Advent 2: There’s Something About …John

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If you want an irreverent, funny, occasionally course take on the story of Jesus (and John the Baptist) – this book’s for you.

Anybody wanna try this tongue twister?

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonotis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Ananias and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John.” 

Ah, John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, if you want to use the clearest terminology (since “Baptist” these days means something pretty specific to us). Our old, weird buddy John is introduced to us in this way in Luke’s Gospel, placing him in a particular historical context that would’ve been pretty familiar to his early readers. 

I think Luke’s doing a little more than that by introducing him this way, though. You see, you’ve got all of these names that people would immediately recognize. If they didn’t recognize the names, they’d recognize the places and institutions. And then, after that long list, you’ve got this incredibly common name. 

It’s as if you said of someone who lived fifty years ago: in the fifth year of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, when John Volpe was the governor of Massachusetts, when Pope Paul IV was the pope and Nathan Marsh Pusey was the president of Harvard, the word of the Lord came to Bill. 

Immediately, we’d be irritatedly asking, “Who is Bill?!”

Luke breaks the chain of familiarity by talking about this common guy. Not a priest, though his dad was — not even a scribe, just a guy, and guy who might be a little off his rocker, at that.

In Christopher Moore’s book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, tells the story of Jesus. Biff calls Jesus “Joshua,” saying that’s what they actually called him. Biff is a goof, and the book is irreverent and hilarious as Biff tells the stories of the young Messiah. Biff claims that the other Gospel writers got things all wrong, trying to make his best buddy Joshua sound all pious and stuff, and that they leave out the struggle and the funny and crazy things — including Jesus’ entire childhood and teenagerdom. So, long story short, Biff fills in the gaps. 

When it comes to John the Baptist, Biff describes young John as a 13 year old. Sure that he, John, is himself the Messiah (John the Baptizing Kid yells at young Jesus, “My birth was announced by an angel too, you know!”), John nearly drowns some of the other children trying to wash away their sins. Though he would indeed grow up to preach baptism and point the way to Jesus as Messiah, in this book, at 13, John is an obnoxious, pious little punk.

Of John, Biff says, “If there was anything I learned from John the Baptist, it was that the sooner you confess a mistake, the quicker you can get on to making new and better mistakes.” 

Wisdom, I guess.

One evening when the boys are all 13, Biff, John, and Jesus (or Joshua, as Biff calls him), have dinner, along with Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (Joshua’s and John’s parents, who are cousins). 

Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s proud elderly mother, goes on and on about the encounter with the angel, talking about it as if it had happened yesterday, beaming with motherly pride.

Biff tells the story: “When [Elizabeth] paused to take a breath, [Mary] started in about the divine announcement of her own son’s birth….
After supper, Joshua and I built our own fire, away from the others… and John joined us. 

‘You are not the [Messiah],’ John said to Joshua. ‘Gabriel came to my father. Your angel didn’t even have a name.’

‘We shouldn’t be talking about these things.’ Joshua said.

‘The angel told my father that his son would prepare the way for the Lord. [That means I’m the Messiah.]’ 

‘Fine. I want nothing more than for you to be the Messiah,  John,’ [Joshua said].

‘Really? John asked. But your mother seems so, so…’” 

Just then, Biff, the good thirteen year old best buddy, interrupts John to brag about the miracles that Joshua had performing, including raising the dead. John grabs Biff by the tunic, calling him a liar, but eventually, Joshua admits that indeed he has performed a miracle or two. Biff continues telling the story:
“John released me, let out a long sigh, then sat back in the dirt. The firelight caught tears sparkling in his eyes as he stared at nothing. 

‘I am so relieved.,’ [he said.] I didn’t know what I would do. I don’t know how to be the Messiah.’ 

‘Neither do I,’ said Jesus.

‘Well, I hope you really can raise the dead,’ John said, ‘because this will kill my mother.’” (1)

John the Baptist, you see, isn’t a prestigious figure. He’s described in the Gospels as the kind of guy you’d probably try to avoid if you saw him on the street. He’s the kind of guy that you’d definitely think was a little off. He would likely smell a little funny, wouldn’t be dressed right, and you’d probably wonder if he was drunk or otherwise intoxicated by the way that he was talking. John isn’t just ordinary. He’s less than ordinary. He’s the kind of person you dismiss using words that we use to dismiss people: “He’s weird. Crazy. Kinda scary.” 

And the Word of the Lord came to that guy.

Do you ever think that God just has the oddest personnel or nominating committee? I mean, really. 

Yet, John becomes a prophet, a truth-teller. Luke pulls a poem from the prophet Isaiah to help him describe John: 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 

make his paths straight. 

Every valley shall be filled, 

every mountain and hill shall be made low, 

and the crooked shall be made straight, 

and the rough ways made smooth; 

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

This is in Isaiah 40, in the same poem where God says, “Comfort, comfort, my people; speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” 

Mind you, this was in the age where travel was a difficult thing. You had to go on the back of an animal or on foot. It often involved camping, if there was no town or city in sight when night fell. There were no cars, no interstate highways. Trips of more than several miles could easily take days, not minutes or hours like they do for us today, and you had to climb all the hills yourself.

Lots of people died while traveling, either from the elements or from robbers along the way. So when Isaiah says that every mountain and hill in God’s way shall be made low, and every valley lifted up, and every crooked way be made straight, Isaiah is saying nothing less than all the barriers between us and God are about to be removed, which would’ve seemed like even more of a miracle to Isaiah’s original hearers. 

How fitting that a weirdo like John would carry that message. 

How fitting that Luke would use this song from Isaiah to talk about John, the kinda scary, kinda crazy person of very little fame who will point the way to God, who comes in flesh as the son of a poor carpenter. 

The barriers are gone. Nothing is going to stop God from getting to you. Not anxiety or depression, not grief or shame, not your sexuality, not your broken relationships, not your disappointments in yourself and other people, not your political views, not your addiction, not even your theology. Not even death itself. 

Perhaps the most powerful message of Advent is that nothing is powerful enough to keep God away. You’d have better luck convincing the sun not to rise in the morning. 

Advent reminds us that hope is always on the way. Always. And it never fails to reach its destination — even if it’s eventually. 

The word of God came to John, and everything changed.

It changed because this message of hope isn’t best conveyed by the powerful. Comfortable people don’t do well in spreading messages of hope, because the natural response is, “Easy for you to say.” 

No. Hope speaks most clearly to and through the broken, the grieving, the sick, the lost, the outcast, the mentally ill, the forgotten, the anxious, the depressed, the addicted, the people who are just trying to make it to the next paycheck and the people who couldn’t find work if they tried. People who have seen the lowest lows — which is most, if not all of us, at some point — know exactly how badly human beings need hope in our lives. Only by having been through pain can you possibly assure someone in pain that everything will be alright. Otherwise, we’re back at “easy for you to say.” 

And so, in 2018, in the second year of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, when Charlie Baker was the governor of Massachusetts, when Michael J. Sullivan was the town administrator of South Hadley, when Elizabeth Eaton was the presiding bishop of the ELCA and James Hazelwood was the bishop of the Lutherans in New England, the Word of the Lord came to Our Savior’s. 

It does. Every year, without fail. The arrival of Christmas never has a last-minute letdown. It is the word of love, of newfound hope, of trust, of God. It is love found in bread and wine and water and words. It is the love found in this building and in all the relationships that have formed here over the years. In you. 

Never underestimate your own power, for nothing can stop God from getting to you.
The word of God, the word of hope, has come, is coming, will come, to you. Sho’’nuff. Amen.

1. Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Harper Collins, 2004, p. 88-89.

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Advent 1: Sho’Nuff

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Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

There’s a wonderful little book out there that’s been turned into a musical about the life of Jesus. Now, I’m not really often one for the documentary-style PBS specials about the life of Christ, to be honest with you. I find that the material is a little too well-worn to say much that’s new, and that most of them depend more on the audience’s confirmation bias than anything else. In other words, they tend to preach to the choir.

That view entirely flips, however, if you want to talk to me about books and musicals and Jesus memes. Books like Lamb (a book written from the point of view of Jesus’ very goofy childhood friend) have lit up my life, and I do love a good (funny, please) Jesus meme. 

