I’m starting my second year of classes at Aquinas Institute of Theology for a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. During July, I had a one-week Intensive Practicum during which our class practiced Spiritual Direction with each other in threesomes: one was the Spiritual Director, one was the Directee, and one was a Compassionate Observer. We met for a ten-minute session followed by reflection and sharing.
I was in an emotionally vulnerable place that week. My husband, Dan, had left the morning of my first day of class to move to Texas for a new church job, and I needed to get the house ready sell, help our youngest get ready for college, and begin to wind down at my job for a move I had not wanted to make. I didn’t want to move when our youngest was just starting college, especially since she picked one that would be within a 5-hour drive of home; she would now be 10 hours away. Her older brother is changing colleges, majors, and his life-course, and our oldest was about to move to a new state and city to look for a new job. My children had already been through so much and I did not want to add to it by selling their home while their own lives were in transition, and they were still growing into adulthood. They had endured a mom with rigorous breast cancer treatment and chronic severe migraines, the illness and death of three beloved grandparents, the loss of their church home when it was time for Dan to resign as pastor, and other life traumas along the way. The last thing in the world I wanted to do, was to add to their losses by losing their home and having their parents move 600 miles away.
Tuesday of that week I listened to a podcast of The Moth Radio (“true stories told live”) as I got ready in the morning. One of the stories just uncorked me. Of course, I already had my makeup on, but I just bawled. I figured it was the all the loss and change going on, and that story gave me a chance to get some of it out. I went to class still sad, like my emotions were just under the surface with the flood gates ready to open at any time. This meant I did not want to be the Directee while someone else practiced being the Director! I wanted to hold it together.
I managed to avoid being the Directee the previous day, and that morning, but by the afternoon it was my turn to be the Directee and I couldn’t get out of it. I told my two partners that I started the morning crying, just so they knew. The Director started with a prayer and then we started. With tears streaming down my face, I shared why this move now was so hard, what my children had already been through, and that I did not want to add to it. The Director was the one person in our class who was the least confident in her role and future as a spiritual director, and was developing into an artist in retirement, so I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.
At the end of my tearful monologue, she asked me, “what was the story about on the radio?” In the back of mind, I thought it was the wrong question; why wasn’t she asking me about all these feelings of loss and grief? But I answered her question: the story was about a quilting group that made quilts for all the families in their east coast town who lost loved ones during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The story-teller recounted the meaningful, tear-filled moments when they delivered their quilts to the families. Then the Director asked me, “where do you see yourself in that story?”
Suddenly, I remembered that I had received a handmade quilt from the congregation I served when I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer—that’s what made me cry, even though I did not make the connection on my own! We had been loved, supported, prayed for and helped in every way possible during my treatment, and the quilt—with squares made from each family in the church—was a symbol of all that support.
Her next question was even more startling; “If God were to give you a quilt square for this time in your life, what would it look like?” I responded, “It would probably have a sea of faces on it to remind me that there still is a community of people who will love and support us through this change and loss now, just as before.” Then she said, “If you were to give your children a quilt square, what would you put on it?” The answer was obvious, “It would probably be the same square, to remind them that there is a sea of people—both friends and family—who would help, love and support them in their life even when we’re living in a different state. And then it hit me: perhaps they won’t experience this community of support unless their parents get out of the way! The tears dissipated and a feeling of relief and peace came over me.
Isn’t it amazing what the Spirit can do in ten minutes through someone who doesn’t believe she’s going to be a good Spiritual Director? Her experience as an artist led her to pick up on the image of the quilt, and in that conversation, I received everything I needed. It was truly stunning, especially since I have my breast cancer quilt laying over a chair in my office, and everyone who comes to me for conversation or Spiritual Direction looks right at it!
Even with the quilt staring me in the face every day I walk into my office, I did not make the connection between The Moth story about the 9/11 quilts and my very own quilt. I needed a Spiritual Director to ask me the right questions for me to see and experience God’s presence and love which was always with me. I couldn’t get there on my own.
