Why Bad Things Happen to Good People (And How You Can Help)

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Lent 1, Year B.
Text: Gen 9.8-17; 1Pet 3.18-22; Mk 1.9-15

The night we returned from our vacation at Holden Village, I got online and began catching up with the news only to learn that while we were gone, there had been another school shooting, this time at the University of North Carolina. You know that feeling you get when you read a headline like that? It feels like a punch in the gut. It makes you question what is going on in the world. If God is as all-knowing and all-powerful as we believe, and if God really is loving, then why does God allow stuff like this to persist? Why doesn’t God step in to do something?

I’ve seen people lose their faith over this question, finally deciding that God either can’t exist or isn’t worth our time if God can’t intervene in the evil that threatens our world daily. Perhaps it is comforting to know that we are not the only people to wrestle with this question. Our ancestors in faith struggled with this same doubt: doesn’t God care enough about us to save us from this evil?

The story of Noah is a story about God doing just what we constantly wish God would do: step in and put an end to evil. However, the problem, we soon learn, is that evil lives in us. The only way for God to effectively wipe out the violence and cruelty in the world is to wipe out all the people; so that’s what God does. Even the most righteous person alive—Noah, a man with the patience of a saint and the disposition of an angel—is not perfect. Sin and evil survive even in him, and so God’s intervention fails.

That is why when we read this story from Genesis today, you will notice that God’s promise is one-directional: God makes no demands of us nor lays any responsibilities on humanity. God simply promises to never again destroy the world because it didn’t work, and it wasn’t worth the lives that were lost or the pain that God’s heart endured at the destruction of God’s creation.

That is also why we don’t see God stepping in to eradicate evil today: because of Noah’s story, we know both that the price is too high, and that it wouldn’t work anyway. God hasn’t given up, though. God promised Noah to never again destroy the world with a flood; but God has sent another flood to save us.

The flood I mean is the flood of baptism. The author of 1 Peter neatly draws the connection between our baptism and the flood of Noah. Baptism is God’s flood now, God’s attempt to rid the world of violence, cruelty, injustice and destruction. At our Ash Wednesday worship service, Pastor Stephanie explained how God’s grace is like a circle—it has no beginning and no end; you can’t “fall off” of it if you go too far to one side. The author of 1 Peter reminds us that God’s salvation is “once for all,” that like God’s promise to Noah, it is not dependent on anything we do or don’t do, on anything we believe or don’t believe. God doesn’t work that way: the flood has already come, and by God’s grace we have already been spared.

There are two ways to respond to the reprieve God has granted us. The first is to live however we please without regard for the consequences, knowing that God has promised not to stop us from destroying ourselves or others any way we choose. This is bad news for us, because it means that it is well within our power as humans to corrupt God’s creation worse than during the time of Noah.

However, we can also respond with gratitude, living our lives dedicated to the one who has saved us, the one who loves the world and the people around us more deeply than we ever could. This is the good news, because with God as our guide we have also been given the power to bring about the fullness of God’s reign on earth, and to really, actually eradicate the problem of evil in our world.

That is why God sent the Son to live among us. Evil will not be overcome with force or violence—we know that from the story of Noah—so Jesus came to show us the way to overcome evil with compassion, obedience, and love. Rather than destroying those who do evil, Jesus chose to be destroyed by evil, and in so doing, showed us that evil can never destroy the power of God’s grace. So it is the grace that saves us, not the violence; and it is that grace which we have been given in our baptism. Just as the flood of rain brought destruction to the world, the flood of baptism brings grace and life, and we are the agents of that grace; we are the raindrops of God’s new flood.

That is why we observe Lent. Lent is a time for us to examine ourselves, our actions, and our world, to intentionally look around at what God is doing and to see how God is inviting us to be a part of it. It is also a time to look around and see the ways we are not working for God’s reign, and to ask for God’s help to re-center our hearts and minds on God, rather than ourselves. In other words, to “repent.”

To borrow a phrase from our letter today, Lent is our time to “appeal to God for a good conscience,” to realize we are not perfect and are sometimes a part of the problem, and to ask God to continue transforming us into part of the solution by conforming our wills to God’s. God’s will is for the healing and restoration of the world, and that is the work which Christ began. Together as the Body of Christ, formed by baptism, that is the work we continue in his name.

We read today how even Jesus began his work with a period of fasting and preparation. So, we too take time to prepare ourselves for the work of our baptism—God’s saving work in the world. Some of the ways we prepare ourselves might be through fasting, prayer, self-examination, works of love, or sacrificial giving to causes for the healing of creation. These are disciplines of Lent which help us to remember to put the needs and benefits of the world ahead of our own individual desires.

We practice them together so that we can support one another as we do them. When I was growing up, I was taught that it was best to keep your Lenten devotion private: it’s between you and God. However, it can help for us to share them with each other so that we can support one another. We observe Lent together to remember that we are not alone; and one of the ways we get the most support and strength for our discipline is through gathering for worship and sharing the Holy Supper. Whatever you might do during Lent to prepare yourself for the work of your baptism, the point should be to shift the focus from ourselves and our needs and desires to God’s will, because if God’s will is done, then our needs will be met, too.

This is what we mean when as Lutheran Christians we talk about salvation. Contrary to the way some see it, salvation is not just about being granted a seat in heaven. Salvation is also being granted the assurance of God’s love and grace so that no matter what happens, we can live without fear, working ever and always for God’s kingdom on earth, and knowing that we are helping bring about God’s reign as the Body of Christ.

