Sunday is Coming! “The all too familiar wrong mission of the church (a parable)” Luke 10:1-11

“Go on your way. See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:3)

[DISCLAIMER – This is a parable – a story about something relatable to tell a wider truth. I’m not looking for a new call.]

After this, the pastor entered the small town to meet with leaders of an insular congregation for a call interview to become their next clergy-person. The church leaders were upfront that the congregation had needs, and the people of the community who were not members of the church had long lost interest in coming to worship with them. The congregation was aging, shrinking, and they had trouble connecting with young families and keeping them involved.

The chairperson said, “Finances are around here tight. People are leaving or dying off. We’ll never have enough to survive and it is probably some of the newer people’s fault... But we are glad you are here; so do what we tell you, don’t change anything, keep your head down, don’t stir-up any trouble, take any stands or create any controversy. We want to be comfortable and for you to make us feel safe. Work twice as hard as the last guy with less resources and unrealistic demands. Not to worry; we’ll blame you if things don’t turn around soon and become better than the glory-days we all remember when the church was full, money was not an issue and we all got along as the best of friends.

“What is this congregation passionate about?” the pastor inquired of them. The response droned on for about forty-five minutes concerning the cracked and faded beige wallpaper in the room in which they were sitting that was pulling up in the corners.

The pastor re-framed the question by asking what kinds of ministries they were doing that they found meaningful, what service opportunities they participated in, what initiatives to make connections in their town outside of the congregation they were pursuing, what ways they were putting their faith into tangible action in the neighborhood and at home, how were they mentoring/disciplining/supporting one another, and a host of other questions. They collectively responded. “We tried all that stuff once. We don’t have money for it now. We told you, we just need someone to take care of us and keep things the same.” The chairperson then went into a long rant of needing to protect the church’s assets; especially the aging building that was also being utilized by outside community groups that met there and messed with their stuff.

The pastor paused and listened.

An eager member broke the awkward silence, “We do have an ‘all are welcome’ sign,” she said, pointing to a rickety sign that was lost behind a million pieces of dated announcements on a bulletin board. She continued, “it is really important we have that sign, so people who look like us, talk like us, dress like us, and think like us will know they can come here and pay our bills.”

The pastor asked, “How many new people has that sign brought in?” Nobody knew the answer, so they stood around and hunched their shoulders looking for the pastor to tell them, “good job on the sign.” They shot each other glances when the pastor said nothing in response they started talking about the wallpaper again.

They spent the better part of three hours together. Not once did anyone offer snacks or refreshments.

“Let’s get down to business” the chairperson of the call committee said, passing the pastor an envelope. Inside was a number that was half the salary this pastor was currently making. The conversation got tense when the pastor told the group that it didn’t sound like they were all that interested in doing ministry. Their mission was to keep their club going. “But we just got new tablecloths for coffee hour!” one member protested. The pastor then explained that based on both the information they had researched prior to meeting and by walking around earlier that day that there were all kinds of interesting new people moving into town, that the game fields were full of activity, there were some cute shops and places to eat on Main Street, there were parks and green spaces to enjoy and that there were real needs of struggling people in the community that this church could address by collaborating with other local organizations to help.

They looked at the pastor with blank stares.

One member handed the pastor an old photo directory full of names and faces of people that had died or moved away or simply lost interest in this congregation. “What are you going to do to get these people to come back?” he said.

It was time for the evening to come to a close.

The pastor gracefully thanked them for their time, and after exchanging other pleasantries headed for the door. On the way home the pastor called the bishop and said that while the town looked really interesting and there was some great potential for ministry there, this congregation was not a place they would like to consider serving. The bishop later got a letter from the call committee complaining that there were no good candidates for pastors anymore and that the congregation was going to cut their mission support completely until a suitable candidate was found to save their church.

PGS

Read Luke 10:1-11.

Sunday is coming! “3 Reasons not to follow Jesus” Luke 9:51-62

“I will follow you wherever you go.” (Luke 9:57)

“Following Jesus” sounds like a faithful things to say.

It is a much more difficult thing to do.

Jesus gives us three reasons not to do it.

Reason 1. Security.

Jesus says, “The son of man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58b). In other words, following him will not be comfortable. It will not be stable. It will not result in ‘success’ or material gain. It will not be safe. We focus our lives around security and ‘success.’ Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and the cross. Following Jesus often takes us to places where we are uncomfortable and where much is asked of us. Jesus asks for our entire lives, and perhaps even our life itself.

If you seek safety and being comfortable; don’t follow Jesus.

Reason 2. Restrictions.

