God’s Work, Our Hands

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Our Savior’s worship on God’s Work, Our Hands day, 2019.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Luke 14:25-33

It seems to me that we’ve got two conflicting messages in our Old Testament and Gospel readings. 

Don’t worry; we’ve got work to do. It’s God’s Work, Our Hands day, so you can bet this won’t take long. But I had to point this one thing out, and then we’ll talk about it, and then I’ll teach you a song with some motions, and then we’ll go help some people. Sound good, everyone? Good.

So the Old Testament reading says this: “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” 

Despite its being hijacked as a political slogan, the phrase “choose life” still rings with truth. Choose blessing, not cursing. Choose good, not evil. Choose kindness, not meanness. Choose life, not death.

We have a choice, Deuteronomy says, and we can choose life. 

Then comes Jesus, complicating things. He’s telling us to take up that cross. The cross, which, to his original listeners, would have represented death at the hands of the Roman Empire. His mostly Jewish audience in the first century had been raised all their lives with Deuteronomy, being told to follow the law, and in so doing, to choose life. And Deuteronomy also says “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). In case you were wondering, yes, a cross counts as a tree.

Of course, he’s not actually telling them to choose death. But he is telling them to give their lives, and later on, their possessions. If we ever really want a scorched earth stewardship policy one year, we should definitely use that last verse, 14:33: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Sound good, Barb?

Wait, does Diego count as a possession? I’m out.

Everyone, from the most fundamentalist to the least literalist biblical reader imaginable, tries to talk their way out of this one. We try to explain why Jesus didn’t really mean that.

But what if he did?

As Lutherans, we believe that you don’t, and that you can’t, do anything to earn God’s grace. It’s a free gift. Becoming a disciple of Jesus isn’t even required — a disciple, after all, is a learner. Being Jesus’ disciple isn’t the same as scoring a ticket to heaven. 

Being Jesus’ disciple, for a Lutheran, isn’t about earning God’s love by giving up everything. You can’t earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. And what do you give the God who has everything?

Just taking a gander here, but knowing Jesus, the answer seems to be: your whole life. Carry that cross and give your life. Give your limited waking hours on this earth to make someone else’s life better. And in so doing, especially in this divisive day and age, we are choosing life. 

That’s the thing about us humans. We’re fragile, and no one knows how long they have. To give up precious moments of life on a nice day in September to help someone else is a sacrifice. 

But here’s the thing: not long after he tells everyone to take up their cross, Jesus dies on one, but every one of you knows that it’s not the end. We pop champagne every Saturday night before Easter because new life walked right out of the grave. 

When I was a pastor in Montgomery, they had a tradition of having a flower cross on Easter. Because it’s the South, everyone’s garden is already flowering by Easter. Everyone brings flowers and puts them in the chicken wire-and-wood wrapped cross.

Let me tell you, that cross is ugly without the flowers. We used it on Good Friday, a twist of wood and metal, glaring with death, and ugly. When the congregation arrived on Sunday, though, it was full of flowers, teeming with life, transformed. 

That’s the opportunity we have today: to give away moments of our one wild and precious life [apologies to Mary Oliver] to our neighbors, so that they can be safe and so that they can have food. And if Jesus shows anything, it’s that we get back everything we give away, tenfold. We give not because we have to, but because we’re grateful. We give because we believe that it is in giving that we receive. We give because God first gave life and breath to us. So let’s give, gladly, not so that God will love us, but because God loves us. Let’s give because God transforms everything, even death, into new life, always. 

Even when death chooses us, God chooses life for us. Turns out there’s no contradiction there at all.

And with that, I want to teach you a song.

To hear the song taught and sung by David Piper, the original composer/songwriter, click here!

Word of God, word of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Jesus at Mealtime

Our communion meal starts here: with simple ingredients, mixed together and placed in the oven. 

Luke 14:1, 7-14

I say it over and over and over because it never ceases to be true: I love the fact that our life together as Lutheran Christians is centered around the table, and how I don’t need to explain one of my favorite lines to you: “Jesus loved meals so much, he became one” (original quote attributed to Dr. Don Saliers, Emory University). 

This isn’t just because I love to eat and drink and enjoy the company of others, but it has a lot to do with it. It just makes me feel human to sit at a table with people I love, whether blood family, chosen family, or church family. Humans are kind of pack animals, all told, and we need to eat, and therefore, group meals have been a thing since pre-history, when our ancestors huddled around fires, ate meat roasted over fires, and told each other stories. 

Who we eat with has always been really important, too, and it still is. We have a renewed sense of tribe, encoded into our DNA, whenever we sit down to eat. If a stranger sat unannounced at your restaurant table, that would probably alarm you. Furthermore, when two people at the table have a personal problem with one another, these meals are the least fun meals you’ll ever have. 

Jesus is having this kind of meal in the Gospel lesson for today, unfortunately for him. He’s been invited to a meal with a leader of the Pharisees. When I started looking into this text, I found something kind of ridiculous: this meal seems to go on in Luke for quite awhile, and has lots of little awkward twists and turns that make it so stinking relatable as an awkward meal. 

First, Luke tells us that Jesus is going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal with him on the Sabbath. Luke says they were “watching him closely.” You’ve been watched closely at a meal too, I’m betting, and you’ve probably done the watching, too. It’s like when your child brings home a new person they’re dating, or when you finally sit down to a meal with that person at work that you’ve been having personal problems with for months. 

The tension in the air is thick even before they reach the Pharisee’s house. Just then, popping out in front of Jesus (in the part of the text that was cut out of this morning’s reading), there was a guy with dropsy, which is an old fashioned term for excess fluid collecting in the body and making it swell. Jesus looks at the leaders. He’s just gotten in trouble with the leader of the synagogue for curing the woman who was bent over — see last week’s reading for that episode. Jesus asks the question and it hangs in the air. They won’t tell him anything.

The swollen man doesn’t ask for help, and the Pharisees give Jesus no guidance, but Jesus heals the guy anyway. If there’s two things Jesus knows how to do, it’s eat and heal people, so he heals someone on his way to eat, and no one says anything. 

Then they get to the house, and Jesus can’t help noticing how people clamor for the most visible places next to the most important people. And Jesus decides to be that guy and reference the Bible. In his advice to the Pharisees in the Gospel reading, you see the exact echoes in the Proverbs reading. As usual, he’s just calling them to pay more attention to the rules and the spirit of their own faith. 

But he doesn’t stop there. He tells them that when they give a meal, they should always invite the riffraff, you know, like a radical rabbi and his group of mismatched disciples. 

Then, in the passage just after this one, one of the other poor dinner guests decides to try to break the tension by saying, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 

And immediately he must’ve wished he hadn’t done that, because then Jesus launches into one of his stories. This story is about how a rich person threw a big dinner and invited a bunch of people, but they all started to make excuses at dinner time, so he invited the riffraff, the ones who didn’t deserve it at all. Then there was still room, and so the owner of the house went searching for even more people to bring into the banquet. 

At this point, if you read along in Luke at all, you’ll notice that Jesus apparently has a studio audience, because Luke has him turn to the crowds (v. 25) and tells some of his most famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager. The poor folks probably didn’t get out of dinner for awhile. 

The point is and the point was, though, very simple: you don’t earn your way to a meal with God. God finds you. And God is always, always out looking. 

Indeed, we still have a lot of rituals around meals. Meals invoke something pretty primal in us. There’s nothing quite like a meal, and nothing will ever replace it. If you don’t believe me, try imagining the posts you see on Facebook or Twitter announced at a dinner party. There’s just something different about not hiding behind a screen, being in person, and nourishing our bodies and our souls together that still gives us, at its best, the kind of peace and full belly that nothing else quite can. 

If you take nothing else from Jesus’ dinner table conversations or from our conversation before our weekly meal today, know this: it’s not, and it never has been, about what you do or how hard you try or how much you’ve done to earn your place at the table. 

I don’t doubt that you’ve had to fight for a place at the table at work or maybe for an authoritative voice at the table in your family.

Jesus gives some practical advice for how to handle that kind of thing: be humble. Sit at a lower place. Let others realize your work and call you to sit up higher.

But in here, it’s not like that. At this family table, it’s not just that everyone is welcome, it’s that everyone found, not by us, but by whatever wind of God blew you in here. 

Here, there are no places of honor. Here, we are all just people, family, gathered for a meal with the one who loved meals so much he became one. Here, you can bring your whole self and meet God in bread and wine. 

