Sunday, April 13, 2014

A little dark-haired girl who hated Palm Sunday: a sermon on Matthew 21:1-11

Once upon a time, there was a dark-haired little girl who hated Palm Sunday.  She loved church, and she loved Holy Week best of all, but oh she hated Palm Sunday, and this is why: she hated how her church read the story of Jesus’ passion.

Every year the narrative would be broken into spoken parts, with a Narrator and a Jesus and a Pilate and a Peter, and she always wanted to be one of them; but too many years she was just part of the crowd, the rest of the congregation, that shouted Hosanna! at the beginning and Crucify him! at the end.

She hated it.  Because she wouldn’t have shouted it.  She wouldn’t have given in with everyone to betraying Jesus.  She didn’t want to shout Crucify him.

But as that dark-haired little girl got a little older and learned a little more about life and death and heartbreak, she realized that’s the point, isn’t it -- it isn’t something we want to admit, but it is the truth -- that we can be everyone in the story.

We are the crowd.  We began worship alongside them, with palms in our hands and praises on our lips.  We are the crowd that gathers to meet him on his way into Jerusalem.  There are those among us who whisper:  he’s fulfilling a prophecy!  He’s showing himself to be the rightful king by coming, not glorified and majestic on a stallion, but humble and meek, on a donkey and a colt.

We have heard the stories of this Jesus, the great prophet, the healer, the teacher.  We have passed the story excitedly to friends:  have you heard what God has done?  We cry Hosanna, Blessed, Hosanna -- words from an old psalm that have suddenly taken on new meaning.  We call Jesus the Son of David, meaning that he is the promised Messiah -- one who has come to liberate Israel and the world from the hands of sin.

Too, we are sometimes the owner of this borrowed donkey.  We are bewildered and honored when the followers of Jesus appear, saying that the Lord needs us -- us! -- needs our humble little donkey.  We hurry to brush her, to whisper our pride in her ear, to hand her over.  There are times when we are glad, even honored, to give what we have because we see what it will do.

On Thursday we will hear of the disciples borrowing something else:  a room, furnished and ready with food, for the Passover meal.  And here we are too.  We are the honored hosts of the Passover meal, tripping over our own feet in excitement.  When we see a new family and rush to greet them, to learn their names, to make sure there are enough crayons and bulletins, to invite them to communion and to Spark and to bunco night -- there is pride and excitement in that, an honor in getting to share what has long nourished us.

And of course we are the disciples:  excited, convicted, passionate, and totally confused.  We are walking beside this donkey, amazed at the crowd, the shouts and praises for our master.  When we speak of Jesus, and of the kingdom of God, we are stumbling, we stutter and stammer, we forget things we remember later, and yet when we speak of love and peace there are people who listen.  When we sit across the table at Caribou from someone and listen -- really listen -- sometimes we see hearts opened and eyes filled and minds that wonder at this miracle that is grace.  And we are amazed.

Yet we are also sometimes the scribes and Pharisees.  We challenge Jesus.  We worry about him.  We aren’t sure about this message of compassion and mercy.  It seems -- fuzzy.  Too much grey, this loving-your-neighbor business, when we sometimes long for black-and-white boundaries, for clear-cut rules, for an “us” and a “them” to make things easier.

And we are Judas.  Judas has been by Jesus’ side almost from the beginning, and yet something happens in Jerusalem that changes everything.  He has trusted and hoped and had faith in Jesus and then in the course of just a few days it is all over.  This is the thing that little girl hated: how our expectations can break us.  How the moment that something we thought we fully understood, controlled, had a grip on can fall apart like sand through our fingers.

Some days it is impossible for me to understand how Judas could be so close to Jesus, could be there at the Last Supper and have his feet washed and then walk out, only to return hours later with soldiers in tow.  But every time I’ve had my heart broken or a hope dashed or a dream lost, I’ve understood a little better how easy it is to move from feeling betrayed to becoming a betrayer.

And every time my expectations have fallen through, I understand the crowd a little better.  Today we repeat their cries of praise, shouting Hosanna and waving our palms in celebration and expectation.  They were welcoming their coming Messiah.  But their vision of a Messiah and Jesus’ vision were very, very different.  The crowds pouring into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration though the Messiah would come to throw out the Romans, to break the chains of oppression and persecution, to cast out all the non-Jewish pagans and sit on the throne of David forever.  They were celebrating the coming of a warrior.  And when they see him, in a few days, whipped by Pilate and condemned by their religious leaders, they are heartbroken.  Isn’t this the Messiah?  Shouldn’t he rise up, destroy the Romans who beat him, silence the hypocrites who speak against him?

