Sunday, May 15, 2016

On smog, the Spirit, and storytelling: a sermon for Pentecost 2016


John 14:8-17

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees nor knows the truth. You know it, because it abides with you, and it will be in you.

"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 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. 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."

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’"


Click here to listen along.

I was seventeen the first time I visited Chicago.  I was traveling with seven other students from my high school speech team to compete in a national meet.  As we drove into the city limits at around 11pm, the moon hung in the sky just ahead of us, big and full and bright red.

Now I’d read my Bible.  I’d read Joel and Acts and Revelation.  I knew what a blood red moon meant.  Jesus was coming back!  Right now!  And I was spending my time and money driving to Chicago to compete for trophies when I should have been in Africa feeding the hungry!  I knew I was in trouble.

I tried to keep my voice calm as I said to the others in the car, “Hey, y-you g-guys… does anyone else think the moon looks weird?”

The chemistry teacher who was one of our coaches explained that Chicago is surrounded by smog in a way that our hometown of Minneapolis-Saint Paul was not, and at just the right angle of the sun and the moon and the car and the level of haze, the light reflecting off the moon would refract in the clouds and, well, the moon would be red.

I think she used it as a teaching moment about recycling.

It was a key moment in coming to accept that just because I could read something in English didn't mean I fully understood it.

Look at the list that the devout Jews rattle off -- it can be alienating to us, this long list of nationalities.  Even in English, there are words that don’t communicate efficiently, words that send our brains flying off on tangents.

Even though it’s English, the language many of us grew up with, the list of nationalities and the meaning behind Peter’s words is so diverse and strange that two thousand years later it can take us down paths that lead away from the main point.  The point being not that we should panic at the sight of a red moon but that the coming of the Holy Spirit is the ushering in of a new age, a time when the barriers of communication are broken down and suddenly Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female can hear the same message of grace through Jesus.

When the disciples speak and are heard in a multitude of native languages, it isn’t only that they are heard in many languages but that they are understood.  That no matter if they are heard in Arabic or Latin or Greek or Hebrew, the words all communicate the same thing:  God’s deeds of power, God’s magnificence and glory.  Peter will go on in the rest of the story to proclaim that God revealed a man, Jesus of Nazareth, by deeds of power, and wonders, and signs, and that even when he was killed he was freed from death and raised again.  These are the deeds of power that the disciples, their mouths full of words they never learned, can proclaim in languages they’ve never spoken:  Jesus taught and healed and performed miracles, and even when it seemed that all was lost, he defeated even death, and that in just his name there is forgiveness of sins.  And the Spirit gives the disciples power to communicate this so clearly, not only to be heard in other languages but to be understood, that three thousand people are baptized and added to the church that day.


Something about what Peter and the other disciples proclaim goes beyond just being heard in a multitude of languages.  Something is miraculously communicated.  In a time and place where a vast majority of people speak and understand English, what are we communicating?  What would it mean for us to proclaim God's deeds of power so that hipsters, single moms, artists, multigenerational households, the hungry, young adults, those in assisted living, the homeless, trans kids, those who speak Swedish and Spanish and Somali -- that all of Northeast Minneapolis and beyond could hear and understand and be transformed?

I’ll be honest.  I can’t do it.  I don’t believe you can either.  That’s the whole point of the story, after all.

I can’t do it, and you can’t do it, and we can’t do it.  Not alone.  The point of the story is that, after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples gather together in one place and close the doors.  Maybe they were afraid.  Maybe they were having a strategic planning meeting.  But the end result is not that the disciples lay out a map of Jerusalem and buy a bunch of copies of Rosetta Stone in Latin and Greek and Arabic so they can systematically begin preaching to the city.  No -- it’s not something they can do, to proclaim the good news of Jesus in such a way that three thousand people want to join.  That is not in their toolkit, nor in mine, nor in ours.  It’s the Spirit’s work.  It’s the powerful rush of wind and flame, a fire tornado in their lives that sends them out into the streets to transform the world.

We call Pentecost the birthday of the church, and what’s important to remember is that birthdays are not the only beginning.  The day I was born was the culmination of nine long months of blood, sweat, and tears, of me stretching and growing and being nurtured and loved, of parents learning marvelous and incredible and heartbreaking things about the world.  The disciples have had this same time of growing and nurturing, of wondrous growth and food, of being told stories even if they didn’t understand.  On Pentecost, the disciples don’t just have the sudden rush of the Holy Spirit.  They have at least a year, maybe more, of daily life with Jesus.  Constant journeys from town to town, every day a slew of new questions to ask, new broken people to see and love and heal.  And a barrage of stories.  Jesus loved stories.  His answers to complex questions about money and anxiety and prayer and pain and loss and forgiveness were not reducible to a bumper sticker -- they were stories, stories that made space for imagination and hope and resolution.  The answer to “And who is my neighbor?” was a complex story full of characters and twists.  Jesus filled his disciples with healing powers and radical humility but also the miracle of stories that draw us in.  They were trained for a year or maybe more in how to respond to the world, how to see its pain and brokenness and say, “I think I have something that can help.”  How to extend hands that held power gently, that used power for good, that freed the oppressed and fed the hungry and bound up the brokenhearted.

