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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 8, 2013.  The message was based on Isaiah 11:1–10, Romans 15:4–13, and Matthew 3:1 – 12.

104004A.TIFI recently discovered a local television station that plays reruns of Lost.  It’s been about three years since the series ended on ABC, and I have been enjoying re-watching the story.

The main premise of the show is that a plane crashes onto a mysterious island somewhere in an untraceable part of the south Pacific.  We journey with the characters as they try to survive and attempt to leave the supernatural island.  As they travel around the wilderness of the island, the audience learns about the characters through flashes of their lives.  In flashbacks, we learn that their lives before the crash were also a wilderness filled with broken families, addictions, struggling marriages, and professional woes.  For many, the wilderness of the jungle proves to be more peace filled then the wilderness of coping in mainstream society.

This morning we encounter the wild image of John the Baptist in his camel hair clothes, chomping away on locusts and honey.  He is prophesying the arrival of Jesus while baptizing those who seek an escape from the wilderness of their lives.

As every good realtor would tell you, location is everything.  John remains on the margin alongside the river Jordan.  His location prompts people living inside and outside the city to meet him on the margin created by the river, to take a step towards the wilderness.

John’s wild attire and focus on an extreme lifestyle is no accident.  The wilderness is sacred in the history of the Israelites.  It was a place seen for renewal, it was where the Torah was revealed, and was a place where judgment fell to those who lacked faith.  John serves as a prophetic voice, bringing to life the sacredness of the wild in every way – through baptizing those who repent in untamed waters, in bringing to life the words of Isaiah of the voice crying out in the wilderness, to the very nature of how he dressed and lived.

ArrowTreeJohn’s life, attire and ministry pointed to one central message – return to the wilderness, it is here God will give us a new way.

This message begs the question, what and where is our wilderness?

John the Baptist shows us that our wilderness can be found in stepping out of the comfort of our tradition and grasping onto the change that faith brings.

Our passage sets the scene of Pharisees and the Sadducees coming for baptism.  The word in Greek that is translated as “coming for,” the word epi, can also be translated as “coming against.”  This verse could read “He saw any Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” or “coming against baptism.”

If we consider that the church leaders were “coming against baptism,” the following sentences of vipers clinging to their ancestor Abraham deepen in meaning.  John is furious because the church leaders are coming to put a stop to baptisms, to take the focus off what God will be doing and return it to what God has already done in their ancestry.

John explains that to live in this history and not accept that God is doing something new is like a spiritual death, one as dead as a tree cut by an ax.  To cling to the old ways is to live in the shelter of a spiritually dead city.  To cling to the old ways is to give up hope that God will continue to transform the world.

John the Baptist urges us to return to the wilderness and to cling to the hope that God is about to do a new thing.  Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.

For many of us, this call to leave the comfort of the city or even the familiarity of the margins, to trust in the wildness of faith, can make us feel vulnerable.   It requires us to let go of the notion that we are in control and trust that God will fulfill God’s promise to mend what is broken in the world.

Signs_UnclearJohn’s call to put our trust in God and embrace what is unknown can be difficult because we spend our lives sifting through unanswered questions. When is the right time to move my parents out of their home and into ours?  Do my children know that I love them?  When will I ever find job, and at what expense?  Will my body ever stop feeling like my enemy?  How can I sustain my marriage when it seems like the love is gone?  Why should I pray when I do not hear God answer me?

We are already living in the wilderness, in the rough and harsh environment of things unknown.  For many of us, we are like the characters of Lost, where the wild of the jungle would seem more peaceful then the wilderness of our daily lives.  It is oh so tempting to be like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, feeling too vulnerable to hope that God is doing a new thing in our midst.

John urges us to go deep into the wilderness of our hearts, but the truth is we are already there.  And so is God.

God is not like John the Baptist, waiting at the perfect remote location by some distant river bank.  God comes to us in the wilderness of our lives, taking the chaff and making manna, creating a branch of life to sprout from the dead root of the stump.  God is among the question of our lives, making something new.