Salvation is knowing that nothing—not racism or classism, not riots or beheadings, not political wrangling or outright civil wars—can stop the flood of God’s grace from saving this world and everyone in it from the evil that holds us captive. Salvation is knowing that even when we fall short, when we lose focus, when we forget what it is we are called to do, God’s grace is at work in us, and slowly but surely, God is completing the work begun in the flood, the work continued at the cross, the work charged to us in our baptism. Salvation is knowing that though evil endures in the world, God’s love is stronger.

The Glory of God Revealed in an Empty Seat

February 15, 2015 1 comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Transfiguration, Year B.
Text: 2 Kgs 2:1-15; 2 Cor 4.3-6; Mk 9.2-10

We as the Church carry a lot of anxiety over empty seats. There are a lot more empty chairs in here today than there used to be. This is normal across the country, and that makes us very nervous. Those empty seats make us worry about how we are going to fill them. We worry about what programs or music we are offering to bring people in, about how we market ourselves, about how we compete with other weekend activities like sports and after school programs. All our worries about the survival of our congregation and our denomination really boil down to a question of identity and worth: we are worried that who we are is not important or appealing to the world around us, and that this means we are not being the Church well enough.

The Church struggles with our identity because we as people struggle with our identities. In a culture which values individuality and independence, people are cautious about which organizations and groups we choose to join. As we all seek to form our own identities, we don’t want to be connected with groups or organizations that don’t reflect who we believe ourselves to be.

The trouble is that while we as individuals seek to create our own identities and be masters of our own fate, we also live in a world that is saturated with marketing. Embedded in all this marketing are messages about the kind of values by which we should be measuring our worth. We are being told that being productive, trendy, powerful, and beautiful are the virtues to which we should aspire. Even as we are trying to define ourselves among or against everybody else in the world, our identities and our priorities are being shaped by the forces of economy and consumerism. In the end, no matter who we fancy ourselves to be, our real worth out in the world is being measured by how much we consume.

In a sense, the Church is also being caught up in this system of value based on consumption. We measure our worth based on attendance (how many people are consuming our product) and giving (how much we are able to spend). It is here, with all these things floating around in our heads, that our story meets us today.

In the ancient world, people’s identities were determined by the people they came from: you were known by your tribe and your family. Knowing that Joshua was the son of Nun and that Jesus was from Nazareth told people something about them. If you wanted to know who somebody was, you had to know who they came from.

Take Elisha. His mentor, Elijah, was a famous and powerful prophet, somebody who spoke for God. In preparation for the end of his ministry, God instructed Elijah to take Elisha as an apprentice. Now, people knew who Elijah was and what he could do, but who was Elisha?

As Elijah prepares to end his work, Elisha follows him over the River Jordan and asks to receive a double portion of his spirit as he is taken up into heaven. A “double portion” was what the firstborn son and heir received from his father as inheritance: a share of the property twice what any of his younger brothers received. As Elijah is taken up by the chariots, Elisha cries out and calls him “father” All this is to say that Elisha is, for all intents and purposes Elijah’s “son:” that he carries all of Elijah’s authority, and that he carries on Elijah’s work in his stead. Indeed, as Elisha crosses back over the river, he performs the same miracle Elijah had just done and parts the waters, and the company of prophets declares, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”

Likewise, in Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain, Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the great prophet appear beside him. By their presence, they endorse Jesus as a lawgiver and prophet in their tradition, and with their authority. This scene on the mountaintop is Mark’s way of establishing for us Jesus’ reputation; that he really is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and a prophet who speaks for God. This is, in a way, what separates Jesus from David Koresh or Jim Jones. Koresh and Jones made declarations about themselves which turned out to be false; but Jesus has Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures in Jewish history, to speak for him. If we trust them, we can trust Jesus.

Just as Moses and Elijah teach us about who Jesus is, through baptism, Jesus himself becomes our family, and informs our identity. When we are washed in the water and sealed by the Spirit, Jesus claims us as his own and joins us into his family, the Church. Just as Elisha got his authority as a prophet from Elijah, we get our authority and our identity as the Church from Christ.

Apart from being a neat story about Jesus and some proof of his authority, the lesson of the Transfiguration is a lesson to us about who we are as the Church. The life of Christ is the life of the Church; we see in him and in his experiences the key to interpreting our own lives together. Sometimes it feels like the odds are stacked against us. Sometimes it feels like the Church is headed for a slow and torturous death. Does that sound familiar? We feel ourselves dying, and so did Christ. We know that death is not the end for Jesus, and he promises that it will not be the end for us. Because we are baptized into his death, we also share his eternal life here and now.

Here’s what I mean by that. Look around you and find one of those empty seats that gives us so much anxiety. I want you to look at that empty seat and see it in the glory of God. See how that seat is not empty: sitting here among us are all the company of saints, all those who have ever gathered to worship and follow Christ. St. Peter is in that chair; so is St. Paul. Sitting with us here is St. Bernard of Clairveaux, St. Teresa of Avila; among us are St. Martin Luther and St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St. Marcus Borg. Sitting there is your brother in Minnesota, your sister in California. Sitting there next to you are your great-grandparents, long dead, and even your great-grandchildren, not yet born.

You may not be able to tell, but as we gather here we are Transfigured by God into the Body of Christ, and though it may appear that there are many empty seats, there is, in fact, standing room only, as the great cloud of witnesses stretches out the door and into the street. When we gather as the Church—for worship, for prayer, for service, for fellowship—we are Transfigured like Christ. On the mountain, Moses and Elijah came to stand with Jesus. When we gather, Jesus brings us all together across time and space to be one community of neighbors, one family of God sharing in his resurrection, one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We see this reality lived out in our liturgy, our hymnody, our prayers, even our scriptures. They are the product of a community spanning thousands of years and multiple continents. Millions upon millions of people have been and continue to be a part of what we do here every Sunday morning. We didn’t invent this community or its worship; it is bigger than us, it has its own integrity. It has grown and continues to grow organically through the work and reflection and prayer of generations upon generations of people who follow Christ. Nowhere is this gathering of saints more real and more present than when we share in the sacraments, when we are all washed in the same name with the same water, and when we all gather around one table, eating from one loaf and drinking from one cup.

