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Archive for the ‘Hospitality’ Category

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis on September 1, 2013.  This message was based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1,7-14.

This past January I had the great privilege of going to India to learn about world religions in a pluralistic country.  To say that India was a bit of a culture shock for 16 US seminary students would be as understated as saying that water is wet.  Between the lasting impacts of the Hindu caste system, the overt religiosity, the population and the pollution, it was as if we had entered another world.

One day, my class went to meet with a Muslim woman named Najma to learn how the secularization of the Hindu caste system impacted the experience of Islamic women.

I13_Charminar1dTraveling in India is a bit complicated, for there are no address or street signs.  To find a new location, our driver would head to a general part of town, get out of the van, and ask for directions.  In a country where there are 800 national languages, it was complicated to find someone who spoke the same language as our driver.  Very often translating between multiple strangers on the street corner was essential to acquire the next set of directions.  For several hours, our motley crew of seminarians drove in a non-air-conditioned van under the glaring Indian sun from one spot to another, waiting for another set of directions.

Finally we reached Najma’s father’s house.  Narjam’s father saw that we were overheated and exhausted and quickly ushered us into his lavish living room.  He surrounded us with sandwiches, cakes, and treats.  At one point someone even ran out to the store to get us our preferred bottled water.

After our tummies were well fed and our thirst was quenched, Najma’s father turned to my professor and asked, “Who are you and why are you here?”

It turned out Najma didn’t live with her father.  Najma was waiting for us at a different house in a different part of town.  The correct directions to our appointment got lost in one of the several exchanges by our driver on the street.  Najma’s father had no idea his daughter was meeting with students from America. Yet he welcomed us into his home and extended lavish hospitality without knowing why we were there or what we were looking for.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine that if a bus load of tourists pulled up to my front door, I would let them in my home, offering them food and drink, without first asking, “Who are you and why are you here?”  Talk about culture shock!

This morning as we peer into the dinner party of Jesus and the Pharisees, we may be experiencing our own level of culture shock where some information seems to be a bit lost in translation.

Today’s gospel opens, sharing that Jesus had arrived at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee.[1]  Our lectionary skips several verses of Luke, fast-tracking us to heart of a passionate parable about banquet guests.

Aside from weddings and state dinners, it may be hard for us to imagine exactly what we are stumbling upon in this story.  We no longer live in a culture where someone would be openly disgraced by taking a seat that was above their societal station.  It can be challenging for us to fully relate to why this experience is such a big deal.

The missing verses give us some insight.  In them we learn that after Jesus arrives at the dinner party, he encounters a sick man who has an intestinal illness called dropsy.  Jesus takes one look at this man and cures him.  Like Pastor Boardman shared with us last week, it was scandalous to cure someone on the Sabbath.  Working on the Sabbath was in direct violation of religious law.  Just as the caste system in India expands beyond Hinduism into the secular world and societal customs, so did the Jewish laws affect both the secular and religious circles.  When Jesus heals the man, he stands in direct contrast to both the secular and religious normative, establishing a new precedent for glorifying God.

To say that the guests were not pleased would be another “water is wet” understatement.  This is the fourth time Jesus worked on the Sabbath in direct violation of all that was culturally appropriate.  Previously Jesus and his disciples picked grain, cured the man with the withered hand, and last week’s lesson of the woman who was bent over.

It is a south Indian custom to cover places and objects of honor with flowers and color.

It is a south Indian custom to cover places and objects of honor with flowers and color.

Jesus had initially been invited to this dinner party as an honored guest.   When Jesus cured the man with dropsy, the party goers had just about enough.  The guests needed to put Jesus back in his place, to shame Jesus for crossing the line.  They took the seats of honor in his place,[2] moving him to the back of the proverbial bus.

Instead of rebuking the guests for their behavior, Jesus responds nonviolently, both embodying and speaking of humility.  Honor is not something that one takes, it is something that is given.  Honor does not occur when we uplift ourselves.  One can only be lifted to a place of honor by another.

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, our lives have been lifted to a place of honor and we have been extended the greatest gift of hospitality.  No longer will the stations of our life, the color of our skin, the gender of our bodies, or the brokenness of our mistakes prevent us from having a deep relationship with God.  When he was lifted on the cross, Christ uplifted us from the back of the bus, out of our caste systems, and past the Sabbath laws that would prevent us from experiencing God’s grace.

Through Christ we have been lifted to a place of honor where we are empowered to tend the poor and lame, speak against oppression within our communities, and strive for peace and justice throughout the earth.

This is not something that we can do for ourselves.  It is something that has been done for us through Jesus Christ.  And it was done for us through the ultimate act of humility.

