Sermon: Jesus tackles rejection (July 8, 2018)

Pentecost 7B
July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

INTRODUCTION

The first five chapters of Mark have been a sort of, Discipleship: 101 course. We’ve learned what the kingdom of God looks like, we’ve seen the importance of having faith, not fear, we’ve watched Jesus heal people, and cross boundaries to get to them. It’s been a tough course, but a fulfilling one. Today’s part of the story delivers two more lessons: first, a lesson in rejection, as Jesus is rejected by those in his hometown. Second, the disciples are sent out, two-by-two, for a hands-on learning opportunity, an internship of sorts, and to risk rejection themselves.

The past weeks I have been pairing the Gospel reading with an Old Testament reading, but this week, I chose the epistle instead: this wonderful text from 2 Corinthians about God’s power being made perfect in weakness. It seemed like the appropriate choice to get us ready to hear the Gospel story in which Jesus is rejected by his own people, and then is unable to perform any miracles, and then Jesus uses that experience to give a pep talk to his disciples before sending them out into a den of wolves, telling them specifically what to do if they should fail in their mission. I’m sure they feel weak and powerless – so hearing the God’s power is made perfect in weakness is good news!

Today’s texts are about vulnerability, about failing and falling, about rejection – and they speak to our constant efforts to avoid having to endure any of these things! As you listen, remember some times when you have fallen, when things haven’t gone as you hoped and worked for, when you have been rejected, criticized, or wounded. Listen for what God’s Word has to say to us in these inevitable moments.

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ELCA National Youth Gathering (2018)

As you may have heard, last week was the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering, an event that happens every three years, and draws 30,000 youth and adult leaders from Lutheran churches across the country into one city for a week of worship, service, dynamic speakers, fellowship, and inspiration. Many youth cite this as an event that changes their lives, helps them to understand what it means to be a Christian, and makes them feel closer to Jesus. We didn’t send anyone this year, unfortunately, but I did thoroughly enjoy reading the Facebook posts from my colleagues who were there, and various articles and interviews about the event all week. One in particular that really struck me was about how the youth were moved by the speakers they had at mass gatherings. The article said, “It was the first time many of our youth heard people of faith speak openly about taboo topics such as substance abuse, eating disorders, racism, gender identity, rape, and cutting. The honesty and inspiration in these well-crafted monologues moved many in our group to tears of recognition, seeing their own struggles reflected in other teens and adults brave enough to share their stories.”

What a concept – and what a gift! – for faith-talk and God-talk to be relevant to our daily struggles! We are sometimes tempted, I think, to keep our church life separate from our “real” life, and the various challenges we face. We don’t want to talk in church about uncomfortable topics, like politics, or money, or sex, or immigration, or racism, or anything controversial because we come to church to feel better, and those things are too fraught with negative feelings and disagreement. We want to “all get along,” leave feeling better than we came, and not stir any pots. And we really would rather not have to examine our hearts too deeply in the presence of others, and thus risk revealing to anyone the real pain and fear and doubt that we feel about issues that we would rather not talk or even hear about anywhere, and certainly not in public.

And yet, it is into these painful realities that we need the good news of the gospel to be spoken most of all! This is the brokenness Jesus came to heal, to which God can offer us grace and guidance. And so, we absolutely should be talking about these things in the context of our faith, yes, even at church!

And that is precisely why Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. 2000 years later, we may miss a lot of what made this story of a miracle-working carpenter so radical, radical enough to get the man killed. It was a different time and culture, we miss the nuance of the original language, and there is a certain amount of familiarity causing us to miss how remarkable this story is. That is part of my job – to help you see just what a political, controversial, and sometimes downright uncomfortable figure Jesus was!

Take today, for example, where Jesus tackles a big trigger for pain and vulnerability: the fear of rejection. In the first half of our Gospel reading, we see Jesus experience rejection, and in his hometown no less! “We know this guy,” they say, “and we know he’s no better than any of us. Who does he think he is, anyway?” I think we’ve all been there, on one side of that conversation or the other. The crowd’s reaction speaks to the ways humans make judgments about people when we think we know how they ought to be. That person must be uneducated, we think, or poor, or a ne’er-do-well, or a terrorist, or a racist, or elitist, or… you get the idea. We dismiss one another based on what we think we know about them. It’s very human: people did it to Jesus, and they do it today. And in seeing this interaction with Jesus, I hope we can recognize: “Maybe I do that to others… but also, it really stinks when someone does that to me.”

How many of you here have ever felt judged or rejected based on who you voted for, what you do for a living, where you live, or how you look? How many of you have felt like what you have to offer, your particular gifts, have been rejected or unappreciated – by a work place, by your peers, by your family? It doesn’t feel very good, does it? It’s not very good for the self-esteem, is it? I have felt that way, like I am seen only for my very worst qualities and none of my best, and it has taken me months or even years to overcome the damage to my self-esteem. Can anyone relate?

Does it help to know that Jesus also endured that feeling?

Jesus, after he was rejected by his hometown, goes on to use his experience to prepare the disciples for the same thing. You see, after several months of observing Jesus in his ministry, Jesus is now sending out the disciples to do their own ministry. He gives them many instructions, about packing light and relying on the hospitality of strangers, but what I notice especially this week is this bit about shaking the dust off of their feet. I used to see this as an insulting gesture, but it’s not – it’s a Jewish ritual symbolizing separation from anything that would defile you, make you unclean.

Today we don’t really think about defilement in the same way. I don’t think menstruation, for example, or touching or eating a pig, or what have you can defile me. But you know what can? Fear. Fear of rejection, yes, but also fear of outsiders, fear of difference, fear of change. Fear of failure. Fear that what people are saying about me when they reject me or my gifts might actually be true. Fear that I am worthless, or insufficient, or worse yet, that my insufficiency is not only harmful to me, but is actually hurting someone else I love – like you, or my children, or my marriage. All of these fears – they defile me: they make me unclean and unable to serve God as I’m called to do. They cause me not to act my best. They make me believe that God made a mistake with me, that I am not lovable, not worthwhile, not the beautiful child of God created in God’s image that I know, deep down, that I am.

I’m not proud of these fears. And I also know I am not alone in them. I know other people feel them, I know we as a church community feel or at least have felt them, and I know that our country feels them. I can see those fears play out in the way we treat one another, the ways we insist that our way is the only way, and that other people are deplorables, or snowflakes, or bleeding hearts, or racist, or just plain ignorant. I can see our country’s fear of loss and insecurity play out in our unwillingness to welcome the stranger (can you imagine today, in this climate, if travelers were told to rely upon the hospitality of strangers?). These sorts of treatments of each other do not come out of love, nor out of trust in a loving God. They come out of fear. They are defiling.

It is not a comfortable situation, to live in such fear, nor to be confronted with it. We all have been there. Oh, we may try to shake the dust off of our feet and move on, but sometimes it clings to us and gets tracked all over the floor of the house, staining the carpet. Or, we may find some satisfaction in leaving the dust there, thinking that layer of dirt will protect us from the things that we fear. It can be so hard to shake off the dust of our rejections and failures, our mistakes and regrets. And that dust can indeed become like a thorn in our flesh, getting into our wounds, and aching and irritating us every step of our lives of faith.

And yet, look at this good news buried at the end of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: Paul has asked three times for God to take away that discouraging irritant that he so wants to shake, but rather than take it away, God says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say he will boast in his weakness, in all those things that he might have perceived as things to avoid talking about, things to hide from the world – because it is in these things, these real human experiences that we all share, that God’s power is made truly known.

