Sunday Best

You are a child of God...
You are a child of God…

NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month.  It’s a campaign that challenges bloggers (and would-be bloggers) to post something every day in the month of November.  My first reaction to that challenge is to realize that my mind is a complete blank, like somebody shook the Etch-A-Sketch (or is it a more contemporary analogy to say that somebody cleared the Smart Board?).  Fortunately, there are a couple of sources of prompts for those of us who are not in the habit of blogging every day. One of today’s prompts is a question about church wardrobe: what do I wear at church?

Well, there are lots of possibilities.  It could be something like this:

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Or something like this:

Conference Pastors

(Both photos taken by the very talented pastor and photographer Peter Jonas.  His work can be seen at Outta the Box Photography.)

But really, I rarely bring lightning or rough seas to church with me (at least, not on purpose).  Usually I wear an alb and stole when leading worship.  In summer, I’m more casual, but that was something I had to get used to.

When I read the question about what to wear to church, my mind started spinning through generations.  I’m an early Baby Boomer, which means that my parents were Depression Kids and my grandparents were first and second generation immigrants.  I don’t remember ever seeing my Grandma Elsie in anything other than a dress, with stockings and sensible shoes.  And for all of my growing-up years, my mother wore a dress to church every single week.  I think she was well into her seventies when she first wore slacks to church.  That kind of imprinting is almost impossible to shake off.  Even now, I feel a little bit out of place if I don’t wear a dress to church on a Sunday morning.

And then there’s the matter of the office I hold, the role of pastor in leading worship.  There’s something deep inside me that pushes me to be more formal in my words, my dress, and my manner when I’m leading worship. Worship is the primary time when the community gathers, and I take my role as a worship leader very seriously.  For me, that means a more formal way of dressing, even though my clothes won’t be visible under my alb.

I have colleagues who are every bit as serious about worship as I am; but their dress is much more casual. That works for them, not so much for me. I occasionally do wear something more casual on Sundays; but when I do, it’s most often the result of a laundry crisis. When that happens, I carry a bit of a “great imposter” feeling through the day. I feel most comfortable, I feel most like the person I am called to be, when I am wearing my “Sunday best” clothes to lead worship.

NaBloPoMo – Say THAT Three Times Fast!

I’ve just learned that November is NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month.  The idea is to post something on my blog every day for the entire month of November.  As one who struggles to get something posted every week or two, that seems like a daunting task.  But perhaps taking on this challenge will make a weekly post seem easier.  So I’m going to try.

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Today is November 1.  It is also All Saints Sunday, a day when many congregations remember those who have died during the past year.  This is one of my favorite Sundays in the church year.  We read each name, and then an acolyte lights a candle.  As a community, we pause to thank God for the lives of those who have been part of our community and are now held safely in God’s care.  Memories run deep on this day, as we hear name after name and remember the rich ways that God has blessed our congregation with their presence over the years.

But the part of this day that truly makes it my favorite is what happens next.  We move to another list, the names of those who have joined the Communion of Saints through baptism.  Again, we read each name, and an acolyte lights a candle.  We join in thanking God for the new lives through which God continues to bless our congregation.  So hope runs deep, right along side the memories, on this day.

As we steep in that rich broth of memories and hope, we experience the reality of our connection to God’s children of all times and places. And that makes a difference in how we live in this time and place.

Sadie in the Valley of the Shadow

It all started, apparently, when I had surgery a couple of years ago and couldn’t take Sadie for long walks.  With a lot less exercise and no change in her diet, my Lab/Beagle mix became a little… well,…  chunky.  She too had become a lot less active, so she continued to gain weight despite cutting back on her daily rations.  First one, and then both, knees developed torn ligaments. She couldn’t take more than one or two steps without her legs collapsing.  Her main method of locomotion was scooting across the floor, dragging her backside.2012-06-21 002

When we went to the vet, I learned that the only solution to these torn ligaments would be surgery. Or rather surgeries, one for each leg, several weeks apart.  I hardly needed to think about the extended time of recovery or any of the possible side effects; because the price tag alone put it out of my reach.  Sadie may be a $4,000 dog, but I don’t have a $4,000 medical budget for her.

So what to do now?  The doctor said I could keep her at home, but that she is likely to grow less and less able to walk, in more and more pain as the ligaments continue to tear.  And one day I would need to make the awful decision that this would be the last day of her life.

