Category Archives: Discipleship

“The Way” – Sermon on John 14:1-14

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“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. – John 14:1-14

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” John: 14:6.

To be quite honest, whenever I hear this verse, I cringe a little. Maybe it’s because of the many billboards or bumper stickers I’ve seen it broadcasted on. Or the number of times I’ve heard street preachers yell it at complete strangers. Or maybe it’s because of the ways in which it had been misquoted and used by friends and leaders in the campus ministry I was involved in in college.

You see, this “I AM” declaration by Jesus in our passage from John today has often been used to exclude: determining who’s in and who’s out of the Christian club. Christians often use this verse to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our own standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited – and what I believe to be often quite harmful – understanding, I think we miss out on a much deeper meaning of this “I AM” statement.

And so, in order to better understand what Jesus meant by this statement, we need to look at what is actually going on when he says it.

And when we do, we might find it a bit odd to be looking at this text in John several weeks after celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Because we are now going back to the event on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus is gathered around the table with his closest friends, sharing in his last supper with them before he begins his journey toward the cross. (However, I do think it may become a little more clear in a bit about why we are reading this text as we are getting close to Ascension Day.)

Now, throughout this final meal with his disciples, Jesus has been dropping hints about having to leave them soon, not only in his impending death on the cross, but also in his ascension into heaven, which means he will no longer be physically present with them.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks Jesus right before our text for this morning. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,” Jesus answers him. “But there will come a time when you will follow me.” Worried about what this would mean for Jesus to leave him (after he’s been with Jesus day in and day out for three years), Peter pushes him: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

But Jesus urges Peter and the rest of the disciples to be patient and to hold onto hope, assuring them: “While there soon will come a time that will feel hopeless, do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Although we may be separated for a little while, we will one day be reunited. I am going to my Father’s house, where there are many rooms. And I am preparing a room there for each of you so that one day where I will be, there you will be also. For you know the way to the place I am going.”

But the disciples still don’t quite understand. And – possibly out of their grief and concerns about Jesus leaving – they try to convince him to stay.

“But Lord,” Thomas exclaims, “we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way to get there if you are not with us?”

I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus replies. “You have already seen the Father. If you know me, then you will know the Father, also.”

But – still confused – Philip chimes in: “Show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied.”

By this point it makes sense that Jesus might be a little frustrated with his friends. “After following me day in and day out for the last three years, you still don’t know who I am?” he asks. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Believe me, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

—–

I’ll never forget what one of my friends who was involved in my college campus ministry said to one of our agnostic friends one day. The friend involved in the ministry said: “You don’t want to burn in hell for all eternity after you die, do you? Because the way to heaven – where you will not burn in hell – is easy. You just need to believe that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior and ask him into your heart.” Then she opened her bible up to John 14 and quoted Jesus’ “I am the way…” statement.

I was a little taken aback by what seemed to be pretty harsh words by my college friend, who took pride in being a Christian.  And I was also a bit concerned about how my agnostic friend was feeling at that moment.

But what really caught my attention was what our agnostic friend said in response to this. “Really?” She asked. “It’s that easy to not burn in hell? So all you have to do is believe that Jesus is your Savior and you can continue to openly be a jerk to everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe? But those who don’t believe that Jesus is God and yet they love others the way Jesus loved others are going to burn in hell forever? That doesn’t really sound like Jesus’ message at all.”

This conversation – along with many other similar ones I’d observed during my time in that campus ministry – opened my eyes to the fact that just about anyone can shout out that Jesus is their Savior until they’re blue in the face. But that still does not guarantee they get who Jesus is or understand what he’s all about.

And what really struck me in this particular conversation was that it was my agnostic friend who seemed to get who Jesus is more than my Christian friend.

You see, if we read Jesus’ entire farewell discourse to his disciples after his last meal with them before his impending death, we will recognize that the way to God Jesus is telling his friends to take is not as easy as my Christian friend explained it to be. It’s not having belief ABOUT who Jesus is, asking Jesus to come into our hearts, and then going on our merry way. Rather, it is about following Jesus’ way. A way that – as Jesus explains just before our passage for today – involves a commandment to love one another, just as he has loved us… Something that is not – in fact – very easy to do

And yes, Jesus tells his close friends to believe in God and to believe also in him. But he does not say that if they don’t, they will burn in hell for eternity.

Actually, his message to his close friends is quite the opposite. Even though the disciples are still a bit confused at times about who Jesus is, Jesus knows they have already put their faith and trust in him – at least, as much as they possibly could at this point in time. I mean, they gave up everything they had to follow him and stayed with and learned from him for three years, even when it wasn’t the most popular or safe thing to do. If that isn’t putting their faith and trust in him, I don’t really know what is!

“Believe me,” Jesus is urging them.  “I have prepared a room in my Father’s house for each one of you.  We will one day be reunited.”  This is a guarantee.

So now, when the disciples are worried about what their future will entail when Jesus leaves them – Jesus assures them that they are going to be okay without having Jesus physically by their sides. And so they should hold onto this hope, no matter what comes their way.

“Continue to have faith in me,” he urges them. “You have a loving God. You know this because you have already seen God. Because you have seen me. So when you wonder what kind of a God you have and where God is when you encounter times of great trials and suffering, look to me, and there you will find God.”

—–

I think this is a great reminder for us.

In a world that is full of violence, hate, and exclusion of all kinds, many of us may be wondering – like Thomas – where God went and what the path is that we need to take in order to find God. Or many of us may be calling out like Philip, “Show us God!” and demanding to see some proof in the world that God cares.

And so when we begin to wonder what kind of a God we have, we can look to Jesus. We can look to his teachings and look to his works. Look at the ways in which he proclaimed good news to the poor, released those who were captive, gave sight to those who couldn’t see, and liberated the oppressed. Look at the ways he fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. When we begin to wonder where God is, we can look into the faces of the last and the least and look for the people around us who are following Jesus’ way of life and sharing his love to a hurting world.

When we wonder what way to go in order to find Jesus, we can look for the people and the places in this world that need healing and Jesus’ good news the most. “This is where you will find and encounter me,” Jesus is saying. “This is the way to God.”

