Friday, September 28, 2007

God gives us the power of persistent prayer.

If I only had a brain….

I could while away the hours,
Conferrin' with the flowers,
Consultin' with the rain.
And my head I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.
I'd unravel every riddle
For any individ'le
In trouble or in pain.
With the thoughts you'll be thinkin'
You could be another Lincoln
If you only had a brain.
Oh, I could tell you why
The ocean's near the shore
I could think of things I never thunk before,
And then I'd sit -- and think some more.
I would not be just a nuffin'
My head all full of stuffin'
My heart all full of pain.
I would dance and be merry...
...Life would be a ding-a-derry
If I only had a brain!

These prayerful wishes of the Scarecrow from the musical "Wizard of Oz" take me back to a time of wonderment. A time of hope. A time that took me out of my small world and into another world of places and people and things that I could never imagine alone. These characters were persistent and followed a long journey of faith down the yellow brick road to the Wizard of Oz.

Our gospel today is the first of two parables found only in Luke. Both parables center around prayer. This parable begins by stating that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray always and not to lose heart. (Perhaps Jesus knew of a similar story in Sirach that tells of the power of prayer in relationship to divine justice.) The story tells us of the unethical judge who didn't relate to others, God or people, at all. A judge at that time was the most powerful of all positions in a community. Then we are told of a widow who persisted in asking the judge to grant her justice. The widow is at the lowest end of the society – no power, no money, no status whatsoever in the community. We don't know why she is deserving of justice, but the fact that she is confident, even brazen, about her request tells us that she has confidence in her position. After refusing to grant her justice, finally the judge decides to change his mind. In the original Greek of the New Testament, he compares her persistence to giving him a black eye, either literally or figuratively. So he wouldn't have to put up with her, he decided to grant her justice. Truly a David and Goliath story - a lowly widow, somebody regarded by society to be worthless, is able to persist and persuade and get her way in the courtroom of a powerful and mighty unscrupulous judge.

Some see the judge as God….but we know our Lord to be the initiator of all justice and compassion, not a hard hearted and uncaring God. This judge has no shame, in the first century Christian world, this was very socially demeaning - the sign of an empty, closed man. He is also unscrupulous, unethical, without a shred of decency or conscience – does not respect others and does not have the fear of God in him. In a word, he is a sinner.

So who is the judge? We are! We all fit this description at times – sometimes more than other times. How many times do we insist that we have it all figured out – we have all the answers? How often do we allow God to do God's work in our lives? How often do we ask, listen or heed God's voice? Do our lives leave time for God? Room for God? And what of God's "other" children, those who differ from us? We assume that the world revolves around us…how arrogant! Through persistent prayer, God calls us to be disciples… disciples for justice.

The judge then is not God, but all of us. Then who is the persistent widow? The way that the author of Luke writes, we are to believe that she is a poor, powerless woman at the lowest level of first century society. Similar to the widow of Nain, this woman probably had no significant male in her life to uphold her social position. What else do we know of her? Somehow, she had been wronged. She seems to be a virtuous woman, even at the bottom of society. And, she seems to be quite determined and passionately convinced of her right to justice. Whoa – is the widow representing God? A prayerful, constant voice – even nagging -in the judge's ear? Our ear?

God wants us to be in relationship with each other. God wants us to break out of our little limited world and engage with the larger world. God continues to speak to us, to wear us down, sometimes even giving us a black eye. God asks us to step out into the world and proclaim our faith – to take our words of faith and act on them…live faithful lives.

Then the unethical judge is us and the widow is God. God's prayer wears us down, forces us to finally acquiesce and do justice in the greater world…. for others. The widow's voice fervently prays that we look for justice…that we act justly…that we live faithful just lives…that we proclaim our faith through living just lives. That we be disciples for justice.

A wise Worship professor here at LSTC (Dr. Bangert) once said regarding prayer: "Be prepared to be the solution to your prayers". God has given us his only son, Jesus Christ, so that we know God's love through communication, or prayer, with him. Prayer is also God's gift to us, for us and all about us.

Some people admit that they don't know how to pray. I have found great joy in children's prayers. One of my favorite ways to help a child pray is to use the Five Finger Prayer. (show)

Prayer is our dialogue, our attempt to reach outside of ourselves. God doesn't need us to pray, but God has given us the gift of prayer. Unselfishly, with hopes for increasing our faith, improving our understanding. Prayer opens us up to new possibilities – that are outside our normal realm of living. Prayer expresses our desire to access God… to call God up and "logjam"….to be available and listen to God.

The Spirit is the voice of the widow…demanding justice from the unethical judge. This becomes an illustration of the power of prayer as the judge finally breaks down and finally does what is right and just. There is hope that he may do what is right and just again in the future.

Oft times, we hear people say hopefully, somewhat hesitantly, "The only thing that we can do is to pray" –– as if prayer is a weak substitute for meaningful remedies. This parable teaches us that prayer is itself a meaningful remedy –– that it engages God's power and makes everything possible.

The widow was persistent. She was sure that she was due justice. She had nothing to lose. She was even brazen about her cause. Some might even say that she had "hutzpah", like my Jewish mother-in-law. When we decide to "give in" and open up to God, this is the kind of prayer that reaches God. It's not easy. We like to be in control. We like to be accessible to our friends and family. We like to be certain about the questions in life that our children ask us. Many times it's easier to leave God out of our family meetings. We think "God is so busy, surely God has other important things to do". Sometimes we wonder if God hears us. The persistence of prayer will give us access to God just as the widow gained justice from the unethical judge.

