New Friendships

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In this seventh part of Jensi’s story, coincidental meetings at a gas pump and a restaurant lead to new friendships.

One morning, Jensi stopped at a gas station. Because she was always confused by the “pay at the pump with your credit card” business, she preferred to pay with cash. But she had none with her that day, so the credit card was her only option.

As usual, it didn’t go well. Did the card go in with this side up—or the other side? Which end had to go in first? And which of those buttons on the gas pump must she push, and in what order?

She put the card in one way, and pushed a button. Nothing happened.

She put the card in another way, and pushed a button. Nothing happened.

She took the card out, holding it helplessly while trying to make sense of the instructions on the pump.

She tried once, twice, three times, and nothing worked. At the next pump was a man in his thirties who noticed her. Approaching her with a smile, he said, “I know how confusing those things can be. They used to fluster me every time, til I got the knack of it. May I help you?”

“Please,” laughed Jensi, “or I’ll be here all day.”

The man deftly worked magic—or so it seemed to Jensi’s eyes. The pump came on line, ready to dispense gas.

“Thanks so much,” she said.

“No problem,” he said. And as he walked to his car he wished her a great day.

Jensi thought, “What a kind act. That starts the day off well. I think it will be a great day!”

It turned out to be a really great day. Work went well; she and her colleagues labored diligently to solve some pressing issues. And at end of the day, their boss gave them a wonderful surprise. He said, “These last few months you have all been doing a fantastic job. The company is recognizing your efforts with gift cards you can redeem at local restaurants.”

So when Jensi got into her car for the trip home, she decided to stop for supper at the local Crackerbarrel.

As she walked through the front door, she saw the man who had helped her at the gas station; he was waiting in line with another man. He smiled at her and said, “It’s good to see you again. How was your day?”

“It was great, just as you wished it would be. One of the good things I received is a gift card to Crackerbarrel, and I’d like to share that gift with someone. Can I treat the two of you to supper?”

The man replied, “That’s very generous.” Then he introduced himself saying, “My name is Clint, and this is my husband Matt. We’re honored to be your guests.”

They sat at the table, examined the menu, and placed their orders. While waiting for their meals, they chatted. Jensi asked Clint and Matt how long they had been married.

Matt replied, “Not quite two years. We were married at St. Barnabas Church on June 27, 2015.

Jensi gasped, and a tear started rolling down her face. As she wiped the tear away, she said, “Excuse me for my emotion. It hit me because that’s the same day I was married.” Wiping the tear from her face, she told them about the death of her husband, and that she was pregnant with his child.

“Wow,” said Clint. “That must be difficult. Grieving such a recent loss, and soon to be a first-time Mom.”

“It’s hard at times. But I’ve got a great support system. My church is very supportive. My friends are understanding. Best of all is my great aunt Beth; she has a real knack for lifting my spirits.”

“We’re willing to help, too,” said Clint. “If you want to, feel free to call upon us. Here’s our number.”

Just then their food arrived. As they ate, they chatted about all sorts of things, like the weather, the local sports scene, and favorite spots to go hiking biking, and birding. And when they parted, they promised to keep in touch.

As she drove home, Jensi pondered the time she had spent with Clint and Matt. She recalled that the voice of Jesus had promised to give her people who would help in raising her child. “I wonder,” she thought, “if Clint and Matt are to be among those people. I have a feeling they will be. I sense in them a friendship, a love, and a compassion that I want my child to have.”

A few days later, Jensi made her regular Tuesday evening visit to her great Aunt Elizabeth, and told her about her dinner at Crackerbarrel.

Elizabeth said, “What a small world! I know Clint and Matt. They’re active in the social outreach and caring ministries of their church, St. Barnabas. I volunteer there once a month, reading stories to neighborhood children. St. Barnabas is alive with Christ’s Spirit. When the county moved the Senior Citizens Center from their area to a more affluent neighborhood, the congregation stepped into the breach, and started a drop-in center for those who needed a hot meal and companionship. It’s a congregation that isn’t afraid to reach out and welcome those who are different. Once a month they get together with a local mosque, seeking to build bridges of understanding between Christians and Moslems. They have a food pantry that serves dozens of families.

“They also sponsor something called ‘Theology and Beer’ at a local bar. I’ve never been to it, but I hear they have engaged in conversation with people of many faiths, as well as people of no faith at all. It’s a lively time of honest talking and listening.

“They have an interesting way of describing ‘Theology and Beer.’ They say, ‘A Christian, a Jew, an atheist, a Buddhist, a Moslem, and a Hindu walked into a bar. They had a great time, laughing, being friends, sharing beliefs, and enjoying one another’s company.’”

“It sounds,” said Jensi, “like they are building lots of bridges. You know, one of the things the voice of Jesus said my child will do is create bridges between people who are different. One of the ways we might prepare the child for that ministry is by involving Clint and Matt in our lives.”

“That’s an excellent idea,” replied Elizabeth. “They are two of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met. God’s Spirit is truly with them. They live the words of Jesus, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven….Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Jensi said, “Wait a minute! How can we be perfect like God? We’re human; we can’t be right all of the time.”