The temptation may be there to evaluate where God is at work in the wilderness and treat hope like a wish.   We may wish that God will answer our questions in the terms we have scripted in our minds.  I would imagine we all have our wish list of tasks we want God to complete.  But hope is not wishful thinking.  It is not us putting conditions on God will unfold the future.

Hope is the ultimate trust that God is already making flower_snowthe world new and repairing what is broken.  Hope is the knowledge that God takes the chaff of our hearts and turns it into bread from heaven.  Hope is the recognition that burning away the unhealthy in our lives is the fertilizer that nourishes new seeds.  Hope is eagerly awaiting the new branch to sprout from the stump, bringing life in the midst of grief.

We put our trust in that hope because through the glory of the manger God came to us incarnate as Jesus Christ.   Talk about the wildness of the unexpected.  Who could have imagined that a child born in poverty would be our Emmanuel, God with us?  God did something new by coming among us as Jesus, and throughout his life Jesus continued to do new things.

Jesus never hesitated to live among all people, helping the world recognize that God is at work transforming all of us – those inside and outside the city margins.  Jesus faced the demons of illness and oppression.  He brought restoration in cities, on mountains, with water and wine, fishes and loaves.

Jesus’ ministry was often a wild process, bringing reconciliation in ways that baffled the comfortable history of the ancient ways.  That wilderness continued to the cross.  The certainty that seemed to accompany death no longer was true, as Jesus did something new through his resurrection.

The newness of resurrection was extended onto us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We have been resurrected in Christ.  Through the waters of our baptism we are claimed as God’s own, in a ritual filled with wild waters that we would expect to bring death but instead bring life.

We may wish that God would mend our lives in specific ways, taking us out of the uncertainty of the wilderness into the safety of familiarity.   We may wish God will work in ways we have determined as best.  Living deeply into our faith, however, is not a wish list we hope God will complete.  It is living in the certain hope that through Christ, God has already answered the question before we even ask it.

MandelaThis was hope that empowered Nelson Mandela to care for his people in the wilderness of the South African apartheid.  I would imagine that Mandela never wished that God would send him to prison or make him an enemy to the authorities.  Yet, God did something new and made bread from the chaff of those experiences.

Mandela’s ministry was not based on wishes of what God could do, but was instead living into the hope of what God was already doing among his people.  Holding onto the certain hope that the resurrection of Christ was at work in the midst of the wild and violent time in his country, Mandela was able to be a voice crying out in the wilderness that God was sprouting a new branch on a seemingly dead tree.

The hope we have in Christ is living in the certainty that God has already begun working on the answer before we even ask the question.  We have been resurrected in Christ, and the uncertainty of the wilderness is no longer.  In Christ, we have the certain hope that God is doing something new within our lives, fertilizing the seeds of our future with the remnants of the fire.

Live in hope.  Return to the sacred wilds and be amazed at what is to come.  God is already there, doing something new.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 4, 2013.  The message was based on Exodus 15:1 – 21.

Over Thanksgiving I got to do something that I haven’t done in a really long time – I held a baby.  While I joke that my cat Cozmo is my baby, the truth is that there is nothing quite like holding a newborn.  Everything about them is fresh – their little hands, their soft animal sounding cries, and that intoxicating scent that emanates from the top of their teeny tiny heads.  For me, holding a baby can be like a breath of fresh air, a moment to pause and recognize how through the gift of creation God is realigning the world back to God’s self.

Miriams Song2This breath of fresh air is the heart of the songs sung by Moses and Miriam.  At first glance, this song may appear to be an emotionally confusing melody that retells the gruesome moment where the Pharaoh’s army sunk into the Red Sea like a stone.  In the midst of victory language and furious metaphors, it can be easy to miss that this is a song about God using creation to restore the world.

