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

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

INTRODCUTION

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

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

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

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

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

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Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Transformation is possible (May 27, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: On emptying (May 13, 2018)

Easter 7 (NL4)
May 13, 2018
Philippians 2:1-13

INTRODUCTION:

Last week we started working through the book of Philippians, and I told you a bit about the Philippian congregation, telling you that Paul really loved them, and was grateful for them, and that they had actively supported him while he was imprisoned. In fact, the part of the letter to the Philippians that we read last week even takes time to commend the Philippian Christians for their faith and service. Yes, Paul loved the congregation in Philippi – but that doesn’t mean they were without their problems! The part of the letter we hear today speaks to that.

One thing I really like about Paul’s letters to the various Christian communities he starts is that they show us that the Early Christians had some of the very same challenges and spiritual and personal struggles that we have today. Every single Christian community since the beginning has had their challenges because every single Christian community has been a collection of sinful people in need of God’s grace. After all, that’s why we’re here, right?

In today’s portion of the letter, we see that the Philippians were struggling with some selfish behaviors, and Paul urges them to be more humble. Selfishness and a need for humility… I can think of a time or two when these issues have come up in my life, and yes, even in the life of the church – can you?

So listen to the advice that Paul gives to this fledgling Christian congregation. Think about when you have needed to hear that same advice. Listen to the beautiful hymn that Paul includes in this letter, about how God “emptied” himself to become like us, and why such a move would matter to the particular struggles the Philippian church faced – and the struggles we still face, as the church, as families, and as friends.

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

Well it’s finally springtime, and with spring comes that itch to do some spring-cleaning! In particular, I always get the itch in springtime to do some de-cluttering – all this stuff I have been collecting over the winter… okay, over the past several years… I am motivated to get it out of my life!

But it never fails: no sooner have I decided, “Today is the day!” than I start looking at my stuff and thinking, “Oh, but I don’t want to get rid of that because… And I can’t rid of this… And this I might need, you just never know…” Sound familiar? This is a challenge for a lot of us, I think: even though we have a desire to get rid of the junk in our lives, it can be really hard to let go. We want to hold on tightly to what we know, to what is familiar.

I’ve been thinking about all this in the context of Paul’s words to the Philippians that we just heard. He starts by urging them toward humility, telling them to “do nothing out of selfish ambition, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” He says to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” then quotes a beautiful, ancient hymn about how Christ obediently “emptied himself,” giving up all his godly glory to come down and be with us in the dirt and grime for a while, and, in the utterly selfless act of dying on the cross, brought us salvation.

This hymn Paul quotes is called the kenosis hymn, named for the Greek word meaning “empty.” As in, Christ’s self-giving humility was expressed when he “emptied himself.” So I started to wonder, is self-emptying the way for us, too, to find this humility that Paul encourages the Philippians to strive for? Is it a part of the Christian life?

Think again about that de-cluttering image. Getting rid of our physical stuff (emptying our closets, so to speak) is difficult, but even harder is letting go of the junk in our hearts – the emotional and spiritual stuff that bogs us down. Do you know what I mean by spiritual junk? Spiritual junk is… that thing that we just can’t forgive that someone did, or that thing we did to someone else for which we can’t forgive ourselves. It’s all those regrets we carry around with us – those things we missed the chance to do right. Spiritual junk is all the guilt – for not being a better parent, or son or daughter, or spouse, or friend, for the ways we’ve let down people that we care about, guilt for not being the Christian we think we ought to be.

Really, a lot of the spiritual junk we have crammed into our hearts comes down to one thing: pride. Pride is what keeps us from forgiving people – because we think as long as we can hold something over someone, we maintain some control over the situation, and keep ourselves safe from future pain. Pride is what makes us think that our actions or inactions are more powerful than God’s own mercy and grace. Pride is believing that God wouldn’t be able to take these broken vessels that we are, and use us to do extraordinary things in the world. Pride keeps us focused on ourselves – whether our best traits and moments, or our worst – and keeps us from turning our eyes toward God and toward the world to see God’s own marvelous hand at work.

What would it be like to de-clutter our hearts of all this spiritual junk? To kick pride to the curb?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Having thought about how hard it can be to empty ourselves – of both our physical and spiritual junk! – makes this statement all the more remarkable. Jesus had every reason to “grasp,” to hold tightly to all that he had. A seat at the right hand of God, a heavenly existence, pure bliss… yet he gave it all up, and for what? Us bunch of sinners?

Yes, us bunch of sinners! Even though we did nothing to deserve God’s self-giving love! This, God shows us, is what obedience, and humility, and above all, what love look like. This is what it looks like to live a Christian life: it looks like letting go of our judgments of others, our resentments, our regrets and guilt, all those things that would keep us from living a full and generous life. A Christian life looks like letting go of our assumptions about who deserves our help, love and generosity, and simply giving it, because that is what God commands of us. Being of the same mind as Christ Jesus means that we also practice self-emptying, doing our best to rid ourselves of all the pride that keeps us from kicking our junk to the curb. Once we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, there will be even more room then for us to receive Christ’s joy, to be filled up with that instead of with our pride.

But there’s another important part of the Christian life. Thanks be to God, that living a Christian life also means knowing and trusting that when we fail to do this – because try as we might, we will sometimes fail – God’s grace and mercy are bigger than our failures. It is absolutely worth the effort to clean out the closets (in our house and in our hearts!), but the reason we can even attempt this work with confidence is because we know that God is with us each step of the way, holding us up, empowering us, and forgiving us when we just can’t let go of some things quite yet.

