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Pentecost 3C – June 9, 2013

Guest Post by Pastor Don Carlson
Pentecost 3C – June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24 – Elijah revives the widow of Zarephath’s son.
Psalm 30 – O Lord you pulled me up from Sheol, you rescued me from those going down to the grave.
Galatians 1:11-24Paul’s gospel is not of human origin. Paul was set apart before he was born, then called by God’s grace, to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.
Luke 7:11-17Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain.

Galatians

As I said last week, if doing a sermon series, I would be reading the entire second chapter at this point. In 2:1-10, Paul continued his argument (begun at 1:11) that “his” gospel was neither shaped by others nor shaped in order to satisfy others. Even when he finally did meet with the “grand poobahs” in Jerusalem (2:2), they added nothing to “his” gospel; even despite the efforts of “false believers.” (2:4) All they asked Paul to do was to “remember the poor.” Paul was glad to do this (2:10) and so he was always taking up an offering for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. (See: 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 9:1ff; Romans 15:25ff.)

Paul then informed them of his run in with Cephas (Peter) at Antioch. When people from James (the church in Jerusalem) showed up, Cephas had waffled and stopped eating with – being one with – the Gentiles. Paul had given Peter a “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” comeuppance: “Peter, you’re a Jew and have given up on all of that ritual law! How on earth can you then expect Gentiles to live like Jews that still keep the law? What’s that about?”

Verse 2:15 is interesting. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners…” What I find interesting is how “sinners” is used and how it then informs 1:4. In 1:4 when Paul wrote “…who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age…”, I don’t think he was talking about “sins” in the sense of personal moral peccadilloes. Rather, ala 2:15, he’s talking about the old Jewish “law system” – and the Imperial honor/shame system – of determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who’s not, who are the “just” and who are the “unjust.” Those systems of “law” belong to the evil age of power, prestige, and social hubris. “If justification – before God and before one another – comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (2:21)

Once again, yes, this is about one’s relationship to God through Christ, but in the context of Paul’s letter it is even more about one’s relationships with others through Christ! It is important that we hear Paul’s words as addressing a 1st century relational conflict in Galatia and not just a theological conflict of the 16th century!

BTW, here’s an interesting article by David Fredrickson on “Amoratory Motifs in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians.” I look forward to reading his latest book, Eros and the Christ.

Luke

This week I want to say something about the gospel reading. I do so by sharing a sermon that hit a home run once upon a time. During the weeks following I was really surprised at the number of people that told me they finally had long overdue family conversations. FWIW!

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How many of you have seen the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral”?  The four weddings and their respective receptions are delightful, but the most poignant moment of the film comes when the lover of the deceased stands over the coffin and reads this poem by W. H. Auden:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the necks of public doves,
Let traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For now nothing can ever come to any good.

The poignancy arises from the emotional honesty of the words and scene.  There is no effort to hide or sugarcoat the grief and anguish of death.  Too often around coffins I hear words like: “I guess God needed her more.”, “There’s another star in the heavens tonight.”, or, “It must have been his time.”  The words are spoken with the intent of bringing some comfort; spoken to justify the way things are in order to quell the feeling that things are not as they should be.  But such words are “cheap grace”; grace which is nothing but talk.

This past week I saw on TV the mother of the young man who was robbed and killed while changing a tire on his pickup truck.  She said, “I keep telling myself he’s in a better place.”, but you could tell that the sentiment was little comfort.  Her son had been brutally murdered; things were not as they should be.  “Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.  For nothing now can ever come to any good.”  Which brings us to the stories of Elijah and Jesus.

In Biblical times, women in their teens were often married to men who were much older.  A man had to establish himself before a woman could be transferred to his care from that of her father.  This age disparity with husbands meant that women were often widowed fairly early in life.  It also meant that the most vital relationship in a woman’s life was, not with her husband, but with her oldest son.  When the husband died it was the oldest son’s responsibility to provide sustenance for his mother.  Women had no status except in relationship to a male head of a household.  That’s what Jesus’ words from the cross to his mother, Mary, and his disciple John are all about.

That’s what’s going on in these stories of Elijah and Jesus.  These widows have not only lost a child, they have also lost all hope for the future!  The “wheels” have literally come off their existence!  If there is no other male family member willing to take them in there is perhaps nothing left for them but gleaning, begging, or prostitution.

In the Elijah story, there are no sanctimonious words like, “Well, at least the boy won’t be hungry any more.”  The anguished mother’s anger rises to the surface immediately, “What have you against me?  You have cone to me to bring my sin to remembrance and cause the death of my son!”  Elijah’s words are also an angry accusatory question, “God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I’m staying by killing her son?”  The words are honestly reflect the reality of the situation.

Likewise with the story about Jesus.  The widow is heading out to bury her only son.  The town is with her; “Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”  Jesus sees and fully understands the gravity of this woman’s situation.  There are no cheap words from Jesus about the son “being in a better place”, for, as with Elijah, the dead son isn’t Jesus’ concern.  It’s the woman, not the son, for whom Jesus has compassion.  Wherever else the son may be doesn’t matter.  Wherever else he may be, he’s not there to care for his mother; it’s the mother’s situation that matters.

