Archive for August 2011

Cracked Open and Shining Through

August 22, 2011

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Pentecost 10 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran / 8-21-11

Children’s time: Does anyone know what the MN state rock is? It’s not iron – that’s the state mineral. Yes, the Lake Superior Agate! When we go up to the north shore, I love to visit the agate shops. They have all sorts of beautifully carved agates – no two are alike. Agates come in all colors: blues, greens, and pinks. But they don’t look like much at first glance. They’re kind of dull on the outside. They have to be cut open, sanded down and polished. It’s a lot of work! Here’s another example of a rock from around here: a geode. It looks boring from the outside but inside there are sparkly crystals and colorful gems. Do you know what Jesus called Peter in today’s lesson? A rock. “And on this rock I’ll build my church,” he said. What if each one of us were a rock, filled with beauty and riches just waiting to be shared? God knows it’s going to take some time to get us cracked open and polished up – and it won’t be easy. But that’s when we can really shine and share God’s love with others. Let’s pray: God, we thank you that you place beauty and wonders in each one of us to help build up your church. Give us patience and understanding during the hard times in our lives as you make us ready to build your church. Amen.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Once upon a time the animals decided to build a school and have lessons on running, swimming, climbing and flying. The duck did very well in swimming and so-so in flying. But he failed the running class and had to stay after school to practice. And after all that running, his poor webbed feet weren’t very good for swimming anymore! The squirrel was the best climber, but couldn’t swim for his life! The eagle had flying covered hands-down, but he refused to climb, and so flunked that class. The rabbit outran everyone but couldn’t fly. And the gophers decided to open their own private school because digging wasn’t even on the curriculum!

This little story reminds me of how different we all are – and yet, how we each need opportunities to learn and grow. Not knowing where we came from can create real problems.

In our first reading for today from Isaiah 51:1-2 we hear – “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you…” So what did the people of God see when they looked back from where they came from?

Well, Abraham was as good as dead when God called him into the ministry. And Sarah was way beyond childbearing years. Of course she laughed when the angels told her she would bear a son to carry on their name.

The people of Israel were a nation of slaves, before being rescued by God from Egypt. After that, they spent years wandering in the desert before finally settling down.

Even Jesus was born a nobody – the son of a peasant girl, with no earthly father.

So, where do you come from? Who are you, anyway? What are you made of?

Well, we could start by looking into our own family tree. I’m an eleventh generation American, with ancestors dating back to the 1630s in North America. Before the United States was even recognized as a nation, the Stiles’ had settled in West Boxford, Massachusetts. I’ve had family participate in every major war waged involving the US, dating back to the Revolutionary War. My 6-great grandfather, Asahel, once killed a bear with a cast iron garden hoe, as it came charging up to the house!

I love to hear stories about my family tree! But I also know that we can’t rest for long on the roots of that tree. While those are all great stories to tell… the story that matters most is the one we receive from God. The story we are writing with every breath we take – with every act of courage, kindness and compassion – right now!

Who do people say that YOU are? What legacy of faith are you leaving for those who will come after you? Are you one of those “Rocks” like Peter, whom God has chosen to build upon? And how will you answer his question: “Who do you say that I am?”

His disciples could have said, “Why, you’re Jesus, or course, from Nazareth.” Or, “You are a great prophet – you’re our rabbi – our teacher.” Others standing there may have been harder on him, “You’re a nobody Jew, born in a barn, of an unwed mother – an illegitimate child!” But Peter says, “You are the Messiah. The son of the living God!”

Jesus doesn’t say “you’re right” but he does bless Peter, and give him a promise to work through him in the future.

Jesus finds the “rock” in each one of us and intends to build on that Rock a church. There is a solid place in you – even if you feel like a nobody, with nothing to offer. You came from God, belong to God, and are being fashioned into his masterpiece.

When people crack you open to see what you’re made of, there is gold, amethyst, sapphire and diamonds! What else could there be – but that which the creator placed within you when you were being knit together in your mother’s womb? You may not look like much on the outside, but never underestimate the Rock from which you were carved.

And don’t be afraid to chip away at each other – to find out what’s inside – and to help build up the church using all the gifts each member of the body brings.

One of the ways we do this is through the binding and the loosing, which Jesus explains to Peter. “I give you the keys to the kingdom – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven / whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Today, we call that “discernment.” Binding and loosing was more of an interpretation of the law not an abolishing of it.

