A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Don’t Get Distracted (And Don’t Cut Off Any Body Parts Either!) Mark 9: 38-50 Pentecost 18B Sept. 27th, 2015 September 28, 2015

In seminary I took a class in Chicago for two weeks where we studied different urban ministry settings-mostly in impoverished and struggling communities. We went to St. Sabina where Fr. Pfleger had focused on the church building up the community to provide social services and combat racism. We went to Trinity UCC with Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III (formerly the congregation Jeremiah Wright served) where the focus was on building up people to be faithful followers of Jesus no matter what their struggles might be. We visited a small Lutheran congregation that ran an assisted living facility for elderly who were low income. We visited soup kitchens, programs to move people off the streets to self sufficiency and several other kinds of ministries. But the one that hit this (at the time) fledging soon to be pastor was a UCC congregation in the Latino part of Chicago.
This congregation ran a soup kitchen that fed lunch to 150 people from the streets every single day. They partnered with a nearby Catholic school for the youth to help serve; they coordinated massive food donations each week; they offered counseling for those in need, not to mention prayer and love. They were not a large congregation, maybe an average worship attendance of 100 or so and certainly not a wealthy congregation by any means. But they were focused on living out the gospel by whatever means necessary. What was more striking to all of us in the class was that this congregation had not had a pastor for two years. None, not even an interim. They had some supply pastors float in and out but no consistent pastoral presence. They deeply desired that presence, they wanted a pastor but it’s difficult to get one to come for what they were paying in that part of Chicago.
A parishioner named Rosaria had decided that the soup kitchen would be her ministry and while she had another full time job, she managed to put together a team of people both within and without of the congregation to work with her. She greeted us at the door and proudly told us all about that ministry and congregation. We sat and listened to how each member of this congregation played a role, how they had put aside the anxiety and fear of no pastor in place and just got on with the ministry that God had called them too, and they did it well. They were the busiest people I have ever seen and yet the calmest people I have ever seen. When something didn’t go exactly how they had planned, they readjusted and just kept moving around, over or through the obstacle not worrying about who is getting credit, or who is in charge. I marveled at the calm, as my personal M.O. is to worry about all of the things that could go wrong. I actually found myself concerned for them! But they ignored all of the possible distractions and were simply focused on God’s children who needed food for the day and a word of God’s love, mercy and grace.
“Be at peace with one another.” We tend to think that peace looks like serenity, rest, status quo, an easy life, or no hardships in our path to whatever we think we need to do to be at peace, happy or content. But peace is not any of these things. Peace in this text comes from the Hebrew word “Shalom” which means wholeness. Wholeness. Peace in God’s kingdom is about all people being whole: being wholly loved, wholly included, and wholly equal. I can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes when the disciples come to tattle tale that someone else is doing what they perceived to be solely their work. “Jesus this person is casting out demons! That’s what we do! We should stop him!” I mean heaven forbid that all of the demons get cast out and then everyone is healthy! Then we won’t be special! The disciples, and us, like to over think situations and make them more complex and more fearful than they really are.
Jesus then goes on to talk about whoever is not against us is for us, don’t put up obstacles, and then some gruesome words about cutting off body parts that keep you from fully participating in God’s work of peace in the world. Now we know that we can’t take such language literally, Jesus does not want us to cut off body parts or put a millstone around our necks but does want to get our attention and to think deeply about what distracts us from God’s peace, God’s wholeness and being part of God’ work that reveals God’s love in the world. What obstacles do we put up to keep out some of God’s children who make us uncomfortable? We love distractions from our real work at hand and we spend much more time creating them than actually just getting to the task of God’s work given to us. We worry about what other people are thinking or doing, we worry about what other people say about us, we worry that some people may not believe the same way, or will get mad, or not like us, or something may not work as well as we want. We worry, and in our anxiety and fear we create obstacles, we look for pitfalls and failings. What we don’t do is look to Christ who works in our midst, in our mess and promises to be forever present.
Hell is separation from God (it is not a place and no one is being sent there!) and we create our own hell. We create ways to exclude hope, joy and love so that we can say “I told you so” when things don’t quite work out how we envisioned. God desires for everyone to be close to God and wrapped in God’s love with no separation-hell is not God’s judgment or punishment; it’s how we punish ourselves. * But God never leaves us and never wants us separated from God or God’s loving community, yet we look for ways to resist God’s desire, thinking it’s safer to go it alone than to participate in the reckless abundance, generosity and love of Christ. Christ opened the way for all –removed every single obstacle that the world could provide-even death-in order for all creation to be in God’s peace, God’s Shalom and God’s love now and forever.
What distractions need to be navigated in your life, here at LOTH or in the community? How are we caught up in our own worry and anxiety and miss what God is doing right here, right now in our midst? We have the Prayer and Care ministry that offers mercy, hope and community right when people need it the most. We have all of our education opportunities that dive us all at any age deep into God’s word of love for us all. We have Habitat for Humanity and Prayer Shawl ministries. We have our buildings that offer safe places for our brothers and sisters in Christ to meet. God is at work here-no matter what obstacles we perceive!
Jesus removes all obstacles and simply calls us to do the same. The UCC Church in Chicago learned that Christian community isn’t about a pastor, a church building, a budget or anyone of the things with which they could have distracted themselves. Christian community is recognizing that Jesus has already removed all distractions, has already given us all that we need for the journey and has gathered us all into one body for the sake of loving God and our neighbor. “Be at peace with one another, for God is with you.”
*My own personal view point on Hell is that it is not a place where those who are “bad, evil or don’t make the cut get in.” God’s salvation is for all and all are in! All means all! That person right now you’re saying to yourself ‘not them’…yes them too! This is good news as nothing separates us from the love of Christ, not even our own attempts at self-sufficiency! If your head is hurting-good! God’s love and mercy are that mysterious and that overwhelming!