As a little girl I hated Palm Sunday, because it told the truth about us.  That we can be one of a crowd that turns so easily on something we thought we loved.

That we can be the Roman soldiers, uncaring and unconcerned; that when someone is brought before us with a label of Criminal, of Rebel, of Dangerous, it can be so easy to accept it.

That we can be Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, and every single one of the disciples who denied him and fled.

That we can be the women who watch Jesus’ beating and crucifixion and death only from a distance, transfixed and heartbroken.

Palm Sunday, as it leans into Holy Week, tells the truth about us.

And into all that comes a king, riding on a donkey.  Into the truth about our ability to believe or to reject, to love or to betray, to cheer or to condemn, walks Jesus.

God is not revealed in a tearing of the clouds, a booming voice echoing in every ear, a shout and a demand.  God does not gallop into Jerusalem on a stallion like a conquering king.

God comes as human, sends the only begotten Son, riding on a young colt into our midst.  God comes as human, as Jesus, born in human likeness, humble in the face of our praise, quiet in the face of our anger.

There is a frustration in this:  that when we cry God, fix this, change this, spare me from this, sometimes what we find is not deliverance but companionship.  We do not get a God who protects us perfectly from pain but a Son who walks beside us, in every person we are.  We get a God who became a servant, who washes our feet, who feeds us with his body, who welcomes us home every time we wander.

This is who God is -- that no matter where we are, no matter who we are, no matter which of the many voices in this story of the Passion are ours, God comes for us.  God comes and says:  I am not afraid of your anger, or your pain, or your heartbreak, or your fear, or your betrayal.  I am here for you.  I live among you.  I know who you are and why you are and I love you.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sermon for March 23, 2014: "You don't know this man" (John 4:5-42)

John 4:5-42 (NRSV)

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

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”


You don’t know this man.
You don’t know where he’s been or where he’s going.
You just know there’s a man, a Jew, hanging around your village well,
asking you for a drink as if it’s normal,
as if Jews and Samaritans ever share anything,
as if your people and his people haven’t been scowling at each other over holy books for centuries,
as if there aren’t clear boundaries between your towns that no proper person would cross.

You don’t know this man.
You don’t know that back in Jerusalem, the holy city, his holy city,
he’s been debating with the religious elite, challenging their power,
working miracles and teaching about God despite their disapproval.
You don’t know that one of these men, a Pharisee,
snuck out to see this man under cover of night,
snuck out to say “We know that you are sent from God,”
snuck back with his head full of wonder about being born from above, about the invisible untouchable force that changes everything, about the Son of God sent into the world not to judge and condemn but to love.
You don’t know this man, Nicodemus.
And you don’t know this man sitting at your well.

You’ve come at noon, the hottest part of the day, expecting no one.
You don’t come in the morning with the other women.
You are tired of the way they look at you, that spun-up mixture of pity and horror,
of the way their eyes count the five empty spaces that haunt you.
You are tired of being reminded that you have been passed from man to man.
“She’s had five husbands,” their eyes say, as if you had a choice.
As if divorce wasn’t as simple as a certificate, for reasons as wide as bearing no children to a poorly cooked meal.
You’re tired of the way the women’s eyes reflect your empty home, your empty purse, the man who keeps you now but will never marry you.
You’ve come at noon, expecting no one.
Instead there is a man, a Jew, with dirty feet and thirsty tongue,
and some kind of golden fire to his gaze, some sort of eternal light flickering in his eyes.

You don’t know this man.
And you don’t know what he’s talking about, this living water,
something to quench your thirst forever.
You only know you want it.

