Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Mission of justice

Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you."
                                                              -- John 20:21
            I was taking a walk last week when I heard my phone ring in my pocket.  At least, I thought it was ringing, but actually it was dialing.  Somehow, the phone got jostled around and was dialing a number, but who was I accidentally calling?  I wrestled the phone out of my pocket just in time to hear a voice say, “This is 911, how can we be of help?”  I apologized multiple times and explained that I was walking and my phone decided to call them on its own.  They still asked specifically whether I required assistance, asked my location and name just in case, and assured me that this is something that “just happens” and to have a nice day.
            This little non-emergency reminded me how great it is that there are people out there, on call 24/7, waiting to spring into action the second someone needs help.  We are blessed to be just a butt-dial away from a whole system of rescue personnel who are waiting vigilantly for a moment of true distress.  It is not unusual in my walks down State Road 54, to be passed by one or more rushing ambulances or fire trucks with alarms blaring.  This is a world in need of help, and God bless those who willing and equipped to provide it.
            Jesus knew that returning to heaven meant leaving behind a world in need of help.  He loved the world that God the Father sent Him to, despite the rejection and contempt of fellow human beings.  And yet, those human beings were the ones who needed the most help, and he saw that those human beings were also the solution to that need.  As God had sent him into the world to bring the Good News of God’s grace, so Jesus would send his disciples into that world to continue what he had started. 
            That mission has been passed along to us…to you and me as present-day disciples of Jesus.  In Christ we recover the original God-given purpose of humanity – to tend to this planet and the good of all living things.  This means caring for the needs of those around us, giving a hand up to those who are facing hard times.  It also means nurturing the good in our society, being a voice that helps guide decisions people make in our congregation, community, nation and the world.  When Jesus came back from the dead, telling the disciples that he was sending them out just as God had sent him, these were the tasks he was passing on. 
            As disciples of Christ, we try to understand the issues that challenge us in the light of God’s grace and the message of Jesus Christ.  Our national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been studying and wrestling with many of them on a large scale.  By bringing in parishioners and experts from varying perspectives, offering study materials and surveying church members across the ELCA, and offering workshops and gathering feedback at synod gatherings, our national church body has crafted “social statements” that define our collective stance on many of these issues.  Each of them has been approved by a 2/3 majority at one of our national assemblies.  If you want to know “what the ELCA teaches” on any of these particular points, the Social Statements are the place to start:


ELCA Social Statements: 
            The fact that the ELCA has official positions on these issues does not mean that any particular pastor or church member is expected to agree with everything in these statements.  They are tools to help guide policy and clarify our thinking.  Some of the statements define a range of positions that are held throughout the church.  Each of them looks to Scripture and Lutheran teaching and seeks to find how our understanding of Christ intersects with the struggles of our changing world.
            When Jesus sent the disciples to bring Good News to the world, he gave them his peace and left them in the hands of the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit that guided the disciples and gave birth to the Church continues to guide the work we do together.  This summer, we will be looking at ways to grow our social justice ministry here at Atonement.  We will begin with our July Godify services on Saturdays, where we will take a close look at some of these social statements and see how our denomination continues to wrestle with real-world questions.  Then we will ask: where is Christ sending us?...where is the Spirit guiding us to “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) with God and our fellow human beings. 
Peace,
Pastor Scott


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

25

“…and the two shall become one flesh…”
                                    -- Matthew 19:5

             I wish I could say I met my wife Susan at church, but that’s not quite true.  It’s true, I was the new pastor of her church, but she worked most Sundays at the big, famous restaurant the next town over.  And so it happened that 2 months into my first job as pastor, I had already met her mom and her little brother, but had only seen a photo of Su. 

