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Archive for July, 2012

Tonight a dear friend of mine pointed out that as a non-Christian, it can be somewhat confusing to understand what being a Christian actually means.  At the time, I responded by saying that the one thing that stretches across the board is that Christians believe God was made present on earth in the form of Jesus the Christ.

I’ve been wondering what other connections there can be, but really, I can’t think of another.  Some Christians believe in a virgin birth, others don’t.  Some believe homosexuality is a sin, others don’t.  Some people believe in a physical resurrection of the body, while others believe that Christ was resurrected in the minds of the disciples.  Some believe baptism is necessary for salvation, others do not.  Don’t even start asking about when is the right time to be baptized, have a first communion, begin tithing, hold worship services, or take on leadership roles within the church.  The differences are astounding.

The incongruity of what it means to be Christian can be confusing to say the least, and at times rather damaging.  It is no surprise to me why when someone has had a negative experience in one Christian tradition they become a bit skeptical of others.  Whose to know what’s different and what’s the same?  Is it worth taking the risk?  A few years ago, when I began my seminary process, a friend I had for almost a decade cut ties with me.  Her experience in her own Christian upbringing was painful and oppressive.  When I brought up anything Christian related, she could only see it through that lens.  This lens, and the inability on both of our parts to work around it, resulted in the loss of one of the more formative relationships I had during college.

I think it is also challenging because while our traditions throw around faith catch phrases that claim to be universal, what they mean to the individual changes constantly.  Not too long ago my mother told me that I used a lot of water imagery in my work, an observation that was entirely true.  At that time, I was working through my astonishment that God would call someone as flawed and damaged as myself to be a leader for the church.  While I still don’t understand and continue to feel unworthy, at the time the notion of being washed clean and born anew allowed me the strength to begin this journey that is becoming a rostered leader of the ELCA.

Now, especially as I come to the end of spending the summer working as chaplain intern at a hospital, the image of the body and blood speaks to me.  Before, it was a comforting, distant image, one filled with allegory and the image of many people clasping hands like that of a paper doll chain.  It was a joyous, emotionally detached image.

It feels very different now.  Now that I have washed the blood of another out of my clothes, now that I have seen grown adults shrink away at needles and children with IV’s peppering their arms and vents in their noses, it feels very different.  I also write this being in the midst of a frustrating time within my own body as I await yet another surgery, a time where I have had only a handful of days within the past 7 months that one part of me or another hasn’t been bruised, bleeding, or in pain.  I have become increasingly aware that the body is a fragile thing, something that should be held sacred and preserved, protected while alive and laid peacefully with dignity and respect when its life has passed.

The image of the body and blood is no longer safe for me.  The paper dolls grasping hands have been tossed aside.  I am no longer innocent in understanding the magnitude of how blessed a healthy body can be, or how the image of body and blood can be a haunting and painful thing.

I think that on some level this is why many Christians feel called to use such imagery to describe our church.  It is a blessing when we are united together, working as a healthy extension of one another, not only standing side-by-side but working as one cohesive entity.  There is also deep pain when our connection to one another is damaged, infected with jealousy, hesitancy, or distrust.  It may seem easier at times to walk away then to go through the rehab of rebuilding into a new entity that will never be without the memory of it’s illness.

After this summer, when I hear people describe the church as being the body and blood of Jesus Christ, I can no longer forget how fragile a body is, or its strength of resilience. Body and blood are now loaded words for me, causing a tension within my heart that I am happy to hold.  I am glad they are loaded, glad to be reminded that being in community is a gift that is as sacred as the life coursing through our bodies, fragile and strong all at the same time.

I doubt that I will ever find appropriate words to describe what it means to be follower of Christ that will fully embody everyone’s beliefs.  We will never know when the words that we hold sacred will be a loaded statement to another.  I am glad to embrace the ambiguity within those words, holding them close to my heart.

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“The peace of Christ be with you always.”

“And also with you.”

“Let us share this peace with one another.”

Every Sunday, Christians around the world share the peace of Christ with one another.  In my tradition, this point comes in the service after we have born witness to Holy Word and have uplifted our prayers of lament, reconciliation, and thanksgiving to God.

There are many reasons why we share the peace.  The apostle Paul tells us that in order to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, we must first reconcile ourselves with our neighbor, encouraging us to extend a sign of peace to the person we are most estranged  from.  In my experience, I rarely see people crossing the aisle to the person they just got into an argument with.  Rather, I regularly witness people using this time in the service to greet their friends and loved ones with a sign of affection that solidifies the connection they have with one another.

In seminary last year, there was quite a lot of talk about passing the peace.  As pastors-in-training, do we hug?  Do we extend a hand?  Do we engage the person who chooses that time to set up a pastoral counseling appointment?  I have a dear friend who takes quite literally the idea of “the kiss of peace”.  As a person who is not so comfortable with casual touch, I engaged in a lengthy discussion with him on why I was uncomfortable being kissed on the cheek during a worship service, even if it is intended as a holy kiss.

It pains me to say, sharing the peace of Christ was such a regular aspect of my worship experience and dialogue within my faith that I began to take it for granted.  It was just something in the service that I did because the liturgy prompted it.  I had not real appreciation of what it means to extend the peace of God to another.

