Dwelling-places

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.  –John 14:2

 

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there seem to be a lot Nancys in our church.

There are in fact 19 Nancys in the church.  Supposing the church to be a house of God, we might update John 14:2, “In our Father’s house, there are many Nancys,” each one individually is dwelling place for God, each and all together make the church a place of healing and hope for others.

How many Nancys can you name?  And what is it about women named Nancy, anyway?  Why do we have such a cluster of Nancys in our church?

Nancy was a name given by a generation in a hopeful time, a statement of belief in positivism, hard work, and honesty.

Spiritual Engagement Ministry Board: Nancys Lackey and Keller, Chair and Vice-Chair, respectively.  Building and Finance: Nancy Ulrich.

Currently, Outreach and Mission Ministry Board is Nancy-less, but this is sure to change. Neither are there Nancys currently serving on our Christian Education Ministry Board, but this board has a rich tradition of Christines (Chris, Kristi), a name which may be the next generation’s answer to Nancy.

I can tell you from experience, it is good to have a Nancy or two on your side: ditto Christine.  To get things done requires a commitment to detail and follow through.  Without a good attitude and faith in hard work nothing worthy gets done.  These good souls are not only people in whom God dwells, but who help to make us better dwelling place for others.

What do you think is the most common name in the church for men?

I don’t know for sure, but can you think of two Nancys married to Bills?  How many Williams do we have?

There are 24 Williams. There are 43 Johns.  I could count the number of Barbaras, Jims, Mikes, and Deannas–do you get this beautiful picture?

We don’t think of these individuals as a group; we think of them as individual people, for it is with these people as individuals that we experience the indwelling of God.

Yet if we imagine together as one all the individual Nancys and Chistines, Williams, and Johns, and Jims, and Mikes, and Deannas–then we may see how they collectively become God’s dwelling place, the home Jesus promises.

“In my Father’s House there are many dwelling places.”  Indeed.

Marching

8th Sunday after Pentecost; 7/10/2016:
Amos 7:7-17; Ps 82; Colossians 1:1-14;  Luke 10:25-37
Marching (pdf sermon manuscript)

Vacations are a lot of work.

The week before you leave on vacation, you have to work double-hard to get everything ready to go, and yet when you come back it often seems that your work has multiplied like rabbits while you were away.  On a short week like this week, with the 4th of July holiday on Monday, it seems no matter what you do you are hopelessly behind and unable to catch up.

This has been one of those weeks for me only more so…by the time Friday rolled around, I had a list of things to do–laundry, grocery shopping, errands here and there and everywhere….

In all of this busyness, I did not miss the tragic news from Baton Rouge on Tuesday, but I purposely didn’t watch the video of it.  Neither did I miss the tragic news from St. Paul on Thursday, but again I avoided watching the chilling video.  Then on Friday when I started the day and looked at the news and read of the tragedy in Dallas, I found myself looking at the video, heartbroken, and then I looked at the other videos I had been avoiding…

And then I made list of “things-to-do” for the day–sometimes small, everyday tasks are a balm for the soul, but there are times when our souls are troubled for good reason, when to avoid trouble is unfaithful.

I will confess to you that I was troubled about this moment we share today; what you all might be thinking and feeling today, what Good News I can share as a preacher and teacher of the gospel on this day after this tragic week?  What would I be saying if I remained silent and did not speak of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas?

After I finished my grocery shopping, I saw I had a Facebook message from one of my fellow UCC pastors in the Quad Cities.  She told me that there was to be a Black Lives Matters march from the Police Station in Rock Island, across the Centennial Bridge, to the Police Station in Davenport.

I finished my errands, put in my laundry, started my cleaning, and began to think…

Should I go on the Black Lives Matter march?

Should I use the church Facebook page to announce the march and invite you all to join me?  What are my responsibilities, as a pastoral leader, as a father, as a Christian?

And if I didn’t go, would I be like the priest and Levite to walk right past the wounded and suffering soul on the road? Would I be one of those Amos’ plumb line would show to be out of true, my sense of righteousness unaligned with my deliberate and active care for the poor and needy?

I suppose the matter would have been easier to decide if I were black, or if I had black children or grandchildren, or if I had police officers in my family, and yet there is that part of the Good Samaritan story that says that the Samaritan was moved by pity–his passion moves him to act: isn’t pity–compassion–a form of spiritual imagination?

