Lent 3: Family Stories

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Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

There’s a bit of a theological problem in our readings for today: the readings from the New Testament seem to entirely blame people for their suffering. I found my way in the only way I know how: family stories.

Weddings and funerals have one thing in common: they are times when families — both blood family and chosen family — gather. As such, family stories flow freely, with or without the help of a little wine.

If you are part of any type of family, you know something about family lore.

Family lore tells you who your family is and where you came from and what you’ve come through and where all the dark parts are. Family stories are full of pride and fear and tears and usually, not just a little laughter and joy.

Weddings are a time when families embarrass their newly married relative with stories of first crushes and awkward preteen years and that time they got so mad that they almost killed the kid as a teenager. Funerals are less joyful occasions, but there is some joy; funerals are a time when a person’s chosen family and their blood family compare notes about who a person was. It is often at the funeral when you learn just how generous and caring your family member was by hearing friend after friend tell of all of the things they did for the people in their life. Family stories flow at weddings and funerals, and they produce some of the holiest moments.

Family stories paint a picture not only of who individual people are, but what the family is like. 

The Bible, above all, is family stories. It paints a picture of who we as a family of faith are. Sometimes, we may not like what we see, while other times, we’re filled with pride with what we read. Still other times, you might hear a different story if you heard it from a different uncle — and with four Gospels, there’s always another uncle to ask.

The Old Testament, especially, is family stories: stories meant to be told around a campfire, stories of pain and tragedy and wrongdoing and woe and pride and return and love and faithfulness.

When it comes to the Old Testament, I hear one thing all the time from a lot of different people: boiled down into very Lutheran terms, it’s the idea that the Old Testament contains Law and the New Testament contains Gospel. To put it in less Lutheran terms, it’s the idea that the Old Testament is judgement and the New Testament is grace.

This kind of thinking does help us with some things: namely, it helps us explain the most egregious parts of the Old Testament that bother us the most. And, to be sure, there is plenty to bother us in the Old Testament: a God that seems to punish people on demand for the smallest infractions of the law, some downright weird stuff, and let’s not forget stories like that of poor Uzzah, the guy who died because he tried to catch the ark of the covenant as it fell (see 2 Samuel 6).

Saying all of that bad stuff belongs in the Old Testament, in the past, seems to be a way to explain these uncomfortable stories. It’s easy, after all, to tell ourselves that God got much nicer after God became flesh in Jesus. 

If you find yourself drifting towards this way of thinking, don’t worry. I’m not calling you out. After over three years together, I know a lot of you quite well. If we took a poll, a goodly number of you would freely admit to having used this kind of thinking before, especially when dealing with a difficult passage. I certainly have. It’s just theologically neater and easier when we can find a simple hack like this to explain a problematic passage. 

But you all are smart. You know that if you scratch the surface with a little logic, you run up against problems with this way of thinking rather quickly. First, there’s the simple fact that our Jewish neighbors don’t have a New Testament, and to insult the “Old Testament God” as judgmental is to not only insult their faith as lacking grace; it is to play into the same tired tropes that have caused Christians to think less of our Jewish neighbors and their faith for millennia.

Besides that, the Old Testament is how we got Jesus. It is the only Scripture that Jesus ever quoted. The Hebrew scriptures are the only reason we even know about him. It is the Hebrew culture, with its Scriptures, that gave us Jesus.

Oh, and of course, there’s no small amount of judgement in the New Testament: like when Ananias and Sapphira drop dead for lying to the apostles about money (see Acts 5:1-11), all of Revelation, and both the 1 Corinthians passage and the Gospel lesson for today. Given a choice between today’s Old Testament readings and today’s New Testament readings, which would you say have more grace?

The Isaiah reading is pure poetry and grace: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” 

Meanwhile, Jesus leaves us to contend with a fig tree being uprooted for not producing fruit and we get that sneaking feeling that you tend to get when someone tells a story and you suspect that they might be talking about you.

Here’s the big thing that my Sunday school students have heard before: most of the New Testament was written primarily to convince you that Jesus is the real deal and Christianity is the truth. That’s why its stories are generally more appealing to you — they were written that way!

The Old Testament, on the other hand, wasn’t written to convince you of anything. The Old Testament is family stories: the kind you tell at weddings and funerals and behind closed doors. All the dirty laundry of the family is in there. These are the kinds of family stories that tell you who you are and where you come from: with the hard parts and the parts we can be most proud of.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

In this part of Isaiah, the Israelites have been in exile for a long time in Babylon. Their country was conquered and many people were killed and others were taken away as exiles. A good chunk of the Old Testament tells this story of exile and pain and return and joy. And here, in this last part of Isaiah, the exiles are returning, and God’s grace is ever near. The people feel God’s love and generosity in a way that they haven’t for years. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” 

These are family stories. Remember when we were conquered? Remember how hard it was to be away, and in captivity in Babylon?

Remember when God brought us home? 

No, the story of the Babylonian captivity is not a simple story. Our faith family wrestles in the Old Testament with why an all-powerful God would allow God’s people to be captured. A lot of the passages posit that it was God’s judgement. Family stories are rarely simple stories. True family histories are messy and complicated and what story get depends on which aunt or uncle or second cousin you ask. 

The people in the Gospel story really want another family story to be simple. They come to Jesus with a very specific story: one where some Galileans had been murdered by the Romans recently in the midst of worship: those killed are described as those “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” It is not unlike the countless murders we have heard of, most recently, in New Zealand — of people of faith being killed as they offer their worship — only in this case, it is not a terrorist, but the state who does the killing. 

It was fairly common at the time to assume, like the Israelites often did, that if an all-powerful God allowed such a thing to happen, it must be judgement. People still assume such things today.

Jesus isn’t having it. “Do you think they were worse sinners than the other Galileans?” Than you? You think that because something bad happened to them that they deserved it? Jesus cites another disaster and asks the same question. Then he says: repent.

As I used to say to patients in the hospital who thought God was judging them by making them sick: “If everyone who deserved God’s judgement got sick, we would run out of beds in this hospital. We would all be sick.” Tragedies happen. Illnesses happen. Even violence happens, because humanity is destructive. We have proven very great over the years at hurting each other. But even when it is no one’s fault, suffering and death happen.

Taken with the rest of what Jesus says, the message is pretty simple: repentance is our only hope of breaking the cycle of human destruction. Destruction breeds destruction. Harmful behavior causes harm to you and to others.

But love creates love. Love gets you somewhere. Love bears fruit. Love will bring you home — no matter why you find yourself lost.

In today’s readings, the New Testament sings the verse of Law, but the Old Testament sings the chorus of Gospel.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” 

No story that is real is simple. This Gospel story isn’t easy to boil down in ten to twelve minutes. We could spend years debating why good things happen to bad people, and I will be the first to say that I don’t know. We will not solve the problem of human suffering in this hour together.

Family stories are complicated. Our faith story is no different. 

Here’s what I do know: love brings us home. Love is full of grace. Love is generous. Love tells us who we are, and love makes a family. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

If you remember, I’m referencing all five of our congregation’s chosen values in my sermons during Lent: the first Sunday of Lent, I talked about how we are a sacramental congregation, forming our life together around worship. Last Sunday, it was inclusivity, as Jesus opens his arms like a mother hen to gather us all in, and how this congregation seeks to replicate that extravagant welcome. This Sunday, it’s generosity. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

Our Savior’s people are generous. You have given far above your size for years and years, you have resettled refugees, and you have helped make countless people’s lives better and you continue to do so every single week. You do that because you have come to the waters of baptism and you know who your family is. You do that because you know how much God has given you. We do that because we know that that’s the way God rolls, and we want to be generous like that.

So come to the table of grace. Here is bread and wine without cost. Here is Christ offered freely. Here is love. The kind of love that brings you home.

Because it’s not just weddings and funerals where we share family stories: it’s the kitchen table, too. And in our faith family, the communion table is our kitchen table, where we are free to bring our understanding of the family, our scruples, our doubts about the family, our problems with the family or certain parts of it — but all of us, all of us, are loved as family. 

