From the Chaplain’s Rack: Resilience and Holding Focus

Empty Battery

At a strategic spot along the hallway of our house, right in line of sight, is our white board. Along with various little notes and neglected long term projects, there is a recurring list in the middle called “This Week.” The purpose is to give us a place to remember the weekly tasks that have to get done, such as walking the dog or cleaning the bathroom.

I walk by this list multiple times a day and often, its blank. Not because the dog has learned how to walk herself or that folks in our house suddenly clean the bathroom without prompting, but because we forget or some days, we simply don’t care. I’ll see that phrase, “This Week,” and the blank space beneath it, sigh to myself in my snarkiest voice and ask, “Yeah, what is this one going to be like?”

All you firefighters and emergency responders, how’s this week going? Feeling snarky and frustrated, or optimistic and ready to go?

In a prior post, I invited us to acknowledge that we might be feeling the emotions and acting out the behaviors of people who have endured (or are enduring) a traumatic event. Which admittedly seems strange to think about because we think traumatic events are car wrecks or significant medical episodes. As it turns out, traumatic events can be just about anything that shocks, scares, or otherwise alters our perception of the world. And the best part is, we don’t get to choose what is traumatic for us.

We can get stuck in a negative loop. Any one of us is prone to cycling between joy and anger, frustration and happiness. It becomes a problem when it affects our primary relationships, our jobs, or our ability to function at our best levels when we respond to a call.

Traumatic events, whether we like it or not, can change the way we see things and people. And its not about willpower or toughness or needing to “man up” (as if dudes are inherently stronger than women anyway) to get through the lows. When we don’t care, there isn’t much to convince us otherwise.

Fatigue, trauma, and perpetual frustration can build and wear down our resolve over long periods of time. Like, say, during a pandemic no one thought would last this long or would be this dangerous.

To work through this erosion of motivation and lack of care for others or self (the worst form of fatigue), I invite us to start practicing resilience. Resilience is our ability to overcome obstacles and adversity, or to put it another way, the ability to endure. Before we are allowed to operate a pump panel, we drill and practice. Before we run into burning buildings, we drill and practice. Practicing sharpens our skills so we can respond at our best abilities.

Building resilience to traumatic events is no different. Mental toughness and ego-driven willpower require incredible amounts of energy that will always run out. Willpower feels great because its fueled by adrenaline or endorphins. Over time, the body runs out of chemicals. The result of continuously “bearing down” or gritting our teeth to “get through it” is a complete shutdown of the system. Really, the brain, the heart, the gut, something will start to break down. We’ll absolutely run out of energy and when we crash, then the harder we’ve been working, the harder we’ll collapse.

What actually works consistently and can sustain us through long periods of frustration is resilience.

What does resilience look like? How can I get some if it?

We become resilient to the stuff of life by doing the things our bodies and minds need to stay healthy. Yeah, that’s it. Most of what I’m going to suggest is so utterly basic that they are barely to the level of common sense. And yet, when we are worn out, saddened, exhausted, and losing our ambition to care, the basic stuff is easy to ignore. It is typically the first stuff we stop caring about all together.

How to start building resilience:

Go for a walk. I told you these were lame and obvious. Get outside and walk the block. Or the lane. Or a trail. Walking stimulates breathing and heart rate and activates healthy chemicals in our bodies. Put on some shoes and get out there, every day.

Exercise. Not into walking? Then go online and find some exercises you can do at home. Again, exercise forces blood to flow, it activates muscle groups and forces the body to pump good hormones. Feeling good after even a light workout is exactly the point.

Drink water. The average healthy human only needs 4-6 cups of water a day, based on the Harvard Medical School. Granted, more is always better and we all tend to drink much less. Drinking water flushes toxic chemicals that build up in our system due to stress. For example, cortisol is a hormone designed to keep you awake in critical moments. Its great in the blood when we are rolling on a structure fire at 3am, it sucks when we’re exhausted but can’t sleep. Under stress, the body keeps pumping it into the bloodstream. Drink more water and flush out those chemicals.

Drink less. You know what I mean. Keep it to a beer or two and obviously, if you sip, you can’t respond to a call for eight hours.  If you’re sipping more than usual, that’s a symptom of stress. If you don’t care that you are drinking more than usual, that’s a sign that you are worn out.

Change your Perspective. How can you look at the situation differently? How can you look at yourself differently? Emotional fatigue and traumatic stress can be rooted in seeing ourselves as responsible for the state we are in. By the way, going for a walk literally changes what you’re looking at every day. After your walk, drink water and call a friend.

Talk to your people. Resilience is about using the protective factors that surround our lives. Family, close friends, a faith leader, fellow firefighters, folks we trust with our information are some of the most important factors for maintaining our mental health. Our people give us purpose, we feel connected, and they encourage us to keep moving. Tell someone else what’s in your head, let them walk with you.

Ask for help.  Our egos and inflated sense of willpower are the biggest obstacles we face during turmoil. They can keep us from reaching out for professional help with a therapist. There is a stigma to psychological care that I am adamant to refute. If you are feeling out of balance, call someone trained to sort through all those thoughts. Our department has an EAP, Employee Assistance Program. Every fire department should, and its free and confidential. Use it. If you don’t want to talk to an outsider, call your chaplain. If your department doesn’t have a chaplain, seriously talk to your officers and recruit one.

Resilience is not a quick fix, it’s a long range approach to readiness. It won’t keep us from being impacted by significant events, but it will give us ways to move through the chaos without falling into destructive behaviors. Practice these skills, pay attention to your emotions and behaviors, and take care of yourself. That way, when we are called on to take care of our neighbors, we are ready and willing to serve at the highest level.

Be well, friends, I’ll see you around the house.

 

Safe Call Now (24-7 crisis hotline for first responders) 206-459-3020

National Suicide Prevention Hotline                800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line (National Suicide Prevention) “Hello” to 741741

Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance Self-Assessment (mental health survey)

Employee Assistance Program-EAP (does your department have one?)

Fire Department Chaplain (I hope you have one in your ranks)

From the Chaplain’s Rack: Recognizing the Impact of Trauma

Empty Battery

To my firefighting and emergency medical responding siblings, we need to talk about how to acknowledge that this pandemic might be messing with us. I’ll start with myself.

I was sitting at my computer in mid-April when I suddenly realized that I had been staring blankly for half an hour. I wasn’t watching anything, typing anything or thinking about anything at all. 30 minutes were gone and for a breath, I panicked.

I realized in that moment that I was empty. I had nothing left and my brain had shut down. The panic came from acknowledging that this disruption was utterly beyond my control. The wiring in my head turned off without me and here I was, nearly catatonic until I woke up.

For many of us, this pandemic has been more than an obnoxious inconvenience. It has been upsetting, disorienting, frustrating, and terrifying. These responses place it into the category of traumatic event. I thought as first responders, it might be helpful for us to recognize its potential impact on our lives.

What is a traumatic event? As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, it is “a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that can affect someone emotionally and physically.”

Not feeling shocked, scared, or fearful? You may not, that’s fine. What if I asked your spouse? Your partner? Your kids? What about your boss? They might agree with you, and they might not.

Here’s something worth knowing about traumatic events: you don’t get to choose what will be traumatic for you. And you don’t get to decide how trauma will affect you. That sucks for many of us to hear because women and men in the fire service are classic type A people who like to have a handle on whatever we’re doing. We love a good plan, as well as several backup options.

This one, unfortunately, isn’t in your control. Our brains are funny like that, they are influenced by everything around us. With that in mind, what you can do is choose to accept that it very well could happen, or be happening to you, and name it and figure out how to live with it.

The symptoms of suffering trauma run the spectrum from perpetual anger to virtual paralysis, from irrational tears to bouts of inappropriate laughter. It can mean impulsive behaviors, like snapping at your dog, drinking or smoking more than usual for you, or sudden needs to be highly active.

ITS ALL NORMAL.

None of these symptoms are weakness. They are not proof that you can’t cut it in the real world. More people are going through these symptoms than we might dare to realize.

ITS NORMAL. It’s okay to not be okay.

Let me be clear. It’s not okay to be destructive or to damage property. Its not okay to holler at your spouse or your family. Its not okay to start using or abusing or self-medicating. These are dangerous behaviors and if you find yourself moved toward any of these, call for help. It is better to pick up a phone, put down our pride, and use the resources available to find our balance again.

What do you do if your battery runs out?Fire Picture Wildland

First, a couple things I will NOT tell you do:

You do NOT need to remain positive. Positivity is annoying. Worse, it denies us the human ability to have any emotions other than happy ones.  If you’re not in a good mood, that’s where you are at. You can still be respectful, but you don’t need to smile.

