Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon for December 22, 2013: A Blue Collar Kind of Guy (Matthew 1:18-25)

Scripture:  Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place:  His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married and living together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph was righteous, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, so he planned to break the engagement quietly.

But as soon as he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, which means 'God saves'; for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: "See, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (which means “God is with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took Mary as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.



Advent is the blue season.  It wasn’t always; when I was growing up, and probably for those of you who grew up Lutheran or Catholic, it was purple.  It was meant to be a time like Lent -- a time of fasting and preparation, of self-examination before the coming of Christ.  Then we shifted, as we do with traditions when they need new life:  Advent became blue, for royalty, for anticipation, for moonlight on snow, for the color of Mary’s robe.

Mary gets top billing during Advent, because she gets the best role in the pageant:  she gets to say Yes to the miracle, Yes to Gabriel, Yes to God.  She gets to sing:  “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God.”  The Magnificat.  And for centuries we prayed “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

Mary gets top billing, and Advent is blue for her robe.  But I think Advent could just as well be blue for Joseph.  We dress him in browns, in most nativity scenes, but he’s a blue collar kind of guy, really.

He was a carpenter, we think, or maybe a stoneworker.  The word is tricky to translate but we know he worked with his hands.  Hard, backbreaking work, pounding out a living in the desert of Galilee, finding his way in the hot sun and the hard granite and the skinny trees.  Mending fishermen’s boats.  Fixing doors.  We could think of him in beat up work boots, with a hammer in the sling of his jeans.

He worked with his hands.  A hard life.  A life where righteousness is shown not in words but in actions.  A man of strength and purpose.  Trustworthy.  The kind of guy who could fix things.  The kind of guy who snowblows his own driveway and then takes care of the next door neighbors’, too.

He paid his taxes, demanded from him by the Roman empire.  He turned his face away when he passed crosses on the side of Roman roads, the punishment for insurrection against the empire.  With his neighbors he quietly mourned the oppression of Israel, the four hundred year silence of the prophets, the empty throne of David.  It seemed, at least, that God’s Old Testament promises of a land and a people of Israel, a free people, a light to the nations -- that those promises had all gone dark.  The Jewish people were freed from Egypt, they returned from Babylon, but still they are not free.

Joseph couldn’t read.  He couldn’t write.  He didn’t know what the Torah, the Law of Moses, looked like -- wouldn’t have known it from chicken scratch.  A peasant worker in a poor town called Nazareth, he couldn’t afford a lot of the sacrifices and offerings prescribed by his religion.  But he went to the local synagogue on Saturday, and he journeyed to the Temple each year for Passover, and he did the best he could to be a righteous man -- a follower of the Law.  A trustworthy man, who trusted God.  

A simple and hard and humble life.  A blue collar life.

And into this simple life has been given joy, in Joseph’s engagement to Mary, a peasant girl of Nazareth.  She would have been, perhaps, thirteen or fourteen years old.  Joseph is often depicted as older, but he could have been as young as eighteen.

Marriage was the central social contract of Jewish life.  It bound two families together.  Before an engagement was entered into, the families would break bread together, making sure they were compatible, honorable, worthy of trust.  After the engagement, the man received a dowry from the young woman’s family, usually including a piece of land so he could build a house and start a small farm.  It was a familial affair, this marriage business, and it was the backbone of society.

Joseph has been building this house, tilling the land, shaking hands with new neighbors.  Working twice as hard in the hot sun, staying up late and rising early.  He dreams of the wedding, of the day he will bring Mary home, of how their children to come someday will fill the house with shouts of laughter.

And into that dream comes a gut-wrenching truth:  Mary is pregnant.

Dishonor.  Betrayal.  Shame.  Mary has broken the marriage contract.  It is awful to imagine the pain that Joseph felt in that moment when he saw his dreams die.  For he is a righteous man, and the Torah was clear:  a woman who was not a virgin was not fit to be married.  The law even permitted her execution by stoning.  But Joseph is a righteous man, who knows the meaning of mercy, and so he plans to end the engagement quietly.  He will not expose Mary to public disgrace and humiliation.  Only her family will know.  She can escape to another town, maybe to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, and have her baby in secret there.

Joseph is a man of strength and purpose.  A trustworthy man, who trusts God.  He is committed to the religion of his ancestors and faithful to its traditions.  He makes a decision, commits to a course of action; he is resolved.

And into that strength breaks the word of God.  Into that resolution and righteousness, and into the fear and pain of a broken engagement, comes the divine promise:  “Do not be afraid.”

So Joseph must wake and ask himself:  What now?  Do I follow the law, and end the engagement?  Do I disobey tradition?  Do I forget my religion?  Do I dare question the practices of my elders, passed down over thousands of years?  

Do I risk shame and scandal, taking an uncertain path, becoming an outcast, accepting the rejection of my family and the laughter of my friends, putting myself even farther to the fringes of society, because I think that what just happened was more than just a dream?

What does it mean to be righteous?  What do you do when the truth runs counter to your whole life?  

What do we do?

What do we do when we come to the edge of everything we know and finally have to say:
“I love you.” “I can’t live like this.”
“I’m changing jobs.” “Mom, Dad, I’m gay.”
“I’m going back to school.” “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I need help.”
“You have hurt me too much, and you can’t be in my life anymore.” “It’s over.”

How do we speak the truth, in that moment, when it seems like the whole world speaks against it -- when we know it will turn our lives upside down?

Something in us, somewhere, has this strange and unexplainable sense that the truth is bigger than our fear.  Something in us is plucked, like a string on a violin, when the angel says “Do not be afraid.”  Because Joseph knew, right in the center of his chest, just above his heart, that what he’d seen in his dream was more than a dream.  That -- that is trust.  Even when the truth seems unbelievable.  Especially when the truth is impossible, and yet we know it to be true.

The miracle of the Christmas story is that God came to earth, but there are a hundred small ones, tucked into the story like straw in a manger, and here is this one:  that Joseph says yes.

He says nothing to the angel, but he takes Mary as his wife.  And in that, Joseph says Yes.  Yes to being the stepfather to God.  Yes to the whispers and judgment.  Yes to having a son who will always be more than a carpenter.  Yes to the son whose ministry he will not live to see.  Yes to the messiness of God.  Yes to his life turned upside down.

And sometimes we get to stand there too.  Sometimes, truth breaks into our lives, and we have the opportunity to say Yes.  In that moment, at the edge of everything we know, we fall into the truth, because it is bigger than us.  Because what that truth has the power to do is to break through our fear and our pain and drop us into this deep cradle of love and mercy.

Falling into truth, speaking it and believing it when the world seems against it, is a radical confession of faith.  A terrifying kind of obedience to the new and beautiful movement of God.  After the longest night of the year, there’s a new dawn, and the days start to lengthen.  And we’re reminded that just when life turns upside down, God shows up, sometimes in the smallest of ways -- a flicker of light -- a hope in the darkness -- a tiny baby born into the life of an unwed mother and a blue-collar kind of guy.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sermon for December 1, 2013 (1st Sunday of Advent): Be strong. Take courage.