Ever wonder how God is working in the daily details of your life that you may not be noticing? If so, may I suggest a Spiritual Director? You will be amazed at what God is doing in and around you!
A sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO on 8-6-17 for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost on Matthew 14:13-21
In Matthew chapter 14, we have a Tale of Two Parties. King Herod was having a birthday party and since it was royal celebration, we can imagine that they pulled out all the stops. There was an abundance of food, music and dancing. Officers in the Roman empire, wealthy landowners and merchants, and those who supported the Empire’s domination of Galilee were likely invited. They feasted on dates and olives, grapes and figs, nuts and pomegranates, fish and lamb, bread and honey, goat’s milk and cheese. The wine flowed and the guests had more than their fill.
But while the festivities were going on, John the Baptist was held in Herod’s prison for telling the king that he could not take his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own. When her daughter danced for King Herod, he was so pleased, he said she could have whatever she wanted. Herodias urged her to ask for John the Baptist’s death with his head delivered on a party platter. King Herod and his guests had such abundance, yet they did so little with it. They fed themselves and took what they wanted, while wreaking destruction and death for John and those who would say this is not God’s way of life.
When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he went away to deserted place by himself where our text for today begins. And this sets the scene for the second gathering in our Tale of Two Parties. Jesus goes far away from the towns, villages and markets so he can have time to grieve the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus doesn’t get much time to grieve however, because the crowds follow him out into the wilderness—a barren place where there is no bread, no olives to pick, no fig trees, and certainly no goats to offer milk or meat. The wilderness wandering to follow Jesus does not deter the crowds however, because they are accustomed to hunger.
Unlike King Herod and his birthday party guests, and unlike most of us here today, the people in these crowds were not used to eating their fill. They were not in the practice of being able stuff themselves with all they wanted and then have an abundance of food left over. In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations by scholars, nine out of ten persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it, and this was true both in urban and rural areas. The Roman empire exacted their taxes as well, even in seasons of low harvest. There was no middle class, and unless you were in the top 10% wining and dining with King Herod, life was precarious and hunger was a constant and familiar companion.
So they follow Jesus out to the wilderness—he’s the closest thing they’ve seen to hope because the Herod’s of the world are not sharing. As Jesus sees the crowds following him, he had compassion on them. Even though he was desperate for a break and some time alone, he saw their poverty, their illnesses, their suffering, their needs and he couldn’t say no. In fact, “compassion” literally means “to suffer with” someone—when their suffering causes us pain as well. One of my spiritual mentors says that the compassion is “having your heart broken” over someone else’s pain. When Jesus saw the illnesses, the poverty, the needs of the crowds following him out to the wilderness, his heart broke. Instead of walking away from the suffering crowds, he moved toward them. Jesus started a party of love and healing, of seeing and touching the needs of God’s people.
Well, it started to get late in the day, and the disciples thought enough was enough. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” And then Jesus says something startlingly direct, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat!” Of course, the disciples don’t see how they can feed possibly 15,000+ people (5,000 men + women and children!) with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Before we jump right to the miracle of the exponential multiplication of bread and fish (the kingdom’s new math!), we can’t miss Matthew’s crucial point: Jesus expects his followers to feed hungry people! There’s a party going on in the kingdom of God where disciples feed hungry people, and then they clean up afterwards collecting the 12 baskets of leftovers, a basket for each disciple. Unlike King Herod, who does so little with so much at a party that ends in destruction and death, Jesus asks his followers help him do so much with so little at a party that ends in fullness and goodness and life!
