America’s Original Sin

I remember as a young child how respectfully my father spoke of an African American co-worker at the Steel plant who was also a part-time Baptist minister. However, from the same period in my life, I remember the Sunday another member of our congregation brought to church a Black man who we later learned was a visiting African graduate student. When my father saw the student on the street he locked the car doors, something we never did in those days. It was only years later I understood the meaning of his actions.

I remember Eddie Harris. Eddie and I were in the same class for one year when my family moved to a new neighborhood. Eddie and I both played trombone and sat next to each other during rehearsals and concerts. At the end of the day Eddie went to his home in the “projects” and I went in the other direction to my home. I never really got to know Eddie. I can’t say he was my “friend.” The following year we went our separate ways to different junior high schools. I wonder what happened to him.

I remember moving into seminary housing at LSTC more than 40 years ago. We were tired having just driven half-way across the country. We knew no one and there seemed to be no one around to offer to help unload our meager possessions from the rented truck – except a few neighborhood kids. I remember to my embarrassment feeling uncertain whether it would be wise or safe to accept their offer.

We are not white supremists, neo-Nazis, or members of the Klan, yet we too need to confess that we are tainted by “America’s original sin.” As Bishop Miller reminds us in his recent response to the events in Charlottesville, we cannot be naïve about “the pernicious forces of racism, violence, and hatred that infect our souls, individually and as a society.” You and I have been taught, perhaps only by silent example. We too are infected.

As we begin a new school year with the blessing of teachers, students, and backpacks, we find ourselves with a unique opportunity to consider again what spoken and unspoken lessons we offer our children about race.

Pastor John Schumacher

 

Distractions

Today we have another famous gospel story – Jesus walking on the water. For those of us who grew up in the church – we might remember as kids acting out this particular story – believing to be on a boat, being tumbled by the waves, when Jesus comes and walks on the water towards the boat, to calm the seas and give us safe harbor. Peter, moved by Jesus’ actions gets out of the boat and walks on the water toward Jesus, until he noticed the strong wind.

There is a lot of attention to “distracted driving” in these days. More and more public service announcements sharing the perils of even seconds of being distracted while being behind the wheel of a fast moving vehicle. In some respects I am reminded of those PSA’s as I read this text from Matthew. I am particularly intrigued by Matthew 14:29-30 where we read…..”So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’”

There are so many important parts to this story – but the older I get, I am drawn to the Peter part of the story……as long as Peter is firmly focused on Jesus…..he gets out of the boat and walks to him…..”until he noticed the strong wind”….until he was distracted by all those things which made him fear-filled….then Peter tumbled into the sea….

I think this story can been seen as a metaphor for our lives. When we can keep focused on those elements of our faith that keep us grounded and connected to the life and ministry of Jesus – we can establish great trust and fearless living…..however when we get distracted, which is part of our human condition, we can become allured by all the storms and perils that surround us – which cause us to become frightened and start to sink into fear and worry.

Much like the PSA’s reminding us of distracted driving…..may we also be reminded to keep a clear vision of the gifts of faith that Jesus offers us everyday. May we focus on the gifts of grace, forgiveness, courage, compassion, justice and peace – and by doing so – live fearless lives committed and driven by a deep faith in Jesus Christ!

Pastor Johnson

In Due Season

“The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.” So began the extemporaneous prayer that Ben offered at the beginning of the dinner party he was hosting. The menu included arugula salad with goat cheese and raspberry vinaigrette, grilled lamb with roasted root vegetables, homemade bread, and cherry cobbler adorned with whipped heavy cream. In addition to being a very good cook, Ben is also a pastor—so I wasn’t surprised when he quoted Psalm 145 in his table prayer.

But to be honest, I was jarred by the image of an entire earth full of people looking toward God, waiting to be fed, while such a feast of abundance sat before me. Ben had cooked the meal in celebration of his 30th birthday, and the people assembled around his table included pastors, social workers, a counselor, foster parents, and a human rights lawyer. We were good, ethical people who were trying to make the world more just and humane. Surely we deserved to be able to celebrate Ben’s birthday with rich foods and fine wines. Yet, I felt guilty about those who didn’t have such a feast on their tables that night—those who are still waiting for the “due season” to arrive.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we hear God’s promise of abundance: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . . . Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” This beautiful vision arose among the Judeans who had been exiled to Babylon generations earlier. They were refugees, far from their homeland. Still, they had hope that their “due season” would come, when God would restore them to the fullness of life that they’d known before the exile.