Joshua 1:1-9

After the death of Moses the servant of God, God spoke to Joshua, Moses’ assistant:
“Moses my servant is dead. Get going. Cross this Jordan River, you and all the people. Cross to the country I’m giving to the People of Israel. I’m giving you every square inch of the land you set your foot on—just as I promised Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon east to the Great River, the Euphrates River—all the Hittite country—and then west to the Great Sea. It’s all yours. All your life, no one will be able to hold out against you. In the same way I was with Moses, I’ll be with you. I won’t give up on you; I won’t leave you. Be strong! Take courage! You are going to lead this people to inherit the land that I promised to give their ancestors. Give it everything you have, heart and soul. Make sure you carry out The Revelation that Moses commanded you, the rules and laws for how to live in community and compassion -- every bit of it. Don’t get off track, either left or right, so as to make sure you get to where you’re going. And don’t for a minute let this Book of The Revelation be out of mind. Ponder and meditate on it day and night, making sure you practice everything written in it. Then you’ll get where you’re going; then you’ll succeed. Haven’t I commanded you? Be strong! Take courage! Don’t be timid; don’t get discouraged. God, your God, is with you every step you take.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
All:  Thanks be to God!

Message  (which I delivered sitting down.  We were in the round today, and everyone was sitting close at tables, and it felt weird to stand, so I sat on a table and preached.)

Let me tell you a story.

A long time ago there was a tribe of people, called Israel.  The Israelites had no land to call their own, no home country.  They lived in Egypt, and they were slaves to the Pharaoh, forced to make bricks for great buildings and to work themselves to exhaustion in the fields.

But the Israelites were descendants of Abraham, and they told stories -- stories of a God who had created the world, who had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation.  Stories of a God who had saved Joseph, despised by his brothers, thrown into a pit and left to die, sold into slavery, wrongfully imprisoned, but eventually freed and set in charge over all of Egypt, as Pharaoh's right-hand man.

Now these were old stories, whispered around campfires late at night, when their feet and hands felt they might break from the hard work.  But still they whispered of a God who loved them, of a God who could fight for the oppressed and free people from their bondage.

And in those whispers they prayed to that same God:  See us.  Help us.  Save us.

And then one day a man named Moses walked by a bush that burst into flame.

From the burning bush came the voice of God:  I have heard my people.  I know how they suffer.  I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them into their own land, their own home, a place where they will be safe, a place where they can worship me without fear.  

And so God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, sending down ten different plagues of frogs and locusts and water turned to blood and boils on the skin, telling Pharaoh in no uncertain terms:  Let my people go.  And they went.  They crossed the Red Sea on dry land, and they were free.

But freedom wasn’t easy.  The Israelite people wandered in the desert for forty years.  They were still a people without land.  It was a wilderness time -- a hot time, a low-on-food time, a grumbling time.  They said, “It would have been better if we’d stayed slaves in Egypt.”

But God had a plan.  While the Israelites wandered, and camped, and grumbled, God spoke.  The wilderness became a place where they learned who God had called them to be.  The rules they learned came to be known as the Law, the Revelation to Moses:  this is how the people of God will live.

In the wilderness, God gave them manna, bread from heaven, to teach them to trust.
In the wilderness, God gave them the commandments, to teach them how to live in community:  not to fight and steal and kill and struggle for power, but to respect each other, to live in love.
In the wilderness, God gave them the Sabbath day, to rest, to stop the constant stream of work, to worship and to be at peace.

In the wilderness, God said, “You have lived in slavery, in fear, in the shadow of oppression, in the constant need for work, in a hunger for more wealth and power.  That was Egypt.  This is now.  Now you will live as my people.  Now you will come into the land I have promised you.  You will be kind to the strangers among you.  You will live not in competition but in community.  You will be my people, and I will be your God.”

They learn these lessons for forty years.  Many of them, including Moses, do not live long enough to see the land God has promised them.  So today they stand on the edge of the Jordan River, looking into their future.

The Promised Land is not going to be easy, either.  There will be battles, and struggles, and hurts.  They will forget the way that God spoke to them, the laws and rules that Moses taught.  It will not be easy.

So as their toes start to sink into the sand, and their palms start to sweat, and they feel the fear rising up in their hearts, God speaks again.

Be strong.  Take courage.  I’ll be with you.  I won’t give up on you.  I won’t leave you.  God, your God, is with you every step you take.

In times of change, we are called to reach for courage.  In the face of the unknown, God promises hope.  I am with you, always.  

And so it is with us.

We were gathered together under a strong and spirited leader.  We were held together by God.  We were offered freedom from fear about money, freedom from isolation, freedom from perfection.  We were invited into community, into relationships based on love and compassion.

And we have spent some time in the wilderness.  We have been tired.  Maybe we have even grumbled -- “Things were easier the way they used to be.”  But in that wilderness we have come to know who we are and who God is calling us to be.  We have been invited to trust in God, to rest in peace, to live in community.

Now we are at the edge of something very new.  A new leader is coming to us, to lead us into the next part of our life as Light of the World.  It will not be easy.  There will be change, and adjustments, and maybe even a little grumbling.  But into that, God speaks:

Be strong.  Take courage.  I’ll be with you.  I won’t give up on you.  I won’t leave you.  God, your God, is with you every step you take.

In times of change, we reach for courage.  In the face of the unknown, God promises hope.  So it was with Israel.  So it is with us.

And so it can be with each of us.  Even as we journey together as Light of the World, in our wilderness time, many of us have been journeying through our own struggles.

We want to provide for our families and friends -- we want to shop, to bake, to clean, to make the house ready and buy presents to show how much we care.  But some of us look to our bank accounts, and we hurt.  We come home with tired hands and feet, and we sleep too hard and too short.  We look for work, we return to school, we hope for something better for us and for our families.

We carry broken hearts and broken relationships.  Some of us face the holidays with dread, worrying about family conflicts and how to speak of peace in the midst of grumbling.  We may be wondering how we will face Christmas without a beloved friend or a spouse we have lost.  We remember and grieve the family members and loved ones who won’t be with us.

We suffer in body, mind, and spirit.  Some of us struggle with mental illness, with addiction, with the addictions and struggles of loved ones.  We fight shadows of anxiety and shame and fear.  Our bodies give out on us; some of us are sick or weary or recovering from surgery.  Some of us pray and plead and hope for healing for our parents, our grandparents, our siblings, our children, our friends.  

It can feel like a wilderness time.

And into all that mess, God speaks again.

Be strong.  Take courage.  I’ll be with you.  I won’t give up on you.  I won’t leave you.  God, your God, is with you every step you take.

Into everything that seems impossible, God offers strength and courage and hope.  Into everything that seems insurmountable, God whispers:  I am with you, always.  

In a few moments you’ll be invited to find a conversation partner with the same color spot as you.  It can be a friend, a family member, a stranger -- whoever you feel comfortable with.

Sit.  Breathe deep.  Listen for God beside you and around you and in you.  And then speak:  What is the part of your life where you long for strength?  What is the space in your heart that needs a little courage?

Tell your story.  Be strong.  Take courage.  God is with you.  



My conversation partner was Annie, one of our "short people" (elementary school kids).  She read Scripture in church regularly and is just a fantastic kid.  I asked, "What's going on in life, Annie?  Is there anything that's scaring you?"  "Movies and closets," she told me, and after a little prying I figured out:  closets are scary, in the dark, for a kid who's just watched a scary movie.

So I asked if she knew the song "God Is Bigger Than The Boogeyman," from VeggieTales, and because she did not, I sang it for her.

Then I said, "I have a challenge for you.  What could you imagine God to look like, to be bigger than the things that scare you?"

"Like a giant donut!"

"A giant donut?"

"Yeah a giant donut or a cookie.  And he eats up all the bad people, like this:  nom nom nom" [with hand motions].

"Oh, like PacMan."


At the end of church, Annie dropped off this picture for me:

God as a cookie, obviously, picking up and eating scary guys; then Annie up in the top right counting sheep and trying to sleep; and Baby Jesus in the stable, and Mary and Joseph, on the left.

Nom nom nom, indeed.

