A NEW SEASON…AGAIN

I originally published this post in April of 2013. It is an abbreviated version of a sermon I had preached at the parish I served, The Lutheran Church of the Covenant, on the second Sunday of Easter. Since we read the same Gospel every year at this time, I wanted to bring this one back, since it was one of my favorites (if I do say so myself!). I ask that you please overlook the dated references to the Cleveland Indians. Otherwise, it is my hope that the words herein are a source of hope and joy this Easter season. Blessings!

———————————————————–

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

[John 20:19]

Baseball-and-the-Bible_thumb.jpgAs some of you may know, I love baseball.  As a youngster I lived for this time of the year. I was a terrible player.  I discovered very early in life that I would never become the next Roberto Clemente, so I did the next best thing.  I would buy every baseball or sports magazine there was to learn as much as I could not only about my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, but also about the rest of the teams in the National League.  I would eat, drink and sleep statistics – batting averages, home runs, RBI’s, earned run averages, and pitchers’ won-lost records.  I read about the players’ personal lives, their families, their hobbies and other interests.  In short, I had an interest and a curiosity that bordered on obsession.

Those of you who follow the Cleveland Indians are very well aware that they have a new manager who has two World Series rings to his credit.  The team has been improved with free agents.  For the first time since he bought the club, the owner has opened his pocketbook and is actually paying competitive salaries for proven talent.  At least for the first few games, that investment seems to be paying off.  The home opener was this week and for the first time in recent memory, there was an enthusiasm and an atmosphere of expectation that perhaps this team and this town can once again experience the excitement that was felt in the late nineties when winning the division was almost routine.

This post is not about baseball. I merely wanted to draw you in a bit. However, in many ways we can make a direct comparison and contrast between baseball and faith.

The anticipation of winning that World Series championship comes around each spring with remarkable regularity. This hope that a new season brings is never destroyed, no matter how many disappointments we live through year after year after year.

Those frustrations that we feel when the Indians disillusion us, had to be in many ways the same way the disciples felt just after Jesus’ crucifixion.  This was the man they’d pinned their hopes on, the man who was going to take them to the World Series, metaphorically speaking, of course.  He was going to return the kingdom of Israel back to the Jews and drive out the Roman invaders.  But now he was dead, killed like a common criminal, on a cross.

So here the disciples were.  Huddled in a room behind locked doors.  Wondering what to do next.  Worried that the authorities were coming after them and fearful that they would meet the same fate as their leader.  And then the Gospel tells us that Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

And then, our Gospel goes on to say, the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Try to imagine that scene, if you will.  The disciples, once cowering in fear, upon seeing Jesus, in an instant celebrating, cheering, high-fiving each other with all the euphoria that comes from watching a star slugger hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth. 

The-Doubt-of-St.ThomasJesus came and stood among them.  That is not so simple a statement as it may seem.  The doors were locked.   We don’t know how he entered. Yet Jesus came and stood among them.  But he not only stood among them.  He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here is a new beginning. The Spirit, the helper, will help the disciples lay the claim of Jesus before people.  And seeing Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit made all the difference in their lives. 

The apostles were now speaking of grace and hope. They were the people of a new way. Their agenda remained the agenda of Jesus. But now the Spirit, as it inspired and empowered Jesus to bring goodness and hope to people, released the apostles from the powers that oppressed them, the power of fear, the power of sin, and showed them the way of peace.

What about us?  We who, like Thomas, were not there in that locked room on that first night of Easter.  What difference does Jesus and the power of the Spirit make in our lives?

We, too, are messengers of God’s salvation.  We are a faith community that is called to be a people shaped by Jesus’ gift of the Spirit given to us in Holy Baptism.  It is about a new beginning, a second chance to change direction (repentance) and to look to Jesus for leadership. It is also a chance therefore to find forgiveness for sins.

To spread a message of forgiveness, Jesus doesn’t call those who appear blameless or somehow most worthy. He calls those who truly know that they themselves have been forgiven.

Let us rejoice in the new beginning, the new season of Easter, the season filled with grace and hope.  Jesus is calling us, forgiving us, and sending us.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

CHRIST HAS ARISEN, ALLELUIA!

Christ has arisen, alleluia.

Rejoice and praise him, alleluia.

For our redeemer burst from the tomb,

even from death, dispelling its gloom.

Refrain

      Let us sing praise to him with endless joy.

     Death’s fearful sting he has come to destroy.

     Our sin forgiving, alleluia!

     Jesus is living, alleluia!

[Evangelical Lutheran Worship #364]

There are few hymns that make me want to clap my hands more than Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia! It is a traditional Tanzanian tune titled Mfurahini, Haleluya. The original text to the hymn was written by Bernard Kyamanyawa and the English translation by Howard S. Olson.

