Sunday, January 27, 2013

The assistant's mic: more true now than ever

My microphone, thank you very much, is labeled Assistant.

The first Sunday after Deb had left, it was suggested that I take the Pastor's mic, and leave the Assistant's for whoever else was helping with the service.

"No, thank you," I said, more than once, and smiling as best I could.

Even once the Pastor label was peeled away, leaving just a streak of white, I wanted my Assistant mic.

At first glance, this was mostly about my own comfort.  The ordained office, to me, is very special.  I will love the day when I am Pastor, but I am very cautious about taking it before my time.

When she was at Light of the World, Deb did not wear a collar, and so neither did I.  I was envious of my colleagues at other internship sites, who posted shots of their first Sundays in clericals, but the tradition at LOTW was not to wear one, and so I did not.

Now it feels right.  It would feel early, to wear it now.  I am not yet called to the office of Word and Sacrament.  I have no question that someday I will be, and so to look at the stoles and collared shirts in the back of my closet is only a reminder that I have a promise to walk towards.

I am fine just being Emmy, for now.  I have no wish to be pastor, just yet.

But today I thought of how very true it is that I am an Assistant.

I am with the people of Light of the World on this new journey, through losing their mission starter, finding an interim, calling a new long-term pastor.  I am with them, but not as one of them, because my time here is temporary.

(And this kills me, to remember that my time is limited.  Deb commissioned me, when I began, to fall in love with the people.  This was a painful request, because it was too damn easy to do, and will be so damn hard to leave.)

I am not a Pastor, and while I lead worship and plan music and make phone calls and lead Bible study, I am not the pastor.

I am the Assistant.  I am the one who watches, who waits for a signal, who plans ahead.  I wash the altar cloth.  I ask for preachers and presiders.  I write the prayers, teach the kids, hug the parents.  I am the one who helps.  I am Eve, pulled from Adam's side:  "It is not good for Light of the World to be alone.  I will give them a helper as a partner."

I am not a leader in all this.  I am the helper.  The community of Light of the World, in its two hundred and some members, will lead the way through this process.  They are the ones who will ask the hard questions, who will challenge each other, who will stumble, who will rise.  They will set their hands on their future next Pastor.  And I will be their helper.

This -- this is a holy call, to be the Assistant.

May God make me worthy of it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On losing Deb at Light of the World

This is what Gina, a member of my internship congregation, wrote about losing our solo pastor Deb.
We have not been here from the very beginning. We didn’t get to experience the golf course days. We started in March of 2008. After we attended our first service, it was because of Pastor Deb that we came back. My guess is that you have felt it too…the feeling that what she is preaching about that week is meant for you, and only you. It’s like she knew what you were going through that week and wants to tell you about how she knows things are going to be ok because we have God on our side. Not only in her words but when she greets you on Sunday mornings with her big smile and open arms, it’s like she got up that day specifically to see YOU. Knowing her these 4 years, I see why she was called to be a pastor. God’s love flows from her heart. Her mind. Her soul. 
It is because of these qualities that I have felt that Light of the World was not going to be the last stop on her journey. God has other plans for her. Great plans. I am thankful He has put her in my life. I wouldn't be the same person without her. 
Now I would like to talk about all of you. I would like to tell you that, as the weeks and years have passed, Pastor Deb was not the only one we were coming to see on Sundays. Because of you, I have learned what a church really is. I have learned that it is more than just one person, and I want to remind you of that. Pastor Deb’s vision of what she wanted Light of the World to be has brought it together, but it is YOU who makes it stick. 
It is you that brings me back every week. You who fills my cup and helps me get through the next six days until I can see you again. Look at the person to your right. I love that person. Look to your left. I love that person too. Whether you are one of the babies I grab for my baby fix, a young child for me to chat and laugh with, a confirmation student who is teaching me something new about life seen through your eyes or an adult that my extroverted self needs a hug from. You are my church. Wherever this journey takes us, I want to be with you. That is what matters to me. The person who leads and preaches is a piece of the puzzle, but that person can’t do a whole lot without us. 
("My Church ... Light of the World")
Everything Gina says is spot-on true, and that truth is what makes me love this church more every week.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sermon for January 13, 2013: Jesus' baptism and the danger of God's grace

