Monday, June 24, 2019

Everyone Has a Name

Luke 8:26-39
June 23, 2019

Just a warning – I don’t have anything in this sermon
to say about the pigs.

You ever watch Seinfeld?
If you have, you know in that show, they call people by names
like the “Soup Nazi”, or the “Low Talker”.
That’s not just a habit of the show,
it’s kind of a New York thing,
It’s probably not just a New York thing,
but it seems like I did it a lot more when I lived there.

Maybe it’s just because everyone walks around more there
and there are just a huge amount of people you see on a
Jesus From the Ground Surprises
Pete Bagnolo
regular basis who you never really know.
Many of whom have interesting traits or habits.
Usually these people had some mental issues and
that’s why they did things that were unusual.

Around our neighborhood, I remember
Someone we called “Bucket Head man”
he went everywhere with a bucket taped to his head.
“Alleluia man” would stand on the corner and yell Alleluia for hours.
There was the “screaming lady” who lived across the street 
who  would argue loudly with herself.

And there was a man who would walk up and down
Broadway all day, he always wore a suit and tie
and he was always smoking.
He would always be looking at the ground
and sometimes run into people.
he would apologize and walk on.
He was “the Smoking Man.”
I think that referring to people by their habits,
makes it easier for us to not have to deal with them as people.
It’s easier to keep people at arm’s length  from us when
we make their problems their whole identity.
We don’t have to get any closer or know anything else
about them.

I wonder what they called this man
in Garasenes who ran around the tombs without any clothes.
I wonder what they called him keep him at a safe distance
and make him less real.
Maybe they called him “Naked Cemetery Guy”

When Jesus came to him, he asked him, “What is your name?”
it was probably a long time since anyone had done that.
And the man didn’t even say his own name,
the demons actually answered for him and said,
We are Legion, because there are many of us.”
It was as if he had become his afflictions,
he couldn’t even remember who he was.

Today, we don’t worry all too much about demon possession.
We might think this story is irrelevant to us today.
but what if we see these demons that possessed this man
for the result they had on him and on the people around him,
maybe it’s still relevant.

They caused this man to act in destructive ways to
himself and others it kept him in isolation from other people.
Other people tried to ignore him and disregard him.
He had lost his real identity.

If we understand them that way,
we can understand what demons are.
We are possessed by many things in the same way today.

And these demons, whatever they are, can make the people
possessed by them, and others around them, act differently.
The people around them become possessed by apathy,
hostility, sadness, anger,
we can forget that there are actually people.
We define them by their shortcomings.

We call them crazy, weirdos, druggies, alcoholics,
inmates, illegals, crooks, hobos, hillbillies, and worse.
We keep them away, we exclude them.
And we shut off part of our humanity in the process.
The demons possess all of us.
And all of us end up rattling around,
hanging out with the dead instead of the living

Whenever Jesus is healing someone, whether it’s
demon possession or physical illness, his final objective
is to restore people to their community.
Their problems had made them isolated and separated.
And healing them restored them to community.

Being a part of a community was vital for people in
those days, it was necessary for survival,
for food, and protection, for connection with God
for personal and emotional wholeness.
Then you were part of a family and that family
joined together with other families to form a community.
Being isolated from the community was death in many ways.

So when Jesus comes to these people and heals them,
he restores them to community,
and he gives them back their life.
Today, in our society,
we kind of see things much differently.
We have become so self-sufficient and individualized
that we don’t actually need other people to survive.
So we isolate ourselves in our homes with our families or alone.
Many people identify themselves today as “spiritual but not religious”
which actually means, “I believe in God, but I can do it by myself.”
Which would have been unheard of a few generations ago.

Today, our default position is isolation.
It may be the demon that our society is possessed by.
The myth that we can do anything alone.
The illusion that we can be an island
That family, acquaintances and
one or two carefully chosen friends are all we require.

There is a lie we tell ourselves that being part of a community will
make us lose our identity, that if we’re forced to compromise at all
we won’t be our true selves.
The devil would love for us to believe this lie and keep us alone.

I think that this demon of isolation might be killing us.

But the truth is, we still need community.
We still need people around us that
we don’t share DNA with, and don’t share a house with
that we don’t share every opinion and thought with.