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples didn’t just have the Spirit.  They had the stories, the miracles, the year-long training with Jesus by their side every day.

I think that might be where we are invited right now.  Grace, we are a people good at a lot of things.  We are good at feeding people -- really good at it -- at our community dinners and our celebrations and our food shelf.  We are good at making crazy dreams happen.  We are good at a lot of things, but we might need some practice in telling our story.  Telling the story not just of how Grace came to be -- how we sold buildings and pulled weeds and gave the community the gift of a center for life -- but also why.  Why we did it, and why each of us was willing to buy in to it.  What were our hopes?  What life experiences led us to this place?  What, in the sum of all your years of life, got you out of bed this morning and into the chair you’re in right now?

I’ve had the chance in my first three weeks to hear just a few of those stories.  And I want to hear more.  I want to hear all of them.  And I want you to hear them, too.  The stories of how we got here are holy stories.  They are stories of God showing up in our lives, in weird and unpredictable and frustrating and transforming ways.  And we are called to tell them, and to hear them.  We are invited to tell our stories, in the same way Peter modeled -- to say Here is where I find myself rooted in scripture, and here is where I find that God is showing up in my life.

Just for the summer, we’re going to practice stories -- what it means to know our own story, how to tell it, and how to listen to the stories of others’.  We have a beautiful lineup of stories from Jesus according to the gospel of Luke:  healings and transformations, new life given where there was despair and death, letting go of what tries to turn our hearts away from hope.  And those stories are going to give us the opportunity to learn and hear and tell our own stories.  Comfort with our stories won’t happen all at once.  It takes time.  It takes the courage to step forward and the trust that Jesus is walking ahead of us.

Today we’ve handed out candles.  It would be easy to say they are birthday candles, and that we can light them and place them on the altar to remember what we’re happy for in the life of Grace Lutheran.  And they are that.  But they are also more.  These too are the lights of Pentecost, the flames of the Spirit, the flickers of courage and power in each of us to trust that we, too, are capable of telling the stories of God’s people.  Our stories.  Our little flickers of light that together, grow into a great flame that can warm the hearts of the world.

As we sing our hymn of the day, let it be a response to the story of Pentecost.  When you are ready, you may take your light and come forward, light it from one of the candles, and set it on the altar.  Come.  Come.  Come, Holy Spirit, come.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Tie that Binds: First sermon at Grace Lutheran Northeast, April 24 2016

Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Gospel of John 13:31-35

When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”


Our two stories today, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles and from the gospel of John, stand on two sides of the main event of the New Testament: the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In John’s gospel, we sit with the disciples hear a sliver of Jesus’ final words to his disciples, a deep and abiding command as he faced down his final hours.  Jesus knows what he is headed towards.  He has known for a very long time that the end is coming, that his ministry and his very self has put him in a dangerous position.  He is not going to survive this Passover.  And as he looks around at the disciples, the men and women who have loyally followed him but often deeply understood him, he begs them: When I am gone, love each other.  

And in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we stand with Peter and the believers in Jerusalem, asking, Who are we going to be now that Jesus is gone?  Jesus had not left instructions as to what to do with the Gentiles.  Jesus had been Jewish.  All the disciples of Jesus were Jewish.  The Gentiles weren’t part of the conversation.  They were foreigners, moving into the holy city of Jerusalem and its surrounding lands but not joining the people of God.  They were Roman soldiers, symbols of the oppressing powers who crushed the Jewish people with taxes and punishments.  They were Greeks, worshippers of logic and philosophy, keeping their hair cut short.  They were Moabites and Samaritans, people who had long shared the land with Jews but had not converted to their religion.  Many other people had been forcibly brought into Jerusalem and Judea by the Roman powers, forcing them to resettle in a land that wasn’t their own.  All of these people, these Gentiles, had come into God’s holy land but did not follow the rules.  They ate pork, they worked on the Sabbath, they did not join the covenant of circumcision that the Jewish people had so long kept.  They were unclean and they were trouble.  The dividing lines between the Jewish people and the Gentiles were vast, and now Peter -- Peter!  the disciple who had seen Jesus on the mountaintop in glory, who had known Jesus so well and stumbled so much and been forgiven again and again -- now Peter was associating with them, was sharing meals with them and even baptizing them in the name of Jesus.  Peter was breaking the rules that had guided the Jewish community for centuries:  we do not share meals with Gentiles, we do not go into their houses, and we certainly do not believe that they are acceptable to God.

From two sides of the main event, we stand in conversation.  Who are we going to be, now that Jesus is gone and we are on our own?  What does it mean that Jesus said “love each other”?

