Archive for July 2015

Come Away To A Deserted Place

July 21, 2015

A sermon from Sunday, July 19th, 2015

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things… When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Woman reaching into mailbox for mail --- Image by © Tetra Images/Corbis

Woman reaching into mailbox for mail — Image by © Tetra Images/Corbis

Pent8 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 7-19-15

Children’s Time: What makes you happy? I have a ‘happy box’ that I put things in – like birthday cards, and pictures kids have drawn for me – and little notes of encouragement (it works for email, too!). So, what’s in your happy box? Are there sad things in that box? A lot of sad things happened this week, with the big storm knocking down trees all over town.  When we are sad, Jesus wants us to rest – to come away in prayer and be reminded of what makes us happy.

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

“Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves, and rest awhile.”

Rest is the order of the day in our gospel lesson from Mark 6. And yet, given the week we’ve had – since the storm blew through – most people haven’t had time to hardly think – let alone a moment’s rest. In fact, many are simply exhausted! It seems everyone knows someone who got hit harder than they did. Even our Habitat for Humanity project has suffered for lack of help – mainly due the need for a massive cleanup effort. So, how are you hearing Jesus’ words this morning? “Come away to a deserted place…” Are you grateful that Jesus offers a moments peace? Or does ‘rest’ simply become yet another thing on your ‘to do’ list?

As I mentioned earlier, there are many joys in my ‘happy box’ for which I’m grateful to be a part of each day, thanks to you! All of you make it possible for me to be a minister in this place – to work with a staff and council leaders who are so dedicated to God’s Work, through Our Hands – to be an ambassador to this community of faith – it is an honor and a privilege to be in ministry at this church! But I must admit, sometimes I find a ‘sad box’ there in my heart. It’s full of all the hurts – and illnesses – and sadness of the people I encounter every day. You see, ministry is always at the doorstep – there will always be more to do than we can accomplish on any given day. The disciples knew this, as we read in v. 31: “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat!” Have you ever been so busy that you’ve had to eat lunch on the run – or at your office desk, in order to meet a deadline?

How many of you, at the end of the day, have more things on your “TO DO” list than when you started? There will always be more things TO DO – more ministry to be a part of than we can ever accomplish! That’s why it’s important to remember the One at the center of it all. Jesus holds it all together …so we don’t have to! With all the ministry going on in our gospel lesson (healings, teaching, helping) notice who’s in charge: Jesus. The disciples are exhausted, and when they get across the lake, the whole village has gone there ahead of them to meet them on the shore. Who takes control? Jesus. He had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd.

This week, the Brainerd Lakes Area has been digging out from the storm that brought hurricane force winds to our neighborhood. And yes, sadly, there have been people trying to take advantage of other’s losses by charging inflated fees for tree removal. Our first lesson had a stern warning for those who take advantage of others: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord…you have not attended to them, so I will attend to you!” (Jeremiah 23:1f)

But the reality of life is that tragedy happens. We won’t always have the words to say when a natural disaster hits – or when unspeakable violence occurs on a regular basis. Just this week, yet another shooting rocked the town of Chattanooga, TN. Five servicemen were killed by a man at the Navy Operational Support Center. So, yes, there will always be people in need of healing and of hearing the good news! I’m reminded of what Fred Rogers once said (You remember Mr. Rogers?):

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

So, we look for the helpers – and we keep the people of Chattanooga in our prayers, along with Brainerd, Charleston, Baltimore, and all the other concerns in our hearts. But never forget that it’s Jesus who is the focal point that makes this ministry possible. It’s not “my ministry” or “our ministry” it’s Jesus’ ministry.

I still remember the bedtime prayer of Pope John Paul II, who reportedly once said his prayers at the end of the day: “This is your church, Lord, not mine. I am tired. Good night.”

Isn’t that good news? That we can rest at the end of each day from our labors – confident that God neither slumbers nor sleeps. …and just in case you were wondering whether Jesus was truly human (as well as fully divine)… read the verse that got left out of this story (there’s the whole feeding of the 5000… but look particularly at v.46) where Jesus goes up by himself to the mountain to pray… then ask yourself, if the son of God needs some down time to pray now and then, who am I to think I don’t?

