The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

The words were flying like bullets. I had shared what I thought was a well thought out, reasoned article on faith in today’s politically polarized environment on my Facebook page – then without a second thought headed out for a walk. When I returned I found a message waiting for me from one of my high school friends apologizing for the messy tirade she had made of my post. I had no idea what she was talking about but when I looked at my Facebook page – holy moly! While I was out enjoying God’s magnificent creation, a few words had turned into a violent verbal battle between two friends of mine who did not know each other but shared me as their common, well-meaning opiner. I had missed most of the volleys thrown my way – the writer had deleted her words before I could read the vitriol – but I was filled in on their content later.  Words that went along the lines of because of who I did or didn’t support as president (which I did not divulge, to begin with) I could not possibly be a true Christian. ME! Of all people!! My high school friend, someone who is also strong in her faith, had met with the fiery tongue of yet another strong believer who just happened to be of very different political stripes and unfortunately, the two did not see eye to eye. Needless to say, my high school friend felt bad about airing her views while the other posit-er blocked me and would not respond to my attempts to temper the discussion – deleting all of it instead. Not that I had anything to say that could change such polarized minds. In the end, all parties involved retreated to our safety zones – our respective tribes – the place where we belonged, where we found camaraderie, loyalty, and protection for our differing views on what it means to do life and what it means to be a Christian.

In ancient times, tribes provided the social, economic, and religious structure along with the necessary physical protection that we humans needed for survival. We humans were and still are ill-equipped to survive on our own. I like to think and am pretty sure that God had a hand in that piece of our evolution.

A recent Google search returned page after page of insight on modern-day tribalism. There are tribes designed for sports enthusiasts and business influencers. There are tribes for hobbyists and travelers, tribes for political junkies and naturalists. Musicians, parents, adventurists, holistics, yogis, the list goes on. There are “find your tribe” memes, inspirational tribal quotes, and tribal gurus ready to help you find your special tribe. Companies build advertising campaigns appealing to our tribes. Tribes are apparently good for business and obviously, finding yours has become an important quest in today’s world and for good reason. Tribes at their best nurture an environment for generating new ideas for work and life and create a sense of community which is vital for a healthy productive life. Our tribe provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and, if developed to its highest purpose even provides health and wellbeing benefits.

According to management consultant and TED Talk presenter David Logan who has researched and written on tribal development in modern society, there are millions of different tribes in the world but they all fall into one of five categories determined by their stage of cultural development. Those consist of the undermining stage which is often seen in prisons and gangs who share the belief that life sucks and you are coming down with me,  next are those in the apathetic victim stage who share the view that “my life is hopeless, your life is better” which in turn breeds resentment among the tribe members with a kind of ‘lose/win’ mentality, next are those in the lone warrior stage who say  “I’m great and you’re not” which creates a ‘win/lose’ mentality within the tribe and sets members up for disappointment in their fellow tribe members. Those in the tribal pride stage belong to a group that is united around a set of values and form the view that “we are great, they are not” – it is still a ‘win/lose’ approach, but one where the ‘win’ is based around the group rather than an individual. The final stage is the innocent wonderment stage; the stage of highest purpose and not surprisingly – the least likely level in tribalism to achieve. It is also the most enlightened stage of tribalism, where life really is great and a healthy ‘win/win’ mentality forms. The group is in competition with what’s possible, not with each other or another tribe.

According to Logan, most of us find ourselves in tribes characterized by the middle three categories: apathetic victims, lone warriors, and tribal pride. All three of these tribal development categories share a win/lose or an us versus them worldview.

Worldviews set on human things like judgment and greatness. Views built around fear, anger, resentment, envy, and acquisition. Views set on perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or in control. Views that harbor prejudice, indifference, or apathy. These tribes nurture and advance our stumbling blocks rather than help us overcome them, and in the eyes of God – do nothing to advance His kingdom on earth.

Not that this form of “belonging” or joining together is anything new. This sort of tribalism began in the Garden of Eden and follows through all human history. It confounded Moses, it inspired David’s Psalms, and it provided plenty of teaching material for Jesus. Today, this win/lose, us versus them, I am right and you are wrong vision permeates our politics, defines our dogma, and has crept into our churches. Even with our increasingly pluralistic society, perhaps because of it, we hold tightly to our doctrines and orthodoxy – certain that our tribe has all the answers, knows the ways and will of God. We take ownership of and want to control what God’s work in the world will look like, even to the point of deciding who can witness to it and experience it. We, of course, are foolhardy in doing so as God can never be owned, can never be controlled. But we sure try!

