Monday, April 10, 2017

If You See Nicodemus

I remember a night many years ago when I was sitting in my study on the Saturday before Palm Sunday.  Tomorrow would be a major gathering of the church.  It was not only Palm Sunday, but also the day when we celebrated the Rite of Confirmation.  The sanctuary would be packed with worshippers, with both the curious and the committed.  It promised to be a big day, and so I was alone in my study, preparing and praying. 

From down the darkened corridor, I heard the distinct rattle of someone tugging at the locked entry doors.  Someone had seen the light and was wanting to come in.  I walked to  the door, pushed the panic bar to open it, and saw a young man that I knew from our town.  He was walking away toward his car into the night.  Calling after him, I invited the man to my study where he sank into one of the chairs.  I thought to myself, "Well, so much for my preparation time.  Even on Saturday night folks find me."  I felt frustration and resentment when the visitor asked, "So what does this church think about homosexuality?"  So, here comes another hypothetical conversation--another opportunity for an endless argument about whether God accepts all people--especially LGBTQ people.  And, it's Saturday night before Palm Sunday!

I drew a deep breath that ended in a silent sigh . . . and during that pastoral pause my visitor said, "I'm gay."  Suddenly the conversation was no longer hypothetical.   This was not going to be another debate about conservative or progressive theology.  This was real.  My guest inquired, "Would I be welcome here?"  This was his only question:  "Would I be welcome here?"  Would this church be safe space for him?

We discussed that question for nearly an hour in the dimness of my study.  The United Church of Christ has declared that, yes, all are welcome; but the churches of our community, including the one where I was serving, were not really open and certainly not affirming. "Yes, you would be welcome, but . . ."  And my visitor--my Nicodemus--thanked me for opening the door and listening.  As he stepped back into the night, I wondered whether I had been helpful, whether he had been heard, whether he might come to worship.

Well, Nicodemus did not appear in the light of that Palm Sunday amid the throng of people who came for service the next morning.  But in the dimness of Maundy Thursday--sixth row from the front on the lectern side--Nicodemus took his place in a bench as we remembered Jesus' mandate,  "Love one another as I have loved you."  And he was there during the Tenebrae, as the lights were extinguished and we remembered Christ's death.  We left that service in silence, dispersing into the night. 

I never saw him again, but I've never forgotten him.  I keep watching for Nicodemus even now, many years later.  I pray that he has found a community of faith where he is known, and accepted, and loved as a beloved child of God.  I pray that he has found a congregation where he can worship in the light of day, as well as in the dimness and darkness of the night.  I pray that he has found his way to Easter Sunday--to the Risen One, to new life, to joy.

So, if you see Nicodemus, tell him that I remember.  Tell him that he is welcome in the daylight, welcome in the pew, and--if called by Christ--welcome in the pulpit too.   Let him know that he is loved.  If you happen to see him on a Saturday night when you are busy preparing for something that seems important, I hope you will open the door and open your heart.  We need him, her, them in God's church as much as Nicodemus needs us.

O Jesus Christ, who was open to those who came seeking in the night, thank you for the questioning spirit, the deep conversation, and the presence of Nicodemus in both the study and in the sanctuary.  Be with everyone who seeks, that they may find your grace, your hospitality, and your joy--now and forever.  Help us to watch for and to welcome our friend Nicodemus home.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sorting Things Out

In these early days of Lent, I remember a parishioner, who stopped by my study one summer morning.  Tim came by to visit and, after surveying my desk, offered a simple, matter-of fact observation: "Reverend, you've got to throw something away every day."  That memory connects with another, that of my Grandpa Witte, as we prepared for the auction of his property.  When things were carried down from the cramped and dusty attic, Grandpa would often speak a two-word command: "Pitch it!"  It was time to get rid of the stuff that had accumulated over a lifetime and was no longer needed.

Part of my Lenten discipline this year involves sorting things out.  It feels good to put things away in their place, to file documents that need to be saved and to pitch those possessions that just take up space and are never used.  There are so many artifacts that get accumulated in a lifetime:  That old garage door that was replaced nearly twenty years ago, but now rests on the rafters in my shop.  Why did I even keep that?  Those old books and college notes that I will never read again.  These old well-worn (worn out) shoes that were once new and so comfortable, but are not so any more.  The inventory in my museum is substantial.  Tim's counsel brings freedom:  "Reverend, you've got to throw something away every day."

