Sermon: Telling the Truth Twice (Law and Gospel) (Oct. 8, 2017)

Pentecost 18A – Reformation Series Week 2
“Telling the Truth Twice” – Law and Gospel
October 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Romans 7:7-13; Luke 4:14-21

Like last week, I want to start out with a question, this time, association style: What comes to your mind when I say “law”? [wait for answers]

This week the topic of laws seems to be pretty emotional, as we find ourselves in the aftermath of yet another horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, with 59 dead and over 500 wounded. Naturally, the topic of “gun laws” has come up, and with it, a slew of emotions on both sides of the issue. Gun laws would keep people safer. Gun laws would infringe upon my rights. Gun laws don’t even work, so what’s the point? Gun laws do work, and this study proves it. In this case, the concept of “law” is for some a good thing that would improve safety, and for others, a bad thing that would take away rights. Oh, is it complicated!

But we can come back to that. Right now, I want to talk to you about how Luther understood Law, specifically God’s Law, and its relationship to Gospel, because for Luther, Law and Gospel must go together. When we think of God’s Law, we think of what? The 10 Commandments. Why did God give Moses the 10 Commandments? It was not to keep the Israelites under God’s thumb, or limit how much fun they could have. God gave them out of love – to show the Israelites what love of God and love of neighbor look like. So that’s what Luther says about the Law: the law shows us how to behave as loving, godly people.

But, Luther goes on, the Law does not actually give us the power to do it. And so, the Law also convicts us, showing us our sin, showing us the many ways we fall short. This is why Luther, when he wrote his Small Catechism, put the 10 Commandments first: because he intended for them to be a tool for Christians to aid in their confession of sins, a practice Luther saw as central to the Christian life. Now, if you’re like me, you look at the 10 Commandments and think you do pretty okay at keeping them. I’m not a murderer, I’m not an adulterer, I don’t steal, etc. But confessing using Luther’s explanations? That gets me every time. Because Luther doesn’t leave it at, “You shall not take the physical life of another person.” In fact he doesn’t even mention that. He says, “We should neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors… but instead, help and support them in all of life’s needs.” Oh, it is always in the “instead” part where I get caught! I mean, I try to be helpful, how many times have I said, “No, I can’t help you” when someone asks for money? How many decisions have I made – or not made – that may not harmed someone directly, but allowed for them to be harmed? How many times have I seen a situation in which I knew I could help, but have been apathetic? Too many to count. And so here, the law convicts me. It shows me how God wants me to behave, but does not give me the power to do it. And so it shows me my sin.

But this is where the Gospel comes in. Law shows us our sin… and in so doing, drives us to the Gospel, which says, “My child, I love you, and you are forgiven.” And because we have been faced with our shortcomings and sins, the Gospel suddenly becomes more than just a thing we hear on Sunday. It becomes life giving. It becomes a way out of despair. It becomes a lifeline – for without it, we would be forever stuck in our sin. Without the Law, what is even the point of the Gospel? Without the Law, the Gospel is a very nice story, something to make us feel good, but it is not something on which our very lives depend. It’s not something that refreshes and restores us.

If you come to church often and listen carefully to my sermons, or really to most Lutheran preacher’s sermons, you will likely hear this same Law to Gospel trajectory. The sermon may start out with a nice story or joke, but it is a lead in to talk about how broken we are, how in need of a savior the world is. Once we have realized our need for Jesus, then the sermon gives you Jesus: the promise of love, and grace, and forgiveness, and life everlasting. This is how they teach preaching in Lutheran seminaries, because this is how Luther always interpreted the Bible – first through the lens of Law, and then through the lens of Gospel – because the message of the Gospel means more to us if we first realize our need for it. Make sense?

So with all that mind, I want to look with you at our Gospel lesson today through the Lutheran lens of Law and Gospel. First, some context: this is Jesus’ first public appearance, his first sermon. It sets the tone for his ministry. And he preaches on Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” At first glance, this all seems like Gospel to me – this is great news, because we know that these are all the things Jesus came to do! Yay! But please resist jumping right to the Gospel. Dwell first in the Law, in the part that shows us how to live, but does not give us the power to do it, and so we fall short. Think of it the way Luther treats the 10 Commandments, as a tool to help you see your own sin. Or, the analogy I like to use for the Law: look at it as a mirror that helps you see the gunk you have in your teeth, so you can work on picking it out. Take a minute to look at the text yourself and try to see: where do you feel convicted by this text?

