Archive for June 2015

Get Up And Go

June 30, 2015

Here’s a song I recorded today on piano, using my dad’s old set of Ludwig drums from the 50’s.


The Balance of Power in the People of God

June 28, 2015

Here’s this week’s Sunday sermon

2 Corinthians 8:9-15
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Mark 5:21-43
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.


Pent5 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 6-28-15

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

So, where is Jesus taking us today? Last week, we were in the boat, cast about in a storm – and this week, we’re on the move among the crowds.

To be sure, there’s urgency in the air… illness… crisis… long-suffering… even secrecy (on the woman’s part: “If I can just get close enough to touch his cloak…” / and secrecy on Jesus’ part: “Don’t tell anyone about this healing business!”)…

So, what happens when people encounter Jesus? What changes occur in their lives? What we have is this: Jesus shows up and he goes to where the hurt is. Or, the hurt comes to him. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a well-known leader in the synagogue or a no-name woman who is sick and flat broke. He’s there, with healing power. But he comes on his own terms.

As a crowd began to form on the way to Jairus’ house, what does it matter that someone touched him? He took notice; but others didn’t. Jesus saw what everyone else missed: A woman – an unclean woman – in need of touch. Is there anyone who isn’t in need of touch? The power of touch!  (In the Greek, the word used here is dynamous, the same word we use for dynamite).  Something powerful is afoot, and Jesus senses it – just as clearly as does this woman.  “You, you bleeding woman with open sores, unclean and untouchable in your community – yes you – come forward.  Your faith has saved you.” Dirty, desperate and without a penny to her name, she came to Jesus and he noticed. “Whoa, whoa, whoa…slow down, there, people. Who touched me?” A silly question, considering the crowd was pressing in on him on his way to help Jairus’ daughter – who’s really, really sick, by the way. “C’mon, Jesus, there’s not a moment to spare!” “But wait, there’s another daughter in need here. Show yourself.” See, the miracle had already been dispensed – the power had already gone out from Jesus, and he knew it. With fear and trembling the woman came forward to tell her story. To this woman with no name, Jesus gives her one: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” Her whole life savings had been wiped out by rising healthcare costs and she was worse off than when she started. Until she met Jesus.

What happens when people meet Jesus? What does he do for them? For you?

St. Paul writes about this in our 2nd lesson (2Cor 8:9) “Though he was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This is the Christ who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Though he was ‘God-in-the-flesh’ he poured out all his power – relinquishing it to those in need around him. And this, says Paul, is the way you ought to live – by pouring yourselves out for others.

The church at Corinth had begun a good thing, but had lagged behind in their giving. “It is appropriate for you, who began a good thing last year… now finish doing it.” Do what you said you were going to do. Don’t lose heart. Get caught up on your pledges. Finish what you started. And that can be hard to do once time rolls on and we become discouraged.

It’s one thing when Jesus is the one doling out the miracles. But who are we to think we could do any better? Why bother? Even when it seemed that all hope was lost for Jairus’ daughter: “Why trouble the teacher any further – it’s over – she’s dead.” Jesus said, “No, no, no, no.”  “No.” Come with me. And taking the child by the hand he whispered, “Talitha Cum” (“Little girl, get up.”) And. She. Did.

When you’re in crisis mode, it seems nothing else matters except getting the help you need for those you love. We can grow impatient and bitter. Or we may give up hope altogether, “What’s the use!”

This week, we continue to mourn the senseless deaths of those were killed during a Bible study at the AME church in Charleston, SC.  We can take heart with President Obama, who gave the eulogy at Rev. Pickney’s funeral. He called our nation to work for meaningful change to prevent such all-too-common acts of violence among us. Because it’s tempting to just throw up our hands and say, “Why bother? They’re dead. It’s over.” How many more children need to die in the classroom, or in a movie theater? “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

Far too many people know the despair of losing everything – loved ones, taken too soon by accidents and illness – natural disasters, or violent crimes that wipe out our livelihood. How to you manage in your despair? When all hope is lost? When, as it seems, even Jesus can’t help us now!