Hymn text:  "You Are Mine" by David Haas

I will come to you in the silence
I will lift you from all your fear
You will hear My voice
I claim you as My choice
Be still, and know I am near
Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine
I am strength for all the despairing
Healing for the ones who dwell in shame
All the blind will see, the lame will all run free
And all will know My name

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live


Isaiah 43:1-7 (The Message)

But now, God’s Message,
    the God who made you in the first place, Jacob,
    the One who got you started, Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
    I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
    When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
    it won’t be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God,
    The Holy of Israel, your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you:
    all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in!
That’s how much you mean to me!
    That’s how much I love you!
I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,
    trade the creation just for you.
“So don’t be afraid: I’m with you.
    I’ll round up all your scattered children,
    pull them in from east and west.
I’ll send orders north and south:
    ‘Send them back.
Return my sons from distant lands,
    my daughters from faraway places.
I want them back, every last one who bears my name,
    every man, woman, and child
Whom I created for my glory,
    yes, personally formed and made each one.’”


Luke 3:15-22 (NRSV)

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

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Click here to listen along.

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Sermon

This week I was asked why we baptize babies and children, when other churches and denominations insist that only adults can be baptized.  And this is one of those questions where I can feel every seminary professor I’ve ever had waiting for my answer.  I don't doubt that a few of them might try to go back and change my grades based on what I say.  See, this was a big question in Martin Luther’s time, in the sixteenth century, and we’ve been talking about it ever since.

But really it’s not a question that just started four hundred years ago.  And it’s not even a question that started two thousand years ago when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.  This is a question that traces far back in our faith and its roots, back into the early life of the Jewish people in Israel.  That’s why we read Isaiah today -- because the question of “What does our baptism mean?” goes back into the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.

I should tell you that Isaiah isn’t one book.  It’s actually three.  And this trilogy was written while all the Jewish people were in exile.  See, the Israelites had been given the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey -- but as part of that, they made promises to God and to each other.  They promised to remember that God had delivered them from Egypt, that God had led them out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.  They promised to care for the poor and helpless among them.  They promised to live in the freedom God had given them, and to be a light to the rest of the world.

And parents passed on the promise to their children, and those children to their children, and so on, for hundreds of years.  But the longer they lived in the promised land, the further away the promise felt.  They forgot to trust in God alone.  They put their trust in their own abilities.  And they forgot to care for the poor among them.  They were so proud of all that they thought they had done themselves that they turned their backs on those who needed help.

So Isaiah 1-39 is the story of Isaiah the prophet, who has a vision of what will happen to Israel.  The people and their leaders have wandered so far away from the heart of God -- from righteousness, and mercy, and justice -- that when danger comes, God will not be able to protect them.  They have gone too far.  And so the Israelites are conquered by Babylon, and they are taken far away from their homes and their promised land into exile and oppression.  The people forgot the God who brought them out of slavery, and now they are back in it.

And then, after thirty-nine chapters of doom and pain and judgment, the story changes completely.  The second part of Isaiah is the story not of the sadness of a people lost, but of love.  “Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name.  You’re mine.”  Isaiah writes, in the face of all that Israel has done, of God’s amazing, overabundant, merciful love.  Despite everything that has happened -- despite how Israel has forgotten to trust God and to care for each other -- despite all of that, God wants them back.  That mighty hand that delivered them from slavery in Egypt is now searching, reaching, clinging to them.  Despite every way that Israel has wandered away from God’s longing for mercy and justice, God is still chasing them down.

And when Israel hears that kind of love, they respond the only way we all can.  With hope.  Hope for a return to the promised land.  Hope for renewed righteousness -- for food for the hungry, for trust in God, for peace in the land.  Isaiah 56-66 is about hope, because a God who can love this much is a God who can make anything possible.  A God who can love this much is a God who can bring them out of exile and back home.  And the hope isn’t just for Israel.  It’s not just for the descendents of Abraham.  It’s for everyone.  The third part of Isaiah is about hope for a people who become an example to the whole world:  a people chosen to live in love of God and love of neighbor.  And everyone else is invited in.

Five hundred years later, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness.  John offers a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  He does the same things that Isaiah did.  First, he calls out those who have forgotten the promise: the crowd for not living in righteousness, their ruler Herod for stealing his brother’s wife Herodias.  He calls them out.

Then, he begs the people to restore justice in their lives.  We read this part before Christmas:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  He asks them to live not in the confidence in themselves, but in the comfort of God’s care.