I’ll be honest: I feel very convicted by several parts of this text. But I’m going to focus on this line: “he has sent me to proclaim… recovery of sight to the blind.” The reason I’m drawn there is that this week, in the aftermath of this latest shooting, blindness has been very much on my mind – not the literal sort, but the spiritual and emotional sort. Against my better judgment, I engaged in a thread on social media started by someone I know to be of a different mind from me in the gun debate. She was lamenting that the conversation had so quickly moved to gun control, when we should just be focused on grieving. I get that – a lot of folks feel that way. The comments she heard from gun control advocates, she said, were filled with hate that they couldn’t even see. In my comment, I suggested that those responding with a desire for gun control might, actually, be responding out of love, not hate, out of a desire that we do something, and soon, that would help prevent this from happening again. At least that was the case for the gun control advocates I know. Well, long story short… my point was not well taken, this person’s family and friends and I did not see eye-to-eye, and I got an earful about it.

But as the conversation went on, I noticed how often someone said something like, “You can’t even see…” or, “How can you not see?” or, “Don’t you realize?” And that’s really the problem, right? With the gun debate and with so many other things. We can’t see. We can see our view, and all its merits, but it is very hard to really see and try to understand the other side. We don’t want to hear it, we don’t believe it, we think it is off-base and maybe even harmful… and our tunnel vision closes in and slowly but surely we find ourselves turned completely in on ourselves. Not surprisingly, this is Luther’s definition of sin: to be turned in on yourself. To be completely blind to the needs and views around you. To be self-focused, to the point that you miss the opportunity to genuinely connect with another human being, another child of God. And so, here I stand, convicted. I have many blind spots, and maybe I try to educate myself so I can assuage my guilt about that, but the reality is that sometimes I don’t know they are there, and sometimes I do know and I just don’t care.

And this is when the Gospel comes in. The Law shows us our sin… and the Gospel forgives. The Law shows us how to behave but doesn’t give us the power to do it… and the Gospel says, “I love you anyway, and I forgive you, and I am drawing you into something better.” The Law shows us the gunk in our teeth, and the Gospel provides a toothpick. The Law says, “Johanna, you have some blind spots – points of view you don’t want to consider, people you don’t want to acknowledge, and a touch of self-righteousness,” and the Gospel says, “I was sent to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind, and that includes you.” The Gospel gives me the strength and the willingness to hear that message, to open my eyes and see things – some things I don’t want to see, and some things that will bring me life I could not otherwise have known. The Law convicts me, and the Gospel says, “Johanna, beloved child of God, I forgive you.” And that is a message I want and need to hear. Every day.

What do the Law and the Gospel say to you this day?

Let us pray… Gracious God, your Word tells us the truth twice, first showing us our need for a savior, and then giving us that savior. Thank you for your Law, so that we can see our own sin, and thank you for your Gospel, so that we would never be stuck there. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Church is Messy and Holy (Oct 1, 2017)

Pentecost 17A – Reformation Series Week 1
“Church is Messy and Holy” (The Church and the Christian Life)
October 1, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Matthew 20:20-28

Guiding question: What makes something holy? Where do you experience holiness? Where do you most profoundly experience the Church?

Let me ask you: how would you define holy?

I think this is a really hard question. I’ve tried to define it, in various settings, but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the result. So, when I was putting together this October series focusing on a different Reformation theme each week leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I decided that today’s theme would be, “Church is Messy and Holy,” I really had to think about it. Does anyone want to take a stab at it? What makes something “holy”?

Okay, well then I’m going to put that part on hold for now, and focus instead of the first part of today’s theme: the Church is Messy. This is a reality of which we are all too familiar, even as we might try to deny it. I haven’t been a pastor for very long yet, but I’ll tell you, every time any conflict arises, or someone acts in a way someone else doesn’t like, I hear the same refrain: “Shouldn’t people who claim to be Christians act better than this?” It’s also a refrain I hear frequently from people outside the church, as a reason for them not to be involved: “Christians are hypocrites,” they say. “They claim to be all about love, but instead, they are mean and judgmental.”

People both in and out of the Church, it seems, have an expectation that when you are a part of the Church of Christ, you should have it together, be loving and kind, and never make a mistake.

It’s not a realistic expectation. God’s people were never perfect. Just look at today’s story from Exodus. This is a part of the 40 years in the wilderness narrative, which is characterized by God’s chosen people relentlessly grumbling and complaining, blaming Moses for their woes, and not appreciating the many ways that God provides. (I mean really, water out of a rock? That’s pretty cool!) But isn’t that just how people are, whether believers or not? We complain, we blame, we don’t examine our own hearts, we don’t take the time to be grateful, we miss God’s gracious love in our lives.

You could fast forward a few thousand years and see more of human nature in our Gospel reading: two men try to take a higher position than their cohorts, believing themselves to be better or more important. Don’t we always want to get ahead? My friends, all of this – the complaining, the blaming, the self-centeredness, the overlooking of God’s grace – all of it is human nature, and no church membership will take that away. And so, the Church, like all human institutions, is messy.