Was he really ‘too late’ to save Jairus’ daughter? Emerson Powery, from Messiah College in Grantham, PA reminds us of how African American slaves once sang the song:

“God may not come when you call him, but he’ll be there right on time!”

You see, the moment we give up is when the Lord goes to work. “Talitha cumi.” “Little girl, get up.” And she did. The doors were open last Sunday for worship at Emanuel AME. The interim pastor, Norval Goff, gave the sermon. And at one point he said, “The moment you find a situation that is beyond your control – too big for you to handle – it’s just right for the Lord!”

So, take it to the Lord. Take it with the reassurance that God will hear and respond. Take it when you’ve got nothing else to lose. Like this woman with no name – who is the first woman to speak in the New Testament. This one whom the community had written off as unclean and untouchable. And see how God not only notices her – but desires to know her. Jesus cares about her story, enough to stop everything and call her by a new name: “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”

When I think of situations in life that have a tendency to overwhelm us – I am reminded of the landmark decision this week of our Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. And how the news of this ruling might also seem overwhelming – either with joy, that God is doing a new thing among us – or with grief and frustration that this won’t be helpful in the long run, and is unfaithful to our calling.

I wasn’t with you in 2009 when our church (the ELCA) voted to allow for gay pastors to serve on the roster. But I was here in 2013 when we hosted a Respectful Conversation on the matter, and committed ourselves to journey together faithfully, during this time of discernment, to commit ourselves to Bible study and conversation with those who are different from us, and to be welcoming and respectful as we figure out what this means for the church. Our council adopted a welcome statement that now appears in our bulletin every Sunday – not as a “rubber stamp” that anything goes – but as a commitment to be in dialogue – and to surround all people with a community of faith that calls us to live lives that bear witness to God’s grace, forgiveness and righteousness. The statement reads as follows:

Welcome to long-time Lutherans, Christians from every tradition, and people new to the faith. Welcome to all who have no church home, want to follow Christ, have doubts, or do not believe. Welcome to new visitors and old friends. Welcome to people of every age and size, color and culture, every sexual orientation and gender identity, socio-economic status, ability and challenge. Welcome to believers and questioners, and to questioning believers. This is a place where you are welcome to celebrate and sorrow, rejoice and recover. This is a place where lives are made new. Welcome on this day.

We’ll need the Lord’s help to live out that welcoming statement. Because most of us in the church don’t know what it feels like – to be singled out and left alone on the edges of society. And yet, the people who made up the early church were in the minority: they were outcasts and sinners, Jews who lived with their backs against the wall, under Roman occupation. So, for me – being strait, white, male and a US citizen – it’s hard for me to identify with those who have no privilege or position in life – who get stopped on the road because of how they look – who get followed in the department store – or who receive unwelcome advances. Or, who get barred from visiting their partner in the intensive care unit, as if they didn’t even exist. If you’re like me, you need that still small voice that says “I might be wrong.”

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s find ourselves in this healing story this day! Are you the one reaching out today, desperate to touch the hem of his robe? Good news! God sees you – and will not fail you. Even when someone else’s life is on the line… Jesus has time for you. Are you the one shaking your head because it’s too late? Look again. Or, are you, perhaps, the one who is able to help? Just waiting for a call to be generous in your giving? How will you empty yourself this week and become a miracle for those reaching out? How will you “become poor” so someone else might know the riches of God’s love?

There is no roadmap for this path that we journey on. But we do journey together; and we have the GPS of God’s grace to guide our way, and here is the compass of compassion as we face the forest of our fears. Grief and ridicule are to be expected; but Jesus calls us still – to see the dead raised, with or without our help. God is on the move, bringing hope to the suffering and healing to the sick. My prayer is that God’s power will go out from each one of you this week in ways you never expected. And may we have the eyes to see it, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds together as one in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Unanswered Questions After Charleston

June 22, 2015

Here’s my sermon from Sunday morning, after the racially motivated shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.


Pent4 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 6-20-15

Job 38:1-11
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Why do bad things happen?
To good people!

It’s a question that’s been on my mind all this week, since news broke of the massacre, on Wednesday, of nine people at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. Why?