The Good News is God intends for us to have a fullness of life through Jesus Christ. With the power of prayer, through Christ, anything is possible. We are given hope through God's Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus tells us about the widow and the judge to encourage us to put prayer into action, live faithfully and do not lose heart. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

We come to God empty, void of anything within ourselves to offer Christ. But we have been baptized into Christ and partake of his Body and Blood in living out our Christian journey. Baptism and the Eucharist are the gifts that Christ freely gives of himself to live within us and sustain us.

As the "great and powerful Wizard of Oz" finally disclosed to the Scarecrow "You've had it all the time". When we take the time to pray, to open ourselves up to God and listen, we find that we can do anything. When we focus on God and venture outside of our small worlds, we find that there is no place like home.

And many times, God has given us the answers before. Christ is our answer and He has been with us since our Baptism.


God Protects Us Along The Rocky Road

Focus Statement: God is with us and comforts us through Christ as we travel the rocky roads.
It was a beautiful
Chicago summer day as I left the Evanston campus. The lake was pounding against the lakeshore, the sun was shining warmly and the smell of afternoon barbeques was permeating the campus neighborhood. Usually I drove through the neighborhoods to my destination, the Edens Tollway. But this day, I chose to drive Sheridan Road all the way home instead. This day was the exception to my normal journey. However, on this day, the beauty of the Lake Shore Scenic Circle Tour was not totally what I had envisioned. Driving along the winding road with tall trees on one side and the rocky lakeshore on the other side, the sound of the waves pounding the rocks was interrupted suddenly. I was stunned by a large number of "road kill" or dead animals along the road. The stark contrast of the dead goose, cat, squirrel, and raccoon against the life along the beautiful road brought great sadness. This is sometimes the case when we choose a new route, an alternate way to journey to our destination.

Ten days ago we began our Lenten journey. We have contemplated the solemn humility of Ash Wednesday and humbly accepted the journey along the road less traveled. We wore ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross as a reminder of our baptismal covenant with God. Last week we wrestled with the Truth found in the contradictions of this earthly world. And, again we were reminded of the truth of the Gospel received at our baptism, proclaimed in scripture, and received at the table in the bread and wine.

In today's Gospel, Luke tells of the Pharisees choosing the safety of Jesus and Jesus defiantly, boldly going straight down the dangerous road to death in Jerusalem. Likewise, in Philippians 3 we find Paul choosing a path of persecution for the sake of the Gospel. And in our Old Testament reading from Genesis 15, God invites Abram to walk the road of danger with the knowledge that "I am your shield; your reward shall be very great". The Psalmist today in Psalm 27 speaks of being afraid and finds comfort knowing he "will live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life… For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble."

Jesus laments about the unwillingness of Jerusalem to be protected like a brood of chicks. He surely would be willing to gather and protect them lovingly as a mother hen would as they journey along the road. This journey towards Jerusalem was not easy even though Jesus knew the outcome to be death. Yet, as he traveled the rocky road, he was true to his mission of gathering God's people.

God calls us to gather together in his name. God gives us comfort as we are sent out on the roads in the world to do God's work. Sometimes the roads we travel don't always take us where we plan to go. Many times, we find ourselves "lost" along the way and waiting for someone to "find" us and redirect us, or assure us. Although our calling as future leaders of the church may not involve death, we certainly will have to deal with it.

As commuter students, perhaps you too have wandered off the main road and ventured to try a new road instead of the interstate. This new road offers new perspective and many times, a better or more enjoyable route to your destination. Sometimes, the road ends up being busier or not as scenic as our usual route. And, occasionally the road is not what you expect…sometimes danger or death is lurking around the beauty of a winding road along the lakeshore.

This week we commemorate the lives of four women who boldly chose the difficult, less traveled, dangerous road in life. The martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman. Sojourner and Harriett, were born slaves and chose to travel many treacherous roads to spread the word of God. Sojourner traveled the United States telling how God changed her life. Harriett chose the path of freedom fighter and helped hundreds of slaves escape bondage by developing the Underground Railroad. Despite the danger of this path to her personally, she found comfort and protection in God.

We find the grace of God to be a gift received freely through baptism as a child of God and a commitment to a Christ-centered life. No matter how undeserving we might be, this justification through grace by faith alone is the gift God bestows upon us through baptism and faithful living. The Holy Spirit has presented us to God through baptism and our faith in Jesus Christ. We encounter the Holy Spirit in the baptismal font and the true presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine at the table. It is in this gathering that Christ offers us the respite and comfort to continue on our journeys no matter how difficult they may be.

As future religious leaders, we are to uphold this mission by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. In doing so, the public proclamation of God's saving grace through the Christ Jesus is essential. Jesus directs us in the Commissioning of Disciples in Luke 24 "Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."

Others may have tried to thwart the efforts of Perpetua, Felicity, Sojourner & Harriett. What would have happened if these women succumbed to the distractors? What would have happened to the hundreds of slaves? And, more specifically, when our church faces the possibility of closing its doors, what will we, as identified religious leaders, do?

Jesus Christ has shown himself willing, freely willing, to receive the poor souls that come to him, and put themselves under his protection, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, with tender loving care. We are asked to extend God's word to all in the world through Word and Sacrament, servanthood, compassion, justice, ecumenism, worship, and evangelism. The ministry of church invites all members to minister to each other as well as support the wider mission of the church.

We do it every day. We choose to take an easier road because someone else has already trampled down the thistles and bushes for us. When we choose our friends, we tend to find others with similar interests. When we choose our significant others, we typically gravitate towards those with whom we are comfortable or have life experiences like ours. It is when we step out of the main flow of traffic that we find the true comfort and protection of God.

