Monday, December 21, 2015

Before the Christmas Pageant - We are the stories we tell.

(This was my introduction to the Christmas Pageant at Peace Lutheran, Alexandria VA, Dec 20 2015)

A few weeks ago I was in a training session about discipleship. What's that, you ask? The great commandment of the resurrected Jesus is to go and make disciples.  Since then, one of the purposes of church is to do that with every generation: make modern disciples who will follow the ways of Jesus.  In this time and place, we can’t assume people learned discipleship at home or in church as youngsters.  We have to teach them.  Hence, the training.

In the session, we searched for a word to use for “disciples-in-training.”  It’s too long, too church-y, and just kind of weird.  People brainstormed words around the table:

Mentee. Student. Apprentice. Novice. Fledgling. 

We all burst into giggles when someone said below his breath, “Young Jedi.” 

Ahhh, Young Jedi, prepared to follow Jesus you will be. 

Our confirmation students would probably better understand what we’re doing with them if instead of calling them ‘confirmands’ we called them Padawan.

For those who don’t know, those are Star Wars references.  That’s a movie.  And the reason I bring them up isn’t because I’m a super fan – I’m not - but because it's very clear that Star Wars has influenced a lot of people’s lives.  With the release of the most recent episode, the anticipation was at its highest.  People dressed up in costume, memorized their favorite parts, and even reenacted famous scenes.

What a weird thing to do?  To get SOOOO into a story that you would dress up and reenact it?  Why would you do that?

Indeed. Why?  It must be because that story means something. 

Stories give meaning to our lives; they help us understand our larger context and give us connection points to previous generations.  As one South African saying goes, “We are the stories we tell.”  We are the stories we tell and even more we are the stories we repeat.

As I prepare to spend time with family in the next weeks, I plan to be intentional about listening to their stories, especially the ones I’ve heard before, because those are probably the ones that matter most. I’ll hope people have the grace to listen to my stories too.  Though it costs nothing, listening to another person's story may be the most precious gift I give this Christmas.

All our stories are best understood against the narrative of that larger story that holds us all together.  As we tell our stories, we may even be able to see ourselves in light of that great story: a story of good and evil, innocence and corruption, complex father-son dynamics, ancient wisdom passed on to the hope of the next generation, empire and rebel, an underdog team of misfits, sin and forgiveness, justice and mercy, the need to save the child, the hope that the child will save us.

This is not Star Wars, of course.  This is the story of Jesus and it’s the story that makes us who we are.

We can't get enough of it.  We tell it and read it and sing it and write books about it and make sure our children know it.  We listen to older generations reminisce and we marvel as younger generations catch its spirit. 

We become superfans. And yes, we even dress up in costume and act it out. We are the stories we tell.  Now let's hear from our youngest disciples-in-training as they tell us the greatest story of our lives.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Independence Day

Independence Day

You were three and a half weeks old when I drove away from you.  That makes it sound much more dramatic than it was.  I didn’t leave for good or sneak off like an unhinged mom who just couldn’t take it anymore. Your dad and I decided it would be good for all three of us if I took time by myself and he cared for you without me hovering.  I left you fed and content sleeping on his lap. I had nothing to worry about.

And I wasn’t worried.  But as I backed out of the driveway, surprising tears sprung.  I felt a physical tug in my uterus – your old apartment - as I slowly drove away from home. “You can do this.  This is good,” I tried to soothe myself.  I was disoriented on my own street.  I wanted to go back home to you but that wasn’t the deal.  I needed to be gone for an hour.

59 minutes to go.

I decided to go to the library and then the garden store, two places I knew well that were close enough to home so that if the SOS call came I could be back in 10 minutes. I expected that call to come.

From the library parking lot I called my own mother.

“Guess what I’m doing for the first time in 3 and a half weeks?  Spending time away from my daughter.” 

My mom’s response? “It’s not the first time in three and a half weeks, it’s the first time in ten months.“

Indeed. She understood.  For ten months you and I have been as intimately tied to each other as two people can be.  It should not have surprised me that even in a familiar parking lot five minutes from home, I felt completely lost without you.