The Church is also messy because it is made up of people who are so different from each other. Often we lift up these differences as “gifts” – we all have different gifts to offer, and each of those gifts contributes to the body of Christ, like Paul writes in today’s lesson from Corinthians. It’s a lovely way to see it, and I believe it is true… but we also know that differences can be a real challenge. We have different life experiences, political persuasions, values, ages, incomes, needs – and all these differences can be the cause of any number of issues that arise between us. And yet, we still come here and join together as one Church. And sometimes, issues do indeed arise. And so, the Church is messy. In fact, sometimes, the Church – and the people in it – is more than messy. Sometimes, it is broken.

But this is where that second part comes back in: the Church is messy, but the Church is also holy. Or as Luther would say it, we are all sinners, but at the same time, we are also saints. So let me ask you again: having spent some time thinking about how messy the Church is, how would you define the Church also as holy?

Here’s an illustration: if you are on social media, you may have noticed that people don’t tend to post pictures of their worst moments, unless it is for comic effect. You would never publicly post about a fight you had with your spouse, or about your child’s bad day at school, or your financial problems. Instead, we post about the best moments, trying to give the world a sense not of our brokenness, but of our wholeness, right? Well, turns out, not always. There are some who push against this norm, and instead try to reframe the perceived imperfections of their lives. Like, posting a picture of their living room cluttered with toys and unfolded laundry, and the family sitting together and smiling on the couch with the caption, “Perfection.”

Perfection? I don’t know about that. That’s not typically how I describe my living room, anyway! But, I might call that holy. Because I think that holiness is when, into the brokenness of human life, there is also an in-breaking of love, and compassion, and bonding, and connection. It is when, even in places you might not think to look, God is present. And that is also something that happens – you guessed it – in the Church.

You come to worship hopeless and dejected, but in the scripture that day you hear a word of hope. The sermon seems to have been written just for you, providing the salve you needed.

Your friend is very sick, and feeling scared and losing hope that she will ever recover. You visit her, lift her spirits, and you hold hands and you pray together. As you finish the prayer, you see tears forming in your friend’s eyes, and you know that some level of healing has occurred.

You watch the news in horror as you see places in this country devastated by hurricanes. You come together with fellow believers and put aside all your differences to work together to fill flood cleanup buckets and hygiene kits to help those in need.

You limp forward to the altar – your bad hip is acting up again – and someone comes to hold your hand so you don’t fall. Side-by-side you receive the bread of life and the wine of salvation.

You have behaved in a way of which you are not proud. You felt you were doing or saying the right thing at the time, but have come to realize your words and actions caused pain, not good. You come to worship and hear those words, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” You are restored.

All of these instances are holy. And each of them are what the Church is really about: it is about seeing and experiencing, in the midst of the inevitable messiness and brokenness of life, that God is indeed there, offering hope, forgiveness, healing, and life.

Luther defines the Church as the place where the gospel is purely preached. The gospel is this: that you, in all your brokenness and messiness, are loved, forgiven, restored, and valued by a God who gave everything for your sake. I can certainly preach that message from the pulpit, and try to. But I think there is more to the Church than that. There is this wonderful quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. He says, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” You see, preaching the gospel is not just something that happens in 10-12 minutes on a Sunday morning. The real preaching of the gospel happens in the movement of the Sprit in the believer’s heart, and the actions that spring out of that movement. The real preaching happens when we see what Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel reading: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” he says, “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” The real preaching happens when you fill those flood buckets this afternoon, or scrape paint off of a handicapped woman’s house, or when you pray with a friend in need, or when you put your own needs and well-being aside for the sake of someone less fortunate than you. That is the Church. That is the gospel being purely preached to the world. That is the oh-so-messy and broken, and yet still so holy, Church.

Let us pray… Lord Christ, we give you thanks for the messiness of your Church, that it gives us a place to practice preaching and living out your gospel. And we give thanks for the holiness of your Church, that it is a place where we can come again and again to hear your life-giving word, receive the sacraments, and learn to live a life of servanthood. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Facing our racism (Aug. 20, 2017)

Pentecost 11A
August 20, 2017
Matthew 15:10-28

Tomorrow, as you likely know, we will have the chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event: a total eclipse of the sun. Well, not quite here in New York, where it will only be partial, but in parts of our country, the moon will entirely cover the sun in the middle of the day, bringing darkness over the land for as long as two and a half minutes. It’s an extraordinary event, and a reminder of just how magnificent are the cosmos that our God has created.

