Lent Devotion, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018

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In the opening verse of his Gospel, Mark calls Jesus “Son of God,” a title used several times in the story of Jesus. At his baptism, Jesus hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son.” The Gerasene demoniac asks, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” On the Mount of Transfiguration, three disciples hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” At his trial, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” And after his crucifixion, a Roman officer exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

To understand the significance of this title, it is helpful to look at two backgrounds: the Jewish and Roman. Today, a few words about the former; tomorrow, the latter.

In the Jewish Scriptures, “Son of God” includes these meanings:

–the king (Ps. 2:7, Ps. 89:26-27)

–God’s people (Exod. 4:22-23, Jer. 31:9)

–angels and the heavenly host (Ps. 89:6-7).

In Jewish writings other than Scripture, the son of God is associated with the righteous and with the Messiah. “Given such a broad pattern of usage and the veneration of Jesus by early Christians, it would have been remarkable had he not been regarded as Son of God.” (C. Clifton Black, Mark, p. 205)

To call Jesus God’s Son is to say: He is chosen by God to communicate God’s way of life for the world. In him, we see divine love.

Son of God, through the power of the Spirit you have been sent by your Holy Father. Open our ears to hear you, that day by day we will receive the words we need. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Monday, Feb. 19, 2018

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Mark’s Gospel opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In these words, Mark states his belief that Jesus is the “Christ.” Christ comes from the Greek word for “Anointed One,” which in Hebrew is the word “Messiah.” The kings of Israel had been anointed with oil as a sign that they were chosen for their office by God. When Israel’s line of kings came to an end, hope sprang up that God would one day raise up a new ruler who would save the people. Many in Israel shared the hope for a coming Messiah, but there was a wide range of opinions concerning what the Messiah would do. Some looked for a military figure who would drive the Romans out of the land. Others looked for a priestly figure who would renew Temple worship and establish ritual purity. Others looked for a political figure who would sit on the throne of a re-established Davidic monarchy.

Mark states that Jesus is the Messiah. But as the story unfolds, we learn that Jesus isn’t quite what anyone expected. He renounces the use of violence. He rejects opportunities to seize political power. He challenges the enforcement of strict purity laws. Through his radical trust in God and his suffering service to others, Jesus re-defines the role of Messiah.

            Messiah Jesus, it’s not always easy for us to grasp who you are, for you came into the world confounding expectations. Even today, we may look to you as a kind of super-hero who will make all our problems go away. But that’s not why you came. You are among us so that we might learn to trust your heavenly Father, and live the way of your Spirit in serving our neighbor in need. Thank you, Messiah Jesus. Amen.

Evil Will Not Win

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Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Bangor, PA, is grieving the death of a sixteen year old member who died of injuries sustained in an auto accident. The pastor of the congregation (my son) asked me to preach in his stead on Feb. 18, both because his time is filled with providing pastoral care and because of his own need to hear God’s message of hope in the midst of grief. This is the sermon I preached; the text is Mark 1:9-15.

Our Gospel reading today is only seven verses. It’s short enough that if our minds drift for a few seconds, we might miss the whole thing. And yet that handful of words is a rollercoaster of emotions that quickly move from good new to bad news to good news to bad news to good news.

The passage begins with Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan. “And just as he was coming up out the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Wow! That’s good news; better than good, spectacular news! Jesus receives a stunning affirmation from God.

But Jesus has no time to bask in the glory. “Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Jesus finds himself in bad news:  demonic forces try to tear him away from the identity he received from God.

But then this: “the angels waited on him.” Good news is back into the picture.

But the rollercoaster continues, for next we read: “John was arrested.” Bad news again.

But then: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

There you have it. A seven verse roller coaster alternating news good and bad.

It strikes me that the pattern of these seven verses is the pattern of our lives. One day is filled with delight, the next with despair. Life runs like a smooth road, and then is shaken by potholes. Our lives are filled with ups and downs.

Jesus went from the good news of baptism to the bad news of temptation. Mark tells us, “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Imagine one of these wild beasts—say a bear—who had observed Jesus. The bear says,

“I watched a man who came into the wilderness for forty days. He seemed to be in some kind of intense struggle, a struggle clearly visible in his face. You could sense a demonic presence in the air. All the forces of evil were attacking the man.