You do NOT need to get over it. It’s a classic American ideal that is great for hopping fences or crossing a bridge. Traumatic events are wiring issues buried deep in the brain with breathing and eating and the heart pumping. It is why, when people have panic attacks, their hearts race, their breathing quickens and they might even burst into tears or pass out. They are not willingly reacting these ways, its automatic and beyond their control. You can’t quick fix yourself, so don’t fight yourself.

What you can do (start with just one):

Breathe. That’s it. Keep breathing and realize that this autonomic system is reliable and good.

Be okay with yourself. You have to be okay with yourself, especially if you are not okay. If you are finding yourself irritable, exhausted in the middle of the day, or doing any other odd-for-you things, fess up to yourself. Then fess up to your spouse, partner, or close friend. Name it, start there.

Share it with someone. Do not carry this on your own. You might be good for a while, but you will wear out without recognition and care. I remember so little from my EMT training in the 90’s, but I remember this, “A dead EMT saves no one.” You need to give this to someone else. Find someone.

Work on your resilience. Cornell University defines resilience as “an individual’s ability to positively cope with stress and adversity – bouncing back to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of adversity to enhance flexibility and overall functioning.” Who doesn’t want more of that? Resilience is our turnout gear, it takes practice, and we’ll discuss it in detail later.

Below is a list of resources. All of them are confidential, safe, and available. There’s nothing wrong with you if you pick up the phone, and you no one needs to know. I can’t say it enough: they’re confidential.

You signed on to one of the best volunteer opportunities available. EMS and fire fighting are incredible ways to serve our neighbors. It weaves us into epic histories and cutting edge technology and training. While we are busy caring for others, though, we must take care of ourselves. So, take care of yourself, keep your batteries charged, recognize any changes that have happened in your daily behaviors, and keep track of each other. It is for your safety and for your company’s.

Safe Call Now (24-7 crisis hotline for first responders) 206-459-3020

National Suicide Prevention Hotline                800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line (National Suicide Prevention) “Hello” to 741741

Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance Self-Assessment (mental health survey)

Employee Assistance Program-EAP (does your department have one?)

Fire Department Chaplain (I hope you have one in your ranks)

For Those Serving a “Small” Congregation

To my beloved colleague serving a “small” congregation,

Friend, I see you. I see you sitting up on a Saturday night idly flipping channels because your mind won’t stop wondering if you’ll make the budget this month. I see you getting ready to preach and stepping out from that blind spot in the chancel only to count 35 heads smiling back. And you don’t want to count those faces and you don’t want to get into another stupid mental spiral about all those mythical inadequacies because you’re not preaching to a packed house of screaming kids and perfectly coupled partners and an entire row of engaged youth.

I see you driving that sad car from the parsonage that could sure use new siding to the church that desperately needs a roof. Which just means one more capital campaign and annoying set of pleas to the congregation that has been tapped the past three years for major repairs. And God love them all, they give. They keep showing up and giving what they can and the Holy Spirit teaches you a few new ways to Macgyver the infrastructure to endure another winter.

My friend, I have been there. I am there, right beside you. Let me share my credentials. I have served in rural ministry my entire career and grew up in a rural mission start congregation (yes, they are possible) that worshipped 50-60. I am proud, damn proud to say I served a two-point congregation for six years and they were great years. I am currently proud to report that I am serving a congregation in a town of 3200. 3300 if you count the feral cats, which many of our neighbors do.

I know all the emotions of walking with wonderful, faithful congregations that do not report big numbers on the books. I have fantasized about preaching to 150-200 congregants who love my sermons, and I have wondered about the struggles of having to deal with the trials of an army of full time staff with whom to share preaching duties, worship planning duties, and administrative responsibilities. I have wallowed in deep, resounding envy for our colleagues who get paid guidelines every year without even having to ask for it, not just when they change calls. I have doubted myself painfully, accused myself of not being/doing/creating/praying/worshipping/trusting the Holy Spirit enough.

I have even disregarded my call to my small congregations when in conversation with pastors of “real” congregations. Yes, I’ve thought that thought. You know, when talking with our colleagues whom we secretly watch from across the corn or the interstate or the vacant parking lots because, well, it almost always comes down to numbers. Butts in pews. Or chairs. It’s those damn numbers.

To hell with those numbers, my friend! And I mean it. Renounce those damn numbers. Cast them back to the back with Satan. Dash them against the cornerstone of your beloved church. Those numbers of average weekly worship attendance, monthly income (deficit), annual baptized vs buried, confirmed vs transferred out, they’re just numbers on a form. They carry too much damn water in our thoughts. They are of the devil, pulling our hearts away from those awesome, faithful people we are called to serve and love every single day.

Because when you get up in the pulpit on Sunday morning, or wander the aisle like I do most weekends, it’s those people that God has sent us to serve who keep showing up. And don’t tell me they don’t know the numbers, too. And the social stigmas that come with worshipping “small.” And the cultural pressure to stop going to that congregation and start attending the “big” one in the next town over. Their friends have invited them countless times. Their kids have dragged them along to their own “relevant” worship spaces. They think about those numbers more than we’d care to know.

And God be praised, they keep coming to the congregation we serve and love. Sure, maybe because of tradition or brand loyalty or some other reason that another blog or Pew Research report will denigrate as a not good enough reason. They also come back because they’ve been encountered by God in that space. It’s holy land for them. It’s where God dwells and where they feel safe and where they have come to trust that you-you my friend-will speak a Word that convicts, shapes and reorients their hearts.

“Small” church ministry is damn hard work that not everyone is cut out to do. But you’re there doing it. Faithfully showing up to offer the liturgy in two languages. Ready to play your guitar when the musician is sick or the roads are bad. Willing to run the youth group on a Sunday night because the two youth in your congregation want some time with you to call their own. Passing out gas vouchers as you walk through town. Sitting with individuals who will never, ever worship in your space and call you their “Pastor.”

I see you my friend. It hurt sometimes, serving a “small” congregation. And we’re not supposed to say that out loud so I’ll name it for you. It’s a grind some days when nothing makes sense and we’ve run out of words and prayers and patience. And still we’re told by colleagues that all we need to do is something we’ve probably already tried. Three or four different ways. Because a “bigger” congregation does not imbue its church leader with “bigger” wisdom or knowledge, yet our colleagues (not all of course, just the obnoxious ones) will still insist that their method works best.

Damn, if I could tell you the right words to alleviate your tension, I would type all of them. All I can do is tell you that I am with you. Many, many are with you. In a version of your shoes every single Sunday. And you have awesome shoes by the way, because God put you in them. You are right where you need to be for the people in your pews who love God as much as you do.

They suffer and you are there. They celebrate and you are on the invite list. They come up to you after worship, hell they will stand in line waiting to tell you that they enjoyed your sermon. You know, I used to take those comments for granted. Never again. Every one of those passing moments is a wink from God, a subtle handshake from the Holy Spirit because we bothered to show up and be present and prepared and ready to do the unthinkable, proclaim that our Lord is not buried in a bunch of meaningless, life stealing numbers. Our Lord is alive and abundant in this place. Your place that you are called to serve.

Take care of yourself, my friend. Please call your friends, take a day trip to the other side of the city or to a populated area. Use all of your continuing education money and time and all of your vacation days, even if it’s to disappear in the parsonage.

True story: early in my first call, my parsonage had a second garage as an out building below the house. I came home on a day I had taken for vacation and there was a meeting at the church. I parked my car behind the outbuilding and sat there with the lights off for a while. I sat in the house without the lights on. As I grew into that call, I came to learn that if I had foolishly shown up at that meeting, the people there would have scolded me for doing so while on vacation. They loved me. And not me specifically (though I do think they loved me as me), they loved their pastor.

No, not every “small” congregation is that wonderful, but more are than our internal ministry culture lets on. Many “small” congregations breathe Grace and shine Christ’s light into their cornfields and small storefronts with no praise or acknowledgement. And they will keep doing it because their faith tells them that this is what they have done and this is what they will keep doing.

I will continue to pray for you. I offer no advice, minus the thing about using your time and calling your friends, and I dare not tell you what is going to work in your “small” congregation. You know what your people need. Well, we all know what our people need. Love. A word of forgiveness. Grace in abundance. Affirmation framed through the cross. Your seminary taught you how to do all of that. Everything else comes as it comes.

