Sunday, June 19, 2016

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Shooting at Pulse: Pastor Emmy's Response (from the Church Newsletter)

When worship began last Sunday morning, we had only begun to get reports out of Orlando of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub.  We now know that forty-nine lives were taken that night, almost all of them members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community, and almost all of them Latinx.  Rumors are still circulating about the gunman's motivations, but we know that he (like many of the other men across America who have targeted minorities and marginalized communities in mass shootings) had a history of violence.

As a gay woman, I am still in deep grief over this massacre.  I am still struggling to put into words how vulnerable this makes the whole LGBTQ community feel.  I keep running through memories of dances at clubs, marches at Pride Festival, rallies at the legislature -- all times when I was vulnerable to violent attack because I believe that God made me beloved exactly as I am.  This week my partner Michelle and I have been afraid to hold hands in public, more aware of potential attacks than we have been before.  Already we are hearing that Westboro Baptist Church will be protesting at victims' funerals, where they will likely hold signs and blast music at full volume declaring God's absolute hatred for the victims and delight in their deaths.

In addition, the Muslim community in America is experiencing significant backlash over the attacks.  Many Islamic groups (including the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations) immediately responded to the attacks with rejection and condemnation of the shooter's supposed ties to Islam.  The majority of the Muslim community continues to reject violence and murder, yet the actions of a few are often applied to the whole.  I am reminded of last year's massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, carried out by a young man who belonged to the very same denomination we do.  The violence of one does not always reflect the values of the whole, and when the majority of Muslims condemn violent attacks, I am asked to listen to those voices.  To that end, I will be attending the iftar hosted at First Lutheran in Columbia Heights this coming Wednesday.  An iftar is the celebratory meal that ends the day-long fast Muslims perform during the month of Ramadan.  This iftar is open to the public and I invite you to join me -- you may RSVP here.

There are a number of vigils scheduled for Sunday evening to remember the victims.  Gustavus Adolphus has invited us to join them for a service at 8pm.

I will also be joining an ELCA Young Adults webcast on Sunday evening -- a live video chat among nine young adult leaders in the Christian church that will discuss and reflect on the shooting in Orlando.

Worship on Sunday will offer some time for prayers for the victims of the Orlando attacks.  I also invite you to reach out to LGBTQ family and friends -- this is an incredibly painful week for us, and every word of support and love counts.

In peace and hope,
Pastor Emmy

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A sound of sheer silence: a commentary on Elijah, Legion, and Pulse


After the fire, there was a sound of sheer silence.
After the hail of bullets, the murderous flash of bullet light, the thunder of bodies against the floor.
After the earthquake of hope and joy and life torn from lives.
After the ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing of cell phones as friends and family tried to reach those who were no longer reachable.
A sound of sheer silence, and Elijah the prophet cowering in the cave of a nightclub bathroom.

Why are you here, Elijah?, the Lord said, as if the Lord did not know.
As if the Lord had not mourned every time a servant was slaughtered.
As if the Lord had not charged the last remaining prophet with destroying the gods who offered fertility in exchange for blood and violence and death.
As if the Lord had not heard the proclamation of Jezebel: may those gods do whatever they like to me if I do not tear your life from you.
As if the Lord God had not come down from heaven in a flaming and magnificent burst to proclaim that whatever might try to drown it, freedom and life and freedom and life and freedom and life would fight through.

When the Gerasenes, Gentiles who knew not of the God of Israel, arrived at the tombs, they found the man dressed and completely sane,
and the pig-herders said:  This Jesus cast the legion of demons out.
And the people said:  Who is this Jesus, this Jewish rabbi?
And the people said:  Who is this God which he proclaims?
And the people said:  This man has been so violent that leg irons and chains could not hold him.
And the people said:  This man has been so dangerous that we have let him live among bones and graves to protect ourselves.
And the people said:  This church has been so violent that it has broken our bodies and hearts and told us to be grateful that God might spare us from how we were made.
And the people said:  This church has been so dangerous that we have watched it work itself into a frenzy among dead bones, and we have let it go, in the hope we might be safe.
And the people said:  You are asking us to welcome home a man and a church who has tried to destroy us.
And Jesus left, but left the man behind, to live into the story of what God has done.

