Easter 6: Murph

This sermon was originally preached on Memorial Day weekend at Our Savior’s.
Pastor Anna’s just come back from vacation and is catching up! 

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 4.06.30 PM

John 14:23-29

The joke goes like this: how do you know if someone is a vegan or a CrossFitter?

Answer: They’ll tell you.

So yeah actually as of the last few months I do CrossFit. 

There’s a Memorial Day tradition in the CrossFit community. As with most related things, that tradition includes a really hard workout. But for Memorial Day, it’s special.

The workout is perhaps the most famous in the CrossFit community. It’s called Murph, and it includes, in order: a one mile run, 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, 300 air squats, and another mile run, all for time. Those who “really” do Murph do all of that while wearing a 20 lb vest or body armor.  

It’s called Murph, and done on Memorial Day, to honor Lieutenant Michael Murphy from Long Island, a Navy SEAL, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2005. He was 29. 

Before he died, and before it bore his name, the workout was one of his favorites.

The workout is so famous that I knew about it long before I started doing CrossFit myself. But of course, being me, once I get interested in something, I research it. I wanted to know Murph’s story.

When Murph was in high school, they called him “the Protector.” The only time the school ever had to inform his parents of a disciplinary issue was in 8th grade, when a child with special needs was being shoved into a locker by a group of boys. It ended with Murph physically pulling the attackers away from the other kid. Another time, Murph came upon a man who was homeless being attacked while collecting cans. He didn’t just chase away the attackers; he also helped the man pick up his cans.

After graduating from Penn State, he could have gone to law school. There were certainly plenty of ways for Murph to continue protecting people as a lawyer. He chose instead, however, to join the Navy and become a SEAL.

While serving in Afghanistan in June 2005, his team of four came under fire from between 30 to 40 militia fighters in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Unable to make contact with coalition forces in the rugged terrain, it was Murph who fought his way into more open terrain, where he knew he would get a better signal. In doing so, he knowingly exposed himself to direct fire to complete the call for help. At the end of the call, after being shot several times, he said, “Thank you.” 

After that, he continued to fight until he was killed in action. 

There is much more to the story, but the gist of the story is this: because Michael Murphy made the call, one of his fellow SEALs, the only survivor, was eventually rescued. For his heroic actions on that day, Murph was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. By August of 2005, the CrossFit workout had been named in his honor, and it continues to be a staple workout at every CrossFit gym in America and around the world. It’s through that workout that I’m grateful to know Murph’s story, and now, you do too.

Survival is inscribed into our DNA. We all made it here because countless generations in each of our bloodlines, through the millennia, fought to survive. Dying so that someone else can live isn’t natural, but it is heroic. That is the kind of person — the kind of person like Murph — that we honor this weekend. 

I should note however that Memorial Day, while important, is a government holiday, not a religious one.

Here in the church, it is still Easter, and the Gospel lessons are starting to look towards Pentecost. We’re looking towards the coming of the Holy Spirit and we’re getting ready for an art show, as we celebrate the Spirit’s gifts of creativity.

Of all the persons of the Trinity, the language we have to describe the Holy Spirit is the most interesting and diverse. Some of that is because the Holy Spirit is the most squishy. We have pretty concrete images for Jesus: a thirty-something Middle Eastern man. We even have depictions of the Creator everywhere, usually as a man with a long, white beard. It’s the Holy Spirit that allows us to play with the image a little bit. It’s the Holy Spirit that we’re most comfortable calling “he” or “she” or “they” or “it.” The Holy Spirit is more of a force than a person: wind, flame, dove. Someone who guides, pushes, challenges, comforts, and stirs things up.

We can, in large part, thank John’s Gospel for the diversity of images. And it hinges on a single word.

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Advocate doesn’t even begin to cover it. I mean, it’s not wrong, but it isn’t all the Greek word means, either.

The word that gets translated “advocate” means a lot of things in Greek: advocate, counselor, helper, friend, comforter, protector. It comes from a word meaning “called to one’s side.”  The word itself is “paraclete.”

Fun fact: it was an alternate name for Diego before I got him, before Parker helpfully pointed out that “Paraclete” isn’t something you can casually yell across the dog park.

In John, Jesus shows us the love of God by teaching, healing, and then dying and rising. Then, Jesus passes that work on to his followers: the healing work of being the love of God made flesh. We get the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, to show us and remind us how it’s done. The paraclete is our friend, advocate, the one who is called to our side — our protector.

This is when it occurs to me that Michael Murphy was a paraclete to those he led: called to their side, a protector, an advocate, whatever the cost. That that is what we are called to be for one another. 

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

Peace the way the world gives — the most natural way of getting peace — is to survive. It’s to stay safe, whatever the cost. It entails sacrificing others for our own security and safety. Often, we sacrifice those we don’t understand to our own fear. 

Jesus offers a different kind of peace; the kind that advocates, protects, and stays by your side even when it isn’t safe. Maybe that’s why Jesus also calls us not to be afraid at the end of that. It’s because we are called to do that for one another, too. 

I won’t be able to be there tomorrow, but folks from my gym will be doing Murph’s workout tomorrow. I’m glad I know Murph’s story now, and I hope you gained a little something from hearing his story, too. It’s a good reminder, I think, not only of what courage looks like, but what it means to be a paraclete: a companion, a protector, an advocate. We have one in the Holy Spirit, and every now and then, the Holy Spirit prompts us to be that for each other, too.
Thank God. Amen.


Easter 5: Loving One Another When You’re “Worlds Apart”

Screen Shot 2019-05-19 at 1.35.17 PM
A still from the Heineken campaign “Worlds Apart.” You can watch the four minute ad here.

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

The only moral commandment in the Gospel of John is this one: “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

It is the simplest and the hardest to follow.

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” 

This week has been a hard one in the news. You know, like every other week for the last few centuries. With every passing news cycle lately, though, it seems that we get further from being able to understand where our neighbors are coming from. You might’ve gotten into a slugfest with a friend or relative recently over the news. The possible topics — well, they’re many, and they’re important.

I am a person with strong political opinions myself. And I’m going to tell you exactly none of them in the next nine to ten minutes, because sharing an opinion is not so unlike telling a story: it’s like “reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” I can tell you what I think about just about anything in a sermon-length amount of time, but I can’t give you a full accounting of where that opinion came from. For that, you have to really know someone — their life, their story, their education, their heartbreaks, their joys. 

These days, there’s a lot of talk about civility and love and being nice. As if those are all the same thing. Anyone who has ever gotten into a sharp disagreement with someone they love knows that those are not the same things. Heck, anyone who has ever sat at a Thanksgiving table with that one uncle knows that those are not the same thing.

The Gospel reading is also set at a table, sans the turkey, and it also talks a lot about love. It begins with a hard thing that also might happen at your thanksgiving table after someone’s political tirade: someone has just stormed out of the room.

Judas, the one who had just left the table, the one who was going to betray Jesus, the one who was, presumably, evil. Judas, the one who has just gone to seal Jesus’ death. 

This could have been a time for Jesus to say “Don’t be like that guy,” or “Betrayers are the worst sinners.” Instead, he chooses this time to give them a new commandment: that they love one another.


I think it’s because Jesus knows that love is messy and complicated and full of mistakes and pain and betrayal.

There is always more that we cannot know. Our job is to love, regardless of the label: Judas, betrayer. Trump supporter. Clinton voter. “Pro-choice.” “Anti-immigrant.”

