Advent 2: “Because *You’re* Here.”

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Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

In the trailer for the upcoming movie The Last Full Measure, a Vietnam War movie, one solider goes back, under enemy fire, to rescue another solider who had been left for dead. The wounded soldier looks up at his rescuer. 

The wounded soldier, left for dead in a faraway jungle in a war he did not start but had to fight, whispers to his rescuer and brother in arms: “Why are you here, man?”

The rescuing soldier looks back at the wounded one. He smiles for a brief moment in the midst of battle and says, “Because you’re here.”

It happens every year, but it never ceases to surprise us: in the midst of this season of joy and preparation, when everything around us is all “Joy to the World” and shiny and red and green, when we’re happily decorating our houses and buying gifts, John the Baptist strides in with his wild eyes and clothing of camel’s hair and declares the apocalypse: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

For the casual churchgoer or anyone who doesn’t have a familiarity with the season of Advent, it really makes no sense. What’s with all the fire and war and end of days stuff? Isn’t it Christmastime?

No. It’s Advent. 

Advent teaches us to prepare to welcome Christ at Christmas. And Advent teaches us to welcome Christ in our lives. But Advent is also about apocalypse preparation — that’s why you got Jesus declaring the apocalypse last week, and that’s why you get old John the Baptist this week. 

There are times in history when the apocalypse seems far away from us, then there are times when it seems just around the corner. Regardless of which situation you think we find ourselves in today, it’s Advent, and we need to talk about apocalypses again.

You might have heard it before: “apocalypse” just means “to uncover.” If you see it like that, quite frankly, the apocalypse happens all the time. 

Apocalypses happen to us collectively: it was an apocalypse when we as a society realized the horror of slavery and decided to end it. The “me too” movement was an apocalypse in its own way: when we realized all of these things that had been happening to women for centuries. Any time we come to our senses as a society, it’s an uncovering. It’s an apocalypse. And it’s terrible and wonderful and scary and justified. And it’s painful and it spells the end of pain that’s happened for a long time. 

Apocalypses also happen to us as individuals. Eventually, the sky will fall for each of us individually. Someone we love will die. Someone we love will be arrested. Someone we love will overdose. Or maybe that “someone” will be us. We’ll finally decide to get our lives together once we hit rock bottom. 

In a personal apocalypse, usually what’s “uncovered” is ourselves. You know this: when things get truly hard, or when we finally find resolve and decide to do the hard thing, we “meet ourselves.” Those terrible personal setbacks and tragedies: they may be painful physically or emotionally or spiritually or all of the above, but we uncover something about ourselves. We uncover who we are after the death, after the tragedy, after the personal apocalypse. And if we learn to look for God, we uncover God, suffering with us, always with us. 

As a congregation, my dear ones, we run in a lot of different directions and we do a lot of different things. We teach kiddos. We teach adults how to get their financial lives together. We feed people. Over the years we’ve resettled immigrants and fixed decks and pulled weeds for our neighbors. We’ve delivered smoke detector batteries and we’ve sung hymns in bars. Many of you have joked with me that pastoring you all is like herding cats, and you are not wrong. I been herdin’ cats for four years, and thankfully I come from a long line of cat herders. 

But we do have a common passion, you know. 

We show up for each other.

And we show up in the midst of someone else’s apocalypse and they say to us, “Why are you here?” 

Why have you entered into this pain that isn’t yours, come back for someone who is hurting in this battle that you didn’t start?

This congregation responds, every time, without hesitation: “Because you’re here.”

We cannot control the apocalypses that will come our way, or each other’s way, or the country’s way. We can’t fight anyone’s personal battles for them, and we can’t control any outcomes. 

But we can keep showing up. 

We can keep showing up in the midst of apocalypses of all kinds. That starts with us showing up for each other, then branching out to people we know, then meeting new people along the way. We do not do this because God needs us – God has plenty of means for saving all kinds of people – but because God invites us to show up in the midst of someone else’s pain. 

This church thing? This caring for other people thing? WE GET TO DO THIS. We get to show up for people broken by life, people for whom the sky has fallen, people experiencing an apocalypse. I would say that that starts with me if it hadn’t already started with you.

Do you have any idea how much you’ve inspired me? You’ve shown me who you are by showing up, and you’ve inspired me to be better. Every tragedy, every death, every injury or diagnosis, every apocalypse, you show up. 

Now I want to hold up a mirror to you: you, Our Savior’s people, are generous, and kind, and are the kinds of healers the world needs. When people need you, and when you need each other, you show up.

As we enter our Forward year, keep that in mind. We are radical joy in action, and that means showing up for each other and for people we have the ability and resources to help. 

The results are not up to us, and the saving is up to God. The poet t.s. eliot once wrote the words I try to live by: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” For us, there’s only the showing up. 

The apocalypse happens every day for someone. Advent just reminds us to keep the apocalypse in mind, and to remember what our role is and what God’s very separate role is. 

And for us, there’s only the trying. For me, if you were to ask me why I’m here, I would simply say to you: “Because you’re here.” So let’s keep being who we are, and showing up — together. Amen.

Reign of Christ Sunday: “A Comeback for the Ages”

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Super Bowl 51: the second-greatest comeback of all time. This Sunday, we talked about it alongside the greatest: the resurrection of Jesus.

Luke 23:33-43

On a day when we celebrate Christ’s comeback victory over death and evil and pain, it seems natural to talk about Super Bowl 51. 

28-3. 

One writer described it as, “In a comeback for the ages, Patriots beat Falcons in heart-pounding Super Bowl.” 

We all know the story that the writers sent to the presses after the game. But what you may not have thought about is the stories they didn’t write.

In a world with the Internet, gone are the days when sportswriters sent in their stories to be ready only for the morning papers. Sports writers today write their stories while the game is taking place, anticipating the final outcome the entire time. 

I found a video on this recently that reshaped how I saw Super Bowl 51, as I looked at it through the eyes of journalists who were preparing their stories as the game unfolded in real time (1).

The headlines that were published, we all know. “Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, and Bill Belichick is the greatest head coach of all time.” “Patriots were well-prepared for this stunning comeback victory.” 

But what about the ones that weren’t published?

In the video, writers describe the stories they had mid-third quarter. “The Patriots were outclassed, and couldn’t handle the [Falcons’] speed on either side of the ball.” “Three Big Reasons Why the Patriots Lost.” One described his article as “An obituary to a dream season.” 

Then the Patriots started to put points on the board, and they had to begin changing their stories about the blowout. Suddenly, it was tied 28-28, and writers everywhere pushed everything to the bottom of the page or just hit “select all-delete.” But a few just opened entirely new documents, thinking it’d be fun to go back and read the first stories later. 

