Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Faith Is Caught Not Taught

When I started out teaching confirmation I came up with lots of ways to make sure that the students did what was expected of them.
For example, I had told them that they were expected to be at X amount of worship services.
So every Sunday they had to come into the office to sign in, if they wanted to get credit for being in church that day.
One time right before Easter a student and his mother came to visit me in my office.
They were distressed because on Easter Sunday he had to stand outside of a supermarket to sell raffle tickets for baseball.
His Coach had told him that if he didn’t do it then he would not be able to play on the team.
The mother and son were devoted church people, but because of baseball he had missed a number of Sunday worship services.
They were distressed and worried that I wouldn’t confirm him.
This type of situation played itself out many times in my early ministry.
What I began to think about was what message I was sending to confirmation students with all of these systems, and schemes to keep them in the Church.
It seemed that I was sending a mixed message.
I was teaching them that the faith was about the Holy Spirit.
That we have faith not because we can make ourselves believe, but because of the Holy Spirit.
As Luther writes in the Catechism about the third article of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.
But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

It came down to what is it that we as the Church not only teach, but live out.
This place here, this Church is supposed to be where we experience together God’s grace, mercy, and love.
It is supposed to be the place where the Holy Spirit calls us through the Gospel to have faith in God.
And what I was doing was acting exactly like the world.
Just like the baseball team, I was saying, “do this or else”.
Do this or you cannot participate.
And what God invites us to, what God invites these three young women to, is a life that says, “Come and see that the Lord is good.”
So I changed a lot of what I was doing with confirmation.
Because I came to see that faith is caught and not taught.
Faith is something that pulls us in and doesn’t let us go.

The proof of that is in our Acts reading this morning.
People who were Jesus people had gathered together on the Jewish festival of Pentecost.
Not because they thought something amazing was going to happen, but because that is what you did.
And while they were there something extraordinary happened, something disturbing happened, something out of the ordinary happened.
We know that it was not planned because we are told that “suddenly” rush of violent wind and fire came upon them.
The Holy Spirit was acting on them without them having taken a class, answered the right question, or attended a certain number of worship services.

Now it is hard as we sit here today to trust the Holy Spirit.
Let us be honest, most of the young people that get confirmed seem to disappear after confirmation.
Even though I say it every year confirmation is not graduation from Church, people don’t seem to be hearing me.
Polls are telling us that the Church is shrinking and dying.
That young people are leaving Churches and never coming back.
Our natural reaction is to panic, to fear that the Church won’t be here anymore.
We want to circle the wagons and make a lot of schemes to keep people coming to church.
But I learned early that I have to trust the Holy Spirit.
I put Reilly, Grace, and Angelina today into the hands of the Holy Spirit.
I will trust that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in their lives.

In fact, during out time together I noticed times when the Holy Spirit was at work.
I would like to share two of those times with you this morning.
The first was when that day we were supposed to have class there were two deaths of young people in bow.
Also, that day one of our confirmation kid’s parents lost their job.
What I was told by one parent was that her daughter wanted to come to confirmation that night.
It just happened that on that night we were studying the second article of the Apostles creed about Jesus.
We were talking about what benefits we have in knowing Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
It was a class filled with the Holy Spirit, because we were able to talk about what it means to know Jesus in life when things were bad.
All three of the girls agreed that it was a Holy Spirit night.

The second thing that happened was that one of our confirmation students was struggling with a moral issue.
They were not sure what to do about a situation that involved some of her friends.
On this night we were talking about the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.”
The question was how we know in difficult life situations what God’s will is.
That night I saw all of the students help each other to figure out what the best thing was.
I was really proud of the way they wrestled with the question and the unselfish answer they came to.
This was another Holy Spirit moment in our time together.
The Holy Spirit gave us the right lessons for the right time in our lives.

