Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Partnership in the Gospel

I carved this little guy 5" tall from plaster of Paris and vermiculite in September 1967 and used him for the children's time with this message to talk about praying.

Philippians 1:1-18
May 5 and 6, 2018
King of Glory Lutheran Church
Sprit of Peace Lutheran Church
© 2018

Formal prayers mark the steps as we move through our corporate worship. We give people opportunity to express their joys and concerns in a shared prayer. As familiar as we are with this, many people are intimidated by the prospect of leading public prayer. Together as church we seldom talk about our private prayers. We are a little squeamish about something so personal and intimate as our confidential conversations with God.
Luke reports Jesus praying more than the other Gospels. So for him to tell that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray is not at all surprising. (Luke 11:1)
In Romans 8:26, Paul acknowledges that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” but rather than scolding for that, he assures us that the “Spirit intercedes (for us) with groans too deep for words.”
Three patterns of prayer in the Bible have enriched my own practice of private prayer.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he gave them what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” I suspect he repeated this several times, as it occurs as a model prayer in Luke and in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Psalms, “the prayerbook of the Bible,” suggesting Jesus learned to pray from them, and they shaped and informed Jesus’ praying. He got me started on a routine of praying with the Psalms I have followed for 48 years.
By my count, the New Testament Epistles include 15 prayers that I find particularly challenging. They push me to pray well beyond my comfort zone.
Today’s reading from Philippians includes one of those prayers in verses 3-11.
When we started the service by naming people for whom we are thankful, we were following Paul’s pattern of being thankful for the people of the Philippian church. Not that we shouldn’t be thankful for the things we enjoy, but our prayers grow as we are thankful for the people who have been part of our lives. When I start making an inventory of people for whom I am thankful, I begin to feel joy welling up from within me.
Even all these years later, I feel joy as I remember how my 6th grade teacher Bill Miller sparked a love of learning in me, and as I remember how my 11th and 12th grade English teacher Margaret Abbott invested herself in cultivating my writing. As you are thankful for the people who have contributed to you, your prayers will grow in joy.
Paul was thankful for the people of the Philippian church who had been partners with him in the Gospel. I have been very thankful for those with whom I have been privileged to serve in ministry: among them Jim Kraft and Phil Olson in NJ, Anita Dunlevy in TX, Julia Jordan Gillett in OK. I must tell you I am thankful for Pastor Tim who has nourished my journey with Jesus this year.
Paul was in prison when he wrote to the people of the Philippian church, and he longed to be with them. Who are the people you ache to see face to face? Candy and I are planning to go to PA in June for our grandson Isaac’s high school graduation and are anticipating seeing them. Thank God for the people you’d like to see.
Sometimes when I listen to prayers, including my own, I chuckle as they sound as if we think God is so stupid that God needs us to inform God about what needs attention in our lives and in our world and needs us to tell God what to do about them. If we start praying the things Paul asked God to do for the Philippian church for ourselves and the people we care about, our prayers will take us to a new depth of listening for what God wants for us, beyond what we want for ourselves, those we love, and even our world.
Overflow with love
Overflow with knowledge and insight
Determine and discern what is best for making decisions and taking action
To be pure and blameless. Rather than thinking of that as superficial moral piety, I suggest what Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Based on Jesus’ Beatitude in Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” he suggests if the only thing you want in your heart, unmixed with other desires, is to see God, you will indeed see God.
Produce a harvest of righteousness
I want to end by giving you an opportunity for guided private prayer informed and nourished by the prayer of Philippians 1:3-11. I know that sitting together in silence can be difficult and feel awkward, but I hope you will find this experience enriching. If you wish you may have a Bible open to Philippians 1, but that is not necessary. We will begin with a few moments for you to gather your thoughts about praying from the passage. If you wish to make a few notes, that is fine but not necessary. Then I will suggest people for whom you may pray for a few moments in silence using what you gained from the passage. You may relax and trust me to keep moving.
·         For yourself
·         For the people of this congregation
·         For others who follow Jesus in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, in the United States, and around the world.
·         For people who make no claim of a relationship with Jesus, though they may have some faith in God.
In the name of Jesus, I will read the prayer of Philippians 1:3-11 aloud as our shared prayer. I will invite you to say “amen” at the end.

3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Together we say, “Amen.”

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Good Shepherd

1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
April 29, 2018
© 2018
The Good Shepherd was a most popular way of portraying Jesus in the first three centuries of the Church. These come from the 2nd and 3rd centuries in the Roman Catacombs. I am impressed with how young Jesus appears and how his Mediterranean ethnicity is so obvious. 

Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd.” I am going to begin and close today by telling you about two men whose examples of following the Good Shepherd have spoken to me as I walk with Candy on her Alzheimer’s journey. She knows I am telling you about these men, though she doesn’t know them.
In 1990 Robertson McQuilkin resigned as the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in South Carolina, a position he had held since 1968. He retired at 62 years old to care for his wife Muriel whose Alzheimer’s had progressed in five years to the point she needed round the clock care. The school’s regents offered to pay for the best in home or residential professional care so he could continue as president.
In 1987, they tried using in-home nursing care, but Dr. McQuilkin realized that as competent as the nurses were, Muriel was distressed and even terror stricken when she couldn’t find him. She began to walk the mile round trip from their home to the school as many as ten times a day. When helping her undress for bed at night, he often found her feet bloody. “What love!” their family doctor said. “The characteristics developed across the years come out at times like these.” Dr. McQuilkin responded, “I wish I loved God like that, desperate to be near God at all times. Thus she teaches me, day by day.”
Determining that caring for his wife was his next ministry, Dr. McQuilkin observed, “This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for
me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”
Muriel died in 2003, and when Dr. McQuilkin died in 2016, their story was retold in Christianity Today and other places. Though Dr. McQuilkin and I would certainly have had some theological differences, I have retold their story several times as a model of following the Good Shepherd, well before Candy’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. I would not come close to putting myself in Dr. McQuilkin’s league, but when we got Candy’s diagnosis, I have found him to be both inspiring and instructive. I retell it again for you to ponder as we consider Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
John 9 reports Jesus healing a blind man that brought down the wrath of the Pharisees on the man who has been healed, his parents, and of course, Jesus. In response Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd of God’s people and labeled the religious leaders as hired hands who do not really care for the sheep.
The metaphor of God’s people as a flock of sheep recurs repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures. So Jesus’ audience was familiar with the analogy and could easily read between the lines. The hired hands are interested in the income they earn by tending the sheep, but they are not interested in the sheep themselves. When danger comes, the hired hands abandon the sheep to the wolves. Ezekiel 34:17-22 examines this same image from within the flock and how the different animals treat each other.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
By contrast, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd knows the sheep and the sheep know him. The Good Shepherd gathers sheep that are far away and welcomes them into the one flock. The sheep know and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd does not value the sheep as a commodity but loves them together and individually.
As sheep of the Good Shepherd, we bring his life and presence with us wherever we go. We bring the Good Shepherd to everyone in our network of relationships. We are not hired hands nor are we the fat sheep who push and butt the lean sheep.
I don’t want to dwell on the hired hands so much that I distract us from the Good Shepherd. However, think we all know plenty of hired hands are masquerading and expecting to be revered as though they are good shepherds. Investors buy up companies they can split up and sell off in pieces of debt while paying themselves huge dividends. Politicians peddle their influence to cultivate power and wealth. Even pastors distort the Gospel to manipulate people to give so they can enjoy lavish lifestyles.
I think John may have been remembering Jesus as the Good Shepherd when he wrote in his first Epistle (3:16-24) how we are to shape our lives after Jesus.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
I never met Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin. I only know their story from what I have read. I told their story as an illustration in one of my first sermons of my interim pastorate with First Christian Church of Albany, Texas. Albany is the county seat, a town of about 2,000 and First Christian Church has about 150 members. Besides the ranching and oil you would expect in West Texas, Albany has a wonderful art museum and a very active artists’ community. Of course, I did not realize that in just a few weeks, I would be called back to Dallas to start the journey in which Candy’s Alzheimer’s would be diagnosed. Nor on that Sunday did I realize that Jon Rex and Ann Jones had already been on that journey for several years. I don’t pretend to explain God’s role in some of these things, but I do recognize that God was present in this convergence that headed our lives in a new direction.
Jon Rex Jones is the choir director for First Christian Church of Albany, Texas. Ann sits on the chancel with the choir, though she does not sing. When Jon Rex would sing in an ensemble or teach the congregation a new hymn, Ann would stand silently beside him behind the pulpit. Jon Rex taught an adult Sunday school class with Ann at his side. She always accompanied Jon Rex when he attended committee or board meetings.
When I was there, the Albany High School basketball team qualified for playoffs at their last game of the season. I was in the stands with several folk from the congregation along with Jon Rex and Ann Jones. They were part of a small group of couples who went together to Dairy Queen for ice cream cones faithfully one night a week.
Though they have in-home health care for Ann, Jon Rex takes her along on his business and errands whenever possible. They are recognized as an item around town. Everyone, including me, is impressed with Jon Rex’s gentle guidance and effort to include Ann in as much of the life of the community as possible. Though “famous” in Albany, Texas, Jon Rex and Ann Jones are unlikely to get the national recognition that came to the McQuilkins, but getting to know them first hand, albeit briefly, has been a gift to me and Candy and I walk our Alzheimer’s journey. Jon Rex lived the life of the Good Shepherd before my eyes.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Me and You and Darkness in View

Though similar to the bronze serpent from Numbers 21, sometimes called "Nehustan," the Rod of Asclepius (left) comes from Greek mythology and has become a common symbol for medical arts. It is sometimes confused with the Caduceus (right) with two snakes and wings. It also comes from Greek mythology as the symbol of Mercury or Hermes the messenger of the gods. 