What is truly amazing is that if time and space and even death present such paltry obstacles to a God who transcends them to bring us together like this, then imagine how insignificant the obstacles are that we create for ourselves—obstacles like personal grudges, political ideologies, or theological disagreements. What binds us together is so much stronger than all these things, because what binds us together is our identity as God’s people.

It is this community and this savior who give us that identity, who tell the world who we are and what we are worth—not the number of butts in our pews or bucks in our plates. When we gather here and across the world as the Church, God’s glory Transfigures us from a collection of individuals into a community of faith. That is our identity, and that is our value: we are the body of Christ. When the world looks at us, it sees him. We listen to him, we follow his voice and learn from his wisdom so that, like him, we too can reveal God to the world. We listen to and learn from Christ so that we can give everyone the message that their worth comes not from how much they can consume, but from God’s love revealed to us through Christ.

Repent! The End is Near!

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Epiphany 3, Year B.
Text: Jonah 3; 1 Cor 7.29-31; Mk 1.14-20


“Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” What goes through your heads when you hear Jonah’s message? Does the reaction of the Ninevites surprise you? It sure surprises me. When I hear Jonah’s message, this is what I think of:

I think of some guy with unkempt hair and a scraggly beard holding a sign like this on the street corner. I think of Harold Camping, who predicted the end of the world back in 2011. I hear Jonah’s message, and I think, “What a nutjob.” The trouble is that Jonah’s message sounds an awful lot like the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in Mark’s gospel.

The message that we hear today—the message of Jonah and Paul and Jesus—is that the “appointed time has grown short;” something is about to happen, and we’d best be ready for it. However, we have seen lots and lots of people bearing this message over the centuries—and we’ve seen them all be wrong. Our BS meter is finely tuned to this. We have no reason to suspect that tomorrow will not—for all intents and purposes—be just like today. So, how should we take Paul’s admonition that time is short? How should we react to Jesus when he says that the kingdom of God has come near?

Our three of our readings today have two things in common: repentance apocalypse. When we think about repentance, we usually think about Jonah’s kind of repentance: “turn or burn”. To us, repentance often means feeling sorry for what we’ve done wrong and trying to do better. Actually, that’s contrition, not repentance. Contrition can be a part of repentance, but not necessarily. True repentance has to do with apocalypse.

Here’s another word we may not correctly understand. Apocalypse is not about the end of the world (again, at least, not necessarily). Apocalypse simply means “revealing” something, shedding light on it. Apocalypse leads to “epiphany”—which is what makes this theme appropriate for today. Jonah’s message is about revealing God’s unhappiness with the evil of Nineveh. Paul and Jesus are concerned with the revealing of God’s kingdom—God’s reign on earth.

This revelation of God’s kingdom is one of the primary focuses of Mark’s gospel. Mark records this story for us because he and his community have had an epiphany: they see revealed in this story the way God is active in the world around them, and he wants us to see it, too; and to see this truth is an invitation to repent. And so, Jesus begins his work on earth with these words: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!”

Take the disciples as an example. Sometimes when we read these stories during the course of the year, we may want to look at them as though we don’t know what’s coming up. We see Jesus walking along the lakeshore and seeing these four men and calling them, and we see them drop everything and follow. Looking at the story in this way, we might think, “What faith they have to follow him without even knowing him!”

The thing is, though, we do know the end of the story. We know that the same disciples Jesus is calling today will desert him tomorrow. They seem so faithful and steadfast now, but soon they will show themselves to be full of doubt and ignorance. When Jesus predicts his Passion, James and John ask for extra authority; and at Jesus’ trial, Simon denies three times that he even knows Jesus just to save his own skin. We know that when they drop everything on the lakeshore to follow Jesus, they are following him to the cross.

With this knowledge of what lies ahead, instead of being amazed by the disciples’ faith, we might instead be amazed that Jesus could get these fishermen to follow him all the way to Calvary. We might wonder why they followed him, given where he was going. We might even try to tell them not to go, kind of like somebody shouting to characters in a movie not to go out into the dark alone.

Think of the last time you were about to read a book or watch a movie, and somebody told you how it ended. With the ending spoiled, you experience that story in a different way. That’s what repentance is: leading a spoiled life. Repentance is knowing the end of the story and letting that knowledge affect how we live our lives. That’s what Jesus’ message means: the kingdom of God has come near: it has arrived, and it’s spreading. Knowing that, act like it!

That’s what Paul is getting at. This section of 1 Corinthians is all about whether or not people should get married or be circumcised or eat food sacrificed to idols… to us, it’s very weird and archaic. Paul’s point, though, is simply this: God’s kingdom is coming, so don’t get distracted by anything: not sex, not food, not even religion. Paul is reminding them that they know what’s coming and encouraging them to live like it—to lead spoiled lives.

When we focus on the big picture instead of just the day-to-day stuff, we make different choices. When we live with the outcome in mind, something changes in us. That’s what repentance is. It literally means to be reoriented, to have one’s internal compass realigned. Jesus and Paul aren’t telling us to feel bad for whatever we’ve done and try to do better, they are telling us to live with an eye to what is ahead.