In the sound of sheer silence, the church began to speak, and said:
We mourn you!
We mourn you!
We mourn you!
As if the church had not been demon-possessed.
As if the church had not tried to tear Elijah limb from limb.
As if the church was not complicit in the wind and the fire and the earthquake.
As if the church had not seen devastation and demonization, death threats and suicide, the continual murders of trans women of color -- and responded with sheer silence.
As if the church had not beaten and broken the lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender and queer children of God and stood over their bodies to mockingly say:  Where is your God now?

The church proclaims that its demons are gone, but dead bodies lie around it.

Meanwhile, the messenger of God finds Elijah.
Get up and eat, the angel said,
and spread a simple table:  a jar of water and a hot bit of flatbread.
Not much.  But enough.
Enough to take us back through the wilderness.
Enough to find each other,
to fight for life amid proclamations of death.
To fill the sound of sheer silence
with the powerful resurgence of ourselves.

They tried to bury us.
They didn’t know we were seeds.


---

( The last lines are from Dinos Christianopoulos, a Greek 20th century poet and gay man.  The lines were adopted and used often in the Zapatista movement, a Mexican revolution for social and agrarian reforms in the 1990s. 

Image by Oscar Keys through Unsplash. )

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Do you see this woman?: a preaching commentary on rape culture, Bathsheba, and the use of grace


Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy is he who sees a married woman from far off, commands her to be brought to him, rapes her, and sends her home.
Happy is he who kills the husband of the woman he wants and who, when called out by the prophet of God, begs forgiveness.
Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy is he who has the wealth to host a dinner and neglect hospitality to the son of God.
Happy is he who sneers at a sinner.
Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Happy is he who takes his family to the zoo and, when the child falls into the gorilla pen, the mother is blamed.
Happy is he who rapes an unconscious girl but, because he is such a promising athlete, is given only six months in jail.
Happy is he who spews hatred, division, and judgment, and for it is chosen as a presidential nominee.
Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  These are supposed to be words of joy -- thankful praises of an ordinary human who, as ordinary humans do, has fallen short of the glory of God and yet has experienced radical forgiveness.  But in the face of this week, in the face of an ever-sickening political climate and an increasingly arbitrary judicial system, read together with the stories of David’s rape and murder and with Simon’s judgmental rejection of a woman seeking Jesus, these words are ringing hollow.

When King David saw Bathsheba, and found out she was married, and took her anyway -- and I do say took, because I don’t imagine that when the God-ordained king and your husband’s military commander sends for you to sleep with him that you have a lot of choice in the matter -- the prophet Nathan came to him and said:  God sees what you have done.  God sees the death of Uriah and the rape of Bathesheba and God will not be silent.

God saw them.  And I see them too.

Christian history has often taught that we are protected from God’s Old Testament wrath only by the sacrifice of Jesus, that our sinfulness is forgotten because of our faith.  The accountability practiced in the Old Testament, the justice, the promise that if someone put out another’s eye, then that person would lose their eye too -- through Jesus, the church has promised, this is removed from us.  Especially in the age of the Protestant faith, where the Catholic traditions of private confession and purgatorial punishment are absent, we experience the total freedom of salvation by grace.

The problem with narrowing Christian faith to total forgiveness of sin without retribution or price is that it makes sin about the relationship between us and God -- and forgets the relationship between us and neighbor.  If the concern with sin is that it endangers our eternal salvation, we forget what our sin does to those we sin against.  If the only prayer is “Forgive us,” we are no longer accountable to those we harm.  We, suddenly, get to serve no sentence even for twenty minutes of degrading violence, no matter what damage it did to our forgotten victim.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God which is fully covered by the blood of Jesus, we ignore two crucial elements of the abuse, oppression, violence, and death which reign in the world today:  victims and systems.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we look at the story of 2 Samuel 11-12 and see only David’s sin, David’s fall, David’s condemnation and repentance and forgiveness.  We don’t see Bathsheba, who was just taking a bath.  We don’t see how her vulnerable moment, when she was performing the purity rituals required after her period, turns her from a righteous woman of God waiting for her husband to come home from the front lines into a woman summoned by the king and brought into a sexual relationship from which she becomes pregnant.  (Again -- I don’t believe Bathsheba had a choice.  A  woman in this time and place, summoned by the king, did not have much of a chance at saying no.)