So whether you’ve been part of this faith family for years or you just started coming here, come to the table with us, where bread, wine, and love are all free. Where the stories might be complicated, but the love is always strong.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Lent 2: “Just Breathe”

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Kerwin Rae

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Luke 13:31-35

I am not a parent, but parenting fascinates me because of my fascination with all things human. If you are a parent, you have my utter admiration. As a non-parent, I do not know how parents do all that you do and have done: the sleep deprivation, the worries, the entire act of feeding and dressing another human being — and one who is very tiny and fragile, at that. Let’s face it: in the words of writer Roxane Gay, babies are cute but useless. They can’t do much of anything for themselves. Then they become toddlers, and toddlers move through the world like tiny, adorable drunk people: stumbling, clumsy, slurred speech, could say almost anything, unaware of danger, and prone to getting the munchies and fits of emotion. And when kids grow up, Lord — they get their own ideas about everything. 

So if you are a parent, you have my undying admiration. 

One of my friends who is a parent posted a video on social media this past week that caught my attention. It’s a video by Kerwin Rae, an Australian speaker specializing in psychology and parenting, among many other things. He’s listed on his Facebook page as “a single father,  businessman, entrepreneur and human performance specialist.” Normally I’d be a little skeptical of such people, but not this guy.

In the video, a tearful mother says that she’s been guilty of not “appreciating her [young] son for everything that he is.” But that sometimes, he doesn’t stop: he can have outbursts and be defiant and just put her at her wit’s end. She says that she and her husband have been talking about how they talk to their son, trying to do better. She says, “I know I’m not a bad mom; I only did what I knew then.” 

Kerwin says, “How old’s your son?” 

The mom responds, “He’s eight.” 

Kerwin continues, “Do you know when a child’s brain becomes fully developed?” 

The mom guesses, “At about ten?” 

“No,” Kerwin says, “When they’re about 28.” 

The mom breathes a sigh of relief and says, with relieved laughter, “Oh thank God, I can fix it.” 

“Yeah, you can,” Kerwin says. “But here’s what parents need to understand. Kids are loud, they’re messy, they’re all over the place, they’re intense, and that’s the way kids are supposed to be. Kids aren’t supposed to be well-behaved. They’re supposed to basically come into this world and flail their arms and find out where the boundaries are. That’s what kids do. And our job as parents is to allow them to find those boundaries safely. And sometimes that’s hard, because what kids do is come into this world, and they behave in ways that press our buttons… what our kids need to learn more than anything else is they need to learn how to regulate. And if you don’t know how to regulate, it’s because your parents never demonstrated it to you.

“Because when a child is having a meltdown, what do most parents say? Stop it! Go to your room! I’m sick of hearing you carry on! Whereas what a child needs in those moments is a nice calm parent… to get down on one knee and grab them and bring them in, and just hold them and say, ‘It’s gonna be okay. Just breathe.’ All a child wants is to feel your presence.”

And I started thinking about how none of us is really all that different from a child. Learning to regulate our emotions and our reactions is a lifelong process. You know that. You’re church people. You’ve seen grown adults completely unable to regulate their emotions and their reactions. You’ve likely been there yourself. I have. And what we typically need in those moments is just to be held, whether physically or just emotionally, and told that it’s going to be okay. Just breathe. Just breathe. (1)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” 

We are right smack in the middle of Luke’s Gospel now. The disciples have seen healings and demons being thrown out of bodies. They’ve seen amazing things and they’ve seen controversy. They’ve seen Jesus feed a bunch of people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Just before this in Luke 13, we’re told that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem. For Luke, everything in Jesus’ story flows towards Jerusalem, and the cross. 

Some Pharisees catch up with him. “Get away from here,” they say. “Herod is trying to kill you.” 

This is as if we heard someone say “Get away from here, Kim Jong Un is trying to kill you,” or “Get away from here, Putin is trying to kill you.” Herod is a known killer, a tool of the empire. And a total tool. The kind of tool who will totally kill you.

Jesus’ response is one of the most gangster responses of Jesus in the Gospels: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” 

Don’t miss it: Jesus is told that a killer wants to kill him, and his response is, “Go tell him I’m coming right for him, and I’m not afraid to die.” 

It’s not just Jerusalem that kills the prophets. You know that. All of humanity has been fond of killing truth tellers. We humans — of all ages — are temperamental, messy, prone to outbursts. Unfortunately, when we become adults, our outbursts stop being cute and have, in history, often become murderous.

That’s when Jesus starts feeling rather parental about us: when threatened with death.

Jesus don’t scare easy.

Instead, faced with the greatest threat, the messiness of humanity, he gives us this motherly image for God: of being gathered and sheltered, all together. It’s on the cover of your bulletin, and artists have been using this motherly image for centuries to depict God: wings open, loving, sheltering.

As I told you last week, I’m tackling one of our five chosen values from our retreat last month for every Sunday of Lent. Last week, we talked about how we are sacramental: we order our lives around these holy things in these holy seasons. 

Today, it’s inclusivity. 

It’s become almost passé for a church to say “Everyone is welcome.” Inclusivity is, and isn’t, old hat by this point. The recent decision by the United Methodist Church on LGBTQ+ issues is one example of how we’re not there yet, and as we talked about when we went through the Reconciling process two years ago, lots of churches say “All are welcome,” but what they mean is “all people like us are welcome.” This congregation gets that. You tolerate differences: in politics, sexuality, gender identity, and personality — better than just about any congregation I’ve known. You respond to humanity’s messiness by wanting to draw people closer to God’s love and saying “You are loved. Just breathe.” I love that about you.

But beloved, the work continues. We are continuing to find new ways not just to include, but to invite. How can we help all people feel more safe, and more welcome, in our space? How can we care for our Muslim neighbors after Friday’s horrible shooting by a white nationalist? How can we care for those around the world who suffer from the effects of terrorism of all stripes?

We’ll continue to explore our welcome that as 2019 goes by. And, of course, it’s also about whether people are ready or willing to join us. Jesus didn’t say, “How I have longed to gather you as a baby hen gathers her chicks, and you were not willing, so I forced you.” No. Love is, among many other things, about mutual consent. 

The Good News, beloved, is that we serve a God who longs to gather all people together under her loving wings, hold us close, and tell us just to breathe. 

So draw near. Come close.

It’s not just children who are messy and temperamental, especially when they’re hungry and tired. It’s not just children who are learning how to regulate their emotions and handle what life throws at them. It’s not just children who need to be heard and seen and held close and told to breathe.

It’s us, too. 

While it’s true that you may not be able to feel God’s physical presence, you can feel the arms of the body of Christ. The Church is the body of Christ. God’s arms are your arms and mine and the person next to you. We can be here for one another and for the community around us. Let us not forget to hold one another close in whatever ways are needed and wanted, knowing that it is Christ, the loving mother hen, who holds us all.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, I end with part of the prayer from his breastplate:
“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.” 

Christ surrounds us and embraces us as we are. So come close. And breathe. Just breathe. Amen.

1. You can watch the whole video here.

Lent 1: 100 Redeemable Stories

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You can listen to the whole song referenced in the sermon here.

Luke 4:1-13

Every Sunday in Lent, I’m tackling one of the five values of our church that we decided upon on our all-church retreat last month. Today, it’s the value that came in first when we voted: “sacrament.” We’re a sacramental congregation that roots its life in baptism and communion. I think we go further than that, though. You see, sacrament, to me, in the truest sense, is when the holy manifests itself in things that we can see and touch and taste and feel. A hug can be sacramental, and so can a conversation. So can a story.

In the stories of Jesus, we hear our story. And this Gospel story is no different. Let me explain by way of a relatively new song released just this year.

The following is not from personal experience — it’s the lyrics to a song I’ve been jamming to lately that reminded me a lot of the Gospel text for today. It’s a confessional song by the band AJR, and it goes like this: 

“Remember when we all got drunk?
I ended up with two broke thumbs
Oh my God, I felt so dumb — lucky me
I wrote a song that no one knows
I played a show and no one showed
Oh my God, I felt so alone, lucky me…
Remember when she broke my heart
Waitin’ for the waiter to return my card?
Right as I let down my guard — lucky me…” 

The whole thing goes like that: almost heart-wrenching confessions of things that have happened in a person’s life to make them feel less than, small, ashamed. Bad days. 

But despite how it sounds, you see, it’s not a sad song. The chorus concludes: “100 bad days made 100 good stories / 100 good stories make me interesting at parties / No I ain’t scared of you / No I ain’t scared of you no more!”

