Reflection for May 28, 2017

Acts 1:6-14, I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

       These readings today are from a time when that fabric of church life was being woven for the first time. First Christians were wondering as they faced life without Jesus, who were they going to be? As they faced persecution and trial, how would they make it through?

As they wove the tapestry of their faith and their congregational life, one thread found in I Peter is fortitude in the face of adversity. We people of God do not escape hard times. Like everyone, we face struggles, pain, sorrow, and death. Jesus died on a cross. But we are uniquely equipped to face adversity; as God restores, supports, strengthens, and establishes us. (As Peter says at the close of this reading.)  Through personal prayer, our sense of confidence builds. We know the outcome. Through our conversation with others, through time spent in the Word, we recall the history of God’s work in the lives of others and ourselves. God restores, supports, strengthens, and establishes.

As the tapestry of church life is woven, another thread that binds the church and its servants together is waiting on the spirit. In Acts, the disciples are gathered and are called to be open to the coming Holy Spirit. They are waiting. Waiting on the spirit, rather than our own hopes and dreams, quiets our restless hearts. And it unites Christians who are also waiting for the same spirit. We all may have different values, priorities, and ideas, but Christians from many perspectives set those aside when we wait on the spirit. And in that yearning for a deeper truth, we sense how an as-yet-undreamed mission unfolds.

Fortitude and waiting. As the tapestry of church life is woven, another thread that binds the church and its servants is an upper room mentality. In the books of Luke and Acts, fellowship emerges in upper rooms. The upper room can actually be a lower room or even a basement. Sometimes the church basement with a hall and kitchen is the room of fellowship. But the important thing is that the room of the faithful lifts up the opportunity for community sharing and mutual support. This fellowship breeds conversation and courage out of which mission flows.

As the tapestry of church life is woven, another thread that binds the church and its servants is intimacy of Christ as found in of John. The gospel of John is too wordy for me to really like it. I like my Jesus more direct, as in the gospel of Mark. But in the twisting of these words about God and Jesus and their unity with the disciples, this early philosophical mystic reminds us that we are woven together, with God, in congregations, through life, in Christ, in the word, in the name of Jesus, until we do not know but feel the intertwining of God and Jesus in our in the fabric of our personal life and in our life together.  It is this feeling of intimacy or closeness with God, the feeling of being knit together with the divine in community that is the sense of this intricate language of John. Intimacy. Getting close to God.

So with the intimacy of Christ, with an upper room mentality, waiting on the spirit, showing fortitude, the ancient church wove its way into the hearts of faithful servants not only for decades but centuries: into our time and place and into these upper rooms where we feel close to God and each other, as we find courage to wait, as we look past our suffering into something greater.

Reflection for May 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14


     The first reading continues our Easter season series from the book of Acts. Oh, the ghosts of those first Christians still haunt our lives. Here we have the story of the stoning of Stephen. Last week we learned of the communal living of the earliest Christians, including common meals. Stephen was one of the table waiters or deacons who helped with the distribution to those in need following these meals. Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr stoned to death for his faith in Jesus.

The figure of Saul is lurking in the background of this story. Saul is one of the Jews who organize the persecution of the Christians, and he plots the death of Stephen. Later in the book of Acts, Saul becomes a Christian. With a new name, Paul, he becomes a missionary to the Gentiles. He ends up writing half of the New Testament. But at this point in the story he is zealous in his efforts to kill Christianity and what it stands for.

Whenever I encounter this Saul or Paul, in this chapter of his life, I realize again how wrong we all can be, me especially. Here Paul believes so strongly in what he is doing that he kills others who disagree with him. And yet, in the end, he embraces the faith he once persecuted, as he regrets his past.

We who are of strong opinion and will, despite all of our certitude and certainty that we know what’s best: well, we can be so wrong. How is that possible? Sometimes we just miss the point. Sometimes we press our case too strongly. Sometimes things change and we do not go with the flow. Sometimes we stubbornly disregard the emerging obvious. Sometimes we go with the flow when we should have held firm. Sometimes disasters shape things differently. Sometimes the facts we are working with are wrong. Sometimes we forget something. Sometimes we lose our focus. Sometimes we become selfish or greedy or narrow minded. It really doesn’t matter. All of us can be so wrong even when we think we are so right. And the ghost of Paul in this chapter of his life, reminds us all of how fallible we humans are, and how it is best to practice humility and gentleness in our opinions so that we hurt others as little as possible in the inevitable error of our ways.

