Pruned for Growth

Pruned HackburyOur son, Daniel, is a certified arborist and loves all things trees. This series of pictures is from a Hackberry in the front yard of our new house in Richardson. It was pretty mangy looking when we moved in, with a lot of dead branches, a terrible shape, and not much health. Last winter, Daniel gave it a severe pruning. I was not at all sure it would come back to life this spring--sometimes pruning looks and feels like too much loss. But, it turns out it was just what this tree needed to surge forth with new life. Where in your life are you being pruned? Where are you experiencing a surge of new life that has come from releasing what is no longer needed or healthy? Where is God in the process?  In John, Jesus says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…Abide in me as I abide in you." No matter where we are in the pruning and new growth process, we can trust that Christ is always with us, urging us toward growth and new life.

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Binding Sin for God's Kingdom to Flourish

anna earl XBDHmIXvsvM unsplashMessage for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 3:20-35 for June 6, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

For the next two weeks I am going to share my vision for the future of St. Luke’s. Here is a part of what I envision as a growing community where spirits come alive in Christ:

• When I call the children forward for the Children’s Message, a whole rainbow of kids of all ages, from more backgrounds and family types and cultures than we can count, run forward---each of them excited to learn about Jesus, coming from families so relieved to find a church that welcomes everyone
• It’s Saturday morning--our Free Community Breakfast has become weekly and it’s the happening community exchange event of the weekend. Children giggle, Moms receive bags of groceries, Dad’s serve breakfast, the prayer station blesses all who come, Santa Claus brings gifts at Christmas, and family events happen throughout the year.
• When you walk past Sanctuary on Sundays at noon, you hear a sermon in Spanish preached by our bi-lingual outreach minister. You can smell tortillas and rice and beans cooking in the kitchen for lunch, and you cannot wait to eat with new friends and share in bi-lingual bible class.
• Our next new member reception includes the Baptisms of two youth from our support community for LGBTQ youth at risk of homelessness—at last, a place where they are loved and can figure out who they are with God’s grace. This banner over the baptismal font reminds them they are God’s child, and as they bend over the water to receive Jesus’ claim on their lives, they see that even here, the colors of the rainbow in the baptismal bowl includes them.
• You have joined the fifth global mission team trip to El Paso for immersion education and mission work across the border, connecting the work there with our ministry here. Our advocacy ministry has taken off, with advection on national and local policies that affect immigration, global health, women and children, climate change, ending the war in Ethiopia, and anti-racism efforts, especially in northern Texas.
• And not only have we added these ministries, but those things that we already do well continue to flourish, invigorating adult bible study, quilts and kits for Lutheran World Relief, worship & music that makes our hearts soar, community that helps everyone know we are loved and prayed up.

Take a pencil from the pew and write down one thing I said on the back of your attendance slip that excites you—and if I did not mention what excites you, then write down your own idea. And that the end of the service, share that with me. Visions are built over time and through conversation, each of us bringing our own wisdom to what God is doing in our midst.

This is what our conversation is about right now—In the end, it is not about a building or repairs or even finances. It is about the vision and mission to which God calls us and what about that vision excites you, engages you, and helps your spirit come alive to serve and to give. When we are clear about our vision, then decisions about tools and resources, about the building or the location that help us fulfill our vision and mission, become so much easier.

This week and next week’s Gospel readings supply us with the two seemingly contradictory movements that will be necessary if we are to achieve this, or any future vision for ministry. One of the actions we must take is binding, as when Jesus tells us that in order to plunder a house, we will first need to bind the strong man who oversees it. Next week, we will be led in the opposite direction, in the direction of sowing or scattering when we read parables about sowers and seeds.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus talks of binding the strong man—that is, of binding up all that is contrary to God’s purposes. Once the contrary power or the strong man is bound, then the house can be cleared for the reign of God to flourish. It is strong, almost violent language—binding a strong man, plundering a house—because of the power of the evil that has to be overcome for God’s reign to be made complete. To Jesus’ first hearers suffering under Roman oppression, the power of Jesus coming to plunder Rome came as good news. Such a strong image does remind us that binding all that is against God’s purposes is a perilous and often painful process; but it all must be bound and removed in order to make room for the kingdom of love and justice.

