Archive for March 2012

Strangers At The Door

March 28, 2012

John 12:20-36
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Lent5 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-25-12

Children’s Time: A worrying stone. Have you ever carried a rock in your pocket? I have lots of rocks. But this one is especially smooth. When we worry about things in our lives, we can pray about them. We can remember how Jesus worried (in our lesson today) saying, “Now my soul is troubled.” He knew he was going to die on the cross, but instead of praying to get out of it, he prayed that God would get him through it – and be glorified! We all have tough times in our lives – times when we worry a lot! Jesus knows what that feels like, and we can pray (or rub our worry rock) to God in those times, trusting that God is there through it all, each step of the way. (credit: sermons4kids.com)

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.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “That’s a dying church?” It’s not something we often look at as a model for ministry, to b sure. But I want to suggest today, that Jesus is the leader of a dying church.

And I don’t mean in terms of attendance figures, which we do track, or declining involvement of our youth and children. What I mean by dying is what Jesus said in his own words, in today’s lesson: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

When the Greeks came to meet Jesus, wanting to become his followers, he must’ve said to himself: “That’s it. I’m dead.” I mean, any well-meaning Jew would know better than to associate with Gentile Greeks – heathens. It’s not so much that they didn’t worship the God of Israel, it was: what god didn’t they worship – that was the problem. They had a shrine for Poseidon, Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite. And here they were, coming to meet Jesus. Just imagine a born again Percy Jackson. Here come the Greeks, heaven help us!

And Jesus says to his disciples: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” Something had to die in order for the new to be born. Was it the Jews’ status as God’s chosen people? Was it the strict adherence to the Laws of Moses? Or was it Jesus himself who had to die, and be lifted up, in order to draw all people to himself?

How are we doing at dying?

I once spent a month on the Indian reservations in South Dakota (both at Rosebud and Pine Ridge). And there weren’t any Lutheran churches out there at that time, but there were Episcopalians. So the Lutheran and the Episcopal Churches decided to work together, rather than build a new church. They called it “Lutepisc” Ministry! How do you serve Lutepisc? (a little play on words for those of the Norwegian persuasion – lutefisk being a kind of codfish that my grandmother would soak in lye and dip it butter and, yes, actually eat it!)

Anyway… there was some concern in our group (back in the early 90’s) about how the Indian churches were mixing their ‘gods’ with Christianity. Was it ‘New Age’ Spirituality? We saw a traditional star quilt draped over the altar. Some prayed to the Great Spirit as well as the Holy Spirit – or to Mother Earth, as well as the “Our Father…” They had an Indian Version of the 23rd Psalm – using beautiful imagery from the prairies of the Dakotas, as well as the one from the land of Palestine. A call to worship might include the burning of sweet grass and the wafting of the smoke with an eagle feather (a sign of status, something sacred or “wakan”).

So, here I was, trying to make sense of it all. Where do I fit in? We got to do some preaching and teaching. We attended a wake and a funeral at a church at Pine Ridge. Everybody brought Tupperware – because it would have been an insult not to take food home when the host family offered. And of course, I went strait for the fry bread and wojapi (think deep-fried batter, smothered in blueberry sauce – you can keep your lutefisk!).

But whenever I heard someone who was bothered by this mixing of the faiths – I always remembered what Steve Charleston said (he was a Native American professor at Luther Seminary at the time): He said, “That’s my ‘Old Testament.’ Yes, I believe in Jesus, but that’s my ‘Old Testament.’” So, why would we ask anyone to give up their ‘Old Testament’ – the story that shaped who they are – their rituals and traditions? Maybe there were some over-the-top traditions that needed to be done away with. Personally, I’m glad we don’t have to sacrifice live sheep on the altar anymore! That’s a part of our Old Testament. However, the Sabbath is still a life-giving – the Ten Commandments help guide our lives and provide order for society. The cry for justice from the prophets rings true today as it did then. That winter I had to rethink my beliefs about Indian peoples. And we continue to face the challenges of racism and white privilege in our society.

This year, marks the 150th anniversary of the hanging of the 38 Dakota after the Dakota Conflict in SW Minnesota. Most people I talk to have never heard of this chapter in Minnesota history. The months preceding the hanging had been marked by several battles, and killings (on both sides – between white settlers and the Dakota) with some of the heaviest fighting occurring in New Ulm and Hutchinson. Originally, over 300 Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death by swift military trials. President Abraham Lincoln personally intervened and pardoned all but 38 of the prisoners prior to the hanging, which occurred the day after Christmas, Dec 26th, 1862. A large, square gallows was constructed so that they could all be hanged simultaneously. It was (and remains) the largest mass execution in US history, and it occurred right here in Minnesota (just blocks from the church I served for 4 years, in Mankato).

But those numbers pale in comparison to the genocide committed in this young nation’s history against native peoples across the continent. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were simply wiped out in the name of Manifest Destiny, blankets infected with Smallpox were deliberately given to entire villages; treaties were signed, with no intention of abiding by them; land was snatched up, leaving the Indians little choice but to move onto reservations.

So, why should any of this matter to us today? We weren’t there when our ancestors committed such crimes against humanity. Neither were the descendants of the Dakota, who live on in our time. But all that garbage from back then still pollutes the waters today – when we neglect the work of true reconciliation – of dying to our pride and arrogance and being born again as brothers and sisters in God’s family.

The system of racial superiority is alive and well, on the streets of Florida, where Treyvon Martin was shot dead, leaving more questions than answers. “He looks suspicious” is the line from George Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call that keeps haunting me, before Trayvon died from a fatal gunshot wound. I think it’s too early to know all the facts and to pass judgment. But what is indisputable is the suspicion in the air. “He looks suspicious.”