            They all lived together just 2 blocks down the street from where I lived in the parsonage.  Su’s brother mowed the church yard, and would often stop by to talk or play some basketball.  One day he left his basketball in the yard, and I walked down the street to return it.  “Do you want to come in?” he asked, but I didn’t want to intrude when his mom wasn’t there.  “Don’t worry, we let everyone in” he said, so I went inside.  
            He gave me the grand tour of the house, including the drab, windowless room under the basement stairs where his sister was staying.  It was not meant to be a permanent situation.  She had moved back home to get on her feet, and to help her mom and brother after her father’s death.  Near the end of the tour, he showed me that photo.  I tell people that a feeling came over me when I saw that picture, but it’s not what you think.  It was not a warm gush or a floaty, romantic feeling.  In fact it wasn’t something I ever felt before or since. The closest I can think of is the jolt you get from touching a screwdriver stuck in a live outlet.  It was like God punched me in the gut and said, “Pay attention.”  The next week she stopped by the parsonage one evening to tell her brother he had to come home… and yes, I paid attention!
            This month Susan and I celebrate 25 years of marriage.  That’s almost half my life.  When I first met Su, I realized that I had never met anyone like her, and 25 years later that’s still true.  Her open spirit, independence of thought and sarcastic sense of humor don’t fit most people’s image of the typical pastor’s wife.  If you’re like me though, you’ll find that refreshing.
             No matter how much you tell someone what marriage is going to be like, there’s no way to fully prepare for the reality.  Knowing what someone likes or dislikes still doesn’t make it easy to find them presents for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries…  Marrying someone who cooks at a restaurant known for world-famous chicken dinners doesn’t mean you’re going to get world-famous chicken dinners at home.  Family vacations meant for rest and recreation can be more exhausting than 2 weeks working overtime.  It’s not often that real life matches our expectations.
            That’s why every marriage requires adjusting expectations as you go along.  Moving, having a family, different jobs and friends, and struggles with health issues all play a role in shaping daily life together.  When you share the rhythms and responsibilities of each day with someone for half your life, you start to see how much you are the way you are because of them.  You are no longer the you that you would be if it was just you.  You have a history together, shared aspirations, goals and experiences, in-jokes, ways of seeing things, habits and concerns, all of which are permeated by the grace of God.  Somewhere along the way without ever consciously realizing it, the two have become one flesh.  
            There are times that this realization can be a little scary.  The challenges are daunting –
·        knowing that when you mess up, you’re affecting the ones you care most about; 
·        depending on someone else’s love, which is something beyond your control; 
·        trying to maintain deep and constant gratitude for something that is so easy to take for granted.  
It’s easy to say “All you need is love,” but there’s also some real conscious effort involved.  It starts by loving the spouse you really have instead of the image of who you want them to be, and realizing the 1,001 ways you will never be the person they deserve.  This leads into the kind of love John Legend sings about, a love for “all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections…”  Some days this is the easiest thing in the world, and some days the hardest.  It’s easiest when we trust that God’s spirit lives in that history we share, and that his forgiveness and grace are there for us to make us new each day.
            So I’m ready for another 25 years, and I hope Su is too.  Even though sometimes I forget to introduce her, I am proud to call her my wife.  I am even more proud to call her my best friend, and the best gift that God has given me in this life.  
Peace,
Pastor Scott

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Basket cases for Christ

“Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
                                                      – John 20:20b