Let’s think about our own mission. What had to be bound in order to become a Reconciling in Christ congregation and welcome the whole LGBTQ rainbow of God’s people?

• The fear that doing the right thing would split the congregation had to be bound
• The notion we are the arbiters of who God loves, had to be bound
• The idea that our discomfort was more important than someone receiving Jesus’ love had to be bound

Thank God the Holy Spirit helped us bind all that so we could create space and community for something new! And thus, the congregation grew in members, love, outreach and mission! What about the Free Community Breakfast? What had to be bound in order to start a new outreach ministry during a global pandemic?

• The idea that we did not have enough people had to be bound
• The belief that we did not have enough money had to be bound
• The notion that we could not do anything new during an emergency, like the pandemic had to be bound

Thank God the Holy Spirit helped us bind all that so we could create space and ministry to touch the lives of people in our community. Yesterday a new customer saw our signs for a free breakfast, and she stopped by for a burrito. She told me her daughter was very ill, and we had a chance to pray together. Then, we had some leftover burritos which became a wonderful way to welcome the families coming to the new basketball program renting the gym from us—they were so surprised by coffee and free burritos! The owner of the sports club was so excited to be at a church reaching out to his community.

So, what has to be bound in us now in order to embrace God’s vision for our future? Our fear needs to be bound.

• Fear that our identity is so tightly tied to history or location and we are not sure who we might be if those change.
• Fear of grief and sadness –we have had a year of loss and no matter which future God leads us to, we do not want to lose anything more—members, money, identity, or touchstones of who we are.
• Fear of disagreement with those we have come to love. We are dear to each other, and the thought that a decision might bring anguish to another is painful.
• Fear of the unknown—God promises to be with us, yet, we move forward without any lifetime guarantees in any direction.

Although binding is not an easy promise, it is a freeing one. Binding what holds us back from manifesting God’s mission of justice and love makes room for God’s vision to flourish! We already know this to be true—for binding what limits us, has made our congregation grow in members, outreach and mission already, and allowed grace and hope and burritos to flourish.

And Jesus does not stop there. We do not do this work alone. And, we do not do this work with mere friends or acquaintances--with people with whom we shake hands but do not really know or care about. Our mission and love in Jesus gives us a family—much bigger than we ever knew or thought we had! Our family is not just those in our household, but everyone around us who joins us in doing God’s will! Everyone beside you in the mission of God is your mother and father, your sister and brother. Look around you! We move into the future as the family of Christ together.

Jesus binds that which hold us back from mission, freeing us for service and justice in the world, all the while binding us anew to each other. Jesus binds us with love as a family--connected to him and to each other for the future he has in store for us. Hold onto the vision of our future, and to each other for that is how Christ leads us.

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

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Listening to the Spirit

20210105 165122Message for Holy Trinity Sunday on Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17 given May 30, 2021 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. I regret that due to technical difficulties, there is no video recording of this sermon or worship service.

When I served my first church in Detroit, MI, I met a woman in the neighborhood named, Regina, who had been ordained by her congregation—not because she went to seminary like in our tradition, but because she had the gifts of the Holy Spirit for ministry. She became one of my mentors. When we would discuss issues, she would say, “well the Spirit said, to me…” and she would go on to tell what the Holy Spirit said directly to her.

I had spiritual experiences, but I did not have the sense that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me, like Regina did when she was referring to an internal conversation with the Spirit. I would say to myself, “I just do not have that gift.” But after a while I thought—“maybe I am just not quiet enough to listen!”

All 3 of our Scripture passages today talk about listening to and being in the Holy Spirit:

• Isaiah is in the Spirit when he is given the vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, his sins are forgiven with a burning coal and he hears the Lord call him into ministry.
• Paul calls the believers in Rome to live in the fullness of their identity in Christ which is to be led by the Spirit of God as children of God.
• Jesus calls the Pharisee Nicodemus into full relationship with him by being born of water and the Spirit.