And this is true every single day of our lives. There are always two parties going on--and I don’t mean Democrats and Republicans–I mean Herod’s party and Jesus’ party. Herod’s party loves our consumer culture where more and bigger is better, and the one with the most stuff wins. At Herod’s party, our portion sizes have exploded and we glorify stuffing ourselves, complete with eating contests (one of my sons met a challenge to eat 100 chicken nuggets at marching band camp in high school). After the Golden Corral Buffet restaurant opened a few years ago near our house, they had to hire security guards to stand at the buffet to prevent fights from breaking out. If you’ve driven through Amarillo, Texas, you know you can win a free meal at the Big Texan Steakhouse if you can eat an entire 72 oz. steak along with baked potato, roll with butter, shrimp cocktail, and salad in under 1 hour (we were there when a college student tried it and he said he ran out of saliva). It’s a party where we already have so much, yet we want more and more and never seem to be sated. A professor at Aquinas Institute of Theology shared with us that there is enough clothing in the world to clothe every person on the planet for the next five years. I try to remind myself of this when I look at my closet full of clothes and think I have nothing to wear. The US is less than 5% of the world’s population and yet, we consume 24% of the world’s energy resources. It’s a party where we all have so much, but do little with it.
And then there’s Jesus’ party, where our heart’s break for the 785 million people—1 in every 9 people on the planet—who do not have enough food. Jesus’ party makes it clear that we do not have an abundance or an amount problem—we have a distribution problem. God has given us an abundant creation where we produce enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t make sure everyone gets it.
Last month Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reported that, “if all the grain currently fed to livestock in the US were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million”—the exact number of hungry people in the world. He adds that if we all ate grass-fed livestock instead, we would still all have our protein needs met.
After the Dalai Lama delivered a lecture, a member of the audience asked him if he could supply an answer to the problem of world hunger. He responded: “Sharing.” That’s why at Jesus’ party, he looks at us and says, “you give them something to eat.”
Even if you don’t have a lot to share, Jesus invites us to offer what we have, trusting that God can do so much out of even small offerings that come from us saying NO to overconsumption of the world’s resources and the damage to creation and to the poor that results. As his followers, Jesus asks us, “for whom does your heart break?”
Atonement has wonderful ways for us to join Jesus’ party, bringing fullness and goodness and life to those who are suffering:
• For Paul and Dolly, their heart breaks for those who stand at intersections with a cardboard sign that says they’re hungry and homeless, so they provide us with these red bag lunches to give them. We can look them in the eye, acknowledge them, and offer a meal.
• For Bill, his heart breaks for our elderly and homebound, most of whom live alone and no longer cook, He makes soup and freezes it so the parish nurses can bring a homemade meal to them on their visits.
• For Bernie and Debbie, their heart breaks for the homeless women and children who stay downtown at Gateway 180 Homeless Center, so they pack brown bag lunches for them. Last Sunday the workroom was full of volunteers packing lunches.
• For Jane, Jill, Debbie, our preschool class and other gardeners, their heart breaks for those who frequent the Safehouse and the TEAM Food Pantry, so they grow fresh vegetables in Atonement’s community garden.
• For Kelly and Dan, and all who help with Room at The Inn, their hearts break for those who are homeless and need a place to stay, so they help monthly with overnight accommodations and food in our fellowship hall downstairs.
• For Rick, the Congregations in Service Team, and 563 volunteers who came on July 15th, our hearts break for hungry children in developing countries, so in one day, we packed 107,568 meals with Feed My Starving Children. One meal costs 22 cents and we see that God can do so much with so little.
For whom does your heart break? It may be different from feeding the hungry—it may for injured veterans and their families, or those in chemotherapy for cancer, or children who need books, or drug-addicted babies at the hospital who need to be held and rocked, or supporting those who grieve the death of a child.
Our life is a Tale of Two Parties every day, and the choices we make matter to the world and to God. Our culture entices us to Herod's party, but we listen to Jesus instead. Jesus invites us to join his mission of compassion to bring relief and joy those who suffer. All you have may be 5 loaves and 2 fish, or 22 cents to share. But when Jesus hosts the party, that’s always more than enough to do good and to bring life!