But I also can’t help but notice the irony – that this moon-shadow that will be cast upon our country corresponds with the shadow already cast by a resurgence of some of the most hateful history of our nation. After what happened in Charlottesville last weekend, it already seems like there is a shadow cast upon this land. Like many of you, I looked at images of the event – hundreds of white men (and some women) carrying torches, weapons and shields, and chanting about their superiority over anyone who doesn’t look or believe like them – and I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t know, or at least wasn’t willing to believe, that such people still existed in this country in such large numbers, and that they were willing to make themselves known. Even in the Klan meetings of yesteryear, members wore hoods over their faces – but these men in Charlottesville were emboldened to spew hate right out in the open! When faced with counter-protesters, things turned violent, even resulting in injury and death. It was a stark realization that the sin of racism did not die in America with the Civil War, or the end of Jim Crow laws, or the election of a black president. It is still very much a reality that can no longer be ignored.

I couldn’t help but think of those white nationalists, spewing hateful words, as I read today’s Gospel lesson. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus says, “but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles it.” Well yeah, here was a pretty stark example of defiling things coming out of mouths! I think Jesus’ observation makes a lot sense, to be honest! But then the disciples tell Jesus, “Hey, Jesus, just so you know, what you said back there offended the Pharisees.” Ah, the Pharisees. The Pharisees, you may remember, are teachers of Jewish law. They are respected, and they are educated, and they really know their stuff. But they are often called out by Jesus, because in their hard-nosed following of the law, they often lost sight of the big picture, and especially the imperative to love their neighbor. Today is one example of that: the Pharisees are on people’s case about properly washing hands before eating. A good practice, to be sure, but their insistence on it has blinded them to the larger concern of how people are speaking to and about one another. So Jesus calls them out on it. And, the Pharisees are offended.

Why so offended, you ask? Well, because they had some deeply held and well-informed convictions about how things should be (and they were good, faithful people, so their opinion about how things should be was really, pretty valid). But then Jesus comes along and says, in essence, “You’re wrong. This thing that you hold so dear – it’s totally off mark. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all.” Now, I don’t care much about hand-washing, aside from its obvious health benefits, but I do know how it feels to believe passionately about something, or even just to hold it as a truth, and be told – even by Jesus – that I am off the mark, that my viewpoint needs to change. There are times when I read something Jesus says that challenges my belief or my way or life, and I think, “But… but… but… I don’t want to change my views about that! My view makes me feel safer, or it is fun, or it is more convenient for me.” In fact, sometimes when this happens to me, I’m inclined to feel offended by what Jesus says – just like the Pharisees.

It’s good to notice that. It’s good to recognize when God’s Word, when the words of Jesus, rub up against our beliefs or our ways of life, and show us that we still have some growing and reflecting to do. When we are willing to read God’s Word and examine our hearts, and then maybe even change our ways in response – that is what it called a life of faith and a relationship with the living God. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t come to church each week to hear, “You’re doing it right! Keep it up!” I come to learn and grow and be changed!

This need to re-examine and grow becomes even clearer in the next part of the story. Jesus leaves that place and heads on to the next place, and a Canaanite woman approaches him, begging for help for her daughter. Canaanites are not Jewish, not a part of the house of Israel. They are “the other” – a different race. When she first starts asking for help, Jesus ignores her. The disciples ask him to send her away – she is annoying them. “She keeps shouting at us,” they say. “But she’s not even one of us. She’s different, and we don’t really care about her issues right now. She is claiming that Canaanite lives matter as much as ours, but we’d rather just focus on our needs right now. Israel’s lives matter more.” To the shock of the reader, Jesus seems to agree with them! He finally responds, saying he didn’t come to help her kind. He came to help the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she persists. She begs him to help. “The life of my daughter matters,” she says. “Canaanite lives matter, at least enough to catch some crumbs from the table.” And finally Jesus says, “Yes, you’re right. Great is your faith!” and he heals her daughter.

Now, I don’t know if Jesus was just being a little more human here than we might prefer, and this woman helped him see he needed to broaden his mission, or if maybe he was just testing her and those watching to show the importance of persisting in faith, but either way – Jesus’ response here bothers me. Maybe it even offends me, just like he offended the Pharisees a few verses back. And here’s why: What I want from Jesus is immediate response to a person in need, no matter that she is a woman, a Canaanite, or even, as Jesus himself says, a “dog.” Jesus should care about all the people!

And that moment when Jesus doesn’t seem to care is offensive to me – because that moment leaves space for me to have to notice the times when I don’t or won’t take notice of those people who may be different from me, who are begging for help. In that moment when Jesus leaves this woman begging, I realize how often I see someone who is in need and I think, “Not my problem.” Or how I can just turn off the news when it becomes too much, because I have the privilege of not having to care, because it doesn’t affect me or my loved ones. Or how sometimes, in my most sinful moments, I convince myself, even unconsciously for a brief moment, that this person is in need by their own fault, and oh, what a shame it is.

