Sunday, July 22, 2018

Children in the Bible Sermon Series: "The Boy Who Was Wise"

Luke 2:41-52

            I read this scripture passage with a small group of people earlier this week – the only story from Jesus’ childhood.  
            And perhaps you can imagine the conversation afterwards – all of a sudden we were all remembering stories about lost children, parents who lost their children, children who lost their parents
             – even someone remembered the movie “Home Alone” when the whole family went on vacation and left their son at home.  
            I remembered the time when I was with my mother in a Target store – and got fascinated by some toy or shiny thing – and I turned around – and my mother was GONE. 
            Another person remembered the time her son purposely hid in a department store.  She knew what was going on, and had one of the clerks make an announcement over the loudspeaker, “YOUR MOTHER IS LEAVING THE STORE RIGHT NOW” – when he suddenly darted out from a clothes rack and made a bee-line for the door.
            It’s not hard to imagine why we all started thinking about these stories.  
            Think about it – the whole extended family and friends of Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. 
             It’s a yearly road trip.  And then they all return together.  Except for one thing.  
            Jesus stays behind – and no one notices for one whole day.  It’s hard to imagine.  
            Everyone thought someone else was watching out for Jesus.  And then – when they figure out he’s missing and go back to Jerusalem – it takes three whole days before they find him in the temple, learning and asking questions.  It’s the stuff of which sit-coms are made.  
            Including Jesus’ sort of cheeky response to his parents, “Come on mom and dad.  How come you didn’t know I’d be here – in my father’s house? – attending to my father’s business?”

            So it contains a lot of the elements of the stories we know and we think about lost children.

            Except for one thing: Jesus isn’t lost.  It’s true – his parents don’t know where he is – but he’s not lost.

            At the very end of the chapter, there is a line about how Jesus continues to grow in wisdom and in stature – and I’m thinking about what it means that Jesus – the boy – is wise. 
            We know why Jesus – the man – is wise.  We think about the wisdom of his teachings – his parables, which are like diamonds with all kinds of facets, and have the ability to get under our skin.  
            His teachings – which raise the bar on righteousness but also grant unbelievable mercy.  
            The way he answered controversial questions with a twist that confounded his critics and his enemies – and gave hope to those who followed him.

            But I wonder about what made him wise – as a boy.

            Of course, it had to do with how he sat in the temple with the teachers – listening and asking questions –because wisdom is not just about knowing the right answers – wisdom is about knowing the right questions, too.  
            And you will find that the adult Jesus also has a way of asking questions.  
            He asks questions of the religious leaders.  He asks questions of the disciples.  
            He asks questions of you and me, too.  “Who do you say that I am?”  “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his life?”  “Do you love me?” 

            There’s a small phrase too – never the end of the story – when Jesus goes home and “is obedient to his parents” – almost acknowledging that this act of staying behind and going to the temple was an act of disobedience.  
            I mean – they ARE his parents – and he didn’t say anything to them about his plans not to return to Nazareth with them.  
            But after this time – he goes home and is obedient – and perhaps that’s a sign of wisdom too.  
            He is the Son of God – but he is also the child of Mary and Joseph, living under their roof.

            But most of all – Jesus was wise 

            Because he was never lost. 

            It just occurred to me recently – Mary and Joseph lost Jesus – but Jesus himself – was never lost. 
            He knew just where he was, and he knew what he was doing.         Even more – he knew WHO he was --  as he told his parents when they were anxious about him, “Didn’t they know he had to be in his father’s house?"

            And it seems to me that this is true wisdom – to know who you are, to know where you belong – to never be lost.

            We – we are often lost – aren’t we – both literally – and figuratively.  
            How many times have I made a wrong turn, and realized that I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood? 
            How many times have I been distracted by some shiny object and turned around and realized that I have lost track of my traveling companions?  
            Just last year – when we were in Peru – we searched and searched for a church on a hillside that had a large statue of Jesus with open arms – and even though we knew we were in the neighborhood, we were lost.  

            But also – this – how many times do we lose sight of who we are, who we belong to, our true purpose in life?  
            How many times do we get lost – and by lost I mean – lose sight of our true relationship with the Father – and by whose grace it is ours?  And Jesus is wise – in so many ways – he has depth of the wisdom and knowledge of scripture – he knows what is in the souls of humanity – but chiefly he is wise because he knows who he is, because he knows where he belongs, and he knows what he is here to do, and that makes everything else fall into place.