Jesus humbled God’s self and became fully human, sharing in our human experiences to be in intimate relationship with us.  Jesus our God incarnate was born in the humblest of settings, the most royal birth in the most ordinary of mangers.  Jesus completed the ultimate act of humility when he suffered and died upon the cross for the redemption and restoration of the world.  As he shared, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

Jesus is exalted in resurrection because he lived and died in humility.  Through God’s inexplicable gift of hospitality, we have been resurrected in Christ and are emboldened to live a life in response to the place of honor we have been given.  We have been empowered to let mutual love continue,[4] so that we can fulfill Jesus’ guidance to invite all to the banquet of life – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.[5]

For the past two years that I have lived in Chicago, I worked for a church in the Logan Square neighborhood.  At the start of the summer, St. Luke’s began hosting Community Dinners on Wednesdays in response to a local support shelter closing.  The goal for Community Dinners was to live into its name, providing an opportunity for the whole community to gather around the table.  Inviting both the well-fed and under-fed, the privileged and the impoverished, each week a local chef from a nearby restaurant prepared a gourmet styled meal from what was donated from the local food depository.  To help ensure that these meals were viewed as a symbol of hospitality instead of charity, food was served family style instead of through a cafeteria based line.

One Wednesday after Pastor Erik gave the blessing, he sat down next to a man without housing.  The man reached forward for the spoon, and with dirt under his nails and weeks’ worth of street smells on his skin, turned to Erik and said, “May I serve you, Pastor?”

Living a life of humility opens us to accept gifts of hospitality.  It is in our self-effacement that we receive generosity, and in our generosity we are able to live a modest life.  Humility opens our hearts to the banquet of life provided by Christ.

Najma's father's house.

Najma’s father’s house.

The hospitality found in Christ is as surprising as a stranger inviting 16 tourists into their home.  The hospitality found in Christ is as surprising as a man without a home wanting to serve the local pastor instead of be served himself.  In Christ, both the privileged and the impoverished are empowered to both serve and experience grace.

The bounty of our humble Jesus breaks through the barriers that would keep societal boundaries in their place.  Christ’s generosity broke through those barriers with his outstretched arms on the cross, uplifting all people to a place of honor.  The Spirit-filled waters of our baptism breaks through the barriers of our trespasses and mistakes, resurrecting us to new life.  Jesus continues to break through barriers at the table in the humble majesty of bread and wine.  We place our trust that the Holy Spirit will break through the barriers of conflict in Syria, guiding leaders to follow Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus humbly breaks through barriers with generous hospitality, sanctioning us to complete God’s work with our hands.  It was with the modesty of Christ that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers marched onto Washington, changing the world with a bold message of hospitality where children of every race could be treated as one.

In continued humility, Christ works through our efforts here at Bethel to support each other with our Stephen Ministry program, to support our schools through our connection to the Lutheran High Schools and Lutheran Campus ministry, and to send support to our brothers and sisters in Africa.  Next week as we journey to Project COPE in celebration of the ELCA’s birthday, it will be Christ humbly working through our hands as we clean our neighborhood.

We have been given a place of honor through our exalted redeemer Jesus Christ.  As Jesus continues to humbly welcome all people to the banquet of life, let us sing praises for God’s never ending hospitality.


[1] Luke 14:1

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.  Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010),  page 20

[3] Luke 14:11

[4] Hebrews 13:1

[5] Luke 14:13

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All yesterday and this morning my news feed has been filled with updates from the United Methodist Church’s General Assembly where, in addition to other topics, they discussed the inclusion of LGBTQ people.  I was reminded of how similar those feeds read to updates from Presbyterian Church USA, and again within my own denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over the past few years.

These conversations are emotional, earth-shifting, and exhausting.  No matter which side of the aisle you stand on, it takes bravery and courage to represent your understanding of the gospel in order to help enlighten the decision making process of your denomination.  I am very clear on where I stand.  I believe that God is inclusive to all people, and that everything about our human nature is sinful because we are children of a fallen humanity.  I believe that it is God’s grace that turns our sinful nature into beautiful actions, and it is because of God’s grace that carnal lust can be transformed into a healthy, loving expression of how two people connect with one another.  I believe this is the case for heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people.  I believe that sex, or any action, without God’s grace is sin.  In light of God’s grace, sex or any action can be a gift that we give one another to express affection and our faith to God.  What determines that transition is if we approach our relationships in light of our faith.

Furthermore, I believe that I can support my position through scripture, confessional heritage, and testimonies of people I personally know.  However, I know that people who stand on the opposite side of the aisle also feel that they also have as much evidence of their convictions.  This is what makes having hard conversations so challenging.

