Happy Summer Vacation 

July 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Dear Readers,

I am taking some vacation time this week, which means two things. First, my sermon from today will not get posted until I’m back in the office next week. Second, this coming Sunday someone will be covering for Stephanie and me, so I won’t be preaching (or posting) again until August 14.

I hope you all are enjoying a pleasant summer!

Categories: Uncategorized

Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, and Us

July 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 8/Proper 10, Year C
Texts: Deut 30.9-14; Col 1.1-14; Lk 10.25-37

It’s been another rough week. The news from Baton Rouge and St. Paul and Dallas has me once again wrestling with what to say right now. I don’t think I have to convince anyone that what has happened in these cities this week is a tragedy of the worst kind, lives woefully ended as the result of fear and anger and hate. I don’t think I have to explain to you that this cycle of violence and fear that is spiraling in on itself is fueled by racism, both conscious and subconscious, and that it is becoming more and more apparent with each passing death that we still have a problem with race in our country. I don’t think I have to impress upon you how important it is that something change here.

But I do think that I have to stand up here and say something about it, something that will help us move in a positive direction, something that begins to express how hurt we all are over the extrajudicial murders of two more black men by officers of the law and over the senseless violence against both police and civilians during a peaceful protest. I do think that as a preacher and as a Christian, I cannot be silent. Unfortunately, I do not know what to say.

“The Good Samaritan,” David Teniers the Younger, 1650-56

We have this lovely and familiar parable this week, and so I think I’ll just start with that. One way we make sense of parables is to find ourselves in them, to see with which of the characters we identify. This week, I find myself not so much in the Samaritan or the man who fell among robbers, not so much in the priest or the Levite (though it sure does seem like I am always crossing by on the other side of the road when these things happen); today I am identifying most with the lawyer, the one asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Because of the promises of scripture and because of my own personal experience with God, I believe in eternal life. I believe that it’s not something that is reserved for life after death, but that it is something that God offers us now, life that is deeper and richer and brighter and fuller, that it is life lived with God. I have seen glimpses this eternal life thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church. I also believe that eternal life isn’t just for you or me individually, but for all creation; that God is working to fulfill and perfect the whole world so that everything that has breath will one day experience this eternal life together.

But this week, just as with every story in the news of a terrorist bombing or a person dying for being arrested while black or a police officer being killed for the sins of his or her colleagues, I am left hurting, hoping, wondering where is this eternal life? How long, O Lord, shall we cry for help and you will not listen? What can I do to help stop this madness?

I’d venture a guess that I’m not the only one who feels this way, that maybe some of you feel like this, too. For those of us wondering how our world might finally come to possess this eternal life, I offer this parable as one place to begin.

One obvious lesson from this parable is one about who is our neighbor. Samaritans were despised and mistrusted by Jews; they were considered heretics. The lawyer in the story is so shocked by Jesus’ parable that when Jesus asks him for his interpretation, he can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” saying instead, “the one who showed mercy.”

Throughout the gospels, and indeed throughout the whole Bible, God intentionally seeks out and identifies with the vulnerable, the poor, and the outsiders. It should be obvious to us that, if Jesus were to tell the story for us now, that the he might challenge us to see as our neighbors those who are most vulnerable, poor and on the outside of society now; for example, the kind of people who might fear being killed by police at a run-of-the-mill traffic stop.

This is the same sentiment that is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement: not that police are bad or that other lives don’t matter, but that there are people—our neighbors—who are being feared and discriminated against and oppressed and even killed by the very agencies who are sworn to serve and protect us, and that we should all be concerned about this precisely because we are neighbors. To recognize our interconnectedness in spite of the small things that divide us is to begin to experience eternal life.

This parable also points us to eternal life by showing us what it means to be a neighbor. The Samaritan on the road becomes a neighbor to the man in need because he “is moved with pity” for him. The verb in Greek comes from the word for “vicera,” “bowels,” “guts;” it literally means to experience gut-wrenching emotion, to be moved in one’s deepest being. We would call such an experience “compassion.”

The Samaritan experiences compassion for his wounded neighbor, and that compassion compels him to respond with kindness. He picks the man up, puts him on his own animal, and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper to care for him, promising to cover any other expenses the innkeeper may incur. This is what separates compassion from pity: pity might make us feel sad or sorry for someone, but compassion compels us to act, even when it costs us, even if it means we must also suffer. In fact, the word compassion literally means “to suffer alongside” someone. This suffering with our neighbor, Jesus says, is how we inherit eternal life.