Elizabeth replied, “No, we don’t always get things right. But I don’t think that’s what ‘perfection’ means here. I think it’s more about being the kind of people God wants us to be, heading toward the goal God intends. Just as God is always working toward the peace, justice, and wellbeing of the world—what we sometimes sum up in the Hebrew word shalom—so we, too, are to be persistent in working toward that end.

“Clint and Matt have told me that the folks at St. Barnabas keep encouraging one another with the slogan ‘Aim to be who God is calling you to be.’ They created that slogan from a study of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus calls his people to be light for the world and salt for the earth; shining forth God’s mercy for friends and enemies alike. That vision drives them to build bridges of understanding with others. In doing so, they are faithful children of God.

“Their witness can help your child—and all of us—grow into the people God wants us to be.”

Amen.

The Rainbow Christmas Tree

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IMG_0522 Rainbow Christmas Tree

In this sixth part of “Jensi’s Story,” a child’s drawing inspires Jensi to write a poem about God’s desire that we care for creation and love our neighbor.

While visiting her great-aunt Elizabeth, Jensi noticed a yellowing piece of paper enclosed behind the glass of a picture frame. On the paper was a sketch of a Christmas tree, with a rainbow sitting atop the tree.

Jensi asked, “Aunt Beth, this Christmas tree, with the rainbow at its peak: Who drew it?”

Elizabeth smiled and replied, “I did, when I was seven years old. My grandfather asked me to make it. He said he wanted the rainbow atop the tree because tree and rainbow together remind him of God’s mercy for the world. The Christmas tree, he said, celebrated Christ’s birth, while also drawing attention to the tree of the cross on which Jesus died, as well as the tree of life in the book of Revelation with its leaves of healing for all the nations.

“My grandfather said that the rainbow reminded him of two important stories Christians tell. The first story is God’s promise to Noah to care for creation. As a sign of that promise, God placed a rainbow in the sky. And the rainbow’s many colors he said, point to a second story: God’s love for all the peoples of the earth, a love we see coming to the world in the birth of Jesus. He told me that when he was a child he had learned this song:

          Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world;

         Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight;

         Jesus loves the little children of the world.

         Ev’ry color, ev’ry race, they are covered by his grace,

         Jesus loves the little children of the world.

“Wow,” said Jensi, “that’s pretty neat. I like it.” And with her cell phone, she snapped a photo of the Rainbow Christmas Tree

And over the next several days, Jensi kept thinking about that Tree. She realized that it pointed to two of the things that the voice of Jesus said her child would do: encourage people to care for creation, and create bridges of understanding among people who differed from one another. As Jensi pondered these things, she found herself writing a poem, which when completed went like this.

The Rainbow Christmas Tree                    
Is a reminder of God’s intention   
To cherish the life of all creation.

In the Noah Story,
God looked, and felt deep grief at what he saw:
An earth made for beauty and harmony

Was not in unity. 
Evil ran deeply in harsh and hard hearts;
Foul mouths spoke aloud the mind’s ugly thoughts. 

Bullying—war—abuse—
Violence—terror—greed filled ev’ry land,
And God regretted the work of his hand.
 
So in deep grief God said,
“No more. It cannot continue this way;
I will end it, and begin a new day. 

“I will destroy it all,
Except for Noah, his kin, and a pair
Of every living creature of earth.” 

The rain came, the flood rose,
And all died in the water’s raging dark
Except those who were safely in the ark.

But now God felt new grief.
God said, “Toward evil human hearts are bent;
Yet the answer is not the flood I sent. 

“Never again will I 
Destroy my whole creation. As a sign
Of my pledge to people and all creatures 

I set a bow in sky,
A reminder to be gentle with earth,
To seek a better way for life’s rebirth.”

In the fullness of time,
God decided the better way would be 
The birth of his Son, the Nativity. 

In the Christmas story 
A young Galilean girl hastens off
To visit an old Judean woman. 

Angels come to two men:
An old priest offering the ancient rites,
A carpenter asleep after day’s work. 

And to shepherds, thought by
Many to be unclean, with uncouth views,
Comes a surprise announcement of good news. 
 
But the greatest surprise 
Is the foreigners who come from afar,
Scientists who were guided by a star 

To see the new born king.
With faces odd, with clothes and accents strange,
They enter the house: Mary welcomes them. 
 
In the Christmas story 
Male, female, native, alien, young, old,
Religious, secular: All hear good news.
 
These of Christ’s birth story
Foreshadow Jesus’ coming ministry
Of embracing the world’s diversity.  

That’s why the rainbow sits
Atop the tree. It is a sign that God’s 
Love is not given for one kind alone.  

The Rainbow Christmas Tree
Roots us deeply in Messiah Jesus,
Calling us to partner in God’s good work.

Thus we pay attention 
To the beauty of the natural world,
And seek to treat it gently and kindly.

We protect open land;
We preserve endangered species, valuing 
Them because they are created by God. 

Taught by birds of the air,
We live simply, content with daily bread,
Striving to keep our carbon footprint low.
 
We support policies 
That keep air clean, rivers pure, streams sparkling,
Fields fruitful, fish spawning, forests growing.
 