But what is important is that we have such conversations.  It wasn’t until I began working for a United Church of Christ congregation that I ever had to put my theological principals into practice.  Being a representative of the church, when engaged in conversations about the LGBTQ communities, I was forced to be more thoughtful about explaining where I stand.  In that thoughtfulness, I was challenged by other people whose understanding of the gospel was different than mine.  In that challenge, I discovered that being born into a fallen humanity, a humanity entrenched in sin, that just about everything about my life would be sinful without the grace of God.  This includes my heterosexual sex-life, but not limited to my sex-life.  In those revelations I was able to embrace the freedom that comes from having been freed from my sin through the power of my baptism.  It is in that freedom that I now experience a richness in my relationship with God that I never had before.

That would not have happened had I not been challenged.  That would not have happened had I not been open to exploring the platform of the other side of the aisle.  I would not be as sure in my convictions if I hadn’t engaged in challenging conversations with people who think and act differently then me.

Do I wish that things would have been more peaceful for the UMC as they gathered this past week?  You bet.  I also wish for the ELCA that we can continue to find peace within the challenging adjustments of our 2009 sexuality statement.  I work for a periodical produced by three ELCA seminaries, and I am astounded by the number of people who discontinue their subscription because they can’t reconcile with the 2009 statement and are disconnecting themselves from anything that is ELCA related.  I see other Lutheran traditions ceasing their work with the ELCA to fight malaria and AIDS because of the 2009 statement.  Such actions are not peaceful but challenging.   I can wish and pray that as we continue to strive for equality and justice that those conversations will be peace-filled, or at least find a way to work together despite our differences, but I recognize the likelihood that we can’t always meet eye to eye even when we should.

That challenge shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Struggling with having the hard conversations is a part of what makes us human.  It is only when we accept that our nature leads us to struggle that we can see that God’s grace is patiently with us, equipping us with tools to keep moving forward.

Today, I am praying for the UMC, the PCUSA, the UCC, and the ELCA as Christians within our country move forward from the experiences of challenging conversations.  I am not going to condemn or cast blame on what hasn’t happened, or continue to tell the negative tales of what has.  I am going to keep my focus on God’s grace, and ask for guidance on knowing how to faithfully engage in eliminating the aisle.

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This afternoon I and four other friends from seminary attended an event called Occupy Palm Sunday.  This event, sponsored by four congregations in Logan Square, talked about housing, immigration, healthcare, and food justice from a Christian community perspective.  United together, we sang songs, broke bread, and learned about different ways we can be involved in creating equality within our home.

I’ll be honest, in general I’m not someone who totally get’s the whole “Occupy” movement.  I admire the goal to help bring awareness to the difference between the 99% and the 1%, and my heart simmers with joy at knowing that people are trying to find away to work together.  However, the deepest recesses of my identity recognizes I am a planner.  When I look at the overall “Occupy” movement, I get overwhelmed with knowing how to move from information sharing to the next steps of problem solving.  I see the people camped in tents and want to know their plan, even as I recognize that for some “Occupiers” their main plan is to inform.

This past January when I was in El Salvador, I was granted access into the cathedral in San Salvador which was at the time occupied by a para-military group.  This cathedral is the Catholic Church’s Salvadoran epicenter, the place where the Archbishop of El Salvador resides and works.  This space is also important because the mausoleum of Archbishop Romero is found inside its basement.

The January occupation occurred by people who fought in the civil war.  The war had ended with the signing of the Peace Accords.  20 years later aspects of that agreement had not been upheld by the current government, resulting in ex-soldiers and their families starving to death.  They tried to negotiate change peacefully, but 20 years later were still starving.  So in January, with firepower, they forced the Archbishop out of the space and closed the cathedral off from the community.  The occupation prevented anyone from the community to enter to worship.  The occupation caused pilgrimages hoping to visit Romero to cease.  Yet I, a privileged US citizen, someone whose income would place me in the 1% if I was a Salvadoran, was invited into the cathedral where native citizens could not go.  Granted, there were shotguns pointed at me the entire time I took pictures in of the tomb, and I was unable to leave until I heard the para-military groups demands.  But the fact remains that because I came from a place of privilege I was safe in God’s house when people of the community were not.

Since that day, I look at the word “occupy” quite differently.  I now recognize that at any moment I could slide between the barriers between the 99% and the 1%.  At any moment I could be the oppressed or I could be the oppressor.  I could be the person who needs to be uplifted or I could be the person who steps on others as I rise the top.  That experience also showed me that sometimes the separation between church and state also have barriers that slide back and forth.  It was a para-military group that stopped the Salvadorans from worshiping in their Cathedral, and in the United States the limitations of our laws at times are what stop us from being able to provide care to all who need it.