“This evil was strong; you could feel the tension. The skies grew black; the thunder rolled; lightning flashed. Torrents of rain and hail fell violently upon the earth. And then, just as quickly as the storm came up, the skies cleared; the sun came out, blazing with a heat hotter than I have ever felt.

“Evil was strong during those forty days. So strong, that we wild beasts cowered in fear.

“Yet the evil was not besieging us. It was attacking the man. Watching him closely, I saw intense struggle etched on the lines of his face. At times, his eyes showed fear; at other times, doubt; at other times, uncertainty. He was going through a terrible time of testing. I expected him to break at any moment; to give in and die on the spot, or to flee the desert with wild screams

“But the man did not break. He held firm, and as the forty days went by, I saw peace and love growing in his face. He seemed to come to a clear understanding of who he was, and what he must do. The power of evil did not defeat him.

“I think another power was protecting him; a power that enabled him to be stronger than all the forces of evil. I believe that other power was God; yes, in the midst of the terror, God was with the man.

“There were times I thought I saw angels come and minister to his needs.

“There were times I saw the man assume the posture of what humans call prayer.

“There were times I heard the man speak the words, “The Scriptures say,” and then he quoted words from memory.

“The power of God was with the man. That, I believe, got him through the days of testing. And so he emerged from the struggle victorious. Evil did not defeat him.”

Thus spoke the bear in the wilderness.

Jesus was not spared the dangers that Martin Luther referred to as “sin, death, and the power of the devil.” Such forces threaten us, too, as our life bounces from good news to bad news to good news.

During the years I was a parish pastor, I knew many people who were faithful and courageous during times of bad news. One couple in particular inspired my wife and me to write the following hymn text:

Death-like forces pounce upon us,
Shattering our hopes and dreams.
Honesty admits that darkness
Threatens morning’s dawning gleams.
But Christ’s Word speaks in the silence
Whisp’ring its new hopeful sound;
And God’s people deep in caring
Come as friends to rally ’round.

There are times for tears of sadness
As we grieve the pain of loss.
Yet we cling with faith and fervor
To the vict’ry of the cross.
Christ our fortress, Christ our steadfast,
Christ our guide when times are bad.
Death is not the one who rules us,
Tears will turn to joy at last.

We may shake and we may tremble
In the face of darkening hours.
Yet we will not lose our laughter,
Nor give in to beast-like powers.
Hopefulness renews our spirits
Through the myst’ry of God’s love;
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Granting new life from above.*

In the 1970s, while pastor of English Lutheran Church in Minersville, I was called upon do the funeral for a high school senior who had been shot and killed in his school parking lot. He and his family were not members of English; they lived in the Washington D.C. area. His grandparents were members, though, and because the boy’s parents intended to live one day in Minersville, they wanted him buried there. When visiting the grandparents, they attended church, and so I had a passing acquaintance with the family.

The funeral was in the church, and then we went to the cemetery. After the committal, the mother spoke to me saying, “Pastor, it’s like you said: ‘Life to death to life again.’”

I had spoken no such words that day, and at first I assumed that, in the worst hour of her life, she was completely losing it. Then it hit me. A week or two earlier had been Easter Sunday. She and her family had worshiped with us that day, and my sermon had been interspersed with the refrain “life to death to life again.” In some way, the Holy Spirit had brought those words to this grieving mother’s mind.

Life to death to life again. Or as I’ve framed it today, good news to bad news to good news.

Sin, death, and the power of the devil exert a strong grip on us. But their hold is not lasting.

No one has expressed it more eloquently than Martin Luther. In the hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” Luther wrote of demonic forces that threaten to devour us. They are powerful indeed, he acknowledges. And yet, he writes, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever.”

Amen.

*New Life, For Tom and Faith Wertman, and in gratitude for their example of grace and courage in difficult times.
Text: Joseph J. Scholtes, Jr., b. 1948  and Bonnie Scholtes, b. 1948  © 2012         Ebenezer      Music: Thomas J. Williams, 1869-1944                                                                          8 7 8 7 D

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.)

