Priests, Cakes, and Broken Chalices: A Sermon in Three Parts


Preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 24, 2016
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
South Hadley, Mass

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35

Prologue:

“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

When we received news that the musical artist Prince had died this week, someone posted this quote. It seemed to me to go all too well with the lectionary texts for today, especially the Gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Because we all know that getting through this thing called life is a whole lot easier when you learn to love, dearly beloved.

This is the second time in a month that we’ve heard this quote from Jesus. And you hear it all the time, anyway. Even non-Christians know how to spout it: “Didn’t Jesus say to ‘love one another’?” whenever we fight and argue among ourselves. It’s a familiar, well known text, right up there with the Golden Rule when it comes to Jesus’ best quotable phrases.

But it’s sitting in the middle of a funny group of texts today. Right next to the Revelation vision of a new heaven and a new earth. And right next to Peter’s inexplicably weird dream where God tells him to kill and eat reptiles. (No joke. Go back and read it. I’ll wait.) [pause]

It’s pretty strange indeed, and even stranger is that Peter uses it to explain why he had been eating with Gentiles, which was unlawful for Jews to do. I mean, it was right there in their Scriptures. The Gentiles were unrighteous, uncircumsized, and ate unlawful, non-Kosher foods, and because they were obedient to Scripture, good Jews would not often share a table with a Gentile. It simply was not done.

This led me to think about our own struggles in the Church with inclusion. With people that we put outside God’s grace, people that we believe that it is not lawful to associate with because of what we believe that Scripture teaches. And, as Nadia Bolz-Weber is known to do, it’s led me to write a sermon in three parts.

Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

Therefore, in honor of Prince and Peter’s weird dreaming and in obedience to Jesus, I give you three vignettes from my own life that taught me about love and the welcome of all people at the table.

Part I: The Marine/Priest with a Heart of Gold

When I was in college, one of my favorite mentors was the Episcopal priest in town. Father Jeff was a tall, kind-eyed man a little younger than my father with a goatee and a great sense of humor. He had become a priest after being a Marine, and he was known for his love and welcome of everybody – which was not necessarily true of all the Christian leaders in that small Alabama town.

Once, in a sermon, he explained his mentality around welcome and inclusion to us a little further. He explained that when he was a sniper, their unofficial motto would often be, “Kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.” He explained that when he had become a priest, his life and motto changed dramatically, but his military faithfulness remained the same. The words he now lives by are “Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.”

Part II: Gay Pastors and Cakes

I awoke one morning this week to a headline about a gay pastor in Texas who claimed that a homophobic slur had been scrawled across his cake by a Whole Foods employee. Later, it security footage proved that this pastor was lying and that he must have written the slur himself. I sighed heavily, knowing that there is too much injustice and hatred in the world to go making up one’s own. And then I do what you should never do. I read the comments on the news story on my online news feed.

Now, y’all, the comments are the bathroom wall of the Internet. You don’t go there for good content. You go there if you’d like your image of humanity to be lowered even further. For some reason, in an Internet comments section, people are as mean and hateful as they can’t be in real life. Reading the comments is rarely, if ever, a good idea.

Negative comments about the pastor’s sexuality fell into a couple of large categories, including “Wouldn’t you expect a deviant to be a liar too?” and my favorite, “‘Gay pastor’ is an oxymoron anyway.”

After getting my fill of the comments, I did what I usually do when a pastor is on the news. I tried to see how closely I was connected to him via our friends. We had two mutual friends, both roughly Methodist and neither very close to me. I then looked up his denomination, muttering under my breath “Please don’t be Lutheran. Please don’t be Lutheran.” It seems that he had created his own church after not finding other churches welcoming enough — a sentiment that I’m always skeptical of, since I have found plenty of welcome in many churches. Based on this very limited evidence, I immediately labeled this pastor as egotistical and attention-seeking and found myself being even harsher on him because he is gay, and thinking about how he casts a bad light on all gay pastors.

