Sunday, December 4, 2016

A shoot from the stump of Jesse



A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… Isaiah 11:1a

I came to serve as pastor with the people of Immanuel Lutheran Church when I was in my early 30s. It was a real eye opener for me since I’d never been in a small, rural church before; I learned about a whole different culture.

They were so small you had to wonder how they were still around. When I got there, on a typical Sunday, 7 people were at worship. On a good Sunday, there were 14. In my time with them, we saw that number gradually creep up to something like 40 on a good Sunday, but still not enough to support a pastor.

Fortunately, they were yoked to a healthy-sized congregation that was in a nearby town. So on Sundays, after I preached at Immanuel, I hopped into my car and drove 9 miles, winding through the hills, to preach at the other congregation I served in town. That was the church with Sunday school rooms, and offices, and bathrooms. Unlike Immanuel.

Immanuel was like a large barn inside, all one big room. And there was no running water in the building.

They shared a cemetery that was between them and the Methodist church and the graves came so close to the building that they couldn’t dig a well there. At least that’s what I was told.

We had an outhouse against one of the outside walls of the building. On one side of that wall there was a toilet and directly on the other side, stood the altar. That never seemed to bother them the way it bothered me.

During my time with them, we only had one building improvement. That was when the Council took up the matter of the toilet paper falling onto the ground, and they came up with a brilliant solution to the problem. Someone brought in a contraption to hold the toilet paper, otherwise known as—a coffee can. It really didn’t matter a whole lot though, because I noticed that whenever someone needed to go, they ran down to the little corner store, which thankfully was open on Sundays.

We made do without running water. When we had a church dinner we used the hall at the volunteer fire department down the road.

I really grew to love the people of Immanuel. I couldn’t imagine all they’d been through over the years. And somehow, they never gave up. They were a beacon of hope sitting on that little intersection of two roads winding through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. If ever someone in the community was in need, they were right there with a meal, clothing, a caring hand. These are the kind of people Jesus was talking about when he said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Well, around the time I joined them, there was some new energy at Immanuel and they decided that they needed to have a Sunday school again. So, they formed a few class areas along the perimeter in the nave and then they went out and found some children. Most of them were relatives. Suddenly, we had 12 children in the congregation.

We needed to have something more for the kids, so I asked Elaine, the organist, if she would be willing to play for a children’s choir if I directed it. She thought it was a grand idea.

I figured, if we can get half of these kids to come to choir, that would be 6 and that’s enough kids to make some music. So we invited them to come and went to our first rehearsal, not sure what to expect. Do you know how many kids showed up? 12. Every single one of them. They ranged in age from 4 to 13, and they were all there every week.

The first time the kids sang in church I saw a few people in the congregation crying. And it wasn’t because they sounded absolutely dreadful... Seriously, it was hard to pick out the tune they were singing. But what they lacked in musicality, they more than made up for in enthusiasm. I’m sure they could hear them singing at the Methodist Church on the other side of the cemetery.

As Christmas approached, I was rehearsing several songs with the kids to sing on Christmas Eve. On one of them, I decided it would be cool to have a solo verse, but I wasn’t sure who to ask. We had never actually listened to the kids sing individually. So Elaine and I did a quick line of a song with each of the kids to hear how they sounded. The first one came to the piano to sing and the poor thing couldn’t match a pitch. It was awful. Elaine and I cast a knowing glance at one another that said, “Not this one.” And then the next one came to the piano to sing and it was the same thing. One by one, they sang for us and not one of them could match a pitch. Not even close. They weren’t sharp, they weren’t flat—they weren’t anywhere in the vacinity. Each time Elaine and I are looking at one another our eyes are getting wider and wider. How was this possible? It defied the law of averages. No wonder they sounded so terrible.

Finally, Brandi had her turn, and she sang every note, perfectly on key, loud and clear. Hallelujah!

Immanuel had not had a Christmas Eve service in decades. It had been so long that they had resigned themselves to the fact that it would never happen for them again. So as the weeks of Advent went by, the excitement grew. I didn’t know what to expect.

