Thursday, May 26, 2016

Bags and Pens

The other day I was driving through Main Street in downtown Concord.
I stopped to let someone cross the street.
I didn’t know the person crossing the street but I did notice that she was carrying one of our churches bags.
A couple of years ago the outreach committee ordered lots of those bags.
We still have them and we continue to give them out.
And here it was walking across the street.
A couple of days later I was in the New Hampshire coffee shop getting a cup of coffee for my wife.
I paid with my bank card.
The woman working there handed me a pen to sign the receipt.
The pen she handed me was a Concordia Lutheran pen.
Not one of our new ones, but one of the old pens that don’t work.
This is exactly why the outreach committee bought those bags and those pens.
We were hoping that people would take them out into the world and loose them, or give them away.
We wanted them to end up in the hands of someone who has never heard of Concordia Lutheran Church.
We wanted them to make their way into our community.
The worst thing you could have done with the pen or bag that you got from Concordia is take it home and used it for yourself.
It would have been good for you, but it wasn’t the intention of why we bought those things.
We wanted them to make their way into the community.
We wanted people who are not part of our congregation to see them, to use them.

This serves two purposes.
One is that perhaps someone will be looking for a place to connect to God.
And perhaps when they get to that point in their life they will think about the pen or bag that they saw.
And perhaps they might make their way through our doors and into our worship.
That reason is a bit self serving on our part.
It is also fairly unlikely to happen.
But you never know what the Holy Spirit will do.
The second is that our congregation will simply become a part of our community.
We will be known because we desire to not be confined to a building, but a people shaped by God’s love, sent by God’s love.

It is a lot to ask of bags and pens.
But I am using them as tangible examples of what happens at Concordia on a weekly basis.
We gather to receive the Spirit of God.
We gather to eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus.
We gather to be created into the people God calls us to be.
We gather to have our lives shaped by God.
But it is not meant for us to hog.
It is not meant for us to go home and keep to ourselves.
It is meant to be brought into the world.
It is meant to be given away so that others will also carry with them God’s Spirit.

I say this because today Vanessa and Ella join us at the Lord’s Table.
For both of them it will be the first time.
And I think we can all see how excited they are.
I am excited for them.
One of the things I love as a pastor is to teach first communion class.
It brings such joy to my heart to have young people come to the Lord’s Table.
But this morning I want you all to know we don’t do this just for Vanessa and Ella.
We do it because we believe that with us they will be moved by the Spirit of God to go out and share what they receive here with the world.
We send them out like a bag or a pen to give it away for others.

This is why Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit.
It is so that we can grow in our faith.
We cannot bear all the things there is to learn about God right now.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
Faith is a process for all of us.
It is a process for us to learn how to live out the words that Jesus gave us.
It is a process to learn how to be the people God created us to be.
It is about constantly learning and growing.
And it is a gift from God to us that is meant to be shared.

This process is different for all of us.
We all come to God in our own time and pace.
That formation work that takes time is the Holy Spirit too.
It moves in and out of our lives drawing us closer to God.
And sometimes we don’t know it is even happening.
Sometimes it only makes sense after the fact.

The Holy Spirit is also working on us to share the love that we have been given with the world.
We never know how the love we share affects people.
We never know what happens to it after we put it out there in the world.
It is like we have lost it, or thought we lost it, and we don’t know where it is going.
And then one day it shows up crossing the street, or in a coffee shop.
I believe that also to be the work if the Spirit.
It takes our offerings of love, care, concern, and makes them into something more.