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” 

Now, please don’t mishear me: this isn’t a call to be naive. I’m not saying that all opinions are the same. Because being nice and being loving aren’t always the same thing. Often they aren’t. This isn’t a call to stand aside and keep your opinions to yourself when people are being harmed. It isn’t a call for those who are oppressed to reach out and be super nice to those who don’t believe in their right to exist in the world peacefully. 

I’m calling you instead to love all people, whether you respect their opinions or not.

While it sounds nice to say that you respect all opinions, logic holds that not all opinions are created equal. Indeed, some opinions are harmful. You know that. I’m not asking you to set your opinions aside. I can’t ask you that, because I will not be setting mine aside. 

There are opinions and theologies in the world that I believe it is un-loving not to oppose. It’s my responsibility, and yours, and ours, to defend the right of every human to exist peacefully in the world.

But you know — I have yet to browbeat someone into agreeing with me. If we want to move the conversation forward, including towards a worldview that we see as right and just, we’d do a lot better to stop labeling and work harder to understand. To love. To see more of the wheat in the granary. To see more of the person behind the opinion.

Heineken tried out an experiment for a commercial series in 2017 called “Worlds Apart.” 

They assembled three pairs of people who had never met each other. Before the pairs met, they recorded videos detailing some political opinions. 

One was a woman and a staunch feminist, and her partner in the exercise was a man who believes that feminists are “man-haters.” One was a climate change denier, while his partner in the exercise believes that climate change is the greatest single threat to humanity today. Finally, one is a transgender woman and the other is a man who believes that people should live as whatever sex they were assigned at birth. 

But none of them knew those things about one another when they met. If they had, they probably would’ve never spoken at all.

Instead, they are introduced simply by their names and invited to put together an IKEA-style bar and barstools. Each pair introduced themselves and got to work on this very practical task. When they finished that, they were given an icebreaker question: “Describe what it’s like to be you in five words.” The answers were deep and intimate, as they each discussed what it’s like to be them. The answers weren’t all that different from one another: “I feel attacked. Misunderstood.” and “It’s deeply frustrating to be me.” Another person said, “I feel lucky.” Another: “Ambitious.” “Opinionated.” And another: “I am solemn.” 

The next question was “Name three things the two of you have in common.” The answers were “We’re both ambitious, positive, opinionated.” One person said, “I feel like we know one another better than people who have known each other for ten minutes should!” Another said to her partner, “You’ve got a glow!” 

The transgender woman said, “I served in the military,” and her partner said, without missing a beat, “I’m very proud of you already.” 

The man who doesn’t like feminism described a time in his life when he was homeless and had nothing, and how grateful it has made him for everything he has in his life.

I’m defining these people by their opinions and identities, but keep in mind: their partners to this point have no idea that they hold these views. They’re simply learning their stories.

Then, each pair finishes building the bar together. They crack open beers. Heinekens, of course. This is still a marketing campaign, after all.

Finally, an announcement comes over a loudspeaker: “Please stand to watch a short film.” 

Each watches as their partner appears on a screen, describing their views as they had before they met their partner:

“Feminism is just shorthand for misandry. [Man-hating.]” 

Another: “If someone said to me that climate change is destroying the world, I’d say that’s total piffle.” 

Another: “The transgender thing is very odd. We’re not designed to understand or see things like that.” 

Another: “I don’t believe the fight of feminism is ever done. I don’t think it’ll ever be done, if I’m honest with you.” 

Another: “I am a daughter. I am a wife. I am also transgender.” 

The camera pans to each face as they watch their partner on the screen. Eyes narrow. Smirks form. You can see recalculation happening in light of these new facts. At this point, I half expected this all not to go well at all. 

An announcement comes: “You now have a choice. You can go, or you can stay and discuss your differences over a beer.” 

The first two couples immediately say something to the effect of, “Well, I’m staying. We know each other now. And that seems like the productive thing to do.” 

The self-described “solemn” man who had expressed skepticism for transgender people begins to walk away quickly before he turns on his heel, walks back to the bar, and says, “I’m only joking.”

He sits. They discuss. 

He explains, “I’ve been brought up in a way to see the world as black and white. But life isn’t only black and white.” The woman, who is still as transgender as always, responds, “Yeah — I’m just me.” 

Towards the end of the conversation, the man says, “We’ll keep in touch. I’ll have to tell my girlfriend that I’ll be texting another girl, but we’ll have to get around that one.” The woman says, “I’ll have to tell my wife too,” and the man responds with a laugh, “She’ll have to lump it!” 

This commercial, my friends, is a bit contrived, but it tells us something about real love. Love costs us something. It’s expensive. It’s hard. It’s messy. We disagree and we yell and we fight but ultimately, love is really about acknowledging that we have no idea what it’s like to be someone else. 

That’s what we’re missing, and it’s the simplest and hardest thing. 

Wendell Berry once wrote, “Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” 

Hearing someone’s opinion on something is really just watching them reach into a granary. There is always more to tell than can be told. 

In the Acts lesson, Peter has that weird dream about how God told him to kill and eat unclean things (including lizards, I can never get over that) right after he was resisting allowing the Gentiles to join the community of Christ. Clearly, Peter thought, Jesus only came for the Jews, the ones who know God and care about God’s law. God says, “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.” 

You and me, and we are more than our opinions. More than that, though, having all of the right opinions won’t get us into heaven, either. Being correct about everything on the Internet won’t save you from yourself or the world. Being logical won’t be your salvation. 

We are all tangles of complicated stories and opinions. We are all walking contradictions. We all get it wrong all the time. One of the markers of even a passably well-adjusted adult is being willing to admit that we’re not perfect. 

If it is true, then, that we are all saved by grace, then our neighbors are too. Just as our “right” opinions won’t save us, our neighbors’ “wrong” ones don’t make them less worthwhile as human beings. “What God has made clean, do not call unclean.”

You better still hear me: cling hard to your opinions. You fought for them and you formed them out of your own experience and learning. Remember that, as John Dickerson of 60 Minutes says, opinions are like filters: they’re pretty useless unless you run things through them. So run things through them. Read everything. Work out your views and refine them. Learn more about them and learn to defend them.

Whether you and I are inclined to agree about things or not, I say these things to you. Work for justice and what is right. Defend the vulnerable. This is your baptismal call. 

It is also your baptismal call to love your neighbor. And this is the simplest and hardest thing.

So let us continue to reach into the granary and pull out more and more handfuls of grain. Though you can never fully understand my story because you have not lived my life — and I can never fully understand your story because I haven’t lived yours — we can still share. We can still love one another. We can all still discuss over drinks. I will not call unclean what God has made clean.

So let us come to the table where all of our grain is made into one loaf — the body of Christ. And may we, different as we are, remember: none of us is perfect, but Christ is with us all. Amen.

Easter 4: Stubborn Shepherds

Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 3.54.06 PM
Hero the Dog. You can read more about him and his story by clicking here.

Acts 9:36-43
John 10:22-30

Today’s sermon on the Good Shepherd starts with a different kind of shepherd: a German shepherd. The dog breed, I mean. 

The story begins down in south Georgia, where there’s a woman named Shannon. 

One day, Shannon got into a fight with her husband. As many of us have been known to do after an argument with someone we love, she got into her car and went for a drive to cool off.

