Breathing the life-giving breath (Dec 10, 2017)

Advent 2 (NL)
December 10, 2017
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I got some positive feedback last week about offering you some context before the reading of the lesson, so that you have a sense of where it sits in the arch of the biblical narrative. So once again, I’d like to offer you some context for our reading.

Ezekiel was a prophet during the period of the Babylonian exile – similar time to Daniel, from whom we heard last week. The Babylonian exile happened in a couple waves: the first wave of deportations happened in 597 BC. This sent primarily leaders and educated elites out of Jerusalem and into Babylon. Ezekiel, who was a priest in Jerusalem, was among those first deported. He begins his career as a prophet during this time, prophesying a lot of doom and gloom, judgment against Israel and Judah, especially leaders in Southern Kingdom. But then about 10 years later, Ezekiel learns of the fall of Jerusalem. This is devastating news for him and for the other exiles, because Jerusalem was more than a beloved city. It was the very center of their worship life, the only place to properly worship the one true God. With the destruction of that city and the Temple, the people had some very serious religious and spiritual concerns. And so at that point, Ezekiel’s prophecies turn away from judgment, and more toward hope and restoration. Today’s reading, the Valley of Dry Bones, is probably his best-known prophecy, and it is one of immense hope.

Last week I also mentioned the literary style of our story from Daniel. This reading from Ezekiel, we should understand, is a vision, not a literal event. Many of Ezekiel’s prophesies are visions, allegories, or otherwise symbolic. That should be pretty obvious, but – just making sure!

Okay, here’s the story. [read story]

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

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.

One of my family’s many Advent traditions growing up was to light the Advent wreath at dinner, and sing this hauntingly beautiful Advent hymn before we prayed. I have been singing it since before I can remember, and those words came out of my mouth before I had any clue what they meant or the story behind them. I was a teenager or young adult before I really thought about what they meant. It suddenly occurred to me, “Why are we singing ‘Rejoice’? This sounds sad. I don’t know what all those words refer to, but I know mourning isn’t good, and lonely is definitely not good, and captive sounds pretty bad, too. Rejoice?”

Now I recognize this as a story very familiar to me – both because I know better the biblical story, and because it is a story I see in my own life, metaphorically speaking. That is, it is a story in which sadness and despair find their hope in looking toward the salvation that is to come.

The biblical story is a long narrative – the whole Bible, really – but is well captured in today’s reading. Here are a people, the Israelites, who are captive to strange rulers and a strange way of life, who are lonely in exile, and mourning the loss of their homes and all that they know and love. Without the Temple, and with Jerusalem destroyed, they were riddled with questions like, “Does God even care about us anymore? Can we reach God from all the way in Babylon, and can God reach us – and does God even want to?”

And so they cry out, “O God-with-us, Emmanuel, come! Come be God-with-us!” Do something to get us out of here! Or in the words of those dry bones, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost, and we are cut off completely.” Come here and do something, O Emmanuel!

Of course, this carol wasn’t written yet in the 6th century Before Christ, but Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is in its own way an answer to that cry. It starts off like the verse of the hymn – lonely, captive, mourning. Those bones are dry, so dry. It is truly a dire situation, in which hope is completely lost. As Ezekiel takes us along for the ride, looking around and around that valley full of dry bones, our hearts, too, plead: O Come, Emmanuel! Do something to release Israel, captive to this death and hopelessness. They mourn in lonely exile here!

But then… the rattling. At God’s Word, those bones start to shake, and move. They come together, bone to bone. Sinews form, and skin – it is remarkable! Yet for all that, they are still a valley of cadavers – there is no life in them. That doesn’t come until… what? What brings life? Ahh, the breath! The very breath of God! Just as God once breathed into the nostrils of a mud-made Adam and brought him to life, so the Spirit of the Lord comes into the army of cadavers, once a valley of very dry bones, now rejuvenated, transformed, indeed, resurrected, into a vast multitude. Hope is restored and life is once again a possibility. With God, life is always on the horizon.

I said I see this story even in my own life. There are several ways, but this week, I’m thinking about my Isaac, who celebrated this week his first birthday. Isaac, I’ll confess, was not a part of my plan – at least not yet. I had a 6 month old and was not ready for another baby, I was tired, and I was not especially pleased to be pregnant again. It didn’t help that the time I was pregnant with him was an emotionally trying time for me for other reasons. Now, of course, I couldn’t be happier that he is ours! But then, I didn’t really know what to do with this reality.

Since his birthday was this week, I was thinking a lot about that night I spent laboring him into the world. I had just sung in two remarkable and demanding concerts with my choir, pieces so difficult that I had spent hours hammering them into my head. So it was no surprise, I guess, when I felt that first serious contraction in the darkness just before midnight, that a refrain from that concert popped into my head. It was in Latin, so I didn’t think much about the meaning, but the rhythm of the words was what echoed through my head as I rocked and breathed my way through the pain. That’s what you quickly figure out in labor – when the pain starts, breathe deeply. Pain must always be accompanied by breath, the deeper the better. Breath is what makes it possible to get through the pain.

Later, I looked up the Latin, and discovered that the refrain meant this: “Know ye that the Lord is God: he made us and not we ourselves.” And so it was on that refrain, and that breath, that my Isaac made his speedy appearance, just as the sun was rising, and took his own first breath of air before being placed in my arms. And there, with his first breath – a new life began, and my heart reached a new depth of love.

When the pain starts – start breathing deeply. That is one lesson we see in Ezekiel. When the hopelessness seems to overwhelm – breathe in deeply the breath of God. When your cry is only of lament – breathe deeply. When you mourn in lonely exile, waiting for release – breathe deeply. Then we shall know that the Lord is God, that God made us, and that God has the power to remake us, to enliven us again, to transform our dry old bones into newness of life.

Where does your story meet this biblical story? Perhaps you feel your bones are dead and dry far beyond life. Maybe the demands on you and your time and energy are so great that you fall into bed each night bone tired. Or you watch the news and feel the energy and hope drain from your heart. Maybe the clutter in your life – your home, your schedule, your thoughts – leave little room for self-care, or for prayer. Or you look at your finances and wonder how you can possibly crawl out from under this much debt? As the world around us rejoices with Christmas cheer, maybe you find yourself feeling sadder than ever, as you grieve the losses of your life, the people you wish were still here, the time of life now gone by. Are there so many demands pulling you this way and that, that you find it impossible to find the time to nourish your spiritual life?

Whatever place in your life feels dry and hopeless… what would it take to once again experience life there? In what area of your life do you need the breath of God to restore, renew, or resurrect you? Where do you crave a transformation from death and hopelessness, into life?

For me, I experience dryness in the search for peace – peace in my life, peace in the world, peace in my heart. And so the words of our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton, in the most recent issue of Living Lutheran, our ELCA publication, really resonated with me. She writes: “Here we are in Advent. This season doesn’t exist in secular culture, where everything is barreling toward Christmas. No time to wait, no time to notice, no time to be present. Not this. Not now. All of a sudden we will find ourselves on the day after Christmas not knowing how we got there. Advent is a holy season, a season that bids us to be present, to be still. So much is evoked in this season – hope, longing, the bittersweet awareness that the world is beautiful and broken. Consider all of these things. Sit with them. Pray with them. Be aware of this time of great promise that comes … when night is longest.”

What beautiful and timely advice. It is just what I need at this time to remind me to breathe in that life-renewing, restorative breath of God. It is just what I need to remember that although we wait in this season for the Prince of Peace to come, we also already have the gift of that Spirit of peace. It is a gift that has been given to God’s people from the beginning of time – first moving over the chaotic waters of creation, then blown into Adam’s nostrils, then continually active throughout time, even to enlivening a valley full of very dead, very dry bones.