God is at work in us, brothers and sisters, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Let us lay aside the junk that keeps us from living the fullness of a life in Christ, so that we might serve our neighbors without judgment, forgive without resentment, give without regret, and love without guilt. And let us be confident that in doing this, we are indeed confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Let us pray… Self-emptying God, we hold onto so much junk that doesn’t at all serve us, or our neighbor, or you. Help us to let go of it, to empty our hearts of all that would keep us from you, so that there would be room instead to receive your grace and your joy. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Broken for you (May 6, 2018)

Easter 6 (NL4)
May 6, 2018
Philippians 1:1-18a

INTRODUCTION

This week we move from Acts, which is more of a story, telling about Paul’s travels, to Philippians, which is a letter Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Philippi. Such letters are what make up much of the New Testament – letters written, mostly by Paul, to Christian communities he encounters on his travels. To us, 2000 years later, they help us to understand more about the nature of God, how God’s work applies to our lives, how Christ’s ministry and essence formed the early church, and how the Spirit continues to work among us.

These writings, letters, are some of the most loved, known, and quotable bits of Scripture, but they can also be challenging to understand. They are more theological, reflective, and often more heady. Paul’s letters, especially, were carefully crafted, and meant to be read aloud by a trained orator – if not carefully read, they can be very difficult to follow!

They’re also challenging because the text alone does not always provide the backstory. If you read one email or letter between two people, but didn’t know their relationship, their history, the context, or the event they are discussing, you’d get something out of the letter, but not a lot – yet that is what we are trying to do with Paul’s letters. So it’s helpful, in trying to understand the text, to know some of that backstory.

So let me start by telling you a bit about the Philippian context generally, since we will spend the next three weeks in the letter to the Philippians. The city of Philippi was the first center of Christianity in Europe, located on a major trade route that led to Rome. Paul was masterful at planting the gospel in strategic locations like this. Philippi was designated as a Roman colony, so its citizens had the same status and rights as those living in Rome.

As for Paul’s relationship with the church in Philippi – it was good. He loved the Philippian church very much, and they cared for him. Paul, as we will find out, is writing this letter from prison, where he’d ended up again for preaching the Way of Jesus Christ. This message got him thrown in jail because it was a threat to the Roman Empire, since he was preaching Jesus as king, not Caesar. It was politically subversive. First century prisons were not like prisons today, where everyone’s needs are cared for from within the prison. Prisoners depended upon outside help for food and water and anything they would need. So one member of the Philippian congregation, Epaphroditus, was sent from Philippi to support Paul, bring him supplies. But he gets deathly ill along the way! The congregation back home heard about the illness, and that he had been unable to deliver the supplies, and they were quite distressed, not only for their buddy, but also because they loved Paul and feared for him. But in fact, Epaphroditus did make it to Paul, illness and all – true service in weakness! So Paul sent this letter back with him, not only assuring the congregation that he was just fine, even better than fine, and that God was using his circumstances for good, but also commending them for their great faith and their partnership in the gospel and in his mission to spread it. Ok, that’s the set up. Let’s hear the letter.

[READ]

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

I have to say, some of the most beautiful writings have come out of prison. Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail comes to mind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison is one of the works that made me fall in love with theology in college, and in love with him in particular. Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison helped to build a new South Africa. And of course, we have this letter Paul wrote to the Philippians – as well as several others letters he wrote from jail that are included in the Bible.

What is it about being imprisoned that produces such moving, marvelous and redemptive writings?

I’d venture to guess, it has to do with the inherent vulnerability of being in such a place as prison, where you are forced every day to face the brokenness of humanity. That is, prison is a place where one is hungry for some hope. I read a quote this week that speaks to this. It is from Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works to provide legal assistance to condemned prisoners. This is from his best-selling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. He writes, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too. [My work with prisoners] exposed my own brokenness… We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

What an astute and powerful reminder! One we could all benefit from. What could be more humbling than being in prison, to be daily confronted with your own brokenness? Though, I really admire Stevenson’s ability to recognize this – many of us might be tempted to look upon prisoners and be moved to self-righteousness, to think, “Well at least I’m not as bad as that guy. I’ve never done anything so bad as to land me here!” But Stevenson instead sees his experience as a mirror, an opportunity to see not how we are different or better or worse than one another, but rather, how we are the same. And seeing our common humanity – that is the first step toward powerful connection, even toward partnership.

I heard a guy on the NPR show “Here and Now” this week, talking about the advice he hears in graduation speeches that he doesn’t like. One piece of advice he dislikes is, “Always search for the good in people.” His argument is that people show you who they are pretty quickly, and if you don’t see good in them in the first few moments, then don’t waste your time looking for it. I don’t much like his argument, but it did make me wonder if searching for the good is really the best way to connect with people. To search for the good is to ask, “Are you good enough for me to spend my time with?” What if instead, we looked for the pain in people? Where are they hurting? Where do they need love and care? And then the key question: where have I felt a similar pain? Because when we see pain in someone, and can relate it to our own experience, that is when we are compelled to reach out compassionately and make a connection, to step into our common humanity together, to see one another as fellow members of a broken humanity – not as better or worse than one another. That is when we are on the same plane. That is where we can truly and mutually love one another – and not just for what the other person to offer us, or how good they are, or how good we are.

In his book, Stevenson reflects further. He mentions a Thomas Merton quote: “We are bodies of broken bones.” Then he goes on: “I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we are shattered by things we never would have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. … But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”

I wonder if that is what Paul is getting at when he talks about partnership in the Gospel in his letter to the Philippian church? I wonder if that is the “overflowing love” he talks about – not the love that comes from seeing that someone is good like you, but the love that comes from seeing someone is broken like you. After all, our brokenness is all that truly unites all of humanity, regardless of our background or history. That brokenness is the reason God became one of us, to fully experience what it is like to be so broken, so that God could then be in the deepest and most vulnerable sort of relationship with us. It is because of that brokenness that Jesus died and rose again, to show us that death and despair don’t have the final word. It is to that brokenness that the gospel brings hope.