And Jesus doesn’t just end here. He continues with a commission for the disciples and for all of us to continue this work when he is physically gone from this earth. “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: “Now it is you who will be my hands and feet in the world.”

I think our ELCA moto says this well: “It is God’s work, our hands.”

And soon – on Ascension Day – we will be reminded that we are not alone in this work. The Holy Spirit is with us always, giving us strength, comfort, and guidance every step of the way.

Amen.

 

 

Encouragement for My Fellow Women Pastors

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A little encouragement for my fellow women pastors (and faith leaders of all traditions) out there:

Yesterday, a parishioner told me that when her two young daughters saw me a few weeks ago, one of them said: “Is that Pastor Emily? You know, she is the only woman pastor I’ve ever seen.” Her mom said she was surprised that her daughter recognized this, and she told me she was so thankful her children have a woman pastor and are able to hear a woman’s voice in the pulpit.

Fellow women pastors (and faith leaders): I am so grateful for each and every one of you. I know it can be extremely difficult to constantly have to face and shut down sexism and stereotypes that are still prevalent in many religious institutions/communities and even in our society. No matter how hard it may be, remember that you are beloved, your voices matter, and you are making a difference in so many people’s lives (young and old).

And I’d like to say a special thank you to all the women pastors and faith leaders in my childhood/youth/adulthood for being those important voices in my life, for modeling what female faith leadership looks like, and showing me that I – too – have a voice in ministry.

Why I Was Arrested at Moral Mondays IL:

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On Monday, June 29, 2015, two Lutheran pastors, two Methodist pastors, a rabbi, two community organizers, and a senior citizen got arrested for trespassing in the lobby of Citadel in downtown Chicago during a Moral Mondays Illinois action.

I was one of them.

…Sounds like a line of a joke, right?

Well, it’s not.

Illinois is in the middle of a crisis right now.  We are being told that it is a budget crisis.  However, I think the more accurate name for it is a revenue crisis (and what I like to call a moral crisis.)

Since July, we have not had a budget.  And because so many non-profit organizations and services have no money on the budget line, they are at risk of having to shut down programs and/or lay off staff.  And even if the current budget proposal does go through, budgets for many services and organizations will be cut, and thus those in our communities who rely on these services and programs will greatly suffer.

I serve as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households for three ELCA congregations in Edgewater, a community that is home to a large population of immigrants and refugees. As a pastor who works with many refugee and immigrant youth and families, I am well aware of the multiple hurdles and struggles these families (who have already been through so much severe trauma) face as they transition into a new country and culture. Refugee resettlement and immigration organizations help these families with job placement, finding affordable housing, gaining citizenship, English language assistance, and wellness programs that help meet their mental health needs. They provide these families with referrals to food pantries, utilities subsidies (LIHEAP), and low-income clinics, as well as help families apply for medical cards, childcare, and food stamps. RefugeeOne is one of the major refugee resettlement organizations in Chicago, receiving around 500 new individuals a year. Several families I’ve worked with have greatly benefited from the services offered by RefugeeOne, and many youth and children I’ve worked with have attended the RefugeeOne after-school program, which meets at Unity Lutheran Church, one of my congregations.

About 70% of RefugeeOne’s funding comes from the government, much of which is from the state. With the proposed cuts to immigration services, the organization could see program closures and staff layoffs. Similarly, Centro Romero, an immigrant and refugee assistance organization that serves many families in my community, was forced to lay off four of their staff and close their Family Service Program in early August because there is no money on the immigration budget line. The potential closures of such crucial programs and services are absolutely devastating for those who are already in dire need. These cuts will greatly impact the wellbeing of so many refugee and immigrant families in my community, as well as those who will be resettled here soon (including the thousands of Syrian refugees who are expected to be resettled in Chicago in the next few years.)

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This May, grassroots organizers and clergy of many faith traditions got together and discussed how we were going to respond to this moral revenue crisis.  Inspired by the Moral Mondays movement in NC, we started the Moral Mondays IL movement, which began a series of actions in Chicago that included prayer, faith teachings, and biblical stories/images and called our state legislators to create a moral budget.  We are calling our legislators to raise progressive revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes, having a fair graduated income tax, and taxing financial transactions on Illinois exchanges (which could raise billions of dollars and could help us avoid cutting crucial programs and services). 

Many of my parishioners have been participating in the Moral Mondays IL actions regularly throughout the summer – both because they feel their faith calls them to and because of personal reasons.  Several of my parishioners have participated in these actions because they or their family members will be affected by cuts to Medicaid, mental health services, home-care services, and LIHEAP (Low-Income Housing Assistance Program.) One of my seniors has been particularly active in these actions – even participating in civil disobedience in June. Her daughter is bi-polar and is on Medicaid. However, the proposed Medicaid cuts will cut a portion of her medication. She will not be able to afford this medication on her own and will thus rely on her mother (my senior) for help, who is already financially strapped since her only source of income is Social Security. These are just a few of the many examples of how the budget impasse and proposed budget cuts are affecting the seniors, youth, children, and families at my congregations and in my community.

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I’ve been active in Moral Mondays IL actions, standing with and marching alongside my parishioners and community members, and I participated in civil disobedience at Citadel this June because the proposed state budget cuts (and the current budget impasse) are already devastating so many of our children, youth, families, and seniors.

It is despicable that there is so much money in the hands of the most wealthy in our state – including our governor and many of his top financial supporters like Citadel’s CEO Ken Griffin, who makes $90,000 per hour – and yet instead of raising new progressive revenue, our governor and his buddies have chosen to balance the budget on the backs of those in our communities who are most vulnerable!

Jesus said: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

In the psalms we hear God’s call to: “Defend the cause of the weak and orphans; to maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. To rescue the weak and needy; to deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4)

In Proverbs we hear God’s voice proclaiming: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” (Proverbs 21:13) “…[Therefore] speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9)

In Leviticus, we hear God’s command to redistribute wealth.  “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:22)

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On Monday, June 29, 2015, two Lutheran pastors, two Methodist pastors, a rabbi, two community organizers, and a senior citizen got arrested for trespassing in the lobby of Citadel in downtown Chicago during a Moral Mondays Illinois action.

I was one of them.