I am in the midst of working as a chaplain intern in a hospital in New Hampshire.  A seminary requirement, learning how to provide spiritual care in a clinical environment is an important part of developing my pastoral identity.  It is hard, powerful, emotionally grueling work.  Day after day, I have the great privilege of being with people in some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.  God’s presence is at work in this place, healing wounds that doctors will never be able to witness through an MRI or blood panel.  It has been a humbling, rewarding and joyful experience.

But it is also really hard.  Within the past two weeks, I have had several traumas that have affected me in ways that I had never anticipated.  Working in the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Nursery, I am with families when they decide to remove their children from life support or learn that their spouse has had a fatal accident from which there is no recovery.  The grief in these times is overwhelming, families traveling from all over the state, hoping to say their last goodbye to a person whose brain can no longer process their words.  I have seen more times than I would like to admit loved ones clutching the body of the recently deceased, totally unaware as the room becomes heavy with the stench of death.  I have seen people of the greatest health crumble to the ground by merely looking upon the face of a doctor who has come to share the news no one wants to hear.

The shocking reality is a moment without time.  Some families stay for hours, days even, before then can bring themselves to make the impossible decision or leave the hospital after someone has passed.  Time has no meaning in a place of such anguish, and something that I have learned to do is help these families realize that it is time to leave and return to their achingly empty homes.

There are no words to explain how sacred it is to hold the hand of a stranger as they say their last goodbye.  There are no words to describe how I can feel the Spirit of our Triune God enter my mouth, hands, and mind, guiding me to say words that I later will never be able to clearly recall.  There are no words to that can begin to explain to these families how grateful I am that they have allowed me to bear witness to such holy and steadfast love.

Somehow, in the midst of this unexplainable time, we together find a way for these families to leave the hospital and the moment behind.  Walking them to the door, praying for them as they enter their car and drive home to a future I will never understand or be a part of, I remember the peace of Christ.  It is the peace of Christ that allows us to move forward from an inexplicable loss and remember the hope that lies within the sorrow.  I have come to understand that peace can be something that we extend to one another, but it is merely a fraction of the power of God’s peace that gives us the strength to keep carrying on when time has stopped.

And I remember that the peace of Christ is with us always, even when the time stands still.

 

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The following sermon was preached at Community Lutheran Church of Enfield, NH on July 1, 2012, on the texts of Mark 5:21-43 and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

I must be honest with you, when I read our gospel lesson in preparation for today, I had a moment of internal groaning.  Of course the lectionary would lead the seminary student interning as a hospital chaplain to a story of death and illness.  The irony is palpable.

I have been more than a little struck at how much the text resembles what I am witnessing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.  If you were to pluck the hemorrhaging woman out of the crowd, place her in a waiting room and strap a blood pressure cuff to her arm, she could easily be one of the patients I’ve encountered this past month.

I would imagine that there are many of us here today who can relate to what is happening in our text this morning.  I imagine there are some of us who have battled difficult illnesses, those of us who have lost a child or another intimate loved one.

Maybe we don’t have such a literal connection to this passage, but perhaps we are people who can connect to it because we feel a deep sense of loss.  It could be that we are struggling at our jobs, fighting with our spouse, feeling a separation from our once attentive child who has increasingly become more distant as they grow into their teenage and adult years.

In those moments of loss and uncertainty, we may feel that we are like Jarius, proverbially prostrating our self before Jesus, begging for the healing touch that will take the pain, illness, and loneliness away.  We are faithful people, and we want to feel the relief in knowing that our faith can indeed make us well.

And here we wait.  Waiting for the miracle.

The gospel of Mark is filled with miraculous healing stories.  In fact, healing is one of the first notable acts of ministry Jesus performs.

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is baptized by John, a moment so powerful that Jesus is thrust into the wilderness for 40 days.  Upon his return to civilization, Jesus meets a few disciples, does a little teaching in the synagogue, and then begins healing.

He heals a man in a synagogue in Capernaum.  He heals a bunch of people at Simon’s house.  He heals a paralytic.  He heals the man with the withered hand.  He heals the man called Legion who was filled with so many evil spirits that when leaving Legion’s body they filled a flock of pigs.  This all happens within the first four chapters of the gospel.  Every place he goes, Jesus heals and heals and heals.

Mark wants us to take note of this miraculous healing.   Jesus’ healing ability enlightens us to the extent of his authority.  Jesus can go where no one else would dare to go, do things that are beyond anyone’s expectations.  Not only does Jesus engage the social and religious outcasts by talking to them and teaching them, but he eliminates the barrier that keeps them from their community.   The fact that Jesus can heal what others cannot shows us the limitless nature of his anointed power.

Jesus and his ministry are a contradiction to the reality of the world.  The reality of the world is that people are sick, people die, people struggle in their marriages and feel distant from their children.  The reality is that in a world of hardship and struggles, a miracle is the last thing anyone really expects.