Love that comes out of the assurance of that mutual relationship is indeed overflowing. It is the love characterized by the Philippian church when they cared for Paul in prison, by Epaphroditus when he powered through illness to bring supplies to Paul, by Paul when he risked his life to plant churches and spread the gospel. And it is the love we live out whenever we seek to truly see people’s pain, connect with them, and reach out with compassion. May we always see one another as fellow members of a broken humanity, all of us in constant need of the love, grace and hope our God offers.

For my closing prayer, I will use Paul’s own prayer for the Philippian church, which worked so hard to live out a gospel of overflowing love. I believe you also work hard to live out that gospel, and so let’s let Paul’s prayer be also for us. Let us pray… Lord God, this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help us determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Holy annoyance (April 22, 2018)

Easter 4 (NL4)
April 22, 2018
Acts 16:16-34

INTRODUCTION

A lot has happened since the story we heard last week, about Paul’s conversion. It’s been several years, and Paul is getting his bearings as an apostle and church planter. He has been affirmed by the Council at Jerusalem, as a legit apostle of Jesus Christ, and a witness, especially to the Gentiles. So now he’s off doing his thing. He had been traveling with Peter and Barnabas, but at some point along the way, they got in a fight and decided it would be best to go their separate ways (see, even apostles sometimes don’t get along!). The rest of Acts follows the path of Paul and Silas.

They had planned to go a couple places on their travels, but the Holy Spirit had advised them not to do that. So now, Paul and Silas find themselves without anywhere to go, and so they wander around until they get a vision about a man from Macedonia… so they take this as a message and head there, and find themselves in Philippi, which is where our story is set. And as they are wandering around, they are followed by this girl shouting fortunes at them. And that’s what kicks off our story. It’s a story with dramatic turns – a possessed girl, an angry mob, two men unjustly imprisoned, a dramatic breakout opportunity, and a whole family conversion. Let’s hear it.

[READ]

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

“And Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to her, ‘I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”

It might be the only exorcism that came not out of a desire to heal someone in need, but out of sheer annoyance.

There is so much to love about this text, so many preaching possibilities. And yet every time I sat down with this text this week, I couldn’t get past this opening scene with the slave girl who has a spirit of divination, and the “very much annoyed” apostle, Paul.

When I can’t shake something like that in a biblical text, it usually means the Spirit is trying to tell me something, so I leaned into it, into this slave girl and Paul’s response to her, and this question arose: is there such a thing as “holy annoyance”? What might holy annoyance look like, and where might it lead us?

Maybe we start by describing annoyance in general. Is it something you’re familiar with? Yeah? How many of you have been annoyed? Who is annoyed by bad drivers? Who is annoyed by people not pulling their weight? Who here is annoyed by dishes or laundry being left around the house? Tell me – what are some other things that annoy you? [wait for answers]

There’s a real variety! And those things, those little annoyances – they eat away at us, right? They fester, they tear us (and possibly others) down, they frustrate us and maybe even paralyze us, keep us from wanting to do the good work we were made to do, at least do to it joyfully. Annoyances can really bog you down!

A friend of mine just wrote a piece about what she called “Two marriage hacks” – two tricks to have a happy and successful marriage. The first was to keep a running list of all the reasons you married that person in the first place, and all the moments that affirm that decision – and refer to it often. That one is fun, or can be. The second is much harder. It is to let go of the story you’re telling yourself. So when you come home from work and your spouse has once again left all their dirty dishes for you to wash, or won’t stop jabbering on about all the details about something you really don’t care about, or whatever your annoyance de jour is, you start telling yourself, “He doesn’t care about me. She doesn’t value my time as much as her own. He doesn’t keep my needs in mind. She is selfish” …That’s the story you need to let go of. And this goes beyond marriage, of course; it applies to any significant relationship. Those stories we tell ourselves about why people do annoying things are serving no one. They only tear away at your heart, at your relationship with that person, and maybe even your relationship with God.

That’s what annoyance can do. It can cause resentment, self-pity, self-righteousness, judgment. Annoyance can be mundane, or it can be very destructive, to our interactions with strangers as well as in our most important relationships.

So, if that’s annoyance… what on earth is “holy annoyance”?

Holy annoyance is the sort of annoyance that can serve as a catalyst for transformation. It snaps you out of whatever was keeping you focused on yourself, and moves you toward God’s will, toward life. It moves you out of your self-pity party, and ultimately leads to a conversion experience.

Just look at today’s story. Paul and Silas have been wandering around Philippi. The text tells us that this girl with the spirit of divination has been following them for many days – many days! – before Paul finally casts out that spirit. Can you think of any other story in which Jesus or an apostle goes days before attending to the needs of the people they encounter? I can’t! So Paul clearly had something else on his mind that he let this go so long. His attention was elsewhere, not where it needed to be. And it was that annoyance that finally snapped his attention back to the mission had been sent to do.

A colleague was just telling me his call to ministry was that way. His mind was elsewhere for many years, while God pestered him about his call to ministry. He kept shaking it off, doing his own thing, until finally he said, “Okay, fine! You win! I’ll go to seminary!” Had he not been so annoyed, he would have kept his eyes on his own will instead of God’s, and perhaps never answered that call. Holy annoyance.

Now we don’t all receive a call to ordained ministry. But for all of us, annoyance, whether mundane or severe, always has the power either to keep us distracted, or to set us on a godly course, if we’ll let it. Whether it sets you down the path of distraction, or the path of God’s will, is a matter of how you view it.