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Service and getting a good night’s sleep November 16, 2013

First, I was deeply moved by all the response to yesterdays post. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts with me as well. So I think I will lighten it up today for a post. Plus, it’s one of those days that I honestly didn’t do, say or think about much worth blogging about. So here we are 15 days into national blog post month and I got nothin’.

It’s one of my day’s off as a pastor and typically on a Friday I do errands, housework, might take a nap, you know, important stuff. But today I needed to work on a volunteer part of my job for the Rocky Mountain Synod. For those of you not Lutheran: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is divided up into 65 Synods. A synod is determined by a certain number of churches in certain area. I think the magic number is 250 churches (but don’t quote me on that). But I can tell you that many synods have fewer than that number now. The Rocky Mountain Synod is geographically huge. It spans the five states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and the very western and southern edge of Texas-mostly just El Paso.

I volunteer with the synod in the area of faith formation and Christian education. One of the things I am currently working on is the RMS Middle School Youth Gathering that happens every January in Colorado Springs for approximately 800 12-14 year olds. It’s as awesome as it sounds! Seriously, it is a good time with great kids. One of the key components to the gathering is a day of service on the Saturday of the weekend. Well, little old me said she would take that on. Yep, really.

I have been working on it in spurts. Not procrastinating, but it doesn’t always get my top priority. We have a planning team meeting this Sunday and the list of things I need in place very soon has had me waking up at 3 in the morning in a cold sweat. Such as this morning. I like sleeping, so I decided today to plow through what needs to be done: a spread sheet with all the pieces filled in, emails sent as reminders and follow up with details, and a tally of how many service spots I have filled. Did I mention there will be about 800 youth? Well, let’s just say we are a tad short as of this morning. If 400 or so spots is a tad. I have called and emailed every agency I was given and I even managed to branch out a bit. It’s amazing how many non-profit organizations go out of business each year. I had email after email bounce back and number after number ring with the familiar three shrill beeps and the friendly female voice telling me that the number has been disconnected. Sigh. Don’t worry, it will all work out or I will be cleaning a park with 400 youth on a cold Saturday in January. Either way…

As daunting as this task is, I love the premise of it. Many youth gatherings tend to focus on the kids “having fun,” or can be viewed by parents as a child free weekend or a mini vacation for the youth. But this is so much more. The youth never complain about (or rarely) serving, helping and doing some hard work. They love it. They thrive on it. And they can’t wait to tell others about their experience. Last year on Saturday evening in the large group gathering the youth were offered a chance to tell others what they did and learned that day. We had kids lined up to speak in to the mic and tell this very large group about their learning.

Notice we don’t call it mission projects. We want to communicate very clearly that going out of your way to work a soup kitchen or a thrift store is not mission-it’s service. Mission is what God is already doing in the world and everyday we pray to use our whole lives, every bit of it, to participate in God’s mission. So mission is not ours-it’s God’s. My congregation calls the youth summer trips “learning trips” for this very reason. Inelegant? Maybe. But far more accurate.

We also emphasize for this day of service that there is not a hierarchy of “more meaningful” service. It’s ALL good. We even have some service opportunities at the hotel so that if a group can’t leave for some reason there is an accessible opportunity. You don’t have to look hard or far to find service to do. The hope is that the youth will understand that they are valuable in God’s world and capable of more than perhaps we adults give them credit for. Often, it is the adults that learn more than the youth.

As I contact these agencies and organizations I am reminded of all the opportunities right outside my door to serve God’s people and God’s world and how excited these young people will be to do so. So, I guess that’s not too shabby for a day off. But I think I will go to bed early tonight.