After College I worked at a pizza place in North Conway.
I had a boss who was by his own admission an atheists.
Often times at the end of the night we would sit and talk about God.
He would ask me these really hard questions.
And at times he would mock me for my faith.
I tried to be patient and understanding.
But I never thought it did any good.
I just thought that he believed what he believed and I believed what I did.
A couple of years later I went back to have lunch at that pizza place and my boss was still there.
He came out and sat with me for a while to talk about things.
He told me that he was going to Church now regularly.
I was surprised.
He told me, “You played a big part of getting me to believe in God. The way you listened to my questions without judging and the way you were my friend.”
I had no idea.
I also have to say that I wasn’t trying to convert him.
I was just trying to have a conversation, and answer with honesty the questions he asked me.
I tried to have a relationship with him.
And the Holy Spirit took my offering and made into something awesome.
The Holy Spirit is doing the same thing with your offerings of love that you put out there into the world.
And because of that there is someone right now crossing the street whose life is a little better because you are in it.
It sounds hokey, but that is how life works.
We care for each other and in doing we lighten the load a little for each other.
Because life is hard enough without people telling you how horrible of a person you are, or all the things you should be doing different or better.
So the Holy Spirit is meant to lift us up shows us God’s love given through Jesus Christ.
And then we are meant to share it with others, and let the Holy Spirit work on their lives.

To Ella and Vanessa we are all so overjoyed that you will be receiving Jesus special meal today.
We are also glad that you will be co-workers with us in bringing God’s love to others.
May the Holy Spirit dwell in you and lead you into truth, so that we might glorify God together.
And keep a look out for those bags and pens.

Monday, May 16, 2016


When my wife and I were moving into our first parsonage we asked for permission to paint it.
The congregation agreed.
However, the council president pulled us aside and said, “Just don’t paint any rooms red”.
He didn’t know that we were planning to paint the dining room red.
He agreed to let us do what we want but warned us we would regret it.
I am not sure what he had against the color red, but it seems that red may not be a favorite color of many.
The color red is often associated with danger, passion, and anger.
But it is also associated with courage, love, and joy.
It sends mixed messages.
Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost.
Today we celebrate the church receiving the Holy Spirit and sent out into the world.
It is appropriate that it is the color red because the Holy Spirit too has mixed messages for us and our lives.
Sure the Holy Spirit leads us into truth, and reminds us of God’s love.
But it also has a dash of danger to it.
To go out into a hostile world, to be God’s people is a dangerous idea.
Who knows what can happen?

This week at our Wednesday night worship we were discussing the Holy Spirit.
And one person said they were reluctant to talk to others about when they experience the Holy Spirit.
She said, “I think to myself should I tell others about it? Should I make a fool of myself?”
The Holy Spirit often times brings us out into uncharted territory and makes other think we are weird or out of sorts.

This morning in the story we hear from Acts that the first Pentecost brought confusion.
That some of the people who witnessed what was happening thought that the apostles had lost their minds.
Or that they were drunk.
In fact, they were not drunk.
They were seeing and experiencing the Holy Spirit.
They understood the teaching of the God’s intentions for all humanity.
They were dreaming dreams of something great and better for all people.
They were seeing what Jesus meant when he told them that he was sending an advocate to remind them of what the kingdom of God is about.
But it is dangerous.
It is like playing with fire.

And we know what fire can do.
It can give us light, warmth, protection, community, and cook our food.
It can also burn us and destroy us.
Fire like the color red has two sides.
How do we know if we are on the right side?
How do we know the difference between seeing the Spirit and simply being crazy?

It is important that we remember that the Spirit is not about random events.
The Spirit is about tying our lives to Jesus Christ.
The Spirit reminds us of all that Jesus told us.
So in order to be in the Spirit it has to be about what Jesus told us.

If you know me you know that I have a hard time hiding my displeasure.
Mostly because when I am upset my face turns different shades of red.
This week was not a great week for me.
Not because something bad happened to me.
It was bad of my own making.
You ever have a time like that when things are not going well and it is your fault?
I had two times this week when I wish I would have held my tongue a little bit.
Two times when I wished I had expressed myself differently, I wish I had been more thoughtful, more eloquent.
In both cases I let my anger out.
In both cases my faces was bright red.
Once at the Bishop of our synod, and once at the principle of the school my kids go to.
I was at the dangerous side of red.
The side of burning fire, of anger.
I have no one to blame but myself.
And that makes it worse.