Mark Allen Powell shares an example of this from the Talmud: “For example, the question was raised whether one might be guilty of stealing if one finds something and keeps it without searching for the rightful owner. When is such a search required and how extensive must it be? The Talmud states, “If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limits of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it” (è. Β. Bat 23b).4

There’s some binding we need to do as a community – and some loosing. This is how God makes us that “cornerstone of the community.” Not without some cutting and hard won polishing – will he be able to build that church upon us.

So, where does this leave us? When we know which rock we were carved from… when we know where we came from… whatever story that might entail… when we know how we have been adopted into God’s family… we can trust that through the carvings and the polishings and the shavings – God is doing a new thing – making us ready for building a church – so that others can see God’s love shining through us.

Let us pray: O God, we give you thanks for the beauty and worth hidden in each one of us. Crack us open and let your light shine through us as you build your church on these living stones. Amen.

Stepping Out In Faith

August 7, 2011

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Pent8 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran / 8-7-11

Children’s Time: “Floaters & Sinkers” Present a variety of small items and a bowl of water. Have the kids guess which ones will float and which ones will sink? Tell the story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus. When did Peter begin to sink? When the wind blew and he got scared and took his eyes off Jesus. Which one are you? A floater or a sinker? Let’s pray to God that we, too, will keep our eyes on Jesus when we’re afraid. (

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I love this story of Jesus walking on the water. The last time the disciples were tossed at sea by a storm was in Matthew 8, where Jesus was in the boat with them, asleep on the cushion. He woke up, calmed the storm and went back to sleep! But this time (in Matthew 14) they’re on their own. The same Matthew who gave us the Greek word: Emmanuel, which means “God With Us,” tells us that God wasn’t with them in that boat. Jesus was on the mountain, praying, and having some overdue alone time to grieve the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. No sooner did he come down, than a storm had whipped up on the sea, so at the dawn, Jesus came to them, walking on the water!

In biblical times, the sea was a symbol of chaos and disorder – kept in check only by God. Remember the great flood and Noah’s Ark? The rock band U2, has a song about that called: “It’s a Beautiful Day – don’t let it get away!” There’s a line that goes: “See the bird with a leaf in her mouth, after the flood all the colors came out!” (Referring to the dove who brought proof of dry land and the rainbow – God’s promise never to flood the world again).

U2 performed in concert last month at the TCF Stadium, and when they did this song, they dedicated it to congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who gave her service to this country and nearly lost her life in service to this country. Her husband (Commander Mark Kelly) is an astronaut, who recorded a video from the International Space Station where he put signs out for the all the fans to read, floating there in zero gravity:

“I’m coming home,” he said, “Tell my wife I love her very much.”

For all that his family has been through – to stop and acknowledge the beauty in life – takes more than wishful thinking. It takes faith, and a hope for tomorrow. As Paul said in our second lesson to day from Romans: “how will they believe if they have never heard, and how will they hear unless someone proclaims, and how will they proclaim unless they are sent? How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

That’s our calling – to find beauty each day and to lift it up in the midst of life’s storms – to keep the faith that after the flood all the colors come out.

Kathleen Norris’ in her book: Dakota, reminds us of the wisdom of Hawaii (where she once lived, before returning to her hometown of Lemmon, SD out on the Great Plains):

“Never turn your back on the sea,” is Hawaii’s wisdom. “Or the sky,” we Plains folk might add. …In a blizzard, or one of our sudden cold snaps that can take the temperature from thirty degrees above to thirty-five below in a matter of hours, not knowing can kill you.” (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, p. 13, 20)

So, storms are real – both in natural disasters and inter-personal disasters. You don’t have to look far to see the damages. What storms have rocked your world and splashed waves over the bow of your life?

Divorce – it leaves lovers wounded and hurting, not to mention the hurts felt by children who may be involved, and the whole family (in-laws, cousins, and friends) – even church families don’t know what to say or do in such a storm, when one or the other ends up leaving.

Alcoholism & other addictions, can pit us against members of our own family, whom we love very much – getting us caught between enabling dysfunctional behavior and exercising “tough love” for those who raised us – or who we ourselves brought into the world!

Abuse, at the hands of someone we once trusted, can leave us confused, angry, and lonely, especially if no one else stands up for you.

Unemployment, can leave us with a sense of despair and a loss of purpose, especially with the trend of many who have long-term unemployment and are still looking for jobs 6 months to a year later – praying for the tide to come in with that new opportunity.

The death, of a loved one – whether sudden or a long, drawn out ordeal – can beat against the sides of our boat with grief too great for words.