Bathsheba was purifying herself, and she ends up the likely unwilling mistress of the king who murders her husband, and then the son she was made to bear dies -- because, according to the prophet Nathan, of David’s great sin.  The story is all about David, David’s sin, David’s call, David’s condemnation and repentance and forgiveness.  Bathsheba’s grief at her husband’s murder and her son’s death is a side story, a few throwaway verses that set up what David will do next.  The victim who suffered at the hands of David is made far less important than David’s story of sinfulness and repentance.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we look at the story of a campus rape of an unconscious girl and decide that the requested six years in prison -- less than half of the maximum potential conviction of fourteen years -- is too severe a consequence.  Six months would be enough.  No, even six months is too much -- it’s only twenty minutes of action, the rapist’s father protested in a letter to the court.  He’s been depressed and lethargic since that day.  Stanford was too far away from home.  He’s not a danger to anyone.

Except perhaps the unconscious girl he raped.

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we look at the story of a young woman reporting a rape during which she was so unconscious she only knows it happened because of the bruising inside her thighs and the report of two men who had to catch her attacker before he ran away and ask, “What was she wearing?  Had she been drinking that night?  Had she ever had sex before?  Was she dancing with her attacker before she left the party?  If she can’t remember, are we really sure it happened at all?”

When sin is only a transaction between an individual and God, we not only forget the victims of that sin -- we miss also the systems that encourage it.  We miss the culture that teaches women, from day one, to be pretty, to be quiet, to offer hugs and accept kisses from family and friends even if they don’t want it.  We miss how we tell little girls “He only pulls your hair because he likes you.”  We miss how we tell girls that their exposed shoulders are causing their male friends to have lustful thoughts, that they need to cover up so the boys won’t stare.  We miss how we laugh and say “It’s a compliment, don’t get so upset” when a woman rejects a stranger who tells her how great her tits look in that dress.

We miss what is called rape culture, a way of living where we blame victims for their own suffering.  Rape culture says: Bathsheba shouldn’t have been bathing where she was visible -- perhaps only from the tallest house in the city, but still, visible.  Rape culture says:  Brock Turner’s victim should not have gone to that party, or had anything to drink, or danced with a stranger.  Rape culture says:  They should not have done such things and the abuse and violence and degradation they suffered is their fault.

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, when every instance of sin is a single instance rather than part of a pattern that takes place over and over again, we ignore the systems we live in that perpetuate violence against women, that act as if sexual assault is a natural consequence of being born female and not hiding it well enough.  

Jesus was eating with a Pharisee named Simon, and a woman came through the crowd at Simon’s house and knelt down to wash Jesus’ feet.  A sinful woman, the narrator says, and Simon repeats it.  For thousands of years the church has assumed that the woman’s sin was sexual, that she was a prostitute or an adulteress, that she like Mary Magdalene needed the forgiveness of Jesus to free her from the stain of her sin.

Mary Magdalene -- who never once in the whole of the Bible is called a prostitute, but who has become one in the two thousand years of Christian tradition.  And neither is this woman, unnamed, at the feet of Jesus.  This is the pervasiveness of the way our culture looks at women -- that we are sexual objects, and that our sin is likely to be sexual.  It is interesting, and not in the polite Midwestern usage, that the only sin we can ascribe to this woman is sexual promiscuity.  Interesting too, and not at all politely, that sexual sin -- ahem -- takes two to tango.  Remember the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus, her captors with brutal stones at the ready?  Where is the man?  Where is the man? 

Interesting, thirdly, and not at all politely, what this unnamed woman may have to say about the sex trade.  A prostitute, the history of the church suggests, and recoils -- not asking what kind of society creates a world in which a woman selling her body for sex has a market, and a productive one at that.  Not remembering that a woman in Jesus’ time was quite literally property -- the property of her father and then of her husband, and if she were not the property of her father or husband or children she was going to become someone else’s property in a way that protected her a lot less.  Not thinking when Simon asks “How did she get here?!” the question is how did she get here:  what happened to the father who was supposed to raise her, the husband who was supposed to care for her?  Where are the children, almost the only value a woman had in that time and place?  Why is this woman so alone?

When we reduce sin to only a transaction between an individual and God, we forget victims and systems, and we look at the women who have been slaves to the sexual appetites of men since the dawn of time and say:  You don’t belong at the feet of Jesus.

Do you see this woman?  Jesus asks Simon.  And David.  And Brock Turner.  And us.