Photo: Artwork by ©Laura James Used With Permission
“I don’t see well, I don’t hear well, and I can’t walk at all, but other than that, I’m doing pretty good." So says my new hero, Mildred Winter, the former Kindergarten teacher in the Ferguson-Florissant school district who pioneered the Parents As Teachers (PAT) program which is now in all fifty states and nine countries. "I’m 96 years old and I feel an obligation to contribute something since I’m still here.”
As a teacher, Winter observed that her kindergarten students who came from parents who read to them, taught them, and gave them new experiences were much more advanced than those who did not. Research later showed that children who come from homes without such opportunities never caught up to their peers. This gap motivated Winter to begin PAT so that every parent could learn how to support their child’s development beginning at birth. Using resources from neuroscientists on brain development, along with educational ideas and home visits, PAT began steadily enhancing the brain growth of children by educating their parents. Gone were the days when teachers told parents not to teach their child anything, but to leave it to the school, whose teachers would do it ‘right' when kids arrived as a blank slate.
PAT is for children prior to starting Kindergarten; Winter’s current goal is to extend the program to include Kindergarten so parents and teachers can benefit from the unique PAT approach of teaching the neuroscience of a child’s brain development and also to encourage teacher visits to the homes of their students. Winter talks on the phone regularly with Stephen Barr, the Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (a department Winter ran for eleven years) toward fulfilling this goal. Winter's goal is to get this prjoject included on the Agenda for August Administrators Conference for Missouri School Superintendents. If you know your Superintendent, please send them this article as a heads up for their upcoming conference in Jefferson City! I will be calling the two Superintendents I know!
In addition to her passion as an educator, Mildred Winter models for us Christian vocation—being used by God to bring good to the world. Mildred embodies a refreshing reminder that this is a job from which we never retire!
A sermon preached at Atonement Lutheran Church, Florissant, MO on July 23, 2017 on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-40; Romans 8:12-25
Those of you on Facebook might have seen that I recently spent 3 weeks in Sweden, Norway and France. For the Scandinavian portion of our trip, we traveled with one of my sisters, Pam, my dad, and his girlfriend, Helen along with our daughter, Leah and her best friend, Morgan. So we were a group of 7 traveling together for 2 weeks with the goal of not only sightseeing, but meeting some of my parent’s cousins whom my dad had met on previous trips.
In many ways, it was the trip of the lifetime and things went as well they possibly could as a logistically complicated trip with 7 people who had never traveled together. We had fun, saw incredible beauty, and had the loveliest and most meaningful time with cousins in both Sweden and Norway. We had 2 nights left on the Scandinavian portion of our trip after which Pam, Dad and Helen would head home, and my husband, Dan, Leah, Morgan and I were going on to Paris for a family wedding on Dan’s side.
I was tired, but feeling silly and was goofing around and I said something that Dan found hurtful. I didn’t even know I had hurt him, until he told me privately later. I didn’t mean to hurt him, I wasn’t mad, I didn’t have any underlying, unresolved issues; on the contrary, I felt so blessed and grateful, like one of the luckiest people in the world to have had these experiences.
But there it was: the weed of sin, brokenness, and my own capacity to hurt someone I love the most—coming up, sprouting, and bearing painful, rotten fruit.
“Let the weeds and the wheat grow together until the harvest, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them” --meaning, you would uproot the wheat before it has a chance to bear good fruit. The parable continues, “at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in the bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”
This parable of the wheat and the weeds, like the parable of the sheep and goats, are parables of judgment which only appear in the Gospel of Matthew. The Christians to whom Matthew writes in the late first century, are less concerned about their own sin, as they are about those who are not true believers, who do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew’s audience is also struggling against the power and oppression of the Roman empire—the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and their safety, livelihood and faith were all threatened. They wanted God’s judgement on these evildoers in their community and in these larger structures of society.
We can understand why people who are victims of oppression, violence, war, abuse, or terror of any kind, want the evil that caused their pain, eradicated. This is as true today as it was in the first century. There is sin in the structures, institutions and governments that exist in this country and around the world.
