Thursday, April 17, 2014

Recap of Lent - something has to die, something else has to be born.

Something has to die, something else has to be born.
During the five Sundays in Lent, that phrase shaped my sermons.   

A recap:       

  • Putting to death your desire to live without human limitations gives birth to acceptance of yourself, limits and all. (Matthew 4:1-11)
  • Putting to death your need to be the expert gives birth to the possibility of being changed. (John 3:1-17).
  •  Putting to death the belief that your past is unforgivable gives birth to a future with unimagined possibilities. (John 4:5-12)
  • Putting to death the idea that God’s work is limited to the people you deem acceptable gives birth to increased joy as you celebrate God’s activity in all kinds of people. (John 9:1-41)
  • Putting to death the fiction that you have control over time gives birth to an ability to trust God’s timing, even with the timing of death. (John 11:1-45)

Now, on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, we will experience this death/birth  dynamic as powerfully as possible as Jesus goes to the cross and rises to new life.

What will die along with Jesus?  Fear, shame, separation from God, reliance on our own selves, and our hope in human constructs to save us.

What will be born? Courage, freedom that comes from forgiveness, unity with God and one another, trust in God, and hope in our living God to do what no mere human could do – love us through the dying places into new life.

Be at Peace,
Pastor Sarah

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Samaritan Woman at the Well and The Healing of the Blind Man. (John 4 and John 9)

Something needs to die; something new needs to be born - Peace Lutheran Church's Lent series.

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), here are a few things that needed to die: 
-          her idea that shame about the past should keep her from God’s love;
-          her belief that Samaritans and Jewish people had nothing in common;
-          the disciples’ view that a Samaritan woman wasn’t fit to spread the gospel.

In short, this encounter put to death the idea that God’s work is limited to people who are deemed “acceptable.” 

As we try to live as Jesus’ disciples, this story is a caution to make sure we engage unlikely people in the work of spreading the gospel.  We can start by befriending people who are different from us.  The good news is that we are all unlikely!  As we are willing to show our own unlikeliness – in the form of awkwardness, discomfort, honest confession of our past – the Holy Spirit will appear.   What will be born? New relationships build on honesty, mutual acceptance, and a fresh amazement at God’s forgiving love.


This week, we will hear the story of Jesus’ healing the blind man.  Sadly, the miracle of healing is overtaken by the Pharisee’s debate that follows: Who healed him? Wasn't it wrong on the Sabbath? Was he really blind?  The Pharisees defensiveness makes them unable to celebrate the miracle of healing.

We are quick to identify ourselves with the blind man and pounce on the Pharisees as self-righteous prigs.  But again a caution; before we identify with the blind man, it serves us well to ask 'in what ways we are like the 'Pharisees?'

How are you blind to the joy and healing in other people’s lives? 
Have you ever been so sure you were right that you couldn’t accept somebody with a different experience?
Are you resentful of someone else’s good turn?
From what specific spiritual blindness could you ask God to heal you?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Something has to die, something else has to be born.

Note: each week, I send the congregation sermon summaries of the last week and a preview of what's coming up.  My tech was off this week so there's no audio.  In Lent, my focus is: Something has to die; something has to be born.

Something has to die; something has to be born.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus, it took a lot of courage.  He didn’t understand Jesus, he just knew there was something important about him.  Jesus’ insisted that the Spirit can empower people to be born again.  Nicodemus never really understood it and neither do we.  But that is the point.  When we are born again, we are like infants.  We’re out of control, we’re dependent, and we don’t understand most of what’s going on.

What needs to die in order for you to be born again? What’s the shield that keeps you from admitting all that you don’t know?  Nicodemus teaches that when you let go of your need to be the expert, you become open to the Holy Spirit’s life-changing work.

This week, we will hear a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who has had 5 husbands. She’s not your typical conversation partner for a Jewish man, much less someone holy.  But she's so affected by Jesus she turns into one of his followers and tells everyone about him.  When the old disciples find Jesus talking with this new, unlikely disciple, they are speechless.  This is not the kind of person Jesus should be talking to!