We need to compromise with people and tolerate
people and learn to love people who are difficult to love.
That is where we realize our true identity.
And that where we can help others to find theirs too.
And maybe that’s still the way that Jesus heals us today.
Remember I told you about the Smoking Man?
One Sunday morning,
the Smoking Man came into my home church.
He stayed through the whole worship,
he just ducked out for one cigarette during the offering
the people who sat around him said
he sang all the hymns and knew the liturgy.

He came back again and again and eventually every Sunday.
I don’t think he’s missed one worship in the last 20 years.
His name is Ury. He was Lutheran in Korea.
He told us he came here to study for a PhD in physics
when he started hearing voices.
He used to work with children a lot in church
when he was a teenager.
He was never “the Smoking Man” for us ever again,
We know him by his name, Ury.
And whenever people from the church passed him by,
we would proudly say “hi Ury” and he would come alive
for a minute and say hello back.

Finding ourselves is not a do-it-yourself project
And it is in communities, centered around Jesus
that we find our true identity and where
we find the healing that Jesus brings.

As a member of Christ’s body, we are not just our
shortcomings, not just identified by our maladies
or bad habits or problems.

God has named us,
Jesus has saved us,
and the Holy Spirit has chosen each of us.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Saved By Relationship

June 16, 2019
Holy Trinity Sunday
John 3:1-17

Who is God? What is God? How do we know God?
That has been a question for humanity since the beginning of time,
whether they called God, God or by some other name.
People have known that there was something or many things,
that created and ordered everything, and we’ve always wanted
to know more about it.

Today in the Christian church we celebrate
what we know and believe about God:
the doctrine of the Trinity, which often leaves us
with more questions than answers.

But basically, the doctrine of the Trinity says
we believe that God is one, but is also three,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
God, Jesus, and the Spirit. However you want to say it.

Some of you who have been going to church a long time
may remember reciting the Athanasius creed
it’s one of the three creeds that we adhere to in the
Lutheran church, but we don’t say it as much as the other two.

If you don’t know it, it’s kind of long and repetitive
and doesn’t really trip off the tongue like the others.
The people who made the newest Lutheran worship book didn’t even
put it in there this time, which was probably a good choice.

I’ve actually had nightmares about
leading a congregation and everyone losing their place
and the whole service disintegrating into chaos.
The Athanasius creed was most likely
written in the fifth or sixth century,
about 100 years after Athanasius lived,
but it’s probably named after him because it was
based on his strong belief on how the Trinity should
be understood.

This was a time in the church when having the right
understanding about the nature of God and Jesus
was very important to Christians,
it basically decided your faith.

And the Athanasius creed does start with the lines:
“Whoever desires to be saved
should above all hold to the catholic faith.
Anyone who does not keep
it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.”

Thankfully we’ve moved to another place today.
Where adhering to whole and unbroken doctrine,
is not as important as trust in God
and condemning people to perish eternally
does not seem like a great tool for spiritual conversion.

But all in all, I’m glad that Athanasius was so
insistent on his understanding of God and
that the doctrine of the Trinity has been handed to us,
and that it is part of our faith,
because it tells us something very important
about the nature of God and who God is for us.

The Creed says:
We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity,
neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being.
For the Father is one person, the Son is another,
and the Spirit is still another. But the deity of the Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty.
What the Father is, the Son is, and so is the Holy Spirit.

Which is just about as confusing as anything,
but what it says is that God is one
but God is made up of three.
It goes on to explain it repetitively and in great detail.
But the bottom line for me is that God the Trinity,
is a God in relationship.

God is beyond our grasp and understanding and
the best we can do to talk about God is to use
metaphors and similes,
So when talking about the Trinity
 God is like a family, 
God is like a group of close friends,
God is like a congregation.
Completely separate, but at the same time one.

St. Augustine, another third century
church father, described the Trinity like this:
“Now, love is of someone who loves,
and something is loved with love.
So then there are three:
the lover, the beloved, and the love.”

God, in God’s self, is a relationship.
A table for three.
Not two, so you might feel strange joining in.
But a table for three. The beginning of a party.
At a table for three, there’s always room for one more.
There’s always room for us.
We are always welcomed to that table.

