Holy Encounters

CPE Graduation
August 12, 2011


Less than three months ago we embarked on this mysterious journey called CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. We quickly were introduced to a new vocabulary of didactics, IPR’s and verbatims. What concerned us all the most was what were we going to say to these strangers who needed our help? We worried over finding the right words and doing the right things. We knew we couldn’t heal them, but we wanted to try.

And try we did. We encountered people who suffered from dementia and saw their minds fade in and out of awareness. We sat beside people who were undergoing chemotherapy hoping for a cure and listened with compassion to those who revealed they only had a short time left to live. We stood by the beds and in the rooms of those anxious about an upcoming surgery, we read to those who were lonely and felt alone, we sat at the bedsides gently holding the hands of those who were taking their last breaths in this life, and prayed and breathed new life into those who needed to feel the Spirit of the living God.

And through it all we experienced our own personal tragedies. Our pain, ever so close to the surface at times, kept veiled enough to keep those for whom we encountered from feeling our own burdens. Yet laughter and joy somehow found its way in the spaces between. The space between life and death. The space between today’s anxieties and tomorrow’s peace.  The space between fear and hope. It’s where we all live and where we do our ministry – in the space between. And our job as ministers is to help people see God in the spaces between.

Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer, tells a story about fugitive hiding in a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became afraid. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill everyone if they didn’t hand over the fugitive before dawn. The minister didn’t want to hand over the fugitive or see the villagers killed so the minister went to his room and read his Bible hoping to find an answer. He read “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.” So the minister told the soldiers where the fugitive was hiding. The entire village celebrated because their lives were saved, but the minister was deeply troubled because the fugitive was killed. That night an angel came to him and asked “What have you done?” The minister said, “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister asked. Then the angel said “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”

Ministry is not just about studying theology or searching the Bible for the right answers. It is about meeting people where they are – in the spaces between – and looking them in the eyes and seeing the Messiah. It is seeing the one in whose image we were all created, and revealing to others this image of God through our eyes. We do not need to speak the right words, God speaks through us.

Our eyes have been opened through this journey called CPE and we have been touched by those we have encountered as much as we have touched their lives. We have learned that it is not only in giving that we receive, but that in receiving we give.

We understand now with new minds.

We see now with new eyes.

We feel now with new hands.

And we love one another with new hearts.

We may have begun this journey in the hopes of healing others, but we ourselves have been healed in the process. For those encounters – the ones we prayed with, laughed with, cried with and rejoiced with – were sacred. They were holy encounters because whenever God is present all is made holy. And it is our mission to proclaim that God is always present even when it is not obvious or least expected. It is on this holy journey that we continue forward. Amen.


Holding On

Sermon from Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011
Utz Terrace Retirement Community, Hanover, PA
Matt. 14:22-33

Go on ahead of me; I’ll catch up with you later. Haven’t we all said this at one time or another? We make plans to do something with our friends and we remember we have something we need to do first. So we tell them to go ahead and we’ll meet them there, wherever there is.

That’s exactly what Jesus said to the disciples in today’s Gospel. He had just fed the multitudes with 5 loaves and 2 fish and he said to the disciples you go get in the boat and I’ll catch up with you later. He wanted to go up to the mountain, away from the crowds, and pray. You see, for Jesus, it all began with prayer. Before he did anything, he prayed. Prayer was what joined him with the Father. Prayer is what joined him with the power of the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, the Divine relationship was complete.

Meanwhile, back in the boat, while Jesus was praying, the disciples were enjoying time out in the open seas. The waves were high and the winds were rough, but the disciples were used to rocky seas. They were fisherman and they enjoyed the sense of excitement and adventure that the wind and waves gave to a fishing trip. They were out on the water having a good time expecting to see Jesus on the other side. They were not expecting to see someone walking on the water! That’s what terrified them. It wasn’t the waves or the wind it was what they thought was a ghost! When you’re out on the rough waters you don’t expect someone to be walking on the water.

But it was Jesus. How could they not see that it was Jesus? How could they not recognize him? They were friends. They ate together, fished together, laughed together. He was like one of them, except for the miracles. There were the miracles. But he looked like them. This image walking on the water didn’t look like them. This image, this ghostly apparition, was frightening. It was powerful. It walked on the chaotic waters. It defied the laws of nature. This was something all- together too powerful. This was not something they knew, so they were terrified and they cried out in fear. Immediately, Jesus spoke to them and said “It is I; do not be afraid.” It is I.