It seems so obvious to us today.  I’m not Jewish, and I would guess most of us in the room aren’t either.  We want to believe that the rule of love means we have a seat at the table, too.  But it was a hard choice for Peter and the other disciples -- a hard choice to accept that love might take them that far.  Such a hard choice, in fact, that nothing less than a terrifying vision of a bedsheet full of pigs and lizards and the honest-to-goodness appearance of the Holy Spirit herself was going to convince them that “love each other” was a message for the Gentiles, too.

The church in the first years after Jesus’ death was a church facing drastic change.  They had been moved in ways they never expected, been brought together in places they never dreamed of.  But now, they felt like they’d lost their center of gravity.  What was supposed to hold the community together now?  I’m sure that doesn’t sound like a familiar story at all…

In the face of change that was impossible to imagine, Jesus offered his followers this promise:  love was going to be the constant.  Love, not rules or foods or traditions or locations, was going to be what kept them together.  It was the best commandment Jesus could give -- and the hardest.  Human love is tricky.  If human love wants to hold too hard, we shake it off.  If human love holds too loosely, we can slip away.  We see it in our teenage selves and in our children, how love alone does not perfectly solve all our problems.  And we see it in Peter and the disciples in Jerusalem, who loved the rules and traditions that helped guide how they lived godly lives.  Our love can be stubborn, even misguided.  Our love for one thing can be a stumbling-block for loving something else.  Peter loved the law, carefully followed the rules for what was clean to eat and what was not -- and God dropped a sheet full of unclean foods into his lap and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”

See, human love can be tricky, stubborn, even misguided.  But in the face of that, God’s love does not stop knocking.  God’s love is not bound by rule-following, or location, or speech, or nationality.  God’s love keeps on going.  Persistent, hopeful, even frustrating in its grace -- God’s love is passionately and compassionately looking for us, always.  And it is to that kind of love that Jesus called his disciples.

No problem, right.

Love gets even messier now, because love as a constant, love as the one thing that doesn’t change, love as the final commandment needs community.  Jesus did not ask the disciples to love each other abstractly, as a nice idea.  Jesus asked them to love each other as he had loved them:  to be radically forgiving, impossibly hopeful, prepared for change in ways they couldn’t imagine.  And that kind of love needs community.  Love that needs community starts right at the heart of God, who is one and strangely also three, who is the source of love and the receiver and the sender.  Love needing community starts right at the beginning of the biblical story, walking with us through the many journeys of God’s people and saying again and again:  To do this, you need each other.  At the beginning of creation, we needed each other to be human; it is not good for man to be alone.  We needed each other to care for the earth, to tell the stories of God, to walk across the Red Sea, to reach the Promised Land, to survive the exile in Babylon, to come home and try to rebuild only to find ourselves enslaved and oppressed again and again.  There are many stories of the Bible, and this is one:  to know God’s love, we need each other.

That same theme spills into the rest of our lives.  Love needing community is not a story told only by the Bible.  Love needing community is how we make our marriage vows, how we raise our children, how we build our neighborhoods -- hoping that by caring for each other and working together for the good of all, we might make the world a better place.  Love needing community filled the streets of Minneapolis when we lost a beloved musician this last week.  Love needing community is what drives so many artists to create and offer up their work, and what drives so many of us to love art and music: not only because we know the maker but often because through their work, we come to know ourselves better.  

Love needing community can be found in many corners of our world.  But Jesus especially commands the disciples -- and us -- to this kind of love in the church.  Love that needs community is how the world will know we are disciples of Christ.  

Love needing community in church is love that calls for listening, love that trusts the witness of the other.  This is the kind of love that can read the psalms even if we don’t believe them.  The kind of love that can say, Maybe today I am not feeling joyous and praise-filled, but someone who I love is, and with them, I will say Hallelujah.  Love listens.

Love needing community in church is love that forgives.  This is the kind of love that begins worship every week with a confession:  the world is broken and we are broken, and we hold God to the promise that we are offered something greater than brokenness.  Love forgives.

Love needing community in church is love that speaks.  This is the kind of love that looks for shared language, that raises up the common themes in our stories and in the stories of scripture.  We call this part of worship the word: the words of scripture, the words of prayer, the words of peace we exchange with each other.  Love speaks.

And finally, love needing community in church is love that looks for the signs of God.  Each week, in worship, we are offered a visible sign of God’s grace: the bread and wine of communion.  On the same night when Jesus said “Love one another,” he said “Do this in remembrance of me.”  We break bread and share wine because it is more than bread and wine -- it is an embodiment of Jesus’ promise to be with us, always, until the end of the age.  Love needing community in church needs communion.

You see, the kind of community Jesus offered his disciples wasn’t going to be marked by total resolution.  They were not going to be perfectly faithful, or absolutely righteous, or insanely rich.  They were going to fight over their differences, to grit their teeth, to wish the other would just once see it from their side.  And they were going to keep going anyway.  And when I tell you that story, I hope you hear it echoed in your own.