Because my faith proclaims that ALL people are beloved children of God and deserve to live holistic and healthy lives.  It calls me to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, and to take action with and for those who are being pushed to the margins and trampled on until we do have justice for ALL.

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If you are in Illinois, please join the movement.  Educate yourself on what is going on with our budget and revenue crisis.  Listen to the stories of your neighbors who are being impacted by these proposed cuts.  Follow Moral Mondays IL on Facebook and march with us in our upcoming actions.  (Our next action is this Monday, November 2 at 10:30am at the Thompson Center.)

So join us in saying “Enough is Enough!  Love thy neighbor as thyself: tax the rich and share the wealth!”

“A Camel, An Eye of a Needle, and An Upside Kingdom of God” – Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

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“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” – Mark 10:17-31


Jesus has set out on a journey when he encounters a man who is in need of some answers.

“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do in order to inherit eternal life?”

Now, the eternal life this man is asking about is not what we often think of when we see it on bumper stickers or hear it preached about by televangelists. It’s not a life lived forever in an other-worldly place somewhere up there. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is having “the quality describing a particular age” or a period of time. And this eternal life the man was asking Jesus about was a life in the “Age to Come.”

You see, many First Century Jews maintained hope that the Present Age in which they currently lived – that was full of inequalities and where many of God’s people faced suffering and oppression -would one day end and the Age to Come would begin – where God would restore God’s kingdom to the earth and oppression and injustice would cease. And the question on many of these first Century Jews’ minds was how they might inherit this eternal life… How they might ensure that they would enter into this Age to Come.

And this rabbi named Jesus seemed to be a likely candidate to have answers to this question. He had been teaching about this Age to Come, this Kingdom of God – he often called it – which he proclaimed was not just in the far future, but was soon to come. And as the early Christian audience of Mark’s Gospel came to believe, this Kingdom of God started to break through into the earth at Jesus’ death and resurrection, and thus was not just something that was in the future when Jesus would return – although it would not be fully realized until then – but it was also something at work in the present. It was an upside down Kingdom of God – both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

But before Jesus’ death, for many of the religious, the inheritance of the Age to Come came by strictly following their particular interpretations of the Mosaic Law. And so on the surface, part of Jesus’ response to this man who is kneeling before him may not have been very surprising. After saying to the man: “What do you mean by calling me good? Nobody is good except for God,” Jesus goes on to say to him: “Now you know the commandments…” and then he lists some of them off. ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

“Of course,” the man jumps in confidently. “Teacher, I have kept these commandments since my youth.”

Now, this man’s response suggests that he may not quite get Jesus’ point.

He doesn’t seem to catch what Jesus is saying about how it is only God – and God alone – who can be deemed as fully good and without flaw or sin, no matter how great of a commandment-obeyer one might be. He doesn’t seem to notice that Jesus did not list ALL the 10 commandments. That Jesus named only the commandments that talk about how to treat some of our neighbors in particular ways, but that Jesus skipped the commandments that relate directly to our relationship with God and the commandments about coveting – or yearning for – our neighbor’s stuff.

“Well,” Jesus seems to be implying by his choice of omitting several of these commandments, “Yes, you may be obeying these particular commandments. Yes, you may be quite the honorable man who does not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud your neighbors, and you may be one who honors your mother and father. But what about your relationship with God? What about making time for Sabbath? Do you take a break from the business of work and all the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and make time to rest in God’s presence? What about creating other gods in your life that come before God the Father? Do you put money, your personal image, your possessions, and social status before God and turn them into gods, themselves, by idolizing them? What about saying God’s name in vain? Do you misuse God’s name to justify societal structures and your personal actions that contribute to the marginalization and suffering of your neighbors? What about coveting what your neighbors have? Do you long for the kind of status, wealth, power, and possessions that they have – so much that you do whatever you can to gain more for yourself?”

“While you may obey many of these commandments,” Jesus says to the man as he looks at him and feels a deep love for him: “You still lack one thing.  So go, shed from your life the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and with others. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me.  Let go of the things that keep you from obeying the greatest commandment: to love God fully and in doing so, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked, and he went away grieving, for he was wealthy and owned a lot of possessions.

Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and said: “How hard will it be for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were perplexed by Jesus’ words. But Jesus said to them again: “How hard is it to get into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of God!”

*****

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman I met a few years ago about how hard it was to live in poverty when she was in middle and high school. Because her single mother struggled on and off with unemployment, there were many times when Sarah and her younger brother went to school not knowing if they would have much for dinner that night. And yet, she said that even though she could have used the extra money, there were times when she would babysit the neighbor children for free during the summer when their parents couldn’t pay for daycare. She also told me that when her mom’s job became a little more stable, her mom helped her friend pay her bills for a few months while she was going through a divorce. And there were many times when Sarah’s family had neighbors over for dinner when they had the money to buy extra food or when they allowed friends to stay at their apartment when their friends were temporarily homeless. Sarah told me that she and her family wanted to be as generous as they could be with others in need because they knew how hard it was to go to bed hungry or to worry about being evicted from their apartment because they couldn’t pay their rent.

However, Sarah said that things changed after she got a well-paying job as an adult and began to live very comfortably. She sadly explained to me that the more money she made over the years, the less generous she became. When I asked her why she thought that was, she said: “I think when you have more than enough money to live comfortably, it can become really easy to stay in your own bubble and forget that there are many people around you who are suffering. And I think the more money you have, the harder it is to give it away. At a certain point, it becomes really difficult not to try to keep up with the Jones’… And we all know that once you start that race, it will never end because you can never actually catch up with them. You will never be fully satisfied with what you have. You will always want something more for yourself. And because of this, you focus on your own wants and forget how to love and care for those around you.”

*****

No, it is not easy to enter in this Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of when we idolize wealth and the possessions, power, and social status that come with it – whether we have this wealth or we long for and strive to have it.  It is not easy to get into this upside down Age to Come that is already breaking forth into the here and now – where the last shall be first and the first shall be last… Where we are called to be co-workers with God in challenging oppression, inequalities, and injustice until they forever shall cease.

No, it is not easy to shed from our lives the things that get in the way of loving God fully and thus, in doing so, loving our neighbor as ourself.