If you’re still flipping through your phone and it’s way past midnight, turn off your device and get some sleep. Send those numbers in your head back to hell where they came from and allow yourself to rest in the peace of Christ that surpasses all wisdom and understanding.

You are enough. Your congregation is enough. Because God is always more than enough.

No Good Reasons: A Sermon in Lent

A sermon on Luke 13.1-9 given on the Third Sunday in Lent March 24, 2019 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mt Morris, IL

There has to be a reason.

That’s what we tell ourselves.

There has to be a reason. When we turn on the news and learn about another heinous terrorist attack leveled against our Muslim brothers and sisters in New Zealand.

There has to be a reason. And of course, the news reports have given us a few. A man bent on hatred who brought his white supremacy and his weapons to two mosques. He intended to kill and was able to bring about an act of violence that resonated across the planet. So yes, there are reasons.

But still, there’s got to be a reason. Or just this week as we heard about the cyclone that devastated Mozambique and the southern coast of the African continent, destroying thousands of lives. And again, we know some of the reasons. Climate change bringing more violent stories, we don’t what kind of warning the people received or the rate of the storm surge. Maybe the homes along the coast were not designed to withstand the force of this kind of storm.

We have reasons. We always have a few when we encounter these tragic events that seem to come almost weekly across our news and our feeds. School shootings, flooding in the Midwest, fires out West.

Except, these aren’t enough. Because what we really need, what our minds are trying to accomplish, is to get behind or around these events to discover what is really going on. To try to figure it out. Mainly so that we might be able to protect ourselves. Care for ourselves. Keep all of this as far from us as possible. And if we could come up with a reason, the reason, then we would know what to do. And how to keep ourselves safe.

So our minds keep looking for the reason. And we don’t like where our minds go. We don’t like these thoughts and we dare not confess them out loud and we try all that we can to silence them or push them out.

But still, for all of these tragedies, our mind wants some resolution. And before we can stop ourselves, we quickly think to ourselves, maybe.

Maybe…they deserved it.

And that’s the thought that lingers around our gospel for today from Luke. Jesus is strolling along with his followers, because Jesus always has followers, and they’re talking about the Galileans. Ya know, those Galileans. And the people are trying to figure it out. They’re trying to wrap their minds around this violent event. And while doing that, they are trying to understand, find the reason and secretly wondering how to avoid it.

Because some part of our brain wants to believe in cause and effect. That nothing happens without a reason. That there is no such thing as bad things happening to good people. That suffering is not random. And no one likes to have these ideas, even when they creep up in our minds.

So the crowds around Jesus, who are no different from us, are trying to hash out this scene they all just read about. A group of Galileans were killed by Pilate’s army. Though there’s no clear evidence, in the story it is said that their blood was mixed with the sacrifices. Which implies that at least a few of them had animals that they intended to give to God. They were probably on the road, headed to the Temple in Jerusalem, when they were confronted by the soldiers.

And we know it was a heinous act, Jesus. It was violent. Evil. Unthinkable. It never should have happened. And yet, and we’re just saying because its worth noting, they were Galileans. We know you’re a Galilean, Jesus, but we don’t see you that way. They way we know Jesus is human but he’s not really human. Not like us. We don’t want him to actually be like us.

He’s Galilean, but a good Galilean. And its not that these folk were bad in any way and they didn’t deserve this to happen to them. With that said, well, we know what Galileans are like. They dress kind of funny and they’ve got that accent that, no matter where we are in Israel, we know when we’re talking to one of them. And, well, this is purely historical record, Jesus. Many of the rebel leaders who have risen up in protest against the Roman government, which some want to call the Roman oppressors, many of them have come from the Galilean region.

Again, not an excuse for what Pilate’s soldiers did to them. It was evil full stop. Though, maybe they should not have been travelling in such a large group. It probably attracted attention. And those soldiers were wrong, Jesus, we know that. But still, we don’t know who said what or who did what. And besides, it’s hard to believe that bad things happen to good, honest people.

And as the people around Jesus try to hash out the story, Jesus gives his response. The Galileans who were killed were no worse humans than anyone else. They were no different from his disciples. They were no less faithful or more faulty than all of the families following him that day. None of them were more accused than any of us in worship today.

It was violence brought on by violence. It was an act of evil and hate and suffering brought on in this world by powers brought to life by laws and sins and hateful thoughts so deeply embedded into our humanity that we can never fully parse them out.

The people around Jesus are asking the same question we ask every time we experience bad news. Tragic national news. Devastating news. Even the kind of dreadful news that creeps into our homes and lives. There has to be a reason for it.

And if there is, we and Jesus crowds want to know that we are safe. Because we’ve got Jesus. We want to know that our prayer, our worship, our time, our giving, our energy, our faith will somehow put us on the right track or keep us closer to God. And farther away from suffering.

We want distance between ourselves and any visual sign of sin. So, we create the distance. We cast out criminals by assuming that their sin is greater than ours. We ignore the cries of suffering and lament because maybe they had it coming. We convince ourselves that any death due to violence, war, or natural disasters is an acceptable result. We do all we can to stay healthy and clean and strong in order to avoid any diagnosis. And when the doctor gives us the outcome, we immediately ask ourselves, what have we done to deserve this?

And Jesus responds to fears and our hope to preserve ourselves by telling us that there are no easy answers. There is nothing we can do to avoid suffering. It is part of human existence. Or to put it another way, we cannot save ourselves.

With that being named, Jesus does tell us what we can do. Put our hope in Christ. Christ alone, who stays by our side and will not let us God. The same Christ who stands with us in the doctor’s offering is the one cradling in his arms the victims of another terrorist attack. The same Christ who pours Grace upon Grace upon our lives is with the felon locked away in prison. The same Christ who cares for us cares for our neighbor who is consumed by addiction. Because it is the same Christ who assures us every single day that we are made new. There is nothing in our past that will mark our future with God.

Jesus doesn’t offer us any easy answers and there is never one clear reason. Yet Jesus responds to our anxiety and our need for preservation by leading us to the cross. Where we are not safe. And where there is no logic, no clarity, no reason for suffering beyond the suffering brought on by this world.

There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Of course, there are things we can do in response to sin. We can rise up and speak up against white supremacy and acts of hate designed to silence and destroy. We can strive for justice for anyone being silenced. We can demand peace when words of war are proclaimed. We can work toward health care that is accessible to any person. We can expect action that attempts to reverse climate change across our planet.

We can do these things. All of these things in God’s name. And at the same time know that we cannot save ourselves from suffering.

Jesus knows our fears and he hears our longing to protect ourselves and he offers us a promise that we are never alone. He responds to our self-preservation by leading us to a dead tree in the middle of a garden were all life ends and through which we will live.

Jesus reveals that he was among the Galileans killed simply because of where they came from. Jesus was among the ones who were crushed by a poorly engineered tower in Siloam. He was in the mosques in New Zealand as he as on the coast in Mozambique. He has been consumed by rising waters in Nebraska, Missouri and throughout the Midwest. He is in the jail cell. He is in the hospital room. He is in the bed under hospice care. He is at the bottom of a bottle or in the back room struggling with an overdose.

Christ is where there is suffering in this world. This community. Our homes. For him to confront the power of death that comes for all of us, Jesus goes straight for it. He dies because we die. We live because he lives for us. Through us. Beyond us.

Death will try and do its worst. Sin will try to break our hope. Violence will rage, the earth will shutter, waters will continue to flow, and weapons will ring out.

And none of it, not one sin, not one act of hate, not one crime, not one random act or violence or suprsie diagnosis, nothing in this world can separate us from Christ’ love. Jeuss will not stop standing with us, caring for us, and being with us. He will not stop pouring Grace upon us. Or our neighbors. Or any child of God who is suffering.

There is no reason. And there is no separation between us and God. And there is no reason to stop loving God’s people as much as God loves us. There is nothing to stop us from extending our hearts and hands. There is nothing keeping us from striving for an end to the countless ways we destroy each other.

Because there is no one who deserves to suffer.

Which means, wherever there is suffering, wherever there is disappointment, where there is brokenness trying to consume life, Jesus is already there, in the midst, giving life. And giving it away abundantly. Freely. Joyously. For all.

Amen.

 

Mary’s Still Singing

A sermon on Luke 1.39-55 given the fourth Sunday of Advent, Dec 23, 2018 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mt Morris, IL.

 If you would to hear this sermon, it is available on my podcast site Pr Josh Ehrler in iTunes.

If we came across a young, pregnant, brown skinned 13 year old standing in the square downtown, standing out on 64 outside the Estates, standing outside Sullivans near that grassy knoll that goes back to the Doyles-if she was standing right outside our church on the corner, how would we hear her?

