Jesus’ Friends in Baltimore

May 10, 2015 1 comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Easter 6, Year B.
Text: Ac 10.44-48; 1 Jn 5.1-6; Jn 15.9-17

One day, an Irish priest was walking through the rural parish he served. As he traveled, he saw a farmer kneeling in prayer along the side of the road. The priest was impressed by the man’s piety, that he should stop in the middle of his journey to pray. He went up to the man and said, “You must be very close to God!” The farmer thought about it for a moment and replied, “Yes, God’s very fond of me.”

It sounds silly, and yet it’s true: Jesus himself reveals to us that, yes, God is indeed very fond of us. “You did not choose me,” he tells his disciples, “I chose you.” Similarly, we are not here worshiping and praising God because we choose to be, but because God has chosen us. I used to work with a woman named Trish, who say it like this: “I’m God’s favorite!”

The miracle in this is that love changes us, and God’s love most of all. What would it mean for us to go through our lives knowing that our primary identity is not about what we do for a living or where we live or who our family is, but simply in that we are the ones whom Jesus loves? How might we see ourselves differently? How might we see others differently knowing that they, too, are beloved friends of our Lord Jesus; that they, too, are ‘God’s favorite?’

And so Jesus gives us this commandment to love one another as he has loved us. He instructs us to love so that our joy may be complete, full, whole; for to love those whom God loves with the same love that God has shown us is a fulfilling act. It is a joyful act. It is a holy act.

It is this kind of love that has been on my mind for the past two weeks. As some of you know, Pr. Stephanie and I were in Gettysburg for a week at continuing education and my seminary class reunion. It so happens that the closest airport to Gettysburg is in Baltimore. We landed in Baltimore on Monday afternoon. As our plane touched down, the streets of Baltimore were filled with protesters angry over the death of Freddie Gray, who died of a severed spine while in police custody. That night, as we drove to Gettysburg and settled into our hotel room, in Baltimore shops were looted and cars were set ablaze.

Baltimore, of course, is not a new story. It is a tired repeat of what has already happened in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and in so many other places. Freddy Gray is one more in the long list of names who have been killed by a system meant to protect and serve. While in Gettysburg, we talked about Exile; people living lives isolated from families and communities, sometimes while in their own homes. I could not help but think of the black community in Baltimore and their exile, feeling occupied by a hostile police force that doesn’t look like them, one focusing their policing on containment and suppression.

As one whom Jesus loves, how do I make sense of what is happening to Jesus’ beloved friends in Baltimore? How do I love them as our Lord has loved me?

Perhaps the hardest challenge to loving these friends of Christ is the fact that I cannot understand them and their condition. As a white, middle-class person, I have never felt targeted by law enforcement or forgotten by society. This lack of understanding runs thick in the news. The majority response has been one largely of blaming the victims. We note that if Freddy Gray or Michael Brown had been law-abiding citizens, they wouldn’t have and trouble with the police to begin with. We look at the damage and looting and see the work of “thugs” and “animals,” and wonder how and why they could destroy their own city.(1) We watch the video of “Baltimore Mom” and think that if only more mothers took responsibility for their children like her, there wouldn’t be any “rioting.”

What we forget is that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” They are the last, desperate attempt to speak of people who have been too long ignored. We see the looting and the destruction and we shy away, because our Lord teaches us to love, to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile. What we don’t see are all the cheeks which have already been turned, all the extra miles already walked, because until now, we have not been paying attention.