And like any good meal, I hope you leave with a sense of peace and maybe even a full belly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Shabbat People

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Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17

Today’s opening sermon illustration is brought to you by a chaplain I know at a college in the United States.

At this particular college, the Jewish students each week hold a Shabbat (or Sabbath) service on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. I’ve been to the Shabbat services myself, and I always find them beautiful, like a piece of our faith heritage that we’ve lost: every Friday night during the semester, the group of mostly students gathers to sing in the Sabbath, welcoming the day of rest, Saturday, like a bride. They understand what we’ve forgotten: the Sabbath (no matter when you celebrate it) is a beautiful gift sent from God to delight our souls. 

At this school, the Jewish students who hold Shabbat services also hold a the fancy Seder service in the spring. Consequently, this year, the fancy Seder plate was returned to this particular chaplain’s office (which also houses Jewish student life) with the note, “Needs to go back to Shabbat people.” 

It was certainly not offensive, but it was an exercise in being almost culturally competent.

Given this week’s reading about the Jewish understanding of Sabbath, “Shabbat People” really seemed like an accurate way of getting us to a more Jewish understanding of Sabbath. We inherit a lot of things from our Jewish ancestors in faith: for one thing, well over half the Bible, as any Hebrew Bible scholar will tell you. Our Jewish neighbors and ancestors in faith are also the reason we have any concept of Sabbath at all: one day a week set aside for rest and reconnection with God and each other. 

Unfortunately, we Christians quickly forget the Jewish roots of our faith. Too often, Christians try to remind ourselves for no reason whatsoever that the Christian faith is somehow superior, through our roots go deep into Judaism. We wouldn’t be here without the Jewish faith, but Christians throughout history have visited terrible things on Jewish people, from casual horrid comments all the way to genocide. 

But these days, in most progressive churches at least, we settle for a more casual antisemitism. I say “casual” antisemitism because it’s not formal or intentional — we don’t mean any harm, and we don’t even think of it as being harmful or hateful. We know the Holocaust happened and that genocide is ugly and horrible. We know that saying explicitly antisemitic things is wrong. But still we forget the Jewish roots of our faith. But still we forget our Jewish neighbors. We hear stories like today’s Gospel reading and we point the finger at those terrible Jewish leaders who had too many rules — and in doing so, we miss the point of the story entirely. Bible interpretation hack: if reading any story has you pointing the finger at someone else or making yourself into Jesus in the story, you’re probably reading it wrong.

The story is a familiar type of story in the Gospels: Jesus gets in trouble for breaking Sabbath rules. If you’ve even casually been attending church for more than a few years, you know that this happens a lot to Jesus. He’s always getting into trouble on the Sabbath. 

Here’s a fun fact: in the Gospels, he always gets in trouble on the Sabbath for feeding someone (in one case, allowing his disciples to eat) or for healing someone. Once, in Mark, he says this profound thing: “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” 

This is where we lose something profound when we sit back and casually point the finger at the Jewish leaders. After all, it’s not like Christians don’t know something about sacrificing people on the altar of the rules. When I was at Camp Calumet a few weeks ago, I told the kids that a little more than fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to be their chaplain simply because I’m a woman. There was an audible gasp in the room — the kids couldn’t even conceive of it, yet’s it’s part of our history.

Soon, we figured out what Jesus always knew: the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules. 

All the religious leaders are doing here is pointing out what the rules of the faith are. They don’t mean to be cruel, they’re just telling you what the Bible says. Christians have done this over time with regard to, in no particular order: divorce, slavery, LGBTQ+ folk, gender, women in ministry, and a host of other issues. They didn’t mean to be cruel; they were just reminding us all of the rules. 

We Christians are capable of forgetting, too — the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. The rules are necessary; the rules were made for us. When all goes well, the rules of a religion keep us safe and at peace and remind us what the faith is really about.

The reason we have rules is obvious to the newest of kindergarteners: laws and rules keep us safe and teach us to be good humans. They tell us what’s okay and what’s not okay. They tell us what the consequences are when we hurt others. They keep us from dominating one another, from talking over one another, and from stealing from each other or hurting each other in a number of ways. Just like we need rules on the road, we need rules in our faith communities, to keep us safe and keep us productive and remind us what the point of all of this is.

In the case of the Sabbath, the rules were created to give the people a dang break. In our council discussion this week, we talked about what it means to take Sabbath: to rest, to stop working, to remember that the world can go on without us, and most of all, to delight, in both God and one another. The Sabbath rules were created to make us more human, and to remind us that we aren’t just machines who were created to work all the time. And just in case we weren’t sure that resting doesn’t make us weak, God went first. God took the first Sabbath and commanded that we do the same. This is important. 

And the rules created around the Sabbath were for people, too: okay, so we can’t work. But what does “work” really mean? And immediately, someone said, “I can get away with doing just a little work, right?” 

Humans need rules. We need boundaries. We need guidelines, or else, “a little work” quickly turns into just another workday, and humans are just as crippled by work as we were before, with no rest in sight.

And that is the context in which we find our story today.

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman” who was unable to stand up straight, and she’d been that way for eighteen years. Can you imagine? Eighteen years of being bent over, unable to fully stand. Eighteen years — the entire lifespan of a new high school graduate — bent over. 

Jesus, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, saw this lady and called her over and told her she’d been set free from her ailment. And she stood up straight and looked God in the eye.

“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” 

It’s a thing we’ve all heard before: “The Bible says…” 

Jesus’ response is simple: he says she ought to be set free on the Sabbath day. Not that he just did healed this woman on the Sabbath because it happened to be the Sabbath. But because the Sabbath is, above all things, about God setting people free. Whenever Jesus gets in trouble on the Sabbath, remember, it’s usually for feeding or healing.

What Jesus responds with is a Jewish understanding of Sabbath. The Jews, held in bondage as slaves in Egypt, relish the freedom to take Sabbath. They rest because that is what free people do. It is their God-given inheritance. The Jews, the “Shabbat people,” understand Sabbath better than Christians do, even today. It is from my Jewish friends that I learned that Sabbath is about dropping your burdens so that you can stand up straight. It’s about being healed. It’s about being fed. It’s not about what we do to keep the rules. It’s about what God does for us — namely, heals us, feeds us, and sets us free.

We rest because that is what free people do.

So when Jesus gets in trouble for violating Sabbath by healing and feeding people, he isn’t getting rid of Judaism or the Sabbath. He’s reminding the people of who they are — like the plate returned to the chaplain’s office says, they are Shabbat people. 

We, too, are a free people who should take Sabbath. Truth be told, everyone should — for a day or even for an afternoon. 

Drop your burdens. Be free. Let Jesus heal you and feed you. And maybe, just maybe, stand up a little straighter.

Let it begin here, at this table, where Jesus feeds us with his very self with the same elements that Jews still use at their Sabbath celebrations: candles and bread and wine, praising God, being free.

I invite you, along with the dining services of the aforementioned college, to “Return to [being] Shabbat people.” It’s not about keeping or breaking the rules. You weren’t created for the rules; the rules were created for you.

Sabbath is about what God does for us. And what Jesus does, over and over in the Gospels, is to heal and to feed and set free. 

So come and be fed. Come and be healed. Come with joy. Be free.

Today as long ago, Jewish folks welcome the Sabbath as a free gift from God. In one song sometimes sung at Shabbat services, the Sabbath is welcomed as a new spouse at a wedding. I close with the translation of some of the words to that song. It goes like this: 

“Come, my Beloved… we welcome the Sabbath bride, for she is the source of blessing; from the beginning, she was chosen; last in creation, first in God’s thought.” 

May you welcome the Sabbath in whatever form she comes today. May God heal you, feed you, and help you stand up straight.

Let’s “go back to [being] Shabbat people,” for Shabbat people are free people. Amen.

Love & a World on Fire

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Jeremiah 23:23-29
Luke 12:49-56

An important question for us to tackle every now and then: why are you here?

People come to church, I’ve noticed over the years, for all kinds of reasons. 

Some come to church to find meaning, some come for community, and some come for reasons they can’t put their fingers on. Speaking more of the general church population of the US than of present company, most come (I think) out of habit. One of the things that makes you special as a congregation is that I don’t get the sense that most of you come here out of obligation or habit. You like being here and you like each other. It’s weird. And awesome.

