Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mountain Tops

My Dad was not someone who liked to hike.
However, once a year we would go up Foss Mountain.
It is near Camp Calumet off of Crystal Lake.
Anyway, if you have ever been up Foss Mountain you will know that it is not much of hike.
You drive up it, and then you get out of your car and maybe walk 100 yards and you are at the top.
My dad would get to the top after the grueling 100 yard walk up a gradual incline look around and say, “Well this is my one hike this year.”
However, one of my favorite pictures of my father is of him on the top of Foss Mountain.
It is a black and white photo.
He is sitting with one leg up and the other folded underneath it.
He is resting his hands on his legs and staring off into the beautiful scene of mountains and lakes before him.
I like the photo because it shows him at peace, in reflection.
I have no idea what he might be thinking at that moment, but my guess is something like, “Wow this is unbelievable”.
I can guess that is what he saying because it is one of his favorite sayings.
In many ways that picture is a contradiction a man who didn’t like to hike on a mountain top, appreciating the glory and wonder of God’s creation.

I was reflecting on this week’s Gospel about Jesus going up a mountain to say good bye to his disciples.
About Jesus giving them some final instructions before all things are handed over to him.
I was thinking about this moment, and about my Dad sitting on that mountain with that look of wonderment and peace, and I was thinking about holy space.
I was thinking about holy spaces.
Jesus gives those last instructions about going into the world on a mountain.
And in Matthew’s Gospel all the really important things happen on Mountains; the sermon on the mountain, the revelation of Jesus divine status, praying, curing of the sick and the lame.
It is on Mountains that the divine is present.

Mountains matter in Matthew, and I think they matter to us too.
Even if we don’t like to hike we all have mountain top experiences in our lives.
We have important moments that feel significant and big.
Many of us during this time of year celebrate those moments.
We have graduations, first communions, confirmations, weddings, and all sorts of major life passages.
We experience something in these moments a clarity of purpose.
If your child graduates this spring you as a parent feel that something is different with them.
They have passed a milestone; you have gotten them through school into something new.
Lots of graduation speeches are about the future, about shaping that future and making it better.
It is a mountaintop experience.

I don’t know about you but I would like to stay there sometimes.
I look at that picture of my Dad and wish that he where still there/here.
That this summer we could go up the Foss Mountain together, and he would turn to me and say, “Well that is my one hike a year.”
But you know Jesus won’t let us.
We are sent down from the mountain out into the world.
We might visit those mountain tops but we can’t last there.

This season people in our congregation are also struggling with death, with loss, with heart ache, and into that world is where Jesus sends us.
We can’t be young forever.
We can’t always have some great life event.
Sometimes we simply have to get through.

It is on another mountain at a different time and place.
Many years before Jesus would stand on that mountain with his instructions.
Moses stood on a mountain.
He was told that it was holy ground.
He experienced the Almighty One there on that mountain.
Once again it would be nice to stay there and bask in the glow.
But God had other ideas other orders.
Go and tell Pharaoh that the God of the universe wants God’s people to be free.
Moses protests, “send someone else, I don’t really want to go, I am no good for this thing”.

We protest too.
It is nice on the mountain.
It is nice there in the presence of the Holy One.
We can take our shoes off and not worry about anything.
It is peaceful there and we can stair off into the distance in wonder and amazement at God’s creation.
But there are other things God has in store for us.
Other things God wants us to do.

You recognize a pattern here.
We go to the mountain only to be sent back down.
But something in both stories is important to point out.
Neither Moses nor Jesus disciples goes alone.
Jesus promises “I will be with you to the end of the age.”
Moses is promised that God will be there too.

You see the Holy doesn’t just have to be on the mountain.
It can be in the doing too.
It can be in the living and dying.
It can exist with a father changing a dirty diaper.
It can exist with a mother driving her teenage children to the movies.
It can exist when someone waits by a loved one who is dying.
It can exist at the Friendly Kitchen as we pass food to a hungry person.
It can exist as we walk together so that we might abolish the death penalty.
It can exist between friends as we listen to someone else’s pain.
It can exist as we live our faith in the world.
It can exist as we teach others about Jesus.