And then today, we hear how John gives the people a promise.  He gives them hope.  He gives them a chance to start fresh.

Now John’s baptism wasn’t quite like the way we baptize today.  John’s baptism came from a long tradition in Judaism, a tradition of ritual bathing to purify the body.  This bathing wasn’t so much about sin as it was about cleanliness.  For the Jewish people, the body and the soul are very closely entwined.  What happens to the body affects the soul.  So to wash off dirt wasn’t just to get your hands clean, but to restore your spiritual cleanliness as well.  And remember that these were a desert people -- they didn’t have a hot shower every morning or a bubble bath every night.  They had the muddy rivers of Jordan, or water hauled by hand from deep wells.  A full body immersion was a special occasion.  It was a sign that whatever dirt or sweat or blood was clinging to your skin was washed away.  You had a clean start, both physically and spiritually.

So John takes this washing out to the wilderness.  He takes an old and important tradition into a new light.  Now the washing isn’t about things that happen naturally in the course of a lifetime.  Now it’s an outward sign of an inward desire to do life differently.  It’s a way of saying:  I want to turn around.  I want to live in love and hope and justice.  I want a fresh start.  I want everything that is useless, everything that holds me back from loving God and neighbor, to be washed away from me.

This is the good news that John gives the crowd:  you have the chance at a fresh start.  Everything that has built up on your skin and in your heart?  It can be washed away.  This is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  It says “I’m sorry, and I want to make things right.”

But here’s the danger in the stories of Isaiah, and of John the Baptist, and of us.  We can forget that God’s love is a gift.  We can start to think that God loves us because we’re beautiful, or smart, or rich, or capable, or clean, or holy.  We can start to think that we’re in control of God’s love.  We can claim it for ourselves.  And -- we can decide who else gets some, too.  Israelites might say that they alone were the chosen people.  John’s followers might say that their baptism made them the most holy.  When God gives us love, out of nothing but sheer grace, there’s a danger that we think we earned it.  We can narrow down the promises of God.  It’s for us, not for them.  It’s for me, not for you.

And then Jesus shows up on the shore of the Jordan.  And he blows up everything that John has been teaching about baptism.

Our Christian tradition, looking back two thousand years, understands Jesus as sinless.  He wouldn’t have needed repentance, because he didn’t have anything to repent from.  And whether or not the whole crowd gathered for baptism believed that, there was definitely a sign that Jesus’ baptism was completely different.  His baptism and prayer opened the heavens and sent down the Holy Spirit and a voice said:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When the heavens open and a voice shakes the earth, it’s clear that Jesus is chosen, special, set apart in some way.  All the promises get narrowed down to him.  He is the Son, the Beloved.  Of all the chosen people, he is the most chosen.  Of all the baptized, he is the most important.  But Jesus’ life shows that this narrowing isn’t just meant to be held onto.  It’s a gift with shoes attached.  His mission is to go into the world, to wander from town to town, to release people from their brokenness and sin and suffering into a new life.  This is the kingdom of God:  that God has one Son, the Beloved, whose mission is to draw everyone into God’s love.

Right into this chance at narrowing down what God can do and for whom, Jesus shows up.  Jesus, who was always doing what he shouldn’t.  Jesus, who talked with women, and Samaritans, and Gentiles; who touched lepers and dead little girls; who healed on the Sabbath; who said, over and over again, “I will not let there be boundaries to God’s grace.  There are no limits to God's love."

God’s Son shows up right in the middle of everything, right in the thick of the danger of saying that we earned this love, and says:  This is a gift.

Jesus doesn’t come for baptism for the forgiveness of his sins, but to say:  This is how far God will go to bring everyone back.  God will go right into the heart of sin and fear and brokenness.  God will go chasing down everyone who has wandered.

When Jesus shows up for baptism, it is a fearsome declaration that God’s love is a gift.  That the forgiveness offered in baptism is grace.  We don’t earn it.  We don’t work up to it.  We don’t even choose it.  Baptism is a sign that God has chosen us -- has chosen me -- has chosen you.  It is a sign of the promise that God is already at work in our lives, chasing us down, calling us back.  It is a sign of God’s hand on us from the very beginning of our lives, from our very first breath as a baby.  It is a sign of God crying, over and over, “Trust me.  Care for one another.”  Baptism is the promise:  “All are welcome -- no exceptions.”

