Not Alone

“One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone” begins the classic nonfiction accomplishment by Sandra Boynton, Hippos Go Berserk! My toddler Miriam has taken a liking to this board book. “Three hippos at the door bring along another four . . .” it continues, and so on until the house is full of hippos and then they all have a giant hippo party, during which time the title of the book plays out in glorious detail.

What strikes me about Miriam’s engagement with this book is that on every page she looks carefully at all the hippos, then points to one of them and says: “I’m that one.” She looks thoughtfully at picture again and then says: “that one is mommy,” followed by daddy and then her sister Anna. Next comes: “and that one’s Grandma and that one’s Grandpa and that one’s Nan and that one’s Pops” and so on until all of the hippos have been assigned an identity corresponding to someone who Miriam knows and loves.

And don’t we all do that with our beloved stories—whether it be the novel we’re currently reading, the narratives our loved ones are currently living, the stories that float around in culture and politics, or the Christian story of salvation that undergirds our faith? It’s nearly a universal tendency to want to imagine ourselves into these stories, to let them challenge us into being someone greater than we currently are, to let them carry us into questions we may not have been brave enough to ask on our own, to let them break down our assumptions so we can rebuild new ways of being in the world.

It matters, though, which stories we choose to live into and which ones we dismiss as distracting chatter or false news. It also matters how we live into the stories. (It matters which hippo we choose to be!)

Discerning what it means to live faithfully in such a visibly broken world is no easy task. But today’s gospel story reminds us that we are not alone in this endeavor. We have the Holy Spirit, our advocate, to guide us. As we live, worship, and discern together within the larger story of salvation, the Spirit helps us negotiate between all the other stories that swirl around us.

Elizabeth Palmer

That All May Find God

The Words from the Gospel of John that are a part of our Gospel lesson this morning are very familiar to me. In my former parish in Milwaukee, the words from John 14: 6-7 were permanently mounted to the front wall of the church.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6-7

There words were clearly intended to bring comfort to the congregation when they were first mounted in 1957 as the sanctuary was complete. For over 60 years they have reminded all who enter the sanctuary that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, for us and Christians.

But there has been a lot of discussion concerning the second part of that sentence in more recent years – “No one comes to the Father but by me…” The congregation had a strong relationship with a Jewish Synagogue in the area – and often we would do joint musical concerts with them. There was a growing discomfort about the second half of that sentence.

The congregation council decided to create a statement that appears on every bulletin that is published in the congregation…..reminding them of the context and meaning of these words. I thought it might be interesting to share that statement with those at St. Luke’s who may have been troubled by the exclusivity of that sentence as well.

A Reflection on the Words in Our Worship Area:

“These words are grounded in the joyous affirmation of a first century religious community that believes that in the person of Jesus, the tangible presence of God’s love to the world has been experienced – to know the compassion and love of Jesus is to know the heart of God.

However beautiful these words were to first century Christians, some in the contemporary church have made these words a rallying cry of Christian superiority over and against those with other faiths or no faith. In the original context, these words celebrate a faith community’s desire to understand more deeply the way, the truth, and life of Jesus as a path of love and compassion on this earth.

The Mount Carmel community, its people and pastors, believe that the divine is revealed to humanity in many and various ways. We celebrate the unity that we share with all the people of this earth. We see in each person the work of the divine. We have a shared desire with all the world’s religious communities that all people will find peace and unity in the divine nature of a loving God.”

Pastor Richard Johnson

Summer Worship

Summer Sunday Worship – one service @ 9:00 a.m. – Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend – Alternative Worship Experiences on several Thursday Nights during the summer.

Over the years that I have been at St. Luke’s I will often hear….”I haven’t seen Doris or Joe for a while……are they 11:00 a.m. people?” I will often respond, “O yes, they are here almost every Sunday – but they go to the late service!” And the common response, “I miss them – I wish that once in a while we would worship at one service so everyone can be together at the same time and place!”

If you remember, at the end of last summer we did a survey of those who attended St. Luke’s during the summer months. Overwhelmingly, the respondents indicated that they would like to have one service during the summer months so that we could bring the family “back together again!” So in response to your request, this summer, beginning on Memorial Day weekend, we will have one service for the summer that begins at 9:00 a.m. each Sunday through Labor Day weekend.

We have also planned three alternative services that will take place on Thursday evenings during the summer months for those who find themselves out of town on the weekends or who might be looking for a change of pace in their worship life. Thursdays, June 15, July 20, and August 10, at 7:00 p.m., we will gather for services that will be voiced differently, and will feel a bit different than our Sunday worship experiences. We hope that if you are in town, you will mark these on your calendar, and join us for worship on Thursday evenings!