September 9th was Rally Sunday. It was a kind of unusual one for us this year with Pastor Pete on sabbatical. Rally Sunday is usually full of excitement – everyone is back from their summertime doings – Sunday school kicks off – new programs are introduced, new liturgies are sung, and the pews are filled with all ages again. This year we struggled to get Sunday school teachers – and we are still searching for a Sunday School Director by the way – we were singing the same tired liturgical verses we had sung all summer long – and our pews were certainly not full. As a member of the congregation’s leadership, I notice these things. I was also very aware of the big deal happening down the street and around the corner from us. The grand opening of a “mega-church’s” Columbia Falls satellite congregation with their praise band and worship team all set to put on weekly concerts for God lovers. Their parking lot was reportedly full – for all three services mind you – and I couldn’t help but wonder… We have competition! If all those people were so hungry for God – why not just join us??  We obviously had plenty of room – and maybe we could even find a few more Sunday School teachers! My tribal pride was aroused – feelings of envy, frustration, fear that we might lose members to the next big thing to hit Columbia Falls swirled inside me. What do they have that we don’t? God should be working through us!

Now I admit, I am not proud of my reaction. But I know I am not alone with thoughts like this. Heck, even Jesus’ earliest followers went wayward in their discipleship, quite often in fact, as we have seen lately throughout the gospel of Mark.

In today’s gospel reading, John zealously informs Jesus of someone performing acts in His name, but the disciples stopped the exorcist because he was not one of them – not a part of the “in” group. We don’t know much about this outsider – perhaps he didn’t speak, think, act, or look like them but we do know this – he was not part of their Jesus Tribe – and the disciples saw him as getting in the way of their faith and ministry. And when they could not stop him they told on him.

One can only imagine the thrill it gave John to tattle on the outsider given that the disciples themselves had just recently failed at what this outsider was succeeding at – driving out demons. They were also still puzzling over the comeuppance Jesus gave them when they were arguing over who among them was the best. This act of loyalty would surely please the teacher. Apparently, to the disciples it was not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower – one of them (or one of us?)

But Jesus sees through John’s self-righteous glee. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. (Jesus says) No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why,  anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

Once again, the disciples find themselves on the receiving end of a whole new way of thinking. I imagine they were a little disappointed in Jesus’ response. Not only does Jesus not support the disciples in their action, but he also does not criticize or condemn the outsider.  As Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, says, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”  Not only have the disciples drawn a line between who is in and who is out, it seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith.

It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the others in our lives, as we encounter differences of opinion, as we encounter different practices and understanding. Is our zeal for our particular view of the gospel – or maybe it has nothing to with the gospel but rather – our fear of those who are different from us – is that zeal or fear placing a stumbling block before others that makes it harder for them to see and feel the love of God in Christ?

Do we stay within our win/lose us versus them tribal safety zones or do we strive for an enlightened response – do we dare contemplate the possible (because with God anything is possible)? Can we step up to the next level of wonderment described by David Logan or the kind of discipleship we are freed in Christ to live?

Only if we surrender the tribal patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we allow others to perpetuate in us. Only if we surrender the ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors and God really are.

The choice is ours, but it is a heavy choice. As Fr. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest writes, “Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love.”

The goal of faith is not winning, unlike that of our tribalistic culture. Those of us in the Jesus Tribe need to remember that the goal of believing is not who can be better – whatever “better” means. We need to remember that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation of Christ is in us. The new satellite church is not Our Saviors and we will never be like them. But together we will express the love of God in ways that reach people who may not be able to hear it as they or we might express it. Just think how boring it would be if we all believed and worshipped the same way. Not even our Scriptures propose that. If we truly believe what we confess, that the Holy Spirit lives in each of us – then we should rejoice in and encourage that expression of God through us in its beautiful particularity.

In this time of pluralism and polarization, we need the community and support of a tribe. A tribe that reframes how we think about our lives, our commitments, our identity, and our vision of what constitutes authentic Christian community. Let’s ensure the Jesus Tribe is one in which we do see Jesus – one that is open to all who seek to know his grace, his forgiveness, his amazing love. One in which life really is great – for everyone – because in it we see God. Our God is there.

