Sermon: When you’re worried and distracted (July 17, 2016)

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View of Lake Chautauqua from the center of camp

 

Text: Luke 10:38-42

When Jesus visits Martha and Mary, Martha bustles around getting things done, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen. After telling Martha how worried and distracted she is, Jesus commends Mary. But how hard it can be just to sit and listen to Jesus when there are so many things to be done! How do we find the time in our busy lives, so full of worries and distractions, simply to sit and listen to our Lord?

Pentecost 9C (7.17.16)

Sermon: A Good Samaritan Response to Violence (July 10, 2016)

Pentecost 8C
July 10, 2016
Luke 10:25-37, Colossians 1:1-14

The priest saw the man there, bruised and bloodied, and his heart ached. He saw so many victims like this, on this dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Just this morning, he had seen two already, each more harshly beaten than the last. This time, at least, he hesitated slightly before sighing and crossing to the other side of the road. The reality was that it was likely too late for this man. And if he was already dead, as he seemed to be, the priest couldn’t really risk touching him, for in doing so he would then have to neglect his other priestly duties because he would be unclean. With a heavy heart, he decided that for the greater good, it would be best if he just kept along his way, and prayed that he not be next.

Then the Levite came along. He, too, had seen the two previous men, plus another in the meantime. For each of them, he had, as he walked carefully by, prayed silently for the beaten men and for their families. Prayers were powerful, he knew, though for as much as he told himself this, he also knew that they weren’t really enough. The reality was that this road was a dangerous one, and as long as the road remained the same, people would continue to be beaten and left for dead. But there wasn’t much he could do about it, right? Sure, he had some power, as a Levite, but only some. Prayers, he could offer, and he did. So like for the other men, he offered prayers for this man, as he kept his distance… though if he was being honest, even his prayers were getting slightly less emphatic, less heartfelt. The thing was, he had offered the same prayer so many times before, and nothing seemed to change. He was tired, and growing increasingly hopeless. As he looked sadly at the man on the other side of the road, he sighed heavily, shaking his head. He wiped a tear from his eye for the injustice of it all, and kept on walking toward Jericho.

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Often with Jesus’ parables, especially famous ones like this, we find an entry point by seeking to identify with one of the characters, getting into their heads and trying to understand them. This week, in the wake of two instances of police shooting seemingly innocent black men, followed by a sniper gunning down several police officers as they protected folks at a peace march in Dallas, I have identified in a new way with these two men who crossed to the other side of the road when they saw a man who had been beaten. These two usually get a bad wrap, don’t they? These are the guys who are not neighbors to the man in need. They are the guys about whom we think, “Where’s the compassion?” then self-righteously imagine that of course we would have stopped to help, like the Samaritan. They have always been the disappointing ones in Jesus’ famous story.

But as I have read the news this week of yet another act of police violence seemingly indicative of racial bias, and the misguided violent response of a man killing in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement… I totally get where the priest and the Levite are coming from. We know a bit about the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, that it was a dangerous one where beatings like this happened all the time. It is indeed entirely likely that the priest and the Levite had seen several such victims on their journey already. Being godly men, they probably felt the pain of each victim deeply. I have felt things deeply, too. My heart has broken so many times in the past few years, each time I hear of innocent people being killed by people filled with hatred or fear or misunderstanding or darkness, each time I learn of an injustice that I thought this country had moved past, each time I watch the people who are supposed to make laws to protect us instead sit back on their heels and not act. Like I’m sure many of you, I have developed a case of compassion fatigue. Violence is becoming normal; I’m numb to the pain, even as I desperately fear that this could happen in my child’s school, my church, my movie theater, my neighborhood. Recognizing that because my family and I are white and thus likely safe from at least racially driven violence brings only fleeting relief, as the next beat of my heart reminds me that any time a child of God is harmed, no matter their color or background or age or gender or sexuality, we are all harmed, because we are all in this together.

This week I saw and reposted on Facebook a beautiful quote from Mother Theresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” If that is true – and I believe it is – then what needs to happen next? Did the priest and the Levite see that beaten man as someone who belonged to them, indeed as someone to whom they belonged? Do I belong to Alton Sterling? Does Philando Castile belong to me? How about the police officers who shot them? Do we belong to those five slain police officers in Dallas? Does Micah Johnson, the Dallas shooter, belong to us, and we to him?

Or to use Jesus’ words, are all of these our neighbors? If the answer is yes (spoiler alert: the answer is yes), then how are we to respond? With sadness and disappointment, I recognized in myself this week that I would like simply to cross to the other side, to ignore it and hope someone else deals with it, someone who knows better, or has more power, or has more time for it. Like the priest and the Levite, I am tired. I’m tired of the pain, I’m tired of praying about it and feeling like nothing is changing, I’m tired of trying to talk carefully about it so as not to offend anyone whose views and opinions about it differ from mine. I’m tired, and I’m angry, and I’m sad, and I’m increasingly hopeless, but mostly I’m tired – so tired that I would like to follow my clergy friends in Jesus’ story and cross to the other side.