The Rev. Bernice King, Martin’s daughter, tweeted during the Baltimore uprising (2):

These acts of destruction are a sign that “…these people are aware in a way [we] can never be aware, that whether they choose to jump on cars, sing Civil Rights hymns, hold signs, or stage peaceful letter writing campaigns to their local congressperson, the situation is going to stay mostly the same. Why do [we] see destructive rioting and looting? It’s not because people think it’s the best way to get things done. It’s because the people have finally come to realize that no matter what they do, nothing gets done… These people are expressing not just anger and frustration at another black man killed by another group of police officers. Rather, they’re expressing anger and frustration at a socio-economic reality in which they are the bones and scraps left over after the best meat’s been taken.”(1)

Where we have failed—both as a society and as the Church—is that it has taken us this long to see what is happening. We might never have heard about these deaths unless things turned ugly. We have not been as shocked by the deaths of men and women as we have by the destruction of property we see in the aftermath. It turns us off, turns us away, because “we understand that we would never do something like that … But we fail to ask that critical next question—if these people, who are in so many ways like us, would do something that we wouldn’t think of doing, what must the conditions be like to drive that behavior?”(1) Our love for Jesus’ friends in Baltimore implores us to ask this question.

The word “love” appears 9 times in the 8 verses of today’s gospel lesson. It describes the Father’s and Jesus’ love for us and one another, and our love for each other. In this section, it never describes our love for God: the focus is completely on God and on God’s love and on what God’s love is doing. It is a sign of what Jesus says: “you did not choose me, I chose you.” That love of God is transformative: it meets us where we’re at, just as we are, but it doesn’t leave us there. God’s love changes us, and always for the better, always so that our “joy may be complete.”

We see this in scripture. God’s loving work in human history has been to liberate us. God elected Israelite slaves to be God’s chosen people, then led them out of slavery into freedom. When Jesus became incarnate, he came as a Jew in a Roman province, a carpenter rather than a priest or king, a Galilean and a Nazarene rather than a Jerusalemite. God has consistently chosen to identify with the outcasts and the oppressed, not because “God feels sorry and takes pity on them,” but because “liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity.”(3)

So, for us to keep Jesus’ commandment and abide in this love is to participate in God’s divine activity of liberation. The God we worship “cannot be the God of [the oppressed] and will their suffering. To be [chosen by Jesus] does not mean freely accepting the evils of the oppressors;”(3) instead, it means joining together with these friends of Christ to bring an end to an unjust and broken system, a system that unfairly targets those on the margins of society, a system in which, whether we know it or not, we are complicit because we benefit from it.

When Jesus says that there is no greater love than for one to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, this is what he is talking about. We might understand “laying down our lives” to mean to be willing to die for somebody, but, personally, I think this is a cop-out. Few if any of us will ever be asked to die so that someone else might live. By only understanding the text in this one way, we can believe that we would do so if the situation ever presented itself, knowing we never have to prove it. No, to lay down our lives means not just to die for somebody, but to live for them. It means to do as Jesus did and really love people, be in personal relationship with them, call them friends. His love for us invites us to do as he did and to befriend the outcast and the oppressed, eat with the sinner and the tax collector.

So what does this look like for us? It starts with listening. Not just hearing the news reports or the pundits, but really seeking out and listening to the voices on the margins. It means hearing the distress of Baltimore and Ferguson and asking them how we can help. It means setting aside the privilege that we get from being complicit in an unjust and broken system for the sake of creating a society that is just and safe for all of Jesus’ friends, not just the middle-class or the light-skinned.(4) It means working to establish God’s kingdom on earth. That’s what resurrection is: from the ashes of death and despair, from the burnt-out cars and the smashed windows rises hope of new life, hope of God’s kingdom.

We can only do this because God loves us, because Jesus chooses us. We are the ones whom Jesus loves, God’s favorites! We are assured of this through our baptism, and we experience it every week in Holy Communion. When we see others of Jesus’ beloved friends crying out in pain and lashing out in desperation, it is then that Jesus’ command to love one another hits home; it is then that God’s love transforms us. How can it not? How can we as Jesus’ friends stand by as the friends of our friend, the loves of our love, are bearing the burden of injustice?

In Christ, we have the hope of resurrection to remind us that whatever we might lose or lay down in service to God and neighbor, God offers us so much more in return. In love, Jesus liberates us; whether from slavery to or from complicity in systems that harm our society and our world. That love of Jesus is a call to action: not to offer platitudes or cluck our tongues in sympathy, not to swoop in like a superhero and save the day, but to enter into relationship with those who suffer, just as Jesus did; to put aside our comforts and our conveniences and our privileges to be with those who need us. That is what it is to lay down our lives for our friends, for Jesus’ friends.

