were always designed for two. And our yoke partner is none other than Jesus himself. For me, that gives me great comfort every day to know that Jesus is in the yoke with me – moving me forward, leaning me into the right direction, holding me up and allowing me to rest.

Our daily routines, our jobs, our relationships, our finances – all can be life-giving, and they can be life draining. The stress we feel, more than ever, regarding political issues around us and state of our country – worries us. North Korea being extremely reckless and insecure scares us, the sovereignty of our nation under attack threatens us. And on a more personal level – our family members suffering from severe illnesses, good friends dying with hope at a premium. We’ve had four funerals here in six weeks. Our “peace” is often replaced by – our crying “How long O Lord, how long?”

And being a Christian doesn’t take one bit of that away. But hearing Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me all you who are burdened and weary – and I will give you rest.” Our rest and peace can come when we take Jesus’ offer to be toked to and with him. Being yoked to Christ restores a proper balance and perspective about life and what is really important. Being yoked with Jesus also keeps us on the right track, preventing us from harmful and wasteful sideways energy. Being yoked to and with Jesus can bring a silent but strong confidence – that whatever kind of day we have – ultimately all will be well with our souls – because nothing can break the yoke that connects Jesus with us.

And, when we are yoked with Jesus – he invites us – with him to take on and shoulder the loads of others – who for whatever reason – cannot bear their own loads. When we take on another’s load, we will have the restful peace that comes from helping a sister or brother – and I know we will make our yoked partner smile. During the early days of the Civil Rights movement, an elderly black woman walked daily from her home to work – a distance her family thought was way too far. But she was working in one of the local offices of Martin Luther King, Jr. – and she believed in the cause, so she walked those miles every work day. When her family put more pressure on her to quit, she said to them: You are right – my feet are tired and they ache – but my soul has never been more rested. That’s the rest – that’s the peace – that’s the security of what it means to be yoked to and with Jesus. “Come to me. Take my yoke – and you will find rest for your souls.” That’s what it means.

Are you tired, frayed, weary, disgusted, discouraged, hopeless? We need peace. Real peace. And according to our Gospel lesson, and it’s kind of a paradox – we need to live more, learn more, walk more into that yoke that Jesus carved for us individually in our baptisms. Jesus loves you. Jesus is saying to you right now – “Come to me, all you that are weary, carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart – and you will find rest – peace for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light. For my yoke is fitted especially for you.” Amen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

July 2 bulletin

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 10:40-42

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ Amen.

Receiving Jesus – Welcoming Jesus – Hospitality. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us of a very profound privilege, and along with that a tremendous responsibility. Jesus said – we represent him to others, and the reverse is true, others represent Jesus to us. What a privilege and responsibility that is. What a challenge! What a joy and blessing! Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, “The bearers of Jesus’ word receive a blessing as they minister and as they welcome in Jesus name – As we do that, we are like him.” Thus said Bonhoeffer – “We are to meet others as if they were Christ himself.” When People are welcomed into our congregation, Jesus is welcomed with them. When anyone is excluded from a congregation because of who or what they are, we are excluding Jesus. We bring Jesus, and that means we bring forgiveness, salvation, peace and joy to others. Isn’t it a joy to know we are bringing the gift of Jesus Christ to others? And truly you can say, every bit of love and service shown to another is love and service shown to Jesus. We, who are Christian, are bearers of Christ to people in our homes, congregation, work, grocery store, soccer fields, driving, in our card clubs, on Facebook, chat rooms – wherever we find ourselves – Jesus wants us to be bearers of his love and mercy and justice. I was thinking about this, and I believe that the meaning of Jesus’ hospitality is to share Jesus’ love with everyone, but sharing that love takes on special significance when that someone is one who cannot repay you. Someone who cannot in anyway benefit you. Then the concept of receiving someone in Christ’s name takes on a very Christ-related meaning.

Jesus is the hospitality of God to us. Jesus invites all of us – from all languages, races, genders, sexual orientations, even all religions into his love and grace and forgiveness – which no one can repay. That’s the radical idea of Christian hospitality. Our Lutheran World Disaster Response that shows up everywhere there is a humanitarian crisis, our Lutheran World Hunger that feeds all people, our Lutheran World Relief that warms people everywhere with our quilts and helps school children everywhere with our school kits, the five missionaries we support, our Medical mission trips to Nicaragua, our Helping Hands trips to New Jersey, and right here – the Food Bank, Centre Volunteers in Medicine, Interfaith Human Services, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, our housing people in Out of the Cold – I think that’s what Jesus is talking about. That kind of giving – with no expectations in return – all point to Jesus – who is the hospitality of God.