That night, 75 souls from that little community gathered to celebrate the wonder of “God with Us.” The children’s choir sang three joyfully cacophonous songs. When we came to “God Tell It on the Mountain”, seven-year-old Brandi stepped forward and sang with the voice of an angel.“Down in a lonely manger, the humble Christ was born, and God sent us salvation, that blessed Christmas morn--.” The other kids came in on the chorus, singing their hearts out, “Go Tell it on the Mountain, over the hills and everywhere, Go tell it on the Mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” 

The congregation erupted in thunderous applause. I looked out into the pews and saw tears streaming down their cheeks. Everyone lost it. Even the big burly men were crying big burly tears.

This little motley band of kids who couldn’t sing a tune in a bucket was, for them, a shoot growing up out of an old, dead stump.

That’s the thing about the image of the dead stump. One would never expect it to give forth life again. It’s a stump of utter despair. When Isaiah spoke these words he was speaking to a dead Israel. God said he would cut down the tallest trees and the lofty would be brought low and that’s what he did. The trees, the people, had been cut off.

I’ve known that kind of despair, and maybe you’ve been there, too.  I can’t help but think of the people who live in and around the Smoky Mountains and the devastation they’re living through even as we worship here in this place of warmth and safety today. I think of people of Alleppo and Mosul. People enduring the North Dakota cold at Standing Rock. I think of those who feel their country has abandoned them after the election: Muslims, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, the lgbt community, victims of sexual assault. I think of parents who have lost their children to senseless acts of violence. Those who grieve the loss of someone they can’t imagine living without. Little congregations like Immanuel who don’t know if they’ll survive until next Christmas.

In times of despair, we search for signs of hope. God’s promise to us is not grand in its scope. The prophet doesn’t promise Israel that she will rise again. The shoot will not become a mighty cedar. It wouldn’t be what the people were expecting.

Later, Isaiah writes: “For he grew as a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile, yet tenacious and stubborn. It would grow like a young plant out of dry ground. It would push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. Can you look at that old dead stump and see it? Can you see God’s promise of hope?


 Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church, Towson MD Advent 2, 2016



Sunday, November 27, 2016

Swords into Plowshares


Preached at Ascension on Advent 1, 2016.

THE WORDS ARE CARVED INTO A WALL ACROSS FROM THE UNITED NATIONS BUILDING:
THEY SHALL BEAT THEIR swords into plowshares,
AND THEIR SPEARS INTO PRUNING HOOKS;
NATION SHALL NOT LIFT UP SWORD AGAINST NATION,
NEITHER SHALL THEY LEARN WAR ANYMORE.

WHAT A BEAUTIFUL VISION. IT’S A VISION THAT WAS first SPOKEN TO A PEOPLE IN RUIN, CAPTIVE TO THEIR ENEMIES, WITH NO REASON TO EXPECT A BETTER FUTURE. IN THEIR DESPAIR, THEY HEAR A WORD OF HOPE. have those words make a difference?

THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD SEEMS TO BE A HISTORY OF WAR. IF THERE IS EVER A TIME WHEN SWORDS ARE TURNED TO PLOWSHARES, IT’S A SHORT-LIVED TIME. FOR WE SEEM TO BE HELL-BENT ON OUR OWN DESTRUCTION. WE SEEM INCAPABLE OF TOLERATING OUR ENEMIES, LET ALONE LOVE THEM. AND WE MUST ALWAYS HAVE ENEMIES. THERE MUST ALWAYS BE SOMEONE TO BLAME, SOMEONE TO HATE, SOMEONE TO SERVE AS THE OBJECT OF OUR FEAR AND ANGER.

THEY SHALL BEAT THEIR swords into plowshares. IT’S AN ABSURD IMAGE IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE WORLD WE’RE LIVING IN. FROM SYRIA TO STANDING ROCK, GOD’S VISION OF PEACE FOR THE WORLD ELUDES US. AND YET, IT’S A VISION PEOPLE UNIVERSALLY LONG FOR.

