It turns out that there is a treatment for the cancer in the choir, one that Janice Porter hadn’t thought of. The prescription came from an unexpected source and needed a boost from a triumphant saint, but so far it seems to be working. Prospects for healing are excellent!

Based on Matthew 18:21-35

21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. The “God’s Work, Our Hands” event last Sunday went pretty well though some of the traditionalists didn’t care for the disruptions in the scheduling. They like things to be pretty much the same from week to week and this felt disorderly, almost like no one was in charge, and for a few it actually felt chaotic. They weren’t sure of where they should go or what they should do…a few of the older folks just went to worship, had a cup of coffee and then went home to watch the Cardinals, which in reality probably counted for most of their grumpy mood the rest of the week. Lacey Zeiner was pleased…with three different sites it was hard to keep a finger on things but the major goals were accomplished…there was cleanup at the Preserve, repair at the playgrounds, and thousands of meals were prepared for the hungry at Feed My Starving Children. She even got a nice letter from the Mayor of Gilbert expressing his gratitude and thanksgiving.

The week was spent in the usual planning and programming that goes on during the busy times of the year. Snowbirds aren’t back yet but numbers are up and everyone is appreciating the possibility of cooler weather ahead. Janice Porter had been really down at the start of the week…Pastor Baldridge knew why…but she really didn’t feel free to share at the staff meeting. Even though she felt the pain of the cancer in the choir it wouldn’t be helpful to make it public…at least she didn’t think so. So she suffered mostly in silence…though Pastor Baldridge did give her a hug after the meeting…he had assured her that he would be praying for her and the choir.

So Wednesday she was dreading choir rehearsal…all she could do was imagine who the person was who had done such a hurtful thing. But she’s a professional and she was ready with all folders prepared and distributed on the chairs. Members strolled in by two’s and three’s and by 7:30 they were ready for warm-ups. She had just begun working through scales with them when the door opened and Andrew Briggs walked in with a big smile on his face, saying he was sorry to be late. She was so startled that it threw her off…and she forgot she hadn’t put his music folder out…she just didn’t expect to see him. But it was no problem for him….he found his place among the tenors and joined in the warm-ups. So far as she could guess from the smiles on people’s faces everyone was glad to see him. When they were ready to start working on the pieces Andrew just went and got his folder…no big deal was made of it…even though it was missing some of the songs. He just looked on with Sean O’Conner who happened to be standing next to him.

Janice’s mood changed instantly…it was as though a dark cloud had been lifted and joy restored. The rehearsal went very well…and the blending was wonderful. When it was over she couldn’t believe it…the time had flown by. Andrew had sung with enthusiasm, a big smile on his face the whole while, and his presence had lifted everyone. She wanted to talk with him afterward, but one of the needy altos had a question, and he got away.

The next day she sent him a text telling him how happy she had been to see him…and he had replied, “no happier than I was to be there.” In the course of their texting she set up a time to meet with him late Friday afternoon at a coffee shop. She was so curious about what had happened.

When they had ordered, gotten their drinks, and sat down Janice again told Andrew how happy she’d been to see him, that she hadn’t expected to see him back. “What happened?” she asked.

Andrew said, “Credit Fred with this one. I’d been grousing around in a terrible mood and saying that we needed to find another congregation when he sat me down for a little face to face. Basically, he…the one who’d always struggled with faith…called me back to my basic beliefs. He reminded me how important grace and forgiveness had been in my life and asked why I wasn’t willing to draw on those basic principles now. Of course I had an answer for him….I’d be very willing to forgive if the offending person would come to me and repent of what had been done. But in lieu of that action…my hands were tied. I’d just have to leave the choir. Which is basically what I had told you.”

“So what did he have to say to that?” Janice was curious. She too had thought that reconciliation was impossible without a confession.

“Well, Fred’s a kind of newcomer to faith,” Andrew said. “And he’s got some different ways of looking at things. He told me that I was giving the offender all the power….and that really forgiveness didn’t begin with him, but with me. He said that one of the things that he liked about our congregation was the fact that it was grounded in pure grace. He reminded me that Pastor Baldridge is always talking about a spirit of forgiveness that under girds everything we do and say together. In his eyes that meant that we would never wait to extend forgiveness to anyone….that forgiveness would be the benchmark for all that happened. In other words if someone sins against us, we instantly tap into that spirit of forgiveness…if later that person said that they were sorry we’d be able to say that they were already forgiven. But Fred’s last point was the one that turned me. He said that he had learned among us that God’s forgiveness and love is always present…even in the midst of our sinning. God doesn’t decide to forgive us over and over…it’s already been done…even before we ask for it.”

Andrew paused for a moment….he had tears in his eyes. He continued, “I was so proud of Fred…he had nailed it. Even though I was the one who had gone through confirmation and been raised in the church….I had never seen it so clearly as he did. Then he said that since I loved singing so much I should go back to the choir with a spirit of forgiveness in my heart…and just see what happened. So I did. I don’t think I’ll ever get an apology…but that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned he’s forgiven.”

