Thursday, November 13, 2014

It's A Wonderful Life

A beautiful fall leaf from our front yard, on top
of others that had been charred by fire in May.
Hope amidst the darkness.
I’ve always loved the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, the good-hearted man who has dreams of leaving his little town and making a name for himself somewhere out in the big world. Time and again his dreams are put on hold as he looks out for others, watches out for his family and eventually takes over his father’s business not because he wanted to, but because he was needed. Through a series of unfortunate events, life just piles up on him and eventually he finds himself saying “it would be better if I had never been born!” Clarence, the angel, then gives him a chance to find out what life would have been like for everyone else had George never been born, and he discovers that so many decisions he had made in his lifetime, so many small favors, so many ways that he had helped others, had ended up having a gigantic impact. He may have felt like a failure, but God had been using him and his life in profound ways. His life mattered, and he himself mattered to more people than he realized on a much deeper level than he ever could have fathomed.

On May 29, 2014, my family suffered a terrible loss as a fire started in our garage. By the time the fire department arrived, flames engulfed the entire garage and had begun to spread into the main dwelling area. My wife Karin and I could only watch helplessly as smoke billowed from the house. When it was finally put out, the heat had melted the vinyl siding off the side of our next door neighbor’s house, it had obliterated our garage including the minivan that had been parked inside, it had basically melted our kitchen, and the heat and soot had destroyed the vast majority of our belongings. It only took three crates to hold everything the restoration company classified as “salvageable.”

Karin and I had purchased that house when we got married, and were the first owners to live in it. We had brought two children home from the hospital to that house. We had laughed and cried, we had suffered tremendous loss and had shared incredible joy, we had grown from young kids barely out of college to adult parents with careers and responsibilities. That house, and the mementos of our lives we had collected there over the years, had been the setting for many, many memories. And in such an incredibly short time, so much of that was gone.

Now, I’m not one who believes “everything happens for a reason.” I am a lifelong Christian, and a current seminary student, but I don’t think God acts in that way. From what I have learned and experienced over the years, God isn't in the business of causing suffering. I don’t think God causes our pain just so that something good can result later on. I do, however, believe and trust with everything that I am that God is in the business of taking suffering and transforming it. God takes our pain and creates joy. God takes darkness and creates light. In the cross, we see God take on death itself, and in the empty tomb God creates the promise of new life. In what our family experienced that day in May, God took destruction and created hope. Just as a burning bush spoke to Moses and assured him that God would be by his side and lead him, just as a pillar of fire led Israel out of slavery and into the freedom of the promised land, so too did God work through what we experienced, creating new possibilities. We discovered (or re-discovered, or perhaps finally claimed for ourselves) a number of truths that make It’s a Wonderful Life such a beautiful movie for me.

First of all, we discovered the profound truth that when the things we rely on and put our trust in other than God are stripped away, be they our possessions, our money, our self-reliance, or a multitude of other things, we discover what really matters. We discover that our faith, which is so easily professed when things are going our way, really and truly is our rock when the storms come. We discover that as long as we have each other and as long as we have God’s love, the rest of it really is superfluous. It doesn't mean that things are easy—goodness knows I don’t want to romanticize our situation and make it sound as though what we've experienced has been sunshine and rainbows. It certainly hasn't. But in the midst of adversity, when everything else we tend to rely on as a false idol is stripped away, that's when we most fully experience God’s presence in our lives.

As a theologian of the cross, I firmly believe that God dwells in the dark places. When we look for God, we shouldn't be looking to the high and the mighty and the powerful and the successful…we should be looking to the burnt out remains of a house with a husband and wife clinging to each other, trying to shield two frightened children, wondering how they’re going to get by and just live day to day while the insurance companies and the powers that be drag their feet. That’s where God’s presence is most profoundly felt and experienced.

Second, we discovered the same truth that the angel Clarence left in a note for George at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. He wrote, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Now, we knew that we had friends. We knew that people cared about us and our kids, and there have always been a ton of people we've felt the same way about. What we didn't realize, however, was the extreme depth nor the extreme breadth of those friendships. In the movie, George gets into financial trouble trying to help out the savings and loan he’s responsible for. When the town gets wind of it, without even being asked they give whatever they can to help him out. All it takes is the word “George is in trouble,” and the town begins trying to find ways to meet his family’s needs. That is precisely what we experienced as well after our fire.

Our family, our friends, our coworkers, our church community, an online Husker football forum, friends from long ago who we had almost completely lost touch with, even our son’s orthodontist’s office…there were SO many people who came from everywhere, giving what they could simply because they heard we needed help. Whether it was monetary or material donations, or babysitting or conversation or prayer or notes of encouragement or “let’s go out for dinner and drinks so we can do something that feels normal, and I’ll pick up the tab this time,” we were surrounded by so much support and love, it was almost overwhelming at times. A group of neighbors coordinated giving drives and a huge fundraiser at our church. A family offered us their home for 6 months as they left for a professorial sabbatical elsewhere. There have just been so many incredible responses, overwhelming in the best possible way—that humbling feeling of being enveloped in life-changing, transformative love. What we've experienced in a very tangible way has been the body of Christ we read about so often in the New Testament. It has been a very real taste of what the Reign of God that Jesus refers to so often in his parables actually looks and feels like. We are living a parable, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The biggest lesson, the biggest truth that I have been thankful for throughout this entire experience is the same realization that George Bailey came to: our lives have far more significance than we will ever fully know. Early in the movie, George’s younger brother Harry falls through the ice on a pond where they were sledding, and George saves him by pulling him out. Later, Harry becomes a World War II hero when he saves a number of other men. The angel Clarence points out to George when he’s experiencing what the world would have been like without him that because of his absence, not only would Harry die, but so would all the people on the transport that Harry had saved in the war. That’s only one example of the far-reaching effects of George’s life.