You don’t know this man,
but he knows you.
His dark eyes call on you and he sees exactly who you are
and everything you’ve ever done.
Somehow the way he looks at you is different from the looks of the other women.
Somehow the way his eyes fall on you sets all your shame on fire, till there’s nothing left of it but ashes.
Something inside you begins to bubble up.
Somehow, when this man looks at you, you no longer feel the boundaries between you --
Samaritan and Jew, woman and man, divorcee and prophet.
You know his people and your people disagree on almost everything.
You know a woman has no right to question a man.
But the words are falling from your lips like water from a tipped jar.
You’ve come at noon, expecting no one,
and now you set aside your water jar
and take up your questions.
The questions you have carried like a weight, the wonderings, that inscrutable want to know and understand -- they are pushing through your long-built dam of quiet.
You don’t know this man, but when he speaks of God
you are hungry in a way that feels unquenchable.
When he says that we will soon worship God in spirit and truth --
not in a place but in person, not in a city but in heart,
not by religion but by relationship --
when you mention the Messiah and this man says I am he --
you leave behind your water jar,
because there is something bubbling up in you
like a spring of living water.
You want to catch the eye of every person you’ve been avoiding and say
Come and see!  Come and see.
There’s something going on here that I can’t explain and you need to see it for yourself.

You don’t know this man, but he knows you, and you want everyone to know it.
He knows you, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been done to you,
and in those dark eyes there is not judgment or pity but kindness and compassion.
This man, this Jew, this prophet, this Messiah has appeared at your well
and talked to you, like you are worthy, like you are wanted,
like you are capable of being a witness
as much as a trained scholar of Jerusalem.
This man wants you.  Not like the men who have married you and left you
but because he sees something in you -- sees your questions, your pain, your joy, your hope
and welcomes them.  Wants them.
Wants to hear what you have to say.
Wants you to be filled so much that something bubbles up inside you
and quenches your longings, something like living water -- something that gets you so excited
that you forget your water jar, your regular work, and you run off to tell everyone you know
that this Messiah wants that much joy in you.
And amazingly enough, they believe you.
They believe you about this Jewish Messiah,
and with you they sit at his feet and learn.

You don’t know this man.
You don’t know that he just left Jerusalem,
that he left a confused Pharisee in the dark about this place called God’s kingdom.
You came at noon, expecting no one,
and in the brightness of the day you’ve found yourself filled.
In the days to come you will still have to come back to the well,
but you will go in the morning, with the other women.
They look at you differently now.
They no longer see the space where a husband ought to be,
but the space a prophet filled,
the place where there is something bubbling up inside you
like a spring of living water.

Come and see.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon on John 3:16: "Love is the lesson that breaks all the rules"


There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”

Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”

“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.

“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”

Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?

“No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again."


Nicodemus, and the rest of the Pharisees and the Jewish religious leaders, had a good thing going.  They were the top of the heap, spiritually speaking.  They were the leaders of a people in fear -- people whose ancestors had been hauled off to Babylon in slavery, who had come home and rebuilt their beautiful Temple, who had seen their land taken over by Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans.  The Jewish people lived in fear, and they wanted desperately to know:  how, in the face of our oppression by the Romans, do we please God?  How are we to be righteous when the culture around us is not?  When will the Messiah come and free us from our bondage?  And they turned to the Pharisees for answers.

And a very easy answer was to focus on action.  What they could look at, what they could hear and smell and touch; this was the way to know where you were in God’s standing.  If you could afford the expensive temple sacrifices.  If you prayed a certain way, in a certain place.  If you kept the purity laws perfectly, or close to.  If you didn’t interact with pagans and lepers and sinners.  Then God would bless you, and remember Israel, and send the Messiah to free -- well, at least you and the rest of the righteous.

There is no question that being held accountable for our actions is an essential part of faith.  But when Jesus looked at the way the Jewish leaders cared for the people, he saw that accountability was the only part.  There was no space, no “wiggle room,” no grace for people who could not meet the strict requirements.  And so Jesus shakes his head at Nicodemus and says, “Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the kingdom.”

He says to Nicodemus, The way you lead the people is so narrow, so focused, it’s like you walk with blinders on.  And the kingdom of God is so much bigger.  The kingdom isn’t just how we move and act, it’s what moves in us, what transforms and shapes our very self.  Unless we totally submit, totally give in to this invisible and life-changing power of God, then we’ll never see the wideness of God’s world.

Nicodemus is not sure he buys this.  “What are you saying?  What do you mean?”

And Jesus starts to lose his patience and says “I’m telling you what’s right in front of your face, and you’re procrastinating with questions.”  He says, You are a leader of Israel.  You study the holy books of Scripture day and night.  You read the stories of how God made the whole world, how God led us out of slavery in Egypt, how we crossed the Red Sea on dry land, how we survived forty years in the wilderness, how this invisible God kept loving us and leading us even though we made mistakes at every turn, and I say “there might be something more than meets the eye to God’s kingdom” and you don’t listen.  You are supposed to be a leader of the people, to be their spiritual guide, but when I tell you the truth you already know, that God is a mighty force we cannot see and faith is about more than action, you won’t believe it.