Because of Christ, we can go out into the world and work those miracles – the sick will be healed, the hungry will be fed, the grieving will be comforted, and yes the toppled trees and broken homes will be cleared and mended – not because of how special we are, but because we look for the helpers – we look for Christ in the center of all we are and do in the world!

Our Hymn of the Day, which we’ll sing just moment, reminds us that we have an eternal home in Christ: “O God, our help in ages past / our hope for years to come / our shelter from the stormy blast / and our eternal home.”

I want to close with a story that reminds us to look for the helpers. It’s “The Hermit’s Gift” by M. Scott Peck:

There once was an old monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Centuries earlier, it had been a thriving place where many dedicated monks lived and worked and had great influence on the realm. But now only five monks lived there, and they were all over seventy years old. It was clearly a dying order.

A few miles from the monastery lived an old hermit who many thought was a prophet. One day as the monks agonized over the impending demise of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he might have some advice. Perhaps he would be able to see the future and show them what they could do to save the monastery.

The hermit welcomed the five monks to his hut, but when they explained the purpose of their visit, he could only commiserate with them. “Yes, I understand how it is,” said the hermit. “The spirit has gone out of the people. Hardly anyone cares much for the old things anymore.” “Is there anything you can tell us that would help us save the monastery?” “No, I’m sorry,” said the hermit. “I don’t know how your monastery can be saved. The only thing that I can tell you is that one of you is an Apostle of God.”

The monks were both disappointed and confused by the hermit’s statement. They returned to the monastery, wondering what the hermit could have meant by saying, “One of you is an apostle of God.” For months after their visit, they pondered the significance of his words. “One of us is an apostle of God.” “Did he actually mean one of us monks here at the monastery? Impossible. We are all too old – too insignificant. On the other hand, what if it’s true? And if it is true, then which one of us is it? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Thomas is a holy man – a man of wisdom and light. He couldn’t have meant Brother Elrod. Elrod gets crotchety at times and is difficult to reason with. On the other hand, he is almost always right. Surely he could not have meant Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, so shy. Still, he is always there when you need him, so loyal and trustworthy. Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet, suppose he did? Suppose I am an apostle of God? And on and on it went… As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God.

Now, because the monastery was situated in a beautiful forest, many people came there to picnic on its tiny lawn and to walk on its paths, and even now and then to go into the tiny chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks. It seemed to radiate out of them, permeating the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They brought their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

As more and more visitors came, some of the younger men started to talk with the old monks. One asked if he could join them. Then another… and another… and within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order, all thanks to the hermit’s gift.

Dear friends in Christ, may we be people who can look for the helpers in each other – to treat one another with renewed respect – as apostles of God – that we, too, might be a thriving community where people can truly find rest for their souls. Let us pray: O Jesus, we hear your call to “Come away and rest.” And yet, we are pulled in many directions, with no time even to eat! Be the center of our life, that we may be your helpers, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Feeling A Bit Odd?

July 16, 2015

Amos 7:7-17
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.’”

Mark 6:14-29
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


Pent7 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 7-12-15

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our rock and our redeemer. Amen. Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus; let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Let’s have a little English Grammar lesson, shall we? You remember the basic parts of a sentence. What does a sentence need to be considered a sentence? Yes, 1) a subject and 2) a predicate or a verb… and in some cases 3) an object. Oh, there are many other parts to a sentence we could go into (adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions) but for today, all we need are these 3 basic parts: subject, verb and object.m_subject_structureImagine, for a moment, that God is the subject of all the sentences in our lives that truly matter. “In the beginning, God created.” Now, imagine God’s action as the verb, calling our faith into being, holding us accountable for our actions, forgiving us and saving us from sin. And finally, imagine that we are the object of God’s compassion, God’s judgment, and ultimately, of God’s saving grace. Remember the children’s hymn: “Jesus (S) loves (V) me (O)… this I know.” Another simple phrase is one of the most ancient creeds of the church (before the Apostles’ Creed, noted in Ambrose’s writings from the year 390AD). It was three simple words: Jesus Is Lord.