Amen.

 

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.

The Body of Christ

As I sat in church this morning, reflecting on the cross, tears stung my eyes and my throat ached. The hubbub of families back in the pews after adventure-filled summers reminded me how important the church has been in my life for as long as I can remember. From my days when I couldn’t see over the pew when Mom was the organist and Dad, as always, was in charge of everything but the preaching, to my days in confirmation when Mom and Dad guided unruly 7th and 8th graders through Luther’s Catechism with other committed parents, to my days serving alongside Dad on council and the building committee –  the church, the congregation, the Body of Christ has always been foremost in our family life, even after Mom drew away.

 

Today it hit me hard. I will never look down the pew and see my Dad dressed in his Sunday attire again. I will never see him standing attentively and with authority at the back of the church in his standard ushering uniform of a green blazer, khaki dress pants, and Snoopy tie making sure the service ran smoothly –  so often at the expense of his own time with God. I will never see him walk forward with conviction and humility to receive the Bread of Life. Dad even celebrated his 80th birthday at a church meeting! Church is different now. My perspective of the cross has changed forever.

 

Mom has been gone for an impossible 18 months, and Dad an achingly short 5 months. At times it seems like just yesterday since I last looked into their eyes. Today as I watched families, young and old, gathering together as one in Christ, the emptiness inside me was almost more than I could bear – almost. Just as Jesus promised –  “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there” – and He was. Bearing me up, and showing me that this hubbub of family was my hubbub too Those families, that Body of Christ, is my family. Church will never be as I remember it, in the hey days of my family. The church to me now, will be as Christ envisioned it to be –  my family.

 

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for raising me in the Body of Christ, for giving me a family greater than blood. I love you and miss you so much.

Let your light so shine.

The Spirit at Work

 

 Writing a sermon, I am learning, is far more than sitting down and writing about whatever moves me. It entails a thorough reading and research of the scriptures and lots of time spent pondering the message contained therein until the Spirit moves me to share that message in a way that is relevant to today and moves others to a closer relationship with and/or understanding of God. This is exciting  to the writer in me but I am also daunted by the incredible opportunity and responsibility I have to share the message of Jesus Christ! It is a heavy burden knowing that someone in the pews really needs God in their heart that day and I don’t want to let them down. I want my words to be God’s words and I want them to mean something! And so, after much prayer for the right words, God’s words. I endeavor to bring His light to someone’s life. 

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Grace and peace to you, fro God our Father.

In today’s Gospel, we find the disciples hidden away on the evening of Easter Sunday – their Lord had just been crucified, died, and apparently risen and they had been left behind. These were the people who had given up their lives to follow Jesus. Their hope for the promise of salvation that Jesus taught had now become their fear. I am quite certain none of the Disciples expected the story to end this way when they signed on with Jesus. How could they possibly comprehend that the story was just beginning as they wrestled with their fear, grief, and shock at what they had seen that morning, gathered in the safe confines of that locked room? What had they just witnessed? Would they be next in line for the cross if they continued to spread the news of Jesus the Messiah? To the casual bystander, the story of Jesus Christ “the Messiah” appeared to be an utter failure!  Would the Disciples trust the words of Jesus that he would indeed return, that they would never be left alone, or would they let their dreams die on the cross? Amid the Disciples shock at Jesus’ resurrection and their fear of the unknown, Jesus broke through the barriers of this world and came as a vessel of peace. He breathed into them the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit – giving them and all who believe His ever-abiding presence, His oneness with us and with God, and the strength that comes only from an uncompromising faith.

How often do you let your own dreams die on the cross? How often do you rely on what you know to be true when facing big decisions rather than where your heart – the Spirit within you-  is leading you? We come to church on Sunday mornings to be fed with the bread of life and have a right spirit renewed within us, and then what? We go back to our comfort zones because we are comfortable and have control over what happens there. Why is it so difficult for us to trust this Spirit we seek on Sundays with all of our days and all of our ways? We like to leave “it” safely behind in the church sanctuary “where it belongs” until next week.