I don’t know who the songwriter means by “you” in that lyric. Maybe it was the girl that broke his heart, maybe his own shame, or maybe someone or something else. 

But thanks to this Gospel reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about the devil when I hear it. 

“100 bad days made 100 good stories / 100 good stories make me interesting at parties / No I ain’t scared of you / No I ain’t scared of you no more!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the devil and a lot about shame and how the two work together to make us quiet and scared. 

Now, there’s no doubt that we in modernity have our doubts about the existence of a literal devil. You might, too. Some days I do; it depends. I’ve certainly heard enough stories as a pastor to make me at least question any unbelief I might have. The rest of my hanging on to the idea, of course, is made up of my experience paired with something I learned in seminary. 

If you’ve been here before, you’ve likely heard me say it before. The name “Satan” — ha satan in Hebrew — means “the accuser.” Ha satan is the creature in the book of Job who subjects Job to all kinds of torture to make him doubt that God is really with him. I’m pretty sure evil still does the same to us today: accuses and weighs us down with shame, telling us that we are not lovable, and that we are defined by the worst moments in our lives. That our bad days don’t make good stories — that they make us bad people instead. Satan is none other than the voice in your head that might say “You think you’re just as good and holy as all these people sitting around you? I know better. You’re not who you say you are.” 

Whether or not you believe in a literal Satan, you know about that voice. Often, it’s a voice that finds you when you’re all alone and everything is quiet. That’s when it gets to you. It’s even worse if you’re hungry or tired.

Today, after forty days in the quiet wilderness, hungry, alone, and tired, Jesus meets that voice, too. 

The first word the devil says to Jesus is operative: if. 

“IF you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 

What do you think you are, Jesus? Holy? Powerful? Feed yourself, then, if you are who you say you are.”

The next temptation is to power. “Tired of preaching all this ‘love your enemies’ stuff, Jesus? Tired of being a poor and homeless wandering teacher? You’re not the Son of God, come on. You could be actually powerful.” 

And finally, the last one: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple in the middle of Jerusalem. Everyone will see and believe in you. I’m just trying to help you out here. Otherwise, no one will believe in you. You’re just going to end up another dead Jew in the Roman Empire. You know that, right Jesus? So if you are who you say you are, prove it. But you’re not.” 

You know how the story goes. Jesus turns to Holy Scripture every time, rebuffing the devil and winning the day. 

Unfortunately, we are not Jesus. “Of course Jesus actually is the Son of God,” you might think. “But me? You have no idea. I’m not holy.” 

I hate to break it to you, but I’m not either. My shame list is just as long as yours, maybe longer. This is why I need confession. This is why I need the dusty road of Lent. Because just like that AJR song, confession and acceptance are the antidote to shame. “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” or so they say. To be able to tell the truth such that you can say to your past and the devil himself: “I ain’t scared of you no more.”
That’s how 100 bad days could possibly make 100 good stories, and 100 good stories make you interesting at parties.

Other confessions are in that song other than the ones I read, and many others fit, both heartbreaking and scandalous. It is an acknowledgment that we all have these things. Of course, I know: we all have plenty of stories we don’t tell at parties, or maybe to anyone, even when we don’t feel shame about them anymore. I get that. 

The Church and many other holy places, like therapy or conversations with close friends, can help us begin to tell those stories to ourselves and others, make more sense of them, and heal.What I mean to say is that in these holy stories and these holy rituals and holy days, we can, if we know how to look, find our own stories redeemed.

We are, first and foremost, a sacramental congregation. These holy rituals and holy stories are our stories, not because of what we remember about them, but because of what we experience in our own lives. We all know that voice. And we all know the relief of confession — of finally telling someone your story after years of silence. We also know the relief of being heard and loved exactly as we are. 

If we know the voice of Satan, the accuser, we also know the voice of God: the one that rings loud and clear when we are feeling most at home, most ourselves. Catholic theologian James Allison compares being in the presence of God to being in the presence of someone you’re certain adores you. You’re relaxed, you’re more funny, you’re more yourself. You’re at peace, resting in the gaze of someone of someone who loves you. That kind of love transforms us. 

That’s the kind of love we meet at the table every single Sunday: of a God who shows up for us and transforms us. A God we can be certain adores us, warts and all. 

It’s true: none of us is perfect, none of us is capable of rendering ourselves lovable. None of us is the Son of God, able to shoo away the shameful and shaming voices so quickly. We all know the voice of the accuser. 

But here, we learn to hear the voice of God, too. The voice that tells you that you were created good. The one that tells you that you were created in God’s own image. The one that tells you that God loves you, and there’s nothing that you can do or have done or will do that will change that. Being loved will not save you from being accountable if you have hurt someone, but it can save you from being defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done. It can save you from shame and give you hope for a future in which you are good and you do good.

There’s this rumor going around that Lutherans don’t believe in works. That’s not true. We just believe that some other folks have it backwards. What we don’t believe is that we must work to earn God’s love. We don’t do better so that God will love us. 

We are inspired do better because God loves us. When we humans are certain that we are loved, secure, healthy, and happy, we naturally become better. 

Otherwise you’ve got a lot of people telling lies when they say that their spouse makes them a better person. Teachers and coaches, too, have known this for years: show a student or an athlete that they are already good and capable and smart, and they might just begin to act accordingly.

Love is a game changer. 

It is the love of God that we find in the sacraments that transforms our 100 bad days into 100 good stories. And as we learned from AJR, 100 good stories make you interesting at parties. Or, at the very least, the love of God transforms those 100 bad days into 100 stories that don’t make us hide in shame anymore.

So tell the devil, the accuser with the shame-thrower: “I ain’t scared of you / No I ain’t scared of you no more.” Even if you remain a little afraid and a little ashamed, at least know that you don’t have to be.

Come to the table, invited by the one that sees everything you don’t want seen — your entire past, your most shameful moments, your bad days, and your Internet search history, everything that you would rather keep hidden — the same one loves you just as fiercely as ever. 

We all need that kind of friend and advocate. Maybe that’s why the Gospel of John settles on a word for the Holy Spirit that means all kinds of things like that: friend, advocate, counselor. 

This is sacrament: when love becomes tangible. When we experience God’s love not through some mental or spiritual out-of-body experience, but when we sense God’s love though things we can see, touch, and feel — water, bread, wine, words, and each other. When we understand and are understood, when we love and are loved, by God and by one another. That is what it means to be a sacramental congregation. But you knew that already. Because that is who we are. 

Also worth noting: we are pretty interesting at parties. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: A Love Song of Raw Mortality

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“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.”

So begins the t.s. eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published sometime around the beginning of World War I, a conflict unlike the world had ever seen. Eliot, for his part, seems painfully aware of his own mortality and the futility of modern life. Rather than hide from it, he jumps in with both feet. Tonight, we are right behind. Welcome to Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday calls us, like Eliot, in our own turbulent times, to stop avoiding the subject and turn and face our own mortality. So let us go then, you and I, now that evening has spread across the sky, and let us remember: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

Do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. 

Though we have typically avoided the subject, it would seem that in our society our need to control things has superseded for a moment our fear of mortality. In the last decade or so especially, people have become more interested in letting their plans for their deaths be known long before they were ill or injured. Hospitals and funeral homes alike have been promoting end of life planning; as a hospital chaplain, I was often responsible for talking to patients before surgeries and at other times to make sure their medical wishes about things like life support were in writing on a legal document, just in case. Funeral homes and lawyers, too, have been getting into the game of end of life planning related to funerals and wills and all sorts of things. 

The particular book on the subject that I learned about recently is a planner covering everything from what happens to your belongings when you die, to your business and legal affairs, to your wishes about burial and funeral plans. I love it by its original name, which you can still purchase: it’s called, I’m Dead. Now What? Important Information About My Belongings, Business Affairs, and Wishes. It’s designed to be a guide for your loved ones once you’ve died — hence the name.

Some people, like me, loved the name, while others loved the idea but not the name. In order to get more people planning, the publishers started producing the same planner with an alternate title: the far more innocuous Peace of Mind Planner. 

For the record, if this interests you, and it probably should interest all of us, you can buy either version on Amazon. 

