St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was established in October of 1888. The mission of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church is TO deepen our LOVE for God and for each other; TO INVITE others into the Good News of Jesus Christ; and TO SERVE those in need.
Sunday’s reading is a rather well known Gospel parable. So much so we have a law named after the hero, I worked at one of the many hospitals to carry the name of the one that came to the rescue of an injured man...the story of the Good Samaritan is well known.
The story is told and told again, each time asking us to ponder the question: “who is my neighbor?”
Most recently, the story is being used by Christian groups at the US/Mexico border to advocate a policy of welcome and hospitality. Considering the heat around this debate, a heat more scorching than the sun in the El Paso sector, we need to be careful not to allow partisanship to scream over the Biblical relevance of today’s crisis. People are dying.
I don’t doubt anyone could successfully deny (biblically or geographically) that these are our neighbors dying in the desert. But the story of the injured man on the road and the Samaritan is not just a story provoking us to consider who our neighbor is. The story also challenges us on how we are to treat our neighbor. How do you bind up wounds and care for the injured? Is it easier to walk by the homeless man on the street? Can we ignore the crisis at the borderlands?
We have been commanded since the days of Moses to love God with our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole soul. And to likewise love our neighbor as ourselves. How do we respond? We do so in faith. We do so in love and compassion. We do so as Christian people who extend the love of God to all we encounter. Who is your neighbor - how do we treat them? In John 13:35 Jesus tells us “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples when you love each other."
This is the week in which Americans celebrate the Fourth of July.
I hope that this is a safe space for me to come out as one who is really ambivalent about both Memorial Day and Independence Day.
I look up and down the street and see that in front of almost every house, an American flag flies. Then there’s my house: on one corner of the front porch a Tibetan prayer flag flaps its petitions for peace; on the other corner, I have a wind chime patterned after a Zen temple bell. I have to say that my neighbors are pretty tolerant: but on a windy night that has been the occasion for the bell to ring incessantly, I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t raising their eyebrows with an “oh really?” kind of look.
I don’t think of myself as unpatriotic. I’m a veteran; I come from a family with a long history of veterans. My mother’s brother-in-law served in World War I; my dad had two brothers and a sister who served in World War II. A cousin served with the Marines in the late fifties. Men I went to high school with served in Vietnam, and came home to tell stories that make one’s hair stand on end. When I became part of the post-Vietnam-war Army I was taking my turn in service. The family tradition has continued: a niece’s son has just graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and has a commission as an officer with the Marine Corps. I think I speak for the entire family when I say, “We’re proud of him.”
And yet: I’m flummoxed by what seems to be an uncritical expectation of loyal support of the American military that seems more and more to have become an ideal of American patriotism. At my 50th high school class reunion last summer this ideal resonated through conversations that went from Vietnam to current military interventions. But I was doing graduate work in Montreal when the first Gulf War broke out, and a colleague, himself an avid subject of Her Majesty, the Queen of the British Commonwealth, looked at me and said, “How does it feel to be a citizen of the most hated nation on earth?” When I responded with a drop-jawed deer-in-the-headlights look, he said, “That’s OK. That was how the world saw England a hundred years ago.”
I grew up in a Lutheran congregation in which two flags, the American flag and the Christian flag, stood at the edges of the chancel. An early memory is of my parents taking me to a public forum at the local high school at which someone from out of town tried to convince us “to our horror” that there were Christian churches within fifty miles of my home town with pastors who refused to allow the US flag to be on display at the front of the church. I suspect now that that individual was promoting McCarthyism; and I learned much later that there were theological and constitutional reasons why flags were not necessarily displayed in any number of Lutheran churches. Meanwhile, at the last General Assembly of The American Lutheran Church, to which I was a delegate, preachers for assembly worship included the Chiefs of Chaplains of the US Army and the US Air Force, and the Deputy Chief of Chaplains of the US Coast Guard, all of them, Lutheran pastors. I had been served by one of them when he was a younger post chaplain; we shared the same Norwegian Lutheran DNA. He remains for me a model, not only as a chaplain or as an officer, but as a pastor.
But the question is still there: what does patriotism mean? To serve? To serve proudly? To wave the flag, proudly? If one is critical of the policies of the country of which one is a citizen, is that to be unpatriotic?
In the current issue of Sojourners magazine, Editor-in-Chief Jim Wallis writes that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” I am reminded of a book that was first published in 1976, that has been on my shelves since 1991, and that I still keep close at hand: Against the World, for the World. Its subject is different than my worrying about Christian faith and patriotism, but the title fits.
I think I’ll go down to the hardware store and see if I can find an American flag to fly from my porch.
Along with the Tibetan prayer flag and the Zen temple bell.
A critical medical diagnosis during Holy Week has started our family on what is sometimes called “a journey.” Now we’re home with signs of health and hope, and a sense of urgency to use what time we have—among other things, to take long-deferred day trips around the area.
Monday the 17th was cool and cloudy, a good day to visit a treeless place. Southwest of us, the Joliet Arsenal had opened during World War II, churning out munitions partly in conjunction with DuPont. In the 1980s and 90s, the arsenal was decommissioned, then turned into the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery and the Midewin (mi-DAY-win) National Tall Grass Prairie. In 2015, to foster prairie conservation, a herd of bison was introduced. Our goal was to find and see them.
And we did! At a distance, through binoculars, for maybe a minute, before they had the nerve to disappear down a ravine. Meanwhile, we’d taken an aerobically rewarding walk through a wilderness in bloom. Then we were famished.
A search for “restaurant near me” yielded something called “The Launching Pad” five minutes away, in the town of Wilmington, Illinois. Heading there made us think with affection of you, our friends in Wilmington, Delaware.
And then, behold! There was the 30-foot Gemini Giant holding a rocket ship, pointing the way to The Launching Pad. Come to find out, the original restaurant dated back to the 1950s and the heyday of Route 66. In recent years it had fallen into disrepair. But a couple who had met online through a website for grieving spouses decided to meet in person by going antiquing in Wilmington, Illinois. They were smitten not only by each other but by the Gemini Giant, and the dream of bringing back the restaurant as a gathering place. They re-opened it last year.
Monday’s food was good, the décor and souvenirs delightfully silly, and the various discoveries of the day a gift. In the Potawatomi language, midewin refers to healing. We experienced restoration both of the prairie and of a community watering-hole. And of course, this summer is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which the Gemini space program anticipated.
Our gospel for June 30 begins with the major turning-point in Luke: “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Everything that follows is devoted to this journey. Our July 7 gospel has Jesus sending out a multitude “to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (10:1).
It’s a season for travel, day-trips, journeys—for making connections, meeting and remembering one another, and discovering gifts along the way. For healing, for dreaming. Grace and peace to you, across the miles. May your summer be blessed.
I think that there are many of us that take air conditioning for granted. Craig and I live in a 124-year-old home (that’s rather young for the East Coast...sort of old from where we come from) and have to admit...there are times in the summer where we could not cut it if we did not have an air conditioning unit to keep the humidity down. In the 1980’s I remember when Sears came out to install the family’s first air conditioner - though I do not remember what it was like before the unit was connected.
For the sake of survival this summer, St. Stephen’s will be worshiping in the chapel. From the results of the survey, the congregation seems interested in having a Wednesday offering followed by either adding a second Sunday service and leaving things as is. Since there is energy in a Wednesday option we will begin exploring what that would look like as the summer progresses, but for now, we will be worshiping at 10 am in the chapel...safely out of the steamy sanctuary and in the cool breeze of the air conditioner.
There are those who are excited and there are those who are not too thrilled.
One of the most common disappointments in the chapel that I have heard is that it is not as contemplative and spiritually inspiring as the sanctuary. That is true. That is true of most modern/contemporary worship spaces and churches. They are void of the contemplative objets d'art, the religious inspired architecture and the feeling of worshiping with the Communion of Saints.
However, what if we create that space for ourselves in the chapel? Simply by being present, praying and singing we can fill that space with holy noise. After all, is it not said in the Psalms “make a joyful noise unto the Lord?” Our services will be kept upbeat in both tone and sound. The space will have in it many appointments from the sanctuary to help us find that contemplative and spiritual connection to our faith. Our prayer chapel will even be available for those who want a quiet moment in the library (and obviously it will also be open in the sanctuary should you wish to have an even more quiet space). I hope that you join us for the summer this year and see how we can learn and hear the message of Christ and his people.
About 15 years ago, we had a vicar at St. Stephen's. Vicar Lynell was here on Sundays, she assisted with worship, and worked with the youth groups and Sunday School.
I see Lynell every year at Synod Assembly, and we say hi. This year I was particularly excited to make sure that Lynell and Pastor Jason met each other.
Lynell was at St. Stephen's at a time when the church was going through turmoil with both personnel and finances. It wasn't one of our better periods. There was tension between people. We were hesitant to do anything because we felt we couldn’t afford it.
Lynell has a personality that is different than that of other pastors I had encountered at St. Stephen’s. I enjoyed having her here. She did some good racial awareness programs with the youth group, though not nearly enough people participated. She was a wonderful smiling face on Sunday mornings.
Betty Sperati and I introduced Lynell and Jason at Synod Assembly. They had a quick conversation to get a sense of each other, and quickly discovered some common points. Lynell is currently thinking about ways she can have St. Stephen’s and her current church in Pimlico to do some things together.
I broached the idea of having her visit St. Stephen's as a supply pastor. There aren't a lot of folks around who would remember her. But I'm excited to have her see what St. Stephen’s has become. We are a different congregation that when she was here. We’ve grown in diversity. We’ve strengthened our finances. We’ve opened our hearts and our activities to the community.
I also realized that I’m really excited to be excited about showing off my church. That’s a new feeling.
I usually love worship at Synod Assembly. There is something about being surrounded by several hundred people in the worship experience that is invigorating.
My feelings during Saturday's final worship service were different. The LYO (Lutheran Youth Group) music team provided the music. I can't complain about the group. I was in that type of group when I was in high school. I was the guitar player, and sometimes the bass player, and definitely the singer. I don't have a problem with the music, I enjoy it, and once upon a time contemporary Christian music was high on my playlist.
But I didn't know most of the music they were singing on Saturday. I was reduced to standing there, staring at the words on the screen, unable to sing along. (OK, I was being a little passive-aggressive and chose not to try to sing the songs.)
St. Stephen's has a tradition of being a musical church. We use music extensively in our worship, in the hymns we sing, and in parts of the liturgy such as the Kyrie and Hymn of Praise. Sometimes we chant the psalm or sing a hymn version of it. We offer the opportunity to sing during communion. It is a very musical service, and we’ve cut out the musical part of the Great Thanksgiving and proper preface!
Not everyone currently in our congregation is enamored of all the music. They don't read music, or they don't feel they can sing. It may seem too formal or "high church" for some of our visitors.
It occurred to me at that Saturday worship that the feeling of being left out of part of the worship experience may be how some of our own congregation members feel on Sunday morning.
I don’t see us ever giving up the music, but I have a better understanding of those who show up just for the sermon.
I had another reminder on Saturday of why I’m proud of St. Stephen’s.
I perform in a lot of churches. My harp orchestra is usually performing as part of a church’s concert series. But my women's’ chorus is usually at a church because the Music School of Delaware is using the facilities.
For example, the Music School winter program has been held at St. Stephen’s for the last two Decembers.
I’ve noticed that at some churches, we are treated as someone just using the facilities. There is no advertising at the church, and there frequently the only people there from the church are there to unlock the doors.
But when St. Stephen’s hosts the Music School concert, or the Sustainability Gift Fair, or tax assistance, or Peace Week press conferences, we treat them as our own events. We advertise them to the community; we advertise them to the congregation. We own them. If they are happening on our property, we treat them as our events.
That’s something to be proud of. We don’t just let others use our building. We make what they’re doing a part of our church life.
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
Most folks at St. Stephen’s should be familiar with this blessing, it is used often at the end of the services on Sunday. I wonder how many of you know this is from the book of Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures? One of the most well-known blessings is centuries old - a blessing that has blessed countless people throughout the ages.
In his chapter titled “To Retrieve the Lost Art of Blessing,” John O’Donohue writes “the beauty of the world is the first witness to blessing. In a land without blessing, no beauty can dwell.”* The world is full of blessings and, in fact, we are part of that blessing. Further, John explores how we too can bless things all around us...including each other.
As a pastor, I find that blessing people during a service is a very important and powerful moment. Asking God to bring a blessing on a person is recognizing the innate beauty that God bestowed upon them in their creation. To ask God’s blessing is to acknowledge the divine image in the person you are blessing. To ask God’s blessing on nature or anything is to acknowledge the divine beauty of God’s work. The beauty of the world is, indeed, the first witness of blessing. When God looked around in the first days of creation and declared the world “good,” the created world was thus blessed.
So how then do we bless each other?
We do so by first recognizing that we are all beautifully blessed by God the way we are...then we utter the words of a blessing such as the one from Numbers. Or perhaps one such as this Gaelic blessing:
“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
Or perhaps this one:
“The peace of God be in your heart
The grace of God be in your words
The love of God be in your hands
The joy of God be in your soul
and in the song that your life sings.”
Whatever the blessing may be, may you know that God blesses you each and everyday.
Yours in Christ,
*To Bless the Space Between Us; A Book of Blessings. John O’Donohue
Pastor Jason posted a photo to Facebook of his beautiful backyard area with flowers and a fountain.
He then posted a photo of the same area a month earlier with the comment, "What a difference a month makes."
Consider one of the garden plots in my front yard. It looks much the same as it did last month. The daffodils and lily blooms have run their course. The two Easter lilies I brought home have been well-watered thanks to the rain, but have yet to actually find their way into the ground. Generally, it looks just as messy and unkempt as it did a month ago.
Our gardens had the same month.
It wasn't the month that made the difference. It was the gardener.
Yes, things happen simply as a function of time. Flowers bloom and die. Grass grows taller. Things get dusty and dirty. Mold grows. Wood rots. Things rust.
That sounds like a pretty uncomfortable (and unhealthy) world to live in.
So we take action. We make other things happen.
We learn to tend our gardens, mow the lawn, do some basic maintenance to keep things functioning.
Time doesn't make food appear on the shelves of the LCS Food Pantry at St. Stephen's. But time, and the work of community gardeners help fill the shelves of the food pantry with fresh produce.
Time doesn't make Sunday worship happen. But time and the work of the staff, altar guild, volunteers and worshipers, combine for beautiful Sunday worship.
Time doesn’t bring up our children. But time, the work of teachers, and the support of family and friends give us children who are our pride and joy.
Jesus didn't tell his disciples to just wait for things to happen. He told them to go out, to baptize, and to teach.
All too soon it will be September, and we will wonder where the summer went.
What will you do to make summer more than the simple passage of time?
My family, like all Americans (with the exception of native folk), were immigrants. In the 1920’s we came to Chicago via Ellis Island - and very few of us have had the audacity to leave. Even when those of us left, the city still coursed through our veins, and our hearts would beat with a certain familiar cadence that could not quite be replaced by any other city or place. For me, that cadence has a certain rhythm to it, a certain jazzy beat.
To me, Chicago is synonymous with Jazz...and I’m not talking about Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly (see the musical Chicago for the reference) whose cautionary tale of murderous women and a desire to be Vaudeville stars tells us to stay away from “jazz and liquor.” Living on the Southside we were surrounded by the historic bars of the 1920’s Chicago jazz and blues scene. Most people I know, including myself, have some connection to someone that played in a club or on stage. Sometimes, in the quiet of the night, you can hear the ghosts of decades past still playing and singing and the clinking of glasses from prohibition era speakeasies as people laugh and talk. Jazz carries a spirit of something more than just music. Like the Holy Spirit it seems to have an essence of life to it - like the Spirit of God hovering over the deep (Genesis 1:2) - the spirit of this distinct American genre hovered over the city.
New Orleans was the birthplace of Jazz - it was born there - and is truly an American creation. It has this blending of cultures that speak to a world of creativity and improvisation, it speaks of liberation, forbearance, and freedom. And as it made its way up the river to Chicago it picked up on the culture and communities it encountered...it became a living and breathing commentary on the human condition in America. Like the Holy Spirit, it lived and moved and enlivened hearts to hear and see the world around it. It cried out in pain for the poor and oppressed - it experienced and participated in segregation - but yet it broke through with a loud voice for freedom.
My first experience with Jazz was at Jazz Fest in Grant Park, and without a doubt I felt the Holy Spirit dancing to the rhythm. So much of the music is improvisation, the ability to feed off the others in the group, to feel the beat and to expose one’s soul through notes and runs and rhythm. Watching a truly gifted artist you can see the spirit of the music flowing through their body - and I can’t help but see the Holy Spirit moving through the world in such a way. Unpredictable yet beautiful. Surprising yet comforting. Slyly drawing our attention to what is happening around us and inviting us into the moment. To be caught up in the Spirit is just like being caught up in a good beat. It moves you without inhibition.
Our last concert in the Inaugural Season of Concerts at St. Stephen’s is a Jazz concert. I do not know what to expect, but that is part of the experience. I hope that you are able to join us on Friday at 7:30 pm. This closing concert is going to be the start of our fundraising campaign for the music program in 2019/2020 that includes the quartet of student singers and additional concerts throughout the year. Please consider joining me or making a gift to the program (You can donate online hereor fill out a sponsor card ). We not only support students, but we support local artists and educators.
I hope that you find a moment to think about what sort of music moves you...what sort of music brings you closer to God. If you are willing to share with us what genres of music move you, perhaps we can find a way to work them into the coming seasons as we prepare to say goodbye to 2018/2019 and hello to 2019/2020!
Earlier this year, the United Methodist Church voted no on sanctioning same-sex marriages or allowing openly gay pastors. While there are questions about the legality of some of the ballots, and there is concern about the influence of the international church bodies, it is nonetheless the current decision of this worldwide body.