In the book of Exodus, this song falls after the detailed narrative of the plagues and the pillar of fire,[1] even though it is believed that the song was created first.  Described as one of the oldest pieces of poetry in our Hebrew Scriptures,[2]  the song was later expanded upon to create the vibrant narrative that Charleston Heston movies are made of.  Historians explain that this song was placed after the expanded story because of its mountain imagery, building the anticipation of the journey to Mount Sinai.

This placement, however, can cause us to forget that song lyrics are often more than they appear to be.  In this song, Egypt was a symbol for the chaos found all over humanity and man-made systems.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best, “Egypt symbolized evil in the form of humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation, and crushing domination.”[3]  The lyrics of Egypt and Pharaoh are more than they appear to be, representing the brokenness throughout humanity that keeps people in bondage.

Moses and Miriam’s songs use the exit from Egypt as a symbol for how God takes direct action to breathe fresh air into a broken world.   The brief but powerful words of their song show a different side of God than in the other more familiar versions of this memorable story.

The versions we are more readily accustomed to show God working indirectly through the servant Moses.  God speaks to Pharaoh through Moses and his staff.  There are times when even Moses speaks indirectly, using Aaron to serve as his voice.  God speaking through Moses who speaks through Aaron is probably not the most direct approach to liberation.Miriams Song3

In Moses and Miriam’s songs, however, God directly intercedes on behalf of the Israelites.   While the image of God’s outstretched hands may remind us of the story of Moses stretching his staff, this song proclaims how God stretches God’s own hands on behalf of the people.  The image of Israelites passing by Pharaoh’s soldiers may remind us how the sheltering of the lamb indirectly protected the first born children.  The song proclaims, however, God directly shelters the people by the might of his own arm.

A casual reading of this song may seem like an afterthought to a beautifully descriptive narrative of the Passover, but its purpose is to show us the direct action God takes to liberate people from the captivity and bondage found in our humanity.  God doesn’t try to repair the earth by human means, with guns and bombs.  God directly works through the means of creation, using elements that humanity can only take small steps to control.  Try as we might, humanity will not be able to force a flood with the flare of our nostrils.  We are not able to swallow evil into the earth with the stretch of our hand.  This majestic and holy power can only be used hands on by our Creator.

It is said this is the oldest scriptural account where God directly liberates the people from the bondage of their lives.  But it is far from the last.

JonahIt was God going directly to Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones that brought restoration.  It was God speaking directly to Jonah under the tree that helped Jonah begin his new life, liberated from fear to live as a prophet.  God came directly to Job and showed him the mysteries of creation, allowing Job to be freed from his oppression.  While there are many times God worked through agents such as angels and prophets to speak to his people, God repeatedly brought direct action to realign the brokenness found in the world.

The most beautiful example of God’s direct action is when God came in human form as Jesus Christ.  This is the heart of our Advent celebrations.  Like a breath of fresh air, from the moment of his birth people who encountered Jesus were transformed forever.  Jesus spent his entire life realigning the world back to God’s self by releasing people from the captivity of their social and physical oppressions.   Jesus restored dignity to prostitutes, widows, and social outcasts.  He repaired the brokenness of bodies riddled by hemorrhages and leprosy.  He released the demons from the prisons of their human hosts.  All of these things Jesus did directly, in person, face to the face.  Where humanity remained limited by broken systems, Jesus directly liberated countless forms of bondage with the laying on of hands, on the breath of softly spoken words, through a brief brush in the midst of a crowd.

Jesus continues to release us from the chains that hold us in captivity.  Through his death on the cross and the glorious action of the resurrection, Jesus directly liberates humanity and all of creation.  Where we may find social oppression in our communities, through Jesus’ direct action of the cross, we will never be outcast from being in a loving relationship with God.

Where our bodies may fight the demons of illness, addictions, bad choices, and self-affliction, Jesus directly repairs us through the grace of forgiveness and community.