But, as Jesus goes onto say to his disciples: while it may be impossible for us to do so on our own, it is not impossible for God. Because for God, all things are possible. And therefore, all things are possible with the help and by the grace of God.

*****

In a little while, we will have the wonderful opportunity of celebrating two baptisms. And in doing so, we are also being called to remember our own baptism. As we look to the cleansing baptismal waters this morning, let us reflect on what it is that we need to be cleansed of… what it is that we need to shed from our lives so that we can love God and love our neighbor fully.

And no matter how difficult it may be for us to let these things go, may we hold onto the promise that with God’s help and by God’s grace, all things are possible.

Because in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our mistakes, failures, and struggles. Because – as our Hebrews text for today reminds us – “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [us and others] in time of need.”

Amen.

“And it was good” – Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4, Commemoration of St. Francis of Assisi

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God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

I don’t know about you, but while I may not be completely on board with everything that Pope Francis believes, I have been so intrigued and inspired by his commitment to calling people around the world to care for our environment and by the genuine and abundant grace and love he offers others, particularly those who have been deemed as outcasts by society. And so last week I was unable to keep my eyes off the news that continuously reported about his visit to the United States.

And I’m not just talking about being inspired while watching the Pope giggle as he blesses a baby dressed up in a baby pope costume or while watching him take selfies with a bunch of giddy teenagers… and adults. (Though these encounters were quite fun to watch.)

But I’m talking about being inspired by this man who spoke on behalf of the Church about the importance of caring for ALL God’s creation, by urging the U.S. to do much more to address climate change, to work to end homelessness, and to be a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees. And I loved seeing him put his words into action throughout his visit, not only by riding around in a humble and eco-friendly Fiat, but by blessing, meeting, praying with, and listening to the ones who have been voiceless and marginalized.

It was touching to see what he did while riding in his car on his way from the Philadelphia airport when his eyes caught a glimpse of Michael Keating, a 10 year old boy with cerebral palsy sitting in his wheelchair on the tarmac with his family. Pope Francis’ car suddenly stops, he exits the car, and then walks over to Michael and – looking directly into Michael’s eyes – he gives him a blessing. His family later told the press that they felt incredibly overwhelmed with joy in that moment.

It was also touching to hear how Pope Francis declined his invitation to have lunch with the most powerful U.S. politicians after his address to Congress because he chose instead to have lunch at a Catholic Charities meal with more than 300 individuals who are homeless or living in poverty. And as he prayed with and blessed those in attendance, he said: “In prayer there is no first or second class. There is brotherhood.” Lanita King, a woman who was present at the meal and who was formerly homeless, described the significance of the Pope’s lunch plans: “he is delivering the message that God is here for us. God is here with us.”

And it was especially touching to watch Pope Francis visit 95 prisoners at a correctional facility in Philadelphia. While there, he explained: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of resurrection.”

Pope Francis explained to these men and women in the correctional facility how Jesus humbly and compassionately washed his disciples feet during the Last Supper. He then went on to say: “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of or purified from… And I am first among them.” And at the end of his message before he went on to shake the hands of each of the men and women in the room, he told them that Jesus “comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

This past week, Pope Francis reminded our country – one of the wealthiest nations in the world – that ALL God’s creation is good. Including the earth and all the creatures that live off of it. Including the child with special needs. Including the immigrant and the refugee. Including the homeless and the poor. Including the prisoner who finds hope in God’s promise that ALL can change and be forgiven and cleansed from their past sins, no matter how horrible those past sins may have been.

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Today, just a week after Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S., we commemorate the late St. Francis of Assisi, the man whose name the Pope chose to take as his papal name.  The 13th Century friar who sought to follow Jesus’ teachings and believed with his whole heart that there is no last and least in the Kingdom of God. And who dedicated his life to loving and caring for nature, animals and birds, and those on the margins of society, particularly the poor.

And as we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi today, and recall his care and love for creation, I find it quite appropriate for us to listen again to the very well known creation story in Genesis 1.

In the beginning… God created the heavens and the earth and the land and the seas. And God saw that it was good.

The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

God created the stars, the sun, and the moon. And God saw that it was good.

God created the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. And God saw that it was good.

God created the wild animals of the earth and everything that creeps upon the ground. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
So God created humankind
 in the image of God.

And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

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Not only does this creation story remind us that ALL God’s creation was created good and that ALL humankind was created in God’s image and thus we have the ability to change and be cleansed from our past: no matter our faults, mistakes or past sins… But it also reminds us that God has given us – as members of humankind – the great responsibility of being stewards and guardians of God’s creation. Of caring not just for some of God’s creation, but doing everything we can to care for ALL of God’s creation… Of seeing the image of God in ALL people, no matter how much we may struggle to do so, and treating them with the love and care God calls us to. Of taking care of the plants and the trees and the water and the animals and the birds around us. Of being co-workers with God in caring for the earth and all its creatures and in doing the work of making this world – which is full of so much pain and hardship – a better place.

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

*****

Today, on this day when we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, we will participate in a blessing of our pets. This blessing is not only a reminder that our pets are good and loved and blessed by God, but this blessing is also a reminder that this is true for ALL God’s creation and that as humans created by God, we have been given the important responsibility of being stewards and guardians of it. So as we take part in the blessing of our pets, may we also take this time to make commitments to God and one another that we will take on this important responsibility of being God’s co-workers in stewardship and guardianship.

I would like to close this morning with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, so please join with me in prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Amen.

“Welcome One Such Child. #WelcomeRefugees. A Call to Radical Hospitality” – Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

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They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” – Mark 9:30-37


Her name is Diana. She is four years old. And she has traveled with her mother and father, who are Christians from Damascus, Syria, for 15 days, mostly by foot to get to Germany. Every night, they sleep on the streets – in the cold and sometimes in the pouring rain. They have made it to Hungary, but the Hungarian police want the families to board a bus and be taken to a detention camp, where refugee families are crammed together behind fences and sometimes even inside cages. One Hungarian detention camp has been known for its police officers to throw food to the families in the cage. One reporter described this scene: it is “like feeding animals in a pen.” Some of the families decide they will try to run away so they can avoid the detention camps and continue their journey toward Germany. But Diana’s mother, Rowa, knows they would likely be chased by police officers and in their condition, they wouldn’t make it very far. Since Diana has become ill and has come down with a terrible fever, her parents decide that while they have come so far and are so close to safety and freedom, they have no other choice than to get on the bus with their daughter, and be placed in a camp. And so now four-year-old Diana, who has not been welcomed in her own home country of Syria, who is not welcomed to make Hungary a place to call home, is now not allowed to move on to a country that would welcome her as one of there own.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is what Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel passage in response to one of their many misunderstandings.