We are people of the 
Rainbow Christmas Tree, called to bear good fruit,
Caring for the gifts of God’s creation.
 
As people of the Tree,
We also seek to love one another,
Whatever our race, gender, or color. 
 
Heeding John’s warning word,
We beware the danger of too highly
Exalting our own kind. So we humbly

Attempt to build bridges
With those we may not know nor understand.
Through listening and through conversation
 
We seek common respect 
Among gay and straight; Hispanic, black, white;
Liberal, conservative, moderate.
 
We build relationships 
Between atheists and Christians and Jews,
Among Moslems, and Buddhists, and Hindus. 
 
The prophet Isaiah 
Spoke of a time lion and lamb will lie down
Together in peace. We yearn for that day.

Walking the Jesus’ Way,
We use our minds, and our skills, and our wealth
To support causes promoting civic health. 

We oppose any “ism”
That would divide or tear people apart,
For such actions bring grief to God’s holy heart.

The Rainbow Christmas Tree 
Reminds us of God’s commitment to earth,
His desire for its ever-new re-birth.

May the Rainbow Christ Tree
Inspire us to value creation,
As well as peoples of ev’ry nation.

                                                      Amen.

Bread for All

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There is a huge gap in our world between rich and poor, and many people go to bed hungry each night. That’s a political, economic, and social problem. And for Christians, it’s also a spiritual problem, for Scripture witnesses to God’s desire for economic equality. That’s the message of this sermon, the fifth in the series called “Jensi’s Story.”

         After church, Jensi said to her great-aunt Elizabeth, “Did you hear the words from Isaiah today? They brought together some of the things we’ve been talking about lately, like light in the darkness and the role of humility in the life of faith. And they also mentioned something else I’ve wanted to talk with you about: feeding the hungry. That’s one of the things that the voice of Jesus said the child in my womb would focus on. I know, Aunt Elizabeth, that hunger ministry is important to you. When did that begin?”

         Elizabeth said, “More than 50 years ago, when I was in college. I saw pictures of hungry children that have never left my mind. I determined then and there to support food pantries and hunger appeals.

         “My commitment was intensified a few years later by our pastor. He had a unique way of encouraging support of our church wide hunger program. He was a hawk watcher, and he asked us to make a financial commitment for each migrating eagle he saw during the fall migration. Every Sunday morning, he would stand in church, and do this: ‘Okay, everybody, arms out. It’s time for eagle flaps. Here we go. How many eagles did Pastor see this week? Count it down with me. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Stop. That makes a total of 87 eagles this year. But what’s most important isn’t the eagles I see, but the gifts you make to the Hunger Appeal. Thank you for your generosity!’

         “That pastor’s been gone from our congregation for many years now. But we caught the spirit, and continue to give generously to the Hunger Appeal.

         “So the photographs and the pastor’ somewhat unusual method initiated my commitment to hunger ministries. But what really kept me going is Scripture. Because the social issue the Bible most often talks about is economic security for all people. For example, there’s these words from Leviticus, chapter 25: ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.’

         “Hey,” said Jensi, “those words are on the Liberty Bell. I didn’t know they were from the Bible.”

         “Many people don’t,” said Elizabeth. “And many people take them to refer to political freedom. But in their Biblical setting, the words refer to economic freedom. God told the people of Israel to proclaim a Jubilee Year every half century. During Jubiliee, all people were to be set on the same financial footing, which in those day meant land was to be returned to the original family of ownership. And since the land had been divided equally when the Israelites first came to it, everyone would have the same amount.”

         Jensi thought a moment, and then said, “Didn’t our Pastor tell us a story about that in his email devotions?”

       “I think he did,” replied Elizabeth. Pulling out her cell phone, Jensi did a quick search of her emails. This is the story she found.

         Moses led the people of Israel to Mt. Sinai. There they received the Torah: stories of God’s mercy, and God’s instruction on how to live. Moses would go to the top of the mountain, and God would talk to him. Then Moses would tell the Israelites everything that God had said. Moses taught the people how God wanted them to live with one another.

         Among the people was a young girl named Yenna. Her mind was sharp; she enjoyed thinking, and she wondered about many things.

         One day she was wondering, “What would happen if some of our people did not have enough to live on?” It made her sad to think that one day her friends might not have enough to eat, and that they would have no place to live. It bothered her so much that she went to see Moses.

         “Moses,” she asked, “does God ever worry that the day may come when some of our people are hungry or without a home?”

         Moses smiled at her, and said, “Ah, Yenna, what a good and godly heart you have! If all the Israelites had a heart like yours, my job would be so much easier.

         “Yes, Yenna, God thinks about such things. God wants everyone to have what they need. Do you remember when we were traveling toward Mt. Sinai? We did not have enough food. That’s when God began to give us manna every day. Do you remember what I taught you about this manna?”

         Yenna replied, “You told us that every morning the manna would appear, and we should gather what we needed that day. You warned us not to take more than was necessary, for the excess would only rot. And you said that God was not only giving us food, but was teaching us that everyone should have enough, and no one should have too much.”