And then there is the ghost of Stephen. So much could be said about Stephen, but what I’d like to point out this morning, is that his apostleship is very brief. He’s appointed and perhaps a couple of months later he dies. Stephen reminds us that God works not only in the gradual movement of the organized church through the ages and not only through the destiny of creation through the eons; but also sometimes in the quickly burning bright light of compassion and forgiveness found briefly in the human heart. Even if we don’t have years to develop projects and ministries, even if we do not devote our entire lives to compassion and charity, sometimes just a moment is enough, just a flash of grace, that single act of courage or amazing forgiveness may be far more important than we think. Stephen’s short term reminds us that those who come later and do not last long may still have a profound impact and legacy. You may not have a life time to dedicate to compassion, but you do have this day. What small thing is God calling you to do, now?


     Now the second reading continues our series from I Peter. I’ve never been a real fan of I Peter. The style is rather grandiose. Written during a time of persecution, it calls people to stand firm. That’s good when we are being eaten by lions. But we live in the age of practical and diminishing Christianity, and the grandiose language is not helpful. And admonitions to stand firm in persecution have been appropriated in our time to buttress attitudes and practices that actually hurt other people. We’re not being persecuted. But we can hurt others when we stubbornly insist on our own way.

And then in I Peter there are the long lists of should’s and don’ts that fill out the book. Did you notice that the lectionary committee omitted the first verse of this chapter? That’s because the first verse packs five sinful things to avoid into less than 140 characters, even when that’s not the main point of the passage. Peter just can’t help himself. He just exudes ethical admonition even when he’s trying to be comforting or inspiring. And then on top of all that, the passage is a mixed metaphor. It starts out talking about the nursing of children and then shifts completely to stones and rocks. Ufdah! What is a thoughtful Christian to do?

Well, for one thing, the reading reminds us that the odd stone, the one too big to fit into the wall, can be the cornerstone. We like things to go smoothly and have people fit into our vision of things. We like the building blocks of life to be assembled evenly. But it’s the awkward stone or person that becomes the corner.

And then notice that Peter is into living stones. Stones are not alive. They are dead. Or are they? The contradiction built into the phrase living stones is a reminder that even when it all seems dead, there is still the possibility of life, that even the most dead congregation filled with the most unlikely and un-spirited Lutherans can still be enlivened for joy and new life and new vision.

Oh, let’s really mix the metaphors and talk about living stones, dry bones, deliverance from fiery furnaces, the dawn of springtime in Wisconsin, and the resurrection of even the dead. God can work wonders of life in the desert of our fallible sin. And God will use us regardless of how mistaken and misshapen we are to accomplish some good, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye.



     Until it is time to take us home. The third reading continues our series from the gospel of John in these Sundays of the Easter season. It’s a common passage for funerals because it reminds us that when it’s all said and done, it’s time to go home to be with Jesus forever. We’ve heard this passage a lot. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had almost 200 funerals.

But today, no one has died; so let’s notice something in the background of John 14. In the household of God are many rooms. The Middle Eastern vision behind this image is a large compound with different buildings and rooms. Many people from different perspectives and traditions are gathered at the end of time in one of those large community meals we found in the book of Acts, now a heavenly feast. It’s a big complex set of buildings, and all sorts are there: the mistaken, misshapen, and short lived of every age, in this heavenly space. All coming together, not because they are right in their views, or even because they can agree, or because they were perfectly and smoothly formed, but because they have heard the voice of Jesus calling them out of their empty headedness, out of their awkwardness, into compassionate living: out of the deadness of shallow apathetic meaninglessness into new life.

So today, we just continue reading from the Bible in light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ, once dead but now alive. And today our stories were found in Acts, I Peter, and John. Amen.


Reflection for May 7, 2017

Acts 2:42-47, I Peter 2:11-25, John 10:1-10

For several weeks now the first readings in the season for Easter have been from the book of Acts. Acts of the Apostles is the second in a two volume work on Christian beginnings by the person we know as Luke. Volume I is the gospel of Luke and is focused on the life of Jesus. This second volume begins with Jesus ascending into heaven and Pentecost, and then describes the activities of the first Christian communities. Volume II, or Acts of the Apostles, may be divided into two sections. The very first chapters describe the beginnings of what was known as The Way. A second section tells the story of Paul and other missionaries in the expansion of the faith by establishing additional communities to the north and west in Greece and Asia Minor.

