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The Bible's Story and Our Story

The Bibles Story and Our StoryI love it when God makes the connection between the Biblical story and our stories so clear. On Sunday, April 22nd, I was blessed to be installed as the pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. There are many wonderful Christian attributes about this congregation and one of them is hospitality. They have partnered with the Dallas Oromo Congregation from Ethiopia, offering office and worship space. The Children's choir from the Oromo congregation, directed by Ursula Peters, a St. Luke's member, sang two songs during my Service of Installation, and their pastor, Sileshi Hinsarmu read the second lesson and helped serve Communion. Their faith and devotion ministered to St. Luke's and to me.

This past Sunday, April 30th, the first reading appointed for the day was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, who, upon hearing Phillip preach the good news of Jesus Christ, was immediately ready to be baptized and converted to Christianity. Today, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, is the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world with over eight million members. As St. Luke’s partners with the Dallas Oromo congregation, we have a wonderful opportunity to minister together as we learn about church growth and mission in today’s world.

God’s story is always on-going in the lives of faithful people who continue to dwell in God’s Word, worship and pray in community, reach out in hospitality and mission, and follow the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit. How is God’s story in and through the Biblical story being woven together with your story for the sake of growing the kingdom of peace, justice and love today? Some days we have to dig for the connections, and sometimes, living the Scripture story becomes as plain as a conversation with my friend and colleague whose office door is two feet away, and the Oromo congregation he serves.

Photo by Larry Wecsler

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From Sheep to Shepherd

From Sheep to ShepherdA sermon preached for Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, on Psalm 23John 10:11-18 & Acts 4:5-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on April 22, 2017

The Children’s Message that took place before this sermon learned some new ways to understand Psalm 23 with gratitude for the commentary on Workingpreacher.org.

The Lord oversees and guides my journey, giving me rest and nourishment when I need it (a temporary repose!);
The Lord leads me in finding righteous grooves to travel or ruts in the ground to follow, so that I have right and healthy relationships with others that honor God.
The journey doesn’t go from green pastures to the house of the Lord, I will go through hard times (like Jesus did), and I get through them because God is with me.
I survive the hardest parts of my journey because God is with me to guide, protect, help, and comfort me.
God provides me with everything I need, and even when I think all is lost, You remind me I am your beloved child and you sustain me.
With God I know that only goodness and kindness will pursue and chase me every day I walk this journey.
I will continually return to God’s presence in thanksgiving my whole life long.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd in this Gospel reading from John? Why isn’t he the “Awesome” Shepherd, the “Most Excellent” Shepherd, the “Outstanding, Amazing” shepherd, or the “Greatest Shepherd the world has ever seen?” Surely Jesus fits all these descriptions. We do hear such lofty language in other passages of Scripture—In Isaiah 9 for example—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We just affirmed in Psalm 23 with the children, that Jesus really is the “wonderful, mighty, incredible” shepherd of our lives. He provides for all we need: strength in our weakness, rest in our exhaustion, guidance in our confusion, hope in our fears, comfort in our sorrow. He gives us rest when we need it, and a prod in the behind when we want to linger too long beside still waters. Life is pretty good as sheep with Jesus as our Shepherd wouldn’t you agree? That’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular and beloved Psalm, and probably the best-known passage in all of Scripture. As the Shepherd, he even provides salvation from our sins. Jesus even says so in verse 15 of our John passage: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

So if he does all that, why does Jesus describe himself as just the “good” shepherd? I’m not sure we’re going to like the answer. Perhaps Jesus only refers to himself as “good” because Jesus is not the only shepherd he’s referring to. Our passage from John 10 foreshadows a later passage in John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at daybreak after their night of fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. They enjoy a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. And then Jesus begins to quiz Peter:

'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'

Did you catch the shift? Who’s the shepherd now? Peter, and not just Peter, but all the disciples—who are called “apostles” after the resurrection. And not just the apostles back then, but all of us who follow Jesus today. Jesus calls all of us to follow in his footsteps and become a shepherd. It’s so easy to focus on how great it is to be the sheep, that we miss this part of the story. We love being sheep! We’d like to stay over there with the children’s message and remain sheep. They can stay sheep for now, but we adults, we apostles, we followers of Jesus the Shepherd—it’s time to step up and become a shepherd. Part of our experience as the sheep, is to prepare us to become a shepherd.

For we know how important it was to be found when we were lost, to be guided when we were confused, to be comforted when we were afraid, and to be helped when were in the valley of the shadow. We know that WE would be lost without Jesus as our Shepherd, so Jesus calls us to use the truth of our own experience, as the motivation to shepherd other lost and lonely sheep into the fold.

