The Right Path

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This is a sermon I preached October 15, 2017, at Zion United Lutheran Church, Brodheadsville, PA. It begins with a message for the children.

 

            (Invite children forward.)  In today’s Bible readings, we heard about a feast of rich food, about the Lord preparing a table, and about an invitation to a banquet. Lots of talk about meals. That’s not surprising, because the Bible often mentions eating and drinking.

Let me tell you about three of the Bible’s meals, and give you a hand motion to go along with them.

First, the Maundy Thursday Meal. This was the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples before he died. At this meal, he taught them what his death would mean, speaking words we hear every Sunday: “Take and eat. This is my body given for you. . . . Take and drink, this is my blood shed for you.” Here Jesus is teaching that his death draws us into God’s love.   A motion for Jesus’ death is placing our arms in front of us, making the shape of a cross. As we do so we might say, “Christ has died.”

The second meal is the Easter Evening Meal. God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning. Later that day, Jesus met two of his disciples who were walking along a road. But they didn’t recognize him at first. They talked with him as they walked, and Jesus spoke to them about the Bible’s teachings. When the sun was about to set, they stopped to share a meal together. And Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it them. And in that instant they realized it was Jesus, now alive! A motion to remember Jesus’ resurrection is lifting our arms upward. As we do so, we can say, “Christ is risen!”

The third meal is what I call the Great Tomorrow Meal. It hasn’t happened yet, but we are promised that it is coming. God will gather his people into a great feast. We will be brought together into the everlasting love and mercy of Jesus. A motion for this is placing our arms around ourselves. Imagine Jesus giving us a great big hug. And we can say, “Christ will come again!”

Let’s do the motions one after the other. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

Say this prayer after me. Thank you, God. Thank you for the meals we eat. Thank you for sending Jesus to love us. Amen.  (Children return to pews)

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

These are the events central to Christian faith.
Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected, Jesus embracing us for all eternity. This is the story of God’s love for us. Through these deeds we are drawn more deeply into the God who is always with us. This is the God of whom today’s Psalm speaks when it says, “The Lord is my shepherd. . . . he leads me in right paths for his name sake.”

What is the right path? What’s the correct thing to do? It’s not always easy to know. Consider the following, which comes from a story written by Mary Gorden.

When Rose Cassidy and her husband were no more than thirty years old, she suddenly said to him, “Swear. Swear you will let me die in my own bed. Swear you won’t let them take me away.”

It was not clear why she had made that request. At the time, they were both young and healthy. They had no close friends who were frail and feeble. Mr. Cassidy never understood what made his wife demand his promise. But he made it: he would keep her in their own home, no matter what.

The years went by, and they grew old together. Rose’s mind began to weaken. Her personality changed. She did things out of character.

She would curse her husband with language she never before used. She would refuse to take her medicine. She would throw food onto the floor. And although her mind had weakened, her physical strength had not. She was able to knock over tables, and shove her husband to the floor.

And so the doctor said there was no reason to keep Rose at home anymore. Mr. Cassidy’s son and daughter-in-law pleaded with him: “You’ve done more than can be expected. You can’t continue this way.”

But Mr. Cassidy insisted on keeping Rose at home. He had promised. And he was a man of his word, and she was his wife, and he would not see her taken away.

In such a situation, what’s the right thing to do? Should Mr. Cassidy continue to keep his promise? Should another way be found to provide Rose’s care? Should she be kept at home? Should she be institutionalized? What’s the right thing to do? It’s not always easy to know. This is one of the agonizing decisions in life for which there is no simple answer.

In the midst of such excruciating choices, we are drawn to the crucified and risen Jesus. We come to be met by him in the meal of Holy Communion. Understand why we come to the Meal. We come not to receive answers. We come not to receive certainty about decisions we have made or are about to make. We come to the Meal to receive Christ himself.

The Meal does not give us answers, but places us in a relationship with the living Christ. The Scriptures do the same.

Through Scripture read and Scripture preached we are placed in relationship with the living Christ. The Bible is not an answer book; it’s a love letter. And not a single letter, but a whole library of letters. The Bible contains a conversation among the people of God about the things of God. In that conversation, Biblical writers do not always agree on ethical and moral issues. There are differences from one book to another. But what unites them is the common commitment to the God who loves the world.