Our Bishop, Tom Aitken, had this to say: “As Lutherans, reading Scripture through the lens of the gospel, we see [violence] is condemned; It is addressed by the prophets and most clearly by our Lord Jesus Christ in his life, actions, teachings, parables, death, and resurrection. Violence against the earth and violence against people are actions cut from the same piece of sinful thinking and sinful action. They are the refusal to respect and steward the gifts God has graciously given us and more: They are the insolent slap to God’s face and the move towards becoming our own ‘god.’”

And this word, from our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton: “The nine dead in Charleston are not the first innocent victims killed by violence. Our only hope rests in the innocent One, who was violently executed on Good Friday. Emmanuel, God with us, carried our grief and sorrow – the grief and sorrow of Mother Emanuel AME church – and he was wounded for our transgressions – the deadly sin of racism. I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us.”

And, then today’s lessons offer plenty of danger and violence, but not much of an answer. We heard a section from Job where God replies to his complaints; and we hear Mark’s re-telling of the stilling of the storm.

I suppose there’s no better place to start than with Job. You remember the story, yes? About a man of God who was tested? On TV this weekend, we watched a movie: Clash of the Titans. It’s the heroic tale of Perseus, the demigod, son of Zeus who had to save his people from the wrath of Zeus’ brother, Hades. You see, the people had thumbed their noses at the gods, desecrating the temples, knocking over the statue of Zeus at Mount Olympus – and so it was payback time. Or, as Liam Neeson (who played Zeus) so declared: “Release the Kraken!” (which was this giant sea monster who eats everybody up to appease the gods). It makes for plenty of action, but it’s totally opposite our story in the Bible.

Here, Job lost everything and it wasn’t his fault. God trusted him… and knew he was a model person of the faith – the “straight-A” student in God’s heavenly academy! He had it all – health, family, riches, cattle, devotion, happiness – he was right with God and in one day… he lost it all. The Devil sauntered up to the Lord, “So, I’ve noticed what a good man Job is.” “Yes,” said the Lord, “one of my finest.” “Well, that’s fine and good when all’s hunky-dory; but what do you say you give me a whack at him – let me test his faith – take away some of his security. Then he’ll curse you to your face!” “Give it your best shot,” says the Lord.

And so, within a matter of days, Job’s whole family is killed in an earthquake – except his wife, whose advice to him is: “Why don’t you just curse God and die!” It must have been a horrible experience. Then Job’s cattle died of disease – he breaks out with sores all over his body – I mean, how much can one man take? “Why is this happening?” he cried out to God. And this was God’s response? “Who are you to question me!” That’s what we get in our reading for today: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Gird up your loins, like a man, and face me!” Now, I’m not sure I like the tone of God’s voice in all this. But Job doesn’t give up. Even in the face of unanswered questions, Job never curses God. He kept the faith.

Or, what about this story in Mark, of Jesus stilling the storm? They’re together in the boat and a storm blows in and the waves come crashing down upon them. They’re fighting for their lives and where’s Jesus? Taking a nap in the stern.

Teacher! Don’t you care! We’re perishing!

And, of course, being a chip off the old block, he uses the same tone of voice with them as God did with Job: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”


What do we do with the unanswered questions of our faith? How do we explain suffering?  Years ago, I remember hearing a lesson about this. Murray Haar, who teaches at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, once described the 5 ways we try to answer the question of suffering in the Bible. They don’t work, he says, but they’re very popular, and they’re all right there in scripture. And I don’t like any of them either!

1. It’s your fault. You’re a sinner. You must’ve done something wrong. This is the voice of Job’s well-meaning friends who ask: “What did you do to deserve this?” When everything bad that could happen – did – they think it must be his fault. It’s also the voice of the NRA Board Member, Charles Cotton, who blamed the pastor for the death of his parishoners in Charleston, saying, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead.” So, you can see how playing the blame game just doesn’t work.

2. The enemy did it. There are people “out there” who did this… ISIS or Al-Qaida, or even the devil made me do it. And this may be true, to some extent. I do believe that there is evil in the world that we cannot fully contain. As we believe, Satan was dealt a ‘mortal blow’ 2000 years ago at the cross. Yeah, he still has some damage to do – there’s no doubt about that as we turn on the news this weekend. But his days are numbered. We know how the story ends. With death being swallowed up in victory.