Next weekend, Scott Vaughan, a large church consultant, and one who works with many ELCA congregations, is coming here. Our council has approved this. His expertise is in welcoming – church hospitality – and in church communications. Next Saturday evening, July 8, at 6 o’clock in Harkins Hall, we will have a light supper, then he will speak to us about hospitality and communications. I have invited all ushers, greeters and welcome center hosts, staff and our communications people – and any of you who want to come – to hear him and then ask questions. He has many ideas – many new to us – about how we can welcome people and extend the hospitality of Jesus to others. Then on Sunday – a week from now, he will attend all our services including 6 o’clock and watch us as we do extend Jesus’ love and hospitality. On Sunday afternoon, I would like him to meet with our council and coordinators who can come and any people invited Saturday evening who couldn’t make it. Then on Monday, Mr. Vaughan will attend our staff meeting and then meet with all our communications people.

I think we do a good job of welcoming people – we receive our share of new members, but I want us to do even better. I think we do a fine job with our bulletins, and Grace Notes and E Notes. But I want to do even better . After all, this is Jesus we represent. We do a decent job with our web site – but I know we can do better there and we will – and Mr. Vaughan will offer suggestions. Please come next weekend. It is certainly targeted for our front line welcomers – ushers – greeters, Welcome Center hosts and communications staff (people who publish stuff for us) and our council and coordinators – but all of you are welcome next Saturday at 6 in Harkins Hall. I know it’s summer with vacations, but please try to come if you can.

We need to be a congregation that lives by this principle – God offers us radical, free hospitality, so we need to offer it to others. No one should be a stranger here. All of us are sisters and brothers in Christ. When we see someone we don’t know, they are just brothers and sisters we haven’t met yet.

To be faithful apostles (people sent in Jesus’ name) we must push the boundaries of what we find comfortable and easy. It’s hard for many of us to extend hospitality to those unfamiliar to us. But please remember, it is not our love and hospitality we are giving. It is Jesus’ love and hospitality we are sharing; so because it’s his, it is not up to us to determine who deserves it. If it was only our love, then we would have the right to determine who receives it, we do that all the time and that’s okay. But you are sharing Jesus’ love with others, and Jesus is telling you (and me) to give his love away – to everyone. So Jesus is the one who makes that judgment about his love – we should not make that judgment. And Jesus already made the judgment that all of us – everyone – are in need and because of the cross – we are deemed worthy of his love. So everyone should receive it. So regarding the love of God – there are no judgments for us to make. To be faithful to Jesus – to respond to his radical hospitality to us – we need to push our boundaries and offer it to everyone.

Barbara Brame, a faithful member of Grace Lutheran church for decades died and her funeral was here on Friday. Barbara pushed me to be welcoming and hospitable. It was Barbara who convinced us to bring coffee to our new upstairs commons in 2011. It was Barbara who came in on Saturday and got everything ready so all we had to do was pub it in on Sunday morning. Barbara wanted everyone to feel welcome and at home here. (George and Kay Weigand continued that so they got everything ready in the upstairs commons on Saturday after Barbara couldn’t do it anymore.) Our upstairs commons is a welcoming place on Sunday mornings, as is Harkins Hall at 10 a.m. with our coffee hour and many thanks to the Coffee Hour hosts who make Harkins Hall a welcoming place. And I’d like to think that if someone you don’t know, even someone unkempt and unclean and smelly – if they came for a cup of coffee and sat by you – that you would welcome them and talk to them. You never know – it could be an angel or even Jesus. And even if it is only a smelly person, then you be Jesus to them, because you may be the only Jesus they ever meet.

Giving and Receiving a cup of cold water is the best gift when it represents the very presence of Jesus himself. Jesus gives you his hospitality and graciousness by forgiving your sins and promising you salvation and loving you. Jesus loves you. So, share that love with someone else. Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” And when you welcome someone, you are welcoming Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

June 25 bulletin

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 10:24-39

Pastor Scott E. Schul

As my daughter prepared to leave home for her freshman year of college, I tried my best to prepare her with advice concerning things she needed to take, things she should leave behind, and things she should do in order to maximize her college experience.  Here are some examples:

  • Take lots of warm clothes. It gets really cold in Greenville, PA.
  • Shop around for the best deals on textbooks, and rent them if you don’t plan to keep them.
  • Always read the course syllabus. It contains essential wisdom.
  • Keep up on your assignments because if you fall behind, it’s hard to dig back out.
  • If something in class isn’t making sense, contact your professor. He or she won’t mind. They’ll be grateful that you care.
  • And finally, find your passion. Don’t stick with a major that makes you miserable.  It’s ok to change your mind and your major.

Of course, no amount of advice from me could prepare her for everything she’d face in college.  Some things were beyond my ability to predict, like the time her toaster oven spontaneously burst into flames, smoked out her whole building, and earned her a visit from the local fire department.  And I knew there were many other challenging aspects about college that she wasn’t quite ready to hear at this point, such as the likelihood of quarreling roommates; the misery of 8 am classes on windy, wintery days; the reality of bad cafeteria food; and that sinking feeling of being overwhelmed as midterms and finals approach.

All of this came to mind as I studied today’s Gospel reading.  It picks up where we left off last Sunday, with Jesus commissioning his disciples and sending them out into the world to share the Good News.  Just as I tried to prepare my daughter for college, Jesus tried his best to prepare his followers for the missionary life.  His instructions fill all of Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel.  There he counseled his newly minted apostles on what to carry, what to leave behind, what to say, and what to do.  But there were other things about being a follower of Jesus in a broken world that they weren’t quite ready to hear.