Which brings us back to Jonah.* We hear today about the repentance of the Ninevites, but the real story about the repentance of Jonah. The central theme is that God’s will is done regardless, and the conflict arises when Jonah tries to avoid, thwart, or disobey that will. In the end, Jonah ends up unhappy and alone because he does not want what God wants. But, in spite of his best efforts, Jonah is still used by God to do God’s will and he suffers in the process, mostly from his own anger and hatred. The story leaves us, the readers, saying to Jonah, “You knew all along how the story would end; if you had only participated in God’s will instead of fighting it, you would have had a happy ending, too.” Jonah refused to repent; and we are left to realize that we don’t have to make the same mistake.

That’s what Mark’s gospel is about: Jesus is revealing to us how the story is going to play out, what God’s kingdom looks like. Just like the story of Jonah, we are being invited to participate in that story, rather than resisting it. We are being invited to repent. Paul would say, we are being invited to live as though we have no distractions or dealings with the world and to prepare ourselves for the fullness of God’s kingdom by practicing it now.

This is the invitation of the gospel: 


 If we know that God’s kingdom is peaceful, then live peaceably; if we know it is just, then live justly; if we know it is merciful, then live mercifully. If we prepare ourselves now, then when we find ourselves in its midst, we will be able to enjoy it, rather than ending up like Jonah: angry and alone.

So when we hear Jesus call Simon and Andrew and James and John on the shores of the sea, here is what we should understand: The kingdom of God has already come near—there’s no turning back, no reversing course. It’s coming one way or another. The question for us is this: will we live a spoiled life and follow Jesus to the cross, knowing full well what death and resurrection awaits? Will we live lives of justice, mercy, kindness and love in preparation for God’s coming kingdom even when it means doing something we don’t want to do, even if it causes us some suffering? Or will we instead continue to live our own way, waiting for the kingdom to swallow us up as well and spit us out on the same shore where we would have ended up anyway? 



*If you are not familiar with the story of Jonah, here it is in a nutshell. Nineveh is a terrible place, and God is going to destroy it. God sends Jonah to tell them this, but Jonah wants God to destroy Nineveh, so he tries to avoid telling them. This doesn’t work out, and after attempting to flee from the job God gave him, he ends up inside a fish, who spits him out on the shore right next to Nineveh. Jonah realizes that resistance is futile, and delivers God’s message, and the Ninevites repent and are saved. Jonah reveals that he knew all along that if he delivered the message, the Ninevites would repent and God would show mercy, because Jonah knows that God is merciful. Jonah, however, is not merciful, and is now very angry with God because Nineveh is not going to be destroyed. The end.


The Beginning of the Good News

January 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Baptism of our Lord, Year B.
Text: Gen 1.1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mk 1.4-13

Right from the outset, Mark’s gospel is setting us up to be surprised. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” it announces. Whether we are 1st century Palestinians or 21st century Washingtonians, these words conjure up for us certain expectations, all of which are tipped on their heads when we meet Jesus.

As people flock from all over Judea and Jerusalem to see John the Baptizer, he tells them of one more powerful than he who is coming. This one, he says, will be so far beyond him that he would not even make a worthy slave for the one who will come—unworthy even to untie his shoes. While John baptizes with plain, old water, this one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And that’s when we meet Jesus.

In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth is so small and obscure that nobody from Judea would have known it existed, and even Galileans who had heard of the place could hardly believe that “anything good could come out of Nazareth.” (Jn 1.46) Yet, this is from where the Christ, the Son of God, comes. The one who baptizes with the Spirit comes down to the Jordan, and what happens? He is baptized with plain, old water by plain, old John—John who is unworthy even to untie his shoes.

Why? If Jesus is God’s Son, if Jesus has no need for repentance or forgiveness of sins, if Jesus is so much greater than John, why does he come down to the Jordan and allow himself to be washed by John? The author of Matthew’s gospel struggled with this: he includes the story that when Jesus arrives, John refuses to baptize him at first. “No, this is all backwards,” he says, “You should be baptizing me!”

The author of Mark’s gospel has no such story, no such justification for this strange scene. He simply lets us dwell in the irony of the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God himself, coming from Nazareth and receiving the baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins by John in the Jordan. The gospel writer knows this will make our ears tingle, and he wants us to pay attention. This event at the river isn’t just something that happened to Jesus along the way, this is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Of the four gospels in our Bible, Mark’s was the first written. The author is not eloquent or literary; his writing is terse, simple, and sparse. He had probably never written anything on this scale before, and very probably had never even heard or read a gospel before. Obviously, the most important part of Jesus’ story—the part that makes it memorable—is his death and resurrection, but our narrator doesn’t start there. As he starts from scratch and invents the genre of “gospel,” the event with which he chooses to begin his account of Jesus’ life is his baptism.

This is because in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ baptism is the defining moment of his ministry. Without the baptism, there are no miracles, no parables, no Passion and no resurrection. It is the baptism which sets everything else in motion. The first thing we learn about Jesus in Mark’s gospel is not something he did, but something God did to him.

Mark paints us a beautifully symmetric, picture of what occurs. As Jesus comes up, the Holy Spirit comes down. The scene is reminiscent of Genesis 1, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters—a signal that God is about to do something big. Jesus comes out of the water, and the Spirit goes into him. In one moment, God and human, heaven and earth meet at one single point, one person, and that’s when everything begins to happen. As the water runs down Jesus’ face, a voice from heaven tells him “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” The story isn’t clear if anybody else heard this, or just Jesus. He comes up, the Spirit comes down, and “immediately” the Spirit drives him into the wilderness.

Mark’s gospel is painfully clear that baptism is not just a beginning, but the beginning. Even for Jesus, God’s own Son, baptism is the event that propelled him into the wilderness, to Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, and ultimately to Calvary and the empty tomb. The baptism with plain, old water that marks the beginning of Jesus’ story is the same baptism that marks the beginning of ours. The Spirit Jesus received at his baptism drove him into the wilderness, and we receive the same Spirit at ours. The question is left hanging: where is the Spirit driving us?