At first one might look at Acts as a history book, and in some ways it is an historical record. But as one looks closely at it, one senses that the history has been highly massaged to reflect a particular point of view. For example, in the struggle between traditional Jewish Christians and acceptance of new Gentile members, the author seems to be on the side of the new Gentile converts. And the document emphasizes the growth to the north and west and does not really address the similar growth taking place at the same time south and west into Africa.

All that said, this morning we have a fairly short passage which summarizes Luke’s interpretation of how the very first Christian communities organized themselves. The work may be highly idealized as it lifts ups the values of Luke. Luke is writing about sixty years after the events took place. Just as we writing today may have an idealized memory of church life in the fifties when everyone came to church all the time after drinking their fill of martinis in turquoise living rooms, Luke may be writing with longing memories for something that he felt was a golden age.

So we are looking at the values of Luke’s Christian community as much as a history. Those values are inserted into this historical account with more than a bit of nostalgia.

With that in mind, we see Luke lifting up four basic values for Christian communities. And in some ways, regardless of the history, these values have become somewhat timeless. Christian gatherings and congregations (1) devote themselves to teaching and learning ministry. (2) They engage in fellowship. (3) They break bread together. (4)They worship and pray. (5) And finally they share things in common. We also see in this passage that they both gather together in public meeting space, usually a synagogue or a public square, and that they also meet and eat in homes.

There are two outcomes of these practices in these places. One is mighty acts of healing. The earliest Christian communities were focused on healing. Some of them may have resembled medical clinics more than our contemporary churches. When one thinks of an early Christian congregation, it would be a place where the sick would gather and where healing and recovery would take place. We might reject the ancient concept of miracle healing, but we all know that the body and mind are connected in many ways, that our attitude makes a difference in our health, that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who are not, that our blood pressure drops when we think about God, and that people who are cared for recover more quickly and with more certainty than people who are not cared for regardless of what that care is.

Besides healing, the second outcome of these practices in these places was that people flocked to The Way. The church grew. And it grew exponentially. Growth because of the desire for health care is still a powerful force in society. These days it accounts for the growth of hospitals and clinics, and such things as Medicare and Obama Care. This week we were all focused on the future of health care in the events in Washington. Today, we do not turn to the church for health care.  We use science, research, money, secular institutions and structures to provide that care. But first century Greeks and Romans did not have these resources. The early congregational gathering provided mighty acts of care, and so of course they grew.

As we think about congregational life, we would still do well to focus on these principles outlined by Luke. Teaching, worship, fellowship, and caring ministry are the four cornerstones of congregational well being. If a congregation is engaged in these four things, it will do well. For us, this is the reminder that our Sunday Assembly in which we sing, think, and pray is the center of our life together. It is important for us to break bread together symbolically each and every Sunday. Adult forums, sermons that reflect current complexities, Sunday Learning Place, and confirmation ministry all still speak to the importance of learning and teaching. Coffee fellowship after worship is a critical expression of our mutual care. Table and pew discussions on Sunday morning and on Wednesday evenings in Lent nourish one another. And that fellowship often extends into friendships that are nourished throughout weeks, years and lifetimes. Caring ministry takes place as we suffer together, grieve together, and as we face the needs of those around us who need shelter or assistance or support. Caring ministry takes place through our Senior Care Team and the visiting they do on our behalf. Let us continue to rededicate ourselves to these efforts at being a well rounded, well founded congregation in the tradition of The Way of Jesus.

But for just a few moments I would like to focus on one of these four principles: the teaching ministry of the apostles, and to explore three of those ancient teachings and what they might mean for us now. In the three readings together, we sense three different ancient teaching themes which still instruct us.

From Acts we should consider the principle of sharing things in common. From I Peter we have the teachings regarding undeserved suffering. And from John we have the teaching of gate keeping or thresholding.

Communal Life: One of the ancient teachings of the church was about economics. It is simply stated here. Life, possessions, and things were held in common. This is actually a form of primitive communism, probably best described as communal living. Actually urban Christian communities in the cities of the Roman Empire probably practiced a hybrid economy. Within the group, things were shared and individual property was discouraged. However the group itself probably sold things like fish or tents or food or medicine to the larger society for profit in order to support the community. Within the German and Scandinavian Protestant and Lutheran traditions, this approach to communal living was expressed by Mennonite, Finnish, Amish, and Shaker traditions.