         Then Yenna stood still for a moment. Moses saw that she was thinking about something. Then Yenna said, “Will God always give us manna?”

         Moses said, “No. When our people reach the promised land, the manna will stop. Instead, every family will be given land on which to grow food.”

         Yenna said, “Farming is hard work. What if something goes wrong? What if someone in the family gets so sick that they can’t harvest the crop? Or what if fire or weather destroys the crop before it is harvested? What will they do for food then?”

         “That could be a problem,” said Moses. “Sadly, in some cases, a family may have to sell their land, or perhaps become slaves to other people. Over the years, then, some folks would have too little, and some would have too much. But God has a plan to keep that from happening.

         “It will work like this. Every fifty years, a special trumpet will sound. And a shout will go up, “It’s the Jubilee Year! Everyone is to return to the land their families first owned. Everyone who has become a slave is set free. In the Jubilee Year, liberty will be proclaimed throughout the land. It will be a time of great joy. For this is God’s way of making sure everyone has enough, and no one has too much.”

         “Wow!” said Yenna. “That’s really good news.”

         Then Yenna was quiet, and Moses saw her thinking. Finally he asked, “What are you thinking about?”

         She said, “I’m coming up with a way to tell everyone this good news.”

        Moses said, “How will you tell it?”

         “Like this,” said Yenna.

                           “Enough for you, Enough for me, That’s why God has set us free.

                           “Food for you, Food for me, That’s why God has set us free.

                           “Land for you, Land for me, That’s why God has set us free.

                           “Enough for you, Enough for me, That’s why God has set us free.”

         Moses smiled and applauded. Then Moses gave her a hug, and said, “Yenna, you have a heart to obey God. May your heart always be true.”

         After reading this story, Jensi said, “Aunt Beth, the world has never followed God’s plan of economic equality, has it?”

         “No,” replied Aunt Beth. “And it must make God cry every day, to see how so many of his children have so very little while some hoard much more than they need. Economic equality is as big a problem as it ever was. There is a huge gap between rich and poor. That can be viewed as an economic problem, or a social problem, or a political problem. It is all three. And for Christians, it is also a spiritual problem. For God’s justice is that everyone have manna each day. God’s justice is that everyone have daily bread.    Amen.

 

Live Humbly

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In this fourth part of “Jensi’s Story,” Jensi and her great aunt Elizabeth discuss the importance of humility.

        Jensi and her great aunt Elizabeth were enjoying their regular Tuesday evening dinner. Jensi looked up from her spaghetti and said, “God has promised that my unborn child will lead people to be centered in God, to feed the hungry, to care for creation, and to build bridges between people who are different from one another. And God wants me to raise the child in ways that help prepare for these things. I want to do that. But, Aunt Beth, I keep wondering, why me? There’s nothing unique about me. I’m no more ready to be a Mom than anyone else. I really don’t understand God’s choice.”

         Elizabeth replied, “I don’t think such things are ever clear to us. But I do know, though, that God uses ordinary people to make extraordinary things happen. God works through the lowly and the humble. And if we start thinking too highly of ourselves, God knocks us off our pedestals. That’s what happened in the story of Naaman. Do you know it?”

       “I recall the name,” Jensi replied, “but I forget how the story goes.”

        “It’s told in the fifth chapter of 2 Kings,” said Aunt Beth. Then she told Jensi this story.  

        Naaman lived in a county called Aram. He was a great military hero, having won many battles for his country. He was proud of his career. His military commendations filled scroll after scroll. Dozens of ribbons and medals hung from his shirt.

         He was a strong man, who had risen through the ranks to become a trusted officer of the king. Life was good, very good. But one day Naaman noticed blotches on his skin. They spread and spread. He consulted the best doctors in his land. But no cure was found.

         In his household was a Israelite teenager, who had been captured by Naaman in one of the wars. She was servant to Naaman’s wife. She told Naaman’s wife, “If only your husband could see the prophet in Israel, he would be healed.” 

        So his wife said to Namaan, “I have heard of a holy man who might be able to help you.”

        Naaman replied, “And where might he be?”

        “In Israel,” said his wife.       

        “Israel?” Naaman said with disdain. “I go to Israel only to win battles. They are a backwards people; they know nothing. Where did you get this idea that they have a skilled healer?”

        “From my maid servant,” his wife replied.

        “Her?” spit out Naaman. “She’s one of them, good for nothing more than being a slave. And anyhow, she’s too young to know anything.”

        “But,” said his wife, “nothing is helping here. Can it hurt to give it a try?”

        Now even the greatest of military heroes must sometimes give in to his wife. So Naaman said, “Yes, Dear; you’re right; I’m wrong. I’ll look into it.”

         So Naaman went to Israel with many valuable gifts: 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothes. With horses and chariots, he arrived in grand style. He came with a letter from his king to the king of Israel. The letter asked that Naaman be healed. But Israel’s king panicked. He said, “I have no such power!” But the prophet Elisha sent word to the king, “Send Naaman to me.”