I am rarely impressed by someone who has it all together. What truly inspires me is someone who is riddled with flaws and weaknesses, and yet still manages to shine God’s love and grace into the world – not despite their flaws, and their mistakes, but because of them. Like those speakers at the ELCA Youth Gathering who shared candidly with 30,000 people about the ways they had faced the real issues that teenagers face in their daily lives, allowing the youth and adults alike to recognize that God is there with us, even in our failures and rejections. Like Jesus, using his own experience of rejection in his hometown to inform the disciples how to face similar challenges. Like so many faithful saints that I have met in this congregation and beyond it, who have shared the ways that God’s grace shined brightly through the darkest times of life.

“I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness,” Paul writes, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Spoken as someone who has seen and believed how the weakest position of all, what should have been seen as an utter failure – death on a cross as a common, political prisoner – came to be used as the means to offer all of us eternal life. Do we dare believe that God can do that with our failures, mistakes and rejections? Do we dare hope that God could use these deaths, these struggles, these embarrassing times of our lives that we don’t want anyone else to know about – do we dare hope that God could use them to shine God’s grace into the world? Do we dare trust that God is using every struggle we face to better equip us as beckons of the hope of Christ?

The real question is… how can we dare not believe, and hope and trust in that?

Let us pray… God of power, we fear that we may be crushed under weakness, failures and rejections, yet you have shown us how you use weakness to reveal your power. Help us to trust in that promise, to shake the dust off of our feet, and lift our eyes to you to see how you would have us reflect your grace into this broken world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Doing what looks like Jesus (July 1, 2018)

Pentecost 6B
July 1, 2018
Mark 5:21-43

INTRODUCTION

Today’s Gospel story uses a very famous technique Mark loved to employ, affectionately called the “Markan Sandwhich.” In short, he sandwiches two stories together, starting one, moving over to another, and then back to the first. Part of his purpose in doing this is to signal to his readers: these stories are to be read and interpreted together. They are richer and tastier when taken at once, in one bite, as it were.

So, it is useful to notice what these two stories – the healing of the hemorrhaging woman and the healing of Jairus’s daughter – have in common, and how they are different, and consider what those similarities and differences might mean for our interpretation.

I’m going to tell you a few of them up front, as well as give you some context for the scene. Jesus has just returned from sailing across the Sea of Galilee and back. Last week we talked about how often Jesus does ministry on the way, and on the borders and margins, and today continues that pattern. As he is going to heal the daughter of someone very important, he is secretly approached and touched by someone very much on the fridge: a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. (There’s the first difference: someone of means and importance, versus a nameless woman on the fringe of society.) According to Jewish law, while a woman is menstruating, she is unclean, and so is everyone who touches her, so she was to stay secluded. That’s manageable a few days each month, but for this woman, she has had to stay apart from society for 12 full years, as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive: she could not interact with other people, she could not be married or have children, she was a complete social outcast. She and Jairus’s daughter have very different lives.

But although Jairus and his daughter, and the hemorrhaging woman, could not be more different socially, they do share something very important: they are both absolutely desperate for Jesus’ help. Both crave healing. And both come to him in utter faith that he can do something about their troubles.

Our first reading and the Psalm will set up for us what it is like to desperately seek God’s help, and to find hope in the Lord. The Gospel will show us concrete examples of that faith and hope in action. Let’s listen.

[READ]

Jesus has not had a break. From teaching, to stilling a storm on the sea, to casting out a legion of demons over in the land of the Gerasenes, back across the sea, and now he has barely landed before Jairus comes to him in desperate need. His daughter is sick, to the point of death, and Jairus has faith that this miracle worker, Jesus, can do something about it. He is also confident that Jesus will – after all, Jairus is a very important person, a leader in the synagogue, and one of the privileges of holding such a position is that people respond to your needs. And he’s right – Jesus immediately follows him to go heal the girl.

In the crowd, a woman watches. She is hiding – no one must see her, because it is against the law for her to be out, especially in such a large crowd. But she is at a point where she has no other option. For 12 years she has tried, in good faith, to be healed, to find a life worth living. Yet each doctor she has seen has taken her money, but only made things worse. She has no one to support her, she is in financial trouble, with no hope on the horizon. She is weak, for life has been draining for her for too many years. Indeed, she fears for her very life, what life she has, anyway. For her, there is no other option than to risk this act of civil disobedience, and approach the man she hoped could offer her an escape from this life. “If I can but touch the edge of his clothes,” she thought, “I will be made well.”

Jesus is quickly making his way with Jairus and the disciples. She takes a deep breath, and pushes her way through the crowd. She reaches out to touch his garment, and just as soon as she does it is as if she has surfaced from the waters that were drowning her. She feels power enter her like she hasn’t felt in over a decade. She gasps for air, for what seems like the first time in years, and knows that a new life is indeed hers.

But then Jesus turns around. “Who touched me?” he asks. What will she do? She could just slip away, and no one would have to know it was her. There were many people touching him, so he couldn’t know that it was her! Yet something about his sincerity and compassion compels her, in fear and trembling, to approach him, fall to his feet, and tell her whole story – the years of living in fear, the loss of any hope of having children, the doctors who had only hurt her, the family members from whom she had been necessarily separated, and yes, this, her act of civil disobedience in coming out into a crowd to find healing from Jesus. Telling her story is terrifying, but it is also liberating, and that act itself makes her feel not only life, but freedom. Jesus is listening to her with such compassion, she can do nothing but share everything on her heart, all the pain and sorrow and fear, to lay it squarely on him.

The woman can see the disciples, and especially Jairus, getting antsy to move on – Jesus is taking so much time to listen to her, an outsider, a nobody, when someone important is in need, someone who would never have to break the law in search of help! – but she cannot stop pouring her heart out to Jesus, and Jesus never seems rushed. Finally, as she utters the final words of her story, she looks to him, with tears streaming down her face, and he looks at her kindly. He says to her one word: “Daughter.” She gasps a sob: hearing this word, this word of belonging and restoration to her community – this word heals her ills in a way she could not have predicted. He goes on, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole again. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” And even as he utters the words, she knows that they are true.

As she basks in her newfound wholeness, someone arrives to tell Jairus that it is too late – his daughter is already dead. With a glint in his eye, Jesus responds to the news saying, “Do not fear. Only believe.” Do not fear. Huh! Jairus can scarcely accept this – his daughter is dead! – yet something about how Jesus says it does make him believe. They hurry to his home, where indeed the girl has wasted away to skin and bones, and appears lifeless. Jesus suggests she is only sleeping, and the sound of laughter is like breaking glass in Jairus’s ears. Still, he clings to faith, against all evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is right. Jesus goes right up to the girl, reaches out and takes her hand. It is so tender; he truly cares for this girl, even though she is just a child, and just on the verge of being a woman. Yet he cares for her.

Gently, Jesus says to the girl, “Little girl, get up.” To the amazement of everyone there – even Jairus whose faith has not wavered! – the girl gets right up and starts walking around. Jesus tells them to get her something to eat. She, too, is filled with new hope, new strength, new life.

~         ~         ~

Just before these two healing stories, Jesus told a few parables saying, “The kingdom of God is like this.” He doesn’t say that here, but it does seem to be implied, that here are two stories that show us not only what Jesus is like, but what Jesus’ followers are like when they are truly his followers, doing his work, living in his Spirit. I came across a quote this week by Presiding Bishop or the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, who has been in the news lately for the moving sermon he preached at the royal wedding a few weeks back. He describes very directly how we can know what Jesus would have us do – as we interact with our neighbors, as we prepare to cast a vote, as we watch the news and discern how we might be a part of making this broken world into something that looks a little more like God’s kingdom. He says, “If it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”

Well, here we have two stories that show us what Jesus of Nazareth looks like, what love looks like:

Christian love looks like hearing the cry and pleas of a desperate father, and responding by doing what is necessary to make sure he does not lose his child.