Friday, November 29, 2013

a banner of ads for Black Friday

Once upon a time, an amazing church in Denver, Colorado wanted to remind themselves that Christmas is about more than presents.

They made this.

And I, a year or two later, stumbled upon it and fell in love with the idea.

Last year, my internship congregation got to do it.
Early concept drawing

Final design

Color guide

PDF'd and printed

Everyone brought in the many Christmas advertisements they'd received, and over the four weeks of Advent, we cut out shapes and colors.  We slowly assembled an icon -- a religious piece of art meant to point us to God.  We took what the world uses to tell us we need more, more, more, and turned it into a reminder that we already have all that we need.

The finished icon
O come, o come Emmanuel.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Preaching Lab: Sin as the space in between

Another sermon for preaching lab, based on the Lamb of God text in John.

John 1:29-41

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”

They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).

This is the word of the Lord.


I want to talk to you today about sin.

…A killer opening, right?  But I do.  I want to talk to you about sin, because it’s important that we talk about it.  Because we live in a time and a place and a culture where we don’t.  We want to be fine.  We tell everyone we are fine.  Work is fine, school is fine, the house is fine, the kids are fine, we are fine.

This is what we have to do, right?  Because I know I need that space.  I need a little separation between me and others.  I need a protective barrier.  People don’t need to know about my problems.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s shameful.  It’s scary.  It’s not that big a deal -- lots of other people are going through worse.

This isn’t a bad thing.  We do need space.  We need self-protection.  We are allowed to make space between ourselves and what hurts us.  The danger is when we are so afraid of pain that we make space between us and everything.  Because space is never just empty.  It fills with things, or it collapses.  So we fill up that space in between.  We look for something to keep the space wide - to protect ourselves and our truth.  To get between us and pain.  And the deeper our fear is, the bigger we make that space, and the more we need to fill it with.  With perfectionism and success, with self-indulgence and pleasure, with clinging violently to whatever we can or shoving others away, to immersing ourselves in a project or shutting out the world, to helping others so they’ll need us and we’ll never be alone.

Take a moment.  Imagine that space.  Imagine your space.

Maybe one of the ways we can define sin is as what we put in that space in between.  Where we fill up this void with brokenness and anger and distrust and whatever else we can stack up in there to keep other people away.  And into all that mess, all that clutter, all that heart-wrenching stomach-twisting fear, comes a voice:

“What are you looking for?”

Someone is knocking on the door of your heart.  Someone is peering around the boxes and into the dusty corners of that sin, that space in between.  Someone is asking, “What, in all of this, are you really looking for?”

When you stack your space full of things.  When you invest your time and your love in money or a relationship or a house or a job.  When you show up for church.  When you follow this man called the Lamb of God.

What are you looking for?

Then we have a rush of words.

To be whole.
To be loved.
To be valuable.
To be true to ourselves.
To be competent.
To be secure.
To be happy.
To be safe.
To be at peace.

To have this fear, this need for separation, this sin, that space in between to be closed -- our sin to be taken away.

When John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean that Jesus only came to cleanse us of our guilt.  Jesus came to take away that space in between.

When Jesus asks the disciples “What are you looking for?”, they don’t know what to answer.  Jesus has been called the Lamb of God, the son of God, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the one who ranks ahead of John -- and all the disciples can say is “Teacher?  Where are you staying?”

And maybe it is so with us.  Maybe what we are looking for, maybe what we are longing to put in this space in between, is just too big for words.  Maybe Jesus says “What are you looking for?” and we say “I don’t know.  It's too much for one word, or even many.  But can I go with you?”

This is how close God comes, to take away our sin -- so close that we can touch him.  “Teacher, where are you staying?” we ask, and Jesus says, “Here.  With you.  In the midst of humanity, in the face of all your spaces in between, into the place where you store up your fear and self-protection, everything that separates you from each other.  This is where I have come to be.”

And having seen this, the only possible response for the disciples is to say, “We’ve found the Messiah.  We’ve found the one who will save us.”

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away all the spaces in between of the world.

Come and see.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Preaching lab: Leadership in Crisis

For my senior preaching lab, I had the following prompt:

You are six months into a new call when a 24-year-old member of the congregation tells you that she was sexually abused by your predecessor when she was in the high school youth group. Over the next month, you hear of four other women who were also abused. Your predecessor, who served for 18 years in this congregation, retired and moved away from the region two years ago. To the best of your knowledge, few people in the congregation knew about this abuse, but word is now spreading fast and several people, including one of the victimized women, have asked you to speak about this from the pulpit.

Assumptions I made:  I am being asked to preach about the assault before it's been made publicly known.  In my opinion (and my classmates and preceptor agreed with me on this) the wrong place to make the first public announcement of this abuse would be from the pulpit, so I chose not to specifically address the issue, but to speak into and make a space for it.

I would expect the church to follow up on these accusations immediately and with the proper contacts made with the synod, legal counsel, psychological assistance for the victims, etc.

I received this prompt 72 hours before I was to preach.  I had already decided to prepare to preach on whatever the assigned text was for the day, since in a normal situation we would already have bulletins printed and so on.

And here is the result.

Lectionary gospel reading for November 17, 2013:  Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

And Jesus said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”


When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

… again?

See, the temple of Jerusalem is a hard-won battle.  The First Temple was built by King Solomon only to be sacked a few decades later by an Egyptian Pharaoh.  It was rebuilt under King Jehoash in only to be stripped of its riches by the King of Assyria.  When the Jewish people were taken off to captivity in Babylon, it was completely destroyed.

But the Jewish people returned.  They built a second temple.  Alexander the Great nearly destroyed it, the Seleucids perverted it with pagan sacrifices and slaughtered pigs, Pompey desecrated the Holy of Holies, but it remained intact.  Herod the Great, about fifteen years before the birth of Jesus, renovated it.  Now it has stood for fifty years, under the thumb of Roman rule and yet still in control of the Jewish people.

It is the center of their life, their worship, their hope.  It is a symbol that God is still with them, that God has come and made a dwelling among the people of Israel.  It is their comfort.  And Jesus walks into it, looks at the marvelous stones and offerings, at this house of worship a thousand years in the making and restoring, the central hope of the whole Israelite nation, and says, “A day will come when all this will be destroyed.”

And this is true.  The temple of Jerusalem no longer stands.  It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, with only a few stones left upon the other -- the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, where Jews continue to gather and pray and weep over another temple lost.

For Jesus to say that the Temple will one day, again, finally and totally be destroyed is to say, “Your hope will be lost.  Your trust will be broken, the world will be in disarray, and it will appear that God is gone.”

In too many ways we live there now.  The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.  Only a few stones are left upon another.  And just as painfully, our own lives are marked with destruction.  We fight sickness and pain.  We grieve the death of friends too young and family members so well loved.  We struggle with work, with school.  Some of us go to bed hungry.  Some of us go to bed weeping.  We fight despair, and depression, and fear.  There are those among us whose walls have been torn down.  There are those who have had their innocence torn from them, their trust destroyed by abuse or neglect or hatred.  There are earthquakes in our souls, and famines in our hearts, and there are wars and insurrections all around us.

And Jesus has the audacity to say “Not a hair of your head will perish.”  Your family will turn against you, your churches will throw you out, some of you will die -- but not a hair of your head will perish.

This is the stupid, audacious, arrogant promise of Jesus, that if we endure we will gain our souls.  And to those of us who are broken, who fall asleep with empty stomachs or hurting hearts, these words can break us again.

So much of what breaks us is hidden.  We put on a brave smile.  We pretend it didn’t happen.  We fear the accusations and condemnations of our friends and family, that we might hear that somehow our pain is our fault, that our suffering is part of God’s great plan.  So we bear our pain in silence, in what we might call endurance, because we fear the judgment of others.