Jesus is impatient because Nicodemus has his feet firmly planted in an old way of thinking, and he is not really willing to budge.  He wants to ask questions.  From Jesus’ response I think we can guess these aren’t scientific questions, practical analysis, drawing up a strategic plan for how to get this “born from above” thing done.  These are more like the questions that drag out bedtime at home and push deadlines at work -- the But Whys and Are You Sures, the kinds of questions our kids and our coworkers and we ask, not because we’re unsure of the answers but because we don’t like them.

Nicodemus is asking questions because he and the rest of the Pharisees have a good thing going -- and this “born from above” business doesn’t quite fit into that plan.

And Jesus looks at him and says, You came to me because you know I’m a teacher straight from God.  I know you wanted clean and easy answers, but that’s not why I came.  I came to make things messy.  I came to be God among you, and you will kill me.  

The Son of Man will have to be lifted up, he says -- meaning on the cross.  The Son of Man will be lifted up so that you see and believe that faith is messier than proper practice and correct rituals, that God is bigger than your blinders -- that love is the lesson that breaks all the rules.

Love has the power to look beyond actions and see the spirit inside.  Love can look beyond ritual and purity and religion and see faith.  Love can take off the blinders and see the other person.

Love is always breaking the rules.  Not holy rules like the commandments, not necessary rules like good meals and bedtimes.  Rules made out of fear.  Rules that separate us from each other.  Rules about who’s in and who’s out, about who’s rich and who’s poor, about how long we can hold a grudge, about what we need to do and say to be considered valuable.

Love can look different at different times.  Sometimes love looks like selflessness -- like helping when we’re exhausted, like sharing when no one is making us.  Sometimes love looks like boundaries -- saying to someone who has hurt us, “I won’t let you do that again, because it doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help me.”

This is the lesson that Jesus will teach, in Luke’s gospel, of a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, and how a priest and a scribe will walk by on the other side -- following, perfectly, the rules about not touching blood or a dead body.  And Jesus will say “But there was a Samaritan, who saw him and was moved with compassion.”  This is the lesson where love comes up against all the rules -- and love, in God’s kingdom, always wins.

This is the lesson that Jesus will teach, at the end of John’s gospel and at the end of our journey through Lent, when he kneels at the feet of each disciple -- even Judas Iscariot, about to betray him -- and washes their feet.  Jesus will overturn rules about propriety and servanthood and say instead, This is the lesson:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This is the lesson: we can love, because God first loved us.  We can dare to live as people born from above, from out of this world, not living by rules that divide and break down but by the lesson of love that draws us into one God.

Nicodemus doesn’t understand, but Jesus didn’t come to straighten our blinders.  He came to take them off.  He came to help, to put the world right again, and to offer us a whole and lasting life.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

"How do you want to use your power?": a seminary sermon on Matthew 4:1-11

Chapel -- March 6, 2014 -- 11am -- Olson Campus Center, Chapel of the Incarnation
Preacher:  Emmy Kegler, M.Div senior
Assisting Minister:  Ashley Osborn, M.Div senior
Pianist:  Emily Bruflat

* Gathering Hymn:  Softly and Tenderly, ELW #608

1 Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me.
See, on the portals he's waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.

"Come home, (Come home,) come home! (come home!)
You who are weary, come home."
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, "O sinner, come home!"

2 Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading,
pleading for you and for me?
Why should we linger and heed not his mercies,
mercies for you and for me?

3 Oh, for the wonderful love he has promised,
promised for you and for me!
Though we have sinned, he has mercy and pardon,
pardon for you and for me.

* Greeting

* Prayer

1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
       but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
   and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
                   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written,
‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

And immediately Jesus heads for the desert.  He comes out of the Jordan at the height of glory, with an astonished crowd watching as God’s spirit pours down on him, and the next move is to go alone into the wilderness and empty himself completely.  And at the end of forty days, alone and starving, Jesus hears the devil ask him:  How do you want to use your power?