We all have two sides to us too.
We all have the side of red that burns hot.
Maybe that is why the council president warned us against red for our dining room?
Because it reminded him of danger, and anger it was too aggressive for him.
It reminded him of the side of ourselves that we don’t want to know about.
The side we don’t want to talk about.
This morning I lay bare to all of you my sins.
I confess to you my anger, my lack of control, my quick temper that flared before I heard all the facts.

But at times like these I take solace in Jesus words that we hear from the Gospel of John this morning.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
There is the other side to our faith journey.
We enter the fire to be refined.
We receive the Holy Spirit to be molded by God.
To receive the words that Jesus gives us in times when we have made a mess of life, which in our sin and imperfection there is God’s healing powers of love and joy.
We are reminded that the sun rises each day.
We are reminded that blood flows through us so we can make amends.
Today the color of the day is red.
It is a color loaded with double meanings.
It has meanings of on the one hand danger, anger, of being burned, and courage, love, and joy on the other.

In renaissance paintings Jesus is often painted with red.
Renaissance painters used red to draw people’s attention to the most important part of a painting.
And when they painted Jesus he was at the center of attention.
In our own lives Jesus should be at the center.
It should be what draws our attention.
This week I spent time wallowing in my own imperfections.
I spent time replaying what I had done over and over.
I lost sleep about it.
I thought about the red that had burned me.

But I came here to this place to seek God’s guidance and forgiveness.
I experienced also the other side of red.
I experienced the Holy Spirit and the fire that burnt away our sins, so that we might learn from them and grow from them.
I heard through the Holy Spirit the words of Jesus, “Peace I leave you.”
The other side of red was here too the side of love and joy, the side of light, warmth, protection, the side of God that forgives us, and loves us through those bad weeks of our own making.

That is the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is to teach us and remind us of the words of Jesus.
So that we might remember that we are forgiven and sent back out into the world to try again.
The person was right on Wednesday night it all sounds a little foolish.
That is the danger of living in the Spirit to believe that God can love and care for even someone like me.

I wish you all to know the peace that Jesus brings.
The peace that heals our sins helps us through the bad weeks.
A peace that is foolish.
It is a peace that seems to be contradictory because like the color red itself it has more than one side.
A peace that acknowledges our sin and the same time a peace that burns it away with the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 9, 2016


This week I read some letters written to pastors that were from women who were not mothers.
They were about some of the pain that they have experienced on Mother’s day in Church.
You know the church will sometimes, in order to celebrate Mother’s day, hand out a flower to all the mothers, or asks all the mothers to rise so we can give them a round of applause.
Of course there is nothing wrong with celebrating mother’s day, or mothers.
I am grateful today for my mother.
But you can see the problem.
We can lift up motherhood as the most important expression of what it means to be a woman and in doing we leave out a lot of women.
We leave out women who choose for one reason or another not to have kids.
We leave out women who for one reason or another can’t have kids.
This is to say nothing of the pain that we might inflict on people that don’t have a good relationship with their mother.
So we wouldn’t want to exclude women or divide them up into categories.
Instead we want to be the place where we all come together to celebrate our life in Christ.

Some of you know that yesterday I ran a half Marathon.
And I could not have done it without my wife, Vicki.
She was my coach.
She was the one who gave me encouragement when I needed it, and she told me to suck it up and just do it when I needed it.
Are not these the attributes that go into a great mother?
Motherhood is about encouraging us to be our best, to do our best?
And that is not something that is only about being a female or being a mother.
All of us should be this for each other.
We should be coaching one another to be better than we think we are.
And as long as you do that for someday in life, I feel like you are being a mother.
I know it is an unconventional way to think about it.
But I know that I am a better parent because I watch my wife coach our kids into being better than they think they are.
If you can do that then you are mother.

This week I was also thinking a lot about identity.
What is that makes us who we are?
There are lots of ways we identify ourselves.
These are all part of trying to define ourselves and the world around us.
Just for example, I am a white, middle aged, pastor, husband, father of two, of Swedish and German decent, Lutheran, New Englander, Red Sox, Patriot, and Celtic fan.
All those things are how I identify myself to others.
They are things that make me who I am.
There is nothing wrong with identifying ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with finding our tribe and where we belong.
The thing is that we live an ever increasing multi-diverse world.
We live in a world that is blurring the lines more and more about what it means to be who we are.
And I am going to assume for many of us this is unsettling.

