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


African American Spirituals

Three summers ago I travelled to the deep south of this nation on a Civil Rights tour with my High School Youth group at the time. What I discovered on that journey was the profound richness and integrity of the African American religious experience in this country. Traveling from city to city….Altanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Memphis….it was the church community that was the central, cohesive fabric of the African American communities of the south.   It also became immensely apparent that African American spirituals were an incredibly important historical component of their religious experience.

Spirituals are the songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery. The African slaves were deprived of their languages, families, and cultures, and yet their masters could not take away their music. Over the years, these slaves and their descendants adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters, as their own religious experience. They reshaped Christianity into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement.

Their songs, which became known as spirituals, reflected the slaves’ need to express their new faith in patterns that spoke to their suffering. The slave would tell the Biblical stories and their stories through their songs, often using Biblical personalities as the main characters of the spiritual…..they would sing about Adam and Eve…Moses….Egyptian captivity….Moses and the Red Sea….they sang about the Hebrew children and Joshua at Jericho…..they could tell you about Mary and Jesus and God and the Devil…..you could hear about blind men seeing….God troubling the waters…..Ezekiel’s wheel….Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. They would memorize the stories and translate them into songs.

There are over 6,000 spirituals or sorrow songs that have been indexed. The spiritual has given birth to a number of other American musical styles including Blues…..Jazz….Gospel and Rock and Roll. Spirituals played a huge part in the Civil Rights movement to strengthen the resolve and offer a rallying cry to all those demonstrating against laws and policies that kept African Americans from having equal rights in this country.

During Lent we will be exploring the richness of this form of song. On Thursday evenings we will gather in the worship area using Holden Evening Prayer as our liturgy, and African American Spirituals as our theme. Please join us to learn and be inspired by a form of music that has and continues to offer incredible inspiration for millions of Americans of all races.

See you in Church – and remember to Spring Ahead this weekend – turn your clocks ahead one hour!
Pastor Johnson

Into the Wild

This Sunday, as Jesus goes into the wilderness, the text fits as my own time to go has come too.  As I go out into the wilds of Southern Africa, I leave with a confidence which comes from my time at St. Luke’s.  The temptation, similar to many new adventures, is to wonder what I bring to my new experience. Today I would rather think about the experiences we’ve had together these last three years, and about you with whom I have had them. Only then can I start to understand God’s call into these new lands and whether I have the strength to answer.

I have had the privilege to work with some amazing staff.  Staff who hold St. Luke’s in high esteem, who brought expectations which challenged me to bring my best.  It has been a privilege to work alongside each of them in our daily tasks, worships, and events both in and outside of these St. Luke’s walls.

From the Council, who allowed me the opportunity to pastor to those who read my resignation letter, there has always been a kind assemblage on the second Tuesday listening to my proposals, giving critique, and being supportive of my role in the ministry of St. Luke’s.  In their eyes and in their words, I came to realize the impact St. Luke’s has had on them and on the greater community.

As they disperse, many of them sit in on cabinet meetings to see more of what our church is doing.  These cabinet leads take charge of some of the most important activities at St. Luke’s — Worship, Education, Congregational Life, Member Care, Outreach, and Operations.  Through these cabinets I have seen countless volunteer hours maintain our ministry, create countless opportunities for service in and outside the walls, and create and cultivate new ways to make a life of faith possible.

We have so many volunteers on Sunday and throughout the week who make St. Luke’s possible.  What I start to realize and what I want to take with me in my journey into the wild is us.  The us is so much more important than the I.  The young adults coming over for a year of service, the people of Southern Africa who will host them, the churches and communities they will live in. . . this is the wilderness I find myself in.

In closing, I take the many experiences we have had together.  You have made me a better pastor, but more than that, a better person.  I am thankful for your many gifts which make St. Luke’s what it is, and I pray I can bring the ethos of love, caring and community you have shown me wherever I go.

Pastor Alex

Mountain Tops

We have a good understanding of the phrase, “mountain top experience,”  whether the literal beauty of standing among the mountains of Colorado or the phrase made famous in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, where equality for all children was the equivalent of standing with Moses looking into the promise land he too would never set foot in… We understand when someone says they had a “mountain top experience.” Our Gospel reveals the mountain top experience in the story of the Transfiguration.  Jesus and some of the disciples go high in the mountains and find themselves in a moment of clarity, amidst Moses and Elijah, it is revealed once more this Jesus is someone special.

And what about us?  What are the mountain top experiences which come in our life? An amazing trip, an amazing moment, an amazing success, which puts our thoughts to wondering, is this the best it will ever be?  How do we respond?

Like Jesus the answer is we must go back down… and like all highs, they will end. But more than this, Jesus wants those mountain highs to lift us up and empower us to go down to whatever might be next.  And if you are like me, the literally going down is harder on my knees, but sometimes the going down is fear we will not be happy the farther we get from the mountain; we might be less safe; we might become ordinary, or worse those who have not seen the mountain or may never get there will use our experience, co-opt it to find their own.