They wrote: “The Falcons pounded the Patriots, abused them, and outsmarted them. They absolutely clowned them.” “The Falcons gave a preview of things to come on their first play from scrimmage, when Devont-a Freeman gashed the Patriots defense for 37 yards.” “The Patriots had been good at limiting that type of play this season, but they hadn’t played a high-powered offense like the Falcons’. It turned out the Patriots defense just wasn’t good enough to win a Super Bowl.” “After methodically marching down the field from their own 25 to the Atlanta 23, it appeared New England could still make a game of this. That’s when Robert Alford stepped in — literally. [He made an interception and ran for the end zone.] Tom Brady reached out in desperation, but came up short. Ultimately, so did the Patriots.” “Brady, despite his status as perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history, proved he isn’t a miracle worker.” “When James White and Danny Amendola are your best offensive weapons, you’re in trouble.” 

Just as this line is read, the video shows Amendola fighting his way across the goal line for the tying score.

Do you remember the first half of Super Bowl 51?

Any New England fan watching the game that night was writing their own story in their head. We were all thinking about what we’d say to our Patriots-hating friends and family. We were perhaps thinking about what we’d post on the Internet after the blowout. We were sad. We’d had a great season, and we were watching it go down the tubes in a spectacular fashion. 

But those stories were never published. Because it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And sometimes,   even when it’s just over, something else steps in and re-writes our stories of gloom into a tale for the ages. 

Today’s Reign of Christ Sunday, and the Gospel text is the crucifixion. 

The headline that never got published: “God Comes to Earth, Preaches Love; Death Defeats God in a Blowout.” 

But I’m guessing that you know that that’s not the story that went to the presses, and that’s why we’re here. 

Though the Internet is what’s caused sportswriters to write their stories in real time, humans have always looked at circumstances and written our narratives ahead of time. It helps us survive. We anticipate what will happen based on the information that we have right now. And truth be told, in reality, miracle comebacks are the exception, not the rule. Down 28-3 in the third quarter, the Patriots had an 8.4% chance of winning the Super Bowl. 

We’re always tempted to say, “Oh, the math nerds were wrong again,” but the reality is that they weren’t at all. The Patriots had an 8.4% chance, which meant that it was still theoretically possible, just unlikely. But sometimes the unlikely thing happens. 

Like a 25 point comeback. Like resurrection. Like hope and new life. The only way the chance of victory drops to 0% is if you stop playing. 

In the third quarter, down by 25, Julian Edelman looked up at the scoreboard and said, “This is going to be a hell of a story.” 

The truth was that a comeback was really unlikely to happen. 

But it did. It did because the Patriots believed it could, because some times the football bounced the right way, and because the Patriots weren’t so consumed with the crushing blows and slip-ups of first half that they forgot to play in the second half. 

While driving to convocation, I read a sign that said, “Don’t trip over something that’s behind you.” 

There’s a lot of stuff going on in all our lives. Most of us have at least one 28-3 scenario in our minds. And if you don’t have one and you need one, let me offer you the state of the church in New England in 2019, when I get told over and over that no one goes to church anymore. 

This is true of the church and it’s true of America: we’re not getting the first half back. The points that have been put up on us are not going to be subtracted. There will not come a day when suddenly young families everywhere begin to see church as a staple, the way they saw it in the 1980s. Some will, yes. But not the way they did back then. 

America is not going back to the way it was before we all lived in alternate realities with our neighbors, either. We’re not going to get less angry. We’re not going to suddenly get more bipartisan. 

But don’t trip over something that’s behind you. We’ve got the whole second half to go. 

The thing that I will say and must say every single Sunday I occupy this pulpit is in the front and center today: that the God who came to earth died. Dead-died. He was literally dead and buried. That game was actually over. And yet, here we are, and Christ is among us. 

So what are we afraid of? Death? Endings? 

Please.

Whatever story you’ve already written, whether about your own life, the life of a loved one, the church, the United States of America, or the world, remember the story of Super Bowl 51: “unlikely” doesn’t mean impossible. That an 8% chance of winning still means that if you game out that scenario a hundred times, the Patriots will still win eight of those times. And a 91% chance of victory still leaves the door open for defeat. Just ask the Falcons. 

Don’t trip over something that’s behind you. Because today, we celebrate the fact that when Christ was dead and buried, with a 0% chance of victory, God broke into human history and snatched life back from death. The crucifixion doesn’t look like a victory, but it is. It was a victory then, it will be a victory in the ever-after, and, despite what the scoreboard or the news or our lives say about the very real pain we see every day, it is a victory today.

The Patriots were down 28-3, but won Super Bowl 51, and those stories never got published. 

Christ’s heart stopped on the cross, but he rose again, and that is why we are here.
“Then the thief on the cross said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

Why, oh why, would we ever look behind us? Do not be afraid. Look to the future, and look to the cross and remember how that story ended, and gather just enough hope to keep playing.

To quote Mr. Edelman himself, your story, and the story of our church, is gonna be one heck of a story. Amen.

1. You can watch that video yourself here

“Not One Stone Will Be Left Upon Another”

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Luke 21:5-19

As usual, it’s been a week. In the news, and in our lives. 

Whatever you’ve got going on in your own life, I just want us all to take a deep breath. [breathe]

Believe it or not, it’s been three years since the 2016 election, touted as the most divisive in modern American history. You know, except for all the others.

On that day three years ago, we all gathered in this place and read this Gospel text.
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”

And I told you one very simple thing: whether you are happy about the election of this President or whether you are afraid or angry or whether you are utterly indifferent, the message of the Gospel lesson is this: no institution, and no President, will save you. 

Now, three years later, I read this text and I think not of elections and government, but of the institution of the church. 

Here in New England, there’s a lot of fretting about the future, and with good reason. Take a drive through this Valley and you’ll find plenty of church buildings that are now functioning in many ways: day care centers, gyms, libraries, and even one now-defunct barbecue joint. We, here, fear the future and what it will bring for our small and mighty congregation, even as we today continue to function at an incredibly high level. If you question this, ask me about my schedule for today. We’re doing a lot, including feeding people on the street at Cathedral in the Night and helping people here in South Hadley restructure their financial lives at Financial Peace University. And, of course, we’re still doling out the word and the sacraments. 

And that’s just today.

Later this week, though, I’m going to go to our synod’s convocation and listen once again to all of our fears about the future. I’ll hear my colleagues wonder if they deserve a living wage, since their churches can’t or won’t pay them one for fear of the future. And I’ll once again give thanks for you, even as we have our own fears about what the future holds. 

“Jesus said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” 

Anyone who says they have the silver bullet answer to how to save the church is lying. The church only has one Savior, and I am not him. If you are hoping that I will be the one to grow the church into what it used to be, I have hard news for you. I am not the savior; I am only here to lead you, together with the other leaders of the church, into whatever future our actual Savior holds. 

Not only will the institution of the wider church not save us, most days, I’m not even sure the institution itself can be saved. 

“This will give you an opportunity to testify.” 

The good news is, we worship a Savior who was raised from the dead. 

The Isaiah reading for today is full of words spoken to a people who were far more hopeless than we could ever be. They weren’t afraid of budget shortfalls and closing churches; they had already seen their place of worship desecrated and destroyed by enemies. Their religious life together was, but for the small remnant of people, over. But the Hebrew people has always been small and mighty, not unlike a group of Lutherans that I know.

And what does God say to them?
“[My people] shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” 

I am not the Savior. The Savior is my boss. 