On the one hand, we all recognize that we generally cannot be communal in this ancient way. Our economy is vastly different. But this ancient teaching regarding economics reminds us that capitalism without some sort of sharing mechanism may not lead to the ultimate economic good. An economy is only as good as it provides for the common good. And capitalism according to this ancient teaching should always be tempered so that it limits human greed and provides for those who are in need.  An economy exists not to only to enhance wealth, but also to enhance the well being of all. Ancient Christian communal life calls us to strive for the economic good of everyone, and to modify our economic systems and behavior gradually and continually so that through the biblical miracle of sharing we experience exponential growth.

Undeserved Suffering: A second ancient teaching is found in I Peter. This document, written even later than Acts, indicates that Christians who are facing suffering, persecution, and struggle are wondering why these bad things are happening to those who are leading good lives. This is still a matter that faces us. What are we to say about undeserved suffering?

So much could be said here, but it is clear from this reading, that the ancient church wondered about unmerited suffering, especially in times of persecution. The teaching in I Peter is that undeserved suffering is sacred. It is a sacred path, experienced by Jesus in the story of his execution. It is the sacred way walked by Jesus. In undeserved suffering we find ourselves walking with Jesus or rather Jesus walking with us. And as Jesus is walking with us in the suffering, he is leading us through it, into a new ending, a new hope, and a new possibility. Sometimes that suffering leads us into a new mission for this life, as people who recover from cancer or alcoholism or whatever help those coming after them. Sometimes that suffering leads to new life in Jesus Christ through death. Either way, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We are made sacred through the suffering we share with Christ.

Gate keeping and Thresholding: This ancient teaching is not from the tradition of Peter, nor from the tradition of Luke, but from the tradition of John. This tradition came to fruition later than the other two in the area of Asia Minor. John’s language is complicated, filled with metaphors, and difficult to understand at times. Johns is a mystic writing for a monastic community. Mystics are always hard to understand. This teaching is that Jesus, the risen Christ, is a gateway, or a threshold. One way to understand this involves exclusion. One could say I suppose that in the mystic mysteries of John, Jesus is the only way, the only gate, the only threshold which one might use to draw close to God.

But I’m not thinking about that. What gate keeping and thresholding involves is not certifying the number of gates, their position, and width as if we were some sort of theological auditors, making sure everyone has punched their Christian tickets in order to get to heaven. Those days may be over.

John teaches that Jesus is the gateway, a threshold into something: something deeper, richer, fuller, broader, and greater. This something transcends suffering, struggle, hopelessness and sorrow. It transcends even death. Jesus is a gateway into new life, life in this world and beyond it. For example, in light of the teaching on communal living, as we cross this threshold into a new way of thinking, it might no longer be said that I own a particular piece of land. We might no longer be able to even say, humans own any land. What we would say as we cross through the gateway into a new life is that we belong to this land, this sacred space in this wonderful world, in this vast universe sustained and cradled by a God of compassion who loves us still.

Gate keeping, passing into the mysteries of new life; the mystery of undeserved suffering; and holding things in common are three ancient teachings that still speak to us. One time, a long time ago, these earliest Christians dedicated themselves to the teachings, to prayer and worship, to fellowship. They healed. And people saw what they did and came. Their faith brought them into a new world, a new life. And we still shape ourselves on these principles of healing and hope.


Reflection for April 29, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35


After the resurrection, Jesus appears to two followers. They are returning home after celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem and witnessing the brutal crucifixion. These two are among the followers of Jesus, not part of the inner circle. They live about a half day’s walk from the city, about seven miles, in a village named Emmaus. As Jesus joins them on their walk home, they do not recognize who Jesus is. Only later in the fellowship of a shared meal, do they see who their traveling companion has been. They discover it was God walking with them along the path home.

Discernment of God is the theme in Luke today. And it is one of the religious themes of our times. Sometimes we wonder if God is really there. Sometimes we feel that God is not walking with us, but is absent. Sometimes life seems so complicated that it is hard to tell what God would want. Sometimes it feels like evil is winning. Sometimes we seem to be the only ones left thinking about God in a world that is taking a walk in the other direction. How do we discover the presence and the will of God in our lives? For contemporary Christians, discernment of the presence and will of God is important.