            They could have walked away.  They could have left town and never turned back.  They could have called it quits for all time and tried to wipe him from their memory.  In fact, that was what the disciples were starting to do.  What good is a crucified Messiah?  The more miracles they saw their rabbi perform, the larger their hopes had grown until it became unthinkable that they could lose...or lose him. 
            This was God’s man they were following, and despite the swords of the Roman soldiers and the sneaky tricks of the establishment working against them, they felt safe beside Jesus.  And then he was gone.  If they had stopped and thought about it, they might have realized what was coming.  Jesus was a man of the people, envied by those in power.  He was a threat to those who had the means to do something about it.  Once enough people were agitated, once they began pointing their fingers at him, the powers-that-be only had to arrange a trial and show the proper indignation, and they had their readymade scapegoat.  The High Priest Caiaphas said it himself: “…it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).
            Many people today have walked away from the church for one reason or another.  Many of the reasons people have left the church are perfectly understandable.  Sometimes it has to do with God not living up to their expectations; sometimes the church itself does not inspire or seem relevant.  But more often than not it’s us, the church members.
            Instead of dancing through life with Jesus, we fearfully tiptoe behind Caiaphas.  Instead of loving boldly and welcoming the stranger, we hunker down and huddle together.  When words are said against people who are different, we join the crowd in questioning, or even condemning those who don’t meet our standards.  Satan is a great divider, and his weapon is our lack of trust… instead of standing together as children of the same God, we break down into groups of insiders and outsiders.
            Those disciples were on their way out.  They had given up sharing the Good News and gone back to their boats and fishing nets.  They were out on the lake when Jesus showed up.  He stood on the beach unnoticed until he called to them, asking how the fishing was going.  They told the truth…it was going lousy.  “Cast the net on the other side and you’ll find some fish.”  When the haul was so big suddenly that they couldn’t even lift it into the boat, then they knew it was the Lord.
            None of us are up to God’s standards… we easily follow the crowd, go back to our old ways, lose faith after a painful failure.  But despite how easily we give up, Jesus never gives up on us.  He comes to be our Way when we’re lost, our Truth when we’re confused, and our Life when we feel dead.  He is the Light that guides us, the Shepherd that cares for us, and the Vine that connects us in love.  He is the Alpha who was there to hear our borning cry, and the Omega who gathers us up after our last breath to bring us home.  He is the Resurrection and the Life. 
            God makes room for all in his great big Easter basket, the Church.  There was room in there for those disciples who walked away, and there is room for you and me.  Like jelly beans and Easter eggs, God wants to gather people from the whole spectrum of life, all colors, backgrounds, languages, generations, and brings us together in his kingdom.   Laying aside our past failures and hesitations, we get to try again to live as children of God.  We can find better ways to share the earth, God’s planet, using its good things for the good of all.  We can give of the mercy we’ve been given, opening ourselves up to the new insights and perspectives our neighbors bring. In the light of tomorrow’s morning, we see that there are still fish to catch and sheep to tend, and that there is still Good News to share.   By the strength he gives us, we rise again to follow Christ into the next adventure.          



,
Peace,
Pastor Scott

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The pride of Frankenstein

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:8
            Sometimes the movie is disappointing because it’s nothing like the book.  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  As a kid, I saw Frankenstein in black-and-white, the horror movie from 1931 with Boris Karloff playing the monster.  If he had said a word in that movie, I would have recognized the actor’s voice as that of the Grinch from the Christmas cartoon.  But no, the monster in that movie, with a body patched together from parts of corpses and the brain of a murderer, could not speak. 
            This year, the original novel Frankenstein which would become the basis for dozens of horror movies, turns 200.  Written in 1818 by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, you could say it was the runaway monster hit of the time.  I read through the book this month expecting to find Igor and the scientist capturing the power of lightning in the lab, expecting the same silent creature with the flat head and bolts in his neck, the same simple plot of hapless humans trying to destroy a murderous monster.  But I found that the book is much different from the movie.
            Far from being a simple horror story, Frankenstein the book is considered by some the first true work of science fiction.  It points towards a future where humans are able to harness the very forces of life – to create it through technology.  Questions that we face today about the ability to modify genes, to clone living beings and develop new species, to grow organs and tissues in labs, to do research that may have unsafe consequences for society… are all related to this 200 year old tale. 
            The fact that the first play based on the book was called “Presumption,” gives us a clue to the book’s foundational theme.  The original Frankenstein shows us how our use of technology is a moral issue.  In creating a living being, Victor Frankenstein has taken on godlike power without godlike wisdom or compassion.  What about our own use of technology -- just because we can do something amazing, should we?  Is it right to play around with forces of creation which we can’t control?  What is going through the head and the heart of someone who creates a monster? 
            There is no Igor in the book.  The monster is the creation of one man, working alone in his lab.  He tells no one what he has done, not even his bride-to-be whose life is clearly threatened by the creature.  This monster can talk, and has a lot to tell his creator.  He tells him how lonely he is, how he is constantly rejected because of his ugliness, and how much he longs for a single companion.  Despite so many signs of humanity in the creature, the scientist rejects his pleas and treats him as an outsider to the human race.  It is not hard to understand why the creature would resort to violence and threats to get his way, nor is it hard to see the scientist who created him as the real monster in this story.
            Like the novel Frankenstein, the Book of Revelation uses images of monsters and violence to portray the presumptions of humanity.  It was written for a community that felt overwhelmed by the chaos of the world.  Presumptuous Roman Emperors were declaring themselves gods on earth, and demanding worship from all their subjects.  Armies were invading sacred lands and symbols of earthly powers were set up in holy places.  The very lives of those who resisted the power of the Empire were up for grabs as leaders turned persecution into a public policy. 
            But above all the chaos, a voice echoes: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” – the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  This Jesus declares at the beginning (Rev. 1:8) and the end (Rev. 22:12) of the book.  This is the truth that we can be sure of, despite the rumbling earthquakes and wild hurricane winds that try to frighten and unsettle us.  We can trust the word of Jesus over that of any other words people throw at us.  We can know his love is with us no matter how we are rejected by the rest of the world.  We can be sure that all the power and might of Almighty God is with him, even if it is hidden in gentleness and the way of the cross. 
            Our Lenten journey on Sundays this month takes us through the “I ams” of Jesus.  These are statements he made to reassure us that he is there for us in many ways, protecting us from evil and leading us to God.  He told Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:1-12);   He tells his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11-18); He tells us He is the Light of the World (John 9:13-39), the Vine and the Branches (John 15:1-8), the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8), and the Bread of Life (John 6:41-51).  Finally on Easter, we hear his pronouncement to Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:1-27).
            It is this promise that pulls us forward through Lent and lights up the darkness of the world’s chaos.  It is the life Jesus gives that brings us into God’s community and turns us restless creatures into children of God.  Easter makes it known that God is in control, that death does not have the last word, and that our present struggles have purpose and meaning.  Jesus gives us strength to carry on to carry his message of hope through this presumptuous world.  We hope you will join us in worship this season as he gives us the means to know our true creator and experience the true life he gives. 