And so let this be an Advent gift also to us today. In a moment, we will have an opportunity to breathe in the breath of God in whatever way best suits you. If you’re anything like me, time for quietly sitting and breathing deeply can be hard to come by. So, following the sermon, you are invited to breathe in the life-giving breathe of God by meditating on images, or quietly sitting and praying, or coloring this page. Maybe if your brain is as busy as mine, it would be useful for you to have a mantra. One of my favorites is simply to breathe in and think, “Breath of God,” and breathe out and pray, “Breathe in me.” Or the one Bishop Eaton suggested in the piece I just quoted is, “Just this. Just now.” Maybe you will consider offering a particular prayer you have for this day and this time – if so, write it and include it in this basket, and we will pray it during the prayers of intercession.

Now, I know, maybe this may feel silly to you. It is different than what we usually do, and maybe you feel embarrassed. But Advent is all about anticipating the greatest disruption to the “way we’ve always done things” that the world has ever known. Imagine – God becoming human! I’m sure that wasn’t comfortable, either. So I hope you will engage in this few minutes in whatever way you are able, and that you will find in it that God’s breath restores some of the dryness in your spirit, and/or that it will encourage you to bring that practice home. May we all experience the life-restoring breath of God.

Let us pray… Breath of God, as you breathed into those very dry bones and brought them to life, breathe into us today. As you restored the hope of a lonely, mourning people in exile, restore our hope today. As you promised to bring your peace to all the earth, bring your peace to us today. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Following meditative time (from Dag Hammarskjold):

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art, Also within us.
May all see Thee – in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee.
May I thank Thee for all that shall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others.
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldst that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand, And in Thee is all power and goodness.
Give me a pure heart that I may see Thee,
A humble heart that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith that I may abide in Thee. Amen.

Sermon: Maintaining hope in a fiery furnace (Dec 3, 2017)

Advent 1 (NL)
December 3, 2017
Daniel 3:1, 8-30 (Fiery Furnace)

Before we get into our story, let’s set the scene. The story Daniel writes takes place during the exile. King Nebuchadnezzar has plundered the city of Jerusalem, and forced its residents to take refugee status, leaving their homes to relocate primarily in Babylon. Some of those Jews were actually given positions of high status – like Daniel himself and his three buddies, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who had been appointed over the affairs of the king. But high position or not, the Jews living in Babylon were oppressed: they were not allowed to own a Torah (their scripture), or circumcise their sons (as God commanded), or keep the Sabbath. And now, as we will see at the beginning of today’s story, they are being asked even to give up the most basic tenet of their faith: the first commandment. They are faced with the problem: do we take the path of least resistance and do what the king says, hoping that eventually God will lead us back home and forgive our sin? Or, do we stand up to the king and refuse to abandon who we are?

One other quick note before we get into this – this story is a form of political satire. We see political satire all the time today, in which elements of the truth are exaggerated to make a point or poke fun, and that’s exactly what Daniel is doing: the idol is impossibly large, the astrologers are know-it-all narks, and the king is painted as a big buffoon with rage issues. It’s really a pretty funny story. So – here it is!

[click here to read story]

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

The Israelites were living in despair – unable to live into their identity as the chosen people of God, unable to worship, longing for their homes, uncertain for their future. Today, when we find ourselves in despair about a situation, we often look to humor for relief, and that is just what Daniel does here: he offers into this time of great despair, this piece of political satire. I think sometimes we get stuck in thinking that everything in the Bible happened just as it says, or something close to it at least, but to view it that way loses the richness of the biblical witness. Sometimes things aren’t true because they are factual. They are true because they draw us into deeper reflection on an essential truth of our faith, and in so doing draw us closer to God. In a time in which cries of “fake news!” have us questioning what we can believe, satire may get a bad wrap – but satire never claimed to be fact. Its purpose is to poke fun at something by exaggerating it, and in so doing, point us toward – and help us to see more clearly – a deeper truth.

So maybe this story happened just as Daniel says, and that would certainly have value. But I think this dramatic story is even more important and valuable for what it shows us about God, and about faith, especially as we enter today into this time of Advent and hopeful waiting and expectation for the coming Christ.

So, let’s start with that question… what truth about God does this story draw us into? I think there are many, but today, the truth that I need to see is this: that God is trustworthy.

The first and most basic way we see that God is trustworthy is in recognizing that God’s law wins over human law. We see this in the defiant act of the three men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Or rather, in their lack of an act. You see, the problem wasn’t that they did something, but that they didn’t do something: they refused to follow the orders of a pompous, arrogant, populist king, and instead to uphold the law God laid out in the 10 Commandments. In particular, the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” called this resistance an act of civil disobedience. He writes that civil disobedience “was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake.” This letter of King’s, you may remember, was written to the clergy during the civil rights era, urging them to resist the laws of the land that went against the laws of God – namely, urging them to actively resist the racist practices and attitudes of the day. As he sat in jail, he wrote this strongly worded letter in particular not to the clergy who disagreed with him on racial issues, but to those who agreed with him, yet did nothing to push against the unjust, unfaithful laws.

It’s a brilliant use of this story. You see, the three men could very easily have just followed the silly command of Nebuchadnezzar. It would have been the path of least resistance, easy, at least in the short term. Their lives, their jobs, and their families would all be kept safe. There was no imminent risk involved in that decision. They could have done this, and maintained hope that God would understand and forgive them for their sins, knowing as God did that they were in a pretty tough, life-or-death sort of situation. Yet they don’t choose the path of least resistance. They choose what is right and faithful. They choose God’s law, because they know God’s law to be loving and true – even if it wasn’t, at that time, popular. The story of the fiery furnace offers us encouragement that following God’s law at any cost will always pay off in the end – not because it is easier, or because it reaps immediate benefits, but because it is God’s, and God is trustworthy.

A second point to glean from this story is in three simple words: “but if not.” When King Nebuchadnezzar gives the three men an ultimatum, saying they can bow down or be throw into the furnace, they say, “We know our God will save us.” That in itself is very trusting! But they don’t leave it there; they take it to the next level: “but if not,” they say, “we still won’t bow to your statue.” But if not. In those three words, the men declare that their trust and hope in God is unconditional. Their trust and hope are not based on God coming through for them. They are based on the mere fact that God is God, and is worthy of their devotion.

This is the point that my heart is really wrestling with this Advent season. I want to have a “but if not” faith – a faith that does not depend on the outcome, does not depend on God coming through for me in the way I had hoped. I want to have a faith that is solid and hopeful, even if things are not going that way I would like, even if, as is so often the case these days, I look around and think, “What is happening to this world?” I want the “but if not” faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego… yet I find myself wondering, “How do we hold onto hope, no matter the outcome?” How do we hold onto hope when the Nebuchadnezzars in our lives are demanding our loyalty, our time, or our hearts? When we feel our core values, even our very selves are in danger if we don’t choose to follow the path of least resistance? How do we live into the hope of which God assured us in our baptism?

“We believe God will save us from this threat,” the three men say, “but if not, we still will not compromise on that which is essential to who we are. We will not bow to that which does not give life.” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego show us in their statement that maintaining trust in God is what is needed to maintain hope. They couldn’t be sure of the outcome. That furnace was awfully fiery, and death seemed certain. But because of their unconditional trust in God, they could maintain hope. You see, hope doesn’t mean everything will turn out okay. We sometimes confuse hope with optimism. No, hope is about imagining tomorrow differently. It’s about trusting in a reality that you can’t yet see, but yet you still know is in God’s hands, and knowing that if it is in God’s hands, then it will result in freedom. As we imagine that tomorrow, the one in God’s loving, freeing hands, we can begin walking toward it. That walking – that is hope.