Yet see what Jesus asks of us.  We are not to endure silently, our mouths closed, our heads bowed.  We are not to run, to hide, to lie.  We speak truth.  We speak of what has happened.  It is in that endurance, that pure and raw courage, that we regain our souls.  If we are wounded Jesus does not call us to bind ourselves up and pretend we can run.  If we are broken Jesus does not tell us to claim we are whole.  Jesus says, This is your opportunity to tell the truth.  Speak it.  Speak it before friends and family, before kings and governors.  Tell of what has happened, and hold fast, for it is in speaking the truth that you will find your soul.

This is the stupid, audacious, arrogant promise of Jesus, that God is on the side of the victim.  God does not run from the destruction of the temple.  God does not turn a blind eye to the tearing down of our own walls.  When all appears lost, God will have the final word.

And we, as the church, are called to endure.  We are called to be witnesses -- to testify but also to witness, to see and to hear and to know.  We of all places in the world are called to be a source of light.  When victims speak, we do not shut our ears.  When our children wail, we do not silence them.  When those we love declare that the temples of their hearts have been torn down, we do not shout “No!  It cannot be!  There must be an explanation, a reason, a flaw of your own.”  We cannot push the pain away.  We cannot extinguish the light of truth.

We are called to stand with Jesus, in the center of the temple, to see the day when no stone is left upon another and yet to believe that God is still here.

We have been commissioned, by Jesus, to stand in the midst of others’ destruction, in the face of hunger and poverty and abuse and neglect and all the ways that sin breaks the ones we love and say:  You are not alone.  We hear you.  We will fight for you.  And we will walk beside you while you heal.

Something new is coming.  For us.  For all that is broken and torn apart within us.  We will speak the truth, and the truth will give us our souls.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sermon for October 20, 2013: Luke 8:40-56, belovedness & baptism

Children's message
For the children's message, we read the book The Crown on Your Head.  If you haven't read it, I very highly recommend it.  

When we finished, I handed out crowns for each kid to wear... and then a lot of extras to pass out to the adults.


Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, "Who touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you." But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me." When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace."

While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, "Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer." When Jesus heard this, he replied, "Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved." When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, "Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and called out, "Child, get up!" Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened. 

Message  (click here to listen along)

It is worthwhile to notice when sometime in the Bible doesn’t have a name.  Everyone has one.  When a name gets forgotten, when it isn’t written down, the writers turn to descriptions instead.  “Do you know so-and-so?  You know, they look like this, they work at this place...”  When we forget names, we turn to descriptions.  So whoever they may have been, these two women of our story, whatever names their mothers whispered to them as they sang lullabies, whatever names their fathers called out in joy when they came home from work, they are now for us "an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying" and "a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years."

Women's names are often forgotten, in the stories of old.  Women couldn't be rabbis, they couldn't be priests, they had very little value until they were married and had children -- male children, specifically.  Their stories weren’t told.  The little girl of our story -- I've been calling her Chloe -- is only valuable because her father is powerful, because she is a well-loved only child of the leader of the synagogue.  The woman of our story -- I've been calling her Geraldine -- only gets what she needs because she advocates for herself, because she gets in the way of Jesus and a crowd.  Without someone to advocate for them, or a crowd to push through, they matter very little in this society.  Devalued, pushed to the edge, names forgotten.

And they are both sick:  Geraldine for twelve years, Chloe now to the point of death.  Geraldine has been sick as long as Chloe has been alive.  Two women, two sick women, in the same town on the shores of the country of Galilee.

They probably don’t know each other.  Chloe is an insider, the only daughter of a powerful man, a child of a wealthy family.  She would be well-known in this little village.  Jarius would not have to push his way to the front of the crowd; they would have spread aside for him.  But Geraldine?  Geraldine is poor.  Geraldine has to sneak up behind Jesus, pushing her way through the swarm of people around him.  The kind of sickness that she had, how much she had spent on physicians -- people would have known that something was wrong with her, and likely they would have known exactly what.  And in the first century, just as the culture didn’t value women, they didn’t understand illness.  When a woman was sick like Geraldine, she wasn’t allowed to go to worship.  She was considered unclean, and the synagogue was closed to her.  Chloe and Geraldine are two women, two sick women, in the same little town in Galilee but on opposite sides of society.

They reflect us, in a way.  Sometimes we are Chloe.  Sometimes we feel dead.  We are too tired, too hurt, too sick, too proud, too broken to reach out for help.  Sometimes we are too dead inside to ask for the life we need.  And God shows up, whispering, “You’re not dead,” and takes us by the hand.  And as far as I can tell, in the stories of the Bible, this is true.  When we can’t reach out, God does.  In the story of Moses, we start out in the wilderness.  Moses flees there after standing up for one of his own people, the Hebrews, and killing an Egyptian who was beating him.  So he has taken off, in shame and guilt, to shepherd in the desert and keep a low profile.  And suddenly there’s a bush on fire and a voice saying “Moses, take off your sandals, because God has just shown up.  Your life isn’t over; it’s just begun.”

And sometimes we are Geraldine.  Sometimes it feels like we are looking at the back of God.  Like we have blown all the money we have on things that have not cured us of our pain and suffering.  Like we have to shove our way through the crowd to get just the fringe of Jesus’ clothes.  And as far as I can tell, when we read the Bible, we find out we are not alone in this.  The psalms are a beautiful place to find this, because the Psalmists have no problem grabbing God by the collar and saying “I am hurting and you promised me better than this.”  And in that moment of anger and frustration there is finally a sense of healing and release, because after years of chasing after false cures we have come to the place where we admit we need something more than ourselves to get us through.

I call them Chloe and Geraldine.  But remember that they have no names. Luke didn't know, didn't remember, just calls them daughter and woman.  Chloe is a Daughter because she has a powerful father to advocate for her.  Geraldine is a Woman because she is alone and unsupported and poor.

And into that, Jesus speaks.  Luke calls them Daughter and Woman.  But Jesus calls them Child and Daughter.  Jesus doesn't stick to their value as determined by their powerful parents or their total poverty.  He calls Chloe "child".  Not daughter of the powerful, not dead, not even her name, but Child.  Child of the world.  Child of God.

Jesus doesn't call Geraldine "woman" but "daughter".  Not "woman who was bleeding" or "woman who touched me" but "daughter."  Daughter of Abraham.  Daughter of God.

See, this is what happens when God comes among us.  God knows our names.  Even when the storyteller forgets, when two thousand years later we do not know who they were, God remembers.  God sees us.  Not our sickness, not our wealth, not our importance or the lack thereof, but us.  And when God comes among us, God speaks that name.  God says Neil.  Dana.  Peggy.  Jeremy.  Anna.  Son.  Daughter.  Child of God.

When Jesus walks into this little unnamed town in Galilee, Jesus sees them.  Not as Daughter of the Synagogue Leader or as Woman Who Has Been Bleeding but as Child of God.  Jesus recognizes the crown on their heads.  He remembers it.  Publicly claims it.  Jesus sits down in the midst of them -- and us -- and opens up a book that says:

Your existence, and nothing more, puts you into the goodness that is creation.  This is a universal birthing.  It applies to everyone.  Every single child, and that means everyone who had ever been born, is part of creation, of this world that God looks upon and says "This is good."  The storybook says "Your crown means that you are MAG-NI-FI-CENT."

So there is this beautiful universal declaration of the value of each of us.  Of you.  Of you.  Of you.  This is the crown on your head:  that God sees you.

Jesus sees the crown on the heads of Geraldine and Chloe.  And then he goes further:  then he saves and heals them.