It is precisely while we are on the rocky road that we will find the good news that God is with us and has given us comfort through Christ who died so that we may live in fullness of life.

Connections through Christ

Focus Statement: When we are broken, grieving and afraid, in Christ, God's compassion embraces us.

Envision with me…. a barren brown area by the iron gate, a grief stricken mother, the son's body wrapped tightly on a stretcher, pallbearers solemnly marching, and the community following in procession.

Slowly they leave the lush greenness of the village and head up a rocky road to the gate that leads them out to the burial grounds. As they approach the gate to exit the village, they encounter a lively group with a leader meandering aimlessly toward the little unknown village. As all arrive at the gate of the village, the leader of the group realizes they are witnessing a local funeral procession.

The leader crosses over to the other side of the procession. With one look, he sees grief, fear, and brokenness in the woman nearest the bier. His eyes convey a strong sense of compassion, a look so strong that it appears to embrace her. He asks her not to weep, touches the bier and everything comes to a stop.

Then with authority, he commands the dead son to rise. The moment the words leave the leader's mouth it is as if they enter the young man's corpse. This strange man speaks with the corpse almost as if he were God. Then, with the whole community looking on, he gives the son, full of words and life, back to his mother.

The community of mourners must be scared! Who is this man? What will happen next?

According to Webster, the definition of the verb embrace is "to hug; to cherish, to love, to welcome, to encircle, to encompass, to enclose."

In preparing for ministry, we are required to attend and participate in the Boundaries Workshop. There we are reminded to be aware of physical embraces and their impact on relationships. I wonder if Jesus went to a Boundaries Workshop? How was he able to express his compassion for the woman without a physical embrace? I imagine that his face looked caringly at the woman and his eyes filled with love. And that his compassion was like a cloud, encircling her in its warmth and love.

I was reminded recently of the power of an embrace. During the first big snowfall in December, my husband fell off a ladder – my daughters declared Daddy to be "broken". Indeed, he bruised his ribs, sprained his back and neck. After four weeks of recuperation, he felt better and was able to move around a little. In my enthusiasm, I hugged him. Yep, the minute I started to hug him, I felt him recoil in pain. But he said that even in his physical pain, just the idea of a hug felt good.

But people aren't just physically broken. Many times one who appears to be "together" on the outside is broken inside. Perhaps yearning for that elusive warmth of love from someone. Or living with depression or addiction. I wonder if we met the woman from Nain on another day, would we sense her brokenness?

Last year we left our home congregations to begin our service at MIC sites. Soon we will be leaving these congregations that we have grown to care for, to cherish, to love. The leaving and grieving process will begin again as we continue to our internship sites.

Along with grieving the loss of these relationships, there is an element of fear. What lies ahead for us? Fear of the unknown is said to be the greatest fear of all… (even above public speaking!) Much like the woman of Nain, we wonder what our future holds on our journey to ordained ministry. Where will we live? What challenges and joys lie ahead for us? Where will we serve?

As we know, the strange man who lead the lively group towards Nain was in fact, Jesus. We know this man as the Messiah, the son of God. Jesus knew that a woman without a husband or son to support her would be considered to be at the bottom of the economic community. This woman was moments away from entering another world where her human worth would change drastically. The compassionate look from Jesus encircled and loved her into a second chance at life. And he didn't stop there – he delivered her son back to her arms to publicly restore her place in the community.

His life of ministry was about compassionate relationships with this world. He often met death at the gate and through God's grace, allowed others to experience life on the other side. Jesus himself was the bridge between two worlds and his life was dedicated to being that relationship for us.

It is through Jesus that God commands us to rise and speak and uphold our baptismal covenant. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus Christ offers us Life.

Jesus Christ embraces us when we are in despair, pain and suffering. We will find him in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of the Table. Jesus comes to us in the midst of our pain and despair, even when we are not looking for Jesus; he is there for us. Reaching out, healing, forgiving, restoring us. It is precisely because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that we too are raised to new life in Christ Jesus.

The good news is that we are embraced by God's compassion. Whether we are broken inside or outside, Christ lived so that we might experience the healing love of God. As we move from junior year to MIC site to intern site to seminary and onto ministry, God's son lived so that we might know the comfort of God's love. Jesus lived so that we might know the hope that God gives us. Hope for a better life, hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.

For when we are broken, grieving and afraid, it is in Christ that God's compassion embraces us.

Mothers Day 2007

A farewell dinner. Godspeed and farewell services. It seems as though the bad news of one leaving is often accompanied by either food or the good news of God.

Today's gospel is no different. Jesus spent the evening with his disciples. He washed their dirty feet, he told them of the future betrayal, his upcoming departure from them, taught them the new commandment and continued teaching them about faith. He wanted to prepare them for what was about to come – so that they might see his death through the eyes of faith. He wanted to leave them with something. And, so they would know that he would live after death, he introduced them to the Holy Spirit.

It occurs to me that we all know a little something about being introduced to someone who will be with us to help us along until the primary caregiver can return. Perhaps child care givers, baby sitters, teachers, or foster parents.

In my family, my daughters have 3 mothers… the women who gave birth to them, the women who cared for them from leaving their birth mothers until I was officially their mother. Each of these women fed, loved and taught my daughters things…about life…about love…about faith. Some might even say that these women were with them until I could be….possibly their advocates….their guardians…their protectors….

Mothers love us so much that they want to give us opportunities that they feel they can't offer. It is this kind of unselfish love that can open hearts and minds….As Pastor said last week, this is RADICAL LOVE….radical love generates self-giving love….it is this kind of love that shows true faith in the teachings of Jesus. …Jesus asked his disciples to live and love in ways that seemed impossible. The disciples couldn't do it – not without the Spirit. Jesus told them this Spirit of Truth, would come to help the disciples in Jesus' absence. The Spirit would be God's way to be with them in a different way because Jesus had already been with them.