We make our way through life, trying to control our interactions, the outcomes of our actions, and we expect certain results from our efforts –  but we blame God when things don’t turn out as we intended. We believe we can secure our destiny and our salvation through our own means, even if our ways lead us to despair. This is human nature. We are given free will after all, and we like to run wild with it at times. But what guides that will? From whom do we seek our direction?

For those of us lucky enough to have been schooled on Luther’s Small Catechism, we know (but perhaps we have forgotten or are too set in our logical ways) that our friend Martin emphasized our utter dependence on faith. This faith cannot exist apart from the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Word. We cannot believe in Jesus Christ without the aid of the Holy Spirit nor enjoy God’s saving power without the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ calls us through the gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, makes us holy, and keeps us in faith not by our own means and strength but only through the Holy Spirit that dwells in us just as it does the whole church.

In todays’ readings, we find very different manifestations of this Spirit. We hear about the powerful rushing wind-like force of the Spirit complete with lashing tongues of flame – the Spirit we traditionally associate with Pentecost – the Spirit that gave birth to the church, and we hear about a much more intimate encounter with the Spirit – where the Holy Spirit speaks of peace and breathes into our hearts and empowers us.

We see the Spirit at work in the texts, at times doing some pretty amazing things – creating community, renewing the creation of earth, inspiring gifts in service to the Lord, and breathing life into and empowering dreams – but do we stop to recognize when the Spirit is at work in our own lives?

We are infinitely blessed by the Spirit’s work in the creation and we rejoice in the grandeur that surrounds us. We give thanks for the bounties and blessings He provides when we gather in celebrations. We see the goodness of God when life is good, but when we face challenges in life- be it a serious illness, loss of a job, divorce, death, financial troubles, wayward children, struggles with addiction, even just the daily monotony of living that wears us down – we wonder “Where is God in this?”  But what if God is right there in the mess?

He is, you know, always, just as He promised.  And that is what makes us nervous. The Spirit is always with us and at work in ways that will sometimes affirm, sometimes surprise, and sometimes forever alter our faith in Jesus. That is the Spirit’s intent. If only our faith was as strong and true as our hindsight!

None of us are immune to the difficult challenges of life. I will be the first to admit to bouts of faltering faith, complete frustration, irritation, hopelessness, and despair especially in the last year, as I dealt first with my mother’s unexpected death, my father’s cancer diagnosis and debilitating treatment, my own health crisis, and then Dad’s rapid onset of Alzheimer’s leading up to his recent death – my faith faltered and despair hung over me – for as long as I was trying to control the outcomes. This was not how 2017 was supposed unfold! Things like this didn’t happen to us! It wasn’t supposed end this way! Yes, I demanded, where was God in this chaos?

He was right there with me, and when I yielded control and opened my heart to accept that His way was better than MY way, that life was unfolding as it would even though I couldn’t comprehend why at the time, I felt empowered to keep on. God moved me out of my comfort zone, that frankly really wasn’t all that comfortable, and with His Spirit coming alongside, showed me the peace that comes with trusting that He was with me and would guide me when I needed to be guided, He would lead me when I needed to be led, and He would comfort me when rest was needed but would not come. Just as He was doing with my Dad.

Where was God? Well, not only was he working through the Holy Spirit in me, he was working through the Holy Spirit in YOU! That same Holy Spirit that was coming alongside me was manifested in and poured out from you! Just as Paul said, some of you were given the gift of wisdom which you shared with me when I was frustrated, some of you were given faith which you held for me when mine was faltering, and some of you were given the gift of healing which you did when you cared for me. And it wasn’t just me that was the beneficiary of these gifts and all the fruits of the Spirit. I saw them poured out from you in times of need and times of joy onto other members of this congregation, on members of our community, and this church body as a whole.

That is the Spirit at work. There you see God.

Without the Holy Spirit’s presence, there is no Christian community because the Holy Spirit is essential in calling, gathering, and creating community. The Holy Spirit is the direct presence of God in our life.  The Spirit expressed in the love of our hearts and that remains there throughout our lives is God’s spirit. God will act in our life in ways we don’t always understand or even like. God will correct us when our ways need correcting and sanctify us with the grace revealed in the resurrection when our human predicament of sin gets in the way.

That is the Spirit at work. There you see God.