Maybe that’s why Jesus uses the word “good” shepherd. If he were the “extraordinary, out of this world, most awesome” shepherd, we would give up before we even tried to follow in his footsteps. We would come up with every excuse we could and say, “it’s not our job to seek and save the lost. I’m not extraordinarily awesome. I’m much happier just being a sheep, thank you very much!”

But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook—the shepherd’s hook so easily. With Peter, he says to us, “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” You see, this whole good shepherd discourse in John begins with Jesus healing the man born blind at the beginning of chapter 8. Jesus finds the blind man, this lost sheep, where he’s sat his entire life—begging for anything that might keep him alive. Then he tells the religious leaders that Jesus healed him, and they kick him out! Jesus goes and finds him again! Jesus finds the blind man in his lostness and brings him back into the fold of his love, not once but twice—he kept on trying until he stayed! 

That’s why in our passage today, in verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd and bring in the missing sheep? Will you seek out the lost sheep, and welcome them, love them? Will be the shepherd who finds the rejected, the downtrodden, the refugee, the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless begging on your street corners? Will you make sure that those who have been previously rejected—people who are mentally ill, or have special needs, or are lesbian, gay or transgendered—will you go out of your way to reach them with my love, so they can hear my voice, and come into my fold? Will you? Will keep trying until they stay?”

We don’t have to be the “most awesome, incredible, greatest shepherd the world has ever seen,” but Jesus does call us to be “good” shepherds who really do seek those outside the fold. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lost sheep that Jesus welcomed into the fold, were the ones the established religion hated the most—prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and blind people. It's the same issue in our passage from Acts. The apostles are in trouble  with the religious extablishment because they healed a crippled man--another outcast--and brought him into the fold. It’s why our inclusive welcome—on the altar and on the website—must be explicit. Because the people you don’t see among us have always heard that they are rejected, outcast, and should stay away.

To welcome lost into the fold is uncomfortable, challenging, and can cause disagreements. But of course, you know that because you’ve done the hard work of creating St. Luke’s welcome statement. I hope we can continue an intentional, inclusive, transparent process to consider becoming a Reconciled in Christ congregation—the official welcome of LGBTQ-friendly congregations. A faithful process and conversation does not guarantee nor manipulate an outcome, but because shepherds are in the “welcome and protection” business, it’s important to continue the conversation and discern to whom God calls us to give an explicit and generous welcome.

We need to have a similar conversation about welcoming homeless people—I met Kenneth at the corner of Belt Line and the North Dallas Tollway this week—and about how we will interact with our interfaith partners, and others to whom God sends us in this community. There will be times when we want to go back to being a sheep with other sheep who are just like us. And Jesus, our Good Shepherd will love us, and forgive us, and then prod us forward when we want to linger too long beside the still waters, and he will say, “try again.” Jesus will ask us if we love him and we will say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you.”

And Jesus will say to us, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, yet. I must bring them also. Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd here at St. Lukes?

“Will you tell the lost that I oversee and guide their journey and will give them rest and nourishment when they need it? Will you find the lost and tell them I have helped you find your righteous groove to follow so you can have healthy relationships that honor me? Will you? Will you find the rejected and the lonely and reassure them that I am with them through the darkest valley and that I will guide and help them as I have done for you? Will you, St. Luke’s? Will you tell the outcast that when think that all is lost and there’s no way forward, I will remind them they are my precious child and I will sustain them? Will you? And will you find the lost sheep and tell them that goodness and kindness are chasing after them, and I will keep chasing them until they’re found? Will you? Will you seek the lost and hungry and invite them to return with you here, to my presence so that I can love them as I have love you? Will you, St. Lukes?"

And we will answer, “yes.”

 

 

 

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Grieving A Spiritual Mentor; Sharing Her Wisdom

Grieving A Spiritual Mentor Sharing Her WisdomI have been so sad this week at the death of one of my spiritual mentors, Darlene Zoll. Darlene was my prayer companion when I went through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a nine month weekly program through The Bridges Foundation in St. Louis. I was struggling with severe chronic migraines, unable to work, and was so confused about God’s purpose and plan for me after having been so sure. I marvel at how much God loved me and cared for me through this wise, spiritual, Catholic laywoman! During the second week of the program she gave the lecture to our group about being created constantly by God. She was kind enough to give me a copy of her talk, and I share a few excerpts from it below. When you read this glimpse of the depth of her faith, you can imagine what a blessing she was to me during a time of crisis. She framed her talk within the story of the whole universe grounded in our scientfic knowledge of the big bang and that the human genetic structure closely parallels the DNA of all other creatures. For Darlene, this creates a "new intimacy with all of life."