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” the voice of the prophet we call Joel echoes down through the ages. It’s like the alarm that pierces the darkness of your dreams calling you to wake up and face reality for another day. It’s not always welcome, in fact, for most of us, it usually isn’t. Today, that alarm is particularly unwelcome, calling us to remember that from dust we came, and to dust you shall return. These are the words we will tell one another as crosses are etched tenderly in ash on each of our brows with the ashes from the Palm Sunday palms we burned together on Sunday. Anyone can choose not to participate in the ritual, but no one is exempt from death. 

Sound the alarm: we will all die. In our Genesis study on Sundays, when we read the creation story, we talked about this: the Hebrew word used in Genesis when God creates a human is “adam,” [which we anglicize as the name “Adam”], which is related to the Hebrew word for earth, or dirt: “adamah.” Contrary to popular belief, it is not the word for “man” — there are other unrelated Hebrew words for “man” and “woman.” “Adam” just means “earth creature,” or maybe “dust creature.” 

From dust we came, to dust we shall return. 

Pardon me if it’s a little blunt, but: we’re going to die. Now what?

More than that, why is Jesus here talking about how looking dismal, say, putting ash on our faces, is what hypocrites do? And why did the church choose this text for today? It’s like the Church itself is making fun of us.

In this turbulent age, however, I think it’s a call to not take ourselves so seriously, but to take life as seriously as ever. Yes, today we’ll have ash on our faces. But tomorrow and the day after that, we have an opportunity: to give in secret, to do good without looking for a give-back. To pray for someone even if you don’t like them. To do what you want, to be more yourself, and to give your full self to the world.

We cannot alone do the big things. We can’t make the country less divided. We can’t stop climate change alone. We can’t stop warfare around the world. We can’t stop mass killings from happening. 

But we can do our part to make a difference. We can make our corner of the world a better place. We can give all the good we have, not so that we’ll be applauded, but so that we can help others, in the name of Jesus who gave his very life and breath willingly so that we could see what full love looks like. So that we can have more life in our years. 

Let us go then, you and I. 

Let us go down into the depths of Lent again. Because what I learned as a chaplain is the lesson of Ash Wednesday: it is only in facing death that we see the urgency in really living. It is only in admitting that we aren’t perfect that we can ever hope to do better. It is only in admitting that we are not all-powerful that we can come to appreciate a God who is.

And so here we go again: on our journey from ashes to fire. From the ashes of Wednesday to the fire of Pentecost. From death to life. Let us go then, you and I.
In Eliot’s poem, Prufrock laments:

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?”

The central question of the poem is just that: do I dare? 

“Do I dare eat a peach?” “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

Does Prufrock dare to really live? Do you?

Faced with your own mortality and the chaos in the world: do you dare? Do you dare face your own mortality, no matter how scary, and despite it all, grasp life out of it, following the one who passed through death into life before you?

Let us set our feet once again together on the dusty road of Lent with Jesus, the one who walks all our roads beside us.

“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread across the sky…”

So let us be on our way, together, into Lent. Amen.

Transfiguration: Between the Way It is and the Way It Could Be

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An autumn view from Mt. Tom.

Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-36

There’s a William Stafford poem that reminds me what the view is like from Mt. Tom. This is the first place I’ve ever lived with such nearby mountains, and I treasure it. The poem goes like this. This is only the first half:

“Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this,
and suddenly the air is filled with snow.
That is the way the whole world happened —
there was nothing, and then…
But maybe some time you will look out and even
the mountains are gone, the world become nothing
again. What can a person do to help
bring back the world?” 

Those passing moments, when everything stands in dazzling clarity. The first thing we want to do is act. Today we remember how Jesus took the three disciples and they, too, climbed a mountain.

Perhaps tired from the climb, the disciples got sleepy. If you’ve read the Gospels at all, you know that the disciples always seem to be a sleepy bunch, especially when it’s time to pray. That gives me comfort. 

And suddenly, the air was filled with — not snow, but light. There was nothing, and then… 

Jesus. Dazzling. Face changed. Moses. Elijah. (Who, by the way, are supposed to be very dead.) Peter can’t help himself.
“Master,” Peter says in the Transfiguration story, “it is good for us to be here! Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 

I think Luke is generous. He adds, “not knowing what he said.” 

The rest of us, and I imagine the other two disciples, meanwhile, have reactions similar to just this: “shut up, Peter.”

Stop talking and take it all in. It is good for us to be here. Not so we can do, but so that we can see. 

It is good for us to be here. Not so that we can do, but so that we can see. 

Instead of shouting at Peter, see what happened in the story: some sleepy disciples stayed awake barely long enough to see God incarnate standing between human representations of the Law, Moses, and the Prophets, Elijah. Between the established order that keeps us safe and the voices that call out for change. Between those two is Christ: God incarnate, love incarnate, grace incarnate. Between the way it is and the way it could be, there’s grace and love. 

Last Saturday, we retreated together to think about our future as a congregation. We talked about finding our why and leading with that. We played a little game to help us discover our values. What we came up with was five things: we are sacramental, we are inclusive, we are generous, we are a family, and we are joyful. It was something of an epiphany. A sacramental, inclusive, generous, joyful, family-style atmosphere. I don’t know about you, but that’s a church I want to go to. 

I do love it when a plan comes together. We are beginning to see with dazzling clarity who we are and why we’re here and how each of us fit as we close the aptly named season of Epiphany. But it was only the beginning.

Before we jump to doing, I invite us to pause and take it all in. Between the way it is and the way it could be, there’s grace and love.

Over the course of Lent, I’m tackling one of each of our chosen values per Sunday. We have five values, and Lent has five Sundays, and the readings happen to work with all our values. Like we’re biblical or something.

I do love it when a plan comes together. 

After those five Sundays, it’ll be Palm Sunday, and Holy Week, as we take in the story of Jesus again, and we will be busy, me most of all, with services and dramas and food and fun. And then we’ll set to continuing to figure out where God is taking us. 

But today, we are on the mountaintop with Jesus. Let’s stop planning, stop working, and take it all in. The children, the flames, the ashes, the donuts, the story of Jesus on a mountainside. And Jesus here, among us.

Between the way it is and the way it could be, there’s grace and love. Let that grace and love nourish you and make you strong. 

William Stafford’s poem ends like this: 

We have to watch [the world] and then look at each other.
Together we hold it close and carefully
save it, like a bubble that can disappear
if we don’t watch out.
Please think about this as you go on. Breathe on the world.
Hold out your hands to it. When mornings and evenings
roll along, watch how they open and close, how they
invite you to the long party that your life is.” 

Together let us take all of this in. Let us watch, and then let us look at each other. Together we will figure out who God would have us be in this moment, at this time, in this town. 

This week, we begin another journey, together, from ashes to fire. From the ashes of Ash Wednesday to the fire of Pentecost. Let us watch it, and then, let us look at each other, for Christ is where we have been, and Christ is where we are going. Thank God. Amen.

Leaders, Heroes, and Love Under Fire

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US Army Capt. William Swenson (far right).
Photo: US Army.

Genesis 45:3-11
Luke 6:27-38

Sometimes in preaching, allowing yourself to jump headfirst down a proverbial rabbit hole is the best way to get into the text. 

This week, as I was doing research for our retreat, I watched one video recommended by a member of the bishop’s staff. I loved that video — the first one we watched yesterday about “finding your why” — then I saw that there were related videos, as there often are, listed below that. The title of this video, also by speaker Simon Sinek, was called “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” Intrigued, I clicked. He began with a story, which I’ll tell you now.

It’s about a man called Captain William Swenson, who was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009. On that day, Captain Swenson was part of a column of American and Afghan troops making its way to protect a group of Afghan government officials who would be meeting with some local village elders. And on that day, these American and Afghan troops were ambushed, surrounded on three sides. 

Captain Swenson earned his medal of honor by running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. One of the people he rescued was a sergeant, and they made their way towards a medevac helicopter. By coincidence, one of the medics had a GoPro on his helmet that day, and he captured the whole scene on camera. Captain Swenson and his fellow soldier haul their badly injured comrade into the helicopter. And then the captain did a remarkable thing. He leaned over and kissed the sergeant on top of the head before turning back to go and rescue more. It was tender, almost parental, as if the captain was putting a child to bed.  

Sinek pauses and poses the question: “Where do people like that come from?”