Jesus says, “let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). It sounds cold and indifferent, and shouldn’t the church be doing funerals? But what Jesus is saying here is that we often let others dictate our limitations of what we can or cannot do; or where we can or cannot do. I have a sign on my desk that reads “Everything is Figureoutable.” Too often we don’t believe solutions to our challenges are even possible.

If you want to live within restrictions; don’t follow Jesus.

Reason 3. Disctractions.

J Jesus says, “No one who puts the hand to the plow and looks back will inherit the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:62).  While understanding the past often provides wisdom for navigating current challenges, nostalgia can also hold us captive and keep us understanding current realities and from moving forward at all. Keeping up with what everyone else is saying and doing on your feeds everywhere else while neglecting the people around you in the here and now keeps you from tending to what is more important. Worrying about the challenges of the future without seeing Jesus right in front of you now scatters your focus on your mission and purpose. It is difficult to plow in a straight line if your vision is not kept on the field and you are looking elsewhere. 

If you are held hostage by what everyone else is doing; don’t follow Jesus.

Yet…following Jesus can change our lives.

How?

Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).  These invitations into discipleship are all given within the context of immersing ourselves in the very mission Jesus has come to fulfill. Jerusalem leads to the cross – a place where security, restriction and nostalgia lack meaning in the stench of suffering, abandonment and death. However, the cross of Jesus leads to resurrection; where the sweet fragrance of new life blooms. Being on the road with Jesus from death to new life leads to transformation.

Instead of seeking security no matter what the cost to ourselves or to others we are led away from the perspective of scarcity and suspicion that too often consumes us into gratitude and generosity.

Instead of sulking in others’ expectations of who we are or what we do; we are given hearts for service, new passion for justice, and open-minds to see new possibilities that can raises the lives of others.

Instead of clinging to what we remember from the past to save us from our current challenges; Jesus opens us to new futures we could not imagine on our own. Creativity, collaboration and community can cultivate what the Spirit is doing through reinvigorated relationships.

So….do you want to follow Jesus?

It depends on what you seek.

If it is security, restriction and disctractions; stay home.

If it is ongoing encouragement that opens your heart, sees new possibilities, and longs for God’s good future; then press on. Jerusalem awaits and Jesus will be with you.

What is holding you back that you could leave behind?

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “The shocking other side of the sea” Luke 8:26-39

“What do you have to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?Do not torment me.” (Luke 8:28)

This encounter should both shock and surprise.

The setting takes place in foreign territory on the other side of the Sea of Galilee – hardly a place any respectable Jew, rabbi, prophet, or hopeful messiah should be. Yet this is where the mission takes him (and us by implication), and the need for Jesus’ presence is just as present there as in Galilee.

Jesus has an interaction with a possessed man. How was he treated? This man was chained up and and was now living in the tombs. He was exiled from the community; exposed yet locked away and mistreated by those who refused to care or try to understand. His peers were afraid of him and the danger he represented to their well-being and everyday lives. He was literally dead to them, by living in the tombs. Jesus just talks to him like a person, releases him from the physical prison, spiritual possession and exclusion that has defined his life and he sends him back into his community that rejected him to share his story of healing.

The demons are named ‘Legion’ (an interesting word choice). A Roman Legion was 5,000 men. The demons represent not only the sin and evil at work in the world but the oppression of empire that has the world under its thumb. Jesus dismisses both easily.

Legion is sent into the pigs. Pigs represent what is “unclean.” Perhaps what it is happening when Jesus drives them into the sea is that he is also subversively undercutting the distinctions made between Jew and Gentile. Why else would he be on the ‘wrong side’ of the Sea and helping the ‘wrong kind’ of people? Why are we so afraid to go to the ‘other side’ of where we feel comfortable in our own false distinctions of people?

What might people have experienced when this man, now healed from his demons came back into town to share what Jesus had done for him? He not only had his life restored – it was a complete transformation.

What might our lives look like of we started living in a way that witnessed to the transformation Jesus offers us?

What demons are holding us captive?

Where do we complacently still live in those shackles?

In a world where often feel powerless against the power, wealth and systems that hold us captive – what does this story reveal about who is really in charge? What new story can we tell?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “All that you need to know” John 16:12-15, Holy Trinity, Year C

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

Sometimes we are not ready to hear what we need to hear, we are not ready to see what we need to see, and we are not ready to know what we need to know – until we are ready to hear and see and know it.

Jesus is asking his disciples to trust him into the unknown. His promise is that the Spirit will reveal to them what they need to hear and know when they need to hear and know it; just as he has been teaching and revealing to them what his Father has been and is doing through him.

