Tag Archive | presence

3rd Sunday of Easter, 2017

3rd Sunday of Easter, year A, preached 4/30/17

first reading:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

second reading:  1 Peter 1:17-23

There are times in our lives when we’ve all faced disappointment.  Deep disappointment.  Sometimes that disappointment is also accompanied by a loss of hope.  I think I can safely assume that most of us also have gone through periods of hopelessness.  I know I have.

Disappointment and hopelessness can lead to profound grief over what “could have been.”  But grief can also lead to disappointment and hopelessness.  Grief can be the cause or the result.

For our disciples this morning, grief was the cause.  This was just a few days after the crucifixion.  They had lost Jesus.  They had been in Jerusalem, where just the week before Jesus had entered triumphantly to “Hosanna’s.”  A week before, filled with hope.

Now they were leaving, filled with grief.  And this grief wasn’t only for the loss of a teacher.  This was grief for what they had hoped Jesus would bring to their people.  As they would tell the “stranger” walking with them, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

They “had” hoped.  Hope in the past tense.  Hope gone.  They were grieving the loss of Jesus, but they were also grieving the loss of hope.

I can only imagine their disappointment.  Their teacher dead, hopes crushed.  The believers hiding and dispersed. I’m sure they felt like God had abandoned them.  They obviously thought there was no reason for them to stay in the holy city.  And so they were walking away in grief.

Pastor Robert Hoch of Baltimore writes, “There are some walks that are longer than others – not because of the miles or even because of the landscape, but because of the burdens…”¹  And into this journey, which Pastor Hoch refers to as a “walk of hopes in shambles” comes a stranger.

They were “talking and discussing” and this man they didn’t recognize asks them a question:  “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

One of the disciples, named Cleopas, basically says, “What rock have you been hiding under?  How could you NOT know?”  To which Jesus basically answers, “Then tell me.”

And Cleopas does.  Cleopas pours his heart out to Jesus the stranger.  Most telling is his account of the empty tomb.  He and his companion know about the women finding it empty, they know about the “vision of angels who said that he was alive,” but it seems they couldn’t bring themselves to believe it.

Then it’s Jesus’ turn to talk.  First we need to understand that when he calls them “foolish” – what he really means is “thoughtless.”  He isn’t calling them stupid or rejecting them.  He’s pointing out that their hearts have been “slow” – they’re not connecting the dots.  So he does it for them.

The Word proclaims the word.  Jesus “interpreted to them the things about himself…”  Then after the Word proclaimed the word, Cleopas and his companion implored the stranger Jesus to stay with them. They were living the gospel of Christ – loving their neighbor by showing hospitality.

Then in the breaking of the bread they saw the stranger for who he was.

Grief turned to joy!  Hopelessness to purpose!  Disappointment to mission!  Back to Jerusalem they go to share their experience!

All along, even when they were disappointed and hopeless and filled with grief, and even in their confusion, the Savior was with them.  They just didn’t realize it.

Their words are telling.  And they tell us where WE can find the Lord when WE feel lost, disappointed, hopeless, confused or grieving.

Their hearts were “burning” while Jesus preached, and then recognized him in the “breaking of the bread.”  How Lutheran of them!  This is “CHURCH” for us – where the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered.²

Often when we hit rough patches in our lives, when nothing seems to be going right, when we feel hurt or betrayed or abandoned, when it seems to be one thing after another, we might doubt God’s presence or even existence.  Or we might not doubt God’s presence but doubt God’s LOVE for us while we’re deep in our troubles.

This is precisely when we need to be reminded that we are NOT alone, that God not only exists but is indeed “with us” – Emmanuel – in the midst of all our mess.  And “church” is the best way we have to get that reminder.

Church – where we hear the Word proclaimed, the uncompromising unconditional love of Jesus who gave his life for us, not because our lives are great, but precisely because they are NOT.

Church – where we receive the sacraments of love – the covenants – that God has made with us. Baptism, when we are marked with the cross of Christ forever; and Holy Communion, when we receive the new covenant in Christ’s blood.

God gives us the gift of Jesus and Jesus gives us the gift of the Word and Sacraments, so that our hearts might burn too, and realize his presence with us.