We miss this, in English.  Jesus says to Geraldine “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  To Jarius he says “Do not fear; only believe, and Chloe will be saved.”  The word for "made well" and "be saved" is the same.  Sodzo.  Be made well.  Be healed.  Be saved.  Be whole.  Geraldine and Chloe, both women, both unnamed, both sick, both on the outskirts of society -- are both sodzo'ed.  Healed and saved.  Scrubbed clean, sudsed up -- suds of grace.  The soap of God that washes us clean.  We're made whole from what is physically and emotionally and spiritually breaking us down.

See, this is what happens when God comes among us:  we do not stay the same.  God does not just see us and know us and call us by name.  God changes us.  God reaches out to heal us, to bind up the brokenhearted, to restore those pushed to the edge of society, to raise up everything that is dead in us.

In baptism God claims us.  Says yes, I know you.  You are Debby, Joanna, Mitchell, Anna.  I know you in all your good and bad ways, all your goofiness and messiness, all your joys and sorrows and everything in between, and not only do I love you exactly as you are but I love you far too much to let you stay that way.  In baptism God reaches out for us and says “You.  I know you.  You are mine.”  This is why it is beautiful that we bring children to baptism, that we will baptize Anna Jensene today before she can walk or talk or do anything that merits it, because God’s love is totally unmerited.  God’s desire to save, to heal, to scrub us up with suds of grace, has nothing whatsoever to do with how good we are and everything to do with God’s love for us.

This is what baptism does:  it is a place where God knows our name, knows all that is sinful and messy and bleeding and dead in us, and then raises us up and calls us clean.  God does not only see us.  God wants to claim us, to wash us, to free us from all the dirt and mess that comes with being human and start us anew every day.  God reaches out through us and touches the crown on your head -- and then draws a cross on your brow.

You are a beloved child of God, so much that the only way God can show it is to double it.

Hear that when you are Chloe.  When you are a child.  When you are too sick to ask for what you need.  Hear it because you were brought to the font by parents and family who loved you, who gathered around you, who begged Jesus for a good life for you.

Hear it when you are Geraldine.  When you are older.  When your suffering has burdened you for too long.  When you are out of money and energy and time.  When you feel like just one more face in a bustling, jostling crowd.  Hear it when you think you are too tired to reach out for help one more time.

Hear it:  You are loved.  Doubly.  You are seen.  Your name is known.  You have a crown on your head and a cross on your brow.  Be loved twice over.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Flying home.

Spent four days in Chicago with the Organizing for Mission cohort this week.  Learned a lot, made new friends and connections, got invigorated.  Also did not get as much sleep as I would like, and felt exhausted and over-peopled a good chunk of the time, too.  I was sad to leave and also glad to be on the plane.

As our place descended to the Cities, I wondered which of my many homes we might fly over.  Would it be my parents' house in Maplewood?  My dorms at Saint Olaf in Northfield?  The old apartment in Minneapolis?  My seminary apartment in Saint Paul?

All of those places are writ hard upon my heart, and yet none of them feel like home.

We flew from the southeast, and so we crossed none of them; we crossed, instead, the place that has been most home to me this year; Cedar Ave and Pilot Knob and the church-that-is-an-elementary-school.

I have lost much, this year, and none of what I lost were things I was prepared to lose.  I don't have a home, not the kind of place I used to have, where my heart felt settled and my mind clear.  

I do not have a home now, and I will not, for the next few months; I am entering approval and assignment, and I do not know where the ELCA will send me.  This year I am learning, and not very quickly, to be a turtle:  to pull inside when the world is stormy, to ask for help when I am on my back, to give myself a little extra time to learn, and most of all, to take my home with me, no matter where I may be going.

Perhaps this is my wilderness time, the exodus, a wandering in my life; there was so much of the Hebrew way of life that had to die, there in the desert when God dwelt among them.  Idolatry, and theft, and fear, and piling up great wealth and self-protection.  All of it God longed to release them from.  Perhaps that is this time in my life.

For now, I pull into the shell of me that is becoming my home, and I hope for a little rest.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

And the valley was full of bones.

I got my paperwork back from my mission developer/redeveloper interview.

Mission developers and redevelopers are pastors and potential pastors, who are approved by the ELCA to start new congregations (developers) or revitalizing dying congregations (redevelopers).  The paperwork is a culmination of a personal inventory, a pre-screening, and a 3-4 hour interview on fifteen competencies of ministry which are strong predictors of a developer/redeveloper’s success.

I have been on the developer/redeveloper track since I began seminary in 2010.  I have read books, taken classes, attended lectures and conferences.  My internship site is a mission start congregation, just barely six years old this month.

And I got my paperwork, and I wasn’t approved.

I knew, during the interview, that there were questions I wasn’t doing well on.  There are competencies that I am not strong in.  I am, in particular, not good at sharing ministry; I tend to do everything on my own rather than asking for help.  This is a perfect recipe for burnout in a mission pastor.  So the results were not a total surprise.  I still wept.

I am tired.  I am cut down.  I am scraped raw.  I have been stripped of more things this year than I ever thought I could let go of.  I sit in my apartment, staring at the books that have borne me since I was in high school and the borrowed kitchen chairs I am not certain I fit in yet.

I feel skinned down to the bone.

Which is, of course, where God loves to start.

This is the annoying thing about Jesus, or at least one of the top five:  that my actions, my beliefs, my faith, even the fact that I have accepted being called to a life of ministry does not spare me from losing almost everything.  A few Christmases ago I preached that the baby Jesus is not a magic medallion that protects us from all evil.  This is stupid and frustrating and maddening, that I can be scraped down to my most raw; that God even wants me to be, wants to peel back all the carefully shined-up layers, the precision cut corners, the smokescreen of I Have It All Together and get down to the very raw and real me.

But this is where I am, and there is no question that God is here, and wants to be with me in all of it; that God is weaving gentle hands over the dried marrow of my life.  That Ezekiel is standing at the desert of my heart, while God whispers, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

This is where God likes to begin; down at the rawness, the barren essence of things.  Jeremiah the prophet tries to shut himself up and speak no more of the LORD, and his bones start to burn with the weariness of holding it in.

This is not the year that I had planned, in any way, and I am skinned down to the bones; but there is a freshness in being this open, and a beauty in the desperation, and I will let that hold me.

I passed understanding a long, long time ago
And the simple home of systems and answers we all know
What I thought I wanted, what I got instead
Leaves me broken and somehow peaceful
I keep wanting you to be fair
But that's not what you said
I want certain answers to these prayers
But that's not what you said
- Sara Groves, “What I Thought I Wanted”
What I Thought I Wanted by Sara Groves on Grooveshark

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon for September 22, 2013: Of Play-Doh and prodigals

Children’s message

I called the children up front and set a plastic tub in front of them… filled with balls of colorful Play-Doh.  Every child took a piece and immediately began to roll them between their hands, squish, form, and do everything else possible with Play-Doh.

I talked about how in the scripture for the day, we would hear about compassion.  And that the Greek word for compassion is σπλαγχνίζομαι, or as I shortened it, splackna.  I gripped my stomach as I said it, because what it means, I told them, is to have your insides all twisted up.  You go, I said:  “Splat!”  And I squished my Play-Doh ball between my hands.  We all did, and said together, Splackna!  Squish.  Splat.

This is what happens, I told them (and their parents) -- when we love someone, when we care about them, and we see that they are hurting, our insides go splat.  They get all twisted up.  Splackna.

And that hurts us.  But it’s also okay, because it means we love someone and care about them.  And sometimes we need to be splackna’ed.  That’s the only way that dough -- I held up my ball -- can be made into bread.  Getting splatted and twisted is the only way to mix dough well enough to eat it.