At the beginning of our passage, as the disciples are journeying through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for the second time. But the disciples still don’t understand. And now, after they enter the house in Capernaum, Jesus reveals that the disciples have completely misunderstood Jesus’ values and what it means to follow him as one of his disciples.

“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks them. But the disciples remain silent, because they had been arguing about who among them was the “greatest.”

Now, I can’t completely blame these disciples. You see, as is the case today, in First Century Palestine, to be deemed the greatest was based on social status: the most successful, the most wealthy, the most popular, the best educated, the most privileged. To be the greatest meant – and still often means today – to have power over others. In such a system both in First Century Palestine and 21st Century North America, it can be quite difficult for any of us not to constantly seek to be the one first in line. And when those we deem as the “others” or as the “strangers” among us enter our territories (and our homelands) and seem to threaten our comfortable lifestyles and our paths to climb the social latter, we are often tempted to demonize them and to turn them away. To deny that they – too – are made in the image of God. To refuse to recognize the face of God in them.

Yet, Jesus has a different way to greatness in mind.

And so he sits down on the floor of the home, calls the twelve to gather around him, and responds: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

For Jesus, the way to greatness is not to BE first, but to put others first. To live as servants, providing love and grace to those around us. To put the well-being and basic needs of others in front of our own wants, our sense of security, and our temptation to get ahead.

For the disciples living in First Century Palestine, this was completely radical. And it is probably pretty radical for many today, as well.

But just as the disciples begin to wrap their minds around this counter-cultural way to greatness Jesus is describing, Jesus does something even more radical.

He picks up a child, places her in the middle of the disciples, embraces her, and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

Now to many of us, this may not sound too off-the-wall. We live in a culture that – for the most part -values children. And we know quite well that throughout his ministry, Jesus loved and embraced and surrounded himself with children. However, in First Century Palestine, children were only valued in their future, when they became adults… if they became adults – for many children never survived past their young years. In their childhood, they were considered more of a burden than an asset to the rest of the family. They were another mouth to feed and body to cloth. They were the silent ones, the least of these, those who were the outcasts of society.

So here we see that Jesus’ way to greatness is extremely radical. His path to greatness in this Kingdom of God he often speaks of is nothing like the path to greatness in the oppressive Roman Empire of his day. Jesus’ path is not about climbing the social latter and befriending and caring for only those who have something to offer us.

Rather, Jesus’ path to greatness is servanthood. It is putting our selves last so that others who’ve been last can be brought into the frontline. It is picking up and embracing those whom the world deems as the last and the least, the others, the strangers, those on the margins of society and bringing them to the center with our loving embrace. It is welcoming one such child, and thus in doing so, welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him.

It is radical hospitality.

*****

When I first read this text early this week in preparation for this sermon, I immediately thought of our current refugee crisis, which has become the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This recent mass flight (or as some are calling it: this “refugee exodus”) to Europe has especially overwhelmed my thoughts, emotions, and prayers this past month.

It’s been beautiful to see that many around the world are offering radical hospitality to our brothers and sisters who are desperately seeking refuge. I’ve been brought to tears watching thousands of grateful refugees get welcomed by cheering Germans holding signs saying “Welcome to Germany” and while reading posts and stories from people who are urging their home countries to receive and resettle more refugees by making the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees go viral.

And yet, the stories of these families making the dangerous and exhausting trek to and through Europe and the images and videos of children sleeping in the streets, walking for days on end, and crying and pleading with officers who will not let them continue their journey toward safety: these stories and images have touched my core.

And when I saw an image that went viral of the lifeless body of three year old Aylan Kurdi who was swept up on the shores of Turkey during his journey from Syria by boat, I was brought to my knees and wept.

And to know that there are so many more stories of families we don’t hear about and faces of children we don’t see who are displaced and stuck in Syria as well as in other countries around the world – and even at our own border – because of war, violence, and poverty… This overwhelms me with grief.

Because these stories and the faces of these children are the stories and the faces of our children. They are the stories and the faces of our children and youth who are involved in Edgewater-based programs like Refugee One and Centro Romero and who play soccer and music at Edgewater’s International Refugee Day at Foster Beach every June. These are the stories and the faces of the children and youth in our communities: they are our neighbors. They live in our buildings, go to our schools, shop in our grocery stories, eat at our restaurants. And they are the stories and faces of the children and youth who enter our doors here at Immanuel Lutheran Church for worship, VBS, IYO, and ECT youth group.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As we hear these words of Jesus from Mark, we might also hear his words from Matthew echoing in our ears:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus, our Comforter, our Lord and Savior, who was once himself a refugee, calls us to this radical hospitality of welcoming and embracing the child, the stranger, the one who’s been outcast.

*****

If you are at all like me, you might be a bit overwhelmed with this huge crisis and wonder how on earth you are to welcome those seeking refuge across the world.

While we may not be able to single-handedly fix what is happening in Europe, in Syria, and across the world, there are many ways we can respond to the international refugee crisis and provide welcome to those in need around us. (And every act is important.) For example, we can donate to organizations like the Lutheran Disaster Response, which directly helps those seeking refuge in Europe and in Syria, and we can voice our support for welcoming more refugees in our city and our country.

We can also extend our welcome here in our own community, a community that is home to so many of our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters. We – at Immanuel Lutheran Church – already open our doors to children and youth in our community through the multiple programs and ministries we offer, and we are in the process of trying to offer more hospitality to the children, youth, and families in Edgewater – as we currently are working on opening the Immanuel Ministry Center.

And so each one of us has an opportunity to provide radical hospitality to children and youth in Edgewater right here by voicing our support and praying for our ministries and programs, donating our gifts or money to help these ministries, becoming a tutor or a leader at IYO or ECT youth group, or cooking dinner for one of these youth programs.