For example, Jesus was regularly labeled and demonized by his opponents as a heretic, a threat to public safety, a radical revolutionary, an embarrassing failure, a criminal, an awful son, tragically misguided, a fraud, a liar, evil, and crazy.  If the Son of God was ridiculed like this, how much more likely it was that his apostles would be cursed and called names too.

Jesus also spoke bluntly with his followers about the threats, torture, and humiliating death he would suffer.  He wanted to make sure his apostles knew that if he wasn’t above all that, then neither would they be.  Jesus was similarly honest about the harsh reality of life.  He often found himself in imperfect, hypocritical, and even hostile communities, surrounded by imperfect, hypocritical, and even hostile people.  It’s not a perfect world, and he wanted to make sure his apostles knew that this very flawed reality would be their reality too.

And lastly, Jesus wanted his apostles to know that our faith life sometimes forces us to make difficult choices.  One example Jesus lifted up concerns the family.  There are times when our call as Christians to love God and love neighbor might put us in conflict with our family.  Even the family can become an idol if we place it above God.  In his faithful service to the Gospel, Jesus had to endure family conflict.  He wanted his apostles to know that they might have to endure it too.  And so, in the face of so much potential adversity, what would his apostles do?

More to the point, what would you do?  After all, these instructions were not intended only for the Peter, James, Matthew, and the rest of the apostles.  At some level we all have been called by Jesus to go out into this hurting world of ours to proclaim his love, mercy, grace and forgiveness.  And that renders us open and vulnerable, which can be very, very scary.

And so Jesus told his apostles – and all of us – something critically important.  Have no fear.  These might be the three most important words you hear this week.  Have no fear!  This blessed and life-giving counsel can be found throughout the New Testament.  When Joseph doubted Mary’s faithfulness, an angel said “Have no fear.”  When Mary was perplexed by the enormity of her call to bear the Son of God, the angel said, “Have no fear.”  When the shepherds shook in terror at seeing the army of heaven arrayed in their field at the birth of Jesus, an angel invited them to come and worship, saying, “Have no fear.”  When Simon Peter doubted his worthiness to follow Jesus’s call to become a disciple, Jesus said “Have no fear.”  When the disciples were overwhelmed and intimidated by the immense power, holiness, and glory of Jesus as he walked on water and underwent a mountaintop transfiguration, Jesus gently drew them closer, saying “Have no fear.”  And when the women at the tomb reacted to the resurrected Christ with fright, he blessed them to share the Good News of his resurrection with others by telling them to “have no fear.”

Why is fear such a big deal?  Because, as scripture says, “God is love,” and fear is the greatest single enemy to love.  Remember what Pastor Lynn said last Sunday?  Jesus calls us to do two things: love God and love our neighbor.  And so the adversary’s soundest strategy is to try to destroy love by making us afraid.  It’s a brilliant strategy: simple, inexpensive, and adaptable to all times, places, and cultures.  You’ve heard those voices; they tell you to be afraid of God because God is angry, vengeful, unforgiving, and unapproachable for the likes of you.  Be afraid, and you’ll soon discover that as your love diminishes, you begin distancing yourself from God.  Those same voices tell you to fear your neighbors, because they will reject you, exploit you, criticize you, hate you, and maybe even hurt you.  Be afraid, and you’ll soon discover that as your love grows cold, so does your relationship with your neighbors.

In response to these old tricks, Jesus offers a timeless antidote: Do not fear!  We can live with confidence, assurance, and peace because Jesus Christ is with us, and his work of uniting, saving, uplifting, blessing, and transforming cannot be stopped.  He is drawing the whole world into his loving embrace, and he invites us to be part of his grace-filled way.

And so as Jesus calls you to heightened participation in the life and ministry of this congregation, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to be more generous in how you share your time, treasure, and talents, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to deepen your prayer life, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to surrender your will to his, have no fear!  As Jesus calls you to share your faith with others, have no fear!  And as Jesus calls you to love and serve your neighbor – especially those least like you – have no fear!

In a few months, my daughter will head back to college for her junior year.  I can’t even imagine the further adventures that await her.  Hopefully none of them will include a toaster oven.  But I know that she can handle just about anything that comes her way as long as she doesn’t let fear rule her life.  Isn’t it the same for us?  Jesus has saved us from sin, death, and the devil.  He didn’t do all that just so we could be afraid.  He did it so that we could love God and love our neighbor.  God is love, and love always triumphs.  So have no fear!  Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

June 18 bulletin

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Pastor Steve Lynn

Grace to you and peace from God our Father our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ – Amen

Did you notice?  Something happened here – something important, but it goes by so quickly you may have missed it.