We’re pretty good at letting it nip at us and be destructive. To be continually distracted by it, you can keep telling yourself that same story of self-pity, self-righteousness, and judgment. (“Hang up and drive!” “Wash your dishes, would you??” “Stop tapping your fingernails like that, it’s driving me nuts!!”) But what is necessary for mere annoyance to become holy annoyance?

In my life, I have found that when I’m annoyed by something, or angered, or frustrated, it ultimately has very little to do with the thing annoying me, and more to do with the way that thing rubs up against something going on with me. Whatever is the irritant triggers something in my heart, or my past, or my belief system, and I react – I get annoyed. So there is the key by which to turn destructive annoyance into holy annoyance: figure out what is going on in you that’s causing your reaction, what value is being threatened, what belief is being challenged, what negative memory is being brought up. Dwell there for a little while, considering how that irritation might be pointing you toward a change, a conversion, in your heart.

And, like Paul, call upon the name of Jesus Christ to drive out the annoyance, and turn it into new life. I don’t mean, pray that the annoying thing would go away. I mean, ask Jesus to show to you how this revelation can be used to point you toward God’s work.

And then, trust God, even if you don’t see results right away. This event with the girl and the spirit really isn’t the point of this story. The real meat of the story is later – Paul and Silas get arrested for “disturbing the peace,” they are flogged and beaten, and they are imprisoned. This is not going well for them! But there they encounter other prisoners and bring the hope of Christ to them through song. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. That holy annoyance had sent them to prison to witness to those prisoners!

But wait, there’s more! An earthquake releases the captives, but devastates the jailer, who is about to kill himself for the shame of his failure. This prompts Paul to reach out to him, saying, “No, don’t do it! We are still here!” And through this encounter, the jailer comes to faith in Christ. He reaches out in love to these criminals, washes their wounds, feeds them a meal, and he and his whole family are baptized.

You see what happened? God needed Paul and Silas to be in jail at that particular time, so that they could witness to the jailer, so that they could be loved and cared for by their enemy, so that a whole family could come to faith through their witness. There is conversion in this story – of the jailer, his family, and I’d argue also for Paul and Silas – and that conversion started with an annoyance. A holy annoyance.

Who could have known that the annoying slave girl with the spirit of divination was exactly the tool God was using to bring the jailor to Christ?

I have been wondering all week whatever happened to that girl who had the spirit. What was her life like after Paul, in a fit of annoyance, cast out the spirit? We will never know, of course. And those who observed this might never have known the path that this event set these men upon, the way that the girl’s exorcism led to new life for a Roman jailor and his family, the way it brought hope to some prisoners, and the way it deepened the faith of a couple of apostles. We often don’t see the whole story of how God works.

And, sometimes we don’t see how an annoyance, if we take it seriously, and discern how that annoyance might be moving our hearts, ends up guiding us or placing us exactly where we need to be. Annoyance can certainly be a holy experience. Indeed, when we call upon the name of Jesus, it can bring about a conversion that leads to new life – for us and for the world.

Let us pray… Annoying God, you are always nagging us, urging us, prodding us to examine our hearts, and showing us how we might turn them toward you. Help us to see all those things that annoy us as entry points to discern your will for our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sermon: When faith is like a moonwalking bear (April 15, 2018)

Easter 3 (NL4)
April 15, 2018
Acts 9:1-19a
Luke 24:13-35

INTRODUCTION

For the past four months, we have been reading John – today we jump over to the Gospel of Luke. The writer known as Luke also wrote the book of Acts, so sometimes they are together considered a two-volume book, with Luke focusing on the life of Jesus and Acts focusing on the Early Church and the work of the Apostle Paul to spread the Good News of Jesus to the world. Just as John’s Gospel has some distinct themes, so does Luke’s. I won’t get into all of them now, but two that we will see today are the power and importance of sharing a meal, and the action of the Holy Spirit, which empowers people for ministries they never thought possible.

We’re going to hear two stories today, one from Luke and one from Acts, and we’ll hear them in reverse chronological order, but I want to introduce them to you in the order they happened. So first, Luke: we go back to the evening of Easter. The women have announced what they learned at the tomb, but the disciples didn’t believe them. So now these guys are on their way to a town called Emmaus, still not really sure what just happened, and they are grieving and heartbroken. They are so heartbroken, in fact, that they don’t even notice Jesus walking right along with them! But notice what moment it is that they DO recognize him, and what implications that has for our own worship and life of faith.

The other story, the one we’ll hear first, happens a year or two later. Christianity is spreading, and comes to be known as “The Way.” The early Christians were a people who were filled with the Holy Spirit, cared for one another, were peaceful and law-abiding people, and spoke boldly about their faith – but they were harshly persecuted for their beliefs. A man named Saul, later known as Paul, was among the most famous persecutors of Christians. Yet it is this harsh critic of Christianity that Jesus calls to spread his name and gospel to all the nations. A good portion of the New Testament was written by this man, Paul, who once was the most unlikely to serve in Jesus’ name. Let’s hear the stories.

[READ]

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

I saw a cute video a while back called “This is an Awareness Test.” [Watch it here before you read on!]

It starts off with two groups of four basketball players, one team in white, the other in black. The narrator says, “How many passes does the team in white make?” The eight players jump and swerve in and out amongst each other, passing the ball, and I carefully counted, thinking, “I’ve totally got this.” It stopped, and the narrator said, “The correct answer is 13.” Yes! Got it! I patted myself on the back. But he goes on, “But did you see the moonwalking bear?” Huh? The video rewinds and replays, and sure enough, now that I was watching for the bear, I saw him, moonwalking right through the middle of this game! How had I missed it?? It was so obvious now!

