An Unexpected Encounter

I'm still processing an encounter I had yesterday...

Yesterday, I was getting things ready for our church's pet blessing service. We held it outside so I had to get some tables out and get refreshments ready: cookies, lemonade, dog and cat treats, you know, the usual. I also put a basket of stones out on a table so that people could use them to weigh down their pet photos that they brought of pets that couldn't be there.

As I was walking down the hall I could see a man standing by the tables looking at them curiously. I noticed that he appeared to be talking to someone. I thought, are people coming already? The service isn't for another 45 minutes! But the closer I got to him, I realized that this was one of our many poor that walk our streets. Was he so hungry that he was considering the dog treats for food? So, I decided to go and say hi.

I opened the door, thinking I was going to scare him, but he didn't seem surprised when I walked outside, neither was there anyone else around. He was a Hispanic man around the age of 60, but it was hard to guess his age through his very weathered skin. After we said hello and asked how each other were doing, he motioned to our church and asked, "English?" I told him that it was an English speaking church, having already recognized that his English was not his first language, and then noticed that he was still looking curiously at the tables I put out.

I told him that they were for a pet blessing service that we were holding here. He looked a little confused so I explained what exactly that was. He then seemed to light up and gained interest in what we were doing here. He asked what time it was going to be and when I told him 2pm, he looked up at the sky, the way people do when they are trying to remember something, and said, "I think I will come. Yes, I think I can make it." I said "Great!" He then told me that all he had planned for that afternoon was collecting cans. I wanted to invite him to our Sunday service but for some reason I didn't.

I then remembered that I saw a bag of empty cans in our administrator's office. I asked him if he would like it and he said "Sure!" I went in and got the bag and when I returned to the front door I noticed that he did not enter the church but waited on the doorstep. Most people would have entered. Any other time I would have invited someone in. For some reason I didn't. He thanked me for the cans and as he added them to his collection he mentioned how they were special because they came from the church. I nodded in agreement because that was the only response I could muster.

He looked puzzled by the basket of stones so I explained what they were for. He then asked if he could have one. I said "Sure!" He said, "Thank you. I know they are just stones, but they are special because they are from the church." I nodded in agreement because that was the only response that I could muster. I am realizing now that this was the only thing he asked me for, not food, not money, not a prayer, just a stone.

He then told me that he lived in a house a few blocks away, and sometimes the people in that house go to church. He told me that he grew up Catholic. He told me that he thinks it doesn't matter what church people go to. He told me that he thought God loves everyone. He told me that he didn't plan to remain like "this", as he motioned to the current state of his being, with his dirty old clothes that covered that weathered skin of his.

At that point I realized that I had forgotten my manners and never introduced myself. I put my hand out and said, "I'm the pastor here, my name is Ron." With some excitement and surprise he said "You are?!" I was wearing my collar. Before he extended his own hand, he stopped and wiped it, several times, on his shirt and pants. He clearly was not expecting a handshake, but it also seemed that he wanted to make sure his hands were as clean as possible before we shook. After he got done wiping them, he started to extend his hand and then stopped for a brief moment.

I have no idea why.

And then he extended his hand, looking me square in the eye as he did so and said,

"Nice to meet you, I'm Jesús."

We spoke for a few minutes more, it was clear that he wanted conversation. Each time I thought the conversation was wrapping up, he would think of something else to say. In my mind I was thinking of all the things I still had to do. We said our final good-bye and he walked away with his bag of cans over his shoulder and his sharpened stick that he used to pick up the items that he collected on the streets dangling in his other hand. I immediately walked back into the church, went straight to the bathroom, and washed my hand.

I don't share this story with you to convince you that I had an encounter with Jesus the Christ. I am not the kind of person that would immediately conclude that Jesús was indeed Christ. I am also not the kind of person that would immediately dismiss it either. Either way, it sure has my mind tackling a bunch of questions, some of them disturbing. Here are just a few:

Does Christ need an invitation to come to our church? To our worship? Does Christ want one?

If we were to encounter Christ today, would we want to wash our hand afterward?

If I met Christ today, would Christ recognize me as a pastor of the church? Would Christ even acknowledge it?

What would Christ ask of us? Would it be something unexpected, like a stone?

What "stones" do we take for granted, that may be priceless to others?

When are we too busy for conversations with Christ, and what are we doing instead?

Would we recognize Christ if we met him face to face, eye to eye?

Jesús never returned to the pet blessing service. Several times throughout the service I craned my neck to see if he had returned, thinking maybe he was on the outskirts of our small crowd. He was not.

He did not return.

And I so desperately wanted him to.


Installation Sermon by Rev. Paul Hoffman on October 20, 2013

This sermon was preached at my installation by the Rev. Paul Hoffman at Lord of Life Lutheran Church on October 20, 2013. I am so very grateful for his presence that day, and for his friendship always.

If you’ve installed anything at all lately, it was probably an update for your laptop software.  A patch, I think they call it in the biz.  You know the drill:  first there’s a pop-up message that something new is available.  (Is it just me, or do those always seem to come at the most irritatingly inconvenient moments?)  Then a dialog box:  You will be guided through the necessary steps to install this software…  Licensing agreement.  (Click)  Validating packages.  Writing files.  Installation time remaining:  8 minutes.  You must quit the following applications before continuing:  Safari.  Word.  Xcel.  Running package scripts.  Finishing the installation.  And then, TRIUMPH!  The installation was successful.  You reboot, and it’s back to business as usual.  Installation, complete.

I find a starkly contrasting tenderness and wisdom and mystery in these installation words of Jesus about scattered seeds.  Their installation into the soil wasn’t quite so orderly or predictable, Christ’s story tells us.  Some seed fell on the path, others on rocky ground.  Some seed fell among thorny plants.  Other seed fell into good soil and bore fruit…  It seems random and haphazard.  Far less predictable than the point, click, agree, authorize, install we’re used to on a Mac or a PC.