This is what prophets and preachers, sages and teachers were trying to do in biblical times: to keep our grammar strait: God is the subject, we are the object, and God’s actions bring us together. Nothing else. Oh, we might eventually come around to being the subject at some point – as in: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…” but that sentence structure comes later – our declaration of faith comes after our first receiving the faith as ‘objects’ to our one, true ‘subject’ – the Living God.

What a source of comfort! To know our place and to trust that God provides all we need from day to day – and that we are sent, in freedom, to share that liberating Word! Sounds like good news. Well… tell that to a powerful king and you may have another thing coming. What happens when we put ourselves (or anything besides ‘God’) in the subject line of our sentences?

In our OT lesson for today, Amos was pretty much minding his own business as a shepherd and tender of sycamore trees… when the Lord called him to speak out against King Jeroboam’s Israel… and Amaziah, his court prophet, is tired of being made uncomfortable. So he goes and tattles to the King: “Amos is speaking out against you from the center of the city – and we cannot bear the weight of his words. Send him away!” This is the same Amos, who called the women of Israel “fat cows of Bashan” lounging on luxurious couches while the poor were sent away hungry. This is the Amos, who so famously called upon his king to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream!” And, today, he’s using a plumb line – a builders’ level – to show the people how crooked they have become. And, of course, they tried to get rid of him, “Why don’t you go earn your living somewhere else! We don’t appreciate your sentence structure!”

03 Nov 2014 --- Herodias, 1896. This unusual depiction of the murder of Saint John the Baptist shows Salome's mother Herodias (c15BC- after 39AD), rather than the more usual depiction of her daughter Salome. Colour lithograph by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933). From The Studio, Volume Eight [London Offices of the Studio V, London, 1898] --- Image by © The Print Collector/Corbis

03 Nov 2014 — Herodias, 1896. This unusual depiction of the murder of Saint John the Baptist shows Salome’s mother Herodias (c15BC- after 39AD), rather than the more usual depiction of her daughter Salome. Colour lithograph by Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933). From The Studio, Volume Eight [London Offices of the Studio V, London, 1898] — Image by © The Print Collector/Corbis

In our gospel reading for today, John the Baptist had spoken out against King Herod, who had taken his brother’s wife in marriage – this was a “no-no.” And that little grammar lesson landed John in jail! …until the night of the king’s banquet. Why did they have to get the children involved? We are told that the king’s little girl danced for him and he was so pleased, that he promised her anything she wanted, even half his kingdom! And it doesn’t say it was a sexual, dance-of-the-seven-veils. Heck, it good have been Shirley Temple’s On The Good Ship Lollipop for all we know!  So the girl decides to ask her mother (the queen) who is already angry with John and Herodias is the one who makes the gristly request: “Give me the head of John the Baptist.” Really? It’s a sad commentary that this is the only recorded conversation between a mother and her daughter in the Bible. But as it stands, the King (rather than lose face among his guests) went through with the request; and abusive power, in all its crookedness, was on full display that night.

Now, we’ve all heard all the ghost stories about the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow and the crazed Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, shouting, “Off with their heads!” But that’s the stuff of fairy tales. When a grim decapitation happens in real life (as was the case this last year, at the hands of the so-called Islamic State), it’s almost too much for us to stomach. We’d rather change the channel or put down the paper than to dwell on such unspeakable horror.

John was beheaded for challenging the king’s grammar. Whenever we put ourselves in the subject line of the sentence, we are in danger of crossing a line reserved for God alone. And to challenge this grammar is to put oneself in danger. As Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Whenever we stand for the truth, we come off as looking a bit odd to those around us. To use the plumb line image from Amos – it’s as if we’re walking around at a different angle to the crooked walls in our surrounding culture. This is why Jesus called his followers to a ‘narrow way’ of discipleship. “Enter through the narrow gate;” he said in Matthew 7:13, “for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

When an alcoholic decides she’s had enough and stops drinking, suddenly she is seen as a bit odd by those around her. And her attempts at getting healthy may very well be under cut by the ones she loves the most.