The roads in rural areas, as you know from living here, can be curvy and dangerous. Suddenly, Shannon didn’t navigate one of those curves correctly. Her car fishtailed into the woods, and Shannon was thrown into the backseat, with her body hanging halfway in, and halfway out of the car. She and her car were entirely out of sight of the road.

This story should end tragically. But it doesn’t. Shannon passed out, and when she woke up, she knew she wasn’t alone.

She says, “I don’t know when I came to, but when I did come to, I felt his huge presence. I could feel his breath. The dog — I don’t know how he came across me, but I thank God that he did.”

The dog, whom she’d never seen before, was a shepherd mix. 

Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday.

The dog pulled her free of the car, but he didn’t stop there — he pulled her more than 100 feet to the road. He kept tugging and tugging: Shannon says, “He wouldn’t give up. He had more of a will for life than I did.” 

I should confess for those of you who don’t already know, I’m the proud owner of a sheepdog myself, and I can tell you: they’re stubborn. Once they set their minds to something, they don’t give up, whether it’s saving a human life or trying to get the tennis ball out from under the couch. 

Eventually, stubbornly, the dog dragged Shannon to the road, where passers by saw her and stopped to help. She told them what had happened and asked them to call her husband. Then, she passed out again. When she woke up, she was in the hospital. There, she learned that she had a brain bleed. If the dog had not found her, the ER doc told her, she would almost certainly have died. 

No one knew where the dog had come from or if it had had any previous training. For all anyone knew, he was a stray. 

Today, the shepherd mix works as a search and rescue dog. They named him Hero. 

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

Shepherds are stubborn.

Today’s the middle point of Easter. Three Sundays of Easter behind us with three more ahead. We call this middle Sunday “Good Shepherd Sunday,” and we always read from John 10, where Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23, where the God of Israel is a shepherd.

Here we stop and we sing songs about sheep and shepherds, and all I can ever think of is my own sheepdog and how he’s taught me to be a better pastor and taught me about the stubbornly loving presence of God.

Those of you who have or have ever known sheep dogs know: they don’t ever give up. They stay right next to you, whatever you’re going through, and they stay until you’re okay. And if there’s a task to be accomplished, they’ll focus until it’s done.

This is important to remember when thinking of God as a shepherd, because a lot of the time, we worry that God has left us. Some of us worry that God has left those we love who seem to have walked away from church. We worry that they won’t know God. Listen to Jesus today: “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” 

As Lutherans, we believe that Christ the Good Shepherd is not unlike Hero the dog: God does not give up, in this life or the next. God, like Hero, has more of a will for life than we do. It is God who finds us, not the other way around.

Lutheran theology holds that we can’t, won’t, won’t ever, make our way to God. It doesn’t matter how good we are or how many things we do right. If we could make our way to God, we’d spend all our time patting ourselves on the back. 

Instead, we believe that God comes to us and makes us new, and then makes us new again, over and over. Theologically speaking, we call this death and resurrection.

I get it. We expect to earn it and “do right.” We expect that others have to earn it too, and if they don’t draw near in very specific ways, we fear that they won’t know God. Friends, this sentiment comes from a loving place, but it is not Lutheran. 

Hear the Good News: like Hero the dog, God seeks us, finds us, and stubbornly does not fail us, in this life or the next. 

The Good Shepherd finds the sheep, and no one snatches them out of his hand. 

Shepherds, like I said, are stubborn.

Earlier in John 10, Jesus will say, “I have other sheep that are not of this pasture. I must bring them also” (John 10:16). We do God, ourselves, and others a disservice when we limit what God can do, whom God can reach, and when and where God can reach them. 

Last week, the world lost Rachel Held Evans, whose book Searching for Sunday our council read last year. She died of a sudden illness after being put into a medically induced coma on Good Friday. 

She was 37. 

Rachel was a voice for those of us who aren’t “normal” church people — namely, recovering evangelicals, millennials, LGBTQ+ folks, and others that don’t quite fit in with the average church crowd. When Rachel fell ill, the hashtag #PrayForRHE began trending, but when she died, that hashtag turned to a different one: #BecauseofRHE. 

A friend of mine, Lance Presley, a Methodist pastor in Mississippi, connected this to the Acts reading for today. In it, a woman named Tabitha has died. Peter visits after her death and finds the widows gathered around, showing the garments that Tabitha made for them while she was alive. 

I didn’t notice it until Lance pointed it out that this is what we who loved Rachel’s work were doing with #BecauseofRHE. We were showing what she had done for us, what she had made for us, while she was alive. 

There are people who love Rachel’s work who have never set foot in a church and never will. But through Rachel, the Shepherd came to them and found them. Shepherds are stubborn. They keep tugging and tugging — they never give up.

Rachel called the church to stop trying to “be cool” and “reach millennials” and instead to be unapologetically who it is: a place of death and resurrection, of confession and baptism, of ritual and love and welcome. A place not tailored to the young or desperately trying to be “relevant” for those who may never come, but a church made for everyone who comes in the doors. A place that has had this whole death and resurrection thing down for about 2,000 years now.

Of the church, Rachel Held Evans wrote: “Baptism reminds us that there’s no ladder of holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.” 

This is the garment that Rachel Held Evans wove for so many of us, and it is the one we wear today: this articulation of the Good News that the Gospel is a story about God finding us, not the other way around.

Beloved, do not worry about who will and won’t know God. Do not worry that God will not find you. God is like a shepherd, both a human one and a canine one: born and bred to stubbornly seek you out and find you and pull you out of whatever trouble you find yourself in. You will never be snatched out of God’s hand, and neither will those you love. 

But let us, the church, continue to do what Rachel tried her whole life to do: to tell the truth about death and resurrection, and about a stubborn God who tugs and tugs and never lets go.

Death and resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing. That there is hope. That no matter how bad things look, there is a table of plenty spread for us, and that Good Shepherd is leading us, sometimes dragging us, towards it. May we continue to stubbornly drag and be dragged towards that future, towards hope, towards help. 

And in that, may we all be, well, heroes. Amen.

Easter 3: Looking for Miracles

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 11.43.46 AM.png
The Great Catch, John August Swanson.

Acts 9:1-6
John 21:1-19

There’s an old story about a man that’s drowning who says to himself, “God will save me!” A boat comes by and attempts to rescue him. He resists. “No!” he says. “God will save me.” 

Two more boats come by. Same thing. A little later, a helicopter hovers above the water and lets down a rescue ladder. He responds the same way. “No!” he says. “God will rescue me!” 

Refusing all help, the man dies. He reaches heaven, angry that his life has been taken from him. 

“God!” he protests. I believed in you! Why didn’t you save me?!” 

God smiles and leans back in his chair and says, “My son, welcome to your eternal rest. But you should know before we go any further: I did try to save you. I sent you three boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” 

The story isn’t without its theological problems, but I find myself returning to it over and over to explain a whole wide variety of things, all of them related to what we expect God to appear to us as. 

The church of Jesus Christ has always loved the tale of Saul’s conversion — when Saul became Paul. He begins as a really mean dude. In the Bible, Luke describes him in Acts as literally “breathing threats and murder against the disciples.” That’s quite an image — that hatred of the disciples of Jesus was, to him, like breathing. He had participated in the killing of Stephen, one of the first early disciples. He was about as anti-Jesus as you could be. 