Since our house fire, Karin and I have both been told stories of how our lives have impacted others—so many times, these stories have been things that we had no idea about. I had a member of the online Husker sports forum I frequent tell me that because of my words and encouragement, they found their way back to church and rediscovered their faith. I had no idea of any of that until this person told me. Others have told us stories of how our family has impacted their lives, and how they’re more than happy to help us because we have been such a help to them or to others—most of what we've been told, we would have had no idea about otherwise.

The lesson here for all of us is a huge one. Don't discount your impact. The scripture reference about the body having many members and everyone having a part to play is so amazingly true—you DO make a difference, often in ways you will never realize or see the fruits of. No matter who you are or what you do or what you have done or what’s been done to you, God has created you in God’s image as a beloved child, and God has created you for relationship and community. In our individualistic Western society, where rugged independence is held up as the greater good, it is easy to lose sight of that. For those of us professing the Christian faith in a triune God, a God who is both three and yet still one, what that means is we were created in the image of a God whose primary identity is community which overflows beyond itself and into love for all of creation. That’s our primary God-created identity as well: many, yet one, united through the Holy Spirit in a community of love that can’t help but overflow to the rest of the world.

As I wrote before, I’m a seminarian. I think theologically. But if theology cannot be applied practically, then what use is it, other than a fun little academic exercise? My goodness, what an experience my family has had through all of the hard times these last months, through all of the wondering and fear and sadness. We really have experienced God’s presence. We've experienced God through the faces of those around us and we've experienced God through the stripping away of everything else we've tried to put our faith in. We've experienced God through very real adversity, adversity where we are still facing a number of huge question marks even today. Yet in it we all have found reassurance of a God who walks alongside us, reassurance of that same God’s presence through so many who surround us with their love and prayer, reassurance that our lives do make an impact and a difference, that God does work through us, and reassurance that no matter what, we trust in a God who has the final word, who in the cross and the empty tomb has already won the ultimate victory on our behalf.

For all of those things, how could we not be thankful? Thanks be to God.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sermon for May 12, 2013: "This Can Happen Anywhere. Not Everything Is Lost."

This Can Happen Anywhere. Not Everything Is Lost.

May 11-12, 2013

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet who was born to a Palestinian father and an American mother. A few years ago, she wrote a poem entitled, Gate A-4:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement: "If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately."

Well--one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. "Help," said the flight service person. "Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this."

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. "Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit- se-wee?" The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, "No, we're fine, you'll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let's call him."

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her--Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies--little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts--out of her bag--and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo--we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend-- by now we were holding hands--had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi- tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate--once the crying of confusion stopped--seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.[1]

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost. In the midst of a difficult situation, a group of strangers brought together by the winds of chance somehow found unity in their shared humanity. They never stopped being who they were. The Palestinian woman was still a Palestinian woman, the kids were still Mexican American and African American, the Argentinian woman and the folks from Laredo and California, they all remained very much who they were to begin with. But in a series of acts of hospitality, while they remained individually who they were, they also together became something else: a community. From the airline representative’s call over the intercom, to the narrator’s choice to respond to the call, to the narrator’s compassion, to the woman’s sharing of the cookies, to the children’s distribution of beverages, to the laughter, to the smiles, there were many separate small acts of hospitality and service that together helped bind these travelers together.

I cannot think of a better picture of what it means to live out our unity in Christ.

Listen again to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading. He’s in the middle of what’s known in the Gospel According to John as the high priestly prayer, which he prays right before he leaves his disciples for the last time before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus prays, “”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

First of all, notice something very important in this prayer. Jesus here is praying not only for his disciples, but he is also praying for you. Jesus prayed for you. Let that sink in for a moment. Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, said a prayer for you. He said that he was asking on behalf not only of these—his disciples—but also on behalf of those who will believe in him through the disciples’ word. My friends, that’s you and me.
Now listen closely. What was it that Jesus prayed about on behalf of you and me? What was it that he was asking? That they might all be one. In verse 22 he goes a little further—that we might be one as Jesus and God the Father are one.

Okay, now this is getting interesting. Jesus wants the same unity in us that exists in the very nature of God. Let THAT sink in for a moment. So what does that look like?

Holy Trinity Sunday is still a couple of weeks away, and I hope I’m not stealing any of Pastor Tobi’s thunder ahead of time, but this is big. Really big, and important to help us see how amazing this gospel text is. We worship a God who has been revealed in three persons. We call those persons the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons, but not three Gods. There is only one God. God’s very nature is unity, but it is a unity that is found within diversity. One God, but a God in relationship with Godself.

