Sunday, November 25, 2001

Psalm 130 - “Out of the Depths”

Last Sunday of the Church Year (Year C - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, November 24, and Sunday, November 25, 2001

[prayer during hymn, drop bandana as walk to center of chancel]

It was all because I dropped my bandana. I dropped my bandana, [mimic action] took 10, maybe 15 steps back into the woods, found my bandana, came back, and they were gone. Chris, Matt, Todd, and our leader, Chris, were gone. My group had left me alone in the woods. I heard them yell, “Wait there.” I yelled back, “Why? Where are you going? Are you coming back?” But there was no response. I was really alone in the depths of the woods. Alone because of a stupid bandana.

You see, it was day eight of a ten day wilderness canoe trip from YMCA Camp Menogyn. The camp is the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, but we were across the border in Canada, Ontario, the Crown Land, provincial land that has few roads and few people. Our trip depended upon us finding a portage, a trail, from Joe Lake to Arrow Lake, except there wasn’t a trail. We had heard of rumors of an old trail; it seemed there must have been a trail once because otherwise Joe Lake is a terrible dead end. But when we arrived, we found that there was no marked portage, no old trail, just woods. Miles and miles of woods. Stands of alder, short trees that reach out to grab you and hold you back. The only option is to shove the canoe through and shove your body through.

We had taken one canoe and a daypack with some lunch and water, and we had set out to blaze a trail—marking it with little pieces of blaze tape. But see, we had run out of blaze tape, so I had given up one of my bandanas, ripping it into small pieces to tie to tree branches to mark our way. That’s why I went back for my other bandana; we might need it. That’s why I went back, and now because I did, I was alone. My group had left me.

I stood around for awhile, thinking they’d quickly come back. Hoping they were just scouting ahead. [mimic action] I stood around, got bored, sat on the canoe for awhile, slid down onto the ground and put my back against the canoe. They were taking a long time.

There I was two miles deep into the woods with a canoe. That canoe didn’t belong there. A canoe belongs in the water not in the middle of the woods. That canoe being there so deep in the forest was like Adam and Eve being in the woods hiding from God after they ate from the tree. They didn’t belong back in the woods; they belonged out in the garden, walking around with God. Adam and Eve were supposed to be with God and that canoe was supposed to be in water and I was supposed to be with my group, my team, my fellow travelers.

I started pacing. Where were they? Had they really said, “Wait there?” What if they said, “Come here?” What if there was something wrong and they needed me? What if somebody had gotten hurt and they had gone to find help? What if they didn’t come back for me, if I had to stay here alone overnight? I mean, I’d have to stay overnight. I couldn’t go back to our camp on Joe Lake, because then we might lose the canoe here in the woods. I had to stay with our canoe. But I was alone in the depths of the woods in the middle of Canada in the middle of the wilderness, alone, and I was only 14.

That’s when panic set in. I think I was prone to panic. I had already been filling up my trip journal with apocalyptic visions. This trip through Canada had given me some very tough challenges, and I had started to think of Canada as an old man watching from the storm clouds in the sky. Old Man Canada, laughing as we struggled through rain and mud and miles of paddling. Old Man Canada, up there his laugh sounding like cracking branches, up there ready to squeeze us with his bony fingers. And just the night before, I had written, “Our crash portage from Joe Lake to Arrow Lake looms up in the night forest, a shadow grabbing me. I feel rushed; it’s coming too soon.” So I had this apocalyptic vision of Old Man Canada and I was alone in the woods—I panicked.

“Where are you?” I yelled, and nobody responded. I shouldn’t have gone back for that bandana—but we needed it. What if I have to stay here overnight? I’ve only got the canoe; they’ve got the food and water. What if I have to stay here? And it must have been then panic that set in, because instead just coming up with a survival plan, I went ahead with the plan as if it was getting cold and it was night. I crawled under the canoe and tried to get myself warm. And under that canoe, I started crying uncontrollably, my sobs echoing under the aluminum canoe. I was crying. “I shouldn’t be alone. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong in the middle of the woods.”

I started praying, “God, help me. I’m scared. I’m alone. Bring my group back. Help me to know what to do. Don’t leave me alone out in the depths of the woods. Don’t leave me here.”