Or, would we hear her?

Would we ignore her? Would we curse her?

Would we push her out of the way?

Would we call the cops on her?

I know, it’s not a fair comparison, to put Mary and her song up against an invisible straw woman. In part because we don’t know where Mary sang her song. We don’t know if this was a public song or if she simply sang it with Elizabeth and Zechariah in their home up in the hills.

We do know, though, that she was with Elizabeth and presumably Zechariah, quiet as he was. We know Elizabeth, the elder woman, calls Mary the “mother of my LORD.” That’s a bit of a reversal. And somewhere in their exchange Elizabeth’s child leapt in her body.

We know that Mary was clearly getting a vision of who her son was to become. Answering that age old Christmas question, Mary did you know? Yeah, she knew.

And since we’re laying out some basic facts and figures to frame this text, we have a pretty good idea that Mary was 13, maybe 14 years old. Based on traditions and some historical evidence about the times. We also have an idea that Joseph was in his 20’s or 30’s. Again, no hard data but we have traditions of the time. They came from a one horse town, barely worth a dot of ink on a Roman map. They were probably poor, because their town was poor. And though we think highly or carpenters today, in their time, it wasn’t an ideal career field. Especially in a one horse town that wasn’t seeing a lot of new housing construction. People weren’t throwing up porches or anything.

By nearly every social measure of the day, and every measure of our world today, Mary would likely be described as insignificant. Some might call her a nobody. Another dirt poor young teen mysteriously pregnant with few prospects. It’s remarkable her song even made it to paper.

And of course we can say that now. We have 2000 years of hindsight to comfort us and our vision of Mary. She overcame. She rose up. God found her, God blessed her, she is forever the mother of Jesus. She’s still in the shadows a bit, the way we all stand in the shadow of the cross, but she’s been drawn closer to the light and closer to our affection. We love Mary.

Our love for her is abundant and warm and encircled in these last hours of the Advent season as they flow into the twilight of Christmas Eve. We see Mary in the soft glow of candles and beautiful hymns that honor her and Jesus and that night and we see her in the light of our hope as we stand with her in the labor and delivery wing of the stable.

But that’s tomorrow and we’re not there quite yet. Today, here in chapter one, Mary is a loud, brash teenager out on the corner telling us that God is bringing down the powerful. God is overthrowing governments. God is feeding the starving, giving shelter to the homeless, giving authority and voice to the poorest, the weakest, the most shamed, the incarcerated, the dirty, the silenced, the banished among us.

Her song I about God turning our world upside down. And this reversal of expectations begins with her.

An angel of the LORD spoke to her. The Spirit of the LORD surrounded her. The favor of the LORD compels her to sing.

Our introduction to Jesus comes through this otherwise insignificant young woman. Our earliest visions of our LORD, our Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, King of Kings and Lord of Lords are emanating out from this small village town. They’re not coming from the Temple, where we know God dwells. They’re not rising out of a religious leader with education and wisdom. They’re not coming from a political leader voted in on a platform of justice issues and funding programs for the hungry. It’s not from any logical, worldly sources.

God arrives in our world through a street smart teenager with nothing in her hands. Who comes from nowhere. And who believes that everything that God has promised through scripture and history will actually happen.

This is one of the marks of Luke’s gospel. This is a topic we’re going to be wrestling with throughout the coming year. This is an issue we’ll be studying in our Bible study next month. Luke is fascinated with how God regularly, consistently, obnoxiously speaks and works through people who others would say don’t deserve God’s attention. By worldly measures anyway. And that’s a bit of a sting for us, and will continue to sting us as we read Luke, when we realize that we have our categories of people. We have our people in our minds who clearly are loved by God and are worthy of God, who’s prayers should be answered by God. And we have others, folks we secretly think to ourselves don’t deserve God’s attention, affection and care.

We’re not even into chapter 2 of Luke yet and we’re getting expectations messed with. We meet Zechariah, a religious leader and God silences him. He’s a powerful, respected leader and he’s more or less knocked down off his throne. God, instead, speaks through Elizabeth. A woman. True, an elder in the community and a pastor’s wife, which gives her a little street cred, but a woman.

And while all this is going down, throughout our readings in these early chapters Luke reminds us that we are still of this world. He reminds us that the government ruler is King Herod, that name appears quite a bit in these readings and the gospel. Luke wants us to remember that we are in this world and this story is in this world and despite all of worldly power our governments hold, God doesn’t need any of that.

An angel of the LORD talks to Mary. And we love her for saying yes to this mess. And for being so faithful. Because we know we may not be that faithful. When God approaches, we turn the other way.

Again, though, through all of this, God gives this promise of life to our world to be carried and cared for by a teen mom. Who today would probably be barely surviving on WIC and stamps, possibly couch surfing or living in housing, and probably being told by her neighbors to get a job. 

God is revealing God’s power through all of this. God is abundant through these blessed women. God is breaking into our broken world to shatter our union with sin through Elizabeth and Mary.

And if we know that God didn’t stop working then. If we believe that God is still up to something in our world today. If we trust that Mary’s song still resonates and rings forth God’s promise to bring justice, feed the hungry and scatter the proud. Then the question to us from Mary becomes, who is God singing through today?

Who are the silenced voices being given words from God to give to us?

Who are the faces and where are the places abandoned and ignored by our world that bear the image of God?

Who is standing on the corner, outside our home, outside this church right now, out by the gas station or the grocery store or stuck out in the street proclaiming God’s name? And compelling us to listen even as we try to turn away?

Mary’s song is not simply a gospel canticle in a prayer service. It’s not just a hymn or two in our worship book, one we’ll be singing in just a couple minutes. Mary is not a fixture of history and we know she’s not simply a statuette in a nativity scene for us to adore and ignore.

She is singing the voice of God. And she is pointing us to every voice, every shape, every skin color, every body and face and language and address who has been put down, shut down and reduced down to nothing by the measures of our world.

Mary is our call to confession, and she is our song of forgiveness and new life. That we are dwelling in a new world. A new existence that affirms the lives of the vulnerable and humble the low in status and stature.

Mary is singing God’s promise that every inequality, injustice, and incomplete community will be restored to life. Because God is already doing this work. We have experienced this new work in our lives. God is working through our neighbors, our classmates, our family members who are longing for peace and stability. God is moving throughout the broken homes and broke bank accounts. God is giving power to the powerless and penniless.

God is giving us a vision, Mary’s vision of Christ, to see what God can do. To remember what God has done. To envision what God will keep doing. And keep drawing us into God’s Grace through the faces and voices and hands and feet of our people. Of us.

Mary’s song, Elizabeth’s blessing, and even Zechariah’s silence circle around us and open us to the unexpected possibilities of God. Their presence as prophets of God move us from predictability and casual acquaintance to joy and transformative engagement. God, though these three strangers, and the infinite others who cross our paths, keep us from missing God’s presence.

Mary’s song is God’s song crying out from the street corners, hospital beds, prisons and dilapidated properties. Mary’s song is God’s song being sung through our helplessness and our hope in Christ that signs of death that surround us are being transformed into signs of life.

Mary’s song is God’s song conviction our hesitation and disbelief and turning it to excitement and energy to know and go looking for God’s presence. In our world. In our homes. In our lives. In our mirrors. In our neighbors, and in the faces of strangers everyone else has tried to ignore.

God has not turned away. God is turning us back. And turning us toward each other so we can see each other. So we can sing and leap and strive for joy and peace and God’s promised justice that is being given to each other.

So that we can walk with each other and love each other. God calls us in through Mary, and invites us into this song, so that we can proclaim together God’s power and God’s Grace.

No Time to Worry

A Thanksgiving sermon on Matthew 6.25-33 given Nov 18, 2018 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mt Morris, IL for the annual Mt Morris Community Thanksgiving Service.

 

What’s holding us back, church?

When I landed here five years ago and didn’t know much about Mt Morris besides what the paperwork told me, one of my early projects was to meet with village leaders. I was hoping to get a lay of the land, if you will, introduce myself and, on behalf of Trinity, ask what needed to be done. I would ask these various leaders how Trinity could partner with them to better our community. And nearly every single time I got the same response.

Blank stares. Maybe an occasional request for prayer for our town, which of course we’re always happy to do. Yet that’s about it. I think my question about partnership, about serving alongside our community was so strange, so foreign, and so far beyond expectations of what we can do or are supposed to do in our town that folks had trouble coming up with an answer.

What’s holding us back, church?