And this brings us to the final point about trusting God: trusting that as we walk in hope, God walks with us. We see it in that fourth figure in the furnace – walking around with the three men, formerly bound, and now unbound. When I hear this story, I’m not moved by the fact that their hair didn’t get singed or that they don’t even smell like smoke (though I do love those details!). I am moved that their deliverance came in the form of God being present with the men, as they faced what threatened them, and that when God became present, they were unbound.

And that unbound presence – that is what this season is all about, after all, isn’t it? It is the promise of Emmanuel, of God-with-us. It is the hope that comes from upholding God’s law, knowing that if God commanded it, then it will bring life. It comes from living confidently a “but if not” faith, a faith that does not depend on outcomes, but only on the knowledge that God is trustworthy and good, more so than any earthly ruler or any tempting quick fix or any unresisting path. And it comes in the hope of knowing that wherever we walk, Christ, Emmanuel, walks with us.

Today, as we begin the season of Advent, let us in the spirit of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, find ways to resist: resist false idols offering false promises, resist unjust demands on ourselves and on the vulnerable among us, resist ever giving in to something that compromises who we are as children of God and followers of Jesus. Most of all, to resist falling into the despair that comes when one has no hope. With Christ as our light, and the fulfillment of promise on its way, there is nothing to despair. For through every fiery furnace of life, our God unbinds us and walks with us.

Let us pray… Trustworthy God, your very presence gives us hope. As we face the Nebuchadnezzars and fiery furnaces of life, make us confident in faith, and assured in hope, so that as we walk forward in hope we can be assured that you will be Emmanuel, God-with-us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: The Messiah among us (Nov. 26, 2017)

Christ the King A
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46

I remember asking my dad once after church about the part in the prayer of confession that says, “We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” My young brain could not understand why I should confess something I hadn’t done! Why does it say that? I asked. My dad appealed to my studious nature, and said sometimes we don’t do things that we should – like, homework. That hit home! From then on, I became especially aware of the “things left undone” in my developing faith and Christian life.

Today’s parable is the epitome of “what we have left undone.” I always felt bad for the goats in this story – they didn’t even know they had fallen short of what was expected of them! It’s not like they were bad people, or doing active harm to anyone. Maybe they went to church every week. Maybe they even gave to appeals for money for good causes now and then. But, we also know, that they saw people who were in need – hungry, naked, immigrants, sick, imprisoned – and didn’t do anything to help. They did not offer a listening ear, nor a handout, nor a call to their representative to advocate for a positive change in the system that put them there in the first place. All those things were “left undone.” And that “left undone” is what put them with all those cursed goats in the final judgment. Yikes.

I definitely have a love-hate relationship with this parable. It’s such a rich one, such a clear expression of what Jesus wants from us: to see Christ’s face in every vulnerable person, to treat every such person as if they, themselves, are Christ, to love them and serve them, even without first determining if they deserve it. That part I love. The hate part comes in the fact that this parable is terribly convicting, and I have this sinking feeling that, according to this parable… I’m a goat. For how many times have I known of a need and ignored it, or justified not tending to it, or decided not to help because helping someone else would harm me in some way, or at least compromise the way of living to which I’ve become accustomed? How many times have I put my selfish needs above those of my needy neighbor?

Of course sometimes this happens because we simply don’t know what will help, or because we have different ideas of what will help. The current tax debate is a perfect example. On the one hand, cutting taxes would keep more money in the pockets of hardworking Americans, but on the other, paying more in taxes would allow the government to help with some of the larger expenses Americans face, like healthcare, disaster relief, excellent education, and retirement. Some argue that cutting taxes for the rich might mean a heavier tax burden on the people who can’t afford it, but others say it might also mean businesses can employ more people, helping those people to make more of the money they so desperately need. So, which way better serves “the least of these”?

Or, to bring it closer to home, if Jesus Christ were living in Webster, barely making ends meet, and

uncertain how he would pay his rent next month, let alone pay for his various and necessary prescriptions or clothes for the kids… which approach to tax reform would best be living into the ideal Jesus lays out in Matthew 25? What tax code would make Jesus say, “You cared for me when I needed it!” I certainly have my opinions, and I know you do too, and they might not be the same… but as long as both of us have in mind the wellbeing of “the least of these,” do our respective opinions make either one of us a sheep, or a goat?

This problem of not knowing the best way to help causes me a fair amount of despair, and can quickly move me toward hopelessness: “I just don’t know what will work! How can I help, being just one person, when the problem is so overwhelming, and how do I even know where is the best place to spend my limited time and energy?”

Of course, I don’t think Jesus meant this parable to drive us into despair. The point is simply this: treat every person you meet as if theirs is the face of Christ. Every word we say, every action we do, every decision we make, we must ask ourselves: if I knew my action or non-action would negatively impact Christ himself… would I do it?

If we could do this, could really take this question to heart – how would it change our relationships? How would it change our world?

There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.

In recent years however fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.

The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend, Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “P

lease do,” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”

Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, an important vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.

The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah? Or that one?

From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given.

As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery, word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them. [Accessed here on 11/22/17]


Friends, I don’t know whether you are a sheep or a goat, any more than I know whether I am a sheep or a goat. What I do know is this: the Messiah is among us. The Messiah is among us here at Bethlehem. The Messiah is among us in here in Penfield/Webster. The Messiah is among those addicted to opioids. The Messiah is among millions of women who have been sexually assaulted. The Messiah is among animal species on the brink of extinction, and among those who fight for their survival. The Messiah is among the refugees fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland. The Messiah is among those who cannot afford healthcare that is necessary to stay alive. The Messiah is among those who suffer from mental illness, and cannot find help. The Messiah is among “the least of these,” all around us, where we might not have thought to look. Where else might we see the Messiah, and how might we serve him there?

Let us pray… Lord Christ, you have told us that when we love and serve the least of these among us, we love and serve you. Help us to see your face among those who are in need, and help us in all of our words, actions, and decisions, to consider how they will affect the least of these. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen

Sermon: Gratitude and difficult people (Thanksgiving Service)

Thanksgiving Service
November 19, 2017
Luke 17:11-19

Many of you know that I have a 2-year-old at home named Grace. Life with a 2-year-old certainly has its ups and downs. One minute she is the sweetest thing that makes us giggle with delight that she is ours, and the next minute she is throwing a tantrum over what seems like nothing.

For example: this week I was getting Grace dressed. We usually let her choose her own outfit (for better or worse!), which she dutifully did. When it got to chosing socks, however, this kid could not decide. I was getting impatient, so I just grabbed some and put them on her… and the screaming began. Then the stripping – off came the offending socks. Off

(this isn’t Grace – but close!)

came the shirt she had just been so pleased to choose. Then the pouting, and the incessant “nos!” And the hitting. And the kicking. This stage is not for the faint of heart! And they are right – you really can’t reason with a 2-year-old. Sometimes you’ve just got to walk away.

With a 2-year-old, instances like this pretty quickly become a funny story. Unfortunately, sometimes exchanges like this feel all to similar to some of the vitriolic conversations happening in our country about… name-your-issue. People shouting over each other, seeking validation only from their echo chambers, no one actually listening to what the other side has to offer. Heck, sometimes it feels a little like this even talking to people in our own families. It can be really hard to talk to people – even people we love – about issues about which we disagree. It makes me wonder, with an aching heart, “Is there any way that we can heal the divide? Is there any way to find restoration?”

I was thinking about this as I read our Gospel text this week – the famous story of the healing of the 10 lepers, in which all are healed but only one turns back to give thanks to God. It’s a story, of course, about gratitude, which is why it is assigned for Thanksgiving. And I will get to that, I promise. But first, I want to notice with you a few details of the story that will make that gratitude piece even more meaningful.