When Jesus comes up out of the water, the narrator tells us that the heavens were “torn apart” as the Spirit descended into him and the voice named him God’s Son. We see this scene repeated in reverse at the moment of his death: as Jesus “breathes out” his spirit, the temple curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the world—embroidered with mystical images of the heavens*—was “torn apart,” and the centurion standing at the foot of the cross names him God’s Son. When the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, the cross is where that road led him. That moment in the river changed him; in that moment God’s heart and Christ’s combined in perfect rhyme. God’s Spirit compelled him to live—and ultimately to die—to bring about God’s kingship on earth.

In my experience, people often see baptism as the punch on their ticket into heaven. It’s how they know they are “saved.” This is true, but like everything else Mark’s gospel teaches us about Jesus and God’s kingship, it is not true in the way we expect. Baptism is not about reserving our seat on the train bound for glory; it is about receiving God’s Spirit, the Spirit which drives us into the wilderness, drives us to live dangerously, drives us to give our lives for God and God’s will. Baptism is about salvation, but not ours: baptism is about the salvation of God’s good creation.

Baptism is what connects us to Jesus, what ties us both to his death and to his resurrection. Jesus’ baptism marked the moment when the heart of God and the heart of Christ were combined in perfect rhyme; for us as well, it marks for each of us the moment when our hearts are made to beat in time with theirs, and we are added to the dance.** In baptism, God’s Spirit makes its mark on us, too, and we are driven into the wilderness to face temptation, hardship, maybe even death, but always with the words from heaven ringing in our ears: “You are my child, the beloved. In you, I am well pleased.”

In baptism, Christ became like us—just another face in the crowd, just another sinner dunked under the water. Then, because he is who he is, in baptism, we become like him—children of God sharing in his resurrected life. Before we do anything, before we confess anything, before we accomplish or believe or prove anything, God claims us and calls us beloved. Then, we are sent out. Baptism is where everything begins. Baptism is where God’s kingdom begins.



*  “…but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.” Josephus, War of the Jews. 5.5.4

** References to our hymn of the day which followed this sermon in worship: “O Christ, Your Heart, Compassionate

The Truth about Shepherds

December 24, 2014 1 comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Christmas Eve.
Text: Lk 2.1-20

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” We’ve all got a mental image of these shepherds. For most of us, it’s probably the kind of picture that we so often see portrayed in Christmas cards and Nativity scenes: gentle men with beards and crooks, dressed in humble robes, maybe one of them is carrying a lamb over his shoulders. For a baby born in a camel stall, they seem the perfect visitors. Their presence completes the scene of Jesus’ humble birth among the noble livestock in the stable. The reality of shepherds, however, is a bit different.

In the time of the Bible, shepherding was not a respected profession. Shepherds were stereotyped as liars, degenerates, and thieves. Shepherding was the work you took when you couldn’t hold down a respectable job. Because they spent all their time out in the fields with sheep, not only did they stink, but they also lacked the manners and etiquette of polite society.

The testimony of a shepherd was inadmissible in court because they couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, and many towns had ordinances barring them from entering the city limits. Luke tells us these shepherds were watching their flocks by night, which is to say that they were guarding their sheep from theft by other shepherds, probably while armed.

The religious establishment took particular exception to shepherds. Because of their profession, they were unable to keep the Sabbath, and were ritually unclean and therefore unable to enter the temple. The Pharisees considered shepherds the scum of society, as bad as prostitutes and tax collectors.

These were not the meek and gentle folk we have represented in our children’s story bibles. They were frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable. If Luke were setting this story in 2014, the heavenly chorus might appear to a gang of Hell’s Angels.

Luke’s gospel is full of stories of God reaching out to the people on the margins, on the outside. Jesus spends most of his time with these “sinners,” assuring them that God cares for them, too. But shepherds—isolated from society, shunned by religious folk, feeling disappointed or abandoned by God—they weren’t just outsiders. They had given up caring that they were on the outside. As far as they were concerned, God wanted nothing to do with them, and they wanted nothing to do with God. They had given up on God.

Yet, these are the people to whom God sent angels to declare the birth of Christ. The word “angel” literally means “messenger;” it was not uncommon for kings and dignitaries to send messengers—“angels”—to announce the birth of an heir or victory in battle. However, these “angels” were typically sent to other kings and dignitaries. God’s angels were sent to shepherds; shady men who wanted nothing to do God. They may have given up on God, God had not given up on them.

This was no accident. God sent the heavenly messengers to shepherds for the same reason that Jesus was born a peasant in a stable rather than as a prince in a palace: because Jesus is Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—and God can only be with us where we are. God doesn’t seek out the people who have it all together, but the unwed mothers, the doubting fiancées, the shepherds. When we are at our most ragged, that is where God meets us.

We have not just sentimentalized the shepherds, but the whole Christmas story. We sing of the silent, holy night when all was calm and bright, we sing of a newborn baby who neither fusses nor blows out his diaper. These things weren’t any more real 2000 years ago than they are now. We forget the scene that Luke paints for us in this story: foreign armies occupied Palestine and Caesar issued decrees and edicts from Rome. A very pregnant Mary travels with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem on a donkey, only to find the town so packed that the inn is full, and they must sleep in the stable with the livestock. This night is far from peaceful, far from quiet. It is just like the world around us now: buzzing with activity, filled with fear, and balanced on the edge of despair.