We are love needing community, Grace.  We are love needing community because you have served so many and so well with community dinners and a neighborhood food shelf.  We are love needing community because you have worked your way through many years of change, through gritted teeth and anxious nights, through budget revisions and staff changes.  We are love needing community because you have found ways to be church together, to be one body of people that finds its edges ever expanding to let in others who surprise you.  But at the very end of it all, we will find that we are love needing community because of Jesus -- because of the model of love that reaches out, over and over, to call us home.


Hymn of the Day:  Blest Be the Tie that Binds

1 Blest be the tie that binds 
our hearts in Christian love; 
the fellowship of kindred minds 
is like to that above. 

2 Before our Father's throne 
we pour our ardent prayers; 
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, 
our comforts and our cares. 

3 We share our mutual woes, 
our mutual burdens bear, 
and often for each other flows 
the sympathizing tear. 

4 From sorrow, toil, and pain, 
and sin, we shall be free; 
and perfect love and friendship reign 
through all eternity. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

"Woman, you are set free": a sermon for Minneola Lutheran Church

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

“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

Woman, you are set free.

So says this wandering prophet, this wild-haired man from the backwater town of Nazareth who keeps idly strolling from town to town, coming in to teach in the synagogues even though he has no formal training.  Making trouble everywhere he goes.  Arguing with the religious leaders.  Feeding five thousand men when he had nothing but a few loaves.  And all the while working with troublesome people: soldiers of the empire, lepers, sinners, women, outsiders.  Who does he think he is, saying this?

Woman, you are set free.

How afraid do you have to be to hate others’ freedom?

The leaders of the synagogue had a lot to lose.  They, like most of the Jewish people in Israel during the time of the Roman occupation, had put a lot of trust in righteousness.  If they could behave well enough, if they could speak of God correctly, if they could keep the Temple and the priests clean, perhaps God would free them from the brutal Roman army that had invaded their land.  They were waiting for the Messiah -- the anointed one of God, who would put a son of David back on the throne at Jerusalem and free the people, once and forever, from all outside forces that sought to destroy them.

And instead they got a Messiah who healed the sick slave of a Roman commanding officer.  They got a Messiah who was messy, homeless, who hung out with questionable characters and smelly fishermen. That kind of Messiah is terrifying.  That kind of freedom is terrifying.  Because life can feel so much easier when there are clear boundaries.  We don’t work on the Sabbath.  We don’t associate with the Gentiles.  Men don’t speak to women.  And tax collectors cannot be disciples of the Son of God.

We invest a lot, as humans, in knowing who’s in and who’s out.  Who is good, and who is bad.  Who is the obvious choice for the next president of the United States and whose candidacy makes you shudder.  I don’t think that this is wrong -- well, I don’t particularly care for the anger and mudslinging that comes in a presidential election.  But it isn’t wrong to draw boundaries when we are trying to keep ourselves safe.  The danger is how easily we can believe the boundaries are sacred.  That the rules we create for ourselves and for others are too holy to violate.

One of those rules, in Jesus’ time, was the idea that your suffering was related to your sin.  If you were in pain, it might very well be God’s judgment on your life and actions.  We hear this echoing in the words of those who tell Jesus of the Galileans who died -- who were murdered by the Roman occupying forces in the middle of their worship.  Jesus immediately rejects the premise.  They were not worse sinners than anyone else.  Their fate could await anyone -- especially those who thought that they were better than the Galileans.

Jesus follows this declaration with a story about a tree and a lot of manure -- a parable.  It is not the tree’s fault that it has not grown.  Trees do not have faults.  They grow, or they don’t.  Sometimes by tending them, a gardener can bring out better fruit.  But sometimes, no matter what we do, the tree bears nothing.  It is a tree.  It is no judgment on the owner, or the gardener, or even the tree itself.  It’s just a tree that doesn’t grow.

After telling this story, Jesus meets a woman who has suffered for eighteen years with a bent back, unable to stand straight, likely unable to keep her household in order and to do the heavy labor required of life in the first century.  And in one moment, her life changes:  Woman, you are set free.  Not because she had suffered enough, but because God does not want suffering.  God, faced with suffering, wants to end it.

Paul promised this to the Corinthian church, as well.  God will provide a way out, he promised.  And the Corinthians would have been shocked, because they were facing suffering on a multitude of sides.  The church in the first century was primarily Jewish, many of them rejected by their families and thrown out of their home synagogues for believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.  The Roman occupation forced the Jewish people into hard labor, heavy taxes, unfair trials and judgments, fear on all sides.  Yet notice Paul’s promise -- not that suffering was from God, not that God would end all suffering if they were perfect believers, but that God wanted them to find a way out.  And not a way out the way their ancestors had in the wilderness -- turning to other gods, worshipping the idols their foreign wives brought to them, complaining about the food or the long desert walk.  God wanted more for the Jewish people than this.  God wanted more for the whole world.

And this is the pattern with God.  One beauty of the Bible is the variety of stories that play along a very familiar theme:  God offers life.  We choose something else.  And God, continually, offers life again.