The answer is: I missed it because I wasn’t looking for him. I was too focused on counting passes. And why would I look for a moonwalking bear anyway? Who would expect that?

Both stories that we heard a moment ago are stories about blindness, about not seeing things that you simply aren’t expecting to see. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, and Saul of Tarsus, and even Ananias – none of them can see right away how God is working right before their very eyes, because their vision is blocked by their expectations, rather than being open to God’s surprising work.

First, let’s look at Saul (later, Paul). It is easy to see him as a pretty bad guy at the beginning of this text. Earlier in Acts, he was a part of the killing of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But even if you didn’t know that, the first line, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against disciples of the Lord,” makes him sound so sinister, and gives you the sense that this is not a guy you want to cross.

Yet I want to be clear that Saul was actually a very devout Jew, from a fine family, with an excellent liberal arts education. He really felt he was doing the right thing, putting a stop to this Christian movement. He saw these Christians as going against the faith he knew and loved. Was killing Christians the best way to respond to this? Well, no, I don’t think so! But that’s what he thought was right.

And yet God uses this broken vessel as one of the most important instruments to spread the good news. Saul had seen his role as one thing, and God saw his role as something else entirely – in fact, as the exact opposite of what he was doing! When Ananias comes and prays over Saul, Luke tells us that “something like scales fell from his eyes.” He says his sight is restored – but really, it is more than restored, isn’t it? His sight is something new, for it is at this point that he is baptized and commissioned for this new task that Christ has set before him. His expectations give way for God’s expectations.

Isn’t that a wonderful image – “something like scales fell from his eyes”? Like, all the hatred and murderous threats that had blocked his vision and kept him from seeing the God of love manifest in Jesus Christ – it all just fell away. Suddenly he could see the moonwalking bear who was in front of him all along.

I’ve been thinking about that scales image this week – about the various times in my life when whatever was blocking my vision fell away, and I was able to see. Perhaps my assumptions fell away, or my self-doubt, or my preconceived notions or previously held beliefs… and when those scales fell away, I was able to see God’s love shining through, and showing me the path God had set before me.

Not to say it was always a path I wanted to walk down. In that way, I resonate with Ananias! Poor Ananias – what a job to be given! “Hey, Ananias, I need you to go talk to this guy who is a known murderer, this guy who is persecuting people like you. Oh, you’ve heard of him? Great, yes, that’s the guy. I need you to go to him. Tell him I sent you, and pray with him. Thanks!” Ananias is understandably hesitant! “Uh, you sure, God? That guy?”

I’ve been there! “You sure this is what you want me to do, God? Are you sure this is the right place? The right time? The right people? Really?” Oh yes, I’m sometimes full of suspicion about God’s plans for me, and I’ve got a host of excuses lined up! Especially when I’m pretty sure I know more about the situation and the people involved than God does.

A friend told me a story this week about a mission trip her church went on to build a house in Appalachia. There were some guys helping at the site who were volunteering in order to get out of their prison sentence. One guy in particular was extremely disrespectful to my friend. She had a horrible experience. The next year, she voted that they should not return there – those guys were awful, she said. But everyone else wanted to return, and so she went with them. When they arrived, that same, disrespectful man came out to greet her… with tears in his eyes. He went right up to her and said, “I didn’t think you’d ever come back.” People can surprise us, you see! You never know when a moonwalking bear might make its way into your assumptions! Even when we think we’ve got people all figured out, never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to change someone and use them for God’s work – or to change you! Never doubt that God might show up, even where you didn’t expect it.

That’s what happened with those guys on the road to Emmaus, too, right? They are heartbroken, grieving, confused – they’re so wrapped up in their own stuff that they don’t even see that it is Jesus walking right there along with them. It’s a recurring theme in these texts – our expectations or preoccupations block us from seeing how God comes to us, even when we least expect it. As the disciples walk with this “stranger” to Emmaus, he interprets the scriptures to them, and yet they still don’t know that it is their teacher and friend.

But one thing does finally opened their eyes and help them see the moonwalking bear – what is it? What makes them recognize Jesus? … It was in the breaking of bread. It was sharing the fellowship of a meal together. It was seeing Jesus once again give himself for them.

Yesterday I had the joy of spending the afternoon with some of our young people, learning about communion. Today they will receive communion for the first time, partake of this special meal that recalls Christ’s sacrifice for us, be a part of this place where Christ is made profoundly known to us. As a part of our class yesterday we looked at this story, the story of two disciples who were joined by Jesus as they walked to Emmaus, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread. We talked about how even though when we come up here to communion, we don’t actually see the man Jesus, we still know that he is here, that he is with us. He is in, with and under this bread and cup. We know because he told us so! We know because we see his face in the people of this congregation. We know because we have heard his promises in scripture. Even when we are blinded by our expectations, our assumptions, and our preconceived notions, we know that Jesus comes to us, walks with us, lives with us, and moves in us, and that, when we open our hearts to receive him, we will come to see him more clearly in the world.

At the end of our class yesterday, I asked the parents to share with the kids if they pray during communion, and what they pray for. Today, I will tell you my prayer, and I hope you will join me in it: I will pray that, by this bread and cup, God would make the scales fall from my eyes, and that Christ would be made known to me, both here at the table, and as I leave this place and go out into the world. I will pray that my eyes would be opened to see Christ even when I didn’t expect to. In fact, let’s pray that prayer right now…

Ever-present God, open our eyes. Let the scales of our assumptions and expectations fall from our eyes, so that we might see your marvelous work before us. Help us to notice you at work, not only at your gracious meal, but also where we least expect to find you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Sent out to seek peace (April 8, 2018)

Easter 2 (NL4)
April 8, 2018
John 20:19-31

INTRODUCTION:

We last left off on Easter morning: a weeping Mary Magdalene had just encountered Jesus in the garden tomb. Jesus told her to go tell the disciples that he was ascending to his Father and our Father, to his God and our God. Mary does so, telling them, “I have seen the Lord!” Mary becomes the first apostle – the first one sent to tell the Good News of the living God.