Our gospel for this afternoon out of Matthew chapter 6, sounds about right. For many of us who worry or are worrying right now. This text from Jesus may be what each of us as individuals needs because so many of us, all of us on some level, worry. We wrestle with anxiety. Doubt. All of which leads to fears and following those fears. Some of our fears are irrational. Some are well grounded in facts and clear evidence.

So of us here are here to hear good news. Many of us were probably in worship this weekend or in the last few weeks and we can’t seem to get far beyond the church doors before all that dread meets us, greets us like an old friend in the parking lot, and ushers us back to that space of discontent we know so well.

If you find yourself in that space, Jesus is speaking a Word to you this afternoon. Jesus is pushing back that shroud of agitation that is circling in. Those bills sitting on the desk at home waiting to be paid. That doctor’s appointment that we know we need to go to and we can’t quite find the courage to pick up the phone. Our car that seems to be acting strangely and is waiting for the opportune moment to stop working so we can have the chance to get all those steps in that we need.

If this gospel from Jesus is for you this afternoon, I hope his words are a blessing for you. Jesus has got you. Jesus knows you. He knows everything that is consuming you. Jesus sees you and Jesus loves you.

And as we give thanks for all of the individual, specific gifts of being in Christ’s presence, we’re also reminded that this text from Matthew 6 is in the heart of a longer sermon Jesus gives. Spanning from chapter 5 through chapter 7, Jesus is preaching to a large mass of people on the side of a mountain. And as much as Jesus is doing his best to recognize all of our challenges and to see each of us on our own terms, he’s also attempting to address the dreads of the whole church.

Because in Matthew especially, Jesus is trying to organize his people. We read in Mark how Jesus is almost constantly surrounded by crowds. Now in Matthew he’s trying to get us together, get us organized, get our space set to reflect God’s kingdom here and now. He’s meeting us where we are and reminding us of our call to defy what we know and what we expect in order to project the good news of God’s Grace and love out into our town.

We are here. We’re here in Mt Morris on a November Sunday afternoon, Thanksgiving is right around the corner. We are here to give thanks in God’s presence in this place and some of us have been here, in this town for generations. Some of us can probably trace our roots back to the first days of this town. We know exactly where we are right now.

We know all the stories, the glory days of this zip code and these surroundings and our school district. The printing press. The streets full of cars and commerce. The social events that grabbed our attention out of our homes and up to the Square.

We know where we are. We know how so many homes around here have shifted from home ownership to rental properties. We know the blocks that have fallen into disrepair. We know the families down on their luck and needing shelter and finding it easily in our town because prices are cheap and rent is manageable and yet, there is no sustainable employment in our area. Which many of the families we come to know and love have to keep moving.

We know where we are. We know our junior high school, for as good as our teachers and administrators are, is struggling to maintain rigorous academic standards against a wave of children trapped in poverty and low esteem. Families that need to put their energy into finding food, shelter and clothing can’t afford the luxury of learning math facts and geography.

We know all of this. We know it because it’s all over our streets and beyond our church walls and signs of this despair are creeping into our spaces through the walls.

And Jesus this afternoon, here in this space with all of us from our churches, meets us and asks, What’s holding us back? What worry is keeping us from being the light in the shadows that haunt our neighbors? What anxiety stops us from making the mark of the cross on this town we know and love?

Based on Jesus’ sermon in Matthew, nothing. We have our concerns about what we can accomplish. We have our fears about making the bills and sustaining ourselves. We struggle with our memories crashing against our reality.

Just like our neighbors, we churches get consumed by our perceived lack of basics and our disbelief in ourselves that we can do much of anything besides survive a little longer.

And Jesus reminds us that we, you and me as his followers, are not bound by the barriers of this world. We who dwell in this community, this zip code, this school district, we are sent into it with a promise of hope. We are Christ’s body called to dwell among and draw out our neighbors and defy the constraints that keep our people from life.

What’s holding us back, church?

We are washed in new waters. We are filled with a holy breath. Every day we are declared children of our living God.

What’s holding us back, church?

God cares for birds and grass and flowers in Creation. God cares for our congregations and our people who gather in God’s shelter every week.

What’s holding us back, church?

We know all the stories. We know all the facts. We know the dreads, the challenges, the obstacles to life.

And we know God. We know our God is not bound up. We know our god is not held back. We know our God is not waiting for a better day, a clearer day, a future far off day to act in our community.

Christ is here. Among us. Around us. Flowing through us. Our churches. Put here in this place for this time now. Christ filling our pews with business owners, teachers, students, mechanics, farmers, athletes, office workers, nurses, doctors.

God is responding to every challenge our neighbors face with us. We are the church. We are Christ’s body. We’ve got what we need. We can still pray and worship God and we should, it is good for our strength and building our faith. We can have our coffee and our fellowship to bind us to each other.

And we can bust out of our doors and walk our streets and create meaningful, sustainable, tangible opportunities for our people to know that God is here.

What’s holding us back, church?

No Distinctions

A sermon on Romans 3.21-26 given Reformation Sunday Oct 28, 2018 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mt Morris, IL

If you would to hear this sermon, it is available on my podcast site Pr Josh Ehrler in iTunes.

 

For there is no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Here is our good news, friends. And there’s no sense in waiting until the end of the sermon for it.

Here is our assurance when we are feeling less. Here is our promise when we’re on the short end. Here is our response to anyone who tried to keep us silent, convince us we cannot participate, tells us that our voice is invalid. When we are twisted and torn by sadness and fear.

There is no distinction.

This is our answer to words of hate and anger leveled against God’s people. This our truth in the face of divisions. This is our courage when we step out of our comfort and step into the light of Christ and speak and act against discrimination.

For there is no distinction.

Because there is no right answer except the love and Grace of God.

There is no room for oppression.

There is no justification for inciting fear.

There is no one person who can stake a claim of authority over another.

There is no acceptable level of violence.

There is no room for weapons on the Sabbath.

There is no space for racism.

There is no argument for which lives matter more than others.

There is no rich. There is no poor.

There is no us. There is no them.

In the presence of God.

This is our good news. We all fall short. We all fail to live up to the proclamations and commands of our God who created us. Who loves us. Who loves our neighbor whom we don’t. Who runs to the sick and suffering when we won’t. Who knows us as well as know our own brokenness.

And still forgives us. Unconditionally. Without proper justification or rationale. Without merit or ledgers. Without all those yardsticks and bottom lines and zip codes and metrics we humans know too well.

We fall short. Christ picks us up. We turn away from God. Christ turns us back. We try and try to go it alone. To prove we’re strong enough. That’s we’ve got this. That we pray enough, worship enough, do enough. And Christ goes with us, because we can’t.

For there is no distinction. In the presence of God.

Paul wrote this line nearly 2000 years ago to a group of people threatening to deny each other along racial lines, ethnic lines, religious lines, economic lines. Lines of power and social status. He wrote this letter because humans don’t change, we always seek our own way.

And in the midst of all our reminders of why we want to make our distinctions and notice all the differences, and build walls or laws or bombs to fill those gaps between us, Paul steps into the aisle. He steps into our lingering anti-Semitism hidden beneath the layers of our Lutheran history. He steps into the middle of the street. He steps into the middle of it and compels us in the name of Christ, in love, to see each other.

Not to look at each other the way our minds search out differences like skin tone or the straightness of a hem line or a political yard sign or a religious symbol around the neck or on a wall. We can find whatever we need to prove a point of division in anyone.

Paul, in this one verse as a part a long letter to the Romans, is speaking in the name of Christ. And calling us out of ourselves. And compelling us, in love, to see each other. To see Christ in the eyes of the one sitting next to us here. To see God’s image in the images of God’s people who flash across our screens and tvs. To see God’s care for humanity in the tired ones, the saddened ones, the despondent, disappointed, denied and threatened ones.

Because in the presence of God, there is no distinction.

Every single one of us is longing for peace. Every one of us walking the earth wants to contribute and live. Every one of us was crafted by God’s hand, given breath with a Word, and declared blessed by our Creator. Every one of us, in the presence of God, is made whole.

And in this shelter built for us by God, around this table spread out like a feast from Christ, in this tub filled with the Holy Spirit, we are whole. Our neighbors are whole. Our brothers and sisters, our classmates and colleagues, our sick and suffering, our ostracized and oppressed, are blessed by God and made whole, like in the beginning.

That is why this strange phrase from Paul, which may sound negative and accusatory to our defensive ears, is a reflection of the cross shattering the walls and distinctions throughout our world. Because every line in the sand, every border and boundary, ever rule meant to decide who is in and who’s out comes from us.

