Monday, September 30, 2013

The Message the Angels Bring

I confess a selfish reason for celebrating Michael and all angels which is that it is my husband's "saint's day." And the name Michael literally means, "who is like God" but I urged people not to empower him. Yesterday, with our kids we looked at two of the stained glass windows in our church that depict angels- on each one the angels have orange wings. Not sure why. But any way, the first is an angel appearing to Abraham as he is about to offer Isaac, bringing important news to stop! The second is the angel Gabriel bringing important but joyful news to Mary- you will have a son! One of our kids is a girl named Gabriella who delights in the fact her name is the girl version of Gabriel!

It’s easy to look at today’s readings or others and focus on what we do or do not know about angels- who are these messengers?  What do they look like? We talked about how angels can bring good news, and tell things that are important and they protect us. And then we sang “Angels Watchin’ Over Me.” But of course there is more to all this because we are not so sure what to make of angels. And for many of us, we think about maybe the ones we hang on the Christmas tree where we imagine everything in the world is clean and pure and festive.

If art over time is a guide to popular thought, we like our angels to be pure looking girls, chubby blonde headed babies with miniature wings, or occasionally even sensual women. Smiling, or at least looking like they know a secret. We claim these images, perhaps even unknowingly as a way of escaping or smoothing over the world around us. But that’s not at all what we hear in the Bible. Angels sometimes look like nothing more than a curious visitor, or a fellow traveler. Other times, like a man, with dazzling bright light, like lightning, maybe with wings, as many as 6 wings, and as many as four heads, like animals and eyes all over, with a face like the sun. Kind of hard to hang that on a Christmas tree. Defender angels who look or sound more like something out of Lord of the Rings, or a fantasy movie, engaged in a kind of cosmic showdown that some are convinced the end of times will look like. And a tale of there no longer being any place for Satan in heaven- so he came to earth. How much is literal and how much is imagery? What to do with these creatures mentioned 600 times in the Bible?

Angels bring messages about something important. Most have no names. But when they do, there is usually a reason about big things. The two names we do know are Gabriel and Michael. Gabriel appears when births are being announced that will change the world-

the births of John the Baptist who prepared the way and Jesus, whose name means-  “he saves.” And Michael comes armed with the power of God to conquer evil. Their appearances are about proclaiming what we hear in verse 10 of Revelation- A loud voice proclaiming- NOW have come salvation and power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of the Messiah. And no matter how adorable our popular imagery of angels can be- honestly, that passage is what I really want to know.

We may not know what to make of all of the imagery, but we know what it feels like when evil has knocked on our door, or life is full of chaos. And while we do not know where angels are visible, somehow when they are seen, the reaction is one of recognizing God’s power, and standing in awe. Whether you have ever had such an experience or not, stories of those who have reveal God in our world.

A few years ago I had my closest encounter with angels, but I didn’t actually see anything. I was working at the hospital and paged to visit a patient with end stage liver disease. When I walked into the room there was a man connected to lots of medical equipment, looking exhausted from his struggles, and a frantic wife unable to rest from the swirl of information they’d been given about just how serious things were. She was terrified, and he was resigned. And they were caught in chaos. He was preparing to die, and hoping to escape. She was looking for a miracle- she wanted a cure. But they couldn’t undo the struggle. It had started long ago, in a cloud of addictions, shame and contempt. Being deceived by the devil and all those empty promises. And now they knew. She urgently demanded- you have to pray for him to beat this! For him to be healed, she meant cured. While he kept saying, “no babe, it’s too late for that.” But it was like his lifestyle was standing there, accusing him, day and night, like we hear of in Revelation, with each beep of the machines. Pray for us.

In my mind at that moment, were so many thoughts- anger that evil had destroyed a life. And when I think about how there was no room for the devil and evil in heaven, that they fell to earth,  I could literally imagine seeing it all falling in a blaze of flames, but the smoke seeping into so many lives, overtaking and convincing people to cling to things that would destroy them. Like this guy.

And right about then I would’ve liked to do some cosmic butt-kicking with Michael the archangel. And then high five with the disciples that we’d conquered! But I was left feeling profound sadness, and frankly, helplessness. Because while I believe for God all things are possible. I knew I could not stand there and say “God will fix you.” I knew time seemed short.

And there we were. And I began to pray with them and to this day I do not remember the words. I’ve tried, but all I remember was saying “Almighty God” and closing my eyes as tight as I ever had ‘til I got to “Amen.” But at the end, as I opened my eyes, the woman was positively transformed. She had a glow in her eyes, and stood there in a state of wonder. And she kept saying, “Did you see that?...Did you see?” Followed finally by- “when you were praying, they came! The angels came and were in this room. It’s gonna be OK. It will be alright. We can do this.” She didn’t say he would be cured, but that she knew they could walk this road.