The rest of the story you know. We know it so well that we reference it in popular culture: to have a “Damascus Road Experience” is to experience a sudden conversion. You have to hand it to Paul, man. He’s got the most dramatic story of any of the disciples. We like to joke about getting knocked upside the head by Jesus, but it literally happened to Paul. God, in fact, knocked him so hard upside the head that he went blind for a minute. You’ve got everything that an Old Testament style divine encounter has: a flash of light, falling to the ground in fear, and finally: God identifying himself and giving verbal, clear direction.

I have to confess that I myself have never experienced anything like this. I’ve never been surrounded by light, or struck blind, or spoken to by an audible voice of God. But I’ve met people who have told me about such things, and while I have some questions about some of those accounts, I can’t be so naive as to think that they’re all off their rockers. I have had some slightly less dramatic experiences where it’s felt pretty clear to me that there was some sort of divine intervention. For God’s sake, literally, how else do you think I found my way from the red clay of rural Alabama to the Connecticut River valley of Massachusetts? That’s either divine intervention or the luckiest and most extended GPS malfunction I’ve ever experienced. 

Look, I’m skeptical by nature. So skeptical, in fact, that sometimes it’s hard to be a pastor because most people (present company excluded, of course) don’t really look at pastors as individuals, but as, I don’t know, McDonald’s fries: 1) pretty much the same wherever you go, and 2) just exactly what your soul needs.

So I here confess to you that I’ve never had a Damascus road experience, but I’ve heard about them on TV. And I do have a pretty expansive view of what God is capable of, so who am I to rule anything out.

I think we get into trouble when we expect every divine encounter to be movie-worthy and dramatic. When we say to every attempted messenger of God, “No! God will save me,” instead of realizing that God can show up in all kinds of ways — even the most mundane.

In the Gospel lesson, Peter has the strangest response to the events of the past week or so: his Lord and teacher had been executed by the state, and then had appeared alive first to Mary, then to the disciples two different times. And Peter’s response is to get the boys together for a little naked fishing. It’s hot in Israel, I guess. 

That’s when Jesus shows up on the beach. Not in a flash of light. No one falls to the ground. Jesus is just there. Peter swims ashore, eager to greet Jesus, and Jesus responds in the most mundane of ways: “Come have breakfast.” 

Sometimes the Lord shows up in a flash of light. Sometimes he shows up in plainclothes and offers you  breakfast. 

It’s amazing how often we try to limit God by thinking that God can only show up in the spectacular. 

It’s in this ordinary meeting that Peter gets his restoration: he had denied Jesus three times, and three times, Jesus asks: “do you love me?” From this, Peter will get his charge to help build the church we know today, in all its beautiful and broken glory. 

As we think together about our future, I want you to consider that it may be beautifully mundane. Most churches look for a return to the glory days, when people will once again flood the church and the pews will overflow. Instead, all of the churches that I know that have experienced new life have experienced it in far more ordinary ways: in things like helping their neighbors, offering space for art and AA groups and other congregations, in feeding hungry people, in singing hymns in bars. 

Consider that the same might be true for your own future. We love dreaming about our futures from the time we’re young: when you’re six, you dream of what you’ll be when you grow up. When you’re fifteen, you dream of an exciting and independent college life. When you’re 22, you dream of professional life and maybe even a family. When you’re 40, you might dream of the joys of retirement. And when you’re 60 or 70 or 80, you might dream of the next trip you’ll take or the next game you’ll go to or the beautiful places you’ve yet to go. Dreaming isn’t just for the young. Dreaming keeps us alive. It’s for all of us. But we all know that sometimes the future isn’t as spectacular as we might dream, but often, it’s the beautiful truth that we need. 

If you hear nothing else from me this morning, please here this: just because the flash of light and the audible, booming voice of God aren’t coming doesn’t mean that a miracle isn’t. 

Sometimes the miracle is breakfast. 

This place is a miracle. All of us coming together in this place at this time is a miracle. Don’t miss the little miracles waiting for the big ones. 

I imagine myself in a slightly different version of the story about the drowning man. I imagine myself getting to heaven a little miffed that God never spoke to me, you know, in an audible voice. “God!” I say. “Why didn’t you ever come to me?” 

“Oh honey,” God says. Naturally, I imagine God with an Atlanta accent. 

“Oh honey, I did speak to you. I sent you Sue, and Debbie, and Wayne, and Phyllis, and Bob. I sent you your mom and dad and brother, your seminary professors, your bishops and colleagues, your own pastor, and your dearest friends. I never stopped speaking to you, honey. Never once.” 

Just because the flash of light isn’t coming doesn’t mean the miracle isn’t. 

Because while it’s true that the miracle does sometimes come in a flash of light.

And sometimes, friends, the miracle is breakfast. Both are holy. Amen.

Easter 2: Now What?

Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 1.52.57 PM.png
We all feel you, fish.

Acts 5:27-32
John 20:19-31

When I just need a break from all that is real in the world, I usually go for children’s movies. My favorite among these is probably Finding Nemo.

My favorite scene in the movie actually comes after the credits. I’m going to assume here that the statute of limitations on giving people spoilers is ten years, and since Finding Nemo was released in 2003, I don’t need to worry about any of you postponing your viewing of it for any reason. 

In case you are one of the four people in the United States who has not already seenFinding Nemo, a brief synopsis of the story is that a young clownfish by the name of Nemo who lives in the sea off of Australia is captured by a scuba diver and taken to live in a salt water aquarium in a dentist’s office. Nemo’s father, ironically named Marlin, is accompanied on a mission to save his son Nemo by an absent-minded fish named Dory who happens to be voiced by Ellen Degeneres. While Marlin is attempting to rescue Nemo from the aquarium, Nemo himself has made friends with the fish in the aquarium who, not surprisingly, all want to escape to the big blue ocean. 

They hatch a plan to make the tank so dirty that it needs to be cleaned. Then, while it’s being cleaned, the fish, who have been put in plastic bags for safekeeping while the tank is being cleaned, plan to roll themselves out a window, across the street, and into the very nearby ocean. 

Mind you, by the end of the movie, Nemo has been rescued alone by his father, and the audience has all but forgotten the other fish and this brilliant plan of theirs. But the credits go away for a moment while the other fish roll across the road together in their plastic bags, with one of them screaming, “That was the shortest red light I’ve ever seen!” Then, one by one, each of them plops into the ocean, still contained in their plastic bags. 

They float there for a long moment, salt water fish suspended in now-floating saltwater-filled plastic bags. Finally, one of them speaks up as they bob up and down with the waves, stuck: now what?

Now, you may be wondering what animated fish have to do with Jesus. And the answer is usually, very little. 

But reading through these texts for the second Sunday of Easter one more time, it occurs to me that the disciples both in the Gospel passage and in the Acts passage are in the same boat — or plastic bags, maybe — that the fish in Finding Nemo were. And it’s a really common place for not just animated fish, but humans, to be. 

Now what?

You see it in the Gospel reading, for sure. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Mary has seen him, and Peter and one other disciple have seen the empty tomb. There’s some joy and some confusion and some fear and a whole lot of now what. By the Acts passage, it’s a few years later, but you can still feel Peter figuring out how to explain this whole Jesus thing to people. He references Jesus being hanged on a tree for a very specific reason: the Hebrew Bible explicitly says cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23). To the religious leaders, this was proof positive that Jesus was not God, but one cursed, individual crazy person. Peter latches onto the phrase and owns it as he attempts to make the case for his newfound faith. Paul will do the same thing in Galatians. 