And these stories also show the best part about belonging to a community of faith.
It is within that community that we receive support when we are down.
It is within that community that we are reminded of God’s grace and love for us.
It is within that community that we come to ask hard questions, and together seek answers.
That is what I want this community to be for all of us.
I don’t want it to be a community of, “do this or else”.
But one that is invites us into a deep relationship with God.
One that is loving and grace filled.
One that is not like the world we live in that is always demanding things from us, but one that is a haven of support.
One that surprises us because we are sitting around on a Thursday night of confirmation class and “suddenly” the Holy Spirit fills the room.

Today all three of these young people have chosen for themselves a Bible passage.
It was another Holy Spirit moment.
One of our students wanted to know if they should be looking up Bible passages before class.
I said no because I wanted it to be something that we did together as a class, and something that would be Holy Spirit led.
They picked bible verses that speak to the essence of faith.
“Keep alert, Stand firm in your faith” the world will try to rip away your faith.
The world will make do this or else demands on you.
Remember to look out for the Holy Spirit that is always inviting you in.
Stand firm in the faith that tells you of a different life of welcome and love.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” A reminder that indeed this is what God is for us, this is what God does for us.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” This is what we are talking about this morning is trusting that God is with us in all things, and that the Holy Spirit will lead us to faith.

Reilly, Grace, and Angelina you are really special people.
You all are so caring, thoughtful, and ready to learn.
I know today that the Holy Spirit will continue to surprise you, guide you, and bring you closer to Jesus.
I have faith in the Holy Spirit.
I hope all of you here today, if you are friends, family, a member of this congregation will have faith in the Holy Spirit to lead these young women.
I hope that you have caught faith, and that it will continue to be part of your life.
This morning may we all have faith that the Holy Spirit will continue to surprise us with visions of God’s love, mercy, and goodness.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Bleeding Heart

This week I was at the public hearing for the senate as they heard testimony about the State budget.
As I sat and listened to testimony after testimony I realized something I am a bleeding heart.
I heard stories of mothers who lost their children to drug overdose and I wept along with them.
I heard stories of mothers who spent long hours helping their children with developmental disabilities and I wept.
I listened to mothers who had children take their own lives because of depression that went untreated and my heart broke.
When I hear someone tell their story that is struggling my heart does bleed for that person.
I have tried to fight it.
I have tried not to let those stories get to me, but they do.
I know it is not good to be a “bleeding heart”, but I can’t help it.
And I think that is how you want your pastor to be.
I don’t think that you would want a pastor who didn’t care about people, about their stories and where they came from.
This morning’s Gospel is about letting our hearts bleed for others.
It is about opening those hearts so that we might be able to love each other as Jesus Christ loved us.
Interestingly enough the phrase “bleeding heart” has its origin in the Order of the Bleeding Heart, a semi-religious order of the Middle Ages honoring the Virgin Mary, whose heart was pierced with many sorrows.

This morning we have to start with the idea of love.
It is thrown around a lot in our world.
And the idea that we should love other people is in our culture, it is not just for religious people.
I don’t know anybody who would disagree that we should love other people.
And because of that what Jesus says to us this morning seems kind of like common sense.

I have been reading lots of articles about people who are not going to church anymore because they have heard it all before.
They have heard enough sermons on love to know that we should love each other.
I suspect that many of you already know that you should love everyone.

Here is the problem.
Love is not that easy.
It is hard.
Love is easy in theory, as a concept that we should generally be aware of and keep in mind.
But love in practice, in the reality of everyday life is much harder, because love demands of us more than merely being aware of it.
Love demands more than merely having groovy feelings about each other.
It demands sacrifice, and action.
Love has to be lived and experienced and not just talked about.
We can’t just say that we love everybody, but we actually have to show that love somehow.
And not everyone is easy to love.
Not everyone is easy to show that love to.

Jesus this morning in the Gospel actually tweaks the golden rule.
Jesus does not say, “Love others as you love yourself.”
Jesus says, “Love each other as I have loved you.”
Jesus loved us enough to die for us.
Jesus loved us enough to meet us where we are.
Jesus loved us enough to make us the center of his attention.
Jesus didn’t just love us in theory, Jesus loved us in practice.
Jesus showed us his love for us.