Christian love looks like visiting a sick child, taking her limp hand in ours, and offering words of life.

Christian love looks like not being in too much of a hurry to stop and truly listen to the whole story of a woman in despair, who has done everything she can think of and spent everything she had in order to find a better life. It looks like not judging her, even for breaking a law in order to find that new life, but rather, offering her compassion.

Christian love looks like risking defilement in order to touch the bloody and broken, knowing that touch is what brings healing.

Christian love looks like insisting on and making space for the whole truth, no matter how falteringly told or how long it takes, and it looks like listening to that truth not with the intention to refute it, but rather, to hear it, with thoughtful compassion.

Christian love looks like bringing life to places where death threatens to win, bringing hope into despair.

Christian love looks like seeing the outsider, the outcast, as a member of your own family, your own clan, and bidding them peace.

As baptized Christians, this is our calling. It is not an easy one. Insults are easier than empathy. Avoiding the news is easier than learning all about what is going on. Talking only to people we agree with is safer than trying to understand other perspectives. Ignoring those in need, or dismissing them, or rationalizing why we shouldn’t help them, in favor of getting to whatever important tasks we have before us is more efficient.

But if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed as Christian. I don’t know about you, but I want to look like a Christian! Right? Let us strive, sisters and brothers, always to take not the easier road, nor even the road that feels better in the moment, but the road that is loving, that is of Christ. Let us seek not self-preservation, but compassion and tenderness, time and a heart to listen, and words of life for those in desperate need. Let us always ask ourselves, “If Jesus weighed in on this situation, what would he suggest we do?” And then, let’s do that.

Let us pray… Healing God, make us compassionate enough to hear your people’s cries, courageous enough to share our whole story and listen to others’, and faithful enough to believe you can heal our every ill. Help us to move and grow, as individuals, as a congregation, as a country, and as a world, toward seeking always to do what looks like love, what looks like Jesus of Nazareth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Jesus is on the border (June 24, 2018)

Pentecost 5B
June 24, 2018
Mark 4:35-41

INTRODUCTION

In our readings today we’ll find a lot of storm and water imagery, always emphasizing that God is in command even of the storms. If you remember the beginning of Genesis, you may remember that at the very beginning of creation, when the universe was formless and chaotic, God made sense of the chaos. Throughout the Bible, the sea serves as a metaphor for chaos, and so it is remarkable to see God continues to have command of it – first in Job, as God reminds the suffering Job that God has been in charge from the beginning, then in the Psalm, and finally in the story of Jesus stilling the storm.

But there is even more to notice in Mark’s story. Today we see one of Mark’s themes: the fact that Jesus is always crossing boundaries to get to those on the other side, the outsiders, and furthermore, that Jesus’ ministry is often focused not on one side or the other, but on the edges, in that liminal space in-between. In the case of today’s story, that in-between place is the sea they are crossing. But we will keep seeing this: once they get to the other side, they’ll encounter a man possessed by many demons, who has been chained up on the outside of town. On the edge. When he returns to Galilee, in the story we’ll hear next week, Jesus is going to heal a young girl, and on the way there, he heals another woman whose ailment has placed her on the fringe of society. See, ministry on the edge, and on the way.

So as you listen to these readings, remember that the sea is often a metaphor for chaos to be overcome, and as you see Jesus minister in the in-between, consider how God has come to you during those in-between times, and been present for you in whatever chaos you may face in your life.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Like perhaps many of you, I have been consumed this week by what is going on right now on our southern border. In case you haven’t been glued to the news, here’s what’s happening: a new “zero tolerance” policy is in place that prosecutes all illegal crossings criminally, where previously an illegal crossing, at least the first offense, was only a misdemeanor, equivalent to a traffic ticket, or littering. Some sources have reported that though people have tried to come through legal entry points, many of those ports are closed, causing people to sit outside in the 100+ degree sun for days on end. So many take matters into their own hands and come across on a raft, then turn themselves in as asylum seekers, but then because of the zero tolerance policy they are arrested and prosecuted as criminals. Because adults are being criminally prosecuted, they are going to jail immediately, leaving any children, ranging in age from nursing infants and toddlers, up to teenagers, to be designated as “unaccompanied minors.” These 2500 or so kids who have been taken from their parents, sometimes forcibly, are being held in converted warehouses, contained by fencing. The trauma and possibly irreparable damage this separation from their parents has done to these young children is apparent in the cries, the behavior, and some other particularly devastating consequences we have seen.

The situation led to a national outcry, including from faith leaders from Franklin Graham to the Southern Baptist Convention to the Pope to essentially every mainline Protestant denomination, saying, “Scripture tells us over 100 times that we are to welcome the stranger and care for the weak!” and, “Jesus says we will be judged on how we treat the least of these!” They are right to say so – the biblical mandate is very clear that we are to love and care for the stranger and immigrant. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in, as to the damage this could do to young brains. President Trump responded to the outcry, and signed an executive order this week to stop this practice, but it is not yet clear how families will be reunited, nor is there enough personnel to do the necessary processing to be sure kids aren’t being trafficked, that the adults who claim them are in fact their real parents, whether asylum claims are real or fabricated, etc. They’re having trouble even finding which parents go with each kid. No matter your opinion on immigration policy, the fact is: this is a mess. It is devastating to see and to hear.

All of this has been very much on my heart and mind as I have studied this well-loved story about Jesus stilling the storm. I find myself praying that Jesus would shout out his peace and calm on the whole situation, and that this would lead to a solution. Another prayer my heart has cried out is, “Lord, don’t you care that they are perishing?” I imagine how empty the words, “Why are you afraid?” would fall on the ears of those children, who have probably never felt more afraid, alone and helpless. I feel guilty that, like the disciples, I feel like my faith is faltering, like I am losing an ability to trust God in the midst of this debate that has gone on for decades and seems to have no end in sight. I resonate with Jesus who is trying to get some rest in the stern of the boat, but can’t because a storm arises and people need help, because I, too, am tired from all the pain and need in the world. There is much in this story to resonate with – in light of this dark storm in our land, certainly, as well as in light of whatever storms we might be facing in our personal lives.

But as I grappled and prayed over this text this week in light of all this, I noticed something important: this impressive miracle, stilling the storm, doesn’t happen while Jesus and his disciples are here or there, home or the other side. It happens in-between. It happens in that liminal place, in the transition. And like I said before, this is a theme in Mark, that Jesus repeatedly does his ministry in the liminal places, the in-between, the times of life that are on the edges. Jesus ministers in the times and with the people who are physically, socially, or politically on the margins of life or society. On the border is always where we will find Jesus.

Waiting in a detention center is a liminal place if ever there was one. Memories of the past, and especially if one doesn’t speak English, uncertainty about the future abounds – will I be deported? Where are my children and when will I get them back? Are they safe? Is anyone even looking at my case? Will I be able to find my family who is already here? It is a liminal, in-between time in every possible way.