It may sound like talking a bit in circles, but the Holy Trinity is like that. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct but not separate; relational and intertwined; knowable but mysterious. Our best attempts to explain and map out exactly how God works and what God is up to in our lives often fall short of the vastness of who God is and what God does.

Yet look at the context of this passage. God is not unknowable; but revealed. At this point in the story Jesus is still with his disciples in the upper room. Even though on numerous occasions he has told them he is going to suffer and die they have not believed him, or at the very least, they have not truly understood what he was saying or what it might mean. We might ask...do we?

In the chapters that follow in John’s Gospel, they will experience, betrayal, denial, abandonment, fear, loss, bewilderment and a whole host of emotions as his passion unfolds. Jesus is telling them before it happens that not only he, but his father will be with them through it all. The Spirit will guide them into the truth to truly experience what his mission has been all about and what it means for the present and future.

Jesus could have kept explaining it all to them. He could have told them not to worry because on Sunday he would be raised from the dead.  But they still would not have seen or heard or understood. Instead he simply tells them to trust him. The Spirit will guide them into the unknown, beyond what they are experiencing or can comprehend in the moment. Then they will know.

This is good news for us because we often do not see either the big picture or beyond the pain, worry or fear we or our loved ones are experiencing in the moment; or beyond the injustice, suffering and cruelty of this world. In the midst of what may feel overwhelming; Jesus asks us to trust him.

Rather than getting caught up in Trinitarian formulations or explanations; Jesus invites us to get intertwined in the Divine relationship – never alone; never giving up one’s identity; never getting lost in the shuffle or being left behind; but united in Oneness and relationship; distinctness and togetherness; embraced and embracing.

Look for it in your own doubts and fears.When you see someone struggling in theirs -welcome them into the Divine relationship that shows us what we need when we need to know it. In the meantime God is God; we are not; but we are never ever alone.

That is all we need to know.

Press on.

PGS

Episode 76: Everyday Spirituality with Bishop Hazelwood

James Hazelwood has been a parish pastor, photographer, disc jockey and ice cream scooper.  These life experiences inform his writing for the recently released book, Everyday Spirituality: Discover a Life of Hope, Peace and Meaning

He currently serves as Bishop of the New England Synod of the Lutheran Church (ELCA)  He and his wife, Lisa, share a home along the Rhode Island coast where they bicycle, garden and enjoy visits from their grandchildren.

Everyday Spirituality: Discover a Life of Hope, Peace and Meaning seeks to help people who have struggled with traditional practices of the spiritual life. Rather than prescribing another failed attempt at daily devotional readings, written prayers and moments of quiet meditation, Everyday Spirituality exposes the truth that much of what we already do in life is, in fact, spiritual.

Through a series of short chapters centered around an action such as breathing, walking, working, eating, the reader realizes that spirituality is not an assigned section of their day or week.  It’s everything they do.

You can learn more at bishoponabike.com

Sunday is Coming! “So, where is Jesus now?” Ascension – Luke 24:44-53 & Acts 1:1-11

“While (Jesus) was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51)

If you were to hold an informal poll with those around you, how do you think people would answer the question,

“Where is Jesus now?” 

How would you answer that question?

Answers will vary to be sure.

In the Lukan narrative (Luke 24:44-53); Jesus explained the scriptures to them (just as he did on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-35] after he ate with them and had them touch him so they did not think he was a ghost [Luke 24:46-43]). He explained, “thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Jesus promised, “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Then he took them out as far as Bethany (about a mile and a half from Jerusalem) where he blessed and left them. The gospel ends with the disciples returning to Jerusalem, “and they were continually in the Temple praising God” (Luke 24:53).

In Acts (Acts 1:1-11), Luke expands the story to include an explanation of this “power from on High” (Luke 24:49) to be the coming Holy Spirit (Acts 1:7-9). The rest of the book of Acts will be a continuation of how the Spirit emboldens those first believers to carry the mission of “repentance and forgiveness” (Luke 24:46) to the “end of the earth” (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8).  Acts expands this scene even further by locating two men in white robes among the disciples. This echoes the two men in dazzling robes at the empty tomb in Luke’s Easter account with the women (Luke 24:1-12). Here among the disciples, like the women at the empty tomb, the men in dazzling clothes ask a good question. They asked the women, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). They asked the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11). [Personal aside – I cannot ever read that question without laughing. I often find myself looking at the sky for answers when there is work right in front of me to be done.]

So what does it all mean?