It is God saying, “That’s how much you mean to me!  That’s how much I love you!”

Amen.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A minister's inheritance

My uncle Maynard passed away two months ago.

His longtime companion Vern, and his nurse Suzanne, sorted through his effects at the house in Arizona.  Photos are being saved, journals preserved, items sent to friends and family.

Including three boxes to my parents' house, to the new reverend in the Kegler family.

It is an odd and weighty thing to receive what has been sent.  There are sixty years of service in those boxes.  I hope to chronicle them more and take photos as I go, but it is honestly overwhelming to open each box and find the history within.

I have inherited many chalices, including his personal chalice used for daily mass -- the silver worn from use, the brass base heavy and sturdy.  Also a traveling communion kit, with full cup and plate, used by Catholic priests in German prisoner-of-war camps in America in WWII.  To hold that is to hold a history that traces back thousands of years -- a thin line threading through centuries, a strand of love even for the enemy.

Most recently I am fascinated by this.
Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III

"In recognition of the public service to alleviate suffering among people of the world" 
Dr. Thomas Anthony Dooley III, according to the foundation that bears his name:
Tom Dooley met his destiny in 1954 while serving as a young Navy Lieutenant assigned to caring for refugees in North Vietnam. From that experience his life took fire and was never to be the same again. Tom, who grew up in a comfortable suburb of St. Louis, was tormented by his new found realization that half the world goes to bed hungry every night, that half the world spends a lifetime without seeing a doctor – that half the world still suffers from the diseases of Biblical days.
The young physician was unable to ignore these realities of human existence. He was determined to bring to the other half of the world medical care, education and training for better health and a new quality of life. In 1958, he founded MEDICO, and in the three short years before his painful death from cancer in 1961, he established 17 medical programs in 14 countries. Tom Dooley captured the heart of America and became a legend in his own time.
In those few short years he became one of the world’s most admired men – honored by such notables as His Excellency the Pope, Albert Schweitzer, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, Dr. Charles Mayo and posthumously by a special medal authorized by the United States Congress.  (dooleyintermed.com)
This medal, the Congressional Gold Medal, is the highest civilian award in America, and now I own a small replica.

I had never heard of Dr. Dooley before Father Maynard's death.  It seems that Dr. Dooley and my uncle had met while they were both in St. Louis, and had become friends.  (Of this I have no doubt, because my uncle was one of the kindest and friendliest people I knew.)  After Dr. Dooley's early death at age thirty-four, he was championed for canonization in the Catholic church, with my uncle leading the charge.  Ultimately the beatification process failed, but Dr. Dooley is still recognized for his humanitarian contributions, and the foundation that bears his name continues that work around the world.

Dooley wrote three books, Deliver Us From Evil, The Edge of Tomorrow, and The Night They Burned the Mountain.  His biography, Promises to Keep, was written by his mother (who passed on many things to my uncle after Dooley's death in 1961).  I'm hoping to read some in the next few weeks and come to better know the man my uncle so revered.

Big changes ahead

Hello, dear blog!  I have neglected you.  My apologies.  I've been a bit busy.  :)

The semester is well over, and so far it appears I've passed all my classes (whew!).  Things are going very well at my internship church, even as we're now 48 hours away from sending the original pastor, Deb Stehlin, on to her new role at the Minneapolis Area Synod.  For the next few weeks, her day-to-day tasks -- pastoral care, worship planning, relationship building, community organizing, sermon writing -- fall to our mission coordinator, the intern pastor (me), some affiliated ordained pastors (to preside over communion), and a group of lay leaders who have increased their time commitments and stepped up to get a lot of very important things done.  Hopefully, by the end of January, we'll have an interim pastor in place who will help us through the next steps in the call process.

I keep looking at this church with total amazement.

There is a rising group of families and individuals who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to Light of the World's mission -- to be a relational community that transforms its people and the world.  They have said, "We're not leaving."  They have said, "The mission continues."  They have said, "The feeling of love and welcome that people get when they walk in the door the very first time -- that absolutely will not change."

It is amazing to watch.  It is amazing to be part of a church that has truly bought in to what it says it is about.  The grief at losing Deb is still palpable, but now it shows up arm-in-arm with hope and vision.

I have told many of my seminary friends that I have the best internship supervisor I could think of.  Now I can say that I also have the best internship church.

I have so much hope, and feel so very lucky.