With these thoughts, I understand why Peter wanted to stay put.  I understand the fear of going back down the mountain, and when we know the ending, Peter may not have been wrong to avoid the cross.  Today, like every Sunday, we are reminded of the resurrection and how Christ’s gift in the cross is our freedom to share our mountain top experiences.  Whether it be the canopies of East Malaysia, a new job, good grades, or a new member of the family,  I hope the joy empowers you to bring joy to others.

Pastor Alex

From Pastor Larson

Dear St Lukians

Sunday was my last to serve as interim pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New Hamburg, Ontario.  The liturgy and luncheon following were full of surprises for me. Trinity commissioned Anne Krentz Organ to compose an anthem for the occasion of my retirement.  To my astonishment she and Jim were present! Anne accompanied her anthem, with our daughter, Katie, singing the soprano solos.   Anne later played her arrangement of the Oi Jumalan. It was gorgeous.

At the luncheon Anne shared reflections from St Luke’s — including the hilarious story of her compassionate notes to me.  Here’s how she put it —

One of the best parts of my job is finding just the right hymn for a particular occasion. Here’s a little anecdote about that: One summer Stephen developed a kidney stone. Here’s how I showed support and compassion to a colleague undergoing a painful health condition: 

I went out to the parking lot and gathered up a handful of stones.
I tore strips of paper and taped a rock to each one.
Then I researched hymns that sang about rocks and stones, wrote out the corresponding text, and left these little inspirational gifts all over the church where Stephen would find them:

One taped to his office door. “Built on a rock, the church shall stand.”
One on his desk chair. “Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away.”
One in his staff mailbox. “Jesus is a rock in a weary land.”
One by the coffee pot. “From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r, not a stone will be left on stone” 

Of course, Anne sang each little hymn phrase. The audience laughed like they were at a Bottle Band performance.

There were also video greetings including Melinda Hoiland, Mac and Lynda Minnick!  I spent time this week reading through the St Luke’s cards Anne brought along with her. I was moved at the stories that were recalled – times of sorrow as well as occasions of joy that evidenced the wideness of God’s mercy.

Thank you all for joining the festivities on Sunday and for being a part of my life and ministry for so many years. . .

Grace and peace be with you,
Stephen Larson

Rhythm of Your Life

Take-Time-for-YourselfI really enjoyed Tim Spiegel’s (a member of St. Luke’s and a school counselor at Maine South High School) first of two discussions at Adult Forum last Sunday, describing what high school students are experiencing in 2017.

One of the areas of significant change is the presence of handheld communication devices that most students are equipped with today. As Tim so aptly pointed out to us, these personal devices have created a society of instantaneous and constant information through search engines and social media platforms. With these types of resources at our student’s fingertips, it has caused them, and in general, the entire population to have less patience in all activities – expecting quicker results that feed into a faster frenzied life and thus narrowing our attention spans and making us less patient.

I couldn’t help but ponder the frenzied pace of 21st century living as I walked along the lakeshore in Wisconsin last Monday. I have always loved the seasons of the year….. the seasons have a way to slow things down for me. When I am harried in my work, a walk on a cold February morning in Wisconsin reminds me of a distant time when the seasons controlled so much of the rhythm and productivity of our lives. The winter gave people a much needed respite from the usual farming chores, and allowed them to regroup, work on repairing tools and resting for the growing seasons that lie ahead.

Today, there are no built-in respites…..the information and expectation flows 24/7 for most of us through these devices. It causes us to be less patient and more frustrated when things don’t happen immediately. Tim talks about safeguards that we can use with our children regarding their use of personal communication devices…..but what about adults? Are you cultivating enough time in your life to think, to pray, to sleep, and to be silent.

I would encourage you to take time for yourself…. find a snowy trail…..a quiet room…..and truly relax…..and in doing so….take back some control of the input that drives your life. Let the seasons, not technology, once again help to dictate the rhythm of your life. When we do that….I think that God truly enters to provide a calming balm to many of the anxieties that might cause us harm.

See you in Church
Pastor Richard  Johnson

You are the Light of the World

You-Are-the-Light-of-the-World“You are the light of the world……let your light so shine that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven……”  Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus’ voice in the Gospel of Matthew is at one level spoken as a critique to Jewish Pharisees in 85 AD, who had decided, in fear of the Romans, that their religious expressions should remain underground, hidden, where they withdrew and protected their identity so they might be found righteous by the time God would choose to do a new thing at the end time.

Jesus reminds those Pharisees as he reminds us, that the Kingdom of God has come near in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…..we are not to wait to the end time to proclaim a message justice and hope….but rather it is our religious duty…..now…..today….to stand for “kingdom living” in our own time and in our own day!

You are the light of the world…..do not hide your message under a bushel….let it light your life, and may it radiate throughout all the world.

So what is the Kingdom message that Jesus would want us to share……the beatitudes from last Sunday’s lesson are a wonderful start……for Matthew, the Beatitudes are like Luke’s Magnificat…..both Gospels share in essence a “grand reversal” to the power structures of the rich and powerful.

In Luke we sing…..”you have looked in favor on your lowly servant…..scattered the proud in their conceit….casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly….”