Jesus is not displaced out of the world by the Ascension. Jesus is to be found wherever there is repentance and forgiveness; that is in every place reconciliation, rehabilitation and restoration of the world and our relationships takes place. This work is powered by Christ’s ongoing presence that is enfleshed in the community that bears his name; that is the body of Christ. The church’s mission is powered by the promised Holy Spirit; that came; that comes to us now, and will keep coming to us in the word, the sacraments and the ever-expanding people of God brought into God’s promises of life and mercy.

Where we (the church) keep getting stuck is dwelling on our limits, failures, fractures, decline, death and/or shouting at the sky for answers. We have work to do. It takes the Spirit, in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2) to shake us up and blow through us like a mighty wind so we can look for Christ (and the need for Christ) in all the right places…and go there to share his abundant blessing of new life that keeps exploding out of the grave.

Where do you look for Jesus?

How might you help others see him?

PGS

Episode 75: The Beginning of Acts

In a new series Pastor Joe and Pastor Geoff will be reading through the book of Acts story by story.  In this first episode they talk about their favorite stories and themes throughout the book of Acts and why they decided to embark upon this series.  

How is the Holy Spirit acting in your life?  

Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Sunday is Coming! “The Peace the World doesn’t give” John 14:23-31, Easter 6C

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid. “ (John 14:27)

Peace is illusive.

We often define peace as the absence of conflict.  Yet ongoing conflict seems to have the upper hand in our world. We believe it will defeat us.

We try to achieve peace through violence. To defeat our enemies often costs us dearly.  We remember and honor our war dead. Sometimes we remember the other side’s too. Innocent lives are lost in the crossfire. Lasting peace continues because we have hit our opponents hard enough that they will not come back…

…at least not for a while.

We define peace as acceptance. We may not like the way things are in the world or the way someone has treated us. We make peace with it by acknowledging the pain, carrying it as long as we must and somehow deciding that in order to live we cannot allow that pain to define us. We carry within us the scars of this peace.

We define peace as death. Sometimes we say things like “they are at peace now” after someone’s life has ended after a struggle. They are no longer breathing. Life is gone.  There is something final to this kind of peace.  “Rest in peace,” we say. Peace in their absence becomes grief to work through for us.

We define peace as tranquility. We seek peace in serene environments in the natural world: where the conditions are perfect, the breeze is gentle, the sun is warm, and people leave us alone.

We define peace as projecting calm. Those who can handle the pressure of tense circumstance, the heightened anxiety in others, the fear creeping up in themselves in the midst of turmoil overcome the intensity of a situation by remaining calm and drawing others into the focus required to overcome threats with poise and confidence.

We define peace as reconciliation. Two people come together after being in conflict. Feelings were hurt. Lives were broken. Actions have consequences. Offering contrition and responding with forgiveness destroys the power of separation with an embrace. Life is renewed, but things will never be perfect. There is still much to struggle through together. We have memories. But peace breaks into those lives, when the one with the power does not punish the other but welcomes them home. Our sharing of the peace in church is supposed to mimic this act of restorative love among us.

Jesus offers peace. But what kind?

Jesus becomes the embodiment of conflict and violence at the cross; exposing how fruitless violence is. He confronts power by declaring it powerless, “my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36) and declares “the ruler of this world has no power over me” (John 14:30). He is our peace; bringing us together into one restored humanity (Ephesians 2:14).

Jesus does not retaliate or raise the sword. Violence begets violence. Only the path of non-violence has the potential to break the cycle. The Pax Romana – peace through power, bloodshed and terror is exposed as no peace at all.

Jesus is a peace-maker; by not accepting the world as it is. He often creates conflict directed at him and his followers by healing on the sabbath, touching the unclean, eating with sinners, talking with gentiles and women, treating both the oppressed and the oppressors with dignity and respect, and teaching about a kingdom that often confounds his hearers assumptions by flipping their expectation about God, community and the world upside-down.

Jesus destroys the power of death at Easter. This “peace that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7) re-orders our world, so that God holds our future no matter what circumstances we face; even the dire ones.

Jesus often went off alone to quiet places to pray; but always in order to re-engage the world around him. We often get caught in escapism so we don’t have to deal with others. Jesus embodies a peace that is grounded in purpose for the sake of serving others.

Jesus calls us into the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). It is not just a matter of making amends for wrongdoing, but restoring our broken humanity as ambassadors to what Christ has done to destroy sin by becoming sin so that all things are made new n him and through him.

Jesus reminds his disciples that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate is coming. They will not be on their own, but God will see them through whatever is coming next. In their story, his passion is about to unfold. In our story, the future is unknown. Fear can be a real power in our lives. Jesus reminds them not to be afraid, but to trust the peace that he gives.