My Dad knew and was guided by the Spirit within him and he was the greatest example of a life lived in faith that I have ever known. He lived assured in his decisions and he carried an essence of joy with him because of this. He knew how important it was that his children had the same foundation of faith and confidence that he did. He was eager to get to church on Sunday mornings and he did not leave the Spirit safely behind. Aside from his love, our faith is the greatest gift our Dad could have my brother and I. The circumstances of my Dad’s last days were beyond my brother’s and my control and seemed at times to be a constant swirling chaos in our heart and minds. We felt we were failing him, that we had to do more.  But the same empowering peace the Holy Spirit breathed into the Disciples was ever present in my Dad throughout his last days. As Dad left us, he took with him an intangible part of our lives and we were emptied but the one called alongside us, the Holy Spirit breathed into us His empowering peace, redeeming our greatest loss into our Dad’s greatest victory.

That is the Spirit at work. There we saw God.

The Holy Spirit is there to guide us, to comfort us, and advocate for us. Look at what God has done- the Word became man; this man did things so contrary to popular belief that he had every reason to fail; and He endured the ultimate failure – humanity’s greatest failure – humiliation for His acts and death on the cross. But God redeemed our failure with the ultimate victory over sin and death – raising His Son in the glory of the resurrection and sending the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.  If God can do this, imagine what He can and will do in your life!

Will you let go of your fears and be nudged from your comfort zones? Will you trust the Holy Spirit with your dreams and let Him guide your life?

Let us pray-

Come Holy Spirit, help us in our unbelief and open our hearts to the work you are doing in our life. Direct us by the light of your Spirit that we may have a right judgement in all things and rejoice always in your presence and peace. We are never alone for you are our Lord and our God. Amen

 

 

A Man of Integrity and Faith – I love you, Dad

The godly walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them.

– Proverbs 20:7

As I write this remembrance, I am marking two weeks since I last held my father’s living hand. I will always be my Daddy’s little girl and he will always be the greatest man I have ever loved and known. I am who I am because of his loving and guiding influence on my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself thanking him for the lessons in life he taught me or recalling a valuable piece of wisdom he gave me as I try to make sense of the world. So many of the decisions I make today are made on the foundations of faith, character, and conscience he instilled in me.

His vibrant livelihood and body had grown weary of this world and his spirit had longed to be free riding the range, dancing with my mom, and acing every hole from the tee for some time. I know my dad was ready for the ultimate glory awaiting him in heaven that he so richly deserved, but I was not. He went so fast the morning of April 29th – just like him – always efficient, never wanting to lollygag. I still had so much to tell him and so much to learn from him. I am not sure how I will go on in this world knowing I will never hear him say, “I love you Erika, wish you were home,” or feel him hug me tight again. He was the only one who would listen to me play the piano and tell me: “That was nice!” and listen with tongue-in-cheek glee to the stories of my mountain-top adventures.

I spent hours trying to capture his life in words for the eulogy I gave at his memorial service. In the end, I rewrote everything in an hour right before his service – this time letting my heart speak – awakened and renewed from a beautiful run in God’s glorious morning light. My hope in sharing this with you is that you too will come to know the most amazing gift you can give or receive is that of knowing the Lord and living a life in faith. For as each of our days come to an end, it is that relationship with God and knowing His peace that will carry you through.

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Good Morning! Thank you for being here to help celebrate the life of a very special man, my father. The first thing I thought of when I woke up today was what a great day it is indeed – we are going to have a celebration of my Dad’s life!! And as Fred (my brother), so eloquently captured –  such a life it is to celebrate!

I was going to speak about the essence of my Dad’s life. I spent 12 hours over 2 days writing about the things that brought happiness to his life. But then I thought, you all knew Dad, you knew the essence of him – that’s why you are here! I may be studying to become a pastor but I certainly don’t want to stand here and preach to the choir! Instead, this morning I am speaking from a daughter’s faith-filled heart renewed by the promise of life in a new day.

In the last few days, so many who knew Dad, even only in passing, remarked how happy he always was. And as I poured through the photographs of his life, it was hard to find one photo where he didn’t have a robust smile on his face.

Of all the things that brought happiness to my Dad’s life – the people he shared it with, his family, his grand-dogs, his colleagues, his career, his past-times – the one constant source of happiness and strength and peace – and I firmly believe the most important source of happiness and life in his last days – was his faith!