When Christ said, “On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” he didn’t add, “Unless you don’t have enough people in worship and have budget shortfall; then it’s over.” These promises, my friends, are eternal. 

It has been said ad nauseam that every 500 years or so, the church undergoes a giant shift. The Protestant Reformation was our last one, and that occurred 502 years ago this year. It’s time.

The church of the future will not be like the church of the past. And no one person will build it. We will build it together. Yes, it will be hard. But this will give you an opportunity to testify. 

I say to you exactly what I said last week. Whatever you are feeling hopeless about — whether it is the state of the church or the state of the nation or the state of your own life — hope is there.

Last week it was the religious leaders and today it’s the disciples who miss the resurrection there, in their midst, in the person of Christ. The disciples are impressed by this giant building, built for God. But they miss God, who was standing there in the flesh right beside them. That impressive temple would eventually be torn down, and to this day, it has not been rebuilt. But the Jewish faith lives on, and Christ lives on, here, with us, in this place in bread and wine and in all of you, gathered here, small and mighty. 

My little flock, do not fear. Even if not one stone is left upon another of this building tomorrow, hope will survive as long as God is with us. 

So breathe. 

We are Our Savior’s people, and we will always be. So let’s look to the future with hope. Because institutions rise and fall all the time.
But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

Amen.

Veterans, Weird Questions, Finding Hope, and a Man Named John

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My friends’ and my favorite photo of John — at breakfast with us, laughing and likely saying something funny right back.

Luke 20:27-38

Whenever Veteran’s Day rolls around, I always think of my favorite veterans: there’s some of you, naturally. There’s my dad. There are several of my friends, as I was part of the generation that witnessed 9/11 as teenagers and had many sign up for the subsequent wars after. 

And then there’s my friend John. 

John and I met in seminary. He always had a quick, sarcastic wit and an easy smile. He was a Marine who was severely injured in Iraq in the early 2000s. He almost died, but he didn’t. However, his injury took out most of his pancreas, leaving him diabetic. He always said he felt like he was living on borrowed time. In 2010, to our shock, that proved true. He died of complications from diabetes that year; it was our senior year of seminary.

I know: Memorial Day is really the right day to honor John now. But Veteran’s Day always brought up good conversations with him about war and peace and theology and service. Not a Veteran’s Day goes by, still, when I don’t think of him.

I don’t mean to start a sad sermon, of course. John would hate that, actually. This is a guy who named his cat Bertrand, after philosopher Bertrand Russell. 

What I want to do this morning is to tell you stories that would connect to this Gospel text.

Two stories come to mind. 

The first is this: John was boarding an airplane once, after his time in the Marines. He was a strong-looking guy, and he also often had a beard and long hair. He didn’t really “look like a Marine” in any traditional sense after he was discharged. John took his seat on the aisle of an airplane, dressed in a suit to travel, just like his mother had taught him. He said hello to the woman next to him and prepared to settle in. He leaned forward to place something underneath the seat in front of him. Just then, a high school ROTC corps came down the aisle to board, clearly on a field trip.

The woman next to him, mistakenly thinking they were active duty military and eager to show her gratitude, put her hand on John’s shoulder and pushed him back into his seat. “Excuse me,” she said pointedly. After pushing what she did not know was a Marine out of her way, she went on to thank a very confused high school ROTC unit for their service to our country.

The other story is this one: John and I were in the same group of seminary interns during our second year of seminary. As part of this group, we’d all meet monthly to do a site visit. We were at one church that had a lovely children’s area, complete with a giant mural with a beautiful nature scene. John and I were standing next to one another when John leaned over and whispered, “Yo, what’s with the creepy kid?”

I followed his gaze and indeed, there was a singular toddler in the mural, just sort of sitting in this beautiful nature scene. Thinking that this was the artist’s odd attempt to help children picture themselves in the scene, we giggled at the artist’s poor choice; the kid did look a bit out of place and creepy. 

Just then, one of our classmates raised her hand and asked, “Who’s the child here?” 

The pastor of the church who was showing us around said, “Oh, that’s Timmy. Timmy died of a rare cancer, and his parents dedicated this play area to his memory.” 

John and I could’ve melted into the wall in that moment. “We. Are. Jerks.” I whispered to him. “Yes, yes we are,” he whispered back. “Drinks after this?” 

Today in the Gospel lesson, some Saducees, or some religious folks, come to Jesus and ask him sort of a creepy, weird, off-the-wall question. The Saducees, Luke helpfully tells us, don’t believe that there’s any resurrection, yet here they are, asking about the resurrection in an attempt to show Jesus what a silly idea it is. 

Essentially, they say, “Look, if people get raised from the dead, what happens if they’re married, and then marry other people? Huh? 

It’s worth pointing out that Jesus at this point is right between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. He is mere days from his own resurrection. And according to John’s Gospel, he is the resurrection and the life, which adds even more irony to the story. 

They ask a weird, trapping question about the resurrection, only to miss the resurrection, in the flesh, in their midst. 

Can’t say I blame them. I miss the resurrection all the time. We all do. 

We look with doom and gloom at the future of the church. We look at the impending doom in our own lives. We fail to see or even look for hope, instead getting caught up in the details: but how will we pay the bills? How will we make it? And if there is a resurrection, how would it even work? 

We’re not so unlike the lady who pushed the Marine out of the way to thank the ROTC kids. And we’re not so unlike me and John, getting caught up in the details of a painting of a kid, yet missing the hope of the resurrection in this play area dedicated in his memory.

When John died, it was the first time I lost a friend to death. I’d lost loved ones, sure. I’d even had people that I went to high school with die, but I wasn’t close with them. But John was my friend. And when he died, it was easy to focus on all that we had lost.

John was a marathoner, and when I first started running over ten years ago, it was him who encouraged me. When I posted my finisher photo after my first half marathon on Facebook, he immediately popped up in a comment: “Great time!” Mind you, my time was not great. John was just kind. When he died, I couldn’t cry until one day, about a week after his funeral, when I was running, and it all hit me at once. Running helped me grieve. 

Now, every time I run a race, especially a long one, I think of John. He was on my mind a month ago when I ran the Hartford Half Marathon. When I crossed the start line, I looked up and thought of him. I pointed to the sky, took off, and ran my best race yet. It was awful to lose a friend in that way, but over time, I’ve begun to see the resurrection manifest itself. John is in my steps and my heartbeat whenever I run. 

My friends, the resurrection is here, in our midst. Don’t miss it. 

Those that we have lost are still with us. Christ is still with us. 

My favorite thing to say to people when they tell me that the church is dying is, “Oh, yes. And I can see why Christians would be worried about death. Our faith is all about how death is the very end of things, right?” And I wait for their reaction. To date, I’ve yet to have someone not understand what I mean.

No, we’re not unlike the Saducees, asking all the questions about the details, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not. We’re not unlike the lady who pushed John the Marine out of the way to thank the group of high schoolers wandering by in training uniforms. And we’re definitely not unlike John and I, giggling quietly in our jerkdom and missing a very sweet gesture by grieving parents. 