Today, I want to think with you about what was at stake for Philip and the disciples when they were approached by those Gentile Greeks (in today’s lesson). When Jesus heard they wanted to see him he speaks of death in his future, but also of glory and fruit that would come of it. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…” To lose one’s life was not just a metaphor, it was a call to actually risk welcoming the stranger.

Through Jesus Christ, Jeremiah’s prophecy from our first reading was coming true: “The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant, not like the one I made with your ancestors. This covenant shall be written on human hearts – not tablets of stone. On that day, they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.” So, how are we doing at being the hands and feet of Jesus, drawing “all people” to himself through us? Even those we hold in suspicion? Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Such promise & peril have always been part & parcel of the life of a disciple of Christ.

So I ask you, who are “the Greeks” that enter your life today? Who stands on your threshold ready to meet Jesus? Just this week I was approached by 2 pastors from different ethnic churches: one a Guatemalan church and the other a Liberian church – asking if they could rent space from us to worship on Sunday afternoons. I was glad the Guatemalan pastor brought his two daughters, when he dropped by the office, as they served as interpreters. Both pastors said they both have 40 or so members each. We still don’t know all the facts, and the council is gathering more information about what they specifically would need.

I’m a bit hesitant, (maybe even a little suspicious, if I’m honest with myself). We’ve only just gotten used to renting space with Head Start these last two years; and that’s brought several children of immigrants and varying ethnic groups into our building. But I’m also not one to second guess the work of the Holy Spirit in reaching out to our neighbors right in our own backyard.

How about you? Who are the Greeks at your doorstep these days? Would you welcome them to join a dying church today – a church that lifts up Christ as its head, through prayer, worship and sharing of the Lord’s Supper?

Thanks be to God, in Christ Jesus, who bears the promise of fruit and grain, from the dying seed of God’s people. Let us pray:

O God, you bid us come and die. We cling to our sin, pride and prejudices. Open us up when we fall through the cracks and let us be born anew, bearing much fruit, in your Holy and precious Name. Amen.

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I Did It All By Myself!

March 19, 2012

John 3:14-21
[Jesus said to Nicodemus,] “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Lent4 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-18-12

Children’s Time: What was the first thing you learned to do “all by yourself?” Was it tying your shoes? How about counting to 10 or 20? Who knows the whole alphabet? Did you learn to ride a bike all on the first try?  No, it takes patience and practice.  You should be proud of yourself when you can finally do things on your own. It means you’re growing. You know, there are some things in life you’ll never be able to do all by yourself. Jesus says it’s something he does for us. He forgives us and helps us be faithful in the world. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son; that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” It’s great to know that God celebrates with us when we can learn to do things by ourselves. But it’s even better to know that God saves us from those times we just can’t do it on our own. Did you ever make mistakes when you were learning to tie your shoes? Or ride a bike? Or count to 20? No one gets it exactly right on the first try. This is good news for us – that God loves us so much that he sent his son to save us when we fail. Let’s fold our hands and bow our heads and close our eyes and thank God for saving us when we cannot save ourselves.

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.

As I read over today’s lessons I couldn’t help but wonder: How can Jesus be so cool about everything? Oh, I know, last week he was tipping over the tables of the money-changers… and in a few days we’ll join him in the Garden at Gethsemane, trembling in prayer. But here with Nicodemus, he’s unfazed, giving him (and us) all that we need to face the troubles of this world.

Nicodemus has come to him in the night (most likely for fear that he’ll be seen associating with Jesus). He’s full of questions and troubled by anxiety, “Rabbi, we know you are a man sent by God for who could do such things as you do if it were not so?” And Jesus gives him these lines that have been such a comfort to the whole world ever since:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

They are words we’ve heard so often that it’s easy to lose sight of their meaning.  So, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I put together a limerick version of John 3:16…

For God so loved the world we’re livin’ in
That his only Son, he had given him,
For eternal life we might cherish
And nary a one would perish
For all who would come to believe in him.

So, eternal life is the prize, right? But what does that look like? I suppose it’s viewed as “holy health insurance” for some, after we die. “You’re in good hands… with Jesus.” To be sure, God wants us to trust and believe that we have a place in heaven for eternity. And yet, there’s something deeper. Jesus isn’t going to leave Nicodemus empty handed in the night.

It wasn’t just eternal life ‘after death’ that Jesus was driving at… He was also inviting Nicodemus into “new life” of being “born again” here and now! There was something going on in the present tense, between Nicodemus and Jesus.

It’s like that joke: “the Past, Present, and Future walk into a bar. It was tense!”

It was tense because everything Nicodemus had believed in up to this point was about to change. Rules about cleanliness and welcoming the Gentiles – the laws about healing on the Sabbath – were just a few of the ways Jesus turned things upside down.  Jesus told his followers plainly that he would be handed over to the authorities, killed and raised on the third day. In this lesson, he tells Nicodemus that he will be raised up – as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Now, there’s a story full of anxiety!

The Jews were wandering in the wilderness, and complaining that all they had to eat was manna (for breakfast, lunch and dinner). So, they took it out on God and Moses: “Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us in the wilderness?” You can’t really blame them for growing impatient. But God grew weary of their complaints and let the snakes loose. They were getting bitten by venomous snakes and dying – which made them very spiritual again, as they prayed to God and asked Moses to do something. God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a stick and raise it up in the camp, so whoever was bitten by a snake could look at it and be healed. And it worked!

Fast forward to John 3:16 and you’ll get the context of how Jesus was using this story. When everything seemed to be changing around him, nipping at the heels of his faith, Jesus calms Nicodemus. To others, he said, “Come unto me, all ye who are weary, and I will give you rest.” Jesus invites Nicodemus into a new way of seeing the world: “This is why I was sent,” says Jesus, “to save the world. And it’s not something you can do for yourself. Only believe.”