This story is constructed in such a way that it gives us clues to how discernment happens, how God is revealed as we walk along life’s path. Discernment here (1) takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. (2) Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. (3)They wonder about the strange tales of women. (4)They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. (5)They invite Jesus to dinner. (6) They break the bread of communion.

The end of the day: Sometimes it is in the close of a session, after things are over, in the debriefing, that what has happened and who all was really involved come to the surface. We might not discern God at work until after we’ve had a chance to process what has been going on, at the close of a great event.

The stranger and the other: We sometimes discern Jesus, the presence and will of God, in the face of those in need, the stranger, the one who is different. God’s will is revealed as we walk with the poor, or as we are joined by others who at first seem strange along life’s journey.

The tales of women: In this story, God is not discerned during the great events of the day or age, not even in the discourse of men, but in the tales of women. The resurrection in all of the gospels begins with the experience of women. That is a reminder that we discern God when we listen to the intuitive voices of women around us. It is also a reminder of how important women were in the formation of the early church. We sometimes find the will of God by asking what is right for women or children.

These followers seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight: We sense that the two followers were part of the Jesus movement because he may have been the Messiah, the one who would liberate them from Roman rule. They now have decided they were wrong, because of the crucifixion. Rome has won. But in dialog Jesus disagrees. Messiah-ship is not about winning a military victory, he argues. It is about the power of love and compassion to overcome all evil. Sometimes we discern God as we follow our thoughts more deeply, refining our opinion along the way, and as we focus not on victory but on compassion.

The invitation to fellowship: They invite Jesus to stay with them, to tarry, to have something to eat and to rest. Sometimes we discern God’s will as we extend an invitation to someone, or when we are willing to entertain a new idea, or when we practice hospitality. Sometimes we discern the will of God when we decide to ask God to spend time with us in prayer, to tarry with us.

The Eucharist: They suddenly see Jesus when he uses words of thanksgiving with the breaking of the bread in their fellowship meal. Luke here refers to Holy Communion, the Christian way we sense God present with us: in, with, and under the bread and wine, in the gathered fellowship of the people.

     Discernment in the story takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. They wonder about the tales of the women. They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. They invite Jesus to dinner. They break the bread of communion. The details of the story indicate how we still discern the presence of God. But if we stay in the details of the story, we may be missing the point of God’s revelation. In this story, we may miss the forest when we concentrate so much on the trees.

For the details of discernment shape the story. But the story is a story of human disaster. This is a story about people who have survived something awful and are now returning home to regroup. This is not the story about people meeting in church in small groups discussing their prayer life, and how they can pray better, and feel closer to God. That’s a good thing. But that’s not this story.

This is a story about people whose lives have fallen apart, whose hopes are dashed by a public execution, and who are potential victims of a growing and pervasive evil. This is a story about humans trying to pull things together again after the disaster of the crucifixion. This is a story about how God becomes real when we are overwhelmed as our hopes are dashed by the destruction of what we hold dear. The road to Emmaus is not some abstract theological conversation. Nor is it really the foundation for some sort of group process or the seven steps to knowing more about God. It is the road of despair for followers of a cause that has been destroyed. It is the road that leads to giving up and going home. It is about the loss of what we dreamed of.

So the story reminds us that God is revealed, God becomes real in such times, walking with us on such roads. And God will become real to you and to me, in the details. But the reality of God is especially deep when we have been overwhelmed with disaster, and everything seems broken, and our hopes are demolished. There are a few of those times in each of our lives: when health or fortune or family or friends or vocation are lost. And we are on this road wondering about what we believed and held dear, wondering where God is, wondering what we should do now.

Sometimes these are personal disasters. Often this road speaks to the destruction of justice or fairness or honesty or the capacity of us all to dream as we become mired down in a society that has lost all of those things, as less and less attention is paid to the common good. And in that despair for the common good, we also encounter a risen Jesus. Communities also walk this road as they find again the commonweal, discern the presence of God in their neighborhoods, cities, and world. At the close of the old day, a new day dawns. Strangers come together to talk and to act. The stories of women and children and those on the margin become more important in the reconstruction of common hope. Preconceived ways of thinking are revised. People invite new ideas and new people into their lives. And Holy Communion becomes not only the meal of a church, but also the festival of a community on its way to a new future. And in all of that, in the face of deep darkness, both personal and societal, God becomes deep and real, and we discern God active in this world again. For we, who have lost our dreams, now sense in, with, and under the details of this story that something new is possible.