I actually first heard it sung as a gathering hymn at a funeral for the wife of a seminary professor some fifteen years ago and immediately fell in love with the melody. The feeling it evokes within me is one of sheer joy, unlike any other piece of music that I love – and I love music.

We sang it at the Easter Vigil I attended this year. This is one of my favorite liturgies of the year. I remember with fondness the Easter Vigils at Sunrise which I had the privilege of leading in my previous parish for the past five years (see photo above).

The fact that for the first time in years I had no role in this liturgy other than to worship was an experience in itself. I was free to take in the sights and sounds and actually hear and meditate on the readings. I paid special attention to words and phrases with a heightened awareness to things I hadn’t noticed before. It was a pleasantly strange and fabulously liberating occasion.

But when it came to this hymn, I had to restrain myself to keep from clapping in rhythm. What intrigued me most was that I realized I had never heard the hymn in its original Swahili language. Driven by curiosity, I came home and found it on YouTube and I share it with you here. Listen, enjoy, and may the blessings of Easter fill you with joy and hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

HOLY WEEK 2015

“…among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  [John 12:20-21]

In this year of firsts as bishop, I had the blessed opportunity on Tuesday of Holy Week to preside over my first Renewal of Vows and Blessing of Oils service. This is known in some traditions as the Chrism Mass. It’s a day when clergy, associates in ministry, and deaconesses renew the vows they made when they were ordained, commissioned or consecrated. Among the vows the group renewed is a promise “to share in Christ’s ministry of love and service in the world.”

One of our former bishops, the Rev. Marcus Miller, considered this liturgy the high point of his time as bishop of the synod. As a parish pastor, I also found it gratifying and rejuvenating to my ministry.

On Tuesday, the joy I felt was indescribable. We welcomed three new clergy candidates who will be graduating from seminary in May. They took part in the service. The congregational singing is always inspiring. The people were fed with both word and sacrament. I preached on the Gospel according to John the 12th chapter, focusing primarily on the two verses quoted above. My homily was entitled, “Sir, We Wish to See Jesus.”

I won’t reprint the entire sermon here because it was very long – over 3,000 words. What several people did, however, was take photos, a gallery of which I am including in this post. It the old adage is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, these photos tell a better story than I could.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I wish all of you a blessed Holy Week and a Joyous Easter.

THE MIND OF CHRIST

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”

Philippians 2:5

 

So begins the second reading for Palm Sunday, also known as the Sunday of the Passion.

Sometimes, as part of my devotion, I take a word, a phrase, or a sentence, and concentrate on it. Those that practice the Lectio Divina, a traditional Benedictine practice of spiritual reading, are familiar with the idea of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. I find it helpful when I encounter a mental block, such as what I have been experiencing lately.

Periodically, I run into a mental quagmire in which I sit down to write and nothing comes to mind. The tank is empty. Perhaps that is not such an accurate statement. There are lots of thoughts running through my mind, but none that I care to share in such a public forum as this blog. And yet, knowing that many of you check in weekly to see whether I have posted anything, I feel obligated to come up with some nugget of inspiration or insight to post in order to satisfy the effort you have made by bothering to look here.

So I began my reading Sunday morning and focused on these words: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

What does it mean to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus? Three points in the reading are helpful:

1)    Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.

2)    He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

3)    And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.

DSC02750That’s a pretty tall order for any human being. Our sinful human nature desires to exploit whatever status we can attain. We are taught from infancy to “be all that you can be.”

The phrase, “I am somebody,” also comes immediately to mind.

Likewise we are taught to be subservient to no one unless there is some advantage or benefit to be gained.

Humility runs counter to our ego.

So how can the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus?

I keep coming back to a word I use often, some might even say ad nauseum. That word is – relationship. If one reads the second chapter of Philippians from the beginning, a couple verses before this fifth verse we read, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

That, perhaps, does more to explain what the author (Paul) means. The key is in our focus. When we are focused inward, it is impossible to let that same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. But if we shift that focus outward, our thinking is reversed. We aren’t called to be totally selfless, but when we interact with others, we can act out of care and concern for them more so than for us.

I think of a lady in my previous parish who had retired from the restaurant business, but still loved to cook. Several times a week she would make wonderful meals, put serving-size portions in Tupperware containers and bring them to church to give to those of our elderly who found it difficult to cook for themselves. The freezer in the church kitchen was stacked with soups, stews, and casseroles of all kinds that could be microwaved at a moment’s notice to feed anyone who may be in need (including her pastor).

2014-12-30 Bishops Academy 2015 074This is but one example of service. But being of the same mind as Christ takes on other forms. A phone call, a visit, giving someone a ride, watching other’s children, praying for one another; are all ways that we can be Christ-like in our relationships. We aren’t called to journey to the cross. Christ has already done that anyway.