John doesn’t tell us how the disciples react to the news in the moment, but whatever the case, now they are scared. The disciples have gathered in a locked room, afraid. Did they not believe Mary? Or are they scared because they did believe her?

Whatever the case, we will see that Jesus comes to them with some pretty important statements. Our reading today is actually two different resurrection appearances, both to the disciples, but one without Thomas there and one with. The first is known as John’s version of Pentecost, the day the Spirit infuses the Christian community, because Jesus will breathe his Holy Spirit into them. The second features the guy who has come to be known as “doubting Thomas.”

Let’s see what happens. Please rise for the Gospel!

[READ]

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

This past week, several of my colleagues, including our synod and presiding bishops, John and Elizabeth, attended a rally in Washington DC called, “ACT Now to End Racism.” It was held in honor of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, April 4th. Speakers at the event recognized the continuing reality of racism in our country, though it looks different now than it did in the 60s. They addressed how racism is tied up with other issues such as poverty, mass incarceration, gun violence, etc.,and what needs to be done to continue King’s legacy of working toward peace and justice for all.

Thinking of another giant in faith from a quarter century before that, today, April 8th, marks the 73rd anniversary of the last worship service Dietrich Bonhoeffer led while in prison, before being executed on April 9th. Bonhoeffer was a pastor, ethicist and theologian during World War II, and was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Though the attempt was unsuccessful, he was arrested for his part in this. The life and work of this German Christian activist is often compared to that of Martin Luther King’s: both were compelled by their faith in God to resist a racist regime, both found their gospel commitments led them to work outside of the conventional church, and both ultimately gave their lives for their respective resistance movements.

These two anniversaries have made me hear some of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading a bit differently than I have before. First, his initial greeting. Three times in this reading, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” I have usually heard this as a word of comfort to the fearful disciples. But thinking this week about the work of King and Bonhoeffer, I’ve thought about those words differently, because while the end goal of peace might in fact be something resembling calm and reassurance, getting there can be anything but calm. Just ask King and Bonhoeffer, who were both martyred at age 39 because of their working for peace! Ask those trying to raise their voices and make people aware of their various plights, whether that is as a victim of a racist system, or one that keeps people living in poverty, or someone speaking up about being harassed or abused or bullied, only to be told they are imagining it or lying. Ask anyone who spends every day working toward a more fair and just system how peaceful that work is (or isn’t!) while you’re doing it!

The irony of this exchange is that I suspect peace is exactly what the disciples were trying to find by locking themselves behind that door in the first place. We do that, don’t we – lock ourselves away from reality in an effort to get away from it all? If there is something out there that we don’t want to deal with, that we want to get away from, we just lock ourselves away behind the door where no one can reach us, and where we can pretend that everything out there is not really happening. Maybe it is an actual locked room that we turn to, or maybe to some other coping mechanism like shopping or alcohol or our technology of choice. Maybe it is adamant denial that a reality could exist that doesn’t fit with how we perceive the world to be, or how we wish it was. However it looks, we try to find peace by locking ourselves away from a reality that does not bring us peace.

And so I wonder if, when Jesus offers those words, “Peace be with you,” he might be saying, “You’re not going to find true peace locked in here. True peace comes from faith in me.” And I also wonder if in those words might be a charge to seek that peace themselves, to be agents of seeking peace for the world. Because look at the very next thing Jesus says: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus truly meant to offer calming words, that seems like a tough line to chase it with, no? “Hey guys, calm down, everything is going to be fine. Because I’m sending you out into the world that just had me killed. Good luck!” Yikes! That makes me feel the opposite of peaceful! But you see, the mission is not to feel peace now, but rather, to seek peace in the broken world – not the peace that comes from avoidance, but the peace that comes from confronting the brokenness of the world with the good news of the abundant life given to us by a God who so loves the world and loves each of us who are in it.

That brings to mind a question I’ve been thinking about lately. If you’re here today, I assume you are like me, in that you love to come to church on Sunday and hear about God’s love and be nourished and encouraged for the week. Yes? But when we leave here, do we leave that good news locked up safely where we can find it when we need it? Or do we take that news and put it up against the broken realities of the world and ask, “What does the Good New of Jesus Christ have to say to this?” In other words, what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say to the economic, political and civic realities that occupy people’s minds most of their waking hours, to those struggles that we and other real people face every day?

What does the Gospel say to a woman being abused by her husband, but who feels she and her children are in even more danger if she leaves him?

What does the Gospel say to those protesting in Sacramento following Stephon Clark’s death?

What does the Gospel say to a young man who got caught up in a gang for his survival, and now wants out, but is being threatened if he leaves?

What does the Gospel say to people in Flint, MI who still don’t have clean water, or people in Puerto Rico who still don’t have electricity?

What does the Gospel say to young believers who identify as gay or transgender, who are considering suicide rather than coming out?

What does the Gospel say to undocumented families being torn apart? Or to refugees who flee for their lives, only to be sent back home?

What does the Gospel say to a planet whose temperatures and water levels are rising and whose oceans are full of plastic?

What doe the Gospel say to someone so deep in depression, they can conceive of no way out but to take their own life – and what does it say to that person’s loved ones?