Now look at us, children of God, created in God’s image. Different nationalities, different cultures, different ages, different histories, different stories in our present, different ways of seeing the world, different political and social views. All this rich, beautiful diversity, but still one. Still one body of Christ. United by our need for God’s grace, united by the hope we have found in the cross and the empty tomb.

We are like a tapestry…one that is woven of billions of individual threads. But it is those threads…which never cease being what they are individually…that together create this incredible, rich picture of the kingdom of God. That’s what the poem I read was about. That’s what Jesus prayed for.

The Holy Spirit weaves our lives together by using acts of hospitality and service that are born out of love. We see this with Jesus in the events of his life directly surrounding our Gospel reading. He washed his disciples’ feet. He broke bread, poured wine, told them, “this is my body, this is my blood, given and shed FOR YOU.” And then he went to the cross. Hospitality and service born out of love for humankind.

And that’s where we find our unity. It’s when we follow the way of the cross, when we live lives of hospitality and service born out of love, when we experience glimpses of the kingdom of God through the bread and the wine, through loving God and loving our neighbor, when we in all our diversity are one as God is one. And the purpose?

That the world may know. That the world may know the glory of God the Father. That the world may know that God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. When we as the church choose unity—not uniformity, but the unity, the community that is created through acts of hospitality and service born out of love, that is the greatest single witness we can have about not only who we are, but whose we are.

In the closing words of the poem, this can happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] Naomi Shihab Nye, "Gate A-4" from Honeybee. Copyright © 2008 by Naomi Shihab Nye. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Copyright, fair use, and the church

What interesting technological times we live in, particularly as people of the church. 

Allow me to reminisce for a moment. It wasn't all that long ago that if you wanted a recording of a particular song, you needed to go to the record store and buy the entire LP that song was on. (Or cassette, or 8 track, or CD.) I remember being in high school (this was before discovering the wonder that was Columbia House and BMG CD clubs) and dropping $15 for a CD, when all I was really interested in was 2 or 3 songs off that CD. 

Thank goodness for itunes, eh?

And video. Oh, the things you can do with a laptop and some free software anymore. Get this: my wife and I were married almost 13 years ago. Already, videos of couples with pictures of them as kids and then later as a couple, all set to music were popular, but I didn't want to pay anyone to put one together. So here's what I did. We had decided that we wanted 3 songs in our video, so we got out a boombox that had both a cassette and CD, and recorded those 3 songs from CD's (one of which--Rod Stewart's Greatest Hits--we had to buy just so we could get the song Forever Young) on to a cassette. I then timed how long the 3 songs were strung together. Why? Because I had a video camera with a button where, if you pushed it, it would take a 7 second-long still shot. I divided the number of seconds the music lasted by 7, and that was the number of pictures we could use in the show. For a title slide, I actually printed out something like "Our Wedding Video" on a piece of paper so I could take a picture of it with the video camera. And then I spent about an hour and a half taking picture after picture. After getting through them all, I had the video I wanted on the camera, and the sound I wanted on the cassette, so I hooked them both up to inputs on our VCR. Sound input from the cassette player, video input from the camera. I hit "record" on the VCR, and then hit "play" simultaneously on the camera and cassette player. 

And I prayed. 

Considering the duct tape and baling wire method I used, I think it came out pretty darned good. But if I were doing that today, what took me HOURS upon HOURS to do in a very roundabout way could have been done very quickly with a couple of free programs and lots of digital files. And the product would be something infinitely superior to what I produced. 

We are living in a culture where we engage digital products all the time. And the amazing looking presentations and videos that we used to depend on professionals for can now be created fairly simply by just an average layperson with easily available (and often free) tools. For the church to engage and be relevant within that culture, we also need to be able to use those tools when and where appropriate for speaking the gospel. 

Along the line, of course we're going to encounter questions of copyright and fair use. A very common, and effective, use of technology is to take a song (sometimes explicitly Christian, sometimes not) and put images to it to help in reflecting on the meaning. It's a method that engages both our listening and our seeing, and when used well can really help introduce new ways of thinking or questioning about a given subject. Even if you're using the intellectual property of another (images or music), if you're not profiting off of their work and if it's legitimately used for teaching (or preaching), AND if in the process of combining those images and music together you're in effect creating a new product, what are the legal and ethical ramifications? Obviously the legal ramifications are important, but for church folk, the ethical ramifications ought to be even more important. No matter what the law may or may not say, what is most important is doing the right thing. We are only now in the middle of figuring out what the "right thing" is in so many situations that just didn't even exist 20 years ago, or sometimes even 10 years ago. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boston and Collective Intelligence

For all of the negatives we see and hear and read about concerning the internet in general, and online social networking more specifically, there are very real and important instances where the kind of collective intelligence inherent in online communities can not only be good, but would not be otherwise possible were it not for the internet.

This past Sunday, we experienced horror as a nation as we watched two bombs explode near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed, and almost 200 injured, and the city was thrown into chaos. For security reasons, flights were canceled and hotels were evacuated, leaving potentially thousands of people stranded.