We have this tendency to get caught up in what’s wrong or what we think we “should” do and very much miss God’s hope and presence in our lives. So don’t do that. 

God is here: in wine, in bread, in water, and in the people sitting around you. God is here, in your breath and in your heartbeat. God is here, offering life, offering hope, and always, always, offering another chance to recognize what’s right in front of you. 

Thank God. Amen.

All Saints Sunday: Bless Your Heart

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Myth: “Bless your heart” is an insult. 
Truth: It can be, but the truth is more complicated. It’s often used affectionately, especially among Southerners. 

Luke 6:20-31

People accuse Southerners of being passive-aggressive compared to people from other places, and I can’t say that that’s exactly wrong. As an example, I’ve had many an argument with those from the North and Midwest about the phrase “bless your heart.” 

“It’s just another way to tell someone to…” … hmmm, there are children present. To tell someone to go… away. People think it’s an insult.

In fact, when I googled a more polite way to express the sentiment “go away,” “bless your heart” even came up in my google search. That translation was posted by a Northerner, of course. I can’t blame them, though. That’s probably the only way a Northerner who thinks they know it all probably ever hears the phrase.

For you Northerners who are humble enough to learn, however, I can tell you that the truth is that “bless your heart” can mean many things, and only one of the options is an insult.*

*I usually explain it this way: it’s not unlike saying “you poor thing.” You can say it sincerely or sarcastically, and the meaning is all in the tone.

Growing up in the South, I think, makes it clearer that the phrase can be used in absolutely genuine love and concern. When you’re a child, after all, and you come to your grandmother with a skinned knee and she says “Bless your heart,” you can safely assume she’s not insulting you.

Another option for “bless your heart” is that you’re being lovingly patted on the head — for many varying reasons. Which, even at its harshest, is still very different than being told to [blank] off.

Today, Jesus moves through a lot of “blessed”s in the Gospel passage, and it’s kinda hard to figure out what he means by “bless your heart,” what his point is, and why we would want to read this passage today, as we remember the saints who have gone before us. 

Bless our hearts. Saints & blesseds, what does it all mean?

People, especially here in Catholic country, often have a bit of a complex when it comes to calling their loved ones “saints.” It’s one of the biggest differences in language that we have as a result of the Reformation; for Roman Catholics, the emphasis is often placed on famous saints who have been canonized by the church. As good Lutherans, however, we emphasize the we are all both saints and sinners.

Still, because of the visibility of icons and our own weird and selective sense of humility, we hesitate to call ourselves or our loved ones saints. What does it even mean to be a saint?

There’s a Reader’s Digest story that Delmer Chilton of Two Bubba’s and a Bible told this week on the podcast that goes like this. 

A little boy was out trick-or-treating in a Superman costume. He came to the door of one of his neighbors with his mother, who was holding his pumpkin for him. The neighbor asked why his mother was holding the boy’s candy. The boy didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because it’s heavy!” 

“Heavy?” the neighbor said. “But you’re Superman!” 

The boy leans in somewhat conspiratorially and whispers to the neighbor: “It’s just pajamas.” (1)

Bless his heart. 

We’re just like him when it comes to calling ourselves or our more imperfect loved ones “saints.” Told of God’s grace, we at best think of ourselves as forgiven sinners, but not saints. Not worthy of recognition as models of faith. Like “bless your heart,” we struggle to define what a saint is, other than that we aren’t saints ourselves.

But it seems to me that if there’s one message in the Gospel passage that’s especially relevant for All Saints’, it’s that Jesus is saying loud and clear that saints aren’t going to look like you’d expect them to (2). We think of passages like this as being about who’s getting in to heaven, but given that Jesus doesn’t make any such claim in the text, we’re free to think of it in bigger terms than who’s going to heaven.

It’s about what God’s reign on earth looks like, and what it looks like to live as if God’s love has made a difference. It’s not just pajamas. 

This whole day is about how we are stepping into this tradition, this stream of faith, that has been flowing for thousands of years before us and will keep flowing when it is our names that will be spoken in November every year (3).

Before an Auburn football game one year, then-head coach Gene Chizik addressed his team in the locker room of Jordan-Hare Stadium. He talked about tradition. 

Coach Chizik’s words were simple: “This place was great way before you got here.” 

He said this not to make the players feel unworthy, but to wake them up to the opportunity they had to carry on a tradition that was far bigger than they were: that they  can be an example of what it means to carry this great tradition forward. They get to wear the uniform no matter what; now it’s their chance to set an example of what makes this tradition great.

This is true of us, too. The church was great way before we got here. 

It’s not just pajamas.

An alb is what we all wear whenever we serve in worship; it’s the garment of all the baptized. When we bury our dead, we put a white pall over the casket, also symbolizing baptism. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, with everyone who has gone before us and with everyone who will follow us.

That uniform is real, and we get to wear it no matter what. It was great way before we got here. We are saints. And now we carry this tradition forward: to do crazy things like loving our enemies. Being generous. Being joyful. The church’s legacy throughout the centuries isn’t untarnished, but it is ours. No human has been perfect, but we have all been loved. 

Bless our hearts.

It’s a lot to take in, and we probably feel unworthy and will always wonder what, exactly, it means. But I think Luther said it best when he wrote, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”

So that’s it.

Let’s speak the names of those who went through the waters of baptism before us and who now rest with God. We’ll light candles to remember them, then, surrounded by those candles that remind us of the great cloud of witnesses, we will gather around the table again, just like Christians have for well over 2,000 years now. Then we will leave to continue the legacy of Christ’s church for another day. 

Bless our hearts. Amen. 

1. I listen to “Two Bubbas and a Bible” just about every week. You can find it here.
2. This snippet also comes from Delmer Chilton of “Two Bubbas and a Bible.”
3. The “stream of faith” metaphor is from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who used it at her ELCA Youth Gathering talk in 2012.

Prince, Michael Jackson, and Martin Luther: Reformation Sunday 2019

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John 8:31-36

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray. 

But when I woke up this morning, could’ve sworn it was Reformation Day.

Well, my friends, here we are for another year — celebrating the five hundred second anniversary, as it were, of the Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther, whose name we bear whenever we refer to ourselves as Lutherans. Luther: the monk, scholar, and pioneer who utilized the technology of his day (namely, the printing press) in order to get his ideas out there and to change the course of history as we know it. 

Today, I also want to talk about faith and technology and pioneering and reformation via another pioneer who used the technology of his day: the artist, as it were, formerly known as Prince. 

Whether or not you were alive and aware of pop music in 1982 doesn’t matter, because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty years, you know this little clip of music. [Click here to listen.]

That drum machine. That blast of sound. It’s iconic. And it’s also musically groundbreaking in ways that I didn’t quite realize until this week. 

No, this isn’t a setup to a joke about partying like it’s 1517. 

All of this information comes from a little podcast called Switched on Pop, which I highly recommend. This week’s guest was Anil Dash, who usually appears on a tech podcast called Function. This week, however, he joined Switched on Pop to talk about his Prince fandom.

