Amidst the Chaos…again

%22sometimes-we-build-up-ideas-of-how-life-should-be-forgetting-that-we-are-not-in-control-and-in-our-frustration-we-lash-out-at-others%22As I was preparing for Sunday’s sermon I decided to re-read my message from three years ago. It spoke to me and I was tempted to use it again this coming Sunday…but then I decided to share it here today. Maybe someone will read it…maybe it will help. The text is Luke 21:5-19.

While reflecting on the destruction of the temple as recounted in today’s text, I can’t help but think of the destruction we see on the news in the Philippines (three years ago). Storms such as that giant typhoon remind us that whatever we build is truly only temporary. This is indeed a difficult for our brothers and sisters across the sea.

And then we can think of all the other destruction that happens… not due to the power of nature, but to the inhumanity of others… due to the desire to destroy others… to inflict damage on a people… to attack their way of life… their existence. We can think of the many wars we’ve had throughout history… as well as the terrorist attacks such as that occurred on 9/11. I don’t think many of us will ever forget the shock that accompanied the falling of those two giant towers.

As we remember that shock it might help us to place this story in context because you see, the destruction of the temple would have been far more painful. In our text Jesus predicts the destruction… while he also warns those listening about following false teachers and about persecutions to come. Something that we don’t always realize is that by the time that Luke wrote his gospel, the temple had already been destroyed. What pain for all the people!

Actually worse than pain… but utter desolation because the temple held far more significance than did our World Trade Center (at least I hope so). You see, the temple was the actual dwelling place of God… so if God’s house had been destroyed then, where was God? It would have been easy for Jesus’ followers to give up on living and retreat into the shadows after this destruction.

We all have our own ground zeros… our own times of crises when it seems as if the world is indeed coming to an end… when hope seems to have vanished into the rubble that was once our life… our dream… our temple.

On a lighter note I remember going out to breakfast many years ago… when Matt was about 3. We were at Millie’s and sitting in a booth that was only separated from another booth by a short divider. There was an elderly couple in the booth next to us. While we were waiting for our food, Matt began to build a tower with the little containers of coffee creamer.

Thinking this was a harmless activity I didn’t stop him… I figured he was doing a good job of entertaining himself. Big mistake! A few minutes later Matt’s tower came crashing down with the tragic result that one of the little containers of coffee creamer exploded… all over the face of the lady sitting on the other side of the divider. Sometimes others are hurt when our own towers fall. We were horrified… we were embarrassed. That was the last time our children even touched the little containers of creamer.

The thing is… we all build towers… and these sometimes become temples as they become more and more important. Sometimes our church buildings become more important than the ministry that happens inside… sometimes we think that our lives are just perfect… with family and a good job and good friends and suddenly an event happens that causes it all to come crashing down… we all have our ground zeros.

What about you? Where are your ground zeros? Are they in the destruction of broken relationships? Of lost jobs? Loves lost? Dreams delayed? Is it the diagnosis of an illness for you or for a loved one? Yesterday we said farewell to Ellen Butler Two weeks ago we remembered our loved ones who have died… are any of those losses your own ground zeros?

Or as we look at the way our culture has rapidly changed, some of us may miss another time or another place and yearn to return to what in memory at least was a far simpler time. Is the realization that something has changed a ground zero for you? We’ve had our own ground zeroes in our congregation…

Life sure isn’t easy! And making it even harder is the tendency for things… big or small to consume our thoughts. Ahh, but Jesus never promised that it would be. He promised something else… something far more precious… he promised his presence. Not directly in this passage… but rather implicitly. First he tells those listening that they will face troubles… persecution… but they shouldn’t plan what they are going to say in advance.

What? Not plan? I think that would be hard to do for some of us. But the point that Jesus is making is to not worry about everything that is happening around you. You don’t need to worry because Jesus will give you the right words to say. So the promise is that Jesus will be with them… with us through all kinds of things good and bad and that we need not worry about what will happen because he will take care of us.

That’s the point of this passage… that regardless of what is happening… regardless of how difficult life may seem to be… regardless of our fears of what may come… regardless of all this… we have the promise of Christ’s presence… we have the promise of Christ’s care.

He said so himself when he said in verse 18 that not a hair on our heads will perish. Wow… not one hair? But how is this possible if some of us have already lost a bit of hair? What could Jesus be talking about? Well… I think that the answer lies in the next verse, the last verse of our text for today… when Jesus says “19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

By your endurance you will gain your souls… by your endurance you will gain your selves… by your endurance you will live. By our enduring faith we won’t be tossed about… we won’t give in to the temptation to give up when the going gets rough… by our enduring faith we won’t be immobilized by regret over what has passed or over fear of what is to come.

By your endurance you will gain your souls… In your baptism you have died and are buried in Christ… Our enduring is not something that we must do by our own power… I don’t even think it is something we can do by our own power… Our enduring is living and it is what we do through the power of Christ who is with us each and every day… and in each and every situation.

Our passage today from 2 Thessalonians talks about working. It is written to those who believe that Jesus will return any minute and so have decided to just sit and wait. But maybe some of them have become idle because the problems of this life have made them weary. They don’t know how to proceed. Some are busybodies, not doing any work. Some is not all. Paul concludes by saying, “brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” That is sometimes hard… but with God and with one another it is possible.

We live in Christ… and the promise that we have is that whether we live or die… we live in Christ. We have that promise for the future… and for today. The question then is, will we choose to live today? Will we choose to continue living even when we face destruction? Will we live and in living reach out to our neighbors, helping them, loving them? Will we share the love that God has so graciously given to us? We have the power and the presence of Christ to live every minute that we have as that gift of life that it is.