Many people come to church, too, for comfort, but if that’s you, I apologize that the first thing you saw when you looked at your bulletin this morning was the world on fire. You might think I’ve been reading the news too much, and that such an image is a little on the nose.

Though I’d tell you that if you don’t feel that way about the world these days, and maybe for all of our entire lifetimes, you don’t listen to the news enough. 

The truth is that the world has kind of been on fire since before we were all born. Yes, even you.

The world has kind of been on fire since before Jesus was born. The stakes have always been high, and talking about the state of the world has never been comfortable. Talking about Jesus has never really been comfortable either, when you get right down to it, which makes it all the more surprising that folks come to church for comfort. 

In case you haven’t thought about it today, let me remind you: God broke into human history in the form of a controversial rabbi in an occupied and historically contested and unstable land. 

C. S. Lewis turned atheist at age 15, but later, he intentionally came back to the church.

Of our faith, Lewis wrote in a very English fashion: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy, I always knew a bottle of port will do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Don’t get me wrong. My ability to hold myself together when I look at the state of the world is and always has been some at times vague belief that God’s got all of this, and that Christ holds all things together, and that someday even the worst and ugliest injustices that we’ve witnessed in all of human history shall somehow, somehow, be made right, that someday there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God’s home will be among mortals, and that every tear will be wiped away. 

If you come to church for comfort, I’m not scolding you. In fact, I have a stated policy of never scolding other adults. 

But, I mean: what thing that you love makes you happy all the time?

Football season is coming up soon. Need I say more.

Church is no different, and with quotes like this from Jesus, it’s no wonder that church isn’t more of a challenge than anything else that we love: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…” 

Challenging? Yes. Comforting? No.

One term that I’ve learned in recent years is “spiritual bypassing,” which is when someone raises a valid disagreement and we don’t deal with it, but instead talk about how Jesus was always nice and wanted us all to get along.

I guess no one ever asked the money changers or religious leaders or even Jesus’ disciples about this, and listening to him today, I wonder where we get the whole thing from. Truth be told, it’s a little dishonest. 

Further, what Jesus is saying here, quite frankly, reminds me of our national and our world today, namely: “…division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two…” 

If that sounds like Thanksgiving dinner to you, then you’re like most Americans today.

We mourn and lament our divisions, and we swear that the world is on fire because we can’t seem to have real conversations anymore. But I want to posit this morning that we were never really good at having real conversations in the first place. Our current times of division are just revealing what was already there. 

The truth is that we as a church and we as a nation have already been through division, and stress, and disagreements. We’ve all already done this before. The world has pretty much always been on fire.

One of my favorite things about you, Our Savior’s, is that you have been through conflict and decided it wasn’t the end of the world. If anything, it’s brought you closer to one another. That’s not to say that anything was easy — it has been painful as anything — but it hasn’t killed us yet. And that means something. 

What we can do is to show our community that division isn’t the end of the world. We can have hard conversations about real things. But only if those conversations are rooted in the Gospel. Let me explain. 

There’s a temptation to either bypass our sharp disagreements about real things or to drive out anyone who disagrees and then make social justice our Gospel. Neither works, church. Neither works. 

Here is what does work, I think: I’ll explain it by way of camp. 

This past week, you all lent me out for the second and last time this year to Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry. I’m always grateful to go, because personally, I believe that it’s like a continuing education event, but better, and free: I learn new things, I refresh my soul (even as my body is exhausted), and I always, always leave a better pastor than I was when I arrived. 

Here’s what happened this week at Camp Calumet that made me a better pastor for South Hadley: observing the final performance for Calumet’s music camp. Music camp happens every last week of camp, and it culminates in a concert at the end, which then leads into closing ceremonies for the summer, which of course include fire. 

When I walked into the music camp concert, I was prepared to give a super brief talk at said campfire about how they can carry the experience forward. As the music camp performance went on, my talk changed and got much, much shorter. 

Here’s what I saw: I saw little kids and college students and adults and everyone in between performing beautiful music together, which is what I expected. Here’s what I didn’t expect: otherwise shy kids stepping up to the microphone and BELTING at the top of their lungs, on key, beautifully, to raucous applause. 

Those kids were brave. They were brave because they knew that everyone in that room loved them.

Was every kid the next Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes? Goodness no, and thank goodness. We need those kids to become doctors and contractors and teachers maybe even a pastor or two. Not every performance was perfect, of course. Some of the kids had a bit of trouble staying on rhythm. The first time it happened, I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat when I heard a snapping sound rising from the next row in the audience. Then it grew louder until it filled the room. The congregation was tapping out the beat, helping get the kid back on track, in the most supportive way possible. 

Sure, they could’ve not had a music concert at all, and no kid would’ve had to risk embarrassment. But what actually happened was so much richer. 

It made me think of division and peace and spiritual bypassing. We may think we’re helping by stifling hard conversations. We may think we’re helping by hearing someone say something harmful and not saying anything back. We may think the alternative is to pretend like disagreements don’t exist and keep the peace that way. We could pretend that the rhythm of a song is a thing that can change and smile politely when someone gets it wrong. But that just makes everyone uncomfortable. 

Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

We know how to interpret the rhythms of the earth and sky and seasons. We should learn to keep the beat of truth, too. Everyone can’t be right all the time. Sometimes we have to clap together to keep each other on the beat. And sometimes that’ll be weird and hard and uncomfortable at first. No one ever said that church is always comfortable, especially when it feels like the world’s on fire. It’s not niceness or even peace that drives the church; it’s love. 

Love speaks up when something isn’t right, in our church or in our world, and sometimes that’s incredibly hard and awkward at first. 

Love keeps the beat. 

But just like the beat, love is for everyone, not a select few who manage to get it right naturally. 

So this is what I told the kids at the campfire and this is how I’ll end my time with you today: people come alive at Camp Calumet and in good churches like this one because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone in that room loves them no matter what. Everyone is embraced for who God made them to be. Whether you’ve been there for thirty years or whether you just arrived today, you will be greeted with a warm welcome as if you’ve been a regular for years. When people say they feel the Holy Spirit in that place, the prevailing feeling they’re usually describing is love: they feel loved. They can be themselves, in all of their beautiful weirdness. They can be themselves; they don’t have to be perfect or right all the time. And that kind of love is infectious. It quickly moves beyond the boundary lines of the property and out into the world. 

Because people who know they are loved are better, kinder humans. They’re themselves. They are funnier, they are happier, and they are braver. They don’t feel like they have to be perfect because they know they‘re much better off just feeling like themselves. It’s much easier to admit your flaws when you feel secure.

And this is the gist of the last thing I told them, and this is the gist of what I want you to know: you are loved, just as you are. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. We’ll help you keep the beat.

You are loved. And people who know that they are loved can do anything.

This whole church thing won’t always be easy, and it won’t always feel good. We must always be willing to say to each other “You aren’t always right, but you are always loved.” 

The world is on fire, which means we need you to be your bravest, most beloved self. 

So may we promise this one thing: the stakes are high, and the world is on fire. Given that, church can’t always make us feel comfortable, but it can always make us feel loved. So it should be. Amen.

Fighting Fear and Finding Family

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Ladies and gentlepersons, our own Bob Stehlin: veteran, altar care extraordinaire, and all around great guy. 

Genesis 15:1-6
Luke 12:32-40

Do you remember what you did ten years ago today? How about fifty? Anniversaries remind us to be thankful, and they remind us, at times, of our own strength. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, it’s an important day for one of ours. Many of you have heard the story, and on this day, we’ll revisit it a bit for those of you who haven’t. 

Of this day, our own Bob Stehlin writes,

“[Today is the] 10th Anniversary of the hardest phone call I ever made in my entire life time.  A call I made on August 11, 2009 to my sister to ascertain whether or not with could have a brother/sister relationship.  The 10th Anniversary of my moving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not occur until April 1, 2011, two years later.

I was seventeen year old when I found that my father was alive and stationed in Germany in the United States Army.

I was nineteen years old when I knocked on his door in Germany and introduced myself as his son and the look on my step-mother’s face who was standing behind my father was absolutely priceless. During this visit I was introduced to my sister Evelyn Carol Stehlin (Belanger), who was no more than a year at the time.  That visit lasted exactly four days. I never saw or spoke to my father again.

In May 2009, I told myself that I wasn’t getting any younger and I should see if I could have a relationship with my sister.  I had strong desires for the first time in my life to have A REAL FAMILY.