I haven’t written much during this Lenten season. In fact, I had to go all the way back to Ash Wednesday to find something to which to connect these thoughts. I was concerned then about what I perceived to be an increasing amount of conflict in several of our congregations. That conflict hasn’t subsided. As a matter of fact, in at least one congregation it has intensified.

As we enter this Holy Week, I think about the people there and wonder how they heard this reading on Palm Sunday. Had I been there today, I would have said the following words to them. I write it here, however, with the hope that not only they, but any of you who find yourself in disagreement may attain some guidance. As we prepare to again celebrate the festival of Easter, think about how you can restore or build relationships with each other by humbly serving, looking to the needs of others, putting others first and yourself last. In your relationships with one another, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

GOD IS STILL LAUGHING

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Genesis 17:17

I have been at the Conference of Bishops since Thursday, March 5 and will be here until Tuesday, March 10. It’s my second time among the other 64 synodical bishops and the overload of information continues to overwhelm. I keep grasping a snippet of knowledge here and there but if any of you have ever drunk from a fire hose, you may understand the impact. As I sat at worship on Sunday morning among this group of esteemed colleagues, I found it difficult not to recall and reflect on the unbelievable series of events that brought me to this point along my journey of faith.

Few people, if any, keep track of half-anniversaries, but on March 1, I marked sixmonths in the office of bishop. A week or so after that date, March 10, to be exact, marks a year since I received the telephone call informing me that I was among the top ten names that surfaced in the conference votes that had taken place the second Sunday in March, which was also the second Sunday in Lent of 2014.

The cross at the Lutheran Center, Chicago.
The cross at the Lutheran Center, Chicago.

Each year in our lectionary, the assigned Old Testament readings for the Second Sunday in Lent are taken from Genesis and are associated with the call to Abraham. God makes promises to Abraham that on the surface sound outrageous.

As you may imagine, I relate to this story. Not just because of the similarity of my name, but more so because the story of the call to Abraham offers you and me a lens through which we can understand our relationship with the living God.

One year ago, my plans for the future were pretty clear. My wife, Linda, and I had begun dreaming of leisurely living and long vacations. The only major decision was at what point I would put closure to full-time ministry.

And God laughed.

The thrust of the story of Abraham is that Abraham believed and obeyed what God told him. And I would like to think that I, too, have obeyed. I pray daily that God will continue to equip me with what is needed to faithfully fulfill the ministry to which I have now been called.

In much the same way we are all called.  We are called in the waters of baptism to be a child of God, to become a member of a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

Having been called, we do as Abraham did.  We obey.  We do God’s will in our lives.  We follow God’s commands to love the Lord with all our heart, with all our mind and with all our soul. And we follow God’s command, also, to love those around us in our lives.

Will we always obey God?  That’s not humanly possible.  We are all sinful.  Even Abraham sinned. 

But, in those moments when we sin, we can be assured that we are living under the care and watchful eye of the Holy Spirit, and we are able to ask and receive forgiveness. Then, by God’s grace, we followthrough and go out and do what God has called us to do.  Not always, and never on our own, are we able to do God’s will in our lives.

That is what faith is: to believe that God can do what he has promised. It is to trust the promises of God so implicitly that you act on them. The season of Lent is a particularly appropriate time to reflect on our faith and in whom we place our trust.

WELCOME BACH

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

Psalm 122:1

The purpose of this blog is not to promote events, but just this once, I’m going to break my own rule. On Saturday, March 7, I invite anyone who loves organ music, or anyone who loves classical music, to the Lutheran Church of the Covenant in Maple Heights. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Patrick Parker
Patrick Parker

The organist, Patrick Parker, will be performing works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Following this performance, Patrick will be taking off to Leipzig, Germany, to study at the University of Leipzig for six months and be a guest student at the Mendelssohn Conservatory. For him, it is a dream come true. Leipzig, in case you didn’t know, is the home of St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach engraved his immortal musical reputation.

Patrick was the organist and director of music at Covenant from April of 2010 until June of 2011. He came to us as a 22-year old graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and his position at our church was a convenient way to apply his musical talent while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music under Todd Wilson. That he is a gifted musician is an understatement.

I’m not certain how much Patrick knew about Bach before coming to Cleveland. Born in a small rural town in North Carolina and growing up as a Southern Baptist, you can imagine the many adjustments Patrick had to make personally, culturally, and spiritually. It was the furthest he had been away from home, the first time away from his parents for an extended period of time, and the first time in a church denomination that exercised liturgical worship. He spent a lot of time in my office, sometimes just chatting, at other times venting, but most often, just needing a place to be. We were, after all, his home away from home.