But that of course is not the message of Jesus’ story. Jesus is not telling the story to comfort those of us who feel compassion fatigue. Jesus is calling us out, helping us to see and to name our neighbors, showing us what being a neighbor looks like. He does this in the most shocking way possible – by lifting up as the very example of a neighbor another man… who is the wrong race, the wrong religion, the definition of “despised other,” and showing how even (especially!) this Samaritan is capable of being a neighbor. He shows us that caring for one other crosses the border. He shows us that even if we have every good reason not to be a neighbor to this particular person – because he is black, or because she is a cop, or because he has a criminal record, or because she is a racist, or because he just doesn’t look right – that when it comes down to it, we are all sons and daughters created in the image of God. We are sisters and brothers who belong to one another. We are neighbors.

I am tired, and I know you are, too. But ours is a God who sees this broken world as redeemable, and who would do anything, including sending His own Son, to show us that. Ours is also a God who calls us to be in but not of that broken world: speaking out in the name of the God of life who loves all people of all colors and types, lifted up by the One who showed us that life, not death, would have the final world, and sustained and empowered by the Spirit of truth.

We are neighbors. And we are able to be neighbors because God enables us to be so. And so, my brothers and sisters, my neighbors, do not cease praying. Ask that “you would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” As you seek out ways to be a neighbor even to people to whom you don’t yet know how to be a neighbor, “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints of light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:9-14)

With God’s power, then, let us go out in good courage to be neighbors to the world. Let us figure out how to be a neighbor – how to build relationships, how to truly call one another brother and sister, how to see and understand the perspectives and insights of those who differ from us. Let us acknowledge that this work is tiring, but when we work together, it is possible. Let us lift one another up, listen to each other, see each other, know each other. Let us ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and then go and be it. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here is the recording from worship:

Sermon: Called for freedom (June 26, 2016)

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Text: Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

As Americans, we talk a lot of freedom. But the Christian freedom that Paul talks about to the Galatians is something different: we’re not free to say and do whatever we want, to self-indulge, to punish those who need punishing. Rather, we are free to love and serve one another. What might look like in your day to day life?

Pentecost 6C (6.26.16)

Sermon: Assumptions and sin-mirrors (June 12, 2016)

David and Nathan, by Jacob Backer

David and Nathan, by Jacob Backer

Text:
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
Luke 7:36-8:1-3

Any number of factors can cause us to make assumptions about other people, and often these assumptions turn to judgments. It happens in scripture, and it happens in our daily lives. In his interpretation of the 8th commandment, however, Luther urges us to interpret our neighbor’s actions in the “best possible light.” When we are able to do that, we might also be able to see where we have fallen short of that, and in turn, seek repentance – the very same healing repentance and subsequent forgiveness we see in Jesus’ interaction with the sinful woman in today’s Gospel.

Pentecost 4C (6.12.16)

Strawberry Social: June 15

Warm weather is finally here, so at Bethlehem we’ve got STRAWBERRIES on the brain! That’s right, we are gearing up for our annual Strawberry Social. Here are the details:

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When: Wednesday, June 15, 4:30pm until gone.

Who: the whole family, and all your friends!

Menu: Beef BBQ dinner ($8) or hot dog dinner ($7), which includes main course, two sides/salads, and drink. Desserts (including strawberry shortcake, other cakes, ice cream…) are a la carte, and range in price from $1.50 to $4.50.

Why: For food, fellowship, and strawberries, obviously, but in addition, all proceeds from this event will go to support Community Lutheran Ministries Summer Camp. This is a camp (formerly known as Maggie’s Kids) that serves the at-risk children of the inner city, in the Joseph Ave. neighborhood, and is an experience the kids cherish each summer. Help us support this important ministry!

Come enjoy the food and fellowship, and while you’re at it, take a walk in our prayer garden, which is in full bloom right now! Weather is supposed to be great on Wednesday – hope to see you!

Highlights from the 2016 Synod Assembly

Synod Assembly 2016 Highlights

One of our lowest scores on the Congregational Vitality Assessment we took last year was how informed people felt about what is going on in the Synod and the wider Church. In an effort to remedy this, here are some of the interesting things that happened at Synod Assembly this week.

As always, we heard from many of the ministries of the larger Church, including:

  • David Lose, president of Philadelphia Seminary, talked about the efforts being made to bring together Gettysburg and Philadelphia Seminaries, and how these efforts will result in balanced budgets and full tuition scholarships for ELCA students – a huge step in addressing the massive clergy shortage the ELCA is currently experiencing (600 fulltime vacancies) and which will get much worse in the coming years due to retirements (1000 vacancies by 2020).
  • Molly Beck Dean, main planner of the National Youth Gathering, was the representative from Churchwide, and she told us about the exciting ministries going on around the country and the world, including highlighting some new mission starts and feeding locations, and thanking the Upstate NY Synod for its financial contributions to these ministries.
  • We raised over $30,000 for World Hunger over the three days!