And, while that situation is heavy on the hearts of the nation right now, we all deal also with our own liminal, in-between times. Think for a moment about a time when you were between things, in the midst of a transition (could even be right now!). Maybe you lost a job and were looking for a new one, or you sat for days by a loved one’s bed as you waited for death to take them, or you were at the end of a pregnancy and waiting for labor to come, or you were in labor, or you had been diagnosed with a serious illness but didn’t know yet what treatment would look like. Remember how that felt. What are some of the feelings you remember from that liminal space? [wait]

When Jesus went out on the boat with his disciples that evening, he was exhausted. He had been teaching all day, and he was I’m sure looking forward to catching some shut-eye on the trip over. And yet, as often happened on the Sea of Galilee, especially at night, a storm kicked up. And how, do you think, did the disciples feel? Anxious… fearful… doubtful… untrusting… All things I have felt when I find myself in a liminal place. As soon as we are in-between, because of all those feelings that state brings up, it suddenly becomes all the more important – yet all the more difficult – to trust.

That is precisely why Jesus shows us, again and again, that ours is a God who shows up in those places. “Don’t you care that we are perishing??” the disciples call out to him. It’s a shout my own heart has uttered many times before. It usually comes out in the form of those elusive “why” questions: “Why are you letting this happen? Why did you take my loved one away? Why did you saddle me with this ailment? Why did you lead me here? Don’t you care that I am perishing?”

And Jesus comes out, stills the storm, and turns to me and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Anyone else ever feel like Jesus is always saying this to them? And I really do imagine him saying it that way: “Johanna, really? Come on, why are you afraid? Where’s your faith? Haven’t I always been there with you before? Hasn’t it always become clear? Don’t fret. Trust.” And because God’s word is always accomplished, a peace comes upon my heart. Maybe not right away – you notice even the disciples remained stunned and confused, even after he stilled the storm – but eventually that peace does come.

I don’t know what Jesus is going to do for the thousands of people in the liminal place of our southern border. But I do believe Jesus is there – I see him in the work of those working as advocates, providing care, seeking compassion and neighbor-love, and asking those in power for something to be done to fix this. I believe Jesus is there, because Jesus is always there, on the borders and margins, in the transitions, in those times when we are in the dark, stormy, and unknown places that so often fall between the knowns. Jesus cares deeply for those who are on the margins of life – that is why he is always making a point of going there.

And in case there was any doubt, Jesus finally goes to that place in the most profound way – hanging on a cross just outside of Jerusalem, on the city’s margin, lingering between life and death before finally giving in to death… only to overcome that liminal place by rising once again into life. Ours is a God who can always overcome the liminal, who enters into the stormy transitions of life to say, “Peace, be still,” and remind us that he is trustworthy. When God enters our liminal places, we can be sure that, once we get to the other side, we will find life.

Let us pray… God of the margins, it is difficult not to doubt and be afraid when we encounter the liminal transition times of life. Thank you that you are there. Open our eyes to see you, and prepare our hearts to trust you, that we would see the life to which you lead us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Strawberry Social, June 21, 4:30-gone

Celebrate the longest day of the year with some strawberry dessert!

Our annual Strawberry Social will have the same delicious beef BBQ, hot dogs, salads and drink, plus of course plenty of delicious strawberry shortcake. (Plus other desserts if you prefer.) All this you can enjoy in our outdoor pavilion, right next to our beautiful prayer garden, which is blooming like crazy. Take out is available if you can’t stay.

Beef BBQ – $8 Hot dogs – $7
Desserts a la carte

This year’s proceeds go to support the Williamson Come-Unity Center: https://www.facebook.com/comeunityctr/

Wayne County Rural Ministries has been serving all of Wayne County since 1949. Currently they offer food boxes from their food pantry, free lunches, clothing and household items through Common Cents Thrift store, and emergency financial assistance for heat, rent, and prescription medicines.

The pantry has a special need for canned peas and mixed vegetables to support the food pantry. Consider bringing donations of canned goods to the social.

Sermon: Living in God’s loving and welcoming kingdom (June 17, 2018)

Pentecost 4B
June 17, 2018
Mark 4:26-34

INTRODUCTION

Last week we talked about how Mark’s Gospel is apocalyptic – it shows us that dominant powers are not ultimate powers, but rather, that the power of God will ultimately dominate over everything. We talked about how that word “apocalypse” means to uncover, to pull back the current reality to reveal to us a different way that is of God, a way that Jesus will today call “the kingdom of God.” For Mark, this applies especially to his readers’ reality that Roman domination seems to be winning, but Jesus is saying, “No, they are not the winners. God’s kingdom will ultimately win.”

In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus describes what that kingdom will look like, and he uses parables to do it. Anyone know what a parable is? It’s more than a story with a lesson, more than an analogy or allegory. It’s a story that places side-by-side two unrelated things to challenge our expectations and make us think more deeply about things we thought we knew. As one preacher writes, “Because [parables] call into question accepted ‘truths,’ they are almost always a bit subversive, challenging and even goading us to consider other possibilities in light of God’s promises.” So our first reading today presents an image of God’s kingdom that makes sense to us – majestic cedar trees – but the parables Jesus tells liken the kingdom of God to an ordinary seed with an ordinary crop, which we would not expect.

I also want to say a little something about that phrase, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom sounds like a place, right? In fact, what place do you usually think of? [Heaven.] But the Greek word there is more dynamic. It refers to something active, more like a reign or rule, not a static place. So, the kingdom of God is not a location, but a reality, in which God is the ruler, rather than earthly powers. And so, when we act as God would have us do, and treat people with the love of God, we are living in God’s reign or rule. Lutherans like to talk about the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” – it hasn’t fully come to be (we know this because of how much pain still exists in the world), but already we can see glimpses of it, when we see people living according to God’s rule. As we will see in our parables, this reign is not something we can bring about nor prevent, but we can participate in it, live in that “already,” and in that participation, we just might make God’s reign more visible. Let’s see what we can learn.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Well, I’ll go ahead and say it: the parable of the growing seed is pretty boring. I mean look at it: “A sower plants a seed, does nothing, and it grows. Then he harvests it.” What could possibly be more ordinary? What could something so mundane possibly have to reveal to us about the mysterious and longed for kingdom of God?

And then he follows it with this mustard seed parable, which is again, kind of boring. Mustard bushes are not the majestic cedars of Lebanon. They are ordinary, and they are invasive, by no means unique. They are useful, yes, with many medicinal qualities, but they are not very interesting. Another mundane parable.

Of course, this is the beauty of Jesus’ parables. He takes entirely ordinary things, things we can understand because we have experience with them, and uses them to point us toward the incredible work of God, showing us the power that even mundane things have to reveal God to us.

So what are these ordinary things showing us about living as citizens in the kingdom of God? How is the living Word of God speaking to this time and place through this parable? And, an important question for Mark, how might the earthly kingdom in which we live (the one Mark is trying to apocalyptically pull away) look different from the reign of God (the new kind of reality that we find)?

Let’s start with that last question, by considering Mark’s context. The earthly kingdom in which they were living was one of oppression and persecution, in which fear and despair was their daily diet, in which Rome was the dominant power, and they abused that power. And so into that context, Jesus says to them, “I know you long for something different, for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom to tear down all that causes your anguish. But the kingdom of God isn’t like a military power, come to overthrow. No, the kingdom of God is like this: like a seed that is planted and grows quietly, even without you realizing. It is growing in just the way God intended for it to grow, and nothing you do can make it grow any faster, nor any slower. But it is growing, trust me! And one day it will sprout – you’ll see just the tips of green come up from the dirt. You’ll see life there that wasn’t there the day before. It will keep growing, bigger and stronger. And this seed, that little seed that you didn’t even see growing all that time, suddenly it will bear fruit! And then you will know that it is time for the harvest, the time when all of God’s plans will become clear to you.”

What a word of hope that is! In Mark’s time, people were anxious for such a word of hope, that God’s kingdom could persist even through the abusive power and oppression they were witnessing. They needed to hear that God’s kingdom could not be stifled by human nature or error, nor could it be hastened, but rather, that it would come in the way and time that God chooses. They needed to hear that trusting God would not be in vain.