In all these stories I keep seeing God like Jesus in last week’s reading, standing outside Jerusalem, the city built to house the home of God -- standing outside the city that was supposed to be a light to the nations and instead rejected everything the prophets said to it.  I keep seeing God weeping, in every time and place, and saying, over and over:




Stop eating what makes you sick.  Stop spending your hard-earned money on junk food.  Use your resources for what is right, for what does something good for your body and your soul and the world around you.  This life is not limited to the chemical kick of potato chips and beer and televised sports.  This life is not limited to strict rules around food, to exercising until we bleed, to a perfectly kept house.  Stop eating what makes you sick -- literally and figuratively.  Eat what feeds the you God made, the you God calls you to be.  

Stop putting your trust in other things.  Stop acting as if your own safety is something you can perfectly control.  Stop being surprised when putting your trust in yourself, or your work, or your talents, or your money, or your ability to make others happy or sad -- stop being surprised when this falls through.  You were not brought out of slavery by your own power; you did not earn your salvation through your own works.  This was done for you, by God, out of what seems like an impossibility: because God loves you and does not want to be without you.  God does not want you to suffer.  God does not want you to be forgotten.  God is always extending a hand to you.  

Stop blaming people for their pain.  Do not fall into the trap of the people who thought the Galileans were great sinners because their death was so awful.  Do not fall into the ditch of the vineyard owner who sees no growth and wants to tear down the tree.  And when someone finds their freedom, against all possibilities, do not shame them for how they found it.  God has come to earth in Jesus, come to set us free.  Do not be afraid.

Stop blaming people for their pain -- and that includes yourself.  You have said to yourself that you are alone, that you cannot burden others with your own suffering.  But none of it, none of it is something that no one else has gone through.  We suffer in varieties of ways but the reality of struggle, pain, and heartbreak is one we all know.  Stop telling yourself to hide away until you can present a happy face to the world.  Your suffering is not too much for others to bear.

Don’t you remember I set you free?  I took you out of slavery and into the wilderness.  I took you out of the wilderness and into the promised land.  After you were captured by Babylon, I brought you back.  And after all this time, I burst open the gates of what it meant to be the chosen people -- I welcomed in the Gentiles.  The Romans, the Greeks, the Jews, even the Germans and the Norwegians -- I brought them all to the table.  I offered every single one of you food to eat that would satisfy you, a community that would care for you, a promise that suffering would not be never-ending.  Incline your ear, says God, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

Brothers and sisters, fellow beloved children of the Most High:  let us believe.  Let us believe that God wants this for us -- that we stop living our lives in fear, and step into the freedom offered to us.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Heart of Justice -- or, How the Grinch Learned the Magnificat

The Focus: Christmas is God coming into the world to expand our hearts. It isn’t always what happens, however. To get ready for Christmas this year, let’s use the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas to look at four ways God wants our hearts to grow and how God does it to us: The Heart of Wonder, The Heart of Justice, The Heart of Hope, The Heart of Adventure.

Luke 1:46-55 -- The Heart of Justice (Mary's Song)

There are hundreds of carols we sing every year,
celebrating the season when Christmas draws near.
These hymns are familiar and loved very dear,
And we sing loud and proud about midnights so clear.

But some songs get forgotten in the midst of the season,
Songs that have been with us long for a reason.
Songs someone carefully thought up and wrote out,
Songs that are all what the season’s about.

Today’s story is that -- the song of sweet Mary,
Who faced some good news exciting and scary.
She was carrying Jesus, God’s very own Son,
And sang today’s story in a-dor-a-tion:

My soul is enraptured, uplifted, fulfilled,
For God has seen me and a purpose has willed.
Though I am quite humble, unimportant and small,
God has chosen me to bear the Savior of all.

But I should not be shocked that God chose a girl --

God’s made unusual choices since the start of the world.
You’d think God would choose big names, the mighty, the strong,
God should rain down power to fight and right wrongs.

But in all the stories I’ve ever been told,

God works in the outsider, the young or the old,
Those who we think are empty-handed and poor
Are the very ones God comes to and loves more and more.

God isn’t impressed by riches or appearance,

God looks at the heart and sees what is nearest.
If your thoughts are un-good or unkind or untrue
God will not let you hurt whoever you choose.

God isn’t excited about rulers and kings,

God knows earthly might is a dangerous thing.
God remembers the promises and seeks out the lost,
God is righting the world, no matter the cost.

All the Whos down in Whoville loved the Magnificat,
but the Grinch, still learning his lesson, did NOT.
“I’m confused,” the Grinch said, “At first it seems sweet
That God looks at the lowly and thinks that they’re neat.

“But Mary says God takes the strength from the strong,
And sends rich away empty, and -- well, that seems wrong.
I thought God loved us all, exactly the same.
Choosing some over others sounds like a shame.”

“This isn’t a song we should sing in this season,
This song is confusing and feels without reason.
Life isn’t fair, and I do wish it would be
But now’s not the time to talk about should-be.