I opened his obituary with Proverbs 20:7 – The godly walk with integrity – blessed are the children who follow them.

As I was going through his scrapbook last night, I found another verse – one that meant something to him as a 17-year-old in 1949 and one he obviously carried with him throughout his life – Proverbs 22:6, “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I know I am blessed to follow in my Dad’s walk of faith. Dad raised us in faith, as beloved children of God, and he entrusted his life and ours to the Lord. He was a proud Lutheran but humble in his ways. He encouraged us in our faith growing up. I know it brought him great concern and sadness when I, for a wayward time in my 20’s, quit going to church.  And I know how much it meant to him to have all of us all sitting in the pew with him again here on Sunday mornings in recent years.

Dad never missed church. He was always raring to go on Sunday morning – much to my Mom’s demise. There were more than a few horn honks and terse words said as we sped to church- but Dad knew he needed church. He needed the grace and mercy, the forgiveness and love that our Lord freely gives. As great a man as he was – as kindly and gentlemanly as he was to everyone – Dad knew he was a broken man as we are all broken people – and he knew he needed the Lord.

Of course, the people of this church made him happy. I think that is why this and every church we have been a part of for that matter meant so much to him. The people found inside were so important to him. But oh, how he LOVED THIS CHURCH!  Keeping a congregation alive meant he was bringing the Lord deeper into his heart. And that is why he devoted so much of himself to this church. He never shied away from saying yes to the Lord when He called him to a ministry – be that building a church, leading a congregation, cleaning a bathroom, raising funds, teaching Sunday school, or serving as an usher. He served our Lord with a sense of honor, respect, and love. It meant so much to him to participate in the ground-breaking for the new “Building Of Faith for Generations” here just a few short weeks ago.

Dad had a deep and ever growing faith, one he nurtured through continued study, service, and sharing and I am so glad he shared his mighty faith in the Lord with me. I can only hope to be half the leader of others to knowing the peace of Christ as he was in his quiet evangelism. His steadfast faith is the greatest gift, aside from his love, that he could have ever shared with me.

I know that my Dad’s faith was a beacon and source of strength for him. A beacon for my life, my faith has sustained me too, through all the opportunities and challenges that have come my way.  Because of the gift my Dad gave me –  I have faced those opportunities and challenges with a sense of strength that I know comes only from the Lord’s presence in my life. Unlike my Dad, I can’t be as quiet about it as he was.

I leaned on my Dad an awful lot in life – he was my source of wisdom, of political intellect, of what is fair and what is right. He was my counselor on all matters of living – and he did so with the heart of Jesus. He was my encourager and biggest (but quietest) fan. He knew he had done his job well when he saw how deeply I was growing in my own faith.  In a moment of clarity, a week or so ago he came right out and asked me how my lay pastoral studies were going. When I told him it was the best thing that could be happening to me right now, he responded with a strong GOOD!

In the last few minutes I had with my Dad, we shared the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we spoke of how Dad let his light shine so that others could see the good works of God, and how I hoped and prayed that I may do that as well and as purely as he did.  We spoke about letting God’s perfect will be done.

Dad had found a peace that surpasses our understanding – and while at the time I was not willing to let him go without a fight – I was able to – as that same peace began to wrap around me.

I will have to lean on the Lord a whole lot more in the days to come.  But that is ok – He has my Dad there to help carry the load.

Being Neil Morck’s daughter was a pretty honorable position to be in and how I most often identified myself to others!  Now I know that not only am I Neil Morck’s daughter and a child of God, but a woman who lives for God. He prepared his children well for life – to forge ahead in our own identities accompanied all the way by our Lord Jesus Christ.

My Dad saw the world through eyes that have seen just about everything this broken and beautiful world has to offer, yet he always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. The Lord gave him a very good life and he was very happy.

Yes, the godly do indeed walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them. I happen to know that the godly walk in happiness too, and as my Dad’s favorite daughter, I am eternally blessed and happy to walk in his footsteps. Now I know why he was always so horn honking eager to get to church on Sunday mornings.