It can be hard to wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises, but the prophet Isaiah teaches us what we might do as we wait. We gather for worship, as the exiles did. We feed one another, as Ben did at his dinner party. And we work together toward the fulfillment of God’s promises, glimpsing the season of justice that awaits the eyes of all, working to make it a reality.

—Elizabeth Palmer

Toronto Experience

One of the first things we learned when we landed in Toronto is that Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. Canada has traditionally had very open borders, and as they say, immigrants invite more immigrants, so the city grew into a beautiful and powerful mosaic of ethnicity, language, culture and color.

It has been that type of diversity that seven members of St. Luke’s have experienced and explored over the past seven days on the YouthWorks Servant Trip. We have served in many and various ways including painting homes, serving meals, working with special needs adults, cleaning, landscaping, and working with homeless folks in Toronto.

We have toured all the tourist hot spots like the Skydome and CN tower. We ferried across to the Toronto islands, which have been closed due to flooding, similar to so many areas of Chicago. It is an amazing city, but we have also been walking through the streets where homelessness is all too prevalent. We have seen the human cry of those who are desperately in need of a compassionate community of Christians to serve and love them.

Finally, we have met fellow Christians from Minnesota and Oklahoma—Methodists, Lutherans and Nazarenes—all working, singing, praying, and studying scripture together. We have created bonds through our Baptism that have made these brothers and sisters one in mission with ourselves.

You should be very proud of our students—they are powerful examples of our next generation of church leaders! When you see them, give Michael Bessler, Kara Gowlovech, Anna Lynch, Allison Paxia and Noelle Scerba huge hugs!!! They deserve it! Give Mr. Mears a huge hug as well. As we launch a new year of High School ministry, we have laid a mighty foundation on this trip!

I look forward to seeing you on Sunday—filled deeply with the spirit of God who calls all of us together to be the hands and feet of Christ to the world!

Sincerely,
Pastor Johnson

Wheat and Tares

I was recently at a conference where the speaker was John Dominic Crossan. Crossan was good friends with Marcus Borg (the author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, which Pastor Dick is fond of quoting) until Borg’s death a few years ago. When Crossan and Borg were young, they founded together a new phase of “historical Jesus” research—which means examining the Bible to learn about Jesus as a first-century peasant Jew, a person who in flesh and blood walked the streets of Palestine and interacted with other flesh-and-blood people.

Crossan and Borg aren’t without their critics: some Christians accuse them of focusing too much on the human Jesus and not enough on the divine Christ. But their writings and research come from a pastoral impulse, and their books have reached toward people who might have otherwise considered themselves “outside of the church” because of their beliefs or doubts. “Come on in,” Crossan and Borg say to those at the margins. “There’s room in the church for you too.” Or to use the language of today’s gospel story, “You’re not the tares (weeds) destined for eternal fire—you’re wheat!”

At the conference, Crossan was speaking about Matthew’s judgment parables (like the one we’ll hear today) when he suddenly interrupted himself to say: “What I love about the Bible is that it’s so honest! It includes the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant, the wheat and the tares. It’s so real.”

I agree with Crossan: the Bible’s honesty and refusal to whitewash does make it authentic. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to read or hear Jesus talking about burning people in eternal fire (or Luke talking about the stoning of Stephen or Matthew talking about Judas hanging himself, to use two other examples of stories I recently heard here that made me cringe and pray that my children weren’t listening).

Can the idea of tares being put into eternal fire be conceived as good news? Maybe not if we think of each person as either a wheat stalk or a tare. But if we consider all humans to be part wheat and part tare, then a gospel message comes into relief. God burns away the bad parts of us, so that the good parts of us may grow and shine like the sun. Martin Luther called that sanctification. I’d call it grace.

Pastor Elizabeth Palmer

Sow Seeds of Love

One of the great privileges that pastors are given is the opportunity to perform weddings. I realized very early in my years as a pastor the awesome responsibility that came with counseling and guiding couples to make promises before God to each other with their family and friends witnessing and supporting their commitment.