It’s we the people who are choosing to give into our fear and our doubts. With God, there is no distinction. We humans are who want the lists and the legislation. With God, there is no distinction. We are the ones who seek a leader who will rise up. We want Christ himself to claim his glory and create his army and destroy the powers of this world with a sword. With Christ, there is no distinction.

Only the cross that stands in our path and fills our divides and draws our eyes back to God. Who loves us because God has always loved us. And who feeds us because we have always been hungry for good news. And who sends us back to where we came from to declare equality and reveal compassion and surrender ourselves for the building up of our families, our communities, our nation and world.

Christ, through a few words in Paul, is recreating our hope and strengthening our love so we can walk in our broken world reflecting light. Seeking justice. Being a messenger in the midst of sound bites and hateful words that in the presence of God, there is no distinction.

There is no suffering deserved.

There is no winners and losers.

There is no good side of town.

There is no denial of healthcare or refusal of shelter.

There is no acceptable degrading joke.

There is no power or place for white supremacy.

There is no room closed off to transgender youth.

There is no argument for denying the life of an LGBTQ+ individual.

There is no reason to tear each other down.

There is no reason to lift up words that promote destruction and dispute humanity.

There is no excuse.

There is no distinction. In the presence of God.

There is, instead, forgiveness. Grace. A second, third, fourth, 77th chance As many as one person needs and more than any of us can comprehend. There is life. Joy. Fullness and mercy. Healing and compassion. Empathy and respect.

There is no distinction because God doesn’t choose. And Christ doesn’t divide. God loves. And God keeps Christ close to humanity. And God continues to send the Holy Spirit to speak and shape and strengthen our presence. That we can remember the gift of God’s abundant and everlasting Grace. That we can keep praying for our people and speaking justice for anyone, everyone who is living in fear this night.

God’s Grace was promised at Creation and is fulfilled daily in every living person through Christ. This is our good news. That we are called to give away for the sake of a tired, fractured, confused, disoriented world.

In the presence of God, there is no distinction. There is only life.

This Land is (Not) My Land

I grew up in the rolling hills of northwest Illinois, part of what is regionally called the Driftless Area. All those awesome sledding and hiking hills survived a glacier that slid across Iowa and most of Illinois, making those territories far less interesting because of their prairie flatness. For all the places I have had the fortune to live, some part of me will always call that specific corner of Creation home.

And since I have a significant connection between my identity and the earth I spent my youth playing, working and driving across, it takes me an extra moment or two to remember that the land was there long before me, far longer than my German and Swiss ancestors showed up, and was already home to several Native peoples for at least a couple millennia before European immigrants arrived. I readily acknowledge this privilege and shortsightedness.

In honor of Indigenous People’s Day Monday, October 8, I decided to do some overdue research on the people who were nourished and loved by same corner of Creation that nourished me.

Who’s land do you live on today?

For your own research, start where I did, with this incredible interactive map.

Native Land

My spiritual home is among the sloping geography spreading East from the Mississippi, though I now live in the valley of the Rock River. Absolutely no irony is lost on me that within 10 minutes of my home is a statue of a Native American meant to honor the people who once inhabited the valley. The same people, the Sauk, who were forced West by land cessations and slowly decimated by US military power. A prominent battle named after the Sauk chief who led the actions, Black Hawk, was more of an uprising against immigrant oppressors who were cutting off supplies and denying access to land and water.

In historical records written by white people, Native Americans are typically drawn as irrational, violent, and ready for battle. The Sauk, or Ozaagii (which was shortened by the French to “Sac”), it should be no surprise, were generally peaceful. They welcomed an alliance with the Meskwaki people who were badly wounded by French colonials and forced West into Illinois. Both peoples are Algonquin in heritage, a broad culture that spanned from the East Coast in the Great Lakes region. Together the Sauk and Meskwaki cared for each other, shared resources, and travelled together, protecting each other from warring tribes and violent white immigrants. In time, both peoples were relocated to Iowa, then Kansas.

Imagine being told that your home is no longer your home.  

I don’t have to and probably never will. I’m a white, middle class hetero normative man living in Middle America. I literally can’t picture some outside army from a strange land showing up at my door and evicting me to Kansas. Or Missouri. Or worst yet, Oklahoma. Such is the life of privilege.

Who was there before you?

The township I grew up in is called Menominee, I can only assumed named after the Menomini or Mamaceqtaw people. With some rudimentary digging, I couldn’t find any notes saying the Mamaceqtaw people lived as far south as Illinois, at least not for a significant period in time. This is a reminder that any information in this reflection is up for critique and correction.

Worth noting, the Menomini Indian Tribe suffered a significant attack from the US government in 1953 with the Menominee Termination Act. Their identity was denied and their existence was threatened. The Menomini people fought back and in 1973 they won the Menominee Restoration Act. An entire culture was nearly wiped from history if not for the strength of that culture to stand up to their oppressors. 45 years ago. Are you old enough to remember 1973?

Historically, the land around the Mississippi River was populated by the Mississippian culture. The sketchy reliability of websites noted, the Mississippian culture stretches back to roughly 1000 CE and moved through a couple iterations until the mid-1500’s when the white people showed up. Within the Mississippian culture were sub-cultures, such as the Oneota, who lived throughout the Eastern Plains and Great Lakes regions. The Oneota are dated 900-1650 and became Sioux cultures.

From the Mississippian culture came several peoples such as the Otoe, Ioway and Missouria, as well as the Sioux. Sioux, from the French word Nadousesssioux, spanned the upper Midwest and today are mostly affiliated with the Dakota lands. Of course, before forced removal by the US, Sioux peoples were in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Does a name matter?

Getting closer to “my” home along the Mississippi, the region is known for its unique land forms called mounds. Though the Native peoples credited for building the ceremonial and burial mounds are called Hopewell, this is an English name applied by a archaeologist who researched the mounds on a piece of property owned by the Hopewell family.

Take a step back with that information. An entire people is identified in history books by the white family who just happened to hold land rights to a particular mound that was dug up by an archaeologist.

With the limited time and knowledge I had, I could not find the origin name of the peoples who may have built the mounds. In the general region of the Driftless Area, the land was inhabited by Sauk, as well as Ho-Chunk or Winnebago peoples. Being Sioux speaking Native peoples, the Ho-Chunk are in the Mississipian and likely Oneota lineage, there is some possibility that they are related to the early mound builders.

The Ho-Chunk, or Hoocąągra, were spread across parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, though primarily rooted to the lands of Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk suffered devastation due to a violent storm while settled in the Green Bay area and later from infectious diseases brought across the land by white immigrants. As with most Native peoples, they were forcibly relocated to reservation lands in Wisconsin and Nebraska (?!) in the 19th century. The Ho-Chunk tribes have been strategic in reacquiring land in Wisconsin, however, and claim property throughout the state.

Is knowledge enough?

Heck no. And if you’ve made it this far through this reflection, you’re probably of the same mind. Its lovely to have all this information rumbling in the brain and it doesn’t offer much consolation. I also don’t know if being aware of this history is for shame and guilt, either. I cannot say that my people didn’t know any better. I cannot deny that my existence in the Driftless Area and my continued presence in the Rock River Valley is because other cultures were cleared out.

Local (white) history will always speak of the bold, courageous pioneers who braved the cruel weather and torments of sparse living in order to make a better life for their families. That’s the usual narrative. Until this paltry research project, I knew no history of the Native peoples who were here for at least 2000 years.

I offer up this reflection in order to hold myself accountable to tell these stories and correct the narratives told in history museums and local lore. I am going to keep reading and learning, specifically from Native peoples resources, to make sure I’m getting it as right as I can. I will continue to steward the land I walk on and the broader Creation that surrounds me because it is not mine. It never was mine. In my frame of vision, all of it belongs to God.

And I invite you to click a few of the links in this text or do it even better than me. Use better books and more accurate reference materials. We white immigrants have only been here a few hundred years and we have not been compassionate to our Native brothers and sisters. Frankly, we have all but erased cultures from the earth using systemic genocide in various forms.

We can pray for forgiveness for the role our ancestors played and the false stories we’ve been given. We can pray for God’s people isolated on sparse, neglected lands and denied basic services or support. We can pray for our nation to find ways to offer meaningful reparations for the atrocities and injustices we’ve brought in the name of progress. We can advocate. We can listen and we can do better. I pray God grants me the wisdom and direction to do better.

Getting SENT Home

A sermon on Mark 6.1-13 given Sept 23, 2018 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mt Morris, IL

If you would to hear this sermon, it is available on my podcast site Pr Josh Ehrler in iTunes.