Each assembly we discuss several business decisions, called resolutions and memorials. Some of the more interesting one this year were:

  • Resolution/Memorial on the possibility of lay presidency: to satisfy the needs of rural churches without a regular pastor, it was proposed that churches could lift up lay leaders within their congregations who could take turns presiding at communion. A frequent dissenting opinion was that the system we currently have in place, in which permission must be granted by the bishop for a lay person to preside, works well, and having that check/balance system in place is important for maintaining the integrity and proper use of the sacrament. Frequent supporting opinion was giving lay people the opportunity to serve one another and receive the means of grace however often they want. The resolution was defeated, as the synod council had recommended it be.
  • Resolution on denying the Doctrine of Discovery: This resolution repented the use of Christian theology to take control of the “new world” by means of Native American genocide, in hopes of mending relationships and improving ministry with our Native American brothers and sisters. It passed.
  • Memorial regarding Islamic extremism: This memorial acknowledged the evil of Islamic (later changed to “religious”) extremism and the damage it is doing for Christians and others around the world. Much debate arose, especially around whether there should be a call from the Lutheran Church for the government to take stronger action (and what sort of action this should be), and whether the resolution as it stood was insufficient because it did not recognize the breadth of the issue, nor take responsibility for the ways we have all fallen short in ministering to those affected by religious extremism. The assembly voted to push the resolution to synod council for further study.

Much of the Assembly was focused on the theme of “In Christ, One New Humanity” (Eph. 2:15) and in particular, racial justice. This included a keynote speaker on the topic (the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero, director of the Albert “Pete” Pero Jr. Multicultural Center at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago), a common read (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness), breakout sessions to discuss the topic in small groups, several workshops offered on the topic, and worship and devotions planned with this theme in mind.

One phrase that came up a lot and often caused tension among us was “white privilege.” Swallowing that racism still exists in this country is difficult for many of us – we have a black president, after all! – but understanding it from the perspective of white privilege puts a different spin on it. It suggests that racism today isn’t so much overt exclusion as it is an unspoken assumption about who has what opportunities, and who doesn’t. Often they are opportunities that people who are white never noticed because it is all they have ever known. Here is a white privilege checklist to bring some of those to light:

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure about renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I want to live, and that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curriculum materials that testify to the existence of their race (e.g. novels written by people of their race).
  • I can easily find a hairdresser who can cut my hair, and products in my local grocery store to care for my hair.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can be sure my skin color will not work against the appearance of financial responsibility.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • When I cut myself, I can easily find a Band-Aid that roughly matches my skin color.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, children’s books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.

Could you answer yes to most or all of those? Our brothers and sisters of color, even those who are well-educated, well-spoken, positive contributors to society, cannot answer yes to very many of these. The fact that most middle class white people can answer yes to most of them does not make those white people bad people, nor does it minimize their accomplishments, but it does point to a certain privilege they were born into. At the assembly, we spent a lot of energy trying to come to terms with this difficult and challenging reality. No one likes to be told that their success is due to some privilege they didn’t earn themselves; no one likes their accomplishments to be undermined. But this is not the purpose of talking about white privilege. The purpose is simply to point out some of the assumptions we make, and the distance we have yet to go in terms of racial justice in this country.

Once we can recognize that racial justice has not yet been achieved (and this conversation has touched only the tip of the iceberg on that!), we can start to consider steps forward to address it. The assembly attendees were given several resources for bringing the conversation back to congregations; the hope is that conversation will help us at least start to understand the situation which is so often hidden from us, and that it may ultimately help us to follow the call of the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

I hope you will take advantage of opportunities in the next months to learn more about this issue. I know it is an uncomfortable conversation, but sometimes God’s call makes us uncomfortable; growing pains usually are. But learning (even if you don’t agree) is an important step in living into Jesus’ way of compassion for even the outsider, those who are different, those on the margins, and those we might otherwise dismiss – and to treat all people as the children of God that they are.

Sermon: A gospel response to tragedy (June 5, 2016)

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Text: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Luke 7:11-17

We encounter tragedy, near and far, all throughout our lives. Our first instinct is often to find a reason for it, which then can turn to blaming. The gospel, though, calls us first to compassion – sitting with one another in each other’s pain. Even as we sit, we can trust that God will, as the Psalmist say, turn our mourning into dancing… and cloth us with joy.

Pentecost 3C (6.5.16)

Sermon: Solomon’s Guide to Prayer (May 29, 2016)

king-solomon-ccText: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Solomon’s dedication prayer for the Temple he built is a beautiful prayer that teaches us a lot about faith. First of all, start with thanksgiving, taking note of everything God has already given us. More difficulty, he demonstrates how to pray for the outsider, for people that are hard to pray for. Whom do you find it hard to pray for, and how could do that this week?

Pentecost 3C (5.28.16)

Sermon: How conflict leads to life (May 22, 2015)

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Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

In his letter to the Romans, Paul assures us that because we have the peace of Christ, our suffering leads to endurance, character, and finally hope, which doesn’t disappoint us. But this message can be hard to hear when we are right in the midst of of struggles or conflict. On this day when we celebrate the Holy Trinity and the communal character of God, we reflect on how, with God’s help, we can strive to find life in the midst of conflict with our communities.

Trinity Sunday (5.22.16)