This afternoon, a speaker mentioned that to live in Chicago, the average person would either need to work 81 hours a week at a minimum-wage job or get paid over $18 an hour at a 40-hour-a-week job to be able to afford housing.  I know I don’t get paid anywhere near $18 an hour at either of my jobs or even work close to 81 hours a week, and I consider myself secure in my middle class status.  Then again, I am fortunate enough to be in school and receiving scholarships, and my home parish helps to cover some of my tuition.  Where would I be if this was three years down the line and I was still at the same jobs at the same rate?  I know where I would be — homeless.

Knowing that the barrier between safety and insecurity can so easily slide back and forth for any of us, noticing that the separation between church and state is not as stable as I once thought, I need to have a plan.  I need to know that there is something secure to set my sights on, something that will stand the test of time and the roller-coaster of our economic system.

That something is the love of Christ, and my plan is never to forget that love.  It is through the love of Christ that I have people helping to support me while I am in seminary.  It is through the love of Christ that my income comes from my employment in serving a Christian parish and serving a Christian periodical.  It is through the love of Christ that I was able to car-pool with fellow students to worship in the square with four very different congregations. It is through the love of Christ that today each person who was able brought a few snacks to share and we not only fed the large crowd but had leftovers.

I “occupy” because the message of the good news of God’s love for us transcends the limitations of our barriers.  This message and sacred love is what gives us the fuel to keep striving for justice, learning how we can work with one another so that we all can feel as fortunate as the 1% of the community. I “occupy” because my God loves me so much that even in my darkest hours I am never alone, and this is a message too good to keep to myself.

This Palm Sunday, my occupation is one of praise and thanksgiving to the one who rode into our midst to transform our lives.

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“Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist.” – Ivan Illich

In the past six months, I have been privileged to travel quite a bit.  Not only did I move from Cleveland to Chicago, but I have spent time studying in Louisville, Atlanta, and New Orleans.  In a matter of days, my studies will once again pack my bags and take me to El Salvador in Latin America.

I work and study in the business of public ministry – inside a theological mindset where I feel called to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and the grace of God to anyone who has ears to hear.  I come from a place of privilege, growing up as a U.S. citizen in a suburban community while being a part of mainline Protestant denomination.  I, probably more than many other people, am in a position to make change.  And as I prepare for yet another experience where I will be in an environment that is very different from my own, the one truth of making change that I keep hearing is to be invited.

My experience in New Orleans where I met survivors of Hurricane Katrina showed me that sometimes the best intentions can cause the most damage.  It is all well and good to help those in need, but help should be defined as doing work that the community collectively voiced as an area for growth instead of forcing ideals that will surely fail when you pack your bags and go home.  Yes, I did service work in New Orleans, helping to clear the Lower 9th Ward, but I was invited by an organization who was in conversation with people from the community.  I followed their lead.  Instead of doing work that would have been more up my alley and match more of my ideals, I spent hours in the blazing sun clearing brush and debris because that was what the community said that they needed.

I read an interesting article by Ivan Illich entitled “To Hell with Good Intentions.”  He pointed out that the Peace Corps spends on average about $10,000 preparing each corps member how to deal with the culture shock of working in a different part of the world.  Illich then pointed out the irony that there is no money spent on helping the community adjust to the culture shock of a corps members work.

As Christians, we are called to action, we are called to help people reform.  However it is vital that in the process we are doing what is actually needed to help that community at that time and place, not what we as people who have only known a state of privilege think is needed. 

I have several friends in seminary who have worked in various parts of the world for the church.  I am loath to use the word “missionary” because the work they did does not meet the societal implication of that word.  They didn’t rush in, tell people to change, and then leave.  They didn’t go in without being asked, build a well, and then leave.  Instead they were invited, spending months or sometimes years in dialogue with the community.  They listened to the communities testimony of faith, sharing their own, and in the process truly discovered how two groups from different parts of the world can grow together.

These friends also mentioned that historically, missionaries have gone to where they are not invited and did work that didn’t always need to be done.  One mentioned that there is a country in Africa who continually has mission groups come wanting to fix-up schools with paint and nails.  What these schools really need is books and shoes, but the mission groups ideal is to fix a building so they only come with paint and nails.  Each year, the same schools continue to be repainted even when they don’t need it, and the true need is over looked.  The community is grateful for the ideal of help, and use the profit that is earned in housing these missionaries to buy the books and shoes that they need.  But think of how much more the students would be helped if the missionaries would have thought to ask what was needed instead of assuming.  The money they spent on paint and nails could have gone directly towards books and shoes years ago, and the tourist money raised could help take the mission of the community to the next level.