In one sentence, the 12 are disciples, in the next sentence, they are apostles.  What’s the difference?  Aren’t they interchangeable names for those same 12?  Well, just 3 weeks ago, we honored our high school graduates.  Before they graduated, they were called – what – students.  After graduation day they are called graduates.  High School graduates are no longer High School Students – learning the discipline of their craft or trade or getting ready for college.  They are now graduates.  While students, they were disciplined – discipled – in their studies, – disciples of their teachers.  But now they are apostles – ones sent out from high school into the world to do what they’ve been discipled to do.  The word “apostle” means, “one who is sent”

This passage from Mathew marks the moment when the disciples schooled by Jesus graduated – when Jesus said:  Sure you still have much to learn, you always will, but now you know enough.  You have been discipled to be sent – to discipilize – to share the mission and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus said they were ready.  So he sent them out with instructions:  Proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  And off they went – as disciples became apostles.  Did they do it perfectly. NO!  The gospels and the book of Acts tell of the mistakes they made – How they dropped the ball, missed the mark, executed poorly.  And yet there is a church all over the world today witnessing to Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because that rag-tag group of 12, imperfect though they were, answered the challenge and call of Jesus to be sent – to be apostles for the gospel.

Now today, June 18, 2017 – Jesus sends you and me out from this place – where we are gathered and fed.  Every Sunday, Jesus sends us out from here – each of us to our own places – You haven’t been sent to Kenya or even Ohio – you are sent into your families, your workplaces, your friends, your clubs and groups.  You are sent and wherever you go wherever you are, there are people who need to hear that Jesus loves them and forgives them- People need the love and compassion and justice of Jesus.  Those people are who we are being sent to.

Our Grace Lutheran today is about witnessing for Jesus.  So, what is the most effective witness you can give for Jesus?  I know, when I even say the word, witness, most of us Lutherans cringe.  I can’t do that Pastor.  I can’t – I don’t talk with people about Jesus.  And you are right – most of us won’t do that, and talking is not the most effective witness anyway.  So, what is the best thing we can do as apostles – people sent- for Jesus.

Last Sunday you hear that I have been ordained for 35 years – June 11, 1982.  What have I learned in the 35 years of being sent as an apostle?  Jesus and you have taught me many things.  But in 35 years, there are a few that are the most important as you live life as a Christian.  Here are the most important things I have learned.  1. Don’t take myself too seriously.  I’ve done a lot of good stuff in my ministry, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But Jesus still loves me and uses me.  The church moves on.  So what I’ve learned is – Don’t be afraid to do things – to try things – take risks with your gifts.  When you’re wrong – admit it – and then simple try something different – But be bold  – Try!  2.  There are over 600 laws and rules in the Bible.  I said this last year when I did our study on the Same Sex Marriage issue – and I believe it now more than ever.  All those rules and laws, including the 10 commandments can be boiled down to – summarized – to be fulfilled in 2 laws.  What are they?  You know.  1. Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and 2. Love you neighbor as yourself.  Those 2 fulfill and satisfy all 600 laws and rules.  I’ll say that again… Those 2 fulfill and satisfy all 600 laws and rules.  How do I know that?  Jesus said so.  I don’t know why people don’t get that.  Jesus said so in Matthew 22:40 and St. Paul said so in Roman 13:10.  Love Good Love Neighbor  That fulfills – satisfies all the laws and rules.  That is the most important thing we are to do as we are sent from here to be apostles.  That is truly the most important thing I’ve learned in my 35 years of living as an apostle.  It all comes down to that – LOVE GOD LOVE NEIGHBOR.  When you come to a decision you are to make, or a fork in the road – a decision like how will I raise my child, how can I be the best spouse or partner, how can I care for my parents, how should I treat my employees – my employer, my co-workers – ask and answer the question – How can I best love God – How can I best love neighbor?  That’s always the question when you wonder how to think or what to do.

It is also the question you ask yourself when you are faced with issues you aren’t sure about.  These issues are all over the political landscape today and these issues are real.  You’ve heard me say before:  I have no desire to be political here.  But, it is my job to help you, assist you as you make your decisions – to make them with Jesus in mind when it comes to anything:  War and peace, immigration and education and same sex marriage and caring for God’s creation and health care and caring for people with disabilities – any issue – but it is my business to try to help you make your decisions – not with politics in mind, but with Jesus in mind.  How did Jesus deal with need and poverty and injustice and people on the fringe of society?  Our decisions about any and all issues, as an apostle being sent by and for Jesus, need to be made as you think – How can I love God and how can I best love neighbor.

What specifically did Jesus send his 12 apostles to do?  It was this:  1. Proclaim the good news – Love, Forgiveness, justice, mercy – all through the cross and 2. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  That’s what he told them to do.  Cure, Raise, Cleanse, Cast – all action words.  All words of love and acceptance – all words that show care and respect.  That’s what Jesus sent them and us to do – not to preach or even worry about rules and laws – but to Cure, Raise and Cleanse.

In my 35 years, everything I’ve learned as a pastor boils down this:  Respond to the love and grace and forgiveness of Jesus by facing each issue and each person you meet by asking the question – how can I best love God and how can I best love them.  And every time, I have found – that I best love God by loving my neighbor – me – loving my neighbor – acting for my neighbor is the best way I know to make God smile.