You see, that blast of sound and those drums didn’t just come out of nowhere. Prince was fond of using drum machines, at least in part because he didn’t have to worry about contacting actual drummers while he was working in the studio at 3AM. In 1982, before the release of “1999,” he had one called the Linn Machine 1, or LM1. It was created by Roger Linn in the 1970s in order to produce “the most faithful sound” — in other words, it was supposed to mimic actual drums. 

It’s what Prince did with it, however, that made both it and the song groundbreaking. He turned the knobs of the LM1 too far intentionally — much further than the inventor, Linn, intended. The result, as you can hear on the track “1999,” wasn’t the sound of real drums — it was the sound of otherworldly drums. You might even call them futuristic.

From there, Prince added an Oberheim synthesizer and also cranked it up further than anyone else was doing at the time. His goal: to stretch his audience. To be innovative. To figure out what was possible. The result, you’ve already heard: the song “1999.” It was his breakout, iconic single, and one that expanded his audience and launched him to the iconic status that he has today. The song even had a revival naturally, as the new millennium approached almost twenty years ago.

The freedom Prince had with music was based on his knowledge of music and his willingness to take what he was given and innovate. He pushed and expanded and changed the face of music.

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

Someone else heard the song “1999” when it was first released in September 1982. That person, naturally, was Michael Jackson. At the time, he was working on a track called “Starlight,” which was a synthy, soft rock song. Now, you’ve probably never heard a Michael Jackson song called “Starlight,” unless you’re as big a pop music nerd as me. Well, there’s a reason you’ve never heard it. 

You see, when Jackson heard the wall of sound in Prince’s new song, his competitive edge hit him. He also wanted something that sounded like a wall of sound, something iconic, that would make history and help change music forever. The result of this musing, you also know — you may have even heard it recently, as it’s a Halloween mainstay.

[Click here to listen.]

And all of this came from pushing boundaries far past what was originally intended, to include more sounds, louder sounds, bigger sounds. It was, in its own right, a kind of musical reformation that would shape pop music for the rest of the 1980s and beyond. 

My friend Kimble, a UCC pastor, describes theology in different traditions like a stereo. The Presbyterians turn up the knob on God’s sovereignty, while the Episcopalians might turn that one down a bit and turn up sacramental theology. Well, my friends, Martin Luther takes the “grace” knob and turns it way further than anyone had before 1517, and he changed the course of history. He rejected the idea that the clergy nor the institution of the church was the sole arbiter of grace, and he really rejected the idea of the church selling indulgences, or the forgiveness of sin for a price. And so, that fed up monk wrote a little document called the Ninety Five Theses, and depending on whom you ask, he either nailed it to the door of a church or mailed it to the church authorities, but either way, the rest is history. 

Now, this is not to denigrate our Catholic neighbors, of whom we have many. It’s not to denigrate the members of your families who may be Catholic. Christians of all types have tended to take that “truth shall make you free” passage and use it to feel smug, but that’s not the intention. Luther, before all hell broke loose, didn’t intend to create a new church with his 95 Theses, and everything he was saying was originally in an attempt to reform the church he loved so much. Nothing he said was actually all that contrary to Catholic theology; in his view, he was simply calling them back to what he understood the Catholic faith to be. 

Or, as I like to put it when someone tells me they’re Catholic after finding out I’m a Lutheran: “Ah, well, what’s a little damage to a door five hundred years ago between friends?” 

The gist of what Luther wanted to get across wasn’t so much Lutheran as it was just Christian, even if he did crank grace knob all the way up to eleven: the Gospel is a story about God, and salvation is an act of God. By grace we are saved, through faith. 

If Prince produced a wall of sound that hits your ears, Martin Luther produced a wall of grace that hits your heart. He cranked that knob up further than anyone intended, except for Christ himself. 

There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Just before that line, when Jesus says “If you continue in my word,” it’s important to note two things: first, that the word translated “continue” is really “abide,” and that when Jesus refers to the “word,” he’s not talking about the Bible since, you know, the New Testament didn’t exist just yet. When the writer of John pens this line in the eighth chapter of the Gospel, he’s calling back to the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What Jesus is saying is “abide in me,” live in me, and I will make you free indeed.

My friends, on this five hundred second anniversary of the Reformation, I want to posit this: that, just like art, and music, and science, and our own lives, faith and theology are dynamic, not static. A healthy faith is always growing, changing, re-forming, discovering new things, all while holding to the core truths that set us free. After all, in music, basic music theory isn’t going anywhere, but in the right hands, some amazing things can happen that would blow the socks off Mozart himself. 

The color for Reformation Sunday is red with the Holy Spirit’s dove logo for a reason, you know: that the Holy Spirit, wild, untamed, creative, is always doing a new thing. The same Holy Spirit that first whispered in Luther’s ear to turn that grace knob all the way up is here today, whispering in our ears, too, if we know how to listen. And while we may have changed some things since 1517 that Luther did not intend and would not recognize, the creator of both faith and music, wild and untamed, is unsurprised. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth is that we are saved by grace, by God. Set free from having to earn God’s love, we are free to play, to create, to fail, to learn, to experiment, to grow. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the next year as we undertake the synod’s Forward program and look not with fear, but with, creativity at our future. And the Holy Spirit will be there, too.

It’s Reformation Sunday, folks. So turn it up. Amen.

One in Ten

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Our Savior’s people on God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday: as Lutherans, we do good not because we must, but because we’re grateful. 

Luke 17:11-19

I have to confess something to you. I don’t usually like Christian movies. 

Why? Lots of reasons: for one thing, I often find them to be a little too simple and sweet; they’re like eating a cupcake with lots of icing when I want a meal. 

The other reason is because of this line that we find at the end of the Gospel passage: “Your faith has made you well.” 

How often are these movies about someone in the moving having great faith and finding their problems solved by God?

“But Pastor,” you may say, “You literally just said it’s right there in the Bible!” 

Yes, yes it is. “Your faith has made you well.” 

So that’s it, isn’t it? If we have enough faith, God will solve our problems, just like Jesus did for the grateful leper who comes back to praise him. 

But as you might imagine, this ain’t no sweet Christian movie. It’s a complex story. And we’ve got a few minutes, so while we’re here, we might as well talk about it. 

It begins:

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” 

“Samaria” is already a warning sign. Good Jews did not go near Samaria. That’s where “those people” lived. The first readers of Luke would’ve leaned forward at the mention of “Samaria.” Samaria was a whole other nation, and a hated one. Jesus is going near the border. 

We talk a lot about Samaria and how the people were despised, and about how the Jewish folks of the day regarded them as those who have it all wrong. We say this, and we compare it to the hatreds of our own day, but I don’t think we take it seriously. You see, we don’t personally have anything against Samaritans. I’ve never met one, myself. And the groups of people we hate, well, they’re clearly different than the people we find in the Bible. They’re harmful, and dumb, and they really have it all wrong. Jesus would understand, right?
Nope.

In Luke, Jesus spends most of his time setting his face towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. Gradually, he gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, though he takes a bit of a circuitous route. You’ve got to wonder if the Son of God has a busted GPS. 

Hence, going by Samaria. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did.