(1) The Dominant White Response to Baltimore Shows Why Black Residents are Justified in their Anger from
(2) Bernice King (“Be A King”) on Twitter
(3) Cone, James. “God is Black”
(4) Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century.”
(3) and (4) from Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside (Thistlethwaite & Engel, ed). c1998, Orbis Books.

Other recommended articles:
“There is nothing ‘black’ about rioting”: Actor Jesse Williams unloads on Baltimore critics in passionate Twitter essay from
Is It An ‘Uprising’ Or A ‘Riot’? Depends On Who’s Watching from NPR’s CodeSwitch blog

Sermon for the Harmartiocene Epoch

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Easter 3, Year B.
Text: Ac 3.12-19; 1Jn 3.1-7; Lk 24.36-48

On a beautiful weekend such as this one, it is easy to experience the reality of Easter. In here, we proclaim Christ raised from the dead, and out there, we see new life sprouting from every branch, along every road, around every corner. God’s very creation demonstrates the reality of resurrection. What was once dead and brown is now green and springing to life. The sun shines with a warmth that makes us almost forget the chill of winter. Spring reminds us that resurrection is not just what happened to Jesus on Easter morning, it is God’s MO—a characteristic of God’s creation.

We sometimes take this resurrection for granted. The miracle of each new dawn or of the spark of new life in each bud and blossom is lost on us. We’ve come not only to expect it, but to depend on it. God’s world, constantly renewing itself, is what sustains us, provides us with clean water and nutritious food and oxygen. We read in scripture that God has given us the responsibility to tend and nurture this world of God’s, but rather than stewarding it in God’s name, we have begun to exploit it for our own gain.

In the lifespan of our world, human beings have been around for a relatively short time. When speaking in terms of millions or billions of years, our activities and our effects on the world around us barely register. Until now. The scientific community is beginning to recognize that we have entered a new geologic epoch—a new stage in the life of our planet. They are calling it the “anthropocene,” from the Greek word anthropos, which means “human being.” In essence, we have reached a point in the history of our planet where human activity is beginning to have significant, lasting effects on the planet itself. Our presence is measurably changing the climate, the composition of our oceans and our atmosphere, even the geologic formations of the crust as we build and mine and drill and dig. While politicians and corporate spokespersons cast aspersions on the science behind these events, the reality is that we have begun to affect the health of our world.

If nothing changes, in my lifetime we will face a shortage of water as aquifers and reservoirs are drained to irrigate crops. We will face a shortage of oil that will not be solved by new mining technology. We will encounter shifting climates and altered growing seasons and different patterns of rainfall. These things are the result of our thirst for cheap energy, our appetite for non-sustainable food, our demand for our own independence and convenience at the expense of the needs of our global neighbors. They are the result of our belief that the Earth’s resources are endless and ours to use as we please.

For some Christians, these problems are non-issues. They believe that when Christ returns, the old heaven and the old Earth will pass away, so we don’t need to concern ourselves with caring for creation. Others may argue that God created the Earth for us to use as we please, and commanded us to “fill the Earth and subdue it.” These attitudes use God to justify our disregard of the Earth’s gifts and our overuse and abuse of the resources with which God has entrusted us.

That’s why I think it is a misnomer to call this new era the anthropocene. The cause of the problem here is not humanity, but sin; what we are doing not only harms the world that sustains us, it is an affront to the God who created it. More than just the consequences of our own individual choices, this sin is a systemic evil that infests our whole society and culture.

This new epoch would better described as the harmartiocene. Harmartia is the Greek word for sin; it is human sinfulness that is damaging our world. There are those who do not believe we have the power to affect creation; however, we have seen over just the last few decades how untrue this is. Scripture records how, from the very beginning, sin has been marring the goodness of God’s creation—that is what is happening now.