Now Janice had tears…she had new admiration for Andrew. She didn’t know if she’d be able to do what he had done. She’s always thought of forgiveness as being contingent on confession in our relationships….even though she knows that’s not the way it is with God. In fact sometimes she’s even had trouble forgiving when people have asked for forgiveness…it’s never been that easy for her…she’s never forgiven her ex-husband for walking out on her when Lacey was a baby…and she doesn’t know that she ever will. Andrew’s given her a lot to think about. She asked, “So how was it at choir? You had a smile, but how did you feel?”

Andrew said, “It wasn’t easy…that’s why I was late. I was sitting out in my car before the practice…but then something happened. I saw what appeared to be an old woman sitting out on that bench in front of the church. She was watching me…and then she stood up and motioned to me, it was as though she was beckoning me to get out of my car and come in….so I did. And when I got to the bench…no one was there! I went on in then. You welcomed me and so did everyone else. It was so much fun to sing again.”

Janice breathed under her breath, “Thank you, Myrtle!” She would have to tell Pastor Baldridge that Myrtle was still working her magic out on her bench. She’d tell him that when she reported on what Andrew had told her about forgiveness. He might even be able to work this idea into a sermon sometime.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are faithful, the men are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

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Well, it finally happened. There’s an issue at Crown and Cactus and there isn’t a good way to deal with it. It seems at least one of the good people there has some homophobic feelings…and under the surface it’s causing some real pain.

Based on Matthew 18:15-20

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Now that the Labor Day weekend is over the fall program can begin in earnest, but first comes the day of service, God’s Work, Our Hands, that is scheduled for this Sunday. Word has gone out to the congregation via email and members are being given three different options for work. Everyone will meet at the church where there will be a worship service and childcare options. After the worship people will be given instructions and directions to the site where they will be doing the work. Some will be doing cleanup at the Riparian Reserve, others will be fixing up some playground equipment at one of the elementary schools, and the rest will be at Feed My Starving Children preparing meals for the hungry. All the arrangements were made by Lacey Zeiner and she has, as usual, handled the details well. She even was able to get people to respond in a timely fashion so she could make the work assignments. Even though it seems chaotic to Pastor Baldridge, she assures him that everything will run smoothly…she even has contingency plans in case it rains.

Janice Porter has been meeting with the choir on Wednesdays for the last couple of weeks and has gotten in some good practices, though they won’t be singing until the 17th. Her numbers are down this year and that has been a concern. At first she thought it was just because people were out of town but then as she’s made some contacts it appears there have been some hurt feelings. This isn’t unusual among musicians but this year there is a bit of an edge to the under-currents and she discovered that there has been at least one major issue. She had missed Andrew Bates last spring…she had seen him at worship with Fred, his husband, but he had quit coming to rehearsals and he didn’t sing at Pentecost. They were gone a lot during the summer but she had thought maybe he’d come back to the choir this fall…so she had sent him a special invitation telling him how much she missed him. Andrew’s response seemed evasive to her and she followed up with a phone call. Again he seemed to walk all around the issue and his reasons for not singing seemed inauthentic. Finally she arranged to meet him for coffee.

Andrew greeted her warmly and they spent some time talking about the trip they had taken back to Missouri for a high school reunion…a big deal for them because Fred had been with him and he had introduced him to his classmates as his husband. Most were okay with that…though some had a pretty cold response. Janice told him how much she missed him in the choir and he smiled wryly without saying anything much. Then he said, “I miss the choir too.” There was a pause…Janice sensed he had something else to say. Then he said, “I promised Fred I wouldn’t say anything…but I don’t think it’s right to not tell you what’s going one.” He sighed deeply and went on.

Andrew told Janice that there had been an incident during the rehearsals for the Good Friday cantata. He had been given one of the solos and he sensed that there was some jealousy, though nothing was said. Then the week before the performance, he had gone to get his music folder, and when he had opened it up there was a note on a small piece of paper. It had been typed in capital letters and said, “YOUR KIND AREN’T WELCOME HERE!!!” Andrew had been shocked, but said nothing to anyone, though he showed the note to Fred. He had sung in the cantata but the experience had poisoned his feeling about the choir…and he had decided not to come back.

Now it was Janice’s turn to be shocked…she had not dreamed that there were some who felt that way in her choir. She had never noticed a thing, and had in fact  been proud of the way Andrew and Fred had been welcomed in the congregation. She asked if there had been any other notes. Andrew said that there hadn’t. Then he had paused and said, “I think I know who it was.”

Of course Janice wanted to know who…but Andrew wouldn’t say anything. He said that he didn’t have any proof…but that he had a feeling, the kind of sixth sense that gay people have about things like this. She insisted that he tell her but he wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t budge. He just said that even though he loved to sing he didn’t want to cause a problem in the choir. Andrew said, “We’re not leaving the congregation…yet. But we might start looking…there could be another place where people don’t have these kinds of issues.”

Janice left the Starbucks with a sick feeling in her stomach. She couldn’t believe that Andrew had gotten a note like that…oh she knew he had…but she couldn’t imagine who might have stuck it in his folder. In her mind she ran through the members of the choir…how could she look any of them in the eye again without wondering? They had a practice on Wednesday evening…but her heart wasn’t in it. Could it be one of the tenors? They would have the most reason to be jealous. She didn’t think any of the women would have done it.