Disease, Depression, Mental illness, even church conflict can batter against the sides of the boat so much that we can’t see Jesus there right in front of us. And when we do, we may mistake him for the Boogey Man! When the disciples finally did see, they thought Jesus was a ghost!

And what did he say in the midst of their storm? “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
“Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

This Greek phrase: “It is I” (ego eimi) is the same form as the Hebrew name for God in Genesis and Exodus: “The Great I AM” which Moses encountered at the burning bush – the Great I AM whose spirit hovered over the deep in the beginning and brought order out of chaos.

Take heart, I AM, do not be afraid.

I like what Tim Button-Harrison said about this. He writes: “Any of us who is or has been or will be a leader in the church is forever indebted to Peter for that daring step out of the boat and into faith. For in doing so, Peter has shown from the very start that the highest authority is not the storm nor the wind nor even the church. The highest authority, the true author of our lives is Jesus Christ.”

Peter did us all a great favor by calling to Jesus and stepping out in faith onto the water. In that moment of recognition, he knew all he needed to know – they weren’t alone in the storm. “If it is you, call for me to join you on the water!”

“What, are you crazy?” the others must’ve thought. He’s not even hearing them – or the waves or the winds – all he sees is the one person in the world who matters – and he puts his foot down on a wave.

And. It. Holds. Firm.

Another step, and then another. He’s getting closer to Jesus with each step, probably not even aware of the miracle going on under right under his feet – literally. All he sees is his savior… until the wind begins to blow through his hair and the spray of foam stings into his cheeks. All it took was a moment of looking away to snap him back to reality – “Oh my gosh! I’m walking on water! And there’s a huge wave coming in right there! I’m a gonner for sure!”

Then, the one Jesus so fondly name “The Rock” begins to sink just like one. Down he goes, flapping in the waves like a helpless puppy. It didn’t matter that these guys were seasoned fishermen. They knew better than to take the sea for granted. And Peter had turned his back on it.

Now, he could have cried out for his shipmates: “Throw me a line, fellas! I’m goin’ down!” But he calls to Jesus: “Lord, save me!” Immediately, Jesus grabbed his hand and helped him back into the boat, with a loving reprimand: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When we face storms in life, who do we turn to? Do we “take it to the Lord in prayer”? Or do we rely on ourselves to figure it out? Do we call on our friends for help? Or, is our very first call to the only one who matters? “Lord, save me!”

Former Bishop of the ELCA, H. George Anderson, once said that in America today, “we want comfort, pleasure, and to be left alone. What we need are service, sacrifice, and to be brought together.” You might say that’s why you’re here today – to offer your service to God – to come together in worship – to step out in faith, presenting yourselves, your time, and your possessions as a living sacrifice – remembering we’re all in the same boat. And, to not dwell on the wind and the waves of life – but only the goal of coming to Christ and following where he leads.

When it all comes down, we are all in the same boat together, facing the same trials and storms. It is as we read in 1Corinthians 12:26 – “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; and if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Sink or swim, we’re in this together. And, while it’s true, a smooth sea never made a good sailor, we dare not embark to the other side without the knowledge that Jesus is with us. And, when we keep our eyes on him, not only is there is nothing to fear, but we are on Holy Ground, stepping out into miracles.


Loaves and Fishes

August 1, 2011

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard (about the beheading of John the Baptist), he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Pent7 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 7-31-11

Children’s Time: Show a sign with the word: “FREE!” on it. Ask them if they know what that means? When something is free is it usually expensive? Or is it ‘junk’? (like a Happy Meal toy) Why would someone give away something of value? Can you think of anything that’s free that isn’t junk? Like using the library? Like receiving a hug from someone? Jesus’ love is free, but it’s not junk. It cost him his life on the cross and he rose again to save us. The FREE gift of God’s love requires only that we believe it.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Two images come to mind, this week, as I’ve been preparing the sermon: The first one come from the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks plays an executive for Federal Express who survives a plane crash only to be stranded alone on a desert island for 4 years! Every day he must learn to survive, scrounging for crabs along the shore, drinking coconut milk to stay hydrated, befriending a soccer ball he names “Wilson” and building a fire to keep warm (“Look what I have created!”). Years later, when he’s finally rescued, and on his way home aboard a cruise ship – there’s this poignant scene where he’s standing by the buffet table, full of ice (something he hasn’t seen in years) and a heaping mound of crabs legs – most of which will probably go to waste. And he gets it.