I hung up with my mom, halfheartedly searched the stacks where the books all seemed like foreign objects, and checked out something by an author I remembered I used to like.  I drove to the garden store and called my mom again while I browsed perennials. She told me what kind to get.  We talked about the details of your young life. And then she told me of the death of someone I’d grown up with.  A skateboarding accident.  He was 35 years old with a wife and young child. 

I heard that news differently than I would have before.  I pictured your dad dying and I ached for the wife left to raise their child alone.  I imagined if I died and shuddered at the thought of you growing up without me.  I pictured the man’s parents and felt their grief in my gut.

To lose a child.  This is a new fear. It makes me want to never let you out of my sight.

Had the hour passed? Had I been gone long enough?

“I love you mom, I have to go.” 

“I love you too sweetie. You’re doing a good job.”

I hung up the call, paid for my plants and hurried home.  I imagined a scene of chaos.  You shrieking while your dad tried his darndest to shush and sway you.  Him at his wits end and me rushing in to save the day with that thing only I can give: milk.

Instead you were cashed out on the mint green boppy on his lap.  He was reading, the dog was sleeping.  All was calm.  I was both grateful and at a loss.  Didn’t you miss me?

“How was she?” 

“She was just fine.  She woke up a while back and cried so I gave her formula.”


We had talked about that option.  It was perfectly ok in the parenting pact for your dad to break open our emergency stash of formula and give you a bottle. We’d even gone over how to make it.  But I was crushed.  For your entire existence, except for that microscopic material that swam in from your dad, all the physical building blocks of your life came from me.  Now, you were sullied with enfamil.  No longer a breast milk virgin.  No longer solely my creation. You could survive without me.

This is how it goes from here on out.  We slowly unravel from each other. 

A goal of my parenting is to raise you to be an independent person. The tricky part is that means I will need to become an independent person too.  Rationally I know it is a good thing.

Still it felt good to take you in my arms, whisper “I love you” and feed you my milk.  

Still I hope that 40 years from now, you’ll call me to comfort you when you feel lost and afraid.

photo credit: _DSC2628 via photopin (license)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Backpacks full of stones are heavy. Words for the week, Feb 22 - March 1.

We’re in a focus on forgiveness during Lent at Peace. We're also mostly off the lectionary.
Last week, I preached about the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and was about to be stoned to death in John 8.  Jesus told the crowds ‘let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  One by one, people put their stones down and she was free to go.  Jesus showed compassion for her.  It’s only through God-given compassion that we can forgive one another. 
I told a personal story of forgiveness between my father and me.  For years, I experienced the lack of forgiveness between us like a heavy backpack of stones.  I could always reach in and find an old hurt to hurl at him.  I was always worried that something I’d done would be flung at me.  The burden of carrying all those hurts weighed me down.  When I decided to ask for and offer forgiveness, it was a huge relief.  As we both set our backpack of stones down, we allowed for the past to remain the past and for the future to be something new.
Listen to the sermon here:
This week, I will preach about the decision we all have, in the face of hurt, to choose to harm or choose to heal.  Drawing on two Biblical stories of brothers, Jacob and Esau (Genesis 32) and The Prodigal Son and Older Brother (Luke 15), we’ll see how God’s future comes through healing, not through revenge.  Healing isn’t easy and it can take time, sometimes years.  Throughout the process, God is with us, empowering us, every step of the way. 
  1. In the world, where do you see people clamor for revenge?
  2. If you forgive, is that the same as letting someone off the hook?  Have you ever withheld forgiveness because you were concerned about being fair?
  3. When have you experienced a homecoming like the one the father offers his prodigal son?
Be at peace,
Pastor Sarah

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bye Bye Buy Buy Baby

For Friday date night, my husband and I went to Buy Buy Baby.  We were no farther than the first aisle when I needed to sit in a glider for 20 minutes and take a break. All we'd looked at were cribs but I could see the shelves of stuff threatening ahead.  I was overwhelmed.

How many kinds of bottles or blankets or strollers need to be made available to expectant parents?  How much of my waning energy will be sucked up by researching the difference between car seats or brands of diapers?  And how much is this all going to cost???  We made it through every aisle but we had to stop at the grocery store on the way home. This called for ice cream.

