Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why Are We Here? | Holy Soup

I don't know about you, but this really makes me think, especially as the pastor of a small church.

Why Are We Here? | Holy Soup

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Farming 1.0

It's been a long time since I have posted anything. I've been traveling. First for vacation, my husband, Ray, and I went to Rhode Island. It was my joy to participate in a classmate's installation service as pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Woonsocket, RI. We were in RI about a week and a half and connected with many friends. Our pace was more leisurely than previous visits.

Then I was home for one week followed by a week of continuing education at my alma mater in Gettysburg. Class time and conversations were stimulating. The fellowship with old friends and new was amazing. I am finally home for a bit.

Below is the sermon I shared with the congregations of Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY and Bethany Lutheran Church in Olean, NY. The scripture text is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

          From our conversations together, I know a number of you have farming or at least gardening experience. The parable of the sower likely raises different questions for you than it does for those like me, who have no knowledge about what it takes to make things grow. I do have some observations however.

          I noticed a couple of things about the sower. Doesn’t it seem like this man was careless? He threw seed everywhere he went. In Jesus’ day, they did not use fancy seed spreaders like those that we have today. Instead, they took a handful and threw it as they walked along. That is fine, but the sower did not pay much attention to where he threw it. The seed landed on all kinds of ground whether or not it was any good. He had the results to prove the differences.

The sower did not hold back any of the seed, but generously threw it.

After telling the story, Jesus ends this parable with this appeal, “let anyone with ears, listen (13:9). This kind of listening involves more than literal hearing. It is about discerning and discovering the importance of Jesus’ words. One word is repeated numerous times throughout this passage—“hear.” How well the seed grew depended upon the quality of hearing of the recipients of the word. 

Jesus describes four kinds of soil representing four different responses to God’s Word. The path represents those who hear the Word and don’t understand it, so the evil one takes it away. Their response is “I don’t get it and I don’t want to spend the time and energy to try to get it." They gave up when they didn’t understand.

          The rocky ground is those who hear, get all excited, yet do not let the Word go deep into their hearts, so they fall away. Their response is, “Wow. This is amazing. I never felt like this before.” Then after a few weeks or months, their response changes to “You mean I have to do this every day? I have to go to church during the summer?”

          Those who are thorny ground hear the word, but let day-to-day worries and wealth distract them. This prevents them from bearing fruit. Their response is, “I really wish I could be at church on Sunday, but I’m going to a football game. Or I’d really like to help out with the food pantry, but it interferes with my bowling league. Or I really wish I could give to the building fund, but I just bought a new Jaguar convertible. 

          The good soil is people who not only hear, but also understand God’s word and take the time to learn the disciplines and practices of the Christian life. In this way, their lives individually and corporately yield a bumper crop. 

  Everyone heard, but not everyone discerned the importance of Jesus’ words.

          Where did you find yourself in Jesus’ parable?

          By talking about the seed as the Word, Jesus already identified himself as the sower. However, it is not uniquely Jesus’ position. We too may sow the Word. Sometimes we are the seed. And we are always some kind of ground or a combination of various kinds.

One of the things I appreciate most about being a Lutheran is that we acknowledge as a church that things are not always so black and white. Even when we love the Lord with all our hearts and endeavor to please him with our actions, we stumble and fall. That is because although we are saints because of what Jesus has done for us, we are also sinners who mess up and let things get in the way of our relationship with the Lord. Martin Luther called this being simultaneously saints and sinners. In other words, we are all a mixed bag who are in a process of learning and growing.

What is God saying to us individually and as a congregation through today’s gospel? Are we listening and understanding?

          Let’s face it, we don’t always understand God’s written or spoken word. Do we give up then or do we spend time with the Lord in prayer until we understand? It takes perseverance.

          More often however, I think as a small congregation we need to take care that God’s Word is not choked out by our anxieties about the concerns of daily life, especially when it comes to family or church finances. If we allow these or other things to get in the way, we will dry up and die without bearing fruit.