            He is never lost.  

            And when we cling to him – and to our true identity in him – everything else falls into place – and this is the beginning of wisdom for us, too.

            I heard a story once – long ago – about a man who was important in the world of business.  He was on his way to a meeting, and he decided to take a short-cut.  But, as it happened, he made a wrong turn, and he was lost.  As he traveled down the road he saw a young boy, walking along.  He stopped and shouted out, “Boy, which way to Dover?”  The boy answered, “I don’t know.”  Next the man asked, “Well, which way to Paynesvile?”  Again, the boy answered, “I don’t know.”  The man was getting angrier, and said, “Do you know where Granite is?”  “I don’t know.”  The boy answered.  Well, finally the man was so angry that he shouted out at the boy, “You don’t know much, do you?”  And then the little boy looked down the road, at a little house with a light shining in the window.  “No,” he replied, “But I ain’t LOST.”*

            Jesus was never lost – but he went in search of us.  
            And the beginning of wisdom is to know this – in his embrace, and in his mercy, we too are never lost.   
            When we knows his love – when we truly know what it means to be found – everything else falls into place.


*This story I found in a devotional by pastor and teacher Rev. Gerhard Frost.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Stranger in a Strange Land

Long ago, I was a missionary.  I lived for a time in a country where only a small minority of the people were Christian, where I could not assume that most people understand the shorthand expressions that I used to talk about my faith.  If I thought about the water and the new life that came from it, I couldn't assume that people would make the connection with baptism.  The words "justification" and "redemption" did not roll off the tongue; Bible stories like The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan didn't make people nod in recognition.

I was a missionary in Japan.  To say the word "missionary" makes me cringe, a little.  I wonder what most people think of when they hear the word.  Do they think about missionaries who brought not only the Christian faith but also colonial ways and intolerant views?  Do they think of people who were actually more interested in claiming the country for their own purposes than they were about teaching about the love of Jesus?  Do they think about all of the stereotypes of superiority, lack of curiosity, and meanness?

Here's what it meant to me to be a missionary:

It meant being curious.  When I arrived in Japan I knew almost no words of Japanese.  I had tried to take an evening class in the spring before I left.  But I could not get any Japanese words of grammar to stick in my head.  It was too strange to me, a language I could not get my brain around.  I remember walking around a lack with a friend who had grown up in Japan.  She patiently tried to teach me sentences.  Every word fell back out of my head.  So when I arrived in Japan, I had everything to learn.  I needed to learn to take the trains and the subways, to take off my shoes when I went inside, to eat with chopsticks and to bow at the right time.  I needed to learn some Japanese.  I needed to find things at the grocery store.
I needed to be curious and to listen.

It meant being humble.  There was so much to learn, and there were so many opportunities to make mistakes.  Not just mistakes in speaking Japanese, but mistakes in understanding, mistakes in living.  To live in another culture is to be learning all the time.

It meant being an outsider.  In Japan, I always stuck out.  I never fit in.  No matter how much I tried, I would always be, in some sense, a stranger.  I could learn to wear the kimono and I could learn to speak Japanese well, but in so many ways, I would never fit in.  There is something lonely about that.  And it was tempting, at those times, to retreat into the missionary community, where understanding came somewhat easier, and where I felt I belonged.  But to do that would have been unfaithful.

It meant thinking outside the box.  I found that the missionaries I knew, whether pastors or lay missionaries, were some of the most creative people I knew.  They were interested in how theology and their own culture and the culture of the place they lived intersected.  They wondered about where the boundaries were:  what were the things that needed to stay constant and where did message of the gospel need to be creatively re-imagined so that the people could hear it?  What does "I am the bread of life" mean to people for whom bread is not a staple? What does the word "God" mean in a language where god is called "kami" -- and there are thousands of them?

It meant being transformed.  I know that I went to Japan thinking that I would transform lives.  I went bearing that hope.  But there were very few baptisms when I was there.  Instead, I came to believe that the Holy Spirit was planting seeds, and who knew what would happen?  Instead, the Holy Spirit was transforming me.  I was different kind of Christian when I left Japan than when I had arrived.