Over the years, the ELCA has changed the look of its missionary movement.  Now, instead of going to places where there are no Christians thus creating a sense of culture shock, they go to communities where Lutheran denominations have already been established.  Through mutual invitation and mutual conversation, they work with the churches that already exist to grow and expand.  They do so with the goal of the community in mind, not the ideal.

For myself, it is important for me to see how God’s grace plays out in the world.  At this point in my life I need to go to New Orleans, Louisville, and El Salvador and see how other communities to which I have no connection experience the love of a God to whom I am intimately connected.  In truth, I am a bit of an idealist.  I want everyone in the world to experience all the blessing I have experienced and to feel as loved and valued as I do.  My intentions are good, but they need to be based in reality  What I may think is a blessing may merely be unnecessary paint and nails, preventing me from listening to how God is speaking to the heart of that community at that time.

We shouldn’t give up on being an idealist.  We shouldn’t give up on our calling to bring good news, love and support to all people.  We just need to know when to wait and be invited, listening to the truth in the words of all of our brothers and sisters as they speak them, not how we assume them to be.

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This sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH, based on the passage Luke 17:11-19

What a blessing it is to be here tonight with my Divinity family!  It’s hard to believe that just a year ago tonight I stood at this very pulpit and preached my first sermon.  I’ll never forget how much my knees buckled and my palms were so sweaty – wait, a second.  Things don’t seem to be much different!

Even with having almost one full semester of seminary under my belt, I wasn’t quite sure how to decide what we should share with one another tonight.  Today is Thanksgiving Eve, so at first I was thinking of sharing a litany of things I’m thankful to be experiencing as a Seminarian.

For example, I’m glad I go to the cool seminary – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  I feel pretty confident at calling LSTC the cool school because, unlike some seminaries, my school was the only ELCA seminary brave enough to represent the Lutheran tradition in the midst of a snowstorm at an ecumenical flag football tournament held at Gettysburg.  Some of you may remember a few months back when Pastor Doug went down to Columbus and played at the Trinity alumni/current student scrimmage.  Well, the students Pastor Doug played against apparently couldn’t handle a little snow.  Before the tournament even started snow began to fall, and all of the other ELCA seminaries took one look at the dusting on the field and left town.  Coming from Chicago, LSTC isn’t afraid of a little snow.  We reclaimed the trophy from the Episcopalians – the Book of Concord – rightfully returning it to its home at a Lutheran seminary.

And to answer the question I’m sure some of you are asking, I went as a cheerleader – not a player.  I just can’t do shoes with spikes.

Another thing about my seminary that I’m thankful for is an extra-curricular, faith growing seminar series called Christian Life Community.  Every week, my classmates and I gather together and learn new ways to grow as a community using scripture based activities, ending each session with a free soup supper.  For a student on a budget, it helps when extra-circulars offer free food!

One week we tried a practice called lectio devina.  We divided into small groups and read and re-read aloud a passage from the Bible, reflecting on how we heard God speaking to us through the text.  Ironically, on lectio devina night, we read the same exact passage from Luke that we just shared with each other moments ago. During our discussion, a common theme kept popping up – where are the other nine?

But before we ask any questions, it would help if we first gave this passage a little context.  JesuDs is heading to Jerusalem and gets stopped on by a group of lepers.

We should keep in mind that this conversation went against all social norms.  Lepers were the bottom of their societal barrel, and there is very little in our modern context compares to their situation.  Not only were these people sick, but their illness was such a threat to others that they were forced out of their communities.  Add to it the fact that it was their priest who told them to leave.  Imagine how we would feel if we became ill and our pastor was the one who told us we needed to leave our homes and live in the middle of nowhere.  It would be devastating to know that we are so sick that even our pastor couldn’t even find a place for us.  We would have to make friends with whomever we could – other lepers – even if those lepers shared very different beliefs from us and could be seen as our enemies.

That’s the group of people who approach Jesus – Samaritans and Galileans lepers – people who are very different from one another but were forced to live together because they were not allowed to live with anyone else.

These ostracized people somehow find the strength and courage to approach Jesus, begging him to cure them.  He tells them yes, if they if they go to the priests they will be healed.