A PROJECT CALLED PALAS POR PISTOLAS WAS INITIATED IN WESTERN MEXICO AT THE EPICENTER of violent DEATHS, MOSTLY RELATED TO THE ILLEGAL DRUG TRADE, AN ARTIST WAS COMMISSIONED TO DO SOME WORK AT A BOTANICAL GARDEN. IT BEGAN WITH A LARGE-SCALE CAMPAIGN FOR PEOPLE TO VOLUNTARILY DONATE THEIR WEAPONS. GUNS WERE EXCHANGED FOR A COUPON WHICH COULD BE TRADED IN AT A LOCAL STORE FOR ELECTRONICS.

1527 WEAPONS WERE COLLECTED. 40% OF THEM WERE  military style AUTOMATIC WEAPONS. THEY WERE CRUSHED WITH A STEAMROLLER.

THEN THE PIECES WERE TAKEN TO A FOUNDRY AND MELTED. THE METAL WAS SENT TO A HARDWARE FACTORY TO PRODUCE 1527 SHOVELS.

THE 1527 SHOVELS WERE DISTRIBUTED TO A NUMBER OF ART INSTITUTIONS AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS WHERE ADULTS AND CHILDREN ENGAGED IN THE ACTION OF PLANTING 1527 TREES.

THE ARTIST SAYS HIS PURPOSE WAS TO SHOW HOW AN AGENT OF DEATH COULD BECOME AN AGENT OF LIFE.

tHERE ARE OTHER EXAMPLES OF WEAPONS BEING REPURPOSED. AFTER WW II, TANKS WERE TURNED INTO TRACTORS. AFTER SOME OF THE  WORST ACTS OF VIOLENCE OUR COUNTRY HAS EXPERIENCED IN MODERN TIMES: WITH THE AMISH CHILDREN IN PENNSYLVANIA, COLOMBINE, NEWTOWN, CONNECTICUT… GUNS HAVE LITERALLY BEEN MELTED DOWN TO BECOME FARM INSTRUMENTS. THE SYMBOLISM IS POWERFUL. AND IT’S A REMINDER TO US OF THE WORDS FROM ISAIAH.

BUT TURNING SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES ISN’T JUST A VERSE about literally turning instruments of war into instruments of peace. IT’S A VISION OF THE WORLD GOD WANTS FOR US.

AND IT’S A WORLD WE WANT FOR OURSELVES, as well. IN THE EARLY DAYS OF OUR NATION, THE WORDS OF THE SPIRITUAL SPOKE TO OUR LONGING…
I’M GONNA LAY DOWN MY SWORD AND SHIELD,
DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE.
I’M GONNA STUDY WAR NO MORE.

the longing continues. i think of the words of the songwriter:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Ironically, the man who wrote those words, john lennon, was gunned down in the streets of new York city. the dream eludes us. and yet, we can’t let it go.

WE’RE PREOCCUPIED WITH VIOLENCE IN OUR Country. (sex, too, but that’s a topic for another day. i’ll be sure to let you know when it’s coming.) OUR ATTACHMENT TO GUNS IS IRRATIONAL. OUR PARANOIA OVER TERRORISTS IS CRIPPLING US. AND OUR MisUNDERSTANDING OF the use and abuse of POWER THREATENS TO DESTROY US.

EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY, TAXPAYERS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE PAYING 8.36 MILLION DOLLARS FOR THE TOTAL COST OF WARS SINCE 2001. I THINK I NEED TO SAY THAT AGAIN SO IT CAN SINK IN. EVERY HOUR OF EVERY DAY, TAXPAYERS IN THE UNITED STATES ARE PAYING 8.36 MILLION DOLLARS FOR THE TOTAL COST OF WARS SINCE 2001.