“We’ve got to get ready for family and feast!
For singing, and joy, and cooking roast beast!”
Cindy Lou Who, the little Who whom you may remember
Listened kindly to the Grinch’s grumps through December.

“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking a lot,
“There must be a reason for the Magnificat.
Christmas began with the birth of a child,
And while it sounds cute, the scene was quite wild!

“Rich men called magi, who studied the stars,
Packed up their camels and brought gifts from afar.
Expecting a new king to be born very soon,
They checked at the palace, as one ought to do.

“But he was born in a stable, filled with smelly old sheep!
His parents were homeless, had nowhere to sleep.
His dad was a carpenter -- not very wealthy,
And I can’t imagine sleeping in hay is healthy.”

“But still,” the Grinch said, “I thought God was fair.
I thought God viewed each of us with just the same care.
If that’s so, why does God feed some and not others?
Shouldn’t we split it between all sisters and brothers?”

“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking a bit,
“That God’s idea isn’t unfair or unfit.
The rich Whos have money. They’re already eating.
But for those on the edges, there is no more seating.

“If God is ensuring the poor get some too,
God isn’t unfair -- God’s thinking it through.
God’s evening out what is unfairly done,
Feeding the hungry and forgetting none.”

“This is called justice,” Cindy Lou Who reminded,
“Making things equal and right for all Whomankind.
Some Whos already have more than they need.
God’s concern is for those who are trampled by greed.

“Justice means when something goes wrong, God will right it.
And to that hard work of change we’re invited.
To fixing what’s broken. To righting old wrongs.
I think that is why we sing Mary’s great song.”

“But still,” the Grinch said, “it doesn’t seem fair
To take from one person to even the share.
If I earned it, I keep it. I can give it away
If I want to, but God taking it isn’t okay.

How can I buy gift if God looks down on money?
Can we cook roast beast if God sends us off hungry?
Once I stole food, but then brought it to you.
Now when I make food, I buy it all new.

If I’m not the one causing any unfairness,
Why am I being charged with justice awareness?”
“I think,” Cindy said, after thinking quite quietly
“God worries how the mighty got so very might-i-ly.

“We’re all loved by God, but not all born the same.
Some Whos get a bonus in life’s complex game.
“I think justice,” said the wise little Cindy Lou Who,
“Is recognizing you’re not just a product of you.

“There are systems in place that we didn’t start,
And some without the tiniest shred of a heart.
The roast beast we eat -- were they cared for and fed?
Who stitched the red Santa cap you wear on your head?

“Some Whos are quite wealthy because they make choices
That hurt others, but wealthy Whos silence their voices.
When God questions wealth, it’s because all too frequently
Wealth has been made from Whos who are hurt secretly.

“So I think,” Cindy said, after rubbing her chin,
“The challenge is for us to see the systems we’re in.
We have to ask questions.  We have to keep checking.
If Whos do go hungry, it’s time for inspecting.”

“It’s hard to keep learning,” the Grinch grumpily said.
“This information feels like too much for my head.”
“That’s OK,” little Cindy Lou Who let him know.
“You don’t have to change everything by tomorrow.”

“The power of community helps us keep going.
We gather together to share questions and knowing.
By hearing our stories, we change and we grow,
And become a force for justice in the world that we know.”

“Hmm,” hmm’d the Grinch, his grinchy face wrinkling.
“This idea of community has got me thinking.”
He thought of how life had been pre-Cindy Lou.
How he grumbled, and grimaced, and hated the Whos.

He thought of how feeling left out made him feel --
Like he would never sit with a friend for a meal.
“I hated Who Christmas because I felt ignored.
I tried to ruin it and even the score.

“When you sang your Who songs, I was angry and rash.
I stole all of your presents, your gifts, all your stash.
I stole all of the food and the Christmas trees too.
I was so very angry, my dear Cindy Lou.

“But I realized the day when you all still sang songs
That Christmas is all about repairing wrongs.
I wanted to fix all I’d broken and wrecked,
Even if you despised me for the thoughts in my head.

“But you didn’t!” the Grinch grinned.  “You invited me in.
You gave me a seat, said I was for-giv-en.
The injustice of me being left out was repaired.
You welcomed me even though I’d been unfair.”

The Grinch smiled.  “Thank you, little Cindy Lou Who.
It’s hard to accept, but I know what to do.
I’m part of a problem that’s quite hard to see,
But you know what?  I’m stronger than its secrecy.

“Justice is a word I want to keep hearing.
And knowing that fairness is a hope to keep nearing.
When I have been hurt, I want to declare it.
And when I am the hurter, I want to repair it.