Having a brother/sister relationship with my sister would provide me with [that].”
Long story short, Bob has friends who are good at finding out things, and soon, he found his sister living in Belchertown, just down the road from here. Of this day, ten years ago, he writes,

“On Sunday, August 11, 2009 at approximately 4:00PM I picked up my phone and called my sister… This was two days after my 66th birthday and 11 days before my sister’s…wedding. I was extremely scared and apprehensive before I picked up the phone which made it extremely hard for me to even dial the number.

4 and a half hours later, I was no longer scared or apprehensive, and I knew I had made correct call in calling my sister and knew that yes I was going to have A REAL FAMILY.  I was extremely excited that in 20 days I would meet not only my sister, but my nephew, niece and brother-in-law. I meet my sister, brother-in-law and nephew at Bradley International Airport on August 31, 2009 and the rest is history.
I have never once since I moved to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regret that I moved here.”

Bob, we love you, and we celebrate with you, and thank you for sharing your story with us. We’re glad you made that call, too. 

Acceptance makes fear melt away. 

Another anniversary happened this week too, and it was recognized at our denomination’s triennial assembly: the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran tradition. You might’ve seen it on social media this week: when women clergy of all ages came streaming into the assembly in procession – many of them long ago had looked fear in the face and decided here they stand, in true Lutheran fashion. I stand on many of their shoulders. Because of their courage, the church’s acceptance has, in many ways, made women’s fear melt away. Today, women pastors, deacons, and laypeople are part of the fabric of our church, seen as equal and strong, with plenty of gifts to share. 

We Lutherans, of all genders, are family. 

In the Old Testament reading, Abraham is afraid of rejection, and of not having a family, too, and God drags him outside and shows him the stars. 

God is in the business of quelling our fears and giving us a family. A real family. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s just spent the several verses before that telling them to not be afraid. He knows. 

He knows they live in an occupied land. He knows they’re afraid of the possibility of getting kicked out of their religious communities for following Jesus. He knows they’re afraid. 

We, too, know what it means to be afraid. Despite having faced our fears in years past, fear always comes again. 

Shootings in Dayton and El Paso, which are only the latest mass shootings of the over 200 that we’ve endured this year. Fear over white supremacist terrorism and political turmoil. Fear over talking to our relatives and neighbors about politics. And when we fear our neighbors, we start to hate them.

In the words of Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

To add to that, we’ve got our own more personal fears, too. Fear that we’re not good enough. Fear over jobs and money and relationships. Fear that we will somehow be left all alone. Depending on your religious upbringing, you might have even felt some fear over this Gospel reading: will you be ready when the bridegroom comes?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

Not because you’re good enough or tried hard enough, but just because you are. I know. In this era, in every era, that’s hard to believe. Grace is hard like that. But in those times when we allow ourselves to believe it — that we are loved, that we can have a real family, that we can love our neighbors as ourselves, or simply that we’re not getting any younger and we might as well just go for it — we get glimpses that it really is true. We find family. We find ourselves. We find acceptance and love. And no matter what, always, God finds us. 

Often despite myself, I still believe that there’s value in searching ancient texts for clues to help us deal with fear in our own time. That maybe our ancestors knew something about how to deal with uncertainty. Maybe they knew something about fear and pain and joy and heartbreak and hope. Maybe they knew something deep and true about how to be human. From Abraham to the disciples, they knew. And Jesus knew, too. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Because the truth is that none of us is getting younger, and none of this — whether it’s the news or our own lives — none of this is getting any less scary. So as far as I’m concerned, we might as well take Jesus at his word. We might as well look back to our ancestors and think about what they have come through and on whose shoulders we stand. We might as well take courage, and acceptance, and family, where we can find it. 

Yes, we are all afraid and nervous about the future. But here, we find family. At its best, the church gives us the courage to show up and Jesus gives us the nourishment at the table to keep moving, despite our fear. At its best, the church is a family, too, full of love and full of acceptance. 

Do not be afraid, little flock. 

Do not be afraid of shrinking numbers or white supremacists or the future. Do not be afraid to talk to your neighbors or call your family. And do not be afraid to walk into the future that is yours. Do not be afraid to pick up the phone and make that call, to say I love you to that person who needs to hear it, or to finally look in the mirror and love yourself. And when it gets really hard, let God drag you outside like Abraham and show you the stars — and may you see that you are a small but beloved part of this world, and that the world is not ending just yet. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

This, my dear, sweet Lutheran family, this is most certainly true. Amen.

Golf, Prayer, and Honesty

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Jeff, Our Savior’s worship chairperson and best golfer, hands down.

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

These texts, I must confess, confound me. They give me a certain sense of shame, even, because if I may confess something to you, I don’t think of myself being very good at prayer. But there’s more to it than that. 

This sermon got personal for me very quickly, so I’m inviting you into my head for a minute — well, about ten to twelve minutes, as usual — but I hope you enjoy the journey. 

All around the preacher-sphere this week, with “preacher-sphere” being a term that I just made up, there were rumblings about these texts. And by rumblings, I mean bitter complaining. There just doesn’t seem to be much for a Lutheran pastor to go on here. 

First, you’ve got Abraham haggling over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the speed of an auction announcer: give me one righteous man, one, gimme two, there’s two, gimme three.. Because some of us  know the story, we know that after this, Sodom and Gomorrah get destroyed anyway, and the one righteous man, Lot, loses his wife as she becomes a pillar of salt. Well, that’s messed up.

Then in the Gospel lesson, you’ve got Jesus explaining prayer in terms of the Lord’s prayer. “Great,” we think. “I can get a sermon out of this.” 

Then, to sum things up as one of my pastor friends did, you’ve got Jesus saying “Bug your neighbors, because it’s kind of like bugging God. And don’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg; that’s messed up.”

The idea you’d get from our English translation is that because the friend was persistent, you’d give in, indicating that if we are persistent before God, God will give in and give us what we want. God likes to be nagged, apparently.

That’s kinda messed up too. Especially considering how we can all recount instances where we or someone we love was absolutely persistent in prayers that never got answered. We pray and pray and pray for someone who is sick or injured, and they still die. We pray and pray and pray for relationships to be healed, and they aren’t. And so it goes. I long ago finished with platitudes to explain these things away. 

I do not think that God needs our excuses. 

So what is Jesus saying about prayer? What is livable, and useful, about these texts?

Here’s where I let you into my brain. One of the things that I find almost funny about being a pastor is when people confess things to me as if I’m not just another person like them who does the exact same things. 

People guiltily confess to me that they don’t go to church that much. 

Meanwhile, I wake up many Sunday mornings just grateful that some of my favorite people go here because otherwise I’d be dragging myself out the door with the mantra “I have to go to church. I have to go to church. I can’t sleep in. I can’t go to brunch. I’m the pastor. I’m the pastor.” 

Thanks for making it easy for me to go to church, by the way.

People apologize for cursing. They use some of my favorite words.

Finally, they confess that they aren’t very good at prayer to me, someone who is decidedly not very good at prayer. 

Now, before you fire me, don’t get me wrong: I went to seminary. I can wax theological and philosophical about prayer. I can tell you why it’s good for you psychologically and why it helps you to see people differently. I believe it’s good for me and for you. I’m just not a naturally pious person. I’ve tried to be, a long time ago, but it never felt right.

I’m not a mystic. I’m not a prayer warrior. I’m just a person who tries, a person whose prayer books sometimes gather dust until Advent or Lent rolls around and I make a fresh commitment to try doing morning prayer every morning. Or maybe three mornings a week. Or maybe… and then I forget, and the books start collecting dust again. I find myself praying for people real quick right after I say that I will because at least then I did it once. Then I’ll think of them again and say another quick prayer. I become a prayer opportunist, which I am pretty sure is better than nothing. 

The point is, if you tell me shamefully that you struggle with prayer, I’m probably going to look right at you and say, “me too.” 

There’s a lot of shame around church and piety and prayer: who does it, who doesn’t, whose prayers get answered, and why. So I’m hoping I can help cut out the shame by being more honest with you myself.

This week, I went golfing with three of the best humans I know, who also happen to also be members here. We talked about prayer on the way back to the clubhouse, mostly because it was Thursday and I still needed a sermon. I heard some good answers — tales about surprising encounters with missionaries that still inform prayer for them. About how prayer is praising, asking, and confessing. I heard confessions of what often feels like a one-sided conversation, but is worthwhile nonetheless. About how it’s hard to hear the replies to our prayers, even if we believe God is a friend who walks alongside us all the time.