I once shared a story with you by Bishop Stephen Bouman. He was the ELCA Bishop of the New York Metropolitan Synod when 9/11 happened. He has many stories of that day. One of them was about a Lutheran pastor who was also a fire chaplain. He was at the towers that morning and he asked what he could do to help. He was asked if he had his anointing oil to which he replied “yes.” He ended up using this oil to anoint the foreheads of the fire fighters as they entered the buildings.

Most of them did not return. But some of those coming down the stairs later commented that the fire fighter’s foreheads had something shiny on them. These men gave of themselves that day… in those minutes they lived as they had never lived… working hard to rescue others so that they too could live. And even though they are not with us today, they continue to live… as not a hair on their heads will have perished.

We too can live… today… tomorrow… and forever… We live not being afraid of what might come… because we too have the promised presence of Christ… and as we live without fear of tomorrow we are empowered to participate in Christ’s mission for today… and tomorrow… and in participating in his mission we are participating in changing the world… and not a hair on our heads will ever perish.

Amen

Some thoughts a week from the election

i-think-that-im-remembering-the-chaos-of-that-particular-time-in-my-life-because-we-seem-to-be-experiencing-a-different-sort-of-chaos-in-our-civic-life-copyDo you remember the Northridge Earthquake? It was more than 20 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. We lived in the east end of Simi Valley and thus were pretty close to the epicenter. The damage in our neighborhood and other parts of Simi Valley ranged from minor to major… it was very hit and miss. Chaos.

I remember the chaos of the earthquake itself. The loud noise or roar as the ground shook all our possessions off their perches. Then silence. And when we turned on the flashlight we experienced another kind of chaos… that of just enough damage to need some major work… but not enough damage to make our house uninhabitable.

For years we were reminded of the quake each time we used our kitchen. You see, the dishes that fell out of the cabinets and onto the counters broke (of course) and knicked and scratched and cracked the tile in just enough places that…it was annoying… but not too many places that we could justify new counters when our limited funds were required elsewhere.

The damaged counter was a constant reminder of the chaos that day long ago. I was always trying to wipe up the spot, only to remember, “O yeah, its earthquake damage.” To me the damage looked as if someone had splattered cake batter everywhere and then let it dry. Chaos.

I think that I’m remembering the chaos of that particular time in my life because we seem to be experiencing a different sort of chaos in our civic life. We have an election happening soon and according to the polls neither candidate is very popular. I’ve always been interested in what happens politically in our country, but what we have now seems to be more disheartening than interesting. Chaos.

Do you feel it also? It seems as if the division we face will only lead to more chaos. That is not a hopeful feeling. So, when I find myself feeling a bit “un-hopeful” I remember that I (and many of us) worship a God who created the world by bringing order out of chaos. We worship a God, who in creating this world, created humans and called them “very good.” We worship a God, who in Jesus loves us unconditionally and promises to be with us always. I like remembering these important truths, because they assure me (and hopefully you too) that no matter what happens Jesus is here with us and will see us through anything. (And if your feeling the need to talk about your feelings please feel free to contact me.)

Be Careful What You Ask

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I’m half squatting in the front, along with some of our church members at VC Pride last August

Yesterday we received a very long telephone message from a gentleman at another Lutheran church. He was looking at worship attendance at various churches and had a question about information that we reported to our denominational headquarters. Not knowing if his pastor had recommended that he call, I decided to return his phone call.

It turns out that he and some friends in his church are trying to figure out why their average attendance has been declining since 2011. I guess he thought that our worship attendance numbers seemed steady and so the phone call. I quickly told him that due to the sad fact that we’ve had quite a few families move away from the area in the last 18 months, our attendance numbers won’t look so stable on the next report. I thought that would be the end of the conversation.

But then he got to his real agenda, asking, “do you think the decline is because of the churchwide decision in 2009 and because we now have a gay bishop?” For those of you who don’t know, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) voted, in 2009, to allow ordination to those who are openly gay and lesbian, and meet all the other criteria for ordination.

Apparently this man doesn’t know me, or the congregation that I serve and so, he didn’t receive the answer that he expected. Very nicely I told him,

  • No, I don’t believe that being welcoming and affirming to everyone that God has created, including our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in Christ is the reason for decline that is happening. You could speak to your pastor who I’m sure has some opinions, but I say take that 2009 decision and own it!
  • For example our congregation voted two years ago to be a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, which means that we explicitly welcome and value the presence and contribution of all.
  • And if you’d like to learn how your congregation can be an RIC congregation I would love to come out and talk to you about it.

Well, he was stuttering a bit in his response because he apparently was expecting me to affirm his feelings. He then asked, “aren’t you serving at the church that fired a previous interim pastor because of a gay marriage?”

I responded, that the pastor he is thinking of was not an interim pastor and his leaving was for many reasons, said gay marriage being one of them (this happened in the brief window when gay marriage was legal in CA in 2008). But that was not the end of the story because God has redeemed what was a sad and tragic situation. So, yes our congregation experienced division and the loss of a pastor in the past.

rainbow-heart210But God redeems and God restores and now our congregation is actively and happily providing a home for people who don’t always believe the words, “all are welcome” apply to them too. I told this inquirer that I tell this story to all our new members (and sometimes they cry). Oh, and we might be small but most of the growth that we’ve experienced in the last two years is because of our choosing to be open and affirming.

Is there decline in church attendance? Certainly! And almost everywhere! But don’t blame our LGBTQ brothers and sisters… instead maybe start exploring how we don’t seem to relevant in a changing culture.

After a few more stutters… the gentleman asked if he could call me again if he has anymore questions. I said, “sure!” I’m not sure if he will, but I’ll be praying for him and for his congregation.

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