Because if the Gospel doesn’t speak to those things, those life-or-death struggles millions of people face, then what really is the point of coming here week after week?

You see, that’s the mission Jesus is sending the disciples on. “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” he says, to speak this word of life into a hurting world. Not to keep it for yourself (though that, too), but to bring Christ’s life to those in need.

And that is not a charge that brings peace to the heart right away, because it is really hard. Martin Luther King lived every day in fear for his life, as he spoke the hope he found in the gospel to the oppressive reality of racism that plagued his community and the country he loved.

But it is a charge that ultimately brings peace to the world God loves. And that is the role Jesus is giving to these disciples, now apostles, being sent out: to speak a word of life, and work for peace in this broken world.

Finally, Jesus breathes into them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The word translated here as “retain” does not mean “withhold” forgiveness, but rather, like, “hold fast.” It’s like, holding to account. It is like Christ refusing to turn a blind eye to human suffering and wrong-doing, refusing to “just let it go,” and thus enable bad behavior. “Holding fast” to sin is Dietrich Bonhoeffer saying, “What Hitler is doing is wrong, and it needs to stop.” It is Martin Luther King proclaiming that God did not intend that human beings should be anything but free, that indeed all men and woman are created equal and must be treated as such.

In other words, “retaining” or “holding fast” to sin is not refusing to forgive it. It is refusing to tolerate sin that would keep the world from living in the peace Christ died to bring to this world. And so as a follow-up to, “Peace be with you,” Christ charges the disciples to hold to account and confront wrong-doing whenever they see it, to keep sin and abuse from having their way.

That’s a tall order, too, a very difficult call for Christ to extend to his followers. No wonder they were back in that same room the next week, with the doors still shut! In fact, I think many of Christ’s followers today are still in that same room with the door shut. Because being a disciple is hard, and it is even harder being an apostle, who goes out into the world and finds the places most in need of healing and speaks to those places a word of peace and life.

Of course, Jesus knows that. That’s why he also offers to his apostles that night – and to all believers since then – the gift of the Holy Spirit. Back before he died, he called this Spirit “another Advocate,” someone to go along with them and work with them and for them, helping them to do God’s work in the world. It’s that same Spirit that we celebrate coming on Pentecost at the end of the Easter season. It’s that same Spirit that we pray to come upon every child of God who is baptized (in fact, included in the baptismal promises are these words: “to work for justice and peace”). It’s that same Spirit that we pray to come into the bread and wine before we take communion. We are continually infused with this Spirit of peace, love and life, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy.

We are not alone in this call. God has given us all that we need to make those words, “Peace be with you,” truly come to be in this world. And even when we do lock ourselves away from the realities of the world that so desperately need a word of hope and life, Jesus comes to us – repeatedly! – to once again give us the strength to pursue his work. The question is, will we open the door, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and so many others, and go do it?

Let us pray… Risen Christ, you come into our locked rooms when we are scared and would rather avoid the pain of the world, and you breathe your Holy Spirit into us. Empower us by this Spirit, that we might bring your words, “Peace be with you,” into the parts of God’s beloved world that need to hear it the most. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Mary Magdalene’s Story (Easter, 2018)

Easter Sunday
April 1, 2018
John 20:1-18

INTRODUCTION:

If you are with us today for the first time, or the first in a while, I wanted to offer a little bit of catch-up to give today’s story some context. We have been working our way through the Gospel of John over the past three months. As we’ve done that, we have seen some recurring themes, and we will see some of those today. A big one is the way John uses light as a metaphor for Jesus’s presence and for understanding, and darkness for lack of understanding or lack of Jesus’ presence. Remember on Christmas, how we lit candles in a darkened sanctuary, and read, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”? That was the beginning of knowing Jesus as light shining into the darkness of the world. So today, notice that when Mary gets to the tomb, it is still dark, but presumably gets progressively lighter as the sun comes up and more and more of what happened becomes clear.

Another important theme is that throughout John, people don’t just talk about Jesus – they encounter him. They experience him, and are changed by that experience. There is a reason Mary Magdalene tells the disciples not that Jesus is risen, but rather, “I have seen the Lord!” She tells her story, testifies about her encounter with Jesus, instead of recounting some facts. John’s hope is that in reading his Gospel, you will not have “learned about” Jesus, but rather, that you, too, will have experienced an encounter with him.

Some things to watch for in this timeless story. Now please rise for the Gospel of our Lord!

[READ]

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

by He Qi

This morning, I invited a special guest to share her story. Please welcome, Mary Magdalene…

To here this performed, listen here: Easter Sunday Sermon 2018

You know, people are always talking about how emotional I am. “That Mary, she’s always weeping,” they say. Well… that weekend certainly gave me something to weep about. Seeing my friend, my teacher, my love, my lord… suffer and die like that… it was a grief unlike I had ever experienced. And yet somehow, this time, I didn’t cry. It was as if the grief was too deep to deal with. It was in a place I couldn’t reach.

Have you ever felt grief like that? Or maybe, grief that you just didn’t let yourself deal with, so you kept a stiff upper lip and went about your life, plastering a fake smile on your face and acting as if everything was just fine, when actually inside your heart is in a million pieces? You just power through, and hope no one notices that you are walking around in a dark cloud of grief?

That’s how I felt that morning as I walked to the tomb. It was still dark, and I liked that. The darkness was a silent companion to my grief. The darkness seemed to understand that I didn’t want to talk about it, that I couldn’t, and it simply gathered around me as I walked to the only place where I might feel whole again.

Then I saw it – the stone, rolled away. That dark, dense cloud of grief around me didn’t allow me to think too clearly, and I jumped to the only reasonable explanation: body snatchers. Someone had stolen the body.