Prayer: Be focused and centered on God’s loving and creating presence. As you relax, close your eyes and become of aware of your breathing, know that the breaths you draw in and release are an intimate sharing of the breath of life that our Creator God breathed into Adam and Eve. God breathes you into existence NOW, creating you every moment, every second. If God stopped thinking of you, breathing you, you would cease to exist. This idea doesn’t frighten. On the contrary, the thought of God constantly creating us makes us aware of God’s wondrous, wonderful, intimate, constant love. God loves ME. God's love holds ME in existence RIGHT NOW. And God's love continues to create me anew moment by moment, second by second, nano second, by nano second. Be aware of God's loving gaze, God's loving breath right now. In Paul’s words, ‘In God we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). The Jerusalem Bible says, ‘In God we live and move and exist.’ Thank you, God. Amen.

I am being constantly momently created by God. Our God, the God of the universe, creates all things because of love. Our God creates me constantly and momently because of his love. Our God loves me personally and wants an intimate relationship with me. Our God is not far from us, some place between the earth and the moon and beyond the planets and the stars. Our God is present to us and lets us experience that presence. Faith tells us that God exists both as transcendent to and immanent in this world. So, God is encountered. Whether we are aware of it or not, at every moment of our existence we are encountering God who is trying to catch our attention, trying to draw us into a reciprocal conscious relationship. God speaks us and all of creation and all of the universe into being constantly. God breathes us into being as he did Adam and Eve constantly, momently. Everything is of God.

If I am aware of God’s constant presence to me and if I am aware that God is creating me NOW, this moment this second, my response must be belief in God’s love for me, a trust in God’s love for me, that his personal love for me sustains me in all my life. I want to be aware that if God is breathing all into existence constantly, my breath, my very being is of God. I am not God, but just as God’s attributes are present in all of creation for me to see and experience, so God’s attributes are present in me for all creation to see and experience. I am not God. But what would life be like if I experience God’s loving presence in all of creation and all of creation experiences God’s loving presence in me—all the time? Jeremiah put is this way: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love and so I still maintain my faithful love for you’ (Jer. 31:3).

Think about it: God is creating me all through the night as I sleep. God is creating me, keeping me in existence all through the day as I go about my business, not even aware of God’s breathing life and existence into me, even as the universe continues to expand and to evolve. Wow.

"Wow" is right, Darlene. I did experience God’s qualities and characteristics in you over and over and over again. Thank you, thank you for your constant love, encouragement, patient listening, wise counsel, forbearance and extra time you spent me with when the Exercises were done—you expressed these gifts to me momently, constantly! You are pure gift. Enter into the joys of our eternal home with the love and peace of God that sustained you on your earthly journey. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

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Thomas: A Doubter Whose Time Has Come

Thomas A Doubter Whose Time Has ComeSermon for Easter 2 on John 20:19-31 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas on April 8, 2018

Can you imagine being called "a doubter" for 2-millenia? Thomas was also a twin, but no one calls him that. Can you imagine showing off the family photo album? "This is Sarah, who married a nice boy from Bethany; here is Timothy—he runs a sheep-shearing business in Jerusalem; and that one’s Timothy’s twin, Thomas—well…. he’s a doubter."

What does a guy have to do to get a new reputation? Maybe Thomas’s time has finally come.

The other disciples have experienced a miracle—Jesus, risen from the dead in the flesh and speaking to them. But Thomas wasn’t there—Scripture doesn’t tell us where he was, but I suspect that he was working. Tradition holds that Thomas was an architect and a carpenter - a discipline that requires not just that he talk about what he can build, but proves it in reality with buildings that are structurally sound and houses that hold up during storms.

In other words, to get new clients, Thomas had to “show his work.” I bet every student here has heard their teacher, especially in math, instruct them to, “show your work!” I lived in Missouri for 25 years and the first thing I learned when I moved there was that it’s the “Show Me” state. Missourians are people who say, "don’t tell me – show me!"

And isn’t this the very nature of our tradition as Lutherans? Martin Luther himself said to the church in the 16th century: “Show me! Show me where indulgences and purgatory are in the Scripture." Instead, Martin Luther tried to show them that we are saved by grace through faith and not by our own work or merit. All of which is to say, that Thomas was not a doubter – he’s a Lutheran from Missouri!

Of course, you don’t have to live in Missouri to want others to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. We all want people’s behavior to be consistent with their word. We like people to show their work—it’s why resume’s, portfolio’s and even pictures on social media are valued. "Don’t tell me, show me!"