Thursday she took her problem to Pastor Baldridge. She started to cry as she recounted Andrew’s story. He said, “Did Andrew say why he suspected some particular person?” Janice only replied that he had refused to talk about it…just that his suspicions made it impossible for him to feel comfortable around this person.

Pastor Baldridge said, “These things are so destructive for the community. Even if Andrew doesn’t come back the choir will never have the same unity it once had. There will be an undercurrent of resentment…even if no one knows what it is about. Prejudice is like a cancer. I wish I knew who it was.”

Janice said, “If you did know, what would you do?”

Pastor Baldridge said, “I’d do what Jesus advised, I’d go to the person directly and confront him or her. I’d point out the difficulty just between the two of us.”

“And what if he admitted it? What would you do then?” Janice pressed him. “Would you tell me to kick him out of the choir?”

Pastor Baldridge shook his head. “I don’t think so…I don’t believe that kicking people out of a congregation or a choir is the answer to anything…though sometimes I suppose it might need to happen. I just want people to love each other…and not hold prejudices…and forgive. That’s what I hope would ultimately happen.”

Janice didn’t know that they were getting anywhere. As long as they didn’t know who had written the note there really wasn’t much they could do. She said, “I guess the only one who could actually do anything is Andrew…and he isn’t interested in trying…’cause he doesn’t know for sure.” She started to cry again…finally she said, “I didn’t think mythical congregations had problems like real ones…this just sucks!”

She was right…it’s an awful situation. Relationships are crucial within the community of faith…and when they get messed up, the whole body suffers.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the women are faithful, the men are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

Brad Zeiner has another uncomfortable conversation with his father…the latest in a long series. His strongest desire is to be a follower of Jesus…and his dad just doesn’t see the point of self-denial.

Based on Matthew 18:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. In fact, it has been exceptionally quiet! The Sunday of Labor Day weekend is not known for packed pews…so many are away on their “last gasp of summer” holidays…and generally there are no classes or other activities scheduled. At Crown and Cactus Pastor Baldridge has often used this day to focus on vocation and has asked members to talk a bit about how they see their job or profession as a mission from God. Response to these “lay sermons” has generally been overwhelmingly positive and he’s been wondering why he didn’t schedule speakers for this Sunday too.  He doesn’t have a good answer to that…he just didn’t think of it…and when he did ask someone on Monday…at the last minute…they were already going to be out of town. So folks will just get him this weekend…and he’s working hard on a sermon. He wants it to be a good one so that those who skip worship will be disappointed that they missed out when they hear how good it was from those who came. They still haven’t gotten around to recording sermons and putting them on the website at Crown and Cactus…if a person want to hear what’s said, they have to be there!

Brad Zeiner had a slow week…there were no youth meetings scheduled…and he and Lacey are going to be among the absent ones on Sunday. They’re driving up to Sedona to do some hiking for the weekend…they got a screaming deal at an Air B&B for two nights. Lacey has things pretty much worked out for the “God’s Work, Our Hands” activities on the 10th so she was free to go too. He did have lunch with his dad at the Golf Club in Mesa on Wednesday. He opted not to golf but he did meet him there at 11:30.

Brad has been connecting with his dad periodically through these last months…there’s been a lot of healing in their relationship. And of course it helps that his dad just adores Lacey…he always makes embarrassing comments to her, like “I know you could have done better than Brad…I’m glad you chose not to. Still don’t know what you see in him when you could have had anyone.” He means the words as a joke and doesn’t realize how cutting and demeaning they are to Brad…but that’s just how he is.

The Golf Club in Mesa is very nice, gated, with an attendant on duty to monitor those who come. Brad is always embarrassed by his old beat up car…he’s always resisted his dad’s offers to but him something nicer…and he has never been at ease in the dining room either. It’s quite nice and the servers all treat his dad with great respect…and he responds with an easy familiarity. On Wednesday his dad had arranged for just the two of them to eat together, a signal that he had important things to say to Brad. The hostess had shown Brad to the assigned table, brought him water and a menu, and he waited while his dad freshened up in the locker room…it had been a hot morning. He looked around at the other diners…men like his father…only a few women…everyone had a certain air about them. This was their space…their place to hang with their peers. There was loud talk…raucous laughter. Every part of the room oozed with a scent of wealth and privilege. Brad felt like an outsider…like he didn’t belong…and truthfully he didn’t.

His dad joined him with a smile…he’d had a great round and was in a good mood. He addressed the server as “Sweetheart” and ordered a drink. They talked for a bit before ordering…Brad got a club sandwich while his dad asked for the special…a barbecued pulled pork that he said was always delicious. When their food came his dad steered the conversation to a discussion of Brad’s future…a topic that almost always came up. He just couldn’t understand why Brad refused to get a “real job,” as he put it. He’d offered many times to pull some strings and find a slot for Brad in some lucrative business, something in finance or banking. And Brad had always put him off.

Brad said, “I know you don’t understand, Dad. My plans don’t make sense from the perspective of our society and culture. I know that you and your friends have done well in business, that you could easily retire, and that you have plenty of money.  You enjoy your travel…and I know you love this club. According to the world’s standards you have it made.”

His dad interrupted, “And what’s wrong with that?”

“There’s nothing wrong….it’s just that, well, it’s had to explain,” Brad struggled to find the right words. “It’s just that…I want to be a follower of Jesus!”