In the power of the Spirit, Jesus will continue to be present with you. Jesus told the disciples earlier in John "I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you".

Love and the Spirit….these are at the center of Jesus farewell message… "Love one another as I have loved you" and "The Spirit of Truth will abide in you when I am gone". A little later, Jesus tells the disciples, "You don't know everything yet. have much more to learn."

Who are we charged with loving with such pure unselfish love until Jesus comes again? What has Jesus asked us to do as stewards, protectors, guardians, advocates until he comes again? As we travel this road in our ministry, who do we call on for support, wisdom, reassurance, comfort and love? Yes, Jesus tells us of the Holy Spirit to remind us of his teaching, of his love and of his ministry. Until he can come again…

In the meantime, God has given us the gift of The Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.

Today is the end of my ministry here and I will go on to another ministry as part of my formation to become an ordained pastor. Pastors say this is the difficult part of becoming and being a pastor – leaving those who you have grown to know and love. I am finding this to be true. I also have learned how important Love and Spirit are in a family of faith…it comes in a blessed feeling of grace. The feeling is so splendidly pervasive that it defies the limitations of words, yet I will try to share with you.

During my time here with you, I have felt and seen the work of Love and Spirit among you. You are sending me with many lessons learned and as you send me out to serve in another ministry, you, too are moving on and going out into the world together... as one unified family of faith. The sign of Jesus' work in us will be peace…the kind of peace that casts out all fears…the peace that comes through radical love and understanding. With the peace of God, our hearts will be unafraid.

And it is in those moments of grace that I have encountered Christ working in you….through the Holy Spirit. These, my dear brothers and sisters, are the moments that I will treasure and call up again when we are apart. It is through the Spirit that we will remain connected even though our physical paths may take us in different directions.


Palm/Passion Sunday (Luke 19 and 23)

We move freely in God's love.

We are moving….the words alone bring a sense of doom.

Nos estamos moviendo. Estas palabras pueden generar un sentido de miseria y ruina.

Yet, at the beginning of Palm Sunday, Jesus moved towards the cross in a triumphant entrance fitting of a king…..and now, the ministry of San Francisco de Asis is also moving …. carrying our cross with us along the road.

Al principio del domingo de ramos, el Señor Jesús se movía o dirigía a la cruz después de una entrada triunfal como la de un rey. De igual manera el ministerio de San Francisco de Asís se mueve, llevando nuestra cruz a lo largo del camino.

Jesus knew what his future would be….he knew that in order for us to have full life, he as the son of God, must die for our sins so that we might live.

El Señor Jesús sabía cual era su futuro. Él sabía que para que pudiéramos obtener la vida plena, Él como hijo de Dios, debía morir por nuestro pecado para que nosotros viviéramos.

By our baptism, we too are the children of God. God loved us so much that he gave his only son so that we might live…not only did Jesus die, but he suffered the anguish of knowing what was ahead - his future. He knew that it was the beginning of the end. ..or was it?

A través de nuestro bautismo somos hechos hijos e hijas de Dios. Pues Dios nos amó de tal manera que dio a su Hijo único. Pero el Señor Jesús no solamente murió y punto. Él sufrió la angustia de saber lo que le esperaba, su futuro. Era el principio del fin. Pero, ¿era realmente?

This ministry began full of hosannas, full of visions and hopes for a church community full of God's love... proclaiming the Word of the Lord…perhaps even a sense of uncertainty.

Este ministerio comenzó con hosannas, con esperanzas y una visión de llegar a ser una iglesia en la comunidad llena del amor de Dios, proclamando la Palabra del Señor, quizás con un grado de incertidumbre.

Now San Francisco de Asis will endure "the passion" in the next few months…the next year… perhaps this is the beginning of the end…or is it?

Pero ahora, san Francisco debe soportar “la pasión” en estos meses que vienen, y el próximo año. ¿Será este el principio del fin?

There is a Good Friday in our future…and an Easter resurrection. And the road will lead to a new life of ministry for San Francisco de Asís.

Hay un viernes Santo en nuestro futuro. Pero también un domingo de resurrección. Aunque el camino pasa por la muerte, el camino nos lleva a una nueva vida como ministerio.

The difference is that we know the future – just not the details….we trust in God to guide us and lead us. Just as Jesus was led by God, so we are led by God. We are led by God's love – a love so strong that God knowingly gave his only son to die for us so that we might have new life through him.

La diferencia es que sabemos el futuro, aunque no con detalles. Confiamos en Dios quien nos guía. Tal como Dios guió al Señor Jesús, así Dios nos guía con su amor. Un amor tan poderoso que movió a Dios a dar a su hijo a la muerte para que nosotros tuviéramos vida plena por medio de él.

You have shared with me that you will miss this building….the memories of people and special moments you have had here. Yes, those feelings of sadness hurt and it isn't easy to leave the place we have called home. And you will carry those special memories in your heart and in your mind wherever you go.

Ustedes han compartido conmigo que extrañaran este edificio y todos los recuerdos de personas y esos momentos especiales. Esos sentimientos de tristeza causan dolor pues no es fácil dejar el lugar que llamamos nuestro hogar. Sin embargo, llevarán esos recuerdos en su mente y en su corazón a dondequiera que vayan.

Just as Jesus' ministry did not die with him on the cross, our ministry need not die when we move. God is present with us wherever we go – the Holy Spirit is at work in this community, this family of faith.