This woman with no name, no friends that accompany her, no way to escape the stain of “sinner” that Simon and the rest of the town have branded her with.  This woman who comes forward in radical hope that here there might be justice for her.  Not the justice that Turner’s victim might wonder about, of six months or fourteen years of prison penance for her attacker; not the justice that Bathsheba might quietly weep for, of a murdered husband somehow brought back to her and a dead son returned to life.  This woman with no name comes forward hoping only for the justice that God sees her.  That God has seen her and God does not shy away.  That she might be restored to life, to wholeness, to the community, to self as a human being and not as a sinner.

She is seeking the justice of God that walks right up to King David and speaks through the prophet Nathan to say:  You are the man.  She is seeking the justice of God that says to everyone who defends violence and domination:  You are the man.  She is seeking the justice of God who looks across the table at Simon, the religious leader, and says:  What are you doing?  Do you see this woman?  Do you see this child of God?  Or do you only see a sinner, potentially caught in systems of oppression and assault, who offends you only by existing?

Do you see this woman?

Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Sin is a transaction between an individual and God.  Moses knew it, and wrote the laws of sacrifice and worship that sought to rebalance the God-human relationship broken by sin.  Jesus knew it, and knew it all the way to the moment when humanity’s fear of love and love of power tore his godly life from his human body.  And forgiveness sees that transaction and transforms it, releases us from it, says to David “you will not die,” says to the psalmist “your sin is forgiven,” says to the woman “your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  But beloved, that forgiveness is not the end.  It is only the beginning.

That forgiveness is freedom, freedom from our own fear of eternal damnation and divine retribution, but freedom to something as well.  Freedom to see what we have done, not out of fear of judgment but in honest and humble and heartbroken recognition of those we have sinned against.  Freedom to see this woman, the victim, the people broken by the systems of sin and oppression that have dominated us since Cain picked up a stone in a field outside Eden -- freedom to see them as they are, as beloved children of God worthy of restoration to the fullness of their selves.  Freedom to fix our mistakes, to work for reconciliation, to choose every day following never to take even one step down the same path that might wound someone again.  

That forgiveness is freedom, freeing us like Nathan and Jesus to say to the darkest parts of others and ourselves:  Do you see what you have done?

Freedom to say:  You don’t have to pay this back to God.  That relationship is restored.  Now what will you do to restore the world in which you live?

You are the man.  Do you see this woman?



---
Header photo from Llywelyn Nys from Unsplash.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Holy rudeness (or saying things that are hard to hear) -- sermon for May 29, 2016

Scripture

1 Kings 18:20-39 CEB

Ahab sent the message to all the Israelites. He gathered the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.” The people gave no answer.

Elijah said to the people, “I am the last of the Lord’s prophets, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire—that’s the real God!”

All the people answered, “That’s an excellent idea.”

So Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of these bulls. Prepare it first since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but don’t add fire.”

So they took one of the bulls that had been brought to them. They prepared it and called on Baal’s name from morning to midday. They said, “Great Baal, answer us!” But there was no sound or answer. They performed a hopping dance around the altar that had been set up.

Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!”

So the prophets of Baal cried with a louder voice and cut themselves with swords and knives as was their custom. Their blood flowed all over them. As noon passed they went crazy with their ritual until it was time for the evening offering. Still there was no sound or answer, no response whatsoever.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here!” All the people closed in, and he repaired the Lord’s altar that had been damaged. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob—to whom the Lord’s word came: “Your name will be Israel.” He built the stones into an altar in the Lord’s name, and he dug a trench around the altar big enough to hold two seahs of dry grain. He put the wood in order, butchered the bull, and placed the bull on the wood. “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the sacrifice and on the wood,” he commanded. “Do it a second time!” he said. So they did it a second time. “Do it a third time!” And so they did it a third time. The water flowed around the altar, and even the trench filled with water. At the time of the evening offering, the prophet Elijah drew near and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. I have done all these things at your instructions. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Lord, are the real God and that you can change their hearts.” Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench!


All the people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed.


Galatians 1:1-12 NRSV

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!

Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.


Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.

When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.


Message

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

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



Scripture

John 14:8-17

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

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

"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

Acts 2:1-21

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

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

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

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

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


Message

Click here to listen along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 25, 2016

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

Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18

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

Gospel of John 13:31-35

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


Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No problem, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


Hymn of the Day:  Blest Be the Tie that Binds

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

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

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

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

Woman, you are set free.

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

Woman, you are set free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STOP.  

Stop.

stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.