His dad said, “Good…do that…but why can’t you also get into business?”

Brad answered, “I suppose I could…but it’s pretty plain that the way of Jesus is different from the way of the world. He said that it involved self-denial…and taking up the cross. He said,” the words came quickly now for Brad, “he said that those who lose their lives will save them, and asked what a person would profit if they gained the whole world and forfeited their life. I think about these things all the time. I really want to live, Dad. And that means saying “no” to a lot of the things that you value. I’m sorry…..I hate saying this to you. It makes me seem so judgmental.”

His dad said, “Well, it really does…but then I’ve spent your lifetime judging you…so maybe we’re even. I just don’t understand.” He looked around the room and gestured with a wide swing of his arm, “What’s wrong with this world?”

Brad said, “This is going to sound harsh. This is a pretend place….it’s based on wealth and status…and I don’t feel comfortable here at all. I want to live among people where I can relax and laugh and feel joy in relationships….a place where humility is the prime virtue and people aren’t always showing off for each other….a place where power and privilege aren’t the main objectives…and where everyone supports and loves one another.”

His dad was silent…he didn’t get Brad at all. Signalling that the conversation was over, he called over the server and signed the check. He asked, “What are you doing for Labor Day?” adding with a bit of a sneer, “Going to church?”

Brad said, “Actually we’re going up to Sedona to hike…I think we’ll worship at the church up there on Sunday. We’ve got a great deal on an AirB&B.”

His dad frowned, “You know I’ve got a timeshare up there, you could have stayed for free.”

Brad said, “I know…but it’s so opulent. It’s just not who we are.”

The two of them pushed away from the table. Brad thanked his dad for the lunch…and they went their separate ways.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

 

 

 

 

Harold Reed is on a mission. Because of what happened in his daughter’s life he is determined to figure out who Jesus really was. So far he’s done a lot of reading…now he moves on to a last resort…conversation with a pastor…and ends up back where he started.

Based on Matthew 16:13-20

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. In a couple of weeks the program will be back in full swing and there’ll be a lot going on…but now not so much. Oh, Stacy Thorsen, the Sunday School superintendent, has been busy lining up teachers for the fall session and so far she’s had pretty good luck in recruiting. This year she’s focusing hard on teacher training and has already had a couple of workshops to help her volunteers learn how to plan lessons and handle difficult children. She’s long felt that we do folks a disservice with our “anyone can teach” attitude and that churches should learn lessons from public schools about classroom management and expectations. Since churches only get kids for one hour a week they need to be especially mindful of what’s taking place in the classes. She found a couple of master teachers from a nearby elementary school and is having them serve as training guides for her volunteers. So far it’s gone well…her recruits are appreciative. Next she’s going to put together a program for an individual faith development plan for every child in the congregation. That will involve meeting with parents at the time of a baptism and putting together an learning plan that will continue all the way through confirmation. Parents make promises at the time of baptism…and so few follow through. Stacy is convinced that with some intention a program can be put together to help parents keep promises. Pastor Baldridge agrees with her and has been encouraging, though privately he does have his doubts. There are just so many factors that keep congregations from doing the things that schools do. And for one reason or another parents are pretty disinclined to do much about faith development.

Harold and Marge Reed have been at worship the last couple of weeks with their daughter, Kendall, mostly at her insistence, but also because they’re trying to come to grips with their own faith struggles. They’re pleased that she seems to have found some grounding in her life but are uncertain about what they believe. Harold in particular has been doing a lot of reading about Jesus and has explored a couple of different books. One in particular called “The Zealot” gave him a lot to think about and he made an appointment with Pastor Baldridge to talk about it. Rather than meet in the office at church they got together at Einstein Brothers, a coffee shop out in the San Tan Village area.

After some conversation Harold brought out the book and asked if Pastor Baldridge was familiar with it…which he was. He’d read it a couple of years ago. “Well, what did you think of it?” Harold wanted to know.

Pastor Baldridge gave it a solid review…he didn’t remember a lot of the details but in general he had been impressed with the scholarship, though it hadn’t really laid out any ideas he hadn’t already seen in other places. The book had mainly gotten a lot of attention because the writer was a Muslim…and that had been upsetting to some folks. They didn’t think a Muslim had any busy writing about Jesus. He told Harold that he’d even thought about using the book for a study at the church.

That surprised Harold. He personally believed that the book undermined Jesus  with its purely historical focus on his ministry. He wondered if the things that the book had said about Jesus hadn’t served to diminish Pastor Baldridge’s faith. Pastor Baldridge laughed. He said, “Oh, I’ve read all kinds of books like this. People have been curious about Jesus for a long time and many have speculated about what his actual story might have been like. We have the gospels in the New Testament but they’re not historical works…that wasn’t the intention of the writers…so we don’t really know much about Jesus….just some teachings and parables….and then the accounts of his death and resurrection. There are a lot of gaps. So, quite logically, modern scholars have tried to fill in those gaps with their own speculations, mostly in an effort to answer their own questions about who Jesus really was. Some of what they write is helpful and interesting…and so I read the books.”

“But aren’t you curious about who Jesus really was?” Harold’s big question remained.