This step of going to the priest would have been vital in order for the lepers to go home.  Without the priest giving them the clear to return to society, their healing would have been socially irrelevant.  They still wouldn’t be welcome until the priest officially said it was okay.  I again invite you to put yourself in the vulnerability of their situation.  Imagine if after leaving an ICU ward you needed to get Pastor Doug’s clearance before you could be discharged, see your family, or even talk to someone from a different hospital floor.  You would do it because you would want to go home, but the process all the same would be frustrating.

As they are traveling to the priests to get the blessing to go home, one man notices that he’s healed.  This is the point in the story where things get a little dicey, and my lectio devina group started to ask a bunch of questions.

When, exactly, did the healing take place?  As soon as they asked Jesus for help?  On the road to the priests?  Once they got to the temple?

Why does the Samaritan return, and why is it this man?  Is it because he was a Samaritan, the biggest outsider amongst a group of outsiders, and Luke is trying to make some sort of point that the person who is least expected to give thanks is the one who does?

Did the other nine not care that they were healed?  Were they not grateful?  What is wrong with the integrity of the nine that they didn’t go back to Jesus and give thanks?  Did go to the temple first to get their blessing, and then try to return to Jesus only discover that he had moved on?  Where are the nine?

The more my group explored this text, the more and more we got wrapped up in the nine.  Our discussion became less about Jesus healing and more about trying to put these ambiguous nine into a box.  Keep in mind, the group discussing this passage are a bunch of people who are training to be pastors, so we ended up reading a leadership theme into every inch of this text.

In our zeal of our pondering, the discussion became less and less about what God was actually saying to us and became more and more about us being the “right” ones, the ones who could teach the nine a thing or two about gratitude.  The story became all about us instead of about God.

Afterwards, I started to think that my group epically failed lectio devina night.  I don’t think the point of reading a passage over and over again was so we would make God’s story all about us.

I was reflecting on this when I received a call from my friend, Justin.  He had been rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night for appendicitis, and was to be having an appendectomy immediately.  A fellow seminary student, his parents wouldn’t make it into Chicago until the next day.  I spent twelve hours at the hospital, waiting with him as he went into surgery, while he was being operated on, and when he woke up.  When he was under, I sat in the ICU waiting room.  There were two other groups of people in that waiting room with me – a family of about five people, and another woman all by herself.

There is nothing quite like being an intimate stranger with someone, sharing a powerful moment or period of time with a person whom we will never meet again.  The woman who was by herself clearly must have appreciated the sacredness of our situation, and began sharing her story with me.

As we sat there together for several hours, she told me she was waiting for her boyfriend who was having a blood transfusion.  She was very excited about the transfusion because five months ago he had had a double lung replacement as a result of cystic fibrosis.  The fact that he could be in the hospital having the blood transfusion was testament that the transplant had taken, and now they could begin healing the rest of his body.

As she took me on the journey of this transplant – the agony of waiting for the lungs, the grief she and her boyfriend shared in knowing that the only reason why he lives is because another died, the fearful excitement of the next steps to recovery – she also took me on the journey of her faith.

She shared how angry she had been at God for her boyfriend being so ill.  She shared her furry that because of some insane health insurance reasons he had better coverage as a single person then he would have if they had been married, and the depression she had in having to wait until he was healthy before they could get married.  She talked about how as “merely a girlfriend and not a wife”, she was forced to sit in waiting rooms instead of by his side while his body took in new blood and underwent tests.

She shared that in the midst of being alone as a non-married partner, she recognized that she wasn’t entirely alone because God was with her.  She said that it was with the ring of the phone telling them that the lungs were available that she really began to comprehend what unconditional love was.  She voiced that she knew unconditional love existed because only a love that strong would give such a miraculous gift.  She recognized that a gift that generous could only be given because of a love that is not of this world.

That night, I bore witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in the words of a broken woman.  As the night unfolded, her testimony gave proof that God will continue to reach into the depths of loneliness of this world to connect with us when no one else can or will.  This woman was left outside the walls of the waiting room just as the lepers were left outside the gates of the city, praying that Christ would come and heal the wounds that so often turned others away.

When we look at the Luke text, it is our inclination is to wonder about the nine, and ponder about the open-ended questions that impale this text.  We want to know about the future of the nine, whether they ever really get it together and give thanks.  I’m sure the woman at the hospital had many questions about things that she did not know regarding her own future.  But instead of getting lost in the open-ended questions, instead of reading layers into the situation that were not clearly there, she chose to give praise.  She lived the example of the Samaritan.

Preparing for tonight, I decided to try using one of my new-found seminary skills – looking at this passage in the original Greek.  Wouldn’t you know, it actually does make a difference.