But you know — they were just trying to figure this thing out. They had witnessed a miracle that could change the world and… now what?

Though none of us has started a new religion at least since our college years, we understand this “now what” sentiment. Liturgically, we’re told that Easter is fifty days, but after the holy joyful mystery that is Easter Vigil in this place, and after the grand fanfare of Easter Day, what is left to do or to celebrate for the next 49 days of Easter?
Now what?

We get it even more closely as individuals. Maybe that’s because you’ve made a big decision, or you’ve weathered a death, or the loss of a relationship, or a job. Maybe you’ve finally decided that you need to go into recovery or get help for your mental or physical illness. 

Whether you’ve done a new thing or a new thing has happened, the question tends to be the same: now what?

Obvious statement of the day: transition is turbulent. It is also unavoidable.

Over and over again, we have to figure out who we are in light of new facts, new decisions. And we have to figure out who we’re going to be in light of those new facts and new decisions.

This is what the disciples are doing when they meet in a house and lock the doors behind them. John says that they lock them “for fear of the Jews,” but let’s not make the error of our ancestors in Christian faith by assuming that this was about Jews. No. The disciples locked the doors not because Jewish people are scary, but because they believed something that the majority group thought was ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst. If you’ve ever made an unpopular decision or held an unpopular belief, you get it. So they locked the doors.

The majority group had killed Jesus, and he was apparently back from the dead, but no promises could be made about what would happen to the disciples if they were caught and killed. To this point, only Mary had even seen Jesus alive. 

So they’re there, scared, alone, confused. And they close the doors and throw the locks and ponder:

Now what?

Now, God. 

Jesus is just showing off at this point: he comes in through the locked doors and you have to imagine the disciples being so startled that they jumped a full foot in the air each and Peter yells out “Jesus Christ!” in a way that is very understandable and not at all blasphemous.

As the disciples were wondering what to do next behind locked doors, Jesus comes in and breathes the Holy Spirit on them and sends them out to be just what Jesus was: God’s embodied love, given to and for the world. Thomas, of course, famously isn’t there, and much ink has been spilled over whether he doubted or whether he was just reasonable. Personally, I feel it was the latter: when someone says that a dead person has come back to life and visited them, it’s generally accepted that it’s okay to feel skeptical and not believe the person immediately. You could even be forgiven for seeking help for that person.

The point is that Jesus doesn’t cut Thomas out of the kingdom for not taking the disciples’ word for it. No. Jesus offers himself to Thomas as proof that it’s all real. While we may have gotten the idea that Jesus is a ghost because he came through a locked door, Thomas offers Jesus the chance to prove that he’s a living, breathing human body, still bearing the wounds of his execution. Jesus offers the totally understandably skeptical Thomas his body as proof that he’s alive, just as Jesus offers us his very body and blood every time we gather at the table. 

So if you’re sitting there wondering “now what” for any reason at all — know that that’s completely normal. Know that God is with you. Know that even if you’re so anxious about the future that you’re locking the doors of your heart and mind in doubt, that’s no obstacle to the Jesus who comes through locked doors. Know that even if you’re not sure where this road is leading or whether you’re on the right path, the risen Jesus is there to embrace you and your fear and your doubt and offer you his very self. 

And if you are wondering “now what,” as most of us are nearly always in one way or another from the time we become conscious until the time we die, know that you’re in good company, and not just the company of cartoon fish. You’re in the company of the disciples in the locked house, and the apostles who had to figure out a way forward. You’re in the company of this church, as it meets on Saturday do discuss its way forward. 

Change is as inevitable as it is tumultuous. So embrace it. If you’re asking “now what,” you’re in good company. 

I close with a poem posted by a dear friend this week. It’s by Pat Schneider, 84-year old poet, born in Missouri. Though we often think of transitions and uncertainty as being only for the young, Pat, by age 84,  knows better. 

I leave you with her words.

“The self you leave behind 

is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
after a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
And if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Rinse them.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.” 

So beloved, come to the table where all are welcome, and where Jesus comes through any doors we might lock in his way. In the tumult of life, and in all our “now whats,” Christ is there, offering his body so that we might be fed, and so that we might believe. 

Thank God. Amen.

Easter 1: If You Can Believe…

A little snapshot of our post-Easter Vigil celebration at Our Savior’s Lutheran. 

Luke 24:1-12

I’d like to begin by thanking from the bottom of my heart all of you who worked hard this week to make Holy Week happen for our community. You cooked things, cleaned things, set up chairs, moved tables, wrote skits, did silly things for Jesus, set up for services, cleaned up after services, coordinated with me and with each other, and were generally amazing as usual. Most importantly, you showed up when this community needed you. So thank you. Our Savior’s, you make it easy to believe that resurrection is a real thing.

And now for something completely different: a sermon. I have two rules when it comes to preaching on this day and on Christmas: 1) tell the story the people came to hear and don’t try to be cute about it, and 2) don’t drone on too long. I plan on following those rules today.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a Christian of any type on the day of Easter must be in want of a worship service. Easter draws through these doors all kinds of folks, from brand new people to people who haven’t missed a Sunday service since they got the flu that one time in 1961. That’s not only true in this sanctuary, but in any crowd gathered in this town in this state in this country on this day. It stands to reason, then, that there are also differing levels of belief: there are those who know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from that tomb in bodily form and those who are unsure about any of it, and finally, those who are really just here to get to lunch afterwards. I get it. 

Then there are the vast majority who swing back and forth along that spectrum depending on the year or maybe even the day. That’s a faith community for you.

The funny thing about the passage that we read on Easter morning every year is that one person is very conspicuously absent from the text: Jesus. All you have are these flashily-dressed dudes proclaiming that Jesus is risen, and an empty tomb. All you have, really, is a highly illogical promise. 

So I’d find it silly in this moment to stand here and extol the virtues of an argument for Christian faith of a particular kind. No. Now is not the time, and what you personally believe, while important, is unlikely to change significantly in the next ten minutes. 

What I will say is that Easter is my favorite holiday. That’s not because I’m a pastor. It’s because I read the news. Burning churches in Louisiana and now Sri Lanka, falling steeples in France and terror and death and division and fear — these are the water that we all swim in. Mass shootings and bombings and conflict and death are everywhere, and it is our challenge to find out how to live and live together in a world like this, because we cannot wish for another world. 

There’s also the fact that this Easter, I’m 33. I find it odd, being the same age as the guy in the story. Because you look at Jesus and you go, “sheesh, that guy is my age.” First of all, this guy is saving the world and I can barely remember to save my leftovers when I leave a restaurant. 

But also – when the guy in the story is the same age as you, that changes the story for you.

If you’re older than 33, maybe you thought about that when you were 33 or maybe it didn’t occur to you for one reason or another. Same thing if you’re somewhere around my age. If you’re way younger, and 33 is, like, so old – … I get it. 

But when the body that is raised from the dead in the story is the same age as a body you have occupied or are currently occupying, it might feel just a little more real. 

So this is what I think about Easter:
If you can believe a story about a stilled heart that started beating again,
or at least believe that there’s SOMETHING there,
even if you can’t name it or justify it logically —

If you can’t get into that, fine, then look outside at the springtime and ponder this: if life can come from death, if green shoots can come from the very recently frozen ground, then maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us. 