Then the Holy Spirit clocked me upside the head.

Of course some gay pastors are attention seeking. Some pastors are attention seeking. Some of them are even so attention seeking that they’re willing to lie. This isn’t because this man is gay. It’s not even because he’s a pastor, although plenty of straight pastors have lied and gotten caught. It’s because he’s human, and sometimes humans lie, and are attention seeking, and are generally not fun to be around. What’s unfortunate is that we expect minorities to be better than human because they bear the burden of representing their whole group. We do it to women, racial minorities, and others all the time. And it’s never fair.

And that’s when I closed Facebook and got on with my day, realizing that what this pastor has done should not reflect on everyone — on all pastors or on all gay pastors or on “all” of anyone besides himself. Pastors are sinners. Every last one of us.

Because every last one of us is human.

Part III: A 5 foot 3” Giant Retires

On Tuesday, my seminary celebrated the retirement of my friend and mentor, Barbara Day Miller. Barbara served as the associate dean of worship and music, and she taught me so much of what I know about planning and leading worship. Before I graduated, Barbara gave me the gift of a communion chalice from her own collection. Inscribed on it is “United Methodist General Conference 2004.” (It’s the United Methodist equivalent of General Assembly — the quadrennial churchwide meeting.) Only later did I learn the further significance of this particular chalice.

In 2004, at this churchwide meeting, another chalice of Barbara’s was being used to serve communion. This was also when the debates over human sexuality, which still rage today, were really heating up in the United Methodist Church, and the church was deeply divided and the anger of the two sides at each other was palpable. During the service, the presider lifted the chalice and simply let it drop. It shattered.

It seemed to many to be the perfect metaphor for the church. Later in the conference, in a beautiful and theologically sound gesture, Barbara’s chalice was wired back together so that communion could still be served out of it — Christ is present, they were reminded, even in a broken and divided church.

I have no idea if it was her intention, but what I do know is that this new chalice comes from this conference where the other was broken. Out of something shattered had come something new, and Barbara passed it along to me.

Epilogue:

Like Barbara, Peter knew what it was like to be on the edge of both great division and something entirely new. He stood between two warring factions — the Gentiles who wanted to be part of the Church and the Jews who didn’t think that Jesus came for the Gentiles and thought that if they let the Gentiles in, then their identity would be compromised. “Those people,” they thought, would contaminate them. And God sent Peter this dream of eating strange animals and said, “Peter, don’t call unclean what I have made clean.” The same Spirit had been poured out on all.

And I can’t help thinking, in the midst of the debate over Gentiles, that Peter must have also remembered Jesus’ words on the night that he was betrayed. He must have remembered his own fear of the future as he listened to Jesus speak these final words before his crucifixion, this new commandment to them: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”

Don’t be afraid, Peter, Jesus says. You don’t have to make the rules. You don’t have to bear the burden on who gets in and who’s left out. That is the role of God, not us.

Peter’s role is to love, and to come to the table with those who wish to gather there. To love ‘em all, as Father Jeff told us, and let God sort ‘em out.

Martin Luther once said that the Law is for the proud and the Gospel is for the brokenhearted. We like to be proud of our actions, to believe we are justified, and to look down on and exclude others. We love to be gatekeepers. Fundamentalist evangelicals get a bad rap for it, but we are all sinners. We all do it, whether liberal or conservative — we like to pick out our favorite people to exclude and divide from the herd. We find all kinds of ways to do it — politics, theology, worship style, ways of speaking, regionalism, denominationalism. But the truth is that each of us, if we are realistic enough to see our own shortcomings, is just as in need of grace as the next person, and the Gospel is available to us all.

Prince once sang these words that echo as true as ever:
“Fair to partly crazy, deep down we’re all the same

Every single one of us knows some kind of pain

In the middle of all that’s crazy, this one fact still remains

If you love somebody, your life won’t be in vain

And there’s always a rainbow, at the end of every rain.”