De la misma manera en que el ministerio de Jesús no murió con él en la cruz, nuestro ministerio no debe morir conforme nos movemos a otro lugar. Dios esta aquí, pero también en dondequiera que vayamos, pues el Espíritu esta trabajando en esta comunidad, que es una familia en la fe.

We have been given the freedom to move by God…and our ministry moves with us.

Dios nos ha dado la libertad de movernos y con nosotros el ministerio.

As we move away from our church building, it is not death, but life….it is Christ who lives, and lives in us. For even as we face the trials of change and possible death, God is with us. We too know the future of our ministry…we know that it includes suffering, triumph, loss, anguish, love…..perhaps even a sense of betrayal.

Cambiarnos no significa muerte, sino vida. Es Cristo quien vive, y vive en nosotros. Pues aunque enfrentemos las aflicciones del cambio, incluyendo la posible muerte, Dios esta con nosotros. Sabemos el futuro del ministerio, y ello incluye sufrimiento, triunfo, pérdida, angustia, amor, y hasta el sentimiento de traición.

We find God present in the greetings we share, in the baptismal font, sharing Holy Communion with our family of faith, and in the loving presence that is so strong in SFA.

Hoy podemos sentir la presencia de Dios en los saludos que compartimos, en la fuente bautismal, al recibir la Santa Comunión con la familia de fe, en la presencia amorosa tan fuerte en San Francisco de Asís.

Today Jesus comes to us through the Cross, the Scriptures, the waters of our baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion and in our prayers. It is the new life that God brings us through the suffering of his son that will guide our path as we move along the road.

Hoy Jesús viene a nosotros en la cruz, las escrituras, las aguas de nuestro bautismo, el pan y el vino y nuestras oraciones. Es la nueva vida que dios nos brinda a través del sufrimiento de su hijo quien nos guiará en nuestro camino

In Christ, we have new life. We also have the opportunity to move…. freely, with God at our side wherever we go. And somehow, moving doesn't seem so daunting anymore.

En Cristo, tenemos nueva vida, y con ello la libertad de movernos libremente con Dios a nuestro lado a dondequiera que vayamos de modo que movernos no se siente tan insegura nunca más.


Mountains, Plains and Valleys: Transformations of Grace

Faces are so beautiful….so different….so telling.

A child's face can be seen to glow while watching fireworks. Watch a child on Christmas Eve and you will see a face shimmering with anticipation. The gleam when they read for the first time. The blushing face on the first date. A beaming face the first time driving the family car.

The parental glow begins when a woman becomes pregnant. We have all seen parents faces glow with love as their children are born, baptized, take first communion, are confirmed, graduate from school, get jobs, marry and start their own families.

Peyton Manning's face surely glowed two weeks ago when his football team won the Super Bowl. I would guess that his father, Pro Bowler Archie Manning's face was glowing, too. Parents reserve a special radiant glow for their children.

Grandparents have a different radiance that comes out in the common day-to-day things of life. Like teaching grandchildren a traditional craft. Sharing the secret ingredient to a family recipe. Giving parenting advice to new parents. Cherishing the family as they gather for a birthday. Sneaking a little special something to the grandkids when the parents aren't around.

There is a sense of mature wisdom that illuminates from grandparents. Grace. The grace that comes from living.

An artist tells the story of a beautiful transformation from young girl to mature woman when explaining his piece called "Talking Leaves". He tells how the beauty of the changing seasons can become so commonplace that one can miss the mystery and the miracle each season holds. Like a composer of a beautiful song, God infused a certain order and rhythm to each interlocking season. As the beauty of each season builds, it creates anticipation for the season to follow. God is much more than a composer; God is also a teacher and has placed many lessons of life in His song of the seasons.

In order for the trees of spring to bring forth their new buds, the leaves of autumn must humbly fall to the earth. But before they make their descent, they adorn the trees with a spectacular array of colors; from fiery reds and rich plums to pumpkin oranges and yellow ochres.

When one is young, she is like a young bud of spring unfurling, thirsting for sunlight, vibrant and green. As she grows, the unpredictability of weather strengthens her form, causing her to mature as she dances gloriously against the spring and summer skies. As autumn approaches and life has been lived for a few seasons, the color of wisdom starts to emerge and slowly begins to permeate the entire leaf. When the wind rushes through a grove of autumn trees, it is as if a chorus of elders are singing their songs and telling their stories. Then as they all must, they fall and lie down in the deep sleep of winter.

And just as the Great Composer echoes these truths in his handiwork, he also was the leaf that fell that we might have new life in His name.

So the question that remains is not "do leaves talk?" but "are we listening?"

As we listened to the Gospel today, we heard two experiences that are called "mountaintop". This tells us that not only were Moses and Jesus really on a mountaintop but that each experience on the mountaintop outshone any other experience imaginable.

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop. We heard today how Moses' face shone with God's glory after he received the Commandments. God's glory surrounded Moses so that when he came down from the mountain, his face shone so brightly that the people were afraid. He even wore a veil to cover the brightness of God's glory when he spoke with the people. Moses carried his mountaintop experience down with him to the plains, the valleys…his real world. He used his experience to teach the people, build the tabernacle and lead the people out of oppression.

Jesus took three of his disciples with him up to the mountaintop to pray. Peter, John and James probably felt pretty special for being chosen to go with Jesus. This was most likely a treat for the disciples. Mountains offer quiet solitude for rest and retreat. This atmosphere combined with the trek up to the mountaintop may have tired them. In fact, they were so relaxed that when Jesus walked away to pray, they fell fast asleep.

You know that physically exhausting sound sleep that leaves you feeling like there is a heavy blanket holding you down? And then, you feel like you should be awake, but you feel like your senses are fooling you into sleep? Sometimes it's hard to tell if you are awake or dreaming in that state.