First of all, let’s notice that the other nine lepers did nothing wrong. In fact, they are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do – “go to the Temple to show yourselves to the priest.” In this culture, they would not be considered officially clean until the priest said so, so I imagine they were pretty eager to be scooting off to the priest just as soon as possible! And there’s nothing to say they weren’t thanking God all along the way, just that they didn’t turn back and voice that gratitude to Jesus. So maybe the point is not that some were thankful and some weren’t, but rather, that one took the time to say it aloud, and others didn’t. And that may seem small, but it can make a whole lot of difference.

Second, let’s remember a few things about leprosy. In Jesus’ time, leprosy was really any skin disease that was contagious. And so, lepers were generally kept excluded from

society so that there was no risk of it spreading. They were outcast, excluded from the community. On the flip side, to be healed of their leprosy meant not only healing of the physical disease, but also it presented the possibility of being able to go back home to their families, to be restored once again to their community. It was the gift of health, yes, but also of restored life.

This is the point that got me thinking about the difficulty we have in having conversations with people of different beliefs, because it brings up that question that’s very heavy on the hearts of many Americans lately, and that is, “What is required to heal division and restore community?” I have thought this many times in the past couple years especially – what would it take to restore community in America on the various issues we face: race, immigration and refugees, jobs and the economy, homeland security, gun violence… And these are just the issues on the national and international scene, to say nothing of the issues we face in our own families. As we anticipate gathering with family for holidays, we also anticipate navigating potentially difficult family dynamics, whether having to do with internal conflicts, past hurt, or even some of those same hot political issues. So how can we work toward healing the divide, whatever division it is that weighs most heavily on our hearts?

Perhaps one step toward an answer comes in the final detail I want to point out. Luke makes a point of telling us this little detail about the thankful leper: “…he was a Samaritan.” To our modern ear, this doesn’t have the weight it did for the original audience. When we hear “Samaritan” we think of the “Good Samaritan,” that nice, helpful, caring guy. Not so for first century Jews! To them, Samaritans were not nice, helpful or caring. They were dirty foreigners whose race, religion, and beliefs were all wrong, and they had no business being involved in the lives of the more godly, obedient, and upstanding Jews. So to really understand the weight of that statement, “He was a Samaritan,” substitute the category of people that most disgust or scare you, or that most remind you of some pain in your life. (He was a drug dealer, an abuser, a liar, a supporter of things that you feel are a menace to society…)

Luke makes a point of telling us that this one, who was openly thankful, putting his own agenda and desires on hold in order to express gratitude to Jesus, was indeed a despised member of society. And the result is to make us consider the possibility that lessons in faith, in love, in joy, in bridging the divide, might in fact come from the one from whom we least expect it, even, from someone or something we hate. That in itself is a tough pill to swallow – after all, wouldn’t we rather learn about faith from people we love and respect?

But in this case, the lesson, the gift, the grace, though the deliverer may not have been our first choice, is one fairly simple to latch onto and maybe even to apply, and that lesson is: practice gratitude.

You see, I said I would get back there! Practice gratitude. That’s what we will all be trying do this week, after all. Now we’re generally pretty good at being grateful – we’re grateful for our families, for a warm home, for food to eat. We’re grateful for a loving God, for Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins. But sometimes going beyond that can be more difficult, especially when we are in a tough place in life, or when we are grieving a difficult loss. Even in something as mundane as a 2-year-old’s tantrum about her socks, it can be hard to find gratitude! Those feelings should not be disregarded – they, too, are important to acknowledge and to articulate. But what if even (or especially) in this instances, we really worked at finding something for which we are grateful?

In fact, let’s try it right now. You can help me, by looking with me at my opening story, about Grace and her socks. That morning, I was about to lose it. I was tired because she’d woken me an hour earlier than usual, and I was frustrated and I knew she was too, and I was at my wit’s end. I felt pretty far away from grateful. Having heard my story – what in that situation could I be grateful for? (That we have the means to provide her with multiple pairs of socks to choose from. That my daughter is already exercising an independence that will serve her well as she grows. That because she had gotten me up an hour earlier than usual, I had time to deal with a tantrum. That she has developed the dexterity to take off her own shirt – a new skill!) Probably what I am most grateful for in exchanges like this is that every day, Grace teaches me something about human nature: about the importance of expressing feelings, and listening and validating them. She teaches me patience. She teaches me the value of a deep breath. She is always teaching me something. And I am grateful.

Suddenly, the Great Socks Crisis of 2017, when considered through the lens of gratitude, has become an experience that brings joy to my heart. Suddenly this encounter that made me want to throw up my hands and walk out (which I admit, I did do), has made me love my little girl even more fiercely than I did before. But it takes practice. Gratitude is a practice, just like running or weight-lifting, and one that needs to be done regularly – every day!

Once you strengthen those gratitude muscles, when you are really strong in gratitude, try it on harder things: find things on the other side of whatever divide you are facing for which you can express your gratitude. Look at the Samaritans in your life – those who are different, despised, or somehow not up to your standards. What about them are you grateful for? What are you grateful for in someone who has made you angry? What are you grateful for in someone who believes differently from you? What are you grateful for in some situation that seems incredibly unfair?

Gratitude is a practice, not something to do once a year on Thanksgiving, but rather, something to be repeated again and again so that we get better and stronger at it. In today’s Gospel, we see how difficult it must have been for a Samaritan to turn around, in a place where he knew he was despised, and offer a word of gratitude to his healer. In his small act, we are reminded of the grace and hope God continually offers us no matter what our shortcomings or our more despicable characteristics are. We are given the opportunity to see that hope and faith can be revealed even in unexpected places, situations, and people. And we are shown the immense healing and restorative powers within that simple act of gratitude.

Let us pray… Gracious God, you show yourself and your promise of hope even in places we don’t think to look. Help us to follow the Samaritan leper’s lead, and take the time to articulate that for which we are grateful, and give us the wisdom to seek gratitude before division, so that community might be restored. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Trusting God in heart and pocketbook

Pentecost 24A
November 19, 2017
Matthew 25:14-30

Today’s parable, the Parable of the Talents, is in many ways a preacher’s dream. It is so rich, and there are so many angles to take. The biggest challenge, really, is not finding something to say, but rather, which thing to say! Pardon the pun, but it is an embarrassment of riches!

Perhaps it is a parable about God’s providence. At the beginning, the Master gives the servants five, two, and one talent respectively. A talent is a currency equal to about 15-20 years of labor – no small amount! If we think of God as the Master, then we can read this to mean that our God is one who entrusts to us exorbitant riches, charging us to use what God provides for good and for gain. That seems a reasonable interpretation.

Or, perhaps it is a parable about what we understand as “talents” – our particular gifts and skills – and being good stewards of these talents. This is a common reading of this text because it makes a lot of sense: God gives us many gifts, and good, faithful people use those gifts to serve the world. Those who are willing to share their gifts with the world, especially for the purpose of serving God and neighbor, will find great return for their efforts. On the other hand, those who “bury” their gifts and never share them will be diminished, perhaps in the form of losing that skill they once had. Moral of the story: use it or lose it, and if you use it, God will be praised and pleased.

Or thinking more broadly, perhaps the talent currency in this parable is actually a metaphor for faith and love. If we exercise our faith by reading our Bibles, praying, going to church, and serving our neighbor, and if we spread God’s love throughout the world, telling others about God’s saving grace, then faith and love will increase. If we don’t tend to it, it will diminish, and eventually, we will lose it. It’s like that song my mom taught her kindergarteners: “Love is something if you give it away – you end up having more!” That’s a very nice interpretation. After all, who could argue with the idea that love and faith are something to be shared?

