Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent Sermon: Embracing New Life in Darkness

Sermon Series:  Learning to Welcome the Dark, Part Three
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Dec. 14, 2014
Isaiah 7:13-17; Psalm 139:1-18; Luke 1:26-38

A few weeks ago I did a children’s sermon where we talked about the phases of the moon, and I handed them a calendar that showed what phase the moon would be in during this month.  Starting today, that glowing orb in the sky is waning toward “new moon,” which will be on Dec. 22, when the moon’s light disappears.  Interestingly, Dec. 21 is Winter Solstice – longest night of the year.  So the darkest night of the year will have not have any moonlight either.  This is a dark time.
We sometimes hear people use that phrase to describe their lives or the state of our world.  If someone says “this is a dark time” – what do they mean?  I posed this question on Facebook and invited people to respond.  The question sparked nearly 30 comments.  Answers I got were:  a valley of grief, tyranny and destruction running rampant, confusion and fear, lack of knowledge and wisdom. In movies, whenever a war or battle is about to start, someone says "dark times are coming." It’s a time of negativity, injustice, oppression, overwhelming challenges, and depression.  For some, this time of year reminds them of losses they have suffered, especially loved ones who have died, with whom they are no longer able to share the holiday.  When people say “it’s a dark time,” it can mean what is absent - not much hope or joy.  


Lester Johnson, Three Transparent Heads, 1961
By these counts, I think the argument can be made that we are in a “dark time.”  Racial tensions in our country are as high as I’ve ever seen.  We hear news about rapes on college campuses, threatening the safety of our daughters.  There are debates about the value of using torture as a means by which to extract information from our enemies.  News about worsening pollution and climate disruption from fossil fuel extraction processes.  As a friend said in one of her responses to my post:  Watch CNN or the local news and it paints the picture of darkness. Current affairs that we are confronted with daily: Police Brutality, ISIS, War, School Shootings,” the list can seem endless. These are, indeed, dark times. 
But as we’ve learned in these past few weeks on this sermon series about learning to welcome the dark, it’s important to unpack the stereotypes people have about darkness.  Especially since people with darker skin are unconsciously or even consciously demonized simply for their skin’s pigmentation. And when it comes to the feelings of anger, grief and depression that arise in response to these personal, national and global injustices, let’s not push too hastily for people to “get over it,” to swallow their pain and anger and “move forward,” as the saying is so often reiterated. 

Because as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, “The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread.  The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, ‘Tell me about it.  I have all day.’” (Taylor, Barbara Brown, Learning to Walk in the Dark, HarperOne, New York, NY, 2014; 86). But we have to do this without expecting all this to magically cheer us up and whisk us out of our dark emotions.  By listening to their words, hearing their stories, and holding those powerful, violent emotions as best we can, we are at least acknowledging that, yes, this has happened, and it is worthy of healing. 
But of course, many would disagree.  You may have noticed the kind of rhetoric that has arisen in response to these events, the kinds of insensitive, offensive remarks jumping off of blog posts and blurted by political pundits that seek to blame the victims, downplay the seriousness of the issues, and divert our attention from the work that needs to be done.  Our culture basically pushes two options for us in the face of these massive injustices:  fight or flight.  Toss nasty verbal grenades into the fray, or turn away and shop shop shop for the best holiday deals.

It is understandable to react to these strong feelings of those who cry out against injustice with either dismissive acidity or detached numbness.  Because some of us have never experienced this kind of suffering.  We build walls between us and those who suffer a thousand micro-aggressions over the course of their lives due to their skin color.  Between us and the ones whose suffering is distanced from us.  Between us and the woman who has been raped.  We cannot bear such suffering, so we express outrage that such intensity of pain is even voiced.  Yet these words of frustration and rage are found throughout the Bible, in the Psalms, in the mouths of prophets like Jeremiah and Habbakuk who says: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” (Habakkuk 1:3)
Here’s what we must do with those enraged by Ferguson, and those standing in oil-slicked soil on their farms, and those whose bodies have been abused and assaulted:  we must listen to them, and hear them in the context of prayer.  We all know we live in a world marked by violence and revenge - wouldn’t it be prudent to put those feelings into a prayerful context?  Wouldn’t it be wise to invite God into these feelings? 

That’s just what Mary does in the Gospel of Luke. Mary was a woman who lived in “dark times.” Because the days leading up to Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary were filled with many of the same things identified by the Facebook observations.  Her people were oppressed by the Romans and despised in much the same way as people of color are in this country.  They lived under military occupation and the soldiers often used violence in their patrols of the villages and cities.  Diseases were common, poverty was nearly universal outside of the homes of the wealthy elite, and crime was a constant.  Hopelessness and depression could easily settle into one’s heart, and even take hold of an entire community. All this could lay open a person’s mind to the creeping suspicion that perhaps God has finally abandoned us, left us to our own devices, given up on us. 
The world holds its collective breath, waiting to see if and how God will respond.  Will God punish us for these feelings or mutely turn away?

Neither.  God chooses a third way.  God listens and responds.  God responds by effecting a transformation in the darkness.  Despite all of the negative stereotypes about darkness, Mary instinctively understood that God works in darkness differently than in light, but God still works in those dark places.  It is within Mary’s womb, as dark a place as can be found, that the Messiah is conceived and grows.  There in the secret, dark place of a young unwed teenage girl’s shame – there you see, is Mary’s God, the God of our raped daughters, the God of our murdered sons, the God of our desecrated earth.  This is the God who sees that things must change, and creates in her a future that causes Mary to burst forth in song:  “My soul doth magnify the Lord and rejoices in God, my savior!  For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
There in the midst of hopelessness is where God does Her best work.  Darkness is as useful for God as light.  Because it makes us slow down, rely on our ears to hear, and our hands to feel.  Darkness helps us to dismantle those things that keep us from hearing and feeling God.  I did an exercise with a group of preachers in a workshop a few months ago where I blindfolded them and guided them into a room of darkness.  They lined up, putting hands on shoulders, and became acutely aware of what the floor felt like beneath their feet as they shuffled slowly one step at a time.  Without their sight they learned to rely on hearing each other’s voices, and my voice, to tell them where to turn, what was on their left and right.  They had a shared experience of smells and textures and sounds that gave them new insights into how God works in darkness. 

In what ways might Darkness be trying to effect a transformation in you, in us?  What voices are we supposed to hear in the Darkness?  Whose hands can we reach for?  Especially during this period of waning moon and approaching winter solstice, what Taylor calls “endarkenment,” let’s not be too quick to run to “the light” and miss what Darkness is trying teach us, trying to dismantle in our individual and collective egos.
The Darkness is trying to show us that we can do better, that we need to reach out for the hands and shoulders of God’s sons and daughters - no matter their skin color, sexual orientation, culture or economic level – and see them as having inherent dignity, value and worth.  The Darkness is urging us to sharpen our senses to God’s created world and recognize that our earth and its precious waters and biotic communities have inherent dignity, value and worth.

So how do we take those first, shuffling steps into the darkness?  This afternoon some of us will be taking gift bags and singing carols at Country Comfort Assisted Living.  We will be going to what some people think of as a “dark place,” where the elderly wait for the final shroud of death to enfold them, a place where few people go to visit because it’s uncomfortable, and they do not want to be reminded of their own mortality.  But we will go and see that even in that dark place, new life grows in unexpected ways. 
Two days ago I went to another place that people might call “dark.”  I went to Haven Ministry, the homeless shelter for our tri-county area.  Few people would want to be there, a place where poverty throws its victims, where domestic violence tosses its abused women and children, a place where people only go as a last resort. I only went because I was sent there with the gifts bought by our youth with money from our Rich Huff Fund.  So I arrived with clothes, a toy and some diapers for a 5-week-old infant who was there with his mother.  I don’t know what her circumstances were, but I could imagine the pain and humiliation she had endured, the hopelessness she must have experienced, the “darkness” that surrounded her.  But I asked if I could see the child – and she took me back to her little room.  There on the bed the little baby boy was sleeping, as perfect and holy a child as I’ve ever seen.  New life in this place of darkness. 


In a few minutes, I will hold Laylanya and Koda in my arms and stroke their soft hair with the baptismal waters, a reminder of the dark birth waters of our planet, the dark waters that pillowed them in their mother’s womb.  And I pray that when the day comes when they feel lost and abandoned in the darkness, they will be reminded of the words from Psalm 139:
Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.


God is calling us in the dark to listen and learn and lend a hand even more at this difficult time. Because, as Mary reminds us, God is at work in ways that are not immediately visible to us, but are nevertheless powerfully moving among us:
49 For the Mighty One has done great things for [us], and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
 
God has not abandoned us.  God is at work as much now as in the beginning of our dark-shrouded world, as when God’s people cried out for justice and mercy from the depths of the biblical texts.  The God of Mary’s womb, and the God of Jesus’ tomb – both places of darkness – is our God: the God of our broken bodies and hearts and communities who comes to bring healing and new life in the darkness.  Put your hands on God’s strong shoulders, listen for God’s voice guiding you in the darkness.  And take your first shuffling step.  Amen.

Shadows of children with hands on shoulders in a line Stock Photo
 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An Advent Sermon Preached as the Character of Darkness

Learning to Welcome the Dark, Sermon Series, Part Two
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
December 7, 2014
Matthew 1:18-25


Watch the video of this sermon:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HikRTIF2e8

Some call me Nyx, the daughter of Chaos.  Some call me la noche, the night.  You may call me Darkness.  I am the bringer of sleep; I usher in the hush of slumber.  I was with God from the beginning, choshek, covering the face of the deep out of which God burst forth with all of Creation.  I was given equal time with my twin sibling Light.  In my body I hold the stars and moon.  Within me are the hidden places where life begins.  I am the keeper of sacred secrets.
I touch each of you every night with my soft caress, gently pulling you down to your pillow.  You may think that your brain shuts itself off when I pull the curtain over your eyes, but what I see is something very different.  I watch your neural cells clean away the toxins of all your thinking during the day.  I see your body healing itself, all the organs and systems realigning to the order set for them by God’s hand. 

And yet I am given so little time to do my work with you.  You chase me away more and more with your addiction to light.  How I long to embrace you and fill you with my life-giving, life-restoring power.  But every night you poke holes in me with the little red lights from your machines, the blinking dots by your bedside, the flickering screens that confuse your brain and damage your body’s ability to rest.   You pride yourself on your ability to fight me, to resist my pull over you.  But you only hurt yourself when you refuse the gift of sleep I offer you. 
You think you must push me away.  But what you do not realize is that I am the escort of God’s angels to you.  Angels are the messengers of God, and they work best when you sleep.  After your brain mops up all those stress chemicals in your brain, sweeping away the detritus of your mind, only then is there room and space for the dreams.  The angels bring you the dreams that contain God’s messages to you. 

I remember a night many moons ago when I was the angel’s escort to a man named Joseph.  This man had always fought against me.  He did not like darkness.  He slept with a candle lit in his room every night.  He preferred daylight when he could see to pick up his carpenter’s tools and work the wood of his trade.  He was a strong man with splintered and rough hands.  But his heart was gentle and kind, sanded down smooth by the love of his mother and father. 
All his life they had faithfully brought him to synagogue, taught him the Torah, and on the evenings of the Shabbat, when I have the joy of bringing the day of rest, they gathered as a family to keep this holy commandment.  God’s Law, God’s history with the people, the stories gathered and retold over centuries of God’s saving love for them – these are what shaped and refined the wood grain of Joseph’s character week by week, month by month, year by year.  His mind and his morals were as sturdy as the furniture he and his father fashioned in their shop, glistening with the fine oil they applied to the surface of the wood to make it shine.