Well, the disciples were kind of fuzzy but they thought they saw Jesus praying and "the appearance of his face changed" and his clothes became dazzling white. That would surely make one want to wake up!

Imagine God speaking to Jesus, his only Son and God's great love for Jesus illuminated Jesus' face and clothing. Then the disciples see two other men talking to Jesus - Moses and Elijah. St. Luke tells us the three spoke of Jesus' departure that would happen in Jerusalem. The disciples saw both of these men in the same dazzling white image. Here's a dazzling trio - Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, two great prophets who were very recognizable to Peter, John and James.

NOW the disciples really awaken from their deep sleep. A very sleepy-head Peter speaks without thinking (again) and proposes building three tents so that Jesus, Moses and Elijah can continue their time together. But God directs the disciples "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" Listen to my Son! Listen to Jesus. Listen…Listen… Listen!

Like Moses, Jesus' face shone brightly on that mountaintop and he also came back down. Moses and Elijah gave Jesus encouragement to do what must be done. To heal the people, teach the people, do justice and to die for the people. Jesus went up to the mountain; He had a mountain top experience and because of it and him, we will never be the same. Just like Peter, John and James, we are transformed.

We do, however, have to come back down to the plains and the valleys and live in our real world. How do we carry our mountaintop experience into our real worlds? How do we actively live in communion with God?

God asks us frequently to listen. Not just in those special "mountaintop experiences" but in the "plains" and "valleys" of our lives, too. We come face-to-face with God when we are participate in family, church, community, prayer circle, bible study, church retreat, ministering to others, doing work we are passionate about, and admiring God's creation. When we participate in any of these ways, we leave in closer communion with God. God is with us, not only on the mountaintops, but God is with us the next day at the very bottom of the mountain.

We know what it is like down at the bottom of the mountain.

We know what it means to lose an unborn child.

We know what it means to experience the severe illness and death of children.

We know what it means to have problems in a marriage.

We know what it means to have one of your friends die much too early and much too painfully.

We know what it is like to be down at the bottom of the mountain.

And we know that God is with us and we know that God speaks to us there and gives us the words of hope and strength for that time.

For God is with us both on the mountaintops and in the valleys.

Going back down to the "plains", things seem more normal there.

And God is with us in the "plains", in the normal day-to-day activities of life. We really don’t spend much time on the mountaintops nor do we spend a lot of time down in the valley.

Where we spend most of our time is living plain, ordinary days.

I have found that God is in the plain ordinariness of life as well. In things like,

Eating breakfast.

Making a cup of coffee.

Driving to work and school.

Turning on the lights for a drink of water in the middle of the night

A PB & J sandwich.

Listening to the telephone as it rings.

Talking to a friend.

Sitting at the kitchen table.

Listening to the radio

Opening the refrigerator door.

Feeding the dog.

Going for a walk.

Greeting friends

Sharing coffee and donuts

Sharing stories

Studying the bible

Working on projects together

Life…everyday life.

Imagine standing in the pitch dark cold February night and you look up to see millions of twinkling stars, each one a mystery and a miracle.

This is the normalcy of life.

And God is there with you.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us again, "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit."

There is an organization in Mexico called AMEXTRA that truly lives out the transformation in very normal and ordinary ways of day-to-day life. Amextra is a Mexican non-profit organization whose main purpose is to promote the holistic transformation of farmers, indigenous people groups, women, youth and children who live in rural and urban areas. Their belief is “We do not serve because we are transformed; rather we are transformed when we serve.”

Every day these people find God in their lives. Whether they are feeding the chickens, collecting the eggs, teaching the children, helping families with health and nutrition, working on savings and loan programs or training peace-keepers, the people know that God is at work within them and within their communities.

Here at the end of the season of light, we wonder what's ahead? Where will the roads of the Lenten journey take us? Where will San Francisco de Asis go? Will there be light ahead for us? How will we stay transformed and keep glowing in the ordinary days ahead?

We cannot walk apathetically into the future.

We have been blessed and we are asked by God to bless others.
God is with us and the Holy Spirit is active in our community.

Jesus Christ leads us back into the world so that we may transform our community.

Like Peter, James and John, we are transformed so that we can be a light to the world. We are transformed, so others can be transformed through meeting Jesus on the mountaintop in their faith journey.

The Good News is that Jesus walks with us every step, transforming and renewing us (individually and communally) every day. Our transformation comes through listening. God gave us His Son for a reason – to listen and learn from him. Transformation comes from inside. When we receive the Word through our ears and eyes, it transforms us by coming inside us and living inside us.

We can look down the road and see the crisis coming. But we need not fear when we have had our mountaintop experience to pull us through. When we have been filled with the love of God, our faces surely will shine.

We feel the need for the mountain-top experience.

My prayer is that you will have it in your life, and I pray that transformed by that experience, you will come again into the valley and plains and serve with the people of God.

May God bless you as you climb to meet the Lord on the mountain top.


The Empty Seat (Luke 14)

She waited and waited for the bus…when it pulled up, she walked up the steps and searched for an empty seat in the back of the bus. She saw none and turned back around to the front of the bus where there were excess seats available. She chose one and sat down. A white man demanded that she give up her seat – even though there were other empty seats. She refused to surrender her seat to the white male passenger. She was Rosa Louisa Parks on a Montgomery Alabama bus, December 1, 1955. This simple act of sitting in the empty seat has become part of our history.