So, the most important thing you are being sent to do is to love – to discern how best to love.  Yes, Sunday worship is very important.  I want you faithfully here and more important to do your Monday to Saturday ministry of love.  But I’m going to say this and I could not have said it 35 years ago.  The most important witness you can give to and for Jesus is not what you do here on Sunday morning, but it is how you live and treat people – Monday through Saturday!  It is the light of Christ you shine on people by how you treat them – that will be the most effective witness – apostle that you can be for Jesus.  Loving people, respecting people, doing justice so all can live – That’s what it’s about – More than any rules and laws, more than complicated theology and more than scholarship, more than academics or more than the right way to worship – its loving people – and much our energy should be spent on discerning now to do that.

Jesus loves you.  In spite of yourself – Jesus loves you.  Jesus forgives you.  Jesus guarantees your future in heaven and strength for each day now.  Jesus feeds you so you can leave here as apostles being sent to love and care and forgive and show mercy and do justice.  BE BOLD in doing that – and when you make a mistake and act out of fear or insecurity or selfishness – admit it and then start loving again.  They – out there – will know we are Christians by our worship style, NO! by our political party – NO!  They will know we are Christians by how we love and why we love.  That’s what I’ve learned.  Not always easy – but It’s as simple as that.

Amen

Sunday, June 11, 2017

June 11 bulletin

The Sunday of the Holy Trinity

Matthew 28:16-20

Vicar Ariel Williams

Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday – or as Pastor Schul and I deemed it a few weeks ago – Holy High Heresy Sunday. Because there is no way you can possibly begin to talk about the Trinity without committing some form of heresy or another. Given this fact – instead of speaking to the infinite mystery as to the nature of our Triune God, I’m going to you about Star Trek. I’m sure you’re all sitting there going – wait… – WHAT???

Here’s the thing. Two weeks ago, Patrick discovered that through his Kids Access on his Kindle, he can stream Star Trek the Next Generation episodes. Now, both of my kids – ARE OBSESSED! If we are social media friends, you’ve probably seen evidence of this through some of the pictures I’ve posted this past week. This newfound obsession led to some pretty funny conversations in my home this week: “Hey mom, have you heard of this show???” “Ummm – yes, yes I have.” “Did you ever watch this show when you were younger?” “Why yes, it was one of Situ (my mom) and Papa Lee’s (my dad’s) favorites. We watched it EVERY week.” As my children have grown in their love and appreciation for Star Trek TNG, it’s reawakened a love and appreciation that I had forgotten about. Because, deep down, at the core of my very being, I am an uber nerd.

Growing up, when the opening credits would roll, my entire family would recite the Star Trek Mission Statement: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

In our Gospel this morning, post resurrection, the eleven who have heard from the women that Jesus is risen, go to the mountain in Galilee that Jesus told them was the meeting point. The place they should gather. And when they saw Jesus there, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus is literally right in front of them, but they still have doubt. One commentary I read had this to say: “Whatever the nature of the resurrection event, it did not generate perfect faith even in those who experienced it firsthand. It is not to angels or perfect believers, but to the worshipping/wavering community of disciples to whom the world mission is entrusted.”

Jesus tells the disciples that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. “Therefore – GO and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit.

The translation of “make disciples” honestly isn’t the greatest. In this text, the world disciple is actually a verb, not a noun. So really Jesus is telling them to Go, therefore, disciplizing all nations, baptizing them in the triune God, teaching them.

So, what does disciplizing mean??? According to Dr. Rick Carlson, one of my seminary professors, disciplizing includes going / journeying to all nations and all peoples; baptizing them into the new triune reality; and teaching them – nurturing and fostering all of Jesus’ commands, particularly to love God and love one another, on a daily basis.

The active ongoing nature of disciplizing means that this command to GO doesn’t ever have an end. They were and we are to go and keep on going. Jesus tells them to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

This command wasn’t only for the eleven. This was a command for every human being who is baptized into the love, grace, and relationship of our Triune God. Every single one of us is called to boldly go. So what does that mean? Does that mean that every single person here is supposed to uproot their families and go to seminary or to become missionaries? No. Some of us are called to that life, but not everyone.

Sometimes disciplizing can be on a much smaller scale. It can be in caring for our neighbors. Or educating our children in their Christian faith. In keeping our baptismal promises to one another. Advocating for those who are oppressed or marginalized. Being good stewards of God’s creation. Inviting someone we know in our lives who is searching for that connection or relationship with God, to come and see.

Did you know that on average a Lutheran will invite a friend, acquaintance, or family member to church once every 33 years. And on average it takes 3 invitations before someone will actually accept. So that means that the average Lutheran MIGHT bring a friend to church once every 99 years. Assuming we actually live that long. Not the most effective form of disciplizing. What’s holding us back? Why are we afraid to go and disciplize?

Friends, I don’t have the answer to that… all I know is that we are commissioned to do this. We can do this. We must do this. Go, baptize, teach. We all have different gifts and talents and so when we do this, we do it as both individuals and as community. Which makes it, maybe, just a little less scary.

