Sunday, April 24, 2016

Jesus Healing the Bruised Reed of Creation

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Creation-Care Sunday 
April 2016
Texts:  Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 12:15-21

[Watch the video of this sermon here:]

"How often does Jesus make references to Creation in his teaching?"  That question was asked by a participant in a Bible study I led at Reformation Lutheran Church in Media, PA, in 2009.  I promised her an answer by the end of the study. I knew Jesus had made several references, but when I began reading through the Gospels I was surprised just how many times nature is referenced either by Jesus himself (over 50!), or in the accounts about him and his birth, ministry, death and resurrection (over 55!). 
            What is undeniable is that both Jesus and the Gospel writers saw Creation in all its aspects as imperative for giving witness to God's Kingdom and the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God:
·       Jesus is present at the beginning of Creation.
·       He speaks about care of Earth as integral to the in-breaking of God's Kingdom.
·       He interacts directly with many aspects of Creation (rivers, lakes, seas, winds).
·       He seeks prayerful refuge in the wilderness, on mountains and in gardens.
·       And he uses countless images from nature to illustrate his teachings. 

Reciprocally, nature gives witness to the personhood and divinity of Jesus from the time of his birth announced in the heavens, to the darkness that enveloped the land at his crucifixion.  Earth took Jesus into itself and gave witness to the resurrection with earthquake, sunrise and the beauty of a garden.

Matt. 12:20
He will not break a bruised reed
   or quench a smoldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.

            This passage from the Gospel of Matthew is just one example to help us understand how Jesus’s ministry is not just for humans, but is, in fact, placed within the larger context of God’s Creation.  In this passage, he’s actually quoting from his favorite prophet, Isaiah, whom he references many times in the Gospels.  So it’s worth looking at Isaiah’s original words to understand why this verse was important to Jesus.
First, we have to understand the historical context of Isaiah’s words.  The text was written about 800 years before Jesus was even born.  The book of Isaiah was written at a time when Israel was at war with many of its neighbors and the people of Israel were attacked and taken into captivity in Babylonia.  The people were devastated because it appeared that the covenant that God made with the people had been destroyed.  Not only had the people been unfaithful to God’s commandments, but their temple was pillaged and decimated, and they were all deported to Babylon to live in brutal slavery.  It seemed as if God had reneged on the contract with the people of Israel.  They were separated from their land, and their people were scattered.  The Davidic line was apparently lost.  And the Temple – the dwelling place of God – had been destroyed. 
It is into this echoing cavern of self-doubt and communal devastation that the prophet Isaiah raises his voice to proclaim a new covenant to the people of Israel.  According to Isaiah, God is calling forth a new leader, a servant – in Hebrew, it is the word ebed, which can mean servant, ambassador, prophet or even friend.  This is very good news, because it means that while Israel did indeed break the covenant, the relationship with God has not been destroyed.

This is good news for us as well.  Think back on the times when you made a bad decision, or really made a mess of your life.  Or a time when you let someone down, or, even worse, felt like you failed your own self.  Those times can be devastating.  It’s very easy to get sucked into a pit of despair, or give up on a dream, or to feel like it’s no use to get back up, brush yourself off and start all over again.
But this word from God through Isaiah says: don’t give up! 
I’m not throwing in the towel on you. 
I’m sending someone to you who will handle you with tenderness and care. 
He will be gentle with you, and not extinguish your dimly burning wick. 
And not just you, but entire groups of people who suffer. 
He will bring justice to those who are wrongly imprisoned around the world,
and to those whose rights are daily trampled or snatched away.   

So let’s look more closely at who this servant is. Verse 1 of the Isaiah text talks about God presenting the servant. The text does not give us the name of this servant. But it does tell us about this servant, the qualities of this person and the things that this servant will do:

·       We know that God chooses the servant and delights in him or her.
·       We know that the servant will be humble – he will not cry or lift up his voice (in other words, he won’t be a blowhard).
·       Further, in verse 3 the text says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” This tells us that the servant will not harm those who are vulnerable or hurting.

So we know this person is like no other servant-leader God has ever established before.  And even more significantly, the servant is being installed within in the context of Creation“I have put my spirit upon him,” says God in verse 1.  So even the same spirit, breath, ruah, that was present at the beginning of Creation is present with this servant-leader.  Thus his anointing as servant has the same status as the initial creation of heaven and earth. 
  “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth,” we read in verse 4. Thus, the servant will faithfully bring forth justice and will be relentless until justice has been established in the earth – in Creation itself. 