But danger of saying “the enemy did it,” is that it gets us off the hook. This time the alleged shooter of those bullets at Bible study, Dylann Roof, was none other than one of our own: a member of an ELCA church: St. Paul’s Lutheran in Columbia, SC. No, the enemy didn’t do it. It was one of our own, raised in our faith, heck, his confirmation picture is probably hanging in the fellowship hall! So we go to number three…

3. It’s God’s fault. How could God have allowed this to happen? God must be incompetent, or somehow limited… or maybe not so all-powerful after all. Sure, God may be all-loving, but if that’s true how could God allow such suffering? Which leads us to number four…

4. There’s a good reason for this, but we don’t get it. It’s all a part of God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. And you know the slippery slope that leads us down, when we begin to believe that God causes the suffering of innocents for the sake of some grand plan that’s beyond us. No, I cannot imagine a God who willfully causes suffering. So, we come to the fifth way people try to make sense of suffering…

5. One day God will come and set things right. Soon and very soon… God will come. Hang in there. Help is on the way! Well, tell that to the families of the Charleston Nine, for whom it’s already too late.

No, today is not a day for easy answers. It’s never easy to stare into the face of a situation sparked by senseless violence, fueled by centuries of racism, and fed by the fears of those who are different from us.

Today is a day to call out, and to trust that even in the unanswered questions and the storms of our lives, God is with us. In the end, Job’s fortunes were restored, in all their fullness. He found joy in life again. He and his wife had many more children, and lived a full life. But God never did answer him. There are no easy answers to the deep grief that can visit us when we least expect it. Oh, I’m sure Job never quite got over the loss of his family… but what mattered most is that God never left him – not one step along the way.

I wish I could say that church is a safe place, but we know better now. It is a good place… but if it’s safety you want, there are no guarantees. Because where are they headed after Jesus stills the storm? Right smack into another storm. Here’s how Pastor Kate Layzor describes the lake they were crossing… and how these disciples, most of whom were fisherfolk, were suddenly out of their element, just like I feel sometimes in ministry. She writes:

“Jesus’ ministry is one dangerous crossing after another… ‘Let’s go across to the other side,’ he says, sounding like someone proposing a pleasant evening cruise. But he’s talking about the Decapolis: pagan territory… It’s as if he turns to his followers at the end of a long day and says, ‘I’m beat. Let’s go touch base with the Roman occupation,’ and they set sail straight into a waiting storm…”

And who do they meet on the other side? A demon-possessed man at Gerasene… tormented by Ghosts in the graveyard – so many that he names them Legion.

How would we ever be able to stand without Jesus in the boat? By our sides? In our hearts? In closing, I want to leave you with one more story of how people have made sense of suffering in this world. It doesn’t come from the Bible. I comes from a church in Charleston, SC – a church built by freed slaves, forged in the crucible of a faith that sustained their ancestors – who labored in forced servitude on southern plantations. What can we learn from this church? Let me remind you of the name of the church where this horrific act of violence took place: Emanuel, which means: God With Us. Take it from people who know from experience, that the only thing that gets us through the storms – is Jesus, God with us. And then decide what you’re going to do as you go out into the world this week. A good place to start is the home page of their website (at There you can read their mission statement, which simply says:

“Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

Many of the families of the victims have already set the tone, by showing that passionate love and forgiving the alleged shooter, and calling for God to have mercy on him. What will we do this week amid all of the storms and unanswered questions in our own lives? Let us begin by crying out and trusting that the Teacher is still there. Then, let us too, be passionate in our love for all people.

Let us pray: O God, guide us through our stormy seas. You alone know the dangers each one here faces as we leave this place and cross to the other side of our homes, our work places and our neighborhoods. Wake up from your slumber and save us, that we may be about the work you have set before us, in Jesus name we pray. Amen.


June 6, 2015

Here’s a little song I wrote to say “Thank You” to all the wonderful people who volunteer where I work. Where would be without you?