That’s when it started to click into place that, despite our shame around prayer, this prayer thing is just different for everyone. We think of prayer as if it only has to take one form when really, it takes many forms for all of us at different times.

“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Jesus’ answer to this question becomes the most famous prayer in Christianity, one that can usually be found in almost any Christian worship service of any type. One that gets repeated over and over before some sports games and often when a group of Christians wants to pray together but no one wants to lead. It’s the prayer that we’ll say right before we take the Eucharist: the one we know as simply “The Lord’s Prayer.” Luke doesn’t include the whole thing that we know today. In Luke, it’s simply: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

I think you’ll agree that Luke’s version would’ve been far easier for many of us to memorize as children, but no one asked us, so it’s Matthew’s version that gets repeated, including the part about temptation and the forever and ever bit.

Then there’s that story about the horrid, intrusive friend. And once again, our English translation might get in the way. The version we read today has Jesus telling us that because the friend was persistent, he gets what he needs. But “persistence,” you see, isn’t the right word at all. 

The right word is more like “shameless.” 

My best pastor buddy pointed this out to me, and it all started to come together. We have so much shame around prayer: who does, who doesn’t, who should. How we pray, why we pray. What we pray for, and what we don’t. Who we pray for, and who we should pray for.

Even the disciples get in on this a bit: essentially, they ask Jesus how they should pray.

Should should should.

In his answer, though Jesus says instead: when you pray, be shameless. Not persistent. Not nagging. Shameless. 

Think about the people you love most. Think about the people who love you most. Think about the purest expressions of love that you’ve ever experienced or seen. Think about any time anyone has ever said to you when you felt like you were being a bother: “Of course I will do this for you. I love you.”

Real love is shameless. 

From the first offense in the garden of Eden, shame has crept into our relationships with God and one another, as the humans hid themselves and God cried out “Who told you that you were naked?” 

I’ve seen it over and over as a chaplain and a pastor: real love is shameless. Shameless love is a parent who cares for their sick child, a spouse who tenderly changes the bedding, a friend who lets someone they love collapse in their arms in a fit of anxiety or mourning. When we love someone, we will care for them in the most intimate of ways. When we love, we feel no shame over what our bodies do or what they look like, and we feel no shame over our emotions. 

As my friend Kathleen says, real love is when you “no longer have to tuck in your crazy.” 

You may experience this with a parent, a child, a sibling, a dear friend, a spouse, a lover, or just with God, but wherever you’ve found it, you know: real love is shameless, because you know that all of you, all of you, is accepted. You know you’re not perfect, and you know that you’re loved anyway. That is shameless love. 

And that is what Jesus says that prayer is supposed to be like. 

And that’s when I started to realize that maybe I’m not all that bad at prayer after all. 

I’ll tell you shamelessly that I’m very bad at sitting at a home altar and lifting up the people I love in prayer. I want to be good at it, but I never have been, not for any long period of time. 

But what I am good at is running. The rhythm. The simplicity. 

There is only the road ahead. There is only my breath. Everything that I am is there. And in my more pious moments I’ve imagined that maybe, just maybe, God matches my stride. When I’m running, my shame is gone. There is no room, and no time. Sometimes there’s prayer, I think. Not in words, usually. There’s no room for words, which is probably why there’s no room for shame. But that’s where this sermon came from: a good hour on Friday, enduring the heat, surviving. Thinking of you, and thinking of prayer, and thinking of what to say in a sermon about prayer, step after step, breath after breath. Shamelessly.  

Then I finished my run, went to a coffee shop, and wrote you this sermon.

So I invite you to drop the shame around prayer and focus instead on where you feel most at home, most you, most human, most connected, and most shameless. Consider that maybe that is a form of prayer, too. It can be running, hiking, writing, heck, even skydiving. 

So yeah, this is a pretty messed up set of texts. But humans — all of us — are a pretty messed up set of people. 

Thank God, then for being God — for being shameless. Amen.

In Defense of Mary, or In Defense of Doing Nothing

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Todd Heisler, New York Times

Luke 10:38-42

In the midst of the heat wave we’re in, as we all try to hide anywhere that has air conditioning, it occurs to me that in this Gospel story, maybe Mary was just hot. I think the lesson she gives us still remains, and maybe this heat wave we’re in just reinforces it. Here we go. 

In this story, Mary wasn’t doing anything. And she’s told by the Savior of the world that she has chosen the right thing.

About a month ago, the New York Times ran an article that I instinctively, as an American of working age, found scandalous. 

No, it wasn’t about politics, exactly. It wasn’t about the minimum wage or immigration. It was entitled — brace yourselves, American capitalists — it was called, “You are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything.” (1)

It detailed what the author called “fallow time,” noting that even the fields that produce our food must be left fallow in order to continue to do what they are supposed to do. In our over-value of work, we forget that we are human. We forget that sometimes, we all have to be off, resting, not doing anything. 

What’s more, though, we are also terrified of what might happen when we stop moving. What will our worth be, if we don’t have somewhere to be or to go every second of the day? More, how will we be able to stand it if we are left with our thoughts? This is why vacations or lapses in employment or even parental or other family leave can drive us crazy. We often don’t know what to do when we’re not working. 

Part of that is practical: we were created to have purpose, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting one. But I still think part of our discomfort with fallow time is also a problem.

A comedian once remarked that texting and driving may be illegal just about everywhere now, but if you look around at a stop light, most people are looking at their phones. We’re not looking at their phones because we’re that important or because we can’t stand to miss something, but often because we cannot, and will not, be alone with our thoughts. And before anyone claims superiority because you’re not that attached to your smartphone or because you don’t have a smartphone, I bet you have your own pet distractions that keep you away from your thoughts, too. We all do. We always have, long before the internet. 

The New York Times article that I mentioned gets at that, but what’s more, it notes that allowing ourselves to rest, especially in the summer time, makes us better humans. It’s almost like the ancient wisdom of the Hebrew Bible was onto something when God commanded Israel to work six days but have one day, one non-negotiable day, of rest. 

It’s like that story where a pastor says that the devil doesn’t take a day off and neither does he. Gently, a friend recommended that this pastor choose a better role model. You know, like God, who built the world in six days and took one day of rest, not because God was weak or tired, but so that God could sit back, pay attention,  and take it all in. 

Even God lies fallow. Even God rests. Even God has times of doing nothing. 

Jesus recognizes this about Mary in our Gospel story for today. A lot of the time when we hear this story preached, we hear this sermon: we need Marys and Marthas! Both are valid! 

And you know, there’s some measure of truth to that: we do need practical people who put in work. As a habitual Martha type, I would never deny that. 

But that’s the thing. Luke nor Jesus never said that Mary doesn’t put in work. The idea that Martha is the worker and Mary is the one who doesn’t work sells Mary short; no one ever said she was lazy. Quite the opposite, actually. She’s smart enough to know when to stop moving.

Mary, you see, just realizes what’s right in front of her, parks in front of Jesus, and pays attention.

Martha, for her part, is angry at her sister for a few reasons. One, she feels like the burden of hosting is all on her. You can’t blame her, really. It’s not like today when we could simply say “The Messiah is here, so let’s order a pizza instead of making someone cook.” Someone had to feed them all, we think, and Martha agrees. She’s mad that her sister isn’t helping. Her sister, in fact, is acting like a man, reclining at the feet of a rabbi talking about faith while the woman works. 

So is it true that Martha had to feed them all? 

This is where it pays to get out an actual Bible and see where this story falls in the whole narrative of Luke. It turns out that, just one chapter earlier, the crowds had come pressing in on Jesus after hearing about him, and he taught them and healed them. Then sunset had rolled around, and the disciples, like Martha, started thinking practically: “Send the crowd away,” they said, “so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and …[get something to eat]” (Luke 9:12). 

If you’ve been doing the church thing very long, you probably know how a setup like that ends with Jesus. With five loaves and two fish, he feeds five thousand men — plus the women and children who don’t get counted. Jesus feeds at least five thousand, but as many as ten thousand plus humans with practically nothing. And here’s Martha scurrying around the kitchen, fretting about feeding around fifteen people.

Now, it is fair to ask if Martha and Mary knew about this miracle. 