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
March 4, 2018
© 2018

During Lent we typically look at our human need for God’s grace brought to us through Jesus’ death. We may say we agree with the theme for this Sunday, “Between Me and You, even in darkness, God’s promise and God’s love grow all around us.” But we struggle with our experiences of impenetrable darkness.
The daily news can overwhelm us with the sense of darkness around us, but more difficult and more important is when we are unable to navigate the darkness within us, when God seems silent, withdrawn, absent.
Just before what we read in Numbers 21, God had delivered the Israelites from some Canaanites who attacked them, and almost immediately they complained that God wasn’t with them. They even called the manna God gave them to eat “miserable food” (v. 5) So God sent poisonous serpents into the camp and people were dying painfully. At Moses’ appeal, God instructed him to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. Those who were bitten could look at and be healed. In order to live, they had to look at the very thing that plagued them.
What we read from John 3 compares Jesus being lifted up with the serpent in the wilderness. Scholars are not sure if Jesus said this to Nicodemus or if it is John’s commentary on their conversation. In any case, pointing ahead to Jesus’ crucifixion, we are called to look directly at the darkness of Jesus on the cross for the light of salvation. We love John 3:16 with its declaration of God’s love for the world, but we ask, “How can we believe God loves that world in which people love darkness rather than light? As we fix our gaze on the darkness of the crucified Jesus, we are drawn to come close to God’s light.
Perhaps you have heard of the “Dark Night of the Soul.” John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite friar, priest, and mystic who is best known for his book The Dark Night of the Soul. Though we don’t talk about it much, I would venture to say that anyone who has seriously journeyed with Jesus for an extended period of time has had at least one experience of the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
I had a dark night of the soul in 1977-80. I felt I was thriving in my part-time pastoral ministry and ready to move to full-time when dynamics in the congregation brought my part-time ministry to an end before I could seriously explore full-time. The way this happened brought my whole sense of calling into question. This was not about the circumstances but about crying out to God for leading and vision, and I was getting no response. My cries seemed to go into a dark hollow without an echo or glimmer of light. While I did feel down and desolate, it wasn’t the same as being depressed. My other part-time work became full-time in perfect sequence, but Christian education curriculum research, writing, and editing were not as satisfying as pastoral ministry. Yes, I was functioning using my skills and thankful to be able to provide for my family. I do believe my work helped people. But I could not sense God calling me forward or even personally present for almost three years. I kept up my daily spiritual disciplines and fellowship with the church, but felt as though God was hiding behind my daily scripture reading, absent from weekly worship, and my prayers seemed to be limp, punctured balloons littering the floor of my spirit. The breakthrough came when our small group was discussing Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” For me this was not an admonition to “fake it until I could make it,” but more as a light in the distance of my darkness that I could follow to journey through the dark. That job change had me taking the Chicago-Northwestern train to the Chicago Loop every day for six months. I made this plaque of the ticket stubs, which I keep on the bookshelf in my office to remind me of that dark night and how God did guide me through it.