My crying turned to cursing. I cursed my group for leaving me alone. I cursed God for leaving me alone and not helping me. I cursed my friends for leaving and just saying, “Wait there.” I mean, that’s like Jesus saying, “Wait there,” as He goes up to heaven, and we’ve got to stay here in this difficult, troubled life, and deal with all of this pain, the depths of life. “Wait there!?!” I cursed my friends for saying such a thing. I cursed God for not doing something about it.

Eventually, my crying subsided, and I calmed down long enough to realize that it wasn’t night, it wasn’t cold. I didn’t need to be laying under the canoe—yet. [mimic action] So I got up and paced some more. I was still crying, yelling every once in awhile, “Where are you, guys?” yelling, “Why?” [at the sky]. I was still crying when I thought I heard someone yell back.

I paused. Nothing. Probably just my imagination. I started to pace again when yes, someone had yelled. “Ben!” “I’m over here!” “Ben!” “I’m over here!” They were coming back to me. Chris, Matt, Todd, and our leader, Chris, they were coming back. “I’m over here!” “I’m over here!” “I’m over here.” I kept yelling hoping they’d find me; I kept yelling until they were in the clearing right next to me.

I quickly wiped away my tears, embarrassed by my fear and panic. I wiped away my tears, but I couldn’t hide my emotions when I asked, “Where were you?” And my friend, Todd, hugged me and said, “We didn’t forget about you, Ben. We were coming back for you. We were just scouting ahead, looking for the way. We wouldn’t leave you behind. We were coming back.”

And they had, they had come back. They were faithful. They had said, “Wait there,” and they had meant, “Wait there; we’re coming back.” Just like Jesus who said, “Wait there,” and He meant, “Wait there; I’m coming back for you.”

My group was faithful to me. They came back to me. They came back to take me out of the depths of the woods, out of the depths of life. Took me like a canoe stuck in the woods, took me to the water. Took me like Adam hiding from God, hiding in the woods; my group was like Jesus taking me back to the garden, back to God. They were faithful. Chris, Matt, Todd, and our leader, Chris, were faithful to me.

The day was getting short. Their scouting search had not found much, and so we followed our blaze tape and bandana pieces back to Joe Lake. The next day we packed everything up, and eventually got all of the canoes and packs through the woods and to Arrow Lake.

I’ve never heard a sound as good as the sound that day of the canoe hitting the water again. It sounded so good as the canoe rolled off someone’s shoulders and gently slapped the water of Arrow Lake. The canoe was back where it belonged, out of the depths and into the water.

[first step of chancel] I’ve never heard a sound as good as the sound of the Lord’s promise that He’ll be faithful to us, He’ll come back for us. It sounds so good as my burdens roll off my shoulders, [one step into nave] roll off to lay at the feet of Jesus. [begin moving towards baptismal font] Jesus brings me back to where I belong, out of the depths and into the water, out of the depths and [point to font] into the water. Out of the depths of life and into His promise of eternal life.

[pick up Bible from behind font]

Psalm 130
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in His word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love. . . .

Sunday, July 01, 2001

Luke 7:36-50 - “Jake & His Guilt”

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, June 28, and Sunday, July 1, 2001

(in center of chancel)
I met Jake at a concert a few months ago. It was the Old 97’s show down at Shank Hall in Milwaukee. The Old 97’s are an alt-country, alternative country band, which means they’re a rock band with some jangle and twang in their songs.

I had gotten down there early to stand in line since it was a general admission show. I wanted to get near the front. Jake and his friends were standing in line near me, and we’re just sort of chatting, shooting the breeze, joking a bit while we waited for the doors to open.

The doors opened, and since I was there alone (Susan’s not really a fan of the Old 97’s), I decided I’d grab a stool along the wall near a table. For a concert like this, they don’t have much seating. Now, Shank Hall is kind of like walking into somebody’s downstairs rec room only about 3 times bigger. It’s got a low ceiling, it’s dark, there’s a bar at the back and a fairly small stage.

