What to do about ISIS

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It is hard to know what to do about ISIS. Headlines are continually being filled with the latest atrocities committed by this group. Last week the murder of 28 Ethiopian Christians was captured on video and shared online. They join the 21 Egyptian Christians also martyred, the Jordanian pilot burned to death, a young woman from Arizona and other hostages being decapitated for all to see. I can only imagine the countless other atrocities committed under the black flag of terror. It makes me ill just thinking about it. Even worse, it makes me furious.

The actions of ISIS exhibits the worst sort of human behavior – butchery sanctioned by an ideology of hatred, fear and revenge. The frenzy stirred by adherents of ISIS masquerades as religious fervor as they unleash hell on earth. ISIS ironically flourishes under the banner of Islam – a variation on the word Salam – which means “peace.”  There is no peace to be had with them; only crimes against humanity, and a reluctance by the nations of the world to stop it.

There appears to be two irreconcilable worldviews at play in the crisis ISIS poses – one that believes it is a holy obligation to kill someone different from you, and one that believes humans beings can coexist, even when we hold different values and beliefs. Unfortunately it may take sacrificing the second view to prevent the first from succeeding. My great fear is that we will cease to see those involved in ISIS as other humans created in the likeness and image of God and see their inhumane actions as evidence of their inhumanity. Once we declare them monsters rather than people it become much easier to do heinous things. In doing so we may give them their holy war.

In my darker moments I wonder if there is only possible one end game with ISIS – US or THEM – and we are the ones with more bullets and bigger bombs. This enemy has already declared war upon us. It is a scary time. Perhaps in the short-term prudence is a better virtue than enacting vengeance, but it is difficult to envision another way. Especially when the innocent are dying, we feel compelled to care for and defend the least of these. The call to arms for others becomes stronger. Emotions are high. Mine are tempered too. The atrocities are too ugly to ignore.

I keep returning to those pesky words of Jesus, “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you’’” (Matt 5:43-44). I hate it when he says things like that. He calls me out (he calls all of us out) on the fear and anger that can be overpowering, as another way emerges. If I am a person God loves, I must love my enemy, because God loves my enemy too. Sometimes that is a difficult truth to accept. Yet I also know deep in my heart we cannot allow this bloodshed to continue. That is not a call to war on Islam, ISIS has already declared war on peace. Order must be restored. But how? By who? When? I am reminded of the prayerful lament:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13)

I look forward to that day of singing. It still seems almost impossible to grasp.

I know this to be true: as those created in the likeness and image of God, and all people have a right to exist. Call me a jaded American, but I believe they have a right to determine their own future in this life, free from the tyranny groups like ISIS impose. We live in a multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious, inter-connected world. To avoid our self-destruction we must learn how to coexist, no matter how tightly we hold our own set of beliefs. As a presidential election cycle gears up at home, we would all do well to remember that here in the United States as well. In this broken and violent world can we still claim that God loves us? Yes, I believe we can.  But not without also living in the tension that God also loves our enemies. So what are we going to do about it?

We live in the paradox of working to protect the vulnerable while loving our enemy.

When a clear way forward is difficult to see, prayer is a helpful centering. So that is what I have been doing. I encourage you to join me. Perhaps new vision will emerge. I pray it will.

PGS

“Dear God, make the violence stop. Please. Help the perpetrators of cruelty see another way forward. Guide them to see YOU in their neighbor and that our common humanity cannot be demonized or disregarded. Help me see it too. Curb my anger and frustration and help me become the agent of peace you call me to be. Protect their little ones, their mothers, and their young women who are afraid and threatened. Give strength to those who have abused, violated and tortured. Stir up in their young men the passion to build rather than destroy, to protect rather than rape or kill, to befriend rather than hate. Make that true of our people as well. Guide our leaders to make good and solid decisions – weighing options and outcomes, setting aside the politics of the moment for the greater good. Renew our people, so that our country would be known as an agent of peace. Help us realize our past failures and motivations and repent of them. Dear God, forgive me and forgive us all. If there is no way beyond the bloody conflict I fear, protect our service men and women. Guide us to act not out of vengeance and thirst for blood but to help communities in exile who seek the same thing we do – a better future for our kids. Help us see you in our neighbor, rather than simply labeling them “enemy.” Bring this conflicted world together so we can build a new future together in partnership in a peace that surpasses understanding. And if need be, and the time comes to either deny you or stand strong – give me both the humility and courage to march in confidence to my end with the martyrs. Amen.”

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“Make No Mistake” a sermon on Luke 24:36-48

arrows.2.question.4/19/2015
Easter 3

Sermon on Luke 24:36-48, with Acts 3:19 and 1 John 3:1-2
“Make No Mistake”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

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“You Are Beautiful” a funeral sermon on Luke 24:36-43 for Steffie Walters

Preached on March 26, 2015. Steffie Walters, December 24, 1911-March 20, 2015.

pulpit.steffie.While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. ” (Luke 24:36-43)

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen

There are many beautiful things to share about Steffie:

…as an immigrant who made good on the American dream; with a loving family, home and community that surrounded her; a wonderful legacy.

…as an entrepreneur who put savvy and wisdom in her community both in New Britain and here in Saybrook, down by the Point.

…as a woman in a man’s world who had great success. She even had her name in a book!  Even a whole chapter, chapter 15 – “Steffie Walters – Point of Destiny”.  (Tedd Levy, Remarkable Women of Old Saybrook. Charleston: The History Press, 2013.) How about that? She will continue to be an inspiration to many women and men for generations to come.

The stories can go on and on. They will. You will tell them. You’ll tell them today, and far beyond.  Age one hundred three gives us a lot to celebrate. Not just longevity of what that means, but by the lives touched and shaped by this amazing woman with and her incredible story. And not just as an immigrant, entrepreneur or woman making her way in a man’s world, but Steffie was a woman of deep faith.

Steffie helped shape this community here, that we call St. Paul. Eddie and Steffie were charter members. You could say without exaggeration that she, “prayed this place in to being.” She prayed for this house to become a house of prayer. Isn’t that a beautiful thought?

She gave as a gift this magnificent pulpit. Magnificent not because of its beauty per se, but its size. Look at this thing! It’s huge!  It is so intimidating, the stature of the thing is so large that has gone largely unused. Karen, Mark and Karl read from it today. I normally speak from the spot Steffie’s casket now sits in the aisle. But today, I thought it was appropriate to speak from her pulpit – this magnificent gift that she gave us.

I had an email from Pastor Duane Peterson (my predecessor) who knew her well:

 “You bury one of the amazing saints of St. Paul Lutheran this week. No doubt you’ll hear plenty about her growing up and emigrating to America, her Dock and Dine years, and her feisty zest for life! 

Steffie was insistent that Charlene and I come visit her about every eight weeks.  

She loved hosting and serving coffee and goodies.  Attached is a picture from the old Dock & Dine. Yes, those are Manhattans, one of her favorite drinks.  She liked the glass large and the drink strong. And, yes, we both had more than one!

How appropriate that on the threshold of Holy Week, that you proclaim Christ crucified and risen for Steffie and for all who are swept up in the salvation of our Lord! Strength and peace to you, O proclaimer of hope!

PS:  I suspect you know that the large pulpit that is never used was donated by Steffie in memory of her husband.  It has sat there all these years, because no one wanted to remove it while Steffie was alive.  Well, I think it would make a very nice bonfire :)”

 This pulpit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about it.  Not just its size, or as Pastor Pederson suggests, having a bonfire in Steffie’s honor. But I have been thinking about what a gift like this – was supposed to mean. Why would Steffie leave it to us? What did she hope it would inspire?

That God’s Word be shared. Proclaimed. Lived. Heard. Without timidity. As bold as the size of this thing. As bold as her faith and personality that gave it. As bold as God’s love for our lot. As bold as God’s grace and forgiveness given to sinners by way of a cross. As bold as standing beside the dead, and telling you, that as Jesus is raised from the dead. So will Steffie be.

That is the promise for each of us too.

Only a pulpit this big – could be as strong as the Manhattans shared among friends; given by heart that big; with a zest for life that Steffie shared.

I’ve been wondering – what would Steffie’s sermon be? Not, what I would say about her (though I have been thinking about that). No, I wonder what Steffie would want us to know. What would she preach to us?

Everyone I have talked to, as soon as you mention Steffie’s name, lights up with enthusiasm and smiles. To the point they cannot stop talking about her encouragement, her hospitality, her friendship and love of anyone and everyone – no matter how long or how little she knew them, even if she was meeting an old friend again for the first time.  “You’re so beautiful” she said, and meant it; not just as a nicety to be shared, but heartfelt, and in the proclaiming of it, making it true to the hearer.

“You are beautiful in God’s sight, whatever it is you bring with you.” I think Steffie would want you to know that, “In the image of the Risen Christ, you are made beautiful in God’s sight.

I think she would say that with her beloved Dock and Dine that now sits in ruins and waiting, with her body that now sits in ruins and waiting, with our sadness of something so beautiful missed; that faith, hope, courage, the belief to stand strong and sure – that yes, the Dock and Dine will rise again; that Steffie will rise again; that you and I will rise again, just as Christ; is raised again – out of the ashes, of death and destruction, that new life waits for us all – and it is beautiful. “Come and take my hand,” she would say, “see my smile, my laugh, and know that it is true. And it is beautiful as you are beautiful.”

I picked this passage from Luke because it is an Easter story – a resurrection story. I know it is not even Palm Sunday yet.  Here from this pulpit and many others throughout the world people will tell the story of Jesus going to his death. But thanks to Steffie we can fast forward a little bit.   We know the horror and ugliness of death are met in the beauty of new life – where hope is restored and where new lives are meant to be lived.  We have been touched by such grace and beauty of an empty tomb. Even as we prepare Steffie for her grave, the grave remains open.

But there is more to this passage. Jesus is meeting with his friends. It is Easter evening, not Easter morning, in a story that is more familiar. It takes place after the women, bold women – bold women like Steffie, went to the tomb and proclaimed it be open.  They heard the angel say, “He is not here.” They went back to tell the others. The men thought it an idle tale.

Yet Jesus shows up.

The first thing Jesus does when he arrives is offer them peace. His peace. The peace that surpasses understanding. Peace that reaches beyond death to remind his friends after they ran away in fear and sorrow, that they were beautiful, and he would always see them that way.   That’s what the promise of resurrection does.  It breaks into our fear and sorrow and tells us we are beautiful.  That our lives are worth it to Jesus. That his love for us is meant to be shared as we touch the lives of others.

But there is even more about this story! Before Jesus sends them out to share good news, before they “get it” fully, before they touch him and hold him again…

Jesus wants to eat.

And who better to host the meal than Steffie? Not just the fish in the story, but all the fixings. Maybe some good German or Austrian desserts to go with it. Maybe some good old East Side, “Ticky tocky ticky tocky. Hoy. Hoy. Hoy.” The joy of hosting and sharing her generosity with all she knew and shared with every person she encountered, she here offers it to the Lord. Through the holes in his hands you can see the table as she hands them a robust plate and sits beside him.

You’re beautiful,” she says to Jesus with a smile.

You’re beautiful too Steffie,” says Jesus, as she slides him a tall Manhattan.

She made one for you too.  It is sitting there at the table.

Come, and sit for a while.

Steffie insists.

 

 

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Give Thomas Some Slack – You Might Learn Something

We shouldn’t pick on Thomas too much.

Many Christian congregations will read John 20:19-31 the Sunday after Easter Sunday. (It’s actually the 2nd Sunday of Easter, a season of the church year that lasts fifty days, culminating with Pentecost).

thomasThe story centers around Thomas who encounters the risen Jesus. He is usually referred to as “Doubting” Thomas, because he doesn’t  take his pals’ word for it when they say that Jesus visited them while Thomas was out.  He told them, “Unless I see him and touch him, I won’t believe” (John 20:25 – my paraphrase). Imagine how the others took this protest. I have always visualized them shaking their heads at him.  Maybe Thomas dismissively walks away.

Jesus made good on his “doubts” by showing up again when Thomas is with the others a week later, inviting him not only to see, but to touch him too. Thomas shouts (at least I’ve always imagined it that way), “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

I have also imagined Thomas falling to his knees in front of Jesus after shouting these words, only for Jesus to pick him up in a warm embrace (though John never gives us any of those details). Jesus responds to Thomas, “Have you believed because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have come to believe” (John 20:29).  With this comment at the end of the story, it feels more like judgment toward Thomas (hence the “doubting” title he’s given), and less like empowerment to all of us who came after him (though I think that’s probably John’s intention in telling us about it).