I had already been into my discipline of praying through the Psalms each month for about six years at the time. I identified with certain lines as they encountered me each month. The NRSV translates Psalm 88:18 as “All my companions are in darkness,” but I really resonated with the NIV translation, “Darkness is my only friend.” I took some hope from Psalm 139:11-12. “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’” I prayed that God could see me even if I couldn’t see God.
I finally came to accept the assurance of Psalm 139:17-18, that God was thinking about me. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.” This is echoed in the words of Simone Weil, early 20th century French mystic. “It is not up to me to think of myself. It is up to me to think of God. And it is up to God to think of me.”
One of the challenges and benefits of Lent is that it prompts us to look closely at things we would prefer to avoid. I appreciate the approach suggested by our Leader materials for today. I certainly hope you are not overly distressed that I have asked you to gaze into the darkness. In fact, I hope that you are encouraged by acknowledging that it is a normal and even healthy part of the journey with Jesus. I want to share with you insights that I have found helpful from Cistercian monk Thomas Keating in his book Intimacy with God (1995, Crossroad Publishing, New York. pp. 87-88)
God, too, seems to withdraw, to our great consternation. Instead of being present during our time of prayer, God seems not to show up anymore; it feels as if God could not care less. This is especially painful if the former relationship was very satisfying, exciting, or consoling. The thought rises, “God has abandoned me!” When the dryness is extreme, [Bible reading] is like reading the telephone book and spiritual exercises are just a bore. We are irritable and discouraged because the light of our life has gone out. It took so many years to find God and now God has gone away. There is a constant temptation to think we have done something wrong, but we can’t figure out what it was. Our tendency is to project onto God the way we would feel in a similar deteriorating relationship with another human being, namely, hopeless. This judgment is most unfair to God. At this point a lot of people throw in the towel and decide, “The spiritual journey is not for me.” … If we are very quiet in the night of sense, St. John of the Cross writes, we may notice a delicate sense of peace and may even begin to enjoy the more substantial food of pure faith.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) wrote of the spiritual life as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. He offers some very practical guidance for the seasons of desolations. (tr. George E. Ganss, S.J., 1992, Loyola University Press, Chicago, pp. 122-123)
During a time of desolation one should never make a change. Instead, one should remain firm and constant in the resolutions and in the decision which one had on the day before the desolation, on in a decision in which one was during a previous time of consolation.
Although we ought not to change our former resolutions in a time of desolation, it is very profitable to make vigorous changes in ourselves against the desolation, for example by insisting more on prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination.
God’s help always remains available, even if we do not clearly perceive it. Indeed, even though the Lord has withdrawn from us his abundant fervor, augmented, love, and intensive grace, he still supplies sufficient grace for our eternal salvation.

We will be singing Brian Wren’s hymn Joyful Is the Dark as a way of personalizing our experiences of the darkness in view.
Joyful is the dark,
holy, hidden God,
rolling cloud of night beyond all naming:
Majesty in darkness,
Energy of love,
Word in Flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Joyful is the dark,
Spirit of the deep,
winging wildly o’er the world’s creation,
silken sheen of midnight,
plumage black and bright,
swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Joyful is the dark,
coolness of the tomb,
waiting for the wonder of the morning;
never was that midnight
touched by dread and gloom:
darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark,
depth of love divine,
roaring, looming thundercloud of glory,
holy, haunting beauty,
living, loving God.
Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

Joyful is the dark.
Joyful is the dark.
Joyful is the dark!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Conversation with Jesus about life’s persistent questions: How can I explore spiritual mysteries when physical reality scrambles my brain?

John 3:1-21
January 28, 2018
King of Glory Lutheran Church
Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
© 2018

Perhaps you remember “Guy Noir, Private Eye” from the more innocent days of A Prairie Home Companion. He was in pursuit of answers to life’s most persistent questions. In their conversation, Nicodemus and Jesus, they are pursuing this question. How can I explore spiritual mysteries when physical reality scrambles my brain? We may think we understand the wind better than Nicodemus did, but like him, pondering the material universe can boggle our minds and interfere with grasping more profound spiritual realities.

Considering the origins of the universe is both fascinating and incomprehensible. Everything from black holes to Higgs boson particles prompt pondering. What was there before the big bang? What is outside of the universe? We ask: How did we get here? How did I get here?

Everything from evolutionary theory to human genome study asks what it means to be human. Who are we? Who am I? Why are we here? Why am I here?

Everything from the expansion of space and the burn out of the sun to climate change anticipates the eventual demise of the universe. What is our destiny? Where are we headed? Where am I headed?

British preacher C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) is reputed to have said that John’s Gospel was “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.” Spurgeon’s observation certainly applies to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus explained how being born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe yet as simple as wind.

Sometimes Nicodemus is portrayed as timidly sneaking into see Jesus at night and not bright enough to understand Jesus’ spiritual basics. But Jesus called him “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10 – not “a teacher” as in some English translations). Certainly one of the leading teachers among the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin, he was probably checking Jesus out for them, but informally and not officially. I think he picked up from Jesus, this uneducated country rabbi, something deeper than more than a millennium of Hebrew scholarship could grasp. I think he wanted it for himself.

Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can perceive the Kingdom of God without being born “from above.” Nicodemus’ responses indicated he understood Jesus to say “born again.” Jesus was speaking about the source of our birth and Nicodemus about the number of times we are born. The same Greek word can mean both, so here is a play on words. Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking Aramaic that would not have the same play on words as Greek, so whatever went on between them, John captured cleverly. Nicodemus was not so dense as to think Jesus meant physically going back through his mother’s womb, but thinking he was too old and set in his ways, making a spiritual rebirth seemed as impossible as a physical rebirth. He was sure that what he wanted was unavailable.

Nicodemus was a late bloomer or slow learner. When the Sanhedrin began its open opposition to Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up for just and fair due process for Jesus (7:50-52). Along with Joseph of Arimathea, (identified as a disciple in Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-53 and some women per Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55) Nicodemus assisted with Jesus’ burial, indicating a faith even at the point at which Jesus’ mission and message seemed to have failed. (19:39-40) Only being born from above could bring that insight.

