New life, new hope

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — As we have described in our recent church newsletter and also in our weekly TAB email, your Pastoral Search Committee is hard at work. The eight Committee members and I are reading a book that will help us lead guided conversations with you all about your expectations about the responsibilities and behaviors of your next pastor. Called “Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together,” this book describes how, in the pastor-congregation relationship, there are not only certain responsibilities and rights of the pastor, but there are also certain responsibilities and rights of a congregation. What can you expect of one another in the years ahead?

Today’s scripture reading from Luke raises some perplexing questions about the responsibilities and rights of all of us, the expectations of us as followers of Jesus. To put it bluntly, are we supposed to be raising people from the dead, like Jesus did? This is one challenging story we just heard. When the Wednesday Bible study group and I finished reading it out loud earlier this week, we looked at each other and simply said, “Wow…what on earth do we make of this?” Two different crowds of people approach a city gate in first-century Palestine. A large group of disciples and followers of Jesus, headed into town. A large assembly of mourners, headed out of town to the place of burial. Before attempting to believe this story, let’s see if we can first imagine it.

Tall columns define the city gate and people are trying to push through the narrow opening. Voices clamoring, hot sun, swirling dust and sweat and animal smells fill the air. “Hey, what’s the slowdown?” someone yells. People jostling, straining to see what is going on. And in the silent vortex of all the commotion: a grieving widow who has lost her only son. That must be her child, the dead man, being carried on a funeral bier. Can we see the mother’s tear-stained face in our mind’s eye? Jesus notices her immediately. A word about widows in this culture: besides orphans and maybe lepers, there was no group more disenfranchised and marginalized than widows in ancient society and in some parts of the world today. In a patriarchal culture, if your husband dies, you and your belongings are placed under the “protection” of his brothers. If your brother-in-law dies, you can keep your land and home only if you have a son who will inherit them. It’s no wonder that prophets throughout Israel’s history would judge the nation and the king’s leadership based on how well they actually cared for widows and orphans.

The woman has not only has lost much; she is lost. Jesus apparently reads all of this in a flash and is overwhelmed with compassion. But his next move is so unexpected that the pallbearers skid to a halt, and stand frozen in disbelief. Breaking an important purity law of the day, Jesus touches the bier carrying the dead son, calling out: “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

This is the same Jesus who, weeks before, had enraged his home synagogue congregation with references to the breaking in of God’s reign and justice. Why were they angry? He referenced the prophet Elijah resurrecting a dead body some 800 years earlier: a child of a Gentile widow. Ancient Hebrew prophets spoke truth to power of their day and also healed people on the margins of the community. Jesus’ synagogue listeners felt insulted by his implication that they do not care for the widows and the marginalized. They tried to run him out of town and off a cliff.

But provocative Jesus is at it again, enacting in front of this huge crowd the prophetic signs of the in-breaking of God’s reign: the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the poor hearing good news and the dead being raised. Suddenly we have an alive formerly dead son, one startled mother and a stunned crowd of onlookers. Everyone is pretty freaked out by this turn of events. Jesus is proclaimed a prophet and word about him spreads throughout the region.

But really? Dead people coming alive again? Full disclosure: your pastor does not know how to raise people from the dead. My pastoral care training in seminary did not include a course on “Raising the Dead 101.”  And believe me, there have been several occasions in the last few months where I sorely wished I possessed this spiritual gift. For many of us here today, we have personal stories of miracles that did not happen, of cures that were not found, of damage that was, in the end, not undone. Experiencing this disappointment and sorrow in our lives and those of others, how do we make sense of biblical stories like this?

Biblical scholar and United Church of Christ theologian Walter Bruggemann has written extensively about the Hebrew prophets. He describes how the prophets’ essential challenge to those in power was that things could be “otherwise.” I wonder if this is how new life and renewed hope takes seed in our hearts. We hear or see or are pushed towards a new possibility in our lives. Perhaps it is something that was unimaginable before that moment, and we see that things can be “otherwise,” that something in the mess is being resurrected. Something might shift in how we picture God. Perhaps we begin to imagine an alive, compassionate God who is more interested in healing than in deadening punishment. Or, stuck in our despair, and feeling cynical about things ever changing, we may catch a glimpse of a decisively different way that things might turn out. We engage it. Resurrection living.