Now back to that wonderful little book: it’s written by Baptist pastor Clarence Jordan and it’s called The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. It tells the story of Jesus as if he’d been born close to where I was born: specifically, in Southern Jesus’ case, rural Georgia. It was turned into a musical in the early 1980s by Tom Key and Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin. It’s called, naturally, Cotton Patch Gospel. It’s a one man show performed with a quartet of bluegrass musicians. So in other words, we definitely did a version of this bluegrass musical about Jesus at the first church I pastored in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Now that happened to lead to an entire sermon series for Advent that year based on the song of John the Baptizer, a song called “Sho’ ‘Nuff.” (For the one to two of you needing a translation, that would be “Sure enough,” or a thing that Southerners say almost interchangeably with “Amen.” It’s an affirmation, a call of support, a declaration that what has been said will surely come to pass.) 

And it goes like this: “If I told you he was comin’ to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho ‘nuff? If I told you he was comin’ for the losers and winners, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho ‘nuff? If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners, what could you say ‘cept ‘sho nuff?” 

Seriously. When you get home from church, go and search YouTube for Cotton Patch Gospel. (1)

I need your help, though. You see, you’re in for a little Southern treat. It’s like grits, but better. 

I’m revisiting one of those little sermons from 2012. And in the musical as in the sermons as in my home culture, if someone says, “Sho’ ‘nuff,” you should say it back. It’s the liturgy. 

So let’s try it. Sho’ ‘nuff!
If I told you he was comin’ to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff? (Sho’ ‘nuff!)

So, an obvious warning: today’s Gospel reading is probably not the one you wanna read at your Christmas dinner this year, unless you’re trying to call down judgment on your relatives, which — if that’s the case, you do you.

Point is, it’s not very Christmassy. That’s because it’s Advent. 

I know. Retailers have told us all that it’s Christmas 2018 since basically October of last year. But in here, it’s Advent. Advent is about waiting when we don’t have to wait for anything anymore, save, of course, for two day shipping. Sure, we’ll go sing carols everywhere this month, including in a bar tomorrow night.

But in here, in worship, it’s Advent. We’re waiting. And we’re reading about the end of the world. 

Merry… Christmas?
“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?”

Some Christians think this passage is about a final struggle. Lutherans are pretty firm that God doesn’t do much struggling, you know, being God and all, outside of that whole cross thing. According to us, the struggle between good and evil was won then. Love won over death. We don’t have to fear a struggle.

What happens in between? Well, yeah. That can get a bit scary. But you live in the world, and you already knew that. Everybody knows that we get scared sometimes. Some of us get scared of monsters in our closets; others get scared from reading news. You tell me which is better.
“Stand up and lift up your heads; your redemption is drawing near.” 

“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?” 

Jesus talks about this in our Gospel reading. Luke tells us that Jesus told them a parable about a fig tree. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom of God is at hand. The leaves have already started to sprout. The Kingdom is breaking in already. Better keep watch — the time is near!

“If I told you he was coming to interrupt your dinner, what could you say ‘cept sho’nuff?”

Jesus tells them that this generation wouldn’t pass away until those things had taken place. And they did have their worlds shaken; probably less than fifty years from when Jesus said this, Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. This is the kind of event that would have you fainting from fear. 

But as for the rest of it? As for Jesus coming on a cloud? Is that a literal cloud? Lord, I don’t know. I’ll just be here with my Jesus memes. But I’ll tell you what I do know. 

The “kingdom of God” is kind of a bad translation since the word “kingdom” in Greek is active. It’s better to say “the reign of God.” When God reigns, God turns the world upside down and shakes it (in a good way). In the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, the first are last and the last are first. Every mouth is fed, and every tear is dry. There is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

“If I told you he was comin’ for the losers and winners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?”

The color that we use for Advent is blue. It used to be purple, you see, before some people decided that we need to separate Advent from Lent. And I like that idea, because you see, the new color they chose is the color of the sky. 

It isn’t just the color of any sky, though. 

It’s the color of the sky right before the sun rises. In that moment that the dawn is breaking, but you haven’t seen the sun quite yet — the sky turns this color of blue. But the sun is on its way, and nothing, it seems, will stop it. No matter how big you think that monster under your bed is or how scary the news got that night.

I don’t know about you, but I need Advent. 

Because every year, I come back to Advent with more pain. Every year, I have seen more death in the world. Every year, my memory is filled with new wars and injustices and terrible things on the news. Every year, I’m missing at least one new person, usually several, because a friend or family member or another dear saint of God has died. Every year. New signs of the brokenness of the world, new divides have ripped through our relationships and our nation and our world. Every year, I have seen more hungry people. Every year, we lose someone else to cancer or addiction or heart disease or mental illness or an accident or one of the many ways we lose people. Every year, we bring our tears in here during the literal darkest days of the year, and we wait for the light.

“If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?” 

Our ancestors weren’t dumb, you know. The ones from northern climates like this one gathered evergreen branches this time of year for a reason. We come together and we gather anything that looks alive outside and we light candles and we string up lights and we decorate this altar in blue to remind us: winter isn’t forever. The light is coming back. No matter how deep the darkness is sinking, the dawn is on the way. 

“If I told you he was comin’ to save all you sinners — what could you say ‘cept sho’ ‘nuff?”

Sho’ ‘nuff?
Sho’ ‘nuff. Amen.

1. You can listen to a cast recording here.

Guest Post for Christ the King Sunday: On Being King – Speaking Truth to Power

This sermon was written and preached by Debbie Brown, current council president and faithful member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, MA. 

John 18:33-38a
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38aPilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 11.14.55 AM.pngScreenshot from the game Civilization by Sid Meyers.

I hear a lot of complaints from parents about the amount of time their kids play on video games. And anyone who has spent more than a day with a gamer will understand why. Bill and I were fortunate enough to have our grandsons Jaleel and Tyrese living with us for a couple of years. While they were with us, both of their computers were on either side of the dining room. So I got a chance to watch them play a variety of games. Although some of the games were definitely cause for my concern, I especially enjoyed watching them play Sid Meier’s Civilization. 

The game involved creating civilizations and building cultures in historical time periods. Each of the boys had their own style of play with differing strategies. When they first started playing, Jaleel decided he wanted a civilization based on a form of socialism. He made sure everyone had an abundance food, water, a roof over their heads, and a meaningful job. It soon became apparent that this tactic wouldn’t work. Without challenges for growth, his people became lazy. They had no incentive or need to excel at anything. As a result, his civilization collapsed when stronger civilizations overpowered them. 

Tyrese on the other hand decided to be a heavy-handed dictator. Any infringement on the law was rewarded with jail time and/or execution. Before he knew it, he had more people in prison than free. The prisoners soon violently revolted, resulting in complete anarchy. It wasn’t a pretty sight. His civilization rapidly collapsed and he was killed.

With each successive try, the boys learned more about what motivates human beings and how to be an effective leader. Jaleel built a strong economy, supported the arts and humanities, and provided for his people. But his brother had an even better idea. He created a strong faith-based civilization, sent missionaries into Jaleel’s territory and stole everything from him. Jaleel’s only recourse was to buy his own missionaries to convert Ty’s people who would then tithe, making him enough money to pay even more incentives to his missionaries.

Ty summed up his experience to me like this, and I quote, “Jaleel wanted to let me have some power while also maintaining his supremacy. I only had the leg up on him once in our many games. It always came down to me trying to kill him before he killed me. Any alliance with Jaleel was a ticking time bomb. We each wanted to win, but we couldn’t without breaking the alliance.”

Ty’s insight was spot on. It turns out the game is programmed to follow what is known as the 4X theory of power. Players achieve victory through four routes, “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.” 

Does this sound at all familiar? It seems to be the same story played out over and over again throughout history. Worldly power, both secular and religious, attempts to maintain itself, to win at all cost using any means necessary. It is manipulative and can even present itself as being altruistic and faith-based. 

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself on the wrong side of people with great power. The Jewish leaders see him as a threat to their fragile existence under the Romans. They want him gone, so they twist the truth about his teachings and accuse him of blasphemy. But they don’t have the power to put him to death. They plot to have him killed by taking his teachings out of context and making a case for him to be brought to Pilate as a traitor to the Roman Empire. 

We have to give some credit to Pilate. He doesn’t really buy their accusations. But this situation was turning into a political nightmare for him. He questions Jesus about the charges, asking him if he is the King of the Jews. But Jesus takes control of the conversation, putting Pilate on trial so to speak. Was Pilate wondering for himself or only repeating what others told him?  