What also makes it a little less scary is that Jesus didn’t just throw out this mission to boldly go where no one has gone before and then, peace out. Jesus left them with a promise. “I Am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I AM – Jesus says God’s name. I AM. Our Triune God is with us – always – to the end of the age.

This promise to always be with God’s people is no mistake. Jesus knows that this is not an easy mission, it’s not a safe mission, in fact, it’s an incredibly dangerous and frightening mission, so he concludes with the promise of God’s eternal presence.

I’m not sure we always actually sense God’s presence in our lives, which makes boldly going that much more difficult. The Rev. David Lose said: “I am not at all sure that most people sense that God is with them. Oh, maybe in times of tragedy or loss, when even the most infrequently religious of us call on God for some extra help. (Though now that I think of it, calling on God and experiencing God with us are not the same.) But what about all the other times. Good times, not so good times, joyous times, sad times, expectant times, anxious times. Do we sense God’s presence? I know of one friend anxiously awaiting the outcome of a surgery on a grandchild. And another who has recently lost her job. And one more who is celebrating a much better semester than he’d imagined possible. And yet one more who is navigating significant changes in her roles both at home and work. Do they sense God’s presence? Some, I expect, do, but others perhaps do not.”

That is what is so important about gathering and experiencing God in community. When one of us struggles to sense God’s presence there are others here to sense God for them. Even amongst the eleven, some worshipped and some wavered, doubted what they were seeing.  We need each other. We need to gather in order to disciplize. We need to share in water, word, and a meal. Knowing that Jesus is fully present with us in these times and places. Renewing, reinvigorating, and replenishing ourselves.

We have the joy and privilege of sharing God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness to everyone we know and to those whom we don’t know. Christ has commissioned and empowered us to continue his mission: to explore, to seek out, to boldly go… and has promised to never leave us on this journey.  God is with us. Jesus is with us. Spirit is with us. Right here, right now. Always. We have been promised this!

Thanks be to I AM – the Trinity – God. Amen.

 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

June 4 9 1030 am bulletin

Day of Pentecost

John 20:19-23

Rev. Scott E. Schul

It is Pentecost Sunday, the day the Holy Spirit was unleashed in fullness upon our world and poured out upon Jesus’s followers.  That’s why we commonly refer to today as the “birthday of the Church.”  But Pentecost is more than just an anniversary date, because Pentecost’s importance is not just about the past.  Pentecost vibrantly points us to the Spirit’s presence and inspiration today, especially as young men and women of Grace affirm their baptism today through the Rite of Confirmation.

The gift of Pentecost Sunday is about the future too.  Pentecost lights our pathway forward, as individuals and as a congregation, because Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit will continue to be present with us, charting our journey, challenging us to see and serve our neighbor as Christ does, and comforting and assuring us that in Jesus Christ, we are freed from the burden of saving ourselves.  Pentecost is one of the most hope-filled days on the entire Christian calendar.

Not surprisingly, because we are Lutherans, Pentecost usually has a food-related component with it too.  Here at Grace we had a celebratory cake at 9 am for our youth who affirm their baptism today. At the congregation I served before coming here to Grace, our tradition was to hold a luncheon and reception after church.  I discovered that a pastor can learn a lot about a congregation from the way a congregation eats.  Here’s why… As you can imagine, it can be difficult for a pastor to get to a meal right after worship, because inevitably someone wants to talk, ask a question, or make an introduction. It’s all wonderful stuff!  But it can mean that the pastor doesn’t get to the post-worship lunch in a very timely way.

The first time this happened to me at my prior church, I wasn’t too concerned; I figured they’d get started and I could “retroactively bless” the meal with a prayer whenever I arrived, sort of like we do at Super Wednesday.  But when I got downstairs, I saw tables filled with hungry, starving people, all impatiently staring at me.  They would not eat before the pastor prayed.  In fact, if a runaway car had plowed through my office wall and ended my life before I got downstairs to pray, I think they’d still be sitting there, with ice cold food, waiting for someone in a collar to pray.  That was their culture: nothing proceeded without the pastor’s presence.

In today’s Gospel, we see a similar dynamic unfolding between Jesus and his disciples.  On the evening of Easter Sunday, just days after Jesus’s crucifixion, with the shock, pain, confusion, and disruption of it all still hanging over Jerusalem, the now-resurrected Christ showed up where the disciples were staying, and found them hiding, huddled in fear behind a locked door.  This was a pivotal moment in the movement’s history.  Everything was at risk of falling to pieces now that Jesus had been killed.  Everything he stood for and taught was on the verge of disintegrating, because now he was gone, and the remaining leaders of the movement were paralyzed in place, unable to press forward without him present.