I attended a meeting of some local churches and public school principals the other day, sponsored by a group called Sheridan Story. This nonprofit organization partners with community groups to provide supplemental weekend food for kids with limited family income. Our church now sponsors three such students each week at Falcon Heights Elementary School down the block, and we’ve been collecting cereal and snacks to also tuck in the weekend backpacks. At this meeting, the school principal, Beth Behnke, told us that they had a history at her school of canned food drives to support local food shelves. Last year, at the end of the food drive, a young student approached her and quietly asked, “May I take a few cans home to my family for the weekend?” All of a sudden, Principal Beth began to imagine “otherwise.” How could kids from her neediest families have more food through the weekends? I would call this resurrection thinking on her part. She imagined what might be “otherwise.”

Bruggemann notes (“Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha”) that in healing the widow’s child, the prophet Elijah “enacts otherwise, showing that the world could be and would be different, concretely, decisively different.” A world where marginalized widows and their sick sons are provided for with food and community. He notes that it is no surprise that Jesus reminded his followers of the stories of Elijah: “When the early church pondered Jesus,” writes Bruggemann, “cadences of Elijah rang in their ears, because they sensed that Jesus was an enactment of a dangerous, healing, liberating otherwise that could not be stopped.” Bruggemann challenges us “to reconstrue our own lives out beyond the closed definitions we have too long inhaled.”  Don’t “accept the given,” he enjoins us; “seek otherwise.” (p. 27)

In our story from Luke, we see Jesus also taking a huge risk, this time of ritual impurity and rebuke, as he reaches out to touch the body of the dead man. The prophet Elijah healed through fervent prayer and full-body physical touch. In Luke’s telling, Jesus heals with mere words: the command to rise. The similarity of Elijah’s healing with Jesus’ dramatic act is not lost on these two different crowds colliding at the city gates. The young man is up and talking. Awe and fear seizes the onlookers; “They glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’”

I suggest we watch for God’s “otherwise” this week. Be on the alert for that alternate vision of how things might be, close by and far away. This is resurrection living, where we accept both the right and the responsibility as followers of Jesus to help bring about transformed people and changed communities. Yes, life alternates between joy and sadness, gain and loss. But how might we each practice resurrection, new life, together? Ours is to give testimony to the otherwise: to God’s saving, healing possibilities. Amen.

A barbecue and a blessing for the homeless

June 2, 2016 — Former youth group members Mitch Rose, Emily Hill, Robyn Holmes and Laura Wilberts joined members of this year’s senior high group for an end-of-season barbecue and to help wrap up the youth Blessing Bags project. Along with Joe McCune-Zierath, Erin Hill and Kevin Holmes (and advisers Paul McCune-Zierath and Michelle Vance), they filled 50 plastic bags with items the youth have been collecting for homeless people, including bottles of water, energy bars, emergency blankets and bus passes.

The Blessing Bags will be dedicated and distributed to the congregation this Sunday, June 5. The bags are meant to be kept in the car and given to homeless people who ask for help on the street. (Photos by Michelle Vance and Pastor Anne Swallow Gillis)

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Expectations: Search committee seeks our input

June 2, 2016 — We are finding we are a very diverse group with different experiences in this congregation. The book is guiding us to identify our questions around the covenant with our future pastor. Similar to an individual entering a marriage covenant, a trust in the unknown future is required, as well as mutual support and the promise to be in communication together as needs change through time. This committee feels the weight of the work ahead as we discern the truth of our call for a new leader.

We have also discussed what ordination means in the pastoral-congregation relationship and how do we support an ordained person who is “set apart” to do God’s work. This has led us to develop questions for the congregation as to what expectations we have for our pastor and what expectations we have for ourselves as a congregation. Answers to these questions will help in the development of our church profile.