In his contribution to our 2010 Advent devotional he wrote the following as part of a reflection on Psalm 122: “I think coming to Covenant should have the same meaning as the Psalmist going to the house of the Lord or me going to my family’s house. Each week we should come to a safe, beautiful sanctuary with people we know, commune with God and each other, wish each other peace, and then go out into the world, seeking goodwill for God, others, and ourselves.

He would rehearse with an intensity bordering on the eccentric – sometimes leaving the church building as late as 2:00 a.m. Maple Heights is not Four Oaks, North Carolina. One would not be advised to be walking around at that hour of the morning in an urban area. He once forgot his keys in the organ loft after one of these marathon sessions and locked himself out of the church building and unable to get into his car. Fortunately, he had his phone and called a parishioner who lived nearby.

One afternoon I was organizing things in the office adjacent to the sanctuary during one of his frenzied sessions. I heard him in constant conversation with himself, oblivious to my presence, furiously criticizing himself for not playing up to his own demanding level of expectation. I merely listened, captivated by his monologue, suppressing my repeated urge to laugh out loud at his expletive-laced, self-condemning outbursts.

Worship & Music Chair Jen Dobush, artist Lorraine Johnson-Davis, and Patrick Parker at opening of Bach Concert and Art Gallery in 2010.
Worship & Music Chair Jen Dobush, artist Lorraine Johnson-Davis, and Patrick Parker at opening of Bach Concert and Art Gallery in 2010.

But the results of his efforts were extremely fruitful. His enthusiasm was the inspiration that helped launch our musical concert series.

He loved to perform. The Covenant worshippers loved him in equal measure. They lived for his postludes. More often than not, they were Bach compositions. I invariably had to wait an extended amount of time to greet people after our services because they would stand around in awe, marveling at his mini-concerts and responding with thunderous applause.

I realized Patrick would not remain with us much past his graduation. He was much too talented and his ambitious dreams went far beyond remaining as a church organist.  Yet I held out the unrealistic hope that somehow he would have been able to continue. Currently he is working toward a Ph. D. at the University of Houston. We had begun making preliminary arrangements for this concert before my unexpected election to the office of bishop. Patrick, true to his word, made good on his pledge to return one more time to the congregation that, in his words, shaped him.

Unfortunately, I will be out of town the weekend of March 7, so I will miss seeing him. But I strongly encourage you to attend and witness a virtuoso in the making, who will someday, in my estimation, achieve an outstanding level of acclaim in his profession. And I can then proudly say, “I knew him when.”

 

ASH WEDNESDAY

Ash Wednesday

February 18, 2015

Assigned Scripture readings for today: Joel 2:1–2, 12–17; Psalm 51:1–17; Psalm 103:8–14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10; Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

 

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

2 Corinthians 5:20b, 6:2b

[The parishioners at the Lutheran Church of the Covenant in Maple Heights, Ohio, may recognize a large portion of what follows as the devotion I wrote last year for our Lenten Devotional. I repost it here out of a desire to share with a wider readership.]

**********

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

ash-wednesday11The pastor pronounces those words as, with a thumb, the sign of the cross is traced on your forehead, leaving a trail of ashes – a grim reminder that the same fate awaits us all. Death!

So begins the period of 40 days that we call Lent. This time presents a unique opportunity for us to reflect on our mortality and to focus on the now.  We are reminded of the truth that none of us are promised tomorrow.  We are encouraged to look at our relationship with God today.  It is a call to self-examination, and an invitation to respond to God’s call today.

In the reading from 2 Corinthians, we hear the apostle Paul’s call to reconciliation. Paul calls for those in the church to “be reconciled to God.”

I have a particular fondness for this text. What always stands out to me is the sense of urgency with which he communicates that call. “Now is the acceptable time,” he says.

Paul recognized the need for Christians and the church to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ, and to let it take root in our hearts.  He knew the difference that this reconciliation would make in their lives.  But the reality is that our human sinful nature dictates that we more often prefer to hold on to grudges.  And the longer we hold on, the harder the reconciliation becomes. 

I post this out of a growing concern for the increasing amount of conflict I seem to sense as I visit congregations around our synod. There appears to be a heightened sense of anxiety around financial issues, but often those are symptomatic of deeper distresses. In many ways, we are no different than the congregations in Paul’s time.

As you begin this 40-day journey through Lent, can you accept the challenge to look at where you need reconciliation? The longer we hold off reconciliation, the harder our hearts become.  Two little words can heal years of hatred: “I’m sorry.”

100_3239The invitation of Ash Wednesday is simple.  We are invited to contemplate what we can do today to welcome God’s reconciling power into our lives.  And that begins today.

Today is the day of salvation. Not someday, but today.

Today is the acceptable time. Not a time in the future, but today.

Reflections, thoughts, ideas on ministry and the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,091 other followers

%d bloggers like this: