Monday, January 27, 2014

"The Need for Sustainability" - Repost of Blog by Iris Bloom of Protecting Our Waters

My good friend and sister-in-solidarity Iris Bloom of Protecting Our Waters has written this piece connecting the dots between the recent string of oil-and-gas accidents, shareholder capitalism, and the need to transition to nonfossil fuels.  Her analysis helps us see the deeper meaning of these seemingly disparate events and is beautifully written, concise, and compelling.  Iris has the long-view in mind here, and I encourage wide sharing of her post.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Sermon on the Sacrament of Holy Communion

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
January 19, 2014
Text:  John 1:29-42

[This sermon was part of Teaching Liturgy Sunday, Part Two, which focused on The Meal within the Gathering-Word-Meal-Sending order of Lutheran worship.]

“What are you looking for?” “Where are you staying?”     “Come and see.”

That exchange between the disciples and Jesus gives us a helpful framework for understanding why we worship, why we do what we do in worship, and what we can expect to encounter in worship.

Jesus asks: “What are you looking for?”      

The disciples respond with another question: “Where are you staying?”

Jesus responds: “Come and see.”

What are you looking for when you come to church?  There are probably as many different answers to that as there are people here.  Some of you are here because you enjoy the people who gather in the church.  You’ve known them for many years, perhaps all your life.  They are your friends and family, and gathering here at church is part of what makes up your relationship with them.  Your friendship and family-ship is fed by the faith you share.  And your faith is fed by the friendship and family-ships you experience in this place.
Some of you are here out of habit.  It’s just what you do.  You were raised going to church, it’s part of your routine, and you can’t imagine your life without it.

Still others are here because their parents or spouse dragged them out of bed this morning.  They like it once they’re here, but getting them here can be a struggle.

I’ve even heard people in this church - including young people – say they come here because it’s fun!  They like to sing the hymns.  They enjoy the fellowship hour.  They like the activities we do in youth group, the suppers, the way we reach out to the community, the way we help people.  They like the way we can laugh together, and how we can comfort each other when we cry.

What are you looking for?  Whether you are conscious of it or not, whether you admit it to yourself or not, on some level, in some way you are looking to encounter God.  All of those other reasons for being here are true and real and mostly good.  But on a deeper level, the deepest level, every human being at some time in their life longs to connect with the holy mystery of the sacred.  Call it what you will – the Divine, the Force, Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Creator – that awesome power that is beyond our understanding longs to connect with you, too.  You are looking for God.  God is looking for you.

“Where are you staying?” the disciples wanted to know.  They wanted to know where they could locate Jesus.  They wanted to know his dwelling place, where he resides.  They wanted an address and GPS coordinate.  They knew they were looking for the Holy One of God.  They knew they had found him.  Now they wanted to know where he lived so that they could have access to him, have a reliable place to find him.

Where do you find God?  Human beings can encounter that Divine Presence anytime and anywhere it chooses to manifest itself to us.  It may be at a holy site, in the darkness through a dream, in the birth of a child, in the physical embrace of two people, or standing atop a mountain or alongside the endlessly churning waves on the beach.  But here in this place of gathered people around the font and the table is the one place we can be sure to find God.  Why is that?  Because Jesus has promised to be here in these sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.  And God always keeps God’s promises.

This is not to say that you are going to have an earth-shattering, mind-blowing lighting strike of God’s presence every time you come to church or hold your hand out for the bread and wine.  It doesn’t work like that.  And if it did, it wouldn’t actually be a sacrament.  It would be like an addictive drug that promises this super-sensory explosion of mind and body, but leaves you ravaged by its power.  And all you would want to do is get another hit of this God-drug.  You wouldn’t be free to go out into the world and live your life.
So that’s not how the sacraments work.  Instead, it’s like the steady, slow work of nurturing your mind, body and spirit over a lifetime.  Remember last week when I said that good preaching is like eating a good meal because it feeds you and keeps you strengthened for the long haul?  Well, communion is the actual meal.  It is God’s Word that you can see, taste, smell, hear, touch.
“Come and see,” is what Jesus said to the disciples.  He bids them to follow him and experience the life of being a disciple in the world for themselves.  Certainly they witness earth-shattering, mind-blowing instances of Jesus’ power and miracles.  But Jesus knew that if they only focused on getting their “Jesus-high,” they would not be free to go out into the world and live their lives, doing the work he was equipping them to do.  So the sacraments of baptism and communion are the gifts of his presence that he gave in order to initiate us into this new life, and then to sustain us as we walk this walk together, build this kingdom together.
When you receive communion, you are literally “together with” Jesus.  That’s what communion means – “com” = with; “union” = joined or together.  You are together with Jesus in this sacrament because he promised to be here.  We don’t claim to know exactly how this happens.  As Lutherans, we are content to live with the mystery and trust in the promise. 
In addition to being together with Jesus, we are together with all the other Christians who gather around the table, both in this church, and in all churches around the world, with our homebound members who receive it at their bedside, with hospice patients who receive that small bite of bread and that small sip of juice as one of their “last suppers.”  Not only that, we are together with every Christian who has ever taken communion in the past – all the saints who came before us and now feast with God in heaven.  Not only that, we are together with every Christian who has not even been born yet who will take communion in the future.

When you come up and receive this “foretaste of the feast to come,” you are taking place in what’s called a “kairos” moment – a timeless, eternal moment that connects people across time and space.  When you think about it, it really is a mind-blowing, earth-shattering!

But I have to admit, when I take communion, I’m not always thinking so big and deep.  Often I’m just hearing the words “for you.”  And as much as I want to be selfless and connected with the universe and all of space and time, because I am a human being, it often just comes down to little ole me.  And sometimes I gasp thinking that all of this timelessness and spaceless-ness is concentrated in one little morsel, one small sip – for me.

What are you looking for?  We’re looking for God.  Where can we find God?  Come and see.  Amen.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Sermon About Preaching

A Sermon on Preaching
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
January 12, 2014
Text:  John 1:1-18

[This sermon was part of Teaching Liturgy Sunday, Part One, which focused on The Word within the Gathering-Word-Meal-Sending order of Lutheran worship.  The video of the sermon can be found here:]

Remember that sermon you heard one time that touched your heart so deeply, you felt that the pastor was talking directly to you?

Or how about the time when you heard a pastor preach and you felt your mind open in a way that freed you to think differently.  It just changed your whole perspective on things.

Do you know what was happening in those sermons?  God was communicating with you.  God was talking to you, working on you, inviting you into a new way of feeling, thinking, and acting.  Isn’t it amazing that God uses ordinary human words - ordinary human beings – to speak to us?

When we talk about “The Word of God,” preaching is part of that. The Word of God is a multivalent phrase, which means that it points to many different things.  For one, it means the actual “word” that God spoke in the beginning.  As we read in the first two verses of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.”  Thus “the Word of God” is also Christ, the Word incarnate, made flesh among us.  And more, “the Word” is also Scripture.  We proclaim that in and through these words in the Bible inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit and written by humans, as imperfect as they are, we can encounter God. 

Preaching, too, can be a means by which you encounter God.  In the preaching event we see all aspects of the Word come together.  God’s Word in Scripture is incarnated once again in the interpretation of the preacher and in his or her relationship with the congregation, which is yet another manifestation of the Spirit of Christ.  You and I are God’s Word, because we were spoken into existence as a Christian community by the words of Baptism and Holy Communion.  And when we gather around the font and table, and around words of Scripture, two things happen.  We read them, but they also read us.  They shape us as individuals and as a gathered people of God.

These Words in the Bible are not dead words of ancient times that have no meaning today.  This is not a museum book.  It is meant to be the living Word of God.  And it is through the ongoing, fresh and contemporary work of preaching that the Word comes alive in the speaking and the hearing. 

Good preaching should feel like a good meal, like you’ve been fed.  It should nourish your soul and your mind and your heart in some way.  Sometimes in a sermon you’ll be offered a taste of something you’ve never tried before, or something that is a little hard to chew.  You’ll need to trust that the preacher has the best intentions and your best interests at heart.  And good preaching over a period of time should offer a Word from God on many different topics, Bible passages, and theological themes.  Not every sermon is going to be a gourmet meal, or a bowl of your favorite ice cream.  But if it’s nourishing and has at least a little good flavoring, it will do wonders for your appetite for God’s Word. 

As one churchgoer said to another, “I may not remember every meal my spouse made over the years.  But I know I was fed nourishing food that sustained me day to day.  In the same way, I may not remember every sermon in detail.  But I know I was fed on the nourishing Word of God that sustained me week to week.”

Over time, a preacher develops a relationship with his or her parishioners that should help them develop their relationship with God.   Sometimes God’s Word, spoken by and through the preacher, will make your squirm by holding a mirror up to you and our world to show you how things really are.  That’s what Luther called “Law.”  But ultimately the purpose of preaching is to proclaim God’s presence, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit working in our midst.  You should hear Good News in just about every sermon.  That’s called “Gospel.”

Homilitician John McClure says that in the preacher’s proclamation of grace “God's will and power are identified not with what  . . .  is but with what will be.” [1]  This means that preaching engenders hope and cultivates faith, which is trust in God.  God’s Word in and through preaching helps us to imagine a new future and gives us the means and motivation to live as if that future is already happening now. As McClure says, “Anticipation of a new future grounded in faith in God conditions and motivates life.  The Christian life is one of hope, consciousness-raising, learning from and suffering with the oppressed . . . , hope for and involvement in the work of social transformation, and joy in the present, rooted in faith's hope for and vision of the future." [2]

That future has already been started in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  It is the promise of the resurrection that gives us the commission and power to preach.  “Go and make disciples,” says Jesus.  “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus.  “I am sending you,” says Jesus.

Come to God’s Word.  Be fed with God’s Word.  Be filled with hope and faith in God’s Word.  And be sent with God’s Word, the light of the world.  Amen.

[1] John S. McClure, Other-Wise Preaching:  A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics (St. Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 2001), 137.
[2] Ibid., 137.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Epiphany Sermon: Star Light, Star Bright

Sermon – The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
Epiphany Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA

Watch the video of this sermon here:

Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight . . . I wish I may I wish I might have this wish I wish tonight.

There’s something about stars that have captured the imagination of human beings from the time they gathered around ancient fires, watching the sparks fly up into the darkened sky. 

Long before there were Kindles and iPods, televisions and movies, or electric lights of any kind to illuminate our nights, the stars were the only companions to humankind once the sun went down.  And so they would watch those tiny pinpricks of light, looking at them night after night, observing how they would seem to move slowly across the sky.  Soon they were seeing images in the sky, the stars becoming points in connect-the-dots pictures of great warriors, animals, gods and goddesses. After gazing at the night sky in and out of seasons, these early astronomers began to recognize patterns of movement, predicting the location of the stars according to the time of year.  They learned they could guide the direction of their travels by coordinating them with the stars.
They began to give names to the lights that were most prominent, and those names are still with us to this day – the planets we call Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and so on.  They assigned the names of these fixed stars to the constellations known as the Zodiac.  

And they saw a connection between the motions of the stars and planets to life here on Earth, a practice known as astrology.  They would try to make sense of the world around them, make predictions about significant human events by watching the signs in the skies.  When they observed something out of the ordinary, it caught their attention.

And so these wise men in Matthew’s story, also known as the Magi, were both astronomers and astrologers.  They were like early versions of scientists making observations, but they also tried to interpret the meaning of what they saw.  And in the year 2 B.C. when they saw the planet Jupiter, one of the brightest stars in the sky, pass very close to the star Regulus, “the King’s star” as it was known, they knew something amazing had happened among humankind.  Today astronomers can use sophisticated instruments and planetariums to reconstruct what the stars looked like in the sky on any given night in history.  And they know that over a period of eight months in that year Jupiter passed by Regulus three times, appearing to draw a crown in the sky.  And then in the ninth month, Jupiter and Venus – the two brightest stars in the sky – passed so near to each other in their planetary travels that they appeared to fuse into a single brilliant star in the sky.  

The Magi knew that this occurrence was nearly unheard of, and so they were compelled to follow where that star seemed to lead them.  And that is how they came to be in Bethlehem of Judea inquiring about a newborn king.  They were overjoyed to find the home of the child called Jesus.

His parents, however, were most likely perplexed by the sudden visit of these strange Magi from distant lands.  Star or not, imagine how strange, how disconcerting it must have been for Joseph and Mary to open the door to their home and find these foreigners standing on their door step.  The author Elizabeth Berg in her creative imagining of that scene in her book The Handmaid and the Carpenter describes how Joseph was very suspicious of these strangers, with their odd clothes, their foreign language, and their different looking faces and skin tones.  He wanted to keep these foreigners out of his house, away from his family.  But they insisted on giving his newborn son gifts befitting a king. 

Many of us would have reacted similarly to Joseph.  We are taught to be suspicious of strangers.  We are told that foreigners are not to be trusted, that they are out to get us or take what we have.  Reams of newspaper pages and scads of blogs are written about why strangers from other lands should not be welcomed, why they should be kept out, and the harm that they are doing to us.  We build walls and establish policies, construct entire bureaucracies and schedule segments on our talk shows concerning what to do about the foreigner.

And yet in this story in Matthew’s Gospel, the message is simply this:  the foreigners have a gift to give. They offer gold, frankincense and myrhh.  But even more importantly, they share important information about Herod’s intention to destroy Jesus.  With these gifts of knowledge and priceless goods, Joseph is able to escape with his family and keep them safe.  The wise men, of course, also receive a gift – simply seeing the Christ child, the one whom the star pointed to as the King.
How do you react when you encounter the foreigner, the stranger who looks different from you, practices a different religion from you, has a skin color different than yours, comes from a place far from where you and your family live?  Our first tendency is to pull back, recoil, put a barrier between us and them.  Use derogatory names, tell crude jokes about them, pass laws against them.  We want to protect ourselves from what we are afraid of that we project onto them. 

You’ll notice many stories in the Gospel of Matthew about what it means to encounter the stranger, the one outside of your circle.  Keep an eye and an ear out for these stories this year as we read through his Gospel.  Because the people in Matthew’s circle were very worried about the wrong people getting in and messing things up.  They were very concerned about keeping themselves safe, pure and protected from outsiders, foreigners, immigrants, strangers.  So here in this second chapter, he sets the tone for what it means for humankind that this baby King has been born into the world.  Matthew shows us that even the stars in the sky are leading us to practice a radical hospitality, to trust in the God who created the planets and stars circling in their nightly eternal dance, to open ourselves to someone new coming into our circle and bringing us unexpected gifts.

I’ve seen that happen in this congregation.  Ever since Garrett Baker led the series this past summer on “Our Neighbor’s Faith,” people have been curious to learn more about those who practice different religions than ours.  
We’ve had a Muslim woman prison chaplain in her hajib telling us about Islam, what we share in common, and what is different.  We’ve had Jewish students and a Jewish professor talk to us about their faith. We had a woman talk to us about Unitarian Universalism.  And in the coming months we’ll be visited from people of the Sikh, Buddhist, and perhaps even Hindu faith. They are different than us, outsiders, foreigners.  And yet the light of Christ shining in this place has drawn them here.  Each of those who have visited with us so far has told me how much they have appreciated their visit – the  questions, discussions, and hospitality from those they met in the forums.  They may not worship the Christ as we do, but they can certainly see the light of Christ through us, opening the way to new understanding, connections, and perhaps even friendship. 

And I know some of you have received the gifts of wisdom that our neighbors of other faiths have offered.  One of our members attended the session about Judaism and gratitude and shared with me later how much the presenter’s words had meant to her.  She even wrote them down, and they became like a beacon of light for her, a star guiding her through a difficult road in her life.

From the heavens, from the point of view of those stars, our differences would not be visible, any more than we can notice distinctions between those planets at such a distance.  Our Earth is simply part of another constellation, a green and blue orb swirled in vaporous clouds.  And yet on this planet, God created life and saw fit to enter that life in all its messiness, all its beauty, all its danger, all its wonder.  Who knows, maybe some other being light years away is looking at us, making a wish upon our star.
The light that you radiate as a Christian should be one that shines with peace and hospitality that simply glows.  And as a parishioner shared with me in a quote last evening, “Your life as a Christian should make non-believers question their disbelief in God.”  When people encounter you at church, at the dinner table, in the waiting line, in the office, in the car, on the Internet, anywhere on this planet, whether you are a stranger traveling or a host welcoming: receive the gifts offered to you with graciousness.  And let the light of Christ shine in you so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.  Amen.

Levy, David H., “Star of Wonder,” Parade Magazine, December 23, 2001, pp. 8-9.

Berg, Elizabeth, The Handmaid and the Carpenter, New York, NY, Ballentine Books, 2008