Here, on the way to his destiny and going by the place where the hated people live, ten lepers cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

They keep their distance, Luke says. They don’t want Jesus to just walk quickly away from them, which would be well within his rights; not only were they unclean, but on a practical level, no one wants leprosy. 

Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests, and Luke says that as they went, they were made clean. 

This could be a nice, simple, sweet story, one where Jesus directs people to go and rejoin the community by going to the priests who will declare them clean. Except that it isn’t that kind of story.

One of them didn’t go to the priests. He didn’t because he couldn’t. He was a Samaritan. He was one of those people. The priests wouldn’t welcome someone who was both leper and Samaritan who dared to approach a Jewish priest. Strike one, strike two, strike three, sit down.

He couldn’t go to the priests so he came back to Jesus, seeing that he was healed and made clean. He came back praising God with a loud voice. He came back grateful. He fell at Jesus feet and thanked him. 

Luke adds: “And he was a Samaritan.” 

And that’s when Jesus said it, the line that echoes back through the centuries and gets into our theology and gets us into all kinds of trouble: “Your faith has made you well.” 

Does faith make sick people well? Maybe. But then I suppose we’ve got a lot of explaining to do. In my own life and as a pastor, I’ve known plenty of people with faith far greater than my own who have not been made well, but who have died of illnesses and injuries of all kinds. Christian movies can be a nice escape for us, because they put us into a world where faith is simple. But the truth is that faith is rarely simple. 

“Your faith has made you well.” 

Does Jesus really mean that the Samaritan leper’s faith healed him? 

You might have already guessed this, but the answer in the text is no, for a few reasons: first, the nine ungrateful lepers, the faithless ones, are also healed. 

But the text says what it says, right? “Your faith has made you well?” Some translations even say “your faith has healed you.” 

Well, Luke originally wrote in Greek, and Greek is a funny thing. “Healed” is one translation, “well” is another, but I think here, the best word is “whole.” 

“Your faith has made you whole.” 

Theeeeere you go. Is that even different? Goodness yes. 

You see, as Lutherans, we believe that faith is a gift from God. If you believe that you’re earning your way into heaven by being here, I hate to disappoint you, but we believe that salvation is an act of God, not a reward for good behavior. If you’re waiting for an excuse to not go to church, well, here it is: you’re fine even if you don’t. When we declared you beloved at your baptism, we were just saying what God already knew: you’re beloved beyond measure. God’s not keeping score anymore. God has claimed you and healed you. You have been made clean. If all you want is a healing and a ticket to heaven, you can leave now.

But this is what I love about Lutherans: you know that. And you still come back every Sunday morning. As if that weren’t enough, you show up on Sunday nights to teach and take care of kids and serve food at Financial Peace University. You show up in the middle of the week to fix things around here that need fixing. You show up at Sok’s Bar to sing and be grateful and enjoy one another’s company. You keep coming back, all the time, not because you must, but because you may. 

Because you’re grateful. Not because your own faith has healed you, but because your faith has made you whole. Because this community makes you feel whole. Because Jesus makes you feel whole. 

The pastor of a church in Atlanta that is 90% LGBTQ, Beth LaRocca-Pitts, once preached on this text when it happened to fall on Pride Sunday in October in Atlanta. “One in ten,” she mused. She added, “I can’t help but think of something else that occurs in about one in every ten people.” Of course, she meant being LGBTQ. She went on to celebrate them, her congregation full of the one in ten. (1) The one who turned back and praised God with a loud voice because not only had he been healed, he had been made whole. 

I’ve never forgotten that sermon. 

I have never served a congregation that was 90% LGBTQ. But I do serve a congregation that is full of the one in ten.

As you may have noticed, practically nobody in New England is all that religious. The usual story, as you know, is “I was raised [fill in the blank, usually Catholic], but these days, I’m spiritual, but not religious.” 

According to Pew Research, 45% of our neighbors in Massachusetts seldom or never attend religious services, while 33% say they rarely do. In my experience, a lot of those 33% actually belong with the 45%. 

And yet, here you are. 

Your faith has made you whole. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning anyone who’s happily sleeping in right now. Many Sundays, I wish I was doing the same. Don’t forget — all ten who met Jesus were healed, even the ones who never saw him again. But I’ve got a congregation filled with the one who came back to praise God with a loud voice. 

No, it’s not a simple story. This story, as good as it makes us feel, is no usual Christian movie where someone with a lot of faith gets healed because they have a lot of faith. It’s a story about how Jesus throws out healing like he’s made of it, because he is. 

And then one guy comes back to Jesus in gratitude, and he is made whole by his own gratitude, by realizing where his healing came from, by being thankful. 

You’ve already begun practicing gratitude by showing up today. Keep it going. What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful for? 

I’ll start: I’m grateful for you. You make my soul whole by showing up, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. I’m the pastor of the one in ten, and I could not be more grateful. 

Our story isn’t a saccharine movie. It’s much more complicated with a few more beers and probably a lot more cussing, but it’s got just as much Jesus, just as much healing, just as much wholeness. 

And for that, I’m grateful. Amen.

1. That church is St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta.

Mustard Seeds: Get It?

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Actual mustard seeds, as seen at children’s Sunday school on Sunday at Our Savior’s.

Luke 17:5-10

When I was in college, for the first two years, my coach was a very Bill Belichick type character: highly successful, wicked smart about strategy and the game in general, all with the cuddliness of a Brillo pad. He wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to trifle with, and if you played for him, you’d better do your best. 

When someone hit a home run, we weren’t to lose our minds. We were to come out of the dugout calmly and deliver our fist bumps and high fives. Why?

Because we weren’t supposed to act like home runs were rare, or in any way a surprise. 

No, we do this all the time. If success is routine, you don’t lose your mind when all you did was your job. 

Makes sense now why I, someone with no previous NFL loyalties, so quickly became a Patriots fan, don’t it?

This morning, Jesus essentially says a similar thing at the end of the passage. Those who do what they’re supposed to don’t expect congratulations. So yeah, you guessed it: Jesus’ message is, essentially, Do your job.

There’s also this thing about mustard seeds. 

You may be familiar with the parable of the mustard seed. Starts as a little seed, grows into big tree, birds come and nest in its branches, etc. This isn’t that, but it’s close. Jesus really loved mustard seeds for some reason. I think it’s this: there’s a truth about mustard seeds that we miss because, well, we’re not first century Middle Eastern farmers. 

Mustard seeds were tiny, which also means that they can hide in a bag of other seeds. Mustard bushes aren’t the kind that farmers planted in nice rows. They’re the kind of seeds that spring up in the middle of a field, tossed out by some unsuspecting sower. It’s not the nice story of a planting that we might imagine — it’s one of a sudden tree that provides shelter — and food, since nearly the entire plant is edible. It’s a sudden tree that gives itself for the life of the world around it.

Get it? 

We often think that it’s our job to have faith. We think that what Jesus is telling us here is that if we could muster even a little faith, we could do great things. DO YOUR JOB – have faith. 