It all seemed too easy – and so hard – all at once. As John Wesley once said, “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” And yet, knowing how it will all end up on the last day… changes how we live today. There’s a certain liberty and freedom that comes when we believe that all will be well – a freedom that lifts our burdens in the now, as well as the ‘not yet.’

Allan Bjornberg, bishop of the Rocky Mountain synod, once said, “the question at the heart of it always seems to be: Is it grace, period, or is it grace, comma? My head knows, but my heart hesitates. …Before the reformation days it was, without question, grace, comma. ‘Yours is the grace and mercy of God, comma, if you, or, comma, when you, or, comma, after you, or, comma, unless you, or, comma, until you…’”

But Luther and the reformers tried so very hard to get the punctuation right: “Grace alone. Period. Christ alone. Period. Word alone. Period. Faith alone.”

How are we doing at getting the punctuation right? Do we carry pocketfuls of commas, yet today? “God loves you, comma, if…?” “You’re forgiven, comma, unless…?” “You are welcome here, comma, until…?”

Are those commas directed at ourselves? I know I carry them still sometimes.  “I’m saved, comma, if only…” Or, “God loves me, comma, except for when…”

What if we could, just for once, hear that promise of John 3:16 as good news – pure, and unconditional love – for us. Period! Maybe it would be easier to treat each other gently, if we first saw ourselves as forgiven sinners. There’s no one in this room who is free from sin. No one is perfect. We all stand in the need of John 3:16. But why let it stop there? Jesus said, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” This gift of grace was never meant to be hoarded and boarded up.

It’s a harsh world out there! Snakes do attack. Anxieties about money and jobs are all around us. Politicians stoke the fires of fear as they drag down their opponents. Victims of abuse endure pain and ridicule, even at the hands of someone they love. And Jesus marches right into the middle of it, right up to Pontius Pilate and the powers that be – right up to Nicodemus – right up to you and me – and says, “Do not be afraid. The son was not sent to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.”

We get this religion business ALL WRONG when we make it about “being a better person” or about “getting our act together” for God. I hear that all the time from people who don’t attend worship: “Oh, well when I get my act together I’ll be back.”  Never realizing that this is precisely the place where we come to “get it together.”  We lay all our messiness at the feet of Jesus and he lifts us up to stare at his cross: “By grace you have been saved,” we hear in our 2nd lesson from Ephesians 2 “and this is not your own doing. It is a gift from God.”

I don’t know how much more clearly it can be stated. The punctuation is a period.

Let us live our lives in that faith, sure that we are covered under the promise of God’s love – and ready to share that love with all the world. Let us pray: O God, we give you thanks for loving the world (and us) so much that you sent your only son. Calm our fears and be born again in each one of us, that who whole world might come to know your saving love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Playing For Keeps

March 19, 2012

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Lent2 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-4-12

Children’s Time: Have you ever played a game of marbles? Here are a few I brought from home. The object of the game was to draw a circle on the ground and put your marbles inside. Then you had a shooter marble that you could knock other people’s marbles out of the circle with. Any marble you knock out you put in your pocket and keep going until all your marbles get knocked out. When the last marble is in the circle the winner is the one with the most marbles. Usually, someone will say before the game, “Are we playing for fun or for keeps?” If you’re playing for fun you can have your marbles back at the end; but if you’re playing for keeps you get to keep all the marbles you knocked out of the circle. Sometimes we live our lives like that – playing for keeps, making winners out of those who have the most stuff. But Jesus said, “Whoever would follow me must lose everything. Take up your cross and follow me.” Whenever we make the most important things in life more important than God, we are loving things more than God. Let’s pray that we love people and God more than marbles and all that other fancy stuff. (Credit: sermons4kids.com)

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.

You ready to lose your marbles? Not because I’m an Ace Shooter or anything… but because that’s really the only way any of us will hear what Jesus has to say today – to first lose all our marbles – to get the short end of the stick – to be one card short of a full deck – and become a laughingstock for others!

Any takers? Who goes looking for those qualities? Who wants to be known as the guy with an elevator that doesn’t go all the way to the top floor? As the woman whose lights are on, but no one’s home? Or, as the person who was at the front of the line when brains were being handed out… but unfortunately, had to hold the door for everybody else!

Are these really the kinds of people Jesus would choose for disciples? Yup.  They were people who often didn’t get what he was all about. Or is it that they got it all right… but that they just couldn’t stomach the news that he was about to walk the path of suffering, rejection and death; and on the third day be raised from the dead?

Here’s the deal: no one willingly lets go of their marbles – of everything they hold near and dear – without being called on it. In our lesson for today, Jesus calls Peter on his long-held idea of what a Messiah ought to be. And he has a hard time letting go of that marble!

Here we are, smack dab in the middle of Mark’s gospel – it’s a turning point. Jesus has just asked the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s hand is the first to go up, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” “That’s right, Peter, good answer. Now, here’s the plan: suffering, rejection, get killed, rise again. Any questions?”

Peter took him aside, “Um… well, I was with you until that part about ‘the plan.’ But, Lord, you can’t be serious. We’ve left everything for you: our homes, our jobs, our families. This is our time to restore the kingdom of Israel. So, just cool it with all the suffering & dying business.” If he were alive today he’d probably say, “Do you want to grow your church, Jesus, or not? This is not the way to reach the unchurched!” But Jesus turns to his disciples, who were probably thinking the same thing, and he lays into Peter with some of the most violent words in all of scripture: “Get behind me, Satan! You’re setting your heart on human things, rather than on divine.”