          Jesus words to us here are so radical. "Jesus takes our hand, opens it up, and as he does so, we notice his hands are not only callused and bruised; they’re also pierced, with seeds in the holes left by the nails. Then he pours some of that precious seed from his pierced palms into ours, and we send seeds everywhere that cost God everything. Amen."

(Jason Byassee: Scattering seeds,

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Friday, June 6, 2014

God Is Still On The Job

This text leaped out at me as a continuation of God's word to the congregation I'm serving, Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY. It's from First Peter

Here's the message:

Our world is full of suffering. We see it in the senseless deaths of university students in California. We see it in the abduction of 200 plus Nigerian schoolgirls by extremists. Parents send their children to school every day fully expecting them to return home safely. But these children in countries separated by language, customs and many miles did not.Many in our own congregation are suffering physically or emotionally with diseases of all kinds. Suffering is pervasive in our world.

The letter of First Peter frequently addresses this aspect of the Christian faith. Both ancient and modern interpreters consider this letter to be one of exceptional clarity in the way it articulates the gospel. Martin Luther ranked it among “the true and noblest books of the New Testament.”

There are three basic kinds of suffering.The first is suffering that comes as a result of our humanity, when we experience disability due to age or disease. 

The second kind of suffering is the result of sin. I do something stupid in my life and there are painful consequences because of that. This is best exemplified by man’s inhumanity to man. Look at the civil wars being fought around the world and the way we take care of the mentally ill, the homeless and the poor. 

            There is a third kind of suffering that is Christian suffering because of following Jesus. As Peter wrote, “You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world” (5:9). Christians have always been persecuted, ridiculed and have suffered because of their faith. 

The cost of discipleship was much higher for early Christians than it is for the average Christian in this country. Early Christians were ostracized from their families. They were martyred for the faith. Simply bearing the name “Christian” was a criminal offense. This is not our experience today here in the United States, but it remains the experience of God’s people in other parts of the world.

Suffering is pervasive and is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. Peter let his readers know that they were to be under no illusions regarding what it meant to follow Jesus. The community of faith would suffer as their Lord did. But they would also share his glory as well. 

Peter did not write, “IF life gets really difficult,” but “WHEN” it gets
difficult (4:12). This is a description of the experiences of God’s community of faith and a reality check for any that thought they might get off easy in this life. Simply becoming a Christian doesn’t mean everything is going to be peaches and cream, hunky dory or totally awesome! We are going to suffer. 

The sufferings of believers come from real and powerful sources. Not only did the early church experience persecution from those who did not believe in Jesus, but from the devil, who would cause suffering. God’s people were experiencing satanic opposition which would destroy them if it could (5:8). However, Christians had no need for anxiety because such suffering was the universal badge of followers of Christ (5:9).Christians trusted in God’s strong hand to protect them against this very real adversary.
How are we to respond to suffering in our lives today? Our response should be one of joy because it provides us with an opportunity to identify with Christ and to share in his sufferings. God is refining us to make us more like Jesus. Normally we see suffering as a sign of failure and loss. We wonder where God could possibly be in the midst of such difficulties. As Christians however, we know the reality of evil (just read the paper or watch the news). 

How can we have such hope? As we heard in last week’s gospel, God does not abandon his people. There is a great future in store for us.
The only proper response to anything God brings our way is, “Bring it on!” One should praise the God whose gracious and redemptive dominion over all his creation will finally be revealed—whether or not it includes suffering for the sake of the gospel.

            But why shouldn’t we be anxious when all hell is breaking loose in our
lives? After all, who is really looking forward to the pain of suffering? Peter said to “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you” (v. 7). Literally, this means, “it matters to [God] what happens to you” (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock). We are not left on our own with a far off God who is uninvolved in the lives of those he created.   
Look at the verbs in the second half of today’s reading. How many of them describe God’s action? The vast majority tell us that in the midst of the sufferings we may experience for the faith:

God will promote us at the right time (5:6).
God is most careful with us (5:7).
God has great plans for us in Christ (5:10) and
            God will have us put together and on our feet for good (5:10).