There's a concept known as "collective intelligence," where a wide net is cast to a large group to fill some sort of need--sometimes it can be for information or advice, or other times it can be a chance for others to just add their own input or bits of information. This second type of collective intelligence was on display following the Boston tragedy in a couple of ways. First, created a Google Document where people who had room in their houses or apartments could leave their personal information. Those who had been stranded could go to this document and find a place to stay if they needed it. Thousands of people put their information in the document, many of which included offers to drive folks around or take care of other needs. Second, Google activated their Person Finder  (which has since been deactivated) to help loved ones who may have been separated in the post-explosion chaos find each other. This sort of crowdsourcing is something that even as recently as the 9/11 attack just wasn't possible because even if tools were available, they weren't nearly as widely disseminated as they are now. The wider the possible net, the more effective collective intelligence can be. With social media such as Facebook and Twitter, those tools become exponentially more effective since it's possible for a person not only to respond themselves, but to immediately have all of their "friends" or "followers" see it. The information net can expand incredibly quickly.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Virtual communities of care

Have you ever been the recipient of a group hug? An actual, honest-to-goodness group hug given out of love and support and care? Or have you ever had a group of people lay their hands on you as they prayed for you? There's something incredibly powerful and incarnational about that kind of group touch. To feel hands gently laid on you or to feel a multitude of arms wrapped around you, as holy words, set-apart words specifically for you are spoken on your behalf…there’s nothing quite like it. It’s uplifting. It’s transforming.

Okay…so now, imagine you’re sick. Very sick. Maybe you even know you’re dying. Imagine being able to receive that sort of group hug or laying on of hands from dozens, maybe even hundreds of people. Not only the ones who can geographically be present, but including people who are scattered all over your state, all over the country, all over the world. What if some of these people were even complete strangers but who had made a decision to be consciously invested in your well-being anyway and participate in the hug or laying on of hands?

What if, after the hug, you could re-create it on demand, whenever you needed it…poof, just like that?

In a sense, that’s the kind of presence websites like CaringBridge offer. It’s like a gigantic virtual group hug for people and their loved ones who are in the scariest, most depressing, most vulnerable points in their life.
That said, virtual community is never a substitute for actual, flesh-and-blood community. However, it can be a powerful accompaniment to that community. The power lies in a couple of areas. First, just the sheer numbers and the potential for the sheer geographical reach. In my HuskerMax community, there have been times when I’ve posted prayer request items. People all over the country, and even sometimes in other parts of the world, have responded. To know that people scattered so far and wide are praying on your behalf can be an incredibly powerful thing. Sometimes, these end up even being people that you’ve never met.

Another advantage to an online caring community is that you have the ability to go back and bring up those messages of support and love at any time. A hug or a spoken word is beautiful, but once the hug is done, it’s done until you’re given another one. Once a word is spoken , while it can be recalled through memory it’s still not tangibly there in the same form. With online messages though, you can go to your site and read them any time you need. If you’re having a particularly bad day, you can pull up the site and remember…literally, re-member, bring back the body. Re-read and re-experience the virtual hug or the virtual laying on of hands by the wider community.

It’s a different kind of presence. But a potentially powerful one. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Faith in a Digital World

We are living in a digital world. (I feel like I should follow up that line with "and I am a digital girl.")  As people of faith, this really is a brave new world in which to navigate. We have the ability to connect with people we never would have connected with before, in ways that never would have been available before, with materials that we never would have had access to before.

There is an entire "digital culture" that has sprung up with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, many chances to engage with this culture. Depending on how we choose to engage, that can either be a positive or a negative. 

Because you see, there's a lot of crap out there that masquerades as Christian spirituality. And now, the crap has even more of a platform by which it can be spread. The kind of stuff that just turns people off from the faith or that paints a picture of Christianity far different from how I'd ever understand it or want to live's all over the place. Here's just a couple of pictures I found on Facebook in the past 10 minutes:
I'd hope my financial decisions might play into the equation somewhat

So if I just keep scrolling and don't hit "like," that means I don't accept Jesus?

And it's not just pictures. Videos, songs with images attached, sermons, video blogs, regular written blogs like this one, thoughts on message boards or on platforms like increasing our opportunity for witness we also increase the opportunity that the message we're sending isn't a good one.

We have been given an incredible amount of power with these relatively new technological tools--the power to create and to communicate that creativity in ways evangelists in an earlier day would have only dreamed of. And in the words of the great evangelical film Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility." 

How do we wield that responsibility? When the culture of Christianity engages this digital culture, what message are we sending? Is it a message of hope, of God's love for the world and our love for our neighbor? Are we doing justice, loving kindly, and walking humbly?