Pastor Baldridge said, “Oh, sure I am…people have always wondered that. There’s even a story in Matthew about their questions. Jesus asked his disciples who people said that he was. And there were a lot of possibilities mentioned…John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets…people were wondering then, just like they are now. That’s why these modern scholars write their books. All they manage to do though is add one more thing to the list of possibilities…wisdom teacher, zealot, Essene, apocalyptic preacher. I think it’s funny. In essence they end up with an image of Jesus that makes them happy personally…probably someone very much like themselves. We love making Jesus according to our own image!”

“But who do you say that Jesus is?” Harold persisted.

“Funny,” Pastor Baldridge said. “That’s exactly the question that Jesus asked his disciples.”

“And what did they say?” Harold had been reading books about Jesus but he hadn’t gotten around to the gospels yet…or he likely would have known.

Pastor Baldridge did a bit of teaching, “Well, Peter, speaking for the rest of them, said that Jesus was the messiah, the son of the living God, and Jesus gave him an A plus for his answer. The thing for us to remember is that Peter’s answer was based on faith and nothing else…no one can prove him right or wrong by exploring historical options.”

Harold seemed to understand  and then said, “Okay, that makes sense. I’ve got one more question for you, ‘Who do you say that Jesus is?’ and how did you figure that out?”

“Fair enough,” Pastor Baldridge said, “I’m with Peter on this one. I believe that Jesus is the man through whom God is revealed. He is the messiah. Like Peter I believe this by faith…I can’t prove it, nor can anyone else. But because I believe this I have chosen to live my life as a follower of Jesus. I base my life on the principles that I find in his teachings….and I believe that he lives in and through me today! So far in my life I’ve been happy with my decision…I certainly don’t regret it.”

Harold was silent for a time. Finally he said, “Okay…what if I can’t make that statement now? What should I do? I’m the sort of person who needs proof, not faith.”

Pastor Baldridge said, “If you’re wanting proof of a scientific nature…well, you’ll be waiting a long time. If you’re wanting a more durable proof, just look at your daughter’s life. It seems to me that Kendall has made a decision about Jesus…and it seems to be serving her well. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a person more filled with joy.”

Again, Harold was silent. What Pastor Baldridge had seen in Kendall was true. She had been transformed. Was that proof enough for him? He just couldn’t say. Finally he smiled and said, “You’ve given me a bunch to think about. This Jesus question is going to be on my mind…and I’m beginning to understand that the answer isn’t going to be found in some book.” And with that the two men went on their way. One to continue following Jesus, the other to continue an ill-defined search.

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are committed, the women are faithful, and the children are all growing in grace.

 

 

Not everyone was happy with Pastor Baldridge’s comments about hate and free speech last Sunday in the course of his sermon. One of the offended came to see him in his office and accused him of liberal bias.

Based on Matthew 15:21-28

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Planning continues for the fall program and people are starting to drift back for worship services now that school has started. Back packs were blessed a couple of weeks ago and even last Sunday a couple of children with backpacks in hand wandered in wondering if blessings were still available…and of course they were. Lacey Zeiner has been contacted about finding a site for the “God’s Work, Our Hands” mission Sunday in September and she has been busy doing some investigations for most of the week. It’s something she enjoys, and she’s certainly good at it. She has contacts at most of the service agencies in the East Valley and on Tuesday she met with the volunteer coordinator at Save the Family. They had a great conversation and Lacey came away with some ideas for congregational involvement in helping to renovate some of their rental properties. But she doesn’t have a definite plan yet, one that the council could approve and support.

In the meantime Pastor Baldridge has been been trying to figure out a way to address the escalating tension that has been gripping the country in the wake of last week’s  Charlottesville confrontation. He had mentioned the incident in the course of last week’s sermon and could sense that he had struck a responsive chord. Many people had indicated that they were repelled by the growth of hate groups and their openness in pursuing a racist agenda. One man said, “The KKK used to cover their faces and wear white robes and only come out at night. No longer! People seem to be proud to identify with their anti-Semitic rhetoric and promotion of Nazi propaganda…and no one covers up anymore. They’ve gone mainstream.” But some weren’t so happy about what he had said. One of them, Ralph Mogen, came by the office on Wednesday to register his protest.

Ralph had been offended by Pastor Baldridge’s words. He believes that the whole brouhaha was concocted and promoted by the liberal media and that the prime instigators in Charlottesville were those who clashed with the white supremacists. He told Pastor Baldridge that if his sources weren’t so slanted he’d have a more open attitude. He said that obviously the man shouldn’t have driven his car into the crowd and that it was too bad the woman was killed….but the bigger question revolved around why she was even there. “If she’d stayed at home,” he said, “she’d never have been hurt.”

Pastor Baldridge was gentle with Ralph. He knows that the changes of the last few years have been hard for a lot of people and Ralph has by nature always been pretty conservative. He doesn’t believe Ralph thinks he’s a racist…so he mostly just listened to him. After a bit they got in a conversation about Black Lives Matter…and he tried to explain why some people are offended when folks say “White Lives Matter Too.” They talked about slavery and Jim Crow and segregation. Ralph believes in the whole concept of “Separate but Equal,” and thinks the world would be a lot better off if the races weren’t mixed. He thinks God made people of different colors and intended them to stay true to their color…like a rainbow he said.  When Pastor Baldridge asked if he thought White people were superior he said that in general, yes. There were some smart people of other colors but in general history has proven that the White race is significantly better….except in sports he said. He believes that Jesus intends for people to take care of their own kind first…and that we shouldn’t try so hard to reach across God’s barriers.