Pilate avoids the question and asks Jesus what he did to deserve death if he isn’t a king? Jesus reassures Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that he has no aspirations to become an earthly king… wouldn’t his followers have put up a fight if he were? Confused, Pilate scoffs…. oh, so you are a king?  Jesus reminds Pilate that HE is the one who referenced him as a king and went on to explain that his purpose has been to testify to the truth. 

Pilate then responds with the very famous line, “What is truth?”

I don’t know about you, but lately I have been thinking a lot about truth. With terms like alternate truths and claims of fake news, I have been left asking the same question as Pilate’s…. “What is truth?” 

We spent some time talking about this at one of our adult Bible studies on John. Like Pilate, I was focused on truth as it applied to statements, events or stories. But Pastor Anna reminded us that everything in John’s Gospel is meant to be a revelation of Jesus.

He is God’s word, originated beyond time and space, made flesh, and lived among us in human form. Throughout his life, he did God’s work as a healer and miracle worker. He is the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, good shepherd, and true vine. He is the way, the resurrection and the life. He IS the truth.

Jesus may be sitting in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the known world, but he is very much in control. His kingdom is not of this world, and his power does not manipulate and destroy like human power does. 

Pilate was all too familiar with the workings of kings and their power over the people. Kings used their wealth and knowledge of the human condition to manipulate them by invoking fear of punishment, hunger, isolation, and even fear of the other in order to motivate loyalty.

Conversely, Jesus’ power is evident at his crucifixion. In that moment, his love is displayed on the cross where he willingly gave up his life to free all people from the power of sin and death. HIS power is centered in love and self-sacrifice rather than in wealth and self-preservation.

We may not be governed by kings anymore, but we are still subject to the never-ending cycle of earthly power in our lives. Worries about safety, health, wealth, hunger, loneliness, unworthiness, and powerlessness are a result of fear – fear that threatens to snuff out the hope we have in the one who came to set us free from the power of sin and death. 

Jesus’ willingness to lay his life down for us is proof of God’s love. God provides us with an abundance of resources, a community of faithful followers, and the ability to reason and think creatively. Under Jesus’ reign the destructive cycle of earthly power governed by the 4X principle of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” is broken.

Instead, we are gathered into the kingdom of God, joined together in our baptism and at the table where we receive food for our journey. We are not motivated by fear or armed with wealth and weapons. Instead, we are armed with Jesus’ instruction to love one another as he loved us. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. This undeserved, unearned love has the power to transform all of life.

On this day, at the end of the church year, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and are reminded that Jesus loves us, freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom…..priests serving his God and Father.  

With Jesus as our King, we are freed to live a new life based on a principle that I call the 4V principle: serVe, loVe, forgiVe, and inVite others.     

Next week, we begin the season of Advent. Using Luke’s Gospel and the prophetic readings, we will be challenged to come face to face with our need for freedom from the earthly powers in our lives. 

This Advent, may you be fed in body and spirit, may you be freed to serve others and proclaim God’s love for all people, and may you be transformed by a greater power … the power that is TRUTH… 

Amen.

References to Sid Meier’s Civilization taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_(series)

References to Advent themes taken from: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=1985

When Temples Fall, or “I Heard That!”

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Comedian Keegan-Michael Key at the Fox Teen Choice awards delivers the affirmation I remember so well from my childhood.

Mark 13:1-8

Whenever I am listening to someone’s troubles, I often come back to the same statement. I use this statement when I don’t know what to say or when I think my input is unnecessary or would be intrusive. Whenever this happens, I just say, “I hear that” or “I hear you.” 

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that my use of this phrase comes from a much less serious place in my life. It’s a line that I heard growing up in Alabama, often said by boisterous, fun relatives whenever someone said something they agreed with — “I heard that!” In this case, “heard” really means “agree with,” but the effect is the same.

Either way, I think it’s a perfect affirmation because that’s all it is — an affirmation. It doesn’t cause the speaker to intrude with their own input. It affirms and lets go. I think of it as a verbal hug. 

In today’s Gospel text, the disciples go on and on about how impressive the temple and the city of Jerusalem are. Jesus, in response, says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2 NRSV). 

This, obviously, would be terrifying to the disciples. Imagine this: you’re hanging out with the Son of God in Washington DC. You’re sitting on the National Mall in Washington DC, say, just next to the Washington Monument, and looking out at the Capitol Building. Naturally, you might bring up how beautiful and impressive the city is, with so many buildings modeled after ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Jesus hears you and responds, pointing to the Capitol: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

Needless to say, you’d be alarmed. 

And the disciples were. 

These weren’t just buildings; they were representative of the institutions that they built their lives on. These institutions formed the very bedrock of their society.

Then they retreat a little ways to the Mount of Olives, and they’re still thinking about this incredible and terrifying prediction that Jesus made while sitting next to the temple. They ask him, quite naturally, when they could expect such a thing to happen and what the warning signs might be. 

As we’ve already seen, he doesn’t tell them when. 

Instead, he gives them a long answer telling them not to follow anyone that comes along claiming to be Jesus — or maybe just claiming to be saviors, since people who gather a radical following claiming to be able to solve all the world’s problems have caused far more anguish in the world than a disheveled stranger who says he’s Jesus Christ right before he tells you that he was born in space. 

Today’s Gospel reading is really a continuations of last week’s. Last week, we saw a poor widow put her whole life, everything she had to live on, into the treasury of the temple. Jesus had just been railing about how the religious institution was devouring the houses and money of the most vulnerable among them, those who had the least. 

And here, governments rise up against governments. Temples fall. And person after person comes along, taking control of governments and other institutions claiming that he can solve all our problems and save us from despair.

Hmm… I heard that.

Given how much harm our institutions can do — from church sex abuse to governments having people assassinated — Jesus’ warning sounds as hopeful as it does terrifying. 

A friend of mine used to quote Tony Benn all the time saying, “My mother taught me to believe the prophets and not the kings.” 

In Benn’s eyes, it was the kings who had power, and the prophets who preach justice. When temples fall, kings fall. But prophets don’t depend on any human institution, but instead depend on people hearing them and hearing God’s words: “I heard that!” 

This past week, I had the privilege and the pleasure of making my way to the Cape for Bishop’s Convocation, a yearly gathering of our synod’s pastors and deacons and other leaders. As many of you already know personally, our synod (which is our regional gathering of churches) has some pretty amazing humans leading it. 

One such human is Pastor Sara Anderson, associate to the bishop and previous pastor of the Lutheran church over in Wilbraham. She preached the final service of Bishop’s Convocation on Wednesday. In her sermon, Sara talked about her call to ministry, which began at Calumet, our synod’s camp. 

She talked about sitting in the outdoor chapel as a teenager who was raised Catholic and listening to her very first woman preacher, Pastor Linda Forsberg (amazing human #2 in this story) talk about the Spirit moving. 

And for my part on Wednesday, I couldn’t help thinking, “If that isn’t inspiration enough to keep pushing, what is?” And it’s not about preaching to me — it’s about encouragement. We never know how deeply our words will impact people, or what they’ll be inspired to do and be.

Something as small as smiling at someone in the grocery store can have a huge impact; people have told stories for years about deciding to commit suicide only to change their mind because a stranger did something nice for them. If such small interactions with strangers can have such an impact, what more can we do for the people we see every day?

This, to me, is how to be a prophet: to keep doing the best you can, spreading love in the best of ways, doing all the good we can.

Institutions are all temporary. No government has lasted forever, nor has any religious institution. Traditions last, philosophies last, religions last; institutions really don’t. Sooner or later, not one stone will be left upon another, but all will be thrown down, and the war-makers and fake saviors with them.

What does last is Good News. What does last is kindness. What does last is believing in something bigger than yourself and investing in other people because of it. 

This Gospel text, you probably don’t remember, was also the pre-assigned Gospel text after the 2016 election. The message I got in our divided nation and world at that moment: institutions cannot, and will not, save us.

But Love will. When everything crumbles, God is there. 

As we’ll sing in a minute: my hope is built on nothing less. Nothing less than Jesus. No temple, no church,  no building. Just a guy who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago who they say rose from the dead. Who preached love of neighbor and welcome of the stranger. Who they say, as broken as it is, saved the world, so that no one else needs to save it again. 

