Lent 4: Predictable – Good Quarterbacks and the Grace of God

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Besides looking frighteningly realistic, Madden quarterbacks are listed as “predictable” or “unpredictable,” with the former being a positive trait. More below (and what the heck Madden has to do with the Prodigal Son).

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Every Sunday in Lent, I’m tackling one of the five values that we chose at our first congregational retreat to represent our congregation. First Sunday: sacramental. Second Sunday: inclusive. Third Sunday: generous. 

Today, the season of Lent gives me a gift. Today is Laetare Sunday. “Laetare” is the first word of the Latin mass for today: “rejoice.” As luck would have it, one of our values is “joyful.” 

Today, four Sundays into Lent, our ancestors in faith figured that we might be feeling a little weary of all the fasting and repenting. So they would deck out the altar and the clergy in pink instead of purple, representing the whole repentance and “feeling sorry” thing getting lighter. 

In today’s Gospel, you’ve got a familiar story if you’ve been doing this church thing for a good length of time. Even if you haven’t, our culture sometimes refers to “prodigal sons” anyway, when someone who has gone away comes back. We know the basic plot of this story Jesus tells: a son demands his whole inheritance from his father and goes away, blows his whole inheritance on “dissolute living.” The Greek word is “asotos,” in case you care, and in the whole New Testament, it’s only used this one time in Luke. It means something between and including “immoral” and “wasteful.” Point is, the dude ran through his money in a short amount of time, and soon, he finds himself as a poor laborer in a foreign country, wishing he could eat what the pigs were eating. To say that this would’ve been a low point for any of us, but especially for a first century Jew, is an understatement. So he decides to go back and work for his dad. You know the rest of the story because we just read it: his dad doesn’t even wait for his son to get all the way down the road. The old man runs to meet his son. 

It should be noted that in the culture that these folks inhabited, running was an absolutely undignified act. Whenever I tell some people that I am a runner, they look at me in a way that tells me that it is still an undignified act.

Adults in those days did not run. Running was for children. As an adult, you ran if you were trying to escape from something. That’s about it.

So it would have been shocking to Jesus’ first hearers that this man of means — enough means to give his son his inheritance ahead of time — ran to his sorry, no-good son. But he does. And the father throws a feast of absolutely offensive grace. It’s especially offensive to the guy’s older brother, who has been here working for his father the whole time, being the “good son.”

The whole thing is at once joyful, messy, scandalous, and offensive. And, if you know anything about Jesus, it’s also an entirely predictable story for him to tell when he is confronted about hanging out with “sinners.”

If you’ve talked to me recently, you know that I’ve got two relatively new hobbies. The first, apropos of nothing, is CrossFit. The second is probably its exact opposite: playing video games.

We’re coming back to the prodigal son, I promise.

You see, I’m currently particularly enamored with the Madden football games. Some months back, I created a quarterback for my Patriots franchise based on a popular and talented college player. It turns out, you see, that Brady lasts for awhile, but not forever, and I wanted to be prepared. 

In creating my quarterback, something struck me: “predictability” was a positive trait. It turns out to be true both in sports and in life: a quarterback is a leader, and a good leader is usually predictable, at least to their teammates.

If you’ve played sports, or even if you hate sports, you can figure out why “predictability” is good rather easily: a predictable quarterback is one who gives few-to-no surprises to his teammates in tense moments. He is calm, and his teammates can practically read his mind and know what he is going to do and help him do it. Good leaders are predictable, at least to those on their team. 

It works, as I said, in sports and in life: I would be a terrible pastor if, when you presented me with a problem, you didn’t know whether I was going to be kind about it or kick you in the shins. 

Patriots players, too, know what is expected of them because Bill Belichick is a stable leader: we all know that he’s a person who values routine and sacrifice and hard work. Those expectations don’t change on a whim. He is predictable. 

In the same way, if you think of the worst bosses you’ve worked for, it’s likely that they could be unpredictable: their expectations might change frequently. Their moods might shift on a whim. They might respond to your email or they might not.

The lesson is pretty clear and reliable: bad leaders are unpredictable, but good leaders are steady. 

It’s no secret that the father in the prodigal son story is meant to be God. That’s the way we’ve interpreted it for centuries and likely exactly how Jesus meant it to be heard. The father in the story has been lauded for many things: he’s generous, he’s trusting, he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself, he’s loving, he’s full of grace. 

He’s also predictable; his sons just don’t see it at first. 

Think about it: from beginning to end, this man is the same father he’s always been. But his sons, both of them, expect something different. They expect their father to suddenly  be vengeful, to ask for repayment, to let his son come back, maybe — but only after he works hard for it.

I don’t have to tell you that people do the same thing with God. 

“I’ll go back to church,” they say, “when I get my life together.” Someday becomes the time that they will return to religious community, get their lives together, and start to do the things they want to do and live their lives fully. And someday never comes, because they — we — never feel “good enough.” When we finally do come back, if we come back, we expect wrath. Hence all of the jokes people tell about the church roof collapsing if they ever walk in. 

But that’s not who the prodigal son’s father is. That’s not who God is.

You know, we should really know that by now. God isn’t an unpredictable, capricious, bad leader. God is the same as always, just like the father in Jesus’ story.

God is the one who is fine with being undignified as God sprints towards the returning child. Then God throws a party, not because of who the child is or anything they’ve done, but because of who God is. And while God is unknowable, God is also, like any good leader, predictable. We need not worry ourselves wondering how God will respond to our return to grace. The answer is always the same.

God is love. Everything is grace. Everything is love. God knows what every parent knows: everything is joy when the children finally come home. 

Like a good quarterback, when things go amiss, you can bet on which way God will move. The answer is towards you. God is always moving towards us to make us new, over and over and over again. We screw it up, God makes us new. Death and resurrection — a painful, joyful, predictable cycle. 

If you think about it, the Eucharist is a feast like the one the father throws in the story. We all return, week after week, after failing and getting up and failing again, and God joyfully throws a feast for us, every single time.

A wise Our Savior’s person once said in a council meeting, and I’m paraphrasing here: “The Lord’s work should not be torture.” You, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, believe this in your bones: church should be a place of joy.

We do God’s work not because we have to, but because we believe in the crazy kind of grace in the prodigal son story. We are joyful. It’s not the kind of fake joy where you feel obligated to pretend that everything is okay when it’s not, either. It’s real joy. The kind that dresses up in silly costumes for Easter Vigil and makes balloon animals for council meetings and has fun at church just because we love one another and because God loves us. The kind that knows love, and therefore knows it’s okay to laugh in church. Sometimes a lot.

And every time we gather here, there’s a feast. It’s a feast that God throws for us. Because we were lost, but now we’re found. Because we left, went about our weeks, and we failed, over and over, got up, tried some more, and failed again — and now we’ve come back. There’s always a feast to welcome us home to God and one another.

So thank you. Thank you for being joyful. Thank you for making me believe in the church even when I want to give up. Thank you for making it a joy to be your pastor. Whenever someone tells me that I must love my job, all I can offer is — “you should meet my church people. You would love your job if you were me, too.” 

So let us go to the table with joy, because the feast is spread, because, like the prodigal son, we are back, again, and our God of insanely free and absolutely predictable grace is, as always, welcoming us home. Amen.

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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.

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.