We will be looking for involvement in guided conversation groups, similar to those from the discovery process, during worship over the summer and fall. Summer dates for these groups are three Sundays: June 26, July 24, and Aug. 21. Please join in conversation with us! We also plan to collect ideas by other means from those who are unable to be present during these dates.

–By Jenica Domanico, co-chair

The contour of faith

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — Jesus, a Roman military man and a household slave. This is another one of those odd Biblical mini-dramas: For starters, we never get all the actors in the same place at the same time. Somebody is always offstage. Then we have people who keep speaking for each other, almost like a Greek chorus comprised of an unlikely mix of Jewish religious leaders and friends of the centurion who were probably Roman soldiers themselves. Finally, the characters in the story are supporting people they don’t usually support: Jewish leaders speaking well of their archenemies, the repressive Roman Empire’s military; Roman centurions providing financial resources, religious devotion and emotional support of the Jewish community; a slave owner eager to help his nobody slave. Add to the mix: Jesus has been recently preaching about loving one’s enemies. Jews, gentile Romans, bottom-of-the-barrel slaves. Lots of cultural expectations being challenged and societal boundaries being crossed here.

The military officer has a problem: one of his slaves is seriously ill. We wouldn’t necessarily expect this to be of concern for someone of his rank and socio-economic status, as slaves were like any other physical property: If it breaks, you replace it. Slave gets sick and dies, you buy another one. Something unusual is going on here for the centurion to even bother with trying to get his slave fixed.

Jesus himself was known for breaking with convention. Boundaries of class, religion, gender and socio-economic status were permeable to him. In the name of God’s inclusive reign of justice and mercy for all, Jesus freely transgressed these divisions to heal marginalized people and to spiritually challenge the privileged. Word had reached Capernaum, the setting for this story, about Jesus’ forthright teachings, his healing powers, his outreach to those not valued by society. This particular centurion had heard about Jesus. As someone also reaching out across boundaries to the “foreigners” under his domain, the Jewish inhabitants of this region, perhaps the centurion recognized a kindred spirit in Jesus. What enables people to cross a boundary in a stratified society where some are considered worthy and some are clearly not? What enables someone to use his or her privilege of power, wealth, predominant skin color or heterosexual orientation to help someone who is marginalized?  How might this story guide us here?

Jesus arrives in Capernaum, a town near the Sea of Galilee. A military officer sends word to Jesus that his slave is sick. Please, will Jesus heal him? Now the chorus of other characters chimes in to support the centurion’s plea. First the local religious leaders, who seem to fall all over themselves, praising this wealthy gentile. He has contributed to their synagogue building campaign and acts lovingly towards the Jewish people in his community. Are the leaders more interested in fawning over this military officer or do they also have the slave’s physical health in mind? The text is quiet on this point.  But like religious leaders throughout time, they were constantly parsing the question: How far does God’s grace and mercy extend? How open can we be to those who seem to have little value or have little to give in society, in our house of worship? We don’t want to be seen as the “loser synagogue,” or the “gay church,” do we? We are always happy to welcome a young family with 2.5 children, husband and wife who look like they can support our budget. We may feel less welcoming of someone who appears to be living on the streets. What will it look if we welcome and associate with these people?

It’s always this way, isn’t it? For these first century religious leaders, the pull would be between the Jewish Law’s requirement to welcome and help the foreigner, the stranger in their midst…and the fact that all sorts of people were deemed unhealthy for their community. They were to avoid those who worshiped idols, people who were disfigured with illness or deformity, and people who were poor. The great sea of those deemed “unclean” would taint the community’s righteousness (being adherent to the rule of Law) and very well-being as a collective.

Perhaps we can relate. For us it is an ever-fluctuating mix of people-not-like-us. The list probably varies among us, but usually represents people in whose presence we feel most insecure, most wary and afraid. The Other who represents an unknown that covers the gamut of foreignness: strange cultures and mysterious or misrepresented religions, other skin colors, people of other sexual orientations than our own, people with dementia or mental illness, people with gender identities that are other than stated on their birth certificate. All perceived as the Other that we would rather avoid.