But everything gets in the way, and faith becomes hard to muster. More than anything, I wish I could take you all to my seminary for just a day, to go undercover and listen to what pastors sound like when no one else is around. What you would encounter is probably not what you’d expect, unless you’re friends with a lot of pastors. What you’d encounter is a bunch of people just like you: punchy, funny, just a little bit irreverent, and really, no more faithful than you are. What you’d encounter is just a bunch of people who are doing the best they can, and sometimes that’s not enough. 

The world feels like it’s in chaos, but then again, it often does, doesn’t it? 

I can hardly think of a time when I looked around and thought, “Wow, everything in the world is really peaceful and going really well.” I mean, maybe when I was a child, but then again, I was a child. It’s easy to think the world is a great place when your parents make your food and pay the bills and keep you from doing dumb things.

Once, when I was a teenager, I asked a pastor how to keep faith. You see, I was having a hard time maintaining my faith and my emotions around it. I would get stressed or sad and just not feel the passionate faith that I thought Christians were supposed to feel. To me, faith was something that I was supposed to maintain. This pastor replied, “Are you asking how do you keep the fire from going out? You just don’t let it.” 

For him, faith was an act of will. Do your job.

Little did he know, I would grow up and become a pastor and realize that that was terrible advice. 

For Lutherans, faith is a gift. It’s not something you feel and it’s not something you earn. It’s something you have even when you really feel like you don’t. It’s a mustard seed that pops up when you least expect it, giving shade and food and new life. When you’re just going about life, like any other sower, doing your job, scattering seed, faith is a little thing you throw out by accident that can start growing unexpectedly. 

Faith like a mustard seed: small, sneaky, and prone to start growing just about anywhere. 

Get it?

So what Jesus is saying here, I think, is don’t act like it’s a big deal when you manage to do the right thing or have faith. Faith and good works are acts of God, popping up everywhere, sometimes when we least expect it. 

Today we’re celebrating our work on September 8, when we served our neighbors via distributing batteries and cleaning the food pantry. Though it took a lot of planning, in the end, it did feel to me a little like a mustard tree springing up out of nowhere. Though we knew what was going to happen, I think we were also plenty surprised along the way: by the reactions of our neighbors, and by how good we all felt at the end despite a day of hard work. 

So let’s continue to get out there and do our jobs. But remember: faith is a gift, and a surprising one at that. So if you’re feeling like you just can’t keep that fire going, let go and let faith surprise you, like a mustard tree that pops up out of nowhere. I think you’ll be glad you did, because God, for one, always gets the job done.

Get it? Amen.

Stewardship, the O’Jays, and the Parable of the Guy Who Cheats

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Amos 8:4-7
Luke 16:1-13

In the famous words of the O’Jays:
“Money money money money, MONEY!
Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Listen to me why y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it…” 

It’s a great connection to the Gospel. I got it from a podcast. Because I needed a little help this week. Because I got a little lost between this confusing parable about the dishonest manager and the dilemma that every pastor has during stewardship season: balancing the Gospel and the belovedness of every person with the pressing knowledge that running a church ain’t free.

And here Jesus is, coming in with a whole chapter on, you guessed it: “Money money money money, MONEY!”

I’ll be honest: I’m usually not one for church podcasts. I’d rather listen to something about the news or music or language or something besides what I have to think about all day for work. Recently, though, I’ve discovered a church-related podcast that I actually enjoy. It’s the Lectionary Lab, put on by “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” a lectionary podcast by Delmer Chilton, a colleague down in the Southeastern Synod, and John Fairless, another Bubba/pastor. I love listening to them drawl on about the Hebrew and Greek and biblical scholarship and theology, sprinkled with the plenteous use of “y’all.”It’s like a giant bowl of chicken and dumplin’s for this relocated Southerner.

(And yes, Delmer’s real name is, in fact, Delmer.)

This week in the Gospel lesson, we’ve got the parable of the dishonest manager, a story about how a guy who was going to be fired for his incompetence found out about his firing and responded by straight up cheating his master. But he didn’t get thrown into the outer darkness, oh no. He got commended for it. Then, after the parable, Jesus says weird stuff like “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9). 

What.

And to top it all off, it’s stewardship season. 

This week when talking about the texts, Delmer and John, the aforementioned Two Bubbas with the Bible, said something like this: we tend to think of Jesus’ parables as neat little stories that tell us neat, simple  little lessons about how to relate to God and how to serve God. 

But if we’re looking for that, we have come to the wrong parable. 

The Bubbas concluded that that there’s no completely satisfying explanation for this parable, and I agree. If we get to the end of my sermon and you still feel like there’s a loose end or two in this story, it’s because there is. Somehow, down through the centuries, we’ve missed something. So — if you were hoping I’d tie this story up into a neat little moral bow for you, then adjust your expectations now. I’ll wait.

Sometimes I find it helpful to tell you about all the bad sermons I decided not to preach before landing on this one. Here are the titles, in no particular order: 

“How to Minimize Your Debt: Find a Debt Collector Who’s Getting Fired” 

or , for stewardship season: “Cheat your Boss; Give More to the Church”

and finally,

“I Don’t Know What to Preach Here, but Like the Text Says, ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg,’ So Here I Am” 

Here’s what I think the actual point of the text is, with some help from the two Bubbas and a Bible: use your money, don’t let your money use you. 

“Money money money money, MONEY!
Let’s go back to the parable.
I’m going to take you to seminary for a half second. First lesson in parable reading: rethink what you know about who the characters are. Often, we’re straight up told in the text who they are. Often, the master of the house, the rich one, is God. But not always, and in this parable, Jesus doesn’t say who’s who. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re dealing with a flawed, more human, but still smart, master, shall we? Less Jesus Christ, more Robert Kraft. 

The manager, our hero? finds out from our Mr. Kraft-like character that he’s going to get fired. The manager tries to figure out what to do about his looming unemployment, and he weighs his options. Finally, he decides, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 

“Forget the money,” he thinks, “I’ll make sure I have friends.”

Then he systematically does make friends by reducing his neighbors’ debts. Will he make any money from this? No. Will it help him survive? Yes. And his master, despite being the one who gets cheated, is so impressed with him that he commends him.

The manager uses money to make friends. Of course, he’s a dishonest manager, so he does it out of self-preservation rather than kindness, but the lesson is the same: use money; don’t let money use you. 

Another lesson: it benefits everyone to put people before profits.

Jesus ends the whole chapter, which has been about money this whole time, with one of his most famous sayings: “No one can serve two masters; for they will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13).

To serve wealth means that you have to step on people in order to amass more. To serve God means forgoing some chances at wealth to serve people.

What God’s mad about in the Amos reading is people pretending to be all religious but really being all about the money money money money, MONEY.

What God is saying to us in all this, I think, is “You are so much more than what you can own.” You are worth more than a life of living, amassing money, and dying. You can’t, as they say, take it with you.

It’s also pretty easy to say this if you have enough money, if you’re being paid fairly, if you have everything you need. But as anyone who’s ever struggled knows, focusing on relationships before making bank is even more important when you’re poor. It’s much easier to ignore your neighbors when you don’t have to depend on each other to survive. 

What Jesus is trying to get us back to, I think, is depending on each other, talking to each other, forming relationships. Focusing less on the capital and more on each other and the world around us that needs us. 

