Building Up

This week’s devotion is written by Grace Heimerdinger-Baake, Director of Youth and Family Ministry.

Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

In early May, builders began excavating the land next to our home to complete our housing development. For a three-year-old, seeing a house being built is the most exciting thing ever. We spent hours on the porch and deck watching the dirt be lifted up from the ground and dumped into a pile next to the soon to be built home (thus, leaving a large and deep hole, before the foundation could be laid). 

Now that my three year old has become fascinated over the different types of machinery, I was corrected on the way home from daycare because I mistakenly called a backhoe an excavator. The difference is a backhoe digs by pulling the earth back to itself while an excavator lifts up the earth. 

As I thought more and more about how these different machines dig and remove the earth from itself and how this experience could be tied to the Bible, I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the people of Thessalonica. Paul writes his letter to encourage the community to continue to give comfort to each other and to build each other up as they were experiencing persecution as being fellows of Christ. 

We, too, are called to give comfort to our neighbors and to lift them up as we have been lifted up with the promise of the resurrected Jesus and the new life we have in him. Our acts of comfort may be our silent presence as we listen to our friend’s struggles. We may lift up our neighbor by surprising them with a cup of coffee,  a plate of cookies or a simple wave and hello as we go out to mow the grass. As we lift up and comfort our neighbor, may we share the love of Jesus. 

Jesus, as an excavator lifts up the dirt from the earth, help us to lift up our neighbors in love, understanding, and prayer. Amen. 



make us instruments of your peace.  

The Lord proclaims:

A voice is heard in Ramah,

    weeping and wailing.

It’s Rachel crying for her children;

    she refuses to be consoled,

    because her children are no more.

-Jeremiah 31:15

 

In November of 2020, the ELCA published a supplement to the red hymnal called All Creation Sings. We didn’t purchase any copies at RLC, and I’d understand if you had no idea it even existed. After all, in November of 2020, you were wrapping up a building project, working through a call process, and wondering what Christmas in a pandemic would look like. 

By 2020, the red hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, was 14 years old. The ELCA wanted to offer updated music, liturgies, and prayers, and so All Creation Sings was born. Now, if you’ve ever flipped through the very front of the ELW, you know that there are a multitude of prayers printed in the front, for everything from those in the armed forces to adoption to those suffering from addiction to a peaceful night’s sleep. The intention was to offer prayers so that when words were needed, there would be a ready resource.

In All Creation Sings, the publishers added resources for prayer and lament in the wake of gun violence.

I can only imagine how little the developers of these resources wanted them to be necessary. I know how little I want to need to pray them. I have heard, again and again, the bleak and painful devastation at the news that children have died at school, that shoppers have died at the grocery store, that worshipers have died at prayer. A voice wails out from Uvalde, and from Buffalo, and from Newtown, and from Charleston, and…

When there is no consolation to be had, we cry out to one another and to God. And when words do not come, we turn to the words prepared for just such a time as this:

 

God, giver of life, you intend for humans to live together in peace. In this time of grief over gun violence, we pray for your presence among us. That, trusting in your mighty and gentle healing, we may live in hope, we pray: make us instruments of your peace.

 

God of resurrection, we remember before you those who have died, nineteen children, two teachers, and one shooter. We commend them to your eternal love. Grant healing and wholeness to the survivors who are wounded or traumatized, and restore all whose spirits are maimed by such violence. That we may serve as your arms of care to those in distress, we pray: make us instruments of your peace.

 

God of righteousness, you have laid on our elected leaders the responsibility to protect our land. Strengthen their devotion to our common life, and guide legislators to enact policies that address our plague of gun violence. That our government may support our search for domestic harmony, we pray: make us instruments of your peace.

 

God of compassion, we give you thanks for first responders, for police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and all who offer compassionate aid in situations of tragedy. Keep them safe from harm, and give them courage and sound judgment as they act. That we may join in support of those who risk their lives for others, we pray: make us instruments of your peace.

 

God of forgiveness, we ask your mercy on the one who fired the weapon. With your grace, transform those who from malice or illness inflict violence on others. Console their families. Believing in your power to make all things new, we pray: make us instruments of your peace.

 

God of the promise in word and sacrament, we pray for the church. Give us a voice, your voice, to plead for a society marked by justice and sustained by cooperation among diverse peoples. Train us to resist the lure of brute force. That by your Spirit we may become words and signs of your mercy, we pray: make us instruments of your peace.

 

God of true might and redemptive mercy, receive our prayers, and grant us to become your instruments of peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.