            The present realities of suffering will not endure forever. Enduring the sufferings of this present life brings us the promise of future reward. However, this is not some pie in the sky future. Our life in God in today’s world has meaning in and of itself.

What is God saying to us as a community of faith at Bethel? I think Peter said it best, “Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner” (4:12-13).

            We are not alone. “Whatever happens in this life, God’s promises revealed in the glory of Christ and his resurrection are sure. God will continue to restore [us] with creative gifts, to establish us firmly when we stumble, to give [us] strength in times of weakness, and to build us up on the firm foundation of the community of faith” (5:10) (James Boyce).

We are not alone because God is with us. This is true, but we also
are not alone, because we are a part of the community of faith, the body of Christ, the church. The life of faith is a team sport. When we are struggling and weak and cannot walk, our brothers and sisters carry us.
Last Thursday we celebrated Jesus’ return to his Father, his ascension. Jesus would be with his disciples and us through the Holy Spirit, which was poured out on the church at Pentecost. Next Sunday is Pentecost when we celebrate the birthday of the church. This could not have happened if Jesus did not return to his Father. There would be no power for the early followers of Jesus and for us to share the gospel. Would there even be a church today?

As we draw close to God in prayer, study scripture, partake of the means of grace at the table and fellowship, we will experience God’s presence with us no matter what we are going through. 

Later in the service, we will be praying the Lord’s Prayer. We ask that we not be led into temptation. Remember, we have an enemy that Peter describes as being “poised to pounce” (5:8). As Luther explains:

... we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory. (The Small Catechism)


M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary.
James Boyce,
Martin Luther, The Small Catechism.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

We Are Not Alone!

When I looked at the gospel passage from John 14:15-21, verse 18 was like a neon sign and I knew that was the message for the folks at Bethel Lutheran Church  in Portville, NY. This is my sermon based on the gospel passage:

What comes to mind when you hear the word orphan? Maybe you think of the TV ads for various organizations that ask you to support an orphan who lives overseas. You may be supporting one of those children. The story of Jane Eyre may come to mind or Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Or maybe you know someone who as a child lost his or her parents thereby becoming an orphan.

We typically think of children when we hear the word orphans, but any of us can be orphaned at any age. In Jesus’ time, orphan was a common metaphor to describe disciples left without their masters. The phrase “leave you orphaned,” could also be understood as an idiom meaning, “leave you helpless.” One who was orphaned was without the aid and comfort of those who serve as associates or friends—like children deprived of their parents. Being orphaned is being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die. 

We can be orphaned in spirit. What is Jesus’ message for those who feel desperately alone and afraid? 

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (v. 18). 

This promise is right in the very middle of today’s gospel reading. Jesus is about to be crucified and will no longer be walking with his disciples in the way he has for the past three years. He will rise from the dead and return to his Father. He will be alive, but his relationship with the disciples will be altered.
Change can be scary. 

However, the disciples are part of a new community of faith -- a family of brothers and sisters, born of water and the Spirit, with God as their Father. Jesus’ departure does not change this new reality that has come into being. This is a concrete truth in the world of the Christian community that finds its life in Christ. “Relationship with Jesus does not depend on [Jesus’] physical presence, but on the presence of the love of God in the life of the community” (Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX). Not only will the disciples not be abandoned, but with Jesus’ return after the resurrection, they will enter into the new kind of life he has been revealing throughout his ministry (v. 19).

In the second half of that verse, Jesus said, “I am coming to you” (v. 18b). His promise to return, immediately counters any possible perception of Jesus’ death as his abandonment of his own. We see Jesus coming to his disciples and others in his Easter appearances in the gospels (O’Day) that we have been reading throughout these weeks of Easter.