Man, as discouraged as I may be sometimes these days, that’s enough to keep me pushing. Because you never know whom it might affect or what they might do. Because “my mother taught me to believe the prophets and not the kings.” Because you never know who’s listening.

Because love wins.

Because it’s worth it. 

I heard that. Amen.

Poor Widows and Election Returns

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Voters in Georgia cast their ballots. (Source: John Spink, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Preached on November 11, 2018, at Our Savior’s

Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

What Gospel text, what a week. Let’s get into it. 

For the first time in recent memory, I’m saying this sentence and expecting you all to know it already: the midterm election happened this past Tuesday night. 

If you’re new here, don’t worry. I think that it’s pastoral malpractice to be partisan from the pulpit. I also think it’s kinda silly at this point to go on and on about “both sides” in a sermon that pretends to be edgy but is secretly trying to keep everybody happy.

Just as the midterms had most of us claiming victory over something, there was another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, leaving twelve people dead. 

At this point after an exhausting and heartbreaking and exciting week of news, most of us are some combination of sad, angry, tired, and maybe hopeful? Maybe.

Our political world is vitally important. Now, if for whatever reason you don’t buy that politics is important and that it affects our lives, or if you’re seriously just too busy trying to keep yourself afloat to pay attention, I hear you. To me, American politics and world politics are not only something that I’m aware affects my life and those of my neighbors and friends and family and all of you and the very world we live in. You see, besides those things being true, I find politics and history poetically interesting. Politics and history from around the world tell us some things about what it means to be human. Some of those things are uplifting and hopeful; some are very uncomfortable.

Watching election returns is one of our few remaining common experiences, and it’s growing to be one that we share more than ever. Once, we had to wait until the next day to find out who won an election. Before that it was days, and before that, weeks or months. What’s more, back in the day, people would get the news at different times; there was a good while when most people in Boston would find out who won national or state elections before most people in Granby or South Hadley found out. These days, we turn on the television and social media and we usually find out the results — all together — within hours. You don’t even have to be at the television or by your computer; you can follow it all from that little glowing rectangle in your pocket.

On election night, the resources are available for everyone who wants it to plug in and connect and tune in and watch and feel the current consciousness of the country be revealed — in parts and as a whole — precinct by precinct, county by count, district by district, state by state, moment by moment. Moment by moment, we learn where we are as a country, and what our fellow citizens are saying and thinking. 

It’s a uniquely modern experience that’s a mix of pure poetry and gastric disease.

The acid reflux that we feel on election night isn’t the same as the kind we get during sports games we care about, either. Politics is real life. Political policies lift real people up or hurt them, ‘cause or allow real people’s deaths or give real people more freedom or less. 

Too often, human institutions have hurt the people they were supposed to protect and serve. This has always been true as long as humans started banding together. Our own country originated from a rebellion against a government that didn’t have citizens’ best interests at heart. 

In today’s Gospel text, there’s a widow who puts everything into the treasury of an institution — a religious one, the temple. The temptation that I see for us as interpreters is to romanticize the widow. How amazing is she, we think — she who has so little, but who gives it all away?

But in the shadow of an election, I’m thinking a little more about institutions than I normally do, and I caught something in the text this cycle that I can’t believe I’ve never caught before.

You see, Jesus spends the entire paragraph that we read before that coming straight for the religious institution and the people who run it. I think we miss this because the term “scribes” doesn’t have much meaning for us. It’s not a term that most everyday folks are familiar with. 

So instead, try this adaptation on, and you’ll get closer to how Jesus’ original hearers would’ve heard it: “Beware of the pastors, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect at the farmer’s market, and to have the best seat in church and places of honor at community events! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

And then, imagine that he tells a story about a poor woman who gave the tiny amount of money she had for food to the church with the pastor who devours widows’ houses. “Widows,” in that time, of course, was a stand-in for the vulnerable. The widows the the orphans — women and children without a grown man to protect and provide for them, which was absolutely necessary back in those days. The point is that institutions can easily exploit financially vulnerable people.

What’s more, in the very next chapter of Mark, Jesus will tell his disciples that “not one stone [of the temple] will be left upon another, but all will be torn down” (Mark 13:2). This widow is giving everything she has to an institution that not only keeps her down, but one whose days are numbered. Given that, I began to see her less as a paradigm for giving and more as a bit of a tragedy. I felt a little sorry for her.

And when I start to feel sorry for her, I start feeling sorry for myself, too. I think about all the ways that I pour myself into institutions: into my work in the church and into my citizenship. Then, in an act of self-awareness, I think about people who give much more than I do and I start feeling sorry for them. In Greek, Jesus says of the widow that she put “the whole of her life” into the treasury that day. Her whole life — and for what?

Is any of this redeemable? Where is the Good News?

Is the church in America dying? Is our divided and furious political democracy dying? And if they’re not dying, is either really worth it, or do institutions just always do more harm than good? 

Is it worth it to take the time to vote? To knock on doors? To talk to our neighbors who believe so diffeently?

Is it worth it to come to church, to give to the church? Or are we, and the generous widow in Mark’s story, just characters worthy of pity, pouring everything into a doomed institutions?

Is any of this redeemable?

Well, as much as I’d like to say that institutions are all garbage, truth is, we’re created to work together, and we always have. And I don’t think Jesus points out this woman just to pity her; I think he points her out because otherwise, we wouldn’t see her. The one who’s not just contributing out of an abundance, but putting her life and soul into what she believes. I think that Jesus is saying that that kind of dedication is the kind that most reflects the face of God.

Because ultimately, you know, it’s Jesus, not us, whom the widow most clearly reflects. It’s Jesus who gives his whole life. Jesus sees her, I think, because he identifies with her. And that’s why it’s here that I offer a note of caution: a Lutheran pastor that I known often cautions against overwork by saying, “You don’t have to die for Jesus; he already died for you.” We are not called to sacrifice our health and well-being for the sake of institutions. We are not Jesus. We cannot save and redeem everything. Jesus already did that.

But we are called to invest ourselves into something bigger than ourselves, to pull together, to work together, to try our hardest to make things just a little bit better in the church and in the world, for those who will follow us. We are called to see this widow and make sure that the money she put into the treasury won’t mean she doesn’t go without food. We are called to protect the most vulnerable among us. We are called to put our whole lives into good work and hope for the best, knowing that in the end, it’s all redeemed, somehow, anyway.

Yes, our institutions are broken. No election will solve everything that’s wrong with our nation. No election is guaranteed to stop all violence or truly guarantee freedom and justice for all. No church program will fix everything that’s wrong with the church. We’re not Jesus, and we’re really bad at saving ourselves. 

But the good news is that we get to contribute. We get to pour ourselves into something. We get to try greatly, even if we fail. 

And the best news of all is that Jesus sees us. And the best news of all is that Jesus redeems all of it — our efforts, our institutions, our lives. 

So keep putting your whole life into your work. God sees you. God redeems it. God loves you. 

Thank God. Amen.

Unbound

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Isaiah 25:6-9
John 11:32-44

“And he will swallow up death forever.”

That sounds nice, but I don’t know about you, but I am tired. 

I am tired of saying goodbye to people that I love who have died. We’ve said goodbye this year to a lot of people, too. Most recently, we said goodbye to Beverly. Before that, we said goodbye to Bruce. Lee Debiew and Jeff’s mother Lois left us this year, too. We could fill so much time recounting the people we’ve all lost, people whose faces and voices we cherished who are no longer with us.

That alone is enough to cause us to sink into despair. But then we turn on the news, and we get more tired, really, regardless of the specifics our political views. It seems we’re all tired of hearing about the violence and the death and the hatred and the pain, so much that we lash out at everyone we see as being to blame for it all.

Preaching professor Dr. Thomas Long, a tall Presbyterian pastor with a deep voice who was my own preaching professor, opened his lecture on preaching funerals with one sentence that I will never forget: 

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death with a capital D.” 

Death says that this person is gone too soon, never to be heard from again. Death preaches despair. Death preaches loss. And Death will be heard at every funeral. The Gospel needs to be heard, too.

Sometimes, though, even to preachers, it just doesn’t seem like enough. Funerals are so real. Death is so real. We feel the loss so acutely, but even the best-preached Gospel can seem like just abstract words. Death, we can see. The Gospel? The words of Revelation about no more death and crying and pain? That just seems like an abstraction, something that’s at best too far off to see.