All three of these, though, get a little close for comfort to works righteousness – the idea that in the final judgment we will be judged based on what we do or don’t do with what God has given us. And Lutherans don’t believe that our actions determine our salvation – we believe God’s actions determine our salvation. God is a God of grace, and while I do think God cares about whether I get out there and live out my faith, or sit on my bum and do nothing, I don’t think that this, finally, will be what determines whether I am sent to heaven or to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So what if this isn’t a parable about retribution (do this, don’t do that, and you will receive your reward accordingly)? What if it is a parable about trust in God, and about expectations?

What makes me go there is the third servant’s explanation to the Master about why he buried the talent. He says, “I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” Traditionally Christians have read this parable allegorically, in which the Master is God… but this does not describe the God that I know! The God I know is gracious and merciful, full of compassion, and abounding in steadfast love – not harsh and greedy and overbearing. But you see, the third servant expected the Master to be harsh, greedy, and overbearing… and so that is what he was.

Have you ever experienced that? Like, you expect someone to be one way (liberal, conservative, smart, not smart, etc.), and so everything they say and do you fit into that mold and it becomes proof for your expectation? Or even with a situation – you expect a conflict to be awful and painful, and that is exactly what it is… or, you see conflict as an opportunity to grow, and that is what it becomes. Our expectations about a person or a situation are very powerful, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problem is, this allows expectations to become a barrier to growth, a barrier to connection, and a barrier to relationship. And they can definitely become a barrier to trust. That is the real issue with this third servant. He does not trust. He assumes the Master is a certain way, and so he does not trust. Instead, he fears. “I was afraid,” he says.

Now, fear is a great motivator. It can even motivate us to do acts the on the surface seem faithful – like go to church, or pray, or tithe. But is this truly faith, if you are acting out of fear? In my experience, fear seldom (or never!) motivates us to act in true faith. Only trust can do that – trust in a God who will take care of us, and bring us into God’s abounding joy.

It’s quite telling that Jesus chooses a tale about money to make this point. I think he does so because he knows that money has the power to negatively affect our trust in God. That’s why he talks about money more than anything else in the Bible, apart from the kingdom of God itself. Money has a strong grip on us. Its wiles so often disguise themselves as honest and admirable – how good we are at justifying spending our money on selfish needs – and yet if you’re anything like me, my justifications and explanations mostly serve to mask the fact that I’m not certain my management of my money is entirely faithful

In our November newsletter, I wrote an essay about my personal stewardship journey. I wrote about what a cheerful giver I was when I was first starting out. But then I got a mortgage, and my student loan deferment ended, and medical bills accumulated, and we had a couple babies and the daycare costs that go with them… and suddenly I was justifying hanging onto a little more of the money God had entrusted to me to offset those costs. And then the wily ways of money made their move – the more I hung onto, the more I felt I needed to hang onto, and the more apt I became at justifying my tight grip. And not coincidentally, the less joyful I felt about returning to God what has always been rightfully God’s.

“I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground,” said the servant to the Master… and just now I said, and I hope you agreed, “But that’s not the God I believe in!” And yet, how quickly we slip into exactly that – believing that if we loosen our grip on our material gains, our God will no longer take care of us. How quickly we slip into not trusting the God who gave us our very lives. How quickly we slip into expecting that God will work the way that the world works.

The third servant did not trust. That is why he saw the Master as harsh, over-bearing, and greedy. A trusting servant sees the Master as gracious and merciful, full of compassion and abounding in steadfast love. A trusting servant knows that God will provide. A trusting servant is able, then, to joyfully give their talents – in both senses of the word – toward God’s work in the world, because that servant knows that a God who would give his only son so that we would not perish but have eternal life, would also provide for us our every need.

Let us pray… Gracious God, we know you to be a loving and merciful God, a God we can trust with all our heart. Help us, then, to trust, and to give our whole selves to you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Blessed like the saints (Nov 5, 2017)

All Saints Day A
November 5, 2017
Matthew 5:1-13

The Beatitudes, our Gospel lesson today, is one of those texts in the Bible that is so well known, that I usually approach it thinking, “Oh, I know just what to say about this one,” and yet every time, I find I am surprised by something new. It always speaks to me differently depending on what is going on in my world at the time.

Maybe I am in the midst of a conflict with friends, and so that line, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” is what speaks to me. Maybe I am watching on the news as people protest and cry for justice for some group or another, and I think, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled!” Maybe I have just met with a parishioner who is in the hospital, yet demonstrating such deep faith in the midst of struggle, that my prayer becomes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Or maybe, like several here today, I am mourning a loss of a loved one, and am comforted by those words, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Yes, there seems to be something in there for everyone!

Yet even as one can find comforting words here for various situations, I’m not always sure how to read the text as a whole. Our first inclination might be to read it as sort of, instructions for a life of faith. Especially today, on All Saints Day, as we not only remember those who have died in the faith, and those who have served as models for us, but also recognize that all of us were promised sainthood in our baptism (yes, we are ALL saints!), it becomes tempting to see this text as something to aspire to. Like, this is what the life of a saint looks like: to hunger for righteousness, to speak boldly on Christ’s account even in the face of persecution, to be peace-seekers.

However, we can’t really say, “Be like these people Jesus is saying are blessed!” and call it a day. The cases I just mentioned make sense, but it doesn’t make much sense to say, “Hey, you should find more opportunity to mourn!” or, “Do something to get yourself persecuted now and then, would ya?” So seeing these as “rules for a life of faith” isn’t entirely helpful.

So if they aren’t instructions, then perhaps they are meant to be read more as words of comfort. That’s why they are assigned for this All Saints Day, a day when we remember the dead, when we may count ourselves among “those who mourn.” Though we don’t likely find ourselves in all of these categories at once, we likely find ourselves in some of them sometimes. Like I was saying at the beginning of this sermon: we all grieve at some point; we all pursue righteousness; we all desire peace. Some of us have probably felt at some point like living a life of faith made us feel, if not outright persecuted, at least like we were trying to live a way that is counter-cultural, a way others in the world might not understand. And in those times, it is gratifying to read these words from Jesus saying, “I know you are struggling right now. My promise to you is that this will not last forever. You will get what you need! You will be blessed!” This is a very helpful way to read the Beatitudes, especially in a world with so much pain and fear.

But I’d like to suggest a third way to read this beloved text. Because you see, Jesus doesn’t say to those struggling, “They will be blessed.” He says they already are. So, what if we read the Beatitudes not as words speaking to us wherever we are, assuring us that our circumstances will change sometime in the future but doesn’t imply any current or eventual change in us, but rather, as a way to shift the way we see the world right now and going forward?

Let me explain. If I were to ask you, “When do you feel blessed?” I doubt you would say, “When I’m lacking, or grieving, or experiencing injustice, or being persecuted,” right? We feel blessed when things go well, not when we are suffering! No one says, “You should have heard this guy today who was screaming all kinds of evil threats against me. Ah, I felt so blessed!” No! And yet, Jesus says that there, in those places, is blessing. How can that be?

You see, in saying this, Jesus is turning upside down everything we thought we knew about suffering. But that’s sort of Jesus’ M.O., isn’t it? Jesus is always turning everything on its head. We see it right away, when the King of Kings is born to peasants in a smelly stable. We see it when he is raised in Nowheresville Nazareth. We see it when he surrounds himself with lowlifes and sinners. And we see it most profoundly on the cross. Nothing about Jesus is how we would expect God to be.

And so maybe, just maybe, God is using these unlikely blessings to show us that God continually moves and acts where we least expect it. Not in the glorious places we’d think to look for God – in success and wealth and notoriety, in places we normally associate with blessing – but rather, in the broken, in the aching, in the grieving. It goes back to the theology of the cross we talked about a couple weeks ago – that God has shown us that God’s love is made most profoundly known to us on the cross, and so we can be sure that in our own suffering, God will be there with us, too, kneeling beside us in our despair. And because God is there, with those who suffer, those who suffer are indeed blessed.