And so the Bible, together with the Meal of our Lord, invites us to fall in love with Jesus again and again and again. Through word and sacrament, the Spirit of Christ comes to us, growing us in our relationship with God.

The crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who will come at the end of all things to gather us to himself, is with us now through the power of his Spirit.

That’s the good news of Christian faith. Good news, because we can’t always figure out the right thing to do. Life has many moral conundrums and ethical puzzles. We take them seriously. We pray about them. We think about them. Together we deliberate about them. We seek answers in the best possible way we can, and then make our choices. But even then we may wonder, “Was that the right thing?”

In the midst of our wondering, we come to the Table of the Lord and we hear, “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!”

What wonderful news! Because of Jesus and his Spirit we are able to entrust ourselves to God.

We trust that God will use our decision making, however wise or faulty it may be, and in the fullness of time, gather it into divine grace.

What wonderful news! The right path on which Christ leads us is not figuring out all the answers. The right path on which Christ leads us is not moral certainty. The right path is trusting him. The right path is giving ourselves to the One who lives for us, the One who embraces us in life’s struggles, the One who keeps us close to him.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

(The short story “Mrs. Cassidy’s Last Year,” written by Mary Gordon, is found in Listening for God, Volume 3. Edited by Paula J. Carlson and Peter S. Hawkins. 2000. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.)

Legends

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Hawk Mountain photo

At Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout on October 28, 2016, Laurie Goodrich twice “commanded” golden eagles to turn and give us better looks. Both birds “obeyed,” prompting me to say to Laurie, “That shows the power of your doctorate.” Her reply–“That’s how legends are started”–inspired both this poem and its title.

Like Gandalf, Laurie worked wizardry
–Twice, not once, but twice!–
She told golden eagles in the sky
–“Circle and be seen more clearly”–
And they behaved obediently!

When Gandalf and friends were victorious,
Sauron’s darkening cloud fled away.
So it was for us that autumn day,
As the clouds rolled into the distance
And sunlight began to hold sway.

The Lehigh Valley was ablaze in light!
O’er power plant bright an eagle took flight!
Red-shoulder hawk gave a glowing sight!
Robins flashed by in late-day sun!
What a glorious day of birding fun!

Was it the presence of Gandalf the White
Which made the day sunny and bright?
Does Laurie have special powers
To summon these amazing hours?
I suppose not–but I can’t be certain;
For without doubt, there’s magic on the mountain.

A Manna Sharing People

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Below is the sermon I preached at Zion United Lutheran Church on October 8, 2017. It began with the help of the children, who shouted “10, 20, 30, 40!” after each verse of a poem that told the Exodus story. I wrote this poem many years ago as an aid in teaching the Exodus to First Communion students. It was fun to us it again.

(invite children forward)

The people of Israel were sent on their way,
With the special event we call Passover Day.
So off on the Exodus the people went,
Following Moses whom God had sent.
How many years did they travel?   10, 20, 30, 40!

At the Sea called Red
They thought they were dead
But Moses hands went above his head
And through the waters the people were led.
How many years did they travel?   10, 20, 30, 40!

At times they complained they had nothing to eat
So each morning God put manna at their feet.
They also complained their mouths were dry
So water was provided from God on high.
How many years did they travel?   10, 20, 30, 40!

Whenever they marched on during the day
A pillar of smoke would guide the way,
And when they walked in the dark of night,
A pillar of fire would be their light.
How many years did they travel?   10, 20, 30, 40!

They came to Mt. Sinai
Where they heard God say
“You are my people this very day
And I give commands for you to obey.
How many years did they travel?   10, 20, 30, 40!

It was a long trip to the promised land,
But like God had said the place was grand.
Getting to Canaan was no easy ride,
But it taught them to live with God at their side.
How many years did they travel?   10, 20, 30, 40!

Say this prayer after me. Thank you, God. Thank you for the story of Moses. Thank you for leading Israel to the promised land.

         (children return to pews)

The story just described is called the Exodus. It’s the account of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to the land promised them by God.  As they journeyed, God provided food in the form of manna. Every morning, this flake like substance would appear. “Go and gather it,” the Lord commanded, “and take only what each family needs for the day.”