I had somebody say to me the other day that Christmas should be a time of happiness because we are expecting a baby, and that is always a happy occasion. It’s true that Christmas brings good news which should lighten all our hearts, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy. Any new mother will tell you that the birth of a child brings not only joy, but worry about money, fear for the baby’s health and well-being, doubt over whether we’ll make good parents. Many of us this time of year are like the shepherds, stuck out in the fields, experiencing loneliness, grief, depression, or anger. For many of us Christmas is a time of sadness, rather than joy. It is to those of us stuck in the fields, choking on the darkness in the world, that God’s messengers come in light to announce the good news: Emmanuel is born.

This messiness of life is precisely when and where God chooses to enter it. If we deny the realness of Christmas, forget about the fear and the pain and worry, we forget its importance. Jesus did not come to help us avoid life’s burdens, but to bear them beside us, to be “God-with-us.” He came for the sake of the shepherds and all those who don’t feel worthy of God’s presence, to announce to us that God has not given up on us.

It is in the midst of the worries and the sorrows of this world that we hear God’s promise announced most clearly. It is in the chaos of protests and riots over slain young men, in the terror of ISIS executions, in the agonizing grief of police officers gunned down in their patrol cars and children attacked in their elementary schools, in the clamor of the jobless, the hungry, the immigrant, and the voiceless crying out for justice that God suddenly slips into our world with a message: “Unto you this day is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The sign of this savior from God is not a remedy to our problems or a king arriving in glory, but a simple child, swaddled and lying in a feed trough.

If we only imagine the Christmas card version of Jesus’ birth with its serene smiles and reverent creatures and poor-but-noble shepherds, then this story has nothing to offer us, because we don’t live in a Christmas card. Christmas becomes just another day, the Christ child just another baby. We will only expect to find God when things are going well and we are content and happy. The real world is much more complicated, much more dangerous. Thankfully, it was into this real world that Christ came, not the one on the front of the Christmas card. When we find ourselves down and out and at our worst—in the fields by night—we know that God will find us there.

This is the good news which God’s messenger angels brought to the shepherds that night: that even out here in the fields of despair, even isolated from the rest of society, in spite of who you may be and what you may have done, this good news is for you. You may have given up on God, and it may seem like God could care less you, but today, a savior is born for you. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, God is paying attention, and God is doing something. God doesn’t just sit up on some throne somewhere watching us, God is here with us. Christ came to walk alongside us and share our burdens. He came as living proof that not even death can keep God’s presence away from us and to help us experience a life rich with that presence, a life that is eternal.

Perhaps the best news of all is that while we are all gathered in here tonight, even now God’s messengers are proclaiming that news to shepherds out there in those fields. Even now, the heavenly chorus is somewhere singing to a bunch of people who have no need of God to tell them that Christ has come to be with them, too.  Not only that, God is inviting us to be those angels, those messengers, proclaiming the good news of God-with-us.

Even the shepherds—rejected and despised by everyone—left that night praising and glorifying God, because they saw that God’s promise is true. God is with us; the King of Glory comes to us even in a manure-filled stable. We come here tonight as shepherds, terrified by what we see on the news; but we go out as angels, glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen, as it had been told to us: Christ is born in Bethlehem. God is with us, now and forevermore.

Elk Hunting and the Coming of Christ

December 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Advent 2, Year B.
Text: Isa 40.1-11; 2Pet 3.8-15a; Mk 1.1-8

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness.” The Church has been waiting 2000 years for Christ to return, and today we are still waiting. Considering that the Church in the time of the New Testament believed that Jesus would be coming back in their lifetimes, this is an awfully long time to wait. Yet, to date, Jesus has still not returned; and yet, we continue to celebrate Advent, where we prepare for his coming as if it were going to be at the end of the month.

It’s easy for us to consider these last 2000 years of waiting and come up with other explanations. Maybe Jesus isn’t really coming back; it was just a joke, or a story to make us feel better. Maybe he’s already here, and we just don’t know it. Maybe his return was metaphorical, and he is constantly coming back in small, subtle ways. Maybe his return is sacramental, and he comes down from heaven to be with us every week in the meal. On some level, all these are true (well, probably not the first one), but “do not ignore this one fact, Beloved, that the Lord is not slow about his promise:” Jesus will return, in person—whatever that might look like—to judge the world and complete the work of creation by fulfilling the kingdom of heaven on earth—where righteousness is at home.

In an age of reason and pluralism, the promise that Jesus will come back in the flesh is especially hard to grasp. We want to spiritualize it, to sentimentalize it, to domesticate and simplify it. In short, we want to transform it into something that makes sense to us; but in doing that, we almost always take away its power and its importance and reduce it down to clichés. “Do not ignore this one fact, Beloved:” the Lord is coming back.

Many of you know that before I got to Gig Harbor, I spent some time in Montana with my family. In that time, my dad took me hunting with him. He has been going elk hunting with the same group of guys on the same land for almost 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever been able to go along. The two of us—and my sister when she was old enough—regularly went deer hunting on weekends when I was growing up, but elk camp was a week long and we couldn’t miss that much school, so we never got to go along, so this trip meant a lot to both of us.

Now, elk are a lot harder to find than deer. As we tromped around the mountains looking for them, this became abundantly clear. I was reminded of all those years of deer hunting growing up. As a kid, I got discouraged pretty fast. As dawn would turn to daylight and then to noon, the chance of seeing deer became less and less likely, and I would begin grumbling in my head, “we’re not going to see anything. Why are we still doing this? My feet hurt, I’m hot, let’s just go home.” Every coulee that we walked that turned up empty, every rise that we topped to find nothing convinced me further that what we were doing was futile and we might as well give up.

Until the one time we would see something. Then it was all worth it, and we would come home with our quarry.  If I’m honest about that, it was because of my dad; as we trudged along and I lost hope, he always expected to find something, and eventually we did. He brought us to where the deer were likely to be, and he kept us going even when I thought it was useless.