Further, this verse tells us that the servant will be a teacher: “the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  So, in fact, all the ecosystems of Creation – the coastlands (especially those threatened by rising seas due to climate change), the mountains (especially those threatened by mountaintop removal), the glaciers (which are disappearing at an alarming rate due to warming oceans), the tundra (which is diminishing due to global warming), the oceans (threatened by pollution and acidification) – are all waiting for people to learn from this servant-leader.  We are to learn how to handle the bruised reed of Creation with the same care that the servant-leader handles the people of Israel – by not doing any further damage, and refraining from anything that would extinguish the dimly burning wick of life on this planet.
And then in verse 6, God speaks directly to the servant. “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” So God is faithfully accompanying the servant, like a parent with a child. Then: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Not only is God making a promise to the servant, but the servant is God’s promise, the light of hope shining for all people. And the servant has specific tasks: “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
It’s pretty obvious that Jesus fits this description of the servant-leader. On the banks of the Jordan River at his baptism, with God speaking from heaven that God is well-pleased with him (taking delight in him), Jesus takes upon himself this mantle of the servant. As he is baptized, following God’s command for righteousness, he assumes the duties and responsibilities that being a servant-leader entails:

·       He protects those who are vulnerable – like the poor, and women and children.
·       He opens the eyes of the blind and frees many from the dungeons of illness and poverty.
·       He confronts both the Roman and Jewish authorities on their hypocrisy and speaks truth to power in order to establish justice.
·       And he teaches – on the coastlands, on boats, on mountains, in houses, and anywhere else his followers are gathered.
·       He also regards his relationship with God as one between a parent and child - calling God “Daddy”, or Abba.

All the nations will benefit from Jesus as a light to the whole world, because his ministry is among not just his own Jewish people, but with Gentiles as well.  Because this servant is not just for the Hebrew people.  The servant-leader is for all people.  Jesus’ mission began with the Jews but was intended as peace for everyone.  The message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection transcends lines drawn in the sand, transcends arbitrary human distinctions of class, race, and creed.  This message applies to everyone.  This light shines on all people.

And, in fact, it’s not just for people.  This light of the servant-leader is for all the earth.  This is for the bruised reeds of nature:
·       the species facing extinction
·       the air choking with pollution
·       the mountains being razed for minerals and coal
·       the habitats of wildlife being decimated to make way for yet another strip mall or factory farm or fracking pad

Jesus’ inauguration is placed within the context of Creation in verse 5 for a reason.  When humanity is at peace, then the Earth that supports humanity can be at peace.
I long for the fulfillment of this covenant.  I get so discouraged sometimes looking at the bad decisions humanity has made, what a mess we’ve made of our home.  How we’ve let each other down, and let down the species and ecosystems that try to coexist with us.  When we see the ways we have decimated the earth as the home of God dwelling in and around us, it is very easy to get sucked into a pit of despair, to give up hope of being able to restore the health of Earth’s body. 
But, again, this word from God through Isaiah urges us: don’t give up!  This servant-leader will teach you how to handle the bruised reeds with tenderness and care so as not to do further damage.  He will lead you with gentleness so that you may follow his example and have mercy on the least of these – the babies in their mother’s wombs, the children whose bodies are so sensitive to poor air quality and to toxins in the water, and the last of the species facing extinction. 
You will bring justice to the very Earth itself, because that is what Jesus is calling you to do.  You, yourselves, as followers of this servant-leader, will be a light to the world.  Because Jesus dwells in you.  Therefore you yourselves are the new covenant. 

And the symbol of this new covenant is the cross.  The cross is the sign of the death and resurrection of the servant-leader, the death and resurrection of the entire Earth, and all her inhabitants.  There is, indeed, hope.  Yes, we have broken the covenant.  But the relationship has not been destroyed.  God is declaring new things all around us:

·       new ideas for healing the Earth and providing clean water and plenty of food for all in need
·       rethinking how we consume so as to minimize our impact on the Earth
·       taking time to think about how much we waste, and where it goes and who is affected, and changing our habits to reflect a spirit of conservation
·       making different choices governed by our concern for the least of these so that the bruise reeds can recover and the dimly burning wicks of life can be rekindled

Our eyes are being opened, and I believe the Christian church can lead the way for helping God release the Earth from the dungeons of darkness. 
Let me conclude with a prayer by Brother Roger from the Taize community in France, whose words we repeated each week during our Lenten services last year:

“O Christ, you take upon yourself all that weighs us down so that, freed of all that holds us back, at every moment we can begin anew to advance from worry towards confident trust, from the shadows towards the clear running waters, from our own will towards the vision of the Kingdom of God. In this way, though we hardly dare hope so, you enable every human being to be a reflection of your face.”