But some people took more than they needed. They quickly discovered that at the end of the day, the left overs went bad. They rotted, and spoiled, and stank.

And the Lord said, “You see, I’m not only giving you daily bread. I am also teaching you how to live when you are settled in Canaan. When you are there, the manna will cease. Instead, you will farm the land for your food. And in doing so, you are to live the spirit of manna. Which means: Share your bread. Order society in a way that all people have enough, and no one has too much.”

When I think of God’s hope for a manna sharing people, I recall a passage from the novel “The Poisonwood Bible.” The setting is a village in Africa. Anatole, a young Congolese man, and Leah, the daughter of an American missionary, are talking to one another.

Anatole says, “When one of the fishermen, let’s say, Tata Boanda, has good luck on the river and comes home with his boat loaded with fish, what does he do?”

Leah replies, “That doesn’t happen very often.”

“No,” agrees Anatole. “But you have seen it happen. What does he do?”

Leah says, “He sings at the top of his lungs and everybody comes and he gives it all away.”

“Even to his enemies?” asks Anatole.

“I guess. Yeah. I know Tata Boanda doesn’t like Tata Zinsana very much, and he gives Tata Zinsana’s wives the most.”

“All right,” says Anatole. “To me that makes sense. When someone has much more than he can use, it’s very reasonable to expect he will not keep it all himself.”

Leah protests, “But Tata Boanda has to give it away, because fish won’t keep. If you don’t rid of all of it, it’s just going to rot and stink to high heaven.”

Anatole smiled and said, “That is just how a Congolese person thinks about money.”

That conversation was written by author Barbara Kingsolver. I don’t know whether or not she intended it as a witness to the Bible’s manna teaching. But it speaks to me of the kind of world God wants: one in which everyone has enough, and no one has too much.

It’s a wonderful vision! But Israel failed to live the manna way. So prophets like Isaiah kept reminding the people of what God wanted. Earlier today we heard such a reminder from Isaiah; a passage in which Israel is called God’s vineyard. God tenderly cared for the vineyard, but if failed to produce the fruits of manna living.

Jesus used Isaiah’s image of the vineyard in today’s Gospel.

Together, Isaiah and Jesus teach us that the earth is the Lord’s, who has entrusted it us. As God’s people, we are to tend it gently and well, sharing its blessings with one another.

What does this life of sharing look like? A week ago today I put something on my Facebook page that gives witness to the blessing. Some background before I tell you what I said.

Recently, I began putting up posts that begin: “Feeling grateful.” It started one day when I was out for a walk, and went past a cornfield, which led me to write how thankful I am for farmers. Another a day I passed the scene of an accident, which led to a note about gratitude for first responders. Another day I was delayed in traffic while workers were installing pipes, and I noted my gratitude for those who care for our community’s infrastructures.

You see what I have been trying to do: notice the many reasons around me for gratitude.

Last Sunday morning, I was here, with you. Later that day, I posted a photo of your church signboard, and wrote these words:

“Feeling grateful. Today I had the privilege of supply preaching at Zion United Lutheran Church, Brodheadsvile, while Pastor Ann Melot was on vacation. Zion is a congregation deeply committed to outreach and inclusion.

“One example of its outreach is participation in Family Promise of Monroe County.  In this ministry, Zion takes a turn providing shelter for homeless families.

“Concerning inclusion, Zion’s bulletin notes: ‘We are aware that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons are often scorned by society and have been excluded from membership in some congregations. At Zion, we wish to make known our caring and concern and we welcome all people regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental ability or disability, age, or station in life. We affirm that each person is God’s unique creation and by God’s grace, each is called a child of God.'”

I concluded my Facebook post with the words: “To the people of Zion: ‘Thank you for your public witness to the values of Jesus.’”

Your commitment to outreach and inclusion exemplifies a manna life.

The past few Sundays we’ve been hearing from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul begins that letter by giving thanks for the faithfulness of the Christians in Philippi. As he continues to write, he notes that the work of the faithful is never complete this side of death. We are always striving for the kind of life God wants.

With Paul, with the faithful of all ages, and with one another, we keep striving toward a manna-sharing vision of the world. We are God’s vineyard, set in this time and place to be signs of mercy and compassion.

Thanks be to God for the role to which the Spirit has called us in sharing the love of Jesus.   Amen.