These words are the same ones spoken to Moses from the Burning Bush. It is I or I AM. When Moses came down from the mountain he was changed, transformed and his face glowed from seeing the living God. When Jesus came down from the mountain after praying, he too was on fire with the light of the living God. He was filled with a power that was too much for the disciples to comprehend. So Jesus says, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” But Jesus’ words do not comfort them and so Peter says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” That small word if makes a big difference.

If it is you, command me to come to you on the water” Peter demanded. “If it is you, command these stones to turn into bread” Satan tempted. “If it is you, come down off of that cross” the soldiers mocked.Peter wasn’t just questioning whether it was Jesus on the water that day, he was questioning whether Jesus was truly the Son of God – just like Satan in the wilderness, just like the soldiers at the foot of the cross, just like us. We test God.

If it is you, give me the money I need.”

If it is you, make my family treat me better.”

If it is you, take away my pain.”

If it is you, make all the sufferings in the world disappear.”

If it is you, give me whatever I want.”

 Like Peter, we want to walk on the water too. We want to be like God and we want to tell God what to do. But when we do that we fail because ultimately God is in control, not us.  Like Peter we sink into the depths and need rescuing. And just as Jesus was right there to pull Peter out of the sea, Jesus reaches out his hand to pull us out the chaos we find ourselves in.

Today’s Gospel message is not about Peter coming to Christ; it is about Christ coming to Peter and each to each one of us. Jesus gave the disciples a command to go on ahead of him in the boat and he would meet them on the other side.
Staying in the boat with each other was Jesus’ command, but Peter was not satisfied with that. He didn’t trust that Jesus would meet them.

God has given each one of us a command and purpose too. Sometimes it may seem like we aren’t doing anything. Like the disciples, we’re in the boat together, but there’s not much going on. We wonder if we are making a difference. We don’t see any progress. We want to do something bigger, something that will make a huge impact on the world and we fail to see that we are right where God wants us to be. He didn’t ask Peter or any of the disciples to walk on the water. He asked them to get in the boat and go where he sent them. He asked them to stay the course, no matter how mundane it may seem or how difficult it may be.

A Vietnamese monk, peace activist, poet and writer named Thich Nhat Hahn wrote that “The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.” That’s a real miracle at times isn’t it. It’s hard to walk on the earth, sometimes it seems almost impossible. We have to go where we may not want to go. We get a diagnosis that shatters our hopes.
We’re faced with a decision that leaves us feeling torn apart. Illnesses, pain, anxieties batter us like the waves of the ocean and we are thrown deep into a sea of depression, drowning and crying out to God for help. We look at the winds of change and we are frightened. We are terrified at what we see. Is this God walking toward us to aid us in our distress or is it an illusion only to leave us alone.

It is the faithful and merciful God who walks toward us. Who walks on top of the chaos of life, who rules over the turbulent waters and the troubled earth. We need not fear. It is the Great I AM who saw a suffering world and filled with compassion reached out from heaven and sent a Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes to live among us and bring us hope. It is the Great I AM who hung on cross to save us from death itself and redeem our souls.  It is the Great I AM who rose from the dead and is alive – walking with us, abiding in us, stirring up the Holy Spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words when our words are gone. It is the Great I Am who reaches out in love to grasp us from whatever is holding us down.

We do not have to walk on water. It is enough to walk on the earth. It is the Great I AM who reaches out with love and grace and brings us safely to the other side. Just hold on, pray, and be not afraid. Amen.

As Close As A Breath

Sermon from Sunday, July 24, 2011
St. David’s Lutheran Church, Hanover, PA
Matt. 13:31-33, 44-52

A tiny seed, a bit of yeast, a grain of sand….What do these three things have in common? Apparently, they reveal to us something about the kingdom of heaven, at least from Jesus’ point of view. “The kingdom of heaven is near.” This is what we hear Jesus say frequently in the gospel of Matthew.  But for the disciples and those listening to Jesus, they had a hard time understanding what he was talking about. They couldn’t figure out where. Where is the kingdom? They were looking for a kingdom far different than Jesus was talking about.

And so Jesus spoke in parables – short stories – to explain what he was talking about. He gave them visual aids through his descriptive stories – stories about seeds, and planting, and soil. Stories that they could relate to, but they – like us – didn’t always understand, even when he told parables. So as the disciples and the crowds gathered under the hot Middle Eastern sun, much like the heat we are experiencing lately only drier, he tried again to explain about the kingdom of heaven.

In today’s gospel we hear five new comparisons. The kingdom of heaven is like: a mustard seed, yeast, a hidden treasure buried in a field, a merchant searching for a priceless pearl and a net thrown into the sea to catch fish of every kind. It’s an odd combination of stories because they don’t seem to have anything in common. These parables seem to leave us more confused than before. Some of this is due to the context in which Jesus told these stories.