But Jesus doesn’t stop at that. He goes on then to describe what that kingdom, that different kind of rule is like: “Do you want to know more about the nature of the kingdom of God?” he asks. “Here’s how I would describe it. It’s like a mustard seed. Yeah, that tiny little seed that seems like nothing compared to all the trials and tribulations of this world. Yet, it grows and grows and becomes a great big shrub. I know, I know, the mustard bush may not be the most impressive bush to look at, but look at what it has to offer: healing! And beyond that, shelter and safety for the animals. Yes, even the birds, who I know can be pests – they will be welcomed into the big branches of the kingdom of God. They will be safe there from the dangers of the world. They will raise their families there, and make a home in that kingdom. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, you see – it is a place that offers love, care, and welcome even for those creatures you may not think you want around. Perhaps most importantly – it cannot be stopped. My friends, the kingdom of God, this place of love and welcome, cannot be tamed. It can and will spread, and take over everything, welcoming the birds into its branches, and living under a rule of neighbor love. Rome cannot and will not do that for you. But, that tenacity and care is what you can expect from the kingdom of God.”

What an important and life-giving understanding of this parable, for their time and for ours. It offers us hope, and a lifeline out of despair, when we find ourselves living in a world in which governments disregard God’s rule of love, turn away from people in need, cause trauma rather than seek healing, and do all of this by falsely using God’s word to support it. The seed growing in secret promises that our faults and mistakes and ignorance cannot stop the kingdom of God from coming about – it will come regardless, not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who God is. The mustard seed tells us that God cannot be beat, that God’s kingdom will always win over any human efforts to overpower it.

And while this doesn’t give us a particular job to do – planting seeds or whatever – it does inspire us to become a part of it. That is where faith comes in. We aspire to be a part of this growing kingdom, not because we must in order to be saved, but rather, because we already are, because we are so filled with faith and trust in God that we can’t NOT become a part of it. Participating in God’s kingdom springs out of our faith; it is a reflection of our true faith. Our faith in God’s promises compels us to be God’s actors and workers in this world, sharing the good news of God’s love by reaching out to the poor, working for justice for the oppressed, listening to the voices of those on the margins and borders, seeking healing for all the various forms of brokenness in this world, or even standing up against those worldly kingdoms that would try to stifle God’s work, and rule by anything other than love of neighbor.

When we do those things, we are already living in God’s kingdom, even as we still long for it to come to completion.

These kingdom parables show us that the death we experience in this world does not win. God always wins. Love and grace and justice always win. Trust in God… and then, compelled by faith, let’s make like a mustard bush, and get out there to spread this kingdom.

Let us pray… Resilient, invasive, and loving God, thank you that your kingdom comes no matter what we do or don’t do. Inspire us by your promises, that we would be compelled to actively participate in your kingdom, on earth as in heaven, by loving and caring for our neighbor as we would do for Christ himself. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Detectives in the apocalypse (June 10, 2018)

Pentecost 3B
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35

INTRODUCTION

Last week when we began working through Mark, I talked about how Mark’s Gospel is a little rough around the edges because Mark is in such a great hurry to get this story out. This week I want to expand a bit on that. Part of his rush was that the world was in turmoil. Mark was writing right as the Great Revolt was coming to a close – the Jewish people had revolted against the oppressive Roman Empire. This Revolt culminated with the destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple, which is right when Mark is writing. Because of his particular context, Mark has a very apocalyptic feel to it.

Now, usually when we say “apocalypse,” we think, “end of the world,” or “final judgment.” But the original meaning of that word, apocalypse, was, a big hope-filled idea that dominant powers are not ultimate powers: the message is, when empires fall and tyrants fade, God is still around. The word actually means a sort of pulling away of the known, to reveal what’s underneath.

And so when I say Mark is apocalyptic, I mean that Mark shows us how Jesus is pulling back the reality of the empires and oppressive systems in which we find ourselves, and showing us what is underneath, showing us that there is another way. For the first century Christians, this was good news, to hear that the bad guys wouldn’t win, that the terrifying situation in which they found themselves was not the final word. But for the powers that be, it was not such good news – and that is why they push against Jesus’ message, dismissing it and undermining it however they can.

In our first story today, we will hear about how from the beginning of time, people have been quick to point fingers and cast blame elsewhere, and about how this behavior damages even our most important relationships. In our Gospel reading, we will see how quick we are to dismiss that which would challenge our beliefs, that would dare pull back what we have know to reveal something different. We see this as Jesus’ adversaries are so put off by this that they say he is possessed by the devil himself. Let’s see how these stories can guide our lives of faith.

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

From the beginning of time, humans have pointed fingers, dismissed each other’s pain, and been divided. Since the very first humans, we have hidden ourselves from one another and from God, hoping that no one else will have to see our insecurities, that if we put up a strong front and deflect any blame, then we can continue to hold onto our beliefs, no matter how misguided.

It’s no wonder division has been a mark of human society from society’s very inception.

I have always loved this scene in Genesis, where the insecure Adam and Eve hide themselves from God, and as soon as they are called out on their shenanigans they point fingers anywhere else to keep themselves safe. I just see so much of my own experience in this story. Because don’t we all want to be safe? Physically safe, sure, but I mean, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually safe. We don’t want our deeply held beliefs to be challenged, we don’t want to admit that someone else could be right, and we definitely don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially not in front of anyone else. And so we blame, blame, blame, even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, and cast people’s attention anywhere else to discredit the thing that might accuse us.

The behavior is very obvious in the Adam and Eve story. But it’s pretty clear in our story from Mark, too. Jesus has been pretty busy, healing a lot of people, casting out demons, and most recently, appointing his twelve disciples. Now they are back to business, having headed to Jesus’ hometown. And people are watching. And they are getting nervous, because what Jesus is saying and doing these days is an affront to the powers that be, and does not jibe with their understanding of God. As I said in the introduction, Jesus’ message is an apocalyptic one, pulling back the cover and revealing the truth about how Roman rule is not ultimate rule, and that in fact God’s power is not revealed in domination, but rather in reaching out to and serving those on the fringes of society. They had expected the Messiah to be a military power, to overthrow the government by force, but here is this carpenter, reaching out to the fringes!

In response to this counter-cultural message, what do the religious authorities do? Do they thank him very much for directing their attention back to the God they love? No… Do they say, “Tell us more about that. It’s intriguing, and we realize we might be missing something in our understanding of the world.” No…. They do just as Adam and Eve did and more: they hide from the truth and instead offer false information. “He’s crazy,” they say. “He’s lost his mind. He’s clearly possessed by the devil.” Discredit, dismiss, do whatever you need to do in order to protect your understanding of the world, no matter how misguided it may be, from being challenged.

Jesus’ response to this is a very logical one: “a house divided cannot stand,” he says. Basically, how could he be using the spirit of Satan to cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against himself? It doesn’t make sense.

And yet, the irony in his response is that working against ourselves is exactly what we humans do all the time. We choose what does not bring life. We let the voice of the devil convince us we are unlovable, even though we know ours is a God of love. We drive wedges between ourselves and other children of God by casting blame on one another, labeling and dismissing each other, and clinging to false truths. When we feel the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing us in a way that scares us, or that requires us to let go of a belief that does not bring life but does provide us a sense of safety, we shut it down, and convince ourselves that we know better than the Spirit.

I keep going back to Mark as apocalyptic, about how Jesus’ ways and words pull back what we thought was true, and, if we are humble enough to see it, reveal to us a different way that is of God. What is that different way?

