An ELCA pastor shares his thoughts about the Bible, spirituality, the world, and LGBT issues.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Seven Last Words: I Am Thirsty

"I Thirst"
Rev. Sandi Rice, Guest Columnist

     One of the more powerful statements that Jesus made from the cross was a statement to his own need.  He was thirsty – and in his dying moments he called out to have that need met.

     It is hard to ask for what we need.  Sometimes we find it next to impossible to ask, even our closest loved ones, to help us in meeting our needs.  But what amazing opportunities are missed when we fail to ask for what we need? 
     What is it tonight that we are thirsting for?  What incredible needs are present in our midst that we don’t know because no one is asking?   Scripture tells us that “we have not because we ask not”.  How true that is.
     But having to admit that we have needs makes us incredibly vulnerable – and let’s be honest, most of us don’t like feeling vulnerable, or helpless, or to feel incapable of meeting our own needs.  And so we will do anything we have to, to make sure that we are not seen in such a light – needy and helpless!
     But we are…we all have needs – we all have times in our lives when we are simply incapable of meeting our own needs.  That is why we have one another – The Beloved Community.  We are meant to be here for one another.  We just have to be willing to ask for what we need.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Seven Last Words: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

     To feel forsaken in a very scary place to be.  To witness the death of dreams, and the betrayal of friends, is a heavy burden to bear.  To feel isolated from others and from God can crush our souls and break our hearts.

     We take comfort in this fourth Word from the cross because it reminds us that even Jesus felt forsaken by God while dying on the cross.  If he felt forsaken, he completely understands how we feel when we find ourselves in the same place.
     Hebrews 4:15 reminds us of this truth: "For Jesus is not some high priest who has no sympathy for our weaknesses and flaws.  He has already been tested in every way that we are tested; but He emerged victorious, without failing God.  So let us step boldly to the throne of grace, where we can find mercy and grace to help when we need it most." [The Voice]
     Jesus has walked where we have walked.  He has journeyed through every high mountain and low valley, every victory and defeat, every triumph and temptation.  This is Good News because we have a Savior who understands us inside and out.  We have a Deliverer who made the journey from death to life.  He promises we can do the same if we believe in him.
     We embrace this word from the cross as good news.  It reminds us that even when we feel forsaken, we are never forsaken by Jesus.  Nothing can ever separate us from his love: not death nor life, angels nor rulers, not things present nor things to come, not height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We are NEVER forsaken brothers and sisters.  NEVER!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Seven Last Words: Woman Here is Your Son

"Woman, here is your son.  Here is your mother."
Rev. Sandi Rice, guest columnist

     Family…it is a word that has many different meanings for people.  For some – if refers to biology – the group of people into whose lives we are born.  For others it is about choice – it is the group of people with whom we have chosen to surround elves.  Whatever the definition – family is a complex reality in many of our lives.  

     The same was true for Jesus.  Family was complicated for Jesus.  The question I have was where was Jesus’ family at the crucifixion?  Scripture tells us that his mother was there as well as few others including an aunt, a friend and the beloved disciple.  But where was the rest of his family?   Scripture is either silent on their presence or they were not there.  
     How is it that during this horrific time of suffering and unbearable pain – that Jesus’ family was not present?  The reasons we could speculate are many.  One of the more likely reasons was fear.  Fear of being associated with a criminal, fear of having to witness a horrific death on a cross.  But it is only speculation as to why they were not present.
     For many of us – we know what it is like to not have family present for us during life’s most agonizing times.  Whether they live too far away, or there is strain in the relationship – sometimes we just don’t show up for each other in times of need.
     However – I want us to look around this sanctuary.  Behold here is our family – and a blended family at that!  Whether we have biological relatives in the room or not, here is our family of faith.  We have an incredible opportunity in that we are called to accompanying one another on life’s journey.  Often it is in the ordinary that we travel.   It is in the times in which we are called to bear witness to incredible pain and hardship however – that the true bonds of our family ties are forged!   Our family of faith - We are blessed indeed.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Seven Last Words: Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise

"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
     When we hear the word "paradise" we probably picture a sandy beach, clear blue skies, and palm trees waving in a warm tropical breeze.  Or perhaps we picture a magnificent fall day with colors ablaze all around us.  After a picture perfect hike we settle into in a log cabin with a blazing fire.     
     Paradise is the perfect spot, the beautiful moment where everything seems good and right in our world.  It's the feeling of being unburdened by the worries and cares of life.
It's a place of peace and serenity where we feel safe and secure.