It was this shine that caught the eye of the young girl who would one day become his betrothed.  Mary liked the sureness of Joseph, his dependability, his steadfastness.  She liked the idea of being married to a man who could provide for her and her children – not just the means to raise a family, but the faith in God that would keep them joined to their people and their history, as sure as the legs of the tables he made were fitted snug to the top, supporting it without fail.   
And Joseph was drawn to this young girl who seemed to have a wisdom from depths he could not fathom.  She thought deeply and looked at you with eyes that saw beyond your own thoughts.  Certainly she was unlike the other young women who were suggested to him as prospective mates.  Mary was a woman who welcomed me, invited me in willingly every night.  She needed no candle.  She made me her friend, shared her prayers with me in her under-the-blanket voice. 

It did not surprise me at all when I learned I was to escort an angel to her one night.  He came with the message that the Messiah was to be born to her, Mary.  The Hope of the world had found the one in whom he should incarnate.  I watched her closed eyes move rapidly beneath her lids as she spoke to the angel in her dream, wondering how she would conceive if she and Joseph were not yet married.  You may wonder the same thing.  All I can tell you is – I am the keeper of sacred secrets.  Within me are the hidden places where life begins.
She could have waited to tell Joseph until the roundness of her belly began to show, but she did not.  She could not.  She loved Joseph, trusted him with her secret as much as she trusted me. 

But Joseph does not like mystery.  He likes surety, security. This news was heart-rending for him.  Night after night I tried to bring sleep to Joseph, to soothe him.  But no sooner had he laid his head into my bosom did he bolt upright again, pace his room, murmur to himself, pray into my hands and ask for God’s mercy.  By day the dark circles under his eyes grew deeper.  His work in the shop became shoddy and he injured himself because of his tiredness.
He knew that by rights he could have dragged Mary into the street to have her stoned for carrying a child that was not his own.  But as I said, he was an honorable man.  He resolved to quietly end their betrothal and leave her to her parents who would certainly send her away, such was the shame she had brought to them.  It was that night after he had made that decision, when I brought the angel to Joseph.

He was so exhausted by then, he could no longer resist my pull on him, and he laid down to sleep after lighting his familiar candle.  I brought in the night breeze to extinguish it just before I escorted the angel to his bedside.  He came with the message that the child growing in Mary was the Messiah and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife.  I watched Joseph’s closed eyes move rapidly beneath his lids as he spoke to the angel in his dream, wondering how he would withstand the shame, the ridicule of their neighbors.  You may wonder the same thing.  All I can tell you is - within me are the hidden places where life begins.  I am the keeper of sacred secrets.  And that night Joseph rested better than he had his whole life.  From that night on, Joseph and I became good friends.  He learned to trust me.  And I would bring the angel to him many more times with even more important messages.

 
I long to befriend you, too.  Every night, even as you try to diminish my power with your electric, artificial lights, I still wait to soothe you with sleep.  I will always be here, waiting for you to lay down into my arms.  I am patient to hear your prayers, catch them in my hands and bear them up to God.  And I wait at the edges of your room for you to turn off the blinking dots, extinguish the rectangular screens of flickering lights, and allow me to enfold you with my healing power.  I will stand guard over you, listening for your even breathing, your relaxing sighs.  I will wait steadfastly for you to let go of your need to be in control, to work your body and mind past the point of exhaustion.  I will never abandon my post of bringing in the Sabbath, and the restorative rest at the end of each day.  And you may find that one day I may bring an angel to your bedside with a holy message from our God.  How will this happen?  When?  Why?  You may wonder.  All I can tell you is - I am the keeper of sacred secrets.  Within me are the hidden places where life begins.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Learning to Welcome the Dark, Part One

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, PhD

Isaiah 45:2-8; Psalm: 88:1-12; Mark 13:24-37

When you think of the word “darkness” what ideas or images pop into your head?