It’s easy to think of unlikely disciples as others. But what makes you unlikely?  How can knowing yourself as unlikely help you welcome other, equally unlikely people into this community of the unlikely disciples?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Getting Married Pt 2 - So, how'd you meet?

My fiance and I met online.

There.  I said it.  I'll say it proudly and openly to anyone who asks but I wasn't at all comfortable with on-line dating when I started six years ago.  I was moving to the DC area for my first call as a pastor.  I knew I wanted to live life with a family and I didn't know how else I'd meet someone.  I set up my profile with my brother vetoing particularly generic/pathetic lines (he nixed my initial profile name, "the purple turtle," saying I sounded like a 7th grader who believes in unicorns). My sister-in-law cheered me on, getting so into it that she wished she could do it too. M, I said, you married your high school sweetheart; we're all on here because we want what you've got. 

At first, I was terrified of people finding out I was online dating.  I quickly went from to eharmony (a more private site) because I didn't want anyone to find me.  Of course, what I actually wanted was someone to find me, so that was counter-productive.  I was ashamed that I had sunk to online dating.  It felt desperate.

Despite my shame, I kept at it.  I devised the term "inquiry coffee" instead of first date - took the pressure off.  I realized that if I were in it for the long haul, I'd better develop a thick skin and a good dose of humor.  I laughed off the person who lied and added seven years to his age because he likes older women; or the person who, after reading that the environment was important to me responded with "let's go burn some fossil fuels."  Huh?

After many months and gallons of inquiry coffee, I got serious with someone I was with for a few years.  But when that ended...

I hated having to go back on there, but even more, I hated walking through my life lonely and powerless hoping to bump into prince charming at the grocery store.  So, the last time around, I did more than just online dating.  I also got bold about asking friends for help.  They responded with care.   One couple arranged a dinner with their single friends so we could all meet.  One set me up with a date.  Ultimately, none of those people worked out, but having a network of support took the edge off and gave me hope.

Here's the full story of how I my fiance: It started with someone on my frisbee team.  Over time, he'd piqued my interest. A few years ago, in an uncharacteristic fit of boldness I emailed and confessed I was curious:

"I am not practiced at dipping my toes in the water, so please excuse me if this is waaay off base - or if your wife or child or girlfriend is looking over your shoulder and laughing!  Or if you are gay (I can never tell!) or just otherwise uninterested. I don't really know how to do this, but seemed worth exploring."

He had a girlfriend, but he was very kind in his response.  A year later, I went back on and his profile was the first that popped up.  I emailed him immediately and found out that he was already seeing someone (note to self: if he hadn't thought to ask me out on his own, he wasn't interested).  But still he was friendly and kind.

So I mustered courage and asked him for advice.  He looked over my profile and sent me a page of feedback.  He told me to get onto OKCupid (no, I'm not being paid for this endorsement!). He also said he'd keep an eye out for someone "awesome to introduce me to."  But the most important thing he wrote was about the fact that I'm a pastor:

"...for the right person it will be an awesome thing."

My identity as a pastor had felt like an enormous amount of baggage, but these words made me realize I just hadn't found the right person yet. 

I took all his advice and within a couple of weeks, a goofy, musical, fun-loving, caring, progressive baptist minister-turned-theology professor emailed me. He was the right person. The rest is history in the making.

Despite the statistic that an estimated 20-35% of marriages in the US in the last 5 years started online, it still has an underground, dirty feeling.

That's why my fiancee and I claim it proudly - to take away the shame and give other people hope.  We met online, thank God!  And I mean that.  We would not have met otherwise and we're so glad we did.

matchmaker, la la,

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Getting Married, pt 1 - Why'd it take so long?

On Oct 12 I'm getting married! Over the next month, I'm blogging various aspects of this big transition. 

A neighbor recently asked me "why did it take you so long to get married?"  My knee-jerk answer was "once I met my fiance, it didn't take long at all!"   That's not what she meant.  She told me how in her day, 22 was considered old to be married. I'm 38.

She posed the question as if deciding to get married is like deciding what to eat or when to take a vacation.  You just pick out what you want and when it works for you and bam, it's done.  She didn't know how often cries of "How long, oh lord?" went up from my lonely heart.  I have generally thought that if it had been completely up to me, I would have been married a long time ago.