And I was so astounded, I never even asked what exactly she saw. Because what mattered was not the messenger but the message- that you are known to God and chaos has an end. Angels act in Scripture and in God’s world to bring this message. The woman in that hospital room moved from wanting a cure here, to being convinced that she now understood how to walk in the days to come with God. The angels had brought a message.

And just like Jesus told the disciples, it’s not so much about the messenger as the message. That power and salvation and kingdom are now.

So often we can lose sight of God’s power, and salvation and kingdom. And be deceived. Into believing on our own power, or deceived into believing we are alone in our struggles. Or that what swirls around is too great to be conquered. But Martin Luther writes that “we as Christians should have sure knowledge that (God’s angels) are with us, not only one or two, but a large number.” After all, it was a multitude of the heavenly host with the shepherds that dark night. And he says “ … if God did not in this way check the fury of Satan, we could not live for one moment.” But God does.

NOW have come salvation and power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah. This is the message that helps us worship and praise, and discern God’s will. This is what guides, protects, delivers, encourages, and answers.

The message that chaos has an end in Jesus Christ. All around us may swirl accusers, or adversaries. Those who do not cling to life. Times where evil has come, but the time is short. But chaos has an end. And we are not alone.

Angels work mysteriously to surround us, and to remind us to rejoice that there is such a message for us because we are known to God. And we are assured salvation.

And that is the message we like the early disciples are given to carry- to proclaim God’s good news- in preaching and teaching, baptizing and healing, and casting out evil. In the name of the one who sent us. With a powerful love that saves and brings peace because NOW have come the salvation and power, the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. Jesus is that message.
May God surround us with the power of all the heavenly forces guiding us to believe it and proclaim it.  AMEN

Monday, September 23, 2013

What the heck do you do with Luke on an Anniversary Sunday?

Today during the children’s message we talked about what an anniversary was. There were lots of guesses. An anniversary was a day when the guy surprises the girl and the girl surprises the guy. It means cake, and it’s about something people did. It’s something people who are married do. Then we talked about how anniversaries are about a big event- it could be getting married. Or for our church it’s kind of like a birthday. But anniversaries are about doing something together. I had the kids hold hands and asked what would happen if the person at each end decided to run toward the wall closest to them. Well, there would be fighting or the chain would break. And we learned that to stay together takes work. And then I asked them to turn around. And at first one person in the middle just twisted around and everyone else got jumbled. I encouraged the person on the end to lead them to turn the whole chain around. And we learned about working together. And then we looked at the cross. Because the big event that brings us together is about Jesus. Jesus’ love is why we are here, and it’s what helps us work together. And Jesus is why we get to celebrate.

Here at Holy Spirit, a long time ago, people gathered responding to a need for a Sunday School chapel in this part of the city. But they quickly realized they really wanted a church. It was kind of radical asking to be freed from the church that started us. But it seemed critical. In critical moments we get clarity. 102 years ago, there was that clarity. At other times however, we can deceive ourselves into thinking things happening elsewhere don’t matter or have nothing to do with us. This congregation had a long tradition of strong dynamic leaders who grew an off shoot Sunday School chapel into a vibrant congregation in this city. It took a lot of labor and saving and having some of the right people at the right time. But basically like all of the other congregations of the city, we kind of functioned unto ourselves. One way I know this is that none of our fellow churches knew a lot about us really. When I first came and would ask beyond these doors about Holy Spirit, most people here in the city would say they really didn’t know. Not bad, just unknown. Collectively we were complacent as churches. Today we hear about a manager who has gotten complacent. Used to doing things his way.  

In the parable, it’s only when the kind of complacency the manager had fallen into is disturbed that he gets an eye opener. Until now he’s probably been really focused on his own needs to the exclusion of the needs of his neighbors. But then he realizes he actually really needs other people. And even then he still comes off as a little suspicious. I suspect changes of heart often come across that way. He spends a phenomenal amount of energy in a new direction. But others aren’t really totally sure what to make of it. Yet while his motives may be mixed, there is blessing in what he does. People who owe a lot of money are given breathing room, and the boss who was feeling a money crunch gets some relief and people are connected in ways they had not really been relating before.

What does that have to do with our anniversary?  Anniversaries are about a past, and a present and hope for the future.

As we’ve gotten to know each other, and I’ve heard your rich history, I’ve learned of the quilts that were sent, and the pretzels for the military, and caring for neighborhood orphans. When I asked you to replenish the benevolence fund recently, there was $1800 in two weeks! All ways of caring, past and present.