Peace,
Pastor Scott

Monday, February 5, 2018

Hearts and ashes

“But the greatest of these is love” – 1 Corinthians 13
            Valentine’s Day can be difficult enough without throwing Ash Wednesday in.  Whether you’re struggling to find a meaningful gift that somehow, in some way expresses your unique and always-new love to your significant other, or are enduring the pain of a lost companion, or feeling left out of the holiday as a single person, Valentine’s Day by itself can press down on us with its load of hard-to-meet expectations.
            Now pile on one more thing: this year Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are the same day.  How much more can two days differ?  That holy day of ashy gray and graveside black, of remembering we are and will return to dust clashes about as much as it is possible to clash with the pink hearts and red cards and sugary candy and saccharine sentiments of our national Hallmark holiday.  So how do we handle the dilemma of this ambivalent commencement to Lent?
            Paradox: it means holding 2 opposing things to be true at the same time, and somehow being ok with it.  If Luther was right and the Christian faith is full of paradox, then maybe there is no real dilemma here at all.  After all, we believe in a man who was born from a virgin, a man who was  human but also God, who beat the devil by being defeated, saving the world by losing his life, destroying death by dying, and then leading his people by leaving them and going into heaven.  We worship him by eating his body which is also bread and drinking his blood which happens to be wine, so we can find true forgiveness while still remaining sinners.  Christians should be really good at paradox.
            When we think about Lent, that 40 days of following Jesus as he makes his way to the cross…we’re often hard on ourselves.  We consider our sinfulness, and usually think about depriving ourselves of something nice, or being more disciplined and thoughtful.  We try to minimize our own sense of worthiness to remind ourselves how undeserving we are of Christ’s love.  Maybe all that self-reflection sometimes gets in the way of what Lent is really about – that pathway of love that led Jesus to the cross in the first place.  Jesus did what He did out of love for you.  He looks at you and sees a beloved child of God.  
            So maybe it’s not so much of a paradox after all.  Maybe it makes good Lenten sense to think about all those Valentine’s clichés, the messages on the little candy hearts: “Dear One,” “You Rock,” “Love U,”  “Be Mine.”  After all, it was Jesus who said, “…love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12).  If you travel with your eyes open, the path of Lent will show you just how dear you are to him, and how much he wants you to be his.
            This year our Lenten worship will take two separate tracks – the Wednesday night services will carry this Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day tie-in through the whole season with our “Lent is Love” series.  Each evening on the Wednesdays of Lent we will give away a magnetic puzzle piece to every worshiper, which together will form a beautiful image of Jesus.  In worship each week we will examine a different aspect of God’s love and a different verse from “the love chapter” 1 Corinthians 13.  Though we’re used to hearing those verses only at weddings, they have to do with the unique love God gives each of us, a love he expects us to share with others.
            Our Sunday services will take a different track, as we follow along with the Lenten devotional You Are the Way.  These small booklets contain readings for every day of the Lenten season, and focus on the “I am” statements of Jesus.  The “I am” passages give us hints and clues as to who Jesus is for us individually and as members of His Church.  The You Are the Way devotionals will be our guide through this season.  You may order one from Augsburg here.

