God on the Way: The Journey for Healing

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Our Savior’s sign currently.

John 9:1-41

I’ll cut to the chase. This morning’s Gospel lesson is, needless to say, relevant. From the very beginning: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

“Who sinned, that we are now in a pandemic?” 

It’s a question as old as time. Who is to BLAME?
The answer is the same in both cases: no one. Don’t waste your time on blame in a crisis or in the face of pain. The ailments are, instead, an opportunity.

In John 5, there’s a similar healing to the one I just read. In that passage and in this one, Jesus approaches the person in need of healing without the person looking for him. In John 5, Jesus asks a question of the man in need of healing that has been rattling around my brain this week. 

“Do you want to be made well?” 

In this passage, Jesus says to the man, “Go and wash.” 

(Jesus told you to; go and wash your hands. Unless you’re watching this live, you can pause me. I’ll wait.) 

We’ve all been readjusting to what has become our new normal. When we canceled worship last week, I was happy to take precautions but also didn’t think it would last more than a week or two. Now, in only a week, we are coming to realize that this will last longer than any of us want it to. 

Settle in. This is going to last longer than any of us want it to. 

We are being asked to practice social distancing: “Like a good neighbor, stay over there!” Places of worship have canceled services, including us, to protect our people. The state has mandated that we not gather in groups of over 25, and the CDC knocked that down to 10. 

We’re being told to go and wash — in this case, our hands. We’re being told to get exercise and to stay away from other people. I get the sense that most people are taking it seriously, but some aren’t.

America — “Do you want to be made well?” 

“Go and wash.” 

If we didn’t know this before, we are all interconnected. My carelessness in going out may not make me sick, but it could contribute to someone else getting sick. We must care for each other. We must ensure that everyone is made well as quickly as possible. 

We are all lonely. And hurting. And grieving things that have been canceled. And maybe even a little angry or at least annoyed with those we may be sharing a house with. We are bored. One of the cruelties of this international crisis is that we have too much time to think, to be anxious, to worry — about our loved ones, about ourselves, about our livelihoods. I share all of those worries with you. We are all in this together, and we must stay the course to flatten the curve of this thing and to ensure that it’s over with as quickly as possible. I am a marathoner, so let me tell you something about marathons: they last longer than you want them to, and they are painful, but once you start, you have no choice but to stay the course until the finish line. 

The same holds true here. 

“Do you want to be made well?” 

In this passage, Jesus does the healing and then there’s a whole line of conversation and controversy about how the guy got healed. In the same way, there’s a whole line of conversation and controversy about this virus. We’re yelling at each other, calling in witnesses, trying to figure out how it happened, trying to pass blame. We’re trying to find out how to stop it and get back to our lives. 

But the point of the story is in the blind man’s words: “I was blind, and now I see.” Now, more than ever, we need to realize that the Gospel is a story about God, not a story about us. Now more than ever, we need to do our part and handle what we can control — we need to want to be made well — and we need to realize right now how very much is out of our control. 

Beloved, one of the things that I always say, especially on Christmas and Easter, is that we always gather to celebrate. I always say that never do we get to the end of Lent and then shrug and say “Well, I guess we won’t get together this year.” We always do. We always, always do. 

This year is probably going to be different. And I realized something this week that I had not realized before, at least not like this: we do not make Easter happen. Easter will happen regardless of what we do, or do not do, which skits we perform, which music we sing. New life is going to burst forth out of the frozen ground, and it already is here in Massachusetts. The trees are sprouting. The shoots are coming up. New life is coming, and we did nothing to earn it or bring it in. Because we can’t make spring come. 

When we have gathered together in previous years for the first Sunday of Easter or Easter Vigil, I don’t think I fully appreciated that we were only acknowledging a reality, not making it happen. 

Beloved, new life will come. This will end. And Jesus Christ is as risen today as yesterday, and tomorrow, and forever. Doctors and nurses and infectious disease specialists are already working around the clock to get this under control. We owe them our gratitude, our love, our very lives. Help is on the way, and in the meantime, we need to stay home.

Focus on what you can control: yourself. You can call the people you want to talk to. You can wash your hands. You can get exercise and you can stay home. 

Let go of what you cannot control and rest only knowing that we are not alone. 

If any good comes from this, let it be that we no longer take for granted a hug from a friend, a beer at a bar, or the ability to gather together in safety to acknowledge and proclaim what God has already done. 

But that even now, in the middle of Lent, Christ is still risen. Even now, it is spring. Even now, there is hope. 

Our sign outside currently reads, “Hope is not canceled.” That is true. Easter is not canceled either. We may have to celebrate it in a different way this year, but Easter will still come. 

And after this year, we will never again take for granted the sound of children stomping out death at Easter Vigil. We will never again take for granted the smell of the lilies and the smiles on the faces of all of our people in their Sunday best. We will never again take each other for granted. 

So connect, however you can. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Let’s flatten this curve so that we can get back to loving one another in person. 

Until then, control what you can, and give up thinking that you can control everything. Let yourself rest and be still. We are not alone. You are not alone. 

Until we are all set free from this, we will love one another however we can, including like this. We will reach out and call one another when we need to. We will send loving texts and Facebook messages and laugh until we cry over video calls. We will make the best of this. 

And the best news of all is that Christ will bring us healing, and new life, and resurrection, whether we ask for it or not. When this is over, we will see everything, including each other, with new and grateful eyes.

We are not alone. Hope is not canceled. And help is already on the way. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey to Find What We Need

This is part of a backlog of sermons that I have written since our collective social distancing and self-quarantine due to COVID-19 began in earnest on Sunday, March 15. This sermon and each one that follows are also recorded on Facebook live @Our Savior’s South Hadley MA.

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Artist: Jorge Cocco Santangelo

John 4:5-42

I thought I would be giving this sermon to you in person, but here we are. This sermon is one of many things I’ve had to re-write this week. 

This Lent is going to be an unprecedented journey, and all I ask is that you be patient and gracious with us. We are all human, and none of us has lived through something like this before. While you may find our actions extreme, trust that we are acting on the latest information and doing the best we can. Also understand that we are human. None of these decisions was easy. We are all tired, all stressed, all hurting. There is currently no guidance for what church leaders should do; we simply did what the majority of churches our size are doing today. Those who are not closed this week will very likely be closed next week. 

And now the good news. That’s what Lutherans might call a sermon.

“God on the Way.” 

Today, we continue with our Lenten theme of journeying with the woman at the well. The story is meant to be in contrast with Nicodemus. He met Jesus by night; she meets him by day. He gets a name; she doesn’t. He is an important religious leader; she is a Samaritan, one of “those” people. He’s confused by Jesus’ riddles; she comes to believe and tell others. By the end of the story, Nicodemus will be a believer himself, because, like we discussed last week, “The Son did not come into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:17, the best verse in the Bible, in my estimation, which is naturally just after the most quoted one. 

The first week of Lent, we talked about the journey to find our identities — who we are, and who we will be in these times. Last week, we talked about Nicodemus and the journey for knowledge. 

The woman at the well isn’t trying to figure out who she is. She’s not looking for knowledge. She’s not even looking for Jesus. 

She comes looking for water. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of us are doing that these days. We’re looking for water so that we can wash our hands. We’re also, incidentally, looking for hand sanitizer and toilet paper and groceries. 

If you’ve started panic buying anything, stop. Notice the woman at the well didn’t drain it. We’re all in this together. 

Like the woman at the well, when we venture out these days, we’re on a journey for what we need. On that journey to find what she needs — water — she finds what she didn’t know she needed, Jesus. God, as always, was on the way.

Like many people, I’ve been venturing out much less in recent days. When I do go out, it’s on that journey to find what I need, like food, or exercise, or community, or work. 

In thinking about the woman at the well, I’ve noticed something: that if I know how to look, I rarely come back with only the thing that I needed in the first place. I go out to exercise nearly every day. Rarely to I come back with only a workout. At the gym, there’s much needed community and advice. On the running trails, there has been beautiful weather, and this beautiful Valley we live in always greets me kindly and rewards me with her beauty for coming out of the house to see her. A trip to the Big Y for food will often yield the kindness of strangers, or a much needed smile.