Don’t you want, says the devil, picking up a smooth stone, to feed yourself?  To eat when you need to eat?  To not hunger, or thirst, or want for anything -- because you have the power, you know, the power to feed yourself.

Don’t you want, says the devil, peering down into the temple, for people to know your importance?  You have something important to say, Jesus.  Don’t you want to make sure they are listening?

Didn’t you come, says the devil, with the blue earth small under his feet, to have the whole world at your command?  Isn’t that your mission -- to bring all peoples together and unite the world?  The kingdom is coming, Jesus.  The quicker you do it, the better it will be.

How do you want to use your power?

I don’t know if we think about ourselves as having power.  I know for me it’s easy to forget. We get put on the bottom of this seminary system, you know.  We have to wait and hope for CPE and internships and scholarships and GRE scores and Ph.D programs and thesis defense and full-time jobs and first call assignment -- and I don’t feel a lot of power in that.

And yet the devil holds out a stone.  We are called, and people will hold out money and trust and themselves, to us.  And then we have a choice.

We can choose to feed ourselves.  We are hungry, after all.  The lives of pastors and professors and public leaders are draining ones.  We can neglect self-knowledge and self-reflection, and choose instead the unexamined life where we unwittingly expect our needs and wants to be filled first.  Sometimes it feels much easier to turn a stone into bread for myself than to feed the five thousand.

We can glorify ourselves.  We have something to say, after all.  In a world that is increasingly unsure of the value and purpose of this whole Jesus thing, we’ve been equipped to preach the gospel.  We can want people to listen, by any means necessary.  Sometimes it feels easier to throw myself off the top of the temple than to wander, poor and homeless, from little town to little town with this message of God’s kingdom.

And we trust in our own abilities to make the kingdom happen.  We’ve worked so hard, for so long.  Certainly we know about God’s grace and provision, but that doesn’t get papers written.  We can think we have the power to change the world, and quickly.  Sometimes it feels much easier to bow down fast and take full control now, than to work in small ways, one person or family or community at a time, to pray for the kingdom to come.

How do you want to use your power?  Because the devil holds out a stone.  And we are hungry.

And in that moment, the only hope we have is that we do all this for something more than ourselves.  That when we feed ourselves, we eat with many.  That when we stumble, it is not for attention.  That the world comes to wholeness only through the work of God.

When temptation and the easy way bear down on us, when we are hungry and tired and alone and frustrated, the only hope we have is that God is bigger.  When the pressure is on, the kind of pressure that turns us into either diamonds or dust, there is a God that holds us together.   That God is working in us to turn us away from the easy road and onto a path of integrity and vulnerability and compassion.

The only hope we have is that the way of Jesus is real.

The world will never tell us this.  We begin Lent knowing already the end of the story.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hates it.  On Good Friday, the world will crucify a life of service, of compassion, of obedience.  Violently and viscerally the world will say to the way of Jesus:  No.

And on Easter Sunday God will say, with a voice so quiet that two thousand years later we still hear it:  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

* Corporate Confession and Forgiveness

For self-centered living,
and for failing to walk with humility and gentleness:

For longing to have what is not ours,
and for hearts that are not at rest with ourselves:

For misuse of human relationships,
and for unwillingness to see the image of God in others:

For jealousies that divide families and nations,
and for rivalries that create strife and warfare:

For reluctance in sharing the gifts of God,
and for carelessness with the fruits of creation:

For hurtful words that condemn,
and for angry deeds that harm:

For idleness in witnessing to Jesus Christ,
and for squandering the gifts of love and grace:

God, who is rich in mercy,
loved us even when we were dead in sin,
and made us alive together with Christ.
By grace you have been saved.
In the name of + Jesus Christ,
your sins are forgiven.
Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit,
that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.

* Hymn:  Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love, ELW #708

Jesu, Jesu,
fill us with your love,
show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.

1 Kneels at the feet of his friends,
silently washes their feet,
master who acts as a slave to them.  Refrain

2 Neighbors are wealthy and poor,
varied in color and race,
neighbors are near us and far away.  Refrain

3 These are the ones we will serve,
these are the ones we will love;
all these are neighbors to us and you.  Refrain

4 Kneel at the feet of our friends,
silently washing their feet:
this is the way we will live with you.  Refrain

* Peace

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chairs, Backhands, and Perfection: a stumbling through Matthew 5:38-48

Scripture:  Matthew 5:38-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."



Set a chair out.