Where we may find ourselves traveling down roads that we would rather not travel, Jesus is traveling directly beside us, lighting our path and serving as our compass through the power of prayer.

We experience the physical presence of Christ in with and under the elements of Holy Communion, and we have been directly transformed by the Spirit through the waters of our baptism.

Miriams Song4Our God is not passive.  While God through the power of the Holy Spirit continues to send agents like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to serve as resources for living into the gift of faith, they are not our intercessors.  Our Triune God works directly with us and for us.  The direct action that started at the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea has continued through time, and remains forever with us through Christ.

This action is what caused Moses and Miriam to break into song.  God works directly for us, breathing life into our broken world, realigning creation, and granting us a liberated life.

Amen.


[1] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 65

[2] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[3] Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love, Gift ed. (New York: Fortress Press, 2010), page 73

This week begins our Advent midweek worship series, “Preparing the Way in Song.”  Each passage represented in our series highlights a different function of how songs were used to convey messages about God to the people.  Frequently these songs accompany a major shift in culture, serving as a frame for understanding where God is at work in the midst of tragedy or pointing to hope at the change God is yet to do.  These songs are liturgical narratives, often being repeated by faith communities for generations to come.

Our first week we encMiriam's Songounter two songs of praise by Moses and Miriam.  They are considered to be some of the oldest historical passages in Hebrew Scripture.  While presumed to be written down prior to the documenting of the creation stories, the use of water imagery suggests that the oral tradition of the creation stories was prevalent in the culture and influenced the mythological tone of these hymns.

Moses and Miriam’s songs serve as a liturgical ritual to reflect upon the dramatic experience of the crossing of the sea, all the while paralleling the events of the Passover.  In the history of tradition, it is likely that Miriam’s song came first when used in the liturgy, serving as an antiphon (or refrain) to reinforce the thanksgiving voiced by the people. [1]  The assembly would join Miriam’s words as an echoing refrain, breaking up the Moses’ song into sections.  We sometimes follow that structure in our own liturgy when we use a refrain in our Psalmody.  Also, Miriam is referred to as a prophet as the text introduces her song, suggesting that a “hymnic celebration by the people is a prophetic witness to God.” [2]

While researching these songs, I was surprised to learn from the Jewish side of my family that Moses and Miriam’s songs are still used as liturgical narratives in synagogues today.  It has caused me to ponder on many of the liturgical narratives that we use in Christian worship that have carried through the ages, such as singing Mary the mother of Jesus’ hymn of praise at evening vespers.

Our liturgy provides us with a frame work for encountering God in evocative ways in the midst of being in a community of believers.  We unite with our ancestors throughout the ages as we return to the liturgical narratives found in our scriptures, bringing them to life in the present with the sound of our voices.

As we eagerly await the babe in the manger, we stay united in the fulfilled promises of God throughout time through the gift of song.

Join us next week as we encounter Hannah’s Song.


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[2] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 64

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church of St. Louis, MO on November 17, 2013.  This message is based on Luke 21:5-19.

Convo-2013-LogoThis past week Pastor Bill and I traveled to the Ozark’s to participate in the Central Synod Bishop’s Convocation.  Together we explored the theme of “What From our Past Will God Use in the Future”, particularly in light of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

One of our speakers was Susan McArver, a professor out of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina.  Like myself, Dr. McArver is a narrative theologian.  Narrative theology involves noting where God is at work in our personal and cultural narrative, as well as identifying how the narrative of our modern lives weaves, reflects, and informs our reading of scripture and church history.  As we enter into the complex future Jesus outlines for us in our Gospel, one of Dr. McArver’s arguments kept floating through my mind.  She proposed that when we are in the present, we can only look at ourselves in the mirror dimly – meaning, the full light of the reality of our situation has yet to shine upon us.

