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Archive for October, 2013

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis on October 19, 2013.  This message is based on Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8.

It is somewhat hard to believe that our centennial celebration was just a week ago.

There was almost a surreal vibe floating around the office this week.  After months of planning, countless meetings, and seemingly endless hours looking at liturgy possibilities, it seems strange that the celebration has passed and life is indeed moving on.  If it weren’t for a vase of flowers still sitting on my desk, it could be easy to imagine that our 100th anniversary was celebrated weeks ago instead of days ago.  Time has become a little distorted.

When such a significant event happens in the life of the community, there is this moment when the projected reality shifts and the new reality sets in.  Throughout all the planning and preparation, we worked to create something that we hoped would happen.  In many ways those hopes rang true.  But in the aftermath a new truth shines forth, and we realize we have been transformed in ways we could not anticipate.

The conversations floating through Bethel this week have been equally as evocative as the festival worship itself.  These conversations speak of a renewed commitment to God and service to the church.  They voice the reality that there are unknown challenges before us, and thanksgiving that no matter what lies ahead, Christ stands with us and for us.  There is a renewed hope for the future, and a slight apprehension that the next 100 years seem more ambiguous than the first.

It is striking that in the week that is filled with first steps towards the next hundred years, our passage from Genesis shows one of our great ancestors wrestling with God at the dawn of a new day.  Jacob is blessed with a name that is even more perplexing, the name Israel, which is translated as “he who wrestles or strives with God.”

It is similarly striking that our Gospel lesson is beckoning us to strive for justice.  We are cautioned to remain faithful.  Our ministries are to be focused on God’s intention for all of creation, and not for self-congratulating ourselves by humoring the less fortunate or doing work that is societally trendy.

The dawn of a new day in faith is filled with the certainty that the chosen people will wrestle with God.  Much of that wrestling is discerning the faithfulness of our actions.

For the past snakeoilfew months, Pastor Bill and I have been exploring the possibility of Bethel becoming involved with the Magdalene House St. Louis, a new start up that will provide holistic healing and housing for women who have been sexually trafficked and abused.

This venture is using the model that has been supporting women for several years in Nashville.  Magdalene’s founder is an Episcopal priest named Becca Stevens, and part of my research about this ministry has involved reading Pastor Becca’s autobiography, entitled Snake-Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling.[1]

In it, Becca shares about the own moments in her life that she has wrestled with faith.  She shares the struggle of keeping the times she was abused a secret because she did not want to upset members of her family.  She wrestled trying to explain to her son that the billboard for a strip club filled with women dressed as kitty cats was something that was sad even though the billboard showed smiles.  She writhed in her faith when facing the reality that most women who become prostitutes have either been survivors of abuse or were sold for drugs when they were mere children themselves.

Most importantly, she wrestled that God was calling her to serve such women, especially when society would rather not bother with them at all.  There was no security for Pastor Becca to serve these women.  Such ministry was not a trend that would have catchy hash tags appearing on Facebook feeds.  This calling was to heal those that the world deems to be untouchable.  These women are like the widows of Jesus’ time – societally devalued, without protection, a bother that the unjust judge no longer wants to be disturbed with.

Yet it was in her wrestling with God that Pastor Becca began to heal.  With every challenging story of loss and abuse, the wounds of her childhood began to mend.  With every obstacle from skeptical onlookers, Becca formed relationships with women who filled her life with hope and purpose.  Pastor Becca fought with God about ministering to these women, never realizing that it was in the struggle that God ministered to her.

There are moments in the days and years ahead that we will engage in our own wrestling match with God.  There will be times when we will feel called to a ministry, yet struggle with knowing the best way to live into that calling.

KAGOur mission board has been wrestling with the balance of calling and faith.  Bethel is feeling a call to feed our brothers and sisters who are hungry.  We have been struggling with the reality that there is no easy solution to the problem.  In a few weeks, we will be packing food with Kids Against Hunger, an organization that brings food to the hungry around the world.

Deciding on this ministry was a bit of a struggle.  We have wrestled in recognizing that there are negative ecological impacts with shipping large pallets of food across the world.  We have wrestled with the reality that in order to financially feed large quantities of people, it is likely that we are purchasing food from workers who have been inadequately paid.  Yet, we live with the knowledge that there are children and families who are starving, and programs like Kids Against Hunger offer a much needed temporary solution to a problem that requires long term systemic change.

As faithful people, we wrestle with knowing the right way to move forward when the calling is clear but the options for ministry are not.  There are times before the dawn breaks where we have only faith as our guide to lead us the right direction, taking one tentative step forward at a time.

Our Gospel beckons us to faithfully strive for justice, but we can be perplexed on what our next steps will be.  Jesus tells us not to lose heart, and gives us a tool that will serve as our guiding compass before the dawn breaks– the gift of prayer.