Now, Jesus may not have been thinking any those things when he ignores and dismisses the woman, but the hard truth is: I know that I am. I know that I often ignore the needs of my neighbors who are people of color, or Jewish or Muslim, or don’t even make the effort to discover what those needs are in the first place. I know that I am able to ignore or dismiss others because their reality is not mine, and I can go about my life relatively unaffected by systemic racism or anti-Semitism. I know that as a white woman, I am afforded a lot of privileges that I did nothing to earn – things as simple as being able to find a flesh-colored band-aid that is the color of my flesh, and things more significant like being able to shop in a store without being followed or questioned, or get out of a speeding ticket when I was clearly at fault. I know that I can enjoy those privileges while others cannot, but I am willing to accept things as they are, because I benefit from it.

Brothers and sisters, sometimes a story in the Bible is offensive to us, because it shows us a great big mirror that forces us to look at our own hearts and find the sin therein. This is one of them, especially in light of the persisting reality of racism of which our country has become unequivocally aware. Even if we weren’t the ones carrying torches across the University of Virginia campus, that does not mean we don’t have a role in the system that has brought that to the fore. And it certainly doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility to respond to it. As God-fearing Christians who proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ, we must respond to it, somehow.

My suggestion, as I wrote in a letter to you this week, is that we begin with prayerful repentance, by looking in the mirror. We begin by examining where we have benefitted from or participated in systemic racism, by checking ourselves and our reactions in our interactions with people of color, by taking note of when we are offended by something and asking, “Why does that offend me?” and being open to the possibility that God is trying to tell you something in your reaction. We begin by listening to and taking seriously the nagging voice of the Canaanite woman, telling us that her life and her story matter. We begin by praying that God would not only reveal our sin, but also turn out hearts back toward the loving grace of Jesus Christ.

I’m hoping to catch at least a part of the eclipse tomorrow. As the sky starts to darken, around 1:30, I invite you to join me in praying for victims of racism, and for those who espouse hate. It’s appropriate that 1:30 is also the time when Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester to hate, was struck and killed by a car driven by someone associated with the white supremacists, so I will be praying for her and her family. At the peak of the eclipse, the darkest moment, 2:34, let us pray that God would reveal to us our own prejudices, and ask forgiveness. And as the sky brightens again throughout the rest of the afternoon, let us give thanks, that God never leaves us in our sin, that God sent his only Son to die for us and rise again, and invited us to join him in the new life he gives. Let us pray that by God’s forgiveness, by the gift of new life that we receive in our baptism, and by the nourishment we receive in the holy sacrament, we would be equipped and empowered to work for peace and justice, to stand by our brothers and sisters of different race and creed, and to bring God’s love to all whom we meet.

Let us pray… God of all creation, open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the needs of those among us begging for help. Help us to see and to confess our prejudice, and turn our hearts toward you. Encourage us to participate in the pursuit of peace and justice for all. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Laughing into despair (June 18, 2017)

2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11)
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 (Semi-continuous)

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

Sarah had lost all hope. God had tagged her and her husband Abraham to be the mother and father of a great nation. God had promised them many descendants, even as many as the stars. And yet, Sarah’s womb remained barren. Her empty womb was an echo of her empty heart. Though Abraham seemed unshakable – and oh, did she love him for that – her pain was too great to hold hope any longer.

One day, in a moment of desperation masked as faith, she said to Abraham, “Why don’t you take my slave-girl, Hagar. Have children by her, and, since she is my slave, I will call her children my own.” Clearly, God wasn’t coming through for them, and Sarah would have to take matters into her own hands. Did it pain her to give up in this way, and to see her beloved husband with another woman who could give him what Sarah never could? Of course. It broke her heart. But if God wasn’t going to make good on the promise, something else had to be done. She would take care of it herself.

Maybe a part of her had hoped it wouldn’t work… but it did. Soon enough, Hagar was pregnant with Abraham’s child – pregnant with the promise Sarah had so longed for.

Sarah thought she could be brave, even, that she could be happy. But every time Hagar lovingly touched her swelling belly, every time she smiled her joy to herself, it was a dagger in Sarah’s aching heart. In her pain, she took it out on Abraham, blaming him for what had been her idea. Oh, how heartache can wreck havoc in life, destructively worming its way into all of our most important relationships! Abraham urged Sarah to deal with it, and Sarah did. She sent Hagar, the awful daily reminder of what Sarah did not have, away – and with her, she sent away her fractured hope that God’s promise could ever come to be.

