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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Our Everyday Tests

Matthew 4:1-17
For Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church
January 20, 2019
© 2019
Rohann Zulieen 2009
Well, we just heard the account of Jesus’ temptation from Matthew’s Gospel. Comparing the Gospel accounts, imagining Jesus and the devil going at it, pondering how much was internal and how much was acted out, puzzling over the meaning of each test, and plenty more easily scrambles our brains. My experience is that researching Bible commentaries often muddies the water further. So I am going to take what I think of as a contemplative approach to explore my own journey with Jesus. I hope this will help you to meet the tests of anxiety, fear, and power on your journey by cultivating active companionship with Jesus.
First, I want to suggest a shift in vocabulary from “temptation” to “test.” We typically think of temptation as being lured into doing something evil, even against our will. Jesus was not being attracted to something dirty. He was being tested to be prepared for his ministry.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “lead us not into temptation.” You may remember that Pope Francis recently got in some hot water for suggesting a change of wording so as not to imply that God tempts people. The NRSV correctly translates it as “do not bring us to the time of trial.” So I want us to think about the daily tests we face.
Some of you may remember the comedian Flip Wilson evoking laughs with the line, “The devil made me do it.” We are going to avoid “Flip Wilson theology” today that leaves us feeling helpless so we can focus on how our daily tests can benefit us.
Matthew and Luke say Jesus was tested by the devil; Mark uses “Satan.” We tend to think of “Satan” as the devil’s name and miss the point. Satan comes from the Hebrew hasatan in the Book of Job. Hasatan is not tempting Job to some evil but testing his integrity. Hasatan is the title of the prosecutor in a criminal court, the one who brings the charges. This is in keeping with Revelation 12:10 in which the Messiah casts down “the accuser of our comrades” (“the brethren” in KJV). So I would suggest that when we go around making accusations of each other we are doing the devil’s work.  
After fasting for the spiritual strength for his test, Jesus was hungry and satisfying that bodily need was certainly natural. With our joyful noise offerings we are reminding ourselves that the congregation is in a time of need to provide the resources to keep going. I expect most of us have times of holding our financial breath and scrimping at least a little to get to the next paycheck to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing. This can be a test of how well we trust God with thanksgiving to meet our needs.
In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not asking for our weekly, or monthly, or yearly needs to be assured in advance is a test of faith.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assured us, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 5:31-33)
In explaining the Parable of the Sower, Jesus said that what was sown among thorns is choked out by “the cares of the world.” (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:18; Luke 8:14) The point of this test is not to scold us for worrying about daily needs but to free us from the anxieties that interfere with our joy in daily walking with Jesus.
Over the years I have found I often need to listen to my own sermons. Today is one of those. Our car goes in for major repairs this week, and I feel the test to relinquish my anxiety about paying for that and enjoy walking with Jesus. I am thankful we’ve got enough in our reserve. The test is whether I trust our reserve or trust God.
In my college days I enjoyed rock climbing, even after having taken a pretty serious fall. Part of the thrill is the exhilaration of feeling the fear of queasy legs from a perch viewing a grand panorama not visible from another vantage point. For Jesus the test of jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple may have been about doing something spectacular, but imagining it reminds me of those fears on a rocky cliff. To be sure we all face fears every day. Fears of violence and crime, fears of political and economic chaos in the country, fears of compromised health, fears of relationships gone sour.
1 John 4:18 says that perfect love casts out fear. Based on that, I have long said that the opposite of fear is not courage but love. A mother does not dash in front of a speeding car to snatch her child to safety because she is brave but because her love for the child is greater than her fear. I suggest that when we feel afraid, we ask, “How can I give (or receive) love?”
In Luke 12.32: Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” As small and weak as we may feel, God’s love is so great do need to be intimidated by anything.
And 1 Peter 3.14: says “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear.” Sharing love is more powerful than any of the threats that might immobilize us.
The devil offered Jesus power over all of the kingdoms of the world. So much of the political conflict in churches, in our country, and in the world revolves around a lust for power. With the #MeToo movement, we are hopefully learning that sexual harassment and violence is often more about power than sex. All too often, “getting what I want” outweighs “getting what is right.” Not that we don’t each have our own yearning for power, but for most of us the test is how to respond to those who exert power on us.
Jesus is the quintessential example of the power of humility and service, which he equated with greatness in Matthew 18:4; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43-45; and Luke 9:48; 22:26.
This kind of power culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The prayer in Ephesians 1:19-20 asks for “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe. … God put this power to work in Christ when [God] raised him from the dead.”
This is a great mystery. The power of Christ-like non-violence is not capitulating to evil but confronting evil with love. Finding the path between vengeance and victimhood is a profound test that we can meet by cultivating intimacy with Jesus.
All three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) report that Jesus passed the tests and was ready to begin his public ministry picking up where John the Baptist left off proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has come near.” To pass the tests of your journey, cultivate active companionship with Jesus who passed his tests. A number of years ago I heard Father Thomas Hopko speak on cultivating the spiritual life. He has retired but was then the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said to us, “My mother used to tell me that if I wanted to grow as a Christian I should read my Bible, say my prayers, and go to church. Now I am in charge of training people for leadership in the church and I tell them to read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” I would add this from Father Henri Nouwen, “The spiritual life is not complicated, only difficult.”
You don’t need to become a Bible scholar to stick close to Jesus. I suggest just a single paragraph or episode from a Gospel each day and pay attention to Jesus, especially how he treated people. Don’t skip around (though you could skip the genealogies), just saunter through one Gospel at a time. If you haven’t done this before, I’d suggest starting with Mark and ending with John. Then go back and start over.
When you pray, don’t make it too complicated. You don’t need to be eloquent. Don’t stress over telling God what to do. Just ask to recognize God’s presence and guidance on your journey.
Going to church is not a religious duty or something we do to make God happy. Church is about being with others who are also journeying with Jesus to support and encourage each other. As you cultivate active companionship with Jesus who passed his tests, you will pass the tests of your journey.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Light Through Cracks in the Wall