He says, in the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In most of the rest of the world: business, politics, and your everyday offices — we reward people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.

Sinek posits at first that maybe people who are attracted to professions like the military are just better people. But of course, that can’t be right. Certainly not everyone who has ever served in the military or any helping profession is like that, exactly, and people like that exist in the business and political world, too, if you know where to look. 

The conclusion? “You’ve got to get the environment right.” It’s not the person, really, it’s what the person has learned from the culture and the organization. We all have this capacity, and others do too, if the culture in a place is right. When such heroes are asked why they do these extraordinary things, they often respond with a similar phrase: “they would’ve done it for me.” (1)

That’s why good leaders make us feel safe; they have us believing that we should care what they think and follow and protect them because they will do the same for us. Think of the best boss or coach you’ve ever had. Why did you love them? I’m willing to bet it is, among other things, because you knew they’d stick their neck out for you, too.

Right, but, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32-33). There’s Jesus, keepin’ it real. 

There’s also Joseph, in the Old Testament passage for today, and on the cover of your bulletin. His act of forgiveness certainly wasn’t because he expected that his brothers would do the same for him. Last he saw them, they were throwing him into an actual pit and selling him into slavery and telling their dad he died. Siblings, amIrite?

Well, as far as I can tell, you’ve got two choices for this. First, you can keep your enemy as your enemy and treat them well exclusively out of self-interest. You might’ve noticed a local church nearby whose sign says, “Love your enemy; it will drive him nuts!” 

In the same vein, former Emory professor John H. Hayes writes in his quintessentially Southern book, If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes, “Feed your enemy: it’s always harder to fight with a full stomach.” Hayes quotes the Egyptian Instruction of Amenompe from more than a thousand years BCE, “which admonished a person in treating an enemy to ‘fill his belly with bread of yours, so that he will be satisfied and ashamed.’” Or as Hayes himself puts it, just as your mother told you to wait half an hour between eating and swimming, “The same perspective should be applied to relations with your enemies: keep them stuffed and they may avoid excessive exertion, like military activity.” (2)

There’s nothing wrong with self-interest, either; some of our greatest economic achievements and inventions have been borne out of self-interest. It’s not like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison were exactly philanthropists. Even the best political arguments, in addition to being humane, take into account the self-interest of the people — the left and the right strive to do this all the time. You could even argue that Joseph forgave his brothers partly out of self-interest; making peace with them enabled him to see his beloved father Jacob again. The Golden Rule, which appears in the Gospel text for today, you know — “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” — assumes that you want to be treated well. No one wants to follow around a masochist who abides by the golden rule.

That being said, I’ve often found myself driving by church signs that say things like “love your enemy — it’ll drive him nuts!” yelling, THAT’S NOT THE POINT!

Because no matter how self-interest can work for us, love takes us beyond self-interest into something deeper. 

A lot of us have favorite Scriptures that help us make sense of other Scriptures. We all do it, from the most conservative evangelical to the most liberal Christian you can find. You may even have your own. For me, it’s Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and says that everything turns on how we treated “the least of these.” It’s a famous, revolutionary kind of sentence: God incarnate says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these, you did it to me.” Naturally, Jesus knows, his followers want to treat him like a VIP. Imagine a President or Prime Minister telling the people of her country, “Treat the poor and the homeless like you would treat me.” Put them in a limousine. Protect them with your life. Listen to what they have to say the way you would listen to me. 

That’s what Jesus is getting at. It’s a radical, almost impossible proposition, and it’s exactly what Jesus says: treat the most low the way you would treat me. 

I think this also applies to our enemies. 

What if we lived in the kind of world where when your enemy is injured, you risk your life to bring him to safety, and before you leave him in the ambulance and send him off to the hospital, you lean down and kiss him on the forehead? What if we treated everyone with this kind of tenderness?

Simon Simek is right. It really is about the environment. As we’re thinking as a church about what it is that we have to offer the world, I offer you this: what if we were the kind of environment that produces people like Captain Swenson? The kind where we do things for one another because we know that the other would do it for us? Where we steep in that kind of trustworthiness, so much that we are inclined to treat everyone with trust and respect, even our enemies? What if our mission, our big picture, was the same as Jesus’ in this passage: to make the world a more trustworthy place?

“Give,” Jesus says at the end of the Gospel passage, “and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” 

No matter how it sounds, it’s not a latte recipe. It’s solid life advice. By daring to show love and care to everyone — whether you’re “supposed” to love them, or whether they deserve it, or not — you make the world a more trustworthy place. 

Before Captain Swenson put that sergeant in the helicopter, I’m betting that he did not stop to inquire whether the sergeant was a good solider. Of course he is; he’s one of his people. That kind of trust only comes from love. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t stop to inquire whether we’re worthy before dragging our butts out of whatever it is we’ve found ourselves in. 

As we should do for one another, so Jesus does for us: we are rescued, we are loved, we are brought here, we are offered water and wine and bread and words of hope, and we are kissed, gently, on the forehead, because we belong to God. Thank goodness. Amen.

1. You can watch Simon Sinek’s whole “Why Good Leaders Make Us Feel Safe” TED Talk by clicking here.
2. John H. Hayes, If You Don’t Like the Possum, Enjoy the Sweet Potatoes, Cascade Publishing, 2009, p. 13.

Blessings and Woes: Teenagers, Tragedy, Trees, & Grace


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The trees outside Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. Blessed are these trees that are barren, for soon they will see spring. 

Jeremiah 7:5-10
Psalm 1
Luke 6:17-26

“I feel broken, I feel defeated. Right now in my mind, it’s not going to be fine.”

These are words spoken to a New York Times reporter, Jack Healy, by a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School three weeks after last year’s shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed seventeen people. Jack had gone down to Florida to interview a group of freshman girls who had been in the first classroom that the shooter had entered: classroom 1216. 

Clare Toeniskoetter, the producer of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, came along and produced the episode that Jack did these interviews for. Since then, Clare says, she hasn’t stopped thinking about those freshman girls. “I thought about them every time there was another mass shooting, I thought about them on election night, and I’ve thought about them pretty much every time I’ve seen a group of teenagers.” 

Clare isn’t alone in being deeply impacted by the students at the Parkland high school. What happened in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day last year is, if a congregation can collectively have a worst nightmare, ours. So many in our congregation, as most of you know well, are educators themselves, parents or grandparents of teenagers, or both.

Ahead of the one year anniversary of the shooting, Clare went back to interview this group of girls, now sophomores. The anniversary of the shooting was Thursday, and on that day, The Daily centered on these girls and what they’ve been through and where they are now, one year later (1).

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). 

When I listened to The Daily, as I do every morning, I had been struggling all week to come up with some answer for today’s Gospel text. The text itself is known as the sermon on the plain, you know, as opposed to the more famous sermon on the mount. If Jesus Christ’s album has a B Side, this is it. 

We’re used to the “blesseds” from the Sermon on the Mount, but the Sermon on the Level Place gives us their shadow sides: the “woes.” I’ve talked before about our tendency to make everything Jesus says into a story about heaven and hell, when in reality, the New Testament is mostly concerned with how we live this side of eternity.

I think the same is true of this text. While debates have been raging on social media lately about whether it’s moral to be a billionaire when so many people are hungry, Jesus remarks, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” So is the debate over? Is this a Jesus-given condemnation of the rich? 

You could certainly read it that way, if you want, but you’ll also notice that people who laugh are equally condemned right below that, so I only recommend subscribing to that interpretation if you have no sense of humor. It takes us right back to Puritanism: don’t laugh on Sunday; you’ll go to hell! 

No, I think the answer is much simpler: we all experience the fullness of life. There’s no escaping pain, or joy, or ridicule, or embarrassment or shame or love. You’re alive, so you’re going to get it all, in seasons. 

Let’s go back to the scene: Jesus is walking through the crowd. They’ve come from all over, Luke tells us: from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. In our own terms, it’s as if you’ve got a great crowd from all New England, from Boston, the coast of New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and west from the Berkshires. They gather from all over the region to hear him and be healed of their diseases, Luke says, and those who are being tortured by unclean spirits are healed. The crowd is clamoring to touch Jesus, because just touching God’s body is enough to heal you. And then Jesus Christ looks up and begins to speak.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, and say all kinds of stuff about you. That’s what their ancestors did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
  (Luke 6:20-26, paraphrase)

No matter what you’ve heard from TV preachers, good fortune is not to be confused with God’s blessing. Your poverty and sadness and seeming failure are not because of your unbelief. And in the same way, your faith in God cannot save you from weeping; faith only means that you know that God is with you in your tears. 