Here is where we find Sarah in the part of the story we hear today. To me, that backstory makes all the difference in how I understand Sarah’s words and actions in today’s story. Every time the Bible has been meaningful to me, it is when I can see my own story in the story of scripture, and when I see Sarah’s story here, I recall all of my own dashed hopes, all of my own resentment that God didn’t deliver when and how I wanted, all of my own insecurities. Do you see yourself in Sarah? Whether you had hoped for a child, or something else in life that you had been certain God wanted for you, but found yourself wondering if God would ever come through – have you felt the despair, that sadness, even that resentment toward others who got what you so badly wanted?

When three mysterious visitors arrive at Sarah and Abraham’s home, she thinks little of it. Though Abraham is excited enough, Sarah doesn’t have much left to give. Since her bout with Hagar, God had promised again that the covenant would be fulfilled. God had changed their names (from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah), and instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant, but Sarah remained doubtful. But, as she goes through the motions of offering hospitality to these men, something does begin to stir in her. Could that be – hope? She dares not enter into it; too many times she had been hurt. Yet the stirring cannot be stilled.

Abraham meets with the three men under a nearby tree. Sarah knows her place is in the tent, but she can’t help but feel drawn toward them. She hides just inside the door – under that tree is where hope resides, where a plan, even a date for the fulfillment of God’s promise exists, but Sarah is unwilling to enter fully into this possibility that has been kept from her for so long. She still holds all the resentment of her past, even as she creeps toward hope, hiding just at its edge. And there, on the brink between hope and despair, as she hears the impossible and wonderful news that so many years of hope is not in vain… she laughs. Her laughter is the sound of resentment cracking, of pain beginning to

Sarah laughing, detail from “Angel Appears to Sarah”
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55120

dissipate. Her laughter is the sound of healing. Her laughter is, indeed, the sound of hope, and of belief that nothing is too wonderful for God. Her laughter is the name given to her son, Isaac, because he lives as the proof that with God, hope is never lost. Nothing is too wonderful for God.

Here, too, we have the opportunity to see our own story in the miraculous story of Sarah. Hope and despair are a part of the human story, the church’s story, and our individual stories. Even when despair is dark and dense, the laughter of hope-revealed can crack it, shed light into it, dissipate it.

Where do you see your story in Sarah’s story? When have you crouched on the brink between despair and hope, and fallen onto the side of hope, laughing at the goodness of God?

Where do you see the life of this congregation in the story of Sarah’s despair and her laughter?

In 141 years, this story has surely made an appearance in the life of Bethlehem. Though I wasn’t here at the time, I suspect there was a sense of this when your long-time pastor, Pastor Zajac left, and with him, the organist. Suddenly Bethlehem found herself without a pastor, a musician, or a budget to call someone else into those roles. And suddenly, the possibility of an intern fell into your laps, and with a laugh, the congregation painted the walls of the parsonage – right over the wall paper – to prepare for her imminent arrival. An organist in need of a loving community showed up, on a day that the supply pastor did not – a story Bethlehem members now remember with a laugh. Nothing is too wonderful for God! Some years later, it was still clear that a fulltime pastor was not a possibility for this congregation. How easy it would be to fall into despair. But Bethlehem did what she does best: she prayed. And in the midst of that prayer came the possibility of a covenant, partnering with another congregation to share ministry and a pastor. On the day of my call sermon, a toddler who was here for a baptism pulled the fire alarm – and laughing, we all stood outside to greet each other while we waited for the fire department to arrive.

Laughter has played a role in many of Bethlehem’s most uncertain moments. Laughter has broken into what would be despair, to remind the good people of Bethlehem that God’s promise is good, that God will deliver, that nothing is too wonderful for God.

This past year in the life of Bethlehem has presented its own challenges. Like in the story of Sarah, myriad emotions have been embedded in those challenges. Speaking personally, it is not lost on me that, through those struggles, I was pregnant with a child I would soon know as Isaac, who smiles and laughs more than any baby I’ve ever met, whose existence in my life is a daily reminder that laughter can be born into difficulty.

That is what God does, again and again: God takes despair, and laughs into it. God takes our hurting hearts, our resentments, our insecurities, and says, “Believe me: nothing is too wonderful for me!” God takes death on a cross and turns it into resurrection, forgiveness, and new life. God takes suffering, and turns it into endurance, and character, and hope – and hope does not disappoint us, because, as Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Sarah’s son Isaac, laughter, did go on to become a great nation – his offspring was Jacob, who had twelve sons, who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people, a people that still exists some 6000 years later. Sarah’s laughter, the sign that God’s promises do come true, exists throughout the generations, even to ours.