Sometimes the only way for Jesus to get through to people was to slap them silly and wake them up a bit. In fact, much of Mark’s gospel has to do with healing the deaf and the blind. For Mark, faith wasn’t the opposite of doubt – it was the restoration of sight to the blind. Even Jesus’ closest comrades couldn’t see.

Walter Wink once put it this way: “What can be more frustrating than being made to understand that you don’t even understand what it is that you don’t understand?”

This Lenten season, we are listening for God and each other, trying to be open to what the Holy Spirit is calling us to be and to do as a congregation. But listening is hard work. Let’s not assume that we don’t all come full of voices and our own agenda (like Peter) to the table. Before they can truly believe they have to be opened to being emptied of all they have learned and brought to the group.

Another quote from Walter Wink: “Human beings… are not empty vessels needing to be filled. They are always already filled. They have already been shaped by the self-interests and collective experience of their own sector of the community.”

In other words, when we come to worship, or kneel in prayer, or attend a church meeting – we already come full of whatever the world has been dishing out the past 6 days! Jesus has to muddle through all that – all that society has deemed worthy of our grey matter. He receives us with open arms… but then starts to rearrange all the furniture in our house. “Hey, Jesus, be careful with that hutch!” “Hey Jesus, there’s no room for that ottoman. And that folding chair doesn’t quite fit the decor.” And we begin to wonder if it was such a good idea inviting him in in the first place!

Just like Peter.

We’ve had a few cottage meetings already – and it’s been wonderful to sit in and listen to where people are with their hopes and dreams for the future of Holy Cross! We’ve heard a lot about maintaining our facility and reaching the younger generations, as well as people in our own back yard – and across the globe in Tanzania. But one theme I’m pretty sure has not been brought up as a goal for the future: “We want to suffer, be rejected, die, and rise again.” I don’t think that was on any of the feedback forms we collected.

Now, we don’t intentionally go looking to be walked upon and spat upon. We do stand with those who are suffering, whether it’s Katrina, the tsunami, or, this week’s horrible display of nature’s wrath, from the southwest to the Midwest, where hundreds of tornadoes ripped through people’s lives.

We do stand up to slavery around the world, where the sex trade industry is still alive and well, even here in Minnesota. We do stand up to discrimination against people who are different from ourselves. We do stand up to those who recklessly pollute our planet and threaten endangered species and habitats toward extinction. We stand with children, who fall victim to gunfire in their own school!

Not because it’s noble or will gain us a reward in heaven. But because it’s what Jesus does. He plays for keeps – and the stakes are much higher than a few shiny marbles. He walks the way of suffering and bids us to follow. “Why follow a crucified Christ?” asked Kenneth Carder, “Because only a crucified messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God. Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering.”

I mean, really, when you’re at your worst (the death of a loved one or getting some shockingly bad news), when you’ve done something terribly wrong (betrayal or hurting another) do you really want a God who hasn’t walked through all that crap? Who knows that hurting place you can’t shake? Who once cried out from the cross, “Why, O God, have you forsaken me?”

There is no Easter victory with out Good Friday’s cross. As much as the world would like to fill our heads with pastel peeps (nothing against those tasty morsels) and chocolate bunnies – there is no amount of sugar that can sweeten the heartache one feels in the dark pit of suffering – when we truly are in need of a savior. Jesus’ remedy is a slap in the face – a swift kick in the seat of the pants – a healing gesture to receive sight and faith.

I want to close with this story from The Christian Century magazine, which was published in 1983 (some 30 years ago) but it has some merit for today. William Willimon, a noted preacher and author, tells the story of going to visit the hospital where a young couple from his church has just had a baby.

I sat with them in silence as they awaited the arrival of the pediatrician. It had been an easy delivery, but all was not well with the newborn.  The doctor spared few words. “Your baby is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, mongoloidism. I had expected this, but things were too far along before I could say for sure.”
“Is the baby healthy?” she asked.
“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you,” the doctor said. “The baby is healthy—except for the problem. However, it does have a slight, rather common respiratory ailment. My advice is that you let me take it off the respirator—that might solve things. At least, it’s a possibility.”
“It’s not a possibility for us,” they said together.
“I know how you feel,” responded the doctor. “But you need to think about what you’re doing. You already have two beautiful kids. Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress and family problems. Is it fair to do this to the children you already have? Is it right to bring this suffering into your family?”
At the mention of “suffering” I saw her face brighten, as if the doctor were finally making sense.
“Suffering?” she said quietly. “We appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians. God suffered for us, and we will try to suffer for the baby, if we must.”
“Pastor, I hope you can do something with them,” the doctor whispered to me outside their door as he continued his rounds.
Two days later, the doctor and I watched the couple leave the hospital. They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle; but it seemed a heavy burden to us, a weight on their shoulders. We felt as if we could hear them dragging, clanking it down the front steps of the hospital, moving slowly but deliberately into a cold, gray March morning.
“It will be too much for them,” the doctor said. “You ought to have talked them out of it. You should have helped them to understand.”
But as they left, I noticed a curious look on their faces; they looked as if the burden were not too heavy at all, as if it were a privilege and a sign. They seemed borne up, as if on another’s shoulders, being carried toward some high place the doctor and I would not be going, following a way we did not understand.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in 30 years, seeing the ‘disabled’ as ‘differently-abled’ – as full members of the Body of Christ. The eyes of many have been opened to welcoming vulnerable adults into fuller participation in the life of the church. But that doesn’t happen without some serious rearranging of the furniture – some hard listening – and some cross-bearing by the people of God.

May we find new ways to recover our sight these 40 days of Lent and be led on our way trusting that our Lord goes before us.