Don’t take a situation and sugarcoat it into something it’s not.  If the plane has crashed, don’t say it has “landed short of the runway”.  If the ship is on the rocks, don’t say that it’s found a “unexpected port”.  But we like to do that sort of thing.  We like words that are spoken with the intent of bringing some comfort; spoken to justify the way things are in order to silence the truth that things are not as they should be.  But such words are “cheap grace”; nothing but talk which offers no real hope.

image0041My sermon title comes by way of a friend of mine, Dr. Robert McLaughlin, who specializes in adolescent and family psychology.  Bob says that most families have “elephants in the living room”.  Now, everyone knows there is an elephant in the living room.  They watch T.V. around it, talk to each other under it, and pass the newspaper over it; but no one is willing – or allowed – to  talk about the elephant.

The elephant may be drug or alcohol related.  The elephant may be an abusive relationship in which someone is involved.  It may be an infidelity.  It may be illness, grief, or some other unspoken loss.  It may be an activity that is unacceptable.  It may be a misunderstanding which has never been resolved; disappointment; unrealistic expectations; failed hopes or dreams.  Whatever it is, it looms there; dominating, obstructing, and damaging healthy relationships.

There may be a lot of quite intense and animated of talk around the elephant and generated by the elephant, but none of it offers any hope of deliverance from the elephant because the elephant – the problem itself – is never talked about.  And the paradox is that while the problem seems too big and threatening to talk about, the reality is that it’s too big and threatening not to talk about.  Elephants like living rooms.  They will never leave by themselves.  Ignored, they will only grow larger; doing even more damage to furniture and people.

Almost every Sunday we confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”.  What does that mean in everyday terms?  One thing it means is that we are “bound to keep score”.  Sin means that we are bound to come up with some sort of a system which will make us appear, at least to ourselves, more righteous than others.  We are bound to come up with a score keeping system that stacks the game in our favor.  (One such system says that people with no elephants are better than others.)

But the twist is the fact that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves” also means that we are all “bound” to have “elephants”.  They will show up in all our lives.  Some denominations may believe that to be Christian is to be “elephant free”; Lutherans don’t believe that.  Christians are not privy to some sort of immunity to the effects of sin.  Elephants are “bound” to come; that’s our very nature.

What Christ frees us up to do is to openly acknowledge – confess – how things are.  Since our “uprightness” is found in Christ alone we don’t have to pretend we are “upright” because we are problem free.  It’s an abnormality that some people’s understanding of the Christian faith calls for the need to deny that they’ve got “elephants in the living room” (or skeletons in the closet).  In truth, no one should be more free than the Christian to say, “Elephants in my living room?  Sure!  Of course!  Bound to happen!”, and then get on with the business of running them out.

image0061Getting rid of them can take time, but it can be done.

First, be honest with yourself and others about what’s going on inside you and between you.  Get in touch with reality.

Second, sometimes it’s tough to “see the forest for the trees”; sometimes we need help sorting out what exactly is going on inside of us and around us.  If need be, seek some help.  I know of many professional counselors and therapists who can help with that.  As a people, we are neither reluctant nor ashamed to spend billions of dollars to care for our physical selves; yet we are often reluctant and ashamed to spend anything – time or money – to care for our relational selves.  That’s a rather peculiar phenomenon.

Thirdly, remember that you can help each other with your respective problems.  Everyone sitting around you has “elephants in their living room”.  The only question is whether you will be “elephant herders” or “elephant keepers”.  If you share, you can help each other herd.

Whatever, don’t pretend that your situation is other than it really is.  If Elijah and Jesus had trivialized the gravity of the situation with pious words about death – if they had used religion to sugarcoat or avoid the real life issues – those women would have had no hope.  For, in the end, “If we say we have no sin we only deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Faith should open up the future!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Don Carlson

10-14-12 is Pentecost 20B – Giving

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 – Job’s lament: If only I could vanish in darkness and thick darkness would cover my face.
or Amos 5:6-7, 10-1 – Seek good and not evil, that you may live; so the Lord will be with you, as you have said he is.

Psalm 22:1-15 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
or Psalm 90:12-17– So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. (Ps. 90:12)

Hebrews 4:12-16 – The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. All are naked a laid bare before him.

Mark 10:17-31– Rich young ruler. Eye of the needle. For God all things are possible. First last. Last first.

Hey everyone, I want to begin with a couple of reminders for those who are in our Gulf Coast Region…

First, we are doing a series of leadership gatherings for congregational leaders this month. One is in Houston, one is in New Orleans and one is in Brenham. If you’re not signed up, please pick one at www.gulfcoastsynod.org/events.html and come.

Second, we are hard at work on a strategic plan with four key areas:

  1. Streamline synod structures, creating a leaner organization
  2. Help congregations become better known in their communities
  3. Develop a "partnership" that is 100% devoted to supporting ministry excellence
  4. Plant one new congregation a year

Read more about it at going to www.gulfcoastsynod.org and clicking on the tree.