In–or Out?

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I think of the Bible as a conversation among the people of God about the things of God—and sometimes those voices do not agree; thus, we need to think carefully about where we stand today. It is through such a lens that I interpret the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It is a timely story in that it deals with issues of race and ethnicity. The sermon below, which I preached August 19/20, 2017, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Johnsonville, PA, is an adaptation of one I preached a few years ago at St. Paul’s, Orwigsburg, and includes a few quotes from a hymn I wrote about the story.

        Today’s gospel is timely. It shows Jesus wrestling with issues of race and ethnicity. Let’s listen in, and hear what’s going on.

        Jesus is met by a woman who shouts over and over, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

         Jesus makes no response. He is silent, giving no answer. In trying to imagine the scene, I found myself writing, “He gave her quite a silent stare, with doubt upon his face.”

         Doubt? About what? About whether or not to help her. For she is a Canaanite, not Jew. She is not of Jesus’ people. And as Jesus says a bit later in the story, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

         And so, she is outside the grace that Jesus has come to give. Or is she?  Is she in—or is she out? Perhaps Jesus is silent because he is pondering that question.
        The disciples, though, leave no doubt as to where they stand. They said to Jesus, “Send her far away. She’s loud, annoying, bothersome throughout the whole long day.”

       In other words, get rid of this foreign woman. She’s not one of us, and all she is doing is causing trouble. 

      Is the Canaanite woman in—or is she out?

      Were the prophet Jonah to have a say, there’s no doubt where he would stand:  She’s outside God’s mercy.

         In brief, the story of Jonah goes something like this. God wanted Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh, and speak God’s message. Jonah wanted nothing to do with that. It wasn’t that he was afraid to do God’s work. It’s that he didn’t feel the Ninevites deserved mercy. They weren’t his people, so why should he help them? So he tried to flee from God. That didn’t work out very well, and Jonah eventually does what God wanted. But when Jonah’s words led the Ninevites to turn to God, Jonah started sulking. He told God, “This is why I didn’t want to come here. I was afraid you would show mercy. These people are not like us. They don’t deserve mercy.”

         Is the Canaanite woman inside or outside the grace of God? The disciples and Jonah want her out. Other voices would agree. Like Ezra and Nehemiah.

         The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are told in the Old Testament books that bear their names. They led the re-building of Jerusalem after its destruction, and the long period of Exile. They were not only putting up buildings, but were renewing the Jewish nation. And they wanted it purely Jewish. They commanded Jewish men married to non-Jewish women to divorce their wives, and send them away.

        So Ezra and Nehemiah have no doubt. They stand with the disciples and Jonah, and say, “Get rid of that Canaanite woman!

        But there are other Biblical voices to be heard. The book of Ruth, for example. Here’s a quick summary of Ruth.

       Ruth was a Moabite, who married into a Jewish family living in the land of Moab. After the deaths of their husbands, Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi went to live in Bethlehem. Ruth met and married a man named Boaz. They had a son named Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse, and Jesse had a son named David: the David who became Israel’s greatest king. So David’s great-grandmother was a non-Jew. The story of Ruth is remembered to argue that non-Jews are in the circle of God’s grace.

        A similar voice is heard in the latter chapters of the prophet Isaiah. The prophet speaks the word of the Lord saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)

         And in the words of Psalm 67, “Let your way be known upon earth, you’re saving health among all nations.” (Psalm 67:2

        Ruth, Isaiah, Psalm 67 take the stand: “God’s grace is for the Canaanite woman. She’s in!”

         In the Scriptures, we see a tension about who is in, and who is out. I wonder if that is why Jesus was silent when the Canaanite woman made her request. Is he running through the Scriptures, trying to figure it all out what God wants him to do?

        In his silence, the woman kept pleading. She knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

         But he replied, “It’s just not fair that dogs eat children’s bread.” In other words, “God’s grace is meant for Israel. That’s what I was sent to do. How can I take it away from my own people and give it to you?