In the letter of 1 John, from which we read today, the Elder writes that Jesus Christ was revealed to us to take away our sin, and that in him there is no sin. The very sin that threatens the health of our world is the sin from which Christ has come to save us. The Jesus we meet in the bible does not justify our appetites for resources at the expense of the world. The Jesus of scripture teaches us to love and serve and even to lay down our lives if need be for the good of the whole human community. This is the Jesus, who when he was raised from the dead, proved to his friends who he was by showing them his hands and his feet: the same hands that touched lepers and performed signs of God’s kingdom, the same feet that took him to dine with sinners and face down Pharisees, and ultimately, that brought him willingly to the cross.

To know Jesus, to have experienced the risen Christ, is incompatible with a life of sin that harms other people or damages God’s creation because Jesus and sin are mutually exclusive. By revealing himself to us, Jesus takes away our sin and purifies us, just as he is pure. He comes among us, even now, and continues to open the scriptures to us —just as he did with his disciples in the gospel reading—showing us a new way of life, a resurrected way of life, a way of life called the Kingdom of God where we understand God’s word as good news for all creation, and we live in communion with our planet rather than in dominion over it. This is accomplished among us, as Luke says, through repentance, which leads to the forgiveness of sins.

We need this forgiveness because, as we are seeing, our sins have lasting implications. Even in his resurrection, Jesus bears the wounds of his crucifixion. The harmartiocene epoch is real and it is affecting our planet. The good news for us is that God has the power to overcome sin and the damage it causes; we know this because Jesus Christ, though crucified, was raised from the dead. Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!]

Just as on that first Easter morning, all creation bears witness to God’s enduring work of resurrection. The Elder reminds us that even now, even as we are sinning against the author of creation, God’s love for us is so great that God claims us through baptism as God’s own children. Through our own resurrection in baptism, we have experienced the risen Christ, we know the one who takes away our sin. We live, therefore, as children of our Father, the Author of Life. Even now, God is using our lives to help bring about new life and forgiveness of sin.

Christ identified himself to his disciples with his hands and feet. In the same way, we make him known to the world with our hands and feet. We proclaim his resurrection with the signs we perform in God’s name and wherever we go, we go bearing the good news of the God’s love which saves us and heals us from sin.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] Thanks to him, death does not have the final word. We are children of that promise, children of the living God. Through us, God’s love is at work saving this world from the sin that strangles it: from over-consumption, from climate change, from the neglect and the abuse and the destruction of the harmartiocene epoch. We are a part of that. God is working through us, because we are people of the resurrection, children of God. Alleluia! Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Alleluia!] This is good news not only for us, but for all creation.

A Really Terrible Ending (But a Brilliant Beginning)

April 5, 2015 1 comment

Delivered at Agnus Dei Lutheran Church. Easter Morning, Year B.
Text: Mk 16.1-8

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What a terrible ending for a story. Mark leaves us hanging here, wanting more. We want to see the risen Jesus. We want to see him reunited with his friends and hear him forgive Peter for his denials. We want to know that all the details are worked out and the loose ends tied up; but Mark gives us none of that. Instead, he leaves us with frightened women who say nothing to anyone about what they have seen.

This is such a terrible ending, in fact, that over the years, various people have tried to fix it. Look at Mark 16 in your bibles. You’ll find two other endings to this story, sometimes labeled “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of Mark.” They include those details we are left without: Jesus appearing to the disciples, sending them into the world to proclaim the good news, even giving them the power to perform miracles.

When Matthew and Luke and John later record their accounts of the resurrection, they, too, show Jesus appearing to the disciples and even eating with them; he forgives Peter, and sends his friends out to spread the good news. These are all much more satisfying endings than the on Mark provides. And yet, all the evidence suggests that what we read today is the original, authentic ending of Mark’s gospel: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It really is a terrible ending for a story; but that’s why it is so brilliant. The narrative stops, and we, the readers, are left wishing that somebody should say something. Mark uses this terrible ending to question us, to ask us if we think this story is worth sharing. When you read this ending to Mark’s gospel, if you are left thinking that there should be more, that somebody needs to be told, why is that? In other words, what difference has this story made for you?