Let us pray: O God, guide us along the narrow path in our times of suffering. Restore our sight and our faith in you – that we too may be lifted up and rise with new life and hope… in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Covered By The Rainbow

March 19, 2012

Genesis 9:8-17
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Lent1 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-26-12

Children’s Time: If the flood happened today, what would you take on the ark? Stuff. Guitars. Laptop. Backpack. Gear. Life jacket. Paddle. Bicycle. Toys. Can we take all this with us? No. Beyond the essentials of food and clothing, all we really need is a promise. That God will be there. The rainbow reminds us of God’s mercy and grace, even when we don’t deserve it. This Lenten season, let’s listen for God’s word of forgiveness and watch for rainbows that remind us of God’s promise.

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.

When was the last time you saw a rainbow? That glorious spectacle of raindrops and sunlight – all the colors in the spectrum are represented here: ROYGBIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet). Here is a reminder of a promise. Here in the clouds is a sign of God’s covenant never again to destroy the world through a flood. But destroy it God did! That part is often left out of the illustrated children’s Bibles. You know, that part about wrath and destruction. There was God, feeling sorry for having created the world in the first place, because of the wickedness and violence they committed against one another. A watery grave awaits all living things, except for Noah and his family and the animals he managed to save.

Why is this part of the Noah’s Ark story often glossed over? The part about human sin? You see, sin also got smuggled onto the ark (unlike the unicorns) and is alive and well today. Sin and violence were carefully tucked away somewhere in the heart of Noah and his family. There is a saying attributed to Karl Barth, that “the Old Adam was drowned in the waters of our baptism… but he’s a really good swimmer!”

So, what are we to make of this story? When we see a rainbow it’s a wonder – we marvel at its beauty – oh, can you see it? They’re beautiful! The word used in the Hebrew is the same word for ‘a bow and arrow.’ It’s as if God were placing a protective shield around the earth at that moment of promise. “My bow is in the clouds now. Never again will natural disasters destroy the earth. I’ve got your backs.”

Yes, there are still natural disasters. And, yes, there is still human sin, some of which has contributed to the climate change that brings such disaster. But God’s promise has not changed.

It’s a promise that came to Jesus in his baptism: “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” It’s a promise that comes in the clouds near the end of every storm through the rainbow in the sky. “Never again,” says God. “Never again will I destroy the earth.” Oh that we could hear such words from the Lord when storms gather, when dread descends upon us, when we are lost at sea or tempted in the wilderness of sin.

When mighty waters overwhelm us there is an ark to keep us afloat – a promise to sustain. We have these sacred stories of destruction and promise. Of the end of the world and of new beginnings. Of temptation and triumph.  Of God not giving up on God’s people.

When I think of not giving up, I’m reminded of a story told by Mark Hanson, bishop of the ELCA.  Recently, he was wearing his clergy collar at an airport terminal when someone shouted across the way, “Which church?”  “Lutheran!” Hanson shouted back.  “Oh, we love Lutherans!” came the reply.  Well, he had to make his way around the baggage claim to get to this woman and ask why?  “Well, I work for FEMA,” she said, “and the first people to show up after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast were the Lutherans – and they’re still there today, after most everyone else packed up and headed out.”

We can be proud of the way we are ‘building an ark’ for those in need among us, through Lutheran Disaster Response and other helping agencies, through your own generous support of the North St. Paul Food Shelf!

Getting back to Mark chapter 1: some scholars have compared these seven verses in today’s lesson to the whole story of the Old Testament, summed up in 3 parts: Jesus’ baptism, temptation and preaching of the good news. Here is the story of the Exodus (of coming through the waters of his baptism – as when Moses parted the Red Sea, bringing the Israelites out of slavery); and here is the wandering in the wilderness for forty years (as Jesus was tempted for 40 days by Satan); and here is the coming to the Promised Land (compared to Jesus’ bringing of the good news – the Gospel of our salvation – to all who had ears to hear).

Okay, so God has promised to be there for us. Great. Why should I care? I don’t have any storms, personally. I’m doing just fine. Who needs God?

Yesterday, I attended a workshop with a few other Holy Cross members where the bishop of our synod, Peter Rogness, spoke. He was quoting some statistics about religious preferences. In a recent poll that was taken, the fastest growing segment of the population appears to be those who put down for their religious preference: NONE. Some 34 million Americans are represented in this category. They see the church as hypocritical, judgmental, and insincere. Their perception is that the church is too focused on rules and not enough on spiritual matters. It’s not that they aren’t spiritual – only disillusioned with religion as they understand it.

This feeling was highlighted in a youtube video that went viral a few weeks ago. There’s a young man saying how much he hates religion but loves Jesus. After 19 million hits this video is touching a nerve with many Americans who feel the same way.

The question that lingers for me is: does the church have an ark in such a world? Is the church (or religion, or tradition) capable of keeping people afloat by the simple promise that God will be there? This is something I wish more people heard about: the unwavering love of God for people who still don’t get it – who hurt each other in sin – who build churches and turn a blind eye to the poor. The God who put a bow in the clouds said his mercy and grace was more powerful than our sin and disobedience.

Yes, there is much about religion that is wrong – but what’s right about the church is more powerful. Together, we become the hands and feet of Christ. Together, we accomplish more than we ever could alone. Together, we live out that hope in Jesus until he comes again in glory.

We may never see the world threatened by another Great Flood – but the threat of human sin is no less ominous. Who is not overwhelmed with stories of tsunamis and hurricanes – of political unrest and of civil war – of dictators killing thousands of this their own people, as in Syria?

The sign of Noah has not changed: I will be your God and my mercy covers you as the bow in the clouds.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “rainbow” is the same word for an archer’s bow – meaning, God’s bow will “cover you,” much like a shepherd’s rod and staff may comfort you.