Well, I already had my guard up. I still didn’t cry. If I could bear his death, I could bear this. So I ran to where I knew the disciples were, and told them what I found. I calmly said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb. I don’t know where he is.” They looked at me like I was playing some sort of cruel practical joke on them. When they saw that I was serious, they took off running.

As they started toward the tomb, that’s when I could feel my façade was beginning to crack. Reality was sinking in. The Lord was gone, missing. It was loss upon loss, grief upon grief. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep it together.

I followed them back to the tomb and watched as they went in, bit by bit, and saw what was inside – or rather, what wasn’t inside – before looking at each other and wordlessly leaving that place, in a mix of belief and baffled disbelief.

They went home. They left.

And that – that – is when I lost it.

Whoever knows why one thing or another will be the final straw, that one thing you can no longer bear. For me, it was those guys just leaving like that. No word to me, no attempt at explanation, no willingness even to stick around and just be together in this strange time. They just left. And I was so alone. I felt unknown, unseen, unloved. The loss of my friend, teacher, and Lord was enough. But this feeling was unbearable.

I wept.

I wept so hard, from the very depths of my soul, as I stood outside the tomb.

I wept for the suffering I had witnessed.

I wept for the questions left unanswered.

I wept for the injustice of it all, for the unfair trial, for the Jewish leaders’ insistence that an innocent man should die. It was so unfair!

I wept for the generations of Jewish people who had waited for a savior, for all those who had put their hope in Jesus, and now found themselves once again floating in an abyss of waiting and uncertainty.

I wept for myself, for the tough life I had led, for the ways Jesus had saved me, only then to leave me behind in this cruel, dark world.

I wept that even now, when I went to confront my grief, he wasn’t even there.

I wept because I was alone.

I wept.

It felt good, even healing. Those tears felt cleansing, as if all of my disappointments and fears and failures were contained in those drops of water that fell to the earth. With those tears, I suddenly felt the strength to enter the tomb. It felt like, like a need, to enter into that place of sadness and loss, to get close to it, get to the very core of it, to experience more concretely and deeply the emptiness Jesus had left behind.

Through my tear-soaked eyes, I saw two figures. They seemed almost angelic in nature, and as I remember it now, it doesn’t seem quite rational that they would be sitting there, but at the time their presence seemed expected enough. They said to me, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Why?… The question stung my heart, because I knew what had to come next: I would have to recount my pain, name it aloud. Until now I had only harbored it deep in my heart, where no one could touch it, but to name it would make that pain, the generations of pain I held – it would make it real.

The cleansing tears I had shed gave me the strength to speak it aloud: “They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

There. It was out there. My loss. My emptiness. My pain. It was all out there for these strange men to see and do with it whatever they wanted. And it felt oddly good just to have said it aloud. The empty tomb had, in fact, given me some strength.

Having gotten what I thought I needed, I turned to leave and there before my swollen eyes was the gardener. At least I thought it was the gardener – it was hard to see because it was still a bit dark, and my eyes still bleary with tears. He, too, asked me, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

I heard compassion in his voice. This tiller of new life, this man who makes life grow, this gardener, seemed truly to care for me. Having gained some strength from voicing my pain a moment ago, I now felt I was in a place to ask for help, and I believed this man could give it. “Sir,” I said, “if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

The next moment was… I, I think it was just a couple seconds, but it felt like those few seconds held all of eternity. The sun crested over the hill, surrounding the man’s head, giving the sense of a light-filled countenance around him. It made me squint, it was so bright!

And at that moment, just as the sun crested, the sweet voice of my Good Shepherd spoke my name: “Mary.”

It was the sound of angels singing, the sound of love and joy and all things good. With one word, the pieces of my heart came together, the breath of life entered my lungs, warmth infused my whole body, and suddenly I was aware of the lushness and new growth of the garden around me.

I was known. I was seen. And oh, I was loved, by my Lord and my God.

Everything was different. Everything was possible. Without even taking

time to think or consider, I uttered, “Rabbouni!” Teacher! He was my teacher, and I was, I am, and I always will be his disciple. This was my identity. In that moment, as the morning light grew more and more intense, I dedicated all that I am and all that I have to living into the love that was before me, in me, and around me.

Jesus gave me some instructions, and I listened intently, then I went to live his command. I found Peter and John and all the others and fairly exploded: “I have seen the Lord! I have seen him! I know that he is real, and he is alive, and he is love, oh he is love, and he is light. I believe it is true because I have seen it with my own eyes and being. I have seen the Lord!”

I know that there is work still to be done. There is a mission to carry out. He commanded us last week to wash one another’s feet, to love one another with the same selfless love that he showed us. And we will. And I shall be strengthened every step of the way by the knowledge that resurrection is possible – not only from the physical tomb as Jesus was that day, but also in our daily lives. We experience resurrection when hatred is met with love, when kindness responds to vitriol, when everyday people step up to defend the poor and vulnerable among. We experience resurrection every time even a little bit of light can overcome the darkness. Yes, resurrection is possible, and it happens when we make the effort truly to see one another, hear one another, and know one another, and when we ourselves are seen, heard, known and loved. It happens when we speak to one another in love, calling each other by name. Healing is possible. New life, new beginnings are possible. New perspective is possible. Resurrection is possible.

We witness these things all the time, all around us! And when we do, when we witness such a resurrection, we see the Lord himself – I saw him in that morning light, and I have seen him many times since. I hope you’ll join me in testifying to these encounters, saying, “I have seen the Lord!” Say it with me: I have seen the Lord! Again: I have seen the Lord! Thanks be to God! Amen!