That makes it sound like I've been waiting for a date for years and wondering when I'd meet anyone I loved.  I've gone on loads of dates (thank you, been in love and seriously contemplated marriage, going so far as to get engaged once and half-way engaged another time (words were exchanged but not rings or anything formal).

I could have been married by now.  So why I have decided not to?  It's too simple to say that I hadn't met the right person. It's taken me 38 years to know myself enough to know who the right person would be.  Much of that has to do with my identity as a pastor and how faith and work fit together with family. 

1) Faith: Twice I almost married men who were not fundamentally people of faith. The first time, it was someone I met in the Peace Corps.  We shared five good, formative years.  The relationship ended the same month I discovered I wanted to be a pastor.   I instinctively realized, without knowing why, that if I wanted my faith to be the central driving force of my life, he wasn't going to be the right husband. 

The second time, I was a new pastor and very much struggling with my identity.  It was comfortable to date someone who didn't bring any religious expectations into the relationship.   We went to worship together on Sunday nights and he came to church when I preached.  But it's telling that in 2+ years of dating, he never integrated into my church life. He respected my work and supported it, but we didn't share a faith.  That also meant that we didn't have a shared values system at the center of our life together.  We had no end of conflict.

At one particularly desperate time, I turned to a chapter by Pastor Martin Copenhaver called "Married to a Pagan."  I even asked my then-boyfriend to read it with the hopes that the love between pastor and atheist could turn into a marriage.  It works for Copenhaver; it would never work for me.  Our lack of shared faith didn't play consciously into our end, but it contributed.

With my fiance, our relationship is founded on shared faith. Committment to God is first for both of us.  I love the intimacy that brings us, the conversations  about church stuff, the shared values, and the theological debates.  Yes, his faith takes a different form (he's baptist), but that's great too.  His church life isn't dependent on mine.  He has a pastor.  We don't compete, we bring different insights and we respect one another. We pray for each other and with each other.  Now that I'm with him I wonder: how could I have ever thought that I would be happily married to someone with whom I didn't share all this? 

2) Work: I dated someone for a couple of years with whom I shared faith but who I sensed would never take my career seriously into account.  Great guy.  Not for me.

I have secret fantasies of keeping a clean house, cooking meals 7 days a week and having a perfect garden.  If children come, I dream of making their Halloween costumes and being the president of the PTA.  In short, I imagine becoming my mother (she is a great mother!). I also have dreams of a successful career that is meaningful and supports my family financially.  I want a cool office and respect of my peers and a rich intellectual life.  In short, I also imagine becoming my father (he is a great father!).   Guess what: there's a reason it took two of them to do it all.  

My default in relationships has been to cut out the dreams of being my father.  I've pretended, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that I could be a happy homemaker or a person who gave up career ambitions or for her family.  No wonder my boyfriends got confused when suddenly I was unhappy with the kind of set-up I'd led us both to believe would work for me!  I love my work and I love a clean house.  Classically gendered divisions of labor aren't going to work for me. 
My fiance frequently does things that reveal to me that they don't work for him either. 

For instance, on the day of my installation as the pastor, he brought an apron and after the service, went to work in the kitchen.  He let the day be about my call and the church and he wasn't the slightest bit insecure about it.  Last Saturday, while I was at a church council retreat, he cleaned my house and went grocery shopping for me.  He supports my career not just in lip service, but in these tangible ways. And I try my very hardest to do the same for him and his career.

Geography re: work also matters.  My fiance and I met just a few months after we both committed to positions in the DC area.  That meant that our relationship could develop without big geographical questions looming in the balance.  There's no assuming I will move wherever my fiance wants me to for his career and there's also no assuming that he will move for my career.   That's not to say we'll never move.  It's to say that there's no assumption that one person's career takes precedence over the other.

Other women (and men) have made different choices and happily let their husband's career dictate their location and thus direction of their careers.  That just wouldn't work for me, at least not now.

Speaking of...I better get to the office.  

More on marriage to come...