In Matthew we hear…..”Blessed are the poor in spirit…..those who mourn…..those who hunger and thirst for justice…..those who are merciful…..who are pure in heart….the peacemakers…..the persecuted”

In other words…..as “lights to the world”….we are to stand for those who are being marginalized in any society……

The last Tuesday of January is designated as Muslim Government Day in Austin, Texas (a day for Muslim high school students to go to the State Capitol and see how government runs).   Last year on Muslim Government Day, evangelical Christians from the area picketed the Muslim Day events in Austin with vulgar signs telling those young students that they were going to be judged harshly by the God of Jesus Christ….at one point all those students were booed and jeered by the crowd.

This year, Muslim government day was last Tuesday, and organizers were very scared of what might happen…..for last Saturday night a mosque in Victoria Texas was set on fire……and there have been increased tensions and demonstrations throughout the country in the wake of the US government enforcing strict immigration laws from 7 predominantly Muslim countries.

On Tuesday….something miraculous happened…..over 2000 Christians, Jews and other thoughtful people arrived early last Tuesday morning in response to intolerance and hate that they had witnessed…..and they formed a human, protective chain around all of the young Muslims who came for government day…to protect them and embrace them against any hate that might ensue.

Where are you being called to be people of light….people of justice….people of hope….to a world that is yearning to be embraced by the love and compassion of Jesus? Let your light so shine…..

Pastor Johnson

Spiritual High Heels

highheelLast weekend I was away for the ELCA Youth Ministry Extravaganza in Louisville, Kentucky. I was asked this year to be an MC for all the large sessions, giving announcements and introducing speakers. It was truly a privilege to sit with these speakers and get a little information from them, hearing about their ministries, and eliciting a fun fact or two.

One woman, a pastor from Minnesota, talked with me. And after hearing about her ministry, learning about her chase to find the greatest cheeseburger, I was ready to prime the assembly. As she began on stage I realized she left one very fun fact out of our conversation; she had been Miss Minnesota and competed in the Miss America Pageant. After a picture appeared on screen convincing us of her pageant past, she talked about the experience and how she tried to explain her Lutheran faith to another contestant and how hard it was to differentiate herself from any other Christian denomination (something I am guessing we might be able to relate to). Yet it was a different quote which caught my attention, she talked about bikinis and high heels, and related, amidst the judgement and critique, it has been her call to be a pastor where she has felt the most vulnerability.

I didn’t disagree, but I started to wonder about vulnerability. I wondered if we take hold of it enough as a church. The risk of a pageant is losing, and if you talked to this woman, she would tell you she did not win, in fact she was far from it. However, the experience still required her to take a step out. The vulnerability of those moments then seemed to relate well to her ministry today.

What kind of church would we be if we grabbed hold of our place in God’s family and donned our spiritual high heels to step out, truly, as ourselves? What if we bore it all, confident no one’s opinion could take away the love and freedom, the raffish royalty God has placed on us? These images may seem silly, but there is a distinct undignified confidence which comes in the cross for just these occasions and it changes vulnerability from risk to reward. So we can step out this week knowing our worth in God’s eyes, and knowing the vulnerability of the cross, consider ourselves in a new way. Not by the world’s pageantry, but by Christ’s purpose lived in us through baptism.
Pastor Alex

How Will You Answer the Call?

Call_disciplesThe church has played a significant role for my entire life. Jesus’ message of unconditional love has been embodied in so many people who have been “Jesus” to me. From the time I was in grade school I felt that I was being called into the ministry. So it didn’t surprise many people when I announced during my college years that I was taking some specific measures to prepare to enter the seminary when I completed my under graduate work.

There was one person in my family who was concerned about my decision to enter seminary. During my college years, he would visit me at Carthage every semester. We would have dinner together. During dinner, he would ask me the same question every time we would get together, “Have you received a call from God to enter seminary?”

The first several times this question was asked, it didn’t bother me too much. But as the question became part of the four year ritual of my college years, I got to be a little nervous when the dinner invitation was approaching.

He thought that I should have had a “call” by Jesus that was similar to Peter and Andrew’s call that is recorded in our Gospel reading today. He truly felt that if I could not identify the moment that Jesus’ had called me – that I shouldn’t consider the ministry as a vocation. As I approached my senior year, the dinner and conversation felt less supportive and more intimidating. I would ask myself regularly – “am I truly being called by Jesus into this type of vocation?” “Have I heard the voice of Jesus calling me in a direct and concrete fashion?” Honestly, the question of “call” haunted me as I entered seminary. I felt ill-prepared to take this step because I had not heard “the call” from Jesus in a personal, dynamic way.

One of my first conversations with my theological advisor at seminary addressed this question of call…..   I asked, if I haven’t heard “the call of Jesus” in a dramatic, personal way – am I fit to be here? I will never forget his answer…..”when did you first feel loved by your parents?” I said, that I couldn’t tell him a specific moment….I had always felt loved by them. He responded, “And so it is with God’s call – God’s love has been calling you into this ministry your entire life – with steady reminders of God’s love and grace – you are now answering that call!”

Amazing words that changed my life……God’s call to you is the same…..God’s love is calling you daily into a deeper, more powerful relationship…..how will you answer that call in your life today?

Pastor Richard Johnson