During our summer schedule – we will have coffee hour immediately following worship each Sunday – and we will occasionally have some fun opportunities that people can participate in after worship…..service projects, children friendly activities, a pet blessing, extended brunches, and some adult education opportunities. We have also planned “walk abouts” for our children on quite a few Sundays!

It will be fun to be together as a church family this summer at St. Luke’s – hope you can be a part of our summer worship experience!!!

Pastor Richard Johnson

Emmaus Mysteries

Jesus appearing to disciples on the road to Emmaus is a story that most of us will find familiar. But many biblical scholars believe that an actual town called Emmaus wasn’t a place familiar to early Christians. There’s controversy over where the town might have been located, and what its real name might have been. Some say it was the fictional name of a place that didn’t exist—not on the map, at least. These scholars say the name Emmaus is a metaphor for the disciples’ desolation as they mourned the violent death of their teacher and friend. The non-existence of a literal place called Emmaus isn’t necessarily bad news for us, though. It means that Emmaus can stand in for us as a symbol of whatever destination resides at the end of our grief and longing. What’s most important is that wherever we’re headed—even if we’re seemingly going nowhere—Jesus accompanies us along the way.

The location of Emmaus isn’t the only mystery in this story. It’s also strange that when Jesus walks with these two disciples they don’t recognize him. In fact, the story implies, they regard him as alien. (The Greek word paroikos can mean a stranger, a person in exile, or an alien.) It’s certainly odd that these disciples who are so intimately aware of the details of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death would be blind enough not to recognize him when he appears. The gospel writer tells us that their eyes were kept from recognizing him, which implies that God had something to do with it. The romantic side of me wants to say that the resurrected Christ appeared far more glorious than Jesus did before his death—and that they didn’t recognize him for that reason. But the fact is that he seems to have appeared to them as a completely ordinary traveler, albeit one who understood the Scriptures.

We don’t know why those disciples didn’t know Jesus until he revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. What we do know is that Jesus accompanied them even when they didn’t recognize him. He opened up the Scriptures to them, and then he sat at table with them, blessed the bread, and gave it to them. This sharing of word and sacrament is the most wondrous mystery of this story, and it’s a mystery in which we are privileged to partake.

Pastor Elizabeth Palmer

Life of the Beloved

Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen
I look forward to leading another book study during the weeks after Easter on Wednesday night. We will begin at 7:00 p.m. in the Conference room beginning this Wednesday, April 26. The book is entitled, “Life of the Beloved” and it is written by world famous Christian author – Henri Nouwen. Originally, I was going to team-lead this discussion with Bob Douglass who recommended the book to me. Unfortunately, Bob will be hospitalized during a portion of the dates of this study so you will be stuck with me – but we will be using Bob’s notes as we move through the study!

The book is intended to be a letter to a Jewish New York friend of Nouwen’s named Fred, whom he met when Fred interviewed Nouwen while teaching at Yale Divinity School. They formed an unlikely bond and became lifelong friends, sharing each other’s deepest longings, fears, and doubts. This book is the result of these deep questions that they have asked each other and its tone is indeed that of a dear friend talking intimately and warmly to a “fellow-traveler searching for life, light and truth.”

Nouwen believes the most important spiritual journey of our lives involves claiming the truth of our belovedness and living into that truth by becoming the beloved…He believes we become the Beloved of God when we:1) claim that we are taken, 2) know that we are blessed, 3) acknowledge that we are broken, and 4) submit to being given. Each of these four ways is explored beautifully and helpfully in simple terms, with real life examples.

Without being unrealistic about the pain of death and loss, he speaks convincingly of our lives being like a seed that must die to bear fruit. “How different would our life be were we truly able to trust that it multiplied in being given away! How different would our life be if we could but believe that every little act of faithfulness, every gesture of love, every word of forgiveness, every little bit of joy and peace will multiply and multiply as long as there are people to receive it…and that—even then—there will be leftovers!”

The book has appealed to thousands of Christians who struggle through life trying to apply the Christian principles they’ve learned to the situations they encounter day in and day out. I hope you will consider joining me on Wednesday evenings. The book is available in the atrium for $10.00 – please take one and sign up. We will collect the $10 at our first meeting.

Pastor Richard Johnson


Life Changing

I look forward to the “butterfly” kit that Iris Henderson provides to so many of us at St. Luke’s every spring.   The kit is simple – a see-through plastic covered container, a caterpillar, some leafy greens, and a small twig.