“I want to help others.  I want to learn lots.
And I want to sing Mary’s Magnificat.
God remembers the promises and seeks out the lost,
God is righting the world, no matter the cost.”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

What does the Lord require of you? a sermon on offering for Zion Lutheran, August 23 2015

Micah 6:6-8
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalm 40:1-11
I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make
    the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
    to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
    your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
    none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
    they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
    but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
    you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
    in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.
Do not, O Lord, withhold
    your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    keep me safe forever.
2 Corinthians 8:9-15
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
“The one who had much did not have too much,
    and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Message    (Listen along)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

So you at Zion have been in the process of working through different parts of the service, and talking in the sermon about the parts, their traditions, where they come from.  Today's focus is on the offering.  So everyone just bust your wallets ... no, no, I'm just kidding.  I did tease Pastor Meta, I said, "so you're going to have the guest preacher talk about money, that's how you want to set this up..."  (laughter)

But I hope you heard in the readings that have been laid out today that offering is about more than money.  That is where I want to find our home today, in this sermon: that there is something more that God asks from us and for us.

We have these beautiful examples in these three different scriptures.  We have Micah, Second Corinthians, and the Psalms.  Micah is a prophet.  He writes from a place that is troubled.  The Jewish people for a long time have understood their offerings to God as having many different functions.  They need to give from the first fruits of their harvest, to give back, to give thanks.  They need to give a tenth of whatever grows, to say, "God, you are the one who gave the growth.  You are the one who truly feeds us."

In addition, the Jewish people have understood that there need to be offerings to take the place of their sins.  When they make mistakes, when they fall short of the glory of God, they must turn over food and sacrifices from their own belongings, to fill in the gap that has come between them and the promises that God wants for them.

And Micah, the prophet, looks at this and says:  "But wait.  Where is the line?  How far does this go?  Does God really want oil, and sacrificed cows, or even my firstborn, to make up for my sin?  Where do I stop and say, 'I've given enough'?"

Where Micah lands is in saying what God wants is for us to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.

Paul, on the opposite side of the biblical timeline, somewhere in the first century, maybe in a prison maybe in a tent somewhere dictating to a scribe, is talking to the church in Corinth, a church he started.  He is answering their questions but also pleading with them and saying:  "There is a church in Jerusalem that is suffering.  They need help.  You are a church in abundance.  It is possible that God has called for you to help them."

Paul is writing to a community that is in a lot of transition, just like Micah's community.  Paul is saying, "I know you are a new church.  I know some of you are Jews, and you are used to giving at a certain place and a certain time and in a certain way.  I know some of you are Greeks, and Romans, and other Gentiles, who have not been part of a worshipping community in this way.  This is new.  Let me explain to you what it is like to live into this new community that lives in the grace of God."

Then we have the psalm.  The Psalms is this interesting book of the Bible that collects a hundred and fifty poems and songs -- sometimes they are laments, sometimes they are praise, they are always prayer.  And this particular psalm is talking about worship from the heart.  Not about worship that follows a perfect ritual, but worship that rises from true hope.

All of our writers today are talking to people in transition, who are wondering "What does it mean that God wants something from me?  What does that look like?  What if God wants too much?  What if I can't give enough?  What does God require of us?"

And so Micah's words reverberate through the many hundreds of years, saying, "What God wants is to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God."

To do justice.  To recognize where limits are.  To not ask more from people than they can give.  To recognize when people are suffering.  To admit when we, painfully, have taken part in that suffering.  God calls us to do justice.  To apologize when we have done wrong.  To make amends when we have made mistakes.  And to call wrongdoers to account, to speak love to power and say, "There are people hurting.  We must do something different."  It looks so different for each person and each congregation to do justice.  But God calls us to that relationship being restored, between us and between God.

What does the Lord require of us?  To love kindness.  To forgive ourselves.  To forgive others.  To live in the hope that looks like love.  To lay our own burdens down, to be kind to ourselves, to say "I will not carry this pain and hold on to it in a way that makes me resentful or bitter, but I will learn to let it go."  To love kindness towards yourself and towards others.  To love the kindness that God offers every day.  To believe that there is a place that we can live where it's no longer about racking up the perfect points or offering the right sacrifice or worshipping with absolute righteousness, but to live into God's kindness, every day.

What does the Lord require of us?  To walk humbly with our God.

Humbleness is a tricky word.  We've come to recognize it often as a beating down of the self, a bowing of the head.  But the core of being humble is being honest.  It is not about beating yourself down, lowering yourself.  It is not about raising yourself up, above others.  It is about being honestly who God made us to be, nothing more and nothing less.  To be humble is to be truly ourselves, to admit our messy mistakes but to celebrate our great joys, to be honestly ourselves before God and before each other.

What does the Lord require of you?  Not oil, not sacrificial cows, not your firstborn.  Not to give, as Paul says, until you are under pressure and uncomfortable.  What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

And the church, at its core and at its best, calls us to this.  That is why we gather, in the hope that we will be continually brought back to justice and kindness and walking honestly with our God.  To a place where we give -- our talents, our treasures, our hopes, our prayers.  A place where we give up -- our resentments, our pain, our anger.  Not out of fear and shame and guilt or concern about the jeopardy of our salvation but because we are free.  Because God has said, "You are free."