It is in prayer that our seemingly senseless wrestling’s turn into blessings.   It was in engaging with God that Jacob received his blessing and began his journey home.  It was in engaging in prayer that Pastor Becca Stevens realized that she was being ministered to as she ministered to others.  It is with prayerful hearts that Bethel will pack food with Kids Against Hunger.

In the moments we wrestle with God, it can be challenging to remember the power that comes with prayer.  It is in those moments we remember the most prayerful example ever provided us – Jesus Christ.

Throuprayghout his life and ministry, Jesus wrestled with the realities of the world and his calling to restore the whole of creation.  Time and time again, at each struggle and obstacle, Jesus turned to prayer.  He showed us how to pray with the Lord’s Prayer.  He blessed the food he shared with others.  Jesus would go on prayer retreats into the wilderness after he drove out demons and before he journeyed to Jerusalem.  In the garden he prayed while his disciples slept.

Even from the cross, Jesus prayed for forgiveness for those who persecuted him.  He repeated the prayer from the psalms of feeling forsaken, joining his prayer with the prayer of our shared ancestors.  Jesus prayerfully blessed the thief who hung beside him.  In his dying breath, Jesus offered the prayer which committed his Spirit to God our Parent, and in doing so, elevated us to new life.

Whenever Jesus was striving for justice and wrestled with the challenges before him, he prayed.  By the grace of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we each are called to life of prayer and mission.  It is in prayer that we discern how God continues to spread the redeeming and reconciling love of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  When our hearts are filled with prayer, we can trust that we are sharing God’s love to the world faithfully.  When our individual prayers join the prayers of our community, we discern together how God will work through our shared mission to change the world.

The dawn is breaking on a new day.  As a recommitted community there most certainly will be moments in the next hundred years when we will wrestle to move forward faithfully.  There will be times when we will be called to discern if the ministries we embark upon are truly focused on God’s intention for the world.  With prayer-filled hearts, we open ourselves for God to work through us.

While we do not yet know what lies ahead, we stand empowered knowing that Christ remains with us and for us, guiding our steps through the mystery of prayer.

Amen.


[1] Stevens, Rev. Becca. Snake Oil: the Art of Healing and Truth-Telling. Jericho Books, 2013.

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The following article was written for Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO. 

Eaton_Installation_RiteThis past weekend I had the great privilege of traveling to Chicago to attend the worship service of the Installation of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.  It was a powerful moment for me for many reasons, the least of all being that for the past six years Bishop Eaton has served as my synodical bishop in Northeastern Ohio.

As I sat amongst the 1,200+ other ELCA Lutheran present, aware that the service was being streamed lived and broadcast to members from almost 10,000 congregations throughout the country, I was reminded again of why I am proud to be a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Prior to seminary, I worked for three years as the Director of Church Operations for Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.  This congregation was a mere mile away from the UCC national headquarters.  At the time, their President Rev. John Thomas (equivalent to our Presiding Bishop) was a parishioner of mine.  I was also working at Pilgrim and attended the installation of the current UCC President, Rev. Geoffrey A. Black.

Having had cordial working relationships with two individuals who were the head of their denominations and attended two installations for such positions in a relatively short time period, it is hard not to notice how the Spirit moves within all churches and its leaders.  I have been blessed to see a great breath of the body of Christ, where the legs and arms hold special names like UCC, ELCA, Moravian, Methodist, and countess others.  The reign of God is glorified by all of our brothers and sisters who move forward in sharing the grace of Christ to the world, regardless of our denomination.

Sitting in Rockefeller Chapel on Saturday, however, I did realize the unique blessings Eaton_Installation_LSTCthat God has bestowed upon our denomination.  In a time when how we understand church is changing, in a time when numbers of young adults more strongly identify with spirituality than religiosity, in a time when our politics can appear to be devoid of good news, the ELCA gathered together and sang praises to God that change is among us.

We are in a new day in the ELCA.  Not only do we have our first female Presiding Bishop, we also have firsts in our synodical bishop leadership.  For the first time in the history in our church, we have an openly gay bishop, a bishop with a disability, and a Native American bishop.  Our seminaries and colleges are merging together to strengthen our resources, and we are traveling to new countries with our global mission outreach.  Yet even in the midst of this great change, we are rooted together in Word and Sacrament, supported by our confessional teachings, and empowering leaders within our congregations.

We are empowered to live in this paradox of change and tradition because of the grace found in Christ.  God’s constant and never ending love for us has always been with us and for us, yet through the power of the cross, we continue to evolve as resurrected people.  This is the heart of our theology and our tradition in the ELCA – that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and in response to that gift, go forth and change the world.

This is the message that rang forth from the rafters at Bishop Eaton’s installation.  It is the message that rings forth at Bethel as we celebrate the past 100 years and look forward to the century ahead.

We are in a new day.  Thanks be to God!

Vicar Tina Heise

If you would like to watch a recording of the Presiding Bishop installation, visit www.elca.org.

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