     When Jesus promised the repentant thief "Today you will be with me in Paradise," he was offering him more than an idyllic vacation.  Jesus gave him the gift of eternal life while this man was facing imminent death.  No matter what bad decisions this man made, no matter how many wrong turns he had taken, Jesus was offering him the chance for a new beginning.  Granted, this man was still going to die this day.  However, he would not be lost to God; nor would he be lost to Jesus.
     As we reflect on the significance of the Second Word from the cross, we are reminded that it's never too late to turn our lives around.  It's never too late to ask forgiveness, to mend a broken relationship, to start again.  The Paradise Jesus offers us is for both sides of eternity.  In the here and now, we are reminded that Jesus is our Good Shepherd who seeks us out when we are lost.  In our life beyond the grave, we are promised that this same Good Shepherd will lead us to the green pastures and still waters of God's heavenly kingdom.
     So, brothers and sisters, let us turn to Christ in our darkest moment, in our most desperate hour, and receive the gift of Paradise: forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Seven Last Words: Father Forgive Them

"Father forgiven them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Rev. Sandi Rice, guest columnist

     Reinhold Niebur said "Forgiveness is the final form of love."  We see and hear that sentiment so dramatically displayed in Jesus’ words and actions on the cross.  In an instant he was able to see through the eyes of love, and not fear – and miraculously offered a supremely divine gift of forgiveness to those who were taking his own life.
     We know however, that forgiveness is hard.   I believe it is a long and intentional process for most of us.  The reason it is a process,  is that we have to acknowledge and come to grips to how we have been wronged and what real impact that wrong has had on our lives.  I have told many people over the years – “Don’t forgive too quickly – just make sure you do ” Though  Jesus was able to give his forgiveness in an incredible instant, it take most of us more time simply because we have more work through.  True forgiveness takes time and intention.

     We are reminded that we – in our own abilities – may fall short of being able to forgive as we need to.  We can however acknowledge that it is through the pure love and forgiveness that Jesus’ offers to us, that we in turn are freed to forgive others.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Creative Stations of the Cross

I love creativity in worship and the liturgical arts.  Check out this link for Stations of the Cross with illustrations that depict the struggles of LGBT people.  It could be a powerful devotional/meditation time during your Lenten journey!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Samaria & Other Risky Places

WALKING WITH JESUS: ROAD   David Eck, John 6:1-15, Luke 6:12-19 
     If there's one thing I know about human beings, it's that we're creatures of habit. Even the most spontaneous and extroverted among us have familiar patterns and routines to our lives. We can think of these patterns and routines as roads.
     We travel physical roads. They take us from one place to another. Typically we find a route that works for us, and we stick with it. Whether it's going to work, school, the grocery store, church, or a friend's house, we usually take the same route, time and time again. There might be other streets we could travel to get from point A to Point B, but once a map is firmly etched in our minds, we seldom deviate from it.
     Other physical roads we travel have to do with what we eat and how we take care of our bodies. Anyone who has tried to loose weight, quit smoking or start an exercise program, knows how difficult it is to change habits we are familiar with. It's so much easier to keep traveling down the same road than to begin a new journey in terms of our physical health.
     We also travel emotional roads. They dictate how we respond to the world around us. Some of us are "the glass is half empty" kind of people, others are "the glass is half full" kind of people. Some of us are worriers and stressors, others are optimistic and relaxed. Some of us get angry easily, others are calm, cool and collected. While we have a choice as to what emotional road we will take in any given situation, we tend to pick the one that is familiar to us, even if that road is an unhealthy one.
     We also travel spiritual roads. They shape the way we understand God. We like a particular style of worship that connects us to God and creates a sense of the holy. But when our church takes a detour and does something unfamiliar, our initial reaction is to greet it with skepticism. We find ourselves uttering those infamous words "We've never done it that way before."
     We also like to travel the same spiritual road when it comes to our understanding of God. We like our Jesus to be predictable and reliable. When someone offers us an understanding of God that is different from ours, our gut reaction is to label it as "heretical." We like Jesus to stay in the box we've put him in, thank you, very much. It's hard for us to allow Jesus to roam wherever he wants to, and take us to new and unexpected places.
     Make no mistake about it, we are creatures of habit. The physical, emotional and spiritual roads we take give structure to our lives. They make us feel safe and secure. In a world that is constantly changing around us, these patterns and routines, these roads we travel, provide a sense of stability. They are the firm foundation we stand on when our lives feel shaky and uncertain.
     But I would like to make the observation that these predictable roads can sometimes be the death of us, literally as well as spiritually and emotionally. Patterns of addiction have destroyed individuals and families. Cycles of violence and abuse hurt those we love.