And perhaps that is why we come here every week.
Not because we get to hear something new and earth shattering.
But because week after week we need to be reminded of what we already know.
We need to be reminded to love others, because doing so is hard and exhausting.
We all have our limits.
We all have that spot that we reach in life when we have exhausted all of our capacity for compassion and we just can’t do it anymore.
And perhaps that is when we need to hear again that love is not easy, and demands the extra mile on our part.
We need to be reminded that it is OK to be a bleeding heart.
That is how we know that we are living right, that we are truly loving and giving of ourselves.

Perhaps that is what mothers know best.
Now not everyone here this morning is a mother.
But we all have mothers.
And perhaps some of our mothers are not the best.
But our mothers are the ones who loved us first.
It is where we learned love.
And if we you are a mother you know that being a mother is heart breaking.
It makes your heart bleed.
Because you will watch as your children do something that is not good for them and yet you can’t stop it.
You will watch as your children suffer through things in life and you will want to take away that pain.
It is heart breaking because you watch your children grow up and you wish that they would be young forever.
You watch them move away, and not fully understand the sacrifices you made.
But that is love.
Love is about having a bleeding heart, about caring for another person enough to give of yourself for that person so that they might have a better life.

I often think that if we could all have a good mother’s heart.
If we could think that it is all of our calling to be mother’s weather we are one to our own children or not.
If we could see all the children of the world as our children then we can become more loving and caring for those people who don’t do well in life, the people who make pure choices and have their lives in ruins that they are our children too.
That we care for them because it isn’t just about our kids but all kids.

In 1872 Julie Ward Howe wrote what came to be known as the Mother’s Day Proclamation.
Julie Ward Howe was also famous for writing the hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
Her proclamation was a call to all women to stop the evils of war.
It says in part, “Arise, then, Christian women of this day !
Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears !
Say firmly :
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies.
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.”
She wrote this after seeing the carnage of the Civil War and Franco Prussian War.
It is a call to see ourselves as having hearts not just for our own children but the children of our enemy too.
Because you see love is hard.
It is heart breaking to lose your child, your spouse.
It is heart breaking to lose any child and any spouse.
The kind of love Jesus calls us to is to see the heartbreak of another mother for another child.

So we leave here today with bleeding hearts.
That celebrates not only our mothers, but all mothers.
We weep with mothers who have lost children.
Mothers who wish to have children, mothers who failed, mothers who succeed.
We pray that all of us have the heart of true mothers and we might love as Jesus loved us as hard as that might be.

Monday, May 4, 2015

God of Life

The first time I met Karl, Gus’s father, was at the Bishop’s convocation.
Bishop’s convocation is a yearly event when all the Lutheran pastors in New England get together for refreshment and to learn new things.
It was my first Bishop’s convocation here in New England.
I didn’t know a lot of people, but since I had grown up here I had some friends.
It was toward the end of the night when my friend Dave said that we should go to the room of Joe Ekeberg for a night cap.
In the room were a bunch of pastors and Karl.
I was impressed with Karl because amongst all these pastors he kept asking questions, and he would then challenge the answer.
Maybe because his dad was a pastor he was not intimidated by all these pastoral people.
Karl that night exemplified an important part of a mature faith, the ability to ask questions.
A true living faith means that we are engaged in the deep questions that faith gives us.
And today we are here to witness together as a faith community the baptism of Gus Ekeberg.
Today is only the beginning of a life, it is only the beginning of a faith journey.
One thing that we know for sure today is that we don’t know what Gus’s journey will be like.
We don’t know what he will face in his life.
We don’t know what will be the ways that he will need to change and grow.
We don’t know what special skills he will have that he can use to serve the world.
We don’t know what challenges he will face.
It is what makes today so wonderful for all of us, but especially for Karl and Erika, we/they get to watch Gus grow, change, and become what he will become.
We/ they get to be there when Gus asks the hard questions, wonders out loud, stretches his parents patience.