And doesn’t the commandment to love our neighbors require us to extend ourselves to meet our neighbors?

Aren’t we as Christians supposed to be people who are known for our commitment to imagine the pain and suffering and grief of others and who like the Good Samaritan don’t simply pass by?

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t feeling it.  I was exhausted from my busy week and had lots of stuff to do, but then I finished my list of to-dos and had nothing planned for the evening–no excuse really.

An hour or so before the march, I talked about it with a neighbor.

The conversation we had was like conversations we all have, about whether marches are productive of anything, of whether to march is to say the police are the problem,  about whether the problem is broader and deeper, whether it is about poverty and prisons and racism and politics, or about whether we as a society expect police to be social workers and therapists and call on them to intervene rather than building social systems to care for people in crisis: abstractions really, merely abstractions.

Our conversation was not animated by pity or compassion but we found ourselves rehearsing the same talking points we have heard all of our lives….until we started talking about how we were talking, until we realized how privileged we are to talk about these matters in the abstract, about all the choices we have that others do not have and how very easy it is for us to choose to do nothing at all.

When the time came, I decided to join the march.

The leaders of the march talked to us in Rock Island, spoke about the need for the march, the hope of bringing about change so that what happened in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas does not happen in the Quad Cities, and emphasizing that it was to be a peaceful march.

After the talking was done but before the march began, a pastor invited us to pray.  Hats came off, heads were bowed.

We said “Amen” and then set off together to cross the bridge.

At every turn, there were police officers protecting us.  What were they thinking and feeling I wonder?

As marchers passed by them, they greeted the officers, “Thank you for your service; thank you sir; we are grateful for you.” Many of the marchers reached out and shook police officers’ hands as they passed by–I wonder who was the Samaritan in these exchanges, and who was the poor soul suffering in the ditch.

About half way across, Pr. Mason Parks, the pastor of New Journey AME church just down 7th Ave here in Moline, a neighbor church, came along beside me and said “hello.”

I met Pr. Mason a year ago, after the Mother Emmanuel Massacre in South Carolina.  I was glad to see him but felt embarrassed about having failed to maintain our relationship.  I wondered if all of this sadness would be different if people like me took the time and saw the importance of maintaining relationships.  It is pretty hard to love our neighbors if we don’t take the time to get know them.

On the march, leaders were leading chants, and people were following along: hands up! don’t shoot!  What do we want? Justice! When do we want it. Now! What do we want?  Change! When do we want it, Now!

I did not raise my hands; I did not chant.  I felt out of place and uncomfortable, and I found myself feeling it would be dishonest somehow, untrue if I did.

In the crowd I saw two people marching side by side who were wearing shirts that say “Love thy Neighbor,” Thy black neighbor, thy white neighbor, thy Muslim Neighbor, Thy Gay Neighbor, thy straight neighbor.”

They were joining in the chants and hand raising with the leader; I didn’t have a chance to talk with them, but I expect they would say that marching and chanting was honoring the commandment written on their shirts.

Love is not an abstraction; it is an action.

As we crossed the bridge, people driving in the other direction slowed down to look at us.

Many of them whipped out their cell phones to take pictures.  Some of them honked and cheered us on.  Most of them simply passed by.

One fellow on a Harley hollered at us, “All Lives Matter” and then revved his engine loudly to drown out our chants.

When we got into Davenport, a few young men were laughing and hooting at us: Kill the Police they said, and laughed.

A little later a father riding bikes with his daughter yelled, “you’re wasting your time marching; why don’t you do something about it?”  His daughter, riding behind him, was laughing–what else could she do?

To end the march, we gathered in a parking lot in Davenport for speeches: I looked around and saw people of all kinds, rich and poor, black and white, young and old.

I saw many black parents holding hands with their little children, and I wondered what those parents must be feeling; white parents brought their children, too, and I wondered if I would have done the same.

Police officers stood off at a distance watching over us, expressionless.

The speakers encouraged us to stay involved, to pay attention, to vote and hold leaders accountable; they praised police officers who serve with honor and called for justice for those who violate their oath to protect and serve.  Many people were crying.  Some were holding up signs. Others were shouting amen.