Conventional thinking about darkness associates it with fear, evil, witches, monsters, sinister, death, divine absence, the unknown, etc.

Are you afraid of the dark?  When I was a child in my dark room at night, I used to be afraid that there were snakes under my bed.  And because it was dark, I would not be able to see them if I had to get up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water or use the bathroom.  The darkness hides dangerous things, is what my young mind believed.

But according to the author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Learning to Walk inthe Dark, darkness actually has much to teach us.  We need darkness as much as we need light.  She critiques what she calls “full solar spirituality” in which darkness is demonized in religious teachings.  She also critiques the church, wherein the implicit message is:  “the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith.” Taylor counters:  what would it be like to trust the darkness, or, trust God in the darkness?  How can we learn to embrace darkness and what it has to offer?

During these weeks of Advent, we’re going to explore those questions, and offer up possible answers.  Because especially now as we are moving toward the darkest part of the year, when the daylight diminishes and darkness grows deeper, this is a good time to gain a different understanding and appreciation of darkness.  As Isaiah reminds us, God forms light and creates darkness. 

If God created darkness, it can’t be all bad, can it?

And yet we’ll do anything to chase darkness away.  Many of us still sleep with a nightlight.  Certainly it’s a matter of safety for some of us who are unsteady on our feet and would risk falling if we stumbled in the dark.  But just think about how much “light pollution” there is in the world.  Sea turtles get stranded on beaches because the human-made light from electrified shore-lines confuses them into thinking their heading toward the sun rising over the sea.  In urban areas, birds can be heard chirping throughout the night because the sky is so illuminated by artificial lights.   A look at nightimages of earth across the globe reveals just how much light pollution we have created.  The greenhouse gases emitted from our power plants to fuel this need for nighttime illumination adds more and more to climate disruption.

Have you noticed that Christmas lights appear on houses earlier and earlier every year? 

We see them as early as the end of October!  Certainly the commercialization of Christmas contributes to this push.  But perhaps it indicates a deeper fear.  Perhaps those lights are a way to chase from our lives the snakes under the bed, the monsters in the closet, the enemies lurking in the shadows.

And let’s admit, there are some who do use the darkness to hide their identity as they are doing wrong, who wait for night to fall to shroud their crimes from sight. But here’s the thing – even though evil has tried to claim darkness as its own abode, as its own kingdom – the truth is this: it is God who is the ruler of night and darkness.  It is God who rules the darkness and claims it not as the location of wickedness, but as the realm over which God has hovered and moved from the beginning, out of which all creation arose and is still arising.  It is God who creates darkness and watches the seeds deep in the earth breaking forth their green shoots therein.  It is God who comes to Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and Mary in the darkness of their dreams and reveals the Divine self and purposes.  It is God who calls to Samuel during the night.

It is God, the Gospel of Mark tells us, who -- after that suffering, when the sun is darkened and the moon is new and even the light of the stars is no longer visible -- it is God who will send the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  Notice, it doesn’t say anything about Jesus coming in a great beam of light.  Jesus comes in the dark, shrouded by mystery.  He comes like the master of the house – not in the daytime but when?  At some time during the night:  in the evening, or at midnight, or just before dawn when the rooster crows.
“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’”  The Greek word there is: gregoreo, which means “watch, pay attention.”

The darkness is calling for our attention, not for our banishing it with our colored lights.  I would invite you during this Advent season to spend some time with darkness, even if it scares you a little.  I’m not saying you have to plunge in the deep end and risk your safety.  Try dipping toe in the shallow end at first.  When the sun goes down, don’t immediately turn on the lights.  Don’t turn on the t.v.  Put away your glowing cell phone.  Sit in the darkness for a while.  Try it just for 10 minutes at first.  Maybe 30 minutes if you’re feeling brave.  Listen to what darkness is saying to you.  If fear comes, listen to it.  If sadness comes, attend to it.  If boredom comes, let your mind wander and whisper.  If you awaken in the middle of the night with insomnia, let the darkness lead you to prayer, to communion with God, to the Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary in the night, to the mystery of Jesus who comes to us in the evening, at midnight, at the darkest moment before dawn. 