We can donate to or volunteer with Care for Real, Edgewater’s food and clothing pantry, which serves many new refugees in our community or we can help a new refugee family resettle in our community and help them learn English or write resumes through Refugee One, which is also based in Edgewater. We can take a few minutes to get to know the children and youth who attend Immanuel worship on Sunday mornings or one of our programs throughout the week. And in all things, we can keep the children and youth in our community, in our country, and throughout the world in our prayers and in our hearts.

Because, what Jesus said to his twelve disciples in the house in Capernaum 2000 years ago, he says to us as well:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

May we welcome the children. May we #welcomerefugees. May we welcome the strangers and those who have been outcast. May we choose to be a people of faith who follow Jesus in this call to offering radical hospitality to our brothers, sisters, and children in need of welcome.

ELCA Youth Gathering 2015: Media Coverage and Heitz-Squad Posts

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Want to read up on the ELCA Youth Gathering 2015 in Detroit?  Below are links to all of the ECT (Edgewater Congregations Together) Daily Blog Posts during the trip, a link to the ELCA Youth Gathering youtube channel with videos of speakers, worship, etc. from the Youth Gathering, and some media coverage of the Youth Gathering.

ECT blog posts from the ELCA Youth Gathering 2015:

Travel Day: Meet the Heitz-Squad

Day 1: Intro to Detroit and the Youth Gathering

Day 2: Proclaim Community

Day 3: Proclaim Justice

Day 4: Proclaim Story

Final Day

Here is the youtube channel for the ELCA Youth Gathering with highlights from the event (speakers, music, etc):
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLD2BE6D47D7169CB5

News Coverage on the ELCA Youth Gathering:

Wondering about the hundreds of buses in and around Downtown Detroit Starting Today: Crain’s Detroit

Why Downtown Detroit ‘Looks like a skittles factory exploded’: Deadline Detroit

How Our Reader’s Quip Became a Lutheran Event Hashtag: Deadline Detroit

Detroiters Embrace Visiting Lutheran Teens for ‘Your Good Work for Our Area’: Deadline Detroit

30,000 Lutheran volunteers spread positivity through Downtown Detroit: The Michigan Chronicle

Focus: HOPE leads massive effort to clean blight from Detroit neighborhoods, volunteers needed: WXYZ News

Lutheran Teens Help With Large Diaper Drive: Detroit News

30,000 Lutherans Blanket Detroit to Volunteer, Worship: USA Today

American Christianity Has Been Hijacked: Huffington Post

5 Things We Learn About Lutherans From their Youth Event: Deadline Detroit

Final Day at the ELCA Youth Gathering: Heitz-Squad Style

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Today was our final day at the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. We had breakfast and then checked out of our hotel before we headed to the Ford Field for our closing worship.  And we FINALLY got the chance to sit on the floor for a mass gathering!

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During worship we sat with our friends from Luther Memorial Church (which is in Lincoln Square in Chicago).  We participated in a powerful worship service led by an amazing gospel choir and the presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.  The theme for today was Rise Up to Bring Hope.  Ending the service with communion with 30,000 teenagers from all across the world and from many different backgrounds and walks of life who are inspired to rise up to proclaim good news to the world definitely brings me hope!

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After the service, we got to try Detroit’s famous Coney dog at Coney Island…

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And we cooled down with a little gelado.

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Then we headed back to the hotel and took a nap before we got on our Amtrak train.  The trip home was much more quiet than the trip to Detroit on Tuesday!

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The ECT youth had an incredible time in Detroit this week!  They were pleasantly surprised to find out that Detroit was not the city they had heard about in the news and had expected it to be.  Rather, they had encountered God there and found the city to be full of wonderful people, so many great things to do and see, and so much hope.

This week, the Heitz-Squad had the opportunity to get out of the city and neighborhoods they are familiar with and experience a new city, new culture, and new food. They met new friends from around the country and (some even across the world) and saw old ones from the synod.  They developed very close relationships with one another, worshiped in new meaningful ways, and learned about systemic injustice that is still oppressing so many people around our country and across the world.  They went out of their way to care for one another, they had deep and thoughtful conversations about important issues of injustice, they rose up together to lead hundreds of their peers in proclaiming Jesus’ good news, and they talked about how they wanted to continue rising up to proclaim justice when they return to Chicago.

On our Proclaim Story Day yesterday, we were asked to think about and write down the people who have helped us encounter God.  I very honestly wrote down each of these youth.  They are such a blessing to me, to one another, to our congregations and neighborhoods, and to the world!

Here is a reflection by Val from Ebenezer Lutheran Church:

My experience in Detroit was very unique and interesting. Seeing about 35,000 Lutherans together made this trip unforgettable. I have never been to Detroit before, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect while we were driving there. Another thing that was unforgettable was some of the neighborhoods. Abandoned houses, abandoned buildings, and abandoned lots. It was very interesting learning the history as to why these areas and buildings were the way they were. I didn’t see what I thought I would see: the “bad” side of Detroit. I saw the new, hopeful and good side of Detroit. I hope and plan to visit again sometime.

Here is an update from Ngbarazere from Unity Lutheran Church:

This trip gave me a synopsis of the providence radiating everywhere. I realized that ignorance to your surroundings contribute to power imbalances which ultimately leads to poverty, violence; sin. But even within the chaotic catastrophes, I realized that God helps motivate and guide those who recognizes unfortunate events only as obstacles to overcome. Detroit resonates a virtue of hope. It reeks of the smell of vitality, and contagiously affects all in it’s perimeter. If I’m ever searching for a deep sense of hope, I will flip through the recollection of memories experienced in Detroit.

Here is an update from John from Immanuel Lutheran Church:

Detroit: it was one of the best weeks in my life. I met loads of people and heard and saw some of the most inspiring things in my life. The speeches brought people to tears and the music brought people to their feet.  Hearing the stories of the speakers and the people we were helping out encouraged me to want to help out loads more in Chicago when I get home. Also, just being able to have fun with my friends and play around in the COBO center was great.  It was all an amazing experience, and I could not imagine being the same person in the future without this event being in my life. I can’t wait for Houston in 2018!