Peace and joy,

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bishop Eaton's Election - cheers go up!

I love Mark Hanson, the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Every time I've heard him or seen him, I've been amazed by his pastoral presence.  He is kind, faithful, generous with his time, dedicated to the church and a spiritually attuned preacher.  He has led the ELCA through stormy waters.

Because of his myriad qualifications and gifts, I assumed he would be re-elected, so when a friend posted on her FB page that there was a women in the running for Presiding Bishop, I did what I usually do:


This is something most women pastors I know do (it seems as if most groups who represent a minority in leadership do this same thing).

Out of 65 local bishops, only 9 are women.  That's less than 15%, and that's after 40+ years of ordaining women.   I didn't think there was reason to cheer when one finally made it into serious contention.

Well, a woman just got elected.  Our new presiding bishop is The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton. (Incidentally, she wasn't the woman in contention yesterday. Church elections aren't like governmental elections).

With the news, my phone screen filled with exuberant texts from female clergy friends.

These cheers have nothing to do with our respect for Bishop Hanson. These same friends love and honor his gifts, as do all the pastors I know.  He has been the right leader for these past twelve years.

Still, we cheer. We cheer because clearly, Bishop Eaton also has great gifts.  We cheer because we trust that Bishop Eaton will be the right leader for the future and we cheer because her gender did not disqualify her.  These cheers have everything to do with knowing just how hard it is for a female leader in the church to survive, much less thrive.

There's some social media chatter that she was elected because she was a woman and so those who cheer for her are sexist.  To those folks, I ask that you keep in mind that in most of the world's religions, women can't serve as clergy/leaders; in other words: being female is an automatic disqualification. When the last Pope was elected, the only qualification was that he be male.  He didn't even need to have already been baptized, as long as he was willing to be baptized and then ordained.

We didn't elect a pope; but we did the equivalent for our relatively tiny church - the ELCA.  This election indicates that the stained glass ceiling really is cracking. I love Bishop Hanson, and I join my voice to the chorus of cheers for Bishop Eaton. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Words for the week: all kinds of greed.

I spent last week at a workshop called "writing pastors, working pastors." It was at the Collegeville Institute at St. John's University - a community I highly recommend.  Twelve pastors and three facilitators were there for a week of writing, critiquing, and sharing our love for language. 

I went into the week feeling insecure about my writing which, in turn made me feel competitive.  We each wrote a piece for the workshop which was distributed ahead of time.  I am embarrassed to admit that as I read the essays, I had a bit of a "survivor" attitude.  I sized up the other writers and tried to assess their merits relative to my own.   I didn't want to come away with a book deal.  I just didn't want to be kicked off the island. 

In the mornings we met to discuss questions like: why write? why not write? who are we writing for?  how do we write revealing and embarrassing stories about our family members without them being angry with us? (that last question was easy: don't.) 

In the afternoons, we lovingly critiqued eachother's writing.  I was initially terrified by the word "critique" but over the course of the week, this became my favorite part.  We encouraged one another even as we pointed out how we could each improve.  There was no competition, only graceful nurture and respect.

The facilitators helped us see that each of us has a unique voice.  They ended the week by encouraging us to be generous with each other.  “There’s room for you all” said one, “help each other out.”   I began the week with 12 competitors; I ended the week with 12  cheerleaders.

That experience became the basis of my sermon last week.  The gospel was Luke 12:13-21 where Jesus says "be on guard for all kinds of greed."

There’s more than just financial greed.  In my case, I struggle against the greed for praise. There’s also greed for attention; for job promotion; for the quality of relationships you see others have; for spiritual insight; for another person’s abilities etc etc etc.  And the crazy thing is that greed and its companions – jealousy and insecurity– appear in our lives even when we have plenty.    

That's why the community at Collegeville was such a grace.  Because of the abundance of love, nurture, and encouragement, my greed was replaced with generosity.  

Thanks y'all! - Sarah

AND, the treat of the poem of the week from C.R., Peace Lutheran's resident poem-hound: 

Hyacinths, by James Terry White

If thou of fortune be bereft,
And in thy store there be but left
Two loaves-- sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.