Our keynote speaker last week at Synod Assembly was Ruben Duran, who works out of the Churchwide office with new congregations throughout the ELCA. In his address, he talked about being “detectives of divinity” – willing to really look for God not only in our congregation, but out in the public arena. Sometimes this is pretty easy – whenever we see good happening, we assume God must be there! Where being detectives of divinity gets a lot harder is in those Adam and Eve moments, those Mark moments, when we are suddenly confronted with the possibility that everything we previously held true might in fact be wrong, or at least not completely right, and we are immediately inclined to blame, point fingers, name-call, discredit, dismiss, and continue to hold onto whatever view it is that makes us feel safe.

These are very human defense mechanisms. They are “safe.” But they are not life. And that, in the end, is what our faith is based on: it is a story that is rooted in death but does not stay there. The story of our faith is one in which the government put to death a man who challenged what they held dear, thinking that this would put him out of sight and mind, that it would silence this opposing and resistant power, that it would keep safe their beliefs and way of life. But it didn’t work. Instead, Jesus rose from the dead and showed the world once and for all that trying to stifle God’s Word of life would get us nowhere, that no human actions can stop God from being a God of life, a God of new life that emerges out of death. We can’t stop it!

So yes, recognizing we are wrong can feel very much like a death – it is death to something we held dear. It is a death I have experienced many times in my life! But what if instead of leaning into the death by jumping to the human tendencies to blame, discredit, and dismiss, what if we looked rather to the possibility of new life, by taking a moment to ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? What is God pulling back to reveal to me in this? What belief of mine is being threatened, and why do I insist on holding to it even more tightly, even at the expense of my relationships? Where is life trying to emerge here?”

If we did this, I wonder what would happen to our relationships with those from whom we feel divided? Because Jesus is right – a house divided cannot stand. Neither can a church divided, or a country divided, or a family divided. The breach must be healed. So let us seek to be “detectives of divinity,” brothers and sisters, finding God in one another. Let us, when we feel challenged, seek to find how God is working there, not to shame us, but to bring about new life. If we did that, we might find we are able to overcome division. We might even find ourselves to be a new sort of family, united by our shared desire to do the will of God

I think I’m willing to take the risk – even if someone thinks I’m out of my mind for it! Are you willing to take that risk with me?

Let us pray… Uniting God, we are prone to discredit and dismiss people and ideas that challenge our beliefs. Yet we also know you are at work in everything, taking what feels like a death, and turning it into life. Help us to be detectives of divinity, always searching for the ways you are bringing about new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Jesus restores us for freedom (June 3, 2018)

Pentecost 2B
June 3, 2018
Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:26–3:6

INTRODCUTION

Today we begin eight weeks working our way through the Gospel of Mark, so I wanted to give you a little overview of that Gospel. I’ll tell you more about some specific themes as we encounter them, but today we’ll start with a couple general things.

First, Mark’s Gospel is down-and-dirty. It is super fast-paced and has a sort of frenetic energy about it, like he’s just so excited to get this story out he can’t be bothered with things like smooth transitions or having all the theological pieces in place. Compare that to John, who is so diligent about how things fit together, and these long, beautiful, even poetic theological discourses – nope, not Mark. Mark’s Gospel is marked by rough edges, ineloquent transitions, and the use of the word “immediately,” which appears dozens of times. It is raw and energetic, enthusiastic and exciting.

Why is Mark so urgent and excited? It has to do with his context. His is the earliest Gospel to be written, right around the year 70. The first generation of Christians, those who knew Jesus, has begun to die off, and there is a need now to write down this story. In addition, the world is in turmoil, with wars and threats and danger round every corner. Christianity is about 40 years old, and they have been waiting for what they thought was Jesus’ imminent return – but after 40 years he still hasn’t come, so surely all this turmoil means he is coming soon! So Mark is rushing to get this story out just as quickly as he can, to share this amazing good news with as many people as possible. Although all the resulting rough edges can be jarring and frustrating for a casual reader, they also provide ample opportunity for us to read ourselves into the story – and that is just what Mark intends for us to do: to see ourselves as one of the disciples, on this journey with Jesus.

Now, the story we hear today comes early in Jesus’ ministry, but Jesus has already begun to make a name for himself. By this point he has already performed many healings and people seek him out for help. But he’s also managed to upset a lot of people, and so he is being watched. After Jesus appears today to violate the Sabbath – twice – some of those people are so upset that they already begin to plot against him, and it’s only chapter 3!

But that question – about whether Jesus does, in fact, violate the Sabbath – is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. And so first we will hear what, in fact, the law says about the Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is from the 10 Commandments, and it is the explanation of why we are to keep the Sabbath. Then in the two stories in Mark, we see Jesus living out this law in a way that the keepers and interpreters of the law, the Pharisees, did not approve. Yet Jesus teaches us something very important about the place of Sabbath-keeping as people of faith. Let’s listen.

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Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” It’s an important story for the Israelites: the story of how God’s people were slaves, brutally treated with no rest, and God sent Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and lead them all out, through the Red Sea, and into freedom. It’s no surprise that it holds such an important place in Jewish and also Christian faith. It is a story that shows us that our God is a God who wants us to be free, who hates slavery. Our God is a liberating God! Our God wants us to have life, and to be captive to nothing and no one – not a king, not a situation, not our sin – and will go to great lengths to show us that.

Christians, of course, are all about the resurrection story, as we should be, and that is also a story about freedom, because on the cross, Jesus frees us from sins. But there is something so earthy and cool about that Exodus story, isn’t there? To literally march out of slavery, through a huge body of water as if being washed of all that used to bind them (just like a baptism, right?), even as that which would hold them captive still chases after them, and then for that same body of water to drown all the captors! Come on, it’s a great story!

It’s no wonder that God makes a whole commandment to help God’s people remember it. “Remember that you were slaves,” God says, “And now, because of me, you are not. So one day each week, don’t do any work, alright? And don’t make anyone else do any work either!” It’s as if God is saying, “I went to pretty great lengths to make sure you would be free from slavery, so don’t go and make yourselves into slaves by working all the time!”

You see, it is truly a grace-filled commandment, an insistence that we remember all that God has done for us, that ours is a God of freedom. This commandment is a gift to us. As Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, so don’t get confused and think that humankind was made to be anything but free on the Sabbath. Just take a day, one day, to remember that God wants for you to be free and to have life.

And yet, we do a pretty darn good job of breaking that commandment, don’t we? Oh, maybe you think, “Well I go to church, I pray, I’m doing fine!” But to think of the Sabbath only as “going to church” is a narrow understanding of it. While going to church is a great way to remember the Sabbath, it is so much bigger than that! To truly honor the Sabbath, is to celebrate our freedom, our life, and also to help others find that same freedom and life.

That’s what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading today. You see, the Pharisees have that narrow understanding of Sabbath. They stop at “you mustn’t work” and forget about why we mustn’t work – that is, so that we might celebrate our liberated life, and help others do the same. When Jesus sees a man with a withered hand, he sees someone who is unable truly to celebrate his freedom. He cannot work, he cannot participate in his community or support his family, and because of this, his culture sees him as less-than, as an unimportant, non-contributing member of society. When Jesus heals his withered hand, it is not so much about the hand. It is about him being restored socially, restored to wholeness and dignity.

In other words, the man receives life and liberation. It’s exactly the sort of “remembering the Sabbath” that glorifies God.