When Clare Toeniskoetter, New York Times reporter, interviewed the Parkland students one year later, it was just as heartbreaking as the year before. That’s not because these students are any different than the fifteen year olds we know personally; it’s heartbreaking because they are, in many ways, the same. 

They are the same, yet they’re different, and not because of the political action of their peers. There is a wisdom about these girls, though they’re clearly still teenagers, figuring out how to do life, make relationships, endure heartbreak. They spoke of needing closure, of missing and still mourning their friends, of becoming impatient and often furious with the incoming freshmen who do not understand what it was like to be there on the day of the shooting. They describe their childhood as ending that day. Though they’re still fifteen and sixteen, they have an adult’s understanding of the fullness of life: violence, death, weeping, closure, laughter, new beginnings. The seasons of life.

The psalm and the Jeremiah lesson both speak of humanity as trees, and of faith as being planted by streams of water. Jeremiah says, “[This tree planted by the water] shall not fear when the heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8). I grew up in a climate not unlike the one that Jeremiah existed in — one that’s usually quite warm, where trees never lose all their leaves, even in winter.

Here’s what living in New England has taught me: the tree planted by the water will not escape the fullness of the seasons. The trees outside this building have lost their leaves through no fault of their own, exposing bare branches that reach up towards the sky. These branches look like the veins of our lungs, connecting us earth creatures, as Genesis 2 calls us in Hebrew, to all the life around us. 

Blessed is the bare tree, for soon it will sprout new life. 

But woe to the tree beautiful with autumn color, for winter will strip it bare.

What Jesus is getting at, I think, is this: if you are rich, if you are popular, if you have plenty to eat, if you’re full of joy, don’t confuse that for God’s presence. For the day is surely coming when you may have to sweat paying your bills, when you are hungry, when you will weep, when people will hate you. None of these things means that God has abandoned you.

And Jesus is also saying that, as it has been said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Blessed are you if your life is hard, for God is with you, and a season of joy will come again — either in future years or in eternity.

God is still in the midst of hurting people who still dare to clamor near to hear healing words. God is still in the midst of us at the table, offering his body for healing.

We who gather here are like trees planted near to the water of God’s words of life. None of us will escape the winter; it will come. But the water of new life keeps flowing. God is still in the midst of the people, healing our wounds, driving away the unclean spirits, these days and maybe always mostly voices in our heads that say that we will always be bare and left wanting, that we’ll only be worthy of love if we try hard enough.

I long for a world without suffering, and I’m betting you do too. If you came here to hear answers about why suffering exists, the adult ed Genesis students already know that I have none, nor does any theologian. I do not know why a very different tree exists in the Garden of Eden story, tempting humankind to destruction. None of us really knows, and those who pretend to know are faking it. God alone understands this riddle.

The reality beyond guessing is that winter comes for all of us. At some point, we are all stripped bare of leaves, exposed to the cold, not knowing why. 

But the water keeps flowing. God remains. 

So whatever season you find yourself in this morning, draw near. God’s body is here for you in bread and wine. Water and nourishment are here in words of life.

When that group of now sophomore girls from Parkland gathered to talk to the New York Times reporter one year later, one of them remarked, as they audibly munched on snacks, “I feel like this is like when you see a movie, and they’re like ‘ten years later,’ and [the characters] have cut their hair and stuff — this feels like that.” 

The other girls giggled. One said, “I have changed my hair.” 

They talked about the shooting, yes. But they are sixteen. They have so much life ahead of them, and that much is evident. They lamented that their friends should be there, too, but they aren’t. The girls also talked about college, and life after, and what it’ll be like to be [gasp!] twenty, looking back.

There will be many more seasons for all of them. 

These kids are certainly not the only ones hurting in America, not the only shooting victims, and many more in much poorer communities see gun violence every single day. The Parkland kids are not the only ones who have seen pain. 

What they do, though, along with many others, is remind us of the strength of the human spirit. What they do is to remind us of the importance of having someone around you who understands what you’ve been through. What they do is remind us to stay connected to the waters of new life. Hope, as they say, still springs eternal. 

“I feel broken, I feel defeated. Right now in my mind, it’s not going to be fine.”

At some point we have all uttered something similar. And if we haven’t, we will. The good news is that, whether we laugh or cry, Christ is in the midst of us, loving, healing, and bidding us to do the same: to walk with each other, to love, to heal. So let your branches grow strong. Whatever season you find yourself in, drink deeply of the good news of grace and love. Lean on each other when you need strength, for Christ’s body and healing presence are, were, and will be always, here, in the midst of the people. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. You can listen to the entire episode of The Daily by clicking here.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter: The Sermon

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Yeah. You know the stuff.

Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

When you’ve got to drive a long way, how do you keep yourself awake and engaged?

I never thought I would know more than one person who stays awake on road trips by listening to and yelling back at hellfire and brimstone radio preachers. One of those people is me. The many others are everyone from seminary friends to people from my home church.

Those loud, angry radio preachers seem much more common in the South, but as you know, they’re naturally everywhere, including here, usually on the AM stations or the lower end of the FM dial. They draw their inspiration from passages like the Isaiah passage — “here am I; send me!” They volunteer to go preach the Gospel. To become, as stated in the Gospel passage for today, “fishers of men,” as the King James put it; the Gospel is the bait, the line is the radio waves, and the listeners are the fish. 

In those cases, I’ve always been one angry fish, doing nothing but shouting at the “bait.” 

Because by and large, it isn’t very good bait. It’s supposed to be Good News (the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”), but all I ever remember hearing is about what God would do to people who don’t follow the very narrow plan that God wants. It always seems less like Good News and more like bad news. It was as if someone told you that you were in grave danger and then said “wait, I have good news!” then gave you a ten thousand bullet point checklist for survival and told you that you had ten minutes to complete it. Well, they would say when you protest that this checklist is impossible: as the Good Book states, “narrow is the way, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). 

Narrow is the way indeed, but I daresay not in the way that these preachers think. This sort of thinking — that we must be good in order for God to love us — is, in its final theological product, missing something pretty key that changes everything. Namely, God’s love. Namely, that this sort of thinking makes the Gospel into a story about how good Christians are for our herculean efforts to be “good” instead of a story about how good God is. That is a poor substitution indeed.

Let me continue to explain by way of cookies. 

My best friend from my hometown, Samuel, and I have been friends for years and years. One day, when Samuel was but a tender sophomore in high school, he set out to make homemade cookies.

The recipe he found, as most chocolate chip cookie recipes do, called for butter. Young Samuel opened his parents’ fridge and found none; his parents were on a diet, or something. Pushing aside some other condiments, however, Samuel found the hope of his young baker’s career: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. 

And so my dear Samuel used I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in the cookie recipe. Everything seemed fairly normal, as it were, until the cookies were pulled out of the oven. 

What Samuel pulled out of the oven was, as the experienced bakers in the room already know, not cookies. The substance was charred and still liquid, which would lead to them running sideways down the pan when it was turned. If you ever need to know what happens when you use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in a chocolate chip cookie recipe, Samuel can tell you the answer: you get I Can’t Believe They’re Not Cookies.

I want to argue something very simple here: that when you preach the Gospel — which literally means “good news” — and substitute stuff we do for what God does, you’re going to end up with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News. Charred, burned, running down the pan. Not the Gospel.

Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing good things. We’re called to love our neighbors and help them out, to be generally good humans in the world, to be kind and trustworthy and loving people. But that’s not why God loves us. “Good humans” is who we tend to become when we know we’re loved. People who know that they are loved are more themselves, more secure, more honest, more trustworthy.

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News gets that all backwards. 

God is exclusive in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Good News theology. Nothing about it seems very good, which seems strange for a God who, as we read in our Genesis study this morning, created everything and then danced over it exclaiming, “Very good! Very good!” 

I know, I know. Adam and Eve sinned and it messed it all up. (That’s next week’s study.) But over and over in the Bible, we’re reminded that God still loves us and calls us good and says what we are formed out of the dust in God’s own image. God still delights in us, so much that God became one of us and walked along the seashore calling not the best and brightest, but some ordinary fishermen. 