But what if we got Thomas wrong? What if he’s not so much the “doubter” as he is something much more profound for us?

Maybe we should call him – “Courageous” Thomas.

After all – he’s the only one in the group with the chutzpah to go outside and leave the safety of their hideout. The others are way too afraid for their personal safety after Jesus’ arrest and execution to dare be spotted by their enemies. Thomas takes the risk. He shows a lot of guts. Do we? Or do we stay indoors (or in our churches) where it is safe?

Maybe we should call him “Honest” Thomas.

After all, who among us doesn’t have doubts sometimes? If we say we don’t – we are either lying to others or even ourselves. Faith is about seeking trust in an uncertain world, and we face a lot of uncertainties. Personally I don’t think we can really have faith without doubt. Doubt incorporates experience beyond face value, to shape what we thought we believed into something stronger and more durable. Faith is not tried and true until it carries us through the rough patches. It helps us face the grey areas of life and apply what we continue to learn – about both God and ourselves. It seems to me that the people who exude such overbearing confidence in what they believe are often the most inflexible, intolerant and most arrogant about it at other people’s expense, as if they need to prove they have no doubts. To me that arrogance just reveals their weakness.  Faith is humble. Thomas knows where he stands. He wants to believe, but he can’t get there unless he sees it for himself. Don’t we do the same thing? It makes me question what witness we as people of “faith” give to others who are on the outside looking in when we are either dismissive or judgmental on one side, or merciful and gracious on the other. Who do we want to be? Can we be honest about how hard it is to try to live up to our ideals?

Maybe we should call him “Open-Minded” Thomas

After all – he doesn’t refuse Jesus once he sees him. We perceive a higher virtue than questions to be absolute certainty. Doubt is often seen as weakness – which often translates to fear and anger. Something that seems to have gotten worse in our society is how closed-minded we have become. We listen to “our” side of things, whatever that side is, and rule out an opposing viewpoint. Without questioning or ever giving consideration that we (heaven forbid) might be wrong or (God help us) we could learn something from the other side, we begin to hate those who differ from us. What might our politics look like if both sides weren’t so hard-lined? What about faith’s intersection with science? Or Christians and other religions? Or Christians among themselves? Thomas models for us the holy possibility of being wrong or at the very least not being 100% right. Who admits this today? Could we? Or are we too busy joining everyone else’s arguments of being right at all costs no matter who gets hurt in the process?

We should give Thomas some slack. And maybe some credit too. He has a lot to teach all of us who seek the new possibility a risen Jesus might offer in world so full of itself.

Can meeting the Risen Jesus make a difference in our lives? I hope so! What if he invited us to see, touch and believe? As Jesus invites us into a warm embrace like Thomas what can we learn about our failures, shortcomings, sinfulness and inability to live as we think we should?

What might we learn about God?

What difference could we make in the lives of others if we could model new life in Christ – so they too could see, touch and believe?

Could our congregations model open inquiry, diversity of thought towards healthy discernment and restorative relationships that draws people into community?

Do we even perceive ourselves in that light, or are we just trying to hold on to what we have while we still can?

I hope we can be people like Thomas; especially when faith is hard to see or touch.

If standing beside Thomas makes me a bit of a “doubter,” then I would say I stand in good company. After all, I, like him, want to see Jesus for myself.

PGS

___

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:17)

Posted in Church & Mission, Faith Everyday, on Gospel of John, Sermons, Thinking About Church Differently, What We Seek | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Keep the Sharp Edges” an Easter Sermon on Mark 16:1-8

0 St.Paul.254/05/2015
Easter Sunday
Sermon on Mark 16:1-8
“Keep the Sharp Edges”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

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“Public Shame and Public Love” a Maundy Thursday sermon on John 15:12-18

IMG_0793 (1) IMG_1017 IMG_1018 IMG_1020 IMG_1033 IMG_1034 IMG_10354/2/2015
Maundy Thursday
John 15:12-18
“Public Shame and Public Love”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

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“Let Christ’s Passion Wash Over You” a Palm/Passion Sunday sermon on Mark 11:1-10 and 15:33-40

palm.passion.2015.23/29/2015
Palm/Passion Sunday
Mark 11:1-10
Mark 15:33-40
“Let Christ’s Passion Wash Over You”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

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