And then there’s you. A pastor’s life is a funny one, because our church community is also our workplace. You make things less confusing by your sheer kindness, your humor, and your sense of fun. I come here seeking what I need — work, and a purpose — and I leave with new memories of how funny, how smart, and how wonderfully logical and practical and kind you are. I leave with a renewed hope in humanity after spending far too long with my face in social media feeds where people seem only concerned about their own health and safety. 

You’ve restored my faith in humanity and in the church more times than I can count, and we will be back together soon enough, healthy and whole. 

“So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”

She was just coming to get some water from the well. There was a man there, but she didn’t pay much attention to him. She could tell that he was a Jew, and she knew all too well what Jewish people thought of Samaritan people, and vice versa. So she did what we all do when we see someone who’s one of “them” — we stick to our business. She dips her bucket in the well. 

Then he speaks. 

“Give me a drink.” 

I wonder what she thought in that moment. “Get it yourself?,” maybe? Or maybe she’s just flummoxed. That’s what her response indicates. Because she knows that no good Jewish boy is gonna go drinking from a Samaritan woman’s bucket. 

She points this out to him.
He responds, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 

She looks him up and down. “You ain’t got no bucket. Where you getting water from?” 

He keeps talking about living water. She’s convinced. Without any sign, without any miracle, she believes. She asks for the living water. 

Then they have a brief exchange about her male companion. Long story short, he shows her that he sees her — really sees her. He doesn’t mention sin, because unlike people in our own time, she almost definitely didn’t choose to have five husbands, but was most likely the victim of divorce or, more likely, being passed from brother to brother as each subsequently died. Now she’s found a man to take care of her, but he isn’t her husband. Who knows why. That’s not the point. The point is that he sees her. Jesus does that a lot in John — tell people all about their lives before they tell him anything. It’s one of his coolest tricks. 

“Okay,” she says, “I see you’re a prophet.” She points out the religious differences between her people and his, which are mostly geographical. She wants to talk theology. This wasn’t terribly common for a lady. 

One day, he assures her, worship won’t be about geography. She says she knows the Messiah is coming. “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

Then Jesus does the thing he does that English translators always seem to miss. He doesn’t say “I am he.” The real words are so much better. 

He says, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.” 

I AM. In Hebrew, Yahweh. I am, as in “the great I am.” 

“I AM is speaking to you.” 

She comes to find what she needs — water — and she finds God on the way. Or I guess, more accurately, God finds her. She went to find water and met her maker instead, but in a good way.

Then she goes and tells her whole town, and they come to find him, and they believe. She, this nameless woman who just needed water, becomes the first preacher of the Gospel. 

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

In John, the disciples are many more than just the Twelve. The disciples are the ones who believe. The disciples are the new kind of family that we talked about last week. And it’s this disciple, the woman at the well, who is the first disciple to utter Jesus’ key invitation: “Come and see.” 

Her name is lost to history, but she is a saint in Christ’s church forever. 

All because she went to find water. 

Beloved, these days, we’re all keenly aware of what our bodies need. We need to wash our hands. We need to stay out of crowds. We need to not touch our faces. We need good food and water and exercise to boost our immune systems. 

In Italy, where the outbreak is far ahead of our own, people are mostly only allowed to leave the house for essentials, like water or food. But one thing has happened. Italians have started singing out their windows.
They harmonize with their neighbors. They entertain passersby with national songs of pride and opera and songs about how they’re going to beat this virus together. And people who are on the way to get what they need experience this holiness in harmony. 

May we do the same, providing kindness and beauty to one another along the way. 

Let the woman at the well be your guide. Go and find what you need. Go about your business and take care of your errands. Go find what you and your family need, in the most mundane of ways. Take care of yourselves and watch over your health. 

But don’t forget to look up, in the midst of all of this, and look for what is beautiful and holy. Look strangers in the eye. Take care of others. You never know who might be speaking to you, and you never really know where God might find you. Maybe in song, maybe in sunshine, maybe in the kindness of someone you know or the grace of someone you don’t.

On the journey to find what you need, be well aware that God might find you. 

Make sure, like the woman at the well, that you’re ready, that you ask questions — that you talk back. 

And, as we all go looking for water, often, to wash our hands, remember, as my colleague reminded me this week: Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” 

We are apart now so that we can be together later, and God is with us, on the journey, now and always.

Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey for Knowledge

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The knights of Monty Python and the Holy Grail face the bridge keeper and the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

John 3:1-17

“God on the Way.” 

Today, we continue with our Lenten theme of journeying with Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night, and also Abraham and Sarah, who must leave their homeland to find a new one. All of them begin a journey without knowing the end. All of them will step out in faith, while also seeking to know. 

Today’s journey, it would seem, is a journey for knowledge, and as with all our journeys, God meets some people on their way. 

In 1975, the greatest, most ridiculous movie in the history of the Western world was released: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

In the movie, naturally, the nights of Camelot go on a comedic quest to find the Holy Grail. They have many adventures on their quest, of course. During one scene, the knights, including King Arthur, come upon the “Bridge of Death.” The keeper of the bridge, or as one the knights puts it, “the old man from scene 24,” asks each traveler three questions — or is it five? — no, three. If the traveler gives the correct answer, the traveler is granted safe passage. If the traveler gives the wrong answer, they are cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. First, Arthur asks Brave Sir Robin to go, and Sir Robin immediately throws Lancelot under the bus. Lancelot, who in the movie is hilariously bold and overly aggressive, begins by illustrating his planned attack on the bridge keeper. King Arthur responds by saying, “No, no, just answer the five questions.” 

“Three?” 

“Yes, three questions.” 

Arthur sends Lancelot towards the bridge with the words, “Just answer the questions as best you can. And we will watch. And pray.” 

Lancelot approaches the bridge and is told to HALT by the old bridge keeper.

“STOP! He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” 

Lancelot stands tall and responds, “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I’m not afraid.” 

The bridge keeper begins.

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is your favorite color?” 

“Um, blue.” 

“Off you go then.” 

Lancelot responds, “Oh, very well, thank you.” 

Then he crosses. Sir Robin, hiding bravely as Sir Robin often does in the movie (he is the cowardly foil to Lancelot’s overly aggressive character) — Sir Robin exclaims “That’s easy!” and he ambles bravely towards the Bridge of Death. He hears the same spiel: “STOP! He who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.” 

The usually cowardly Robin also now stands tall and responds as Lancelot did: “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I’m not afraid.” 

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

Robin responds, sounding bored, “To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is the capital of Assyria?” 

Robin looks shocked. He stammers, “I don’t know that!” Just before he is cast into, presumably, the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

Sir Galahad steps forward. 

WHAT is your name?” 

“My name is Sir Galahad.” 

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“To seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is your favorite color?” 

“Um, blue. No…!” 

He, too, flies up into the air and is presumably cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

Finally, none are left except Sir Bedevere and King Arthur himself. Arthur steps forward. 

WHAT is your name?” 

“It is Arthur, king of the Britons!”  

“WHAT is your quest?” 

“I seek the Holy Grail.” 

“WHAT is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” 

“What do you mean? An African or a European swallow?” 

The bridge keeper looks confused. He stammers. “I… I don’t know that!” Immediately, he flies off his feet and into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, leaving the knights to cross on their own. 

It’s a funny scene, but it’s all a barrage of information and questions, riddles and answers, simple questions and less than simple ones. 

There are riddles, of course, throughout literature and pop culture. Some of them are even in the Bible, but it’s pretty easy to miss them or even fall prey to riddles when they’re translated from another language — or even when they aren’t.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night. 

In John’s Gospel, light and darkness matter. Nicodemus is coming from the darkness of not understanding to meet the Light of the World by night. He’s also coming in secret. You see a depiction of his face on the front of your bulletin. 