And so Jesus stepped from the cross to this crossroads in the life and future of the Church so that he could give the disciples something that would empower, encourage, and equip them to carry on the work he had begun in his mortal ministry and which he brought to fruition in his death and resurrection.  First, Jesus showed them his wounds to assure the disciples that it really was him.  Then he blessed them, saying, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Finally, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

It’s a memorable and compelling scene.  But what’s it mean, and why does it matter?  We can’t understand why Pentecost is worth celebrating today if we don’t understand what happened that day behind those locked doors.  And so we need to answer two questions.  (1) To whom did Jesus give this gift of the Holy Spirit? (2) For what purpose was the gift given?

On the surface, the answer to the first question seems simple.  Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples gathered in that locked room.  This gift was in preparation and anticipation of the broader pouring out of the Holy Spirit that we read about in our first reading, from the Book of Acts, that took place fifty days after Passover, on the Jewish festival, Pentecost, which Christians adopted as the name of this Holy Spirit event.  But nothing in John’s Gospel indicates or suggests that Jesus’s gift of the Holy Spirit on Easter evening was intended to remain limited to those disciples, or that Jesus did this in order to set the disciples apart for a special and distinct mission that did not apply to the Church as a whole.  What happened that Easter evening, when Jesus breathed the Spirit on the disciples, was ultimately a gift for the entire Church, and an equipping for all of Christ’s followers in every day and age to undertake a specific mission.

That brings us to our second question: For what purpose did Jesus give the gift of the Holy Spirit that night?  Again, the surface answer seems simple: In verse 21 Jesus is sending the Church into the world; in verse 22 he is equipping the Church with the Holy Spirit to do something; and in verse 23 we find out what that “something” is.  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This is a hotly debated verse.  Some have interpreted it as a mandate for the Church and its members to be shock troops of morality who are devoted to pointing out and condemning the transgressions of others.  That’s not a very appealing brand of Christianity to me.  It leads to a Church that, however well-meaning, spends so much time condemning others that it becomes pridefully unable to admit its own shortcomings and desperate need for Jesus.  Moreover, in my experience, that hyper-judgmental brand of Christianity almost invariably fails to reflect the love and mercy of Jesus Christ that is the dominant and overriding message of the Gospel.  But the even bigger problem with this interpretative approach for this passage is that it misses something very unique to John’s Gospel.

You see, John uses the word “sin” in a very distinct way.  As one commentator has noted, in John’s Gospel “sin” is not a moral or behavioral transgression, but instead consists of being blind to the revelation of God in Jesus.1  For John, then, to sin means not knowing Jesus, and not being in relationship with Jesus.  This text then is a call to the entire Church, and all of us here at Grace Lutheran, to reclaim the “evangelical” part of our denomination’s name and be evangelists – bearers and bringers of the Good News – who take Jesus to every corner of our community, every corner of Centre County, and every corner of the world, so that everyone might know Jesus and experience his life-changing love.

On that first Easter evening, Jesus gave the disciples and then the whole Church the Holy Spirit, and commissioned us all for a new and beautiful mission.  It’s not to grimly serve as God’s watchdogs.  Instead, Jesus calls us to cast aside our locked doors, locked hearts, and locked voices and go out into the world to share the incredible good news that in Jesus Christ there is new life.  In Jesus Christ there is hope.  In Jesus Christ, there is security.  In Jesus Christ, there is mercy.  In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness.  And in Jesus Christ, there is love.

Jesus has called us to reveal him to the entire world, and to break down every wall and locked door that stands between him and his beloved children.  That’s the message of Pentecost.  And that’s the joyful mission Jesus has given to us all.  Amen.

Notes:

1 Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 847

Sunday, May 28, 2017

May 28 9 1030 am bulletin

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 17:1-11

Vicar Ariel Williams

Graduation season is upon us… my Facebook feed is inundated with photos of friends, classmates, acquaintances, even a few complete strangers… all smiling in caps and gowns celebrating their accomplishment of completing one level of education or another. Preschoolers, Kindergartners, 5th graders exiting Elementary School, interestingly enough – no Middle School graduations have shown up for my viewing pleasure… apparently, that’s not a big thing. And of course – High School & College graduations are all over the place.

The most prominent pictures that I have seen are those of my fellow seminarians. The last graduating class of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg as LTSG is in a merger process and I will graduate next spring from United Lutheran Seminary. All of these pictures exhibit a sense of hope for the future, but a finality for the past.

Then there are the videos of people giving the epic graduations speeches that we all just love! Celebrities, politicians, really, really smart people with impressive degrees… some better received than others… all speaking to rooms and stadiums packed with optimistic graduates who are going out into the world and living into new roles and a new identity.

I have never heard a graduation speech that didn’t say basically the same thing – your time here is finished, it’s now time for you to go do what you have prepared to do, to walk into the scary realm of newness, to embrace the world around you, to be an implement of change.

This can be a very, very scary reality to face. Moving to public school from preschool is a big step for a small child, as is the transition from elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school to college or the workforce, and from college to the world beyond. That step from high school or college into the “real world” may quite possibly be the hardest and most frightening transition. There is no fall back or security blanket anymore, just the knowledge that we have to enter the world and create a place for ourselves within it.