I think so. Luke talks over and over about how word spread to all the surrounding villages. Chances are, the disciples were still talking about it. We would be. 

I just don’t think that Martha was able to stop herself from working to provide. If she wasn’t doing anything, what would her worth to the group be? If she stopped moving, what would her purpose be?

What Mary knew is that, like the article title says, “You are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything.” 

You are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything, too. When you stop to pay attention to what’s around you. When you stop to pay attention to your life, to your emotions, to your physical wellbeing, to God. When you move more slowly or decide to put off that annoying task because it’s hot outside. 

Our society, writ large, tells us that rest is for the weak. We even tell children that idle hands are the devil’s playground, and while I don’t have children, I have been a child (and a teenager), and I know that there’s some truth to that statement. But we also shouldn’t confuse motion with progress or teach children to do the same. 

This is what I’ve learned in my years of being an athlete: worthwhile work, at the right time, means everything. It is where progress is made and gains are huge. But athletes who never take days off will suffer setbacks and injuries of all kinds, because bodies (and minds) need recovery.

Sometimes I’ve made the best progress for myself when I wasn’t in motion at all. 

So consider this your invitation this summer: stop confusing motion with progress. Work smarter, not harder. Your worth is entirely separate from your ability to produce. You are loved not because you are productive. You are loved because you breathe. You were created and called good. You were created to want purpose and work. And you were created to need rest. 

So let’s take a little lesson from Mary and stop excusing Martha. While Martha’s intentions were pure and wonderful and practical, she missed something, and Jesus called her on it: it is Jesus who feeds us. And we should stop moving and pay attention to what’s around us.

At this table, we are all fed. If you believe that the Eucharist is more than a snack, you know that it’s not me and it’s not the altar care folks or the servers doing the feeding. It’s Jesus. Here, all are welcome, and all are fed, and there’s nothing you should do, and nothing you can do, to earn it. So come and be fed. And when you leave this place, leave to pay attention and maybe even stop moving for awhile and rest. Lie on the couch and watch the daylight. Sit under some air conditioning and drink something cold. Hang around your house. Notice things you haven’t noticed before, even if you’ve lived there for years. Read a book. Binge watch something. Start a project not because it’s productive, but because it’s fun. Do things not because you must but because you may. Because your heart wants to. 

As much as your life allows, dare yourself to rest, however you can.

Be more like Mary. Be more like God. 

The New York Times article I mentioned ends like this, and I’ll end with this passage from it:

“I don’t mean for fallow time to be seen as just another life hack, the way that even meditation has been hijacked as something that will boost your productivity. The upside of this kind of downtime is more holistic than that — it’s working toward a larger ecology of workers who are recognized as human beings instead of automatons. Not everyone, of course, can leave the assembly line at will. But fallow time can take different forms for everyone, and finding a bit of [rest] is surprisingly reachable in most … lives….

A friend had excellent advice. Be open to the invitation to replenish yourself, he said. Say yes to the gift of no requirement. 

It looks like I’m doing nothing. But it’s the hidden something I’m after.” 

It’s the hidden something that Mary was after, and Jesus recognized that. 

Go and do likewise.Say yes to the gift of no requirement.” It starts here, at this table, and it ends with you, resting happily, not because you must, but because you may. Amen.

Neighbors & Giving Blood

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It’s true. Give blood if you can. 

Luke 10:25-37

[The lawyer] answered Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to [the man], “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

One of many things you all have gotten me into is giving blood. I’d never donated blood before I was called here, but in my first year I couldn’t help but notice that the RedCross BloodMobile would regularly pull up between my house and my workplace. That made it pretty hard for me to find a good excuse not to give blood. That was solidified when, a couple of weeks after my first donation, I was visiting a beloved parishioner in the hospital and noticed he was getting a blood transfusion and that he was the same blood type as me. I learned that it’s better to help when you can, because you could be helping someone you know. Or not. And it really doesn’t matter. 

“And who is my neighbor?”

There’s a poem out there that gets at that. It’s written by Carol Lynn Pearson, a poet from Idaho. She writes: 

“I love giving blood.
Sometimes I walk in
Off the Street
When no one has even asked
And roll up my sleeve

I love lying on the table
Watching my blood flow
Through the scarlet tube
To fill the little bag
That bears no Address

I love the mystery
Of its destination.
It runs as easily
To child or woman or man

Black or white
Californian or Asian [or Asian Californian]
Methodist, Mormon
Muslim or Jew.”

There is more, but I’ll get to the rest later. 

“And who is my neighbor?”

Needless to say, rolling up my sleeve on Monday with this text on my docket to wrestle with — well, the two interacted. If you’ve ever given blood, you know: you have a lot of time laying on the table to think. By the time I got to the raisins at the end, I pretty much had a sermon in mind.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I don’t always think about my sermon while I’m giving blood. I think about pretty much the same things you do: what groceries I have to get or who I’m mad at or the size of the ceiling tiles or basically anything except the needle sticking out of my arm.

But sometimes the connection to what I’m doing and what I’m preaching on is just a little too obvious.

If you want a classic, well-known short story by Jesus, the Good Samaritan is an excellent choice. Jesus tells this little story in response to a lawyer, already mentioned here, who asks Jesus how he can live forever. Jesus gives him a stock answer: follow the biggies in the law: love God and love your neighbor, he says, and you will live.

The lawyer’s response echoes in my head every time I hear church people argue about who’s worthy of love and respect: “… and who is my neighbor?” My dears, with this lawyer, we have never stopped asking Jesus this question. Luke says the lawyer was trying to justify himself, and with it, so are we. It’s basically all of us, together, whining through the ages, “I can’t love everyone as myself! That’s unrealistic! Who, specifically, are we supposed to love, Jesus? We need names. Addresses would be great, too.” 

“[The blood I give] runs as easily
To child or woman or man
Black or white
Californian or Asian
Methodist, Mormon
Muslim or Jew.”

The Good Samaritan story is designed to offend the lawyer, and it’s designed to offend us. You’re going to miss it if you settle into how familiar this story, but this is Jesus popping off. We just don’t get it anymore. You see, American Christians living in the 21st century don’t have much of an issue with Samaritans. If anything, we associate the word with the story and think of a “Good Samaritan” as someone who randomly acts with kindness or compassion. If anything, “Samaritan” means something positive to us.

That lawyer had an issue with Samaritans, though. Samaritans were the ones the people of Israel were quite convinced had it all wrong. They lived wrong, worshiped wrong, thought wrong. 

Now, I’m sure you have the imagination to hear this story the right way. 

What group of people are you convinced live wrong, worship wrong, and/or think wrong? Take a minute. I’m sure it won’t take you long: Republicans, Democrats, Trump supporters, Hillary voters, Chuck Schumer. If politics don’t work, think religion. You’re sure to find some group of people in that rolodex of your mind who, if you’re honest with yourself, totally offends you with their very existence. I know, you want to be kind and say you love everyone, but sometimes it’s better to be honest. We all have someone. Got it?

Those are your Samaritans. 

Now listen to the story again and fill in your blank.

A man whose car had broken down was walking from Granby to South Hadley when he was mugged by two guys. They beat him and took everything he had, and left him half dead by the side of the road. Now, by chance a Lutheran pastor was walking her dog by the side of the road, and when she saw him, she thought about helping, but she was in a hurry and was he really hurt or just another hitchhiker taking a rest? She crossed the street, just in case he was dangerous.

Likewise, later on, a member of Our Savior’s church council also passed by, and a similar thing happened: the man wasn’t obviously hurt, was he? And he might be dangerous. The council member passed by on the other side, too, just to be safe.

But a Samaritan [who’s your Samaritan?], saw him and came near, and his heart went out to the man. He immediately called for help, and stayed with the man until the EMTs arrived. When the man still wasn’t conscious and the EMTs couldn’t identify him, the Samaritan [who’s your Samaritan?] drove to the hospital where they were taking the man, saying “I didn’t want him to be alone.” He stayed by his bedside for hours until he regained consciousness, then he called the man’s family.

Then Jesus finishes telling us this story and turns to us, and we’re seething. Not only did the people like us act like jerks, the hero of the story was kind of a detestable person and he had acted like a hero. Jesus smiles and says, “So which one of these was a neighbor to the man?” 

We know already: the one who showed him mercy. The one we can’t stand. 

“Go and do likewise.”