The words of our ancestors are never more valuable than when we look at the crux of the Samaritan’s actions.  Our most commonly used translation tells us in verse 16 that the Samaritan “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.”  While that is a beautiful translation, we really miss the meat and potatoes of what the original text shares.  That same line in Greek reads, “and he fell upon his face at the feet of his God, and he praised him.”

It is easy to be misled in our new translation the level of gratitude that is happening here.  This moment is not your average-Joe level of thanks.  You don’t just fall upon your face for a minor pleasantry.  This level of thanksgiving is heart wrenching, earth shaking, soul bearing gratitude.

“And he fell upon his face at the feet of his God, and praised him.”

That is not, “I’m glad to see friends over the holidays” thanks.  That is “my son made it through an emergency appendectomy” thanks.  That is not “Grandma’s pie was yummy” thanks.  That is “my church gave me a food basket and now I can feed my children” thanks.  That is not “let me write a thank-you note for the nice birthday present” thanks.  That is “my boyfriend has new lungs and will live” thanks.

We give thanks all the time.  We often gently lower ourselves in gratitude before God, and rightly so.  But when was the last time we were so moved that we fell upon our faces in thanksgiving to the bounty in our lives?  When was the last we showed thanks where it could be described as a worthy offering of praise at the foot of our God?  When is the last time we were present when either we or someone else was so overcome with gratitude to be at the point of falling upon faith?

That is the level of gratitude I witnessed in the ICU waiting room that night.  This brave, unexpected woman did not shrink away from showing the power of Christ’s healing touch to a complete stranger.  She was not sharing that story for my benefit.  She wasn’t even entirely sharing that story for her benefit.  She was sharing that story because like the Samaritan, she felt she had no choice but to fall upon herself to give praise God.

Perhaps the reason why we are so easily lulled into the mystery of the nine is because it is far easier to ponder then to recognize that we are constantly at the foot of God, in a position to be giving praise.  We think about the vulnerability the lepers experience hoping to get the clear from their priest, but it means so much more to recognize our own vulnerability.  Deep down, in the depths of our soul, we are filled with knowledge that our life is filled with blessings that should bring us to our knees and upon our faces every day.  We are uncomfortable with that kind of vulnerability, because further deep within ourselves we know that we are unworthy of the grace of forgiveness and the blessings that fill us with more wellness then any blood transfusion could ever hope to accomplish.

But Christ, our Sovereign and our Strength, he knows this.  He knows that we are uncomfortable falling upon our faces, praising with a gratitude that makes us feel so vulnerable.  This is why he tells the Samaritan, and us, to get up and go – that our faith has made us well.  Our wellness does not come from prostration, from lectio devinas, through testimonies to strangers in ICU waiting rooms.  Our wellness comes from living out our faith.

This Thanksgiving, let us not ponder the nine, but instead ponder moments in our life that are worthy of being called to our knees and upon our faces.  Let us not shy away from giving more than your average-Joe level of praise.  And if we are not quite ready to be that vulnerable, it’s okay.  Christ will still remain with us, and our faith will make us well.

Amen.

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“We are not called to legislate people’s hearts.  We are called to spread the good news.” – Erik Christensen

This evening I went with a few of my friends to see the new Jason Statham movie, “Killer Elite”.  We picked this movie for a few reasons – I had a coupon, my one friend looks as if he could be Jason’s kid brother, and nothing makes you realize how normal your life is like an action film.  True to just about every Statham movie ever made, the main character was a former-bad-guy who was trying to make a new start but because of outside circumstances just couldn’t get it together until he exacted revenge.  You know, the every-man problem, only with car chase scenes.

For some reason, this movie got me thinking about a lecture I heard from an openly gay pastor who has a parish on the North-side of Chicago.  Rev. Christensen spoke a great deal about having patience with justice movements, and realizing that even though a situation can be frustrating, that doesn’t necessarily give us the authority to impose.  The only authority we are truly given as ministers of God is to spread the good news of Christ.

That in and of itself is no easy task.  I hate being patient, hate being steadfast in the wait for people to come around to my way of thinking, which obviously (*sarcastic cough*) is the right way to think.  Not only do I want to prove to people that my way is the easy way, my way is the high way, my way is the right way, but I want to exact revenge on the people who won’t give me the chance to help a situation get it together.

Maybe revenge is to harsh of a word.  I don’t want others to suffer, but if success is the best revenge, then I want my efforts to be the most successful so people can see that I’m right.  It’s for the glory of God, after all.

Or is it?  Do our actions speak to people from the outside, commanding that others experience God?  Or do our actions walk into the midst of where people are uncertain, and travel along side them as they experience God in a way that is authentic to them?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question.  I also don’t think there is an easy answer to why certain people are called to public ministry while others are called to lay ministry.  I can’t speak to what will be the thing that helps someone show God’s love and grace to the world, and I can’t always be sure that my actions are the ones that will be a demonstration for it.