It can be hard to believe, can’t it? I know when I have been in my lowest places, it can feel not like God is with me, but the opposite – that God has abandoned me. Well even then, we’re in good company – that’s how Jesus felt on the cross when he cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet, we know that God was there on the cross, and we know that God then descended into hell to be present even there, and then that God broke the bonds of death and, bringing all of the saints with him, entered into new life, a life where we “will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike [us], nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

So what does all this mean for a life of faith? It doesn’t mean that we should make ourselves suffer so that God will come to us. It does mean that if we want to see God, we must go to where we know God is: in suffering.

Today at St. Martin, we will witness a young woman affirm her baptismal faith in the rite of confirmation. One of the things I asked Lydia to do in preparation for this day, was fill out a little bio. One of the questions was, “What do you want to do someday?” I imagined this as a sort of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, but I like Lydia’s answer better. She said that she’d like to go to a children’s hospital and hang out with the kids all day, adding that this would be great. You see, Lydia is already living into the saintly life she inherited in baptism – she knows, in her heart if not in her mind, that in these children, she would see God. Or perhaps, they would experience God’s love in her. Because God is with us, in many and various and sometimes unexpected forms, when we suffer.

As we celebrate Lydia’s confirmation, we give thanks for the ways she has and will continue to live into her saintly nature, even as we give thanks for the ways God calls us to do the same – by hearing the good and comforting words of Christ when we are the ones who are suffering, and by witnessing God by being present in others’ suffering. You know, some Bible scholars believe that a better way to translate that word, “blessed,” is actually, “Congratulations!” Because being so close to God is a celebration. You have experienced God’s mercy – congratulations! You have seen God’s work among the poor – congratulations! You have fought for justice in Christ’s name – congratulations! You have experienced a true life of faith – not one in which God promises you will never face hardship, but rather, that when you do, God will be deeply and profoundly present with you in it. Blessed are you! To Lydia, and to all your saints out there – Congratulations!

Let us pray… Blessed Jesus, we know that you know and understand the pain we feel, because you have felt it, too. Bless us with many opportunities to see your love at work in the world, by emboldening us to be with the suffering in their pain, just as you are with us in ours. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Reformation500 – Free Indeed!

Reformation Sunday (Ref. Series: Doctrine of Justification)
October 29, 2017
John 8:31-36

Five hundred years. I know this will reveal what a church nerd I have always been, but I’ve had this day on my radar since I was a kid. I remember thinking how old I would be when the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation came about! Turns out, fun fact, that Luther was exactly my current age when he posted his 95 theses on the church door.

Well now that it’s here… I don’t really know what to say. On the one hand, there is something to celebrate. Because 500 years ago, a young monk (and he was young!) said to the Church, “Hey listen, you’ve distorted the heart of Christian faith. You’ve got people believing they can buy their forgiveness, when really, that comes free from God!” What followed was a reformation of the Church as it was, resulting, hopefully, in a greater emphasis on God’s grace.

But that also brings up the dark underbelly of the Reformation, which is that this event spilt apart the Church. And that is nothing to celebrate. Division wasn’t Luther’s desire, nor was it Jesus’. Jesus prayed that we would all be one – and the Church now, 2000 years after Jesus’ death and 500 years after Luther’s bold act, looks nothing like one, united Church. Christians differ from each other even on the most basic tenets of faith, and that difference has led to bloodshed. In fact, Luther’s words did much to cause some of the pain the Church has experienced for the past half millennium. He also said awful things about Jews. Nazis used his words to justify their actions. He wasn’t always kind to other Christians, either. Lutherans today have worked hard to heal some of the very divisions and pains caused by our namesake.

And so, 500 years later, I find myself as prone to lament and even repent, as I am to celebrate. But I think that’s okay. After all, the first of those 95 theses states, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I can lament and repent that my denominational heritage hurt people along the way. I can lament and repent that there is division in the church. I can lament and repent for what I have or haven’t done to heal that division. Lament and repentance are an important part of the life of faith.

Because of the complexity of this historical event in the Church’s life, the word we are supposed to be using is “commemorate.” A recognition, but not a celebration. That said, I do also want to recognize that there is something to celebrate today. And that is the realization and the articulation, by Luther and his colleagues, of the life-changing, spirit-filled, liberating theology known as the doctrine of justification: that we are saved by grace and not by works.

That’s a lot of fancy church words, so let’s break this down into more accessible words, drawing some inspiration from our Gospel reading today. Jesus is talking to a bunch of Jews, saying that the truth will set them free. “Free?” they respond. “But we don’t need to be freed. We’re not slaves. We were never slaves.” You might be inclined to feel the same about yourself. We’re American, after all, living in the land of the free. I don’t even have slavery in my family history. I know nothing of slavery. But if you know something about Jewish history, you’ll remember: they were very much slaves! Remember that whole bit in Egypt? How Moses had to ask the Pharaoh a bunch of times to let God’s people go? How Moses finally led the Israelites, God’s people, out of Egypt in dramatic fashion, through the Red Sea? Uh yeah, it’s sort of a big part of their history that they were slaves!

And while it may not be quite so obvious in our own histories, we were and are still very much slaves, too. We are enslaved to the love of money and all it can do for us, to building and maintaining our reputations, to our work, to our schedules – always trying to justify ourselves by saying our diligent attention to these things will increase the level of happiness for ourselves and our families… But in the end, it is just a never-ending race of trying to keep up, trying to succeed, trying to prove to ourselves, our neighbors, and to God, that we are enough.

And that’s really the driving motivation in all of our enslavements, isn’t it? We want to be enough: good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, faithful enough. And we try to prove to ourselves and the world that we have achieved “enough” by ensuring our kids have all the best opportunities, and we make a good salary, and contribute something worthwhile, and maybe that we have whatever the hot item is. We are slaves to the relentless desire to be enough.

But we are not doomed to spend our whole lives in this enslavement – we can be free. “The truth will set you free,” Jesus says. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Did you hear that good news? It is the Son, Jesus, who makes us free. Not the right number on the bathroom scale, not the higher salary, not your kid earning straight As, not getting that award, not even doing good deeds. Those things aren’t bad in and of themselves – really, they are good! – but while they may make us feel good in the moment, they will not set us free from that core fear of not being enough. Only the Son can do that. Only Jesus’ work on our behalf can do that. Only the promise we receive in baptism – that we are beloved children of God, whose sins and failures are always forgiven by a merciful God – can free us.

I like how Lutheran pastor Emily Scott put it. She says, “I am only interested in a conversation about the Reformation insofar as it is centered on the liberation of God’s people. The life-giving theology Luther and his colleagues articulated has rescued me from a life depending only on myself.” To me, this really is life-giving news! How much pressure we put on ourselves, believing that we can pull ourselves out of our own darkness! I am pretty smart and capable, and often I am able to fix my own problems, but the most pressing ones, and especially the rat race of trying to prove to myself and the world that I am enough, never seems to have an end, at least not as long as I’m in it alone. I always seem to resort to comparing my own success or failure with someone else’s, and it turns out, there is never any joy in comparison. It always results in my feeling like I could be more or better, like I’m not enough. But the good news of the Reformation is that there is an end to that race, and that end is Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God says, “You are already enough.” It doesn’t depend on you or your goodness. It depends on God and God’s goodness.