Given how broken and isolating and confusing our world can be, it is no wonder that this transition is scary. But we are told by modern culture and society that we must buck up, put on our big-boy or girl pants, place a smile on our face, and wade into the muck without complaint. And so we do. We create a façade, we mask our fear, and we play the game that has been laid before us.

I’ve recently been reading a book entitled Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. In the book she speaks of all of the years where she tried to hide behind what she refers to as her “representative”. Her “representative” is the woman she broadcast to the world as confident, happy, competent, and whole. The only problem was, deep inside, her true self was none of these things, and the battle between her representative and true self became oppressive.

As I’ve read this book, I have significantly identified with her on many levels. Her story is my story. Given the fact that this book is now part of Oprah’s Book Club and a New York Times bestseller, I suspect, it is MANY of our story, if not all of our story. A story of broken people in a broken world, desperately trying to convince one another that we are whole. Because this is what we are told to do. This is what is ingrained in us through all of our life transitions, milestones, events, and changes. Smile pretty, the world is watching.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives his own graduation speech, of sorts. The past few weeks we have progressed forward in John’s version of Jesus preparing to leave the world. This week, we get the final layer of this story.

Jesus and the disciples are gathered together. Sitting around a table eating a meal. John’s depiction of the last supper. At the end of the meal Jesus begins his graduation address. This address is prayer. A prayer that glorifies God.  That states: Jesus’ time here is finished, it’s now time for him to go do what he has been preparing himself and others for.  It’s time for the disciples to go off on their own – to walk into the scary realm of newness, to embrace the world around them, and to be implements of change.

Unlike in other Gospels, this final prayer or graduation address isn’t offered up as a private conversation between Jesus and God. He doesn’t slink off to a quiet space alone. He does it in front of all of the disciples.  He remains with “his people” just a little longer before everyone departs and goes their separate ways, like graduates who linger for that one last picture or conversation.

Jesus’ farewell address is a prayer, but not a prayer for himself, rather a prayer for all of those whom he is leaving behind – making sure that they know they are loved, they are important, and they are not alone.

This prayer is asking God to create a shared community of honor and relationship between Jesus, and the disciples, but not just the 12 sitting there. He asks this for all generations.  All whom God gave to him. All who are in the world. Jesus asks God to protect them, to empower them to carry on his works of justice and mercy, and to make them all one.

Jesus knows what’s coming. He knows what is coming for himself. He knows what is coming for the disciples.  He knows that unity and community will be essential for them, just as it is essential for us.

Samuel Cruz writes: “Good works of justice, mercy, and equality were in stark opposition to a world in darkness. This must have created a sense of insecurity for the disciples. In all probability, the priority for this community must have been to safeguard against the dangers of the world around them. How would one support and protect the individuals who labored for the establishment of the Kingdom? Jesus knew that his time was limited. Prayer was needed and welcomed by the disciples of that community. Jesus prayed for his beloved … I think Jesus’ prayer should be accepted for what it was – a sincere petition asking for the help that his loved ones needed at that time and would need in the future.”

Jesus knows what all of his disciples will need in the future.  He knows what is coming for future generations. He knows that several thousand years into the future communities of people will still struggle with issues of identity, fear, stigma, and isolation. Jesus knows that there will be a world full of people who present their “representatives” to the world around them giving off the image of having it all together, when they are really frightened and unsure underneath the disguise.

When Jesus offers this prayer he is certainly praying for the 12, but he is also praying for you, and for me. Much like a parent prays specifically for their children’s wholeness, happiness, and future, Jesus prays for all whom God has given him, including us.

For our lives. For our existence. For our ability to glorify God and to love our neighbors through works of justice, mercy, and equality. For us to go do what we have prepared to do, to walk into the scary realms of newness, to embrace the world around us, and to be implements of change.

None of that is easy, none of that is secure, and much like it was in Ancient Palestine, this work is contrary to our societal norms and cultures. It’s not normal to share love, grace, and mercy with all the world, with no motive or agenda.  But we are called to attempt to do so, because that is what we have received. Unconditional grace, love and mercy.

Jesus knew the struggle would be real. He knew that societies would continue to counteract his mission. He knew the difficulties that his disciples would face then and in future generations. He could have prayed for any number of things, but he chose to pray for unity and community – because HE KNEW!

And that community is what we have today. We may not all know each. We may not all like each other. We may not all agree with each other all the time, but for a few moments each week, we can cast aside our “representatives” and be our broken, frail, insecure selves. We can gather together and we can experience Jesus together.

We share in bread and wine knowing that Jesus is present with us, equipping us to once again go out and face our fears in the world around us. Empowering us for the work that Jesus began and that we continue. In staff meeting this week Pastor Schul stated that: “Small actions all over make an impact and weave a greater tapestry of hope.”

Jesus prayed for all of this during his graduation address. And because of his prayer, we are stronger. Our true selves shine a little brighter and our need for our “representatives” diminishes.

Jesus’ time on earth was finished. Now it’s our time. Together each week we prepare to walk into scary realms. To embrace the world around us. To be implements of change – both large and small. To weave that beautiful tapestry of grace and love. Amen.