He begins by saying something a little unheard of for a Pharisee: “We know that you are teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

As usual, Jesus in John’s Gospel is notably not-impressed by those who are impressed by the miracles. In response, Jesus hands Nicodemus a riddle: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

You might be wondering why you learned a different version, and why a different set of words often gets quoted: “You must be born again. 

It’s a riddle, you guys. 

You see, the Greek word means both “from above” and “again,” and like many words, you figure out what the speaker means based on context. Unless the speaker is giving you a riddle based on the word’s double meaning. Then you’re just confused, like Nicodemus. 

I’ll give it to you straight: the word Jesus uses here is most often in the New Testament used to mean “from above,” but Nicodemus doesn’t understand how someone might be born “from above,” so he assumes the other meaning and asks a very pointed question back to Jesus about how someone might possibly re-enter their mother’s womb to be born a second time.

What follows is a barrage of questions, answers, and information. It can seem a little confusing. Jesus goes on about how one could possibly be born from above, and how what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit. It all sounds very mysterious and chaotic and maybe even a bit scary. 

So let me take you for a moment back to Christmas. 

This is the third chapter of John. Let me take you back for a second to the first chapter. 

The Word became flesh and lived among us. 

While we might be tempted to read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus as a condemnation of flesh, that’s not what’s happening. He’s just drawing a distinction between blood family and another kind of family. John 1 continues, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.” 

Nicodemus comes looking for knowledge, and instead, what he finds is love, and a different kind of family. 

Abraham and Sarah are told to leave their homeland and find a new one. God sends them out to be a great nation, and a blessing. What begins as a mystery — something of a riddle — becomes a quest to find the promised land, and to be a blessing to all nations. 

Often, we find faith to be a riddle wrapped in an enigma. We set out to find answers, thinking that if we get the questions wrong or if we don’t know what’s correct, we’ll be cast, with Sir Robin, into the proverbial Gorge of Eternal Peril. 

We think that it is about right knowledge, right belief, and we set off on our quest to find the right answers. I guess you could say that I did that a decade ago when I enrolled in Gail R. O’Day’s John course. 

Dr. O’Day had written the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on John. She was, as you might say, big in the business. She knew a lot. She was a trusted scholar. What I found instead is exactly what is found in this sermon. Over and over, the Gospel of John eschews knowledge in favor of love, and a new kind of family — the kind that is not born of blood, but of the Holy Spirit. This kind of family. 

The passage today ends with perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” 

This verse gets plastered on placards and signs everywhere. Dr. O’Day would often say that she wants to come in with a sharpie and add “dash seventeen” to every John 3:16 sign she sees. 

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

Jesus is not the bridge keeper waiting to cast us into the Gorge of Eternal Peril for not believing the right things. Jesus is here to form us into a community of love, and a new kind of family. And like any family, we gather at the table together whenever we can. We journey for knowledge and wisdom together, knowing that it’s not about having the correct answers, but about meeting God on our way.

So as we continue to journey together this Lent, I invite you to gather at this table with us, your new kind of family, whenever you can. We’re currently here, on Sundays and Wednesdays, gathering at the table, sharing love because Christ first loved us. Because God did not send the Son into the world to throw us into the Gorge of Eternal Peril, but that we all might be saved through him.

And on our collective quest for knowledge, that is all, as they say, you need to know. Amen.

God on the Way: The Journey of Identity

 

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Earl Shaffer, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail in one thru-hike, on the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.  

Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten theme for 2020 is “God on the Way,” and we’re talking about all the ways and journeys where we encounter God during our lives.  

This Lent, we’re talking about journeys. There’s a lot to draw from, but for our first one, I thought I’d talk about something that many of us have in common: a love of the outdoors. 

Since I used it in our children’s sermon, you now see Debbie’s frame pack there on the left side of the altar. As I was thinking of how I would preach this first Sunday of Lent, I dreamed of summer and thought a lot about frame packs and hiking. Chances are, at least a few of you have been dreaming about similar things lately too. It helps that in the Gospel lesson today, Jesus himself has gone on a bit of a hike through the wilderness. 

We read Matthew’s version of the temptation of Jesus today, but I admit that I like Mark’s best for one very nerdy reason: rather than saying that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism, Mark says that Jesus was driven there. Not “driven” like he hailed an uber, but “driven” as in pushed. Mark uses the same word that he uses to talk about driving out demons here. Basically, Jesus was pushed out onto this journey. 

We’re now in chapter 4 of Matthew; in chapter 3, right before this, Jesus was baptized. He heard the words that we all hear at baptism: that we are beloved. Then God pushes him out into the wilderness to figure out what that means. 

And so, with Jesus, I want us to think about something foundational to our baptisms: the journey of identity — of figuring out who we are. 

At first glance, it seems like something that only children and teenagers do: figure out who they are and who they want to be in the world. And for sure, it’s those times that are probably the most foundational to figuring out our identities. But you know, Jesus takes this journey at 33 as he starts a whole new phase of his life. And we — we do that, too. Regardless of how old we are, we’re also constantly trying to figure out who we are and what our purpose is in this world, at this time, in this place, in these circumstances.

This journey gets more intense, of course, after big things happen in our lives. Someone dies. Someone is born. A relationship ends. We lose a job. We get a new job. We retire. Suddenly, we have to figure out who we are in light of this new information and these new circumstances. Usually, this isn’t fun at all. But sometimes, we manage to figure out just the right journey to take to help us figure it out. 

One such person who took a long journey to figure out who he was in light of new circumstances went by the name of Earl Shaffer. 

Earl Shaffer was the very first person to hike the Appalachian Trail. He began his journey in Olgethorpe, Georgia, on April 4, 1948. He had just finished his service in the army during World War II, and he wanted to, in his words, walk the war out of his system. And so he did — he walked the over 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail that year, averaging about 16 miles per day. At that time, there were no guidebooks; all he had was a roadmap and a compass. 124 days later, he summited Mount Katahdin in Maine. He felt bittersweet about reaching the trail’s end, writing, “I almost wished that the Trail really was endless, that no one could ever hike its length.” Earl would go on to hike the trail two more times: once in 1965, and one final time in 1998, at the age of 79. 

After witnessing firsthand the worst conflict humankind had known up to that point in history, Earl had to take a journey to figure out who he was in light of what he had seen. 

Similarly, we are all constantly renegotiating who we are in the midst of changing circumstances. 

Jesus is driven out into the wilderness after he is declared the beloved Son of God at baptism, and he embarks on his own outdoor journey. 

Famously, he meets the old foe, the devil, who tempts him with three different things: first, food, since he hadn’t eaten in 40 days. Then the old devil tempts Jesus to prove himself by throwing himself off the temple in front of people. Finally, the devil tempts him with power. Implicitly and explicitly, the devil challenges Jesus’ identity: if you are the Son of God…” 

After famously refusing the devil’s temptations and holding fast to who he is, angels come and wait on him. Jesus rest isn’t long, though — immediately after he returns, he’ll find out that John the Baptist, the one who baptized him, has been thrown in prison. Then he’ll start calling disciples. 

This journey in the wilderness is formative for Jesus in more ways than one. First, there’s the devil. It’s easy to get hung up on the questions: is there a literal devil with horns and a pitchfork? Is there a literal devil who doesn’t look like a cartoon? Or are the real devils all human, as we might suspect? The real question is, of course: is there an evil that exists outside of us, or is it all internal? This, too, is a question of identity. 

But for now, I’ll tell you exactly what I know: that one, maybe the most famous, traditional Hebrew name for the devil is “ha-satan,” which is exactly where we get our word “Satan.” And ha-satan means, in Hebrew, “the accuser.” 

He is the one who calls out to us at every turn: “you’re an imposter. You’re not who you say you are. God doesn’t love you. How could anyone love you, after what you’ve done?”
Similarly, in the Old Testament lesson for today, Adam and Eve are working through their very new identity. Are they creatures who are dependent on God? Are they trusting, or are they suspicious and defensive? Is God trying to hide something from them? Of course, the serpent feeds the flame: “You will not die, as God said, but you’ll be like God.” 