Come and See

The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what John said, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”

They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”

He replied, “Come and see.”

…The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”

Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”

Philip said, “Come and see.”

-John 1:35-39, 43-36

 

Over the past ten months, Council and I have been reading together a book called The Invitational Christian by ELCA pastor Dave Daubert. It’s a fairly quick read (we only took ten months because we went chapter by chapter at each meeting), but well worth the time to read and reflect. Pastor Dave’s main idea is that congregations grow by not just being welcoming, that is, having a pleasant atmosphere when visitors arrive, but by nurturing existing members who make a point of inviting others to be part of the congregation.

Genuine invitation, at its core, requires a relationship. A member of a church says to someone they know, “Would you come to my church with me? I really like the community/ preaching/ music/ VBS/ whatever, and I think you would, too.” Invitation means knowing the other person well enough to connect with what matters to them, and it means offering to be with them. Not just “you should try my church sometime” but “I’d like you to come with me.” See the difference?

Jesus knew how important it was to go alongside his disciples as they began to journey with him. When he called his first two disciples, John’s gospel tells us that he invited them to “come and see.” Discipleship begins with invitation, simple as it sounds, to come and see what is going on.

It isn’t just up to Jesus, though! By the very next day, Philip has become so committed to following Jesus that he goes looking for his buddy Nathanael. When he meets Nathanael, he tells him why Jesus matters, and then offers the very same invitation: “Come and see.”

I’ve sometimes wondered how the whole Christian church has gotten so confused and complicated about evangelism when Jesus and Nathanael make it so simple. Sharing the good news doesn’t require a seven-part strategy or a five-point tract or a detailed agenda. All that is required is a relationship and a simple invitation: “Something worthwhile is happening here. Come and see.”

This brings us back from Scripture to our lives. When was the last time you offered an invitation like the ones Jesus and Nathanael made? If you can’t remember the last time you told a friend or neighbor or coworker that something worthwhile was happening at church, what’s stopping you? If you can remember that last invitation you made, when will you do it again? 

Invitation matters. It forces us to ask, “what do I find meaningful about this congregation?” and then turn outward to someone else who needs to experience the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. It makes us share the hope we’ve found with people who are still looking for it. It’s not always easy, but it is simple: “At my church, I hear about a God who gives me new life. I find a community that loves and supports me. We make a difference in my neighborhood and around the world. Come and see.”

Jesus, you called us just as you have always called your disciples, to come and see what you are doing in the world. Make us bold and inviting to share that Good News with the world looking for hope, meaning, and belonging. Amen.



Everyone Follows

This week’s devotion is written by Grace Heimerdinger-Baake, Director of Youth and Family Ministry.

“There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.” -1 Cor. 12:4-6

This past Sunday was Youth-Led Worship. This particular Sunday is when children and youth of the congregation participate in all aspects of worship, from serving as a communion assistant to leading music to giving the sermon. RLC has talented children and youth who want to live out their faith, assist with worship, and share the good news of the resurrected Jesus. Turns out, our children and youth are eager to assist with worship and to feel a part of the worship service. 

As worship was happening, I found myself thinking about Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth when Paul writes that anyone who is a follower of Jesus is part of the body and every part of the body is blessed with unique gifts and talents. 

We shouldn’t be surprised when a kindergartener is assisting with communion. When asked how she would like to assist with worship on May 1, the kindergartener responded proudly and without hesitation, “I want to serve the bread or the wine.” Throughout the last two years, she had been helping serve communion to her family members as they worshiped online due to COVID.

And, as we listened to the sermon this past Sunday, we heard from two high school seniors on how they will use their experiences, their gifts, and their passion to show the love of Jesus through their vocations as a teacher and as a nurse. 

Nowhere in Paul’s letter does it mention special requirements such as age, sex, race, or other differences to be a follower of Jesus. God has equipped all of us to be followers of Jesus in our own and unique ways. For some of us, we may serve Jesus through teaching Sunday School or preparing food for those in need. For others, you may show Jesus’ love by mowing the grass and replacing light bulbs. For our younger members, they may share the love of Jesus by playing with new friends.  

Dear Jesus, you have called us to follow you. Help us use our talents to serve you and to share your love with the world. Amen. 



Thanks Forever

I exalt you, Lord, because you pulled me up;

    you didn’t let my enemies celebrate over me.

Lord, my God, I cried out to you for help,

    and you healed me.

Lord, you brought me up from the grave,

    brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.