Even reading the story of the raising of Lazarus on All Saints’ Day seems almost cruel. On a day when we remember those who have died and remember being at their gravesides, we hear this story about someone who miraculously comes out of a tomb after four days of death. 

We in the church have made the mistake of making the Gospel an abstraction, a heady idea that we’re supposed to just believe. We’ve failed to unpack the earthiness, the pain, the visceral realness of this Gospel of death and resurrection.

Dr. Long wrote this in his book on funerals: “Christians do not live in the abstract. They are real people who live real lives, and they die real and very different deaths. They die young, and they die old and full of days. The die in the flames of martyrdom, and they die cowering in fear. They die as saintly sinners; they die as sinful saints. They die of crib death, of cancer, of old age, and by their own hand. They die full of joy, and they die despairing. They die in Hartford and Buenos Aires, Karachi and Toronto, Nairobi and rural Nebraska — in the places where they have lived and loved and in places where they are strangers and exiles. They die in hospitals and nursing homes, along highways, at sea, [at home] and at work. They die surrounded by those who love them, and they die alone….

“All Christian funerals — formal or informal, high church or low, small or large, urban or rural — say… ‘Look! Can you perceive this? The life and death of this one who has died can be seen, if you know how to look, shaped after the pattern of the life and death of Jesus.’” (1)

Just like our lives and our deaths and the deaths of all the saints, the Gospel is more than an abstraction. It is death and resurrection. And resurrection is more than just the “undo” button on death.

In this Gospel story about Lazarus, we find ourselves in familiar place — particularly familiar to this community this year. 

Someone has died, and people gather in support around the family. Surely someone brought a casserole. 

A man named Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus and his band of followers, has died. We don’t know how they knew one another, but we get the sense in this scene that they’ve definitely hung out together, eaten together, laughed together, bonded. When Jesus is told about Lazarus being sick, he hears, “Lord, the one you love is sick” (John 11:3).

And now the one that they have all loved has died, and so they gather. Jesus meets Martha, Lazarus’s sister, outside of town, and she sends her sister Mary out to meet him, too, in the centuries-old tradition of the family greeting the mourners.

Mary says to Jesus the same thing her sister Martha did: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Is that faith we hear? Is it protest? Accusation? They had invited him before Lazarus died, but Jesus didn’t leave immediately. The point is, Mary has lost her brother. She is grieving, and grieving people are allowed to just say things, even to the Son of God.

Then the story goes: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” 

That gives you the sense that Jesus wiped a tear, maybe sniffled a little. No. 

For quite awhile now, translators have softened these emotions of Jesus. The Greek makes him sound much less sad, and much more angry. The words used mean both to snort in anger and to be troubled, anxious, distressed, restless. 

None of them means that he was just sad. He’s disturbed. Angry. Agitated. 

Jesus, God-made-flesh, knows that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t how love is supposed to be. Families are supposed to stay together, friends are supposed to be together, love is supposed to last, and yet the powers of disease and violence and death rip us away. And God is angry.

“There are two preachers at every funeral. There’s you, and there’s Death.”

Everyone here has heard Death’s sermon. Jesus hears it here, and he’s angry.

He wants to act. “Where have you laid him?” he asks Mary.

What Mary says to him is the primary invitation in the Gospel of John: “come and see.” Except that nearly every other time, it’s Jesus issuing the invitation. It’s what he says in John rather than “Come, follow me.”

Here, Mary, stricken with grief over her brother’s loss, looks into the eyes of God and offers the invitation back: “Lord, come and see.” 

Come and see what Death has done. 

These days more than most, we feel the gut-wrenching pain of Mary’s words: 

Lord, come and see. Come and see what Death has done.

Come and see what has happened in Pittsburgh.

Come and see what is happening in Syria. 

Come and see what has happened in Puerto Rico.

Come and see the devastation on the Gulf Coast.

Come and see the chairs that used to be filled every Sunday by Beverly and Bruce. Come and see the chairs all over the sanctuary that used to be occupied by people we loved who aren’t here anymore.

Come and see what Death has done.

Lord, come and see. 

This. This is when Jesus weeps.

We already read how the story ends. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus is so moved and disturbed by Death, so sick of Death’s preaching, that he brings Lazarus back after four days gone. Lazarus is one of two people brought back from the death in John’s Gospel, you may remember — Jesus being the other one.

But here, with Lazarus, when he comes out of the tomb, he’s still wrapped in the linen grave clothes — with his face and hands and feet bound. If you want an image, think about that: his feet are bound, but he comes out of the tomb on his own. Did he levitate? Hop? Shuffle? 

Lazarus can’t even see. His face is covered and he stumbles forward, bewildered, still wrapped in the linen clothes of death. What you’re meant to know is this: this is a miracle indeed — Lazarus is alive again! But he is still bound by death. He will someday die again. 

That’s sort of how I feel sometimes, and I’m betting you do too. We’ve got hope, but we’re also still bound by despair, the weight of grief, and the blinding wrappings of Death. 

But it won’t be long in John’s Gospel before we meet Jesus at another tomb: his own. When Jesus is raised from the dead, the disciples will find the linen grave clothes lying in the tomb (John 20:5). Jesus won’t need to shuffle out blindly. He will be free of death entirely. (2)

Where once he called Lazarus by name out of the tomb; on that day at his own tomb he will call Mary by name, no longer bound by death, having put Death under his feet. 

Death still preaches loud, and still, we call to Jesus: come and see. And Christ grieves with us. 

But with all the saints who came before us, we hold on to this crazy hope that maybe it will not always be this way. That maybe, despite everything, new life is coming into the world. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, that hold onto hope, that died in hope, who were buried in hope that maybe, just maybe, after death comes resurrection.

We often try to make the Gospel an abstraction. It isn’t. It is death and resurrection. When we say that someone who has been in physical or mental or emotional pain or who has been lost to dementia is free now, we mean it.  

The people whose names we will call today will be among those who have gone before us, lived before us, grieved before us, died before us. We are who we are because of them. Our faith and our outlook on life is because of them. They weren’t perfect. Many did great harm, and many did great good, and most of them are a messy combination of the two. But they shaped the world and the church that we live in today, and so we continue to proclaim this crazy hope that someday, we will all be free, and as the Revelation reading for today promises, that there is a place where there is no more death or crying or pain, because if John’s Gospel is to be believed, Death makes God angry, too.

I close with words from my dear friend Dana, a Methodist pastor in Atlanta: 

“It seems like death is everywhere in our personal lives and in our collective consciousness.  But know today that death will not have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word.
Terror doesn’t have the last word.
Racism doesn’t have the last word.
Anti-semitism doesn’t have the last word.
Islamaphobia and homophobia don’t have the last word.
Fear doesn’t have the last word.
Death doesn’t have the last word. Why?
Because God is the last Word, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Life is the last word. Love is the last word.” (3)

I know. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. But Christ is angry at death because he knows that love is the last word. And so he shut death up for good.

In a moment, we will sing the words, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.” Rejoice and be glad: we are who we are because of these saints that we will name today, and someday, no matter how tired we are, we will be free, unbound, and Death will finally be swallowed up forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing, 2009.
2. Gail R. O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 2002.
3. Pastor Dana Ezell, Trinity UMC, Atlanta, GA, 2018.

Guest Post: When Disciples Become Toddlers, or No, You Can’t Do It Yourself

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Source: parents.com, Sarah Noda/shutterstock.com

Written and preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran, South Hadley, Mass, on October 21, 2018, by the Rev. Karen Stephenson of Atlanta Bar Church, Atlanta, GA.

Mark 10:35-45

When I meet new people, I usually introduce myself by letting them know that I am a momma.  I have two children, and the oldest turned 23 this week. I confess that recently I did that whole mom thing and took a trip down memory lane. While I was looking at her pictures from when she was a a small child, I came across this one picture that made me recall that my Jordan, my 23 year old, had her own “catch phrase”…her own motto, which was always said through gritted teeth was this:

“I can do it myself!”

She said it all the time. It didn’t matter if she was trying to reach something on a shelf that was too high, or tie her shoes or cross the street — she could do it herself.  She was born with a fierce independent streak. So, now, this independence has made her an amazing adult, but it proved to quite a challenge as her parent.