I knew all the steps describing the movement from caterpillar to butterfly from my biology classes, but I had never experienced it firsthand. It was fascinating…. Each day I would get up and immediately go to see if the chrysalis was breaking down…..and after several days I said to my wife….maybe we did something wrong….I think it is dead.

Finally, one afternoon, the chrysalis was breaking down…..and both of us watched in amazement as this wet “grass-hopper” like creature emerged from the tomb-like structure. We videoed the progression of this creature….as it began to flap its wings….and dry out… was a beautiful Monarch butterfly.

Initially it stumbled around the container….but eventually it demonstrated a true eagerness to be released. We walked outside, removed the lid from the container….and watched this beautiful butterfly initially cautious, take flight around our yard before disappearing into the sky. It may seem silly to say, but both my wife and I wept at this event – it was a powerful moment of resurrection!

On March 19, 1976 – my vivacious and beautiful 13 year old niece (who was more like a sister to me) died of viral meningitis. The illness took her just two days after diagnosis…..and her death changed my life and my family’s life forever. At her memorial service, the pastor used the “butterfly” as a symbol and metaphor of resurrection and new hope amid the horrific event of her death. I have never looked at a butterfly the same since.

I can only imagine that most of you reading this have had something in your life happen that has had “life changing” significance… unexpected death…..a difficult diagnosis…..a painful divorce…..a job loss…..a loved one struggling with addictions or depression….the list could go on.

Whatever trauma or sadness that you might be experiencing…..please know that God desires something greater for you.  This Easter, through the message of Jesus’ resurrection, through the powerful Easter worship experience or through a resurrection metaphor from your personal experience, may you find life, freedom, hope, forgiveness, and joy in a loving, compassionate God made real and tangible in a community of people committed to bringing life and love to you!

Pastor Richard Johnson



Passion Sunday

I grew up with the Service Book and Hymnal – SBH – the Red Book – as it was known to those who were a part of this church in the 1950’s through the 1970’s. During that period, the Sunday before Easter was always known as Palm Sunday! Each Palm Sunday the congregation gathered to sing songs of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, children were given Palms to wave, and at least in some churches, there was a ceremonial march around the neighborhood with palm branches.

In 1976, the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches collectively decided to move to a new hymnal – the Lutheran Book of Worship – the Green Book! This new hymnal had a dramatic effect on how we would worship as a community going forward. The LBW moved us closer to the liturgical life of the Roman Catholic Church.

With the LBW there was a new emphasis on the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. There is a renewed interest in using Baptismal imageries in worship, especially within the funeral services, and other liturgical services of the church. Holy Communion was seen as an essential part of every Sunday worship. Within ten years, the LCA, ALC and AELC formed the new Lutheran Church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.

There was also a change in the way we celebrated the Sunday before Easter. No longer did we call this Sunday – Palm Sunday. It became Passion Sunday. The emphasis of this Sunday’s liturgies changed. That change is reflected in our Sunday worship this weekend.

We will begin with the Blessing of the Palms this Sunday. This will be followed by the celebration of the Procession of Palms through the church by our children, choirs, and worship leaders. Together we will sing “All Glory, Laud and Honor” as our entrance hymn. However, at the Prayer of the Day, things change dramatically in our liturgy, from the images of the “Triumphal Entry” – we move from the joyous movements of Jesus into Jerusalem, to the powerful, yet unsettling events that took place through the remaining days of Holy Week…..the cleansing of the Temple, The Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Arrest, the Trial, and the Crucifixion of Jesus.

Our newest worship book and hymnal, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship – the ELW – the Cranberry Book, introduced to congregations at the turn of the century, continues this tradition. Passion Sunday gives us an eyewitness, sweeping experience of the painful scope of the Passion of our Lord. Through the reading of the Passion according to St. Matthew, and the singing of powerful hymns, we will walk with Jesus through his last days on earth.

We encourage you to experience the breadth of this experience during worship this morning…..but then return on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, and the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday, to fully appreciate the drama and power of this most sacred week in our church’s calendar.

Pastor Richard Johnson

Invitation to Bring Healing

On Lent 5, we are again faced with an extremely long Gospel lesson – the Raising of Lazarus.

David Lose, a preaching scholar at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia breaks this story down into three separate sections: Heartache, Miracle, and Invitation.

The first part of the Gospel lesson focuses on the heartache of losing a loved one. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, as well as the whole community are heartbroken at the passing of one of Jesus’ closest friends. The grief of his loss, turns to anger towards Jesus because of Jesus’ delay in coming to the town of Bethany to heal his good friend. “Heartache” sums up for many of us what it means to experience the sting of death.