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly and honestly with your God.  It is a different kind of offering.  It will look different in different times and places.  It is not a hard and fast rule, like bulls and oil and tithing.  It is a transformation of the heart that God is working at in you every day.

When we come to our time of offering today in worship, and the basket passes you -- can you give money? Of course.  But remember too when it passes you that God asks for so many other things.  For you to let the love of God knock at your heart.  For you to offer up your pain, your mistakes, your sin, the oppression that you live under or that you have caused for others -- to offer that up and let it go.  And to give into the world instead justice, and kindness, and honesty.

What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with your God.  Amen.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Finally: or, the day Isaiah promised


Finally, finally, finally.


We are laughing, we are crying, we are singing, we are dancing in the streets.  It is Pride weekend and we finally, finally, finally have won marriage equality for same-gender relationships in every state in America.

This is a day centuries in waiting.  This is a day I wasn’t sure I’d see in my lifetime, and here it is.  The exhale of a million long-held breaths is like the sound of the Holy Spirit.  

This is the day the prophet Isaiah promised, telling those with no family to sing as if they had a hundred children, offering love and redemption to those who had too long carried fear, shame, discouragement, and disgrace.


We will celebrate well this weekend.

Yet many voices remind us that there is much more work to be done.  Jennicet GutiĆ©rrez’s interruption of President Obama’s LGBT reception has re-drawn attention to the oppression of trans women of color who are imprisoned or detained in American cells.  Nine trans women of color have been murdered in 2015 alone.  LGBT children and teens still comprise 40% of the homeless youth population, many cast out from hateful families and shunned by friends and churches.  Thousands of open or closeted LGBT people will hear today, from family and friends and coworkers and peers and even church leaders, that the Supreme Court’s decision is one more American backslide into perdition.

Nation-wide rights to marriage ends one part of legal discrimination; it does not end the cultural, societal, religious, and interpersonal hatred many of us face each day.  

So the question is:  what do we do now?  A person of faith might say:  Where is God calling us now?

Today’s ruling has only legal effect; it changes nothing about religious practices of barring same-gender couples from marriage.  But there is something glorious and godly in it yet.  The good news of the long arc of history that bends toward justice is the good news of a just and loving God.

This is the day the prophet Isaiah promised.  This is the day of rebuilding.

We have been torn down.  We, the LGBT community, have been gripped and pulled and ripped apart by those who opposed us, by strangers and family alike, who claimed we had no place in the law or in the house of God or even the world.  We have lived in legal and religious exile.  But God has been calling us back, relentlessly, pleadingly, fighting through the crowds of hate to offer a word of hope.

And today, the foundation for our house has been laid.  We have been afflicted and storm-tossed, and today, we see a foundation laid with silver and sapphire, towers of rubies and gates made of precious stone.  We are being made a city shining for all to see.  We are a promise:  we are God’s yes, yes, yes to hope and work and resurrection.  That which seemed impossible is possible.  That which seemed far off is near.

This is the day the prophet Isaiah had promised.  This is the day when the Lord cried out, Have you no money?  Come, buy, eat.  I want to feed you far better than hatred and fear ever can.

Let us learn from the stones that built this foundation.  Let us remember the lessons we learned as we fought for marriage equality state by state; as we had the hard conversations with friends and family when we declared our own unalienable rights; as we saw the tide begin to turn, the low roll of waves of acceptance.  We can bring these lessons to greater work.  We can take what has built the foundation of this house -- dedication, hope, a powerful belief in justice -- and continue the fight for our brothers and sisters.  We can reduce homelessness among LGBT youth.  We can see trans health care covered by insurers and doctors.  We can examine our own relationships and root out abuse, addiction, codependency, and all other toxicity that has crept in from the hatred we lived in each day.

And if we are people of faith, let us too learn from the stones that built this foundation.  Let us remember that the lies we are told by family and society and supposedly loving Christians do not tame the God who is pursuing us in madly irrational hope.  Let us hear the voice of God who says I gather the outcasts, even more than you can count.  We can find our home in the house of God again.  We can believe that there is a place for us, that a loving God is beating down each door and wall in the passionate hope that there will be space for all.  We can raise up the voices of faithful LGBT Christians, hearing the voices of the prophets in our midst, calling us home.

We can do this.  Whether we were brought here today by the spirit of a just and loving God or the hard work of thousands of LGBT people who believed in a better future or (as I suspect) a gracious overflowing of both, we have come this far by a powerful faith.  We have all believed in something, together.  We have more work to do, but look at how far we have come; we already know we can do more.

Where is God calling us now?  To build on the foundation; to rebuild the house of God, a house of prayer for all people.  There will be peace, and food, and joy enough for all.  And the house of God, which once was a boundary between, will be a home for everyone.

Finally, our work is done.

Finally, our work can begin.


This summer I've joined up with Voices in the Wilderness, a blogging collective empowering Christian writers to impact the world.  You can find more posts like this at .