Scott’s Mountain Joy

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Scott's Mountain

During mid-September, broadwing hawks are streaming south in the eastern United States. It’s thus a fitting time to share this poem which I wrote in 2015 as a tribute to Henry Kielblock and the counters crew at Scott’s Mountain Hawk Watch. This watch site is located next to the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, New Jersey. 

Listen to our happy story
of the birds at Merrill Creek;
we think you’ll be pleased to hear of
many raptors that we seek.
From September through November
we are in the parking lot
armed with cameras, scopes, and optics
checking out each distant dot.

Sitting in our chairs or standing,
bi-nocs raised up to our eyes;
patient waiting for what’s coming
soon to dot the sunny skies.
Winds a-swirling from the northeast
make Mount Scott a broadwing beast;
kettle forming after kettle
is for us a visual feast.

On Scott’s Mountain we find great joy
in each bird that we see fly,
and we celebrate each person
who takes time to stop on by.
So please come and visit with us,
we would like your company;
join us at this place of welcome,
add to our camaraderie.

Falcon Tornado

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North Lookout Owl

When I reached North Lookout of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on September 6, 2016, Rudy Keller told me that earlier five kestrels had been diving at the owl pole. He said, “You could hear the sound of their wings ‘whoosh.'” Another hawk watcher referred to it as a “tornado of kestrels.” That evening, the Sanctuary’s daily report included this note: “Several American kestrels and merlins spent 30 minutes diving at the Owl Pole and then chased each other.” These observations inspired me to write the poem “Falcon Tornado,” in which the owl is speaking. 

 I am the Owl at Lookout North.

Early one morning five kestrels danced round,
From each feathered wing came a whistling sound;
Like swimmers in sync, they swiped at my side
In a vain attempt to force me to hide.

Then a fast falcon, a merlin by name,
Dove and chased kestrels away from their game.
And this bold merlin, preferring me dead,
Targeted talons aimed straight at my head.

Throughout the twirling falcon tornado
I twitched neither eye, nor ear, nor a toe,
But sat in silence — serenely still —
Calmly assure they could do me no ill.

I am the Owl at Lookout North.

Controversy in the Church

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Controversy in the church
(This is an adaptation of a sermon I first preached in 1999. This version was preached September 10, 2017, at Zion Lutheran Church, Brodheadsville, PA.)

In 1999, I was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, in the village of Saint Johns, a few miles north of Hazleton. For the congregation’s 200th anniversary, member Joyce Steinman researched and wrote a history of the congregation. In a section called “Controversy in the Church,” she said the following.
        “There has never been a moment of controversy at St. John’s. We are that rare congregation that agrees about everything; totally and unequivocally!”
   “Sure,” she continues, “believe that and we’ll tell you there are no sinners in our church either! Actually, we’re like every other Christian congregation. We are comprised of very human men, women, and children and often, among us, differences of opinion arise. Through the years, these differing opinions have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.
“We have disagreed about hymnals, liturgy, music, something someone said, something someone didn’t say, appropriate and inappropriate attire for church, what color to the paint the chancel, to remodel or not to remodel, to carpet or tile, to use a worship folder or not to use a worship folder. Many years ago we had one of our most heated disagreements about whether to speak only German at our worship services or to speak English and modernize the church.
        As Joyce noted, there was a lot of disagreement in the congregation’s history. Sometimes that disagreement led to harsh words, angry thoughts, and hurt feelings. At such occasions, I’ve sometimes heard it said, “Why can’t we be like the first Christians? If only we could get along like they did.
        You see, there’s this idea that floats around that everything was hunky-dory in the first century church.
But it wasn’t so. There was conflict and disagreement and hurt feelings among the earliest believers. Evidence for that is seen in today’s gospel.
        In that reading we heard Jesus say to the disciples, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
        Words like that are not needed among a community which lives in perfect harmony. Such instruction is needed for those among whom things sometimes go wrong.
        Because things can go wrong, the model constitution for congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes a section on disciplining of members. It outlines a procedure to be followed, noting that “prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation and repentance will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17. Those are the verses we heard in today’s gospel. They teach us that sin in the church is to be handled in the Spirit of Jesus. This is a Spirit that does not rush to judgment. It does not seek to blame. It does not seek to separate. The Spirit of Jesus seeks reconciliation and forgiveness.
        To live the Spirit of Jesus is to begin in prayer. If you feel you have been wronged, the first thing to do is pray. Pray along these lines.