There needs to be room to allow it to be okay when we don’t hit the mark, when people don’t quite get it right.  We need to recognize that our way is not always the right way, and that no matter how just we feel in supporting a cause or ideal God will find a way to rewrite the law that lives in people’s hearts.

I will never forget my experience in Atlanta, Georgia, this summer when I studied with the Academy of Preachers.  For five days I heard the word of God shared through the outlet of mouths whose theology’s are totally different than mine, whose laws of morality are the polar opposite of everything I stand for.  And yet, in the midst of being diss-similar to one another, I not only heard the voice of God but heard God speak directly to me.  In that hearing I was reminded that I am loved, valued, and protected.

That’s the good news that writes is beyond any law or idea.

 

The following is a prayer for clergy about honest service written by Randall L. Hyvonen, based on Isaiah 50:4-9a, and Psalm 116:1-9

O God, help us understand that, as we answer your call to serve others, there may be those who will not respond as we hope – those who may want to humiliate us or insult us or strike out against us.  Help us to remember that when we reach out to you, you will hear our cries and give us the gifts we need: You will give us lounges to teach; you will open our ears to hear; and you will give us the strength to be firm like flint…all so that, as we respond to others, we mirror your constant grace and mercy.  Amen

Hyvonen’s prayer comes from Maren C. Tirabassi &  Maria Tirabassi’s “Before the Amen: Creative Resources for Worship”, Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2007

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“Shelter me oh genius words / just give me strength / to pen these things/ and give me peace to well her wings.” – Cartel, The Minstrel’s Prayer

The past few days I have been on the listening ends of conversations.

The other night I was haunted with a dream which knocked the wind right out to me.  This dream couldn’t have come at a worse time, because it has made it impossible for me to get solid night’s sleep during perhaps the busiest weekend I’ve had all fall.  My best friend got married on Saturday, and in the course of four days I drove over 800 miles, saw several hundred people, and worshiped three times.  More than anything else, though, I listened.

I listened to my heart as I reflected on that disturbing dream.  I listened to local radio news stations as I traveled from Illinois to Ohio.  I attempted to listen to school books on audio tape in the car.  I listened to my friend feel anxious about the transition from single to married life.  I listened to God through the voice of my home pastors mouth.  I listened to my nephew burst into tears when I walked into a room.  I listened to my niece try to barter with me to return to Cleveland “really soon, okay?”.  I listened as a fellow bridesmaid told me how she felt the church was an empty place for her.  I listened as I watched my sister pretend to be happy when she is clearly suffering in spirit.  I listened as I gave a stranger a tissue in the bathroom of the reception hall as she told me her husband wasn’t at her daughter’s wedding because he had died of cancer. I listened as the rain fell and the wind blew.  I listened, and listened, and listened.

And today, as I was driving home in a state of exhaustion, my iPod flicked to this song by Cartel, The Minstrel’s Prayer – “Shelter me oh genius words / just give me strength/ to pen these things / and give me peace to well her wings.”

I am a person who likes to have a plan.  I am a person who likes to know which step should be taken next, and I always hope that for others who are aching, I am a person that they can turn to find answers to their questions.  I have always listened.  But this past weekend, I heard something deeper in the stories, and for the first time saw the peace for them in my silence.

There is wonder in my heart why so many people are coming to me to tell their stories now at this point in my life.  I have always been a person who had a lot of friends that shared information, but the level of listening I did this weekend is far more than I ever remember doing before.  The listening was also more sacred to me, and I was humbled by the weight of intimacy that was created in just a few mere words or sounds.

Perhaps on some level it is because I am more stable within myself that I hear the genius vulnerability in the sounds which surround me.  Perhaps it is because God is trying to speak to me through their words as I crave a clearer plan for the next steps of my journey.  Perhaps it is because on some level I know that the more I listen the more I will feel God’s presence surrounding me.

I was asked to give two blessings this weekend, neither of which I had prepared for in advance.  Even though I hadn’t planned anything out, my words were far from “winging it.”  I felt truly connected to the Spirit, even in a room full of people I barely knew, wearing a gown and having 75 bobby pins tucked inside my hair.

God’s words sheltered me, and I hope penned the words of Christ’s unconditional love into the minds of the people I spoke to..  I hope that when I spoke to those who gave me the gifts of their stories that I spoke words that gave them peace.  I know listening to God’s genius words in those intimate moments of others is something I do not take lightly, or for granted.

And I ache to listen.

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