How on earth can such a message be brought to a world full of such strife and pain as ours? It almost sounds childish. Foolish. And yet, no other power has been so remembered in human history as this: a young man from Nazareth who laid down his life for the sake of the world. A common carpenter who stood up to the Roman Superpower of his day, under the banner of mercy and grace. Jesus’ undeserved death and glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.

These coming 40 days of Lent I invite you into the ark, with your sins and all. Together, let’s stand under God’s rainbow and let the world do its best. We are given all that we need in Jesus and in our baptism into God’s family. May this word of promise sustain you in the coming days: “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And may this grace and mercy transform your life – your home – our community – and the world.

Let us pray: O God, you set your bow in the clouds over what was left of a rebellious people. That sin lingers in each of us, even as we come to you for forgiveness and mercy. May your grace sustain us and draw others into the ark of your love until that day we reach the shores of our heavenly home in you. Amen.

Listening For God And Each Other

March 19, 2012

Genesis 32:22-21
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Ash Wednesday / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-22-12

Children’s Time: This year’s theme for Lent is “Listening” so I had these cut-out ears made for each one of you to take home. It says: “Listen 4 God.” That’s hard to do sometimes – to stop and listen to just what God might be telling us. In the church, we call that prayer, but it’s also important to listen to one another. I brought this stethoscope as a reminder that when we’re listening we really have to pay attention – to stop everything else we’re doing. The only way a doctor can listen to your heart or your lungs is if they stick these things in their ear and place the stethoscope on your heart. So that’s why “4God” is in the middle of your ear! To keep God at the heart of all we do. Tonight’s lesson is about Jacob getting a new name from God: Israel (which means wrestling with God). Jacob had to listen to God and prayed for a blessing and God gave him a new name. So the first letter “N” is for “New Name.” Let’s put this on your ear and say a prayer to thank God for knowing our name and helping us to listen in our prayers…

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.

When I think of listening, a wrestling match is not the first image that comes to mind. I imagine a young couple sitting in my office as we work on pre-marriage preparation. There’s so much to plan for with a wedding: dresses, suits, flowers, choosing a photographer, the cake and the dance hall, and on and on and on.

So, I tell couples, “You plan the wedding, we’ll work on the marriage.” Oh, we do a little housekeeping on the actual wedding ceremony toward the end, but it’s that preparation for marriage that I think makes a huge difference. We don’t skip over that and just tie the knot and hope for the best. We work on communication and conflict resolution. We help draw up a map of strengths and growth areas. And when those sessions are over we have the map, the compass, there are the woods. Good luck!

But one thing we usually do is work on listening exercises. There’s what we call “active listening” where the person listening is not allowed to speak – and must focus their attention on the person speaking. Nodding of the head helps, but what really matters is when their partner is done speaking giving the information back to them in your own words. “So, I hear you say…” Then it’s the other person’s turn to listen and to let them know if they got it right the first time.

Now, this doesn’t work unless the person doing the talking really speaks from the heart and is assertive, not aggressive and in-your-face, but assertive. “This is what I need. This is what is important to me. I wish you would __________ (whatever… spend more time with me on your day off, etc.).” Most poor communication happens because 1) we’re not assertive enough to really ask for what we need and 2) we’re really not actively listening. A lot of miscommunication happens between us because of assumptions that are made or because we simply didn’t say what was really on our mind.

So, I suppose there is a kind of wrestling involved with listening. It means paying attention and caring enough to say it back to the other person in your own words so they know… you know… before you let them go.

Jacob wrestled with God (or, an angel, as some traditions interpret this) all night long. There’s this wrestling – this struggling with God – this begging for blessing – this hanging-on-for-dear-life encounter between Jacob and the mysterious man who wrestles him until dawn.

“Let me go!” “I will not let you go!” (Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody is right there in the Bible!) He desires a blessing. Interesting, isn’t it? The reason Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau, is because he has stolen his brother’s blessing – he tricked the old man (Isaac) into giving him the inheritance, when the firstborn, Esau, was the rightful heir.

So, there’s some wrestling Jacob needed to do with God and with his brother to come away blessed. Limping, yes. That angel was a tricky old bugger – put his hip right out of joint. But Jacob hangs on and becomes Israel. There’s a new name for those who listen to God – who hang in there and will not let go.

This Ash Wednesday we are called to repent – to turn back to God – to listen for God.

I read a story recently about a man who was walking along the railroad tracks as a young boy. His father was still back by the car, getting the baby out of the back seat. He heard the train and saw it coming but knew he could never get to his son in time. Shouting as loud as he could to his son, “Get out of the way!” did no good. The boy couldn’t hear his father over the noise.

Fortunately, the child simply looked up and stepped off the tracks with plenty of time to spare, apparently unfazed and unaware of how frantic his father had been, trying to get his attention.

In Joel, we hear this father sounding the alarm: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! …The day of the Lord is coming near!” We don’t really know what Joel’s listeners had done wrong – what they had to repent of – or why he was warning them to fast and weep and rend their hearts. But we do know it was urgent. The prophet cared for his people and delivered God’s message to turn back their hearts.  Jesus, too, warns his followers against showing off their faith in the synagogue and strutting their spiritual stuff on the street corner, as the hypocrites do.

There is this clear sense that when it all comes down, it’s between you and God. Sure, when it comes to saving the whole world, God is the “leading lady” – the “main actor” on the stage of salvation. We are the audience. But there is a private show where you alone are on stage and God is the audience. This is where listening meets wrestling. Where we are onstage, naked before our maker, with only ashes on our heads to speak of.

And God listens.

What does God hear in those moments from you? How does that conversation go? What sins do you dare name before the One who knows them better than you do?