For example, yeast to us comes in a small neat package that when added to flour and water activates the mixture to rise and form bread. But for the people hearing this story in Jesus’ time, yeast was very different. Yeast – or leaven as it was called back then – was a small portion of bread set aside to spoil. Then a small piece of this was added to the batter to make it rise. If the leaven was not spoiled enough it would not cause the batter to rise and if it was too spoiled it would not only ruin the bread but it could turn poisonous and be fatal. It was considered “unclean” and leaven would be cleaned from the house during Passover where only unleavened bread was eaten. So only a small piece of leaven or yeast was needed to produce nourishing bread – a tiny portion, just like the mustard seed.

The tiny mustard seed grows to over 10 feet high, sometimes almost 15 feet! High enough Jesus said for “the birds of the air to make nest in its branches.” Again, for the people in Jesus’ time this mustard seed that was said to grow like a tree had a very different meaning than it does for us today. You see, a mustard seed grows more like a shrub and actually is …well, a weed, a weed that no respecting farmer would want in his or her garden. They wouldn’t intentionally plant it because it would take over everything! It would grow so tall that it would overrun the rest of the crop. So if the tiny mustard seeds go into the garden and grow, they would be pulled out right away. But Jesus talks about someone deliberately planting these mustard seeds – these mustard weeds. Why would anyone do such a thing?
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard weed…it doesn’t make any sense.

And then Jesus continues with his parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that is hidden in a field or a priceless pearl, both of which people sell all they have to own. And the kingdom is compared to a net that catches all kinds of fish – good and bad. Where is Jesus going with all of this? He gives us quite a lot of different images to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like, but how do you explain something as important and magnificent and divine as that? A seed, a piece of yeast, a grain of sand – so small – so seemingly insignificant. These are odd images and hardly ones that I’d use to explain something so unfathomable as the kingdom of heaven.

So why does Jesus use these odd and ordinary things to explain God’s kingdom? Perhaps because it is the odd and ordinary that make up such a kingdom. The tiny mustard seed grows into a massive weed that overtakes the garden just like God’s kingdom will spread to the ends of the earth – not from extraordinary perfect people, but from ordinary imperfect weeds. Christianity didn’t start by a massive invasion. It began with a group of 12 men – ordinary common fishermen, tax collectors and people who were considered rejects to society much like the mustard weed. And god still uses the weeds of society today  – the poor, the needy, the homeless, the addicted the abandoned, the rejected – to grow the kingdom of heaven. God plants the kingdom of heaven with weeds such as these.

God uses the spoils of society to grow the kingdom. Just like the spoiled leaven or yeast that the woman in the parable today used to make bread. In fact, she used three measures of flour with only one small piece of yeast and three measures would be enough to feed a multitude. A spoiled piece of bread produced life nourishing bread.

Sometimes it feels like our life is ruined. Our dreams have gone stale. Our hopes are rotting and we feel as useless as a moldy piece of bread. But that piece of moldy bread is not useless. We have been set aside by God to grow the kingdom. It is the spoils of our life that produce our capacity for compassion, for understanding, for patience and for love. God is hidden in the spoiled places of our lives.

The struggles, hardships and irritations that cause us pain are the very substances that produce the greatest treasures, just like the priceless pearl. A pearl is formed when a small piece of sand irritates the inside of a clamshell. The clam produces substances to deal with the irritation and this wrestling produces the pearl. When we prayerfully wrestle with the irritations in our lives, pearls of wisdom are formed. Blessings are born.

So what do a tiny seed, a small piece of yeast and a grain of sand have in common? Though they are small, they have the capacity to produce greatness – greatness hidden in adversity. We may see a weed, but God sees a tree of life. We may see a rotting piece of yeast, but God sees bread for the world. We may see a life shattered and broken, but God sees a vessel of grace. We may see a homeless bum on the street, but God sees a precious child of God. We may see an addict, but God sees a life of promise. We may see a handicap, but God sees a channel for prayer. We may see a tiny baby in a dirty manger, but God sees the Hope of humanity. We may see an innocent man hanging on a cross as failure, but God sees a Savior redeeming the world, bringing forth the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is near. It is as near as a tiny seed. It is as near as a piece of yeast. It is as near as a grain of sand. The kingdom of heaven is here among us in the risen Christ, the Word made flesh. In Christ, the Divine has been revealed. The kingdom of heaven is as close as the breath of the Spirit that lives within each one of us. Amen.