This is particularly helpful when looking at the Gospel of Luke.  When this gospel was written, the authors were writing about the future that was dimly lit.  While we can look back through the eyes of history and see how the early church played out, the authors did not have that sort of data.   Luke and Acts are frequently accredited as being written by the same author, and when read with that in mind, it was apparent these early Christians were prepared for Jesus to return at any moment.  We in our modern context are far more comfortable entertaining the thought that Jesus may not return for a long while.

When we see Jesus address his followers about being persecuted, we need to bear in mind that Jesus was preparing them to establish the early church, and that early Christians believed that once that church was established Jesus would quickly return.  Jesus’ address is both a foretelling of how this post-resurrection shift will alter the lives of the disciples, as well as serving as a reassurance that Jesus will return.

This can prove to be a conundrum for us as we look at our own narrative and see how it weaves with scripture.  While we acknowledge that Christ can return at any moment, we often operate under the model that history speaks for itself and settle in for the wait.  Weaving our narrative with that of scripture, when we read that our future is filled with nations fighting nations, betrayals by family and friends for our faith, and natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and plagues, we may feel less reassured than our early church counterparts that these are signs of Jesus’ hasty return.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with this passage is that it highlights that we are living in the reality that salvation is upon us and not quite yet.  Throughout the gospel, Luke points to this paradox.  The only one to refer to Jesus as Savior, Luke shows time and again how Jesus brings salvation today.  He heals the sick today, mends the lame today, and empowers the outcast today.

The majority of these actions, however, take place after he set his face toward Jerusalem.  Across the narrative, Jesus brings salvation today, all the while pointing that it is still not quite yet.

We are resurrected people whose salvation is here all the while living into the possibility that it make take a while for Jesus to return.  We live as resurrected people where through Christ we have been redeemed and reconciled to God, unbound to live a full life and strive for peace and goodness on the earth.  Yet, we are a part of this world.  We are affected by earthquakes, famines, typhoons and plagues.  We face limitations because of our sexual orientation and identity, our marital status, age and gender.  Our children fight in wars we do not understand, whether in some far off land or at the school playground.

gap_1Through Christ our relationship with God has been restored despite the complexities of this world, but we still feel the world’s weight and limitations none-the-less.  This is the challenge of living as resurrected people.  We know that salvation has come, but there is still a great deal of waiting that needs to be had before we can see the new heaven and earth where the wolf and lamb will share a meal together.  We live in the midst of the schism of here and not yet.

The schism can feel quite wide, but there is hope.   Jesus tells we gain endurance to see how God bridges the gap by testifying.

Our opening hymn today is the story of how God’s love bridged the schism.  Thomas Dorsey was a prolific gospel and blues musician from rural Georgia.[1]  Like most musicians he struggled to make ends meet, splitting his time playing in both churches and clubs.

In 1932, Dorsey traveled from Chicago to here in St. Louis as one of the featured musicians at a revival.  After the first night, he received a telegraph that his wife had died while giving birth to their son.  He raced home, where his son died the next day.

The agony of such grief caused the well of Dorsey’s spirit to run dry.  He withdrew from his family and friends.  Not only did he stop performing at revivals and clubs, he stopped composing and playing all together.  He had reached a spiritual famine, and remained there for a very long time.

One day, Dorsey suddenly felt compelled to sit at his piano.  Once he took a seat, he suddenly felt a peace like he had never experienced wash over him.  Suddenly a melody played in his head that he had never heard before.  There, in the midst of the famine of his suffering, he wrote his testimony of being totally reliant on God – the hymn we just shared, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Dorsey experienced a resurrection at that piano.  He had felt the schism of here and not yet, waiting to be sated from his spiritual famine.  With abundant love, God bridged that schism at the piano, resurrecting Dorsey when he needed it most.

bridge_waterAs people who live in the midst of here and not yet, it can be easy to forget that there is a bridge between the salvation that accompanied Jesus’ death and resurrection and when Jesus will return.  We are not alone in this time of famines, earthquakes, typhoons and wars.  Our lives are filled with countless resurrections.