The psalmist asks of God:  Are your wonders known in the darkness?  And we can answer, as a matter of fact, yes.  Yes, God’s wonders are known in the darkness.  And God is wonderful in the darkness.  Amen.

 

 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eschatology and Ecofeminist Theology: The Challenge of Preaching the "New Creation" in a Time of Environmental Crisis

We're approaching texts in the Sundays of Advent ahead that have to do with "end times."  Last year I presented a paper hosted by Northeastern Seminary in October 2013 on how to preach on this theme from an ecofeminist perspective .  Contact me for the full paper (leave a comment below).  Here is an intro to the summary:

For preachers, eschatological themes are anticipated with nearly as much enthusiasm as dental check-ups. “The end of the world . . . again,” quipped one pastor at a pericope study I once attended as we tackled once more the images of the end-times that proliferate in the last Sundays of Pentecost and the first Sundays of Advent. This sarcasm perhaps masks a deeper unease about the real fears alluded to in passages such as Revelation 21:1-5 whose warnings of impending cosmic upheavals ricochet sharply off contemporary headlines about war, natural disasters, and strange “signs” that warn of dire days ahead.

Add to this the disconcerting news about species extinctions, the climate crisis, football-field-lengths of forests disappearing by the hour, and extreme forms of energy extraction, and the task of preaching “good news” in the face of seemingly immanent ecological doom can feel overwhelming to pastor and congregation alike. Especially for the preacher, the dual temptations to either legalistically preach about “saving the earth” or to irresponsibly encourage waiting passively for a messianic solution can lead to an “apocalyptic either/or logic—if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it. Either salvation or damnation,” as Catherine Keller observes

To read the full post: http://blog.nes.edu/bid/189257/eschatology-and-ecofeminist-theology-the-challenge-of-preaching-the-new-creation-in-a-time-of-environmental-crisis?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_content=2472027

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lutheranism - The Good, The Bad, and the Grace


Sermon for Reformation Sunday
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
Oct. 26, 2014
Some of us have been Lutheran since the day we were baptized.  Some became Lutheran later in life or have just recently become Lutheran.  But even if you are not Lutheran, every one of us has had our lives shaped by the hand of Martin Luther and his legacy, which we celebrate today.  Let me explain.
 

Today we commemorate the courageous act of Martin Luther, who, nearly 500 years ago, took a stand against the abusive powers of the church and began what became known as the Reformation.  He wanted to reform the church, to bring it back into alignment with the intentions of God and the principles of the Bible.  In 1517 at the church door of Wittenburg, Germany, a young monk stood nailing his 95 Theses into the splintering wood, an act that would splinter the entire stronghold of the religious authorities and start the Protestant movement that still exists to this day. 
Even if you are not a Lutheran, your life has been shaped by the legacy of Martin Luther. 
* The notion of civil rights can be traced back to Luther, and it is no small thing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received his namesake from the German monk who stood up against the powers and fought for the value of every human soul. 
* Martin Luther also believed that girls should be educated just as much as boys, an idea that eventually contributed to the women's rights movement (though, admittedly, Luther was by no means a "feminist" in the modern sense of the word). 
* The wave of immigrants into America seeking freedom from religious persecution in Europe all goes back to the Protestant movement and its aftermath.   
* The notion that individuals can and should read the Bible for themselves and encounter the living God through those words goes back to Luther, who was the first to translate the Bible from ancient languages into the common tongue. 