Jesus stands in contrast to all of those difficulties, and the relief he provides in that contrast is beyond anything anyone could imagine.  The people are simply not prepared for the miracles, as seen by the action of the bystanders and disciples in today’s lesson.  Where there should be celebration, skepticism abounds.

After the woman touches Jesus and she felt her body heal, Jesus turns around and asks his disciples, “Who touched my clothes?”  The disciples, steeped in reality, can’t understand why being touched is such a big deal.  Almost mockingly they say to him, “You see the crowd pressing in around you?”

If you we could read the cartoon thought bubble above their head, it would probably read, “Come on, Jesus, it’s a mob out here.  Of course someone touched you.  You probably got bumped, get over it.”

Getting bumped in a crowd is a pretty real and normal thing.  It is such a regular, non-miraculous every day occurrence that it never crossed the disciples mind that in that moment of contact something extraordinary happened.  It was so far from their mind, a woman was healed right next to them and they didn’t even notice.  Their skepticism kept them from seeing what was happening right before them.

But Jesus names the not-so-obvious, calls to their attention the moment that was overlooked.  He tells the woman, that her faith, her faith in something greater than all human reality, made her well.

One would think that bearing witness to the exchange between the woman and Jesus would be enough to open the hearts and minds of the disciples.  Especially after seeing so many miracles before.  Yet again, in the very next encounter, we see the disciples and bystanders’ opting to believe what is most logical to believe.

When Jesus tells them that Jarius’ daughter is not dead but merely sleeping, they not only don’t believe him, they outright laugh at him.  “Okay, Jesus.  She’s sleeping.  Can you believe this guy?”  Again, Jesus makes the impossible possible.  He awakens the girl from death.

I imagine we can all see ourselves in the characters of the woman and Jarius, waiting upon God for our faithful miracle.  But if we look a little deeper, can we also see ourselves in the hearts and minds of the skeptics?

In a world of science and technology, of answers and proof, where is the room for faith?  We claim to be faithful people.  As Lutherans, we confess that we are justified from sin by faith in Jesus Christ.  But do we actually live what we confess?

Do we really believe that our faith in God will mend our broken hearts?  Do we really believe that wellness is within our reach?  Do we trust that Christ will continue to go where the reality of humanity has failed us?

Or are we like the disciples and the bystanders, taking the steps to follow our Triune God while a part of us remains behind and just a little bit skeptical?

Perhaps the reason why it is easiest to identify ourselves with the hemorrhaging woman and Jarius is because illness and grief are emotions that are easier to understand.  It is easier to see ourselves as the person needing a healing touch than to acknowledge that we are as skeptical as the bystanders and disciples, trying to live our faith but not quite seeing the miracle right under our nose.

There is a reason why Mark tells of healing story after healing story.  Yes, these stories show the magnitude of Jesus’ sacred and anointed authority.  But the other reason we see these stories is to bear witness to the bystanders who remain skeptical that their faith will be enough.  We need to remember that there are times when it is not always so easy to believe.

This gospel lesson is a message about healing and hope.  It is also a story that reminds us that it is in our human nature to carry a little bit of doubt, and that followers of Jesus for centuries have sought the balance between reality and the miracles around them that defy such a reality.

The Apostle Paul certainly understood the struggle to remain a faithful person.  In our epistle today he tells us that in order to be faithful, we must commit acts of faith, commit acts of good works to those around us.  In order to see Christ in our world, in order to feel the healing miracle of Christ’s love, we must show that love to others without reservation.

The hemorrhaging woman made her public witness to Jesus by merely touching the edge of his garment.  This one touch allowed the possibility for the bystanders to witness Jesus’ healing presence.  Had that moment remained silent, the bystanders would have missed it.

Jarius’ daughter, by rising out of her death bed, bore witness that Jesus’ love transcends life and death.  Had she laid quietly in her bed, waiting for the crowd to leave, the bystanders would have missed it.

These were healing acts had been seen before, over and over again, but still people needed to see them.  Those miracles needed to be uplifted in that crowd and outside Jarius’ house, because miracles that seem too good to be true are easily forgotten.

We complete acts of faith and show our love for Christ by completing good works.  In our actions and our steps, we provide proof that cures the skepticism.  Our actions as faithful people remind ourselves and those around us that God’s love is always with us, from the hospital waiting room to our dinner tables.

Every time we bring in food for the hungry, we are testifying our faith.  We are curing the skepticism that the hungry are forgotten.  When someone receives that testimony of faith, we provide an opportunity to stop the hunger in both their stomachs and their hearts.

Every time we make a prayer quilt, we are testifying our faith.  We are curing the skepticism that love cannot transcend the cold, dark night.  When someone receives that quilt of faith, and wrap it around their shoulders, we provide an opportunity for someone to remember that God’s arms are also wrapped around them.

Every time we participate in worship, donate money to our teenagers going to New Orleans, invite a friend to join us on Sunday, pray for someone who is struggling in their own lives, we testify our faith.  We shake the walls skepticism.  We invite Christ into our hearts and minds, and in that inviting, create a little room to receive the gift of healing.

It may not be as obvious as being raised from the dead or being cured from a chronic illness.  But it is still a miracle.

Amen.

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