That is what being a follower of the servant-leader Jesus Christ is all about – becoming the reflection of the face of Jesus to all people and all of Creation.  May God strengthen your heart and your faith with the promise of the resurrection that is emerging within us, within our faith communities, and within all the Earth.  Amen.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Sermon: Jazzin' Up Our Faith

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
April 17, 2016
Lamentations 5:14-21; Psalm 150; John 10:22-30
Jim Schade, drums, Bruce Peters, bass, and Tony Grigonis, guitar, provided music for our Sunday celebrating jazz music.
[Here is an example of a sermon that incorporates the music of jazz into the actual preaching moment.  To watch the recording of this sermon, click here:

Some of you may know that in addition to being a pastor and teacher, I am also a classically-trained harpist.  I actually started on piano lessons at age 8, and then added the harp at age 9.  In high school I auditioned and was accepted into the PA Governor’s School for the Arts during the summer between my sophomore and junior year.  It was there that I first heard the music of jazz.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced.  It was so cool!  I was smitten by the skills of the musicians who could make up music as they played it, coming up with chords and runs and rhythms that just blew me away. 

Later I became smitten with an actual jazz musician – a drummer, who I met at a music festival my senior year of high school.  Our eyes met across a crowded orchestra, the violins played, and the rest, as they say, is history.  I was fascinated with the way Jim could hear and process and perform complex rhythmic equations, like some kind of musical mathematical engineering genius.  And I couldn’t believe this cool jazz drummer wanted me – a nerdy classical harpist - to be his girlfriend!  And, years later, his wife!  In June we will be married for 20 years, but we’ve actually been together for 27 years!

And during those years I have learned a great deal about jazz music.  Some I’ve learned just by osmosis – being around it through Jim for so many years. [You can hear samples of Jim's music on his website,]  Some I learned through lessons with other teachers, and from what Jim has taught me.  Playing jazz on the harp is one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.  It’s a process I’ll be working on as long as I am a musician!

I would guess that for most of you, jazz music is not what you have on your iTunes, or on your Pandora stations, or in your record or CD collections.  Because jazz is not “easy listening.”  Jazz requires you to participate in its creative process.  It’s not intended to be background music.  With its roots in African rhythms, European harmonies, and different cultural influences from Latin America to Cajun to slave history, jazz is a true melting pot of the American music experience.  As we learned in our Forum earlier this morning, once you understand a little about what’s going on with jazz, you can appreciate it better – even if it’s still not to your musical liking.  Because the goal of jazz is to involve the listener, to invite you into this complex interplay of rhythm, bass lines, harmonies and melodies. 

And isn’t this the kind of “music” we hear in the Bible?  God’s Word was never meant to be “easy listening.”  The gospel requires you to participate in its creative process.  Scripture was never intended to be background music.  Its goal is to involve you, all of us, in its complex interplay of law and Gospel, lamentation and hope, justice and promise.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from listening to jazz is, well, listening.  As a musician, I’ve come to appreciate the process I’m hearing in the music played by jazz musicians.  And I’ve realized that listening is an integral part of being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus talked about the importance of listening in our Gospel reading from John:  “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” (John 10:27).

Kirk Byron Jones says in his book The Jazz of Preaching, that jazz players are always “reaching, longing, choosing, losing, pursuing, deciding and perhaps hurting,” when they are sounding their instrument (Jones, 51).   “Some notes are harder to hear,” he says. “Some notes require that we give up something of ourselves so that [those notes] might become ‘heard-able,’” (Jones, 51).  Being a follower of Christ is a lot like that – reaching, longing, choosing, losing, pursuing, deciding and perhaps hurting.  Listening for the voice of Jesus and then following what we hear can be difficult sometimes.  We may have to let go of our egos, our ideologies, our political affiliations, our presuppositions, in order for God’s Word to become “heard-able” to us.

But I’ve also I’ve observed how important it is for the musicians to listen to each other: to hear how the drummer is laying down the groove, to feel how the bass is playing “in the pocket,” to follow the solo and support it with a nuanced layering of harmonies.  If only our churches played as well together as these musicians!