You changed my mourning into dancing.

    You took off my funeral clothes

        and dressed me up in joy

    so that my whole being

    might sing praises to you and never stop.

Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

-Psalm 30: 1-3,11-12

 

Psalm 30 is one of my favorites. No matter what is going on in my life, I find I can always connect with the reminder that God restores life even when it feels like I’m sitting in a grave. (To be frank, I can also always connect with the slightly sassy tone of verse 9.) If you’ve got an extra minute, find the whole psalm and read it in your Bible or at this link.

Throughout this psalm, the speaker recounts the ups and downs of their life, recognizing that in both the good times and the bad, they depended on God’s mercy. Even though the psalm mentions every sort of problem, from conflict with enemies to disease, from death to terror, it begins and ends with praise.
 
Now, most Christians I know, if they are honest, are quite a bit more consistent at calling out to God from the pit than at thanking God once they’ve gotten out of the pit. Let me repeat that. Most of us, most of the time, pray for deliverance from our troubles, as well we should…but we don’t, nearly as often, remember to praise God for our healing, salvation, and joy after we have received them.
 
You’ve probably encountered people who believe that a gift hasn’t been completely received until a thank you card has been sent. While that might seem a bit, well, over the top to some, there is real value in a practice of gratitude that takes time. Psalm 30 praises God’s works in the past in a way that reads like a thank you note: beginning with thanks, then explaining why the gift was so special, and circling back around to one more thank you. It’s the kind of psalm that’s only possible for a person who takes time to reflect on what God has done. Rather than a fleeting focus on what’s happening right now, Psalm 30 and prayers like it grow out of paying attention and remembering what God has done.
 
When we pay attention to God’s work, praise comes naturally. Who could keep themselves from thanking God with the awareness of every good thing God has done? That doesn’t mean that we praise God at every moment. Those times when we find ourselves in the pit, for instance, or crying all night long, we’re more likely to cry out for help. But once we’re out of the pit? If we just turn around long enough to see how far we’ve come, praise comes naturally.
 

Oh Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Help me to give you praise for what you have done as eagerly as I call out for help when I am in need. Amen.

 



Recognizing Jesus

When Jesus was at the table with the two of them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.

-Luke 24:30-31

 

I am always grateful for name tags at big events. That way, if I’ve forgotten someone’s name I really should remember, I can sneak a peek at their name tag and remind myself, “Oh, of course, that’s Amy!” This is especially true when it’s someone I know I met somewhere else, and I’m having trouble placing them in a different context. Somehow, my brain simply refuses to make the connection between face and name when someone is in a place I didn’t expect to find them.

The above verses from Luke tell of a similar situation on the afternoon of the first Easter. Two disciples left Jerusalem, probably eager to put some distance between themselves and any lingering zeal from the chief priests or Roman police. They had heard from the women that Jesus was risen from the dead, but who’d be gullible enough to believe that? So the two set out for Emmaus. (You can read the whole thing in Luke 24:13-35.)

As they walk, however, Jesus joins them. Only… they can’t tell it’s Jesus. They do not recognize him. After all, he’s supposed to be dead, not out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. When Jesus engages them in conversation, they still do not recognize him. When Jesus teaches them, they still do not recognize him. 

It’s only when Jesus blesses and breaks bread that the disciples finally recognize him.

Breaking bread together is at the core of Christian worship for many reasons. In the early church, it guaranteed that even the poorest among the believers would receive a good meal once a week. In the centuries since then, even as the meal has become less of a feast and more of a snack, the Lord’s Table remained a place where all believers gathered as equals, no matter their age or station in life.

Most importantly of all, breaking bread is a sure and certain means to recognize Jesus. Despite pressure from both Catholic and Anabaptist theologians of his time, Martin Luther steadfastly insisted that Jesus meant what he said: “this is my body.” In bread and cup, by the promise of Jesus and the mystery of faith, we find Jesus.

More than that, though, we find a Jesus who is for us. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper were, “this is my body given for you…my blood shed for you.” We do not need to wonder if the God we recognize in broken bread is for us or against us. He tells us himself: given for you, shed for you. We can expect to find the Jesus who loves us and gave himself for us every time we come to the table. If you’re looking for Jesus, you know just where to find him.

Jesus, bread of life from heaven, you have given your very self to us and for us, so that we might recognize you in the meal we share. Gather us at your table, that we might feast on every good thing you give to us. Amen.