And my big take away from the Trinity and from
the Athanasian creed is this:
We have been saved by a relationship.
God, Jesus, and the Spirit.
And that means this world will be saved by relationships.
Not by doctrine, or magical spells, or by worship,
or liturgy, or even prayer, but by relationships -
across barriers, and walls that separate us from each other.

God, the Trinity, gives us a model to live by,
to go back to, to recreate in our own lives.

That model that we would understand one another as individuals,  
distinct and different from each other
in our roles, cultures, thoughts, understandings,
unique in the ways we live and exist.

But still, we understand that we are one.
We live and move and interact as one.
My actions can affect someone living thousands
of miles away. We are joined together over time
and space and even death cannot separate us.
We Linked together forever.
Each as important as the other, each dependent on the other,
not existing alone, but together.
Neither confusing the person or dividing the being.

This relationship as it exists in the Trinity has saved us
for eternal life.
And this relationship reflected in our lives,
will one day save the whole world.

This trinity is a relationship of love.
God the Relationship is the foundation of the universe
it is the heartbeat of all creation.

Everything begins and ends in this relationship that is God.
All creation is part of this relationship.
We are all part of it.
Each one of us separate and together
Distinct and different,
and at the same time one.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pentecost: Greater Things Than Jesus

John 14: 8-17
June 9, 2019
Pentecost Sunday

Jesus makes some promises today.
He promises his disciples that he will send
an Advocate, to be with us forever.
It’s the Spirit, the Spirit of truth. 
Jesus promises God’s Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is kind of a fuzzy thing,
a nebulous, unknown piece of our religion.
We have volumes of theology and thoughts about God,
And even more about Jesus.
But there is a lot fewer words about the Holy Spirit.

One big-time theologian suggested that it was because
we always say Father, Son, Holy Spirit in our liturgy, 
creeds, and  statements, so when people write books,
they write about the Spirit last and they run out of steam.

That sounds plausible, but it might be much more than that.
Maybe this Spirit is not written about much because it
refuses to be tied down to explanations.
Mark Wiggin
We know the Spirit as a dove, a beam of light, a violent wind
The breath that moved over the waters,
Wisdom that dances in the entrance gates,
It’s images and notions and feelings and hopes
and dreams and inspirations.

The Spirit is movement and change
it’s movement of individuals, people, 
countries, the whole planet
to new and different places.

The Spirit is the thing that touches us, deep inside.
It’s that thing that makes two groups that have been 
at war for centuries finally decide for peace,
It is that force that gave people the strength
to stand up against injustice.
It’s that force, that, thing that has moved
this young generation coming up
for a passion to service and helping people less fortunate.
It’s that mysterious thing that makes you
decide that enough is enough and it’s time to forgive 
your cousin and get the family back together.
The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God with us.

The Spirit is not words, she’s all action.
Action in and through other people.
And that may not be as easy to talk and write about.

But Jesus has promised to work out a deal to send that to us.
Even though Jesus would be away from us physically,
the Spirit would be with us forever
acting and moving through us.
That’s one promise.  Amazing enough.

But Jesus makes another promise, one even more amazing.
He tells his disciples that the ones who believe
will do all the works that he does,
and actually will do even greater works than Jesus.
Now how can that be?  How can we do greater works than Jesus?

We can’t heal people just by touching them,
we can’t make the blind suddenly see, we can’t calm the seas,
we can’t feed 5000 from five loaves and two fish.
We can’t raise the dead,
Some people say that the problem is that we don’t have enough faith.
If we had more faith we could do those things.
But so far, no one has had that kind of faith.

I think that the problem is not faith, but how we look at it.
If we just think of  the miracles Jesus did themselves,
there’s no way we could do those things.
But if we look at what Jesus accomplished with those miracles
it’s a different story.

When Jesus healed people with leprosy,
He did it out of love for them.
He touched people that others thought were untouchable.
He restored them to their community.
We may not be able to heal diseases instantly,
but we can touch the untouchable,
we can bring unloved people into community.

When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on the sabbath,
and he showed us that  love and compassion for people
comes before rules and traditions.
We can put love and compassion before rules and traditions.

When Jesus fed the 5000
He showed that God provides abundantly.
We might not be able to feed all those people with
so little food, but we can be testaments to God’s
abundance in other ways.