         Naaman went, and knocked on Elisha’s door. No answer. He waited. He knocked again. And waited some more. He began to grow impatient. He was a man used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it. His orders were always quickly obeyed. But he thought, “Be patient. If this man can do what is claimed, it is worth the wait. And when the prophet appears, he will call upon the name of his Lord, wave his arms, and in a brilliant display of power, cure me.”

         Naaman knocked once more. Finally, the door opened. Naaman asked, “You are the holy man?”

         “No,” replied the man at the door, “I’m not.”

         “Well,” said Naaman, “I have come to see him. Where is he?”

         “He’s in the back room, sitting in his favorite chair, relaxing a bit.”

         “I want to see him now!” demanded Naaman.

         “You don’t have to,” said the man at the door. “I have brought a message on his behalf. He instructs you to wash seven times in the Jordan River, and you will be made clean.”

         “What?” shouted Naaman. “Doesn’t this prophet know who I am? I am a great man, a warrior, a hero, I deserve proper respect. I deserve Elisha himself coming to me, not some underling! And wash in the Jordan? The rivers of my own nation are as good as any. I won’t do such a ridiculous thing!”

         And he stormed away in a snit that made a two-year old’s tantrum look calm.

        But he was fortunate: he had servants who cared about him. They said to one another, “We’ve come all this distance, gone to all this trouble, and he won’t listen?” So they gathered up their courage and went to him and said, “Sir, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult and heroic, you would have done it. So why do not this simple thing?”

         So Naaman calmed down, went to the river, dipped himself seven times, and was healed. He was as good as new.

         After telling this story, Aunt Beth went on to say, “For Naaman to be healed, he had to become an ordinary person taking a bath in the river. He had to set aside all his pretensions of greatness. To be centered in God, he needed to come down to the place God wanted him to be. And notice how God got him there: through a maid, and through his servants. Lowly, ordinary people going about their daily work. They were people of humble position in life, and God used them to make something wonderful happen.”

         Jensi said, “That brings to mind one of my favorite Bible verses, Micah 6:8, which says, ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’”

         Aunt Beth said, “Humble walking with God is like the first Beatitude, in which Jesus teaches, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’

         “Walking humbly with God is being aware of inadequacy; it’s a recognition that all of life is about trusting in God. It’s knowing our need for God. It’s being aware of our dependency upon God’s grace. As someone else has said, ‘True humility is staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know.’

         “God, you see, isn’t at work in ‘big shots.’ God’s not impressed with how much money you have, or the degrees hanging on your wall, or the status you’ve gained in the community, or how many accomplishments you’ve received. People who get caught up in that stuff are far from the kingdom of God. They may bluster a lot about how great they are. But I suspect that deep down inside they are most unhappy. They don’t know the joy that comes from being a humble child of God.”

                                                                          Amen.

 

 

 

A Light in the Darkness

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candle-2038736__480This is the third of my eight week sermon series “Jensi’s Story.” In this episode, Jensi and her great-aunt Elizabeth talk about the darkness that sometimes overshadows our lives, and Elizabeth recalls a confirmation class from many decades ago.

       Following her husband’s death, Jensi had begun spending every Tuesday evening with her great-aunt Elizabeth. The weekly visits had been Elizabeth’s idea, and Jensi gladly accepted the invitation. After the tragic accident, she needed all the support she could get.

      They would eat supper together; sometimes in silence, sometimes chatting, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing. Elizabeth always accepted whatever Jensi seemed to need, giving her space to grieve. Jensi was thankful for her aunt’s empathy and patience, and so always looked forward to their time together. Thus the drive to her house each week was one of hopeful expectation.

         But this past Tuesday, Jensi was feeling a bit different. The closer she got to the house, the more nervous she became. For this night, Jensi would tell Elizabeth about what happened at the bridge along the trail. Some of you already know that story, but for those don’t, let me give a quick summary.

       Unable to sleep one night, Jensi walked her favorite trail in the darkness. While she stood on a bridge over a flowing stream, the voice of Jesus came to her, reassuring her that she was not alone. A week later, Jensi again stood on the bridge, and the voice told her that the child in her womb would play a special role in God’s work, and that Jensi would help prepare the child for that role. Jensi was reluctant to take on such a task, but the voice promised her the support of other people, including her great aunt.

         Remembering these things, Jensi arrived at the house, and, with heart pounding, walked to the door. “How will Aunt Beth react?” she wondered. “Will she think I’m crazy? Will she think my grief has driven me to hear things that aren’t there?”

       Taking a deep breath, Jensi opened the door and called out, “Aunt Beth, I’m here!”

       Elizabeth quickly appeared, her face glowing radiantly. “My dear child,” she said, “I’ve been waiting anxiously for you. You have something to tell me, don’t you?”

       “Yes, but how do you know?”

      “I’m not exactly sure. But during my time of prayer and meditation this morning, you suddenly popped into my mind. And as I was visualizing you, the phrase ‘good news of great joy’ kept swirling in my head. So, tell me: what is it?” 

      Jensi then went on to tell her that the voice of Jesus had spoken to her, saying that child now in her womb would one day lead people to center their lives in God, to feed the hungry, to build bridges between people who are different, and to care for creation. The voice had also said that Jensi had a role to play in this work, by raising the child and preparing the child for these tasks.