But listening to the Holy Spirit does not come naturally to us as Lutherans. We are more comfortable with the Creator—the Father/Mother of God—with the mind, with knowledge, with study, with linear thinking and argumentation, and logic. When I was in seminary, the first classes we took were Greek and Hebrew, biblical interpretation, theology and history—and these are all important and valuable disciplines for understanding our texts and I love and value them.

Such emphasis on the Bible makes us amazingly comfortable with Jesus—with his life and mission, with love of neighbor, and social justice where live out our faith in Incarnational and sacramental ways. We are terrific at disaster relief, feeding the hungry, doing global mission, building water wells, hospitals, and living out our faith in a way that embodies a God who came to us—in a body—and who continues to come to us in through bread and wine—earthly elements. We love the story of salvation where Jesus’ humanity bridges the divide and heals the brokenness between us and God, redeeming our suffering, forgiving our sin, and bringing us into a wholeness and union with God that lasts forever.

But this Holy Spirit stuff makes us a little nervous. We do not want to become too emotional or out of control. We are not going to speak in tongues or talk about being born again. We are not going to have some wild vision that we cannot distinguish from a chemical imbalance in the brain. We will not whoop and holler or dance and sing (no matter how much Pr. Linda tries to get us to move!) Many of us come from ancestors who have been ignoring their feelings for generations, and we are not about to let all out, Holy Spirit or not.

But then I met Regina, who was the most loving person I had ever met, who answers the phone with the words, “peace and love,” speaking as if she was having conversation with Holy Spirit. She was so peaceful—and if talking with the Holy Spirit led to that kind of peace, then I wanted some of that, too.

So, I started to practice listening. I did all kinds of prayer practices and met with my spiritual director, and I quieted my mind and heart and body and listened (and if you think I have energy now, you should have seen me 30 years ago—it wasn’t easy!). And then, slowly, I started to hear. Over time I realized, I could hear, feel, know, understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance in much deeper ways than I had been taught. And it was not about emotion. In fact, it was quite the opposite. If an emotion or trigger does come up, it means we have something to work through or breathe through, often fear or anxiety. We may need to attend to those strong emotions with counseling, conversation, journaling, or calling your pastor! But the Spirit’s guidance is most often

• Neutral- no emotional charge
• Compassionate-Loving
• Truth (freeing or hard)
• Impersonal- you are a witness, watching something unfold*

Sometimes we can have an emotional response to the message—relief, or overwhelming love can cause tears, or we may be afraid to do what God asks us to do, but the Spirit does not give us fear.

How the Spirit speaks to me and to you may be different: Today we affirm a Trinitarian God—we are made in this image—Creator, Jesus, Spirit, so God can speak to us in a variety ways--through our Mind, Body or the Spirit/Intuition. We may have one dominate way or maybe we have all channels open. Spirits messages can come in the

• Mind – new thoughts, a flash of insight, an idea, a problem solved—that came from outside yourself, a voice that rose up, rather than one you generated
• Body – experiencing a gut feeling, a heaviness or warmth in chest, a sense of energy moving in the body, a feeling of peace, goose bumps, some other physical sensation
• Spirit/Intuition – A sense of knowing without words, feeling of love or compassion, seeing a picture or image, seeing color, or a vision, or even a dream at night (start writing them down as soon as you wake in the morning).

Sometimes Nothing happens. You may have nothing noticeable happen and simply relax in the presence and peace of God. That’s ok! I prayed for 52 days once and nothing happened. WAIT is legitimate answer from the Spirit! 

So today, we are going to practice listening, which I know is unusual for sermon. It will just be brief, and we’re just scratching the surface, but I want to give you a way to practice listening, which you can then try on your own. I want you to think of one simple question where you would like guidance, help or an answer. Just one. It could be about your health, what to do about a relationship, if you should sell your house, a question at work, the future mission of the congregation. We all need to practice, because in order to recover from the pandemic and be healthy people, in order to discern our future as a congregation, in order to follow Jesus in all areas of our lives, we want and need to be led by the Holy Spirit. Get as comfortable as you can in your pew:

• Close eyes—and begin to breathe deeply. Let us pray- “we ask for your presence Holy Spirit, for your fire to rest upon each one of us, and dwell with in us, as we listen for your loving presence and guidance in our lives. Amen.
• Continue to breathe deeply in and out
• Focus on your breath—the rise and fall of your belly
• If thoughts come, let them float by like clouds without thinking about them, and come back to your breath
• Breathe in the Spirit, blow out fear
• Breathe in Christ, blow out worry
• Breathe in God, blow out anxiety
• Breathe in peace, blow out stress
• Breathe in gratitude, breath in love, breath in Spirit (blow out anything negative)
• Now ask the question you had in mind and see what comes up in your body, mind or intuition
• Pause and pay attention for several minutes
• It’s okay not to notice anything –sometimes faith and Spirit are about relaxing in the peace and presence of God together.
• Acknowledge what you have received.
• Internally, say thank you and express gratitude for this sacred time and whatever you experienced.
• Take another big deep breath, wiggle your fingers and toes
• Open your eyes and return to the present space

Jot down anything that came to you or any experience you had that you want to pray about, return to, or reflect on later. This is just one of many ways to listen to the Holy Spirit when we need guidance, help, encouragement, wisdom, and that sense of the companionship of God coming alongside us in our life. I did this exercise yesterday as I prepared for today. I asked the question of whether St. Luke’s should sell the building or stay. And guess what answer I got? It’s not your decision. Your job is to be a non-anxious leader who helps the process.
Let’s test this against what I said earlier about the Holy Spirit:

• Neutral- no emotional charge—this is a neutral message without emotional charge of anger, fear, pain
• Compassionate-Loving –it is compassionate toward the congregation where the decision lies and loving toward all of us—putting us in our right place/roles
• Truth (freeing or hard)—it tells me the truth. It frees me from trying to work/manipulate a preferred outcome; it’s also hard for my ego in that I have no special or secret knowledge as a pastor or in this conversation with the Spirit
• Impersonal- you are a witness, watching something unfold—this message reminds me that the Spirit’s larger work is not about me—I am a witness to what God is doing in the church as a whole, I am a participant and leader in helping something unfold—nothing more, nothing less. My role is not more or less than anyone else’s

Now Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, Paul’s encouragement to be led by the Spirit, and Jesus’ words that we are reborn through water and the Spirit may not seem so unnatural or strange! As we engage in this practice together and on our own, we are truly becoming Lutherans where “spirits come alive!” (St. Luke's tag line!)

*I am grateful to Dr. Judith Orloff who uses these to describe insights from our intuition, which I also understand to be part of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Image: I took this picture of a mosaic by Sonia King which is part of her VisionShift project, a mosaic installation for HALL Arts in the Dallas Arts District.

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Two Gifts of the Pentecost Spirit

pentecost 3409249 1920Message for Pentecost on Acts 2:1-21 given on May 23, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. This sermon and other worship services can be seen on YouTube.

It is a tough time to be the church. The future is unknown, the next steps are unclear. The activities that have always worked are no longer getting the same results as they once did. New people need to emerge to help grow the church, but how? It is time to trust in God’s power in new ways—things are changing and not always in ways that are welcomed and comfortable. Plus, the needs are tremendous—in order to fulfill its mission, the church needs more resources, more people, and more funding. Is it time to wait and pray? Is it time to step out and try something new?

Wait a second...did you think I was talking about us? Did you think I was talking about THIS church—St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Richardson? O, heavens no! I am describing the early disciples—as the church begins, on that first Pentecost morning! I was talking about the challenge that those first Christians had to face.

Just imagine it, their resurrected Lord has ascended into heaven. An unknown future weighs heavily upon them as memories of the past, and unanswered questions about the present rattle their minds. Decisions about where to go and how to minister that Jesus made every day, would now have to be made by someone else — but by whom? Who would lead this new generation? The church was also small in number — if they were going to fulfill Jesus’ command to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, they were going to need more people, and more capital as well. The future was unknown, the next steps were unclear.

Not surprisingly, the mission of the early Christians does sound a lot like us.