     Always reacting to others in anger, can leave us with few friends and allies. Depression can rob our lives of health and vitality.  Our inability to see God as loving and forgiving, can leave us feeling constantly judged and rejected.  Heaven help anyone, who tries to offer us an alternative view of Jesus. We grip our spiritual steering wheel firmly, step on the gas pedal, and try to run them over!
     You might laugh, but you know it's the truth.  We love our patterns and routines. We love our dependable roads, be they physical, emotional or spiritual. But sometimes, it is essential for us to take a detour; to learn something new; to hear another perspective; to change the way we react to people who are quite different from us.
     Believe it or not, the person who is an expert in taking these kinds of detours is Jesus. In the gospels, he models a way for being and living in the world that involves going down new roads all the time.
      It's the thing that drove some people absolutely crazy. It's the thing that made some of the Pharisees and religious leader of his day, grip their spiritual steering wheels, step on the gas pedal, and try to run him over.  But it's also the thing that made fishermen give up their livelihood and become disciples. It's the thing that drew the crowds to Jesus like ants to a picnic.  What I'd like to do is provide a few examples of how Jesus took detours down unfamiliar roads.Hopefully it will inspire us to do the same every once in a while.
     Our first stop has to do with a literal road.  More specifically, the road that led through the region known as Samaria. Samaria is the land in between two important places in Jesus' ministry.  To the North is Nazareth, his hometown, and Galilee, the region where Jesus conducted most of his teaching and healing ministry.  To the South is Bethlehem, the place of his birth, and Jerusalem, the place of his greatest confrontation with the religious leaders of his day.
     Jerusalem is the city we will end up in next Sunday, as we begin to tell the stories of Holy Week. But today, we are traveling on a road that only Jesus dared to travel: the road through Samaria.  Nearly every rabbi in Jesus' day refused to travel on this road. Even though it is the most direct route between Galilee and Jerusalem, rabbis made detours around it so that the dust of Samaria would not contaminate their feet.
      WOW!  Talk about destructive patterns and routines! Jewish rabbis wanted NOTHING to do with Samaria! It was "no man's land," forbidden territory.  According to Mark Allen Powell, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, the reason for this deep seated hatred was because Jews viewed Samaritans  as one of two things:

1) They were descendants of foreign colonists whom the Assyrians had bought into the land of Israel after the conquest in 722 BCE.

2) They were the offspring of Israelites who had forsaken their traditions and intermarried with foreigners.

      To make matter worse, the Samaritans claimed they were the true Israelites, who were descendants of the lost tribes that had been taken into Assyrian captivity.  They claimed their temple on Mt. Gerezim was the original temple, and the one in Jerusalem was a secondary temple that was built by heretics.  The Samaritans also had their own version of the Pentateuch (The first five books of the Bible), and thought the one the Jews used was corrupted.  The rivalry between these two groups was heated and intense.  They wanted nothing to do with each other. They were happy to travel on completely separate roads, be they physical or spiritual.
      This is where Jesus comes in. He was not content to travel down the same road that the rest of the Jewish rabbis did. From a literal perspective, he traveled through the heart of Samaria, while the rest of the rabbis made a huge detour around it. From a spiritual perspective, Jesus made no distinctions between these two rival groups and offered grace and healing to both.
     In our gospel lesson we read of an encounter with a Samaritan woman in the town of Sychar.  John tells us that Jesus "left Judea and started back to Galilee, but he had to go through Samaria."  Jesus didn't HAVE TO GO though Samaria as if someone made him go there by force.  He CHOSE TO GO through Samaria, bucking decades of anti-Samaritan sentiment.
     This was not the only time he did this. Jesus association with Samaritans was so well known that, on one occasion, while discussing who the true children of Abraham were, a group of Jews said to Jesus, "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?" [Jn 8:48]  Needless to say, they weren't exactly paying Jesus a compliment. 
     Jesus' detour down this Samaritan road would inspire him to create one of his most beloved stories: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable the Samaritan is the one who acts like a beloved child of God. while a priest and a Levite look like heartless fools.
     To say that the Pharisees wanted to grip their spiritual steering wheel, step on the gas pedal, and try to run Jesus over, would be an understatement. He was challenging them to go down a road they had no intention of traveling. He did this again, and again, and again.
     Jesus healed the servant of a Centurion, a Pagan Roman solider, and exclaimed to the crowd, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith." [Jn 8:10] I'm sure that went over well!
     He welcomed children into his presence, much to the dismay of his disciples.
     He spoke directly with women, one on one, which was questionable at best for a rabbi. I would argue that at least one woman, Mary Magdalene, was his disciple even if the gospels hesitate to call her that!
     He broke bread with people the Jewish leaders lumped into the category of "sinners and tax collectors." This so appalled them that they labeled Jesus as a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners." [Mt 11:19, Lk 7:34] 
     I could go on, but we would be here for a VERY… LONG…TIME! Jesus was not afraid to take detours down new roads, even when others thought he was crazy for doing so.
     So, Friends in Christ, this week, our prayer should be one that made it's way into a Country song by Carrie Underwood: "Jesus, take the wheel!" That sounds pretty easy to do, but it's much harder in practice.
     We say, "Jesus take the wheel." We THINK we've left the driving up to him. but when the first bump in the road comes along, we start getting a little bit nervous. We become backseat drivers, giving helpful tips to our Savior, telling him to "watch out" for this or that.
     Then, when Jesus takes one of those detours he is famous for, we tell him it's time to make a pit stop. And when he stops the car and heads onto the 7-11, we jump into the driver's seat and say, "I'll take it from here!"
     After all, we are creatures of habit. Even the most spontaneous and extroverted among us have familiar patterns and routines to our lives. There is nothing wrong with this as long as the roads we travel lead us closer to God, closer to a healthier sense of self, and make us more loving toward our neighbor.
     But when these roads become excuses for bad habits and self-defeating emotions; when the familiar becomes an excuse to support our bigotry and hatred of others; it's time to let go of the steering wheel and leave the driving up to Jesus.