Don’t be naive, little humans. Eat the fruit.
We’ve all heard the voice of the accuser. You might think it’s just you. It isn’t. Even Jesus. Even the first humans.

If you are the Son of God… prove it. 

You will not die. God is lying. Eat the fruit. Prove that you are strong and independent.

We’re talking this Lent about meeting God on the way, but you should probably know that you might meet this other character on the way, too: the accuser. Whether you believe in a literal devil or not, I can just about guarantee that you’ve heard that accusing voice in your head. It might even be the loudest during those times when you’re trying to figure out who you are again — when you’ve just started, or re-started, the journey to recovery. When you’ve finally landed that new job. When you thought you were over your grief after a death or a lost relationship. These are the times when we can hear the voice of the accuser most loudly, saying things like, “You are an addict and you will always behave like an addict.” Or “You’re a terrible parent.” Or “No one will ever love you again.” Or “Your life is over.” 

Or, perhaps worst: “Why are you struggling? You are weak. You should be over it by now.” 

Beloved, the devil is a liar. 

Perhaps the biggest lie in the garden of Eden is that Adam and Eve were infinite and were capable of knowing how to do everything on their own and didn’t need God or anyone else. 

Beloved, you are not infinite. And you are beloved; God is not lying. 

Much like Earl Shaffer had to walk the war out of his system on the Appalachian Trail, this Lenten journey is here to help us walk the words of the accuser right out of our systems and figure out who we are. These days can lift us up and lead us to life renewed, if we’ll let them. So here we are, beginning our journey. Whatever you need to walk out of your system, I hope you’re able to name it. We may not be going on a literal walk, but we’re going on a journey together, on these Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. 

And as surely as spring will come, Holy Week and Easter will find us, telling us once again who we are: we are an Easter people. We are a people for whom the accuser never has the last word. We are a people whom God always pursues, always finds, always gives new life to, just as the warmth of spring will bring new life to the earth in due time.

Beloved, we are not infinite. We are beloved. 

So whatever you need to walk out of your system, name it now. And wherever you are on your current journey to figure out who you are in light of the circumstances you find yourself in, you are beloved. You are not infinite, and there is no shame in not having it all figured out yet. The journey is long, and as the sign outside says, God is always on the way.

In short, as I say all the time, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

So we might as well have a meal, pick up our frame packs, and get to walking. Amen.

Ash Wednesday: Fragile & Loved

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The character Adam breaks a glass vase in a junkyard in the Netflix series Sex Education.

Most of us have at least a few things we like to watch on Netflix. Unless I’m sick, I can never sit still long enough to binge watch anything, but one show I do enjoy watching is the Netflix series Sex Education. The series centers mostly around the life of Otis, the teenage son of a sex and relationship therapist in England. The series is mostly about Otis in the beginning, but as the series progresses, the viewer gets to know Otis’s friends and classmates too, as well as their struggles with relationships, family, money, and simply life. 

Otis’s best friend in the series is another teenager named Eric. Eric is flashy and flamboyant and often loud and funny, but he’s also constantly bullied by another boy, Adam. Adam is the rough around the edges son of the overbearing and strict headmaster of the school. 

Over the course of the first two seasons, Eric and Adam develop a complicated affection for one another. Adam has a painful and complicated home life, and nothing ever seems to go right for him, and Eric recognizes that. Still, Eric still fears Adam, who seems like a loose cannon, and Eric is never entirely sure exactly how to react to him. 

One evening, Eric hears a tap at his window. He looks out and sees Adam, who beckons him downstairs. Adam is holding a baseball bat. He gestures over his shoulder and says, “Are you coming?” as he begins to walk down the road. 

Eric sighs and says, “This is how I die,” even as he follows Adam down the road. Eventually, without speaking, the two reach a junk yard.

Adam says, “Do you want to see something cool?”

Eric is still visibly nervous as Adam picks up a glass bottle from the ground and places it higher on a stack of junk so that it’s about chest high. Adam then pulls out a pair of safety glasses and puts them on, pulls the baseball bat back, and smashes the bottle to smithereens. He raises the goggles and looks at Eric. 

“Want to try?” 

The two then proceed to spend the evening smashing just about anything in the junkyard that can be smashed, in a rush of catharsis. Over the course of the series, Eric will show others this fun activity, and the other characters will find their way to the junk yard too, smashing anything they can find that’s breakable among the trash in order to relieve some of the angst and anxiety of being alive. 

To the characters, and to many people, there’s just something about breaking things more fragile than themselves that they find incredibly freeing. 

It makes sense. We are all fragile. We all break. We don’t like to admit it, but we do all break, eventually. 

We also like to make our fragility age-related, but it really isn’t. Yes, we do get more fragile as we age, but anyone who has ever worked in medicine knows that it is all human bodies that are fragile, not just the chronologically gifted ones. So much can go wrong, and none of us really knows how long we have. We are prone to breakage. If you notice that one of my eyes is a little bloodshot, it’s because a random blood vessel in my eye broke last week for no discernible reason. It was innocuous, but such random breakage can also happen in ways that aren’t so harmless, too.

I didn’t mean to have a sermon illustration happen on my face, but what can I say? Things happen.

Even if our bodies remain strong, our minds and our emotions can break, too. We are all so very fragile, and that is the primary message of Ash Wednesday: our mortality.

By my count, this is my ninth Ash Wednesday after seminary of ash-ing people and telling them that they are going to die in the traditional way: “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Nine Ash Wednesdays, four different communities, and countless foreheads. Sure, I got the opportunity to apply ashes to foreheads in seminary, but it’s different when you become a pastoral presence rather than a student. 

Nine Ash Wednesdays. 

I’ve applied ashes to foreheads over communion rails and over ventilator tubes, to the brows of ninety-year-olds and to the brows of babies in their parents’ arms. By now, in two communities, I’ve presided at the funerals of people whose brows I once applied ash to. I’ve told them, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” then said over their graves the same old words from Genesis, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” 

I’ve never admitted this in any of my Ash Wednesday sermons and maybe I should’ve waited until the tenth, because it’s a nice round number, but it felt right this year, on my fifth Ash Wednesday in this community. We’ve been together for over four years now, so I feel like I can talk frankly to you. So here it is: while I consider the imposition of the ashes a privilege, I don’t love doing it. 

It at least should be easy to see why, if you understand what my job is today. A lot like most of you, I don’t like admitting that death is a reality, much less reminding someone else of it. And yet, while most of you had normal days at work today, mine work today is to apply ashes to your brows and remind you of your mortality. Personally, I would prefer to safely think of you all as immortal because I cannot stand the idea of losing any one of you. And on most every other day of the year, I kind of can think of you all that way. But not today.

We are all so fragile, really. 

Tonight, we begin a journey. The worship committee and I noticed when we began to look at this season that the readings for this particular year are full of people who are traveling — some literally, some figuratively — and God meets them on the way. And so we, together, are going to think about our own literal and figurative journeys, and that is why you see the suitcases and license plates around you. 

Travel makes us vulnerable, too. When you are on the way to somewhere, away from the comforts of home, you’re even more fragile and vulnerable than usual, whether you’re in a car, or walking, or on a plane. 

And so we begin this Lenten journey like we always do: by admitting our collective mortality. None of us is really any closer to death than anyone else. We are all fragile and vulnerable, regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation, or anything else. In this age of division, our mortality is one thing that unites us. None of us knows how long we have, so we’d better love hard and look up on this journey called life. 

In the end, this day isn’t just about cherishing every moment, or being useful in this life, though that’s part of it. But you don’t have to be religious to know that we’re mortal and that we need to be intentional about using our “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver eloquently put it. Everyone who is not stuck in denial knows that life is short and that we must make the most of the time we have. 

But you are here. In church. On Ash Wednesday. And in a few minutes I have to remind you that you will die, and then Gail as the assisting minister has to remind me of the same thing, because our fragility is what we share in common regardless of ordination or occupation. 