It was a long conversation. In many ways Pastor Baldridge was surprised by Ralph’s beliefs and convictions. It was as though he had never heard, really heard, a single sermon in all the years he’d been attending Crown and Cactus. He decided to try another tack. He said, “You know what, Ralph, I think that at one point in his life Jesus probably agreed with you. He would have been on your side.”

Well, that did take Ralph by surprise all right…and he didn’t quite know what to say. Pastor Baldridge took advantage of his silence by explaining. He said, “I’ve been working on the sermon for Sunday and looking hard at the text from Matthew about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. It seems to me that through most of his ministry Jesus believed that he had been sent only to the Jews and that he shouldn’t have anything to do with any who weren’t Jewish…at least all of his contacts with such people were pretty much accidental. But then one day something happened to change his mind. And what happened was that he ran into a protester, a foreign woman, probably an immigrant who started following him and his disciples around and irritating them with her cries for help. She knew Jesus had healing powers and she had a child who was sick. So she staged her own little protest rally and insisted that he pay attention to her.”

Ralph was familiar with the story but he’d never heard this slant before. Pastor Baldridge continued, “Finally she got Jesus’ attention and even though he at first refused to help, she insisted that he do something. She really laid it on the line with him. And so he granted her request…he healed her child and he praised her faith.”

When Ralph didn’t interrupt he went on, “This incident was remembered by the disciples who were there and as time passed the whole Jesus movement opened up to the Gentiles…it wasn’t just for the Jews anymore. It was for all who were in need regardless of the color of their skin or their racial background. That’s why I can’t be silent about what happened in Charlottesville. I have to speak out. There are many problems in our country and people of every color and race are being affected…there’s poverty and crime and want wherever we look. And we just can’t allow one race or group be blamed as the cause. That’s just not right. We are here as followers of Jesus, not to erect barriers but to tear them down. I have no doubt about that at all and I will continue to speak against hate and bigotry as long as I have breath in my mouth….And I love you, Ralph!”

This had been a pretty passionate speech for Pastor Baldridge and his fervor carried the day. Ralph probably wasn’t convinced by the debate but he can’t deny that Pastor Baldridge’s convictions arise from scripture and not from the liberal press. When he stood up to leave he shook Pastor Baldridge’s hand and thanked him for listening…and for loving him, even with his contrary opinions.

For a long time after Ralph left Pastor Baldridge sat quietly. He was shaken by the depth of his feelings…and amazed at the clarity he’d expressed about the nature of the Canaanite woman’s protest. He knows now what he’s going to talk about on Sunday. The sermon title will be “The Woman Who Changed Jesus’ Mind!”

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are committed, the women are faithful, and  the children are all growing in grace.

Kendall Reed and Eileen Roth went to pray on a mountain top and failed to take note of gathering clouds, a recipe for disaster in Arizona’s Rim Country. It turned out to be a life defining moment for them both.

Based on Matthew 14:22-33

22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Attendance last Sunday was on the low side as families continue to use the weekends to escape the heat. The council met on Tuesday evening and talked about some possibilities for the “God’s Work, Our Hands” service project scheduled for September. A couple wondered if this were going to be a yearly thing, and if it were, how the interest could be sustained. So often activities like this get a lot of attention the first time around but then, as the novelty fades, participation drops. Last year’s event at the Mesa Women’s Shelter had been a huge success and had even sparked continuing involvement by several members of the congregation. Pastor Baldridge reckoned that yes, it is hard to sustain interest in anything, but it’s hard to gauge interest beforehand, so it made a lot of sense to keep doing the projects. Post-event evaluation really was the key. He did point out that some things do develop a life of their own…like the youth mission trip…and that was because participants kept on changing. No decision was made about a project…all felt that the advice of Lacey Zeiner should be sought…she has a pulse on the community like no other!

Monday evening the Reed family rolled back into town from their Rim trip to lake country. It had been quite the adventure! After the miraculous feeding of the families Harold and Marge had hoped for some days of rest and relaxation and maybe a little fishing with the girls. That worked pretty well on Saturday…it was a fun day…and they had a fish feast on the beach in the evening. This time with no visitors. But Sunday morning Eileen Roth wanted to go up on the mountain across the lake to pray and she invited Kendall to go along. She actually invited Harold and Marge to go too but they begged off…it seemed like a lot of work just to find a place to pray.

The girls set off in kayaks across the lake and found a trail that seemed to lead up the mountain. There were a lot of switch-backs and one spot where they had to walk on a log across a small ravine. It took longer than Eileen had thought to reach the top of the mountain…really a large hill, but it did provide a scenic overlook in all directions. The girls took some time to catch their breath in the cooling breeze while taking in the incomparable view of the valleys and ridges leading away from the Mogollon Rim. “Isn’t this awesome,” Eileen said as they gazed into the distance, paying little attention to the building clouds. “I just love it up here…it sounds silly, but I feel closer to God.”