This is the true majesty of the cross of Christ.  It is not rooted in one time or one place.  The cross is not a stagnant of what was and what will be.  It is the continual restorative and transformative action of God in our everyday life.  The cross of Christ is the grace filled waters that come down to fill the dried wells of our spirits.  It is the food from the altar that sates the hunger we can never put into words.

Jesus urges us to testify not solely so that we can gain our souls, but to give us and others the endurance to see the resurrection that happens daily within our midst.  In times of great trial and turbulence, it can be hard to see how Jesus continues to build the bridge between the salvation that is here and not yet.

As we think about our brothers and sisters affected by Typhoon Haiyan, we may only see the schism.  It can be hard to find the hope in this story, and so we testify to the grace that we cannot bring ourselves.  As pastor Nancy Lynne Westfield writes, “The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering.”[2]

bridge_winterWe testify how Christ continues to resurrect the world because it can be hard to see the hope of renewal in the midst of typhoon media blitzes.  It can be hard to see the hope of renewal in typhoons within our own lives.  We testify that we are totally reliant on God because each of us has or will experience our own Thomas Dorsey moments of grief, where we await the peace to descend to us on our piano benches.  United together, we share our testimonies to help each other see the grace filled water in the well that appears to be dry.

We testify because the schism between the cross and the new heaven and earth is not as barren as we think.  Christ’s cross is not a stagnant of what was and what will be.  It is the continual restorative and transformative action of God in our everyday life.

We are always being made new in Christ, granting us the endurance to recognize what was, is, and is to come.

Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, vol. 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 312

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., page 311

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

emptybowlGrowing up, dinner at the Heise house was an experiment in color.

My mother made sure at every meal we had color on our plate.  If our dinner was filled with white rice and chicken, then we would add color with green beans and peas.  Spaghetti sauce brought the red, paired with green and orange in our salad.  I remember distinctively that after bowls were passed around to fill our plates, my mom would take a cursory look around the table before we said grace.  Our plates needed to pass the color test before we could eat.

I grew up in a working class suburb of Cleveland on the lower end of the middle class spectrum.  I remember going to dinner at friends’ houses and seeing a sea of beige food – rice, instant potatoes, chicken, and other colorless food.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how unusual my family’s table was for my socioeconomic context.  There was rarely a meal at our house that didn’t have fruit or vegetables.  What I experienced as an annoying color test was a luxury for friends whose food rarely had the color of nutrition.

We each have unique memories equated with food.  For some of us it’s the color test.  For others it’s gathering together at the holidays eating once-a-year recipes.  For others still it is waiting for the donations of strangers to balance out our pantry after the bills are paid.

shoppingbagEating and drinking is an intimate part of our life, and intimate part of our faith.  Our scripture is filled with food stories – the manna of the desert, Jesus fasting for 40 days, the feeding of the 5,000.  Some scholars describe the Gospel of Luke as being the “foodie’s gospel,” because at almost at every turn we see Jesus eating while he teaches.   We even experience our sacraments through food, as we physically consume the presence of Christ in, with and under the elements of bread and wine.  We embody our spirituality through food.

This November, Bethel will begin a journey with food.  We enter this experience recognizing that each of us has our own unique stories and experiences surrounding food.  These experiences have shaped our narrative in distinctive ways.  Together, we will reflect upon joyful and difficult memories with food, and noting where we experienced God’s Holy Spirit working in those memories.  We will participate in activities and discussions about the realities of food around the world.  We will take steps to help bring color to tables in our community that are beige, and build new food memories.

God has gifted creation with ample, color-filled food to be shared by all.  The possibilities for us to decrease food insecurity and increase food security are as abundant as the flavor in the fields.  In thankful response to the blessings we receive from Christ, we partner together with God and creation to explore new ways to bring nutritious food to every table.

Vicar Tina Heise

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.

A New Day

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.