         “Lord, another member of the Church has done me wrong. But before I do or say anything in response, help me think clearly. Save me from feelings of revenge. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.

         “Protect me from the temptation of religious superiority. Remind me that through Baptism all in the Church, including the one with whom I am angry, are brothers and sisters in Christ. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.

        “Teach me anew that your Son died not only for me, but for the one who has done me wrong. Focus my attention on the mercy I have so graciously received from you. Help me to show that same mercy to my offender. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”

         “Show me the good in the one with whom I am angry. Make me aware of my own failings. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.

         “Lord, hear my prayer.

        When we are feel we have been wronged, before doing anything else, begin with prayer. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.

        Then seek out one or two of your closest friends, friends who will hold what you say in confidence. There are two reasons why it is important that you talk with them. First, you need to vent your emotion. It’s not good to keep anger bottled up inside. Second, you need their wisdom. They may see things in a different light that you do. They may help you sort things out, and perhaps discover that you have imagined a hurt that isn’t really there.
        Pray and seek out people you trust. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.
        Then if you are still bothered, go alone to your offender. (But let me add an exception to that suggestion. If there is a chance of physical abuse, do not put yourself in danger. Those who have been abused are under no obligation to see the offender alone.)
But in a case that does not involve abuse, go and speak to the other person. Talk it out. and explain the problem as you understand it, always doing so with respect and dignity. Speak to him or her face to face, just the two of you.
At times when I myself have been unwilling to do that, I’ve realized it’s time to drop the whole thing. If I’m unwilling to talk face to face with one in whom I perceive fault, it is better just to be quiet, and not gossip and spread stories which may be false. 

          The Lutheran magazine once had a column called “Since You Asked.” Readers wrote in with questions about life and faith. One writer said, “Last Monday, a dear congregation member had a stroke. During the week, we were surprised, then angry, that the pastor had not visited her. On Sunday, the congregation was livid when she was not mentioned in the prayers.”
Imagine the phone calls being made in the congregation that week. Angry words were spoken. Accusations were made. Charges of incompetence and laziness were flying around. The pastor’s character and commitment to Christ were called into question. Finally, someone went to the pastor to express their rage. Guess what they found out?
The pastor didn’t know about the stroke. Throughout the whole week, people had been getting more and more upset. All that anger. All that rage. All those accusations and unkind words. It could have been averted by a single one-on-one conversation.

         Too often, we hesitate to hold such talks. We find it easier to talk about people than to talk with them.

         It’s easier to be on the sidelines gossiping than to be on the front lines communicating.

         It’s easier to jump to conclusions than to check out facts.

         Easier perhaps. But not better. That’s one of the reasons Jesus tells us to meet one-on-one with an offender. Because there may be no offense at all.
        Pray, and seek out people you trust, and speak to the person you believe has wronged you. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.

         We do these things because of all that Christ has done for us. He gave his earthly life so that we might have heavenly life. He forgives us, so that we might forgive one another. Amen.

Mountain Pilgrimage

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IMG_0855 Hawk Mountain sign

When August comes with sun so hot,
And land is blessed with flowing  crop;
When butterfly skips round and round,
And dragonfly is also found;
When northwest wind picks up its pace,
And hearts begin to stir and race:
Many set out on pilgrimage
To visit rocks of ancient age.

Drawn by wonder of creation
And the magic of migration,
Some will come as they have before,
Ten, twenty, thirty years or more.
In their minds are memories kept
Of wondrous days of birds wind-swept,
Of sunlight gleaming on the land,
And good friends standing near at hand.

Others arrive for the first time,
Including some from distant clime:
One in zeal for conservation,
Varied in their tongue and nation,
These young trainees from many lands
Eagerly offer helping hands;
And through their smiles and what they do
They help to keep the old hill new.

Together all share this wonder:
Eagle first seen at a number–
Then dipping into woods below,
At Hunter’s popping up to show
Its head ablaze like fiery crown.
Then flying along field of brown,
The raptor climbs to horizon,
And over steeple continues on
Its journey of migration flight,
Headed toward day’s final light.