       Then Jensi said, “Aunt Beth, on the one hand I’m excited about having a baby, and raising the child up to follow God. And yet the world is so dark and gloomy, that at times I don’t know how I can do it. I look around and see so many bad things. There are bullies in schools and in other places. And we hear of swastikas being painted on synagogues, and of gay people being demeaned. And the polar cap is shrinking, glaciers are melting, weather patterns are changing, and yet some of our leaders just laugh it off as if nothing is happening. It’s as if they don’t care what the future holds for our children and grandchildren. And there are places on our planet where hunger and starvation are daily realities. There’s so much anguish and darkness and gloom, that the idea of raising a child is nothing short of frightening.”

         “There’s a lot to be bleak about,” her aunt agreed. “But being honest about the problems is the first step in dealing with them. That’s why I so appreciate the Hebrew Prophets of the Bible. They are not afraid to name the darkness. But they don’t stay there. They also speak words of hope, hope that God is present in even the darkest time, and that God is working new life.”

         Jensi said, “I don’t know a whole lot about the prophets. Who were they?”

Elizabeth said, “They’re names were

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel,

Hosea, Jonah, Joel,

Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah,

Haggai, Malachi, Zechariah

Amos, Habbakuk, Obadiah.

         “Wow!” Jensi laughed, “that’s a mouthful!”

         Elizabeth said, ‘Maybe you’ll want to name your child after one of them.”

         “I don’t think so,” replied Jensi. “Some of those names are weird.”

         “Indeed they are,” smiled Elizabeth. “And it’s not always easy to make sense of what they are saying. Their writings are long, and at times difficult to understand, for they were written in a time and culture in many ways different from our own. But I’ve found it’s worth the effort to grapple with them, to listen to what they are saying. For example, I was just looking ahead to the readings for this coming Sunday. We’ll hear some verses from Isaiah, that Matthew would later use  in describing the work of Jesus. Isaiah said,  ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of darkness—on them light has shined.’ Whenever I hear these words, I recall something that happened when I was a confirmation student.”

Then Elizabeth told Jensi this story.

         I was fourteen years old. One day in confirmation class, our pastor led us into a storage room in the church basement. “Ever been here before?” the pastor asked.

         “Uh, no,” was our reply.

         Then, without warning, the pastor turned off the light. We screamed, “It’s dark in here!” It was so dark that we couldn’t even see our hands in front of our faces.

         “Darkness,” said the pastor, “is sometimes used to describe the condition of our lives. It refers to the times we may be confused or afraid or not sure of what’s going to happen next. Can you think of anytime like that?”

         “Sure,” said one of the students. “When you are picked on at school, and no one wants to be your friend.”

         Said another, “It’s been a sad time recently for my family. I have a cousin who died of cancer.”

         Said another, “My brother is beginning military service next week. I’m afraid of what might happen to him.”

         A few more students added other times of darkness. The pastor and the class stood in silence for a few moments. Then the pastor struck a match, and lit a small candle he had carried with him. 

         And the pastor said, “No matter how dark it gets, we are never alone. Jesus is with us. The gospel writer John says that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, the light no darkness has overcome.”

         Having told the story from her confirmation days, Elizabeth said, “I often think of that dark closet, and what our pastor told us. It comes to mind every Christmas Eve when we sing ‘Silent Night’ with handheld candles. And like one of our pastors once suggested, I take that Christmas Eve candle home with me, and light it from time to time, while I say the words of Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

         On her way home from her great-aunt’s that night, Jensi stopped to buy a box of candles. “I’ll light one for a few minutes each day,” she thought. “Doing so will continually remind me that Jesus is the light of the world. And as my child grows, we’ll light the candle together and say,

         “Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

           Of humble trust in you.

           Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

          Of sharing wealth with all in need.

          Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

          Of caring for your planet earth.

           Jesus, come to us this day;

           Be our light, and show the way

          Of building bridges that unite.”    Amen.

Jensi Returns to the Bridge

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IMG_0602 Bridge

This is the second of my eight week sermon series “Jensi’s Story.” In this sermon,  Jensi returns to the trail bridge she visited a week ago. There she hears some surprising news.

 

Today is episode two in Jensi’s story. We began last week with the information that she is a 27 year-old woman, recently widowed when her husband was killed in a car crash. She is pregnant with their child, and is fearful of the future.

Unable to sleep one night, she walked the a near-by path. While standing on a bridge above a flowing stream, she heard the voice of Jesus speak to her, assuring her that she is not alone, and encouraging her to remember the promises of baptism. The voice also told her to come back to the bridge in a week, for he had more to tell her.

And so this week we find Jensi returning to the trail in the pre-dawn hours of a Sunday morning. As she walked the familiar route, thoughts rushed through her head. Had she really heard the voice of Jesus/ Or had she only imagined it? And if the voice really had spoken, would it speak again? What else was there to say? What was the message she was about to hear? She was anxious and expectant at the same time.