We were demoralized.  It wasn't that the experience made us think we'd be terrible parents exactly.  It's that it's all new landscape and we want to do our best. Having the right stuff seems like it should make the navigation into parenthood easier but the sheer variety of choices just makes it harder.   

After emailing some close friends and family for advice, I quickly learned this is a rite of passage for middle class parents-to-be.  Go to the big box baby store; get totally overwhelmed; feel daunted by the consumerism of this supposedly natural and holy event; eat ice cream.  

It reminds me of when I went into the Peace Corps.  I received a standard packing list for my host country and I began fretting.  I bought tee-shirts and returned them for button-downs.  I couldn't find the perfect dresses so I sewed some myself.  I lost sleep - yes, lost actual sleep - over the question of how much shampoo to pack.  I weighed and reweighed my suitcases a hundred times as I tried to get the perfect 81 lbs of stuff, my sole provisions for 2 years.  

It was not until after I settled into my life in Malawi that I realized how much my stress about stuff was really misplaced anxiety about the transition itself.  After all, people in Malawi live their whole lives with what they can get there.  Duh.  This couldn't have been about the stuff.  It was about my need for control and predictability in a time when everything seemed strange. 

As I fret about baby stuff, I know that it is mostly about trying to control and predict what is uncontrollable and unpredictable: what will happen with our child's life.  All the stuff in the world won't be able to answer that.  It's a faith challenge to trust God, my husband, and myself with the gift we're about to receive. The words of Psalm 23 ring in my ear: "The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need."

We'll do the best we can to prepare, of course.  The lists from our friends have helped tremendously.  Victory! We've actually chosen a stroller and car seat.  People have been generous with hand-me-downs and our stockpile is growing. Plus, we can actually purchase things after the child is born, right?   

A little perspective helps too: most parents throughout time and history haven't had the luxury of such choices.  Our choices mean we're rich.  We have the basics covered: food, shelter, heat, health care.  I can't imagine the anxiety of wondering how we'd provide for this child's most essential needs.  And plenty of people who long for children and have experienced the pain of miscarriage, infertility or drawn out adoption processes would kill for our problem. We're hardly facing a crisis.  

Still, I'll probably feel overwhelmed by stuff again.  When I do, I'll cling to the advice my mother wrote in the face of my buy buy baby panic.

"I don't even know what a bumpo or a boppy are.  What a child needs most is parents who love it and yours already has that."  

It most certainly does.  

Be at peace,

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Words for the week: Feb 1 - Feb 8

From Pastor Sarah
Last week, my sermon focused on 1 Corinthians and the debate over eating sacrificed meat.  Paul pointed out that this raging debate wasn't really about their diets, it was about their witness.  Our actions should always be influenced by the question: Does this action show God's love? 
It's tempting to turn our faith into a morality lesson.  Certainly our faith in Jesus affects our sense of right and wrong but Jesus did not die just so we could get a new set of rules that we would then - because we're human - fail to follow.  No, Jesus showed us something beyond ethics, beyond morals.  Jesus showed us love and love isn't summarized in a list of right or wrong actions. 
Listen to the sermon here.
This week, my sermon will focus on Mark 1:29-39, where Jesus heals illness and casts out demons. As I've prayed and discussed and studied this text, it's become abundantly clear that deeply faithful people have a variety of viewpoints on what is meant by these demons.  We don't know exactly what plagued the people Jesus encountered.  Were they displaying symptoms of what we'd now consider mental illnesses?  Were they epileptic?  Were they possessed by an evil spirit that goes beyond modern scientific explanation?  Does that spirit still enter people's bodies now?  Does it operate on a more communal level?  What is evil anyway? 
I admit that I'm puzzled by what exactly Jesus was doing back then or what the corollary would be for our time.  But I can say this for sure: Jesus was concerned with healing bodies and spirits, individuals and communities.  The healing ministry of Jesus is one that can speak directly into our lives, for as we all know, everybody is in need of healing of some kind.  
  1. When you think about evil and demons, what comes to mind?
  2. Jesus went out in the wilderness to pray.  Is it difficult or easy for you to find time alone to pray?
  3. In what way are you in need of physical healing?  Do you ever feel like you have a demon that needs to be cast out? 
Be at Peace,
Pastor Sarah