Sharing this peace, Jesus calls them to get up, and get on with it (John 14:31).

We should too.

-How have you defined peace?

-Where do you see Jesus’ peace that surpasses understanding?

-What makes you afraid of trusting that peace?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Hate and Love” John 13:31-35, Easter 5C

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

The trouble is, it is far too easy to hate others.

We live in volatile times. Our anxiety and other emotions are high, our fuses are short, and with plenty of blame to go around for “how we got here” it is much easier to take out our frustrations on other people with violence, cruelty and indifference than to do the difficult work of getting to root causes, doing deep listening, and owning our own participation in destructive systems and actions. Many of us, most of the time, have no idea what to do about this reality. We can feel lost and hopeless.

Yet Jesus summarizes his message with one command:

Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12a)

What does this mean?

To understand what Jesus is calling his disciples to do and become; it is beneficial to read the entirety of John 13-17. In the fourth gospel’s version of the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion – Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. It is a self-giving act of hospitality and care reserved for the lowest in the household to offer both guests and those of higher status as they entered a home.

Jesus takes the form of a servant and washes their feet, modeling his message by calling all of his disciples into a life of service to others.

In the conversation that follows, Jesus tells them of coming betrayal (John 13:21-30) and  denial (John 13:36-38) and yet stays with them. He proclaims himself to be the way, the truth, and the life when they don’t know which way to go (John 14:1-14). He promises the coming Holy Spirit as their advocate (John 14:15-31). He reiterates their ongoing connection by declaring himself the vine (his father the vinegrower and his disciples the branches [John 15:1-11]). He reasserts the mission: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12). Jesus warns that the world will reject and hate them as they hate and reject him (John 15:18-25). He explains to them again that the Spirit is coming (John 15:26-16:24). He promises them his peace (John 16:25-33). Jesus prays for them (John 17) before they leave the upper room and the events of his passion unfold (John 18-19). Jesus does this all out of love; a love that will cost him his life. It is a love that will give them his life. It is Christ’s life we still share.

This type of selfless, life-giving love is what Jesus calls us to share with one another. It is not generic love without context. It is not hokey love without any responsibility. It is not a shallow love without any consequences. It is love that embeds itself in the reality of human brokenness, heartbreak, disappointment and imperfection – creating something new.

This love washes, feeds, forgives and welcomes. This love knows the cost yet offers it freely. This love values the life and dignity of all others. This love takes the position of a servant rather than as the master. This love lays down one’s life for one’s friends.

In this love, Jesus shares his life crucified and risen; the life of restored people sharing in community; the life of generosity and gratitude; the life of celebration without limitation. The life of the Spirit is poured upon us.

In a small group Bible study I am part of one person stated, “Love requires action.” Our shared life in Christ offers a difficult yet straightforward path to resist the hatred, fear, anxiety, indifference and finger-pointing of this world by taking action. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

-What actions do you/can you/should you take to show Christ-like love to those around you to welcome them home?

-Who do you know that could use that kind of love?

-What is holding you back from taking action?

PGS

Episode 74: In the City for Good

The 2 Bald Pastors talk with Paula Mehmel, the pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford, CT. 

On Sunday, September 24, 2017, the people of Emanuel overwhelmingly voted to call Rev. Dr. Paula V. Mehmel as its eighth Pastor since its founding in 1889.

“Pastor Paula” as she is widely known, served as the Senior Interim Pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo. While most recently based in Casselton, N.D. she is a Minnesota native. Pastor Paula holds an undergraduate degree in English and German from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Pastor Paula is a popular speaker, writer, and proud single mother of two sons who both attend Harvard University.

With a passion for serving the last, the lost and the least, Pastor Paula is a committed community member with a special interest in homelessness, refugee resettlement and addressing issues of sexual violence. She goes to Uganda yearly as part of South Sudanese Leadership and Community Development to do trauma healing and other work in the South Sudanese Refugee Camp.  Pastor Paula has also been deeply involved in homelessness issues and has served as president of Churches United for the Homeless for three years.

Pastor Paula’s calling is to make connections; between the timeless Word of God and our everyday lives, between the gifts God bestowed on us and the needs in our community and our world, and between people so that we might see all people, including ourselves, as precious and beautiful, but broken, children of God who have been redeemed by God’s grace and in order to continually extend our vision of who are neighbors are.

She relishes the opportunity to share her thoughts on anything from social justice to theology to random musings about her latest travel adventures.