How will this laughter, this promise, make itself known in your life? How will it make itself known in the life of Bethlehem? How will God take suffering and turn it into endurance, character, and hope? How will God turn something difficult into something life-renewing? How will Bethlehem’s story continue to be grafted into the story of Sarah, as it is grafted into the story of Christ’s own death and resurrection? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that: God will. Because nothing is too wonderful for God.

Let us pray… God of laughter and hope, make us ever confident in your promise, because in your promise we find the hope of life renewed. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: Sent out to heal divisions

Pentecost A
June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

A running joke in my family is based on the fact that my dad is Swedish, and my mom is Norwegian. When they were married, a couple folks played this up. One asked my dad how he felt about “mixed marriages.” Another gave them as a wedding card a picture of the bridge between Sweden and Norway. All through my childhood, we had displayed on a single shelf, two flags: one Swedish, and one Norwegian, as a reminder that though we are different, we can at least sit together on the same shelf.

It’s a silly joke – the enmity between the two Scandinavian countries really ends with Ole and Lena jokes. But while there may not actually be any cultural friction between my parents, or Swedes and Norwegians more generally, there is plenty of other cultural friction in our world. Of course this is true on the global scene – the world is a diverse place that is becoming a larger and larger mixing pot as people leave their home countries in search of a better life – usually either to escape violence and unrest as refugees, or to find work so they can support their families. Though the diversity of cultures present in America is one of the things I love most about this country, it also presents us with a challenge, to figure out how to live together and respect one another, despite our differences. It’s also important to remember that cultural friction is not just a result of migration from other countries – there is plenty of cultural difference among those who have lived in America for many generations. I just read the excellent best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir by a man about my age who grew up as a self-identified hillbilly in rural Ohio and Kentucky, and went on to go to Yale Law School. He describes a culture, right here in my own country, which is entirely foreign to me as a born and bred middle-class American! The lack of understanding about the different cultures that make up our country makes it difficult to address many of the most profound social issues that plague our country.

Yes, even as the world becomes more globalized and accessible, in ways it also becomes more divided. We are divided by language, income, experience, outlook, values, culture, religion… and much more. The Bible story that describes this reality is the Tower of Babel. You remember that one? The once-united people of the earth, in a moment of lapsed trust in their God, decided to build a tower so high they could reach heaven. God says, “Not on my watch!” and mixes up all their language so they can’t complete the project. The language was just the beginning – from there, the division of our world has only increased.

But, the Tower of Babel was not meant to be the end of the story. Today is the day of Pentecost, and it is often described as the answer to, or even the reversal of, Babel. In Babel, the language was all mixed up, symbolizing great division and lack of cooperation among the people of the world. At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit enters the scene, suddenly all the different nations can once again understand each other – and with that new ability comes also the hope of renewed community, and renewed ability for cooperation as one Church.

Problem is… doesn’t it still feel like we live in Babel, and not Pentecost? Division is still so prevalent. Working “across the aisle” seems a thing of the past, whether in Washington or even in our families and personal relationships. Finding common ground is increasingly difficult. So if Pentecost really is meant to be a reversal of Babel, then what is that supposed to look like?

Well, here’s what it doesn’t look like: it doesn’t mean our differences suddenly go away. We still speak different languages, and have different ways of understanding the world. And maybe we don’t want those differences to go away! If we are to take Paul seriously, in his letter to the Corinthians we heard a moment ago, having these differences can actually be an advantage! When the Spirit blows into our lives, she equips us with different gifts, perspectives, approaches, and abilities to see the challenges of the world from different angels. I, for one, am incredibly grateful that there are some people who enjoy and are good at math, or building things, or data management, or technology – so that I don’t have to be, and I can instead focus on the things that do bring me joy!

So no, the Spirit doesn’t come to eliminate those differences. Rather, the Spirit comes to be present with us in those differences, and in the myriad challenges we face because of them – and by that presence, the Spirit equips us to use what would have been our disruptive, damaging differences to instead build up this Church and this world. You see, the Holy Spirit is not some sort of superhero, sent to rescue us. Rather, the Spirit equips, encourages, and stays with us, and helps us to see the needs of our neighbors and community.

But that’s not all. The Spirit also equips us to take the next step. You see, we can’t overlook the role the Spirit plays in our text from John, which is sometimes called, “John’s Pentecost.” In this version of the coming of the Spirit, there is no raucous wind, or fire, or speaking in other languages. There is peace, and there is commission: “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” You see, the Spirit’s presence with us is very good, but it is this sending out piece that will change the world. In order to heal our brokenness, the Spirit sends us out into the places where difference and division might try to tear down, so that we can instead bring the spirit of love. We are sent out into situations that might not be comfortable for us, but it is still possible for us to be there and do God’s work because of the promise of the Spirit’s peace. In short, we are sent out to do the work of the Church, bringing peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope to a tumultuous, broken, hurting world.