In my humble opinion, if Christian faith can offer any tangible, being-a-good-human advice to the world, it is simply this: everyone is your neighbor. Even the ones you can’t stand.

If you’ve interacted with any number of different types of humans, you know this already: people will surprise you, and we need to watch how we label others and what we think that means they’re capable of. Everyone is a neighbor. You may not like all of them. Some of them may even question your very personhood. They may hate people like you. Some of them may even need to be loved from a distance. But you are not allowed to label and dismiss people as not beloved of God and incapable of good. Giving love to our neighbors must be like giving blood: we don’t know where it’s going. 

It’s really all about learning to love like Jesus, whose grace flows to us regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. The Gospel is a story about God, not about us, so it’s no wonder we’re bad at loving our neighbors in this way. 

It’s God’s grace that flows to us every time we approach the table together, not anything that any of us has produced or mustered. It doesn’t matter if you’ve failed a thousand ways a thousand times to Sunday. The bread and wine and the Good News of grace flow to you just the same. Then, we’re sent out to go and do likewise. We’re sent out to love, so that we can live.

God’s love, unlike ours, flows just as easily to the well-behaved and the terrible. So whichever one you feel like today, or if you’re where most of us live, in between the two, between saint and sinner — love flows to you, too. That’s the point of the Good Samaritan story, I think. If a Samaritan can show love, and if a Samaritan can be the beloved hero in Jesus’ story, so can you, my friend.

So give blood, if you can. If you can’t, let love flow out of you some other way. Most of all, let love flow to you today — from family and friends and loved ones and God. We’re all neighbors here. 

The end of Carol Lynn Pearson’s poem is this, after she talks about how blood runs just as easily to anyone: 

“Rain does too.
Rivers do.
I think God does.
We Do Not.
Our suspicious egos clot
On the journey from ‘Us’ to ‘Them’
So I give blood
To practice Flowing
Never knowing
where it’s Going
And Glad.”

Jesus asked the lawyer what’s in the law, and the lawyer answered Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to the man, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Life, real life, is in loving your neighbors, whoever they are, not because you are perfect or good or worthy, and not because they are perfect or good or worthy, but because you know that you’re both already loved. God’s love flows freely, always.

Beloved to whom God’s love always flows: Word of God, word of life. [Thanks be to God.]


Radical Joy & Pants-Seat Aviation

Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 1.10.58 PM.png
From Inherit the Mirth.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

One of my favorite churchy cartoon strips is called “Inherit the Mirth.” Of those, one of my favorite iterations is one where a group of angels is gathered in heaven, and one, the lead angel, presumably, is giving instructions. The lead angel says, “For this mission, we’ll need someone who’s good at flying by the seat of their pants.” For a moment, your eyes wander around the cartoon, trying to find the joke. Then, you see it: there’s one little angel in the corner with wings on their butt. It’s glorious. And you all know I love a slow burning joke. 

I hung it in the pastoral care office when I worked as a chaplain at a hospital in Atlanta, because if there’s one thing chaplains have to do a lot, it’s improvise.

Today, in the Gospel text, Jesus essentially commands the disciples to fly by the seats of their pants… or their tunics, I guess. He commands them to go out ahead of him in pairs, carrying no bag, no sandals, no food, no purse. 

Let me tell you: as a control freak who loves planning, this text gives me anxiety. I need lead time for just about anything. With enough lead time, I can conquer the world for you. At the last minute, I’m not even very good at tying my own shoes.

This love of planning has often given me anxiety in churches — and not just this one — because seemingly no one (save for a few of you) loves planning and preparation as much a I do. This isn’t a dig — it’s because few of you are as insane as me. 

But also, I know, and you know, that you can’t always plan ahead. Life has a way of surprising all of us. This is why the aforementioned cartoon worked so well in a medical pastoral care office: medicine has a way, as a profession, of throwing things at you that you can’t plan for. This is also true of teaching and a bunch of other professions, including probably yours. See also: life itself.

Life has a way of making us all fly by the seats of our pants sometimes, even those of us who love preparing. 

In this Gospel text, it’s Jesus who tells them to go sailing off into the sunset with wings on their butts. Don’t prepare, just go, he says. Find people who will listen and form relationships with them. If they don’t listen, move on. Don’t stand there and argue; just go.

A side note here to note that, often, this “shake the dust off your feet” text has been used as an excuse to abandon arguments in churches. To take our toys and go home. You’ll note that Jesus, here, is talking about interactions with strangers, not those we’re in relationships with. There are often good excuses to walk away from an argument with someone we love, but this text isn’t one of them.

With that out of the way: back to pants-seat-aviation. 

Jesus tells them to strike off ahead of him, meet people, form relationships with them, and depend on them. He also tells them to tend to the sick. Our English translations often say “heal,” but that’s not a great translation. The Greek word is “thera-pyoo-o,” the root of our modern word “therapy.” Turns out, it means a lot of things: heal, care for, restore, tend, or just to serve. 

Essentially, Jesus is saying, “Go out, unprepared, and pay attention especially to those who are sick or otherwise vulnerable.” First, he says, whenever you enter a house, bless it with peace. 

If there’s anyone there who shares your peace, he says, they’ll be heartened; if not, “your peace will return to you.” 

This is all quite antithetical, I must say, to the way I operate. I love preparing, first, and second, I love being right. I’m in the back of this whole scene trying to justify arguing with the person about why I’m right and why they’re cranky for not accepting my peace. 

But what I really think is happening is that Jesus is sending them out, two by two, and telling them to pay attention to what’s actually important. Don’t worry about your packing list. Don’t worry about arguing with people. That’s what flying by the seat of your pants can do for you: realize what’s actually important.

In this case, Jesus says, be most concerned with a singular message: “The kingdom of God has come near.” 

Another Greek lesson you’ve probably heard from me before: “kingdom” also isn’t a great translation, because a “kingdom” is a place, but the Greek word, “basilea,” is an active noun. A better way of saying it is, “The reign of God has come near.” 

We might be able to think of the “kingdom of God” as a place, maybe up there, somewhere. But the “reign of God” is how things are supposed to be. And that can be right here, as near as our next breath, if we only pay attention to what’s actually important.

A place where there is actually liberty and justice for all on this Fourth of July weekend. Where the huddled masses can actually breathe free. Where those who are sick or vulnerable are tended to and not ignored or cast aside. Where those that we look down upon are lifted up. Where we realize that our enemies, regardless of who they are or what they have done, are still made in God’s image, just like us. 

I know, it probably sounds unrealistic. It is. If you want a God who is realistic, I certainly don’t recommend Jesus. Dude drives me crazy with his lack of logic sometimes. He tells all these crazy stories and he sticks up for all the people I’d rather avoid. But here we all are, proof that faith is a gift, even to the cranky.

Maybe, in telling the disciples not to prepare, he calls their attention to what matters most: the humans around them. He calls them to go out two by two, probably for safety, but also for relationship. This faith thing has always been social; it’s never been our own personal solo venture. The disciples’ only two assignments are this: travel light, and spread peace and healing. Wherever there is peace and healing, the reign of God has come near.

Maybe, especially when the future is unclear in our own lives and in our church’s life, that’s still the assignment: travel light, and spread peace and healing wherever you go, so that folks will know one thing — the reign of God has come near. Because wherever there is peace and healing, the reign of God has come near.

Don’t get caught up in stuff that doesn’t matter. Don’t carry around extra baggage (literal or emotional). Pack light and focus on what matters: the humans right in front of you, and the reign of God come near.

If you’ve checked your email or our Facebook page or website recently, you know that we have a new mission statement: “Radical joy in action: responding to Christ’s love with abundant joy and overflowing generosity.” 

In other words, as one of my gym’s coaches put it recently: get out there and jazz someone up. Jazz up your friends. Jazz up strangers. Make a random stranger smile. 

Spread peace and healing and joy wherever you can. Don’t worry about the stuff that doesn’t matter. Get out there and be radical joy in action. Spread peace and healing wherever you go. It’s what we’re good at, as a congregation: being generous and spreading joy. We’re good at making people smile. For goodness’ sake, every couple of months, we convince actual strangers to come to a bar and sing hymns with us. 

Then they will know this: the reign of God has come near.

Often, we get stuck in what our bishop calls “a paralysis of consensus.” We worry about everyone agreeing. Everyone wants to add their own thing, including me, and we can get a little stuck. This is as true here at church as it is in our own families and friend groups. We can pretty easily get stuck in the details and lose sight of what’s really important: actual relationships with actual people. Spreading peace. Spreading joy.