Coveting, Part Two: Relationships

The Tenth Commandment

You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not entice, force or steal away from our neighbors their spouses, household workers, or livestock, but instead urge them to stay and fulfill their responsibilities to our neighbors.

 

Last week, we read the command not to covet our neighbor’s house, and this week we’re back again with a prohibition against coveting everyone and everything that makes up a household. Before digging into this final commandment, it would help to say a few words about what coveting is and isn’t.

“Covet” isn’t a word we use much in our everyday lives. In fact, outside of church and Jane Austen films, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it said aloud. Coveting is a particular kind of selfishness and greed rolled into one. To covet something isn’t to wish you had one just like it. It’s to want what your neighbor has at their loss. Think for a minute about your favorite pair of shoes. I’m guessing that you bought those shoes from a store that had dozens, if not hundreds of pairs of shoes just like that one. Anybody else who wanted a pair like yours could wander into the nearest store and buy one.

In the ancient world, mass production was not an option. Wishing to have your neighbor’s shoes meant wishing they lost that particular pair so you could have it instead. That’s what makes coveting so dangerous- coveting puts our needs first, to the detriment of our neighbors. It makes sense that coveting, such a toxic combination of greed and selfishness, merits a lengthy commandment, so lengthy that we count it as two separate commandments.

As I said earlier, last week was “you shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” and now we hear a do-not-covet list that includes most all of what made an ancient household. Even if the advent of malls and online shopping makes coveting stuff less of an issue, coveting relationships remains a temptation. 

Songs from Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” tap into the feeling of coveting someone else’s partner. Even without romance, people get jealous and covet the attention and time of their friends. Ever thought that you deserved a promotion that went to your coworker instead? That resentment can easily turn to coveting. 

Instead of coveting the relationships between our neighbors and their spouses, family, friends, or coworkers, Martin Luther urges us to support and strengthen those relationships. Here’s a thought: if you find yourself coveting someone else’s relationship, any relationship: pray for them. Every time. Pray for the strength of their connection and commitment. Pray for whatever God sees that they need. Then pray for God to provide the people and relationships you need to be fulfilled without diminishing anyone else.

Oh God, you give us all that we need, including the people who make up our homes, schools, workplaces, congregation, and more. Protect us from coveting our neighbor’s relationships, so that we instead support them in all ways. Amen.

 



The Thief of Joy

The Ninth Commandment

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.

 

Last week, I was in a conversation with a newcomer to Iowa who had recently moved from the Southwestern U.S. She asked what she needed to do to get her lawn ready for Spring. Should she treat the lawn? Call a professional? Do nothing at all? Another woman laughed and replied, “That depends—which of the Joneses do you want to keep up with?”

Now there’s a question. From home improvement shows to the picture-perfect houses glimpsed in ads, there is a lot of pressure for our homes to “keep up.” But we don’t really even need to go so far as TV to find something to inspire covetousness or at least competition—just take a cruise around the neighborhood some December! You’ll quickly see who’s keeping up with whom when it comes to holiday light displays.

None of this is to say that it is wrong to love and care for your home, or to work to improve it. But why are you doing it? Do you actually care if there are leaves on your driveway, or are you just worried what your neighbor will think? Is your home a place of respite, or do you only look at it to see its flaws and wish you had your neighbor’s home instead?

Comparison, Teddy Roosevelt said, is the thief of joy. When we look at our neighbor’s home to see how it is better than ours (or to see how ours is better than theirs!), the only certain outcome is the loss of joy. Covetousness has the very same outcome. Wanting our neighbor’s property for our own is wrong. It hurts us, usually far more than it hurts our neighbor.

That is interesting, isn’t it? This commandment and the next are not about actions, like murder or theft or gossip. They are about our thoughts. Do we want what is not ours? Or, to quote my acquaintance: which of the Joneses do you want to keep up with?

God is concerned with both thought and action. We should neither steal our neighbor’s property nor daydream about getting it for ourselves. Our actions most often hurt our neighbors, but it is the thoughts that lead to them that hurt us. Instead of being satisfied with what we have, we compete for whatever is bigger and better. We compare ourselves to others in every way possible, and then wonder where our joy has gone.

If you want more joy in your life, do not compare. Do not covet. God, it turns out, knows what is good for us: to be satisfied with what we have, and to find joy rather than jealousy in our neighbor.

Generous God, you have given me what I need. Protect my mind from coveting what my neighbor has, and satisfy my heart with your joy all the days of my life. Amen.