You see I like that picture of my father, but the real things I remember about him was the way he was with me down from the mountain.
I remember the way he taught me to catch a baseball, hit a golf ball, drive a car.
The way he got mad when I didn’t do my best, and the way he forgave me when I disappointed him.
Fatherhood/motherhood is often not about mountaintop experience.
Sure you have those moments when all seems right, but that is just a culmination of a million little moments when you had to correct something, or suffer through natural growing pains.
I can remember when my kids where young and they were not yet sleeping through the night, and I came home from work, my wife looked tired she had some form of kid spit up on her.
And she would look at me and say, “Motherhood is really glamorous.”
Think of what Jesus had to go through to stand on that mountain and ascend into heaven.
He had to go through Good Friday.
Being the messiah is not glamorous.
Being a disciple is not either.
Being a disciple means getting our hands dirty in the world as we attempt to live out the great commission.

If you have had a mountaintop experience recently I am happy for you.
If you have been to the Mountain top and had some time to look out over the horizon and have some peace, I am glad.
I hope this summer you get to have some time to take a hike, enjoy God’s creation, think about what your life and be at peace.
I also hope you have some time to get dirty to love others, to help others, to not be glamorous, to be sent into the world to teach of Jesus and his love.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Today is a special day for Will and Noah.
It is confirmation.
This is also a special day for us as a congregation.
It is special because I suspect that many people who have been in our congregation for a while have watched you both grow up.
I was actually thinking that when I came to be the pastor here you were both the age of my daughter now.
If you are worshiping with us for the first time today, you should know that Will and Noah’s family are pillars of our community.
Anyone who comes to this Congregation often knows Will’s parents Kate and Paul Russo, they know Noah’s parents Barbara and Roy Wirth.
These are leaders of our congregation who give their time and money to make Concordia a place of God’s love.
They have all served on the church council at some point, they have served on various committees.
They are involved.
And perhaps when we look this morning at Noah and Will what we might be thinking is that it is great that these two fine young men are going to take the place of their parents.
We will look at them and their parents.
But that would be a mistake.
(Have kids try on parents clothing)
You see their parents clothing does not fit Noah or Will.
The same is true with their faith.
Their faith cannot be, and should not be their parents’ faith.
They will need to have their own faith that is unique to them.

Will’s mom told me that Will said that he believes in a religion that borrows the best from many different faith traditions.
You might be uncomfortable with that idea.
You might be thinking that what confirmation does is fully form a person into a traditional Lutheran.
That confirmation kids should be able to recite the entire small cathcesism, That they should be able to sing a Mighty fortress is our God by heart, because that is what you did when you were young.
But I want to lift up what Will said, and say that we might not like it, but that is where the future is going.
We are moving away from the strict dogmatic to a more open way of thinking about what it means to be a person of faith.
Will and Noah they will the ones who will lead us into that future.
Consider a few things that Will and Noah have that you didn’t, and I didn’t.
In the old days, people lived in isolated bubbles.
People were born in and died in the place where they were born.
Because of this they did not come into contact with people of other faiths, they did not explore other faiths.
In fact, you went to church the pastor told you what you were supposed to believe and you believed it because that is what your parents did.
But we live in an ever expanding multi-cultural, global world.
We can learn at a greater rate about things that we used to have the pastor tell us.
Will and Noah are both very smart and curious young men and I knew at confirmation I was going to have to be on toes because they were going to ask really great questions.
There were also times when they knew things about a subject that I didn’t.
We can travel faster and more conveniently to different parts of the world.
We are more likely now to have encounters with people from other faiths.
And so we simply know more, and we have access to more information.
It is shaping the way we experience and think about God.
It is for Will and Noah.