That is the end of the rat race – but it is the beginning of a life of faith. Pastor Scott goes on: “If we are to remember the Reformation, let it stir us to see the suffering of God’s people in our midst,” and reach out to them with love. This, you see, is also the heritage of the Reformation. Once we hear that good news that we are free from sin, free from the temptation to compare ourselves to others, free from the constant effort to prove ourselves to everyone, we also realize that we are freed for a purpose. We are freed for serving others. We are freed for speaking up on behalf of those held captive by oppressive power structures. We are freed for giving our time, talents, and treasures to those who lack what they need. We are, in short, freed for loving our neighbors and seeking their well-being as fervently as we love and seek our own.

For Luther, you see, and the theology he described, neighbor-love was an implied response to the good news that we are saved by grace and not by works. When we hear that good news, he says, when we really hear it with our whole being, we are compelled to love and serve our neighbor in whatever way is possible – not because it’s a nice thing to do, or to get a gold star in our crown, or so others will look to us and say, “Wow, they are great!” or even to get into heaven or to be saved. We serve others because it is what springs out of the good news that we are loved and forgiven and embraced by God, who loves us and says we are enough just the way we are. We don’t serve others to be loved and saved. We serve others because we already are loved and saved. This truth, sisters and brothers, will set you free.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, you may, like me, feel a mix of emotions. Sadness that the Church is still working toward unity, but gratitude for the work that has already been done. Lament for the ways people of faith have been nasty to one another, often using our own Martin Luther’s words as fuel, and hope in seeing that many are working hard to mend the brokenness. Despair that this world still has so much pain and fear, but immense joy that Christ continually promises to be with us in the pain, and bring us toward new life. There is room in our faith for all those feelings. As we commemorate the Reformation, may we let it be a reformation of our hearts, knowing that lament leads to repentance, and repentance leads to hope, and hope leads to joy in the promise of a new life of freedom.

Let us pray… Reforming God, by your Son you have freed us from the shackles of sin and doubt and promised us that we are beloved, and we are enough. Continue to reform our hearts, that we would see the needs of our neighbor, and reach out to them with your love and grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: Finding God in the last place you’d look

Pentecost 20A (Reformation Series – Theology of the Cross)
“Finding God in the Last Place You’d Look”
October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-33; Psalm 99; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2; Mark 15:33-39

I knew to expect, at some point in my children’s young life, that phase where everything you say is followed by, “Why?” I didn’t expect it so soon as age 2. “Where’s daddy?” At work. “Why?” So he can make money and help people. “Why?” Because he wants to be a contributing member of society. “Why?” Uuuugghhh… I’m already exhausted!

And yet, I’m grateful, because every day my toddler teaches me something about human nature. With these exchanges, she teaches me that this question, “Why?” is so deeply ingrained and pressing that it nags us just as soon as we start to develop reason and language. Of course as adults, the question most meaningfully makes its appearance in times of suffering: “Why did she die so young?” “Why has he suffered so long?” “Why would God let this happen?” It’s a question I often get asked as a pastor, usually asked with sad, questioning, sometimes even angry or desperate eyes. Unfortunately, I’m no more privy to the mind of God than anyone else, and so my answer is usually a pathetic, “I don’t know.”

But really – how can we know? If we knew the mind of God, would that really be God anymore? We are desperate to understand how life works, why God acts the way God does, why things happen the way they do, but the fact is: as soon as you claim to understand God’s ways, you have eaten of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden, and put yourself on the same plain as God.

Martin Luther describes this temptation as a “theology of glory.” A theology of glory tries to rationalize God – for example, by saying in the face of untimely death, “God wanted another angel in heaven.” A theology of glory says that we can determine who will go to heaven and who won’t, based on their good or evil deeds. A theology of glory assumes that we can do something to earn our own salvation – for example, that we need to choose Jesus, and make him our personal Lord and Savior, or that we need to do good so that God will love and accept us, or so that we will be saved.

All of these ways of trying to understand God and faith are so tempting – I think all of us here have fallen into at least one of them at some point. They are tempting because they make sense to us, and we like to understand things. That is why churches that preach the prosperity gospel – the understanding that God gives good things to those who are true believers – are so popular: that way of thinking makes sense for our culture. If you do well, you gain much. Problems can be reasoned through. Everything can be understood if you are smart and rational enough.

Luther pushed against this, instead describing what he called a “theology of the cross.” A theology of the cross points to a God who acts in a way that doesn’t make a lick of sense to our human minds: a God who would choose to reveal his love and character most profoundly through a beaten, humiliated, broken man on a cross. And so, Luther says, if we want to see God, that is the place we must look: we must look for God in suffering, because if there is one concrete thing we know about God, it is that in suffering, God is made known to us.

And suffering? Well that’s something we know something about, isn’t it? Just look around the world. In Puerto Rico, 95% are still without power and people are drinking toxic water. California looks like a war zone, and people’s lives have been consumed by fire. Victims of mass shootings – those who witnessed it and survived, and those whose dear family and friends did not survive – are still weeping. Threats of nuclear war. The largest refugee crisis since World War II. Millions of women speaking up about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. And this is not to mention our individual journeys – this week alone I have sat with and heard from victims of mental illness, victims of cancer and other illnesses, people desperate to leave the suffering of this world – and these are only the things I have heard about.

But here’s the good news about the theology of the cross: we can’t understand why any of these things happen, but we can know, because ours is a God who is made known in suffering, that God is in each of these places. God does not cause suffering – freewill and human sin and brokenness do that – but God goes to where there is suffering. It’s hard to believe, hard to wrap our heads and our hearts around, but it is the promise of the cross: that God will be present in the last place a rational person would ever look for God: in the midst of suffering, oppression, violence, and even death.

I like to think of it this way: There has been quite a lot of hubbub about what is happening in the NFL with players kneeling during the National Anthem. I read a piece about this written by a political conservative who is also a Christian that hit the nail on the head. He said, basically, that whether or not you agree with this gesture as a way to draw attention to police brutality against people of color (which was its original intent), the Christ-like way to respond is not to dismiss it, disparage it, or call people names. What Christ would do is kneel beside those expressing their pain, and say, “Talk to me about why you are kneeling.” He would go into the suffering, not condemn it. Not necessarily agree with the expression of it, but acknowledge it, and be with people in it.

I love this image of Jesus coming to us when we are on our knees – in prayer, in exhaustion, in despair – and kneeling beside us. As I have thought about the ways I have suffered in my life, it was never helpful to me to think things like, “Someone else has it worse than you, Johanna, so get over it.” I know that is a common coping mechanism for people, but for me, that only disregarded the real pain I was feeling. What is helpful to me is that image of Jesus kneeling beside me and saying, “I know, Johanna. It hurts. It isn’t fair. I have felt your pain, and I know how much it hurts. Let’s have a good cry together, and then, if you’re feeling up to it, I’ll make you a cup of tea.”

A theology of glory tries to make human sense of everything. That’s what Paul was talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. But reason doesn’t heal emotional pain. A theology of the cross puts Jesus down in the dark hole with you, where he acknowledges your pain, and holds your hand, and then shows you that there is life after death.

I read a story this week about a seminary professor who was trying to explain basic Christian theology to a bunch of first year seminary students, who seemed less than interested in what he was saying. Exasperated, he finally just drew THIS [hold up large, downward arrow] on the board and said, “This is Christian theology in a nutshell. If you understand this, you know all you need to know,” and he walked out of the room, leaving the students in a tizzy. The next day he explained further, now to a captive audience. The main gist of Christian theology, he said, is this: that God comes down. Every time. God comes down to us. God comes down to us, even and especially when we are suffering. God comes down to kneel beside us when we are broken and at the end of our rope, to feel our pain with us, then to offer his hand and draw us into God’s preferred future – a future of love, connection, and abundant life.