The final speaker asked us to look around at our neighbors, to notice how different we were from one another, and to remember that we are in this together, that by working together as neighbors, we can bring about lasting and real change.

The event concluded with prayer; all of us joining hands together as one. As we prayed, police officers looked on.

I have been at pains to say often and repeatedly that God loves us not because of what we do but because of who we are.  I have said often and repeatedly that God’s grace is given to us as a gift which can neither be earned nor can it be lost.  But as the prophet Amos reminds us, God’s judgement is given to us as well.  This judgement, says Amos, is a plumb line measuring whether our worship of God is in true with our care of the poor and needy, whether our actions are in true with our prayers.

And Jesus teaches that to love God means to be moved by pity and compassion to take action on behalf of those whose pain and suffering has been ignored and overlooked and distorted and silenced.

As people of faith, as followers of Christ, as a congregation who listens to the words of prophets of old asking how we might square our prayers with our actions, we must look for hope not by accepting the abstractions and arguments that dismiss and excuse us from action, but we must exercise spiritual imagination.  We must allow ourselves to be moved by pity and compassion, by the suffering of others.  We must open ourselves to the judgment of God, which is now and will always be merciful and forgiving, but which now and always demands that we ask how we ourselves have been untrue so that the we ourselves can choose how to love kindness, to do justice, and to walk humbly with our God.

May our every prayer be an action that brings healing, hope, and reconciliations to a broken and hurting world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Ashes to Ashes

Karen Gullickson lives with her sister, Ruthie, in a little house behind Gullickson’s Grocery Store, which has been closed for decades. If you were to ask Karen when the family store closed, she would tell you the date along with a complete history of the store and town, Keyeser, Wisconsin.

Spring Prairie Lutheran Church is across the street from Karen’s house. The church was founded by Norwegian Lutherans, who were dairy farmers and tobacco growers back when tobacco was a government subsidized cash crop like corn and soybeans are today.

If you were to open Karen’s front door and walk across the street in a straight line, you would find yourself in the parking space marked by a sign, “Reserved for Pastor.” This was my parking spot–Spring Prairie Lutheran Church was my first congregation.

I went to Spring Prairie Lutheran Church knowing nothing about Lutheranism, to serve as an Interim Pastor following a Pastor who had hurt the congregation in ways that are all too familiar to church goers. The pastor who preceded him, Pr. Rolf Olsen, had served Spring Prairie faithfully for 38 years, so the congregation soon recovered from the shenanigans of the Pastor I succeeded. The resilience of the congregation grew from the deep roots of relationships of a community cultivated over time by working together, by cooperating and sharing farm machinery, by helping one another chop and spear tobacco, by celebrating the end of growing seasons, and by going to church.

The story of these relationships is told in the cemetery, which surrounds Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, and Karen has long tended this cemetery and curated its stories. She has maps for every plot and knows the story of every family member buried there, stories which grow from the Keyeser soil of Norwegian Lutheran relationships.

Funeral services at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church conclude with a congregational procession to the graveside, bells tolling, led by the Pastor, robes flowing in the prairie breeze.

Karen taught me about funeral processions at Spring Prairie. The very first funeral I officiated over was for Esther Gilbertson, the matriarch of Gilbertson’s Grocery Store, which is across the street from Gullickson’s Grocery store. Karen would gladly tell you the complicated story of these two grocery stores.

I asked Karen to walk me through how Pr. Rolf led the the funeral procession and conducted the committal service at the graveside. She told me that Pr. Rolf, while saying “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” made the sign of the cross on the casket with soil from the graveside.

I began to understand beauty of soil at Spring Prairie. The Norwegians moved to Keyeser because it looked like home and because of the soil–fertile, black loam left by glaciers plowing across Wisconsin eons ago, soil that was fed for millennia by prairie grasses. The sign of the cross inscribed with that rich soil traced not only generations of relationships: it connected souls to ages and eons of time that created it.

For the year that I served at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, I carried a small container of that soil in my robe pocket, and began to follow the 38 year custom established by Pr. Rolf Olsen–“ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

When my year at serving at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church ended, Karen gave me a gift: a tin box with a bag of that beautiful soil. The tin now sits in my study in a cabinet that once belonged to John Deere.