 Matthew 2:1-23
January 6, 2019 Milwaukee Mennonite Church
January 12, 13 King of Glory Lutheran Church
© 2019

We have come through the Advent and Christmas seasons with their emphasis on the prophecies of peace, righteousness, justice, and prosperity to be brought by the Christ child, whose birth is accompanied by praising angels and adoring shepherds in Luke’s Gospel. We delight in the inspiring, if sometimes sentimental, music of the season. And then we come to Epiphany and get clobbered by the clashing accounts of the Magi and Herod in Matthew. Sure, we’d rather have the Magi arrive at the manger, simultaneously with the shepherds or maybe after their departure, and skip Herod’s bloody slaughter of innocent babies in Bethlehem.
Yet, that unsettling disconnect simmers in our minds and hearts even as we celebrated hope and peace, joy and love. As much as we push it into the shadows, the real events of our world and even our personal lives ask where is the promised hope and peace, joy and love? That is hardly a new anguish.
I well remember Simon and Garfunkel’s 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, in which real news events from August 3, 1966 were played over them singing Silent Night. The jarring discontinuity was just too easy. Not much creativity needed as the Vietnam War raged on.
You may know the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day with its lyrics from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. It was written on Christmas Day 1863 in the midst of the Civil War and published in February 1865, three months before the war ended. The specifically Civil War verses are not usually included in the musical versions. Longfellow clearly saw the Confederacy as an evil threat to peace on earth.
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Just an aside here. Having lived in Texas for 17 years, I can tell you that plenty of people there still think Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army were the real threat to peace on earth. Those whose ancestors lived through that war call it The War Between the States or even the War of Northern Aggression. Nevertheless, we all have moments of identifying with Longfellow’s gloom.
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Matthew reported the birth of Jesus by jamming the discordant stories of the Magi and Herod into each other. This not only acknowledges our painful reality, but sheds light on the way to look for Christ’s peace in our own troubled world and lives. Like light coming between the cracks in a wall, the shadows within are illuminated and we get a glimpse of the light beyond.
The Magi are mysterious figures. We have more questions than information about them. Where did they come from? How did they know that star meant a King of the Jews? How did they recognize this humble baby as that king? If they saw the star rising in the east, how did they know to go west? How did the star point out the house where Jesus was with Mary? Did they not see Joseph in the house? How did they know their dreams were from God and not eating strange food while traveling? How many were they? Of whom did they inquire about the newborn King of the Jews – Temple leaders or Herod? How did Herod know what they were up to? How old was Jesus when they saw him? What did King of the Jews mean to them? Did they understand this baby was the Jewish Messiah or God in human form? Were they historical, or legendary, or both? As a masterful storyteller, Matthew answers none of our questions but piques our curiosity to draw us deeper.
As Matthew tells of mystery and majesty of the visit of the Magi, he plants just enough foreboding of the threat of Herod the Great that we are compelled to keep reading or listening even though we know it will be dreadful. Herod probably thought he killed the child who he thought threatened his power. The horror of killing the babies of Bethlehem accentuates the intrigue of the escape to Egypt under cover of night. Herod the Great had died before Joseph brought Mary and Jesus back from Egypt and withdrew to Galilee because Herod the Great’s son Herod Archelaus was in power in Jerusalem. By the way, Herod was the family name of a dynasty. After Herod Archelaus, his brother Herod Antipas figures in the fate of John the Baptist and in Jesus’ crucifixion. In the next generations Herod Agrippa I dealt with the Apostles Peter and James, and Herod Agrippa II with Paul. That they are all called by the family name Herod gets confusing. Here though, Matthew wanted us to feel the suspense of the threats to the young Jesus.
Obviously Matthew did not tell the stories of the Magi and Herod for children’s story hour. He told them to evoke enough curiosity to keep us reading and engaged to the very end of his Gospel. The child Jesus slipped away into obscurity until just the right moment to proclaim a radically different kingdom than Herod or Caesar or any of the Temple leaders imagined. Jesus’ eventual violent death accomplished God’s purpose in God’s way. Yes, we ponder and puzzle about that too. Jesus’ resurrection signals the triumph of this kingdom of peace. Rather than a coup to dethrone those who rule by violent power, the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection renders their threats meaningless. The light shines in through the cracks in the wall.
Simon and Garfunkel leave us hanging with incongruity. Longfellow seems to defy his own logic as though peace will inevitably come. He asserted that God was neither dead nor asleep, but gives no sign of that hope. He made no reference to Jesus whose birth the Christmas bells announced. He undoubtedly saw that in the Union victory in the Civil War, though we know that was not peace.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Matthew, on the other hand, is both more realistic and genuinely hopeful. The light of hope and peace, joy and love shine through the cracks between Matthew’s stories of the Magi and Herod.
First the story of the Magi tells us that God is alive and awake in obscure and hidden people, neither the pious nor powerful. This is not just wishful thinking; it is always God’s way. Like the Magi, these folk may not fully understand what they are up to, but they are still God’s agents of peace. And the story of Herod tells us that though the people of violent power are visible, they are powerless to stop Jesus’ people of peace.
Second, the light shining through the crack between these two stories illuminates the darkness within. Within our world and within ourselves. Where does the light coming through a crack highlight someone acting as an agent of peace? A compassionate touch or act for someone struggling? A reconciling word for those who have been alienated? Where does the light coming through a crack light up a dark corner in your own soul? Or an opportunity for you to encourage someone in pain?
Third, the light invites us to come close to the wall and peer through the crack to recognize the light of God’s peace on the move in the flow of human affairs. As Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased Theodore Parker (1810-1860), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Its meaning and truth are debated, but Matthew’s accounts of the Magi and Herod affirm that God is alive and active whether we recognize it or not. Perhaps we only hear the whisper of one obscure voice, but when we look beyond our immediate situation, we can recognize how God is fitting all of these seemingly insignificant pieces into a redemptive whole. The Magi and Joseph got enough of a glimpse not to be intimidated by Herod. Look through the crack to see the light of God around and beyond us.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Prayer: Tuning In

Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 6:7-15
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
September 30, 2018
© 2018

I recently saw a video on Facebook that I thought would be a good way to introduce today’s reflection. However, between technical questions and the challenge of visibility on the screen, I thought a little readers’ theater would be better.
Mom: Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads, he said,
Son: God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would thank you even more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. Amen.
Mom: Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark,
Woman: That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!
Mom: Hearing this my son burst into tears and asked me,
Son: Did I do something wrong? Is God mad at me?
Mom: As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, a man approached the table. He winked at my son and said,
Man: I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.
Son: Really?
Man: Cross my heart. (Theatrical stage whisper indicating the woman) Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.
Mom: Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment, and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae, walked over and placed it on front of the woman. With a big smile he told her,
Son: Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes; and my soul is good already.
So we smile a bit. Maybe you wouldn’t grump like the woman in the restaurant, but you’re thinking that there’s much more to prayer than asking God for ice cream. To be sure, but something about a child’s spontaneous innocence puts us on the right track. That he responded to the woman with his six-year-old act of kindness is the fruit of prayer. Focus statement: God is always present and active in our lives and in the world. Our practices of prayer are like tuning into a frequency that creates an awareness of God’s presence all around us.
If you listen to many prayers, even your own, they can sound as though we think God needs to be told what to do by us. Or that we need to talk God into doing what we want, and if enough of us do it often enough, long enough, hard enough, God has to do what we say. Think about it. Rather arrogant to presume that we should be telling God what to do.
Something is a little awkward about sharing prayer requests in a group and then praying about them, as though God wasn’t listening until we formally started to pray. Not that we shouldn’t be sharing our prayer joys and concerns with each other, but we can be aware that God is listening at the same time as the rest of us. In New Jersey I led a simple worship with lunch for what we might call street people. When prayer time came, I would say, “What do you want to share with us so God will overhear?” The wrap up prayer may not list every thanks or request but affirm with gratitude that God heard.
You may have heard the slogan “prayer changes things” as an encouragement to pray, and more recently you may have heard this appropriate corrective “prayer changes you.” Indeed, it is not so much that by praying we convince God to do what we want, but when we pray we get in touch with God’s perspective and God’s power. I have found this understanding of prayer from the Russian mystics Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) and Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) to be both challenging and helpful.
To pray means to stand before God to gaze unswervingly at God and converse with God in reverent fear and hope. The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before God unceasingly day and night, until the end of life. [The Art of Prayer, 1966, Faber and Faber Ltd. London. pp. 50, 63]
So what do we expect when we pray about and for specific people and things that are important to us? If God already know both the concern and what to do about it, why pray?
In Luke 11:5-13, Jesus tells the story of a neighbor who receives a late night visitor and awakens his friend to ask for food to serve his guest. As an encouragement to pray with persistence, Jesus said that even though the neighbor will not get up to give him anything because they are friends, he will do it because of the friend’s persistence.
In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus taught about the need to pray always and not lose heart by telling the story of a widow who took her cause before an unjust judge, who finally renders justice for her, not because he feared God or respected anyone, but because she kept bothering him.
Some years ago Roberta Bondi, who taught at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, wrote a series of articles on intercessory prayer for The Christian Century. Her starting point was that in Jesus, God has become our friend, and friends talk over their concerns, good and bad, with each other. More than enlisting the friend to intervene, such conversations elicit the support and insight of the friend. She suggested when we know God as our friend, we can discuss anything with God, and God will support and guide us with loving wisdom. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t act on our behalf, but that God is constantly active for God’s friends, including us.
Luke’s Gospel gives more attention to Jesus’ practice and teaching of prayer than the other Gospels. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer does not come in the context of Jesus’ sermon, but in response to the disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (11:1) Sometime, like the woman’s response to the boy in the sketch, I think our concern about praying the right way is connected with thinking that technique will move God to the action we want. Yet, something about feeling like an inadequate beginner is healthy for our prayer life. Theophan the Recluse spoke eloquently of this.
Always pray as if beginning for the first time. When we do a thing for the first time, we come to it fresh and with a new-born enthusiasm. If, when starting to pray, you always approach it as though you had never yet prayed properly, and only now for the first time wished to do so, you will always pray with a fresh and lively zeal. And all will go well.
Jesus gave us some important cues in the Lord’s Prayer.
We’ve gotten so used to saying, “Our Father,” that it has become a tired cliché, and in our time a battleground over gender and hierarchy. But when Jesus said it, it was radical and new. The word is Abba. “Dad.” Familiar, intimate address. Almost unheard of in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even in Islam today, considered disrespectful if not blasphemous.
All of the pronouns are plural: our and us. While prayer is personal, it is also experienced in community. So we share concerns and joys together!
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” means that prayer is about our life here and now.
“Daily bread” keeps us focused in the immediacy of the present, not wallowing in the past or fearing the future, but trusting God day by day, moment by moment.
Forgive as we forgive means not only that we don’t have to be fully righteous to pray but live in grace, not only between us and God but with each other.
Several recent translations render “deliver us from temptation” as “do not bring us to the time or trial” or “testing.” This acknowledges that life will be challenging and God walks with us in our distresses.
And “deliver us from evil” translated as “rescue us from the evil one.” To be sure, the “evil one” might be the devil, but in the early centuries of the Church is was understood as evil people who oppress not just Christians but all who are weak, poor, vulnerable.
Yes, I have led prayer workshops and retreats, but my purpose with this worship reflection is not to teach you how to pray. Rather I hope to give you a refreshing and liberating look at your own prayers so you have an enthusiasm to begin again as if for the first time. Start with the Lord’s Prayer, but if you want to keep learning to pray I have a few suggestions.
Pray through the Psalms. These have been the prayers of God’s people for over 3000 years.
Look up the prayers in the New Testament Epistles and see how they will stretch your prayers into unexplored, exhilarating territory.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul wrote to pray without ceasing. Many in the Eastern Orthodox Church have found that repeating the Jesus Prayer enables this. It is based on the prayer of the Publican in Luke 18:13. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
We easily focus so much on what we say when we pray, that sitting silently with the mind and heart turned toward God is also profound prayer, sometimes called Centering Prayer.
I want to end by returning to our focus statement. God is always present and active in our lives and in the world. Our practices of prayer are like tuning into a frequency that creates an awareness of God’s presence all around us.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Lord Is with You

Genesis 39:1-23
September 22,23, 2018
King of Glory Lutheran Church
Spirit of Peace Lutheran Church
© 2018