Hope for a country that can’t agree on much of anything.

Hope for burned out black churches in Louisiana and hope for the end of the racism that burns churches and the racism that red lines neighborhoods. 

Hope for fallen steeples in France — because the reality is that, no matter how catastrophic these disasters feel, our oldest churches and cathedrals have been built and burned and bombed and rebuilt for centuries. In Easter, there is hope. 

Hope for you, whatever heartache or burdens you carry, whether you’ve carried them for hours or months or years or decades. I won’t ever shame anyone for colored eggs and bunnies. I like my Reese’s eggs quite a bit. 

But with all the death and hopelessness we all swim in by virtue of being alive, at least I need a little more. Or, rather, I eat chocolate because it’s Easter and because I have the privilege of being alive and because I found some hope in a story about a radical rabbi in an occupied land who was executed by the state but came back to life some days later. 

Because in Easter, maybe there is hope for us. 

So whatever brought you here, thank you for showing up to this bright festival. 

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a Christian of any type on the day of Easter must be in want of a worship service. Thank you for making this one yours. Whether you have been attending for all of Lent or all of your life or whether this is your first time here or whether we haven’t seen you in a long time, this festival of Easter is yours. May you find blessing, may you find hope, and may you find love here. And remember: Easter is a fifty day festival, and we’ve got a ton of ways to celebrate that you’ll hear about in the announcements. 

But for today — enjoy the grace and music and love offered here. May you go outside and see creation brought back to life in the springtime. May you enjoy the company of these gathered here and maybe even some friends and family afterwards. 

And may you leave this place to go throw your hat in the air in hope. 

God knows, the world needs it. Amen.

Palm Sunday: Rally & Protest


Luke 19:28-40

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

So begins a song from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I. The story of The Hunger Games is one that’s familiar to us and all humans: a struggle against oppressive powers for freedom, and not only that, but a struggle so real against a power so brutal and oppressive that people are willing to accept death in order to win freedom.

The story is familiar, and real. It plays itself out over and over in fiction and in reality; only the faces and details change. 

In the scene in the movie Mockingjay: Part I where this song is sung, the people of Panem, are mobilized. Panem, you see, is a fictional dystopian and highly oppressive nation located where the United States used to be. The breaking point has come, and the people gather in huge numbers, singing the song together — it is an Appalachian rallying cry. They charge a dam, an important electricity source to the powerful Capitol, and they keep singing as they march forward in overwhelming numbers. Even as guards gun them down, the crowd eventually overwhelms them, and the people keep singing:

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…”

The breaking point has come, and freedom has become more important than life for the people in the crowd. 

The Hunger Games tells a fictional story of a real struggle that plays itself out over and over in human history and it’s still playing itself out on the news around the world today: people gather to resist an oppressor, knowing that the result could be catastrophic for them personally. Freedom becomes more important than life.

In 1989, East Germans flocked to border crossings along the Berlin Wall to see if they could pass through. Speaking of this event, I heard an historian say, “History turns on these little hinges.” The guards could have fired on the crowd, but they didn’t. The people passed through. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and shortly thereafter, an oppressive regime.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree?

And today, we remember another crowd which gathered to resist an oppressor, for whom freedom was more important than life. We remember the crowd in Jerusalem, which gathered to greet the teacher that some said was the one who would save Israel from Rome. This story has been sanitized in story and in song for so long that we can forget how much the people in the crowd were risking. We also forget because we wave our own palms every year, risking little to nothing, which can leave us thinking that the original crowd was as safe as we are.

But remember: this was Rome, where the only ruler was the emperor. Rome, which put down several Jewish rebellions, and brutally. The Pharisees know this well, so they tell Jesus to send them away, but he won’t, and they wouldn’t go away anyway. The people of Jerusalem still gather to give Jesus a king’s welcome, laying down their coats, and daring to wave palm branches, symbolizing victory, shouting Hosanna — literally “save us, we pray!” To a Roman, this would’ve looked and sounded like a rebellion, a coup. Every person in the crowd — including Jesus and the disciples — knew that this could have serious, possibly bloody, consequences. But freedom was more important than life.

History turns on these little hinges. The Romans could have arrested or killed Jesus right there, and killed people in the crowd, likely starting another rebellion, but they didn’t. So the Holy Week story that we know, the story of the last week of Jesus’ life is allowed to continue. God was in the midst of the people who struggled to be free.

And here we are, stepping into the crowd, and into the story, for another year.

“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?
The dead man called out
For his love to flee
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

Later in the week, of course, the crowd will figure out that Jesus isn’t the going to be the military leader that they had hoped for. He wasn’t going to overthrow Rome. The crowd that shouts “Hosanna!” today will famously shout “Crucify!” on Friday. The disciples will flee, too. Jesus will stand alone, with a few women and one man at the foot of the cross, as the only ones for whom freedom is still more important than life. After that, the world will change.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree?

Death is the greatest deterrent that power holds, but when a people no longer fears death, power is in deep, deep trouble. The anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death was this past week. Bonhoeffer was Lutheran pastor and theologian, killed for resisting Hitler and the Nazis. He was hanged. Here, on the other side of the ocean, countless Black souls and others were hanged for resisting the oppression of white supremacy and the KKK in my native Alabama and here in the North, too. Sometimes they were killed just for existing.

Make no mistake: the story of Palm Sunday is not just a story of long ago. It is the story of oppression and freedom, of fear and courage. It is a story of resistance. It is a German story and an American story, a Jewish story and an immigrant story. It is a Stonewall Inn story and a Selma, Alabama, story. It is a Massachusetts militia story and an American Revolution story. It is a Syrian story and a Venezuelan story. 

It is a human story. 

Welcome to Holy Week. 

Are you coming to the tree, on Friday? Will you sit at the table of love and fear on Thursday? Will you gather outside the tomb on Saturday night and remember all the times that God was in the midst of the people?

Will you wait to see how the story will end?

I say this every year: this week, don’t skip stuff. Place yourself in this all-too-human story and forget that you know the ending. Mary and Peter and John didn’t clap each other on the shoulders at the end of the first Good Friday and say “Wait ’til Sunday.” They went away devastated and they hid out of fear. They lived in the excruciating place of grief and death — a place we all know all too intimately. 

This story is our story, and I’m convinced that if we continue to live this Holy Week story year after year, we will, God willing, be resilient enough to resist oppression and death when it comes knocking on our own doors again, as a nation or as individuals.
Because, until kingdom come, it always will. 

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

God is in the midst of the people.

I’ll meet you at the tree. Jesus will, too. Amen.

If you’re local, join us for Holy Week:
April 18, 7PM 
– Maundy Thursday: A Feast of Friends.
We remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. An actual meal will be served.
April 19, 7PM – Good Friday: The Old Rugged Cross.
We accompany Jesus to the cross. A service of prayer and song.
April 20, 7PM – Easter Vigil: The Celebration Begins
A one-of-a-kind celebration of fire, story, laughter, and communion. Children are especially welcome at this fun service. The service will be followed by a reception of desserts, wine, and juice for children.
Our Savior’s is located at 319 Granby Road, South Hadley, MA. 

Lent 5: Bloopers and Family

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 4.48.07 PM.png
Our Savior’s church family preparing to celebrate Palm Sunday last year. If you’re local, kick of this year’s Holy Week services by joining us this coming Sunday at 10:15.