However, something changed in the way I approached this important task after the 10 year mark of ministry. In the first 10 years I put myself as the ultimate authority on which couples were going to be able to make and keep these promises, and which couples would not. I found myself judging to myself, and sometimes to others, my expert opinion on whose marriages would and would not last.

However, what I started to realize, was that I had no clue whose marriage was going to last……some couples I would have bet a million dollars that it would last – got divorced in the first several years of marriage, while others with whom I was skeptical have now been happily married for over 30 years.

When I came to the realization that I was not the final, ultimate authority on who should and shouldn’t be married – I changed my whole approach with couples. Instead of asking deep and penetrating questions about each other, putting them on edge as to whether I felt they were ready for marriage….I asked them to simply and honestly complete a wedding inventory so we could talk more fully about growth areas in their relationship. No longer did I feel the need to discern who would have a happy marriage…..but rather, I sowed seeds of love, insight, and hope for each couples’ marriage.

I think that is exactly what Jesus is teaching in our Gospel today…..when I used to read this passage, it felt like Jesus was asking us to discern the soil types of receptive Christians…..were they rocky, weed infested, or trampled soiled….and if so, don’t waste your time…..but that is not what this lesson is saying, in fact it is quite the opposite. Jesus sows the seed on all these soil types with liberality and lavishness, knowing that some seed will wither and die while other seeds will flourish and grow.

When we are judgmental…..when we feel like we have the answers to everyone else’s issues….when we discriminate and discern in such a way that we ignore or cast aside certain people who are considered “poor soil” and not worth our time – we have truly missed the point of the Gospel lesson. Jesus does not discriminate…..all the soil is given equal chance to harvest…..and sometimes it takes a great while to evaluate who truly bears the rich, fertile soil.

So sow the seeds of God’s love liberally and lavishly…..and God will decide (not you or me) who’s seeds will grow and mature!

See you in Church!
Pastor Johnson

Tug of War

“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25aThanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7:18-25

For years, I would take Confirmation students to “Living Waters” Confirmation Camp during summers, held at Lutherdale in Elkhorn, WI. During the Camp, the attending pastors were always given about an hour and a half each day for “Pastor’s time” with their students. During that 1.5 hours a day for the 5 days that we met, I would share with them my 10 favorite passages of scripture – and tell them why each passage was important to me.

Romans 7, our second lesson for today, is one of those passages. The day that I shared this passage, I would always begin with a rousing game of “tug of war” with the students. Normally I would have between 20 and 30 students…..so it was a great activity. After about 10 minutes of tugging and pulling….we would sit down. I would take the rope that we had used and place it in the center of the circle where we had gathered, and I would then remind them that “they are the rope”…..Often they wouldn’t get it initially…..but then we would read this passage and I would tell them that they are the rope between God and the evil one…..constantly in a tug of war on how God desires for you to live your life!

There is probably no passage in scripture that I resonate more than this one. I know what needs to be done…..I know how I should handle situations in a “Jesus-like” fashion…..and yet I find myself constantly being tempted by my self-centered, self-preserving, and often times self-destructive tendencies to follow a different path than God’s.

The most powerful part of this scripture is the last verse…..no matter what I am facing, no matter how tempted to take an alternative path from God…..it is God who ultimately rescues and forgives me through the saving power of Jesus Christ – thanks be to God!

Sincerely,
Pastor Johnson

A Cup of Cold Water

I have been moved to tears this week. On two separate occasions over the past week I have heard stories spoken by family members about the powerful ministry of our Communion Visitors at St. Luke’s. This past week we have had two of our long time members pass away, Irma Wolf and Trudy Ferschl. Both of these women have been infirm for quite some time, and both have been visited and given communion regularly by members of St. Luke’s for over 7 years. In conversation with family members of those who have passed, they have marveled at the love, compassion and commitment that these communion visitors have brought to their loved ones.

It is good to be reminded periodically, about the “unsung” members of our congregation who dutifully carryout out their ministries in the quiet of homes, nursing homes, and hospice centers to bring a message of hope, friendship, the sacrament of the altar, and a connection to St. Luke’s to these members who may be out of sight, but never, ever forgotten!