This is a very tough story to read aloud in worship. It jars our comfort level of expecting something pleasant for church. I must tell you that especially as the substitute preacher, I find it challenging, and want you to know it was assigned to me. I didn’t pick it out so I could rattle anyone’s cage.
Longer ago than I care to count, Joy Wilt was writing incisively about Christian education for children. She said that the Bible should be “Rated R,” not so much for risqué stories like this but because it was written for adults and children need adults to accompany them as they are introduced to the Bible. My friend Joe Bayly, whose career was in Christian education publishing, used to say that we should not water down stories like this to make them “safe” for children, but wait to introduce them when they are adolescents and can appreciate the power of the encounters. Diluted versions only inoculate children against recognizing God in the realities of life.
I don’t want to get sidetracked here, but not to mention that, even though Joseph was a male, he had his own #MeToo experience. He was the victim of a predator who used sex for oppressive power. Any of you who have had that experience know that sexual harassment is about power with sex as the weapon.
We Protestants are not usually too familiar with the Apocrypha, but the story of “Susanna and the Elders” is a classic case study of sexual harassment, with men as the perpetrators and a woman victim accused unjustly because of her righteousness, as Joseph was. I encourage you to find a copy and read it alongside Joseph’s story.
Five times the story says that The Lord was with Joseph (vv. 2,3,5,21,23). By exploring that, we can learn how to recognize that The Lord is with us too, in both our apparent successes as well as our persistent struggles, and yes, even when we are victims of injustice.
We easily miss that when our English translations use “The Lord” in large and small caps, the Hebrew behind it is what is considered to be God’s personal name: YHWH. So when the story says The Lord was with Joseph, it implies a personal relationship between them. When Joseph refused Potiphar’s wife’s advances, he said he could not sin against God. The Hebrew behind that is Elohiym, which is a general word for God or even gods. Joseph did not use the personal name for The Lord but the general “God” with this Gentile temptress.
We easily recognize and celebrate that The Lord was with Joseph when Potiphar’s household prospered under Joseph’s management. The Lord blessed Potiphar because of Joseph. Though in more difficult circumstances, clearly The Lord was also with Joseph when he managed the prison so well that the chief jailer trusted him the care of all the prisoners. These blessings seem to be The Lord’s promise to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s offspring in Genesis 12:3.
Not so easy to see is that The Lord was also with Joseph when he suffered as a victim of injustice. His brothers sold him as a slave, which is how he got to Egypt. When Potiphar’s wife couldn’t seduce him, she made false accusations and he was thrown in prison. We read past these things in just a few moments without realizing that Joseph endured these injustices for years. Still, The Lord was with him building patience and character that would not have happened as the coddled favorite son at home.
One of the problems with getting stuck with a children’s Sunday school version of this story is that we settle for a shallow moral of the story: be a good kid like Joseph and we miss the power of knowing that The Lord is with you in both apparent success and prolonged difficulty.
In some church circles people speak of a personal relationship with Jesus in a way that can seem a little pious and pretentious. However, when the Joseph story uses God’s personal name, YHWH, The Lord is the one who is being personal and intimate. The Lord is personally choosing to be with you! Let that sink in for a moment.
So when things are going well, and you sense you are prospering, instead of imagining you’re good at relating personally to The Lord, look around to see how The Lord is prospering the people around you, whether it seems to come through you or not.
And when you are enduring a prolonged hardship, especially if it is the result of some injustice imposed on you, remember that The Lord is personally hanging onto you even when you feel you can’t hang onto The Lord. From the Hebrew Prophets, to Jesus, to the New Testament Epistles, over and over again, Scripture assures us that The Lord extends steadfast love to the poor, the weak, the broken, the widow and orphan, the stranger and outcast.
In Genesis 12 (which we read last Sunday), when God promised to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s descendants, Abraham responded to God’s call by leaving a settled home and becoming a perpetual nomad. Every place he journeyed, Abraham pitched their tent and built an altar. We know the tent was portable, but so were these altars. They were made of earth and or stone to serve while Abraham sojourned in that place and were not carried from place to place nor were they fancy furnishing for a temple. When Abraham moved on, they returned to the earth.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola described the spiritual journey as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. We see that in Joseph’s story and know it on our own personal journeys with Jesus. Ignatius taught recognizing the presence of Jesus whether your present path is one of consolation or desolation.
Recently, Pope Francis encouraged people to connect with Jesus by spending two minutes a day reading from the Gospels. If you don’t already have a way you watch for Jesus in the Gospels, just start with Matthew. Skip the tedious parts like the genealogies, and just read one incident and let Jesus meet you all day with it. I believe that will help you recognize that he is right with you in your consolations and desolations.
As I was starting my career nearly 50 years ago, Abraham “living in tents” as described in Hebrews 11:9-10, became a guiding metaphor for the journey Candy and have been making. We have pitched our tent in Illinois, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Texas, with even brief campouts in Ontario and Oklahoma. Now our pilgrimage has brought us back to Wisconsin for our final sojourn until we reach the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. To be sure, Candy’s Alzheimer’s is a season of desolation. However, everyday our son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren with whom we share a duplex are a great consolation. The support of the Spirit of Peace and Milwaukee Mennonite communities have been the presence of Jesus to us again and again. These have been consolation to us on this journey.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

God’s Redemptive Love vs. The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Ray Gingrich and Norman Stolpe on
The Good Samaritan (Luke 9:51-56; 10:25-37)

A little more detail on my journey and an exploration of the biblical, theological, and historical factors that convinced me to seek conscientious objector classification is available at http://nstolpepilgrim.blogspot.com/2018/06/my-conscientious-objector-journey-and.html 