It seems backwards, doesn’t it, that suffering with the people we may not even recognize as our neighbors is the way to experience eternal life; but if anyone would know, it is Jesus, the Son of God who left heaven to be born as a human being and experience all of our pains and sorrows as well as our joys, to live and teach and walk among us knowing that we would eventually kill him for it. Through his Passion—his suffering alongside us as a human—Jesus makes eternal life available to us; so in some way it makes sense that our compassion—our suffering alongside each other—might help us experience it.

This is what gives me hope, because in the midst of the bloodshed and the fear, the violence and the anger, I see God at work in the compassion that draws us together. I see Jesus crucified again by our fear and hate alongside Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, lying dead beside Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krohl and Lorne Ahrends and Michael Smith, but I also see God at work churning our guts and breaking our hearts with compassion for those who have died and caring for those who are left.

I have hope because the evil acts of humanity that crucified Christ did not have the final word in his story, and the evil acts that killed these people and so many others does not have the final word in this one. God answers death with eternal life, life that pains us and moves us in our core to act with compassion for our neighbors who live in fear of the law and our neighbors who put their lives in danger to protect.

In a statement earlier this week, our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton said, “Until we in the white community feel that the death of a person of color is our death, too, nothing is going to change.” To be neighbors to our sisters and brothers of color is to realize that in the events of Baton Rouge and St. Paul and Dallas, we are killing ourselves. It is the privilege of every white person to be able to separate ourselves from these horrible deaths, to remain untouched by them because these murders happened somewhere else to somebody else. It is our privilege not to live among police who fear us. But it is our compassion that makes us suffer with our black and brown neighbors and feel their pain as our own, and it is that pain that will drive us to bring change.

I don’t know exactly where we go from here, but I know we need to go somewhere. Bishop Eaton encourages the Church: “We need to show up. We need to stand with and listen to our colleagues and sisters and brothers of color. Even if they don’t want us to be there, or if they do, we need to show up. These people can no longer be invisible. We need our eyes opened… and then we need to find a way to reach out and build actual connections with people who are real and visible and not just some sort of stereotype.”

We have hope in eternal life that is stronger than death because Jesus showed up, because he suffered alongside us and showed us what that life looks like. This is our call as followers of Jesus: to show up, to see our neighbors and give our lives in service to them, as Jesus did. At this table we him, his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us; and as we eat and drink he shares this broken, poured out life with us, so that we, too may be broken and poured out for others, that through us, his eternal life may continue to spread.

In the midst of death, where do we find eternal life? Perhaps it is not just in healing, but in hurting together. Perhaps the eternal life of God is the ability to share the rawest pain and anguish with our neighbors so deeply in our guts that we are compelled to share our lives with them, just as Christ does with us.

The Best Lack All Conviction, and the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity

June 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 6/Proper 8, Year C
Texts: 1 Kgs 19.15-21; Gal 5.1, 13-25; Lk 9.51-62

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” is on my mind this week as I read these passages of scripture and reflect on recent events. I think about this as I listen to Elijah calling Elisha to be his disciple and successor. I think about it as I hear Jesus respond to these three would-be followers. I think about Yeats’ words because as I listen to these stories, I hear Elijah and Jesus asking for people to follow them in the work of God with the same passionate intensity that we too often witness only in terrorists.

When Elisha asks for leave to kiss his mother and father goodbye before following, Elijah doesn’t seem to have any objection. “Go and return,” he says, “for what have I done to [stop] you?” Jesus, on the other hand, seems far more harsh and unyielding than Elijah. How can anyone be expected to follow Jesus when he seems to be asking them to forsake family, friends, homes and livelihoods in order to proclaim the reign of God? And yet, we know from experience that we live in a world where people are too ready to give up those very things, to strap bombs to their chests and take assault rifles into movie theaters and night clubs for the sake of the fear and hatred they feel towards others. Why shouldn’t Jesus ask for the same level of commitment? The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Perhaps this is why Jesus demands so much of us who would follow him. Jesus is looking for people who have the zeal and the devotion and the conviction to work for all they’re worth to realize the just and righteous reign of God. If we are to do this work, we cannot be distracted even by family, friends, or livelihoods, because the powers of hate and fear and evil have no such distractions either.

But even conviction alone is not enough. Unlike the three Jesus encounters on the way to Jerusalem, James and John did give up everything. They left their nets on the beach and their father in the boat to follow when Jesus called them. They have that conviction that Jesus is looking for, but that doesn’t mean it’s always directed well. When they ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans like Elijah did (2 Kings 1.1-18), he rebukes them. Like James and John, our conviction can sometimes easily slide into violence, even without us realizing it.