THIS is a tough time to be the church — it is a tough time to be THIS church, and for many of the same reasons that it was challenging 2000 years ago. Our old patterns of being the church, while precious and effective in the past, no longer work the way they once did, and we are they will not get us to God’s new future.

We need to listen to which future God wants us to move into—and we are not yet sure what it will look like and which steps to take to get us there. This was all true before the offer came to purchase the building, but now we have an opportunity to look at the future with deep consideration and prayer. Yet, this in-between space can be disconcerting. No one likes an unknown future when the next steps are not clear.

Regardless of which direction we feel led in the future, the church today, THIS CHURCH, is also challenged by a need for new resources—it is part of the conversation at our meeting today. Whether it is more finances to repair the building, keep our mission going, or more people to share their faith, teach our children, or expand our outreach, we feel our limitations. God has promised that the church of Jesus Christ will grow, but the way the church grew in the past 100 years is very different from the ways it will grow today and in the future. Again, we are confronted with the unknown.

But the Pentecost story does not end with the disciples praying together with questions and no answers, with a church to build and no resources to do it, with a future mission and no way to fulfill it.

God sends the power of the Holy Spirit with the rush of a mighty wind and the fiery breath of power from on high. The church is transformed on that first Pentecost, not because they came up with the right answer, but because God gave the church everything it needed to be the church!
• God gave the church the powerful message of love in Jesus!
• God gave the church courage!
• God gave the church the words to speak with the world that had gathered at its door!

Ultimately, God gave the church more people who, in turn, were given that message, that courage, and those ways to communicate about Jesus’ love.

Notice God gives the power of the Holy Spirit in two important ways: first, God gives the power of the Holy Spirit to the church as a whole. We are bound together. We are given collective courage. We are empowered as a unit. There is a “We” that is baked into the Pentecost story: when the day of Pentecost came they were all gathered one place. The church is more than the sum of its parts — together we are the body of Christ to share the love and justice of Jesus Christ in the world.

And so, on Pentecost, there is an emphasis on the “We” of the church. Today WE meet as a congregation, as whole, and the Spirit works through us collectively together when we gather, discuss, listen, and share in ways that the Spirit does not do when we are alone.

It is no accident that the Pentecost happens when the believers are together in one place! Repeat after me: “Pentecost has a radical WE!”

AND Pentecost is not only about the church as a whole, but also each believer individually. When the tongues of fire appeared, they rested on each one of the disciples. Yes, the church was given power and ability, as a whole, and also, so was each person. And so today, as we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, we declare that spiritual gifts are given to each and every single one of us. While Pentecost has a radical “WE,” it also has a radical “ME!” “Pentecost has a radical ME” Repeat after me: 
• I am given the message of Jesus’ love!
• I am given courage!
• I am given ways to share God’s love with others!
• I have gifts to serve in the church!
• I have gifts to share in the world!

Pentecost implicates us collectively and individually. No one can say that their gifts, that their witness is not needed. Look at some of our chronologically gifted members—Betty Kennedy and Shirley Shanahan ---Can you do everything now that you could 40, 30 or 20 years ago? Of course not. But they keep showing up and sharing their spiritual gifts. Betty Kennedy still chairs the Prayer Chain; Shirley Shanahan comes in on Saturday for Altar Guild and sets up Communion! And they keep sharing their faith! And we are a stronger church because of it.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something, and we cannot move into the next phase of our mission without you contributing your gift. If you cannot get out of your chair, or your home, you can pray, you can call and encourage members, you can send cards to the sick and homebound.

The church needs your ME in our WE—the Holy Spirit and the Church are a WEME organization—we cannot have one without the other. When we all bring our gifts, our voice, our insight, what the Spirit is giving and guiding us to contribute, then together WE will hear and follow the Spirit move us into a new future, just like it did that on that first Pentecost morning when the church had a fiery, multicultural start that has not stopped since.

These may look like tough times, but the Holy Spirit has been doing this for nearly 2,000 years—and I think God’s got our back. The Holy Spirit is upon us together and upon each of us individually, and we will be led into a new future of God’s design—with a message, with courage, with ways to communicate as a WEME community ready to move forward.

Image: Gerd Altmann,

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linda anderson little 2020Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.