But Sadie seems to have decided otherwise, at least for the moment.  The smooth hardwood floors are still a problem; but anything with carpet seems to give her enough traction to get up on all four legs and walk for a few steps.  At first, she struggled with the four stairs from the back door to the back yard; now she goes up to the second floor and back whenever she wants. She’s reclaiming some of her familiar routines: demanding a treat after every trip outdoors, heading to the door to greet every visitor, getting excited when she sees my walking shoes (even though she can’t go for walks), and wanting to sleep on my bed (if she can convince me to lift her).

This may only be a temporary reprieve.  I imagine the torn ligaments will catch up to her one day, and we will be back in that dark place.  But for now at least, Sadie has found some rays of sunshine in her Valley of the Shadow.  And I’m content to walk there with her.

What My Confirmation Students Could Teach Joy Behar

Joy Behar went viral this week – again.  This time, the cause of her fame was either a simple careless comment or evidence of disrespect for the work of millions of nurses. It depends on who’s doing the interpretation.

When the firestorm started, my question was if and when she would make some sort of apology.  For several days, she offered no apology, seemed not to understand how offensive her comments were to millions of people.  Today, late today, actually, around supper time, she finally said what she hoped were the magic words: “I’m truly sorry to anyone I have offended.”  This was coupled with a quick attempt at image repair: I have enormous respect for nurses.

Sorry, Joy; your “apology” sounds flat and insincere.  My confirmation students could teach you a thing or two about a proper apology and a request for forgiveness.  These 7th and 8th graders learned this past year that the proper way to apologize and ask for forgiveness involves four steps:

  1. I am sorry that I (describe your specific behavior here).  Note to Joy: I’m sorry that you were offended does not meet this standard.  Maybe something more like “I’m sorry that I showed a lack of respect for nurses when I made fun of Ms. Johnson’s uniform and stethoscope.
  2. I know it was wrong because (describe what was wrong about your action). This was totally missing from Joy Behar’s statement. Perhaps “I know that something as important to a person as their career should not be ridiculed.”
  3. In the future, I will (tell what specific changes you will make so that this doesn’t happen again).  I could find no commitment to change in any of Joy Behar’s comments on this matter.  How about “In the future, I will find my humor in ways that do not demean others.”
  4. Will you forgive me?

I suspect that an apology like that, issued promptly and sincerely, could have defused the backlash.  Perhaps we would all have forgotten the matter by now and moved on to find other things to get upset about.

Any time you need an apology coach, Ms. Behar, I have some 8th graders I can refer to you.

Thinking about Labor Day

I have accomplished almost nothing of the list of tasks that I had in mind for today.  I would like to be able to crawl up on some moral high ground and say that’s because I am conflicted about Labor Day as a holiday.  But the truth is, the decadent pleasure of doing absolutely nothing except take naps (yes, plural) and play on Facebook was just too seductive.  I rarely have a day when I have absolutely no commitments; so making the most — or least — of it is very appealing.

But it’s also true that I am conflicted about Labor Day.  That’s because Labor Day is so closely tied to labor unions, and I have a love-hate relationship with them.

On the one hand, I’m proud to be able to say that my father and my grandfather were both trade union carpenters.  When I think of them, I think of the hours I got to spend in my dad’s woodworking shop in the basement of our home.  It was usually my job to hold the “other end” of whatever piece of wood he was working with.  I have an assortment of things he made over the years, starting with purely functional tables or bookcases, and moving into furniture sanded so smooth it just begs for you to touch it.  And some of my most treasured possessions are the card tables my grandfather made, with their intricate wood inlay tops fashioned after quilt patterns.  They were both the kind of carpenters who took great pride in their work; my grandpa had a reputation for being the “door whisperer”; he knew exactly how to shim the hinges of a door so that it would swing easily and stay where you put it.  The training that their apprenticeships offered allowed them to refine their skills and made them excellent craftsmen.  And for that I am grateful to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and to Local 948 in Sioux City, Iowa.

On the other hand, I have some frightening memories associated with the same organization.  My grandfather was a carpenter for his entire career, and happily so.  My dad did a good job as a carpenter for several years; and he also showed an aptitude for seeing the bigger picture, knowing how his work as a carpenter fit in with the other trades who were working on the same commercial buildings.  After several years, he was promoted to be a foreman of the carpenter’s crew (still a union position). And then, a few years later, he was offered the chance to run an entire job as a project manager, a move that would take him from union labor into management. He was good at his work, he enjoyed bringing rolls of blueprints home and laying them out on the living room floor, describing them to me and helping me to visualize the finished building that would grow from those sheets of blue-tinged paper. He made the move, and as long as he stayed in town and ran local jobs, everything was fine. Apparently he had earned enough respect to make it work.