In the video Ben identifies examples of the myth of redemptive violence. https://mcc.org/media/resources/3534 In this brief video he can’t explore the presuppositions and even theological rationales that prompt invoking redemptive violence in the admittedly challenging and threatening conditions of our world. For me, the juxtaposition of these two Samaritan stories in Luke brings rich illumination.
Even though the disciples had observed Jesus’ compassionate, counter-cultural interaction with Samaritan people before, (John 4) they were probably a little uneasy in this Samaritan village, which was accentuated when the people there rejected Jesus because he was on his way to Jerusalem. James and John were offended and indignant and bent on vengeful pay back. I am amused that they thought they could call down fire from heaven to consume the people of this village. They don’t ask Jesus to do it; they ask for his permission for them to do it.
A lot of the myth of redemptive violence arises from wanting people who have offended us to pay a penalty, as though that works justice. When we hear arguments that those who have caused injury only understand violence, therefore we must respond with force, we are betraying our failure of imagination to find not only non-violent but more effective ways of responding. Admittedly that is risky, hard work.
This occurred when Jesus was making his final trip to Jerusalem, knowing what fate awaited him, so that the story we call the Good Samaritan is so close to it is not accidental. It was shocking not only to the lawyer who questioned Jesus, but to the disciples as well. Having recently been rebuked by Jesus for asking revenge on Samaritans, for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of his story stung. In that sting is the antidote to the myth of redemptive violence.
I am pleased and delighted that Ray and I can share our conscientious objector journeys with you. We both faced the military draft at the height of the Vietnam War. Ray came to this from within Mennonite tradition and did alternative service. I did not come from an historic peace church. At first I felt that may have disqualified me from speaking today. What could I say to you who have been steeped in this tradition for centuries? As we talked, I think we both came to see that the juxtaposition of our stories is enriching as are the juxtaposition of the stories we have read in Luke and the journey Ben has been relating to us.
Ray Gingrich                        One “Draft Dodger:” A Chronology
1944-61: When I was 8 months old, my dad was drafted and served as a CO in Belton, Montana. Even though pacifism was preached my church, Zion Mennonite, Whiskey Hill, Oregon, about half of the 20 or so men who were drafted went into the military, the others into Civilian Public Service camps. My church and my parents talked and taught a lot about the wrongfulness of Christians participating in war. The Mennonite boys didn’t play with toy guns at Whiskey Hill grade school. They wrestled and played football at Canby High School to prove their masculinity. Gene Autry was singing, “At Mail Call Today” on the radio.

1961: The ministers of Zion Mennonite Church, conducted a Sunday-morning prep for the 17-year old boys who would be registering with the Selective Service. Started with a Bible-study of relevant passages: Gideon and a few others from the OT and many from the NT, the SOM, Romans 12, and the crucifixion most prominent. The last few sessions were prep for facing interrogation at the draft board: they will ask you about Hitler. A possible answer: “If I were a German youth and facing Hitler’s draft, I would probably have joined up like all of my other Christian friends.” Q: “No, what if you were an American youth in WW2?” A: “Well, hopefully, I would have been opposed to America doing business with Hitler during the 30’s, and like most Americans at the beginning of the war, I would have been opposed to going to war.” Q: “No, what about after the war started?” A: “Well, like my father before me, hopefully, I would have chosen to serve by binding up wounds rather than causing them.” Q: “What if our country was invaded?” A: “I trust that God and my church would show me the way at that time.” Pete Seeger was singing, “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” on the radio.

1964-66. Goshen College, majoring in Social Work. The Vietnam War was gearing up. My resident mates in Yoder Hall, 3rd and 4th floors had all-night debates on the legitimacy of pacifism. I was dating Lisa’s mom. Dr. Lester Glick was my social work professor. In March of 66, Operation Masher had just completed in Vietnam with 288 American Soldiers killed, 880 wounded; 1342 Viet Cong killed; more than 10,000 Vietnamese civilians with 125,000 left homeless. President Johnson changed the name of Operation Masher to Operation White Wing to sound more benign. Johnson said it was a success. The group of 7 Whiskey Hill kids at Goshen College met with our former Zion pastor each week to study Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.  The war was just getting into “full swing.” Phil Ochs was singing “What Are You Fighting For” on the radio.

Spring 1966: The first Goshen College student caught smoking pot was disciplined by the school. Joan Baez was just cancelled by GC because she didn’t agree to wear shoes. We pacifists watched Hogan’s Heroes on TV: sure, Nazis were funny, stupid and continually outsmarted by their American POWs. In April, I got my orders from the Selective Service to report for my physical for the draft within 30 days of my graduation on June 6. I informed my draft board that I was registered as a CO. My draft board sent me a list of potential sites for me to do my alternative service. A dorm-mate decided that alternative service was too much cooperation with the government and was heading for Canada. Pete Seeger was singing, “Bring them Home” on the radio.

June 1966: Lisa’s mom and I were married at Iglesia Menonita de Milwaukee on June 11.  We had our wedding date set for June 11 so my parents could attend my graduation and our wedding on the same trip to the Midwest from Oregon. We had a one-day honeymoon in Door County on June 12. The following day, I reported for my alternative service assignment at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The personnel director welcomed me with a somewhat derisive, “Oh, you’re the draft dodger.” As hospital patients watched the news on TV of coffins being unloaded from C-130 cargo planes, I felt some guilt at safely prepping patients for surgery, inserting urinary catheters, emptying bed pans, prepping deceased patients for and transporting them to the morgue and the various other tasks of a hospital orderly while kids my age were dying in the war. Senator J. William Fulbright was holding hearings on the legitimacy of the war. My senators from Oregon, Dem. Wayne Morse and GOP Mark Hatfield both opposed the war. The draft resistance was just beginning. The draft lottery wouldn’t begin for another 2 years. I read Senator Fulbright’s book, Arrogance of Power, during breaks at the hospital. That Christmas, Simon and Garfunkel were singing, “Seven O’clock News/Silent Night” on the radio.

