Last week Dave Foslien and I attended the first of six retreats for congregations looking towards renewal, these conferences are hosted by our synod, and are aimed at helping congregations work towards growth, diversity, and engaging in God’s work in our communities.
Our synod is just beginning this process with 13 congregations, and they are calling it, “The Imagine Project”, inspired by Ephesians 3:20, that God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask for or imagine.
It was two days that filled me with hope, with excitement, and with a curiosity – we don’t know what the next retreat will hold, and we are still beginning to imagine what God is already working towards here at Bethany.
What stood out for both Dave and I from this last weekend was an emphasis on sharing our faith stories. That this is not something we often do. We might invite our friends or family to come with us to our church, we might invite others and say, “the music is really wonderful”, or “the people are so welcoming and amazing”, or maybe even “you have to check out our new pastor, she has green hair!”
It’s a bit easier for us to share our church.
But it’s not as easy to share our faith. Our faith feels more personal, sometimes it might even feel embarrassing or awkward, what if the person we are sharing with thinks we’re silly, or weird, or worse?
And of course, because this was a retreat of pastors and lay church members curious about renewal, part of the process was sharing a faith story with someone you know there at the retreat.
And also of course, because this was a retreat filled with Lutherans, the leaders gave us a list of prompts for us to start with.
The prompts were things like:
Remember a time that was particularly difficult, painful, or traumatic. How did you feel God with you?
Was there ever a time you felt God was speaking to you through another person?
Have you experienced a particular time of prayer that was very meaningful?
Tell about a time of forgiveness or reconciliation. Or maybe share A time when you created a new thing, idea, event, etc. How was God involved?
And several other helpful ways to begin thinking about stories of faith and sharing those stories.
And even though the only person I knew was Dave, and he already knew a large part of my faith story from being on the call committee, and even though I tend to share a lot of myself and especially a lot of my faith – even with all this working for me, when I turned to Dave to share I was nervous.
So I made him go first.
And I was so grateful to hear one of his faith stories, that he welcomed me into that space.
And so I shared one of my stories of God’s presence with him, and even though I was nervous, and I felt awkward and kind of like a weirdo, it was a really awesome experience to get to share with him.
I tell you this for multiple reasons – 1. Because as Bethany looks to become a renewing congregation I want to share whatever we learn with you, and 2. Because there is a faith story I want to share with all of you, one that makes me feel nervous and awkward and kind of like a weirdo.
Because the truth is, this sermon was put together around 2am Thursday morning. I’ve done some editing since then – after some much needed sleep of course.
But that night I had been trying to sleep for several hours, and sleep just wasn’t happening – I was beginning to think it would never happen.
And I think a big part of why I was struggling to sleep is because I spent far too much time on Facebook Wednesday night, which is a very dangerous endeavor.
And I know many of us are sick of this election season, and I am included in that, but I hope you’ll let me share this story of my faith.
As I read through posts of many of my friends and family celebrating this week, I also watched many of my friends lamenting, grieving, and hurting.
And so as I desperately tried to fall asleep, what kept me up wasn’t an excitement or a lament on the election results, but on not knowing what to say.
And I struggle, because as a pastor I believe that I am called to serve all people, regardless of political opinion. I live in the middle land where I witness both, I witness joy and hope for change, and I witness mourning and concern for the future. As a pastor I am in the center, because God loves everyone.
And this is a struggle for me, because sometimes, and especially this week, it means I don’t know what to say.
And I really just wanted to go to sleep.
So I started praying and counting. Trying to combine counting sheep and praying to God for help, so it kind of becomes like counting prayers, it’s weird I know. And in times when I can’t sleep I often pray – “God grant me your peace. Grant me your calm.” So that night it became, 1 God grant me your peace. 2 God grant me your peace. And so on.
Somewhere around 130, (I know, it’s a weird process), somewhere around 130, it became 131 Lord make me an instrument of your peace 132 Lord make me an instrument of your peace
And that became my mantra, the introduction to the prayer of St Francis. The reason this is a faith story for me, is that when I got to an embarrassingly high number I realized that the Holy Spirit was poking at me, that I felt calm, I felt God’s peace, but I was not going to sleep any time soon – it was time to work on my message for this Sunday.
Because today’s text from Luke is one filled with hope and filled with fear. This is what we call apocalyptic Scripture. And we have this kind of text every year around the end of this church season.
In Greek, apocalypse means to uncover, to open eyes, and Jesus’s words are meant to open the eyes of the disciples. Jesus’s disciples are celebrating the might and beauty of the temple, and Jesus tells them that not one stone will be left upon another.
Jesus moves into this apocalyptic tone, to open the eyes of the disciples, to uncover for them that when they lose their place of worship, when times are confusing and difficult, when they are arrested and persecuted because of Jesus, in the midst of all this chaos and craziness – Jesus tells them in Luke 21:13 – This will give you an opportunity to testify.
This will give you an opportunity to testify.
Even in the midst of difficulties, in the midst of confusion, in the midst of all this apocalypse that Jesus describes, he gives his disciples a clear message.
He tells them that this is an opportunity. To share your stories, not just to share yourself or your church, but to share Jesus with others. To share your faith with others. To share love with others. To share mercy with others. To be witnesses in this world. And in doing all this, share Christ in this world.
And so from the middle-land that your pastor lives, in that difficult place, I nervously share this faith story with you, this awkward, sort of weird experience I had of God in my prayer, and this is message that I have struggled to share:
For those of you who are celebrating, who are hopeful, who are dealing with confusion from friends or family who are grieving, I am hopeful with you, you are not alone in your optimism, I care about you, and I will be fighting for you however I can, and praying for you every step of the way. You are a beloved child of God.
For those of you who are hurting, who feel as though they are on the outside looking in, who are looking for hope in a time that is uncertain, I am looking for hope with you, you are not alone in your hurt or your fear, I care about you, and I will be fighting for you however I can, and praying for you every step of the way. You are a beloved child of God.
God loves everyone, the entire world, and God has called me to love my neighbor, and you are my neighbors, my brothers and sisters, fellow children of God. The Gospel is for all of us. Jesus went to the cross for all of us. Jesus rose from the dead, conquered sin and death, Jesus did all of this for us, so that we might not be afraid, so that you can know that you are loved, that you are cared for, so that knowing this, no matter how you are feeling this week, this will give you an opportunity to testify. To testify to what Jesus has already done for you, for me, and for the entire world. To share your story, to share your faith, to be an instrument of God’s peace.
Thank you for letting me share a part of my faith with you. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify.
I invite you to pray with me the prayer that the Holy Spirit poked me with this week – the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Readings for this week: Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19