        This feisty woman did not give up when Jesus was silent. She was not put off by the scorn of the disciples. And she won’t quit now. She said right back to Jesus, “You’re right; no doubt about that. But even dogs get crumbs that fall from where their masters sat.

        These words took Jesus’ breath away. He now knows where he stands in the great Biblical debate about who is in and who is out. He stands with Ruth and Isaiah and Psalm 67. For he has seen this woman’s trust in God; a trust that says, “Just give a little; it will be enough; it’s all I need.”  Jesus recognizes this is the greatest of trust in God, and so he said to her, “God’s love is yours today. Your faith, my sister, shows to me God’s grace has come your way.

        For Jesus, the question of who is in and who is out was resolved that day. The grace of God, the healing of God, and the dignity of God are for all people. No one is to be excluded. All are to be respected, honored, and treated as children of God. That is what Jesus came to believe, and he was faithful to that belief, even to death on a cross.

        Unfortunately, not all people have followed his lead, and so from time to time the sin of racism raises its ugly head.

       I was once pastor of St. John’s Church, located in Butler Township, just north of Hazleton. During the 20 years I lived there, I came to know a bit of the history of that place.      

       I learned, for example, that in the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan was active there.  The purpose of that Klan chapter was to intimidate Roman Catholics and eastern Europeans. The Klan wanted to keep the township “pure,” which meant white Protestant of western European descent.

       Sometime in the 1960s, a Job Corps Center opened in the township; those who came to the Center were of a variety of races. This didn’t sit well with all residents, as is illustrated by a story told me by the local police chief. Shortly after the Center opened, a group of black youth from the center went for a walk down a country road. A resident called the chief, telling him he had to do something about them. “Why?” asked the chief, “what are they doing?” The caller replied, “They’re walking down the road! Do something about it!” “Are they doing anything wrong?” asked the chief. The caller replied, “No, but you have to do something about them!” Of course, the chief did nothing. They were simply walking: and if they had been white, no one would have noticed nor cared.

       I would like to believe that the attitudes represented by the Klan and the phone caller are in our distant past. But as we have seen from the events in Charlottesville, they are not. Some continue to believe that only their kind counts, and that their kind is entitled to special privilege, and that their kind is superior, and other kinds are inferior.

       Because such beliefs continue to be held, we who follow Christ must clearly and often say: “The beliefs and actions of racial supremacy are contrary to the will of God. Such words and deeds are sin against God and against humanity.

       Among the chants of white supremacists last weekend was, “Jew will not replace us.” As believers in Christ, we respond by saying, “A Jew has already taken our place, and we are thankful he did. His name is Jesus, and he died for our sins. Through him, we are set right with God, and are called to love our neighbor, building relationships that transcend creed, nationality, and ethnicity.

       We have been saved by the Jew Jesus. Saved not only for life with God. Saved not only for life after death. But also saved in the here and now so that we love our neighbor, whatever our race.

     May God give us the strength, the conviction, and the courage to make it so. Amen.

Baptism at the Stream

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In this eighth and final sermon of my series called “Jensi’s Story,” Jensi’s child is baptized in the presence of family and friends, who represent a variety of races, cultures, and faiths.

IMG_0612 Stream

We’ve been hearing the story of Jensi, who is expecting the birth of the child to be born to her and her late husband. I’m happy to announce that early one morning Jensi’s great-aunt called their pastor and said, “The baby is here, arriving late last night.”

         The pastor quickly set aside what he had been doing, and drove to the hospital. He knew he had to visit today, or he would miss Jensi. They don’t keep Moms and new-borns as long as they used to. And he really enjoyed visiting mothers who had recently given birth. They were exhausted, yes; but there was a glow about them that was delightful to see.

         During the visit, Jensi said, “Pastor, I have a request that may seem a bit strange. I was wondering if instead of having my child’s baptism at the church, we could have it at the stream along the trail?”

Jensi made that request because the voice of Jesus had spoken to her at the stream. The pastor didn’t know about that, though. Other than Aunt Elizabeth, Jensi had told no one about the voice.

         But from previous conversations, the pastor knew the stream was an important place for Jensi. She had many fond memories of special events that had occurred along that trail.