But I think we sometimes struggle with this just as much as the Pharisees… because we all find ourselves captive to something. Sometimes it is something physical, like an illness, or injury, or just the natural consequences of growing old. But I’m thinking more about the more spiritual captivities in which we find ourselves: the ones whose chains are made of our guilt, or doubt, or resentment, or anger, the ones whose shackles are an unwillingness to forgive, whose iron bars are the belief that we are somehow not worthy of God’s love and grace. Those are the captivities to which I think we are all prone to find ourselves. These feelings, they hold us back from fully celebrating the life we have been given in Jesus Christ, and the liberation that God wants for us.

We know that God wants freedom for us – if the Exodus event weren’t enough, we have the fact that God came to earth to dwell among us, then brought all of our sin with him to the cross, dying, and rising again so that we wouldn’t have to fear death and the devil. If God really wanted us to continue living in the captivity of our fears, guilt, anger, etc. then why would God go to such great lengths to give us otherwise, to show us another way?

God dearly wants us to remember the Sabbath, to remember that we were slaves, but no longer are because of the saving work of our almighty God – the God who led the Israelites across the Red Sea, and the God who died on a cross and rose again.

And that, actually, is why coming to worship is a great way to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Because when we gather here, we tell this story. We remember it together, with and for one another. We hear of God’s grace and unlimited love for us, love not because we are good, but because God is. And then, as Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, he says to us, “Come forward.” Come forward and receive this life-giving meal, this remembrance of God’s story and work. “Stretch out your hand,” he says, and receive this bread of life and wine of salvation. And in receiving this grace, we, the men and women with the withered souls, are restored.

Remember the Sabbath, brothers and sisters. Remember that you are free. Remember that no chains in this world are more powerful than God’s ability to break them. Remember that nothing you could say or do would put you out of the reach of God’s love and grace. Let us live this story, and seek to find ourselves in it.

Let us pray… Lord of the Sabbath, free us from all that would hold us back. Help us to remember to give thanks, on the Sabbath and every day, that you are a God who liberates us from sin and death. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Transformation is possible (May 27, 2018)

Trinity Sunday
May 29, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you believe that transformation is possible? Or is there any situation in which transformation is not possible?

I ask this because I think transformation is a pretty important part of Jesus’ mission, yet I think a lot of us live our lives as though some things are more powerful than God’s ability to change them. I hear it in statements like, “They are just evil,” or, “He’s never going to change,” or, “All of this certain kind of people [black, brown, gay, women, men, Muslim, immigrant] are that way.” But it goes even beyond the way we label others. I wonder if we also have convinced ourselves that we will never be different or better than we are. “I can’t do it. I’m not good enough, smart enough, brave enough. I will fail at that,” or, “I could never forgive that person,” or, “I will never forgive myself.” I get it – I have felt that way too, about myself and others – but I do wonder: have we convinced ourselves that there are some things in this world that are simply beyond God’s power to transform?

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, Jesus tells him that he must be born anew, born again, born of water and the spirit. Normally we associate this famous verse with baptism, or in some circles, re-baptism. But this week I’ve been thinking about it more broadly: when Jesus tells us that we are to be born anew, is he, in fact, telling us that transformation is and must be a part of a life of faith, whether that transformation is of ourselves, or of others, or our perception of others?

Furthermore, what, then, counts as a transformation? Only big things? Or even the mundane things of life? What brings about a transformation? Major life events or epiphanies? Or could something very small also be a sort of transformation, or a step on the path to one?

I’ve been thinking about this question this week, prompted by a number of stories and incidents I have come across. Allow me to share a few.

The first is right out of our scripture for today. A young man named Isaiah was a sinful man, from a sinful people. He lived in a time that seemed completely beyond restoration or redemption, in which people had turned from God and engaged in evil acts. Yet one day Isaiah has a vision. In that vision, he is in God’s Temple, and God is there, surrounded by heavenly beings. Stunned by the magnificence of this vision, Isaiah is moved to lament that he is sinful and unclean. In response, an angel touches his lips with a hot coal, and voila, Isaiah is made clean. He is forgiven. And so, forgiven, he is also transformed: when God asks whom he will send to bring an important message to God’s sinful people, Isaiah is able to say, “Send me.” And suddenly, Isaiah becomes God’s prophet.

If you have ever forgiven or been forgiven, you know, forgiveness brings about a change – change of heart, lightening of a spiritual load, and perhaps even a call into a new way of living. Because of forgiveness, you see, transformation is possible.

The next story is closer to home. Last weekend we had a wonderful conversation with Pastor Julie Cicora, who works with Rural Migrant Ministries, one of the recipients of our annual Christmas Stocking Program. She also pastors a church close to the city, and she was telling us about some of the youth programs they have there, aimed at children of the migrant workers. Many of these young people have endured significant trauma in their lives because of the harsh conditions under which their parents live and work. Some have seen their parents taken away in handcuffs and deported, some have hidden under beds during ICE raids, they’ve witnessed violence of various types, most live in abject poverty, itself a trauma. Enduring childhood trauma is a key risk factor for engaging in future violence. Pastor Julie said, almost off-handedly, “I think the church ought to be a healing place, so we focus our programs on helping these kids heal from the trauma they have experienced.”

The church ought to be a healing place – this has been ringing in my head ever since! And when healing, whether physical, spiritual or emotional, takes place, we are born anew. When our deepest pain is acknowledged, when our story is heard, when we find companions who will walk with us and love us, transformation is possible.

The last story I want to share today is the story of a young man who was a part of a college field trip through a program called Sankofa, in which 20 pairs of students, generally one black and one white, traveled to the south for what amounted to a tour of the history of racism. Their first stop was a plantation in Louisiana, where the cheerful guides went on about “happy slaves” who sang in the fields, who lived under good conditions and whose fingers never bled. At the end of the tour, the students all had a chance to pick some cotton out in the fields.

Back on the bus, the black students were angry and the white students were confused about why the black students were angry, dismissing their friends’ feelings and knowledge of their history in favor of the “expert” tour guides. Surely if the experts said they were happy, they were!

They went on to their next stop, a museum whose only exhibit was a history of lynching. Here they saw horrifying pictures and letters, reflecting some white people’s pride of this practice, pictures showing white families smiling in front of hanging bodies. The students walked silently, stunned, through the exhibit.

This time, back on the bus, the white students did their best to separate themselves from this history: “My family didn’t own slaves. I didn’t even know these sort of things happened. I’m not a part of this.” The black students were even more outraged by the white students’ unwillingness to own this history, or truly recognize their pain. The tension on the bus was palpable.

Then one white student stood up and changed the whole tone. She said, “I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned. I can’t fix your pain, and I can’t take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.” Then she added, “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” (Christian Century, “Talking about racism on a college bus trip.“)

Would she have been so changed if she had walked through the exhibit on her own? I doubt it. There was something about seeing and hearing the pain from friends and colleagues with whom she had just traveled hundreds of miles, that brought about that change. When we build relationships with one another, see and listen to one another, seek to understand and bear with one another in our pain, transformation is possible.

And this, this is a wonderful gateway into understanding the Trinity. Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, the day when we celebrate the triune nature of God. It’s a difficult doctrine to understand – how God is three-in-one and one-in-three. So instead of trying to wrap our heads around it, think of this: God is, by God’s very nature, a relationship, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As our hymn of the day says, the Trinity is a sort of dance, always moving, working, impossible to be apart yet each its own. Our God is a relational God.

And when we are baptized, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we indeed join that dance of Trinity. Or as Paul says in our epistle reading today, we are adopted, we become a part of the loving, living, relationship that is our God.

So what does that mean for us? As a part of that divine relationship, we, too, are pulled into the transformative work of the Triune God: we love one another, we forgive one another, we walk with one another as companions, we bear with one another in pain as in joy.