When a man resolves every morning to get up and say his prayers – to attend worship – to live a life of service – to tithe a percentage of his income to his church… he can’t not come across as a bit odd to those around him. “Why would you do such a thing?” “Just what are you trying to prove?” But for those who knew Jesus – who walked with him – who learned at his feet – who were recipients of his love, healing and forgiveness – they didn’t need an answer. Real ministry isn’t borne out of obligation and guilt trips – but out of love for Jesus and all he’s done for you. To those who believed in his name – he gave power to become the children of God and bestowed on them the Holy Spirit.

Fifty years ago this spring, as Blacks and Whites marched across the bridge in Selma, Alabama – to demand the right to vote – they did so, out of a conviction that God was marching with them. And as they stood tall amid those crooked walls of separation, they stuck their necks out in a long line of prophets dating all the way back to John the Baptist – who dared to question the unjust practices of the king. One of the people who was moved to make a change was Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit (mother of 5) who left her family to answer the call to march with Dr. King in Selma, in March of 1965. She would never return home. Just days after the march, Viola was gunned down by the Klan. In an effort to discredit her, and to cover up that an FBI informant was among the shooters, J. Edgar Hoover released false claims to the media about Ms. Liuzzo, saying she was a drug addict and her husband was involved in organized crime. No, it’s not a safe thing to speak the truth to power… And even our own governing authorities must be held accountable to a higher authority.

In the 1970’s, Archbishop Oscar Romero was well-known for speaking out against the army for their human rights abuses in El Salvador. He was once quoted as saying, “When I served the poor some food they called me ‘a saint.’ But when I asked why they were poor, they called me ‘a communist.’” Archbishop Romero was shot and killed in 1980 during mass, while serving communion. Just the day before, he had spoken out against soldiers who refused to obey God’s higher order, in response to their violation of basic human rights. You might say he was a bit odd.

As the people of God, we can take comfort in the knowledge that God alone is our ‘plumb line’ the one, true ‘level’ against which we measure everything about our lives – not the news, not the weather, not Science, not tradition, not the Bible, not even our own conscience – but God, in Christ Jesus, sets the standard by which we will be measured.  To be sure, we must use all of those other measures in our calculations: scripture, our conscience, reason, science – but the subject line of our lives is reserved for Jesus Christ, the Living God.

When that grammar is in place – all things are possible! When the plumb line of the Lord of Life is what we measure our own lives by – we have nothing to fear. I didn’t say we’d have no dangers to face. Jesus, himself, warned his followers: “Do not fear those who kill the body,” (Luke 12:4-5) “and after that can do nothing more. But… fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”

So, where’s the good news in all this? And, what does this mean for daily living? We may not lose our life (and hopefully not our head!) because of our faith. But we will be, at times, odd to those around us. We will seem off kilter in a crooked world that urges us to fall in line. All because there is nothing so high that it trumps our ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ: no flag, no creed, no country, no one person.

This is not the kind of life one chooses casually – it is a life that calls for a radical transformation of all that we hold dear – and putting it toward the service of Christ. Yes, be patriotic. By all means, practice good citizenship. Vote and exercise your rights and responsibilities as an American. But we must never forget we answer to yet a higher authority. You are a child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit (in baptism) and marked with the cross of Christ forever. And because of that lineage, we can fly freely, unafraid of the burdens of the day. Let us pray.

O God, we give you thanks for being the subject of our sentence – may all that we do, acknowledge you as our Lord and Savior – that we might live free, without fear – by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, this day. In Jesus’ name we pray: Amen.

You Already Have All You Need

July 6, 2015

Here’s a sermon from Sunday, July 5th, 2015

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Mark 6:1-13
[Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Pent6 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 7-5-15

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

The last thing I wanted to be called, as a kid, was “a ninety-pound weakling” (even though that description pretty much fit me up until the 9th grade, when puberty kicked in). You remember all those names we call people who are weak? Wimp. Wussie. Pushover. Fairy. Coward of the county. Milquetoast. Namby-Pamby. Mama’s Boy. And, what list would be complete without: Girly-man. As if there were something weak simply by being a girl! By the way, have you seen the billboard south of town for the fitness center? It reads: “I know I play like a girl. Try to keep up!”