A Different Christmas

“God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.”
~ 1 John 1:5

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Christmas Eve 2015. I sat by my window in my lonely LOG (loft over garage) watching the snow continue to fall, as it had for days and days. Its pristine beauty and sound softening aesthetics belied the frustration it brought to my spirit. Winter had lain claim to my plans for a Christmas trip home to be with my family for the holiday for the first time in three years. And last year more than any, I needed to embrace the warmth, understanding, and love of my family. To be with my mother and father who had had a difficult year and a brother and sister in-law whom I had not seen enough of in 2.5 years.

For sure, it would not be a traditional Christmas for my family even if I had made it home. My mother, who was seriously ill and hospitalized in a state of confusion and despair would be our point of gathering – we would not be going to Christmas Eve candle-light services before looking at Christmas lights and gathering around a brightly lit Christmas tree at the hearth of our home to open presents, share stories and eat peanut brittle.

I too, found myself navigating a new chapter of my life, quite alone and feeling quite broken.  For sure, my heart was not filled with the joy of recent years. There were no stockings hung in my LOG, no gifts under a tree – I was supposed to be in Billings- and Christmas carols were making me cry. Sadly, I was not alone. Around me a marriage had crumbled, trusts were broken, another’s child sat in jail, suicide had claimed a family’s idea of forever, and others treasured every moment of what would be a last Christmas with a loved one.

The world around me felt distraught – plunged into a darkness where even acts of charity were questioned for their ultimate goal. Hunger, strife, terror, desolation, and frustration tore at our nation’s unique fabric- once bound together by common beliefs and goals – now seemed to be splintered across a dark abyss.

A year later, not much has changed in the world – some would claim it has become even more divided, darker, even doomed. In this darkness, we try to make do.

Christmas brings to a culmination, our humanly efforts to cast away the darkness in the world – engaging in the wonderful merriment of holiday festivities, attempting more perfect lives for this special time of year until our perfect plans and family gatherings go awry and our high expectations for the holidays go unmet.

And yet, despite our quest for perfection in our holiday celebrations- our desires to reflect the storybook Christmas traditions we have grown to expect and claim as our own – Christmas came to be in the most IMPERFECT WAY.

Imagine Mary’s despair, being fully pregnant and having to travel 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph by donkey for a census of all things! Talk about the best laid pregnancy plans going awry! Of course, once there they find no guest rooms available because everyone is in Bethlehem from afar to be counted. And then as if on a very bad cue, Mary’s labor starts and they find shelter in a stable where she gives birth to our Savior and places Him in a manger. A manger of all things!

In the most imperfect and darkest of circumstances a Savior, my Savior, was born. Is there a subtle message for us in that lowly beginning? Jesus’ birth was certainly different than what I am sure Mary had planned! If there were storybook traditions for birth, Jesus’ certainly didn’t follow one.

I am finding less and less truth in the storybook Christmases I remember “having” as a child and those that I perceive others around me having. Yes, the joy and love that comes alive in the hearts of many this time of year is real but the lives that love and joy manifest in are far from perfect. We grasp on to holiday traditions that we carry over year after year in an effort to reclaim that perfection we remember. Straying from those traditions or losing one here and there brings us heartache – as suddenly the Christmas we are celebrating is different from how it is supposed to be.

The Morck family Christmas traditions have been carried on from year to year – decking the halls, arguments over which halls to be decked, lighting the angel chimes, trimming the tree, presents for the dogs, slammed doors on the way to church, gritted teeth in the pews, peaceful and happy moments by the tree as we open presents late into the night on Christmas Eve – fueled by hot chocolate and peanut brittle as the rest of the world slumbered. But the last three  Christmases in my life have been different. Except for last year when life changed for our family, the Morck family traditions were carried out in Billings without me and I found myself trying new ways to celebrate. It wasn’t easy. Christmas wasn’t perfect. Christmas was different and Christmas was beautiful. Yes, you read that right. Beautiful!

“The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
~ 1 John 2:815250853_1394939560530638_2397082385538831720_o

You see, despite all our broken traditions, turmoil, and testiness; despite our deemed lack of preparedness and perfection; despite the darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR COMES! BECAUSE of our broken traditions, turmoil, and testiness; BECAUSE of our deemed lack of preparedness and perfection; BECAUSE of the darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR CAME!