She arrived at the bridge. She stood in silence, waiting. Nothing was heard. She started to grow impatient, and began nervously pacing back and forth. But then she thought, “I guess this is the value of the season called Advent. It teaches us to wait patiently for the Lord.” And she found herself praying, “Come, o come, Emmanuel. Come, Lord Jesus.”

And then she heard the voice saying, “I am here, Jensi. I am happy you’ve returned. How has the past week been?”

She replied, “It was okay. Things went well at work. I slept a little better than I have been since my husband’s death. But I still miss him so much. And I’m scared to death about raising a child alone.”

The voice said, “It’s about the child in your womb that I want to speak. I intend that this child will play a special role in my work.

“This child will offer the world a vision of trust in God, peace among diverse peoples, food for every person, and care for all creation. Your child will be my servant, my witness, of a universe embraced in love. And you, Jensi, will also be my servant and witness, for you shall raise the child in my ways. You will prepare the child for what is to be done.”

“Me?” said Jensi. The look on her face conveyed disbelief and fear. “Me? How is that possible? I’m overwhelmed with grief. I have no experience as a parent. How can I raise a child to be something special? I’m nothing special myself; I’m just an ordinary, average person.”

The Voice replied, “I know that you are worn down by grief. I know that you are tired, weary, and afraid. I know that you think this is more than you can handle.  But do not be afraid, for I am with you. Wait upon me, and I will give you strength.

“And Jensi,” the Voice continued, “I will also give you other people who will share with you in raising your child. Be alert for their presence in your life. You will not be alone in fulfilling the work that I give you.

“As my people in Africa like to say, it takes a village to raise a child. I will provide the village you need. Among those villagers is your great aunt Elizabeth. Go to her. Together you will know the uplifting power of my Spirit. Together you will consider how to walk my way. She will help you learn how to raise your child.”

Jensi replied, “But won’t she think I’m kind of crazy? Hearing voices by the stream and all. She’s liable to think I’ve lost touch with reality because of my grief.”

The voice said, “Just tell her what you have experienced, what you have seen and heard. She is a woman of insight and faith. Both she and you will be guided by my Spirit.

“Tell her these words: the voice of the Lord has spoken to you, telling you that your child will lead people to center their lives in God, to feed the hungry, to build bridges between people who are different, and to care for creation. Elizabeth will have insight to help prepare the child to do these things.”

Jensi began to ponder and think about all that she had seen and heard. She doesn’t know how long she stood there in silence. It may have been a few minutes; it may have been an hour or more. She was so deep in thought that she lost track of time. In her pondering, she recalled Biblical stories of God’s people going through hard times. She thought of Abraham and Sarah doubting that God’s promise would ever come true;

—of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, crying out in their suffering;

—of Moses, and his frustrations with leading Israel during the Exodus;

—of the Jews in Babylonian exile, longing for their homeland;

—of the followers of Jesus, shattered and despairing after the death of Jesus.

She thought of all they had gone through, and yet in them, faith and hope had burst into new life.

Then her thoughts turned to her great-aunt Elizabeth. Now in her 70s, Elizabeth had passed through some difficult times. Twice she had been pregnant, but both ended in miscarriages, and she had never given birth. She had spent three years caring for her husband, whose emphysema was so bad he could only take a step or two before losing breath.  Elizabeth’s life had not always been easy. Yet she was a gracious, loving woman who accepted everyone, greeted the children at church with a small gift, and kept the post office busy with the congratulatory notes and well wishes and thank you notes that she sent on a daily basis. She refused to be “old,” and so never stopped learning; most recently taking a course at the local community college on Native American cultures. And over the years, she had worn out several Bibles from constantly seeking the way God wants her to live.

Thinking of the Biblical stories, and of her great-aunt, Jensi realized that she too wanted to be part of this great parade of faithful servants and witnesses. And so she finally spoke, responding to the voice of Jesus by saying,

“Lord, you listen to my cry,

and you lift me out of the desolation of my grief.

You help me stand when I am shaky and weary;

you put a new song of hope and joy in my mouth.

You have opened my ears to your intentions for the world.

Therefore, I place my trust in you.

Continue to place your instruction in my heart,

that I may go where you would have me go,

say what you would have me say,

and do what you would have me do.

Lord, I don’t know the way,

I’m not sure where all of this is going,

the path ahead is uncertain:

but I place my trust in you.

I am your servant;

I will live according to what you have said.”

The voice replied, “Blessed are you, Jensi, for believing the word I have spoken.

“Now listen; I have a name I want you to give your child.” And the name was whispered into her ear.

The voice then said, “Go now to your great aunt Elizabeth. Go and tell her what you have seen and heard, and invite her into this good work with you.”

Next week, we’ll hear the story of Jensi’s visit to her great aunt.

Amen.

Jensi Visits the Trail

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IMG_0601 Trail

The devotions I wrote for Lent 2017 grew out of an eight week sermon series I preached at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Johnsonville, PA. Here is the first of those sermons, in which Jensi is introduced.

Beginning today, and continuing for the next several weeks, I’ll be telling the story of a woman who goes by “Jensi.” It’s a nickname, drawn from her first and middle names, Jennifer Sierra.