In the good old days (And I of course mean the 1980’s), it appears to have been easier.
We identified with a group of people and we tended to stay within the boundaries of that group.
For example, Lutherans hung out with other Lutherans.
My mom would tell me stories about when she was a kid and her Roman Catholic school friends would not go into her house because my grandfather was a Lutheran minister.
Or when I was in Long Island the old timers would tell you that people of color would never have crossed over the Belt parkway into Valley Stream.
In the old days there were defined roles for men and women.
Men went to work, came home, put up their feet as their wife handed them a drink.
Men wore the pants, and women wore dresses.
We had our places.
We had our fixed identity.

Part of this for me came up on Monday night as a sat in the synagogue listening to the stories of a man whose wife was a holocaust survivor.
In many ways the story that he told was not mine.
I am not Jewish, I never have been, and I don’t know what it is like to be a Jew.
I don’t know what it is like to be called a “Christ killer”, or to have my mother killed in a gas chamber.
But I was there, and I could feel the story.
It didn’t matter that it wasn’t me.
It was just like I could feel the pain of the women who wrote the letters about feeling excluded on Mother’s day.
Can we hear someone else’s story?
Can we feel someone else’s pain even if we don’t identify with their group?

There is something easier about knowing our place.
Some days I wish that my wife and I didn’t have to negotiate as much as we do.
Maybe it was easier for my grandparents.
My Grandfather went to work, came home.
My grandmother washed the clothes, cleaned the house, took care of the kids, and cooked the meals.
All of that has been up for debate and negotiation in our house.
Maybe it would just be easier if we all knew our roles and stayed there.

I am convinced the anger that is out there in our country is about the blurring of these lines of identity.
People are feeling like they have lost their place.
Or maybe even worse they don’t know where the lines are anymore.

If you find yourself in agreeing with me I want to offer a way to think differently about your identity.
I believe that our Gospel for today can help.
Our Gospel reading for this morning is Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples.
He is at the last supper and is trying to give them words of comfort and inspiration.
Like a mother he is trying to coach them up to be better than they think they are.
And he prays to God that they might be one.
What does it mean for us to be one.
If I line all of you up and brought up any subject I guarantee we would not be one.
I guarantee there would be as many opinions as there are people in this room.
Even if it was something that we thought we all agreed on.
If I asked everyone to tell me what they thought the importance of communion was I am sure I would get a large spectrum of opinions.
Those opinions would be based on your identity.
They would be based on your age, what you were taught as a kid, what you believe is important about communion.
Not even our theology makes us one.
Because you might indentify as a Lutheran, but what that means to you is different for all of us.
If not that than what would make us one?
What makes us one is Jesus.
Jesus tells us that he is in us, and we are in him.
Jesus brings us together.
And the love that Jesus has for us is what holds everything together.
Jesus hopes that we have the same love for each other that he has for us.
Meaning that what makes us one is the love of Jesus.
It is not agreement on any one thing or subject.
It is not age, gender, race, sexual identity.
For me it is this simple.
God loves us is what makes us one.

For me, and I hope for you, this is the only identity that really matters.
However else we might see ourselves.
Whatever else we call ourselves, it is only the love of God given in Jesus Christ that really matters.
When we see someone else, we don’t have to identify them by labels.
All we have to do is see them as a child of God and listen with an open heart to their story.
That is the identity that you and I are given.
That is the identity that matters most.
All the other ones fall under that identity.

What this means is that whatever else someone is.
Whatever line they may have crossed they too are children of God.
We believe God loves them the same that God loves us.
And if we are to answer Jesus prayer then in love we need to see them as one with us.
If we are to be mother’s to the world then we have to coach them up, encourage them, and yes challenge them to be the best version of themselves.

In our baptism we are reminded that we are children of God.
And our baptismal call is to remind others that they too are God’s children.
That is our true identity and the only one that really matters.