What is curious about this story is that the Roman centurion himself represents the Other: not just an “unclean Gentile,” but also the ruling group who will eventually torture and kill Jesus, the Roman Empire. Yet as always, our tendency to separate people out into binary categories of black and white, good and bad, is challenged by the Biblical narrative. In our current political climate, we are being urged to do this kind of moral separating, which is essentially contrary to Biblical principles. What are the cultural assumptions and distinctions that need challenging among us? Categories of good and bad, boundaries of who is included and excluded that we need to face as followers of Jesus? Cultural assumptions that no longer serve, be they about race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity?

This Roman military man was a non-Jew known as a God-fearer. He and other gentiles like him were drawn to Judaism’s moral precepts and worship of one God. They would attend temple services and follow Jewish law…everything except the distinctive marking of circumcision for men. I doubt the centurion’s support of the Jewish community played well in the barracks with his men, nor did it help his reputation with his military superiors. The centurion is part of Herod Antipas’ militia, part of the army that keeps the Jewish community under the repressive control of the occupying Roman Empire. But this particular officer appears to have an unusual relationship with the community under his jurisdiction. And Jesus will say that this man shows us what living faith is really like.

A servant in the centurion’s household is very sick and the centurion is convinced that Jesus will be able to heal him. The centurion has become the slave’s ally, and now he seeks to draw Jesus in as an ally of this marginalized human. But instead of coming to Jesus directly, the centurion makes his appeal through intermediaries in the community. Certainly, the centurion could have simply commanded Jesus’ presence. But the centurion knows and respects the customs of the Jewish tradition: mixing of Jews and Gentiles, in a private home, would render the honored teacher Jesus ritually unclean. This centurion is apparently well-known by the Jewish elders in the community. “He is worthy of you doing this,” the leaders assure Jesus, “…he loves our people.” There is a web of connection that has reached across boundaries and been built over time. Cultural assumptions and fears have begun to evaporate.

Jesus is intrigued and starts heading for the centurion’s home. But before he can arrive to heal the slave, another group approaches, this time the centurion’s friends. Fellow soldiers? Neighbors? Clearly this man has developed deep relationships in this community. And apparently the centurion has had second thoughts. His friends tell Jesus that the man is overwhelmed by his own sense of unworthiness. But the centurion’s reaction is also coupled with a peer-to-peer acknowledgement with Jesus of their mutual power and authority. The centurion’s realm of authority is over the men in his command. This is not a person who is used to asking for help. He tells people what to do. But he has chosen to use his own authority to be an ally for a marginalized and helpless person, his slave. And, the centurion humbly recognizes Jesus’ realm of authority is over a different and far larger sphere. “But speak only the word and let my servant be healed.” And Jesus heals the servant, a nobody slave who has been found to be of value by a whole community. “Jew and gentile, slave and free, all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord,” the apostle Paul would later write (Galatians 3:28).

The centurion acknowledges the privilege of his authoritative resources, and also is humble about God’s greater power through Jesus. This is the shape of faith that catches Jesus’ attention, and we need to follow suit. In the United Church of Christ, we are part of this brave centurion’s legacy. From the fight against slavery to early support of women in leadership, to the ongoing work for civil rights for people of color and for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, our denomination has served as an ally to the marginalized. One person, a Roman centurion with authority and wealth, steps forward as an ally. He connects with Jesus, he humbly partners with Jesus, for the well-being of someone one on the margins. This is the shape of faith, these are its contours, says Jesus. Let’s have some more conversation about how we, like the centurion, might become better allies to those on the margins.  Amen.