But then. Then we go to the table, and our mortal bodies are fed by Christ, our one hope of resurrection. Everyone can be fed here because we are all saints, all sinners, all fragile, all beloved. And in this we have the hope of “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” 

As soon as we love someone, we begin to have this sneaking, terrifying fear of losing them. And death is the ultimate way that we lose people, the greatest fear we all have. 

And yet. 

Within these walls, death never has the final say. Within this church family, we acknowledge the reality of human fragility and death while never letting it have the last word. Within these walls and within this community, we believe and know that resurrection will come as surely as springtime. 

Yes, we are fragile. And yes, we are beloved. 

The 2020 council is already reading a book called Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and in that book, she proclaims the Gospel of this day, and that’s where I’m going to end so that we can carry on with the service. Hear this Gospel: 

“If our lives are one long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future [can] meet [and be seen together]. 

And in that meeting, we are reminded of promises: that we are God’s, [and ultimately], that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life.” 

Yes, we are fragile. Yes, we will die. 

And yes, my beloved, in this life and the next, we will always be loved back to life. So let us begin the journey. Amen.

The Good, the Bad, and the Not-That-Simple: A Theory of Life Abundant

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

I’ve heard people in some Christian traditions say that the purpose of a sermon is to “take ‘em to the cross.” As a Lutheran, I’ve learned that we generally take ‘em to the table by going through the cross. So that’s where we’re going to end up. But first….

Okay. 

Let’s name the elephant in the room first, shall we? I do not think that getting divorced cuts you off from God or marks a person as somehow more sinful than the rest of us sinners. I know that you may have heard the opposite from pulpits before, and trust me, I know exactly what this Gospel lesson says. So if this passage affects you directly in any way, rest easy. You are safe here. I’ll explain the rest in a moment, but I had to get that out of the way first. Because trust me, I’m just fine with calling people sinners, but you better know that 1) I mean everybody and 2) I’m first in line.

I know what “the Bible says” on any number of issues. I also believe that the good Lord gave us brains and hearts for a reason, and we will be using them both today, as we always should when considering good and evil or just humanity in general. 

But if you’ll give me just a second, I want to kick off this little talk of ours by talking about one of my favorite subjects and yours: food. More specifically, how we think about food in our culture. Because believe it or not, I actually think that how we think about food has quite a lot to do with today’s scripture readings. Namely, in how we couch it in moral language and an overly simplistic, moralistic, good-vs-bad, all-or-nothing mentality that just isn’t healthy for anyone and doesn’t generally lead to good outcomes.

We’re into February, which hopefully means that we’re out of the woods when it comes to weight loss advertisements. Women in particular get inundated with things that tell us that we can get skinny. This is assuming of course that all women want to be skinny, which we do not. 

But of course, this phenomenon is not limited to women by any stretch. The men in the room here know that you all get body image messages too. Men’s magazines tell you all about how to get that six pack with supplements and diet plans. 

Typically, even the best results go like this — person of any gender goes on crash diet. Person may take supplements. Person labels pizza and chocolate and other sweets “bad.” Refuses to eat them. Gives in and eat French fries. Feel bad for being “bad.” Go back to eating “good” things. Tells everyone that the person can’t have the brownies, because the person is “being good.” Person loses a lot of weight, or not, and manages to keep it off, or not, depending on how long they can “be good.” 

Talking about our bodies and food is awkward and hard and rife with shame in large part because of the way we talk about food. We always talk about it in moral terms. Being “good.” Being “bad.” “Cheat day.” “Eating clean.” “Good foods.” “Bad foods.” 

So I’ve compiled this helpful guide: did you know you were getting nutritional advice at church today too? Just one of the many services we offer here at Our Savior’s.

Good foods are foods that contain calories. Foods that you want to eat. Foods that taste good. Foods that you are in the mood for. 

Bad foods: spoiled foods. Foods that you are allergic to. Foods that push people in front of busses or commit crimes. These are bad foods. 

In other words, if it doesn’t kill you, it’s not a “bad” food, and we need to drop the morality language and the all-or-nothing approach around food. It’s making Americans really, really sick, and it’s making us fall prey to all kinds of gimmicks that prey on our body image issues. Being healthy is about developing healthy habits, not about whether or not you have a brownie today at coffee hour. Food is not inherently “good” or “bad.” It’s about what gives you life and makes you feel and be healthy, not about what people who are trying to sell you things tell you.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

So just as food is made to nourish us and keep us alive and healthy, so is the Law. We have a lot of law in these texts today: the Old Testament lesson implores us to “choose life,” and the Gospel lesson gives us a whole list of behaviors that are off limits — right? So is God’s point in creating the law to label some behaviors “good” and some behaviors “bad”? 

We certainly think about language and behavior the way that we think about food. I know. If you actually know me, you’ll know that I’m the least offend-able person on the planet, yet the longer I’m in this role, the more I become frustrated with just how much people try to protect me, thinking I’m somehow deeply offended by “bad” things — whether bad language (which my own friends think is hilarious, by the way) or any mentions of sex or violence. It makes being in this role deeply weird sometimes, because in case you didn’t know, I’m just a person. But I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s because we think of everything the way we think of food — good and bad — and people think that God thinks that way too, and they think of me as a stand-in for God. 

So that raises the question: does God label some behaviors good and some always bad?

I would say yes, tentatively. The Law is created and formed around helping us to stay in community, have peace, and not to harm one another. Reconciliation is good. Loving partnerships are good. Community is good. Harming people is bad. 

And Jesus takes all of that a step further: don’t be proud of yourself for not killing that person who irritated you; go and make peace with them. Don’t be proud of yourself just because you didn’t cheat on your spouse; stop thinking of other human beings as sex objects. And don’t make an oath just so that people will believe you’re serious; become a trustworthy person whose “yes” means yes and whose “no” means no. And divorce? Divorce in Jesus’ day was a deathblow to women in particular. A woman who has been divorced would be cut off entirely in a society where she couldn’t work or hold property. And men could just decide to divorce his wife for no reason, issuing her a certificate of divorce on a whim and dealing her that deathblow rather easily. 

So is Jesus straight up calling divorce sinful? I don’t think so, and neither does the Lutheran tradition.

So my friend Joe says that Jesus didn’t die so that we would all behave ourselves. (1)

Jesus died and rose again because God is a God of life, against whom all the powers of oppression and sin are no match. Deuteronomy shows us rather than telling us that even the Law given in the first books of the Hebrew Bible is not a law of death but a law of life, as the people are implored to choose life by choosing the law. 

In the same way that divorce was a death blow to women in the first century, marriage can be a death blow to two people caught in a cycle of abuse, toxicity, neglect or any number of difficult factors. Many theologians throughout the centuries have interpreted the law of the God of life through this lens: “What will bring the abundant life that Jesus promises?” 

Labeling things “good” or “bad” may be simple enough for us to understand, but just like food, life is not simple. The ultimate purpose of food is to keep us alive. Foods are not “good” unless you think they are and they are not “bad” unless they make you throw up or stole your car. 

In the same way, what God wants for us in all our behaviors is abundant life. 

When we witness to a marriage, the presider says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” And in a perfect world, we would always be correct in our assessment that God has joined those two people together. In the kingdom of God, love lasts forever, and death is no more, and no one is objectified but everyone is looked at as human, and everyone’s “yes” is yes and their “no” means no, and all those who argue find peace and reconciliation quickly. This is life as it’s supposed to be. This is life as it’s intended to be: life abundant. That is what Jesus describes in this passage — the kingdom of God in all its fullness. 

Beloved, I do not need to tell you that we do not live on that side of the kingdom. We strive for it, and we look for it, and sometimes, we see flashes of it in our own lives and within these very walls. But truth be told, we fail all the time. We witness to marriages that were never meant to be, and we grieve. We hear of case after case of sexual abuse. We are surrounded day after day by death and lies. We live in a nation where reconciliation between the two sides seems far, far off. 

With my friend Joe, I do not believe that Jesus died on the cross so that we could behave. God is not as overly simplistic and petty as we are to blindly label things “good” vs. “bad. 