It is indeed stewardship season. And runnin’ a church ain’t, indeed, free. And we are, indeed, beloved.

The Good News, friends, is that we are beloved children of God. Humans are too precious to serve wealth. Life is too rich, too valuable, to always have your head down, working on making the next buck. What we have in this place is a chance to put relationships first, to serve our neighbors first, and to not be, as every other organization is, one that’s focused mostly on dollars.

So as we get ready for commitment Sunday next week, I challenge you to look up and into the eyes of your fellow members, your friends, your neighbors. Invest in relationships. And if you find something valuable here, invest in this place, however you can — using time or talent or 

“Money money money money, MONEY!”

Running a church ain’t free, but grace is, and grace abounds in this place, thanks to all of you. 

And thank God. Amen.

Revisiting Repentance: Sorry, Not Sorry

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Camp Calumet’s Reach the Beach group for 2019. Thanks to everyone who’s given to send kids to camp; if you haven’t and you’re still interested in giving, click here.

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

This sermon begins our annual stewardship season, which ends in Pledge Sunday, September 29. If you’re a member of OSLC and haven’t received your pledge card in the mail, pick one up at church in the next two weeks! 

If I seem a little dazed and tired today, there’s a very good reason.
If you didn’t know already, it’s because I’ve just returned from a 12 person, 200-ish mile, 34ish hour relay from the mountains of New Hampshire to the beach. I, personally, ran 16 miles on no more than three hours of sleep. You might be wondering if this was for fun. No, no — I went to seminary for this. I ran to support our synod’s summer camp. We raised money for Camp Calumet’s campership fund, so that every kid who wants to go to camp might have a chance. I want to say thanks to all of you who gave, and if you haven’t and you want to, let me know and I’ll figure something out for you. Otherwise, when all of my work is done today, let me sleep. 

But I’ve got a few more miles to go first. 

The first order of the day is these texts, all vaguely referencing repentance, but not in the way you might expect. We usually think of repentance as kind of a dirty, wash, rinse, repeat cycle. You sin, you feel sorry, God looks at you like “Oh, no, again?,” you say sorry, and finally, you are forgiven because you feel bad and God feels sorry for you. That’s usually the way repentance works in the real world, between people. Usually, saying sorry is required before we get forgiveness. We’re expected to demonstrate true remorse, and maybe the other person will take pity on us and forgive us, and maybe not. Occasionally, you might hear (or be) a very strong person who’s able to forgive without needing an apology, but it’s certainly not common, and we definitely don’t expect God to act that way.

But since my brain is still in New Hampshire in the middle of the night, I want to begin my explanation of all this by describing the time we lost Sam. 

Okay, we didn’t lose Sam. We just misplaced him for awhile in 2018. 

About every other year, a runner in the middle of the night makes a wrong turn. My 1AM run this year had a ton of turns this year, but luckily, it wasn’t me this year.

When you’re running through rural New Hampshire in the middle of the night, you’re looking for signs with singular blinky lights on them that tell you where to go. If you miss one and keep going straight when you were supposed to have turned, you put everyone on your team, including yourself, into a panic. Oh, and did I mention that cell service is terrible run rural New Hampshire?

So we misplaced Sam. And thus my metaphor about these texts begins.

Sam went the wrong way and it separated him from us. It doesn’t really matter if he did it intentionally or not, though he definitely didn’t because, in the words of some Bostonian Calumet visitors, “Theh’s beahs out theah.” The night is dark and full of terrors. 

Immediately when they realized that Sam wasn’t coming to the transition when he was supposed to, people began to call. When calling didn’t work, some folks got into the van. They searched until they found him, corrected that wrong turn, and got him back to the right transition area, fixing the problem and reuniting him with his community.

What you’ve got in today’s readings is repentance, but it’s not about feeling sorry. It’s not about us at all, really, but about God and God’s character. 

The Exodus reading is the passage right after the famous golden calf, when the Israelites decide they need a better god and so they build themselves one out of gold. God, as God does, gets angry, and the argument in this Exodus reading between Moses and God is what ensues. It sorta goes like this for awhile: “They’re your people!” “No, they’re your people.” “No, they’re YOUR people.” In a very Jewish argument in which a person argues and struggles with God in the way only God’s chosen people can, God relents and decides not to wipe them all out. If “repent” literally represents a change of mind (and it does), God repents here, which tells us from the get-go that we have to think about repentance differently today than we’re used to. 

God doesn’t have much of a need to feel sorry, you see, but God does change God’s mind (Exodus 32:14), as conscious beings often do. The King James version actually does say that God “repented.” 

So what the heck is repentance if it isn’t crying about our sins? And what does that tell us about grace? And what the heck does any of this have to do with us losing Sam?

Let’s go to the Gospel. 

In the Gospel reading, you’ve got Jesus accused of, as usual, hanging out with the wrong sorts of people. He’s been at dinner with some good religious people, and they start to notice the crowds coming near to listen to Jesus. Rather than saying “Wow! We’ve been trying to get these people to listen to us for years,” they grumble jealously: “Can you believe he lets these people hang around him?” 

So Jesus, never one to miss an opportunity to offend such folks, starts talking about two other marginalized groups: shepherds and women — looking for a lost sheep and a lost coin, finding each, and rejoicing.

Just like we rejoiced when we found Sam. And boy did we.

You see, in the words of Delmer Chilton, a pastor down in the Southeastern synod that I adore, “the Gospel is rooted in a Hebrew understanding of God as gracious…. Jesus is not God’s Plan B… Jesus doesn’t represent God saying, ‘Well, that didn’t work, so I’ll send Jesus to change the rules.” 

No, Jesus is simply describing what true repentance is: it’s a story about God restoring us. 

The crux of Lutheran theology, friends, is that we get so broken that we can’t make our way to God. So God always comes to us and makes us new, again and again. And if you ask me, that’s a far better story than a story about God taking our sorry butts back. 

So if you’re feeling lost, my friends, like you’re on a dark New Hampshire road and you don’t know which way to go and you long ago lost sight of the last blinky sign, take heart. God will find you. Because the Gospel is, above all, a story about God. 

Our job, it seems to me in this Gospel reading, is to not go second guessing God by griping about “those people.” 

So, yes. Repentance can entail feeling sorry. It can also just be about reconciliation. When God changed God’s mind in Exodus, it wasn’t about God admitting fault, it was about setting the family right. It’s about who God is, not who Israel is. It’s about God taking action to restore, to bring new life from death, to set things right. 

So it is with us. 

As we enter another stewardship season, keep that in mind. You’re not giving so that God will love you. We’re not selling tickets to heaven or tickets into God’s good graces. You look just as cute to God whether you give a lot or none at all. 

We give so that we might work with God to set things right in the world. To do a little good. And most of all, we give because we’re grateful to be found. You can’t earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. So it is with us. 

And so, my fellow lost and found sheep and coins, let’s get ready for another year of being found. Let’s get ready for another year of doing good because we’re grateful. Let’s get ready for another year of being awesome not so that God will love us, but because God already does. Amen.