And here is a reflection from Maku from Unity Lutheran Church:

Detroit was an amazing experience and I can proudly say it was one of the most amazing experiences in my young life. We got to meet cool people, eat great food, see new sites, and meet in mass gatherings on the nightly basis. And I believe Detroit has given our group and the whole ELCA a deep bond with one another. I believe people were motivated to do God’s work as well back in their hometown. And most importantly, we’ve learned that in order to exceed in God’s work, we have to bear burdens, build bridges, break chains, and bring hope. The ELCA has been amazing and without it I think I would be a completely empty person without the feeling of God’s love.

Meet the Heitz Squad: ELCA Youth Gathering Travel Day

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Meet the Heitz Squad: 10 E.C.T (Edgewater Congregations Together) youth, 2 pastors, and 2 parents from Unity, Ebenezer, and Immanuel Lutheran churches in the Edgewater neighborhood in Chicago who are attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit this week. 

 
The ELCA Youth Gathering is a 5 day event that takes place once every three years and brings 30,000 9th-12th graders from across the world together for a common purpose: to worship together, to grow in faith, and to put our faith into practice. 

The theme this year is “Rise Up Together.”  In Detroit youth will explore how we – as the body of Christ – can rise up together to proclaim the good news Jesus proclaimed to the world.  This week, we will take time to proclaim community, to proclaim justice, and to proclaim God’s story: how God is in our story, how God is in the story of others, and how those stories inter-connect. 

  
Today, before the Heitz Squad got on an Amtrak to head to Detroit, we gathered together for a commissioning service (which was developed by the ELCA Youth Gathering team.) 

During the service, we were reminded that: “At our baptism, we were claimed by God, and promises were made on our behalf. At confirmation, we claimed our faith as our own and made promises to ourselves: 

– to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper

– to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through words and deed

– to serve all people, following the example of Jesus

– to strive for justice and peace in all the earth”

As we were commisioned, we were sent out to “live out our baptism and live out these promises [in Detroit]… To go forth on our journey to experience Christ beyond [our current] place… [and that we might] return with a new commitment to serve all God’s people, follow the example of Jesus, and with new skills to be able to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

This is my hope for the Heitz Squad this week. 

   
 Throughout our journey, the Heitz Squad would like to share our reflections and experiences with you. Each night a few of our youth will share their reflections from their day here. 

Tonight, we begin with a reflection from Pastor Monte Johnson (from Immanuel Lutheran Church.)

“After months of preparation, planning, fundraisers and hard work, ECT youth were so excited today had finally arrived. We stood in a circle on the sidewalk outside Unity Lutheran for prayers and to be commissioned as servants of God before piling into vans to Union Station. Thanks to Rick Gustafson and Blaine Boogert for driving downtown.  

 At Union Station, we met up with youth groups from other local ELCA congregations in Evanston and Palatine. There were 38 of us in all. We nearly filled an entire Amtrack car ourselves.    

 Our hotel is right near the Amtrack station in Detroit. Already, we’ve seen lots of other youth from around the country arriving. We begin tomorrow as the Gathering opens up with all community events, including a street fair, live music, climbing wall, learning experiences, information booths, and of course, the big opening convocation at Ford Field (where the Detroit Lions play). More than 30,000 youth will worship and praise God together.

 At our “final fifteen” (that is our last few minutes together before heading to our rooms for the night), enthusiasm and expectations are already running high. We’re going to have such a good week. ECT youth will grow in faith and deepen their connections with one another. We’ve already adopted a new nick-name for ourselves. We’re the Heitz-squad, named for our leader, Pastor Emily Heitzman who has poured her heart and soul into making this trip meaningful for all of us.”

  

     

Finding Meaning in the Ascension: More Lessons from My Wise 6th-12th Graders

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“He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty.”

These are familiar words to many of us, as we may have recited or read these words from the Apostle’s Creed at one time or another.

However, we rarely ever talk about the Ascension. And while our church calendar extensively prepares us for Jesus’ birth, takes us through Jesus’ miracles and teachings, and emphasizes his final days on earth, his death on the cross, and his resurrection, we only get one short Thursday at the end of the Easter season to celebrate the Ascension. (And we seldom even celebrate it then.)

However, I think the Ascension is a crucial part of our Christian faith and way of life. And my 6th-12th grade youth have a lot to say about why this is.

Every year, my youth lead the Ascension Day service. Last year I wrote a post with some reflections on the Ascension that some of my youth preached about in their sermons during this service in the past few years.

As some of these wise youth said, the Ascension of Jesus must have been very difficult for the disciples, as they were just getting adjusted to Jesus coming back to live among them after he had been violently killed on the cross and then was resurrected from the dead. And now, not too long after his resurrection, Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving the disciples behind again. And as several of my youth have shared, it can be quite difficult to understand why Jesus would have left the disciples (and all Christians throughout the centuries) to live out this Christian faith without him physically present on this earth. And yet, in the midst of this confusing story, my youth have found meaning in this event, as it calls us into a particular way of life. And I think we can all learn from their reflections and stories.

As Luz, a junior in high school will say in her sermon tonight:

“I know that when Jesus’s 12 disciples had to see him leave them when he ascended into heaven, it would have been extremely confusing and hard for them. I know that feeling because I know how it is to lose something great…

For many who don’t know me here today, I am a person who very much puts others first before myself. “Love thy neighbor” is something God very much teaches us in the Bible. Funny thing, it seems to me that every year, around this time of the season, something happens in my life and I begin to feel depressed and alone. Two weeks ago, I struggled to get out of bed. I was scared. I was scared of taking two steps back every time I took a step forward. I finally decided to get off my bed, go to school, and then work.

As I was getting off of work, I decided to take the bus back home. A homeless man got on. I could tell he hadn’t eaten much for days and I decided to give him a box of animal cookies. He smiled and laughed and said to me, ‘how did you know that animal cookies were my favorite?!’ I laughed and smiled too and said, ‘my heart just told me you did and I didn’t like them anyways.’ He said, ‘You really are kind and genuine. Like a light that shines. Thank you.’

Little did he know, my name is Luz, which – in Spanish – means “light.”