Sitting down alone then, I heard someone say, “Hey, you alone? Why don’t you come sit with us?” It was Jake and his friends who were sitting a few tables back. So I dragged my stool over. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit with them; I was kind of enjoying being anonymous, just watching the crowd, but they seemed like a nice group.

Introductions were made, and we made some small talk. Jake had short hair and a goatee, and he and his friends were in their late 20’s or early 30’s. It turns out that they were big fans of the Old 97’s and had come up from Chicago for the show. Then two days later they were going to the show back home in Chicago.

I asked about where in Chicago explaining that I had gone to school there. We talked a bit about that and Northwestern. I also told them that I was originally from Minnesota.

They then made some comment about Milwaukee and how it seemed like a nice city. I agreed, but admitted that I didn’t know much about it, that I actually lived in Manitowoc. They asked where Manitowoc was and I told them it was an hour or so north on the lake.

So then someone asked, “Well, if you’re from Minnesota, went to school in Chicago, how’d you end up in Manitowoc?”

“Well,” I said, and I knew this was where the conversation was either going to end awkwardly or continue in an interesting direction, “Well, I’m a pastor, and when I graduated from the seminary about a year ago, they sent me to Manitowoc.”

“A pastor? A pastor! You’re a pastor and you’re here at the Old 97’s concert,” they said, surprised. They asked if it was okay for me to at the concert, and I said yeah, no one was going to come after me. They asked if it was okay for me to be drinking a beer, and I said that it was okay, I just don’t get drunk.

Jake especially thought that it was cool that I’d hang out with them being a pastor and all. He told me he had grown up Catholic, turns out his friends had too, and that he had gone to Catholic school. It had kind of left a bad taste in his mouth, left him feeling kind of guilty.

Someone then asked what the difference was between Catholics and Lutherans. I said that both are Christian denominations, both believe in Jesus Christ, but if you had to oversimplify it, Luther left the Catholic Church in the 16th century between he felt Scripture taught that we are saved by faith alone not by—

“Not by works?!” Jake said, finishing my sentence.

I said, “Yeah, we’re saved by believing in Jesus not by doing enough good things.” Jake seemed to be interested in that idea and said that he should check it out because maybe there’d be a church for him out there.

Then a couple of Jake’s other friends came, and again introductions were made. Jake leaned over and whispered, “Hey, is it okay if I tell them you’re a pastor?” I said, “Sure, Jake, it’s no secret.” So Jake says to the new arrivals, “Hey, guess what Ben does?” They didn’t have a guess. “He’s a pastor,” Jake said, clapping me on the shoulder, excited to share this news.

After that, everyone was asking different questions about what the Lutheran Church believed about different issues. You got to remember that while we’re having this discussion, Shank Hall is filling up, the music is going, people are drinking, smoking, laughing. I told them that they could email me or call if they’ve got more questions, and I handed my business card to a couple of them including Jake.

Jake kept apologizing to me saying, “I’m sorry that I keep swearing. I feel so guilty doing that with you around.” I’d say, “It’s okay. I don’t expect you to change right away.” One time Jake kind of pulled me aside and said, “I know I drink too much. I know I need to quit. I feel so guilty.” I told him it’s about choices, about choosing just to have one beer. Finally, when Jake again said, “I’m sorry. I feel so guilty,” I said, “Jake, I didn’t say anything about it. I’m not making you feel guilty. It’s your conscience.” Jake agreed, and that conversation kind of ended.

It was about that time that the opening act started playing. As we watched them, laughing about how mediocre they seemed, I wondered, “Was that what Jake needed to hear, to hear that he feels guilty because of his conscience?”

After the opener, it was time to move forward into the crowd and stake out a place to see the Old 97’s. I moved up near Jake and his friends, glad to have a group to stand with in the crowd. While we were waiting, I was talking to another one of Jake’s friends. He said to me, “I just think that if you’re a good person, you’ll go to heaven.” I said, “But that’s the problem, if you make mistakes, you end up feeling guilty like Jake. Don’t you think that’s a problem?” He wasn’t really up to having this sort of conversation and said, “Like I said, I think it’s just about being a good person.”