[To the musicians]:  Each of you has spent hours woodshedding on your ax, practicing your instrument for countless hours, learning music theory, practicing your scales, and training with other musicians to hone your craft.  And when you come together to play, you are so well-grounded in your art, and so attuned to each other, you can take a bare bones chart and know instinctively how to make something musical out of it.

It’s no different for those who follow the charts of Jesus.  We each need to put in the time in praying, learning to read Scripture, practicing the teachings of the Master, steeping ourselves in the catechism, and coming for weekly lessons with the pastor or lay leaders who help train us in this music of discipleship.  That way when we come together to worship, to serve our neighbors, to advocate for justice, to pass on the teachings to our younger ones, we can trust the process and make the music of God with it.

How are your listening skills?  Where do you do your best listening to Jesus?  What is your process of learning to hear the notes and rhythms and harmonies of the Gospel?  And what impedes your ability to listen?  What blocks the sound of Jesus’ voice?  How do you move through those “silent” times when you can’t tune in to the text or listen to what Jesus is saying to you?  What do you do when your ears are stopped up and it’s difficult for you to listen to the needs of other people, or even the needs of your own soul?

Have you ever listened to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme?  [Musicians play song underneath.]  I think Coltrane must have been a Lutheran.  Because his music is law and gospel all at the same time.  The pathos and the woundedness, together with the sublime beauty of grace is somehow communicated through this song.  It’s like a musical version of the theology of the cross! 

What a gift the African experience has given American music through its creation of “The Blues.”  James Cone in his book The Spirituals and the Blues describes the bittersweetness that comes through the truth of black experience.  The blues reflect the incongruity of life and attempt to make meaning in a situation filled with contradictions.  The blues express strength in brokenness.  Like the reading we heard in Lamentations, the truth of a person’s pain, a community’s suffering is honestly expressed. But so is their faith in the God who has not given up on them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

And especially important today is that the blues affirm the essential value of black humanity.  This is a refrain we have to keep sounding. Black Lives Matter is a movement of both lament and hope.  It is music whose notes are difficult to hear.  But listen we must – for God is speaking to us through this brokenness.  And like Billie Holiday plaintively singing about “Strange Fruit” which describes the brutal lynchings of innocent black men and women in the South, God’s gorgeous raspy voice will vocalize the truth of that pain, while transforming it into something powerful and life-giving.

And what is life-giving about this music is the same thing that is life-giving about the gospel.  It is the invitation to imagination and play.  When musicians take flight with their improvisations, we soar with them in their freedom.  What types of play sparked your imagination as a child?  What sparks it now?  How can play be incorporated into our churches, into our faith practices?  People are longing for the joy that comes through improvisation and play.  

I think we can say that this is a church that appreciates play!  Just think of our Holy Humor Sunday last week and every year where we play with popular culture and mash it up with the biblical story and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.  This church welcomes the imagination and improvisation of our young people. We make space here for that kind of faith-improvisation to flourish.

The Bible is full of God’s improvisers who exercised their divine imaginations to play a new song into this world.  The prophet Amos saw justice rolling down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream (Amos 5:24).  Jesus’ mother Mary saw thrones overturned and a restoration of economic balance (Luke 1:52).  John of Patmos saw a tree with leaves of healing for the nations (Revelation 22).

Listen to jazz long enough and intently enough and you may be able to hear that music of God’s divine imaginings in your ear.  God’s music means listening to all the players.  It means attending to the “blues” of this world.  And it involves collaborating with your fellow musicians of the Gospel to lay your own “tracks” down on God’s rhythms.  And it means learning to improvise, to create your own combination of notes and silence, melodies and harmonies, minor sevenths and major chords.  You are invited to pick up the instrument of your own talents and skills and join in this music, to actively co-create this music of the Gospel so that it can be heard in every key. 

Truly this music of the gospel, this jazz of Jesus is “a love supreme.”  It calls to us, cajoles us, confounds us, and releases us in an almost mystical way.  May God bless you in the hearing, in the playing, in both the major and minor chords of your life.  And may this “love supreme” find its way into our hearts and minds, hands and voices.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade

Looking for ideas to preach for Earth Sunday?  Here is a list of suggestions for various entry-points and perspectives to approach your sermon.  From connecting faith and science, to preaching outdoors, to preaching about climate change, to countering “green depression,” here are models that can help inspire you on Earth Sunday and any Sunday throughout the year.  The list concludes with the eco-sermon that has gotten the most hits since 2012 when the blog began.