And, sadly, World War II can, in part, be traced to Martin Luther.  For while he did many positive things, he also said many negative words about the Jewish people.  Those words eventually helped fuel Nazi ideology in Germany.
 
Lutherans also persecuted the Anabaptists, or what we know as the Mennonites.  In this area of Pennsylvania we see lots of our Amish and Mennonite neighbors and work alongside them or purchase their goods.  But there was a time when Lutherans so disagreed with their theology and religious notions that we pursued them and killed them.  And so we, as Lutherans, have had to be honest about these darker aspects of our heritage and to apologize and make amends for it.

You probably didn’t know that part about how Lutherans treated Anabaptists or Jews, did you?  But you also may not be aware of the way in which Lutheranism has shaped lives in a positive way, far beyond its German, European roots.  Lutherans in America have a long history of reaching out to immigrants and helping them to get settled in their new country.  Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services have helped thousands of foreign people lost, alone and without any assistance in this country.  For example, the church I served in Media, PA, once took in a family from one of the former Soviet republics.  They arranged for furniture for their home, stocked their kitchen, helped enroll the children in school, and helped to find the father a job.  All with a family who spoke not a word of English when they arrived.  They weren’t even Christian, let alone Lutheran.  They were Muslim.  But that didn’t matter.  The church responded to the call to help and today the family is thriving in their new home.

I recently read a story called “Drifting Toward Hope,” in Parade, the Sunday insert in the newspaper, about a man named Vinh Chung and his family who were refugees from Vietnam more than 30 years ago.  He tells about escaping Vietnam after the Viet Cong took his family’s rice milling business and forced them to live in poverty.  His parents and seven siblings – ten of them in all - set out on a decrepit fishing boat in 1979 with about 83 others, and they got lost on the South China Sea.  For five days they drifted without food or water and were beginning to contemplate suicide.  Then a World Vision aid ship spotted them and rescued them from certain death.  They were eventually brought to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where a Lutheran church sponsored his family’s move to the United States.


 
 

Though they had no possessions and could speak no English, the church helped them to get settled in their new country, their new community, and helped to find employment for his father in a fiberglass factory.  Vinh says that his time was divided between school, work and church.  “Work gave me discipline and kept me out of trouble; church gave me community and a strong faith,” he recalls.  “My siblings and I walked a path two inches wide and 18 years long, but it turned out to be a good one.”  Today he and his siblings hold a total of six doctorates and five master’s degrees from schools such as Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and other prestigious Universities. 

Eventually Vinh had an opportunity to go back to Vietnam to visit relatives who remained.  He was shocked by the poverty.  They live in shacks with barely any furniture and hardly enough resources to eke out a living. 

Then, in the article, he quotes a passage from the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says:  “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (12:48 NLT).  He said, “I used to wonder who Jesus meant, because I sure didn’t think it was my family.  The way I saw it, we had been given nothing, entrusted with nothing.  I hoped that rich and powerful people would read Jesus’ words and take them to heart.  But when I went to Vietnam, I finally understood:  He meant me.  I was the one plucked from the South China Sea.  I was the one granted asylum in a nation where education is available to everyone, and prosperity is attainable for anyone.  I worked hard to get where I am today, but the humbling truth is that my hard work was possible because of a blessing I did nothing to deserve.  And that blessing is something I must pass on, in any way I can.”
You can hear Vinh’s Lutheran upbringing in his words.  A blessing you did nothing to deserve?  That’s what Lutherans call grace.  It actually flies in the face of the American truism we all hold so dear – the notion that you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and become a self-made man or woman.  The idea that we are each independent operators functioning solely on our own merit.  That mindset is strongly embedded in each of us and it does have a positive function of encouraging personal responsibility and accountability.  But it is only partially correct and ignores a more fundamental truth. Yes, we work hard.  But we are where we stand today and the good life we enjoy is because of a blessing we did nothing to deserve.  You might not have been plucked from a refugee boat and saved from certain death. But the very family you were born into, the very society that existed before you were born, these rolling and rich soil your family has farmed for generations, the very body and skin you were born into – none of that was due to any work on your part.  You are living off of the hard work and sacrifice of hundreds of people who came before you.  You did nothing to deserve it.  