Brothers and sisters in Christ:  before there was Microsoft Word, there was another Word.  It’s true.  Hard to believe.  But true.  The Word of God.  Steady.  Mysterious.  Ancient.  Not always so efficient, or convenient.  It’s a Word as old as creation and as recent and immediate as the proclamation of these texts just a moment ago.  And in that Word, God’s Word, there is a tenderness and wisdom and mystery that is well worth considering as we enter into this installation today – pastor and people together.

Oh.  You thought it was just Ron who was getting installed.  You thought this was all about him.  Point.  Click.  Download.  Ron successfully installed.  Done.  Not only is it not solely about him. It is not even just about you here at Lord of Life Lutheran Church.  This is about all of us, the whole people of God.  Part of the wisdom and mystery and tenderness of the Word of God about today’s installation is that it’s about all of us – the whole Christian church across time and place.  What happens here today matter everywhere.  We are part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than what happens inside these four walls.

Comfort, comfort my people.  So speaks the ancient prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel 2600 years ago, and so speaks that same prophet to us today.  Comfort, my people.  It should prick our ears and bring us to attention, because only those who are afflicted stand in need of comfort, right?  God wouldn’t be assuring seed sowers like us of God’s comfort if there were nothing about which to be at least a little bit concerned.  God is speaking comfort.  We should be thinking, “Why, wassup?”

And honestly, there’s plenty that should give us pause as God’s people in our weary, wounded world.  There are the gobbling, angry birds of over-commitment and endless choice that cut deep into the fabric of a life of faithfulness.  The over-doneness of our lives stand in contrast to the restful, Jesus, a man of poverty and simple living.  There are the rocky, thorny terrains of cancer, hunger, poverty, unemployment, dysfunctional government to navigate for those who would follow Jesus.  These aren’t even the beginning of a sower’s challenges in the world we inhabit.  But they are here, and they are real. 

And yet, today, with unbridled simplicity, the Living Word of God comes to us and simply, mysteriously, tenderly, wisely says: A farmer went out to scatter seeds.  And, Comfort, comfort my people.

That is the Word of God for this installation.  This pastor.  This congregation.  This church.  This day.  This time.  This rich, fertile, hungering Central California acreage of waiting soil.  Comfort, comfort my people.

It is more complicated than point and click, isn’t it?  It’s not about a patch – a band-aid, a download, a new, quick fix.  It is about a way of life.  Preaching the Gospel.  Teaching the faith.  Visiting the sick.  Comforting the dying.  Burying the dead.  Proclaiming the resurrection in the wake of what will some days seem like insurmountable odds.  Feeding the hungry.  Praying.  Working for justice.  Holding one another accountable.  These are the tasks to which these beautiful, tender, mysterious, are directed for Ron but not JUST Ron.  They are directed to Lord of Life, but not JUST Lord of Life.  These Words of Life are for all of God’s people everywhere.  We are all in this together.

The very same prophet who proclaims a Word of comfort and delight also proclaims the shadow side of our human predicament.  We are people, and even if God’s people, we are like grass.  Stomped on.  Tramped on.  Temporary.  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  And therein lies our promise, and our hope.  God’s Word will exist stand forever.

There is a wisdom and a confidence in Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed, don’t you think.  It is just so matter-of-fact.  And so filled with conviction.  A famer went out to scatter seed.  He did what he was created to do.  He was a sower.  And he sowed.  And some landed here, and some landed there, in our patched-up, point-and-click, aching, longing world.  But nonetheless, the sower did what sowers do.  The farmer sowed the seed.

I suspect that, in the days ahead, there will be days that you will not feel like strapping on your sower’s sack of seeds and sowing, Ron.  I suspect that you, people of Lord of Life, will grow weary from time to time of getting back out there in the world and doing God’s work – healing, feeding, loving, teaching, praying.  If you’re like most congregations at this juncture of your ministry, you’ve probably already had a few thoughts about retirement now that the new guy is in town.  We’ve been working awfully hard for long enough.  Glad he’s here to take over now.  And I know for a fact, I know that congregations and pastors just like yours all up and down the West Coast are thinking much the same thing about the magnitude of our work in Jesus’ name.  It’s a hard job, bringing the Gospel today.  And getting harder.  It’s a big job, being Christ for the world.  And getting bigger.

And yet, and yet as sure as sowers get up and go out to sow day in and day out, as long as harvesters, find the crops that have prospered thirty, and sixty and a hundred-fold, go out to harvest…  As sure as Christ has died, and Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, just so sure is the promise:  Our God’s Word will exist forever.

Comfort, comfort my people.  Do your work with strength.  When you break this word down, that’s exactly what it means:  with strength.  Com – with.  Forte (any musicians out there?) – strong.  Be strong.  Do that to which you are called, with strength.  Because God is with you.  No pointing.  No clicking.  No downloads.  Not even an installation is required.  God just simply is with us.

So be strong, people of God.  Be strong in your sowing.  Be strong in rubbing one another’s tired and aching, feet and hands at the end of the sower’s day.  Be tender in words of kindness and gentleness spoken and shared, one to another.  Be strong.  For your strength is not your own, it is the strength of Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead.  The grass withers.  The flower fades.  Our God’s Word will exist forever.  And for this time, and in this place, you are that living, breathing Word.  Each one of you ordained, each one of you called and claimed to this baptismal task.  Yours is the dying, and yours the rising.  And yours the sowing of the seed.  Here.  Now.  With strength.  For Jesus is in it with you.

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.