How would Jesus be with his disciples after his ascension, when he returns to his Father? Jesus promised his disciples the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus remains in communion with his disciples through the presence of the Paraclete. There are many meanings for the Greek word translated in our gospel text as “Advocate,” such as “the one who exhorts,” “the one who comforts,” the one who helps” and the one who makes appeals on one’s behalf.” 

The English word Paraclete best expresses these various shades of meaning. Paraclete is not just another name for the Holy Spirit, but is a particular way of describing the functions of the Holy Spirit, which are functions of Jesus as well. Paraclete is used to describe both Jesus and the Spirit. God through the Holy Spirit dwells in believers—then and now. He is in them and is known by them (v. 17). 

In John’s gospel, to know is to be in relationship. This knowledge is not a mere intellectual understanding of a truth. It comes from participation in the divine reality itself. Not only will Jesus’ disciples not be abandoned, but they will enter into the new kind of life Jesus has been revealing throughout his ministry. 

The Spirit abides in God’s people as well. in John’s gospel, abiding is also one and the same as relationship.

As the divine presence among believers, the Paraclete enables them to be God’s presence in the world. He is in and with disciples, glorifying Jesus by revealing the truth about him (vv. 16-17) to believers. The Paraclete mediates the presence of Jesus to the community of faith. By the presence of the Paraclete, God’s people bear witness to Jesus, continuing Jesus’ own mission. Thus the disciples are led into all truth and the world is convicted for their rejection of Jesus. This is how the early church grew exponentially. It is how God grows his church today through us.

What does it mean to have a relationship with Jesus in his absence? One answer is that while Jesus may be physically absent, God is not. 

God’s message to us today is the same as it was for the first followers of Jesus. We are not left alone. We can have intimate fellowship with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. The love John’s gospel speaks of is a reciprocal love—those who keep on loving Jesus will be loved by the Father and Jesus. When Jesus loves us, he reveals himself to us.

            How should we respond to these overtures of God’s love? Jesus said we are to keep his commandments. The epitome of the commandments is to love one another as Jesus loved us. This is not some warm fuzzy kind of love towards someone. Rather the emphasis is on showing or demonstrating one’s love—sometimes without the inner feeling. Jesus says that we are to love one another to the point that we are willing to lay down our lives for each other.   

Last Thursday, I had a meeting with Lenore, the director of Genesis House. I had an opportunity to discuss the current goings on at Genesis House and heard many stories of desperate people in need, who felt like no one cared about them; and who felt like they were all alone—like orphans. Through the various support services provided by this ministry, many lives have been changed. 

Did you know they have only 2 ½ paid staff positions? All the other work is done by volunteers of all religions and denominations. If you have a chance, please stop by sometime and see what God is doing through this ministry. 

We live in a world of hurting, broken people. God’s word to us is to trust in the abiding presence and love of God, and to remember that we are never alone, no matter what.

Our response to God’s love and presence in our life is to get involved in our community; and to take care of those who are less fortunate. There are plenty of organizations in Cattaraugus, Allegheny, McKean and Potter counties that are in need of volunteers to aid in their missions.  Over the years, we here at Bethel have supported the ministries of Genesis House and the Portville Food Pantry. But we can do more.   The opportunities are endless. There are children of single parents who need mentoring. There are elderly who would enjoy a visit or a phone call, or who might need a ride to the store or the doctor. There are veterans who are in need of the same. 

As we celebrate Memorial Day tomorrow, let us not forget why we are having a holiday. It is not to kick off the summer tourist season; and it is not simply to kick off the summer barbecue and grilling season. But we are to take the time to thank those living veterans who put their lives on the line so that we could remain free. Most importantly, Let us never forget those veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice, with their lives. Please take the time tomorrow, or during the week to visit a cemetery where a veteran is buried, and say a prayer of thanks for that individual.

No wonder then, in the midst of this life, orphans all, we can and must proclaim with the joy of our faith: God is with us. We are not alone.

Resources used:

Fred B. Craddock, M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary.
Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX.