Do You see what I see?

This sermon was preached on February 5, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 7: 1-17.

Last week in our Scripture reading, we had the story of two different Sabbath days with Jesus pushing the boundaries of what it meant to observeSabbath in light of changing circumstances. Today, we have two towns, two healings, two very different circumstances.  In the first healing, the healing comes to one outside of the people of God, to a slave of a Roman centurion.  The Jewish elders sent toJesus appeal to him and declare the centurion worthy for he has helped the Jewish people, even built their synagogue. This was a man of means and it seems a man of faith, for while others call him worthy, he knows his own unworthiness and asks Jesus not to even come to his house but just to say the word and he knows his beloved servant will be healed.  A man of deep faith who was not a Jew. And Jesus heals the servant, expanding the boundaries yet again of who belongs in the Kingdom of God.

The second story is much different. No one calls the man who has died or his widowed mother worthy.  There is no indication that they are a family of means.  The man is not sick but already dead.  But when Jesus comes across the dead man’s mother, it says he sees her and has compassion on her.  As a widow with her only son now dead, she is a woman without hope.  Women at that time were dependent on the men in their lives for survival and she is now a woman without husband or son.  She is doubly vulnerable.  Jesus sees her and has compassion  on her and so raises her son from the dead and in that act she has now been restored to community and survival.

This word compassion is important in Luke.  Compassion is not to intellectually understand that someone is suffering, it is to feel for that person on a visceral level.  The word in Greekcomes from  the word intestines.  Jesus feels for this woman on a deep, gut-wrenching level. Two other times we hear this word compassion in Luke.  Once when the good Samaritan has compassion on the stranger in the ditch and cares for him and again when the father sees his prodigal younger son returning and has compassion for him.

The compassion that Jesus felt, that prompted him to resurrect this widow’s only son, is the call to suffer with the powerless.  Henri Nouwencalls Jesus life of compassion a life of “downward mobility”.  He says “Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation.”  “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in  the condition of being human.”

To see those who are suffering and to feel compassion towards them is not always easy.  But it is what the example of Jesus calls us to.  In our own time, we might asked to view someone on the other side of a political argument with compassion.  It might be a woman who has  gone back to her abusive husband again and again.  It might be a teenager who is giving you nothing but trouble.

Jesus sees the grieving widow and has compassion on her.  Who do we need to see that we might overlook?  Where is there suffering?  How can we build a home there?

Dropping Sophia off at school on Friday, I noticed the flag was at half staff.  I didn’t know what significant person had died recently so I looked it up which is how I came to hear about the incredible story of the four chaplains. George Fox, Alexander Goode, Clark Poling, and John Washington died on this date in 1943 when their troop ship, TheDorchester, was torpedoed. There weren’t enough life jackets, so the four men helped soldiers to the lifeboats, then gave up their life jackets, linked arms, sang hymns, and went down with their ship.  These four men showed the ultimate compassion, the ultimate downward mobility for their soldiers.

To have compassion on another child of God.  To feel a deep, gut-wrenching sympathy and desire to alleviate their suffering. This is the way of Jesus.

After Jesus had given the dead man back to his mother, it says that the crowd was seized by fear and that they glorified God.  Jesus welcomed the worthy and the unworthy,the rich and the poor, he had compassion on those often overlooked and he offered healing to the suffering.  And he asks us to do the same.  Fear and glorifying God seems an appropriate response. 

Jesus became poor and suffered with us, to the point of death so that we might be restored to community with God and one another.  In the communion meal we will soon share,Jesus offers his very self to us and asks us to remember him.  May we do so, we receiving Christ’s compassion and extending that same compassion all.  May it be so.  Amen.

Sabbath Mystics

This sermon was preached on January 29, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church in Red Wing, Minnesota by Rev. Heidi Bolt. The sermon text was Luke 6: 1-16.

It doesn't seem like Jesus was trying to make friends, does it?  As we read through Luke, Jesus is provoking all those he encounters and today's passage is no different. On two different Sabbath days he does something that he knows will anger those who care about religious tradition. He plucks grain one day and heals in the synagogue on another. He does both these things knowing it will anger some and he does it to try and suggest that the rules are changing. The understanding about how it is to faithfully follow God is changing. The rules about Sabbath observance were good rules made by faithful people. But Jesus is telling them that the Sabbath traditions might need to change. After all, the lord of the Sabbath is now among them. I read in a commentary this week that suggests that the real question in these texts is this: How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances? How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances?

And boy is that ever our question, too.

The world is changing at a breakneck speed. Headlines come every day or every hour that seem to signal big shifts in our world. The religious landscape in our denomination, our country and our world is changing more rapidly than we can even fathom. The church as an institution's identity and mission is in flux. Even on this Sunday when we look back at what the church has done and been in the last year through our congregational meeting, we continue to look toward our future as well, knowing that our circumstances are ever-changing. How do we do what church's do when the world seems to be so different, when what we do seems less relevant all the time to a lot of people? This is the question I've been wrestling with this week.

Then I saw that Dr. John Vest, whom I know and respect, who is the Visiting Professor of Evangelism at my seminary, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, shared a blog post by Richard Rohr, the well known Franciscan author and speaker.  And Vest shared the blog saying, "This perfectly captures what I think Christianity ought to be encouraging today. This is what I think churches ought to be focused on. This is what I'm most interested in."

The idea that Richard Rohr was writing about as a way forward for the church was to recapture our role as mystics. That's an unfamiliar term to some of you, it's a scary one to others. To be a mystic is to be one who has moved from mere belief to actual inner experience of God. Now this is an idea that Presbyterians have often been wary of. Theologically we affirm that we are flawed, flawed creatures and so we can't fully trust our experience of God. We are more comfortable putting our trust in our interpretation ofScripture, the traditions found in our confessions, in the life of the mind. And Those are good.

But If our faith stays only in our heads, if it's only about the rules and traditions, what Calvin had to say about it or Barth or Brueggemann, then it is much less likely to transform our hearts.

Here is what Rohr had to say: Christians speak of the “paschal mystery,” the process of loss and renewal that was lived and personified in the death and raising up of Jesus, as the pattern of transformation. We Can affirm that belief in lovely song and ritual, as many Christians do in the Eucharist. However, until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative. It is a mere liturgical acclamation.

This congregation has been through this process of losing your foundations and discovering that God was there for you in the midst of it all, transforming you so that you might come out the other side more alive. I know this has been true for me personally and I know that most if not all of you have stories of transformation because of God's presence in your life. This experience of knowing God is what helps us keep going when times get scary, it's what can give us courage when we need to stand up for what Christ stood up for - feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, healing the broken. 

That is the kind of transformation that experience of God, or mysticism, helps create. How do we faithfully identify with our community's tradition in light of ever-changing circumstances? I would like to suggest one way is to invite others to experience God. Not to recite a set of beliefs about God, not to teach them into love of God, but to invite them into an experience with God. This is what Jesus did. He asked people to look less at the rules of faith and get to know more the God that the rules were meant honor. After teaching and provoking and healing, he went away to talk to God. He sought out direct experience of God before he continued with his work. Diana Butler Bass, a historian who focuses on the history of Christianity suggests that “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.”   

I would like to suggest that this is something that the world needs from us. Forming relationships based on love and service. With our many divisions, with our 24/7 nature, with our emphasis on doing and creating and achieving, the worlds needs us to offer another way.  An experience of God so that they know that they are loved not for what they do but because of who God is. A transformative experience of God that makes them more alive, move loving, more giving. These mystical experiences can come when we are marching or when we pray, when we are out in mission or even in church on Sunday.

And so, I'm not going to talk to you anymore about Sabbath. I am going to invite you to experience Sabbath, a brief Sabbath, just 2 minutes of silence. To be quiet before God, to know that your worth comes not from what you can achieve, a chance to breathe in and breathe out. My hope is that this experience will give you a little more peace, a little more strength as you head into another week in our fast-changing world. May you experience God.

 

Rewilding The Way - a review

In his book Rewilding the Way - Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, Todd Wynward asks many questions about the state of Western Christianity and the state of our planet.  One of the most intriguing for me was: How can Christians who have a spouse and children that they want to care for and support also radically follow the call from God through Jesus in the times in which we live? This is a question that I often ponder as a Christian who loves God deeply and who also loves my spouse and children deeply. The book offers biblical background, historical examples and modern day prophets that point to these questions.  I think I was hoping for a more prescriptive approach vs. a descriptive vision because I tend to like lists and steps vs. dreams and stories but that is a difference of style than a critique of the content.  My only wish is that the examples had been a little more broad.  If I'm unable to move to New Mexico or the East or West Coast and not interested in becoming a Mennonite, the stories that relate to my circumstances become thin.

Overall, the book offered me glimpses of what the way forward could be, introduced me to people and movements I knew little about and provided another perspective on what Christianity in the future could look like.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR,Part 255.

Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea

When my copy of Steeped arrived in the mail, I sat and turned through the pages, salivating at all the delicious foods pictured there.  The pictures and layouts had me dreaming of hosting tea parties and warm summer soirees.

 

Life happened and I only ended up having time to make three of the recipes in the book.  They were each from a different section of the book and each called for a different kind of tea.  I live in a small, rural town so I decided to make recipes with ingredients I knew I could find here.  I ended up choosing Mint Pea Soup, Smoky Tomato Soup with Parmesan Thyme Crisps, and Blueberry Scones with Rooibos Honey Butter.

 

Overall, the recipes were easy to follow.  I really liked the creamy tomato soup and the crisps added crunch and flavor that paired wonderfully with the soup.  The blueberry scones were easy to make and the honey butter made them extra decadent.  The mint pea soup ended up tasting mostly just of blended peas and wasn’t a favorite at my house.

 

While each of the recipes called for a different tea, none of the teas ended up being a dominant flavor in the end.  I kept searching for their flavor in each of the dishes but never found I could distinguish them.  I was hoping for more distinct tea flavors in the dishes.

 

I am looking forward to trying more and more of the dishes in Steeped.  Maybe one day I’ll actually get to host a tea party and serve one of the whole menus found in the book.  Until then, I have a beautiful book full of gorgeous food pictures and great recipes to add to my recipe book collection.

You can learn more about the book here: http://anneliesz.com/steeped-book/

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Review of Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity

The authors envisioned this book as a way for lay people to wrestle with the depth and breadth of theological reflection found in seminary. I think it accomplishes this task well.

 

There is not much in this volume that is new to me as a self-identified progressive pastor. But I did find the chapters concise and think that this book will be a good reference when trying to deal theologically with these topics in preaching and teaching.

 

There are a few places that I take issue with the authors. They suggest that the reason for the decline of the mainline church is that we aren't vocal enough about our progressive theology. I tend to think that low church attendance isn't about theology, per se, at all. They also make the claim that vegetarianism is God's desire for humans. That is not an idea I'd encountered before and one I'll have to give more thought but am not immediately convinced.

 

With the study guide included in the book, I think this book would be great for a church book study or to hand out to church folks who are looking for more. I am personally glad to have it on my shelf now as a great reference that I am sure will get used.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

 

 

Juxtaposed

I was ready to love this book.  The description sounded like something right up my alley.  I did enjoy parts, but overall it felt a bit uneven. What I appreciated was the author's theological reflection in light of her very traumatic childhood.  It was helpful to hear her wrestle with the age old question of why bad things happen to good people from her unique experience.  I appreciated her humor, her fast-paced writing style, her honesty.

However, it felt a little disjointed to me.  There were major  events that went by without explanation, major characters that just dropped out of the picture.

I think one of my disconnects with the book was that its critique of church was not a church I recognize.  As a mainline Protestant, I didn't share her experience.  I know the Lutheran church she attended was boring, but not all are.

In the end, I'm glad she shared her story and I'm glad I got a chance to read it.  I learned from it and enjoyed her writing in parts.  I would read another of her books.

Review of Cross-Examined by Bob Seidensticker

ImageEvery once in awhile, I review a book for Speakeasy.  The description for this book intrigued me, "Cross Examined challenges the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity and invites the reader to shore them up  ........ or discard them.  Take the journey and see where it leads you." Enticing for sure.  And the book does what is promised - it definitely challenges some intellectual arguments for Christianity.  But Ican't say I recommend it, for several reasons.

First, it's an apologetics text masquerading as a novel.  The writing is fair if not eloquent, but the story is pretty simple and the long stretches where the story is interrupted for teaching are awkward.  Second, the biased nature of the story is not helpful.  The atheist is good.  The Christian pastor is bad.  The Christian parents are old-fashioned tyrants.  The Buddhists are nice.  There is no nuance, every character is fairly one-sided.

Finally, I find the apologetics to be tiring.  Full disclosure, I am a Christian and a minister.  But the intellectual debate around Christianity has never held much sway for me.  I'm not interested in proving my faith, I'm interested in living it.  There is enough in following Jesus, trying to love as he loved and proclaiming resurrection - light in the midst of darkness for me.  Arguing philosophical points doesn't make or break my faith.

Maybe this book is for others for whom these arguments are energizing.  I had hoped that the novel would help to make the process less annoying for me.  Unfortunately, I did not find that to be the case.

www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/

Beloved

Keeping the Feast

Image  

I got this book as part of a project called SpeakEasy that sends you a book if you will review it.  I was drawn to this book because of it's attempt to connect the communion meal in church with our everyday meals.  I was not disappointed.

This was a great book.  I loved the poetry, I loved the recipes, I loved the stories.  I can see using it in sermons, in educational settings and for my own edification.  I can see re-reading it many times over.

The author draws upon many of my favorite theologians - Bruegermann, Buechner, L'Engle.  He draws on ancient and modern writers, old and new songs.  It's a book that feels contemporary but could become a classic. Milton Brasher-Cunningham is the kind of writer I like. He cares about words. He uses them as necessary and with purpose.

I'm gushing, but it's a book I needed.  To re-member the roots of Communion.  To feed my soul at a time when it is dry.  To connect the everyday and important meals with my everyday faith. Here is one of my favorite passages:

“Jesus sat with his disciples around the table and, as he served them bread, he said, “Every time you do this, remember me.” What if we could hear those words as an invitation to communion and community in every meal, in every cup of coffee, in every beer at the pub: every time you eat and drink, look each other in the eye and remember me, remember the love that binds you and do whatever you have to do to forget the lies you have learned that tear you apart.”

I highly recommend this book!

Reflections on Wild Goose West 2012

I came to Wild Goose West not knowing what to expect. I left feeling more hope for the future of faith than I have felt in a really long time.

The whole of Saturday at the festival felt like what church is supposed to be. We started the morning with worship as a family. It was simple. It was heartfelt. And most importantly my kids could wander around and I didn't feel the need to corral, shush or correct them.

Throughout the day I got to hear people share about their thoughts on church and faith and be challenged, be uplifted, have my mind opened to new ways of thinking. I got to hangout out with old friends. I got to watch my kids make new friends. At the end of the evening, I got to hear 7 people passionate about church and their denominations share what they love and like least about their faith traditions. And then we held hands and sang "And together we'll proclaim the news that God is in the land. And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they'll know we are Christians by our love." I got to close the night by meeting new people, hearing good music, and laughing.

It was organic, open, genuine, relaxed, thoughtful. I felt no pressure to proscribe to anyone else's thoughts on faith. I felt invited to live my own faith more genuinely.

There was an openness about the thing - an intangible presence of good. Some might even call it God.

I often have a hard time picturing what faith communities will look like in the future. I feel like, at Wild Goose West, a got a glimpse. And I'm excited to get there.

transforming christian theology - parts 3 and 4

I was just reading a book review in the Christian Century that had this quote "In an era in which more clergy know their Myers-Briggs score than can explain the doctrine of the enhypostaton, [this book'] is a breath of fresh air."  Confession time:  I am a pastor.  I know my Myers-Briggs score.  I have no idea what the doctrine of enhypostaton is.  As I was finishing up Philip Clayton's book, I found the dichotomoy between the opinion in the Christian Century and Philip Clayton's premise to be striking.  The author of the review in the magazine saw the major problem with the church was that clergy were not educated enough in the doctrines of the church.  Clayton suggests that the people in the pews need to be doing their own theology; that it is not enough that pastors can know and use big theological terms; that if we all can't talk about our faith and see how it applies to our lives then we are lost.  I tend to agree with Clayton.

I appreciated this final part of the book and think that going through the Converstaions Worth Having with our session would be great.  The one area that I question is the idea about getting involved with a community for a community.  I feel the danger there is that we only interact with those we are comfortable with and it would be easy to end up with basketball ministries and book club ministries and just doing things we like and calling them ministry.  I see that trap already in the church and want to be sure we realize that following Jesus requires more than doing what we're passionate about with a prayer and calling it good.  

By the end of the book, I still have the same question that I had when I began.  Can older, established churches do the kind of transformational change laid out in this book?  I hope so.  I think the changes are needed and vital to being the church in the future.  But I just can't picture it.  I see new churches forming and old churches being put on hospice or greatly diminished.  Lucky for me, God is bigger than my vision.  Come, Lord Jesus, come!