For goodness’ sake, we even do this with our food in the vain hope of looking good.

I believe that Christ rose again to show us that God is a God of new life and hope. And that a healthy person, rather than labeling things “good” or “bad,” looks for what most brings abundant life, whether in food or in actions. Whether in food or in life, an “all or nothing” approach only works if you’re talking about simple stuff, like whether you’re allergic to a food, or whether an action is truly harmful to yourself or someone else. 

Yes, if you always eat cake for dinner, you will harm yourself. But if you don’t eat a really tasting looking brownie that you really want during a celebration you’ve been waiting for, you may also be doing harm. 

Indeed, there’s a lot of Law in these texts today. And the law is helpful in telling us how to live in a better way, one that hopefully brings abundant life to ourselves and all we meet.

And at the end of the road, with all our failures, there is the Gospel which is for all of us: that Christ died and rose again not to correct our behaviors, but because God is a God of abundant life and desires life abundant for each one of us. 

So eat, and nourish your body. If cake at a party brings you abundant life, eat the cake. If vegetables make you feel healthy, chow down. 

And come to this table and eat, knowing that this food is good, and knowing that you are holy and whole not because you’ve acted right, but because God has declared you beloved. And that Gospel, at the end of the road, is all you need to know.

So let’s eat. Amen.

1. Many many thanks to Pastor Joseph Graumann Jr. of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Mass, for this insight and this blog post: Modern Metanoia, The Law of Life, both of which helped me write this sermon.

Called to Be Salty & Lit

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Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

Today, Jesus calls us to be salt & light. Or, as the kids say, salty & lit.

Both terms have seen a resurgence in recent years, but neither is new. “Salty,” which today means that someone is feeling sarcastic or angry, usually over something small, originally started as a term used by seafarers. Example: “The salty old sea captain.” Lit, meanwhile, began in the jazz community and was used to denote someone who was just intoxicated enough to play without inhibition, but not so drunk that they were falling over. Example: “He’s not getting tipsy; he’s just getting lit.” Today, “lit” means that something is fun, and may or may not include alcohol.

To switch gears a bit, you might’ve heard this quote before:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.” 

Well you guys, I learned something new this week. This quote is not, as it is sometimes said, Nelson Mandela, and it’s not Jesus. It’s motivational speaker and erstwhile presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. I know. I was surprised too. 

It’s been used on motivational posters and in movies for kids and self-help books for years. The crux, of course, is this: that we often feign insecurity because telling ourselves that we aren’t enough is easier than admitting that we can do great things. It’s an excellent message for kids in particular, but a good message for all of us. 

I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week as I’ve pored over what I might say about this, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that we began reading last week with the famous beatitudes.

The other quote that’s been stuck in my head this week is from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, riffing on the beatitudes that we spoke of last week. She says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.” 

Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it. 

These passages, really, are about identity. They’re about who we are, not what we do.

A city on a hill can’t be hidden. It doesn’t have to do anything but be itself and shine.  These days, a city might stop shining due to a power outage, but in Jesus’ day, cities didn’t go dark because they weren’t dependent on electricity. They always shone. If it didn’t have light at night, it wouldn’t be a populated city.

And if you light a lamp and put it under a basket, you’re dumb at best. The lamp will keep shining no matter what, and if it’s a candle, it might burn the house down.

And salt? Salt can only be salt. As has been pointed out countless times, it’s one of the most stable compounds we know. Fun fact: salt actually can’t lose its saltiness. You can do all kinds of things to it, from dissolving it in water to adding it to really bland things, but it’s going to stay salty. If you’ve got salt that appears to have lost its saltiness, chances are, it was white sand to begin with. 

What Jesus is talking about is being who we are, not about striving to be great. Of accepting that we are powerful, kind, and merciful beyond measure, because that is who God has made us to be. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

Jesus has shown us the way, and it’s clicked. We get it. 

But I know, and you know, that we don’t always get it. We screw it up all the time. I know I do. If I haven’t disappointed you yet, give me time. I know the same is true for you, too. The same is true for us, as a church. We’re pretty great, and we try very hard, but we’ll still disappoint you if you give us time.

As if to put a fine point on this, Jesus goes to talking about the law right after he finishes talking about, as the kids say, being salty and lit — being who we are as people who follow Jesus, people who “get it.”

We Christians, especially we Lutherans, have this way of talking about “the law” as if it’s all to be left in the Old Testament where it belongs. Giving in to the heresy that there’s a god for each testament, we pretend that God became entirely different when Jesus was born, and that the law passed away entirely. 

So we shift uncomfortably when Jesus says these words: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Even if we had gotten our heads around the fact that salt is always salty and that light is always lit, these words of Jesus are bound to make us feel inadequate. The scribes and the Pharisees were obsessed with the law, and is Jesus telling us that we have to follow it better? And does this mean we have to give up bacon-wrapped shrimp?! 

Apologies to Marianne Williamson, but maybe our true power lies in when we acknowledge where and when we are inadequate. In my experience, the smartest people are the ones that know they don’t know everything, and the strongest ones are the ones who know when to ask for help. And the most faithful people, the ones who truly “get it,” to borrow again from Nadia Bolz-Weber, are the ones who know they’re not perfect by a long shot.

Because the Gospel isn’t a story about our goodness; it’s a story about God’s goodness. This whole faith thing is really about God reaching into history and saying “I got you.” God did it in the Hebrew Bible plenty of times, and here in our Christian story, we believe that God did it most significantly though the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

The Law — the one that told people how to not hurt each other and how to stay healthy and how to treat other people well — is fulfilled, we Christians say, in the person of Jesus. That we can stop striving and trying to be perfect and instead lean into Jesus. And the more you let Jesus’ righteousness and God’s pure love be enough, the more you find yourself changed. The more you find that you are enough. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.” 

Being loved changes everything. It’s not about striving. It’s about accepting who you are and whose you are. You are not powerful beyond measure. Far from it. Neither am I. If our current world, or all of history, has taught us anything, it should be that we are all fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things. 

We are not powerful beyond measure. We are loved beyond measure. It is Christ who fulfills the law, not us. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that makes us righteous, not our own stumbling, imperfect goodness. 

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

It is not until later in the story, when Christ dies and rises, when he steps in and says, “Don’t worry. I got you.” 

The Gospel is a story about God, not a story about us and our righteousness.

With that burden taken from us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are free to be who we are: salty and lit. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. A city on a hill can’t be hidden. And if you put a lamp under a basket you could burn the house down.

Yesterday, we hosted over 50 people from all over the New England synod who were here to take part in the Forward Leadership campaign. You all came together to cook, clean up, and participate in the program itself, not so that God will love you, but because you know that God already does. You were kind and gracious and hospitable hosts because that is who you are. You know that you are loved beyond measure, and that changes everything.

So be who you are: God’s beloved. Be salty. Be lit. 

Not so that God will love you, but because God already does. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

Merciful is who we are. We were born to be weird, to stand out, to do the right thing when it is the hardest thing. To have mercy when we really don’t want to. To work hard and to be gracious hosts and to keep trying.

Not so that God will love us, but because God already does.

We are not powerful beyond measure; we are loved beyond measure. And that, not our good works, changes everything about us and makes us who we are: salty & lit. Amen.

Saved by the Impossible

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Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-21
Matthew 5:1-12

These texts are among the most familiar to us in all the Bible.

And so, by the authority of no one, I declare today cross-stitch Sunday. 

You’ve got a few greatest hits — Micah 6:8, which you can find conveniently on the wall of our narthex as a favorite guiding scripture of ours, and the beatitudes, all while Paul speaks eloquently about how illogically wonderful this whole death and resurrection thing is. 

It’s rare, I think, to find passages in the Bible like this — the kind that are nice without being saccharine, that make simple statements of faith without making faith too simple to be real. It’s a little like finding a family movie that’s nice without being an over the top fairy tale. In order to achieve this, you need a little bittersweetness thrown in, I think.