Someone else who gets it is the mother of “Mihag Gedi Farah,” a seven-month-old child from Somalia (this is the second image that came to mind for me this week). Mihag weighed only 7 lbs. when his mother brought him to the refugee camp hospital at Dadaab, Kenya. He was so malnourished that his skin was pulled taut over his face. He was so frail and dehydrated that he couldn’t even cry. Later, after receiving vital fluids and first aid, he is slowing recovering. Thousands like him won’t be as fortunate.

As Americans, we seldom experience hunger like that. We don’t know what it’s like to have to scavenge for our next meal on a desert island. Or, as in Somalia, to flee our homeland for fear of persecution and famine – to be forced to walk four days to an overcrowded refugee camp, so short on staff and supplies that just arriving there safely is no guarantee for your children’s well-being.

The photo of this child is so disturbing that I can only look for so long. But for those who live daily with this reality there is no turning away.

Isn’t it ironic that in the midst of an economic crisis in our country (where jobs are still scarce and Washington is divided on how to manage the debt ceiling) that a famine should break out a half a world away? Only for our people to cringe and turn away?

“Lord, it’s getting late and these people aren’t our responsibility. Send them into the village to buy food.” “No, you give them something to eat.” Jesus said.

How are we to make sense of such hunger and so heavy a burden? Some have advised that we all “live more simply – so that others might simply live.” It’s not a bad place to start. Ghandi once said, “There is enough for our need, but not for our greed.”

Jesus, however, gives us a new way of living and eating in our gospel lesson for today: He has just received the news that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been beheaded – and he goes off by himself to pray (good for him – way to take care of yourself, Jesus). He gets in a boat, in fact, to sail across the Sea of Galilee. Trouble is, the crowds won’t leave him alone. They decided to follow him. In fact, they were so drawn to Jesus that they made the 10 mile hike around the shore and were waiting for him on the other side when he arrived.

So, he did what he had to do. He showed compassion and healed the sick. When evening came, he fed them. They were out in the middle of nowhere, and the disciples ask Jesus to send them home. “No, you give them something to eat,” he says. “What? There are 5000 men here, besides women and children. All we have are five loaves and two fish.” Jesus said, “Bring them to me.”

And so begins the story of the miracle of Jesus feeding 5000. In presiding over a meal, Jesus stands in a grand tradition going way back to the Passover Meal, which the Israelites shared the night they were set free and led from Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. But before getting there, they had to sojourn in the wilderness for 40 years! There, out in the middle of nowhere, again, God provided a meal: manna from heaven. All had enough to eat and no one had too much.

Another story about a meal comes from our first lesson in Isaiah 55, where we have the strange pronouncement:

Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; especially all who are penniless!
Come, buy and eat! Come and pay no money for wine and milk that are priceless.

It may sound absurd (“How can I buy expensive food if I have no money?”) but what Isaiah is referring to is an old Jewish tradition. Every year, during the reign of Israel, the king would have a royal picnic where all the poor could come and eat for free – as kings for the day – the same food typically reserved for royalty. And these words were used to call the feast: “Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters… come and pay no money for wine that is priceless!”

But now, when Isaiah says it no one’s laughing… because they’re in exile. They’re prisoners of war. There is no Jerusalem – they’ve been taken captive into Babylon. They haven’t had a king in 50 years! “What do you mean in bringing up that old tradition? We’re stuck here in Bablyon and you’re telling us this king will throw a royal picnic?!”

But what Isaiah meant had nothing to do with a political kingdom – he was prophecying the coming Messiah. And in his kingdom – you won’t be just kings for a day… I will make with you an everlasting covenant – you’ll become a royal people forever!

And Jesus is the fulfillment of these words. Three things happen in this miracle of feeding the 5000.
1. No one goes hungry. When Jesus is around there is enough for all when all we see is scarcity;
2. There is community, where once we were strangers: “Have them all sit down together. I’ll say grace.” …and
3. Jesus gives us the job of feeding the hungry: “You give them something to eat.” We’re in this together – as the hands and feet of Jesus – in a world hungry for freedom.

Now, no one knows for sure exactly how he did it: whether he made the food magically multiply; or whether it was their act of sharing that was the miracle – perhaps each person there, moved by their example, opened their own satchels to share their food; or, whether it was but a tiny morsel that filled them spiritually (as in, “Man does not live on bread alone.”).

Whatever the case, it’s the only miracle story that occurs in all four gospels. So, God meant for us to remember it. And, even moreso, to live it.

Let us pray: We give you thanks, O God, that you provide for all people daily bread. Help us live simply that others may simply live, in the strong name of Jesus Christ, your son our Lord. Amen.