The second phase of this story is the actual miracle. Jesus arrives to cheers and jeers – and through his own personal tears, enters into a grave and shouts…..”Lazarus come out!” The stench of a four day old grave transforms into the sweet perfume of seeing Lazarus walk out of the tomb.

But there is a third phase to this story, and it is only one very short verse. Dr. Lose calls this – the invitation. As Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus invites his community to “unbind him”. In other words, the resurrection that Jesus has orchestrated is not enough for Jesus. Jesus now invites the community to participate in his full recovery and “new” life!

This part of the story is fascinating and often overlooked in reading this story – and it reminds me of stories I have heard throughout my ministry surrounding folks going through Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is not only about having people stop drinking….AA becomes a new community that supports the person who is trying to separate from the consumption of alcohol. For many struggling with alcoholism, they need to form a new community where alcohol is not the center of community life. AA provides the “unbinding” of the person to find new life. The community becomes part of the healing process.

Jesus invites us to be part of a healing community. I often say that we, as the church, are the hands, feet, mouth, ears and eyes of Jesus on this earth. When miracles take place – and they do – they often involve a loving community that offers support and love to sustain the healing process. So don’t forget Jesus’ invitation to you to be an integral part of another person’s miracle of healing and new life!!!

Pastor Richard Johnson

Punctuation Matters

Do you notice the difference between “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? It’s called an Oxford comma, and the conventions around its use often invoke strong opinions among editors, grammarians, and lexicographers. (If you want to know whether I’m for or against it, look at the previous sentence.) Last week news outlets reported that a group of truck drivers won a lawsuit for overtime pay because their employee manual didn’t use the Oxford comma. Small choices about how we communicate can have large and lasting impact.

We see this in today’s gospel. Jesus’ disciples ask whether a man’s congenital blindness is connected to some sin that was committed before his birth. Jesus responds: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” That’s the translation we use—the New Revised Standard Version—but if you dig around in the original Greek you’ll realize that the phrase “he was born blind” isn’t there. A more literal translation would be: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (English Standard Version).

Do you notice the difference between these translations? The first one claims that God deliberately caused a baby to be born blind so that decades later when that baby was grown up Jesus could do a miracle to demonstrate God’s love and power to the world. In the second translation, there is more ambiguity. We are left to puzzle for ourselves—and alongside the disciples and Pharisees—why the man was born blind and whether God might allow (or even cause) illness and disability.

There’s yet another way to translate Jesus’ words, and this one hinges on punctuation. Osvaldo Vena, who teaches New Testament at Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, suggests this translation: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me.” Now the emphasis isn’t on what caused the man’s blindness, but rather on how God calls us to do Jesus’ work in the world. How might our world be different if we were to imagine our own work as revealing God’s grace?

Pastor Elizabeth Palmer

How to Share Our Faith. . .

The Gospel of John has a different approach to telling the story of Jesus than the other three Gospels. The Synoptic gospels take a macro view of Jesus’ encounters with others……the Gospel of John seems to take a micro view of Jesus’s encounters. One of the best examples of this is our Gospel lesson for today – the Woman at the Well. John spends nearly 40 verses to describe in detail Jesus’ chance meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well in Sychar.

In this chance meeting, John shares Jesus’ approach of sharing the Gospel message with someone who was used to being judged and isolated within her own community. John creates a prescriptive message on how we can share the Gospel to others in our own communities who have felt forgotten or separated from God.

The very first thing Jesus does is to share his own vulnerability with the woman.   Jesus speaks first, and admits that he is thirsty, in need of a drink. Jesus demonstrates that he is vulnerable to someone by asking for assistance. He does not come to her with “all the answers” or in a “superior” position to the woman. Instead he demonstrates his need immediately – which allows the woman to engage with Jesus.

The second thing that Jesus does is “see” the woman for who she is, without judgement. Jesus takes time to hear her story without judgement. Clearly this is something that the woman was not used to. She was probably shunned by many because of her past and present. Her shame at her life circumstances could have easily caused her to retreat into a dark place of depression. But instead, Jesus listens and allows her to open up.

Finally, Jesus offers an invitation to a new life – an alternative to the way she had been experiencing life in the past. Jesus invites her to receive the “living water” of forgiveness and everlasting life. She is overwhelmed by the invitation – and leaves to tell others of this beautiful and powerful encounter with Jesus.

This story is a primer on how we can share our faith with another…..being vulnerable……non-judgmental listening…..and inviting another into a loving relationship with Jesus. As Lutherans, we often times don’t seize the opportunities that are all around us to use this three part technique to invite others into a deeper, more profound relationship with Jesus. Try it sometime….you may be surprised at the outcome!

Pastor Richard Johnson