But then came an out-of-town job.  It was a slow time for the company, and the only jobs that were available were out of town and were on such a tight budget that most of the trade crews were non-union.  The company offered that job to my father, so that he wouldn’t have to be laid off.  He took the job, and we got ready to move.  Even before we moved there, I overheard enough anxious conversations between my parents to know that something bad might happen. And that made me anxious about the move as well.  From what I picked up from my parents’ conversation, there were people in town who were angry that this building was being built by non-union crews, and there were rumblings of threats.  One cool autumn evening, our phone rang.  Dad got a message that there was a fire at the job site, so he left to go check things out. He was gone for a while, a long while actually.  After the first hour, I could see my mother getting more and more nervous.  After two hours, she called a neighbor to ask them to go to the site and look for Dad.  By the time Dad finally returned about three hours later, I think my mother was convinced that he had been hurt, or worse.  I don’t know whether the angry union workers set the fire. But what I do know is that the labor movement’s reputation for violence, and the threats my father had received, created a night of terror in our home. And for that I cannot respect or support them.

Like many other movements, labor unions seem to track the arc of a pendulum.  They were formed when it was normal for workers to be exploited and mistreated, and they worked fiercely… and sometimes violently… to win rights for those workers.  But a pendulum can’t stop at the midpoint; it keeps swinging to the opposite end of the arc, where the unions themselves were often the exploiters, the bullies, the ones to be feared.  I’m not a sociologist, but it seems to me that the pendulum may be swinging back the other way now, again overshooting that elusive midpoint.

And so I’m conflicted.  I appreciate the work of unions in equipping my father and grandfather with skills to do excellent work.  But I still remember the fear that ruled our house that night; and because of that, I can’t join in the unbridled praise that I hear from others today. So maybe another nap, and some Facebook time.

Sermon for Sunday, September 6, 2015

Gospel   (Mark 7:24-37)

The holy gospel according to Mark, the 7th chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.

24 [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

The gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.

Sermon

Grace to you, and peace, from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The social structure in Jesus’ day was very class and status conscious.  Your class was determined by the family to whom you were born.  Once you were born into a class, there was no chance for you to change.  Class brought privilege or ridicule, wealth or poverty.  The people to whom James was writing certainly understood the class system.  They knew who should get the best seats at the table, they knew how to cater to wealth, how to play up to those with influence in the community.

And Jesus’ hearers also understood status distinctions.  They knew that those who were not descendants of Abraham were to be avoided at all cost, lest their lower status taint the faithful.  They classified everyone from outside their own area as unclean, and they avoided coming in contact with them.

So when the Syrophonecian woman approached Jesus, his disciples were prepared for trouble…

The woman came with a request that was familiar to Jesus; he had seen and heard parents pleading for Jesus to restore the health of their children. In this case the woman’s daughter was possessed by a demon.  After listening to the woman’s request, Jesus responded to her.  We have his words written in our Gospel, and to our ears they sound harsh.  He called her a dog.  A dog!

We heard those words from Jesus, but printed words can only tell us so much.  What we don’t know is the look on his face or the tone of his voice.  Was he overworked, sleep-deprived, simply needing a break?  Did he snap at the woman because she didn’t respect his day off? That might be true: after all, the first verses in the  Gospel told us that Jesus was hoping not to be noticed; he simply needed a break.  Or was Jesus just quoting to her the tradition that established the relationship between Jews and outsiders?  Or perhaps, did he say the words with a mocking tone and a grin, letting her know that he was quoting the official policy, but that he didn’t agree with it?  We would like the last interpretation to be true; that would certainly be like the Jesus we think we know. But the plain fact is, we just don’t know.

What we do know, though, is that after some conversation with the woman, Jesus told the woman that her daughter was free of the demon.  Despite his seemingly harsh words, Jesus didn’t turn her away; instead, he told her that her daughter was free of the demon.  Jesus did that, not because the woman came from a high social status; instead, Jesus healed her because that’s who Jesus is, that’s what Jesus does.

I wonder, though… How would we respond to this woman if she came to us for help?  Would we warmly welcome her, pray with her for her daughter, look for practical ways to be of help?  Or would we, like the recipients of James’s letter, treat her as an outsider, one who could never understand the deep history of this community, this congregation?  Would we, perhaps without using the words at all, let her know that she is no more welcome than a stray dog by the side of the road?  Of course not, we protest.  We would certainly help her and make her feel welcome.  And we would like that to be the truth.  But sometimes we are so caught up in our own families and social circles that we just don’t see those “outsiders” any more than we notice a stray dog by the side of the road as we drive from one event to another in our busy lives.  We may not feel that we are hostile to others and their needs, but often we just do not notice.  We miss an opportunity to be God’s hands and feet bringing comfort, encouragement, and strength to those around us, both inside and outside of our social circles.