Mosaic, 6th century

The Emmaus road is a hard road to walk for any of us – but even there, especially there, Jesus shows us that he is with us, just as he was with Cleopas and the unnamed companion.

It’s true that sometimes Jesus feels like a stranger to us.  We feel alone – hopeless and grieving.  But even when we don’t see him he is there.  Even when we don’t recognize him he is holding us.

And while the Church isn’t always perfect, indeed is NEVER perfect, the Church is still the place “where two or three are gathered”³ that Jesus promises to be.

Where we are reminded explicitly that God loves us and is with us no matter what.

Where we are reminded that our hope is ETERNAL life, but also that God holds us and walks with us in THIS life too.

This is our Easter hope.  Alleluia.


¹source:  Working Preacher commentary for Easter 3, year A, 2017, at WorkingPreacher.org

²Augsburg Confession, article 5

³Matthew 18:20



This post is part of my reflecting on the 20th anniversary of my ordination this year…

Part of seminary education in my denomination (ELCA) is called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Usually this is a summer spent working as a hospital chaplain.  CPE is intense.  You are being a hospital chaplain, but you are also part of a group of others doing their CPE along with you and you meet constantly to debrief your experiences.  In a hospital setting you’re confronted left and right with life and death decisions, with life-altering and devastating illnesses and accidents, and there is grief and pain mixed with joy and relief all around. It’s good to examine your own stuff while you’re confronting other’s stuff – so that you don’t confuse your stuff with theirs (or at least learn to recognize it when you do!).

Most of my day-to-day chaplaincy work was done on general medical floors.  Every once in a while we would help cover for each other if one of us had to be out, and we ALL took turns being on-call since this hospital had a chaplain available to patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  We had an on-call room to sleep in just like doctors – and we all prayed when it was our turn that it would be a quiet night.  It never was for me.  Not only that, but every single time I was on-call I was paged to be with the one “set” of patients I dreaded the most – the children.  Every single time. Without fail.  It’s never good when the chaplain (or any other care provider) is paged at 2am.  But when I would look at the number paging me and realize it was from one of pediatric units (Peds, NICU or PICU) I would just feel sick to my stomach.

The encounter that has stayed with me the most all these years is with a baby named Amanda.  Amanda was almost six months old but had never left the NICU.  She was born quite premature and had multiple problems.  Her mother and father, maybe in their mid-twenties, had just gotten the bad news that Amanda had yet another brain bleed and they wanted to talk to somebody.  The nurses explained to me that Amanda’s prognosis for survival was extremely poor, and that the parents were trying to process the information.****

I shook in my shoes.  Before I could be present with them I had some serious praying to do for myself. Obviously there was nothing I could say that would make this better.  Their little girl was dying, and they were trying to process this news.  What was there to say?

I went over to them and introduced myself.  I let them share with me what they were able to process to that point (sometimes it takes a while for news that tragic to sink in.  That’s another thing pastors do – journey with people as they unpack the realities of life and death).  I understood more than they were able to what was happening, but you can’t push people.  I met them where they were, just as God meets US where WE are.  I told them I was sorry for what they were going through, with what Amanda had gone through in her short life.  I looked at their little girl, obviously very sick, but still so beautiful, and told them that God was with them no matter what.  I told them that God had been with them all along, and that God would continue to be with them in the uncertain future.  They were not alone, even if they felt that way.  That it was okay to question, be angry, be weak, to cry, to scream – God would never leave.  My prayer with them was that they would feel God’s love embrace them and their daughter even in their pain.  We sat together for a long time, touching Amanda, touching each other, with a lot of silence.

Some people call this kind of ministry the ministry of presence.  Meaning, there isn’t anything concrete “to do.” You’re “just there.”  It’s hard to just sit with that kind of intensity.  It’s frustrating for a pastoral person who naturally wants to do something.  You feel helpless and useless, like you’re doing nothing.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  I don’t know what happened to Amanda or her parents. But I know how I have felt when on their end of grief and sorrow.  I know what it’s like to feel alone, to grieve, to doubt, to be sitting in the patient’s or family’s seat in the hospital – and I know it’s NOT nothing to have another human being sitting beside you.  It can be a huge comfort.  Having a physical pastoral presence to represent God’s presence with us is NOT nothing.