I have an assignment for you this morning, which most likely none of you will like.  I was forced to do this  a few weeks ago with my confirmation students and I didn’t like it and they didn’t like it so for those of you in my class who remember that lesson I apologize for the repeat.

But in this chair this morning I want you to imagine your enemy.

I want you to imagine that person that you think of and grit your teeth when the scripture says “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you.”  If you need to close your eyes you can do it, if you need to grit your teeth you can do it, if you need to take your blood pressure medication because all of a sudden your enemy is in church with you, you can do it.

And I need you -- I want to invite you -- to imagine you are sitting across from your enemy, at a table.  And this could be a person who has hurt you, a person you have hurt, your boss who drives you crazy, your employees who make your work harder -- it can be, if you’ve been following the news this week, the people that you fear when you think about the Michael Dunn and Jordan Davis case, of the young black teen who was gunned down and whose shooter has been acquitted.  Whoever makes you grit your teeth in fear, in anger, in hate -- you are now sitting across from them.

And I’ll invite you to imagine that you are sitting across from them at that great table, at the end of days, the last of days, the end of the ages, in heaven at the great feast.  Because this is the frustrating and almost ugly part of grace that it’s not only for us but that it’s for the people who drive us crazy.  For the people who hit us, metaphorically or literally, for the people who make us work harder and carry heavy burdens further than we want to go, for the people who take more from us than they deserve.  That that is who is in this chair.

This is the frustrating part of grace and mercy when scripture says that rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.  That God’s mercy is that wide.  This is hard.

And this is especially hard [sit in chair] when you put yourself in that chair.  When you are your own worst enemy.  When you are the one who puts burdens on yourself and makes demands and looks in the mirror every morning and hears words in your head, those tapes that play over and over in our minds about how we might not be worthy.

That is the moment when Jesus says, “You need to turn your other cheek.”

...Let me explain what I mean.  Natalie and Macie, this is when I need you two up here, and you in the assembled congregation may want to find a partner because this is the interactive portion -- [to Natalie and Macie] would you two come stand right here?  And you can face each other.  Thank you.

Now the scripture says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek”-- which one’s your right cheek?  Natalie -- yep.  Macie [she’s mirroring Natalie, pointing to her left] it’s your other one.  There you go.  “If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also -- on your left.”  Now this is the tricky part that we miss in scripture stories -- this can often be read as a sort of “take whatever comes at you, bow your head to whatever comes.”  “Let the person who strikes you strike you again” but the thing that we miss is that there’s only one way to hit someone on the right cheek.  And that would be -- Macie, I’m going to ask you to act this out but not hit your sister.  [Giggles and laughter]  So if you put your hand out, how would you, if you were using your right hand -- [to the assembly] because you don’t use your left hand, this is culturally a thing, that your left hand is for unclean tasks and your right hand is for everything else -- [to Macie] if you were going to hit your sister with your right hand on her right cheek, how would you hit her?  Would you have to hit her with the back of your hand or the front of your hand?  The back of your hand.

[to the congregation] You can turn to each other and try this out, but please don’t hit, we are in church.  You’d have to backhand.

The scripture says “Turn the other cheek also.”  Natalie, turn out your left cheek.  Now [to Macie] if you were gonna hit her with that right hand again, can you hit her with the back of your hand?  [She nods.  I think “Aw shoot.  She’s supposed to say she can’t.  Punt!]  Yeah?  How would you hit that cheek with that hand?  What would be the most powerful way to hit her -- what about a punch, would that be stronger?

[to the congregation]  If you turn the left cheek, the only way to hit somebody would be with a fist.  [to Natalie and Macie]  Thank you, you both were fantastic.  [They return to their seats.]

Now of course the importance of this is tied up in cultural and historical secrets that we don’t have easy access to, that a backhand would be what a superior did to an inferior.  Almost as if to say “You are beneath me.”  To turn the left cheek, then, would force the person who has hit you to hit you with a fist or an open palm, which was a gesture reserved for equals.  So to turn the left cheek becomes this nonviolent way of stating “Go ahead and hit me again but don’t forget that we are equals in the eyes of God.”