Such was the awkward situation in todays' Gospel. Today we hear a story full of tension. Jesus has been invited to the Chief Pharisee's home to share a meal with the Pharisees on the Sabbath. Not included in our reading today, the first thing Jesus does is to heal a sick man – something that was just not done on the Sabbath, much less at the home of the Chief Pharisee. Then Jesus has the gall to lecture his host and fellow guests on their seating selections at the table. Surely this added some discomfort to the meal. Finally, Jesus criticizes the Chief Pharisee's choice of dinner guests. And all this before the meal is served! Talk about a Tums moment!

Now, to put this event into perspective of Biblical times, the act of sharing food or meals was considered the most intimate demonstration of trust and respect for a relationship. Food is the one basic human need that supersedes all other distinctions of power. You could say that food is the equalizer among humanity. When hospitably sharing a meal 2000 years ago, one would not offend a host, fellow guests or share food with an enemy. This heightens the significance of Jesus dining at the Chief Pharisee's home even more. Another tradition common in biblical times (and a favorite of mine) was to leave an extra seat for the unknown guest. It was considered a mitzvah or a blessing to have the presence of an unexpected guest at one's meal. After all, what a blessing to be able to share a meal with newfound brothers or sisters! Hospitality was a common courtesy and the expectation then. The empty seat suggests abundance…excess…an everlasting supply. A beautiful metaphor for the gift of eternal grace that God has given us lowly sinners.

Now, the dictionary defines Hospitality as "Cordial and generous treatment, reception of or disposition toward guests." We see evidence of hospitality in our Lutheran liturgy, hymnody and the Scriptures. The hospitable frame of mind shows a pure love for humankind, however this becomes difficult when fear is present. When there is fear, it is hard to be open and loving. In todays reading of Hebrews, we heard "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid." We are all equal in the eyes of God….in God's house, all are welcome to share a meal. We will even say at our table today "uniting in one body people of every nation and tongue." We have sung "grace our table with your presence and give us a foretaste of the feast to come". We will sing "All who hunger never strangers seeker be a welcome guest" before we share a meal today.

Theologian Justo Gonzalez proposed that the Book of Acts demonstrates that the actions of the community are guided by the Holy Spirit. He believes the Holy Spirit "levels up" the strength of community so that love conquers fear… When the Holy Spirit is at work within the community, outreach is more proactive and broader to benefit the whole community. In fact Jesus has told us that the greatest commandments of all are: "you shall love your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Our community is our family, Holy Trinity…and Glenview…and Illinois…and United States…and North America…and the world.

Next Sunday is Hunger Sunday…today, the western world has an epidemic of obesity, whereas half of the world (3 billion people) live in what the UN calls "food deficit countries". What might we do to show love for our neighbor here in Glenview…across the oceans? How can we show hospitality to those we don't even know?

Think of your family now. Many of us have been part of such a meal when there was awkward discomfort. We tend to steer away from inviting those who repeatedly cause commotion or discomfort at our gatherings. We want our meals to be special – festive, funfilled perfect gatherings. But what about those who weren't invited? Who is here and who is missing? And most importantly who should be here? What about inviting Uncle Jack back to the family meal table? It's been awhile since he was with us for Thanksgiving – sometimes it's been so long that the reason why is even forgotten. Perhaps it is because he can't contribute a delicious dessert or beautiful bottle of wine or is it that he can't offer to host the next gathering? Or is it because since Aunt Jill died, no one knows what to say to him. Do you think the Chief Pharisee thought "Why did I invite this guy?" I wonder if Jesus was on his A List or B List? Perhaps the same reason that we implore Jesus to bless us with his presence in our mealtime prayers. To challenge our way of thinking – to show us the truth, to shake things up, to ask us to stretch ourselves just a little bit more…to take a lesser seat and help us remember hospitality of leaving the empty chair.

Did the Chief Pharisee leave an empty chair at that meal? For if he did, Jesus surely would have filled it with some of his outcast friends… a woman, an orphan, a resident alien…what about the empty seat at our table? Who might show up unexpectedly? What if they don't come because they feel different than us? What if they look or sound or smell different? When we share in the table today, we are guests of equal merit and stature in God's eyes. There are no special seats here…the privilege is ours as is the responsibility. It is our privilege to have been baptized into this community of faith… as it is our responsibility to leave the empty seat for those we do not expect. It is not our feast, it is God's and invitations are given out through his Son's death on the cross.

Jesus, too, saw mealtime as a time of inclusion. Food and drink represented generous sharing with one's community. Traditional wisdom is not in knowing the rules and passing judgment but in befriending all of God's children like the sinners that we are. The irony is that God's grace abounds whether we invite Jesus to our table or whether we select the best or worst seat at the table. Gods' presence is so abundant that it doesn't matter where we sit. What does matter is that we accept the gift, the body and blood of God's only son. There need be no expectation of reciprocity here – there is no way we could ever repay God's generosity and hospitality. All we can do is to share God's gift with others – remember to leave the empty seat. God only asks that we share the good news…with the guest, the unexpected visitor. How will you take the good news to others? Will you leave an empty seat at the table?

O Generous God, As we are thankful for the generosity that we have received, we pray for those who are as deserving but who haven't received yet. Let us remember that your grace is found in abundance and as we have received, you ask us to seek others to join our table. When we set the table, let us remember to confidently take the lesser seat…knowing that your loving presence will extend to even the furthest seat….we know that your table is limitless. May we remember those who Jesus has called us to serve and help us to generously leave an empty seat.

In Jesus' name we pray,


No Experience Necessary (Luke 16)

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I've held a few management positions in my life. I've also hired, supervised and fired others in management positions. I have found that the best way to determine their future success is by asking how they have handled situations in their past. This type of interviewing is known as "Behavioral" and is thought to be an excellent indicator of future performance. Perhaps you're familiar with behavioral-based interviews – they sound something like this:

  • Describe a time when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills.
  • Give me a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.
  • And, my personal favorite.... Tell me about a time when you were forced to make an unpopular decision.