Yes, I still need lead time. I still need preparation. This text will always give me anxiety. There’s a lot here, and it’s all a lot to live up to. But here’s what I find livable about this text, and here’s what gives me joy: we can spread peace and healing in spite of ourselves sometimes. Even when we aren’t well-prepared for the future.

So do me a favor and attach a pair of (metaphorical) wings to your rear end. Stop worrying about stuff that won’t matter in a year. Get out there and spread some joy. Be that little angel at the corner of the cartoon and get a little better at pants-seat aviation. 

Folks may think we’re ridiculous, but they will  know this: the reign of God has come near. Radical joy in action lives at 319 Granby Road and isn’t afraid to be a little ridiculous, even if it means flying by the seats of our pants.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

No Excuses (If You’re Going Somewhere)

Snapshots from a full week at camp:
That’s me blessing Ann, one of the confirmation camp staff, with water from Ossipee Lake and reminding her that “God loves you, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it.” 

Luke 9:51-62

Excuses, excuses. 

I’ve just come from a place where people may give excuses, but for the most part, everybody works hard and works for one another. 

If I’m glowing today, it’s because I’ve just come from one of my favorite places. I was the confirmation camp chaplain and the staff chaplain this week at Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry in Freedom, New Hampshire. Over the years, we’ve sent a lot of money and a lot of people to Calumet: we’ve sent adult, teenage, and child campers, counselors, chaperones, full time staff people — you name it! Our own Tyrese Vazquez, Deb’s grandson and Wayne’s great grandson, is there now as a counselor, getting ready to welcome the first campers of the summer this afternoon. He says hello! 

We’ve contributed to Calumet’s general fund and their scholarship fund, in an attempt to keep the cost of camp as low as possible for families. Every year, I run across the state of New Hampshire with a team of eleven other people to contribute to that same scholarship fund, and you all encourage and contribute, and I am so grateful. 

You all are to blame — you got me involved in Calumet. You all are the reason I got a random call from a man named Knute over three years ago asking me to drive four hours up to New Hampshire. And it kinda changed my life. I had been trying to find my footing in this new synod where I didn’t know anyone, right after a cross country move. I knew I loved all of you from the jump — you are fun, you are practical, you are hilarious, and you are kind. I was happy whenever I left a meeting (I still am!), which I took to be a good sign. But I was having some trouble connecting to others in the synod or finding ways to feel useful outside of my “real” job with you guys. 

Then Knute called. Calling him back was one of the best decisions I made in 2016. I served as the family camp chaplain that summer, and I’ve gone back every year since. 

This year, I was called in late to be the emergency confirmation camp and staff chaplain when the previously scheduled chaplain had to cancel. Luckily, I didn’t have anything on my schedule that couldn’t be moved, and also luckily, you all are camp people who don’t mind loaning me out for a couple of weeks every summer. I’m grateful to you for that.

One of my favorite roles at Camp Calumet is to be the staff chaplain. I get to go and hang out with high school and college students, including our own Tyrese, who are giving their entire summers to live in Christian community and teach children how to do the same. I’m constantly amazed by them and by our folks who have served in such a capacity in years past. 

When we read this Gospel text where Jesus essentially says, “Excuses, excuses” to people, our first instinct is to try to explain it away. “He didn’t really mean that,” we tell ourselves, or we try to explain to ourselves how Jesus especially wasn’t talking to us. Surely Jesus wants us to be there for our families, and surely Jesus wouldn’t turn us away when we say we want to follow him.

One of the hardest tasks in reading the Gospels is to consider the terrifying possibility that maybe Jesus really did mean all that stuff: stuff about giving away our possessions, and about treating everyone — no matter who they are or where they’re from or even what they’ve done — with the same respect that we would treat Christ himself. And here, Jesus tells someone that if family excuses, including burying his father, are in the cards, he can forget about following him as a disciple. He tells someone else, more or less, that he doesn’t believe him when he says “I will follow you wherever you go.” Someone else says “Wait, first I have to tell my family goodbye,” and they get the response, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When I wrote this sermon, I was sitting on Camp Calumet’s famous lakeside dining hall porch, overlooking beautiful Ossipee Lake on a sunny day, as the camp counselors milled around me, preparing for their seven weeks with campers. These folks aren’t getting paid much. They get to eat Calumet’s amazing food all summer, sure, and they get to live in one of the most beautiful places they’ve ever been. But mostly, they get to wrangle children and put up with the same people for eight weeks, living in cabins or in tents. There’s no time for excuses — just work. Hard work. Fun, yes, but also work. Serious work, like taking care of other people’s children and making sure they boat and swim and hike and even sleep safely. 

As part of my work with them, I gave staff devotions every morning. The first morning’s theme was “generosity,” and I talked about how people who gain the kind of wealth to be able to purchase private jets undergo quite a change in socialization. Suddenly, when you no longer have to fly commercial, it changes you (or so I hear). You no longer have to run on someone else’s schedule, move out of the way of others, or wait for that one person to take way too long to get out of the aisle. It turns out that that sort of thing — in small doses and for limited times, hopefully — is good for us. It teaches us to be patient, and to give up our own space and convenience to others. Being in an airplane, as many of you know, means being crunched in with seemingly a bajillion people in a very small space. It’s roughly equivalent to living in a 600 foot apartment and packing 250 or so people in there. We’re only willing to give up space like that when we’re going somewhere.

I informed the Camp Calumet staff that they’ll be flying commercial this summer, metaphorically, at least. “So,” I said, “you might as well be generous. Give up space. Let others go first. Take care of other people. It’s good for you.” I also told them that they could’ve done any number of things with their summers; they could’ve “flown private,” so to speak. But they didn’t.

As I told the staff and so I tell you: it’s worth it to give up space for others this summer, because you’re going somewhere. Progress will be made. You will grow.

No excuses. 

They say the church is dying, but I think that people are just getting more honest. They’re becoming more aware that they can do anything with their Sunday mornings and they’re choosing not to. And that’s okay. Living in community is hard, after all. Being part of a church is hard — I don’t have to tell you that. Even in a community like this, where we generally all love the heck out of each other, things can still be difficult. You have to give up space, and I can most certainly see why not everyone wants to do that. 

But you guys have made a different decision, and I believe it’s good for you.

As a pastor, I’d rather have fifteen people who want to be here and live in Christian community than 500 people who are here because they feel obligated. I can do a lot more with those fifteen. 

This is not to say that those who make a different decision are less loved by God. That isn’t true. Earlier in the passage, before Jesus throws shade at everyone for giving him excuses, there are some Samaritans who really don’t get it. They have no interest in following after him at all. 

James and John, bless their hearts, try to please Jesus this way: “Lord Lord Lord! Can we call down fire on them? Can we can we can we? 

And Jesus turns on them and tells them off for it. He also doesn’t say that those who don’t follow are lost forever. He doesn’t condemn anyone to hell for going to bury his father or for wanting to say goodbye to his family. I believe that God is big enough, wide enough, to cover everyone in love. I believe that grace and faith show up in the strangest places, and we in the church don’t own God or dispense God’s love. That’s really important.

But you, like the Camp Calumet staff, have an opportunity here. You can “fly private,” metaphorically at least. You can do whatever you want on Sunday morning. Or you can be here. You can give up space because you believe that we’re going somewhere. I certainly do. If I didn’t believe in this place and in you and in this community, I wouldn’t be here either. 

But I do. I do. 

Maybe Jesus meant all that stuff, church. We have an opportunity. It requires giving up space. It requires listening to one another and letting one another take up space. It requires making no excuses and working hard. You are loved no matter what, but we have an opportunity here. We can create hope for others. We can find hope for ourselves.  

And today, we’re celebrating someone who has given up so much over the years to be with us — Lisa. Even in my relatively short time here, I’ve noticed how much effort Lisa puts in to all of her ministries: her art and her music. She’s given up a ton of time and made a ton of room for others to thrive. And today, we celebrate her and we’re grateful. At the end of the service, we’ll gather at the font to bless her as she goes out to continue her ministry in other places. 

The point is this: here at this table, there’s hope for all. Here in community, there’s love to share. We have each other, and we know each other, and we support each other. We are examples for each other of what love and care and dedication really look like. We could be anywhere, but we’re here together. Might as well go somewhere. Amen.