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.

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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.

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.

 

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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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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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.