So then we took some communion bread I had made -- molasses and flour and honey and olive oil, all splackna’ed together -- and we ate, and remembered how sometimes we need to be a little twisted up.

Scripture:  Luke 15:1-2, 11-32

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.

So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ "

The message

We call this the story of the Prodigal Son.  Jesus tells this story right after the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin; we heard them last week.  The Pharisees and scribes are unimpressed because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners.  So he says, “Let me tell you a story about a shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep.  Let me tell you a story about a woman who searches the house for her lost coin.  And let me tell you the story of the prodigal son.”

It’s a beloved story from the gospels, this beautiful tale of repentance and forgiveness.  It connects to something deep in us.  There’s a universal longing for broken families to be mended, for people who are lost to come home and for the party to start.

We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, and almost everyone knows what story that is.  “Prodigal” has come to mean, in a lot of ways, repentant:  it’s the word for someone who realizes their mistake and comes home.  What it really means is wasteful, extravagant, overspending.  We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, because the younger son wastes his money until he starves.  We know this story.  Except for the little tiny problem that this story has no ending.

Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

...And then what?  What does the older brother do?  Maybe he stays in the yard, arms folded, brow furrowed, his whole body declaring “There’s no way I’m going in.”  Maybe this backyard scene is just a prelude to years of family gatherings with this tense and palpable resentment, a taste of bitterness in the celebratory wine.

We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  It’s not very good storytelling, really.  He doesn’t wrap up the plotlines.  We’ve got character arcs that don’t get resolved.  We call this the story of the Prodigal Son and maybe it gets shelved right next to TV shows like The Sopranos and movies like Inception.  We don’t know how it ends.  And that leaves us a little queasy.

We want to know how it ends.  Because this is a story that gets us right in the gut.  For me it feels like a hook in the chest, the longer I think about it:  this story of the Prodigal Son, of greed and waste, of hunger and pain, of the long journey home, of the wide open arms of the father.  I am a sucker for this story, and I don’t think I am alone in that.  When the father is filled with compassion, and hikes up his robes and runs, and throws his arms around his lost son’s neck and kisses him -- that gets me, right here, because I have known so many people who are lost and are trying to find their way home.  And I have been that prodigal son, too.  When all our fear and worry and starvation and self-hatred are bundled up on our shoulders.  And in that moment when the father’s arms go around me the only thing I can do is drop everything that’s been weighing me down.  And it is beautiful.  It is grace.

But it isn’t the end of the story.

There is still the older son, working like a slave in the fields, working twice as hard since his shiftless younger brother left.  He is coming home too -- coming home after a long day, sweaty, dirty, exhausted, starving, thirsty.  His hands are blistered and raw.  And his father killed the fatted calf for that stupid younger brother who took off with half the family fortune.

We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

We call this the story of the Prodigal Son, and it leaves us without an ending, because we want to know:  what happens to the other son?

Both sons, in their own way, are lost.  Both sons are caught up in the net of sin.  When Martin Luther talked about sin, he didn’t talk about specific acts but about a state of being:  that sin was, in Latin, incurvatus se.  Inward curved.  Curved in on oneself.  Focused on what I want, what I do, what I’m owed.  Father, give me my share of the property.   For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.  Luther understood the gospel to be about our relationship with God and with our neighbor, and so the thing that all sin had in common was this inward curving.  So focused on myself, on what I have or what I want, how good I think I am or how bad, how hard I work or how well I can humble myself, on getting what I want or think I deserve … and my world gets very, very small.

I can get lost in there.  Like a sheep separated from ninety-nine others.  Like a silver coin rolled in a dark and dusty corner.  Like a younger son starving in a faraway land, or an older son with his back turned and his arms crossed.

And then in breaks grace, this abundant and ridiculous mercy and love, and there’s a party and celebration and drinking and amazing food, and it explodes into that little curved-in world with a force that is almost destructive.  It’s hard for something to stay small and hold that much joy.

See, we call this the story of the Prodigal Son, but I think we’ve named it wrong.  If prodigal means extravagant and wasteful, then isn’t this the story of the Prodigal Father?

A father who hands over a son’s share of the family fortune.  Who gives him the money and lets him go.  Who waits and watches and then runs, arms and legs windmilling, down the road to is dirty and rail-thin and pig-smelling son.  A father who shouts for the best robe and the family ring and says, “My son who was lost is found.”

A father who works alongside his son.  Who does not let his love for the younger make him forget the elder.  Who looks around the party and sees that his son is missing, and runs, pleading and hoping, into the yard where the older son refuses to come in.  A father who looks another lost son in the eye and says “All that I have is yours.”

This is the prodigal.  Pouring out family riches and fatted calves in excess.  This is extravagant, wasteful love.  This is a prodigal father.

And Jesus doesn’t tell us the end of his story, because the ending isn’t what’s important.  The Pharisees and scribes didn’t say, “Tell us a story with a beginning and a middle and an end.”  They said, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”  And Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story about a shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep.  Let me tell you a story about a woman who searches the house for her lost coin.  And let me tell you the story of the prodigal father, of the man who wastefully and extravagantly poured out love and mercy and hope.”

They say, “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”  And Jesus says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the sheep, the coin, the son that was lost.  Let me tell you about abundance, about celebration, about joy that breaks into the smallness of ourselves.  Let me tell you a story about grace.”
Jesus doesn’t tell them the end of the story.  Not then.  Because the story of grace takes much longer to tell.  The end of the story comes much later, on a dark Thursday night in Jerusalem, when Jesus takes a loaf of bread from the table and says, “This is my body, given for you.”

This is the pinnacle of waste and extravagance:  that God is this in love with us.  That God slipped on skin and walked among us.  God, the creator of the universe, the liberator of the Hebrew slaves, the God who time and time again loved people even when they were broken and sinful and human.  This God was born as a tiny, helpless child in a stable in Bethlehem.  And God in skin, as Jesus, walked among us, healing and teaching, telling stories without good endings, knowing that his message of love and mercy would lead him into rejection and hatred and death.  And in the face of all of that, he gathered his beloved disciples together, took a loaf of bread, and said, “This is my body, given for you.”

We have repeated his words for two thousand years.  I can’t tell you what happens at communion.  That is beyond my capacity to understand.  I don’t know why, or how, or what.  I know there isn’t any magic.  It’s still bread and wine.  After worship, it is just bread and wine, and we can eat the extra pieces and pour out the leftovers.  I don’t know what happens at communion, in the moment when bread and wine stop being just bread and wine.  But I know that when I take the bread and look into someone’s eyes and hear “This is the body of Christ, given for you”... I know that Jesus just showed up.  The God who slipped on skin and poured out everything, even life, to tell us about grace and love, is reaching out for me, for you, for us, just as much as I am reaching for the bread.  God is reaching into that small space, into all the places I am curved in on myself, and holding out pure grace.

The communion table is a place of waste and extravagance.  A place where love and mercy mix up with logic and mystery.  A place where we hold bread and wine, ordinary and common things, and say:  There is something here that is more than what it seems.  We don’t know how.  But this is God, for you, right here, right now.

This is the table of the prodigal father, where God is doling out love in abundance and it is all we can do to keep up, pouring wine and breaking bread.  This is the place where God takes action, where God reaches out, where the father throws his arms around the younger son and stretches his pleading hands out to the older.  This is the feast for sinners and tax collectors, a promise of salvation, an offering over and over:  This is for you, for you, for you.  This is Jesus.  For you.