The Best Possible Light

The Eighth Commandment

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

 

When it comes to the eighth commandment, I have a role model. My role model is Jane Bennet, the eldest sister in the classic novel Pride and Prejudice. While Jane’s sister Lizzy is the main character, Jane is often close at hand and often joins Lizzy in conversation about their acquaintances.

Lizzy Bennet has no reservations about passing judgment on her friends, neighbors, dancing partners, and even her family. She is especially quick to judge Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley for any perceived or reported misstep. At least Lizzy does not behave like her youngest sisters, who repeat any gossip they hear without the slightest concern for its veracity. 

Jane, though, is different. She does not delight in gossip, true or otherwise, and she tries to find a kind explanation for any person’s bad behavior. Even when faced with scandalous reports, Jane seeks to preserve the other person’s reputation if she possibly can. She chides Lizzy for heeding unkind stories about Mr. Darcy without hearing his side of the story.

It’s not easy to be like Jane Bennet. There are an awful lot of ways to break this commandment. 

Any time we repeat something untrue, whether it’s about someone we know or a celebrity we’ll never meet, we break the eighth commandment. Any time we share something unflattering about someone else, even if it is true, we break the eighth commandment. Any time we betray someone’s confidence in us, we break the eighth commandment. Any time we silently listen to gossip or trash talk but do not defend the other person’s reputation, we break the eighth commandment. Any time we jump to conclusions about someone’s motives or assume the worst about them, we break the eighth commandment.

If you were looking for a commandment that would be easy to keep, you’ll have to keep looking. If you’re looking for one that’s worth keeping, though, this is a good place to start. We all know the pain of being misunderstood, talked about behind our backs, and judged. We need this commandment because we need communities where we live free from lies, betrayal, and damaged reputations. What a difference it can make in our lives to trust that our church family would be a community that always works to be honest, defend our reputations, and see the very best of us. 

Now that sounds like a lifegiving community. A faithful community. A Christlike community.

Holy God, strengthen us to follow this commandment in our lives. May we defend our neighbors from gossip and slander, and let our own words and actions always be interpreted in the best possible light. Amen.



Promises, Promises

The Sixth Commandment

You shall not commit adultery.

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors their spouse.

 

While the “honor your parents” commandment is the one confirmation teachers delight in teaching to middle school students, this one often feels like a doozy. How on earth can anybody expect to teach a group of adolescents about adultery? We don’t even use the word in our everyday lives. The very first time I tried to teach this commandment, it went something like this:

Pastor Beth: “Okay, who can read the sixth commandment for us?”

Student 1, enthusiastic then confused: “I will! ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ What’s adultery?”

Student 2, immediately: “It means cheating on somebody.”

Student 3, melodramatically: “Well, at least being forever alone means I can’t break this commandment.”

Other students: laughter.

Pastor Beth, grasping to regain order: “Let’s go back to the catechism and read the explanation…”

 

Those middle schoolers were asking good questions, though. “What does this mean [for me]?” is the question Martin Luther asked and answered. It is, however, a difficult question for an eleven-year-old (and maybe for older Christians, too!). Middle schoolers aren’t married. How does this apply to them?

In the next part of the story I shared earlier, after we got the giggles under control, I asked the students if they had ever experienced someone they trusted breaking a promise to them. Every hand went up. I asked if they had ever been the one to break a promise. Every hand stayed up.

Faithfulness is, at its core, the capacity to keep promises. This is why we so adamantly speak about God’s faithfulness to us, rather than our faithfulness to God. We know that God keeps God’s promises, even though we may not keep ours.

The closer a relationship is, the more painful it is to experience broken promises. A neighbor who keeps blowing snow onto your sidewalk after promising to stop is annoying. A partner who promises to be exclusive but seeks intimacy with someone else is devastating. An acquaintance who blows you off is inconvenient. A best friend who doesn’t show up when promised is heart-wrenching.

The sixth commandment calls on us to keep our promises. Why? Because God knows how much it hurts when we don’t. God knows that relationships without trust are no relationships at all. When we break our promises, everyone is hurt. When we keep our promises, we honor our relationships and the people to whom we made the promises. This commandment is for all of us, in marriage, friendship, family, and every other relationship.

Faithful God, help me keep the promises I have made. When I fail, forgive me. When others fail me, heal my hurt. Amen.

 

*As with the fourth commandment, this one requires a big caveat: there are relationships, including marriages, which are destroyed by broken promises to love, to respect, to honor, to be exclusive. When someone else’s actions break the promises that hold your relationship together, you are not obliged to keep your part of a broken covenant.