At the same time, there were wise people who wanted to make sure that this parish was always cared for-always had a pastor. And a seminary education fund was born, and funded. A fund whose original intent I suspect was somewhat self serving- wanting to guarantee this place always had a pastor, we prepared to fund his education. And later wanting to know our own were cared for if they went to seminary. We took care of our own. An amazing amount of forethought, and may I dare say, at the same time, a fund that was really about serving ourselves. Holy Spirit has been blessed to not only have pastors but to fund education for two Lutheran pastors.

But I said we get clarity when there is a critical moment. What is the critical moment?

Well, last year our bishop brought to all of us the fact not enough is being given to  fund the ministry we’ve been called to share- asking us to see more than our own congregations, and to stop doing things complacently. And it would be easy to say that’s not about us. But our leaders gathered to think about how to do more. Out of that conversation and looking at all of our assets closely, we began talking about the seminary education fund. Sitting there with $90,000 in it. And truth be told the first thing people wanted to know was whether we really needed to keep it for its intended purpose. Couldn’t we use it for our other needs? Because here we are and there it sits. Just growing and being unused. How should it be managed?

But, there’s another critical moment. The fact that in the next 10 years 50% of the ELCA pastors will retire. Half. Take the number of leaders and make it half. And unlike being forgiven half a debt, creating a deficit by 50%- only half the number of churches with pastors is a loss. And dare I say it, God could ask what the heck we’ve all been doing. Going around without ever thinking about the future and even what it takes to be a pastor. Used to be congregations and synods paid for the dormitory and tuition, and future pastors would pay a few hundred dollars a semester to live in a dorm, have their meals and laundry taken care of and be sent out to churches to learn. Somehow we never saw that that changed. Except here where we did our part for our own. And one could say let those other parishes pay for their own. It’s not our debt. But that’s not really the truth. We are church together.

Today it costs no less than $100,000 to cover books, tuition, fees, meals, transportation and supplies. And at the Philadelphia Seminary you can’t even get a meal on campus anymore. How do future pastors, young or old, pay for all of that? If you go full time you can’t work. Students with families end up with kids on food stamps. Seminaries have branches of the local food bank feeding future pastors. I think God wonders what the heck is going on.

So here we are. We realized that if we had a fund that could pay for educating pastors, it could pay for educating other pastors studying who were from this synod- about 18 right now. Maybe even cut their debt in half. We had a transformation and did an unexpected thing. $25,000 to endow a fund in our synod. And suddenly a whole bunch of people knew who we were. At synod assembly this year we offered another $25,000 as a matching grant.

 And the money keeps coming, and with it, those relationships. The ones we weren’t tending.

This is the kind of shrewd Jesus is talking about. Being shrewd with what you’ve been given in a way that furthers the relationships and care of the kingdom. Clarity and new direction. Deeper relationships and a future.

It started with us wanting to know if we could use that money for ourselves. But being transformed by God. And inviting others to share in a new totally radical thing.  That is worth celebrating!

But I want to invite you one step farther- God wants you in this story. Today. You see, it’s one thing to be gracious with money of another day. It is something else to let God speak about our money today. Between now and the end of November, I want each of you- yes, each of you, to join this work. In addition to whatever else you give, give something. Yes, something more. Sacrificial giving. Put it in an envelope and mark it Seminary. Think of all the saints and leaders who have gone before here, and let’s surprise ourselves by celebrating and honoring God’s work past and present in all of us and giving for God’s future.   
And may God the giver of all good things continue to bless the world in and through us as we journey into the future together. AMEN

Monday, September 16, 2013

Lost and Found-a love story

Where are you? It’s one of the fundamental questions of existence. From the earliest ages we teach it. We teach babies to play peek a boo, and help kids learn to check in with us. Through out life, that question of “where are you” is about the connectivity of relationships. Years ago when I was a young mom, our older daughter Catherine and her Daisy scout troop were scheduled to march in a Halloween parade in a neighboring town. And she was all dressed up as a princess, which was her constant theme at that age. She had a little tiara, and a dress I made, all pink and fluffy fabric, and ballet slippers. After the parade was done, her group was still gathered with their leaders when our younger daughter Alex, announced she had to find a bathroom. NOW! So I left Catherine in the care of her leaders with their permission while Alex and I wove our way through the crowd to the volunteer fire company to take care of business. Well, when I returned, Catherine was shockingly nowhere to be found. It was night, and there was a swarm of people, we did not know. And I did not see her or her leaders. And I knew that the post parade party for the group gathering was not at all a place for a 5 year old princess.

I picked up our younger daughter and began frantically searching. Looking for anyone who could tell me if they had seen Catherine, or even anyone I recognized. Finally, blocks away I found the leader with whom I had entrusted Catherine, who seemed unconcerned, and had forgotten her job was to stay with our daughter. But she was sure it would be OK, and since she had other things to do, waved goodbye.