In todays' message we hear that Jesus wants us to be children of the light. Meanwhile, he pushes us to develop some of the business savvy or ingenuity of the children of this age. Jesus would like us to take some of the skill, effort, time and determination that we give to our "professional" work and apply it to life as disciples of God. What would happen if we applied professional standards to our spiritual life? Is Jesus telling us to be dishonest managers? No, I think not! He is calling us to become ingenious about what really matters in life. He is calling us to be ingenious when we are faced with unpopular decisions…ingenious when solving a problem…ingenious in times of crisis. It is the managers' ability to respond to a crisis which is the key to this story….the character displayed in crisis is what the master admires…the character in crisis is the example that Jesus asks of us, his disciples.

It seems to me that the Scripture readings for this Sunday lift up the powers of human ingenuity in crisis. And in so doing they challenge us to think very seriously about what we truly value. They invite us to reflect upon what it is that compels our attention and energies. The prophet Amos is well known for his fearless preaching about justice. Amos was not very concerned with cushioning his message; he is quite forthright with his prophetic words. In this reading he confronts those whose governing desire is their own self-interest, people who are determined to enrich themselves even if it means exploiting the poor in the process. He depicts such people as driven individuals. They cannot wait until the Sabbath and the lunar days of rest are over so that they can get back to business. And are they smart! Even ingenious! For they know just how to rig the scales for cheating in order to increase their profit margin. In the process, they leave the poor strewn about the path they have just traversed.

Jesus' story about the wily, crafty steward may seem to us like a strange and uninviting parable. It is a notoriously difficult story to interpret, even for professional Scripture scholars. Why would Jesus ever hold up this man as an example for his disciples? After all, this steward seems to be concerned about only one thing: his own self-protection. Some would say that his voodoo economics and backroom "cooking of the books" would make him a well-qualified participant in a big city political machine. Listening to this story, you can almost smell the cigar smoke in the room where he secretly meets with his master's debtors to decrease their debts. But one thing is certain: this steward is enterprising, he is very ingenious. He knows how to seize the initiative; he takes resolute action in a crisis. Jesus expresses his own wish that his disciples would only exhibit the same kind of initiative and resolve in living the gospel.

Most of us who work, have jobs, are responsible to some higher authority. What if God became as important to us as our jobs? We would become much more deliberate and intentional about discerning what might be God's will for us in specific situations. God is our ultimate higher authority. True discipleship can be tough and demanding. We are called to lives of self-sacrificial love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, charity and justice. We have an authority, higher than our professional bosses that we need to attend to --- and that authority is God.

Successful workers imagine and work outside the box. They are innovative, seeing, developing new ways, more helpful ways, more effective ways of doing things. One interpretation of the parable that we began with is this: the owner of the resources, the rich man, the master, is God. God is pleased when the manager, all of us, begins to be shrewd about helping those with few resources to share more in God's abundance. We are called to be shrewd stewards of God's creation, shrewd about mercy and justice.

This parable closes with a clear statement: we cannot serve God and mammon, or property. When God is the center of our lives then all resources are to be seen as God's; and as stewards, we are to see that as many as possible share in God's resources.

When we are passionate about something we usually find a way of getting it done. But that which we value, what drives us and consumes our attention, will determine the kind of person we become. If we allow greed or ambition to be the dominant force in our lives, we will gradually lose the ability to recognize what is truly good and worthwhile. We may even lose the ability to see the people whom we have stepped on in the pursuit of our aims. We will become a being who is less than human. Greed has many faces. It may involve the fervent desire to accumulate a bigger bank account and amass great financial security. It may entail the passion to advance our careers, whatever those careers may be. Or it may mean the search for more prestige and recognition among friends or within the community. When these desires control us, we shirk our responsibility as sons and daughters of God.

Every Sunday we come to the Table faithfully. We repeat this behavior so that we can go back out into the world stronger, unified through our community, ready for whatever crisis we might face as we go forth in our mission as disciples of God. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Christians we are called to promote the ingenuity that comes from that kind of love. Humanity is capable of producing more sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. But we seem to have a difficult time mustering up the ingenuity to address the scourge of hunger in our world and even in our own cities. We can design and build computers that seem to work faster than our minds. Meanwhile, we seem to find it much more of a challenge to provide affordable housing for the poor or health insurance for the almost 50 million U.S. Americans who are uninsured. Love is indeed ingenious.

God's grace transforms our affections into an ever deepening love of him and into active care for those around us. Each one of us is painfully aware of how often we fall short in this challenge of loving God with our whole hearts and caring generously for our neighbor. Still, Christ invites us to turn to him with confidence because he has revealed to us that God's love, too, is ingenious. The love of God is amazingly ingenious. In fact, the ingenuity of God's love was manifested in the crisis of Christ's death and resurrection.

There are no job interview questions… God accepts all of us… those waiting in the room along with us …those who are homeless…hungry….widows…orphans…resident aliens…those without education…those whose lives differ from ours. For it is in these times of crisis that the character of God shines through and the ingenious love of God continues to work in our lives, showing us what is of lasting value, what is worthy of our attention, our energy, our passion.

Gracious God, thank you for giving us the gifts that we use daily for other jobs and for ourselves. Help us to be mindful of using these gifts for your creations in times of crisis according to the values that Christ has demonstrated. We ask your guidance in crisis so that we may model your Son's ingenious behavior in our future performance. We ask all this in Jesus' name. Amen.