To be born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling concepts about the material universe. Scholars continue to debate what Jesus meant when he said that entering the Kingdom of God required being born of water and Spirit. I think the simplest answer is that they describe what is involved in being born from above.

Nicodemus was certainly familiar with the recent ministry of John the Baptist. He called people to show their repentance by being baptized, just as Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized. The religious leadership, of which Nicodemus was a prominent leader, was offended at the very idea they needed to repent and be baptized like an unclean Gentile. To be born of water (from above) is to turn from the life below and humbly begin anew in the life from above.

As the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus knew that in Ezekiel 36:25-28, God promised to sprinkle clean water to cleanse from sin and to put a new spirit within to follow God. Throughout Hebrew Scripture, water is associated with the Spirit of God. The promise of the prophets was that God’s Spirit would one day empower the righteousness that always seemed to elude them.

Spirit brings another word play that works in Greek and Hebrew, where the same word in each language means spirit, breath and wind. Jesus emphasized to Nicodemus the freedom of the wind and the Spirit. The Spirit of God is not limited to a pious or theological elite, or confined to established traditions. The most unexpected people, under unexpected circumstances are born from above by the life giving power of God’s Spirit.

When Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” (v. 9) he wasn’t expressing incredulity but a hunger to know how he could be born from above. Jesus responded with a story from Numbers 21. As punishment for revolting against Moses, poisonous serpents swarmed and bit. At God’s instruction, Moses made a bronze serpent and raised it as a sign for people to look at and be healed. Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent, pointing ahead to the cross. God’s redemption was a great reversal. The object of punishment became the means of restoration. All that was required was to trust that a simple look brought wholeness. To be born from above, look at Jesus with faith. Those who are born from above find answers to life’s persistent questions.

Who am I? Where did I come from? I am created in the image of God. My life comes from the Spirit of God who lives in me.

Why am I here? What is my purpose? As Jesus gave himself for me, I give myself so others can receive his love too. Jesus did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. My purpose is to invite people to be included, not to decide who’s excluded. Martin Niemöller was one of the founders of the Confessing Church that opposed the Nazis in Germany. After World War II he said, “It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn’t even hate his enemies.”

What is our destiny? Where am I headed? I am on my way to the Kingdom of God, which Jesus calls eternal life in John’s Gospel. Having been born from above, I am already living eternal life as part of the Kingdom of God, the reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Good News: Your Time Has Come

Jonah 3:1-5,10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
January 21, 2018
Jackson Park Lutheran Church
Milwaukee, WI
© 2018

Good morning. I’m sure you are as surprised to see me here as I am to be here. My name is Norman Stolpe, and I am a retired pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I won’t try to trace all the steps that brought me to be with you today. Only yesterday afternoon was I asked to fill in for your pastor Fred Thomas-Breitfeld. I assure you, we have spoken on the phone, and he has invited me to help out in a sort of time crunch.

Perhaps you noticed, as I did, that each of the Scriptures for today make a reference to the urgency of time.

Jonah proclaimed, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “The appointed time has grown short, for the present form of this world is passing away.”

After John the Baptizer was arrested, Jesus picked up with the same message, right where John left off, “The time is fulfilled, and this kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

Each morning during my breakfast is use a Benedictine discipline known as lectio divina or holy reading with the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday. So  every morning this week, without knowing I would be with you in worship today, I have been listening for God’s word about propitious timing, which has been a central aspect of our experience this past year plus.

My wife, Candy, and I had been in Dallas, TX since 2000. I had served Central Christian Church as their pastor until I “retired” in 2011. Then I did five interim pastorates. During the last of those, in April 2016 my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and we knew we needed to make some changes. Our Dallas house sold more quickly than we expected, so we came to Milwaukee in February and stayed with some friends of our son David and daughter-in-law Rachel until we could move into a duplex downstairs from Rachel and David and their children Sam and Elizabeth in August. David is an impact teacher at Lane Intermediate School in West Allis.

We left our youngest son, Erik, behind in Dallas. He is a musician, and he has blossomed now that we’re not there to hold him back. Our oldest son, Jon, is an engineer who lives north of Philadelphia, PA with his wife, Leanne, and their children Hannah and Isaac.

Now that we have gotten settled and are feeling at home, I have been looking for some ministry opportunities that work with making every day the best it can be for my wife. I have been telling God I’d like to do one thing a week after New Year’s. Well, last week I conducted a funeral for a family without a pastor. Today I here with you in worship, and next Sunday I’m preaching for the folk of Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church, just four blocks from our home. I’m feeling confirmed in the timing of our next steps.