            Now in addition to the three services each weekend, we will also have midweek Lenten services starting Ash Wednesday.  There are more ways than ever to make your way to the light of Easter’s empty tomb here at Atonement.  We hope you will find a path this Lent that leads you closer to the one who gave us the greatest love of all – Jesus, our Lord.
Peace,
Pastor Scott

Monday, January 15, 2018

Joseph and his amazing technicolor stewardship

  “Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good in order to preserve numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear.  I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’”

-- Genesis 51:19-21

Dear Friends of Atonement,
            Happy New Year!  We made it to 2018!  Hope it’s going well so far. 
            Again and again I’ve heard people say, “At least 2018 has got to be better than 2017…”  Last year certainly did have its challenges -- every year does.  But in 2017 we had hurricanes roar through the area, a beloved bishop leave office, struggles finding the right plan for our new building, issues with our old building and trouble with the brand new freezer unit, and just too many old friends leaving us…  I could go on, but I’m sure you have your own list. 

            And then I remember Joseph – the guy with the “coat of many colors.”  Beaten and left for dead by his own brothers, falsely accused of sexual misconduct, thrown into a foreign prison and forgotten by his friends, Joseph must have wondered why God was putting him through all this.  Yet he never lost his faith. 
            It took a while, but finally Joseph was recognized as “one who has the Spirit of the Lord.”  He was brought before the king, and God gave him the key to understanding the king’s mysterious dream.  Joseph knew that God was saying through that dream that the land was about to experience a severe drought and famine.  When the king hears that, immediately he makes Joseph his chief steward, manager of all his resources.  Joseph goes from jail to being the world’s second most powerful man – talk about rags to riches!
            But God’s real gift to Joseph wasn’t the wealth He put under Joseph’s control.  It was all the lives he was able to save by being a good steward.  He was able to use the king’s money and grain not only to save the kingdom, but also to save those brothers of his who beat him and left him for dead.  True, Joseph couldn’t resist messing with them a little when they came seeking his help (see Genesis 42-45), but ultimately he forgave them, took care of them and their families, and gave all the glory to God!

            However beat up you feel by 2017, I pray that 2018 will be a turnaround year in your life.  As God’s faithful people, we live in the hope of his promises.  Whatever life’s struggles, we are carried onward by the one who loves us.  He is there through the highs and lows, in times of laughter and of tears.  We go from Christ to Christ, whose candle was lit at our baptism and will be lit as we go to glory.  Along the way, He makes us his stewards here in the kingdom of this earth, so we might be like Joseph and share our resources, our forgiveness and our love with all in need.

            Last month, we shared that Atonement is still behind in our general fund and asked people to look again at increasing their giving.  We thank you for hearing our appeal and doing just that!  December’s giving was within $400 of our giving goal for the month, which brought our general fund deficit down to $12,335…the lowest it’s been for quite a while.  
            We have a ways to go till we become stewards as good as Joseph.  He spent seven years storing up enough surplus grain to see the whole kingdom through the hard years of famine.   But with your help we continue growing our ministries and finding new ways to care for the spiritually and physically hungry who come to us.  Thank you for growing in stewardship, and for your faithful giving which is helping more and more people know and experience God’s love. 
Peace,

Pastor Scott 

P.S.  If you haven’t already, make your reservation to join us for the installation of our new bishop, Pedro Suarez, Jan. 20 at noon at St. Mark’s Catholic Church 9724 Cross Creek Blvd. in New Tampa.  Our own Esthel Kane and Nicholas Trejo will be in the opening procession.  Call the synod office at (813) 876-7660 or go to http://fbsynod.com/installation/