Today those strangers might be some of the four million refugees fleeing the devastation of brutal civil war in Syria.  We wish that we would be like the volunteers in Hungary who stationed themselves along a road that refugees were likely to travel.  They had stocked up with food and water to give to anyone who came by.  Or perhaps we would like to be like the young German boy who was photographed at the airport, waiting for a plane to arrive with refugees on board.  He was carrying a hand-printed cardboard sign that said “Welcome”; and he had brought several toys to give to children as they arrived.  We would like to believe that we would do something similar.  But in our most honest moments, we wonder if we would even notice a refugee among all of the ball games, school events, and family gatherings that fill our calendars…

But the good news, friends, is that God doesn’t let us stay in that state of oblivion.  God continues to act in us to open our eyes, to help us see those who need help and encouragement.  God continues to remind us that we are a people who have been given the mission to love and care for others, even… no, make that especially, the stranger.

The biblical scholar and preacher, Fred Craddock, tells the story of a missionary sent to preach the gospel in India near the end of World War II. After many months the time came for a furlough back home.

His church wired him the money to book passage on a steamer but when he got to the port city he discovered a boat load of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily. These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world literally looking for a place to live, and these particular Jews were now staying in attics and warehouses and basements all over that port city.

It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, “Merry Christmas.”

The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, “We’re Jews

“I know that,” said the missionary, ” What would you like for Christmas?”

In utter amazement the Jews responded, “Why, we’d like pastries, good pastries like the ones we used to have in Germany.”

So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for all the Jews he could find staying in the port.

Of course, then he had to wire home asking for more money to book his passage back to the States.

As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what happened to the money they had already sent.

He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for some Jews.

His superiors wired back, “Why did you do that? They don’t even believe in Jesus.”

He wired back: “Yes, but I do.”

And so do you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Grace Among the Weeds

I’ve been a very negligent gardener this year.  Things started well in the spring.  With the help of a neighbor and his rototiller, I created a new bed for tomatoes, so they didn’t hog all the room in my raised beds.  Then I got busy with beans, cucumbers, zucchini, summer squash, peppers, onions, and about a dozen herbs.  I got them all in the ground and was very faithful with watering them… for about two weeks.

It was a hard summer.  The common wisdom is that church life slows down in the summer, and I was really counting on that.  I was bone tired by Memorial Day and looking for a chance to take some quality Sabbath time… to heal, to re-member, as a Bible study group talked about just last week.  But instead of slowing down, things got even busier.  On top of that, I was dealing with some tough stuff personally.  I was stretched so thin that I just didn’t have it in me to nurture another living thing, human, animal, or in this case, garden plants.

So I quit weeding.  I quit watering.  I generally ignored the garden as the weeds grew taller than the plants that I had so carefully put there just weeks earlier. I would look out the window and see the pathetic-looking garden beds, and I would just turn away.  The garden got more and more overgrown.  Every once in a while I would think that I saw a bit of red among the tomato plants; but it was too much work to go out and check.  I gave it up for a lost cause.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve started to get my balance back. I’ve done a better job of getting sleep, I’ve made some decisions that needed making, I’ve taken some time each day to read or knit or design a weaving project. So today, I thought I was ready to tackle the garden.

I went out and started to pull weeds out of the new tomato bed.  I was surprised to see how tenaciously those tomato plants had struggled to produce fruit, even when they were being choked out by weeds.  In spite of my neglect all summer, today I was able to find about half a dozen ragged tomatoes still hanging on the vines.

Then I moved to the other garden beds.  As I expected, I found dried out beans, lettuce long gone to seed, and one giant zucchini.  But the big surprise was that I found some healthy tomato plants with fruit and lots of blossoms… that I had not planted!  They were apparently volunteer plants from last year, whose seeds had survived the Wisconsin winter and a season of neglect.  The best plants in my garden, as it turned out, were plants that I had nothing to do with.  But the fruit is there, ready for me to pick and enjoy.

Isn’t that just how it is? We struggle and flounder to do things by our own efforts, and the biggest lesson we learn is how inadequate we are. And then, without any effort or actions on our part, God provides for us in ways we could never have imagined.

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  (Luke 12:24-25, 27)

I think I’ll have a tomato with my supper tonight.