Help your congregation understand the value and necessity of connecting faith, science, and the natural world.  The wonders of God’s cosmos can provide illuminating sermon illustrations while also helping listeners understand that the rest of God’s Creation is just as worthy of care and salvation as humans are.  The figure of holy Wisdom inspiring our human wisdom to observe and care for Creation, is a natural way to connect Scripture and science.

From Cosmos to Atoms:  Religion and Science Meet

Epiphany Sermon: Star Light, Star Bright

Coral Reefs and the Kingdom of God

The Wisdom of Creation:  Animals

These sermons are examples of preaching within the cathedral of Creation.  Our Earth-kin become our fellow worshipers, and we explore what it means to have God “pitch a tent” in our midst and to suffer as a result of ecological devastation.  But the word of God’s redemption always brings us back to Earth.

Sermon to Creation (The St. Francis Sermon)

And God Pitched a Tent - Sermon for a Church Camping Retreat

How do we preach about the climate crisis in ways that deal forthrightly with the realities of our changing planet while also proclaiming God’s work in the midst of this “Good Friday” of our planet?  Here are some examples:

“I Am Ruah” – A Sermon on Climate Disruption

There Will Be Signs:  Climate Crisis Sermon, Advent 1

Waking Up to Confront the Storm

Noah on Mt. Ararat: The Floods of Climate Change

Moses Confronts Pharaoh (The Plagues of Egypt)
(Connecting the plagues of Egypt as a consequence of Pharoah’s hard-heartedness and economic domination to the plagues of climate change and the hard-heartedness and economic domination of corporate fossil-fuel Pharaohs.)

Those who work closely on environmental issues know how serious our problems are on this planet.  We can easily become overwhelmed by despair.  But our faith leads us to return to Scripture to remember how our spiritual ancestors also faced enormous devastation of their homes and communities, and yet were sustained by God.

Green Shoots from Dead Stumps

“I Am Ruah” – A Sermon on Climate Disruption

“Earth Speaks:  What’s Next?”

Earth Day Sermon:  “Falling off the Bike”

This sermon has gotten nearly 1500 hits since it was first posted in July of 2013.

Ezekiel Sees the River
A sermon that names the reality of the “exile” we’re experiencing on our planet and speaks a word of justice and hope not just for God’s people, but for the waters of Earth. “God’s river can bring new life.”

To learn more about how you can incorporate environmental themes, justice issues, and sermon illustrations into your sermons, check out my book, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015).  And visit my website:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Interfaith Sermon for MORALtorium Service

MORALtorium Service for Blessing, Advocacy and Activism
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
March 21, 2016
Grace United Methodist Church, Harrisburg, PA

The video for this 7-minute sermon can be watched here:

Thanks to Groundswell Rising director Renard Cohen for this video.

Salaam alekum, blessed be, shalom, peace, blessings, Namaste.

44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:44-45).

As people of faith, we believe it is important that the voices of “the least of these,” those most vulnerable who are impacted by the devastation of shale gas drilling and its related processes be heard.  Even this small sampling of readings and prayers at this service demonstrates that nearly every faith tradition would look at what is being done to the people of this state and to God’s Creation and clearly recognize that it is immoral, unjust, unethical, and intolerable.  Just because it’s legal does not mean that it’s right.

We see this as a ‘green’ civil rights issue.  And just as the Civil Rights movement of 50 years ago could not have run without the power of the churches and synagogues, this Green Civil Rights movement needs people of faith to give it the moral and ethical authority, to frame this issue as a matter of faith, and to rouse the incredible power within our worshiping communities to address this issue.

Not only are the human rights of families being violated for the sake of corporate greed, the waters, air, land, plants and animals are being violated as well.  We are standing in solidarity with the Holleran family, the families of Riverdale and Dimock, and the long list of the harmed in Pennsylvania who have endured the ravages of this industry.  We will continue to demand justice for them and for Creation.  Like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable, like David fighting Goliath, like Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, like Gandhi confronting colonial imperialism, like Buddhists monks wrapping trees in saffron robes, we know that justice and righteousness shall prevail.