DOESN’T THAT MAKE YOU SICK TO YOUR STOMACH? CAN YOU IMAGINE WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE IF WE BEAT THOSE SWORDS INTO plowshares? CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW WE MIGHT FUND HEALTHCARE, EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION, TEACHERS SALARIES, REBUILDING OUR INFRASTRUCTURE, JOBS, FOOD PROGRAMS FOR THE HUNGRY, SCHOLARSHIPS FOR COLLEGE STUDENTS?

WE’RE STILL RECOVERING FROM A CONTENTIOUS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION. I VOTED, BUT I HAVE TO ACKNOWLEDGE that THe person I voted for doesn't share my values when it comes to peace and violence. THE SAD REALITY IS THAT a person who shares my values could NEVER BE ELECTED president of the united states.

I’ve been hearing the word nationalism used a lot lately and it scares me. There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is a love for your country. Nationalism insists that your country is superior to other countries…our lives are worth more than the lives of people in other countries…our country is always on the side of good, and any country who is against us is evil. and, of course, god is always on our side. It’s nationalism that takes nations to war and i suspect it probably goes without saying that nationalism has no place in the church.

when we talk about how our country is the greatest country on earth, i hope we realize that people of every country think their country is the greatest country on earth. but objectively, what does it mean to say that? it’s an emotional statement. what empirical evidence do we have to support it? That depends upon how you measure what it means to be great, doesn't it?

If we measure greatness by military strength, there is no doubt that the us is number one. We spend more money on our military than the next eight countries combined. But is that what makes a nation great? Is that what we would learn from the scriptures? Is that what we learn from Jesus?

THIS YEAR A GLOBAL THINK TANK FOR ECONoMICS AND PEACE RELEASED THEIR FINDINGS OF THE MOST PEACEFUL NATIONS ON EARTH. THEY LOOKED AT 23 FACTORS RELATED TO PEACEFULNESS, INCLUDING each country’s involvement in internal and external conflicts; crime, terrorist activity, violent demonstrations, relations with other countries, stability of politics, proportion of the population being internally displaced or made refugees, and levels of militarization. the authors OF THE STUDY define peace as “the harmony achieved by the absence of violence or the fear of violence.”

THEY LOOKED AT 163 AREAS OF THE WORLD. OF THOSE, OUR COUNTRY RANKED 100th. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE MOST PEACEFUL COUNTRY IN THE WORLD IS? ICELAND.

WELL, WE DON’T LIVE IN ICELAND. WE LIVE HERE. AND, IF WE LONG FOR THE WORLD THAT ISAIAH DESCRIBES - a WORLD WHERE NATION SHALL NOT LIFT UP SWORD AGAINST NATION, NEITHER SHALL THEY LEARN WAR ANYMORE – if we long for a world like that, it's hard to know what we can do about it.  

Isaiah's vision is not unlike what Jesus was talking about when he called us to be a part of the reign of God. WHEN WE Live withIN THe reign of god, WE DON’T STRIKE OUT IN VENGEANCE at THOSE WHO DO US HARM. WE PRAY FOR THEM, WE TURN THE OTHER CHEEK. AND LET’S BE CLEAR. THIS IS NOT PASSIVE SUBMISSION TO THOSE WHO THREATEN US. IT IS RESISTENCE. IT’S A REFUSAL TO GIVE IN TO THE WAYS OF THE WORLD THAT DRAW US FROM THE WAYS OF GOD.

this might be a good time to remind us all of the radical way of life we enter into through the waters of baptism as we recall the words of our baptismal liturgy. every time a person is baptized in our congregation, the pastor asks three very pointed questions of the congregation.  

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
And you all very boldly respond: I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
And you all say: I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
I renounce them.

ISAIAH’S WORDS DESCRIBE A WORLD THAT MAY SEEM ABSURD TO US BECAUSE IT’S SO CONTRARY TO THE WORLD WE’VE COME TO KNOW. do we renounce the ways of that world, really?

HOW DO WE RECEIVE ISAIAH’S vision of a world at peace? Is it NOTHING MORE THAN WISHFUL THINKING FOR US? Or DOes it CHALLENGE US TO WORK FOR SOMETHING MORE?