My prayer these coming forty days is that we might slow down long enough to tend to this ‘marriage,’ if you will. To listen for God. To pray what’s on our hearts and minds. To take to that stage and say our lines with assertiveness and humility, begging for a blessing, though we do not deserve it. And then, that we might listen to one another. To actively listen and assertively share what we hope for and need from one another.

God knows your name and gives you a new one: my child, my daughter, my son. Return to the Lord this day and may the peace of God, which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds together as one, in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Taking Up The Mantle

March 19, 2012

Mark 9:2-10
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Transfiguration Sunday / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-19-12

Children’s Time: Who do you look up to in life? Baseball players, hockey or volleyball? Musicians who play in bands or who sing? Writers or poets? Scientists who make discoveries or go exploring? Do you look up to your big sister?  Or mom & dad?  One of the coolest things about being a kid is you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up! In the Bible, Elisha looked up to Elijah. He wanted to be just like him. The disciples looked up to Jesus. They, too, wanted to be like him. And today there are still people who look up to Jesus – who want to be like him. The good news is that you can still be what you want to be when you grow up and still be like Jesus. Wherever God puts you there will be a way to serve others in Jesus’ name!

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.

When I was a kid, I never wanted to play pro football – but I did admire certain players: Fran Tarkenton, Carl Eller, Alan Page. We marveled at the athleticism of Meadowlark Lemon and the Harlem Globetrotters. I also enjoyed comic books as a kid, and admired artists like Jim Aparo, George Perez and Frank Frazetta. My parents were very much into music, so there was Elvis Presley and Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash and Chet Atkins. And when it came to the drums all you needed to hear was Buddy Rich vs. Gene Krupa in the drum battle at Carnegie Hall, September 13, 1952!

Today we mourn the loss of yet another great musician, Whitney Houston. We listened in on her funeral yesterday and heard how many lives she touched – how many young voices she mentored (including Alicia Keys, who spoke highly of her mentor and angel, Whitney Houston).

In our first lesson today, we hear of how Elisha looked up to Elijah – of how he earnestly prayed for twice as much spirit as Elijah had.  Each time Elijah was moving on to another town, he ordered Elisha to stay behind and Elisha ignored him, “I’m coming with you!”  On to Bethel, on to Jericho, on to the Jordan… Elisha persists, out of devotion to his mentor.

So, who have you looked up to? And how is it going in following their lead?

I suppose the most natural thing for me to say is “My Mom & Dad.” Both are now gone after losing the battle to cancer in their 60’s. It’s just me now, standing there like Elisha, looking up into heaven.

What will I do now? Will have have even half of the Spirit my parents did? Don’t we all want to carry on in life and make it a little bit better for our own children? Don’t we all want to leave a lasting legacy – to make our mark in a meaningful way?

I think we have more power than we realize. Unlike Frodo Baggins who was tempted by a magic ring, we have all we need through faith in Christ. Unlike Dumbo the elephant, who needed his magic feather (and really big ears!) to fly in the circus… we need only one thing: faith that God is with us always.

This coming Lent we begin our mentoring ministry. For the next few weeks, adults will be sitting down with teens to talk about their faith, their hopes and dreams, and the way God might be calling them to live out that faith.

So, what do you look for in a mentor? What do you expect to receive? Jesus let his disciples in on a secret – it was his transfiguration – he let them in on something huge! Now they knew his true nature, and he told them not to speak of it until after the Son of Man was raised from the dead. But wouldn’t you know, no sooner had they come down from that mountain, than they began to argue amongst themselves as to which one was the greatest: “Jesus loves me more.”  “Well, I saw Elijah first!”  “Oh, and did anyone else offer to set up camp?”  And Jesus puts a stop to it.

What goes up must come down, as the saying goes. We can’t stay on the mountain with our heads in the clouds. When we puff ourselves up… well it won’t be long before we’re put in our place. “We have this power as in earthen vessels,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. We’re clay pots, bearing the living waters to a thirsty world. It comes from God and not from us.

And so, even though what comes up must come down… we are never the same after coming down from that mountain.

Jesus himself said that his disciples would work wonders – even greater things than these: raising the dead, healing the sick, bringing good new to the poor. It’s all there. And yet, it’s not like we go looking to be swamped with people in need. Truly, we can do no good apart from God, so we give credit to the power at work within us. Still, to follow in the steps Christ trod could get us in a heap of trouble. Taking on the establishment, being ridiculed for our faith, standing up for the outcast before those who would cast the first stone. In order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus we must first ask: “Are we prepared to go there?” Or is it too late? We’ve already decided to follow Jesus and there’s no turning back.

I mean, who prays to do greater things than these? I don’t. Some days I just want to be left alone. And usually those are the days God puts people in my life I had not seen before. One example of people being put upon my heart happened last fall when people in our community were killed due to domestic violence. It’s always harder for me when children are involved. So, God set it on my heart to ask some friends to do something about it. We’re making an album entitled We Are The Children and it’s going to inject some hope into the community through music. All the proceeds after production costs will be donated to victims of domestic violence and also our Building Bridges tutoring program.

But I will admit, there are days when the whole endeavor seems overwhelming! How are we able to carry on and do God’s work in this life when so often it feels as if we’ve been brought onto this field and shoved out in front of everybody to perform a miracle? It happens nearly every Sunday. People gather, hungry for God or hungry for real food in their bellies, and Jesus looks at me and says, “You give them something to eat. Stand up. Preach the Word!”

The good news is that the Word does work wonders!  Death is not the end. That person everyone else has all but given up on really does have a shot at a second chance. That the child everyone thought was dead to gang violence and a life of drug-dealing really is rising in service to others and paying her due to society. That washed up career really is on the verge of a new business venture.