Sister and brothers, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once shared his dream for this nation about the end of racial inequality and injustice.  As people of faith today, we also have a dream.  We dream of this beautiful and noble state of Pennsylvania and this nation and the world promoting and investing in clean, renewable energy that will create jobs and avoid the destruction of our communities, land, air, water and climate that comes with dirty fossil fuels like natural gas, oil and coal.  We dream of families and communities able to live peacefully in the communities of care they have created without fear that corporate and governmental forces will take away their homes, or poison their waters, or murder their trees, or foul their air.  I dream of my own children being able to play in the waters of the Susquehanna River, no longer afraid that poisons will flow through the waters and cause diseases in the fish and plants and wildlife, and eventually in their own small bodies. 

The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, “Help thy brother whether he is the doer of wrong or wrong is done to him.” His companions said, “O Messenger! We can help a man to whom wrong is done, but how could we help him when he is the doer of wrong?” He said: “Take hold of his hand from doing wrong.” Manual of Hadith

My colleagues in faith, our task today is not an easy one.  We are charged with taking hold of the hands that are doing wrong.  This includes the people sitting in well-appointed government offices whom you will visit.  And it includes those who will call for us to stay out of politics and be relegated to the task of cleaning up and comforting after the perpetrators environmental disasters have long gone. Sisters and brothers, I am no longer satisfied with that role.  Our task is not only to care for the afflicted, but to stay the hand of the one causing the affliction in the first place. 

You will get push-back.  You will be mocked and smirked at and patronized and politely dismissed.  But you will be heard.  Because you do not do this alone.  Your voice, speaking for the voiceless, is being amplified across this state.  You are answering the call to justice – so be encouraged in your task today. Know that you stand in a long line of faithful people who take their religions and traditions outside their houses of worship and out into the world, helping to create on the outside what we preach on the inside.

Attend to your tasks today with confidence, good humor, perseverance, fierce advocacy for justice, and great joy knowing you have found here colleagues to support and encourage you in doing this Great Work of our time.

Namaste, blessings, salaam alekum, blessed be, shalom, peace with you.
To read about the Rally at the Capitol Rotunda, click here

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Easter Sermon: The Perfect Easter Story

Easter Sermon 2016
United in Christ Lutheran Church
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade

Watch the video of this sermon here:

The conventional wisdom among preachers is that you need a big story on Easter Sunday to match the power and grandeur of this highest of high holy days.  You need a sermon that is going to include a testimony or a narrative that will make people say, “Wow!  Hallelujah!  Christ is risen, he is risen indeed!” You want people walking out into the light of the Easter morning after the service filled with the memory of that sermon that has reached the peak of homiletic perfection.

So I’ve been racking my brain for weeks trying to find the perfect Easter story.  I’ve been keeping my preacher’s antenna out for just the right story with the right combination of pathos and humor, heart-warming and soul-inspiring.  I thought about recounting the true story from the movie Miracles from Heaven, about a little girl who is miraculously cured of a digestive disorder after she survives a devastating fall from a tree that should have killed her.  Somehow while she is unconscious, she encounters Jesus, and he tells her she is going to be fine. And she wakes up completely healed.  A perfect Easter story!

Or I thought about the interview I heard with a woman who was caught in the bombing of the airport in Brussels, Belgium.  She admitted that she was terrified and spent the first moments in the aftermath hiding under a table.  “Frankly, I was a coward,” she said.  But she saw two little girls injured and in need of care and attention.  So she went to them, singing songs to them, saying the Lord’s Prayer with them until medical help could arrive.  Right there, in the midst of hell on earth, the Spirit of God found its way into the smoke and rubble, singing through her tremulous voice.  Another perfect Easter story!

But then I went to the Good Friday breakfast held for John Sheaffer by the Mifflinburg Kiwanis, and I thought about the miracle we have in our own congregation.  A man whose heart simply stopped for no reason that could be explained.  And only by the steadfastness of his friend Louis’ CPR, and the miracles of modern medicine, and I daresay the prayers of this congregation and the hundreds if not thousands of people who lifted him up in prayer, only by the grace of God is he alive today.  I remember standing at Williamsport Hospital, looking out the window and thinking we’re going to lose him, to a week or two later walking into his hospital room and hearing him asking me how the congregational meeting went.  I felt like I had a glimpse of the resurrection.  That’s a perfect Easter story.

But then I thought about Devon and Jindrah Kemper, who should have died in that horrific accident.  But, again, through the power of prayer and modern medicine, and Devon’s stubborn, ornery will – the two of them are alive, and Devon is just as stubborn and ornery as ever (and I'm sure he would agree with me on that!)  Another perfect Easter story.