Where might be the Spirit be sending you in this time and place, to accomplish that goal of healing division? Perhaps the Spirit is sending you to attend a part of Synod Assembly this weekend. The theme of this assembly is “Building Bridges,” and will focus on global and local mission. It is open to anyone – there are several workshops on topics like, building a relationship with a congregation in Zimbabwe, or learning about Islam from our local imam, or immigration and refugee resettlement, or understanding the accompaniment model of mission, or the effect of incarceration on families. Would learning about those topics help you heal divisions in our community? Or, perhaps the Spirit is sending you to learn about local ministries, such as the one our friend Wala will tell us about today that serves people with disabilities. Or perhaps the Spirit is sending you to pray and give to ELCA global ministries, as you can read about on the insert in your bulletin. Or perhaps the Spirit is sending you to stay closer to home, working on reconciliation in your family or between you and a friend, or engaging in those difficult conversations about our differences so that instead of letting the difference divide us, we can find a way that it will make us stronger, like in the Corinthian community Paul is writing to. Who knows where the Spirit will send you!

The coming of the Spirit undoes Babel, but not by removing the barriers. It undoes Babel by showing us how to overcome, by being present with us as we face those barriers and challenges, by showing us the way to dismantle them, and reach out to those whose language or understanding differs from our own. I believe that once we let the Spirit send us to these places, where we will inevitably encounter people who are different from us, who may even make us feel uncomfortable, that we will also be moved beyond our personal concerns, and become better equipped to see the world as a whole, to understand how to work for the greater good, and not just for our individual needs. We will see ourselves as a part of the global community, with neighbors to love and serve all over the world. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this is our mission.

Let us pray… Come, Holy Spirit. By your power, show us the way to peace. Send us out into our communities and into the world to heal divisions, to live out your love, and to be good neighbors to all our neighbors, near and far. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Listen here: PentecostA (6.4.17)

Sermon: Ministry is risky, or should be (Feb. 19. 2017)

love your enemies

Text: Matthew 5:38-48; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us seems easy enough to get on board with… until we realize that doing that might put us in an unsafe, uncomfortable position. But Jesus never promised to make us comfortable – only to bring us comfort in the promise of love, grace, and forgiveness. It is these promises that make it possible to do the risky work of ministry.

Epiphany 7A (2.19.17)

Sermon: Choosing life in the law (Feb. 12, 2017)

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Text: Matthew 5:21-37, Deuteronomy 30:15-20

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us some pretty tough interpretations of the law, interpretations that convict every last one of us. Yet a closer look shows us that following the law as Jesus describes it does, in fact, bring life, just as Moses told us it would in his sermon centuries before to the Israelites. “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live!”

Epiphany 6A (2.12.17)

Sermon: Salt and light in a world of difference (Feb. 5, 2017)

 

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Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus promises us that we already are salt and light in the world. Yet in such a divided world, where our differences seem more pronounced than ever, we sometimes have different ideas of what it looks like to be salt and light. Our challenge, as Christ-followers, is finding a way to embrace what unites us, even as we use our different viewpoints and skills to bring God’s love to the world in whatever way we are able.

Epiphany 5A (2.5.17)

Sermon: Jesus blessed whom?? (Jan. 29, 2017)

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Text: Matthew 5:1-12; Micah 6:8

Jesus begins his famous Sermon on the Mount by calling “blessed” a bunch of people we wouldn’t consider blessed – the meek, the poor, the hungry, the persecuted… In doing so, he is promising them, “You are already blessed, because I am with you – especially when you feel less than blessed!” Jesus makes clear in this sermon that his priorities lie with the oppressed and disenfranchised. Whom would Jesus call blessed today?

Epiphany 4A (1.29.17)

Sermon: Disruptive peace (Advent 1, Nov. 27, 2016)

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Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Luke 24:36-44

How easy it is to love Jesus, the “Prince of Peace”… until he is less peaceful and more disruptive! But sometimes disruption is what love and peace look like, and our readings in Advent show us this. Today Jesus tells us to “Keep awake,” not to fall into the peaceful slumber of complacency that allows our most vulnerable brothers and sisters to live lives that know no peace.

“It seems Jesus is quite clear about where and for whom our peace-seeking efforts should lie: with the most vulnerable, the most needy members of society. For all his hard-to-love disruptive qualities, this is what the love of Jesus looks like: like keeping awake and constantly vigilant to serve “the least of these,” to do what is necessary to bring peace to them.”