Part of this sorting also leads to sharing.   Trips to the local thrift shop or church rummage sale to give away those things I no longer need may be a source of joy in someone else's life.  Maybe Tim's maxim could be expanded:  "You've got to share something every day."  What a life that would be for the one who gives and the one who receives.  We have so much--too much--while others lack basic necessities.  Sharing as spiritual discipline seems to fit well in the Lenten journey.

It is not just the tangible property that needs to be sorted out and saved for a while longer or to be discarded.  There are those haunting memories of grudges carried forward, the pain of grief and guilt, the burden of fears and doubts.  Lent is a good time to sort things out.  The voices of pastors from my youth still echo in my mind:  "Approach with me the throne of grace, and let us pray to Almighty God."  With that invitation we would pray the prayer of confession before Communion.  Lent is that season when the mercy seat, the throne of grace, is clearly available.  This is sacred time when lives are unloaded and burdens are laid down at the foot of Christ's cross.

So, it is time for me and, perhaps, for you to sort some things out, so that I may be forgiven, free, and alive again.  It is time to let go and to wrap myself in the mantle of God's acceptance and grace.  The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are transformative and true: 
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  (Mt. 6:19-21, NRSV) 

God, I have a lot of sorting to do.  Help me to cherish that which matters most and to let go of everything else.  Free me to love, to serve, and to enjoy your gift of life.  So, what would you have me throw away or give away today?  Amen.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

In the Barn with the Shepherd

These winter days remind me of lambing season many years ago.  Our family started raising sheep when my Dad brought home an orphaned ewe lamb named Betty sometime in the early 1960's.  Betty had no pedigree.  She was our pet lamb.  From that single sheep, we eventually assembled a flock of 25-30 sheep.

I can still picture my Dad shearing each sheep by hand--the old fashioned way--no electric equipment.  He used a blade shears, bending over each sheep as he worked.  I remember how sore his hands and back became every spring at shearing time.

Today, I remember the late night trips to the barn, which was some five miles away from our home.  We would drive back to the barn to check on the sheep often in lambing season before we went to bed.  The barn had no electricity, so we carried lanterns which gave off a little heat as well as light.  You could always see your breath in the barn on those winter nights.  It was a quiet, peaceful place with sheep all around, chewing their cuds and dozing.

Often those trips back to the barn were uneventful, but every now and then a ewe was giving birth.  Sometimes there were complications.  My Dad always knew what to do when the delivery was difficult.  I saw him revive many a lamb that others would have given up for dead. 

There is something about raising those sheep that has helped to form me as a pastor of the church.  All the business and technology models for ministry do not really resonate with me.  My roots are in the agrarian life.  My care for congregations was formed by observing the shepherd care for his sheep on cold winter nights.  His commitment to the well-being of the sheep was evident as we left the warmth of our home to make the trip back to the damp chill of the barn.

When I consider the ministry to which I am called, the model of the shepherd still informs my practice.  Ministry is not so much about management as it is about listening to the sighs and watching for the signs of new life.  It is about protecting the flock and working for its well-being.  It is about calling others to congregate in community.  It is about knowing the names, perceiving the needs, and loving them all--no matter what.

Today, I give thanks that I am still surrounded by shepherds (150 active ministers in the New Hampshire Conference).  And, I give thanks that we all have a Shepherd--a Good Shepherd--who has come to lead us to green pastures and abundant life, who calls us together when we wander away, who gives himself in love for the world.  We have a Shepherd!  Thanks be to God!


A benediction from Hebrews:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever.  Amen.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Beyond the Silence

Just one week ago, on Inauguration Day, a group assembled at the New Hampshire State House.  It was not a time to protest but to be present for and with one another in a Silent Vigil of Hope and Concern.  Those ten minutes of silence on the same morning that our President was taking the oath of office were reverent, respectful, and prayerful. 

I have been thinking lately about the move from silence to speech.  A text from the baptismal homily of the First Epistle of Peter is the focus of my devotional time: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence"  (I Peter 3:15f., NRSV).  The Greek word that is translated "defense" is ἀπολογία (apologia).  Always be ready to make an apology?  I hear a parental echo, "Say you're sorry. Show some remorse and regret."  This sounds like something that belongs in a prayer of confession.  But apologia is the desire to make clear why you are taking a particular position or engaging in a particular action.  It is speaking that clarifies one's belief.  It is speech that follows the silence.