I remember one Sunday afternoon after returning home, that I sobbed with some kind of pain.  I'm not even sure all of what it was.  But I think that while I lived in Japan, I had a sense that I knew what my life was for.  I knew that every single thing I did had a purpose, even though I didn't know how God was using it.

I remember being sure, so sure, when I returned to the United States, that everyone was supposed to be a missionary, right where they were.

But I'll tell you what:  I wasn't sure exactly how anyone, including me, was supposed to do it.  People weren't going to come up to me on the street and ask me "what are you doing here?", like they did in Japan.  It was so obvious that I was a stranger.  Now, it was not.

Now, my congregation is reading a book about the church, and culture, right here in the United States.  The author makes no bones about the fact that we are called to be missionaries.   Fewer and fewer people know the language and the symbols and the images of faith.  People speak a different language.  That is not a bad thing.  But it means that the church needs to be curious, and bilingual, humble and creative.  It means that the church needs to be transformed.

That might be the hardest thing of all.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Children in the Bible Sermon Series: "The Little girl Who Got Up"

Mark 5:21-43

            There’s a little Lutheran church in Cusco, Peru which is called “Talitha Cum.”  
            I thought it was an unusual name for a church --  in fact, I’ve never heard of a church with this name before, in the United States or anywhere else.  
            Why did they decide to call themselves “Talitha Cum”?  What were they thinking about?  What was their story?  
            These are the words – in Aramaic – that Jesus spoke to Jairus’ daughter when he raised her from the dead. 
             “Little Girl, Get up!” – And she got up.  And she was twelve years old.  

            What do we know about her, this little girl  in the Bible? 
            Not much, actually. Just a little.  We know her father’s name, but not hers  Her father was important; he appealed to Jesus to heal his daughter.  
            And Jesus was on his way to do just that when he was interrupted by another person – a woman – who needed healing
            Afterwards, everyone thought it was too late.  
            Jesus’ delay had cost this little girl her life.   When Jesus said, “she’s just sleeping”, they laughed at him.  
            But he went in and took the little girl by the hand, and said “Little Girl, get up!” – And she got up. She got up.

             So we don’t know much about the little girl.  Except that she was 12 years old, except that her father was important; except that she got up when Jesus said the word.  
            So what can we learn from her?  Can we learn anything about ourselves, about Jesus, from this little girl?

            Lately I’m thinking about children – a lot.  
            Maybe it’s the story about the boys in Thailand trapped in a cave with their coach.
            And waiting to be rescued.  And how they were rescued – and how that took the efforts of so many other people – to be rescued.  
            Or maybe it’s because of the children who were separated from their parents – and now being reunited
            In both cases -- they couldn’t help themselves, they had to rely on other people.  
            The children in the cave had to wait for help – they couldn’t rescue themselves.  The children on the border need help to find their parents or guardians again.  
            And the little girl needed Jesus – to take her hand and say the words – “Talitha com!”  “Little Girl, get up.”  She couldn’t raise herself.  She couldn’t rescue herself.   

            And you know – in so many ways – that is often the position we find ourselves in, before God. 
            We like to think that we can control everything – or most everything – or perhaps the most important things – but many times the most important things are beyond our control.  
            The most important things –  are in God’s hands.  Salvation – is in God’s hands.   
            And Jesus comes into our lives, and takes us by the hand and says the words that are life for us. “Talitha cum!”  Get up – and live.  

            The other thing we can learn from the little girl – and the two stories here – is that there is always enough – mercy and healing – to go around.  
            At the beginning, Jairus is desperate for Jesus to come right away.             And when he stops – to show mercy and healing to another – nameless – woman – it seems like his compassion is going to be at the expense of the little girl.  
            If he is going to be compassionate to this nameless woman, who had been suffering for twelve years – then the little girl will die.
             It seems like the lesson here is one familiar to all of us – there is not enough to go around – not enough resources, not enough mercy, not enough love – if you reach out to one person, you will have to leave out someone else.  

            Is that what we think? 
            Is compassion a sort-of zero-sum game?  
            I remember reading a story about a man who was stopped at the mall by a kindly woman who offered to pray for him and his children.
            He gladly agreed and asked if he could pray for her and her children as well.
            Then he asked if they could pray for the children at the border.
            She recoiled.  “But – their parents brought them here!”
            She could not afford to be compassionate.  – even in prayer.  