 

It is utterly simple. If you want to proclaim the love of God. If you want to speak of forgiveness and introduce people to the power and promise of God in their lives, go be a global missionary. Travel across the planet, wherever you feel called to go, and be a disciple. I think that is what Jesus is trying to tell us in our gospel today.

And I know, the idea of leaving everything behind is daunting. Extreme, possibly. I have had the privilege of meeting some missionaries who have served God in incredible, wonderful places and I marvel at their faithfulness. Their willingness to leave everything they know and hop and plane. For me it is too much, my anxiety begins to rise thinking about all the work. Just getting a passport is a lesson in patience. Then there’s all the shots, the training, the cultural awareness classes and possibly beginning to learn a new language. It is not how I am called to serve. It, for me, feels too much.

With that said, being a missionary to Tanzania, Ethiopia, South African, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Romania, Venezuela, you name the place, may still be easier than being a missionary right here. At home. Or so Jesus demonstrates in this reading.

In the gospel of Mark, the entire book, Jesus comes across as a superhero. Not Mark’s words, those are mine. When we talk about the four gospels in confirmation we note how each writer has their own perspective of who Jesus is and in Mark, Jesus is a superhero. Mark’s favorite word for Jesus is “immediately.” Immediately Jesus heals the sick. Immediately Jesus casts out demons. Immediately Jesus travels across the sea, sometimes walking (he doesn’t even need a boat) and then immediately, he comes back to the other side.

Jesus has can perform incredible deeds of power because, as Mark tells in the first verse, he is the Son of God. He can do just about anything. Except convince his own people that he is the Son of God.

If we had a our Bibles open, I’d invite us to bookmark or put our finger on chapter 6, where we are, and flip back to chapter 3, verse 19 specifically, and we’d find Mark’s simple line, “Jesus went home.” Before this he healed a man in a synagogue, he moved along the seashore with a crowd, he named his starting lineup of the 12 disciples and after all of that, and that was just chapter 3, Jesus went home. The same thing you or I would do after a hard day of labor.

In verse 19 we learn he’s home. In verse 20 we find out his family is tracking him down. And in verse 21, only two verses later, Mark tells us why he family wants him. “The people are saying he has gone out of his mind.”

His family, his mom and siblings, want to gather him up, take him how, put him on the couch, have and intervention and tell him to stop it. Just stop it Jesus. Because the locals think you’re out of your mind.

The neighbors have started a whisper campaign that he is possessed by a demon.

Of course to you and me, this is absurd. This is…Jesus. There is no other Jesus but Jesus. He’s the Son of God, he is here to reveal that the kingdom of heaven is near. He can heal the sick, cast out all our demons, he can offer forgiveness through our confession of sins, he can make us whole.

This is Jesus, as plain as day to us. Though, we didn’t grow up with him. We didn’t see him when he was 4 or 5 running up and down the street. We don’t know about that thing that happened during that lock in when he was 12. We didn’t see him get the keys from his mom when he turned 16 and take the car and drive it into a ditch. We don’t know those stories.

We know some of his stories. We love his stories of Christmas. Easter. His healings. His works of power. But we don’t know his stories.

And when we flip back to our reading today, Mark 6, it starts to make sense. This trouble Jesus has at home. Mark tells us he goes home, again. This is his second time. Turns out it will probably be his last time. And he’s a son of the congregation so they invite him into the pulpit, only to quickly boo him out of the pulpit. In a remark hint at Jesus humanness, Mark tells us in verse 5, “He could do no deeds of power there.” Sure, he heals a few people, bops a few on the head with a blessing on his way out, but he is rendered powerless. And he’s the Son of God.

As a faith leader, as a church leader, as an evangelical leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I am called by God to send us out on Christ’s behalf to proclaim the good news. To name and call out all the demons that destroy life, that destroy human bonds, that destroy hope. We are called by our Lord, the Son of God, to bring healing to the suffering ones, the sick ones, the sick and tired ones. We are called in God’s name, with Christ’s blessing, to speak holy words meant to reflect God’s Holy Word that breaks and shapes and creates life.

And where will we go after we leave through these doors? Straight home.

Which is no criticism. Certainly one or two of us might get on a plane and fly to Tanzania. If you do, send a post card.

But for the rest of us, we’re going home. It’s what I do after worship. We’ll grab lunch as a family and spend our day at home.

Its part of our calling. It is where we are needed by Christ. Because our brothers and sisters, and I know when we speak of brothers and sisters in here we’re using speaking broadly, globally. But for this, our literal brothers and sisters, our parents, our kids, our grandkids, our cousins, our aunts and uncles, our people need to hear the gospel. That Grace is for them. Our classmates, our colleagues, our bandmates, our teammates, our friends at the coffee shop, our doctors and nurses, our caregivers, our person who gives us a ride, our neighbors we’ll see across the fence, all need to hear again that the demons and powers of this world cannot, will not, will never cut them off and separate anyone from God’s love.

Sounds so easy, because we know these words. And it is terrifying.

To speak our faith publicly amongst people we play with, work with, hang with and talk politics with. We know that as much as our people may be longing to hear about love and forgiveness, they may struggle to hear it from us. At least we tell ourselves that.

We struggle to say it out loud. In part because we don’t want to offend. We don’t want to upset the patterns and privilege we enjoy. We don’t want to mess with the rhythms of our lives. We fear the potential of isolation that could happen. We don’t want to make Thanksgiving weird. We don’t want these strange words coming out of our mouths, the same strange words we carry in our hearts. If we honest with God, and in God’s presence we can be honest, we are comfortable.

And this morning we arrive for worship, drawn here by the Holy Spirit and Jesus greets us at the door. And after listening to the prelude and having the music begin to turn our thoughts toward God, Jesus invites us to stand make our confession. We’re barely in our pews, we’ve hardly had time to get ready, and Jesus asks us to confess our comfort. Our unwillingness to follow him. Our hesitation to speak his sacred words to others. And because this isn’t about guilt or shame, he give his forgiveness. Immediately.

Jesus calls us out of our homes, out of our lives, out of our comforts and expectations, out of our resistance, out of the expectations that are placed on us by our community. And he cuts us loose from all of it. He sets us free. He brings us back into community. He casts out our demons and gives name to our brokenness and shines his light upon us. He affirms us, he transforms us and as much as we need to hear it every week, Jesus loves us.

And with this good news, Jesus entrusts us with his power. We are called in and we’re sent out with nothing, and everything we need. We can call out demons. We can pour out the Hly Spirit through our words and our hands. We can heal. And I know we think of healing in the medical sense and the profound gifts of science and new technology, pharmacology and therapy. The kind of healing Jesus brings is community. The kind of healing that Jesus offers is about overcoming isolation. Remembering again that we are part of a community.

We are being sent out, refreshed in holy waters, renewed in a sacred meal, and recreated from our sin into new life.

And we are being sent to what we know best. Our homes. Because we already know the language, we know the lingo, the inside jokes. We know all the characters, all the people. We know the needs that plague our neighbors. We know the stories of pain, disappointment and unrelenting hope. And we can speak God’s name into these stories.

We know all the demons by name. And we know exactly where to find them.

And we head out knowing that we are not alone. This community goes with us. Christ goes with us. Jesus goes ahead of us. He’s in the homes of our neighbors before us.

Our neighbors, our friends, our family, our classmates, our colleagues-I hate to tell you this-they know where you are right now. They know you’re habits and patterns. They know our faith is central to our lives.

We are being called and sent to speak our faith. Tell our story. Tell the story of Trinity Lutheran Church. Speak of what God has done and continues to do in your life.

Make what is already known-known. It is scary. It is a little terrifying. We read Mark chapter 6 and it didn’t go well for Jesus.

And yet because it did not go well for Christ, we see that he clears all our obstacles. Through the cross he pushes away all the demons of doubts, the fears of death and the dread of what might happen.

Because we know what will happen. God’s glory will be revealed through Christ. And we, you and me, we have Christ’s power. It’s true, some will refuse. Some will have a hard time believing us, hearing God’s name, some will doubt. Yet Jesus taught us what to do when that happens. Shake the dust off our feet and keep going. Encounter our people who have been waiting, who are today waiting for us to speak God’s Grace in their presence. That they can know that this good news is for them.

Amen.

Christ Will GROW the Church

 

 A sermon on Mark 4.1-9 given Sept 16, 2018 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Mt Morris, IL

If you would to hear this sermon, it is available on my podcast site Pr Josh Ehrler in iTunes.

 

It’s the crowds. The ever present, living, breathing crowds in the gospel of Mark. All those beautiful humans pressing in around Jesus, so many people that our eyes are overloaded with faces and bodies.

People with brown skin, tanned skin, gorgeous, ebony skin. Folks in rags standing next to others in tailored suits. God’s people speaking all the languages: English, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Indian, Chinese, Ahmaric, Swahili, Arabic. People with big hair, red hair, no hair; tall people, short people, loud people and quiet people. Some people with incredible influence from their region and others who have been silenced and sat down.

It’s the crowds in the gospel of Mark who are the window into which we can gauge and guess at the reach and desperate need of God’s kingdom. 2000 years ago and today.

It’s the crowds, these countless people who have given up everything. They’ve given up their time, their hours on the clock, their vacation days, personal days, sick days and sleepless nights to be there. To be near Jesus. To be touched by Jesus. Received by Jesus.

And Jesus, who sees the crowds, speaks to the crowds. Mark tells us this incredible crowd is so impressive that Jesus has to climb into a boat to see them. Which, if we had our Bibles open, I’d invite you to turn back a page to chapter 3, verse 9, to see where Jesus tells the disciples to get a boat ready. He knew this was going to happen.

It’s the crowds. They keep showing up, even in the first three chapters of this book. When Jesus tried to organize a small group Bible study on a Tuesday afternoon in a house, the crowds show up and are so stifling that a group of friends have to tear open a roof just to lower their buddy, so he had can be touched by Jesus. The crowds follow Jesus along the seashore. The crowds won’t let him sleep. The crowds are massive enough that when Jesus’ own family shows up, he points to everyone and says, “This is my mother and my brothers.”

It’s the crowds. Full of anxiety and fear, consumed by anticipation and excitement. They keep showing up. Because whatever the world has given them. Whatever the world has offered. Whatever the world has stolen from their lives is still not enough. Its not what they need.

Its not what we need. We who are gathered again this morning in this shelter provided by God, some of us waiting with hope, some of feeling hopeless. Waiting for Christ to speak words of forgiveness. Proclaim our Grace. Our worth. Remind us again that we are renewed. That we will keep growing in faith.

We, each of us, got here through the Holy Spirit. Some of us kicking and screaming, some of not entirely sure anyway and yet, we’re here. Because God is not done with us yet. We haven’t heard enough. We will never hear enough times that we belong to God. That God made us. Claims us. And is actively, every day rebuilding us from the dust up.

We who dwell in stone and craggy earth that cuts our feet and breaks our spirit. We who are suffocated by temptation and distress. We who are doing okay, fine actually, and still, we have a stirring of the Spirit in our hearts to share this peace with our people.

It’s the crowds who Jesus is talking to. Each of us as individuals, certainly. Yet to all of us, together, created as one body, a mass of humanity pressed in around Christ. Formed and framed and forgiven.

It’s the church Jesus is gazing over as we the people here at Brayton and Ogle gather in, ears opened b God, hearts fluttering in our chests, hands twitching as we get ready to grasp the bread and wine that we know isn’t really bread and wine, it’s the body and blood of Christ prepared for our lives.

And this parable Jesus offers, like so many parables Jesus preaches, comes with its barbs and thorns, and in Grace. Jesus, at the top of the reading, after climbing into the boat, calls out “The Lord be with you!” Okay, that’s not the translation. He says “Listen!” And behind that translation he is saying “Look!” And behind these words he calling us in, to gather around him.

For some of us, if we haven’t heard this parable in a while or ever, we can hear what Jesus is saying and on the surface think to ourselves its rather obvious. Good soil is good. Bad soil is bad. Be good soil. Doesn’t seem like a lot there.

For others of us who have heard Jesus preach before, this parable can be incredibly familiar. We realize as we hear it that Jesus is just like any other preacher or public speaker, he recycles his material. Jesus loves talking about seeds and he enjoys talking about dirt. Like God, getting our hands in the earth to see what will be created. And because this parable rings familiar, maybe too familiar, we could be a little disappointed. Good soil is good. Bad soil is bad. Be good soil.

Simple enough. So we settle back into our pews and our thoughts and may even zone out the rest. And yet Jesus has cast the seed of his Word on our thoughts and as it begins to burrow into our minds we begin to realize, we can’t be good. I mean, we can all be good. We can be good citizens, we can dress nice for an event, we can shake hands and be nice and polite. We can be good.

Yet in our relationship with God, in our relationship with God’s people, we remember in dread that we can’t be good. And as that starts to move around our minds, our anxiety starts to build a little. We need Jesus.

We sit back up in our spots and we can hear those voices of the crowds from Mark echoing through our own. We can hear ourselves thinking, speaking, crying out all the same questions and longings.

We’re sick, Jesus. We’re mad, Jesus. We’ve been put down and told to put up with it for long enough, Jesus.

We’ve seen our neighbors kicked out of their homes, Jesus. We’ve been part of the problem, Jesus. We’ve served ourselves, Jesus. We’ve been served up more than our share of suffering, Jesus. We’re tired, Jesus.

We’re tired of the anger, Jesus. We’re angry at the apathy all around us, Jesus! We’re fed up with the words of hate moving through our community, Jesus! We’re sick of hearing those hateful words in the back of our own minds, Jesus.

We are rocky soil of hardened hearts. So crystallized and resistant to Grace that the devil can sweep in and sweep it all away with a breath. We are over fertilized dirt. So full of temporary joy that at the first sign of despair, we collapse and deny God is near. Grace, for us, feels fleeting, fruitless, pointless.

We the church are so wrapped in and wracked by guilt and shame that we can be easily swayed by the words of this world. The ideas of this world. The measurements and metrics that supposedly mark success in this world. We struggle with the segregation, the inequality, the injustice of this world. We know God’s Grace comes and we still can’t believe God can do anything. Not through Trinity Lutheran Church. We doubt sometimes if God even cares.

We know these words of the crowds. These words have been resonating across Creation for over 2000 years, even more longer. It’s the church, this church and the countless like us across Creation who stand before Christ, clamoring, reaching, burning our last drops of energy to be near him. To be reached by him. To be drawn in from what we know and be changed. Transformed.

Be made new. Be grown from soil that stifles to good earth that breathes and flourishes and gives life.

Jesus is preaching to the crowds. To us wanting to believe that what we know is not what God devises. The Spirit stirs and brings us in and binds us to each other and Christ who sees us and knows us, loves us. He speaks Grace to us again.

We are created by God to be good soil. Jesus is taking us all the way back to the first Creation story to hear this good news. We are crafted by our Lord to reflect God’s image. We, this body, this church, with our questions, our doubts, and our deep seeded hope, is fashioned by God.

And it happens every day. Every Saturday night, every Sunday morning. Some of us show up depleted. Some of us are just plain done with this world. And Christ receives us in his boat and he makes us whole again.

He takes on all of it. All that shame, that sin, that baggage we haul around on our backs that wear us out. We toss it at his feet, we throw it in the boat, and he carries it off. He transforms his wooden vessel into a cross to carry away our brokenness. And after we bury him into that old soil, he breaks us free and heals us. He empowers us. This church. He gives this church a voice. He provides this church with power. He wraps this church in courage. He loves this church back to life.

It’s the church. This church. Trinity Lutheran Church, and the countless churches across Creation, that today is the window for our neighbors to gauge and guess at the reach and presence of Christ. Imperfect as we are, made perfect through Christ. Flawed absolutely, and forgiven freely. Not as we’d expect to be, maybe not at all what we want ourselves to be, yet made to be enough to serve the needs of our neighbors.

We are the returning masses who keep showing up because God seeks us out. We are the old soil made new soil to speak life, justice, equality and compassion. To sing a new song through an old refrain.

To listen as we have been heard. To open our doors as Christ opened the grave.

It’s the church. This church, that is being called back to Christ as we are to no longer remain as we are. We are called to proclaim through our presence that Christ hears the desperation of the crowds. Christ knows the need. And Christ is responding.

Because Christ will not let this world remain the same.

Amen.

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Epilogue: After a lengthy hiatus from this media forum, I am humbly returning with the goal of reengaging the conversation this site has afforded. I am grateful that anyone would read these thoughts. I do miss the banter it created.

Besides period reflections, I am also going to begin posting sermons like this one. This is a little bit of a challenge for me because my sermons are handwritten (who even does that?) and many of my sermons are given with little more than outlines. However, I am honored whenever a worshiper approaches me after the Postlude, shakes my hand, and asks if the message is available for further reflection. Truly, there is hardly a higher compliment any person can give a preacher. 

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