The late Eugene Wehrli, Professor of New Testament and President of Eden Seminary, taught me that actions without words are often ambiguous.  How does the faith inform my action?  Words are necessary.  Preachers are important:  "How will they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14, KJV).  Prophets must offer an apologia for their actions in order to be effectively understood and to more deeply encourage and engage others in their witness.

So beyond last week's silent vigil at the State House, I believe people of faith must find the words to account for the hope that is in them: Words to inspire others, to lift their eyes so that they might see all the way to the horizon, to catch a glimpse of heaven that transforms the troubles of earth, to see the Sovereign God, who is faithful--King of kings and Lord of lords.  To make our apologia with gentleness and reverence, with courage and conviction, as people of great faith; this is our high and holy calling.  This is what is required of us now.

The next time we gather at the State House, I hope we will bring words--perhaps a single word on a piece of brightly colored card stock.  Just a single word written large for anyone who passes by to read.  A word that communicates our deepest values . . . a word that is rooted in our baptismal identity . . . a word that clarifies our action . . . a word that may inspire someone else to hope, to imagine, to take a stand, to find their voice, and to act.  What's the word you must speak today?

With gratitude for those who plan the silent vigils, pray the prayers, and find the words that change the world. Indeed, thank you God!

 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Can Anything Good Come from Bay?

There is often a skeptic in the crowd.  At the outset of Jesus' ministry, as he was gathering his disciples, some were not sure about him because he came from a little nowhere place called Nazareth.  Nathanael gave voice to the question:  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Of course that question gets lost in the encounter that this skeptic has when he actually meets Jesus for himself.  Jesus reveals that he has already paid attention to Nathanael as he sat beneath the fig tree.  Nathanael turns from his skepticism to offer a profession of faith:  "Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!"  (Jn. 1:43-51).

The first book that I read in this new year was by Don Waldecker, "Growing Up in Rural Missouri."  I'm a slow, ponderous reader, but these 98 pages with extra large type were read in an evening.  I selected the book after seeing an article about it in my hometown newspaper, The Gasconade County Republican.  Waldecker has written to chronicle his family's migration from Germany to Bay, Missouri in the 1830's and 1840's.  Bay was also my childhood home.

What I found interesting was that most men and women found their spouses within a ten mile radius.  Marriage between second cousins was permitted.  Houses, like the one where Don and his sister grew up, were roughly 1,000 square feet.  A large garden supplied produce for the year.  Schools were one-room with all eight grades, but often there were some grades with no children in them.  Books were scarce and were read numerous times.  Teachers were not that much older than their students and did not have much formal education.  It was a far different time.  The world was close.  The circle was tightly drawn.

Waldecker mentions how a favorite pastime was rehearsing the family relationships.  "How are we related to the Obergs or the Gumpers or the Ridders?"  And visiting, especially on Sunday afternoons, was what we did.  Folks did not wait to be invited, but often checked about coming over for a visit as they left church on Sunday morning.  "Will you be home this afternoon?  We'd like to drop by for a visit?"  That visit always included a mid afternoon lunch of coffeecake and coffee.

It was a different world.  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  Can anything good come from little villages like Bay?  Waldecker's family encouraged him to get an education beyond the eighth grade.  He ended up receiving an engineering degree from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy at Rolla (now Missouri University of Science & Technology).  He went far from those hills of home to work as an engineer in Owego, NY.  But it is clear as he now approaches age 80, that the memories of his ancestors and the stories imparted in that close community shaped his life in profound ways.

So, my hope is that our communities--even our neighborhoods in the larger urban centers--might reclaim something of that same closeness.  It seems to me that the local church right in your community is the setting where folks meet one another and practice friendliness.  And, as they do that, often they have the experience of meeting Jesus there and discovering faith that abides for a lifetime.  May it be so for us! 

O God, restore in us and foster in us a desire for connection--not only to you but also to one another.  Fill us with the awareness and appreciation for those places that may, at first, seem small and insignificant but are, in fact, sanctuaries where your love and life abide.  Amen.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Courageous Christmas

It's Christmas Morning.  At worship this morning, a sentence from the Prayer of Invocation spoke to my spirit:  "Bring us to our knees before the manger, that we may then stand with confidence before the dangers around us."  The birth of Jesus invites a posture of piety, a kneeling before the manger, where a tiny, vulnerable baby is cradled.  I am a child of the German Evangelical Church. This is where my piety is grounded: In the Gospel, on my knees in a stable before an infant named Jesus.