Besides hoping this helps you know a bit about me, I think this gives you some idea of why we have been paying so much attention to timing this year, and why I resonated as I meditated on the urgency of timing in these passages this week.

Though Jonah preached to Nineveh in a spirit of judgment and hostility rising out of ethnic, cultural and religious prejudice and hatred, his message was God’s good news to the people of Nineveh. They recognized the urgency of timing, turned around, and God was merciful to them.

I don’t know about you, but Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to live given the urgency of their time makes me uncomfortable. Having said that, I found his tone remarkably appropriate this week as Congress failed to meet the deadline for keeping the government running. I don’t want to get overly political, especially with people who don’t know me, but just as this past year was a time of unprecedented transition to a new phase of life for our family, the past year since the last election has brought our country, and in some measure our world, into uncharted, uncertain territory with an urgency of timing.

John the Baptist introduced Jesus and his ministry, which Jesus kicked into high gear after John was arrested. This certainly shocked Herod Antipas who thought he had eliminated John’s troublesome preaching only to hear that Jesus preached the same message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Like the game Whack a Mole, Herod got caught in a game of Whack a Prophet.

Many sermons on this passage focus on the pairs of fisherman brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. But it also affirms that this is just the time for God’s good news.

God’s good news is that “the time is fulfilled.” The start of Jesus’ ministry was the turning point in God’s plan to redeem humanity. Jesus’ preaching invited people to an unprecedented opportunity to participate in God’s redemptive plan. Whatever they might have been waiting for, the decisive moment had arrived. The rest of the New Testament extends the propitious moment to us.

All through Hebrew history God’s people had been waiting for the Kingdom of God to dawn. They saw a few brief glimmers such as the good years of David and Solomon, but from Moses to Nehemiah and Ezra they mostly experienced yearning and disappointment. Jesus preached that heaven had come to earth for those who would believe in and live in it. For us too, God’s good news is to live in the exuberant confidence of the Kingdom of God regardless of our circumstances.

Repent just means to turn around. Repentance is not about feeling miserable or wallowing in guilt, shame and regret. Repentance is God’s good news that we are no longer captives of our past but welcome home.

John the Baptist had introduced the four fishermen to Jesus so when Jesus called, they received and followed God’s good news! It was their time to embrace God’s new life of unlimited, exuberant confidence.

You may feel your life is in a holding pattern. That tug deep inside that wants more is the Holy Spirit saying, “Now is your time! The circumstances you think are hindrances are God’s opportunity.” The Kingdom of God may seem obscure, but Jesus wants you to know that it has come near, not at an exotic, unattainable distance but in your small daily details. So let go of your regrets and inhibitions, your uncertainties and inadequacies. God is welcoming you to exuberant confidence as a resident of the Kingdom of God, which while hidden from ordinary folk is your most enduring and substantial reality.

With the church I served in NJ, I lead a weekly lunch with worship for street people. Joe was a developmentally disabled man who helped set and clear the table and played a hymn on his harmonica as part of our worship. One day he said, “I’ve been working on something special for today,” and played Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. A dozen or so unlikely people got a taste of the Kingdom of God! If you pay attention, you will hear Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled, and this kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Your time for unlimited, exuberant confidence is here.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Let It Be Whole

Isaiah 61:1-4; 1 Thessalonians  5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
December 17, 2017
© 2017