Because he expected to find what we were looking for, we kept at it until we did, even if it took two or three trips. In spite of my pessimism and my lack of faith, every year we came home with a deer. I remembered this on our elk hunt. These days, I have more patience than I used to, and more faith. I remembered that with my father’s guidance, every year we came back with something to show for our effort.

What made things more difficult on the mountain looking for elk, though, was looking through the binoculars at the neighboring ranch—the only one in the area where the owner doesn’t allow hunting—and seeing 500 head of elk grazing in the field. It made our prospects on the mountain seem awfully small. Yet, remembering those hunts from years past, I kept expecting to see something. I kept my eyes up and my ears open. I waited, I watched, and I prepared.

I’d like to say that my alertness paid off, but it didn’t. We are very used to getting what we want, when we want it; it’s just a matter of finding the right store or the right web page with overnight shipping. Hunting is a good reminder that life is bigger than me, that elk and deer do not exist for our benefit; they are their own creatures. No amount of skill or preparation can make up for the simple dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time.

However, my alertness did allow me to appreciate the beauty around me and to notice things I may not have otherwise. It allowed Dad and me the chance to pick up some fresh(ish) tracks and follow them for about 2 miles and up about 500 feet when we would otherwise have just gone straight back to the tent. It helped us notice a couple of red-headed woodpeckers busily at work on a fir tree, looking for a mid-morning snack. It made us notice the bobcat prints in the snow, and to see the place where the bobcat sat back on his haunches to watch something interesting.

What does this hunting story have to do with Jesus coming back? To my mind: everything. Last week, we heard Jesus remind us to “keep wake, keep alert;” and though we may not be able to miss it when he finally returns in his glory, if we are not alert, what will we miss in the meantime? Jesus himself was not the Messiah everyone expected. He was not the king of glory leading armies and defeating the enemies of God with heavenly power. Instead, much of the world overlooked the son of a carpenter born in a stable, the peasant executed on a cross like so many others; but those who were alert—who knew what to look for—recognized him for who he was, and they helped him inaugurate the kingdom of heaven on earth, where righteousness is at home.

Hunting also taught me what the author of this letter meant when he said that God is not slow. We may be impatient for Christ’s return, and we may come up with all kinds of explanations for that slowness, but this letter reminds us that Jesus isn’t coming back only for me, or only for the Church. God, like the elk and the deer, doesn’t belong to us, doesn’t exist for our benefit. If Jesus hasn’t yet returned, it’s because now is not the time, and as this letter reminds us, maybe that is a good thing. If God delays in sending Jesus back to us, maybe it’s to give us a chance to know him better first.

In the end, this is why we celebrate Advent: to get to know Christ better. We celebrate Advent while the rest of the world is busy celebrating Christmas. Advent is a time to remember that God does not work around our schedules, does not bend to our individual whims, and that the Church does not have a monopoly on God. In a world and a culture that is so single-mindedly focused on individual satisfaction and instant gratification, Advent is a reminder that we as individuals and even as communities are not the center of the universe. God is up to something bigger than us; than our schedules and our wants and even our needs.

What sticks out to me most in this letter of 2 Peter is this line: “what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” We like to think of hastening in terms of time: hasten means “hurry up” or to make something come sooner. Instead, maybe we ought to think of hastening the day of God in terms not of time, but of nearness. As we wait for Christ’s return, we actually hasten that return; we make Jesus’ presence nearer and more real by living out and bringing about the kingdom of heaven, where righteousness is at home.

That’s not something we can do on our own, but it is being done through us. When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” Luther reminds us that “God’s good and gracious will indeed comes about without our asking, but in this prayer we ask that it may come about in and through us.” If we are to be working toward God’s kingdom, living lives of holiness and godliness as we hasten the coming of the day of God, we need to know what we’re looking for; and the one who shows us that is Jesus.

That’s why it is so important for us to be looking for him around every corner, expecting to see him as we top every rise and descend every coulee. We won’t always find him, but we will be more open to seeing the woodpeckers of God’s kingdom: the places and times and people through which the kingdom suddenly and subtly breaks into our world like the son of a carpenter born in a stable.

And one day, perhaps when we least expect it, we may just spot the Risen Christ, meeting us at the font, in the meal, in a friend or a stranger, or maybe, just maybe, in the flesh. “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Rev 22.20) We are ready!

On Sheep, Goats, and the Judgement of Christ

November 23, 2014 1 comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church, Reign of Christ Sunday.
Text: Ezek 34.11–16, 20–24; Eph 1:15–23; Matt 25.31–46

Today we celebrate the festival of the Reign of Christ, otherwise known as “Christ the King” Sunday. It’s a festival meant to remind us of who is in charge—who is calling the shots. This year, we have heard stories of Jesus the Christ, the man who was born in a stable, who was crucified on a hill, who was resurrected before dawn. We have heard many of the stories and parables that he told his followers, and we have seen how he has treated the poor and lame, the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the people who crucified him. With all this floating around in the backs of our minds, today we remember that this man, this God-made-flesh, is the one who is in charge; who at the end of time, will judge the people of every nation of the world.

We remember and honor Christ’s kingship with this parable of the sheep and the goats. This parable at once reminds us of Jesus the Good Shepherd of the sheep, and of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, sitting on the throne of judgment. The parable itself, explicit as it is, is not particularly comforting. It tells us of Jesus, our good shepherd, praising the sheep and inviting them into God’s kingdom on the right, and on the left, condemning the goats and sentencing them to the fires of hell. Ouch. When I was in college, my pastor said once in a sermon: “If you are ever feeling too good about yourself, read Matthew 25.”