John 12:1-8

A mentor of mine in Alabama used to say that Christ created this whole church thing for thirteen people and a maybe camel or two, and now we’re trying to do it with three hundred in an auditorium. The point is, this church thing began as familial, and we’re trying to make it operate like a business, and sometimes the results are hilarious. 

Case in point: these actual church bulletin bloopers.

For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

The associate minister unveiled the church’s new stewardship campaign slogan last Sunday: “I upped my pledge — up yours.” 

The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility. 

Potluck supper this Sunday at 5PM, prayer and medication to follow.
And finally, the pastor will preach his farewell sermon this Sunday, after which the choir will sing: “Break Forth Into Joy.” 

Way back in February, when we gathered for our retreat to think about our values and our future, we voted on five different values to capture our congregation. I’ve covered four of them here in Lent and on the Fifth Sunday, I’ve come to the last one: family. 

This sermon will be participatory. When I say “the church is a” you say “family.” Let’s try it. 

The church is a… [family!]

And in the Gospel reading, we find ourselves at a family dinner table way back when this church thing really was more like thirteen folks and some camels. They’re at a family table — the table of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. But it’s not just any normal family dinner. Lazarus has been raised from the dead not long before that, and the religious authorities are looking for a chance to kill Jesus. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are hiding their fugitive teacher at this intimate dinner.

From very early on, the church is a…

It’s a pretty smelly story. There’s the scent of the food rising from the meal. There’s possibly even the scent of Lazarus, just risen from the grave not long before. And there’s the perfume. 

It’s not just any perfume, either. This is expensive perfume, and there’s a lot of it. So much, in fact, that it prompts Judas to yelp in protest, seeing all that expensive stuff poured out on the ground. Jesus shuts him up quickly and calls him back into the moment: “you won’t always have me with you.” 

It’s that time of year: Jesus’ time is growing short again. The cross is coming fully into view. 

And where is he, a harbored fugitive? Jesus is where he wants to be: with his family. Not his biological family, but his chosen family. 

Those who must live a vulnerable existence — that is, black folks, queer folks, and other oppressed groups — have called each other by familial terms for quite a long time now: brother, sister, mother, father, or just simply “family” (or its modern iteration, “fam”). Whether they’ve been rejected my their own families or not, for some reason, trying times make humans recognize that familial bonds can go far beyond mere biological ties. 

Christians, beginning very early on, did the same thing. Way back when this whole church thing began, Christians lived a risky existence. They lived under threat from the government and religious authorities. Some were thrown out of their biological families for converting to Christianity from whatever religious identity their families followed. Thus, they called each other by family names: brother, sister, mother, father. You can see evidence of it in Paul’s letters, when he writes about his family in Christ: sisters. Brothers. Siblings. 

From the very beginning, the church is a… [family!]

A few chapters later in John, when Jesus is dying on the cross, he will tell his mother that one of his disciples is now her son, and that she is now his mother. 

But here, Jesus is at the table with his brothers and sisters, where he loves to be. And Mary gets up from the table and finds this perfume. You know when you make a large purchase or find something valuable, and you save it for a special occasion, even when you don’t know exactly when that special occasion might arrive? I think it was like that. 

The next part of the story is intimate, as she anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume and wipes them with her hair. It’s a family moment. There’s so much perfume — a whole pound — that it fills up the whole room, eclipsing every other scent in this already smell-rich story.

Mind you, this isn’t the kind of age where people bathed super regularly. Jesus will smell of this perfume for days: when he arrives in Jerusalem to waving palm branches. When he sits at the family table again for his Last Supper with them. When he’s on trial before Pilate. When he’s on the cross. And maybe, just maybe, when he meets another Mary, Mary Magdalene, in the garden outside the tomb. 

I imagine, years later, Martha or Mary or Lazarus walking through the Bethany marketplace and suddenly, that scent hits their nostrils, and they remember everything. They remember Jesus. They remember how he gave them more family than they could’ve ever had by biology alone. 

Because, beloved, the church is a… [family!]

Some weeks ago, I talked about these family stories in the Bible, and how we pass them down from generation to generation. How we may not like everything we hear, just like in any family, and how we may hear different stories from different family members. Beloved, we’re getting ready to tell our best family story again. We do it every single year around this time. Because the church is a… [family!]

So lean in. Listen. Experience the stories as they wash over you, day by day of next week. These aren’t just stories we tell — they’re stories we experience, together, as a family. We wave the palms. We lay down our coats. We eat bread, and we drink wine, and we feel water. We touch the wood of the cross. And we watch the new fire of resurrection burn and tell all the best stories from our faith at Easter Vigil. 

We do this because the church is a… [family!] 

As humans, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. If humans, especially young humans, don’t get it in the form of something constructive, they just might get it in another less savory form. If you watch the news, you’ve seen violent incidents happen, over and over. Whether it’s gang violence or white supremacy or religious fundamentalism, make no mistake: it’s about identity. It’s about finding a family, with family stories, that gives us a family to belong to, a common identity. Don’t miss this, and don’t take it for granted: we have that here. 

The church is a… [family!]

I’ve been with you now for well over three years. That’s three years of Christmases, three years of Easters, three years of births and deaths and baptisms and funerals. I’ve watched you care for one another and love one another as dearly as anyone loves their own families. I’ve seen you welcome new people into this family and love them as if they’ve been here for years. Never miss this: this is an uncommon gift. You have a people to call on and depend on in any crisis life throws your way, people of all ages who will love you and pray for you and treat you like family, because the church is a… [family!]

We get to do this: to be here, in a group of humans that, just like any family, ranges in age from the littlest to the oldest, each beloved, each with the same common identity and story, complete with a family table to gather around.

So experience the family story with us next week. 

And feel it in your bones and know that it is true and know that it is something to be treasured and nurtured: the church is a… [family!] 

So, sure: though this church thing was originally created for thirteen people and a camel or two, we haven’t come that far, not really, not in a small church like this. And though our bloopers may be funny, let’s not forget in the business of things that the church is a [family]: quirky, goofy, funny, supportive, and most of all, here for one another.

Thank goodness.


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

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 12.36.59 PM
Besides looking frighteningly realistic, Madden quarterbacks are listed as “predictable” or “unpredictable,” with the former being a positive trait. More below (and what the heck Madden has to do with the Prodigal Son).

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent 3: Family Stories

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 1.22.51 PM.png

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

There’s a bit of a theological problem in our readings for today: the readings from the New Testament seem to entirely blame people for their suffering. I found my way in the only way I know how: family stories.

Weddings and funerals have one thing in common: they are times when families — both blood family and chosen family — gather. As such, family stories flow freely, with or without the help of a little wine.

If you are part of any type of family, you know something about family lore.

Family lore tells you who your family is and where you came from and what you’ve come through and where all the dark parts are. Family stories are full of pride and fear and tears and usually, not just a little laughter and joy.

Weddings are a time when families embarrass their newly married relative with stories of first crushes and awkward preteen years and that time they got so mad that they almost killed the kid as a teenager. Funerals are less joyful occasions, but there is some joy; funerals are a time when a person’s chosen family and their blood family compare notes about who a person was. It is often at the funeral when you learn just how generous and caring your family member was by hearing friend after friend tell of all of the things they did for the people in their life. Family stories flow at weddings and funerals, and they produce some of the holiest moments.