The Sundays in October and November are a time when a lot of congregations talk about giving. This is, in part, because it is budget time, but there is more to it than just that. The end of the year is the harvest. The crops are gathered in and sold. Tithes are made. Even in our modern society, bonuses come in for folks in some professions, and it is a time when financial gifts are made. The Bible is rife with images of the harvest. It is a time of reckoning, a time to take stock of things. The end of the year is also a great time to plan for the coming year. It is a time to think about what we are going to spend, what we are going to save and what we are going to give.

The lectionary does not disappoint on this matter. This week we have the story of the Rich Young Ruler. He believes he has kept the whole law, so Jesus tells him to go sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. He goes away sad. Jesus does not chase him down. Instead, he tells his disciples it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are astonished, and say, "Uh-oh. Then who can be saved?" Jesus replies, in essence, "No one. Although, for God, all things are possible." There are both law and gospel in this story.

There is no getting around it. Jesus is all about giving. If people complain that the church is always asking for money, perhaps it is because we all too often talk about giving to budgets. The fact remains, Jesus talks about giving and generosity more than just about anything else. We need to talk to people about opening their hearts to God and neighbor.

Eleven years ago, a group of people illustrated this heart-opening generosity in a way that caught my attention. This is a great lesson, and I offer it to you to use whenever you see fit, without attribution. It’s a true story, you can look it up. The details vary from source to source, but this is an experience that changed lives. Don’t read the story. Tell it.

Eleven years ago last month, Delta Flight 15 was over the North Atlantic, en route from London’s Gatwick Airport to Cincinnati, Ohio, when flight attendant Joyce Hanson was ordered to the cockpit immediately, where the stern-faced captain handed her a message from Atlanta that simply said, "All airways over the Continental US are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination."

The nearest airport turned out to be in a town called Gander, on the island of Newfoundland. A quick request was made to the Canadian traffic controller and a detour to Gander was approved immediately. They simply told the passengers they were having instrument troubles. When they landed 40 minutes later, there were already 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over the world, and 60 more were on the way. The captain made an announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have." He explained that there was terrorist activity. No one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed to come near the aircrafts.

At 6 p.m. on September 11, Gander airport told them that they would be allowed to deplane at 11:00 the next morning. About 10:30 on the morning of the 12th a convoy of school buses showed up at the side of the airplane, the stairway was hooked up and the passengers were taken to the terminal for "processing" through Immigration and Customs. They then had to register with the Red Cross.

The town of Gander has a population of 10,400 people. The Red Cross ended up processing around 8,000 passengers. Passengers from various flights were taken to hotels, churches, schools and private homes, where they finally watched the news and learned what was going on. At such a deeply troubling time in American history, the "Plane people" as they came to be known were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people of Gander and outlying communities. With nothing to do, and nowhere to go, for two days they did nothing but enjoy the company of strangers.

Steve Kirby of Delta Flight 37 said that in the small town of Gambo, where they stayed, the two small stores simply opened their doors all night long and told the community to "take what you need." He said, "Every meal was a feast. I gained 28 pounds." For two days they lived in the new community – a community of kindness, hospitality, generosity, sharing.

218 passengers from Delta Flight 15 ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 Kilometers from Gander. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were lodged in private homes. Nurses and doctors were on duty. Phone calls and emails to US and Europe were available for every one once a day.

Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbors. Some went to see local forests. Local bakeries offered fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and church members and brought to schools and churches. Every need was met. In later news interviews, tears would stream down their faces as passengers would tell these stories.

Pat Bernard says that she slept in a padded pew at St. George Anglican Church. When they left, the church had a big good-bye service for them, tons of food, church bells ringing, people hugging.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or… what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Consider the lilies of the field… they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…

Two days later the passengers were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single one missing or late. When the passengers from Delta Flight 15 were all on board, one of the business class passengers, a Dr. Robert Ferguson got on the PA and reminded everyone of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund to provide a scholarship for high school students of Lewisporte to help them go to college. He requested donations of any amount from the other travelers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, it totaled to $14,500. The doctor got on the PA again and promised to match the donations.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, when we catch a glimpse of real hospitality, divine generosity, it changes us forever. We cannot help but give back. True gratitude expresses itself in sacrificial giving. Jesus gives himself 100% to God, even to giving his life on the cross. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we recall the lavish, prodigal generosity of God, we remember Jesus’ giving of his own life, his death and resurrection, we eat and drink to this utterly new community in Christ, we catch a glimpse of the lavish grace of God, and what it means for our lives. I challenge you to be that new community, out of the grace that God has lavished upon you in Jesus Christ. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger.

By the way, the Gander Flight 15 Scholarship Fund, administered by the Columbus Foundation at 1234 East Broad Street, Columbus Ohio, is administered by Shirley Brooks-Jones, a retired administrative assistant from Ohio State University. She was on that flight. The fund started with $14,500. Today it is worth over one million dollars.

Generosity is a sign of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. It is a sign that our hearts have been touched by God.

Never neglect to offer hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Yours in Christ,

Mike Rinehart, bishop

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