         He replied, “I’ve never done a baptism at a stream before. But I have taken confirmation classes there to renew our baptismal vows. So, sure, we can have the baptism there.”

         A few Sundays later, after worship at the church, several car loads of people made their way to the trailhead parking lot. There the procession to the bridge began. It was led by the pastor, a crucifer carrying a cross, and two acolytes carrying banners that moved in the gentle breeze. Then came Jensi pushing the stroller, with Aunt Elizabeth by her side.

         Right behind them were Jensi’s parents: white, Lutheran, of European ancestry. Next to them were Jensi’s father and mother-in-law: black, Roman Catholic, of African ancestry.

         In the procession were many members of her congregation, along with many of Jensi’s friends. These included Clint and Matt, the married couple who were actively involved in social outreach at a near-by congregation. Her next door neighbors, wearing traditional garb of their Hindu faith. Her child’s pediatrician, bearded, and wearing the turban of the Sikh religion. The Buddhist woman, from whom Jensi had learned the value of daily meditation. The Jewish rabbi who lived down the street from Jensi’s parents. The Muslim couple, who owned a store where Jensi shopped; she had first met them years before when her church had sponsored them as refugees fleeing from terror.

         And there was the children’s choir, skipping and hopping as they joyfully sang a baptismal song.

         Enjoying the spirited song, the procession made its way down the trail, and then at the bridge, stopped next to the stream.

         The Pastor looked at everyone, and said, “As I look out at this assembly today, I think of words spoken by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was preaching at a town above the Arctic Circle in Norway, in 1991. He said,

‘At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have black and white together, ‘Raise your hands!’ Then I’ve said, ‘Move your hands,’ and I’ve said, ‘Look at your hands—different colors representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God. And you remember the rainbow in the Bible is the sign of peace. The rainbow is the sign of prosperity. We want peace, prosperity and justice and we can have it when all the people of God, the rainbow people of God, work together.’”

         Then the pastor said, “The rainbow people of God. What a wonderful image! We see it alive here, in this gathering. Most of us here for this baptism are Christians, but not all. Yet you have come to celebrate with Jensi and her child. Thank you for your presence. Thank you for being with us.

“Join us in the prayers as your conscience allows. And when you cannot with integrity join aloud in those prayers, pray silently in whatever way you can, asking God’s blessing upon this child.

         “And if what we do today seems puzzling, feel free to speak with me afterwards, and I’ll try my best to explain our rituals and actions to you.”

         Then the pastor went on to say, “Today Jensi’s child is joined to Jesus through the word and water of Holy Baptism, and so receives the command to follow Jesus. On the mount of Transfiguration, the voice of God spoke to Peter, James, and John about Jesus. The voice said, ‘This is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.’

         “When we listen, what do we hear?  When the disciples wanted to dismiss a hungry crowd, Jesus said, ‘Do not send them away. You give them something to eat.’

         “When Jesus was asked, ‘what is the greatest commandment?’ he replied “Love the Lord your God with all your might and soul and strength.” That is, we are to be drawn ever more deeply into God.

         “And Jesus said, ‘A second commandment is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ And your neighbor, said Jesus, includes your enemy. And so we are to work to break down barriers which would separate us from one another.

         “And Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither toil nor reap, yet your Father in heaven provides for their need.’ And so we are to join with God in the good work of caring for creation.”

         As Jensi listened to the pastor, she recalled that the voice of Jesus had spoken to her at this stream, telling her that the child had a special role to play in God’s work, and that Jensi had a role to play in raising the child.

         When the pastor had finished speaking, he and Jensi, who carried the child, entered the stream. Scooping up water, the pastor poured it over the baby’s head three times, saying, “Jessica Corinne, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

         And so Jessica was joined to Jesus and to the community which bears his name. She would never hear the voice of her earthly father, who had died before her birth. But she will come to know her heavenly Father; she will hear the voice of Jesus; and she will be touched with the power of the Holy Spirit who will move her to draw people to God; to care for creation; to feed the hungry; and to build bridges that bring people together.   Amen.       

        

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.