Come to the table of mercy.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Service of the Word, September 12, 2013

I had the opportunity to assist for Dr. Skinner, professor of New Testament, in chapel this week.  This is the order of service, with the prayers of intercession I wrote.

Service of the Word

Opening Hymn:  Open Your Ears, O Faithful People  - ELW #519

Prayer to Receive the Word
Gracious God, we ask your blessing as we listen to the words of the scriptures. May they touch our hearts and lead us to a life of love, mercy and service, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Scripture:  Luke 15:1-10

Sermon by Professor Matt Skinner

Prayers of Intercession

With the whole world that longs for the sight of God, let us pray.

We pray for the church, for all people and places who turn to You for comfort.  Give us strength to take seriously this mission to which we are called:  to the proclamation of good news to your people who are lost.

We pray for your creation, beautiful and broken.  Give us grace to be servants and co-creators with you, to live lives worthy of the world you have made.

We remember all those around the world who suffer because of injustice, war, and the sinfulness of others.  We pray for all of us who seek power, not to serve you or care for others but to glorify ourselves, that your grace and mercy might find us and turn our hearts.  We pray for our soldiers, for our veterans, for all those who have protected us.  Especially we pray for those who have lost something in combat:  their health, their strength, their family, their fellow servants, their hope, their heart, their lives.  We turn to you in the hope of their restoration, and we hold out our hands that you might make us a home for those who are lost.

We pray for our own tax collectors and sinners:  for all those pushed to the edges of society, rejected by their people and their church, and reviled by those in power.  We remember how you came to seek the lost, how your diligence and compassion led you time and time again into the midst of the unwanted, and how such love led you to the cross.  Give us that same love, that we might care not for ourselves but for the rescue of the lost in our midst.

We remember all those who suffer in body, in mind, and in spirit; for those who struggle with mental illness and addiction; for those who linger in hospitals and waiting rooms, hoping for good news or clear results.  We pray especially for Rebecca Mehl Gamble, journeying in Malaysia, as she recovers from illness, and for Jennifer Anderson Koenig, alumna and former campus pastor at Saint Olaf College, as she faces a continuing struggle with brain cancer.  Give them strength, and surround them with our love and prayer.

Holy God, you are beautiful.  You are grace.  You are love.  You are compassion.  You are a woman of patient commitment and hard work, seeking out the lost and setting us free.  In our joy at seeing you, we lift up our prayers and hopes, and we trust in your love.


Sending Hymn:  "The Lord Now Sends Us Forth"  (ELW #538)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Lukan Confession

We are in the lectionary year of Luke, and our worship has been focused on the special stories of Luke's gospel.  I wanted to offer a confession and forgiveness based around it.



Using the words of the gospel of Luke,
let us confess our sins to God and before each other.


Holy God, Most High,
There are valleys in our broken hearts.
There are high places piled with pride.
We have walked crooked ways and rough paths.                     (Luke 3:5-6)
We who are poor have not heard good news;
We who are captive are still bound;
We who are blind are still in darkness
and we who are oppressed are not yet free.         (Luke 4:18-19)
We long for the year of the Lord’s favor,
for the scripture to be fulfilled in our hearing.         (Luke 4:21)


By the tender mercy of our God, 
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.                                  (Luke 1:78-79)
In the name of Jesus Christ,
the salvation and light of the world,                                          (Luke 2:30-32)
your sins are forgiven.



Song of Praise:  the Magnificat of Holden Evening Prayer

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon For September 1, 2013: Familiar places, new beginnings, and being just you

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (The Message)

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.

He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.

“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”


One of my favorite table graces comes from a play I saw when I was young, called You Can’t Take It With You; movie buffs know it as the Frank Capra classic with Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.  Barrymore plays Grandpa Martin Vanderhof, and he begins every family meal with:  “Well sir, here we are again.”

And here we are again.  Back at North Trail, with long tables and big gym space and buzzing fluorescent lights.  Back into another school year, with tests and grades and lunch bags and worries and hopes.  And here we are again, back with Jesus at another meal.

Luke writes of Jesus at a lot of meals, with a lot of different people, and something beautiful and transforming and awkward always happens.  Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts of society, the social bottom of the ladder -- God walking right into the midst of the least loved.  Jesus eats with a Pharisee named Simon and then lets a sinful woman, scorned by the people around him, touch him -- lets her wash his feet with tears and anoint them with oil.  Jesus eats with Pharisees and experts in religious law, the leaders who were always watching him closely, looking to trap him in what he says or does, and he turns the meal into a lesson and a parable.

He looks around the table, at all these powerful religious figures jostling each other for a better seat, a better view, a better social standing, and he says, “You know, you could try being content to be simply yourself.”


You could try being content to be simply yourself.

What does that even look like?  Who am I when I am simply me?  What happens if I let go of social status and seating arrangements and I’m just … me?  There’s a terrifying kind of honesty to this.  An honesty about our faults and our gifts.  We’re not taught to do this.  We’re taught to build ourselves up, to look better than we feel, to polish up our surface so we’re glittery and new.  Or we’re taught to talk ourselves down, to be humble, to keep our head down, to turn away praise as if we’re not worthy.  Here’s a tough example:  when was the last time I got a compliment and just … received it?  When was the last time I didn’t say “It’s really nothing” or “Anyone could do it”, or thought to myself “Well he surely doesn’t know what he’s talking about” or “She’s just being nice” or “Yeah, I did do a good job, didn’t I?  It’s a good thing they picked me to take care of it.”

When was the last time I just said “...Thanks.  That means a lot.”  For me I can tell you it’s been a while.  We’re taught to either jostle for the best seat, or take the very last and hope someone notices our humility.  We talk ourselves up or shoot ourselves down.

Or we could be content to be simply ourselves.

This is the thing that gets me about God’s love:  it is not abstract at all.  God doesn’t shower love from far away and high up, from a distance, drenching us in grace without knowing us.  God comes close.  The way we know God is in Jesus, God in flesh, who showed up and walked among us and knew us.  Good and bad, pretty and messy, worthy of praise and scary to face.  Jesus walked among us and knew us.  God loves us like that.  That close.  That well known.  Just me.  Just you.  Just us.  Not the shined up or overly guilty version.  Just us.  The real us.

So when Jesus says “If you’re content to be simply yourself” it’s a reminder that “just me” is the person God claimed in baptism.  Just me.  Not at my best and not at my worst.  Me.  Good and bad, dressed up and covered in mud, high heeled or barefoot, sinner and saint, me.  You.  Us.  Nothing gets between us and that love.  That’s what Paul writes in the letter to the Romans:  not death, not life, not angels, not people in charge, not the present, not the future, not cities or countries, not the highest of heights or the lowest of lows -- nothing at all in the whole world can get between us and God's love shown in Jesus.

God’s love shown to us.  Just us.  Just me.  Just you.

And then the promise is that you’ll become more than yourself.

When we think about more -- at least when I do -- I think we think about power.  I am more than you because I have power over you.  You are more than me because you have more power than me.  Older, bigger, smarter, richer, prettier, more popular, higher up the totem pole.  I don’t know why we play this game, as humans.  You’d think maybe we’d have big enough brains to not do the social pecking order that wolves and chickens and ants have.  But we don’t.  We get just as anxious.  We want to protect ourselves.  We want to be in charge of our lives, to control other people so that we don’t get hurt.  I get power -- I get to be more -- because I can do something that someone else can’t.  This is how I can be more than myself -- to have more, to control more, to be in charge more.  To get more praise, to get more attention, to annoy or distract you more.  This kind of power gets all tied up in fear.  I’m afraid because you have more than me -- more money, more strength, more good looks, a shinier appearance of having it all together.  You have more.  And I’m afraid.  So I try to get more.  And the cycle continues.  Well sir, here we are again.