One movie that does this well is Finding Neverland, a movie about the life of Scottish writer J. M. Barrie, who is best known for, naturally, writing about Peter Pan. Finding Neverland, of course, tells the story of how Peter Pan came to be. 

In the movie, Barrie befriends a widow, Sylvia, and her four boys, George, Jack, Michael, and, of course, Peter, who is a particularly troubled boy. The then-failing writer becomes an excellent playmate and father figure to the boys. The movie doesn’t have a storybook ending, but is instead both incredibly sweet and incredibly real. Despite being bittersweet, the movie is also at times hilarious, giving us lines such as Michael asking “Mummy, can we have Uncle Jim for dinner?” with Sylvia responding, “Have him over for dinner, dear, we’re not cannibals.” 

At one point, Barrie is attempting to get the troubled boy Peter to act more like the child he is, and to make believe with him. He grabs a stick and declares it a royal scepter. Peter says, skeptically, “That scepter is just an old hunk of wood.” Barrie responds quickly, “Yes, well, we dream on a budget here, don’t we?” 

The whole movie, really, is about dreaming on a budget, of making the best you can out of the circumstances, about realizing the fullness of life with all its good things and all of its bad things and daring to dream anyway — and even fly. About believing in the illogical and being saved by it. 

So even though on its face it seems to be cross-stitch Sunday, these passages aren’t as simple in context, or when you really think about them, as they seem when stitched on a pillow. 

If the beginning of the Micah passage sounded sort of but not really familiar to you, it might be because you’ve attended a Good Friday service here in the past few years. We use the beginning of this passage for the traditional “solemn reproaches,” where, after we read the account of Jesus’ death, God asks, over and over, “Oh church, O my people, what have I done to you, and how have I offended you?” Then God recounts God’s good deeds towards us, always followed by, “But you…” Most notably these days, with the perennial antisemitism in our culture, “O my people, O my church, I grafted you into the tree of my chosen Israel, and you turned on them with insults, violence, and mass murder.” 

We take the form of the solemn reproaches every Good Friday from this passage, right above the passage that’s so easily cross-stitched on a pillow, the one on our wall that reminds us the simplicity and beauty of a life lived with God: “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

It’s really kind of bittersweet, really. God asks “What have I done to you?” right before reminding us, gently, all that God requires: to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly. 

Then, in the Gospel reading, we are told all about who’s blessed. That’s really nice — unless you’ve been someone who is mourning. Or poor in spirit. Or someone who’s had to be merciful when you’d really like to get revenge on someone who’s done you wrong. And in the words of Monty Python, “Oh, the meek! I’m really glad they get something; they have a heck of a time.” 

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” 

Apologies to Forrest Gump, but life isn’t really that much like a box of chocolates. It’s more like a vending machine that spits out both Snickers and live hand grenades. 

At some point we will all be poor in spirit. Or mourning. Or reviled and hated. 

At some point, we’ll all feel like life has handed us a live hand grenade, and that even God is yelling at us, like at the beginning of that Micah passage. 

But then God hands us the other part. 

“Don’t you remember that all you have to do is to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly?” 

Blessed are you. 

Blessed are you. 

Blessed are you.

I like the way Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “After all, it was Jesus who had all the powers of the universe at his disposal but who did not consider his equality with God and something to be exploited, but instead came to us in the most vulnerable of ways – as a powerless, flesh and blood newborn. As though to say, you my hate your body, but I am blessing all human flesh. You may admire strength and might, but I am blessing all human weakness. You may seek power, but I am blessing all human vulnerability. This Jesus whom we follow cried at the tomb of his friend, and turned the other cheek and forgave those who hung him on a cross. Jesus was God’s Beatitude – God’s blessing to the weak in a world that only admires the strong.”

Our lives contain multitudes: bittersweet moments, happy moments, and times when life smacks us upside the head. And Christ became flesh and walks alongside us through it all. 

And as Paul points out, this death and resurrection thing kinda makes no sense to most people, really, and that’s okay. Because when I hold up the bread and I say it’s God, the rest of the world may say “That’s not God, that’s bread.” 

But we dream on a budget here, don’t we?

We believe the impossible, ultimately find that it is realer than we imaged, and we’re ultimately saved by it. 

Because faith, really, not unlike the world of Finding Neverland, is about dreaming on a budget, of making the best you can out of the circumstances, about realizing the fullness of life with all its new life and death and resurrection and feeling fear and uncertainty and daring to dream anyway. About believing in the illogical and ultimately being saved by it.

Amen.

Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Land Beyond the Wall

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Game of Thrones: The view beyond the Wall.

Isaiah 9:1-4
Matthew 4:12-23

Game of Thrones people, this one is for you.

But don’t worry, everyone else can come along too. 

In the opening sequence to the HBO series, all of the regions of the world of Game of Thrones come to life like game pieces, each part clicking into place as focus shifts from place to place on an animated map. You see the centers of power first, usually. You see King’s Landing, where, obviously, the king of Westeros lives. You see Dragonstone, usually — the home of the deposed former king. You see Winterfell, home of the famous Stark family, the wardens of the North. Then, the camera pans to the northernmost point on the map: the Wall. 

The Wall, an impossibly huge, impenetrable wall of ice and stone, separates Westeros, the country that the series is primarily concerned with, from the wilds beyond. Throughout the series, “beyond the wall” is code for the middle of nowhere. Few people seem to know really who or what lives there; they just seem to have an idea that it’s a sparsely populated snowy wilderness. You know, much like Bostonians imagine western Mass. 

But people do live there: the people of Westeros call them the wildlings. The wildlings call themselves the “free folk.” They bow to no one and answer to no king. The series, among many other things, begins to eventually be about the alliances that must be made out of necessity between the free folk and the people of Westeros, and the deadly tensions that will ensue between those who live in Westeros and those who live “beyond the Wall.” 

In today’s Gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. They’re familiar names, Zebulun and Naphtali. Those of you who studied Genesis with me last year and/or just know your Bible pretty well probably recognize them as the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, and two of the corresponding twelve sons of Jacob. The rest of you are probably thinking “Yep, those do indeed sound like names in the Bible.” 

Zebulun is the sixth son of Leah, Jacob’s first wife. Naphtali is the second son of Bilhah, the handmaid of Rachel, who bore children in Rachel’s name when she thought she was barren in true Handmaid’s Tale kind of style. 

I don’t expect you to know or remember any of this. I had to look it up myself. There’s a good reason. Neither of them was the first or most powerful son, and neither of them is the first or most powerful tribe. This is the northern edge of the kingdom.

We’re supposed to look at these place names and go “…where?”

Playing the “if Israel were Massachusetts” game again, it is as if we are told that Jesus left his home in Boston and made his home in Hinsdale, in the mountains. 

Unless you’re intimately familiar with the map, you’re unlikely to have the foggiest clue. And that’s the point. 

Jesus has moved Beyond the Wall. 

The Hebrew Bible lesson for today shines a little light on this text during this season of light: “In the former time [God] brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time [God] will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” 

Land of Westeros, light has shined even on the land beyond the wall. Bostonians, light has shined even on western Massachusetts. Light has shined on all the places you once thought of as “out there” or insignificant. God’s light shines on the border country and beyond. 

In this seafaring place, you can be sure that Jesus was preaching to and healing both Jewish people and Gentiles. And that’s around the time that Jesus goes for a stroll along the Sea of Galilee and invites four fishermen to come and follow him.

“I will make you fish for people,” or in the King James language, “I will make you fishers of men” has always seemed like such a strange image to me, mostly because fishing never really ends well for the fish. The longer I follow Jesus, though, the more I get it. I mean, who hasn’t occasionally felt gutted while serving the Lord? And who hasn’t even occasionally felt a little trapped by all the work that must be done? The line of need is endless, and discipleship is hard, yet I can’t ever manage to bring myself to leave the work, or Jesus, behind.

I mean, take a second and look at your bulletin cover. It looks like Jesus is standing behind these two disciples like “I gotcha now!” 