And it comes again when Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”  Which our, ah, English words don’t quite correspond to what people were wearing in first-century Judea.  Essentially what it says is “If someone takes your shirt, give them your underwear.”  So you’d be standing there in court naked.  Which is a nonviolent way of saying “You’ve taken everything I have.  Was that really worth it?”  Especially in a culture like Jewish culture where it is more shameful to see someone naked than to be naked.  “You have stripped me this bare.  Was it worth it, in front of everyone, in front of God, to take this much from me?”

And Jesus does it again with this first mile and second mile thing which we, y’know, can sort of think of as “Give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile.”  There were mile markers all over the roads in Judea, since it was taken over by Roman oppressors who were really into measuring distances, building aqueducts.  And the Roman soldiers decided that since they were the oppressors they could take any Jewish person that they wanted and force them to carry their packs -- what were they gonna do, right?  But after a while the Roman governing authorities said “Listen if we force them to carry packs however far we want, they’re gonna eventually rise up and revolt -- they’re gonna get angry that we forced them into this much labor -- so let’s put a limit on it, and only force them to carry it one mile.”  So the second that a Jewish person wearing a Roman soldier’s pack takes a step into that second mile, that Roman soldier is in danger of being hauled before his superior, flogged, taunted, laughed at, knocked down a rank.  So all of a sudden you’ve got a Jewish oppressed person who is being chased down by his oppressor yelling “Giveitback giveitback!”

So to all the times when we try to put ourselves in the enemy chair, Jesus says “You’re worth more than that.  You’re an equal.  You are just as worthy in the eyes of God.  Rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous and there is enough grace and mercy for every single one of God’s children.”

That’s what Jesus means when he says “Be perfect.

Because he doesn’t mean “be perfect” in the way that we think about perfection in our society, where it means: climb to the top of the highest ladder, be the CEO, be the prettiest, be the richest, be whatever, look like you have it all together -- because Jesus knows none of us do.

The word “perfect” that Jesus says, in Greek, is telos [tay-lohs].  This shows up a couple other places in the New Testament and the most important place I think is when Jesus is dying on the cross, in John’s gospel, and just before he dies he says “It is finished.”  It’s the same word.  Telos.

So when Jesus says to conclude the Sermon on the Mount “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” he says “Be finished.  Be fulfilled.  Do to what you were sent and made to do.”

Not “be shiny”, “be polished,” “be whitewashed.”  The word that Jesus uses to say “it is finished” he speaks while he is dying.  As he is at his most vulnerable, in the most pain he could imagine.  He says, “It is finished.  It is perfect.  Because I have done what I came to do.”

To love your enemy.  To love yourself.  To know and do what you are called to do.  These are hard asks, I will not lie.  But they are great.  They are wondrous.  And you are worthy.  Every single one of us is worthy of them.  Of letting go of anger and resentment, and leaning into love and forgiveness.  Of accepting that grace and mercy pours out so radically that it falls even on your enemy and maybe even on yourself.  That you are worthy of doing what you were made to do.

These are hard asks that Jesus lays before us this morning.  So we will open now a time of prayer.  Pastor Jenny and I will be at two prayer stations.  Come forward.  Come forward and ask for a way to forgive those who seem unforgivable.  Come forward and ask for a way to forgive yourself when you are the one who puts too many burdens on you.  Come forward and ask for a vision of where your next step lies.  Come forward and ask for whatever you need, for whatever you hunger, for we gather together at the table of God, and there is food enough for all.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Assignments are in!

I’m headed to Region 5 of the ELCA.
Graduating seniors from ELCA seminaries who are seeking ordained ministry (e.g. me and most of my seminary friends!) are assigned to Regions 1-9, and then within a month are assigned to specific synods (65 in all) within their particular region.
So I’m headed to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Michigan U.P. for sure, and I’ll know in about a week which of the synods (see map above, list below) has claimed me.
The synodical breakdown of region 5 is as follows:
  • 5A Metropolitan Chicago (this would be reasonably enjoyable)
  • 5B Northern Illinois
  • 5C Central/Southern Illinois
  • 5D Southeastern Iowa
  • 5E Western Iowa
  • 5F Northeastern Iowa 
  • 5G Northern Great Lakes (would need to stock up on camping gear, which is absolutely fine with me)
  • 5H Northwest Synod of Wisconsin 
  • 5I East-Central Synod of Wisconsin (includes Green Bay, so no church has worship that goes past 11:45am)
  • 5J Greater Milwaukee (beer, baseball, close to Chicago -- I could work with this) 
  • 5K South-Central Synod of Wisconsin (includes Madison, which itself includes my dear already-ordained friends Emily and Dorota, AND my college roommate Liz, so it would be excellent)
  • 5L La Crosse Area (La Crosse is stupid gorgeous.  I would be very happy here)
I’m beyond psyched.  I’ll be within driving distance of home and of Chicago.  I get to stay in my beloved Midwest and keep eating bars and drinking pop (except for you, Chicago… *side eye*).
Sadly I will no longer be playing Duck Duck Grey Duck (other states play a lesser version of this game), but you gotta make sacrifices somewhere.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