July 30, 1967 a “race riot” broke out in Milwaukee, 1 of 159 in the U.S. that summer. A 24-hour curfew was imposed except for critical needs workers which included hospital workers like me. National Guard troops were stationed on the corner of 20th and State where we lived. I began walking the 8 blocks to the hospital on July 31, only to be picked up and transported by guardsmen. Four people died, many were injured and 1740 were arrested.  Arlo Guthrie sang “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” on the radio.

1966-68: The war raged on. I marched in many of the Milwaukee peace rallies and open-housing marches. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy on June 5. In August, the Democratic National Convention was more of a riot than a convention. The protest movement was split between Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern resulting in the nomination of establishmentarian Hubert Humphrey. November 2, 1968. Personnel office. Mt. Sinai Hospital: Same personnel director as 27 months earlier, with a hint of affection: “Oh, the draft dodger, if you know any others like you, send them our way.” The war raged on. Joan Baez sang “Saigon Bride” on the radio.

January 1983, after having read Donald Kauffman’s What Belongs to Caesar, I was faced with paying income tax. For the first time ever, I owed more than was withheld because of all the consulting work I had done the previous year. Kauffman challenged the notion that Jesus’ was advocating paying taxes in his response to the Pharisee trap question regarding taxes of “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and examined the question: what belongs to Caesar and concludes that taxes for immoral purposes do not belong to Caesar. So, I was struggling with the possibility of war tax resistance. I was afraid to do it. I was in Austin, TX, and did not have a Mennonite community to struggle with me. Then, along came the motion picture Gandhi and challenged me still further—the movie that is. I saw the movie early in the week before my birthday and Gandhi’s courage challenged my cowardice. Then, a friend said she would like to surprise me for my birthday. I thought probably dinner. No, we were at a theater to see Gandhi. I didn’t tell her until sometime later that I had already seen it and I took it as a sign that I needed to do the war tax resistance. Which I did for four years until Barb and I got married and we bought a house and I didn’t owe taxes beyond withholding any more. When the IRS told me they might take my car or garnish my wages I thought I better tell my boss. I invited him to lunch. I failed to tell him that I wanted a confidential meeting and he brought a new employee, a former West Texas police officer with him. I decided to tell him anyway, in front of the new guy. My boss knew me fairly well by then and I knew he wouldn’t be shocked by my decision. He told the new guy, “Ray is a conscientious objector, so this a serious matter for him.” Finally, the new guy asked, “Vietnam?” I said, no, all war—I registered as a CO in high school before the war started. The new guy’s mouth dropped open and he said, “If that would have happened in my high school, the football captain would have beat the crap out of you.” My boss laughed. “Why are you laughing,” the new guy asked. “Because he was a state champion wrestler,” my boss said. “And, the football captain,” I added. Cognitive dissonance to the max. “You were a wrestler and the football captain AND a conscientious objector?” Then, he shut up—didn’t say a word all the way back to the office. The IRS garnished my wages. Randy Newman was singing, “Song of the Dead” radio.