When he raised Lazarus from the dead,
He showed that the love of God is stronger even than death.
And we can share the confidence that
that God’s love can even overcome death.

Jesus’ miracles showed the strength of God’s love.
Maybe we can’t duplicate the miracles of Jesus.
But we can say and show that the power of God’s love.
That’s what the promised Spirit,
will be doing with her time here.

The Spirit is the advocate of God’s Love.

When Jesus was here in the flesh,
he was only able to touch one person at a time,
only able to look one person in the eye
and make them feel the love of God.
But all of us, we are able to touch so many.
And the Spirit works through us and our particular
situation to share that love in unique ways.

At the Synod Assembly this weekend, Presiding Bishop Eaton
told a story about two pastors who were ordained
as pastors in the ELCA and served churches in Minnesota.

They had come to the US in the 1980’s, both
were the Lost Boys of Sudan.
The Lost Boys were children who were separated
from their families who fled the Sudan
together during their brutal civil war there.
After years traveling and in refugee camps,
these two ended up in Minnesota, wandered into a
Lutheran Church and ended up becoming pastors.
Of course that’s an abbreviated version that
took over 25 years to happen.

These two pastors were each from two sides of the conflict
in Sudan, one was from the Dinka people,
 and one was from the Nuer people.
Had they stayed, they might have been sworn enemies
they might have been forced to kill one another.
But now they were now colleagues and friends.

After serving churches in the US,
they decided to go back to Sudan which
was still experiencing conflict and division,
and start a church together,
it’s called Reconciliation Lutheran Church.
Their mission is to show that peace and reconciliation
collaboration and love are possible, even between
those who have been enemies in the past.

Could you think of a better couple of people to
teach that country about reconciliation in Christ?
What Jesus taught and spoke about,
They can do it, they can put Christ’s words in action.
They can show their people that these aren’t just words,
that Christ doesn’t just offer peace after death,
but that the Kingdom of God is here today.
That God’s love is making a difference now.
And the Advocate of God’s love has helped them do this.

We will do greater things than even Jesus did.
Hard to believe, but true.
Just in this congregation over the short 70 years of its existence,
How many hospital beds have been visited?
hands have been held?
stories have been listened to and told?
how many meals have been prepared?
houses have been built?
showers have been provided?
people have been fed?
how many strangers have been welcomed?
refugee families have been hosted,
how many people have been hugged
how many stories about God’s love and power have been told?
And multiply that over hundreds of thousands of churches
across the centuries.

As one person, Jesus only could have done so much,
But as the body of Christ we are able to do so much more.

There is a lot to do in this world.
There is a lot of evil and hurt and injustice,
and illness, and sadness here.
We all have our work cut out for us.
And the Advocate has a lot of love
to advocate for through us.

It may not feel like the rush of a violent wind
like that day in Jerusalem with our heads
on fire every day.
But God has put that Advocate into us.
As the baptized people of God,
The Spirit lives and moves in us.

This is Christ’s promise,
this is Christ’s gift.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Jesus Goes Away. Again.

Luke 24:44-56
June 2, 2019

Ascension -- the day when we remember Jesus
Brian Whelan
ascending into the sky 40 days after his resurrection 
is a big feast day in some places. 
It’s actually a holiday in
Belgium, and France and a couple 
of other countries.
People get the day off work, 
and those inclined go to worship.

In some ways it’s a celebration
some people say because it proves 
that Jesus was really divine.
Others say it’s because 
“now we have an advocate in heaven”

Other than that, 
I’m not sure why it’s such  celebration,
because Jesus is gone. Again.
I mean this time he just went up in to the sky, 
he didn’t die a horrible death like on Good Friday, but he’s still gone.
And in my book, the worst part of death is that people
we love aren’t around anymore.
So Jesus is gone doesn’t sound like something to celebrate.

Sometimes I wish that Jesus had just
stuck around on the earth with us forever.
Maybe lived somewhere down at the beach.

Then when we needed to,
we could make an appointments
with him and ask him questions
and he could keep sharing his definitive
wisdom and parables with us about current topics.

But then I think that would be fraught with problems.
There would be fights over who had access to Jesus.
Someone inevitably try to limit access to him
or lock him up so no one could get to him, or do away with Jesus again.
Or, if all that didn’t happen, we’d always rely on Jesus
for all the answers, we’d always be going to the beach
to ask Jesus what to do and we’d never learn for ourselves.
So maybe that was the best choice for Jesus to leave like he did.