Committee plans for congregational small-group discussions

May 25, 2016 — Our Pastoral Search Committee met Tuesday evening, May 24, and members explored the reading they have been doing in “Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors: Covenant Expectations for Thriving Together.” They will use this material in leading small group discussions with the congregation this summer about expectations of our next pastor. These once-a-month discussions will take place in June, July and August as part of an extended Sunday morning worship and exploration process. Also at this week’s committee meeting, members began sharing questions and comments they are hearing from the congregation, and they organized the work to be done on the church profile. Please continue to keep this group in your prayers.

Summer Sundays for kids

The Children’s Ministry Team is excited to announce this summer’s Summer Sunday theme: “All Around The World.” Each week, June 12 through Aug. 21 (except for July 3), we will learn about the deep cultural and spiritual backgrounds of our neighbors, including Somali, Hmong, Karen, Kenyan, Native American, Mexican, Syrian, Jewish, Chinese and Indian. We’ll learn about the foundation, current leaders and important figures of each group’s primary religion, as well as a little about their everyday life, including their holidays, foods, traditions, and games.

The children will join us in worship at 9:30 a.m. for the children’s message and then leave with their teacher for the remaining 45 minutes of worship. Kids of all ages from preschool to middle school are welcome to join us.

The community of God

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — It occurred to me this week that sometimes Jesus speaks like an intentional interim pastor. Did you catch this part in today’s text where Jesus is talking with his followers at what will become their final meal together? “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus had a strong sense of the challenges that lay ahead for those who would follow in his Way of self-emptying love, radical inclusivity, passion for justice. He understood human overwhelm, especially when it is filled with longing, grief and anxiety about the future. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” So often in my interim ministry with congregations, there are things I want to say that people cannot bear. In the churches I serve, I often encounter expressions among some members of longing for the former days, the good old days, in their church life together. Underneath the familiar tales of once-full Sunday school classes, multiple young families, numerous women’s circles, nursery staffed by parent volunteers, members who were really committed to church and filling the pews every Sunday, I hear a deep yearning for what was. I hear grief about what has been lost. The institutional future of church as we have known it is unclear. I have found that no amount of money in an endowment fund can guarantee a church’s vibrant future. People are understandably anxious about this. So often, like Jesus, the thing I want to say, the thing that some people cannot bear, is this: the church you loved is gone. And I often wonder, are congregations ready for, open to the new thing that God wants to build in their midst?

Among my seminary classmates, we have a saying: “The church we were taught to serve no longer exists.” We began our ministries in the late 1970s on the tail end of the great post-World War II Protestant church building explosion. We were trained to craft intellectual lecture-like sermons, to lead huge youth groups and multiple adult education forums, to direct large Sunday School and outreach programs. Church as the center of the community! I think back to that time, which now looks like the technological dark ages: hammering out sermons on a typewriter, using paper maps to get to parishioners’ homes and hospitals, the clacking stencil machine used to produce the worship bulletin. But this was the norm, and church-going was the norm and everyone assumed we lived in a “Christian nation” with shared experiences and expectations about God, civic duty and community participation.

Inexperienced and optimistic, most of my classmates and I were called to churches that were, in reality, slowly beginning to experience drops in attendance and dollars. And through the decades, my clergy colleagues and I have heard an ongoing lament: “The church used to be the center of our lives, there were no kids’ sports on Sunday, and church activities were the focus of our community…like a community center! And people were committed!”

The Gospel of John tells us that on the night of his arrest, Jesus looked around the supper table at the men and women who had been his closest companions, who had listened to him teach, had prayed and eaten countless meals with him, watched him heal and debate with the religious elders. Jesus must have felt really torn, as he sensed his time with them was short. There were many things they just couldn’t bear, couldn’t handle at this point. And so he continued: “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak on its own, but will speak whatever it hears, and it will declare to you the things that are to come.” Once again, Jesus is grappling with simple words that describe a great mystery: this aspect of the divine that has been present at the beginning of creation, God’s spirit, God’s breath, that moved over the watery chaos, this Spirit, this Comforter and Advocate as Jesus would have it, is in me and here for all of you. Guiding us, like a conduit for God’s word of truth. How to imagine this? Like billions of thin filaments of fiber-optic cable, running from God to each of us and between us, weaving a web of sparking connection among all things? Like a vast cloud, an ether, filled with particles of insight, flowing between God to humans? Not really a conduit for discrete facts, but a relational network, humming, vibrating, connecting. A relational community of God, within God the Creator, Jesus the son and the Holy Spirit. What do you see in your mind’s eye? What is the truth about the church that the Spirit can teach us in this time? What will help us bear the bad news about the end of church as we have known it, and welcome the good news of what’s to come?