            Perhaps that’s just how Jairus felt.  If Jesus healed the poor woman, his daughter would be left behind.  It would be too late.  

            But that’s not what happened.  It wasn’t too late.  
            Jesus could heal the woman and he could heal the little girl too.     There was more than enough to go around, for those of us who need life and healing and mercy.

            “Talitha Cum.”  
            These are Jesus’ words of resurrection to a little girl.  
            And it’s also the name of a little Lutheran church in Cusco Peru.     And I discovered that the pastor who founded the congregation a few years ago – it began with a Bible study, and this was one of the gospel stories that they studied together.  
            When they decided they wanted to be a congregation, there were just a few people – and they were all – women and girls.  
            So they thought of the story they had studied about how Jesus had taken a little girl by the hand and raised her to life.  
            And they thought – that is who we are, too.  The women and girls Jesus has raised to life.

            And they got up.  

            What do we know about this little girl?  What can we learn from her?
            That by the mercy and love of Jesus, she got up.  
            And so can we.  So do we.   
            There is enough mercy – there is enough healing – to go around.  AMEN

*photo is from Peru, but is not from Talitha Cum, in Cusco.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


I have been told by at least one person that I don't preach on Generosity enough.  I think that this person means, in particular, that I don't preach about financial generosity enough, about how to use financial resources for the glory of God.  It is possible that he is correct, for all of the predictable reasons:  1) urging people to give feels a lot like nagging when I imagine it, 2) I don't want people to think I need them to give so that I can get paid, and 3) I love preaching grace.  I confess that when I look at a scripture passage, for some reason, my mind does not go to financial generosity first -- even though I have studied and know that Jesus spoke about our money, and our relationship with it, far more than he spoke about other things that we may be more concerned about.

So I have been thinking about how to be more intentional in that regard, and I marked one Sunday of my sermon series, "Children in the Bible," to specifically address generosity.  It's the story about the little boy and his loaves and fishes.  This story is about generosity, isn't it?  The little boy didn't have money, but he did have a lunch, and that's almost the same thing.

But a funny thing happened on the way to preparing this sermon on generosity.  Children began to be separated from their parents at our southern border.  That did not seem to me in any way about the story of the loaves and fishes and the boy's generosity, until early this week, when I read a story about a woman from Guatemala who has just been re-united with her seven year old daughter after they were separated for two months.  The woman had advice for people who might be coming to the United States seeking asylum:

"If you are coming here to seek asylum, choose another country.  The laws here are harsh.  And the people don't have hearts."

The woman and her infant son had come here just before the zero tolerance policy took effect.  After they left her husband started receiving more death threats from the gangs, so he decided to take his daughter and flee.  They were separated at the border and her husband will be deported back to Guatemala.

Suddenly, when I looked at the story of the feeding of the five thousand, I saw something different than I had before.  I saw the people who are coming over our border, fleeing violence or hunger.  I heard the voices of the disciples, saying, "Send them away," because they were certain that there was not enough to go around.  And I thought of generosity, although a different kind of generosity.

It's not a generosity of material things:  money or food or possessions.   It's a generosity of heart, of what we are willing to believe about people, people we don't know.  Are most of them criminals, with just a few possible "good people"?  Or are most of them looking for the things we all look for:  freedom from fear and want, freedom of expression and worship?  I know that immigration is a complicated issue, and I absolutely know that not everyone who wants to come here will be able to come here, and I know that our borders aren't and can't be completely open.   But there absolutely is a legitimate humanitarian crisis going on in Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala.  What are we going to believe about the people who are coming here?  Can we be both strong and compassionate?

I have seen things on the internet that accuse people who are coming here of "demanding citizenship."  I know this is not true.  Asking for asylum is not the same as demanding citizenship.  Citizenship is a long process that immigrants can only enter after several years.  It takes a long time to study, to learn the history of the United States.   I want to be generous with those who write these things, and believe that they have been misinformed, and if only they knew -- their hearts would be open.

Lately,  when I read the story of the feeding of the 5,000, I think that it's about a God who doesn't want to send anyone away, a God who is generous.  That's what Jesus wanted to show his disciples.  He wanted to show them a God who is big enough, and who has love enough to feed all who come to him, to save all who come to him, to welcome all who come to him.