I am grateful to all of those who went before and on whose shoulders I stood.  There’s more in my activist history but I better stop.
Norman Stolpe                      My Conscientious Objector Journey
My conscientious objector journey is integral to and inseparable from my journey to follow Jesus as his faithful disciple. Though I grew up in church, I mark the beginning of my adult faith with the reading of Job and Archibald MacLeish’s play JB in World Lit as a high school senior in 1964. I began to see that God understood and cared about the seemingly insoluble struggles of human experience.  My new awareness of God’s perspective on human reality and my growing aspiration to follow Jesus converged with the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Five years of student deferments during my college years gave me time to study and ponder how I would respond as a disciple of Jesus. By the time those deferments ran out, I had become convinced I could not live out my discipleship in the context of military service.
My wife, Candy, and I got married on January 25, 1969 and I headed to Wheaton Grad School and began my ministry in Christian education curriculum development. I began composing my letter to the draft board requesting conscientious objector classification. Then in December 1969, the first lottery was held for the Vietnam War draft. My lottery number was 315, making being drafted in 1970, the only year of my liability, highly unlikely.
At the time I was working on a Christian education youth curriculum project that was based on Elton Trueblood’s book The New Man for Our Time which had just been published based on the Quaker “saint” John Woolman (1720-1772) as the model of someone who could think, act, and pray. This prompted me to read John Woolman’s Journal a decade before I had any idea I would live and minister in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, his home town from 1980 to 1997. This confirmed my growing conviction that sending my letter to the draft board was an essential expression of my discipleship.
I had grown up, been educated, and was ministering in revivalist, pietistic evangelicalism. Conscientious objection to war was known but not widely affirmed in my circles. In the course of my investigations, I learned that Dwight L. Moody (yes, of Moody Bible Institute, Moody Press, Moody Church) had been a conscientious objector and refused service in the Union Army during the Civil War, describing himself as “a Quaker” in this respect. Moody made nine visits to the battlefields as a chaplain/evangelist to the wounded, insisting that Confederate soldiers be as well treated as Union soldiers. This anchored my conscientious objector convictions solidly in the evangelical tradition, of which I am an heir.
As a teen, I remember being challenged with the question, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” I sensed that my letter requesting conscientious objector classification was such evidence. I knew of those who were not from historic peace churches whose conscientious objector requests were denied, and when they refused military induction were sent to prison. Just into the second year of our marriage and hoping to start a family, I struggled with the prospect of prison before submitting my letter and concluded I had to accept that as a possible consequence of acting on my convictions. The reply I received was that since my lottery number was so high, they would not process my request as they were fully occupied with other responsibilities.
When I was ordained for ministry in 1975, I wrote a paper for the ordination council presenting my faith journey and sense of call to ministry. I included my conscientious objector convictions in that paper. I also described the profound impact my father had had on my faith and sense of calling. At my ordination service, my father embraced me with tears in his eyes to tell me how wonderful he felt reading of his influence on me in my ordination paper.
My father had served as a medic with the Navy in World War II. When I was 10 or 12, I asked him if he could tell me anything heroic he had done. He proudly described his role as “helping to heal the wounds of war.” Before I sent my letter to the draft board, I talked it over with my father. Though he did not consider himself a pacifist, he affirmed and supported my decision to express my Christian discipleship in this way.
The Baptist General Conference (once known as the Swedish Baptist Conference) in which I grew up was not an historic peace church. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, many young men from “non-conformist” (meaning non-Lutheran) backgrounds in Sweden came to the United States to avoid being drafted, contributing to the growth of that denomination. My father’s father was among them.