But Jesus says, “You could try being content to be simply yourself.  If you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Instead of being more, we could try to be … honest.  We could be who God claimed at baptism -- not the nice version, not the powerful, but the sum total of what we are.  Just us.  Just me.  Just you.

We could be vulnerable.  We could take the chance on having joys, and burdens, and hopes.
We could take the chance of admitting that we’ve done wrong, sometimes, and we deserve that seat at the end of the table.  We could be honest about our burdens and our worries.  We could forget shining up our surface -- maybe for just a minute -- and be real about what weighs us down.

And we could take the chance of admitting that we’ve done well, sometimes.  We could have a little bit of joy in our own selves.  We could try -- maybe for just a minute -- to see ourselves as God sees us, as broken but capable, as gifted, as wanted, as beautiful and beloved.

We could take the chance on being known as God knows us.  On being loved.  We could take a chance on knowing each other -- on knowing we get the full picture, not the shiny, not the messy, but the real and whole.  We could take the radical chance that God’s love shows up for us -- that nothing can separate us from it.

Well sir, here we are again.  And here’s a chance at learning how to be just you -- and becoming more than you.

[ I then invited some of our fantastic kids to pass out colored cards, one to each person, of blue and yellow and orange.  On the tables were matching tented cards which read:

What about you gives you joy?
What is a burden for you?  What worries you?
What are you hoping for?  ]

Think about your cards, and write things down.  Then share with someone around you -- it can be a family member or a friend or a friendly looking stranger.  Share at least one, and maybe all three.  Listen to each other, and take your time.  When you feel finished, please mark each other with the sign of the cross and the promise given at baptism:  “You are a beloved child of God.”

When the hymn begins, bring your cards to the altar and drop them into the bags.

Here we are again.  God knows you, and loves you, and offers you a chance to be -- just you.  Take a chance on being known.


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Well, this is awkward: a sermon on the footwashing sinner at Simon the Pharisee's house

Children’s message

Who likes to go barefoot in the summer?  When is it OK?  When is it not?  Sports games, school, meeting the president.  If your shoes are muddy.  If the house is clean.  What about in church?  Would it be OK to go without shoes here?  Yes, it would, but we don’t very often. [I was barefoot for the whole service.]  What happens if we don’t clean off our feet?  Or take off our shoes in a friend’s house?  Or wipe the dog’s feet when they’re muddy?

Let’s hear the Scripture and listen for dirty feet.

Scripture:  Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

Jesus said, “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”


Well, this is awkward.  There’s some … renegade backwater prophet wandering around Judea.  He claims he’s been sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  He’s been casting out unclean spirits and curing people with various kinds of diseases.  He told some paralytic that his sins were forgiven and to stand up and walk -- even though no one can forgive sins but God alone.  He’s even healed a guy on the Sabbath, a day when no work can be done.

He’s picked up some followers -- kind of a scummy crowd, smelly fisherman and some hated guy from the IRS.  And he drinks, like some kind of glutton, and he eats with sinners, and is going around teaching people about loving their enemies and avoiding hypocrisy and judgment.

This is just … awkward.

So the Big Deal Guys, the religious leaders, the Pharisees, invite him to a dinner.  After all, what this weirdo is claiming to do is new and dangerous.  There’s a lot of fear going around about who this guy is and what he can do.  They need to find out his motives.  And what better way than over a nice meal?

Except it isn’t a nice meal.  Simon the Pharisee makes it pretty clear that this is no polite parlay over a four-star leg of lamb.  He skipped some pretty basic social graces:  no water for Jesus’ feet, no oil to freshen up his head, no welcoming kiss on the cheek.  It’s as if Simon is leaning against the doorway, his brow wrinkled, his lip curling, and saying (sarcastically) “It’s so nice to see you.”  It’s a big faux pas by the Big Deal Guys, to let Jesus’ dirty feet go unwashed, to let their dislike and fear show so clearly.

Then it gets more awkward, because some woman shows up with a jar of ointment.

The text just calls her a “sinner”.  We don’t know what she did.  We just know that she was a sinner -- and that everyone knew about it.  And isn’t that kind of the fear?  That it doesn’t actually matter what you’ve done -- but everyone might know about it.  The kind of fear you feel when you walk into a busy room and everyone looks at you and stops talking.  The kind of fear you feel when you’re standing in the doorway, looking in at Jesus surrounded by the religious elite, and everyone is looking at you and whispering.  “If he were a prophet, he would know what kind of sinner that is.”

Somehow this sinner took a deep breath and did it anyway.  She showed up with her alabaster jar.  She got through the crowd at the Pharisee’s door.  She got to the spot at Jesus’ feet.

There is a lot of courage in that step.  There is so much courage in this woman, this sinner, who walks into a room full of Pharisees who fear Jesus and people who fear her own sinfulness.  She walks right through that fear up to the feet of the source of love.

Because that is what she has come for:  not fear, but love.  Not repentance, not pleading, not sacrifice, but for the great love that arises in her when she hears the words “Your sins are forgiven.”  She chooses to live not out of fear but out of love.  Not out of fear of the Pharisees or the crowds or her own sin but out of the love that God is casting down and out and everywhere in the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

Which is beautiful.

And awkward.  Because Jesus says, in verse 47:

“She has done all these things for me; therefore her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  

So showing love leads to receiving forgiveness which leads to showing love which leads to … receiving forgiveness … which leads to showing love?

Well, which comes first, the forgiveness or the egg?  The chicken or the love?  If there is a catch-22, then let’s call this a catch-47.

So which comes first?  We need to know.  We need to know how to get into this cycle of love and forgiveness and love and forgiveness and love.  We need to know which one comes first so we can get in on this miracle train that spins us into what Jesus promises this sinner:  salvation and peace.

There are days when I like to think I am Simon the Pharisee.  That I have answers, that I can demand answers to my questions, that I know what I’m doing.  And then God pats me sweetly on the head and says “That’s so cute”, and I remember that I like everyone else have this little tendency to fall into sin and brokenness and self-reliance which only ends up with resentment and hurt feelings and struggle.  I remember that being so very sure of myself and my own excellence at this whole “life” thing has ended up, more often than not, far away from love and forgiveness and salvation and peace.

So please tell me where the cycle starts, because I needed to get on that train about twenty-eight years ago.  Do I start with showing love or receiving forgiveness?  Just tell me because I know for sure I need a lot more of both in my life.

And Jesus looks across the room of whispering people and disapproving Pharisees and says “Your faith has saved you.”

Faith.  Faith is what gets us hooked into this constant and awkward and beautiful cycle of receiving forgiveness and showing love.  Not faith as in how much I pray, or how hard, or how well.  Not faith as in how lily-white-clean I scrub my outward appearance.  Not faith as in how good I am or appear to be but faith as in God reaching down and catching my hand, tugging at my heart, whispering in my ear.
This sinner shows up because she has this sneaking suspicion that there is something going on with this Jesus guy.  She doesn’t know what or why.  She couldn’t have told us, staying in the doorway of the Pharisee’s house, that she was going to receive forgiveness of sins.  She just followed her gut, that funny tug right at the edge of her heart, like a fishing line cast by love that hooks right into the broken and fearing bits of us and says “Come on.  Come in.  There is something for you here.”

This is what faith does to us.  Faith grabs us, pulls us in, invites us to shed our fear and live in love, douses our dirty feet in ointment and tears and grace.  Faith catches us up in this whirlwind of love and forgiveness and love and forgiveness and love.

This is awkward.  This is awful.  This is awesome.  This is grace.