So, our normal reaction to weakness is to respond with bravado and shows of power. Athletes take performance-enhancing drugs, to gain that upper edge in speed or strength. We spend millions of dollars on weight loss and fitness programs that promise abs-of-steel! And this is nothing new. Back in the 50’s & 60’s thousands of young men across the country wrote in to Charles Atlas, so they wouldn’t get sand kicked in their faces on the beach, while all the pretty girls were watching.

To be sure, in American society, weakness is nothing to aspire to. But it is unavoidable …to anyone with a pulse, standing upright …sooner or later.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 11.41.28 PMA couple months ago, the actor Burt Reynolds, made an appearance at comic book convention and some people were appalled at how old he looked, as he took the stage to answer questions, hunched over with his cane. Where’s that strapping young man we remember from Smoky and the Bandit? Heck, he is almost 80 years old, give him a break! This is what happens to us all when gravity catches up to us. And yet, somehow, the old actors keep coming back: Harrison Ford will reprise his role as Han Solo, in the new Star Wars movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger is out with a new Terminator movie. And there’s even a new Rocky movie coming out, called Creed.  and Sly Stallone is now the trainer for the young, upstart boxer. So get this: Rocky is now ‘Burgess Meredith,’ the trainer. But it’s the quote from the preview that struck me most, where Creed says: “It’s not about how hard you can hit… It’s about how hard you can get hit.”

Is that what boasting in our weakness is all about? On this Independence Day weekend, as we celebrate our freedom and the sacrifices made by those who have gone before us… just what are we to make of this lesson?  I have a hunch that it has something to do with declaring our dependence on God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is getting hit from all sides, being heckled in his hometown, so to speak… “We know this guy. Here are his brothers: James, Joses, Judas and Simon. We grew up with these knuckleheads.” Surely, they’d heard of the wonders he had performed in other places. But he could do no deed of power there, because of their unbelief. Then they go for the weakness in his lineage. “Oh look, it’s Mary’s son?” Notice, there’s no mention of a father, which implied Jesus was an illegitimate child. Matthew and Luke clean it up a bit.

In Luke 4:16 – they say: “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And, in Matthew 13:53 – they say; “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”
But here, in Mark 6:3 – “It’s… Mary’s son?” There’s no mention of a father.

This was a sign of disgrace and weakness, to have no father – especially for Jesus, born in a barn, with questionable parentage and no earthly fanfare… it’s the same weakness that dogs him all the way to the cross. “He saved others. Let him save himself!” Even Jesus prayed to God in the garden: “Isn’t there another way?” Three times, he prayed only to submit: “Not my will, but thy will be done.”

This same weakness is evident in Paul’s ministry, who describes it a “thorn in the flesh” that has kept him from being too elated. He doesn’t say what that thorn is (though many scholars have written volumes on what it may have been). Is Paul’s weakness a personal vice? A moral lapse? Did he have some bad habit – maybe he smoked a pack a day? Or, might it have been a physical ailment? A speech impediment? A limp? He never says. All we know is that it was a messenger of Satan – some ‘wicked angel’ that wouldn’t leave him alone all those years. “Three times,” says Paul, “I appealed to the Lord to remove it – but he refused.” “My grace is sufficient for you,” says the Lord, “for power is made perfect in weakness.”

What about you and me? There are no “performance-enhancing drugs” here. In fact, when Jesus sends out his disciples all they have is a staff, a pair of sandals, and each other: “Take no food, no bag, no money, no nothing! Just go… and in your blessed weakness God will provide all you need.”

Have we lowered our expectations of what God might be doing in our lives? When I think of my own life – complete with all my sins and shortcomings – it is a wonder that God is at work in me – in spite of all those things! Instead, it’s much easier to make excuses: “You don’t want me share the Gospel, I’ve got too much baggage – too many skeletons in the closet.” You could add your own list of shortcomings… inserting what that “thorn in the flesh” means to you. Maybe that’s the reason Paul doesn’t come right out and say it – perhaps he wanted us to insert our own thorns in its place – and pray that God can use us in spite of them.