And as we live out this life, as children adopted and baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are continually born anew, transformed. We are daily assured that transformation is possible – for ourselves, for our friends, and for our enemies – even when all hope seems to be lost.

Transformation is possible, brothers and sisters in Christ. Thanks be to God! Let us pray… Three-in-one, One-in-three, we give you thanks for pulling us into your joyous, transformative dance. When we have lost hope that anything will ever change, assure us that you are more powerful than anything that could bring us down, and as long as we are in relationship with you, transformation is possible. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pentecost sermon: A violent, surprising wind (May 20, 2018)

Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
May 20, 2018

INTRODUCTION

Though we hear the story of Pentecost every year, the story of the Spirit of God coming down as wind and fire and birthing the church, our understanding of what’s going on here could really benefit from a bit of context. So first, what happened right before this story, is that Jesus ascended into heaven. After he rose from the dead back on Easter, he hung around Jerusalem with the disciples for 40 days. At the end of this 40 days, Jesus tells them that they must not under any circumstances leave Jerusalem yet, because they were, very soon, going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Excited, the disciples ask, “Oh, so now you are finally going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” If you know your Jewish history, you remember that several hundred years before Jesus came, the kingdom of Israel had split into Northern and Southern kingdoms, and had eventually fallen to the enemy, and Jews had been sent into exile all over the known world. Some had returned to Israel, but it remained that the former kingdom of Israel was severely fractured, both by location and belief. They had hoped and believed that the restoration of the kingdom of Israel was the whole purpose of the Messiah, and so here they are, still waiting for that.

But Jesus says, “That’s not for you to know. But what you will get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Spirit comes, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.” And with that last promise/charge, Jesus floats in a cloud up to heaven.

Since then, 10 days have passed, and it is the day of Pentecost. This is a Jewish holy day that falls 50 days after the Passover. It’s more often called the Feast of Weeks (7 weeks and one day), and it’s a day when they celebrate the spring harvest. It was also a day, and this is significant, when Jews around the world made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to sacrifice their “first fruits” of the harvest at the Temple. Consequently, Jerusalem at this point is full of people from all over the place – and although they all identify as Jewish, they come from different sects of Judaism, and speak different languages.

So that’s the setting. About 120 Christians, including the 12 apostles (they had replaced Judas by now), are gathered in one place, wondering what the heck is going to happen next and when, and… well, let’s listen and see. Please rise to welcome the Spirit!

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How must the disciples have felt at the beginning of this story?

Ten days prior they watched Jesus float up into the sky on a cloud. They lost him once, he came back, and now he’s gone again. What an emotional yo-yo! Plus, all this time, they had been thinking Jesus would restore the kingdom of Israel, and they had yet to see it happen – in fact, things seemed worse now! Their deepest desire, to go back to this time when everything was hunky dory and everyone got along, seemed to float off into the sky right along with Jesus! Jesus said that really soon they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit – whatever that meant! – but already it had been 10 days, and nothing!

Not to mention their questions and fears about what would come next. Jesus had appeared to some 500 people after his resurrection, but now here they sat only 120 strong. With only 120 people, would this movement even last? Would they be able to grow their numbers? Would people believe this amazing story about a man who rose from the dead? They’d given up so much for this man and his message, but now – how would they even survive?

They are full of fears and questions. And honestly, theirs are all questions and concerns that we have today, as individuals, yes, but also as the church. We, too, long for the past, for a time when the world seemed better and safer, when our Sunday School was full and families weren’t so busy and we had a baseball team and went on camping trips with our church friends. It was a time that, if we’re being honest, may or may not have ever actually existed as we remember it, but which has nevertheless formed itself in our memories as something pretty great.

In the present, we are confused, wondering what we are supposed to do now, in our new normal, desperate for some guidance, or for someone to step up and take the torch from our tired leaders, so that we can continue to function as we always have.

And, we fear for the future – what will tomorrow bring? Will our church grow, or dwindle away? What do we do about the drop in giving – how will we pay the bills? Who are we if we aren’t what we have always been?

And into the Early Christians’ longing, distress, and fears, comes whooshing a violent wind and tongues of fire. Not, I suspect, the comforting presence they were hoping for! The text doesn’t say, “And like a cool breeze on a summer day, the Spirit nestled in among them.” No, the Spirit comes like a violent, rushing wind! Like fire! It makes me picture that wind storm we had last year that left trees and electric cables down all over town – violent wind is no comfort!

Now I think sometimes, the Spirit is very much a comfort. But this initial appearance after Jesus’ ascension is not one of those times. And, turns out, the Spirit is often not much of a comfort. It does not always provide the answer we were hoping for or expecting – more often, the Spirit pushes us in directions with which we are not comfortable, into new situations where we are not comfortable and don’t know how things will turn out. The Holy Spirit is much more likely to move us toward a reality we would never have imagined on our own.

Just look at when the disciples ask if Jesus will restore the kingdom of Israel. He doesn’t say, “Yes, we’ll put everything back just as it was before.” In truth, “how it was before” wasn’t really even as good as they think; their memory of this great, united Israel – it never existed! Israel was always at war with someone. They had a string of bad kings, and even David, the greatest of all the kings, was a murderer and an adulterer. Plus, it was never Jesus’ mission to put things back the way they were – Jesus was always about newness of life, about reaching out in love to the outcast, the stranger, the poor and vulnerable, not about restoring the political power Israel once enjoyed.

And so he doesn’t promise them the nationalist glory of old that they crave. Instead, he promises them something much more powerful and effective for accomplishing his true mission: the Holy Spirit, he says, will empower them to become witnesses, to bring the good news of the Gospel to all people, to tell this story – about how life always wins over death – to tell it in a way, in a language, that people can truly understand.

In short, the gift of the Holy Spirit brings with it the power to participate in bringing about God’s hope for the world: a hope of peace, love, justice, reconciliation, redemption, mercy, grace, and above all, newness of life. That is the mission and message of Jesus Christ – not that we would return to some past, but that these things, this life, is possible, right now, and in the future… even though it might look different from anything we’ve ever seen before. Bringing about God’s hope for the world is the mission the Holy Spirit empowers us to live out – in our families, in our congregations, and in the world.

And that is the mission into which we will, in a moment, bring Audrey and Luci. It’s no small thing, being baptized. When we baptize a child, even one so small as these, we are calling upon the Holy Spirit to enter this child, and to encourage and empower her also to live out this mission we all share. There is some comfort in a baptism – the washing away of sins, the promise of forgiveness, the welcome into the community of faith – but a life of faith is not always one of comfort. It is also one of surprising inspiration. It is one in which we listen and respond to the urging of that whooshing, violent wind, still active in our hearts, blowing us toward sometimes Big, Scary Things that will change our lives or the lives of others, for the better. A baptized life of faith is one in which every day we look to fulfill Christ’s mission to love and serve, to reach out to the outcast with compassion, to forgive and reconcile, to feed the poor and hungry in body, mind and spirit, and to be gracious and merciful, just as God is to us.

And thanks be to God, a baptized life of faith is also one where that same Spirit accompanies us all along the way, offering all of those things also to us when we are in need, guiding us in right paths, and lifting us up when we are discouraged.

What a gift to be here today, not only to witness as these children of God is/are brought into the promises, hopes, and expectations of baptism, but also to remember that the Spirit moves also in us, blowing us toward new and sometimes scary ways of witnessing to and living out the mission we all share in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us pray… Spirit of God, descend upon our hearts. Move in us, breathe in us, and help us to listen as you urge us toward ways of being your church that may scare or surprise us. Make us always ready to trust your guidance. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.