I.                Advent is a season of ambivalence  as Rachel and Peter made so clear with their creative, humorous approach last week. While our society rushes around in a frenzy, we wait for a hidden hope to be revealed.  Advent acknowledges our human pain and cries to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness.
A.           I understand the Eash-Scotts host a “longest night” service on the winter solstice. Building on that ancient Celtic tradition, for several years I have led the churches I have served in a service the first Sunday night of Advent that I called “Give God Your Holiday Blues.” It gave people opportunity to express their feelings that seemed at odds with the seasonal celebrations. Sometimes grieving a recent death or struggling with sickness or a personal crisis. One of the most memorable was when 35 year old Christopher Clifton, who had been struggling with brain cancer for several years, lit a candle and said “I have just been told I have six weeks left to breathe. Whether it is six days, six weeks, six months, or six years, I want them to be for Jesus.”
B.            Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 song Silent Night/7 O’clock News, captures this Advent incongruity. That it took so little creativity to do so speaks to what we all feel. Play CD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8d5C8kPlJA
II.            We sang My Soul Cries Out (Sing the Story, 124) which each verse of anticipation is answered with the refrain in hopes that “the world is about to turn.” The scriptures we have been reading through Advent acknowledge our human pain and cry to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness.
A.           Isaiah 64:1 cries out to God “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
B.            Isaiah 61:2 proclaims “the day of vengeance of our God.”
C.            Quoting Isaiah 40:3,6-7, John 1:23 announces John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism for repentance as “making straight the way of the Lord.”
III.       When we sang My Soul Cries Out at the hymn sing a few weeks ago, repeating “the world is about to turn” evoked both longing and frustration in me. How could I believe that “the world is about to turn” toward peace and justice, righteousness and mercy with all that is happening right now? I was ready for Advent to acknowledge our human pain and cry to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness. But I still am having trouble getting hold of it.
A.           Since moving into our duplex, Candy and I have been listening to music from the 60s and 70s, the early days of our relationship: Peter, Paul and Mary; John Denver; Joan Baez; Simon and Garfunkel. We enjoy it, but I feel a deep sadness, that what so many of us worked for seems to have been washed away, and the world has regressed.
1.              I wasn’t a wild radical but did march and write hoping to end the war in Viet Nam, and I requested conscientious objector status from my draft board.
2.              I continued to support civil rights efforts, participating in an open housing process when we lived in Carol Stream, Illinois. I engaged with homeless people when we were in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, even standing in solidarity with homeless people who had pitched a tent city on the county courthouse lawn and attending the court proceedings.
3.              I won’t say much about this, but the recent flood of news of sexual misconduct by public figures has stirred up painful memories of having to deal with a number of cases of such cases involving clergy colleagues, some even good friends.
B.            Needless to say, the current news has me asking which way the world is about to turn: toward peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, or toward deeper corruption?
1.              Violence and war are ubiquitous: as though more violence will address the threats from North Korea, Iran, Isis; as though more guns will protect us from crime and mass murder.
2.              Regardless of the politics and economics of what emerges from tax and health care reform, the way it is playing out generates the anxiety of uncertainty for those who depend on things like Medicare, including Candy and me.
3.              Scandals of money, sex, and power are hardly new, but it feels like a dam has burst, and asking if there will be any men left in public roles seems reasonable.
IV.       So yes, Advent acknowledges our human pain and cries to God for intervention that brings wholeness to obvious brokenness. As discomforting as appearances may be, Advent doesn’t leave us in despair but offers some secure anchors that we can depend on to hold in this storm. Advent shifts our focus from the distresses we’d rather ignore during the holidays to a reliable hope for wholeness.
A.           The anchor has been a Christian symbol of hope for centuries. The small ships of ancient times needed a way to weather sudden violent storms. The anchor was not used in the harbor, but in open water it was lowered from the bow of the ship to keep the prow pointing directly into the wind of the storm. That way the ship could ride up and down with the waves without rolling and capsizing. But when the anchor was doing its job, it was unseen, deep below the water’s surface. The security of the Advent anchor keeps us facing directly into the storm.
B.            I don’t think Advent is a formula for easy comfort, but the scriptures we have been reading are like the unseen anchors that can keep us stable in the midst of our current turmoil, facing directly into the storm. They guide us to the wholeness we desperately crave and need.
1.              Isaiah 40:1 introduces the section that was apparently written for Judah when they were carried into captivity in Babylon. In the worst crisis of their history, God said, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”
2.              When we are impatient for the world to turn toward peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, 2 Peter 3:15 reminds us to regard God’s patience as salvation, not as permitting evil to thrive.
3.              Isaiah 61:1 pointed ahead to Jesus’ mission that has been passed on to us because, the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us, because the Lord has anointed us; he has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, and bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
4.              1 Thessalonians 5:23 assures us that the God of peace will sanctify us entirely, so we may be blameless.
5.              As we read in John 1:23, John the Baptist still calls us to “make straight the way of the Lord,” in our own time and place.

Benediction from 1 Thessalonians  5:23-25

May the God of peace sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and will do this.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Seeing the Image of God in Disabled People

