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.

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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.

Rose Petals and the Holy Spirit

First Lesson for the Sunday of Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Sermon

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

The Pantheon is a basilica in the city of Rome.  It’s not the biggest or most ornate building; but it does have one distinctive feature.  The oculus (the round opening at the top of the dome) is one of the largest of any in the city.  On Pentecost each year, that oculus becomes the source of thousands and thousands of rose petals that come streaming down onto the floor of the basilica. The rose petals are red, like fire; and each petal looks a bit like the tongues of fire that appeared above the heads of the disciples on the day of Pentecost.

There’s a YouTube video that shows the rose petals falling, falling, falling, until they make a carpet several inches deep on the floor.  At first, I was struck by the beauty of those rose petals, even after I read that they were made possible by a fire truck with a long ladder and a crew of helpful firefighters on the top of the dome.  As I continued to watch, however, I began to be bothered by the rope barriers and the basilica staff who kept people confined to the outer edges of the space, away from where the rose petals were falling.  A person could watch that shower of rose petals and possibly never even be touched by one.  A person could be a spectator without ever getting involved.

We might be a lot like the crowd at the Pantheon.  We too like to watch from the margins without getting too deeply involved.  We’ve made a deal with God (or so we think) that we’ll show up and go through the motions and take our turn baking a pan of bars for some event, as long as we don’t have to actually change much about our lives.  We are quite content to be spectators.

What troubled me about that video is, that’s not how the Holy Spirit works.  When the Holy Spirit was showered on the disciples at Pentecost, it just wasn’t possible for them to remain spectators.  When the Holy Spirit showered down on them and filled them up, there was no way they could stay at the edges and just watch.  They were literally pushed out of the room where they had gathered and into the middle of that crowd of strangers.  They were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they simply had to speak out.

And you see, friends, that’s what the Holy Spirit does to us today.  When the Holy Spirit fills you up, you cannot remain unchanged.  That’s what will happen to Sophie and Cecile when they are baptized in just a few minutes.  They will be filled and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and nothing will ever be the same for them.  Just like those young girls, when you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you will find yourself looking at the world with new eyes.  You will find yourself looking at other people, not as strangers to be feared, but as fellow beloved children of God.  When the Holy Spirit fills you up, you will not remain unchanged.  You will make different decisions about how you spend your time, and where you direct your energy.  When the Holy Spirit fills you up and changes you, you will make different decisions about how you spend your money.

You, each one of you, has been filled with the Holy Spirit, and nothing will ever be the same.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Starword: Power

I learned this week about a practice that a number of my friends have been using for a few years.  Each year at Epiphany (just after the 12 days of Christmas), they randomly choose a word to use in the coming year as a focus for prayer and self-discovery.  They’re called Starwords because the star is a symbol of Epiphany (think of the Wise Men following a star to find the Christ child).

Some of my friends share this practice with their congregations, cutting out hundreds of stars and putting a word on each one.  Every member of the congregation is invited to draw a Star-word and use it in their own prayers and meditation throughout the year.  Others take advantage of a virtual basket of Starwords maintained by Marci Auld Glass.  She has lots more information about Starwords on her blog, Glass Overflowing.

I asked Marci to draw a Starword for me this year, and the reply came quickly: Barbara, your word is “power.”  I admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  “Power” seems so… well, powerful.  I thought it would be good to emphasize a softer side of who I am this year. But there it was: your word is “power.” So, “power” it is.

Do not be afraid.

Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter: John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Sermon

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

The disciples were gathered in the house, full of fear. Now they had heard the witness of the women and those who had seen the empty tomb and who had met Jesus in the flesh. You would think they would have been out celebrating that God had done that which they thought impossible. You would think, wouldn’t you?

But they were afraid after Jesus was killed, and even hearing the news that he had been raised didn’t change their fear. They were still huddled together, keeping to themselves, not wanting to share what they knew with anyone. It almost makes a person wonder…

And then Jesus joined them. Now that should have done away with any fear they were feeling. When Jesus breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit” that should have launched them out of their locked room and into their community, eager to share the good news with everyone they met.

Fast forward one week, and what do we find? They are… back in the locked room. Even Jesus meeting them in person and sending them with a word for the world, even Jesus, couldn’t spring them free from huddling together in fear in the locked room. It almost makes you wonder if they were paying any attention at all when Jesus told them to go out and be witnesses in the world.

But what about us? How often do we come together in worship actually expecting to meet Jesus in the breaking of the bread? How often do we come to worship where Jesus meets us, and it doesn’t even register as a tiny blip in our blood pressure? How often do we hear Jesus say to us “Go. You are my witnesses” and it doesn’t change a single thing about what we think or do or say? How often do we huddle in our church buildings, as though we are afraid to share God’s word with our community, and not even realize that we are directly disobeying Jesus in the process?

So what’s to be done about this problem? About our apathy? About our disobedience?

What happened to those disciples who also disobeyed their Lord out of fear that they might call attention to themselves and someone might not like it?

Clearly something happened, or the story would have died with them, and we would never have even heard about it. And the something that happened is the Holy Spirit. The first reading today takes place right after God got out the big guns to get his people fired up with the Holy Spirit. There was wind, and flame, and noise, and we’ll hear a lot more about that day in a few weeks. But the thing that we need to know today is that they were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they simply couldn’t help themselves. They were out in the streets preaching and teaching and healing and telling the story of the crucified and risen Christ. These were the very same people that just a few weeks earlier had been hidden in fear.

Now, those big Holy Spirit guns that God used to get the first disciples fired up… well, those big guns are trained on us as well. God fills us so full of the Holy Spirit that it should come shooting out of us every time we speak. And our job is absolutely not to huddle in a safe church building, acting afraid. We try to pretend that God’s work and mission doesn’t involve us in very big ways. We try to pretend that we somehow have an exception from Christ’s command to be actively looking for opportunities to talk about God every chance we get. Whenever we encounter a situation that needs our word and our witness, we are quick to hold up our hands and say “Oh no, not us. We’re Norwegian.” Or Swedish. Or Midwesterners. Or too old, or too young, or too shy, or too busy, or too whatever. I wonder what would happen if we all made a commitment – pinky-swear together – that we will never again use being Norwegian as an excuse ? Can you imagine how much Gospel would get loose in our community? Can you just imagine!

When Jesus showed up in that locked room, his first words were “Peace be with you.” Other times he is even more direct: “Do not be afraid.” “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid. Receive the Holy Spirit. You are my witnesses.” And today he shows up in this often-locked building and says “Peace be with you. Do not be afraid. This is my body… for you. This is my blood… for you. Do not be afraid. I am with you always. You get to bring light into a dark world. You get to bring hope to those who despair. You get to show love to those who are unlovable.  Do not be afraid.  You are my witnesses.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.