I mention all this because we often think of baptism in the wrong way.
We think it is about death.
We think that we are baptized so that when we die we go to heaven.
Baptism is not about death, it is about life.
It is not here only for that final moment of earthly life, but it is here for us throughout life.
Today is the start of a life of faith for Gus, but only a start, and baptism is the assurance of God’s care and love for the rest of that journey.

Our Gospel this morning is about this life.
Jesus this morning tells us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
I don’t know too much about horticulture, but I know enough that if you rip off a branch from the vine it will die.
Our lives are given meaning, value by being attached to Jesus Christ.
Our lives are given unconditional love by being attached to Jesus Christ, because we worship a God of life.
We worship a God who gives us life, creates us, and then helps to mold and shape who and what we become.

I have been thinking about this a lot this week.
My vacation started on Friday when I went to the funeral of a man I knew from Calumet named Ray.
His wife and kids where on staff and he volunteered to help out in the camp ground.
One of the things he did was drive what we called the honey wagon.
The honey wagon was the machine that pumped out the sewer systems of the trailers on the camp ground.
The thing about Ray was that he made that job looked like fun.
Ray always had a smile on his face ready with joke.
Anyone who can do that job and make it look like so much fun was a special person.
At his funeral people talked about his life, about the love he shared, the gifts he gave to his family, friends, community, and church.

I also ended my vacation on Friday and Saturday by attending the funeral of my friend Sarah.
I have known Sarah her whole life.
My parents worked at calumet with her dad when they were teenagers.
Sarah and I worked at Calumet together.
Her and her husband Dave started dating the same summer that Vicki and I started dating.
They got married a couple of months after we did.
We lived downstairs from them in Seminary.
It was a sad day.
But at the funeral people talked about Sarah’s life.
How it touched so many people.
They talked of her compassion, her grace, her intellect, her faith in God, the way she made a difference in the world.

We spend lots of time looking for meaning in death.
Why? How?
I have never heard a satisfactory answer to any of those questions.
The conclusion that I have come to is that there is no meaning in death.
Death is a horrible nasty thing.
It is nasty because of its finality.
But we forget that we have a God of life.
We have a God who created us, a God who sustains us in all things, and a God who upholds us.
We have a God who sent his son so we might have life and have it in abundance.
We have a God who gives life meaning.
We have a God who tends the garden, a God who provides the vine and connects us to the source of all life, so we can share that with other people.
A God who helps us produce fruit in this world that makes the lives of people around us better.
We are the branches and the source of life is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ redefined for us what true life is, and what it means to have true life.
Jesus Christ takes away the power and sting of death, so that in it we don’t see the finality we see a gateway to eternal life.
As we continue to celebrate Easter we look for life.
We yearn for life.
In his death on the cross Jesus shows us that what matters is really life.
And Jesus redefines the meaning of that life.
Jesus gives us gifts and vitality to spread to other people.
That is what we celebrate today.

I have enjoyed getting to know Karl and Erika better.
On the day Gus was born I went to see them at Concord hospital.
I was impressed with how calm Erika was as a new mother.
How much she loved her son.
Karl and Erika are going to give Gus so many good things in life.
But the best is today.
They have tied his life to the vine.
They have given Gus the beginnings of faith, so that his life will be one that has meaning and value.
His life will be about using the gifts God has given to make other lives better.

It will not always be a smooth ride.
There will be lots of twists and turns, ups and downs.
There will be lots of questions to ask.
But in the end there will be life, there will be God who gives all of life new and important meaning.

And for all of us who are here this morning let us take today to not only celebrate this baptism but also to celebrate ours.
To remember that it was for life.
That moment when water is poured on our heads our lives forever abide in Jesus Christ.
We are the branches who need the vine for life, not for death.

Let us remember that today God has created this day for us, let us live it as God would have us live it.
Let our lives abide in God so that we might really live.
Let us love out loud, give freely, laugh often, forgive quickly, and have life in abundance.