So many Jesus movies, so little time

An assignment this week for my Passion Narratives is to watch a movie that includes the passion of Jesus, and to critically analyze it.

This is how that would look on the SATs:

Child : candy store :: Emmy : Jesus movies

I have been a lover of Jesus movies, and musicals, and theatrical productions for so many years.  A theater troupe came through my Episcopal congregation when I was, perhaps, eight? -- and they did a reenactment of the Passion, including the whipping and the crucifixion, in the middle of our sanctuary, and I was so enraptured by it that I crawled forward, down the center aisle, clinging to each pew in turn and unable to take my eyes off it.

This is probably one of those "don't do this to your child, it scars them for life" kinds of issues, but it was the start of a long love affair for me -- of signing up for Garden Shifts on the night of Maundy Thursday, driving with my parents to church to stay and pray for a midnight hour in the flower-filled narthex as a remembrance of the disciples' inability to stay awake; of my teenage solemnity each Holy Saturday, dwelling in the heartbroken quiet of the women's mourning after Jesus' death, waiting for the joy of Easter; my high school devotion to watching Jesus and the Shroud of Turin every Good Friday, and listening to Jesus Christ Superstar, till I went to college and began to realize all the theological and scriptural issues that particular musical raises.

I love these movies and musicals.  Because they're a perfect encapsulation of the difficulty of telling the passion story; because they're done with care, knowing their sensitive content; because public response to them is so telling; because, in the end, I do what I do because I believe there is something to this story of a dead Jewish teacher that is more than a moment in history.  

So the question now is only... which one will I watch?

For obvious reasons.  ALAS ALAS FOR YOU LAWYERS AND PHAAARISEES.  Godspell (if I remember correctly) bases itself most heavily on Matthew's version of the story, which is one of those inherent choices in turning "the Jesus story" into film -- do you stay close to one gospel, try to harmonize them, pick the most dramatic scenes from all four?  This one is great.  But, drawback:  clowns.  I do not like clowns.

Jesus Christ Superstar
For other obvious reasons.  Could Mohammed move a mountain or WAS that just P.R.?  I used to have a lot of scriptural issues with this movie/musical, especially with the hyper-sexualization/romanticization of Mary Magdalene (NOT AN ACTUAL PROSTITUTE, GUYS), but as I've gotten older *adjusts reading glasses* it's become less important.  I really value what Superstar did in re: Judas Iscariot, who in Matthew's gospel is actually very repentant of his actions and usually gets left as a bad guy.

Jesus: The Miniseries
Not to be confused with the Bible Miniseries that came out last year.  This one's from 1999.  I will probably watch this because it is my favorite.  It stars Jeremy Sisto as Jesus and Gary Oldman as Pilate and Debra Messing as Mary Magdalene (still a prostitute), and it takes massive liberties with the source material, and John the Baptist speaks like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, and it's not very well known and I can't explain why but I just really love it.

Speaking of:  Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ
Nope.  Saw it in college.  Wrote a paper on it in college.  Not doing it again.

Jesus of Montreal
Also saw this in college.  Geeked out then.  Would probably geek out more now.  It's a Canadian film from the late 80s about a theater troupe putting on the story of the Passion, and they reinterpret it with historical accuracy which gets them in trouble with the church, but the extra neat part is that the members of the troupe are actually modern metaphors for Jesus, Peter, Mary Mags (a prostitute) and Mary the Mother, and it is just so really neat.  I would probably watch this one for this paper except I shockingly don't own it.  And the seminary library and the local library copies are both out.  I just ordered it from Amazon but it won't arrive till after the paper's due.  Still.  So great.

The Last Temptation of Christ
I have never seen this.  I want to.  So it's in contention with the Miniseries version.  I will slog through tomorrow's snowstorm over to the seminary library and grab it.