Kendall had to agree. It was beautiful and she was glad she had come along. Eileen had brought along snacks and plenty of water and they found a good place with shade to sit for a time. She brought out her bible and read the assigned gospel text for the day, the one about Jesus walking on the water. They talked for a bit, looking down on the lake they had just crossed. Kendall asked, “Do you believe that Jesus really walked on the water? That just seems impossible to me. It’s those kind of things that keep me from really trusting the bible.”

Eileen said, “Oh, I don’t know. It is a part of the story that has been passed down, but I don’t think that’s the story’s point. If it’s about Jesus walking on water…well, big deal. What does that have to do with me? Faith is more than believing that Jesus did impossible things. I think this story is about Peter. He was actually doing it until he looked down and saw the waves. That’s about us. We could do so much…but we lose confidence…and then everything falls apart.” The girls talked about that for a while, how sometimes it was harder to believe in themselves than it was to believe in God. Kendall has really struggled with her self-image through the years, trying on all kinds of personas, and being unhappy in each. One of the things she admires about Eileen is her incredible self-confidence. She is who she is and is content.

Eileen laughed when Kendall told her of her admiration. She said, “Well thanks….but I’m just being who God made me to be. I’m just being myself.” Then she said seriously, “I think my faith has a lot to do with my confidence…I’ve always trusted Jesus…ever since I was a little girl.” As they talked about faith and what it means to be a follower of Jesus…along with a lot of other things related to being ready to go to college and guys they had known…they didn’t notice that those white puffy clouds had darkened and that the breezes had picked up. They were jolted back to reality by the sound of rolling thunder in the distance.

Eileen looked over her shoulder…the sun was still shining where they were…and said that they’d better get going or they were going to get wet. They picked up their bottles and litter, put on their day packs, and started down, first heading in the wrong direction. By the time they found their way some time had passed and as they hurried along the first rain drops began to fall and lightning flashed behind them. The winds increased and it grew dark and cold. It should have been easier going down hill but they kept sliding and stumbling, helping each other through the steep spots. It began to rain heavily and they were getting soaked so they stopped in the shelter of a ledge to wait out the storm. They were wet and out of breath…their hair a mess…and they laughed as they waited. Soon water began running down the trail and they could see the dust and dirt turning to mud before their eyes…but at least they weren’t getting drenched anymore.

Finally the rain let up enough for them to continue. It was really slippery on the trail now and they walked along the edges where the traction was better. When they came to the small ravine with the log across there was now a small creek that seemed to rising as they watched. Eileen said, “We’d better cross now or the water will wash away the log and we won’t have any way to get back.” With that she got on the log and walked carefully across. When she got to the other side she turned and told Kendall to come. But Kendall was afraid. She hesitated, started, and then stopped. She said, “I can’t do it!”

Eileen said, “Of course you can. You just did it a couple hours ago. Just don’t look at the water.” Kendall started again, inching her way across, balancing herself with her arms. The water was rushing by in a torrent, lapping against the bottom of the log. She got to the very middle, Eileen encouraging her with every step. Her muddy shoes slipped, she gasped and looked at the water and fear paralyzed her. An instant later she fell, the water swallowing her up and rushing her down the channel. Her head was underwater when she felt something grab her arm. It was Eileen, reaching out from the bank and pulling her to safety. When she felt the solid ground beneath her she burst into tears and Eileen held her cold shivering body close. “You’re okay,” Eileen whispered. “You’re safe now.”

The girls quickly got back to the beach where they’d stowed the kayaks. The sun was out again but Kendall was still shaking from fear and cold. She’d had a close call. “I was afraid,” she said to Eileen. “I had no faith in myself. It was just like we were talking about….you saved me.” And she sobbed uncontrollably. Eileen didn’t say a word, and hugged her until the tears stopped. When Kendall thought she was able they got in their kayaks and paddled back across the now calm lake to the camper. Marge and Harold were glad to see them…while it hadn’t rained much at the campground they had seen the downpour on the mountain. They wondered why Kendall was soaked while Eileen was relatively dry but didn’t ask…and the girls didn’t say anything. This was their story and their adventure….it would be hard to describe to parents. When they had gotten into dry clothes Kendall and Eileen walked along the side of the lake. Kendall didn’t know what to say to Eileen. She stopped and looked her in the eye. “You saved my life,” she said.

Eileen smiled. “Use it well,” she said, “use it well!”

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are all growing in grace.

Harold and Marge Reed got their daughter, Kendall, up on the mountain for the weekend with the intention of starting some deprogramming. But Eileen Reed comes along and nothing turns out as planned. The girls’ compassion leads to a miraculous feeding…and the Reeds don’t have an answer.

Based on Matthew 14:13-21

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

It’s been a quiet week at Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, that little congregation over between Mesa and Gilbert and Chandler. Pastor Phil filled in admirably while Pastor Baldridge was on vacation, but now he’s back and things have returned to normal. Some families are back from their summers away and many children are back in school, but Sunday School hasn’t started yet. No matter how many times the council talks about changing the schedule to reflect an early “back-to-school” practice in the community, parents seem to like easing into the learning at church, and there won’t be any Sunday morning children’s activities until the last Sunday in August. And nobody is losing any sleep about it…it’s just the way it is!