2 Timothy 1:1-14
preached for Milwaukee Mennonite Church
September 24, 2017
© 2017

I have noticed that a number of you open your worship messages with the prayer from Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you our rock and our redeemer.” I feel the need to do a little more today. With the instability of our situation since leaving Dallas, I have not felt I had the spiritual equilibrium to speak in worship yet. A few of you have asked me when I would take a turn at preaching, and when I saw the plan of the worship team for this fall, I told myself I wasn’t ready to handle any of these. But in my morning meditation and prayer later that week, I was drawn to today’s concern for disabled people. With our experience in the L’Arche Daybreak community for mentally disabled adults 25 years ago, I began to feel I do have something to share with you. As I have been praying about and assembling today’s message, I have had a personal encounter that has tested my ability to live out what I am going to say today. I have no great triumph to report, but my praying for what I say and what you hear has been intense.
Michael Arnet was one of the “disabled” core members at Daybreak who lived at Stevenson House, which was our home base in the community, though we lived off campus.
In our first week or two there, a group of a dozen or more went for an outing at the lakefront in Toronto. Michael had already gravitated to me and wanted to hold hands as we walked by the lake. I’m not sure I would have used the word ashamed, but I felt some embarrassment holding hands with a grown man with an obvious disability in public. Not wanting to let on to Michael, I worked this through in my mind and grew more comfortable.
My relationship with Michael developed over our four months at Daybreak. Thursday nights I accompanied him on his bedtime routine. Make lunch and lay out clothes for his next day’s work in a sheltered workshop. Change into pajamas and put dirty clothes in the laundry. Wash up and brush teeth. Pray with Michael before tucking him into bed. He knelt by his bed and stared at a Latin American cross as he prayed usually for 15-20 minutes, sometimes a half hour. This man who could not read or write, whose speech was halting and slurred, whose movement were awkward, prayed for people and crises all over the world. He knew where all of the Daybreak members were from and who was travelling. I never heard him pray for himself but for people he knew were hurting.
At one afternoon worship, the community was commissioning one of the assistant members to move to the L’Arche community in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. About 30-40 of us gathered around her to lay on hands and pray. I was standing next to Michael as he seemed to restlessly lift his hand as though trying to find a place to make contact with someone. When the rhythm of the prayers subsided, with his hand raised over his head, Michael said with a firm, confident voice, “Go with God to Antigonish!” With that the prayers ended and hugs were shared all around. Michael could not have told you what an apostle was, yet he fulfilled the apostolic calling, and the whole community recognized it.
I learned from Michael Arnet how my contemplative aspiration to see God is available in the people with disabilities God brings across my path.
Just a few weeks ago my meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures brought me to Moses at the burning bush. Exodus 3:6 says that Moses was afraid to look at God. I never want to lose the awe, even terror, of seeing God.
In Matthew 5:8 Jesus said that the pure in heart would see God. So my contemplative ambition is not achieved by trying to become a spiritual elitist but through disabled people whom God brings to me.
In his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Søren Kierkegaard explains that Jesus was not speaking so much of moral purity, though that is important, as having a single, pure desire uncontaminated by even good distractions. If the only thing you want is to see God, you will see God.
The 19th century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote that “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” That does not mean dropping out of life to gaze at God, but to intentionally live all of life aware of standing before God.
If you have ever looked at Eastern Orthodox icons, you know they are different than the religious art we are used to. They are not intended to be pictures to look at but windows to look through to see a deeper spiritual reality. Michael Arnet was just such a window, an icon, through which I learned to look for Christ for all the hurting people of the world when I encounter disabled people.
You may recall that in Matthew 25:37-40 Jesus said of those who reach out to people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, and sick, “as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story about Martin the Cobbler to illuminate this passage. Martin believed Christ had promised to visit him on Christmas Eve, and he cared for several needy, hurting people who passed by his shop, but didn’t think he had seen Christ until when reading the passage he heard Christ say he had come in all those folk.
As early as the 4th Century John Chrysostom wrote, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find Him in the Chalice.”
In ­Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
In our time Mother Teresa looked for Christ in the faces of the people dying in the gutters of Calcutta.
So when you feel ashamed, embarrassed, or awkward with someone’s disability, even if it is your own, Jesus invites you to look through that person as an icon, a window to see him.
Disabilities come in many forms and should not be ranked against each other. Some folk don’t recognize in themselves what others consider a disability. Others plead for sympathy with their disability that people around them don’t acknowledge. Some disabilities are physiological, psychological, sociological, and still others spiritual.
Looking for Christ in our own disabilities may be most challenging of all. Candy and I have experienced this in the past year and a half since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Loss of autonomy and control looms large, as does anxiety about the pace of progression. In the current Christianity Today, Matthew Loftus reviewed John Dunlop’s book Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia, which affirms the image of God even as our minds fail.
So the next time you feel ashamed, awkward, embarrassed about someone with a disability, whether you yourself, someone close to you, or someone you observe at a distance, pay attention and you may just catch a glimpse of Jesus.
I invite you to respond today by praying together the L’Arche Prayer that we prayed together after supper every evening at Daybreak.
O Father, we ask You to bless us, and keep us in Your love. May L’Arche be a true home, where the poor in Spirit may find life; A place where those who are suffering, may find comfort and peace. Lord, give us hearts that are open, hearts that are humble and gentle, so that we may welcome those You send, With tenderness and compassion.
Give us hearts full of mercy , that we may love and serve; And where discord is found, may we be able to heal and bring peace; And see in the one who is suffering, the living presence of Your son. Lord, through the hands of Your little ones, we ask You to bless us. Through the eyes of those who are rejected, we ask You to smile on us.
Lord, grant freedom and fellowship, and unity to all the world; And on the day of Your coming, Welcome all people into Your Kingdom.