She kind of treated my daughter like an object for the lost and found. And she drove away. And I was left facing that “where are you?” feeling that my daughter was seemingly invisible and unimportant to her. And I felt lost too. Now I was doubly frantic, and walked back through the whole swarm of people again, when I caught just a glimpse of the pink. And there she was, talking to a couple who sometimes worshipped at our church. She just wandered over and talked to people who were nice to her, and they recognized that she was probably not there alone. She wasn’t really thinking she was lost, but she was kind of alone. They just talked to her and kept her there safe, knowing a grownup would appear. They were just being good people, and reassured me it was nothing really.

But of course it was huge. Because while she was lost to me, finding her was of critical importance. She must be returned to me. And while part of me wondered what led her to wander off or who had let her, or whether I had trusted the wrong person, none of that mattered when she was found. Then the number one thing, the only thing on my mind was absolute gratitude that she was found! In fact for me, it was a celebration!

And I think that’s what is happening in the gospel and how God sees us.

Where are you? Is one of the first things God says to humans in Genesis, it’s the burning demand of the prophets. And now Jesus has come. Jesus has come for the sinners. Those separated. Those who may not have been feeling lost, but maybe feeling alone. Who might be vulnerable and invisible to others. Who for whatever reason seemed unimportant to the leaders entrusted with their care. They weren’t worth getting worked up over. Jesus surely should have better things to do. Some things just end up lost.

But it’s then that Jesus tells the parables- those stories that illustrate a truth, today a look into God’s heart. About a sheep and a coin. A shepherd so focused on finding the one who wandered off, and the woman who rips her house apart looking for that one coin. Because no matter how being lost has happened, restoration is vital. Lost must be found. That’s God’s heart.

Recently I found out that I had a role in a story like that. God showed me the end of a Lost Sheep story in a place where I was just doing my ordinary life. We call the hospitals every day to see who’s been admitted. Many months ago when I was still pretty new, the hospital computer said a woman from our parish had been admitted. She was kind of unknown, but I went to visit and learned her story and kept visiting. That's my job. Eventually I was there just before death with the family. And later presided over a service. That night in the hospital and again at the church, off handedly someone said how good it was they had all gathered. I had no idea. That they hardly ever gathered like that.

But recently I got a call recently from one of her daughters. I learned that whole family was baptized here. I was shown a baptismal napkin and a Bible in a box with Jesus on it. All the kids were baptized here. But then there were years of hard living and feeling lost. For everyone. The mom had not been here, and in fact had messed up pretty good over time. And sadly, really no one was looking for them. Now her adult daughter said she wrestled with that fact her mom hadn’t been who she could have. In the end she knew it. "But when you came and said we could entrust her to God who was waiting I realized what I have been missing. Yeah she messed up but God still brought her home."  

And then God brought this daughter back. That’s God’s heart for us.

Ironically, that hospital lists people as connected with a congregation when you say so, but over time, even 35 years later, nothing changes unless you say so. You see, the woman who was sick, whose name showed up that day, never actually asked for God to send the clueless new pastor. But God was bringing her home.

Neither the coin nor the sheep ask to be found. The wayward and estranged daughter wasn’t asking to be reunited. But regardless of the reasons for being separated, and what forgiveness and mercy were needed, God’s heart would not rest until they were restored.

And their return to the relationships God gave brought blessings unexpected and in ways broader than might be obvious. Can you imagine a God who loves like that?

And a God who uses us in this work?

Sometimes it might seem we are doing nothing really. Shepherds are supposed to tend flocks; the housewife was expected to tend her house. Pastors are supposed to visit people. What about the fellow church goers who secured my daughter? They’re just like each of you when people cross your paths. Not enough people in our world do what they did – tend relationships.  But even so, more than we know, sometimes when we are "just doing our job" whatever it is, God is doing life.

Each of you is here today because of it. Some of you because you’re “doing a job” and some feeling lost, and some perhaps feeling thankful. All of you are really here because God’s heart sought you out. Which leads me to the best part. The parties.

When I had the kids read this lesson on Wednesday, I asked what they thought about all the parties. Which drew a giant, WHAT??? What parties?

There are three- the one Jesus is in that draws the criticism. And the two in our parable-when what was lost was found. When “where are you?” has been answered. They show us what happens when Jesus is in our midst. Not only do we glimpse God’s ceaseless desire to draw us to God- that’s what repentance is. They show us reunited to a God who will go to all lengths to find us, to celebrate and who thinks that no matter what, we’re worth it. That’s why we’re here!

If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is.

Let’s pray: Lord, thank you for your restless heart that finds us even when we don't know we're lost, and showers us with abundant love and mercy. May this inspire us to spread the party

Far and wide.