In this week’s Gospel text we we encounter two disciples who are pretty sure that can too “do it themselves.” James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who as an aside here, are embracing their own motto, which is “There is no such thing as a stupid question.

They have asked Jesus to do whatever they ask of him and for the honor of being seated right next to him at the cool kids table in heaven, one on his right and the other on the left.

To which Jesus graciously responds: “Um, guys, are you sure you’re ready?”

“Can you drink from the same cup and partake of  the same baptism that I will?”

Their response: “Oh, yes, Jesus. We are ready.”

And this — this is where I am sure that Jesus responded with the quintessential theological response: “Bless your hearts.”

Which, according to Ludlow Porch, a Georgia humorist who was podcasting before it was cool, is often Southern for “…you stupid fools.”

Mark’s Gospel gives us multiple examples of how the disciples just don’t get it.

Here they are, believing that they have the ability to sit in the same seats as Jesus, God incarnate, and that they can do it themselves.

Like I said, bless their hearts.

You know, I have to wonder, how many of us are like Jordan.  How often do we encounter a new challenge or adventure even and through gritted teeth say the words, “I can do it myself”?

Or how many of us are like James and John, and  think that we can sit in the seats next to Jesus and handle all of the authority and obligation that such a position would require. 

How many of us say, “Hey Jesus.. I got this”?

Friends, hear me when I say these words: we cannot do it by ourselves. We are not enough. But before we fall into feeling inadequate, or limited by our beautiful humanity, consider this: God, our heavenly parent, knows that we are not enough. 

And what if I told you that this is the way that you, me, we are designed?  That it’s not a flaw in our makeup, but rather a beautiful aspect inherent in our design:  as humans, we are not made to go it alone.

This is humbling, right? It is for me. We live in the United States of America, a land of rugged individualism.  A place where we celebrate people who are able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Stories of individual success are lauded.  Self-made people are idolized.

But America isn’t the kingdom of God, is it?

Maybe we’ve lifted up the wrong thing.  Maybe in our desire to ‘do it ourselves’ we have forgotten that God created us to live in community and to rely on others just as they rely on us.

We are accustomed to a culture where we think we don’t need each other, and maybe just maybe there are times when we think we don’t need God.

So, if we aren’t meant to do this life thing, this life as disciples, by ourselves, what reminders do we have to help us embrace our neediness, our humanity?

Take a minute. Take a look at the people sitting around you.  I know that yesterday you all celebrated the life of one of your own. According to your pastor, this congregation gathered together to honor a woman who understood that to be human was to be in community and to make room for more people at the table.

A  woman who knew that we cannot do it ourselves,
and — this is the good news — that we don’t have to. 

And not only that, but that we can’t do good on our own, we are unable.

Martin Luther reminded us that only through the power of the Holy Spirit working within us are we able to be enough.  So Recognizing our inability to drink the cup and be baptized with the same baptism as Jesus is the first step in recognizing our dependence on God.  We are called to serve, yes, but we don’t have to do it alone.  

We have each other and we have a God to see us through. 

When we can’t muster the strength to act, we rely on others to help and when others lack the strength, we can step in.  But in all of it, God is guiding us and strengthening us. And it is through God’s power and presence in our lives that we can be enough, 

That we ARE enough.

Amen.

Ghosts of the Reformation

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Grand Central Terminal in New York City; home to more than a few ghost stories. 
Photo cred: Wikimedia, user @Sracer357.

John 8:31-36

Welcome to Reformation Sunday. Or, as most people, even most Protestants call it: the Sunday before Halloween. Thus, I find it appropriate to begin with a little minimally scary ghost story. 

A few months ago, due to construction, I found myself arriving via Amtrak into New York’s Grand Central station. Grand Central, the iconic building — with the huge golden clock in the center of its large, open atrium, with painted celestial constellations on the ceiling looking down on you from above. I found out later that, as with anything that has a long history, Grand Central has its share of ghost stories.
One such story takes place in the early 1900s. It includes a frightened, gray-haired main in a black bowler hat approaching the main counter under the big clock at Grand Central’s center. He says, breathing quickly, “The midnight train to hell is coming for me. I have committed too many crimes against man and sins against heaven.”

As the story goes, the station agent reached out to grasp the man’s hand and reassure him.  “Sir, we have no midnight train to hell. We have the 11:58 PM from Croton-on-the Hudson and the 12:02 AM from New Haven arriving, but no trains to hell.  Furthermore, we have no connection with any infernal agents or a railroad stops [pointing] down below.”

But suddenly, a steam whistle echoed off the walls of the terminal.

A locomotive appeared, steaming, even though by that point in history, the tracks were electrified. It is said that the attendant could feel the rush of hot air propelled forward by the steam locomotive. 

A second later, the old grey-haired man disappeared.  Just the black bowler hat remained on the floor of Grand Central Terminal. The attendant says that the train continued south — though there are no tracks south of Grand Central.

The story scratches a lot of our ghost story itches: namely, the mystery surrounding historic places like Grand Central Station that have seen so much humanity over the years, as well as the ghosts that lurk around, stirring our imaginations and also disturbing us. It also reinforces our learned fears of God’s wrath, which brings us back to Reformation Sunday.

We Lutherans can get a little irritated that other Protestants aren’t as hyper-aware as we are of the history of Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses and the profound effect that they had on the modern church. If you didn’t grow up Lutheran, you may not even feel all that connected to this history. If you grew up Catholic, you may feel hyper-connected to Luther — after all, I imagine that you left the Roman Catholic Church for a reason. Alternatively, though, if you still feel connected to the Catholic Church and/or have close family members and friends who still are Catholic, you may see Reformation Day as a painful reminder of our ecclesial separation from them.

Like Grand Central Station, you see, the Reformation has its ghosts. These are ghosts, like any, haunt and terrorize us, wedging themselves into our psyches. They also haunt our relationships with our neighbors. It is about time, I believe, that we shook free of these ghosts. The legend goes that at times, you can free yourself of a ghost by learning its name. It’s time to name the ghosts of the Reformation, then. So that we, like the Gospel texts, may be set free by truth and to set others free, too.

What’s more: our nation has its own ghosts. Violence and threats of violence against political leaders, as well as an antisemitic attack that has left eleven people dead in Pittsburgh have their own origins in prejudices as old as time.

So I give you today: the ghosts of the Reformation, or discomforts and untruths that lurk around Reformation Day — and the Western world — like ghosts. 

First, there’s the specter of schism. Schism — as in our separation from our siblings in the Roman Catholic Church. There is the fact that violence erupted between us and them not so long ago, and the fact that we manage to live in peace with them today, right here in South Hadley. There are the lies we tell about each other. For example, we might easily tell ourselves that the story of the man in Grand Central is more Catholic than Protestant, you know, since one of the lies that we tell is that Protestants alone believe in grace and that Catholics are all about God’s wrath. This, my friends, is a lie: both Catholics and Protestants, have, over the years, both preached grace and preached salvation by works. No Christian denomination owns grace; God alone does. Grace is poured out on everybody, and that’s the point. We must also accept, in the spirit of the Reformation, that no one church 100% gets any of this right and that we all mess it up royally on the regular.

Second, there’s the specter of self-reliance. When we hear that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” a lot of us feel a tightness in our chest. Are we, too, waiting for the “midnight train to hell”? Because we are aware that we all have royally messed up, we fear God’s imagined wrath, and it follows us around like a ghost. The more I talk to people about faith, the more I realize that a lot of people have this image of God where God is sitting in heaven with a clipboard, doing advanced calculus wherein God writes down each of our sins and marks them out when we confess, and if we die without confessing, we’re on the next train to hell. Sure, we may say that we believe in grace, but we fail to extend it to others, or to ourselves, believing deep inside that this “free grace” thing couldn’t possibly really be true.

This leads to the final ghost/lie, which is related to the others: that we are special and Jesus loves us best. When the folks in the Gospel reading say to Jesus “We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone,” you’re not supposed to feel superior to Jewish people because you, unlike them, understand that Christ is greater than Moses. That’s not the point. The point, rather, is kind of the opposite: that you do not become part of God’s family by being born into the right faith or tradition. You don’t become part of God’s family by doing or saying the right things, either. Rather, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” — no questions asked. Freedom is an act of God, offered to all people; it is not something that is earned. 