Jesus went away, and left his followers in charge.
Jesus left his original disciples and us to decipher
and live out his mission and ministry.
Jesus left so that we would have to think and learn and take over.
Jesus sacrificed his life on earth
so that his power would be given to us.

And that’s what Jesus instructions are before he leaves.
He explains the scriptures to the disciples,
he tells them that the Messiah had to suffer and die
and that gospel of repentance and forgiveness
should be told to the whole world.
Then he tells them that they will receive power.
They would be taking over the work that Jesus started.

In the Acts passage -- by the way,
Acts was written by the same person as the gospel of Luke was--
When Jesus is finally carried up into heaven,
the disciples look up and follow him and keep staring.
Which seems to be the natural thing to do
when someone rises up into the air like that.

But then two mysterious people in dazzling white robes
come by -- maybe it’s the same two people
in white robes that met the women at the empty tomb --
and they give the disciples some good advice. They say:
“What are you looking up there for?”
They say, “that’s not where you’ll find Jesus.
Jesus will come the same way you saw him go.”

In other words, look for Jesus the same way
you met him the first time: in a real human life.
He will come to you as your neighbors, strangers,
in the people you meet, people in need.
Don’t look up to see Jesus, look out.
So in other words,
“Stop looking in the clouds, you’ve got a lot of work to do.”

So on Ascension, this time when Jesus leaves,
the disciples feel joyful, excited, full of anticipation.
Instead of like that first time 43 days earlier,
feeling hopeless and neurotic and thinking about
everything that they did wrong and being all gloom and doom
about what’s happened, this time, Jesus has left them
with joy and hope.

Now they understand that Jesus death
was not some big mistake and failing on their part--
or on the part of Jesus or God.
And they know that Jesus and God didn’t fail
and the empires and powers of this world didn’t win,
They saw that God was still going to prevail.

And they have a promise of power,
they know that Jesus hasn’t left them
completely alone, they will be given the tools
to do the work that they need to do.

They now have a job a mission, a purpose,
something to do, and that God trusts them to do it
and will give them the power to do it.
The Way of Ascension is to pass on power to others.

When I think about it, I am thankful for
those people in my life who trusted me
and carried on that Ascension tradition.

In my home church, I was just a beginning Christian
I hadn’t been around church as an adult at all to know
how things operated, but I stepped in and
I helped out with the church’s annual Thanksgiving meal.
The church had a meal on Thanksgiving day
for anyone who was hungry.
We would serve 700 plus meals either eating in or in take out.
It was quite an operation for a church of about 30 people
that was not very well organized at all.

My friend Sharon was the woman who
started it and ran it since the mid seventies.
I assisted her for about three years, then
One Thanksgiving, Sharon said, “I think I’m going
to go home for Thanksgiving, and you should run it.”

She basically gave me the keys to the whole ministry
and said she trusted me to keep everything going.
We missed Sharon, it was sad and strange not having her there.
But I was honored that she trusted me enough to let me do it.
And I’m pleased that it still continues
today without me or Sharon to lead it.

We kept her favorite traditions alive
We still talked about the origins of it, how her Native American
friend, Timmy, had started it with her by serving spaghetti on Thursdays. 
We still made sure that everyone was treated with
kindness and respect and could have all the food they wanted.
And we still said the Lord’s prayer and shared Timmy’s
Native American blessing before the meal.
Sharon was physically in upstate New York but her
presence was still with us.

She carried on that Ascension tradition.
The ability to trust other people with
what has been entrusted to us.

And maybe that’s why Ascension is a celebration.
It’s about Jesus going away.
But it’s also about finding Jesus again.
But not up in heaven.
it’s about us finding Jesus here in each other,
in those we help, and those we work with,
it’s about finding Jesus mission in our lives,
it’s about finding Jesus power in us,
and it’s about finding Jesus Spirit alive in this world.

Ascension is about God entrusting
God’s whole ministry to us.
When we remember the time that Jesus handed
over all the joy, the pain, the defeat, and the glory
and put it all in our hands.
It’s the moment when
we became alive in Christ
and Christ became alive in us.