We love and have love because Christ first loved us. Let us share that welcome far and wide. Like Peter, believe that you do not have to be the gatekeeper, because Christ himself is the gate. Gather in Christ’s name with all who would gather.

Love ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out.

Amen.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 2.53.51 PM

The repaired chalice. 

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Easter 3: “Do You Love Me?”

Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, South Hadley, MA
on April 10, 2016

John 21:1-19

“Do you love me?”

Today, on the third Sunday of Easter, we meet the resurrected Christ on the seashore. This one of my very favorite passages in my very favorite Gospel. I have had many thoughts about it — some related to my call to ministry. This was the Gospel text for my ordination and it’ll be the Gospel text for my installation. I could talk for days about how it relates to my call, sheep, and border collies, but we’ve got quite a few sheep in the texts for next week, including my installation, so for today, I figured we could find a different way in.

You see, this is also the passage that makes me most strongly identify with St. Peter.

Peter, the one who denied Jesus, and here is restored. I can’t help but to notice that Jesus’ love of Peter is never in question. After all, Jesus has told them that no greater love has anyone than to lay down their life for their friends. And Jesus has done that. Jesus loves Peter. That much is never in question. But when I read through the text for this week, I only heard one phrase, echoing down through the ages from that seashore in Israel. “Do you love me?”
What does it mean to love Jesus? And how do we love Jesus, even when we feel like massive failures, as Peter must have? Before this moment, they have seen Jesus alive twice since he was crucified. No one has talked about Peter’s denial. Jesus hasn’t mentioned it, and neither has Peter. But you know that, to Peter, it’s been hanging in the air ever since it happened. Jesus called it at the Last Supper and Peter had vehemently said it would never happen. Then, fearing for his life while Jesus stood on trial, Peter did it. He denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Anyone who has ever felt like a massive failure must know something about how Peter felt. And now that Jesus has appeared alive, Peter knows that at some point they have to talk about it. Jesus has appeared to them, suddenly, twice now. When will he appear again?

And so they wait. And I know Peter must be anxious, knowing that conversation is coming.

Today, gathered together near the Sea of Tiberius around sunset were Peter and some of the other disciples.

Suddenly, Simon Peter announces, “I’m going fishing.” I get that. Whenever I’m anxious, or at big moments in my life, I have announced, “I’m going running.” We want to do familiar, comforting things in moments like this. We all have our own — activities that makes us feel more like ourselves. So Peter goes fishing. His friends go with him. I assume that they simply wanted to fish, to process, to remember who they are, to reclaim some normalcy, to figure out what to do next. They likely aren’t expecting an encounter with God.

After an entire night of catching nothing, when they’re probably just about to throw in the towel and come back to the shore, they see a figure on the beach. He waves his arm over and shouts, “Hey! Try casting your net to the right side of the boat!”

After being completely unsuccessful all night, and figuring that following this stranger’s advice was worth a shot, they did as he said. Before they knew it, there were so many fish in the net that they couldn’t even haul it in.

And that’s when they knew. When the figure had appeared when it was dawn and the night was over, when their nets were so full that they were about to break, when there was such an abundance of food that they didn’t even know what to do with it, that’s when they knew that God was there. After all, Jesus loved meals so much that he became one.

Wherever Jesus was, there was always more than enough food.

The disciple that Jesus loved said it first. “It is the Lord!”

That’s when Peter loses it. He puts on his clothes and jumps into the Sea of Tiberius, and swims to shore as fast as he can. He has seen Jesus, resurrected, twice now, but they haven’t been alone. Jesus hasn’t said anything about Peter denying him. I think Peter knows that this is his chance to talk to him alone. He jumps in, completely, with both feet, and starts swimming to shore.