Though my adult church life and ministry career led me out of the Baptist General Conference, I did not worship with or serve as pastor in historic peace churches. In those years I hope I learned to have healthy dialog with those who do not embrace my pacifist convictions. I respect and do not judge those who sincerely live out their Christian discipleship in military service. I hope that they have been able to respect without judgment my conscientious objection to war and military service as my expression of sincerely following Jesus.
I must confess that this has been more challenging in my family than in the congregations I have served. My brother-in-law Max still suffers with PTSD from his time in Vietnam. My nephew Tom is a career Navy officer and in my estimation is an admirable example of living as a disciple of Jesus in his marriage, family, church, and yes his Navy career. Some of these issues are so sensitive, we all cautiously put priority on loving relationships in the family.
You all know David and his commitment to peace and justice. Our oldest son Jon does not consider himself a pacifist. However, after his sophomore year as a mechanical engineering major at Grove City College, he was offered a Navy nuclear scholarship – a high academic honor and financially substantial. Before making his decision he spent an evening with a retired career Navy officer in our church. Much to the surprise of the engineering faculty and fellow students, Jon turned down the scholarship saying that he could not relinquish making his moral decisions to the Navy or the US government. I don’t know that our youngest son Erik has had occasion to consider this the way his brothers have, and his personal spiritual journey is still very much in formation. Nevertheless, he does have an acute sensitivity to issues of peace and justice.
While I have necessarily focused on my conscientious objector journey, I hope you can see how this is inseparable from my intent to live in such continuous awareness of the presence of God that my heart and character are in increasingly congruent harmony with Jesus Christ. I resonate with the prayer of Richard of Chichester (1197-1253) which some of you may know from the musical Godspell.
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly, day by day.
Ray Responds to Norm
I am grateful to be able to stand in the 500 year teaching of my Mennonite discipleship that requires non-participation in war. That position as a subset of allegiance to Jesus rather than the state has been a minority position—a small minority—among Christians since 1525. And, I stand in awe of those early Anabaptists who were drowned and burned for their discipleship. Being labeled a draft dodger pales in comparison to our ancestors’ persecution.
But, in the present era, when the laws of our country’s religious freedom allows for our minority stance without persecution, my admiration for people like Norm exceeds that of people like me. As to Christians participating in war, Norm comes from a tradition much older than my own, which dates back to Constantine early 4th century. Shortly after marching his armies into rivers for baptism, Augustine of Hippo led the church’s heretofore teaching against participation in war to a new doctrine of sanctioning participation in “just war.”  I went with the flow—with my teaching from childhood at very low cost to me. Norm went against his tradition, his church’s teaching, his parents’ teaching and followed his own conscience. Norm, I admire you for your bravery and for your witness.
Norm Responds to Ray
I was intrigued that Ray used the term “draft dodger” from the way he was greeted on arrival for his alternative service assignment at Mt. Sinai Hospital. From my perspective, as one who performed alternative service facing both its ridicule and opportunities, I hardy consider the term appropriate for him. I suppose it might better fit me as one who was not drafted because of student deferments and a high lottery number. Of course, we both know the term “draft dodger” was applied more to those who illegitimately manipulated the system with minor medical or other excuses rather than deal with issues of conscience.
I was also intrigued that Goshen College students debated pacifism. I would have assumed a uniform pacifist consensus. At community college in 1964-67, it was much discussed but without reference to Christian convictions. Many of us Bethel College students wrestled together about how to follow Jesus in the pursuit of both peace and civil rights. I naively imagined that if I had been in an historic peace church setting, this would not have been such a struggle. I am encouraged to know that those in pacifist traditions were also wrestling and not just accepting inherited presuppositions.  Thanks, Ray, for sharing your story.

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.”