And then there’s Jeff Snyder, whose was working in the barn when the floor collapsed.  Had he landed the wrong way, it could have ended his life.  But by some miracle, his foot and ankle caught the worst of it, and he knows he got a second chance – and he’s using it to serve in any way he can.  Another perfect Easter story.

I’ve never heard of a congregation with this many miracles right in their own pews!

But even when the tragedies have come, the risen Christ still finds a way into our midst.  I have conducted sixteen funerals in the nearly five years I have been here at United in Christ.  From the very first one – Rich Hoover – to the most recent one – Bill Harvey – I have witnessed resurrection moments where even in the midst of death, the legacy of that person is kept alive through the faith of the people of this church. 

A scholarship fund was started in Rich’s memory.  And now Felicia Swartz, who has benefited from the generosity of that fund, is starting her final internship this summer and will someday become a fine pastor.  That’s a perfect Easter story.

Rich Huff, our beloved resident jolly Santa Claus, died four years ago after complications from a house fire.  But the people of this church have kept his spirit of generosity alive by establishing the Operation Santa Claus fundraiser that has helped so many children in need in our area, and has become an event of community collaboration every year.  That’s a perfect Easter story.

Laird Killian’s work lives on in this pulpit and in so many things he made for this church.  Grace Kling’s memory lives on through a music fund so we can enjoy wonderful music like we are today. Bill Johnson’s memory lives on through the prayer room that was supported by a gift in his memory.  These are glimpses of the resurrection all around us.

And think of all the children and grandchildren who are the legacy of people like Pauline Hauck and David Tanner, Sam and Bea Rice, Leanne Byerly, Dorothy Strassner.  For their families, faith does not end just because a life comes to an end.  What their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren learned from their life and their witness and their faith in this resurrected Jesus Christ is that no matter what happens, you do like those women who watched their rabbi die on that cross.  When the body comes down, you go and prepare the spices, and then you show up at the tomb to do the most compassionate thing you can – anoint the body, caress the memory with the fragrance of love.  You show up, and you keep going, no matter how bad it gets.  And one way or another, the risen Christ always finds a way into our midst.

What amazes me about this congregation is that no matter what happens, you never give up.  You keep showing up.  And somehow, as you’re doing the simple task of hauling yourself up in the morning to give it one more go, you find yourself standing next to the women at the tomb, amazed that something has happened, something you did not anticipate, something that has changed everything. 

Frankly, I’ve never encountered a church that has endured as much as this one has.  From the legendary origin story of this church splitting with the one across the street after a conflict among the members; to pastors who have divided and split this congregation; to a massive wind shear blowing down through the valley and splitting the church roof from the frame, peeling it back like a can of sardines.  This congregation is no stranger to splits and conflict and tension and one darn building problem after another.  Why just in the last year we’ve had to contend with the floor sinking in the fellowship hall to the roof leaking right up there in the ceiling. 

And yet time and time again, when it looks like the church may be on the verge of collapse, when many had probably written it off as dead in the tomb, always the people show up to carry on.  Like those women on an early morning at a cemetery in Jerusalem, the porcelain blue light of the pre-dawn sky coaxing them through the shadows of the tombs.  They had come to do the task that had to be done – to anoint Jesus’ body.  But when they show up, there is no body – only two men in dazzling clothes who give them news they cannot even comprehend.  The idea that Jesus is actually risen from the dead is so far beyond our thinking, that not even the disciples believe it when the women run to tell them.  Oh it’s just those hysterical, grief-stricken women.  Just telling old wives tales. 

But it’s not a tall tale.  It’s not just some fantasy story made up to make us feel better about what happened.  The resurrection happened!  It really happened.  And in the days and weeks ahead they will come to realize that yes, it’s true.  The risen Christ is in their midst, and the world has changed forever.

You can go to Brussels to find the risen Christ.  And you can go to the movies and see inspiring stories of little girls and little boys who saw Jesus coming to them after crossing over death’s door, and coming back to tell their story.

But you can also find empty tombs see the risen Christ right here in your own church, right here in the pew next to you or behind or in front of you.

Through your words, through your actions, through your serving, through your disagreements and tensions, through your history, and through your youth who are not just the church of tomorrow, but are the church right now

Keep showing up.  Keep doing the right thing.  Never doubt that God is in your midst creating a resurrection moment, even if you can’t see it at first.

And if this is your first time here, or you only come here once or twice a year, I would urge you to come back more often to see what God is doing in this place. 