There are a lot of other “ghosts” related to the Reformation, too: Martin Luther wrote some stuff that is bluntly anti-Semitic. These writings are easily findable online. Especially in light of the continued violence against our Jewish neighbors, most recently in Pittsburgh, we can’t overlook this or fail to acknowledge our role here. Look, Luther was far from perfect, often lashing out at his enemies and perceived enemies. We make a mistake, and we hurt our neighbors, when we uncritically lift up Luther as a perfect example. He wasn’t, and he would be the first to say so.

It is time we set these ghosts free so that we can be free, too. 

501 years ago, something happened that changed the shape of Christianity and saved the world. Luther didn’t hope to cause a schism at first, but a schism happened. We should not be proud of this. We should take it as a sign of our brokenness as humans — that we can’t ever manage to get God, or grace, right — for ourselves or for others.

But in a way, the Reformation is also a blessing that gives us freedom: free to worship as we wish, free to follow the Spirit’s leading without fear of repercussions, free to welcome through our doors whomever we wish, as we think Jesus would want us to do. 

There are thousands of Christian denominations as a result of the Reformation. This is the reality that we must live with until all things are made right, until God finally makes the church one. How that will happen, I cannot tell you, because cannot fathom how the church today could possibly be one. We are so different, and we value such different things. There are Christians who believe that other Christians, including us, are demon-possessed, those who believe that LGBTQ people are demon-possessed, and I’m not sure how we could possibly be “one.” Being together, to me, sounds like a bad cocktail party and an even worse image of the end times. But then again, I am very much not God. My imagination is very limited.

But until Jesus comes back, let’s finally be free of the ghosts of the Reformation. Let’s embrace our neighbors, even if we can’t worship with them on the regular. I think that’s what Jesus would have us do: be free of the ghosts. There is no midnight train to hell, no bowler hat, no ghosts, only grace. So be free indeed. Amen.

Open Hands

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A scene from the 2004 movie Saved!

Mark 10:17-31

First Jesus starts talking about divorce, then, as a break, he goes after rich people. 

Last week, because it was a children’s Sunday school Sunday, I did a sort of switcharoo on you all, snipping away the passage about divorce and leaving only the cute part about the children coming to Jesus. But for every preacher who wasn’t creating a worship service for children, it was a Sunday to talk about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. It’s a painful text for many, especially those who have personally experienced or been near to divorce themselves. The church has, for years, exiled divorced people from the communion table and told them all sorts of harmful things, wielding Mark 10 as a weapon and ignoring the wide variety of incredibly painful reasons that two people might get divorced. It turns out that life is messy, and rigid rules hurt people when they are wielded as weapons. 

One of my favorite God-related scenes from any movie is from the 2004 movie Saved! One of the characters, Hilary Faye, is very Christian and very pious and very self-righteous and played by Mandy Moore. In the scene in question, Hilary Faye is attempting to stage an intervention with the main character, Mary, whom Hilary Faye believes is walking away from Jesus because Mary is no longer doing exactly what Hilary Faye herself wants. During the would-be intervention, Mary tries to literally walk away, but Hilary Faye won’t have it — she hurls her Bible at Mary, completely un-ironically screaming “I AM FILLED WITH CHRIST’S LOVE!” The Bible hits Mary in the back. Mary picks it up, turns around, and says one of the most theologically rich things I know of in any movie, complete with perfect pauses for emphasis.  

This is not a weapon — you idiot.” 

Another phrase was often bandied about when I was in seminary: “Be a fool for Christ, not an idiot for Jesus.” 

Stringent rules do tend to simplify our lives, but because life is not simple, wielding these rules as weapons quickly turns us into idiots for Jesus. 

Strangely, though, we rarely use it as a weapon against rich people, presumably because the church has always wanted their money. You know, it’s been a bit of a rough week, I ran a half marathon yesterday, and I’m feeling a little blunt this morning.

Don’t worry: I don’t intend to be an idiot for Jesus and use the Bible as a weapon. However, not using the Bible as a weapon does require that we think about it, because well, the Bible does say what it says. 

So what of it, then? Is it true that rich people can’t enter the kingdom of God? Is it true that divorced people commit adultery? And the most important question: is any of that even remotely the point Jesus is trying to make?

After his famous teaching on divorce, just as he’s getting started on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus just as he’s setting out. Ditching any preliminaries, the man hollers, “GOOD TEACHER! What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

Can you imagine starting a conversation like that? Try it when you’re in the checkout line at the Big Y sometime. “How are you today?” “WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?!” 

Then you’d know something about what it’s like to be a pastor on an airplane, I guess. 

Anyway, Jesus gives this man some beef about calling him “good,” then he basically says, “You know the law.” And Jesus rattles off a few commandments. The man replies, “Yeah yeah yeah — I’ve kept all these since my youth.” We presumably have an observant man of faith on our hands.

Then Mark says that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Then Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 

Weird, isn’t it, how people who take the Bible literally seem to take everything literally except this part (and maybe some stuff about mixed fabrics and cheeseburgers)?

I’ve heard a thousand explanations about how Jesus “didn’t really mean” that we should sell all our stuff. But I’m here to consider one distinct possibility: maybe he did.

He said what he said, after all, and if he’s Jesus, isn’t his word law for Christians? Even those of us who aren’t rich have private property. I certainly haven’t sold everything I own, and I’m not planning on having a blowout tag sale for the poor at the parsonage any time soon.

But people are hungry not too far from here. The more global you get, the worse it gets: the person in this room with the least in capital still qualifies as fairly rich on a global scale. Unless somebody won the Powerball and didn’t tell me (I can’t blame you; I would’ve sent you two stewardship cards) none of us is crazy rich by American standards. Compare us to the world’s poorest, though, and we come out looking loaded.

As we say in the South whenever the pastor talks about money, the preacher has “stopped preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.” 

The bare facts, though, are that Jesus said what he said: “sell all your possessions and give them to the poor.” Peter says a few verses later that the disciples gave up everything. In the early church, Acts tells us that the earliest Christians also took Jesus’ words more literally: Acts 2 and Acts 4 paint a picture of the Christian community that held all things in common, and gave to anyone who had need. 

That’s what all takes to follow the law to the letter: sell all your possessions and feed some people. If everybody did that, we would have a more just world with a lot fewer hungry people. Just like the ideal for marriage is that it’s a covenant that lasts forever.

But then life happens, and life is messy a lot of it is out of our control. We humans, for reasons within and outside of our control, can’t ever quite seem to fully get it together in a way that works for everyone. 

Nobody here is worthy. And that’s exactly Jesus’ point.

The whole thing, and the rich man’s piousness and vulnerability and sadness in walking away, and the image of the camel and the needle’s eye astounds the disciples so much that they ask him, exasperated: “Then who can be saved?!” They’re not even sure that they’re good in this scenario, and they have given up everything.

Jesus just replies, “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.”

The whole thing is about the crushing nature of the law. About how the point of having stringent rules is so that we can ourselves worthy. It gives us standards by which to measure ourselves in every way — sounds awesome, until we realize that life is messy, stuff happens that’s outside of our control, and strict standards are impossible for everyone to keep.

But for God, Jesus says, all things are possible.

Enter grace. 

Here’s a thing I say all the time: The Gospel isn’t a story about how we prove ourselves worthy. The Gospel is a story about God.

Peter’s exasperated, though, and still doesn’t get it: “We’ve left everything to follow you!” 

It’s not about you, Peter. It’s about turning the world upside down. 

Many who are last shall be first, and a lot of folks who are used to being first shall be last, and they’ll probably be pretty mad about it.  

But either way, there’s plenty good room at the table.

Long ago, I heard someone say, “The Eucharist is the only altar call we need.” 

This isn’t a story about us or our willingness to give up everything or how long our marriages last or anything we do. Because the law crushes everybody — rich, poor, married, divorced. If idealistic rules don’t get you on one thing, they get you on another. Possessions, money, marriage, divorce — it’s all complicated and messy. There is no reliable standard by which to measure humanity because one person’s frivolous, terrible decision is another person’s survival tactic. So it is with divorce. Abuse is real, and toxic relationships are real, and some people divorce so that they can survive and thrive. The real sin is pretending like we can be gatekeepers for God.