The Old 97’s came out and played a great show. A couple of songs into their set I noticed that Jake and his friends had kind of closed me out of their circle. That was okay. The show had started, we couldn’t really talk now, I wasn’t really their friend anyway. But then I realized why they had closed me out. I could smell it. They were smoking pot. They had closed me out on purpose trying to hide what they were doing. In fact, I never did see the joint, just smelled it, especially when Jake came up to me, exhaled in my face and said, “Isn’t this a great show?” I smiled and nodded. He made his way up to the stage to be close to the band.

I wondered what I should do. Should I have said something? Should I have told him not to smoke pot? After a few songs, I realized I should also be saying that I like the music but I don’t agree with what the Old 97’s say in their lyrics about sex and drugs. Should I distance myself from Jake and his friends? Should I walk away? Should I try to say something?

I never did. I watched the rest of the show and enjoyed the music. Every once in awhile someone from the group would turn to me, flash a smile and we’d nod—it was a good show, it was good to hang out together. After the show, I said nice to meet ya to a few of the group, but missed seeing Jake. I think he was trying to get backstage. I drove back to Manitowoc wondering if I had done the right thing that night.

(move to pulpit) What would you have done? How would you have handled that situation? I wanted to tell you this story, because I thought it was great example of acting like Jesus not acting like the Pharisees. After all, I was hanging out with sinners. I was at a concert by a band who sings about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. I was hanging out with people who were drinking a lot and smoking pot. I was hanging out with sinners. I was acting like Jesus.

But as I was telling you the story, I realized I was really acting like a Pharisee. I was certainly thinking like a Pharisee when I thought about distancing myself from the group when they were smoking pot. I wanted to set myself apart, act more righteous, ignore the sinners. My thoughts were certainly like the Pharisees.

And when Jake told me about how guilty he felt, I said, “It’s your conscience that’s making you feel guilty.” I made sure that he knew he was guilty, that he had done something wrong. I acted like the Pharisee.

But what did Jake really need to hear? He didn’t need to hear that he was guilty; he already knew that; he already admitted that to me. What he needed to hear was that he was forgiven. He needed me to act like Jesus, but I didn’t.

You see, in a way, Jake confessed his sins and his faith by talking to me about it. I was waiting around for more, though, I guess. I wanted to hear him say that he believed in Jesus. I wanted him to change his lifestyle. I was requiring more of him before I’d tell him that he was forgiven.

But Jesus forgave the woman, and she didn’t even say anything. She didn’t say anything about her sin; she didn’t say that she believed in Jesus. She just cried and wiped His feet with her tears. And Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has made you well.”

Jake had said enough. What he needed to hear was that he was forgiven, and I didn’t say it.

And now I can only pray that God will put someone else in his life to tell Jake that he doesn’t have to feel guilty, he is forgiven, because I’ve never heard from Jake. He didn’t email. He didn’t call. I can only pray that someone else will be bold enough to act like Jesus instead of acting like a Pharisee.

Sure we talked about forgiveness that night, but we talked about it in easy ways. We talked about what the Church teaches, how we’re saved by faith in Jesus. But that was in the abstract. I talked about it when I talked to Jake’s friend about how to get to heaven. I told him how Jake needed to hear that he was forgiven; he didn’t need to hear that he had to do more good things. I could talk about forgiveness in the abstract or in the third person, but when it came to being direct, when it came to Jake saying, “I feel so guilty,” I didn’t say it. I acted like the Pharisee.

So I pray that someone else will be that bold, because that’s what’s going to change Jake’s life. He feels guilty, and so he probably feels like he might as well go on cursing and drinking, because he’s already messed up. He’s feeling trapped in these mistakes by his guilt. But if someone told him that he was forgiven, then he’d know that he was freed from his mistakes. He could lead a new life. He wasn’t trapped by what he had done wrong. He would know the freedom and hope that we have through Jesus Christ.

I pray that someone will tell that to Jake, and I pray that I will learn to be bold enough to speak directly when it comes to forgiveness. To tell you directly, to tell others directly, “Your sins are forgiven.”

I pray that we’ll all learn to be that direct, because we all need to hear that we are freed from guilt, that we are forgiven through Christ. We all need to hear Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven. Go, your faith has saved you.” Amen.