Monday, February 2, 2015

Words for the week: Jan 25-Feb 1

From Pastor Sarah
Last week, in a sermon about Jonah, I pointed out that Jonah's pouty response to the Ninevite's conversion reveals something true about all of us:  We find it easier to be righteous when we have a clear enemy.  Or put another way: it's easier to be the good guy when everyone knows who the bad guy is.
When a person you'd written off as unworthy changes, you may have a hard time allowing them to be different than they were before.  Their change means you have to change too.  Since God's mercy extends to the Ninevites, Jonah would have to accept those Niniveites were no worse than he was in the eyes of God.  Now Jonah would have to face them as equals which would mean confronting - yet again - his own shadow side.  He probably just wants to get rid of the fishy smell that lingers on his body and these Ninevites remind him, he's as in need of God's mercy as they are.
Listen to the whole sermon here:
This week, I will preach on 1 Corinthians 8. Paul wrote to a new church as they tried to figure out the rules that would govern their life together.  In their case, at issue is if they should eat meat that had been killed in a sacrifice to idols.  Since we no longer have that struggle, it's a safe, non-emotional case study for us to learn something about how to resolve conflicts within a church.
Churches can so often get polarized into our various camps that we forget that the central reason we are together is because God loves us. Church isn't made up of people who know the most or even who do the best.  We're made up of people equally in need of God's love.  Yes, we need order and rules, but it's love that undergirds them all.  As Paul writes, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
  1. Have you ever been so focused on being "right" that you damaged a valuable relationship?
  2. How would asking yourself "what's the loving thing to do?" change a conflict you are currently in?
  3. What small gift of undeserved love has someone given to you recently?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Last week this week - Jan 18 and 25

Note: each week I send a summary of last week's sermon, a preview of this week's, and discussion questions to our church email list.  I am going to try to also post these on my blog weekly in the hopes they may be useful to others.  Be at Peace, Pr Sarah
Last week, I preached about Samuel, Eli and the courage it takes to follow your calling.  We all are called by God to be part of the on-going project of spreading the good news of Jesus. This takes different forms: volunteering as a Sunday School teacher, being a parent, working a job you find meaningful or being the best neighbor you know how.  All people can serve God wherever they are. To paraphrase Martin Luther, if you're a plumber, be a plumber for God.  

The difficulty is that sometimes when start to see our lives as part of God's calling, it leads us into unknown and scary territory.  We can feel quite alone.  Think of how a lone dancer at an outdoor concert becomes the leader of an all-out dance party.  One person starts, but then a few people have to follow and pull others in.  When we step out in courage, we are tempted to think of ourselves as the lone dancers, but really, we're always followers.  The followers are essential - otherwise there's no party! - but the followers aren't the ones who start it. Jesus precedes us as the first dancer, giving us the courage to get on up and follow to where we hear, deep down, God is calling.  

Listen to the sermon here.

This week the texts are also about calling.  I'll preach about Jonah, that prophet who tried to flee from God's call only to find himself in the belly of a big fish.  You probably know that God rescued Jonah from that fish but you might not know the second half of the story.  "God's word came to Jonah a second time." He went where God had originally instructed and told the people they needed to change, to repent.  

This is a story about second chances.  God gives Jonah a second chance but it's not as if Jonah can now just do whatever he wants.  The second chance is another chance to follow God's will.  That means Jonah has to accept that other people - people who were his enemies - can change just like he has and receive God's mercy.  It's too much for Jonah.  The people repent but instead of rejoicing Jonah becomes angry.  His anger seems ridiculous, until I consider how often I hold onto grudges and refuse to let others change.  Jonah's example challenges us to consider why we get angry when someone else gets a second chance and invites us to ask what we do with the second chances God offers.
  1. Have you ever been angry when someone you didn't think deserved it got a second chance?
  2. Have you ever gotten a second chance?  How did it change you? 
  3. In Jonah, God is portrayed as angry at people's evil behavior.  What do you think God is angry about now?

Ten for Ten. Ten reasons it's great to be a pastor, in celebration of my 10 year anniversary of ordination.

I'm in there somewhere. I was ordained at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington DC on November 10, 2007, ten years ago today. ...