So the churches that don't agree with the decision are having to work out what their continuing relationship will be with the worldwide body.
Earlier this month the confirmation class of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, NE, declined to complete the confirmation process which would make them full voting members of their congregation.
There is a video available online which shows two young people presenting a statement on behalf of their classmates about why they were not completing the confirmation process.
They love their congregation. They love their female pastor. They love that their congregation is welcoming of the LGBTQ+ community. But they disagree with the decision made by the worldwide body, and this was their way to express their disapproval of the decision.
The congregation gave them a standing ovation.
Comments on Facebook and Twitter have been along the lines of:
"In case you needed a reason to believe that this generation will save us all, here it is." (Sheri Shuler @SheriShuler)
"These kids will rule the world." Sara Chauhan @Boodogs4
"This new generation ... have won this battle, I think." SpringPeer @RachelsBirds)
I don't think they've won the battle. I think they've given it up.
At this time, at this moment, declining full membership in their congregation is a strong statement. They have clearly thought about it.
But if in a year they haven't changed their minds, and if in a year the new confirmation class chooses to make the same statement, then they've given up the battle.
They are denying themselves the opportunity to make change from within.
By choosing not to become members of the congregation, they are giving up their voice in the congregation. They are giving up the opportunity to lead their congregation. They are giving up the opportunity to serve as a representative to church conferences where these issues are debated and voted on.
In their current congregation, it may not make a difference. But as these young people go to college and lives in new churches, if they continue their stance, they are losing the opportunity to make change from within.
I have similar problems with people who complain about not being able to vote in the state party primaries because they're registered as Independents. If you're not willing to be a member of the political party, why should you have a right to participate in their decision-making process?
After last year’s school shooting in Parkland, FL, the students realized that one way they could influence change was by encouraging their classmates to not only register to vote but to actually get out and vote. The rate of voting among 18-to-29-year-olds in Florida's 2018 mid-term election was 15 percentage points higher than in 2014.
According to an article in U.S. News & World Report:
"Preliminary exit polls and widespread media attention for the March For Our Lives movement launched after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had suggested high turnout among young voters passionate about gun reform. The teenage founders of the organization reached celebrity status, making appearances on late night TV, earning the International Children's Peace Prize and publicly taking on the National Rifle Association and lawmakers they felt were beholden to the group.
Counties with large numbers of college students had particularly impressive turnouts, with 49 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds voting in Leon County, home to Florida State University, and 46.5 percent casting ballots in University of Florida's Alachua County. Nearly 40 percent of that age group voted in Parkland's Broward County and 39 percent in neighboring Miami-Dade County, according to .. analysis." (USNWR, 1/23/19)
There have been school shootings for 20 years. Why was the effect at Parkland different? Partly because the victims were old enough, and savvy enough, to use the system to fight back. And they fought back by encouraging others to speak up and participate, to be heard through their vote. The figured out a way to make their voices heard and make a difference from within.
Rachel Held Evans died recently. She grew up in the evangelical church but was unhappy with its conservatism. Others facing the same issues have chosen to simply leave the church, and never come back.
... much of her work, was explicitly written for people who had been pushed away from Christianity. Especially after 2014, when she announced that she was “done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table,” Evans spent significant energy arguing for LGBTQ inclusion in the church. She also wrote about the importance of women’s voices in traditionally patriarchal Christian subcultures and reached out to Christians of color who were developing their own writing and platforms. Following her death, many people commented on her efforts to reach people at the margins of traditional Christianity: “Her impact on our community was enormous and deserves to be recorded,” wrote Matthew Vines, an influential Christian writer who focuses on LGBTQ issues in the Church. He encouraged people to “share your stories about this amazing woman of God
Evans did not lead a denomination or a movement or even a church, but she did invite people to come along as she worked through her relationship with Jesus. Her very public, vulnerable exploration of a faith forged in doubt empowered a ragtag band of writers, pastors, and teachers to claim their rightful place as Christians. Evans spent her life trying to follow an itinerant preacher and carpenter, who also hung out with rejects and oddballs. In death, as that preacher once promised, she will be known by her fruits.” (Emma Green, The Atlantic, 5/6/19)
She spoke up. She tried to influence change when she was within the evangelical church. They didn't listen. She left the church, but she came back to the Episcopal church. Her voice was stronger as a member working from the inside than as a critic on the outside.
I hope that the young people at First United Methodist Church ultimately decide to join their congregation. Right now they have sent a message. But ultimately their voice will be stronger as a member from the inside than as a critic on the outside.