So does this mean that we are coming to a time when Christianity will be no more?
That it will become obsolete.
The Gospel message of God’s loved given in Jesus Christ is needed today as much if not more than it ever has.
Noah and Will planned today’s worship service.
They picked all the hymns and I had them each pick a Bible verse that explains in some way their faith.
I want to talk about those Bible verses for a minute.
“As long as the earth endures,
   seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
   shall not cease.”
Noah’s bible verse comes from the story of Noah.
He picked it because well…his name is Noah.
This is at the end of the flood after the waters had gone down.
God says this to Noah.
It is an enduring promise that God made to all of us.
That God was not going to destroy the earth…instead God was going to work with us.
God was going to try and convince us that he loves and cares for us, wants the best for us.
Confirmation is about that promise.
It is about the promise given first in baptism.
Noah and Will remember that promise.
No matter what else in your life never forget the God of the universe has called you beloved and holy.

Will picked a reading from John’s Gospel.
“Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.”
It is about discipleship, about living out our faith.
I think it is appropriate for Will because if I understand what he is saying about his faith at this point it is that he likes Jesus.
He likes what Jesus has to say, but perhaps some of the ways that people have told us to believe in Jesus are not for him.
We should be able to make it easier.
In John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that we know God because we know Jesus.
Will and Noah be who God made you to be, live into your faith remember what Jesus showed us God was like loving, forgiving, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Bible stories we have this morning are all about transitions.
They are about God moving God’s people from one place to another.
The story of Noah is a transition from one time with God to a brand new promise day, Jesus story is about God doing a new thing in world surrounded by greed, power, and hatred.
And today is all about transitions.
Will and Noah are moving from being children to being full members of this body of Christ.
They are transitioning from the faith of their parents that don’t fit anymore to their own faith.

This is what Pentecost was about.
Consider that Pentecost was/is a Jewish festival.
It is a prominent feast in the calendar of ancient Israel celebrating the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai.
It is still celebrate as Shavuot.
Pentecost is the Greek name for that festival.
That is why the disciples were all together in one place.
They were there to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost.
I can imagine on that day the disciples are having this really intense moment of the Holy Spirit, and the old timers are off to the side, saying these young kids are crazy…they must be drunk.
You see the Holy Spirit is on the move, and that can be unsettling to those of us who have been around a while.
The Holy Spirit leads to new ways of thinking, new ways of doing.
It leads us to grow into faith in a different way than those who came before.
But consider what this leads to for the Church in Acts.
It leads to mission.
It leads to telling others about the Jesus person, who showed us God, who reminded us of ancient promises.
It led to more engagement with people from all over the world, with much different religious views than us.
All I am asking us to consider this morning is what will the Holy Spirit do with Will and Noah?
What we learn in the Biblical story is that God is never static, but always transitioning from this place to that place.
What we learn from the Biblical story is that God through the Holy Spirit is transforming us all the time.
So we know that Will and Noah will not/should not have the faith of their parents, because it doesn’t fit.

What I am looking forward to with Will and Noah is how they will use their unique gifts to remake the world.
How they will embody the commandment of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves.
How they will reach beyond this limited to space to something far greater.
How they will remember and celebrate the enduring promise of God to love and keep us.
That is what we celebrate today as a faith community.
Is not that they will have their parents faith, but that God will do a new thing in them and through them.
Just as God has always done and always will do.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Doubt Is Good for Faith

I saw this TED talk on YouTube a couple of months ago by Lesley Hazelton. ( http://www.ted.com/talks /lesley_hazleton_the_doubt_essential_to_faith)
In her talk she makes the argument that doubt is essential to faith.
She tells a story about Muhammad, who she wrote a biography about.
After Muhammad went into a cave near Mecca in the year 610 the angel Gabriel appeared to him and gave him the Koran.
Now that is a miracle.
An angel of the Lord appears and tells you a sacred and holy text.
What do you think Muhammad would do?
You would think he would run down out of that mountain and start proclaiming to all who would hear the great and marvelous thing that had just been told to him.
But instead he only told his wife.
Muhammad at first believed that what had happened couldn’t have been real.
He believed that it was either a hallucination or a worse that he was possessed by and evil spirit.
He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but with doubt.
For Hazleton this is an important moment that all faith starts with doubt.
We are confronted this morning by what we usually refer to as the story of doubting Thomas.
And in the past we may have heard sermons about not being like Thomas, but believing in Jesus.
However, I want to encourage us to be more like Thomas.
I want to encourage us to doubt more, to question more, to wonder more.
Because I believe it is in the question, in the doubt, in the wonder that we find true faith.
We find a real living faith, a real living engagement with Jesus and in our spiritual lives.