For the last 9 years, I've been an active participant on, a message board dedicated to discussing Nebraska Football. My "handle" (username) there is LutheranHusker, which I picked as a way to remind myself that whatever I posted, others (rightly or wrongly) were going to associate with the church, and specifically with the Lutheran church. It was both an intentional witness and a way of self-policing what I said. There's a section of the message board called the Cafe', which is where I do most of my actual posting, since there are many others who know MUCH more about the game of football than I do. The Cafe' is for all non-sports related discussion, and over the years, whatever the topic might have been, I've tried to visibly and publicly view that topic through the lens of the cross. There are Christians from all over the faith spectrum on that message board, as well as a number of atheists and at least one self-described religious pagan. I've discovered that if I'm honest about where I'm at, thoughtful about about how I've come to be there, and humble in listening and considering the perspectives of others, that others respond with questions, constructive conversations, and sometimes their own faith stories. That's not something that happens overnight, nor is it something a person can go about doing with the express intention of trying to convert people. It's a function of time because it's built on relationship, and it's a function of authenticity because that too is built on relationship. 

What's interesting is that it's gotten to the point where if some news story on faith comes up, they're wondering what my perspective is going to be. NOT because I have all the answers, but I think more likely because I'm willing to ask the questions. 

Here's one such thread (FYI: they refer to me as "Luth"):

I like to post links to my sermons from time to time there. Last spring in one of my sermons I talked about one of the HuskerMax guys, known as "Pops" on the board. Pops is an atheist biker Vietnam Vet hippie ex-heroin addict who is also one of my favorite people in the universe, even though I've never met him in person. This is a link to the thread where I posted my sermon, which led to some amazing self-disclosure from Pops:

And one more...this thread begins a little more PG-13. It was started by an atheist who goes by Red Phoenix who, while he has a lot of respect for those who take their faith seriously and who treat others with kindness, also enjoys poking at folks. He began with a sort-of offensive synopsis of the Christian story, and I have no doubt he was hoping for shocked indignation as a response. Instead (as I like to do), I treated the thread theologically, and what came out of it was a sometimes off-color but sometimes incredibly profound discussion of life and faith and the Bible and personal history and testimony. It's found here:

I bring all these up not because I'm some be-all/end-all internet ministry guru. Who knows...I've had enough conversations, I've probably been heretical at some point. But the key is that even when folks disagree with me (which they often do), because of the relationship we've built over time they know that I've put thought and faith into what I've said, and in an instant digital culture where both of those things are often lacking, that can be refreshing and transformational.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sermon from 3-10-2013: Coming to Us In the Storm

Ein Gev kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at about
2:30 AM on Jan. 16, 2013
Coming to Us in the Storm
March 9-10, 2013

Many of you know that I had the opportunity in January to spend two weeks in Israel and the West Bank with a group from Luther Seminary. While we were there, we spent 3 nights in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a big lake—about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. We were able to take a boat ride across the lake one morning, and it was just incredible. The sun was out, there was just a hint of a breeze, and the water was peaceful as we crossed from where we had been staying to the town of Migdal, which in the Bible was called Magdala and was the home of Mary Magdalene. You simply could not ask for better weather that day.

That night, however, my roommate woke me up at about 2:30 in the morning. “Matt,” he said. “It’s a windstorm. On the Sea of Galilee.”

We’re seminarians. We get excited about stuff like that.

And sure enough, I could hear the wind beating against the little cabin we were staying in. I grabbed my camera and walked outside, into some of the fiercest wind I’ve ever been in. There was no rain, but the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by these high ridges, and sometimes when the conditions are just right the wind will sweep over them with a fury and down into the valley where the lake is. The branches on the palm trees were blowing straight sideways, and you could see the water on the lake was incredibly choppy. I took a few pictures and went back to bed. In the morning when I got up at 6, it was still going. After getting ready for the day, I had some extra time before I had to join the rest of the group for breakfast, so I walked down to the lakeshore and took this video:

Talk about bringing Scripture to life.

Today’s gospel lesson takes place immediately after what we read about last week, the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus had performed this incredible sign, and the people were so amazed that John 6:15 says they were ready to take him and make him king by force. Jesus had gotten away and gone to the mountain because that’s not what he was about. That’s not what he was there to do. He was a king, but not the kind of king the crowd wanted him to be. And so eventually, when evening comes and the crowds had all gone away, we come to the beginning of today’s reading where the disciples decide it’s time to go. What’s interesting here is that Jesus still isn’t with them. They’re on their own—but they’re pretty much on their home turf. They know this part of Galilee really well, they know the lake, and they’re not far from Capernaum, which was Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s hometown.

The second half of Verse 17, where the author tells us that “it was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them,”  at first looks almost like a throwaway line, a description to help us envision the setting. But there are a couple of very important details in there that the author gives us, details that aren’t just descriptions of the scene, but theological claims. The first is that it was now dark. The theme of light vs. dark is huge in the gospel according to John. If you turn back and look at the first chapter of John, Jesus is described as the light of the world. In John 1:5 we have that beautifully powerful verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The Holden Evening Prayer service on Wednesdays during Lent begin by quoting that verse as we sing, “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.” Jesus as the light shining in the darkness continues all throughout John, and so what we have in verse 17 of today’s reading takes on additional meaning. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. In this gospel account, darkness always represents bad things—death, or ignorance, or fear, or separation. So it’s dark, and why is that important? Because Jesus had not yet come to them.

And then a windstorm comes up.