We don’t know what happened while Peter and Jesus were alone on the shore together. We don’t know what they said to one another. We don’t know if Peter apologized, or if Jesus brought it up first. We don’t even really know if they even talked about it. What we do know is that when the other disciples arrived, Peter and Jesus had made some breakfast. There was a fire, and there was bread and fish ready. Jesus loves meals and always shows up around mealtime, and there is always enough food for everybody.

This is Peter’s defining moment. This is the moment that he is restored. He knows that he has done wrong, and he swims to shore, not wanting to avoid Jesus, but just wanting to get to him.

After they have a meal together, Jesus and Peter have a chance to talk again.

It’s a familiar passage. It’s notable that Jesus’ love for Peter is never in question. But Jesus says to him, “Do you love me?” three times. Every time, Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He asks him three times — the same number of times that Peter denied him. Jesus doesn’t just forgive Peter — he gives Peter a chance to declare his love for Jesus the same number of times that he denied him. He gives Peter a chance to erase it all, even from Peter’s own conscience.

And every time, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” That is how Peter will show his love for Jesus — by feeding his sheep, by taking care of them. Jesus will always love Peter, and he knows it — and he gives Peter the great gift of being able to return that love.

During Easter one year while I was in seminary, I heard one of my professors preach on this. David Jenkins was the head of the program that sent us into various intense settings to be chaplains — we had our choice of serving people in poverty or serving those in a medical setting. It was in his program that I had been sent to the homeless shelter in Marietta, Georgia, an experience that has informed my ministry.

The sermon that he preached that day six years ago changed the way I look at ministry. He talked about Jesus’ words — “Do you love me?” echoing down through the ages to us. “Feed my sheep.” He talked about, in Matthew 25, how we are to treat each person that we serve the way that we would treat Jesus. He called us to imagine a scenario.

“Imagine that you are in your Easter sunrise service in your first call. You are proclaiming the resurrection, when a man, recently widowed, filled with pain, stands up and says what he’s been thinking all along: ‘Pastor, do you love me’?” He doesn’t care about your theology. He doesn’t even care about your politics. He just wants to know what all people want to know of their pastor: “Do you love me?” And Jesus whispers to you, as a first call pastor: “Feed my sheep.”

It’s not just pastors. Each of us is like Peter. We all mess up, over and over again. We’re all inadequate. But despite our inadequacy and our denials, Jesus’ love for us is never in question. We are all welcome at the table. We all meet Jesus over breakfast, at the table, here.

Jesus’ love for us is never in question. But Jesus also calls us to look, even in our failures and inadequacy, to hear the question that the world is asking us in the words of Jesus: “Do you love me?”

Because one of the reasons I love John’s Gospel so much is that the mission of the church is so clear: Christ is God’s love made flesh, and Christ calls us to love one another, and to share that love with the world.
At the end, whom you love is the only thing that matters. John tells us that. Paul tells us that. It doesn’t matter how many people you serve, how many prayers you offer, how perfect your church attendance is. It doesn’t matter how often you fail, either.

Jesus’ love for you is never in question. And he calls to you hear the cry of the people you serve in his words to Peter: “Do you love me?”

You will  meet many people in your life inside and outside of these walls. You’ll go to the funerals of dear friends, and you will comfort their loved ones. In their eyes, you will see Jesus’ question: “Do you love me?” And Jesus whispers in your ear: “Feed my sheep.”

You see it with people you work with. You may call them students, or patients, or clients, or tenants or customers. But Jesus calls us to treat them as we would treat him. Because Jesus knows that even the worst among us just want to be loved. He calls us to look into their eyes and hear them ask: “Do you love me?” And he whispers back through the ages: “Feed my sheep.”

You will see a person in need who asks you for help. You will see Jesus’ question in their eyes: “Do you love me?”
“Feed my sheep.”

We come today to have a meal with Jesus, here, at his table. We have all failed, but we are all welcome. None of us is worthy, and yet we all hear “It is the Lord!” We all jump into the sea and come to the shore. We share a meal with Jesus, and we all hear his question.
“Do you love me?”