In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many well-meaning people who are understandably and justifiably angered and saddened have been driven by their convictions to do good and ended up doing harm. Nobody has held a gun, but we have fed the hostility. We have lobbed the same tired arguments about gun control or mental illness or Islam at each other like grenades across the same stagnant political lines. The more “inclusive” members of our Church have aimed and fired allegations at our sisters and brothers who disagree, accusing them of violence simply because of their sincerely held beliefs.* In short, we have, in our passionate intensity, desired to call down fire from heaven on our perceived foes who stand in the way of God’s reign.

This entire story discipleship is framed in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We know what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and what he will give up for the sake of God’s reign. We know that he will endure the worst kind of violence there, and we also know that he will overcome it; not with more violence of his own—not with flames coming down from heaven—but with love for his friends and for his enemies, with obedience to God’s will and faith in God’s promise.

“The Ascent to Calvary”  Jacobo Tintoretto

Days after the shooting in Orlando, Diana Butler Bass, a prominent Christian scholar and author, tweeted:

https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/742895262289526786Since I first read these words, I have wondered: what might that look like? What might it look like for us to “set our faces towards Jerusalem,” like Jesus did?

One place we might begin to look is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul writes, “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

If we truly believe that Jesus loves and works to save all people then being “radicalized by love” means that we should continue to stand up and even fight when necessary for what we believe to be right, but it also means channeling our anger, our sadness and our frustration into more fully loving the people we are tempted to call “enemies;” otherwise we only become part of the problem we intend to solve.

I think what Jesus is demanding of his followers is not the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” of us coopted and redirected by the “best,” but a complete and utter change of the script. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a straight line while looking backward. God is calling us to find a way forward, and we can only do that together, and that is difficult, frustrating work; so difficult, in fact, that it got Jesus killed.  However, if we truly believe that God’s reign is for all people, then that’s the job ahead of us.

The second half of Yeats’ poem concludes:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats’ fears what ancient and primordial power might be about to be loosed on the world, and rightly so. He wrote this poem in 1919. After having witnessed the cruel powers and evil forces at work in First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and political strife in his own native Ireland, and believing that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, how could he not fear what the future might hold?

And yet, as Christians, we trust in the promise that what “slouches towards Bethlehem” is no rough beast at all, but Christ himself, and with him, the reign of God in which all wrongs are righted and all hurts are healed. On some days, that hope seems truly delusional. We may feel naïve or ignorant to trust in a promise of wholeness when things fall apart all around us.

Or, we may feel that if we are to help bring about that reign of God, that we, too, must have the same passionate intensity of the terrorists and the murderers. Like James and John, we are ready to call down fire on those who would oppose the reign of God and prevent Christ’s work from being done. If God’s reign is to come forth in the midst of such violence and terror—even from Christ’s own followers—then the power and conviction behind it must be great indeed.

Thankfully for us, it is. Even on our best days, we may be unable to match the passionate intensity of the world’s hatred and fear. It’s not humanly possible to keep on plowing, to keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God without looking back. Thankfully, though the best among us may lack all conviction, there is one whose conviction is enough for all of us. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23) We may not always be faithful to God’s vision of love and wholeness, but the one who calls us to this work is. Jesus has a habit of calling broken and imperfect people—people like James and John—and using them to inch slowly towards God’s promised reign.

Mosaic of Christ the Pantokrator (Almighty) from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Do not misunderstand: this is not an invitation to “let go and let God,” but rather a call to redouble our efforts, to grab the plow with both hands, to be “radicalized by love.” Friends, the work is hard and wearying, and the field is full of rocks, but we do not work alone. When Elijah prayed to God in desperation, God answered his prayer by giving him helpers: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. When Elijah thought he was all alone, God assured him that there were 7000 yet who stood with him.

Jesus calls us to give everything we have, to set our faces towards Jerusalem, and then in the same breath he says to us, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Through baptism, we are joined to Christ—our weakness and faithlessness has died, and he now lives in us. We are able because he is able. Where our conviction ends, his takes over. Maybe the center cannot hold, but it is no rough beast that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born; rather it is the eternal reign of God that is preparing to bind up the broken pieces of our world. As the old proverb says, “When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.”