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 11.11.57 PMI was out to Crow Wing State Park this week and noticed a peculiar thing about the chapel area. When you drive into the park and take a right, by the ranger station, there are two signs that read: “Catholic Mission” (to the left) and “Lutheran Mission” (to the right). And if you go ‘right’ to the Lutheran mission, you’ll find a large boulder with a plaque dedicated to the first Lutheran missionary to the Indians here in Minnesota: Rev. Ottomar Cloeter (in fact, his descendents are still preaching the good news 150 years later – both in Sauk Rapids and in St. Louis). Pastor Ottomar Clouter was a Missouri Synod pastor, who ministered among the Indians and white settlers for 11 years – all with little to show in the end, and yet, here was a faithful servant of God, who dedicated his heart and life to the people in his charge. The Civil War was raging and the Dakota Conflict of 1862 had set the region on edge, forcing Pastor Cloeter from his cabin near Mission Lake to the village of Crow Wing (where a monument now stands in dedication to the mission). Six years later, he accepted a call to Afton, MN and the mission to the Ojibwe ended.

Now, if you turn ‘left’ on that road, you’ll find a Catholic chapel named after Father Francis Xavier Pierz. Father Pierz began his mission among the Ojibwe when he was 50 years old! Hello?! Seriously? He left his home in Austria at 50, at the bidding of a colleague, who saw in him the gifts for missionary work, and he came to live among the natives and pioneers of Crow Wing County. Just imagine these pioneer preachers, bushwacking through mosquito infested marshes, carrying heavy packs and birch bark canoes on their backs! These guys must have been unstoppable. In fact, the town of Pierz, just south of here, is named after Father Pierz. The Indians called him “Old Man, Black Robe” because he really was old by then! For 30 years, Father Francis preached the gospel in this area to the pioneers and Ojibwe in the area. He once negotiated a peace settlement with Chief Hole-In-The-Day of the Ojibwe, when they were arming themselves for war, knowing they would be outmatched. Fr. Francis fought against trappers and traders who exploited the Indians with their liquor – first getting them drunk then stealing all their pelts. But it was hard work for missionaries, as the Indians were quite mobile, never settling in one place – especially once they were forcibly removed onto the reservation at White Earth.

So what does all this have to do with us today in 2015? These guys went with nothing but the clothes they had on their backs. They didn’t have and special powers – but they did carry with them an inner strength – a spirit that cast out all fear. To be sure, there were many missions whose sole purpose was to strip the Indians of their culture – to give them hair cuts and teach them the White Man’s ways Thankfully, today’s mission fields are marked more with a spirit of accompaniment – that is, walking together, side-by-side – and listening to what the Spirit is calling us to learn from each other. That, I think, it was made it possible for Jesus’ disciples to go out two-by-two with nothing except a walking stick and the clothes on their backs. Jesus said they had all they needed inside them – a spirit of freedom and a message of hope.

There is nothing anyone can do to you, that can defeat the one who is within you!

They may break the body, and win the battle of the flesh; but no one can touch the soul – that which has been claimed and named as God’s child – once and for all.

You see, what you and I believe matters! What we say and do matters for God’s mission to be carried out. If we don’t believe God’s working through us then we’re already done. We might as well fold up the mission right now.

Notice how Jesus performed great miracles wherever he went – except here, in his hometown …because of their lack of faith. Oh, sure, he laid his hands on a few people who were cured… but the text says, “he could do no deed of power there… and was amazed at their unbelief.”

So, I leave you with a question: what is Jesus amazed about as he looks at us?

Us, with all our weaknesses and shortcomings? Are we hiding and heckling from the sidelines? Or, are we living out our faith – in spite of the thorns we bear?

My prayer, on this Independence Day, is that we may declare our dependence on the Lord! That we might stand in that freedom and embrace our weaknesses. You already have all that you need, to go and do what the Lord is calling you to. So, hear that gentle voice calling this morning:

“My grace is sufficient for you,
my grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Let us pray: O God, we reach for your hand when we have nothing else to give or to say – may it be enough – and may you work through us with power from on high. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.