Amanda was my first serious experience as a future pastor with the ministry of presence.  It’s still not easy even all these years later.  It’s not supposed to be.  But it’s important to remember that it’s NOT nothing.  Thank you Amanda.  You helped this person be a better pastor.

it's not nothing

it’s not nothing

****This is where ministry takes place.  This is when you want people to realize that sending their money to some televangelist so he can buy a new jet is just GARBAGE.  This is when you want people to realize that buying the best-seller of a preacher living in a mansion is just GARBAGE.  Amanda and her parents are ministry.  THIS is what regular everyday pastors are called to do day in and day out.  We brave the 300 pound gorilla in the room, which is death.  We sit with people as they mourn and doubt, as they question their own worth, struggle with addictions, sickness, anger, depression.  We hold hands with those who bury their children and lose their homes and can’t put food on the table.  Next time you think about sending a check to a “mega-ministry” half across the country, think of the church down the street whose pastor probably makes pennies, but whose doors are always open when you need a hand to hold.  Just my two cents…


Everyone’s Pastor

photo(11)When I was ordained almost 20 years ago, I was ordained to serve a specific congregation.  A pastor, however, is NOT just a pastor to one particular group of people in a particular place – when one is ordained, one is also ordained as a pastor of the Church.  That’s Church with a capital “C” – the universal Church.  I serve a congregation, but I also serve the Church, which is everywhere and everyone.

This week I was contacted out of the blue by a woman who is battling leukemia, but it appears she is losing.  She doesn’t belong to a congregation.  It’s been a while since she’s been to church.  But she is baptized, was raised Lutheran, went to a Lutheran school, and feels Lutheran at her core, so she sought out a Lutheran pastor and found me.

She’s afraid.  She has questions.  She has doubts.  She wants to live, but wants to plan her funeral.  She is weak and immune compromised and cannot leave her house, so she asked if I would come and speak with her.  I don’t know her.  She is not a member of the congregation I serve.  She is not a member of ANY congregation.  What do I do?  I go and visit because as a pastor of the Church with a capital “C” I AM her pastor.

Sometimes pastors can lose sight of the fact that we’re not just called to a congregation, or a synod (or diocese) or even a national denomination – but the people – ALL the people, in our buildings and out of our buildings.  This means we get calls from funeral homes to officiate funerals for folks we don’t know, who for whatever reason want a Christian funeral even though they didn’t belong to a congregation.  It means if we’re in public wearing the “collar” we can get stopped by anyone who wants to talk about anything – complaints about religion, questions about faith, even outright confessions.  I’ve run into all of these experiences in my almost 20 years in the ordained ministry.  It is part of the profound honor of serving Christ in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

I will be visiting with her again, because now, even though we only met this week, I am her pastor.


***Of course, all the baptized (not just pastors) are called to minister to one another.  Each one of us is called through baptism to offer support, comfort and the Word of the gospel to those we meet.  But there are times in a person’s life when they desire someone to provide counsel, spiritual guidance, the comfort of the sacraments, and the confidentiality that the office of pastor brings.

In the end

A member of my congregation entered the Church Triumphant early this week.  He was elderly, his body was failing him, he was receiving hospice care.

One of the more daunting tasks of a pastor is to journey with people through illness and death.  It’s a terrible privilege.  Terrible because of the circumstances – terrible to be surrounded with grief, sadness, anger, doubt, fear.  A privilege because you are allowed into to a sacred moment, where time almost stands still, where no one questions what is most important, because it is clear then what really matters in life.

Many people run away from scenes of death and dying as fast as their legs will carry them, and it may also be the first instinct of the pastor as well (we are human after all).  But it is our call to enter into that space and provide the presence of God (not to BE God, but to represent faith, to be a sign that God has not and will never abandon us).  Even after more than 19 years I struggle to find the words to say, though I know better.  What matters then is the ministry of presence, of just BEING with another, because there really is nothing to say to make the situation better, to make the pain go away, to truly ease the fears.

In the end these are the things that matter: loving, being loved, a smile, holding hands, a hug, making a connection to another – BEING together.  That is “wonder”ful, powerful, mysterious, and holy.  It is how God is with us through the incarnation of Jesus, and what we are called to be for one another.