Life is messy. Thank God we don’t have to keep score, because we couldn’t if we tried.

Enter grace. 

Grace, that we meet at the altar in bread and wine. I once heard someone say that the Eucharist is the only altar call we need. I believe that. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans quotes Robert Fararr Capon, who writes, “Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” 

Evans continues, “This is why I need the Eucharist. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to begin each week with open hands. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to practice letting go and letting in. 

I need the Eucharist because I need to quit keeping score. 

‘No one has been worthy to receive communion,’ writes Alexander Schemamann, ‘no one has been prepared for it. … Life comes again to us as a gift, a free and divine gift… everything is free, nothing is due and yet all is given.’”

She continues, “It’s a scary thing to open your hands. It’s a scary thing to receive, to say yes. I resist it every time. But somehow, whether it sneaks in through a piece of bread, a sip of wine, or a hatching bud, grace always, eventually gets through. And finally, at long last, I exhale my thanksgiving.” (1)

The Bible is not a weapon. It is also not simple; it can be confusing and burdensome. 

But in the end, it is a story about God, not a book of stringent rules. We have enough rulebooks. The Bible holds an ancient story that tells us how easily we humans turn destructive and how messy life is, and proclaims something else: that grace always breaks in, somehow, right about the moment that we stop keeping score. It is not a weapon, and we need not be idiots for Jesus in trying to keep all its rules. The Bible comes to life at the table in bread and wine and words and grace, offered freely, thank God.

So let us begin our week, beloved, with open hands. Amen.

1. Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday (2015), 144-145. 

Church, Together

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As the Church, we walk together: and not just on Palm Sunday.

Genesis 2:18-22

It’s a fairly common experience, I think, to meet the parent or sibling of a friend or significant other and think, “Wow — my friend makes more sense now.” 

Knowing where someone came from, and knowing their relatives, helps them make more sense.

Which is why I feel like meeting Jesus would make humanity as a whole make more sense, and that someday when we all meet God — if God is the kind of being that can be met, per se — that humanity, or at least, the goodness of humanity, will make more sense to us. 

The Genesis reading has been used for centuries against LGBTQ people and women, so let’s get a few things clear: first, a woman created to be the “helper” for the man doesn’t mean that she’s less than he is. Don’t believe me? The Hebrew word for “helper” used here in Genesis is the same Hebrew word used for God in the psalms when a psalmist says,  “O God, you are my help.” So yeah. I wouldn’t go too far with that argument, dudes.

Second, the point of the passage is not really gender at all. Sure, it helps explain to ancient people why male and female humans exist, but that doesn’t seem to quite be the theological point being made here. Last week, we talked about how often we get distracted when reading the Bible by talk of heaven and the afterlife — sometimes we get so distracted that we miss what the writer of the passage is actually trying to say. The same is true of gender; we get distracted by it and don’t notice much else about a passage. If we were dogs, gender would be a squirrel: a distraction, something we run off after, leaving everything else behind. 

And here is what we miss by running off after gender: “it is not good for a person to be alone.” And God creates all the creatures of the earth — presumably even dogs — and none is found to be a suitable companion. 

The only thing that works is when God creates another human. It’s not just Eve; we are all created for each other, to walk with each other, to keep each other company. We are created for relationship by a God whose very self is relationship: one in three, three in one, God is love. It is not good for us to be alone — so we have each other. 

Mindful that we have children and a few low-attention adults with us, myself included, today’s sermon is participatory. You just have to listen for your cue. 

I’ve been among you for almost three years now, and I’ve walked with you through a lot. So I’m going to describe some things I’ve seen (don’t worry — there are no names, and the things I’m describing are general), and then I’m going to say, borrowing from Elizabeth Eaton, our Lutheran presiding bishop: “We are church” and you will respond, “together.” Feel free to add a clap, just for emphasis. Let’s try it. 

We are church: together.

They say that no man is an island, and the same is true of church. No person is an island. No person is a church. We can only do church with others. And here, for this season of each of our lives,

We are church: together.

We gather around a campfire, and we all, young and old, clamor to hear the stories of one member in particular. He tells us stories of the Dick’s Sporting Goods website in the late 1990s, of getting his computer problems solved, and of finding the perfect melon at the grocery store, and a few other stories that we’ve all heard before but long to hear again. If we’re lucky, we might even hear a few new stories. We gather, we toast, we laugh, we roast marshmallows. We are church: together. 

We gather around a wheelbarrow, and we receive instructions from our fearless leader — the property chairperson, or the outreach chairperson, or maybe someone else — on a chilly weekend day. We each grab a rake, or a shovel, or a pair of gloves. We clean up: our own church yard, or maybe the yard of a neighbor in need. We laugh and share stories over the mulch that we spread and the hedges that we trim. We are church: together.

We gather around the narthex and say hello to people we haven’t seen in ages. We meet one another’s family that’s flown in from far away. The lights are low and the air is chilly, because it’s Christmas Eve. The ushers wear funny Santa hats because they are hilarious. We sing carols. We light candles. Everyone is welcome. We are church: together.

We gather out by the church sign, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna,” a word no one uses anymore, making our neighbors passing by say, “look at those crazy Lutherans.” It’s early spring and the wind is cold and  the day is cloudy, but the sanctuary is warm. We lay our palms and our coats at the altar and we enter into the holy story of Holy Week. We are church: together. 

We gather around plastic tables in the fellowship hall and we crunch the numbers and we set a budget for another year. If we’re lucky, someone brings cookies. We are church: together. 

We gather around a bed where one of our own lies, sick. We pray. We sing. We make sure, in whispered, non-intrusive tones, that the family has enough food. We ask if there’s anything else we can do for them. We love and we bless and we hug and we cry and we care for our own. We are church: together.

We gather on someone’s porch in summer. We share stories and the awesome cheese dip that somebody made. We make plans for the future and we take shots with corn cobs at the compost bin. We enjoy the warm air of summer and the warm glow of each other’s company. We are church: together.

We gather at a bar owned by one of our own. We sing hymns, we drink beer, we confuse and delight the usual patrons of the bar. We talk about the Red Sox and the Patriots and high school lacrosse. We are church: together.

We gather around a grave, and we say goodbye for now. We make more meals for the family. We meet the whole extended family, who has flown in for the funeral. We awe at how much our beloved church member looks like their sibling, or their children, whom most of us have never met before now. We recall with laughter and tears the memories. We hug one another, and we send each other home. We keep checking in with the person’s loved ones during the weeks and months and years to come. We keep sharing memories. We light candles on All Saints’. We give thanks for that person, always. We are church: together. 

We gather in the parking lot for Easter Vigil, all of us, even the pastor, wondering what in the heck we are doing at church on a Saturday night. The sun sinks below the horizon, and we light a fire, the first fire of the warm days, even though it usually isn’t even warm yet. We go inside to the fellowship hall and we tell stories as old as time: stories of God creating humanity, of the children of Israel, of the dry bones of Ezekiel. We go into the sanctuary and taste bread and wine — like always, but not like always. We pop champagne at the end. We celebrate together: Christ is risen indeed. We are church: together.

We gather around the table every Sunday, knowing that even when any one of us is absent, we are here. We God’s people, will always be here, in some form. We gather on the first day of the week, as Christians have for centuries, and sing songs of redemption and read stories that inspire us, stories that confuse us, stories that capture our imaginations or bore us to tears. Every Sunday, we step into this river of faith that’s been going on for centuries and will go on long after we are gone. We, we humans, were created to be together, in relationship with other people. And in this moment in history, this is our faith community, where we come and hear the shouts of kids and clap our hands and share our joy and share our pain and share our lives. We are church: together.

I am proud of you. I am proud of all that you do for one another and the tender ways that you care for one another. I am glad that we are here together for this season of our lives. We humans were created for relationship with one another, and I am glad to share life with you. 

Thank you. Thank you for everything that you do here and the ways you contribute: whether by cleaning up the church yard or contributing your gifts or money or talents or by keeping our finances in line or just by getting yourself and your tiny humans here. Thank you. We are blessed and changed by your presence among us. You are the reason — one of many — that we are church: together.

Knowing where someone came from does sometimes make them make more sense. The God from which we all came and to whom we shall all return is relationship, is three in one, and one in three, is love. And we are reflections of that love, because we were created for one another. 

And here, in this place: we are church: together. Amen.