And yet, what we are offered is, in a sense, death. But that’s not the end. We’re constantly pulled into this cycle of death and resurrection: getting tired and feeling discouraged and finished and wanting to quit and maybe even actually quitting, and then finding new hope and new life and new purpose, over and over, in church and in life. It’s the kind of gift that doesn’t always feel like a gift, but an actual calling never really does. I’m betting you’ve felt the same way in your work, in your life as a parent or grandparent, with your spouse or a significant other, and in your significant friendships. Life always comes and goes in waves of death and resurrection, and God is constantly offering us life renewed. 

On “Two Bubbas and a Bible” this week, a favorite preaching podcast that I like to listen to, we got this story this week: Marty Saarinen, later a professor at the Lutheran seminary in South Carolina, began his career on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Saarinen, you might know, is a Finnish name, and so, as a young pastor, he went to serve the Finnish Lutherans in Michigan. Pastor Saarinen was told to go see a shut in couple out in the middle of nowhere and introduce himself. The young pastor drives through logging country, has to stop his car and walk across a log bridge in the middle of the wilderness. He finally comes to a clearing, and there’s a Finnish cabin with smoke coming from the chimney. He walks across the porch and knocks on the door and stands there in his clergy collar and horn rimmed glasses. An old man opens the door and doesn’t say a word to the young pastor. He turns around and says to his wife, sitting by the fire: “Anna! God has not forgotten us!”

So here we are again, at the beginning of a new year, getting ready to have our annual meeting after worship, elect a new council, and for you all to be formally introduced to this thing we’re doing with Forward leadership. And the text for the day is Jesus calling these ill-equipped disciples who are way out on the margins to come and follow.

Every voice will matter in 2020. Every person will matter. We will need you. God has not forgotten you, and God has not forgotten us. Even on us, light has shined. 

And though it may sometimes feel like a trap, it isn’t. It is a cycle of death and resurrection, dejection and questions and frustration and new hope that we all get to experience together. 

God has not forgotten us. We get to do this. Even on you, on me, on us, light has shined. 

If you have a lot of questions, that’s okay. If you have a lot of worries, that’s okay. If you feel like we’re beyond the wall and beyond God’s good care, that’s okay too. 

Every day, the call is there: “come, follow me.” And as the days get longer and light literally shines on us all, let us remember that even on us, light has shined. God has not forgotten us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“What Are You Looking For?”: The Christ and the Cheshire Cat

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John 1:29-42

As light returns to us here in the northern hemisphere and we celebrate the days getting longer, the church celebrates a season of light: the time after Epiphany. We remember the star that led the wise men to the Christ child at the beginning of the season, and we remember Jesus transfigured and shining on a mountaintop at the end. In between, we remember Jesus being revealed as the Light of the World as the sun outside stays with us a little longer each day. This season is an in-between season, separating Christmas from Lent.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. 

In one particular scene that has untold sermon potential, Alice wanders around the strange woods after going down the rabbit hole, finding herself in a very strange place indeed. Suddenly, she hears singing — the voice is disembodied and the words are nonsense. Finally, just a smile appears. Then, two yellow eyes. Finally, a tail, and then, a whole purple striped animal.

Thus, one of the best literary characters of all time, in my opinion, appears. 

That character is, of course, the Cheshire Cat. The trickster who’s a little off his rocker, but is also strangely full of wisdom.
“Oh!” Alice says. “You’re a cat!”

“A Cheshire cat.” 

After some small talk, Alice says, “I just wanted to ask you which way I ought to go.” 

“Well,” the Cheshire cat replies, “that depends on where you want to get to…?” 

Alice responds immediately, “It really doesn’t matter, as long as I…” she starts to explain.

The Cheshire cat interrupts, “Well,” he says, “then it really doesn’t matter which way you go!” 

I’m not saying that Jesus is the Cheshire cat, but Jesus in the Gospel text today isn’t unlike the Cheshire cat. He answers questions with questions. He says confusing things. And you get the sense that he might be messing with people just a little bit.

In this Gospel text, Jesus is baptized, which we don’t witness firsthand but only hear about from John the Baptist: “remember how I said that one who’s greater than me will come after me? This is the guy.” 

John’s Gospel has been leading up to this moment for a little while now. The beginning of the Gospel, instead of a birth story with shepherds or wise men or a manger, begins with the famous “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” all the way down to “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” 

Then we learn about John, and through John we learn about Jesus — and here we are. 

Last week, we heard the first words Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, and they’re him asking to be baptized. This week, we hear Jesus’ first words in John’s Gospel. 

The Word made flesh speaks for the first time, and what does he say? Furthermore, these guys have just decided to follow him. You’d think his response would be some wise statement, but it isn’t. 

He just says, “What are you looking for?” 

As those of you who walked with me through John’s Gospel last year may remember, he asks that a lot: either “what are you looking for?” or “who are you looking for?” Most notably, he’ll ask the latter question when he’s arrested, then he’ll ask it again of Mary at the tomb when she thinks someone’s stolen his body.

What are you looking for?

It’s a question that would do us well to ask of ourselves in our lives generally. What are you looking for? 

Validation? Accomplishment? Peace? Love? 

But I won’t take you too far down an existential crisis-y rabbit hole, even if Jesus does sound a bit like the Cheshire cat in this passage. This is church, and it is Jesus we’re talking about today, so I’ll leave you to ponder what you’re looking for in life later this afternoon while we focus on church for now.

Why are you here? What are you looking for?

Pastors know just about better than anyone that people come to church for all kinds of reasons. Some come out of habit, and some out of obligation, and some as a form of fire insurance. Many others come because they find community, and meaning, and love, and/or because after all these years, there’s just still something about trying to follow Jesus that calls to them. 

One of the questions that I’ve learned to ask as a pastor is to occasionally get people to ponder this question of Jesus: “What are you looking for?” 

Why do you go to church? And if you go here regularly, why do you go to this church?

As we move through the synod’s Forward Leadership program this year, answering that question will go a long way towards helping us find our unifying “why” — why God’s placed us here, in South Hadley, now. 

Because, to paraphrase the Cheshire cat, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it doesn’t much matter where you look. 

I’m telling you: endless wisdom in that cartoon cat. 

So Jesus turns around and sees these guys following and he asks them what they’re looking for. 

And they are not ready for that. You can practically hear them stammer in the text. Lutheran pastor and fellow Southernern Delmer Chilton describes it this way: “It’s like you’ve got a couple of inept detectives trying to tail somebody, and the person they’re tailing turns around and says, ‘What do you want?’ And they’re like “UHHHHH… you got a dollar? Can you tell me where the 54 bus is?”
They respond, “Ummmmm… where are you staying?” 

And Jesus responds with another key phrase in John: “Come and see.” 

He’ll say it again a little later to invite more disciples to follow him. The woman at the well will say it when she invites others to come meet Jesus. And Mary and Martha will say it when Jesus asks where they’ve buried his friend, their brother, who died. 

Come and see. 

Just show up, and expect to see something new. 

Two weeks ago, when Gail, Debbie, Paula, Barb, and I were at the Forward leadership retreat, we lamented to the leadership that we had more questions than answers. We were told that that’s right where we were supposed to be. I’ve been thinking over the past couple of weeks that, despite my love of answers, maybe having lots of questions is a good place to be overall.  

As we embark on a new year, and as we embark on the Forward leadership program together, or whatever it is that you’re embarking on in 2020 — what are we looking for? Why do you come to church? What are you looking for?

What are you looking for, overall, in 2020? 

Because you know that if it doesn’t matter where you get to, it doesn’t much matter which way you go. 

But before you allow the Cheshire cat to throw you into a crisis, remember Jesus’ invitation: come and see. 

Just keep showing up, expecting to find something. 

Come and see. 

Jump into this Forward leadership process with us. Come and see. 

Show up in your life, however you need to show up, and expect to find something new. 

Come and see. 

Show up at this table, and expect to meet Jesus in bread and wine, even though it’s illogical. 

Come and see. 

Let 2020 be the year that you show up and let yourself be surprised.

The invitation is always there: here at church, in your home, and every day when you open your eyes: come and see. Amen.