It doesn’t make a lick of sense that God, the Creator of the universe, would do such a thing. No one would think to look for God among the hurting – among the sick, the oppressed, the forgotten, among women whose bodies and spirits are broken by the abuse they have experienced, among bullied children in a school yard, among communities who can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because they never had boots to begin with. No God that makes sense would be found in those broken places. And yet, ours is. Ours is there, loving us, and beckoning us into a new and fuller life.

Let us pray… Suffering God, you went to great lengths to show us that you know our pain and feel it with us. Thank you. Thank you for coming down to us, down into our suffering, and loving us there, even as you draw us out and into new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Sprit. Amen.

Sermon: Forgiveness will change your life (Oct 15, 2017)

Pentecost 19A – Reformation Series, “Forgiveness Will Change Your Life”
October 15, 2017
Texts: Exodus 32:1-14 (RCL); Psalm 51:1-12; John 20:19-23; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

Forgiveness will change your life. That is the lofty claim of today’s Reformation theme. But to really grasp how true that was for Luther, we need first to have a sense of what his reality was as compared to our own. So to start today, here is a little history lesson:

Death was literally at the doorstep for those living in 16th century Europe. The plague, the “black death,” was breaking out all over and seemed to strike down indiscriminately, taking down otherwise healthy people in a matter of days. In an effort to make sense of this devastation, some wondered if God might be punishing people for their sin, that the cause of death was a God of wrath, who instead of mercy, brought death upon a sinful and unrepentant people.

The Church capitalized on this rampant fear. In response to people’s fear of their own sin, and the wrath it seemed to bring, the Church offered ample opportunity to confess, including long lists of possible sins one could have committed. Of course, only priests had the authority to forgive those sins, and so the Church had a monopoly on power over people’s peace of mind. As the Church continued to try to assuage people’s guilt from the burden of their sin, it developed a system known as indulgences: that is, people could in essence buy some of Christ’s abundant merit in order to shorten the time they would have to spend in purgatory, a state that was a sort of halfway-between-heaven-and-hell. In fact, people could not only buy their own way out of purgatory, but also, for a hefty price, their deceased loved ones who were presumably already suffering in this in-between state. This sale of indulgences, of course, was what inspired Luther to enter the conversation with his posting of the 95 theses, in which he called out the Church’s abuse.

But his calling out that abuse didn’t come until after he had lived several years in this devastating state of depression and agony over his sins. Even after Luther took the vow to become a monk, he was overcome by his sin, spending hours in confession every day. In fact, the confessor would dread Luther’s arrival; for up to six hours a day, he would listen to Brother Martin list every single thing he had ever done wrong. Although Luther had hoped the cloistered life would offer a haven from the crushing reality of his sin, it offered him no relief. It was not until that same confessor, Johann von Staupitz, urged Luther toward a more academic vocation, and in particular one in biblical studies, that Luther was able finally to grasp that God was not a God of wrath, but a God of immense grace – that indeed, ours is a God of forgiveness.

It is difficult to grasp just how life-changing the news of forgiveness was for Luther without understanding his place in life. He grew up in a home where he experienced more discipline than love, and deeply disappointed his parents by becoming a monk and priest rather than a lawyer as had been planned. He lived life constantly under the burden of sin and the threat of death, both physical and spiritual. And so to suddenly grasp in scripture that this burden, this captivity of sin was not Christ’s hope for us indeed changed his life… and the lives of so many others living in a time when sin and death were in their faces every single day, a time when people carried the weight of their sin like a yoke, and the most compelling relief came from the purchase of Christ’s merits from the institutional Church – who then used that money for less than Christ-like purposes.

Yes, we can see why Luther saw forgiveness as such good, even life-changing news. But is this news as good and life-changing for us today? In 2017 we are in a really different time of history. Sure, some are still consumed by their sin, maybe even some in this room today. But by and large, most of us fancy ourselves to be pretty good people. And if we slip up somewhere, we are pretty good at noticing and fixing it in the future, right? In this age of optimism and self-help, we are not as keen to dwell in the darkness of our sin, nor to seek external help, even from the Church. Our relationship with God is between us and God, and God is good, and Jesus is our friend, not our judge. The Church has for many become a place not to receive relief from the weight of sin, but rather, to see people we love and learn and teach our children good values and come together to do good in the world. We give money not in order to be forgiven or to get in good with God, but because we are grateful for the work of our Church and want to support it. These are not inherently bad things, but they are different from what Luther was dealing with. So, what does the forgiveness of sins, this essential Reformation teaching, really have to offer us today?

Well first of all, we are not so sinless as we might like to imagine! As we talked about last week with the Law and Gospel teaching, using Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments we can begin to see that keeping the Commandments is not just about keeping laws, but about fulfilling them. It’s not just, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” but it is also standing up for those who are oppressed, speaking out against abuse, lifting up the downtrodden. It’s not just going to church on Sunday and calling yourself a Christian, it’s about looking at your priorities and practices and making sure that your Lord and God really is Jesus – not your family, not your bank account, not your safety, not your reputation, not your privacy, not your comfort. When we start to look at it this way, we see that we really do have quite a lot of things for which we need God’s forgiveness! And while there are lots of places where you can see people you love and learn good morals and do good in the world, the truth your will find in the Church – that God does forgive our sins – is extraordinary. Indeed, it is life changing.

For the second thing forgiveness of sins can offer us, we can look at our Gospel lesson today, in which Jesus gives to his disciples his peace, and the power to forgive others. There is certainly peace in being forgiven, in having Jesus take from our shoulders the weight and burden of our sins (and yes, there are many!), and telling us, “I love you! You are mine!” But there is also peace in the ability to forgive others. Holding onto grudges does not bring life. Holding onto anger does not bring life. The gift of God’s forgiveness of us means also that, as it says in the Lord’s Prayer, God forgives us “as we forgive those who sin against us.” In other words, God’s gift of forgiveness of our sins makes it possible for us to forgive others, and find the life-changing peace that this brings to our hearts.

The third real gift of forgiveness is what we see in our text from Corinthians: that God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, and that we are to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness; it is, sort of, the next step, the possible and often hopeful outcome of forgiveness. Forgiveness is erasing the past, letting it go, moving beyond it. Reconciliation is a restoration of the relationship. Now, sometimes reconciliation is not possible – in the case of abuse, for example, restoring a relationship is not a healthy path.

But with the exception of extreme situations, it is pretty clear here that reconciliation, the restoration of relationships, is a part of God’s hope for us – both with one another and with God. And that is difficult, but such important and life-giving work. Why is it so difficult? Because reconciliation is not just waiting for the other person to admit they were wrong. It requires also looking deep in our own hearts, to see what it is that we might have contributed to the brokenness – and to work on that. As Luther writes, “Judge yourself, speak about yourself, see what you are, search your own heart, and you will soon forget the faults of your neighbor. You will have both hands full with your own faults, yes, more than full!” Such searching of our own hearts requires humility, vulnerability, and a lot of deep breaths. It requires us to put our self-righteousness aside (how quick we are to point the finger and believe we are not to blame!). And it requires a whole lot of prayer – for when we pray for another, especially one who has hurt us, it might not change them but it may very well change you. And that is the business of forgiveness, and of Christ: it is to change, to transform, to create anew our hearts and our lives.

It’s difficult, heart- and time-consuming work. But it is by this work that we are reconciled to God. It is by this work that we ultimately receive the true joy and peace of forgiveness. It is by this work that we can hear the life-changing revelation of a guilt and sin-riddled Martin Luther, and discover that forgiveness, and the reconciliation that follows, does indeed change our life.

Let us pray… Restoring God, you have given us the ministry of reconciliation. Make us humble enough to seek understanding, to find forgiveness, to achieve reconciliation, and then make us grateful for the way that this gift changes our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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.