In our Gospel today from Matthew we hear the voice of Jesus say……”and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Matthew 10:42   There are so many of our members who quietly, without any need or desire for recognition, bring a “figurative” cup of cold water to those who seek a connection, companionship, and love from Jesus. Whether through a flower delivery, a communion call, a visit at the hospital, a card, phone call or a note – the ministry of Jesus’ disciples is alive and well at St. Luke’s…..and quiet honestly….it brings a tear to my eye…..a thankful tear to my eye…..to be part of a ministry like this!

Sincerely,
Pastor Johnson

Carry the Teachings of Jesus with You

As I read a portion of the narrative of the “Commissioning of the Disciples” from the Gospel of Matthew as our Gospel text today, I read the prophetic zeal that Jesus emphasizes in this commissioning of his disciples (learners).  He asks of his disciples that they take Jesus and his teachings seriously as they share the Good News in their travels.  Matthew also acknowledges that these teachings can and will cause a certain amount of division.

Which begged the question for me — what are the teachings of Jesus that I am invited to first learn and then to teach others in Jesus’ name?

In the ELCA, there are a series of teachings on contemporary topics that the church has studied over the almost 30 years of our existence entitled, Social Statements.

Social Statements are teachings that provide a broad framework to assist us in thinking about and discussing social issues in the context of faith and life. They are meant to help congregations and individuals with moral formation, discernment and thoughtful engagement with current social issues as we participate in God’s work in the world. They result from an extensive process of participation and deliberation and are adopted by a two-thirds vote of an ELCA churchwide assembly.

The ELCA Social Statements include:  Abortion (1991), Caring for Creation (1993), Church in Society (1991), The Church and Criminal Justice (2013), The Death Penalty (1991), Economic Life (1999), Education (2007), Genetics (2011), Health and Health Care (2003), Human Sexuality (2009), Peace (1995) and Race, Ethnicity and Culture (1993).

During this coming program year, we will take some time in our Adult Forums to look at these social statements as a way of learning and equipping us for our commission as advocates for Jesus’ sake in our contemporary world. As disciples, it becomes increasingly important to be the vessels that carry the teachings of Jesus to the world.

I hope that you plan to join us beginning in September to consider some of these statements that I hope will create some thoughtful engagement as consider our roles in being disciples in 21 century America.

See you in church!
Pastor Johnson

 

The Bad Stuff

“I’m still not a Christian,” Tian said last Tuesday as we ate lunch together. She’d flown into Chicago that morning to get a travel visa from the Chinese Consulate, and I was helping her with some logistics before her afternoon flight back to Minneapolis. My college friend Josh, who’s married to Tian, had recently asked me to send him some books on the problem of evil, and I had done so—not knowing that he was giving them to Tian. “I read the books you sent,” she continued, “but I didn’t find the answers satisfactory. I understand the idea of God giving us free will, which permits us to do evil things. But I don’t understand a God who would let babies die or Tsunamis destroy villages.”

“Yeah,” I responded. “I don’t understand it either. But I’ve been a Christian since before I thought to ask these kinds of questions, so I’m able to trust in God despite not having all the answers. I trust that God is with us when we suffer, and that through Christ new life always springs from death. But it’s mostly a matter of faith, not a rational explanation.”

Tian didn’t get on the plane that afternoon with any new revelations or a sudden faith in God. But I was glad that she’s willing to name her most difficult questions and ask them repeatedly. Tian isn’t in search of a simple faith that finds easy comfort. She needs the kind of faith that incorporates all the bad stuff in an honest, searching way.

There’s plenty of the bad stuff in today’s Scriptures. Paul writes to the Romans about suffering that produces endurance. Matthew writes about rejection, floggings, persecution, and even family members killing one another. Part of me is always annoyed when I hear these types of readings in church. I look nervously at my children in the pew next to me and hope they aren’t listening. I’m tempted to think, “Why can’t we just hear the nice, comforting Scriptures in church? Why all this bad stuff?”

But another part of me knows that church is exactly the place where we should be talking about the bad stuff. If we can name it and grapple with it together—and then gather for the Lord’s Supper and depart together in peace—perhaps we will all grow into a faith that is more courageous and more real.

Pastor Elizabeth Palmer