Not when they’re safely on shore like I was in January, but when they’re in their boat, 3 or 4 miles out on the lake. And as I experienced, there’s no telling how long a storm like that might last. It’s not as though you can just hunker down and tell yourself, “well, this will probably be over in just a few minutes.” So there they are, trapped in a boat in the middle of a lake with the wind blowing and the waves growing and with the darkness surrounding them. And they cannot see Jesus anywhere.

Does any of that sound vaguely familiar to you? Does any of that sound like a time in your own life? Have you ever been trapped, with things swirling all around you, feeling out of control, with darkness surrounding you, with the waves getting higher and higher and you just want to cry out, “Where are you, Jesus? Where are you, God? Where are you, Holy Spirit? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe there are circumstances in your life that are completely beyond your control, and you’re just being carried along on the choppy waves not knowing where the shoreline is in the darkness. Maybe you’ve done something or said something…sinned in thought, word, and deed by what you have done and by what you have left undone. And now you’re in so far, in so deep over your head that you just don’t know if you’ll ever make it safely to shore again.

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that in the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us.

In John, there is no calming of the storm, which is honestly something I appreciate, because if you remember what Pastor Tobi has been saying, what we refer to as miracles in the other gospels, John refers to as signs. And a sign is something with a purpose, something that points to a greater truth. The sign here in John isn’t that Jesus calms our storms, and I’m so glad that’s not the lesson I’m supposed to take away from it. Because sometimes there is no calming of the storms in our lives, is there?  Sometimes there is no easy fix, no savior standing up in the boat and commanding all the circumstances of our lives, “Peace, be still!” In those times, we don’t have to worry that we’re doing faith wrong, we don’t have to wonder if Jesus has just decided that we need to flounder, we don’t have to believe that because Jesus hasn’t fixed it all that we’ve somehow not measured up to God’s standard or that God simply doesn’t care.

The sign we’re given in John is that Jesus comes to us. Jesus comes alongside us. In the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us. Even in the middle of the raging wind, even though it involves what should be impossible—walking on water—Jesus will not leave us alone. Jesus is present beside us, and like the disciples, we can be assured that even in the midst of the storm, he will accompany us through it all and to the shore.

And it’s not up to us to come to him. The disciples don’t have to row to where Jesus is. They don’t have to figure out how to get to where he is standing—Jesus comes to them. Jesus walks across the raging water to come to where they are. And Jesus comes to you, too. In the storm of your sin, in the wind and the waves of your life whatever they may be, Jesus comes to you. It’s not up to you to make it happen. You have been called by name through the waters of baptism. Jesus comes to you and for you in the bread and in the wine of Holy Communion. Jesus promises to be beside you all the way to the shore. That is the promise of the cross. That is the promise of the empty tomb.

We are never promised that there will be no storms in our lives. In fact, as those who Jesus has called to take up our cross and follow him, we know that those storms are part of what it means to live as a broken, sinful people in an imperfect world. But because we are people of the cross, we know as well that the brokenness, the storms, are exactly where we expect to find God…or to be more precise, where we expect God to find us.

In verse 20, our translation has Jesus saying, “It is I, do not be afraid.” In the original Greek, it is simply ego eimi,  I AM. “I AM. Do not be afraid.” I AM is the name God calls himself when speaking to Moses in the burning bush all the way back in Exodus. “Tell Pharaoh I AM is the one who sent you.”

We’ve already talked about one distinctive feature of John—the importance of light and dark. Another distinctive feature of John is that Jesus makes these I AM statements 23 different times, using the Greek ego eimi. This isn’t just a simple word choice. It’s  a powerful claim. John is reminding us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus Christ, Word made flesh, light of the world, is one with the all-powerful I AM who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the freedom of the promised land. The same all-powerful I AM will go on to defeat death on the cross, leading us all out of our own slavery to sin and into the freedom of God’s promised kingdom—and not only heaven, but also the kingdom that comes on earth as it is in heaven when we are free to live not just for ourselves but for our neighbor.

In the darkness of our storms, Christ stops at nothing to come to us. Not wind, not water, not even the cross nor even death itself stops Jesus from coming alongside us and telling us, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with my cross forever. This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you. Now go. Go love one another, as I have loved you. By this all will know that you are my disciples.”


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

Thursday, March 07, 2013

What is "gospel?"

In front of the traditional site of Jesus' tomb
at Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
with the Bible open to Mark's resurrection account.
This week in my Gospel and Global Media Cultures seminary course, I've been challenged to publicly answer the question, "what is 'gospel?'"

In about 500 words. 

Okay, here goes. Game on. 

What is gospel? Gospel is the Word from God that gives life. Through no doing of our own, through no merit of our own, but simply out of sheer grace, God came to us took on flesh in Jesus. The One who was present at the creation of the universe, the Word who spoke all into being with a word, the One in whom we live and move and have our being, lived and moved and dwelt among us. In his life he brought new life, he brought healing, he took the outcast and the sinners and the oppressed and downtrodden and brought them in, erasing the human made lines and walls that had served to exclude them. He proclaimed these things as a sign of the inbreaking reign of God. But we wouldn't have any of that, and killed him for it. When our structures of power and authority are threatened, we respond with violence. The cross was our ultimate no to the ultimate yes of Jesus, but through Jesus' resurrection it became God's ultimate yes to humankind. God decided that violence would not have the final say. God decided that death would not have the last word. God was so relentlessly insistent on being who he is for us--a God of boundless grace and infinite love, that he defeated what we thought was our ultimate power--the power of death. God raised Jesus from the dead, and now Jesus lives, and that was a gift for all of humankind, because through that gift of new life we too are promised new life. Abundant life now, and eternal life even after death. Not as the solution to any sort of divine equation, not as the balancing of some sort of scales of justice, not as the appeasement of anger, but as a loving gift to you. For you. With absolutely nothing on your part to do to earn it or deserve it.