It’s ironic, actually, because I think this parable was meant to be a comfort to the people of the Church. In Matthew, Jesus describes himself (the “Son of Man”) sitting in judgement of “all the nations.” The word in Greek is what would have been heard in Hebrew as goyim, the Gentiles. To Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience, this likely may have been understood as all the “heathens” out there who did not follow Christ. In the parable, even the heathens are given a second chance: those who treat Jesus’ followers— “one of the least of these who are members of my family”—with kindness are offered a place in God’s kingdom; and those who have harried and tortured them get their just desserts, as well.

The problem for us comes in that we can’t help but see ourselves in the sheep and the goats. Perhaps this is appropriate: we are Gentiles, after all. In a world that is full of news stories about Christians who discriminate and belittle and judge in the name of God—a world of “I Stand Sunday” and the Family Research Council, perhaps we need to be reminded sometimes that we can just as easily be the goats as we can be the sheep; that God is interested not just in what we purport to believe, but how we treat the least of Jesus’ family.

That’s not a bad thing; it encourages us to act out the love Jesus invites us to show for our sisters and brothers. It reminds us how important it is to Jesus that we  should be packing the weekend backpacks for hungry school kids and advocating for equal rights for all people. And yet, as Lutherans, we know that this isn’t enough. It isn’t our works that buy us tickets into the kingdom.

Thank God for that—because we are all of us just as goats just as much as we are sheep. I have stopped and helped the person pulled over on the side of the highway, but I’ve also been thoughtlessly—and sometimes heartlessly—cruel to people around me. If I had to guess whether I would be sheep or a goat on the day of judgment, I can’t tell you with any certainty if I’d go right or left.

And this is the real point of this parable: we can’t trust ourselves. We can’t know with any certainty whether we are more righteous than anyone else, and we sure as heck can’t know that about anybody else. We are all both sinner and saint, and the two will never be separated this side of God’s eternal kingdom. For every cold cup of water we’ve extended to one of the “least of these,” we’ve just as often hung a millstone around somebody’s neck. So, yes; it’s good for us to be reminded not to think to highly of ourselves, because our position is just as tenuous as anybody’s. We can’t trust our own judgment; instead, we have to trust Jesus’ judgement.

Now that you are all worried about who will be considered “sheep” and who will be counted among the goats, let’s take a moment to remember who this Christ is. Parables like this that talk in very specific terms about who will be rewarded and who will be punished are thick throughout the bible. They give us insight into God and God’s kingdom, but in the end, God and God’s kingdom are inscrutable: we can’t comprehend them. All these stories, as specific or plain as they may appear to be, can never contain the whole of God’s mind or God’s design for creation. They can only give us glimpses. We have no idea how God will grant admittance or dispense punishment; we have only Christ.

This is why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday; this is why we tell this uncomfortable parable. It is all about remembering not to trust in our own ideas of who is “in” or “out,” not to trust in our particular interpretation of sacred scripture, not to trust in the laws of morality or our ability to judge right and wrong. All those things are imperfect, the product of people who are sinners as much as they are saints. If we want to know God, the best place to look is Christ.

Jesus is God-with-us, God in the flesh. He is the fullest picture of God we can ever hope to receive. What gives us our hope and our identity is not our denomination, not our sense of propriety, not even the Bible. Our identity comes from Christ—revealed through scripture; he is the best and brightest revelation of God and God’s will. That is why we trust in him. That’s why he is the King.

And who is this Christ? He is the one who was born to a peasant and attended by shepherds. He is the one who said, “turn the other cheek,” and “pray for those who persecute you.” He is the one who ate with sinners and tax collectors and called out the hypocrisy of the religious and political status quo. When he was crowned, it was not with gold and jewels, but with thorns; when he was enthroned, it was not on a seat of power, but on the cross of a criminal. In the midst of our betrayal of God’s ways, our denial of God’s good news, and our consuming hatred of God’s love, the judgment he uttered upon us as he died at the hands of the very people he came to save was this: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.”

This is our king. He came not to be served, but to serve. We can be confident that the King we meet in scripture will judge us according to the love, the mercy and the grace he showed when he walked among us. We can be confident that the King who calls us through baptism and feeds us at the table lives to empower us to serve God’s kingdom, and nourishes us so that we can live out that calling.

My pastor once said, “if you are ever feeling too good about yourself, read Matthew 25.” I say, if you are ever not feeling good enough about yourself, read this Matthew 25. Read it and remember who is your King, because it is he who gives you your identity, not the sum of the rights and wrongs you have done. Our King is a King of love and grace.

Even the best among us has moments of which we are not proud. We all make decisions that haunt us, we all have skeletons in our closets. Sometimes, to make ourselves feel better, we remember the good things we have done to the “least of these,” the people we’ve clothed and cared for, the prisoners we’ve visited, the strangers we’ve welcomed. Sometimes we compare ourselves and judge one another based on these things. We put on our best face for those around us because somewhere deep down inside all of us, we are terrified of being labeled as goats, because that is how we feel before the throne of God.

Christ made his throne the cross to remind us that though goats we may be, in the eyes of God, we are all sheep. That’s life: sometimes we are right, sometimes we are wrong; we can do both good and evil. But to Christ the King, whether sheep or goat, we are always his. The parable reminds us both of the times when we are sheep and the times when we are goats; it encourages us to try to be more “sheeply,” but it also reminds us that we can’t rely on those good works. We can’t trust in our own conscience or our own sense of right and wrong. In the end, we can only trust in Christ—Christ revealed in Scripture, Christ who claims us at the font and feeds us at the table, Christ who meets us in the faces of those gathered around us. Christ is the King! Long live the King.


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