But piety is not a sentimental spirituality that is disconnected from the realities of earth.  Piety moves us to "stand with confidence before the dangers around us."  Whether we are standing with vulnerable orphans of war and famine, with those with some debilitating and isolating illness, or with those who face economic disasters--faith moves us from our knees to our feet.  Trusting in the grace and truth we glimpse in Bethlehem's manger, we are disciples who engage in the world.  Christmas begins with piety and moves us to prophetic action.  When the church stands with confidence before the powers and principalities of this world, it declares its allegiance to the Christ in the cradle, to the Crucified Christ on the cross, and to the Risen Christ who promises to be with us forever.

The great temptation for the Christian Church in this time is that we become comfortable and complacent with evil in our midst.  We let someone else "stand before the dangers around us" while we say, "It's not my problem.  It's too complicated.  It's too controversial."    We surrender our voice and our moral responsibility both to kneel and then to stand up for the little ones (Matthew 25). 

Lately, I have been astounded that some are calling for us to return to a nuclear arms race.  I well remember the work of SANE/FREEZE (forerunner of Peace Action) in the 1980's.  I remember William Sloane Coffin, and the prophetic voices of others like Martin Buber, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Harry Bellefonte, who called us to resist the danger of nuclear proliferation.  Our prophets taught us that our security was not in weapons, not in the military-industrial complex, not in threatening words on the lips of world leaders.  True security derives from trusting God to be our refuge and strength.  And those prophetic voices changed the world.

In my last parish, there were congregants who lived on a farm adjacent to a former Minute Man II Missile silo--one of 150 such sites in Western Missouri.  I would pass that underground silo on the way to visit the farm family in their home.  It was unnerving to think that such a deadly weapon was once located just a few hundred yards from the home of my friends.  That missile might have created catastrophic devastation somewhere else in God's world.  Today that silo has been decommissioned because others with faith and courage moved from their knees to their feet.

I not only wish you a Merry Christmas today, but I also wish you a Courageous Christmas.  May your piety, your faith, your devotion to the little Baby in the manger lead you to a spirituality that is sensitive to the needs of all God's little ones, whether they be near or far away.  May your piety lead you to prophetic witness that is willing to "stand with confidence before the dangers around us."  Isn't that, after all, what this tiny Baby will do as he grows up and finds his voice?  Isn't that, ultimately, what he calls and claims us to do in our own time?

Give us courage at Christmas, O God, that we may kneel and then take our stand for your justice and peace.  Amen.   

Monday, December 19, 2016

Incarnation

It's almost Christmas again.  I am reminded of how much I miss the relationships that come with parish ministry.  That is not to say that Christmas was always a joy.  For example, I still remember how difficult it was to balance time between our families and Christmas services.  I remember creating liturgies and delivering homilies for Christmas.  I remember the crowded pews.  I remember Herb wrestling the chalice from my hands and taking it to his lips during the candlelight service.  I remember Wilbert hiking to Christmas Eve worship through briars and ravines, honoring a special Christmas tradition from his childhood.  I remember the solos, Sharon and Brenda and Christy each singing, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" in different sanctuaries on different Christmases.  I remember luminaries that would not light.  I remember praying for our soldiers during Desert Storm--praying for an end to violence and war.

Today, my thoughts turn to the Incarnation and the way our faith is grounded in flesh-and-blood relationships.  God's holiness is connected to the earthiness and the messiness of human life.  Jesus was born in a stable and cradled in a feed trough.  No place but a barn.  Just imagine.

As I reflect on the Incarnation, I think of Christmas caroling; how we shivered on porches in the village to sing a carol or two.  I recall caroling through the halls of nursing homes.  I remember most caroling in places where life was difficult--where this was likely the last Christmas that a family would be together.  It was a holy time, singing the faith to folks who lived with oxygen tanks, bedside commodes, and diminishing light. And Jesus was there.  It was all so very real.

So, may your Christmas be real and may it be joyful this year.  May you find Jesus anew in those closest to you and those farthest away.  May you delight in the Incarnation--the Word in the flesh and dwelling with us always.  Blessed Christmas, Dear Friends!  Blessed Christmas!