Big Tent Christianity

What does “big tent Christianity” mean to you? And what does it look like in your context? I am hopeful about the big tent Christianity movement.  In my small town, the local pastor's association has worked hard on creating a space where every person is respected and encouraged.  I am almost always the only mainliner there.  I am most definitely the only woman there.  But I make it a point to go every month, specifically because I am different and I am challenged by the Christianity that is sometimes promoted at this gathering.  I know I make others uncomfortable just by being a young woman (shouldn't I be at home with my daughter?).  But everybody makes a point to make me feel welcome.

For the most part, the unity of the pastor's association has just been talk.  But we are beginning to try and put hands and feet on working together, showing unity, being a strong force for good in our community in the name of Jesus Christ through joint service projects, joint worship services, etc.   There are people at these meetings that I know I fundamentally disagree with on many issues.  But in the end, we all worship the same God, we all profess faith in Jesus, we all are trying to live out our faith.  And so I am hopeful that we can be a face of the church in our community that is positive and appreciated.  May it be so.

transforming christian theology - introduction

So my husband got this book and was supposed to blog about it.  The list of books he needed to read beforehand got longer and longer just at the same time that I read a review of it and wanted to check it out ........... so now I'm the blogger.  Just from reading the introduction I'm really excited to read further. The main idea is that folks in church don't know how to talk about their faith, what they believe and that this is a huge issue for the mainline church.  As a pastor, I couldn't agree more.  I'm curious to see what the author recommends for how to deal with this.  I have encouraged congregants to write their own statements of faith with little success.  Recently I asked some of our oldest members what faith in God had meant in their life for a video we were doing and I got one word answers or no answers at all.  It seems we are uncomfortable talking about faith.

Having gone through the ordination process, I had the opportunity to recount my sense of call and my faith journey numerous times.  In seminary, I was asked to write a statement of faith and I presented that statement of faith at my trials of ordination.  (It's now hanging, framed, on my wall.  One of my parishioners thought I should have it to remember that moment.)  All of these experiences helped me get more comfortable talking about my faith.  Even still, if someone outside the church asked "What do you believe?"  "Why does God matter to you?"  "What was so important about Jesus?" the truth is that I'd have trouble boiling it down to a few sentences that didn't include some big theological terms.  I'm hoping this book will give me some tools to help myself and my congregation to talk about our faith a bit easier.

It's interesting as I read the statement of faith on my wall how many things I'd already say differently and it's only been 3 years since I wrote it.  Faith is fluid, belief changes.  We don't just "do theology" once and are done with it.  It's a ongoing process that I need to get better at.  Here's hoping the rest of the book is as interesting as the introduction!

Second Week of Advent - Saturday (by Beloved)

Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9 What do you feed your spirit? 

I officiated at a funeral yesterday and the daughter was telling me that she couldn't face Christmas this year.  There would be no decorations, no gifts, it was too much.  In my own family we are dealing with my grandmother's decline.  This is not always an easy time of year, the happiness of the season is not present for all.

"Don't let your spirit become malnourished" it advises in the devotional.  For me, this blog, Advent worship services, images of the nativity scene are all food for my spirit.  Christmas can be Christmas without gifts, without a tree, without lights.  The hubbub is not the point.  Reconnecting with God is. 

I thrive on the liturgical year and these special times when we can devote time and energy to thinking about the Christian story.  Thank you God, for the season of Advent, for this time of focused prayer and study.

Second Week of Advent - Friday (by Beloved)

Scripture: Isaiah 12:2-6 Be bold and ask God for what you need.  Comment on this time of prayer in your journal.

I asked God for strength and power for giving birth.  That I would have more than my own during that time.  And I felt God hold me close, give me a hug, tell me that everything is going to be OK, much like a parent does.  And I felt calmed, I felt at peace, I felt that everything would be OK one way or another.

God, thank you for the strength to face the challenge before me.

Second Week of Advent - Thursday (by Beloved)

Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-20 Draw an image that portrays the centrality of God in your life.

I don't know how to draw on a blog (and actually I don't know how to draw period).  So I guess I'll have to write about it.  No matter what happens in life, I know that God will be there.  It is the constant of constants, the one thing I can be 100% confident about.  God has been there, God is there, God will be there. 

Because I am a flawed human being, God is not always central in my life.  But it is my constant prayer, that I could put God back at the top, in the center, as my primary focus and motivator.  Help me O God, to make you central once again.