Gospel is therefore both now and not yet. It is now in the promise of baptism, it is now in the body and blood, the bread and wine broken and poured for you in Holy Communion. It is now when we love God and love our neighbor, when the hungry are fed and the sick are healed and the lowly brought high and the outcast brought in and the community we were created to be a part of with each other renewed and restored. That is where we find Jesus--in the broken things. That is where we see Jesus' face--in the faces of the lowly, in the faces of the sinner. That is where we experience Jesus at work--on the margins, on the other side of the walls we have built, on the other side of the lines we have drawn. We experience all of these things as a foretaste of the feast to come, as a glimpse of God’s final reign in the New Jerusalem at the end of time, and so Gospel is also not yet. It is not fully consummated. At the very heart of Gospel, then, is hope. Not wishing, not wondering, but the hope that is born from trust in God’s promises.

And that's my first shot at a definition of Gospel, Charlie Brown. What do you think? What did I write that you would affirm, what would you challenge, what would you add or leave out?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Facebook--A brave new world for ministry

I remember back in 2004, I was a lay minister at the ELCA's campus ministry at the University of Nebraska. Each summer, the ELCA campus ministers all gather for a conference--while I was there, one of the speakers told us how important it was for us to make sure that whichever university we worked with gave us a university email address, something that ended with a .edu. The reason, he said, was because there was this new website called "Facebook" that had started out with some California colleges, and college kids were signing up and using it to tell their friends what they were doing and to meet new people. It had just recently gone national, but in order to register, you had to have an address that ended with the .edu suffix. He said the thing had grown like wildfire and he wouldn't be surprised if soon it wasn't the primary way college kids kept in touch. 

It's less than 9 years later now. You no longer need a university email to register. Facebook is used by people of all ages, companies, non-profits, fact, if Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. Most of my extended family live in different parts of the country than I do, and Facebook has become our primary means of keeping in contact. Even my 85 year-old grandmother (Hi Grammy!) has a Facebook account, and loves to see pictures, videos, and stories of her grandkids and great-grandkids' daily lives.

Facebook has changed the way we do relationships. 

The church, as the body of Christ, has always been about relationships. If we've seen such a fundamental addition in our personal and business lives about how we connect, then it only makes sense that it would have an effect on our faith communities as well. How do we as a church live into this brave new world of digital connectedness? 

First of all, we need to be a part of it. We have this amazing tool at our fingertips (literally!) that allows us to create groups, allows us to instantly be in touch with a huge variety of people, allows us to quickly and easily make available pictures and ideas, and not only allows us to put these things out there for consumption, but encourages feedback and communication. It allows us to have a significant presence in the daily lives of our parishioners if we so desire. If church leaders have personal Facebook profiles and post about their daily lives, it also helps break down those invisible walls that many people have, assuming that pastors or other church people aren't "real people" like everyone else.  

Second, we need to model how to use social media well, responsibly, and spiritually. There is so much crap out there that gets passed around on Facebook and other platforms. What previously had been relegated to chain emails (or chain snail-mail) can now be instantly linked, viewed, commented on, and passed along even more efficiently. That said, there's a lot of good stuff out there too. We need to be wise in what we post and how we post it, modeling how to integrate our faith in with our lives.

Third, while social media is no replacement for in-person contact, we need to remember the power of social media to help us stay connected in times when we ordinarily wouldn't be. A very powerful example is when a congregation's high school seniors leave for college. In the past, we'd have to wait for breaks to see them again and catch up, perhaps sending a letter or a care package once in a while. Now, all it takes is a "like" on a picture they posted, and they know that someone from church is thinking about them...or jotting a quick note on their wall. Or sending a private message if they posted about breaking up with their girlfriend or bombing a test just to check in and show support. 

I have a real-life example of this sort of thing. Back in 2010, the young man who had been my congregation's seminary intern the previous year was killed in the earthquake in Haiti. Ben Larson was one of those people who was beloved by pretty much everyone who met him. At the time he was with our congregation, I was the youth director, and he and I had become good friends. We had worked together closely in a number of areas, one of which was the Confirmation program. When the earthquake happened, I was at Luther Seminary for my January on-campus intensive courses, and even in the midst of my own grief I felt horrible guilt that I wasn't back home to be there for the congregation's youth who had looked up to him so much. So I took to Facebook. I posted a message in our youth group page inviting anyone who needed to talk things through to do so, and did the same on my personal wall. I'm getting teary-eyed right now as I remember this, because thanks to Facebook I was able to have conversations with some of my church kids, and even more importantly, they were able to minister to each other. One such exchange was so powerful, in fact, that I cut and pasted it into a Word document and saved it to my computer just to keep for future reference. I'm going to post it here...all the names have been changed (except mine and Ben's). I didn't fix any of the misspellings or grammatical mistakes, either...this is the way the conversation transpired with me and 3 high school freshmen:

I don't see why this had to happen. Ben was such a great person, why did he deserve this?
Yesterday at 9:03pm ·

It's not freaking fair.
Yesterday at 9:05pm

Matt're right. It's not fair. It sucks, and there's no getting around that. Ben didn't deserve this. At times like this, all we can do is cling to God's promises, trusting that God loves us and is mourning alongside us, and remembering Romans 8: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." That's the kind of love that Ben lived his life knowing, and spent his life showing to those around him.
Yesterday at 9:50pm

Jane, he's touched so many lives, and still is. I know he's touched mine. While I was crying in English randomly when Ms. Smith had to bring up Haiti I texted Tom and we were talking and I told him how I can't help but be angry with God. And Tom said at one of the confirmation meetings Ben said when you are at your low points in life that's when you get closer to God. I know am, and times like these are our true test of faith.
Yesterday at 10:29pm

Mary, you're so right. God doesn't give us those low points in life, but God does work through those low points, helping us remember that he's with us through it all...good and bad. And so often, it's those low points where we lean on God the most and draw closer to him.
Yesterday at 10:36pm ·

We are all going to miss him so much. And this tragedy will bring us closer to God, and be a major point in our faith stories.
12 hours ago

I'm so proud of all of you guys right's important to ask these hard questions, and it's important to support one another through the pain and anger and sorrow and grief that we're all feeling. That's part of "living among God's faithful people." You are living that out.
12 hours ago ·

Thanks so much, Matt. I really do feel like we are all supporting one another and it's really great to know who's all behind us. I sometimes forget were not alone in this world. And Tom, your completely right.
11 hours ago

And Jane, sorry for flippin out at lunch today. Apparently, you and I grieve differently and I just didn't know how to handle it. I was angry when I found out then sad the next day, and I just didn't want to talk about it. Sorry.
11 hours ago

Its totally cool Mary. We all have our own way of grieveing. Mine is talking about it and just letting it go. And your right tom, this would be a big part in our faithstories. but i just didn't want to say it when i was 14. I wanted it to be when I was older and i could handle it a lot better. Matt, I just don't see why this all has to happen. He waas working for him the whole time, and he made him die while he was in the middle of serving him. It's not fair.
4 hours ago

Jane...I completely share your anger at the unfairness of all of this. But I don't think God made him die. I think God is right beside us, grieving the loss of one of his greatest servants on earth, but reminding us at the same time that he's already overcome the power of death. It's times like this where all that stuff we talk about in Confirmation actually make a difference in the real's not just church talk. These horrible, awful things that we see happening, our pain at losing our friend, our knowing that there may be as many as a half million other stories in Haiti just like this one...THIS is when the cross makes a difference. THIS is when the promise of resurrection, and Jesus' promise that he will ALWAYS be with us in Matthew 28 all make a difference. It doesn't take the pain away, it doesn't make things any more fair, but it gives us hope when life seems to be at its darkest.
3 hours ago

I have always thought it was church talk. Your right. Now is the time to do all that. It's just really hard for me to deal with something like this.
3 hours ago

Jane, I don't want to give the impression that I'm calmly sitting here hugging the cross nicely with a warm fuzzy feeling. Like you (and so many others) I'm dazed, bewildered, angry, and heartbroken...and I am clutching so fiercely and tightly to the cross and God's promises because there's honestly nothing else I can hold on to in the face of all of this.

I'm glad you're able to be so open about how you feel, because I'm sure there are plenty of others who feel the same way and haven't been able to (or haven't felt like they should) put words to it.
3 hours ago 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks

In my previous post, I reflected on the opportunities for and implications of participatory knowing through the many new digital, online tools available to us.  A major potential difficulty, especially with tools that often rely on the written word such as Facebook and message boards, is the possibility of misunderstandings due to the limitations of writing. When we speak, we can use verbal and non-verbal cues to help illustrate the intent of what we're saying. We might use hand gestures or facial expressions, or raise or lower our volume or's the stuff that we do almost unconsciously to create meaning.  When we write, so much of that just isn't available to us.

While the issue itself isn't a new one, some of the implications are still things that we're living into as people who are figuring out what it means to cultivate relationships online. In a hyper-connected environment like Facebook for example, it's easy to make a comment that some of your Facebook friends will understand in the way you intend, but others may not have the contextual background information needed for the meaning you mean to imply, or may just misunderstand your happens all the time. It's more significant in these online communities specifically because of the very word "community." For those of us using an online presence as a tool for helping cultivate faith communities, there's even more at stake as there's the very real possibility of a part of the body unintentionally causing injury to another.

So...the thing about the punctuation marks. I ran across this funny article, but as with much humor, a large part of why it's funny is because it deals in the reality of who we are. The author makes a "modest proposal" of introducing 8 new punctuation marks to written English, to help alleviate some of the problems I've mentioned. It's definitely worth a read, and can be found here.