Family stories paint a picture not only of who individual people are, but what the family is like. 

The Bible, above all, is family stories. It paints a picture of who we as a family of faith are. Sometimes, we may not like what we see, while other times, we’re filled with pride with what we read. Still other times, you might hear a different story if you heard it from a different uncle — and with four Gospels, there’s always another uncle to ask.

The Old Testament, especially, is family stories: stories meant to be told around a campfire, stories of pain and tragedy and wrongdoing and woe and pride and return and love and faithfulness.

When it comes to the Old Testament, I hear one thing all the time from a lot of different people: boiled down into very Lutheran terms, it’s the idea that the Old Testament contains Law and the New Testament contains Gospel. To put it in less Lutheran terms, it’s the idea that the Old Testament is judgement and the New Testament is grace.

This kind of thinking does help us with some things: namely, it helps us explain the most egregious parts of the Old Testament that bother us the most. And, to be sure, there is plenty to bother us in the Old Testament: a God that seems to punish people on demand for the smallest infractions of the law, some downright weird stuff, and let’s not forget stories like that of poor Uzzah, the guy who died because he tried to catch the ark of the covenant as it fell (see 2 Samuel 6).

Saying all of that bad stuff belongs in the Old Testament, in the past, seems to be a way to explain these uncomfortable stories. It’s easy, after all, to tell ourselves that God got much nicer after God became flesh in Jesus. 

If you find yourself drifting towards this way of thinking, don’t worry. I’m not calling you out. After over three years together, I know a lot of you quite well. If we took a poll, a goodly number of you would freely admit to having used this kind of thinking before, especially when dealing with a difficult passage. I certainly have. It’s just theologically neater and easier when we can find a simple hack like this to explain a problematic passage. 

But you all are smart. You know that if you scratch the surface with a little logic, you run up against problems with this way of thinking rather quickly. First, there’s the simple fact that our Jewish neighbors don’t have a New Testament, and to insult the “Old Testament God” as judgmental is to not only insult their faith as lacking grace; it is to play into the same tired tropes that have caused Christians to think less of our Jewish neighbors and their faith for millennia.

Besides that, the Old Testament is how we got Jesus. It is the only Scripture that Jesus ever quoted. The Hebrew scriptures are the only reason we even know about him. It is the Hebrew culture, with its Scriptures, that gave us Jesus.

Oh, and of course, there’s no small amount of judgement in the New Testament: like when Ananias and Sapphira drop dead for lying to the apostles about money (see Acts 5:1-11), all of Revelation, and both the 1 Corinthians passage and the Gospel lesson for today. Given a choice between today’s Old Testament readings and today’s New Testament readings, which would you say have more grace?

The Isaiah reading is pure poetry and grace: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” 

Meanwhile, Jesus leaves us to contend with a fig tree being uprooted for not producing fruit and we get that sneaking feeling that you tend to get when someone tells a story and you suspect that they might be talking about you.

Here’s the big thing that my Sunday school students have heard before: most of the New Testament was written primarily to convince you that Jesus is the real deal and Christianity is the truth. That’s why its stories are generally more appealing to you — they were written that way!

The Old Testament, on the other hand, wasn’t written to convince you of anything. The Old Testament is family stories: the kind you tell at weddings and funerals and behind closed doors. All the dirty laundry of the family is in there. These are the kinds of family stories that tell you who you are and where you come from: with the hard parts and the parts we can be most proud of.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

In this part of Isaiah, the Israelites have been in exile for a long time in Babylon. Their country was conquered and many people were killed and others were taken away as exiles. A good chunk of the Old Testament tells this story of exile and pain and return and joy. And here, in this last part of Isaiah, the exiles are returning, and God’s grace is ever near. The people feel God’s love and generosity in a way that they haven’t for years. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” 

These are family stories. Remember when we were conquered? Remember how hard it was to be away, and in captivity in Babylon?

Remember when God brought us home? 

No, the story of the Babylonian captivity is not a simple story. Our faith family wrestles in the Old Testament with why an all-powerful God would allow God’s people to be captured. A lot of the passages posit that it was God’s judgement. Family stories are rarely simple stories. True family histories are messy and complicated and what story get depends on which aunt or uncle or second cousin you ask. 

The people in the Gospel story really want another family story to be simple. They come to Jesus with a very specific story: one where some Galileans had been murdered by the Romans recently in the midst of worship: those killed are described as those “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” It is not unlike the countless murders we have heard of, most recently, in New Zealand — of people of faith being killed as they offer their worship — only in this case, it is not a terrorist, but the state who does the killing. 

It was fairly common at the time to assume, like the Israelites often did, that if an all-powerful God allowed such a thing to happen, it must be judgement. People still assume such things today.

Jesus isn’t having it. “Do you think they were worse sinners than the other Galileans?” Than you? You think that because something bad happened to them that they deserved it? Jesus cites another disaster and asks the same question. Then he says: repent.

As I used to say to patients in the hospital who thought God was judging them by making them sick: “If everyone who deserved God’s judgement got sick, we would run out of beds in this hospital. We would all be sick.” Tragedies happen. Illnesses happen. Even violence happens, because humanity is destructive. We have proven very great over the years at hurting each other. But even when it is no one’s fault, suffering and death happen.

Taken with the rest of what Jesus says, the message is pretty simple: repentance is our only hope of breaking the cycle of human destruction. Destruction breeds destruction. Harmful behavior causes harm to you and to others.

But love creates love. Love gets you somewhere. Love bears fruit. Love will bring you home — no matter why you find yourself lost.

In today’s readings, the New Testament sings the verse of Law, but the Old Testament sings the chorus of Gospel.

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” 

No story that is real is simple. This Gospel story isn’t easy to boil down in ten to twelve minutes. We could spend years debating why good things happen to bad people, and I will be the first to say that I don’t know. We will not solve the problem of human suffering in this hour together.

Family stories are complicated. Our faith story is no different. 

Here’s what I do know: love brings us home. Love is full of grace. Love is generous. Love tells us who we are, and love makes a family. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

If you remember, I’m referencing all five of our congregation’s chosen values in my sermons during Lent: the first Sunday of Lent, I talked about how we are a sacramental congregation, forming our life together around worship. Last Sunday, it was inclusivity, as Jesus opens his arms like a mother hen to gather us all in, and how this congregation seeks to replicate that extravagant welcome. This Sunday, it’s generosity. 

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

Our Savior’s people are generous. You have given far above your size for years and years, you have resettled refugees, and you have helped make countless people’s lives better and you continue to do so every single week. You do that because you have come to the waters of baptism and you know who your family is. You do that because you know how much God has given you. We do that because we know that that’s the way God rolls, and we want to be generous like that.

So come to the table of grace. Here is bread and wine without cost. Here is Christ offered freely. Here is love. The kind of love that brings you home.

Because it’s not just weddings and funerals where we share family stories: it’s the kitchen table, too. And in our faith family, the communion table is our kitchen table, where we are free to bring our understanding of the family, our scruples, our doubts about the family, our problems with the family or certain parts of it — but all of us, all of us, are loved as family. 

So whether you’ve been part of this faith family for years or you just started coming here, come to the table with us, where bread, wine, and love are all free. Where the stories might be complicated, but the love is always strong.

Thanks be to God. Amen.