Last week was Easter, and it was a wonderful glorious time here at Concordia.
The Church was packed, the choir sang wonderfully, and we ate a delicious breakfast together.
One could really feel the spirit.
But now it is this week of Easter.
It is at the end of a vacation week for kids in school.
The church is less packed this morning.
We are back at it.
And the question that I think we must wrestle with is what does it mean now?
What does it mean to have faith in the resurrected Lord this week?
Because I will admit for me it is easy on Easter morning to feel the excitement of Jesus being raised from the dead, but this week…I have questions.

And this is why Thomas should be our hero.
It was not enough for him merely to hear the tail from the other disciples.
He had to experience it himself.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the Mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
I think we all feel this way about our faith life that we need to experience it to believe it.
We need something that will tell us that what we are being told is not merely the fantasy of those around us.
More than this we need to question things so that we can grow in our beliefs.
When we are children and are being taught about things it is fine for us to have a faith were we are told something and we believe it.
But there comes a point in all of our lives when merely being told by others is not enough.
We have to explore it for ourselves.
We have to go through the process.
We have to ask difficult questions.
We have to develop our own relationship with Jesus.
We have to believe on our own in the resurrection.

My favorite thing about being a teacher is the questions.
I love to ask them, I love when people wrestle with them.
If you are ever in my confirmation class, or my Bible study, or my adult forum, you know that I don’t allow people to get away with easy answers.
I will ask the question, I will take the opposite point of view.
I do this because doubting is important, exploration is important in a life of faith.
I love it when kids in our congregation ask me questions about the sermon.
One it means that they are listening, but more importantly because they are engaged in the process of developing their own faith.
They are struggling with what it means to believe in Jesus Christ.
And all of that is good.
We all should be in some stage of questioning and wondering.
No matter what age we are we should be stretching ourselves to grow in faith.
Because here is the truth no one, but God, knows it all.
And if you think you know everything then I would say that there is something wrong.
Because being a “know it all” in religion makes you a fundamentalist.
And being a fundamentalist leads to all kinds of unchristian things.
It leads to hatred of people different than you.
It leads to disengagement in the world.
In the worse cases it leads to violence.

What is great about the Biblical story this morning is that Jesus comes back for Thomas.
He comes back a week later and makes another appearance just because Thomas needed him to.
Thomas needed more than the words of others, and Jesus gave it to him.
I believe deeply that Jesus does the same for all of us.
Jesus comes at us again and again, gives us what we need to hear or see.
Shows up in our locked rooms where we are huddled out of fear, out of hopelessness, out of anger, and comes in and offers us peace.

This is important for me to say, that Jesus is bigger than our doubts.
Jesus can handle our doubts.
Jesus can handle the questions we have, the struggles we have.
And that is good news, because we often have a lot of them.
I think the best thing our congregation can do is admit that we don’t know everything.
There are whole subjects that I don’t know for sure about.

For example, people will often ask me, “Is everyone going to heaven?”
My first response is, “I don’t know”.
I am not God.
And anyone who tells who they know for sure is lying.
They are lying to manipulate you by making you afraid.
Or worse they are lying to make themselves feel really special.
But here is the thing to have faith is to ask the question.
To have faith means to wonder about God and about us as God’s children.
It is to join with Thomas when he asks Jesus in another part of John’s Gospel, “But how will we know the way?”

Easter is not over.
It goes on because we are here this week needing/wanting another encounter with Jesus.
We want to touch his wounds.
We want to ask tons of questions.
We want to know more.
And the good news is that Jesus will show up.
And then we can with Thomas and all the other saints fall down and say, “My Lord and my God!”
We can believe because we have had an experience with the living God, and we can go back out and doubt and question some more.
And in that doubting and questioning grow so that even though we don’t see we might come to believe.