Each time I prepare to officiate a funeral, I open the tin to fill a small container with Spring Prairie soil. The last time I opened the tin was to celebrate the life of Belinda Johnson, and I found that the soil Karen gave me is nearly exhausted.

It is time now for me to find some soil along the Mississippi River to refill the tin.

I am thankful for Karen Gullickson and the good people of Spring Prairie Lutheran Church; it was a profound honor to serve as Pastor in Keyeser, Wisconsin, and as I begin serving as Pastor and Teacher of First Congregational UCC, Moline, Illinois, I can only hope to be as faithful as was Pr. Rolf Olsen. I  believe this faithfulness is about finding the soil of this place.

It is a profound and humbling honor to be officially called by this congregation. We do not know how many years we will be given to walk upon this earth, nor how long we will be given to serve God together, but we can be sure of the soil. In a church that remembers John Deere and the plow he created to prepare the earth for planting, we now look forward to planting seeds and growing together.

At the graveside in the years ahead, as I trace the sign of the cross with the soil of this place, I will remember Karen Gullickson and Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, and I will pray that we will faithfully tend and care for the soil we have been given by God to grow something beautiful and lasting at First Congregational UCC Moline.

Time to Shine

On the first Sunday of the year, I said that 2014 had been a difficult year but that 2015 would be better.  I was merely saying what I have been hearing and seeing since November. As we celebrated Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas, we seemed to gather ourselves toward the future.  There is a growing sense that 2015 will be a better year.

After the service, Allyn McCune shook my hand and said that difficult times for the congregation were not limited to 2014. “We have had many polishing years,” he said: “We are a well-polished congregation.”

To say merely that next year will be better fails to capture the truth Allyn helps us to see.  There is a feeling in the congregation not only of relief but also of readiness.

2015 is time to shine!

It is time to shine up the church.  Our lovely building could use a bit of polishing. Very much like we clean up our homes so that they sparkle when special guests visit, we need to look at how our building reflects our desire to welcome guests with warmth and hospitality.

It is time to shine out of the church.  Our members are hungry for local mission experiences that dignify the lives of others.  Mission is our purpose: it unites us together, renews our faith, and inspires our worship.

It is time to shine on as a church.  We often equate stewardship with an end-of-the year pledge drive, but stewardship is a spiritual discipline that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  Stewardship is the practice of grateful living, saying thank-you, celebrating successes, and diversifying giving.

I look forward to the year to come, trusting that God has polished us to shine in 2015.

Peace,
Pr. Craig

Unlikely Inspiration

How many Congregationalists does it take to change  lightbulb? One-hundred and nine:

Seven on the Lightbulb Task Force Sub-committee, who report to the twelve on the Lightbulb Task Force, appointed by the fifteen on the Trustee Board. Their recommendation is reviewed by the Finance Executive Committee of five, who place it on the agenda of the eighteen-member Finance Committee. If they approve, they bring a motion to the twenty-seven Member church Board, who appoint another twelve-member review committee. If they recommend that the Church Board proceed, a resolution is brought to the Congregational Business Meeting. They appoint another eight-member review committee. If their report to the next Congregational Business Meeting supports the changing of a lightbulb, and the Congregation votes in favor, the responsibility to carry out the lightbulb change is passed on to the Trustee Board, who in turn appoint a seven-member committee to find the best price in new lightbulbs. Their recommendation of which hardware is the best buy must then be reviewed by the twenty-three-member Ethics Committee to make certain that this hardware store has no connection to Disneyland. They report back to the Trustee Board who then commissions the Trustee in charge of the Janitor to ask him to make the change.

Truth be told, though meetings can be tedious and exhausting, I have been surprised by the energy, commitment, and good humor in our meetings.  The Constitution Committee has been meeting weekly, there is a team thinking through how to support the church though the changes coming next year, and a team developing innovative technology and communications strategies.  Throughout the week, volunteers come in to help with mailings and thank you notes, and groups meet to talk about books and read the bible together and pray together and to knit warm, fuzzy, comforting prayer shawls.

All of this passion, work and commitment gives me confidence that 2015 is going to be a good year for the church.  Though I am surprised to hear myself say it, I am inspired by the meetings I attend.  We are moving forward constructively, not in reaction to a difficult year in 2014, but in response to the hopeful future to which we are called as the people of God.