Yes, we are some messed up people. We, too, are pretty ordinary at best. What’s more, the world is sinful, but not in the way you might’ve heard on the radio. 

I can’t blame the radio preachers, really. The Isaiah passage ends with some pretty bad news, too. A frustrated God tells Isaiah that the people have been so unwilling to hear God’s voice of love that now they’re unable to hear it, and they’ve plunged into self-made destruction. That sounds familiar. The Bible calls us to “repent” — literally, turn around — for a reason.

But you see, I don’t think the world is sinful because there are gay guys and cusswords on TV sometimes. Besides not subscribing to that kind of spiritual violence, I don’t think God is so petty as to watch every moment of our lives for any sign of offense so that God can keep score and get God’s due later. No.

The world is sinful because people starve and have nothing — even clean water — because of the greed of others, and countless others die because of needless violence, both here in the US and abroad.

The world is sinful because we live in a culture that constantly tells us that we’re not created good, but that we need to earn our goodness by working hard enough and being good enough and being beautiful and thin and young forever. 

Never forget that in Hebrew, Satan, ha-satan, means “the accuser.” The voice that tells you that you are and always will be messed up and can’t ever earn God’s love — so you  either keep trying until you break and become angry and bitter, or you just give up on God and yourself.

Satan. The accuser.

I think I’ve heard Satan on the radio. And in my own head. I wager you have too. You’ve probably heard Satan in church at some point, too, telling you that you need to earn your way to God.

Listen to me and see what’s right here in front of us, as clear as the image of God imprinted in each of our hands and faces and feet and breath: the Gospel is good news, but not because of what you do. The Gospel is a story about God. The God who brought you into this world and gave you your first breath and the God who will see you safely into eternity still calls you good. 

God still calls you to see what’s right there: that you are beloved and you are called, not because you earned it, but because you were created from the dust and given God’s breath of life. You are beloved and you are called because you breathe. The real Good News is right there, as close as your next breath. 

As close as Jesus was to Peter when he tells him to cast those nets down one more time. Peter scoffs. That doesn’t make sense. He protests: we’ve been working so HARD! 

Just listen to Jesus, will you? And they cast that net on the other side and they got so many fish it was comical as they and the folks in the other boat struggled to get it all to shore. 

And that’s how it all began, this church thing.

I know, it sounds lazy or too good to be true, or something. Surely we have to do something. It’s not easy to believe — narrow is the way, because most people want to earn it. They logically think we have to do something to earn it. That’s how the world works, after all.  

But the road that says “work harder” is broad and leads to destruction and self-loathing. It’s why both Peter and Isaiah tried to scare God away by telling God how sinful they are. Every prophet in the Bible tries to scare God away somehow.

But God don’t scare easy. 

So here’s the bottom line: the next time you run out of butter, just step out to the store and get more butter. And the next time you’re on a road trip, or any other time you doubt God’s love and your own goodness, find something that helps you feel more you, more created by God, more beloved. You can believe this is good news, because it is.

Accept no substitutions.

Amen.

Love Your Haters

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1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Luke 4:21-30

If you’re not a New England Patriots fan, I’m a little sorry. There is good news in this for you, too, but this sermon right here is what you might call Patriots-heavy. 

Because beloved, we have reached this, a holy day.
Today is Super Bowl Sunday. I came here to preach the Gospel, take the Eucharist, and pray for the church, the world, and Tom Brady’s arm. Anybody with me?

If you’ve been watching any of the Super Bowl coverage this week, you’ve probably seen that there have been several really fun, really good stories about the Patriots. There was the girl quarterback from New Hampshire who wears #11 in honor of receiver Julian Edelman. She’d been bullied in school for playing pee wee football, and when Julian got wind of it, he wanted to meet her. He got her tickets to the Super Bowl, too. 

Another one is this — during a press conference this week, they let kids ask questions, and one young Pats fan had a question for Tom Brady. The little boy asked the GOAT: “How do you concentrate when people say mean stuff about you?”

Brady smiled at the boy. “You mean the haters?” He said, laughing as the Pats-friendly crowd jeered the haters. “What do we do about the haters?” The quarterback paused and took in the crowd’s reaction, then he turned back to the young fan. 

“We love ‘em. We love the haters, okay — ‘cause we don’t hate back. That’s not who we are.” 

I was recounting this story to a friend this week, who despite all his good traits, is an Eagles fan, and he said, “I mean, I know sometimes Patriots fans mix up the two, but you know Jesus said that first, right?” 

Yeah, yeah, I know. The original GOAT, as we will call Jesus on this holy day, had his own set of haters, and you’ll find some of them in the Gospel text this week. I know that it’s easy to let your mind drift off during the Gospel reading — I know, because I used to do that before I had to read it myself — but did you miss Jesus almost getting thrown off a cliff by his haters?

What did Jesus say to make them so mad? Well, in a nutshell, he says that he doesn’t have to prove to them that he is who he says he is, and that God is ever active in the lives not of the powerful, or even those you would expect, but that God is most interested in the lives of outsiders — this one particular starving widow, and a Syrian — and a Gentile — named Namaan. You know, the usual good Gospel stuff that earns Jesus more haters.

Then Luke tells us that they were “filled with rage” and drove him right out of their synagogue, right out of their town, right to the brow of the hill that their town was built on, then they tried to throw him off. This is like if someone said from this pulpit that they were rooting for the Rams in the Super Bowl and it wasn’t enough to throw that person out of the building, but y’all ran them all the way to the bridge to Holyoke and tried to throw them off. 

Again, for the record: go Pats. 

So they try to throw the Son of God off a cliff. That’s generally a bad idea, I think. A Son of God, I imagine, has got to have some wicked cool superhero judo tricks up his sleeve. 

But what does Jesus do to his haters? He walks away. Jesus chooses love instead of hating back.

Luke just says he “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Two thousand years before New England’s GOAT would express the same sentiment to a kid at a press conference, the original GOAT, Jesus, will go on to preach, two chapters after this story in Luke and tell everyone what to do about the haters: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). Instead of choosing to hate back, Jesus says to choose love. 

I have to say what everyone here already knows: that is not easy.

The theme for today, kids, is love. The Gospel in a word is love. And it’s easy to love here, at Our Savior’s, surrounded by people who love you too. It’s easy to love your family when they give you what you want and generally treat you nicely. It’s easy to love strangers when they are kind to us. It’s easy to love your children and/or your significant other when they always pick up their socks and behave well. It’s easy to love the fans of other NFL teams when they don’t talk trash about your team. But New England fans know that that’s not always the case. 

Paul wrote some of the most famous words in Christianity, and we read them today. Most people, even if they haven’t been to church in years or ever, can recite them: “Love is patient; love is kind.” And if everyone in the whole world could be patient and kind, love would always be easy. 

But the truth is that everyone isn’t patient or kind. I’m not always patient or kind, and neither are you. I know that not because I think you’re bad people, but because I know you’re human just like me. And when I’m not being patient or kind, what I really need down in my soul is for somebody to love me in that moment — to see through the bitterness and anger and see the hurting person underneath, even when I make it nearly impossible. I heard a story on the radio recently about a woman who had had the worst day imaginable: everything in her world was falling apart. Then she went to the pharmacy to pick up her prescriptions and the employee was needlessly rude to her. Then another customer was rude to her. And something in this woman snapped. She flew into a blind rage, even pepper-spraying a fellow customer. 

She wasn’t a bad person. It’s just that everything boiled over all at once, and she couldn’t handle it anymore. What finally stopped her rage, she said, was a kind man who came towards her when everyone else had backed away. 

“What did he say?” The interviewer asked. 

The woman replied simply, “He just asked me what was bothering me.” 

That, my friends, is love. Fearless love. The kind that silences rage. 

Love is a choice. It’s a choice to see angry people as just people, and to choose to treat them better than they treat you. 

(A brief aside: this doesn’t mean that you have to be quiet about abuse. You’re not required to be quiet about someone who constantly acts destructively towards you. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to speak up against abuse.) 

But for the everyday haters, we can choose love. We can choose love because we’re all human. We’re all haters sometimes. And we deal with angry people all the time. But the haters are people, just like us. And people need love.