Because, let me tell you, United in Christ is a resurrection congregation.  Never doubt that.  No matter what has happened in the past, no matter what may come your way in the future . . . God wants this church to be here and to carry on, and to tell the perfect Easter story.  


Monday, March 28, 2016

I Thirst – Youth Eco-Reflection for Good Friday

#goodfriday #cleanwater #youthministry @ELCAWorldHunger #walkforwater
On Good Friday the youth of United in Christ, Lewisburg, PA, designed a service of darkness focused on the seven last words of Christ.  The youth worked in pairs on their sermons which they preached in a dialogical style. The sermon below was written by two of our middle school youth from an ecological perspective, focusing on the need for clean water. (To see the other banners and learn more about the service, see this blog post:
John 19:28: After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, Jesus said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”
PREACHERS:  Rachel Schade and Zoe Scott

Rachel:  One of Jesus’ last words was “I thirst.” Jesus once asked for water from the woman at the well. Now he is thirsting for water as he is dying on the cross. Water is vital for life and is a very important part of God’s Creation.

Zoe:  There are several places in the Bible where water plays a key part in the story of God’s people. In Genesis, all life arose from water. The book of Exodus has the story of the Hebrew people passing through the waters of the Red Sea, and later getting fresh water from a rock.

Rachel:  In Isaiah, he talks about flowing rivers upon deserts in chapter 41. And in the New Testament, Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, and talks about “living water” with the woman at the well.

Zoe:  When Jesus is crucified, he is pierced in his side and water comes out. These are just a few of the events in the Bible that have to do with water.

Rachel:  Today, water is, in a sense, being crucified. Humanity is destroying water by filling it with chemicals from shale gas drilling, pesticides, herbicides, and animal waste. 

Zoe:  Oceans are filled with so much plastic, huge islands of trash are floating in our seas.

Rachel:  And because of climate change, people are suffering from drought in some places, and flooding in others.

Zoe: Jesus expressed the importance of water on the cross, so why isn’t humanity keeping that importance alive today?

Rachel:  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and other groups have noticed these problems and are doing their best to address them. ELCA World Hunger has a program called Walk for Water to raise awareness about water shortages and do projects to help water become more available to people who don’t have easy access to it.

Zoe:  They know that Jesus’ cry of “I thirst” is echoed around the world even today.  So they fund-raise for water purification tablets, irrigation canals, and well installations.

Rachel:  We as a congregation can do so much to support and participate in these programs. We encourage you to do as Jesus did:

Rachel and Zoe: Honor and protect our living water. Amen.

"I Thirst" was just one of the reflections written by our youth for the Good Friday service.  To learn more, check out this blog post:

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Youth-led Good Friday - Seven Last Words of Christ

For Good Friday, our youth at United in Christ, Lewisburg, PA, designed a service of darkness focused on the seven last words of Christ.  The older youth divided into pairs and wrote sermonettes on each of the themes which they preached as dialogues with each other.

The First Word:  Forgive
Luke 23:32-34

The Second Word:  Paradise
Luke 23:39-43

The Third Word:  “Woman”
John 19:25a-27

The Fourth Word:  “Thirst”
John 19:28

The Fifth Word:  “Forsaken”
Matthew 27:45-46

The Sixth:  “Finished”
John 19:29-30

The Final Word:  “I Commend My Spirit”

Our younger youth read the biblical passages.

Our seminarian Felicia Swartz and I worked with the youth to write these sermons, and choose music to perform with the youth and our guitarist, BJ Koch. And we came up with ideas for the banners which were then created by Felicia and other adult volunteers with help from the youth.

After the opening hymn, the sanctuary was darkened.  We had a battery-powered spotlight on each banner which was turned off after each sermon, increasing the darkness as the service progressed.

Finally, the only light that remained was the final candle, as the youth led the congregation in whispering the Lord's Prayer.  A thundering drum roll signaled the earth shaking and thunder in the darkened sky as the cross was carried by the youth out of the sanctuary.

This service was prepared over the course of five weeks during the season of Lent.  It is a great way to have youth involved in the planning and leading of worship during Holy Week.  A dedicated group of parents and adult volunteers is a must, but the format for the service is fairly straightforward.  And it is very effective.  Many parishioners noted how much they were moved by the students' reflections, and how meaningful the service was for them.

To request the service outline and sermon samples to give you ideas for how to do this in your own congregation, post a comment to this blog post for more information.