* I am specifically referring to numerous comments I saw on Facebook groups for my Church (the ELCA) of (more “liberal”) people accusing those among us who believe that homosexuality is sinful of being as bad as Omar Mateen. While I agree that this negative attitude towards the LGBTQ+ (especially within the Church) is harmful, this sort of name calling and sniping doesn’t solve anything or contribute meaningfully to conversation; it only puts people on the defensive and stops rational discussion. However, I have seen this sort of behavior generally in lots of other places. It’s easy to demonize the “others” who disagree with us, but that is not helpful for community. 

 


Although it didn’t make it into the sermon, I found this story about Martin Luther King, Jr a great example of what I am talking about. On January 27, 1956, King sat in his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama holding a cup of coffee, unable to sleep. The bus boycott seemed to be collapsing. His own life had been repeatedly threatened. He later recounted:

. . . I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” He needed the word of this proverb. “Keep your hand on the plow…” (Samuel Freeman, Upon This Rock, 143).

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone (ibid, 173).

The Mold in the Bathroom

June 5, 2016 2 comments

Pentecost 3/Proper 5, Year C
Texts: 1 Kgs 17.17-24; Gal 1.11-24; Lk 7.11-17

Last week as Stephanie and I were packing up our stuff to spend the night at my sister’s in-laws’ place in Bonney Lake, we opened the cabinet under our sink to get our bathroom kits and found a surprise. The sink had been dripping for weeks, as it turns out, and our bathroom bags were covered in green, fluffy mold. On Tuesday, I sat on our back porch, scrubbing the mold out of our bags with bleach water and thinking about the impermanence of things, because I’m a nerd and that’s what I do. Strike that: I’m not a nerd, I’m a “theologian;” that sounds better.

The bags, you see, are synthetic fibers, so the bleach doesn’t damage or decolorize them; and yet, the mold reminded me that they are not indestructible. The mold itself didn’t hurt them, but if I didn’t feel like cleaning them they could easily have been thrown away where they would have ended up in the landfill, and someday, they probably will. In spite of the fact that they are made from plastic that will exist far longer than I will, someday they will decay and fall apart like everything else. Read more…

Trinity, Community, and the Image of God

May 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Holy Trinity Sunday, Year C
Texts: Prov 8.1-4, 21-30; Rom 5.1-5; Jn 16.12-15

Today we celebrate the identity of God as triune: Father, Christ and Spirit. The idea of a God that is both one and three at the same time doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s because it isn’t an idea that was reasoned out and created; we experienced it. Trinity is what you get when you testify to the experience that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead. It’s impossible to really wrap one’s head around it, but in the end, what is truly important about the idea of trinity is not what it is, but what it means. Read more…

While We Wait

May 8, 2016 Leave a comment

Easter 7, Year C; Ascension (observed)
Texts: Acts 16.16-34; Rev 22.12-21; Jn 17.20-26

Today is the 43rd day of Easter. The season of Lent has 40 days, but Easter has 50. It’s a reminder that the joy of Easter outweighs the somberness of Lent; that the feast is bigger than the fast. But this far into the season of Easter, the excitement of that resurrection morning has begun to wear off a bit. Alleluia! Christ is risen! But, where is he?

This week, we also celebrated Ascension Day. Ascension, 40 days after Easter, is the day when Jesus left his disciples and ascended into heaven. It marks the end of Jesus’ physical presence among his disciples, which we recognize by extinguishing our Paschal candle. He leaves his disciples with the promise that he will return, but he leaves them all the same. 43 days into Easter, 3 days after the Ascension, here we are, waiting.

 

Read more…

Nobody’s Going to Heaven

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Easter 5, Year C
Texts: Acts 11.1-18; Rev 21.1-7; Jn 13.31-35

We most often hear these words from Revelation at funerals. This image has become for us a picture of heaven, a place where all “good” people go when they die, the eternal reward of the righteous. Within the Church there is some disagreement about what exactly is meant by “good” people: maybe it’s those who keep God’s commandments, or maybe it’s people with good hearts, or maybe it’s those who believe in Jesus. Regardless, most of us have been taught one way or another that getting into heaven is decided on a case-by-case basis, and is dependent on some action or characteristic of each person being judged, leaving us to work hard or hope that we make the cut.

What we almost always look past in this vision of “heaven” is that this is not heaven at all, but earth. “I looked, and I saw the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…”  “I heard the voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’” Heaven is actually being emptied out as God makes God’s home on Earth with us. This is not a vision of salvation for only a select few, or even for only humanity; this is a vision of salvation for all creation. As my New Testament professor in seminary once said, “God is not interested in saving a handful of individuals; God is saving the whole frickin’ universe!” Read more…

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