And what is more, the very air you breathe, the clean water you drink, the animals and plants that feed you, the land upon which you home is situated – none of that was created by you.  You did nothing to deserve this Earth that God created.  There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love and care for you.  It simply exists not because of who you are, but because that is who God is.  That is called grace.
Of course, what you do with that blessing is in your hands.  The first and foremost response for me is to feel gratitude.  I am profoundly and humbly grateful to have received these blessings.  And I have to take time every day when I wake up, every time I sit down to a meal, every time I receive a paycheck, every time I walk in God’s creation, and . . . even every time I am ready to rattle off a list of complaints about the life I live.  First I must stop and give thanks that I even have a life to complain about.  Giving thanks puts things into the proper perspective.  Not just during a commercialized holiday next month, but every day, several times a day, I need to slow down and exist in a state of gratitude.

And then, yes, I need to work diligently to make the most of what has been entrusted to me.  Like one of the servants given a share of resources in Jesus’ parable of the talents, I am being held accountable for the treasure that I have been given to steward, knowing that it was not mine to begin with, nor will it be mine to keep forever.  It all belongs to God, and I want to be able to hear those words:  Well done, good and faithful servant. 
That means if you are a student in school, you do your best and work diligently to learn all you can, to use your brain and body in the best way possible, because God has entrusted them to you.  And if you are working at a job, you do your best and work diligently and with the utmost integrity to use your brain and body in the best way possible, because God has entrusted them to you.  If you are raising children, you do your best and work diligently to keep them fed and clothed and housed and healthy.  You treat them with respect, even if they make you angry.  Because they are God’s, not yours, and you must treat them as God’s treasures entrusted to you.

And if you no longer work full time or raise children full time, do not think that your days of accountability are over.  You are still called on to do your best and work diligently at whatever your brain and body will still allow you to do.  Maybe that is serving here at the church, or visiting a sick friend, or making something for someone, or sitting down with your prayer list and lifting those people to God. 


No matter what your age or occupation or state of health or geographic location, you are each called to be a servant of God in your circle of life.  That’s what Luther called the priesthood of all believers.  In God’s eyes, no one is more privileged than another to receive the grace God has for us.  There is no hierarchy of merit or salvation.  All are equally covered by the same blanket of grace, and all are equally expected to minister to others under that blanket. 


And we are called to pass on that blessing to others.  Today, Vinh serves on World Vision’s Board of Directors, and his book, Where the Wind Leads, has been published.  The blessings bestowed on him, through no merit of his own, he is passing on to others.
What are you doing to pass on that blessing to others?  I see the answer to that question every day that I come to work.  I see the sewing group busy making blankets that will go out to refugees around the world.  I see volunteers at our OAKs monthly senior center welcoming older folks in our area who look forward to learning and laughing and eating together. 

I see youth preparing to serve a spaghetti supper to raise money to go to Detroit next summer to do God’s work with their hands. 

I see a member of the Rich Huff fund going out to purchase clothes for a child in need in our area.  I see donated food in our narthex that will be taken to Hand Up or Mazeppa Manna to feed our hungry neighbors. 

I see people signing up to help serve a meal at St. Andrew’s next month.  The list just goes on and on. 

We did nothing to deserve the grace that has been bestowed on us.  And we do everything to express our gratitude and pass on the blessing to others.  Thanks be to God for a man whose hands helped change the world.  Thanks be to God for your hands that are continuing to serve and change the world today. 
 
And thanks be to God for the One who touched Luther’s life, and yours and mine – Jesus Christ, showing us what it means to give ourselves fully to God, trusting that grace and mercy for ourselves and the world.  Amen.   
Source:  Parade, August 10, 2014