We’d like to think that it’s as simple as “some people are good and some people are bad,” allowing us, with Matthew’s community, to suppose Jesus’ harsh words in this passage apply to the evil and sin of those people over there, and in those structures, religions or countries over there. It would be nice if this were true—we wouldn’t have to look at ourselves.
In verse 41, however, Jesus says, “The Son of Man will send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers.”
So it’s—not just all those other evildoers—those people and those oppressive systems over there —but all causes of sin, including in here, in our own hearts. Jesus doesn’t let us point the finger at others’ so easily.
The truth is, that some of those causes of sin are in everyone, some of those causes of sin are in me and in you—our selfishness, envy, addictive behaviors, fear, and capacity to cause pain (what Paul calls living according the flesh) even when we don’t mean to. We cannot escape our brokenness and sin, as much as we would rather spend our time and energy pointing out other evildoers and blaming them.
In our passage from Romans, Paul goes as far to say that the whole creation itself is broken from sin and groans with us to be restored from decay and death. But the decay and death, the tsunami and the earthquake, the hurricane and the drought, do not prevent us from beholding the majesty of Norwegian fjord or the Rocky Mountains, the hope of a new sprout in spring, the awe of a breath-taking sunset, the peace in a family of deer in the twilight, or the sacredness in the face of a newborn.
Reformer Martin Luther explained this experience of the wheat and weeds, the sacred and sinful, the beautiful and the broken, the love and the pain, indeed, the very goodness of God existing side by side with evil, in his teaching that we are, simul justus et peccator: we are at the same time, sinner and saint. We are justified and made righteous through Christ on the cross AND we live in a fallen state. We cannot escape sin until the Son of Man returns and brings the kingdom and the whole creation to fulfillment.
Paul describes this eloquently in Romans chapter 7 when he says, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me."
And so out come hurtful words from me, even while I am feeling embraced by God and loved by family.
You may have heard of the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is an author and an ELCA pastor serving in Denver, CO. She’s a recovering drug addict with tattoos of the church calendar up both arms, and she has a growing and unique ministry to people in recovery from addiction and others, who need to hear the Gospel of grace. Several years ago, I heard her speak at one of our National Youth Gatherings, and she told the story of learning from her now-husband, (also a Lutheran pastor) about Luther’s understanding of Simul Justus et Peccator. We are at the same time, justified by Christ and a sinner.
I’ll never forget her saying that it was the first time somebody explained to her why she had this great capacity to hurt and damage others, AND also had such a great capacity to love and to do good. The truth that God, in Jesus Christ, forgave her sins and worked through her to bring love, forgiveness and joy to others, EVEN WHILE she would always struggle with brokenness and the effects of addiction, led her on a journey of faith and a call to ordained ministry. THe congregation she started in Denver is in fact called "House for All Sinners and Saints."
After he describes our inner struggle between good and evil, Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death."
On our trip when Dan told me I’d hurt his feelings, I apologized profusely and felt terrible. The next day, I was still subdued and as we walked to our first destination, he came up and held my hand. He forgave me and we moved forward, enjoying the rest of our trip, which was as wonderful as the first two weeks.
Saturday morning, when I asked Dan permission to share this story of hurting his feelings on our trip, he asked, “what are you talking about?” He didn’t even remember it. That’s what Paul means when he says that Jesus sets us free.
Forgiveness sets us free—free to continue to love and serve! Forgiveness waters and feeds the good seed that God has planted in us, helping us to bear the life-giving fruit of forgiveness, love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.
These fruits of the Spirit enable us to participate with the good wheat in others, in our society and world, all the while trusting that Jesus will return. At the end of the age, the Son of Man will defeat all causes of sin in us and the whole universe, including death itself, restoring us, with all of creation, back to God.
Through Christ, we all will return to God, the very source of love and all that is good—who doesn’t even remember our sin—and instead, makes us shine like the sun!
Picture: Dan and me at the top of the Arc d' Triomphe in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background.