Jennie Craster was at the office early on Pastor Baldridge’s first day back. She wanted to check out some possible changes with the altar guild, but most particularly she was wondering if he wanted bread smells in the sanctuary this coming Sunday as a complement to the gospel reading about the feeding of the 5000. They had done this quite successfully a few years back for the “I am the Bread of Life” texts in John with the actual baking of bread in the kitchen and fans to move the smells along. She had seen that it’s now possible to buy aerosols that smell like baking bread…it would be a lot easier just to spray them around the whole interior. Pastor Baldridge appreciated her innovative spirit…but he just didn’t think it was the same. He told her that one of the charms of that Bread of Life Sunday had been the availability of loaves for people to take home. So they just dropped the whole idea…though they will bring 5 small loaves to the altar during the offertory for use during Holy Communion.

Harold and Marge Reed had appreciated their talk with Brad and Lacey Zeiner last week about their daughter, Kendall, and her mission trip experience. They were hoping that some of her initial zeal would wear off and she’d come to more of a balance in her spiritual life. They decided to take her up on the Rim for the weekend and camp at one of the lakes. They have a nice camper and managed to get a good spot at one of the campgrounds. Kendall was reluctant to go…she had planned to do something with Eileen Roth, her friend from the trip, and only agreed to go when they said that Eileen could go along. They drove up early on Friday afternoon, got the camper set up, and the girls spent an hour or so paddling around the lake in a kayak.

While they were out they spotted some people camping in tents some distance down the shoreline…and it looked like there were several children playing in the water. Something about the kids sparked a memory of their time with the Hopis…they were Hispanic and were shouting to each other in Spanish. After telling Harold and Marge where they were going, and getting reluctant permission, the girls went to check them out. There were actually a couple of families in the group and, after introducing themselves, they asked if they could play some games with the children. Both Kendall and Eileen are reasonably adept in Spanish and it didn’t take long for them to get everyone playing. The kids touched their hearts and it was so much fun. They chatted a bit with the parents and discovered that they were from Mexico and were headed north to work in the Colorado orchards. They were camping because they couldn’t afford motels, but their car had broken down and now they were stranded. Kendall and Eileen were so engaged with their story…and they were wondering how they could help…and they didn’t notice that time was passing. Soon it would be dark.

Harold came looking for them and announced that dinner was ready. He’d caught a couple of fish and Marge was grilling them. The girls were reluctant to leave. They asked what their new friends were having for supper. A woman shrugged and said their food was gone…all they had left was a few crackers and a little bread. Kendall said, “Why don’t you come and eat with us? We’ve got plenty.”

Harold interrupted her with a glare, saying, “We don’t have nearly enough for all these people, Kendall. We can’t feed everyone.” He took her aside and whispered to her, “What’s gotten into you? These people are probably illegals…we should be reporting them, not feeding them.”

Kendall pulled away from her father went back to the group and said, “Bring everyone…we’ll share your bread and we’ve got fish.” And with a look at her dad continued, “we’ve got plenty of everything.”

As it turned out there were other people in tents hidden in the woods, and they all came! Dozens of them! When the little army approached the Reed’s camper, Marge looked up with alarm. All kinds of warning bells were going off in her head. She wondered if her husband had brought his gun along…surely he had, he never went camping without it. Kendall marched up to her mother and said, “We’ve got guests for dinner, Mom,” and, with Eileen, began introducing their new friends. The girls told everyone to sit down on the grass and went into the camper to get paper plates, utensils, and glasses. Marge and Harold didn’t know what to do. They weren’t used to having their daughter take charge of things and couldn’t find words to object. This wasn’t at all what they had planned for the weekend.

One of the Mexican women approached Marge with a smile and offered the bread she had brought over. Marge took it vacantly and just held it…she didn’t know what to do. Even with the bread there wasn’t nearly enough food for all. But the girls kept going in the trailer and bringing things out. They got the fish from the grill and potato salad from the cooler. They set it out and people came and filled their plates. The children ate first, and then the adults. There was iced tea and lemonade…and even watermelon. And all ate and were satisfied. It was an amazing meal. There were even left-overs, which the girls packed up in a couple of baskets and sent home with their guests.

Afterwards, when everything had been picked up and put away, Kendall and Eileen sat on the shore looking over the dark lake. They were talking about how neat it had been to be able to feed the families…and how they wished there was always food enough for everyone. Eileen said, “There’s no excuse for hunger in our world. God has given plenty of food…but our distribution system is all out of whack. I think it’s one of our missions as followers of Jesus to get that straightened out…or at least try.”

Kendall agreed. She’s been learning so much in these last weeks, first at the reservation and now in this experience at the lake. She never dreamed how much  her life could change in such a short time….she’s rethinking all of her priorities. Things will never be the same again.

Harold and Marge sat in the camper for a while before going out to join the girls. They’ve got a lot to talk about too. Marge still can’t believe that all those people got fed…she just hadn’t brought that much along for the weekend. She’s beginning to think that whatever has possessed her daughter…it’s pretty powerful…and a good thing!

That’s the word from Crown and Cactus Lutheran Church, where all the men are faithful, the women are committed, and the children are growing in grace.