I recently came upon the writings of a Lutheran pastor in western Canada named Erik Parker. He blogs at a site he calls “The Millennial Pastor: An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church.” What a great image: we’re in the land of the internet and smartphones, but sometimes the church still seems back in the typewriter age! In a recent post called “Why Nothing Seems to Get People Back to Church – the Issue at the Core of Decline,” Pastor Parker unpacks the current debate about young people’s supposed lack of commitment.

We are stuck, Parker contends, with focusing on seeing the church as community, to which we make a social commitment. “Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment,” writes Parker. “The core of churches have been based on the fact that people (were) expected to attend because of societal pressures….These churches did good ministry, … and they were servant communities. But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders (and there are so many new social commitments vying for people’s time and energy), attracting people to a social commitment at church doesn’t work. In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.”

He reminds us how today, both parents work in most families and household duties need attention on weekends. But also, “People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love” for their precious weekend hours. Shared love of sports, brunch, sleeping in, music, time with family, being in the great outdoors. “But what is our shared loved at church?” Parker asks. “Are we just communities to join without a shared passion? If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church. As a millennial,” Parker continues, “I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.” The shared passion church goers are looking for, claims Parker? “My church-going peers are interested in following Jesus.”

“Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team. Now imagine members of that ‘soccer team’ wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.”

This is the news we cannot bear. People are interested in following Jesus, and exploring this beyond simple socializing. And we can’t bear this because, as liberal-minded Christians who have focused on the social aspect of church-going for so many years, we often get nervous around the Jesus talk. His radical call to transformation, to changed lives, is perhaps more than we bargained for. I need to change? You need to change? Maybe we worry this will make us look like judgmental fundamentalists and that we are consigning all non-followers of Jesus to hell. We hesitate to talk with one another about the Jesus who says things like: “The Spirit will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Does it make us squirm, this notion of God and Jesus so interconnected that all that God has belongs also to Jesus? “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you,” continues Jesus. Statements like this make Jesus looks so divine-ish, and maybe we would just rather be Christian-ish: moral, good people who share a sense of civic duty in coming to church.

The Gospel writer John’s community was experiencing something different, something life-changing, something also offered to us in these uncertain times: Jesus’ ongoing, empowering presence and challenging teaching, coming through the presence of the Spirit, even now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

All-church BBQ Sunday, May 22

As school-year activities wind down each May, Falcon Heights Church celebrates the past year and welcomes summer with a barbecue on our patio and a potluck in our Gathering Room. A shiny new grill donated by the Women’s Fellowship will be put to the test. You’re invited to join us at worship at 10:30 a.m. May 22 and stay for the BBQ lunch at 11:30 a.m.

Two outreach projects wrap up May 22

During worship on Sunday, May 22, our children will dedicate their First Hour offerings to send animals to needy families through Heifer International. Adults are also invited to add to their offerings by indicating “Heifer” on a check or offering envelope.

Our Youth Group will also distribute Blessing Bags for us to carry in our vehicles for distribution to people in need.

Rev. Dr. Marion Pocker, former pastor, dies

The Rev. Dr. Marion Pocker, who served as pastor at Falcon Heights Church from 1973 to 1988, died May 4 at Our Lady of Peace Hospice in St. Paul. A memorial service will be held at Olivet Congregational UCC in St. Paul at 2 p. m. Saturday, May 14, with visitation at 1 p.m. We remember his wife, Dorothea, and adult children, Mike and Sarah, in our prayers.