We share a meal with Jesus, and then we go out into the world. In the eyes of every person we meet, we see Jesus. In every pair of eyes, we see his question: “Do you love me?”

“Feed my sheep.”

Jesus love for us is never in question. We do not feed Jesus’ sheep to earn his love. We feed Jesus’ sheep to show our love, out of pure gratitude, for him.

Just like my professor predicted, I see Jesus’ question in your eyes. And because I am human, you see it in mine, too. “Do you love me?”

Beloved, you are God’s love in the world. You are God’s love because you are so loved by God. And everyone is welcome at breakfast. And when we depart, we hear the world’s question, now and always: “Do you love me?”

Amen.

Easter 2: “In Which Grace Startles You and Makes You Jump a Little”

Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, South Hadley, Massachusetts
on the occasion of the baptism of Arietta, our new little sister in Christ
April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

I had a dream the other night that I woke up and found several of you standing on the church lawn by our sign. You were grilling. Now, I know, you’re not responsible for anything that the dream versions of you do. I, in turn, am not responsible for anything that dream Anna does. I also wonder if I had this dream because all of us are so longing for spring to get here in all its fullness.

Anyhow, you were grilling on the front lawn by the sign. It seemed strange to me to grill out on a Friday morning, but I decided to go with it. I put on jeans and wandered outside, where I convinced Bob Valenti that we didn’t need to change the church sign, because it’s still Easter. And Bob nodded and said, “Oh yeah, that makes sense. Here, have a hotdog, pastor.” It was actually a really fun dream, despite the startling beginning.

God, community, grace, and the church surprise me all the time. Even in my dreams. One of the things I love most about parish life is its tendency to surprise me. My clergy friends and I have a saying: “The Holy Spirit is clearly out of its mind,” or some variation. You never know what people will do, how God will act, or seemingly little things, like how babies will behave at their baptisms. [Acknowledge baptismal family]

And today, in our Gospel text, it’s Jesus who does something unexpected. He comes barging in through the doors of a locked room — twice. The first time for looks, the second time, I’m convinced, just to startle Thomas In my version of the story, Jesus giggles a little bit when he sees Thomas’s face. And then he offers peace. Both times he appears, no matter how suddenly, always offers peace. Even to Thomas.

Oh, Thomas. Doubting Thomas.

When I was growing up in a conservative evangelical church, doubt was our enemy. “Doubting Thomas” was a lesson for all of us – that we have to believe rather than doubt. Don’t be like Thomas. Don’t be a Doubting Anna.

So of course, I developed an affection for Thomas. I’m a “do not push this button” kind of person, after all. To me, Thomas was just like all of us. I am a Doubting Anna sometimes. We have a word for people who have no doubts and believe anything. We call them naiive.

So when Thomas hears all of his friends telling him that the impossible has happened – that Jesus, who is supposed to be dead, who they knew had been executed on a cross – when they said that he has appeared to them alive, Thomas responds exactly as I would have — as most of us would have.

Really…?

It’s possible he even felt angry. What kind of a cruel joke is this?

But he doesn’t have much of a reaction. I think Thomas was an understated, semi-sarcastic kind of guy (other textual proof of this available in another sermon). He doesn’t react much – he simply does what we all do when someone asserts that the impossible has happened. He says he needs proof. If this is a joke, he must have thought to himself, it’s a really unfunny one.

All throughout my childhood, people told about close encounters that they’d had with God. They talked about feeling close to God. There were even stories they told where they felt that they’d seen proof. Everyone seemed to have a story about this. Some of you might have stories like this.

I wanted that. I wanted really badly to find God in church, to have such an encounter with God in worship. If you can’t find God in worship, after all, where is God to be found?