In Mark’s story, we want the disciples to know that their friend and teacher is alive. We don’t want to leave Peter weeping in the courtyard. We want somebody to tell them because we would want the same. What we need to know is when Mark first set pen to paper to record this story, he never thought he was writing a historical record of a one-time event. From the very beginning, Mark makes very clear that this story of Jesus—the story of his baptism, his ministry, his life with his disciples, and even his death—is a story about us.

Like those first disciples, we still live in an uncertain world, a world of despair. If you have ever attended a funeral for a loved one, if you have ever sat helplessly by while a doctor has told someone they have 6 months to live, if you have ever watched anyone slowly destroy themselves with addiction, you have felt a tiny bit of this despair. If you have ever wondered where God is or why God could allow something to happen, you’ve stood with Jesus’ mother at Calvary. If you’ve ever experienced such pain or evil that you’ve doubted God’s very existence, you’ve felt the same isolation God’s own son felt while hanging from the cross.

Like those disciples, we, too are waiting for good news. We need someone to come tell us that God’s promise of life is stronger than death. We are anxious to hear that God does care; that God’s love is more powerful than war, than oppression, than hatred and bigotry, than disease and poverty and addiction; that God’s love is bigger than our mistakes and our regrets and our missed opportunities.

The resurrection is good news for us because it means that God is not silent. The resurrection means that God is not impotent. The resurrection means that God is living and active and doing something about all the evil things that seem to have so much power over us. When Jesus rises from the dead, he proves once and for all that all the chaos, all the despair, all the violence and sorrow and death of this world cannot touch him, and he promises that it will not touch us. In the resurrection, God has saved us from hopelessness, from despair, from worrying and wondering and wasting away.

For us, the cross is a symbol of all the many ways that humanity daily rejects God and God’s kingdom of peace and justice. We fight with all our strength against the good that God has designed for us because it is too much for us to handle. It is too inclusive, too powerful, too reckless; we are afraid, like the Pharisees, like the Chief Priests, like the women at the tomb, and that fear drives us away from God. We celebrate at the empty tomb, because by rising to meet us, Jesus tells us that God is bigger than our fears. We fear the powers of this world: we fear the power of death, the decay of disease, that plague of violence. The risen Christ tells us that this world no longer belongs to them: the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God, and of God’s Christ, and he shall reign forever. Death has lost its sting.

To drive home that reality, Mark’s gospel leaves us with a promise. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” For Jesus’ disciples, Galilee was home—somewhere familiar, full of people they knew. These words are an invitation to go back out into familiar territory and among familiar people and see what we could not see before: Jesus, alive and well. He is out there, waiting for us. He has promised to be with us, and he is. We expect to find him in the tomb; but seeing it empty gives us new eyes to see the world in a new way, expecting to find him among us.

With these new eyes, we even see this insufficient ending of Mark’s gospel in a new way. If you look in your Bibles again, way back to the first chapter of Mark, you will see that the first words of the book are “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” These words aren’t referring to Mark, chapter 1. This whole book—all of Mark’s gospel—is just the beginning. That’s why the ending is so terrible: because it’s not an ending. When the women leave the tomb that Sunday morning, the story isn’t over, it’s just begun. We know that because we are here today, listening to this old familiar story. Today as you hear these words, remember that just like that day at the empty tomb, the story isn’t over.

The wondrous acts of God transforming this broken world into a place of dignity, harmony and justice only just began with a man walking out of a mausoleum. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!] and God is just warming up. The story is not over, and so we give thanks for an empty tomb and a missing Christ and unanswered questions, because it means this story of God’s love is just beginning.

Life is full of emptiness and empty people, but the resurrection is the first word of God’s promise to bring fullness to all humanity, to all of creation. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! [He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!] If you believe that, if you know it in your bones to be true, if it gives you joy and hope that you cannot explain and that cannot be overcome by the worst life has to offer, then don’t run home and say nothing to anyone. Don’t leave the world hanging. The world is full of people quietly wrestling with despair because the death they have experienced keeps them from seeing the new life God is offering them. This story is just beginning. Alleluia. Christ is Risen. [He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!]

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


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