So we understand Thomas when he doesn’t want to be told what to believe—he wants to experience it for himself. He doesn’t want to take something as serious and life-transforming as Jesus resurrected from the dead on the word of someone else—especially when those someones are still too scared to leave the house!

Thomas wants to touch, see and hear Jesus himself—“show me!” Thomas says. Thomas needs a real relationship with the risen Lord. This is exactly what ministry requires of us in the 21st century. Millennials and the generation after them, called “Generation Z,” are not going to believe in God or come to church because their parents or grandparents tell them to.

Younger generations today are very much like Thomas—they say to us, "Don’t tell me what to believe, show me! Don’t tell me about God and your faith, I want to see, feel, hear and experience it for myself. Show me—not in an institution or a building—beautiful and wonderful as it may be—show me out in the world; show me in your daily life; show me the difference it makes today in the life of this community."

Is it any wonder? We should not be surprised by this institutional suspicion since young people today have come of age in a time of dramatic climate change, war and terrorism, the effects of the great recession and rising costs, unmanageable college debt, institutionalized racism and sexism evidenced by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and school shootings.

Why would young people today take something as life-transforming as the resurrection of Jesus, life after death, the meaning and purpose of human existence, and a relationship with the ultimate Creator of life and ground of our being, based on something we say in the church? This is especially true, when, like the first disciples, we’ve experienced the risen Lord, but we’re often too scared to leave the building.

So, what did Jesus do when Thomas said, “don’t tell me, show me!?" Jesus offered Thomas exactly what he needed to believe in him! "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. The resurrection is real, Thomas, you can believe! I am here to build a relationship with you!"

Jesus showed up for the other disciples too--even though they still seem to be locked in a room with the door shut! So, whether we are like Thomas, saying, “unless I experience it myself, I won’t believe” or whether we’re locked up inside here and afraid to go into the world—the good news is that Jesus appears to us as we are, and shows us the resurrection is real. He accepts and loves us into a relationship with him.

Then Jesus says, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And he breathes on us the Holy Spirit—all the power we need to go out through the doors and into the world, helping people experience that the resurrection is real! Church tradition tells us that Thomas brought the Gospel through Syria, all the way to southern India where Orthodox congregations in the state of Kerala trace their beginning back to the witness of Thomas!

Far from a "doubter," Thomas is the Patron Saint of Millennials, of Gen Z’s, and this new Post-Modern Era! The world will continue to change around us, but remember, we are Lutherans who witness in the tradition of Martin Luther, who says, “show me!” Millennials, Gen Z’s, the "spiritual but not religious," the diversity of people moving into Richardson—they don’t scare us! We’re all about that show me-faith! We’re all about that show me-resurrection! We're all about that show me-Jesus in the world. That’s our bread and butter! Lutherans have been doing this for centuries!

Jesus calls us to follow Him in giving the Thomas’s of today, the relationship with God that they seek, and the experience of the risen Lord that they crave. And that relationship begins with you and me. With younger generations, they need a relationship with believers first and then belief in God comes later. (For those of us who grew up in the church it was the reverse—we believed in God first and then found a church with whom to have relationships).

Young people today want to be involved in hands-on mission and service in the world as they seek authentic community—and when they serve beside people with whom they develop a meaningful relationship—that’s us—then they start believing in God.

Terrific! Our motto as a denomination is “God’s Work, Our Hands”—so that’s easy—we can invite young people join us in the “our hands” part of our mission. Start by asking the youth where they have seen need and might give away the $5 they received during the Children's Sermon. Invite them to volunteer with you at Network Community Ministries or Richardson Road Runner Special Olympics Team who practices here. Invite them to help pack kits for Lutheran World Relief, run a Mosaic birthday party, or do home repairs with First Richardson Helpers.

All we need to do when we encounter young people waiting on us at the Starbucks or the Jiffy Lube, or when we talk with our kids or grandkids’ friends, is to build a relationship with them. Get to know them and what they’re passionate about, what they’re worried about, what they’re interested in doing. And then invite them to participate with you in service opportunities that interest them—or better yet, help start a service opportunity they are passionate about!

Young people enter a relationship with Jesus and come to believe in God, when we love them and show them how faith makes a difference in the daily life of this community! That means that more and more, ministry will take place out there, instead of in here. When we take this call to hands-on, "show-me mission" seriously, then our younger generations will see and feel and touch the risen Lord who can transform their life through His love and presence.

Then we will all rejoice that Thomas’s time has finally come, and show off a new picture album of young people today leading us in expanding our mission.

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