         Jensi is 27 years old, a college graduate, and employed in a professional position in an up-and-coming business. Her future in the company appears bright. She is competent, and, until a few months ago, was lively, with a winsome personality.

         But things are different now. She still gets the job done at work, even though she hardly sleeps through the night; she tosses and turns, unable to sleep more than a snatch at a time. So the dark hours have been long ones. And on this particular night, she’s given up trying to sleep. She gets into her car, and begins to drive, finding her way to a familiar parking lot.

         It’s the trailhead for one of those rails-to-trails that have become so popular in recent years. As she turns off the engine, she notices there are no other cars. But why would there be, at 3:30 A.M.?

         Getting out the car, she makes her way down the trail by the light of her cell phone. She almost doesn’t need the light; she knows every turn and twist of the trail; she passes familiar gnarled trees; and the spots where wildflowers pop up in the spring; and the wetlands to which the red-winged blackbirds return each year;  and the bushes that seem to explode at times with juncos and white-throated sparrows.

         Yes, Jensi knows this trail like the back of her hand, and she is headed to one particular point on it.

         “Here is it is,” she says to herself, as her foot steps from the macadam to a wooden plank. She is on a bridge that crosses 20 feet above the flowing stream. It is her favorite and most memorable spot on the trail. A smile crosses her face as she recalls that, when she was a small child, her dad would sing a silly song here, a song that went “We’re crossing the bridge, headed for that ridge, behind which we’ll find ice cream in the fridge!”

And she recalled the sense of awe she felt at age 12, when she said to her grandfather, “Grandpa, what’s that bird flying up the stream, the one making all the racket, and coming straight towards us?” As the bird flew by he told her, “It’s a belted kingfisher.”

And it was here, on this very spot, that –but before she could finish the thought, she burst into sobs and tears.

         The tears fell from her face, dripping into the stream below. In her grief, she suddenly hears, “Jensi. Jensi.”

         Startled, she says, “Who’s there?”

         She hears the reply, “Jensi, do not be afraid. I am standing behind you, but do not turn around. It’s not important that you see me. What matters is that you listen to my voice. But before I say more, I want to listen to you. What’s on your mind today? Why are you crying here in the darkness?”

Jensi answers, “My husband is dead. He was killed in a car accident a few months ago. And I miss him so much. It was here, on this very spot, that he asked me to marry him. I shouted ‘Yes!’ We were so happy.

“After our engagement, we would walk this trail, and talk about our future together. We talked about having children; and places we would visit; and how we would serve our church and in community; and how we would grow old together. We had such great hopes for the future.

“And the hopes were starting to bear fruit. Shortly before the accident, we learned that I’m pregnant. We were so excited. But now he’s gone. And I don’t see how I can go on, or how I can raise our child without him. I’m afraid and I’m lonely. That’s why I’m out here in the darkness crying.

“That’s why I’m standing on this bridge, watching my tears fall into the stream below. I have lost him, and I feel lost, too.”

The voice that had listened so patiently now gently said, “Jensi, I also weep at the deaths of those I love. Death is a harsh reality we cannot deny. But listen to my voice. Hear what I now say: ‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’

“Have you heard those words before?”

Jensi replied, “I—I think so. Yes, I do know them. Our pastor emails a suggested memory verse for us each week. Part of what you just said, was this week’s verse.

“Oh my God!” she went on to say, “you’re Jesus!”

“Yes, Jensi,” the voice said. “I am the one who is with you always, even in your deepest loss. Your grief is so new that you will have many days yet of deep, aching sadness.  Over time, the tears will decrease, and the grief will not be so intense. And throughout your life, you will have moments you remember your husband and shed a tear or two for him. This is natural; this is an expression of your love for him.

“Notice that your tears are now falling into the stream below you. Let that stream be for you an earthly sign of a heavenly reality. For I promise you that day is coming when I will guide you and all my people to springs of the water of life. In that day, God’s home will be among mortals, and God will wipe every tear from your eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

“So do not fear the future. For you, your husband, and all creation are in my hands. And what I hold will be brought to fulfillment in the mercy of my Father.

         “You have stood above these waters before, Jensi, and they have been life-giving for you.  Continue to see them as such. Never lose the memory of the people and the events that matter so deeply in your life.

“And when you see the stream below, recall the water to which you were taken as an infant. You were baptized in my name, marked with my cross forever, and sealed with my Spirit. Let the flowing waters be a sign that although you go through the deepest of loss, you are mine forever. You are mine, Jensi; you are always held in my love. And it is a love that will never let you go.

“That’s my word for you today, Jensi. I have more to say to you, though, but this is enough for today. Come back again, next week. At that time, we’ll talk some more.”

         Then the voice was silent.

Jensi stood on the bridge awhile longer, alone and yet not really alone. Tears continued to flow from her face, but in her deep sadness, hope was awakening. She quietly mouthed the words, “Thank you, Lord, thank you for leading me to the waters of life.”

Then she turned and began to go back to her car. The sun was beginning to rise, dawn was breaking, and the first rays of light were glistening through the tree branches.

And it was the first day of the week, Sunday, the day of resurrection, the day of new life.

Amen.