Those of us who grew up in an evangelical tradition probably remember invitation time, when everyone is given a chance to accept Jesus, or come back to God, whatever the case may be. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, it’s a time when anyone can come forward to make a commitment to Jesus. It involves the congregation singing a hymn while the pastor stands expectantly waiting for someone to come forward. Sometimes, if things got really serious, the pastor would ask everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes while the pianist continued to play. And all I learned from that as a child was that it’s impolite to look at someone while they’re having a heart to heart with Jesus.

The point is, if you wanted an encounter with Jesus, you could come forward during this time. This is where you were supposed to meet God: up front, in front of everyone, with the pastor. So I came forward. I came forward a few times. But I never felt what others seemed to feel. And I thought I was the only one. Everyone else seemed to have it more together than me, to mean things more than I did. I still had nagging doubt. And doubt, I had been told, was the enemy.

But over the years, I’ve learned that the Holy Spirit truly is out of its mind, and that it rarely appears when expected. I’ve learned to see grace in more than an emotional moment at an altar. I’ve found grace in hospital rooms at 3AM after a pager interrupts my sleep. I’ve found grace in out-of-the-blue phone calls from former parishioners just when I was struggling with my pastoral exhaustion. And I’ve found grace in getting a sudden phone call from one Paul Sinnott from the synod office in the middle of October, in the middle of all my anxiety about the future, telling me that he’s got a congregational profile from South Hadley, Massachusetts, that he wants me to read. I never found the resurrected Jesus where I was “supposed to.” Other people have always seemed to me to have more faith, a closer relationship with Jesus, and a more pulled together life than me. So I never found Jesus where he was supposed to be – but he’s always seemed to barge right in, even though locked doors, and find me.

I guess that’s why Thomas is a kindred spirit to a lot of us. He didn’t find Jesus where he was supposed to. But Jesus barged in unexpectedly and found him. When he did, Jesus didn’t chastise Thomas for his doubt. He offers peace and he offers himself to Thomas – his hands, his side. And Thomas, like all of us from time to time, unexpectedly finds grace.

When parents and sponsors make promises at baptism, they can seem daunting. Some wonder if they’re supposed to feel or act a certain way. In the same way, the promises that we will make as a congregation can seem daunting. During Ari’s baptism today, we will affirm the words of the creeds and make promises to help raise her in the Christian faith. So that she’ll grow up lighting Advent wreaths and sniffing Easter lilies and living through the story of Jesus so that someday, just like us, she might come to understand God’s surprising, unexpected, in-breaking grace for herself. We know that we are imperfect people. We often question our own ability to keep any promises, but especially big ones, like at baptism. We imagine that everyone else means these words more than we do, has more faith than we do, is more pulled together than we are.

But the good news, beloved people, is the biggest promise made today is God’s — God calls Ari beloved, one of Christ’s own flock. A flock that we’re all a part of. Today, in celebration of God’s promise, and what God has already done, we welcome Arietta to our little flock and promise to take care of her, introduce her to Jesus, and help her understand how truly beloved of God she is. To help her look for God’s presence in unexpected places. As we talked about on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we’re promising to tell her about the promise that God has already made to her — that we — her parents, her sponsors, and all of us — we love her, and God loves her, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

Beloved, even in our doubt, even when we don’t feel like we are enough, and that everybody has more faith than us, God barges in through locked doors and offers us himself.   Nadia Bolz-Weber says it perfectly: “The fact of the matter is this: when Jesus encountered Thomas, Jesus didn’t label him doubting Thomas. He didn’t judge him. Jesus came to Thomas just as he was, doubts and all, and offered him peace.”

Christ comes to us, doubts and all, surprises us with grace, and offers us himself: in bread. In wine. In water. In peace.

Ari, Geoff, Jessica, Jen and LeRoy: as Ari grows, I pray that both you and she are continually surprised by grace: whether by every day love and hugs, joyful times, Christmases and Easters, or even occasional dreams of church picnics on your lawn. Know that we are your family and we are walking with you to fulfill the promises that we make today, so that Ari may grow up knowing that we all love her, and God loves her, and there’s not a thing in the world that she can do about it. Amen.