This has honestly given me a different perspective in life. This loving man made me realize so many things by just a few words. We all sit here and cry about break ups or something that won’t matter five years from now, but this man was homeless with nothing but a bucket and a jacket and he smiled like he was living a happy life. It comes to show that materialistic things can’t necessarily make you happy. You can be rich and still wonder what you’re doing with you’re life and then you can be poor and have nothing and be the happiest man on the planet. This affected me in a way that I would have never imagined, I want to be as happy as this man was and I think everyone deserves that…

What is the Ascension? My interpretation of it is this: Jesus died for our sins. He died and was resurrected because he loved us so much that he wanted us to live a better life than the one we were currently living in. And this is where the Ascension comes in. It marked the beginning of our freedom to choose to live as God calls us to live. It reminds us of how we should be treating our neighbor. Jesus was put on earth to teach us how to live our life not by materialistic objects but by peace, love, and faith.”

As Kylie, an 8th grader will share in her sermon:

“A story I want to share with you today occurred a very long time ago during the 1940’s in Poland. Janine Oberrotman who is now 89-years-old came to my school to tell us the story of how she, a Jew, survived the Holocaust. When she was fifteen, Janine was living in the ghettos with her mother and one day as they were walking, they found this gate that was unguarded and Jewish people from within the ghettos were escaping. They soon realized that this portal to safety was closing up so they rushed there and when it was just about to close her mother did something that Janine will never forget. She pushed her daughter on the other side. Janine remembered how she cried and cried out of sadness and fear. She was now alone and there were no familiar faces to be seen…

In 1953 Janine immigrated to America and settled down with her husband. She has kids and grandchildren and she continues to share her story to this day at the Holocaust Museum and at other schools.  The lesson of Janine’s story is very strong to me and it ties into the passages that we have just read from the Bible and also into my life.

In the gospel readings, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples with only the memory of himself and his teachings. However, Jesus comforted the Disciples and reassured them that they would be okay. Jesus told them that they had his words and that everything about him would be fulfilled. He gave them a blessing, and then ascended into heaven. While Janine’s sudden parting from her mother during the Holocaust was traumatic, she was given the opportunity to survive and to tell others her story. The Disciples were also able to tell the story of the promises of Jesus.

Although Janine’s story and the disciple’s story are very different, there are threads that they have in common. It might have been scary at first but they found courage to carry on. As for me, I am going to be confirmed this year at my church. This ceremony represents the time when I get to take the lessons I have learned in my confirmation class and use them independently. I will be confirming my faith in the teachings of the Church and in promises that Jesus shared with the Disciples. Janine Oberrotman, the disciples, and I all had to get prepared for our next phase in life. I am thankful I got the opportunity to learn about Jesus and his stories because this gave me the opportunity to incorporate the lessons into the decisions I make throughout my life.”

And as Katie, an 8th grader, will preach tonight:

“Tonight we celebrate the ascension of Jesus. The night that Jesus died, rose, and came back to his disciples for 40 days before essentially abandoning them and returning to heaven. The disciples are told that they will be baptized by the power of the Holy Spirit instead of with water. Easy enough. Right? Listening to the story like that makes it sound like the equivalent of being energized by a caffeinated soda for your entire life and suddenly, one day, you’re told you can only drink coffee for the rest of your life because it follows the norm.

You have to think to yourself, though, that Jesus did this for a reason. He didn’t suffer and hang on a cross for no reason. You don’t go to school for no reason. Even though it might not seem like there’s a legitimate reason for both occurring, you have to look into Jesus’s words and maybe into the future. Sure, you can not go to school. But your future might be affected. In the same way, Jesus could have not hung on the cross. But we wouldn’t have been forgiven. We wouldn’t know how strong God’s love is. That minute that Jesus left this earth after being ascended into heaven, humanity was baptized with God’s love for all of eternity. We only felt that because of Jesus’s sacrifice.

Why I’m not still confused by this story amazes me. I’m not as confused by God as I was before, but I am bewildered by his power. To understand why, my story really starts early last summer when my eating habits were a little off. I had lost five to ten pounds in a week and I didn’t understand why. I went to the doctor where they checked my blood and tested it over a fairly long period of time. It took a few months to get a fair result, but in those few months… I felt so alone! Why was this happening? Why was I so depressed? Why did I hurt inside when nobody had done or said anything wrong? Why did everything seem horrible when in reality, I had a normal life like everyone else? Why was I super cold when everyone was hot? Why did I feel so abandoned?  To be honest, I began to push God away because I didn’t think he was doing anything for me. If he didn’t do anything for me, then why should I put my trust in him?

…It’s time I introduce a new character. This character normally goes by Maggie. Before I knew her, she seemed to the world a normal but quiet individual who liked to play on her tablet and listen to music as loud as possible. She was (and still is) very friendly and loves hugs. I didn’t know her too well, so we didn’t talk much.  Some time in late November 2014, I had no idea what I was doing. I can’t remember if someone had said something to me or what, but I felt so alone… She became one of my best friends. We understand each other fully, are able to share anything without thinking twice, and love each other with everything we have…

I was sitting in my room one night, thinking back to my questions, and it suddenly hit me that they had been answered. When I had been alone, God came to me, but indirectly in the form of Maggie. I never felt alone around her. This new happiness came because of her, and from the cold I normally felt, I felt a comforting warmth because of her. I found God again that day. He had never left, but sent his love through Maggie to help me. I could have become an emotional trainwreck, could have destroyed everything in sight, could have lost my mind. But I didn’t. God (and, of course, Maggie) is to thank for that.

You have to think to yourself that God doesn’t always present himself as a luminous figure or a reincarnation of Jesus. He almost never appears directly. You have to think to yourself, have you ever felt alone and been comforted by someone who loves you? Have you ever thought of what you could have become without that person  Or if God was behind that person?

Maybe that was the purpose I had been looking for all along; to spread that love that is so desperately needed. Think about it. God is within all of us. It is our mission to express his love when it is needed. This is my message. Take it home, think about it, thank all those who have done good for you and thank God for being here. Go out and spread the love.”

And so I leave you on this Ascension day, with these powerful words from my very wise youth.

May you, too, find meaning in the Ascension and be blessed.