So before you get on social media tonight after we win the Super Bowl and start to fight with that random Patriots hater, and before Monday when you’re in traffic and someone cuts you off and then flips you off, and before Tuesday when a family member or friend or significant other pushes your buttons just right — before anyone else acts like a hater to you, just remember what Tom Brady and Jesus Christ told you. 

What do we do about the haters? “We love ‘em.” Because even haters are humans, and humans need love. And so do we. So choose love.

And go Patriots. Amen.

Synagogues and Cell Phones

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Or, “When simple things mean everything and post-church theological diatribes are merely annoying.” 

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

In case you’re pretty new here or you’ve just never thought about it — no, I don’t pick out what text I’m preaching on every week. Most of you probably know by now that our texts are on a three year cycle following the church year, and that I love that the texts that I preach on are not pulled from my own personal favorites or whatever I happened to land on that week, but something that we tackle with Christians all over the world. (1)

There are drawbacks to this three year cycle, however.

Well over ten years ago now, renowned New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine said at a conference I was attending: “Oh, the lectionary. God bless the lectionary. Sleep in one Sunday and you miss the story for the next three years.” 

Dr. Levine isn’t a pastor; she’s Jewish, actually. This gave me a great perspective, however, on how people in the pews — that is, you — might see the lectionary. You see, because from this side of the pulpit, after a few years, it can all begin to feel awfully repetitive. It only takes three years of preaching every week, after all, to get what I like to call the “complete set” – a sermon from each Sunday of the whole church year. And after that, every Sunday brings memories of sermons you’ve preached before.

I admit that I had a hard time sermonizing this week, so I decided to let the memories take me where they will and trust that the Spirit is working in them.

This story comes up quite a lot in the lectionary, too. Sleep in this Sunday and you won’t miss it for three years. It makes sense that we read it a lot: during this time of year, the season after Epiphany, we’re telling the story of Jesus’ light being revealed to the world bit by bit. Last Sunday, we heard about him turning water into wine in his first miracle. And this Sunday, we’ve got Jesus in his hometown, preaching, sort of, to his home congregation.

MEMORY ONE
This is where my memory takes me back to my second sermon ever. 

Let me pause briefly to say that way too often, the Church makes preachers out to be Saviors, and we preachers are often happy to play along. The cardinal rule that I was taught about preaching, however, is that if you look at a Gospel story and the character that you most strongly identify yourself with is Jesus, you probably need to look a little more closely at what the point of your sermon is. So by way of preface, I will remark: while this story includes me preaching “at home,” in a sense, I’m not Jesus in this story. In fact, I’m not Jesus at all. 

Moving on.

So my second sermon ever was delivered on this particular Sunday sometime around 2009 in a tiny church in rural Alabama. I was in seminary, and a friend and first year pastor who was out of town that Sunday and asked me if I’d be willing to drive from Atlanta just over the state line into Alabama to preach for him. I agreed, although what they paid me would barely cover the fuel to get there, because I did need more preaching experience. I was only one sermon into my preaching life, after all, and my first sermon two years earlier, while theologically sound, had lasted a total of three and a half minutes. 

So I took the pulpit in this tiny church and began my sermon. I wasn’t two sentences in before I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Use the other microphone,” a kind-faced woman said; “that one doesn’t work so good.” 

I switched microphones and continued, preaching a sermon on this story that was indeed longer than three minutes and thirty seconds and was also, I thought, my okayest sermon yet. Feeling pretty good about the whole thing, I exchanged pleasantries with members of the congregation and began to pack up my things to drive the two hours back to Atlanta.

That’s when I noticed the tall and lean bass player from the praise band sidling up to me. He was about my dad’s age, with a long gray ponytail and several leather accessories telling me that he took his role in the praise band seriously. He had a hard look in his eyes, but I could tell he was trying to look kind but stern, in a fatherly way. As a young woman finding her way into church leadership, I had already learned to recognize that look and brace myself. 

As I remember, he got right to the point.

“I’m a member of an organization that seeks to bring Jews to Christ,” he said, “so I know a thing or two about synagogue services. I just wanted to let you know about what you got wrong about how they go.” 

I resisted the full body cringe that those two simple sentences were bringing on, and I and politely smiled as he told me how the liturgy of a synagogue service generally runs.

There hadn’t been any such details in my sermon, so I was unsure about what he thought I got “wrong” that wasn’t just me reading from the Bible itself, but I let him go on, smiling and nodding in that way that everyone, especially women, are pretty accustomed to doing when we’re being polite to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but doesn’t know that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

When he finished, he handed me a brochure for the organization. I’ve kept it an entire decade later, and it stays in my Bible because — well, I’m not sure why, but it does.

One of the life skills I think we all learn fairly quickly is to know when someone is just doing what they think is right and being patient with them when they aren’t actually harming anyone. Sure, you can make a good argument about this organization doing harm, but I somehow doubted that he was willing to listen to my opinion on evangelizing our Jewish neighbors. He was following Jesus as best he knew how; that was for sure.

MEMORY TWO
Years later, I found myself at the Wild Goose Festival, a progressive Christian outdoor festival in North Carolina that loves talking about proclaiming release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind — the things Jesus finds himself reading about in the synagogue in this passage. Many kinds of Christians come to the Wild Goose Festival, not all of them progressive, but most all of them willing to get along with everyone and live in community for a week. 

Typically, several outlets throughout the campground are dedicated to power strips set up so that people can charge their phones. The campground is happily situated in a part of the Appalachian Mountains that doesn’t have a lick of cell service, but there is a cafe with WiFi nearby for people who want or need to contact the outside world, so we all had reason enough to want to charge our phones.

I had had a problem previously with my phone not charging, and I stood at the charging station muttering curses under my breath before the volunteer manning the station noticed me. He appeared to be at that age where you don’t know whether to call him a boy or a young man, but since I’m a terrible judge of age, let’s assume that he was probably at least in college. He, too, had a ponytail. He had kind brown eyes and an easy smile.  Seeing me struggle, he said humbly: “Can I help? I’m pretty good with these things.” 

Desperate, I handed him the phone and the charger and watched as he carefully cleaned off the charger with his shirt and blew a puff of air into the port. Then he carefully placed the charger into the port, and BAM. Charging.

These years later, I still mimic that kid who was probably my age whenever my phone charger won’t work, and it usually gets it working.

Those two stories stood side by side in my consciousness this week as I contemplated what it means to follow the Jesus who proclaimed “release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Those things seem big, and cosmic, and daunting, but I think it’s no real mistake that right next to this text, we also read Paul’s little diatribe about the Body of Christ, and how we’re each parts of that body.

I think Paul’s whole point is that we are parts of Christ’s body, and that can get us feeling like we have to save the whole world — including evangelizing everyone and making sure that young preachers get all the details of synagogue services right. It can lead us preachers into thinking that we’re the Saviors. It can lead us all into convincing ourselves that we have to save the world.

But we’re not, and we don’t.

So instead of trying to be the boss — the head — all the time, I’ve taken to thinking that I prefer to be a strong arm, or a hand, or a calloused but experienced foot, ready to kick butt and take names.

I know — that can go off the rails pretty quickly, so I’ll stop. But take this to our annual meeting, and then take it home: we are not the Saviors. We are not the brains of the body of Christ. Those jobs are taken.

What we can be instead is like that guy at the Wild Goose Festival: humble, helpful, practical. We can be hands and feet, following the directions of the brain, taking the callouses, and the pain, and the joy of work and the joy of moving things and making a difference in the world. Believe it or not, that is enough — enough to save someone’s life and enough to make sure they have a charged phone. Either is helpful, and either is enough. 

We like to imagine ourselves as important pieces in this cosmic struggle between good and evil, putting all kinds of pressure on ourselves and other people, finding ourselves deeply bitter and critical before we know it. 

But you don’t have to be the Savior, or the brains of the operation. Position already filled. What you have to do is what’s painted above the coats in our narthex: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. 

So love someone however you can. Help someone, even if it’s in a small way. You might save a life — or, you might just teach them a trick that they can use to charge their cellphone for years. Either one is worth it. Either one is enough. Amen.

1. An easy-to-use “what’s next in the lectionary” site can be found here, complete with the passages themselves as well as related art and prayer.