Christ came in the most imperfect way to give us LIGHT! Last year, as I faced Christmas alone, He brought light to me as I was longing for home and the traditions that were missing from my life. I found His light as I sat “alone” in church, listening to the Christmas Eve sermon. But I really wasn’t alone – I only made myself out to be. I was surrounded by people experiencing their own Christmases, some equally as different as mine.  I saw tears glistening on cheeks other than mine. I realized I was sitting with people just like me. Each of us imperfect and each of us a masterpiece, made in His image and given newness in Christ Our Savior’s LIGHT.

Into my very different and dark Christmas, my Lord and Savior shined His light on the people that have crossed my path and made a difference in my life and at once I felt at peace, felt heart aching joy, and I no longer felt alone! Looking back, I realize that my “different” Christmas was the greatest gift I could receive at that difficult time of my life. I had been set free from the chains of tradition that made my heart ache in their absence and found the most beautiful peace in my “different” Christmas. And this year I am making a different Christmas my new tradition.

Christmas will be very different for me and my family this year and I am okay with that. My mother has gone ahead of us to celebrate Jesus’s birth with Him and shine her light in the stars above. Once again, I will find myself away from family but I will not feel or be alone. My life is full of the Light of Christmas and filled with awe inspiring, imperfect people making their way through life and through their own Christmases.

I thank my Lord for each of you, for in some way, my Lord is working through you to impact my life and I pray that in some way, I have been a light in yours. I wish for you the beauty of a different Christmas this year. I pray that you find His peace and His glory, that you feel His presence in your heart, that His power guides you through your journey, and that His love and light shines brightly on you even in the most different of circumstances.

May this Christmas have a special significance for all of us— imperfect people in need of a Savior, who comes to us just as we are in many different ways and walks.

Let your light so shine, as His light shines in the darkness.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!

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A Different Christmas Morning – 2015

Clearing the Gloom- Rejoicing in Light

But as for me, I will sing about your power.
Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
a place of safety when I am in distress.
~ Psalm 59:16

dscn6501I love Sunday. Especially sunny Sundays after 20 straight days of rain. It is the day each week my strength is restored, my thoughts gain perspective, my heart is filled, and my soul rests, in Him.

Sunday- when my Lord deconstructs the chaos and reconstructs my life.

Escaping life. I don’t desire that anymore. There were times in my life that I looked for that secret door that would take me to a better place, but I look no longer.
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When I turn to my Lord instead of running away, I have the strength to find the good in the moment – even when it seems this moment is all I can see. When I call on Him to shine His light in my life, I can be a light in the lives of others. When I am weak, when I have lost heart, He picks me up and restores my spirit.
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Where do I find Him? Surely in the quiet of morning, even before the light of day springs forth, and certainly in the majesty of the mountains he formed, but my true relationship with my Lord is found and made complete and solidified when I share in His Light, His Love, and His Amazing Grace in the company of others.
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There is no better place than a sanctuary on Sunday mornings followed by God’s grandest sanctuary – his natural world, especially when He has been busy painting.

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Let Your Light So Shine.

True and Proper Worship

True and Proper Worship.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.~ Romans 12:1

When it comes to worship, churchgoers love to talk about the who, when, where, and what of worship, but do we really know HOW God wants us to worship?

When the occasion arises that we are in search of a new church to attend, we often focus on the experience of worship. Was the music jazzy enough? Did we find peace in the process? Did other members welcome us? How long did it take for communion? Did the congregation say the correct version of the Lord’s Prayer?

When we invite our non-member friends to worship we often refer to how we feel after a service or how great the sermon was or what beautiful songs the choir performs. While these are all integral parts of our Sabbath Day experiences, these acts are not what the Lord our God had in mind when He calls us to worship Him.

If we relegate our worship to the experience we have on Sunday morning, we are going against what Paul advised his followers in Romans 8:7 (The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.) By placing our worship experience in church first, have taken a very self-absorbed approach to worshipping God. We have lost sight of what the act of worship is all about.

God wants us to worship Him in all that we do. “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” Rom. 12:1a MSG. He wants our lives to be lived to His glory so that all that we do is an act of worship before him. That means, when you are at your desk on Monday morning do your work with the spirit of God leading you; when you go to lunch carry the grace of God to your server; when you walk your dog tender His love on the least of these; when you pick your child up from school thank Him for this precious precocious one. That is how God wants us to worship Him. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. (Romans 12:6) Use them for His glory. Worship Him by using them well.