And what about you when you face circumstances in your daily lives? How do you “take up the mantle of Elijah” or follow in Jesus’ steps? Is it in the attitude you bring to a negative environment? Is your refusal to despair rooted in Christ somehow? And why is that? Why are you such a doggone optimist? Is it more than ‘pie in the sky’ optimism?  Something like, say, faith? Are you ready to give a testimony to the hope that is within you? That’s when you’re taking up the mantle of the faith – you’re living by the power of the Holy Spirit within you.

So, here we are… I’m just one person. All I have is God in my heart and a week of past experiences to draw upon. And that’s really all you have, too.

And it is enough.

Let us pray: Dear God, it’s true that without you we can do nothing. We pray for power from on high to do even greater things than these through Jesus Christ, your son our Lord. Amen.

God Rises Up With Healing

March 19, 2012

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Epiphany6 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-12-11

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.

Last week, I poked some fun at TV commercials for cold medicines. Then I got sick. And it wasn’t funny anymore. Still we put our faith in whatever remedy seems most proven and effective. But when it all comes down, we are really quite helpless when we’re sick. There’s not much one can do. You are at the mercy of the disease, infection, or virus that his taken over. And it hurts.

Not only do we lose some of our pep and the jump in our step, but we lose human contact when it becomes necessary to refrain from shaking hands – or to direct someone to the bottle hand sanitizer on the counter after inadvertently making contact. “No offense, but… I got the crud.”

And people get that. They know that it stinks. But it will pass. Surely, having a cold was nothing like illness in the first century Palestine, where a skin disease got you kicked out of town literally. You had to join a leper colony and tear your clothes, uncover your head, and shout, “Unclean! Unclean!” when a passerby happened along the road you were on.

Jesus was moved with compassion, the text says in Mark 1. Other ancient manuscripts translate that he was “moved with anger.” Which I don’t quite understand. The man was only following the rules laid down in the Old Testament (Leviticus 13 & 14) about keeping people with skin lesions away from the rest of the community. They were not allowed in places of business or worship. They could no longer live with their families. What a horrible sentence!

And maybe that’s what Jesus is mad about – that God’s law would exclude someone clearly in need of healing. They were both breaking the rules that day. Did you notice that? The leper, by approaching Jesus in the first place. And Jesus, by touching him, makes himself unclean. That was a ‘no no.’ These guys were the walking dead – the zombies of their day – unworthy of your time or attention. Keep your distance. You never know just what they’re going to do.

Instead, they both keep their eyes on the prize: a life restored in Christ, Jesus. God was doing a new thing through Jesus at this moment. And they were not about to miss it.

It almost didn’t happen for Naaman, in our first lesson. In a huff, he gets ready to pack his bags and head back to Syria – “Who does this Elisha think he is? Sending out a servant to tell me to go wash myself in the Jordan! Are not the rivers in Syria just a good, if not better?” His pride almost sends him packing for home. But it is lowly servant who gently prods, “Master, if he had asked you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? Why not give it a try? What have you got to lose?” And so he goes down in the water and his skin is restored to that of a young boy.

Again, Naaman stayed in the struggle – despite his doubts and his pride in his own rank and military might – he keeps his eyes on the prize and finds healing.

Not everyone who calls on the Lord, is healed or cured, though.  I encounter people every week who face life threatening diseases or illnesses – and they all face it in their own unique way.

In the past week, I’ve called on two of our members – both in need of Jesus’ healing power and presence. One member has dementia. I never knew him before his diagnosis. But since I became his pastor he has lost his ability to walk and feed himself – fully dependent on others to care for his every need. What do you say to a family who faithfully comes to see their father (or what is left of him)? What do we pray for when all seems lost? When we feel utterly helpless in the face of disease?

Then, earlier this week, we got the news that another member is entering hospice care at Bethesda Hospital. She who has been hospitalized since October, with complications from surgery, is now facing her final days living with pancreatic cancer. What does one say to a person who has been handed a diagnosis of cancer that’s terminal? And a body too weak to endure chemotherapy? Do I dare tell the story of one person’s journey toward healing and being cured when another person sitting across the room is still waiting for a miracle?

The ‘living center’ of this message is that Jesus heals / but not without some real struggling – of staying focused on God in the face of helplessness and death. Of getting angry even – over the system of separation for those who have been cut off from the rest of us because of their “condition.” Of breaking of the rules in order to reach out and touch those who the rest of the world have given up on!

I am thankful for people in this community who remember those with dementia and tell me stories about them. In a small way, we are keeping their memories alive. We are holding them and others in our hearts. Others in this congregation have brought meals to families during illness. You have not tried to give pat answers, only to stay focused on the same Jesus Christ who has brought us to this point together.

The good news for us today is that God struggles, too. God struggles with Naaman’s ego, so proud he couldn’t see the very miracle right before his eyes. Joy does come in the morning, as we read in our psalm, but not before weeping has lingered for the night. Dancing does follow the long night of grief of loss – and the clothes of joy do replace the sackcloth of sorrows.

I want you to think for a moment this morning about that part of you that is hurting or sick. How have you been cut off from those around you? Even if you aren’t cured from a chronic condition, have you experienced healing of mind or Spirit? We may lose our battles with the diseases of the flesh, but there is a peace that passes all human understanding that can only be received through faith.

My prayer is that you will find healing and wellness – that you might find a cure for what ails you or those you love – but mostly that you will keep your eyes on the prize – of a life centered in Jesus Christ – the author of life – the Word made flesh – the Great Physician – the guardian of your soul.

Let us pray: O God, we ask you to heal us and those we love. Rise up with compassion, anger, whatever it takes to bring healing to the sick and to all who call on you in faith. And may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard and keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.