St. Nicholas: Image of the Good Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + St. Nicholas Day + December 6, 2017

Reading: John 10:11-18


Our first story for tonight begins like a fairy tale or a romcom: with three women – three sisters — dreaming of being married. But these sisters held out very little hope of actually finding husbands, because their family was poor. This was the late 200s or early 300s AD, and they needed a dowry – a large gift from the bride’s father to the groom – in order to attract a good husband. Without a dowry, their chances of being married were slim; and if they were not married, these women had essentially no opportunity to earn money to support themselves and their family, and they would become a burden; they faced a very strong likelihood that their family would have to sell them into slavery – in our contemporary terminology, give them over to human trafficking — just so that everyone could survive.

One morning, one of the sisters was taking the family’s stockings down from the fireplace, where they’d been hung out to dry. One of the stockings was surprisingly heavy. She reached down inside, pulled out a small bag, and opened it to find a pile of gold coins. The family rejoiced at their luck, and soon the eldest daughter married.

Not long after the marriage, another bag of gold appeared mysteriously in the house, and the middle daughter was able to marry. Seeing the pattern forming, the father decided to start keeping watch at night, hoping to discover the person behind these generous gifts. He sat awake near the fireplace, night after night, until finally he saw a third bag of gold come sailing in through the open window. The father jumped up and stuck his head through the window, where he caught a glimpse of a local monk sneaking away. “Oh, Nicholas, it’s you!” the father shouted. “You have saved my daughters from disaster!” Embarrassed, Nicholas begged the man to keep his good deeds a secret, saying “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers.”[1]

Stories like these form the legend of St. Nicholas – the ancient Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) who has been remembered for centuries for living a life of remarkable generosity, for defending the innocent and the wrongly accused, and for protecting those in danger.

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Statue at the Church of St. Nicholas, Ebermannstadt, Germany. Statue by Harro Frey (1989); photo by Immanuel Giel (2006). Via Wikimedia Commons.

In one story, Nicholas appeared to be dozing off during a dinner at the Council of Nicea. In his sleep, he heard voices calling his name, and he left his body behind, following the sound of the voices out into the middle of an ocean, where a ship was caught in a raging storm. Nicholas raised his hands and the winds and the thunder and lightning hushed. When he awoke back at Nicea, another bishop said, “So much has happened while you slept!” Nicholas replied, “Yes indeed, a ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.” The bishops assumed he was speaking in metaphor: the Church was a ship, and the council had saved the church from heresy. But sailors have believed differently, naming St. Nicholas as their patron saint.[2]

St. Nicholas even saved his people from the burden of high taxes. His people begged him to speak up to the Emperor about the taxation, and so Nicholas traveled to see Emperor Constantine and pled for his people. The emperor granted a large tax cut and gave Nicholas a copy of the order, so that Nicholas could return home with proof of Constantine’s decision. Before Nicholas could return home however, some of Constantine’s finance ministers convinced him that the tax cuts were a really bad idea for the royal treasury. So Constantine called Nicholas back and asked him to return the order so that they could change it to smaller reduction. “I can’t,” Nicholas said. “The order has already been put into effect.” Miraculously, Nicholas had already gotten the order all the way to Myra: he had thrown the parchment into the sea, and almost immediately it was found in the water back home and rushed right to the proper authorities. Faced with such divine intervention, Constantine allowed the big tax cut to stand.[3]

For thousands of years people have continued to tell stories of St. Nicholas saving those in danger, even after his death. Sailors claimed that Nicholas pulled them up out of the sea after they were cast overboard; parents claimed that Nicholas saved their children from danger; others claim that he returned people home after they were kidnapped or put in prison. Some people in a Palestinian city claim that St. Nicholas protected their city from bombing in the 1940s, having seen a vision of St. Nicholas with his arms stretched out, catching the bombs. After a battle with Israeli soldiers in the 2000s, one Palestinian gunman claimed to have seen a man with white beard protecting the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church from bullets.[4] Even if you maybe don’t believe stories like these, we can see the power of St. Nicholas’s memory and the devotion the stories of his life continue to inspire in people.

And of course St. Nicholas has inspired traditions throughout the world.  In many countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes out the night before St. Nicholas Day, often with a tray of carrots or hay for the saint’s horse, and in the morning they find candies, fruit, and other gifts tucked into their shoes. In a Mexican town named for St. Nicholas, his festival lasts for an entire week and includes a parade of his statue, fireworks, and music. The town of Beit Jala in Palestine is home to a cave where St. Nicholas supposedly lived around the time of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Lutherans as well as many Muslims take part in St. Nicholas Day festivities there, which include a procession to the cave and concerts. The memory of St. Nicholas draws people from around the world to celebrate.[5]

I can’t resist the pun here: so many people have flocked to St. Nicholas because he was a shepherd to his people in the same way Jesus was. The people of his time and place, and then people around the world and throughout the centuries, have seen in him the image of the great Good Shepherd.  Jesus once said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and when we hear that we think of Jesus’s supreme example of laying down his life for us on the cross. But we can expand how we understand that, too: the good shepherd must lay down his life for the sheep in both large and small acts every day, choosing to put his sheep’s needs over his desire to take a nap in the shade or run away from the wolf or spend all day by the village well, hoping that the young woman with the sharp wit comes by to draw water.

Jesus laid down his life in large and small ways throughout his life: he saw people in need of healing on the street, and he stopped to help them. He stood up to powerful people on behalf of those who were suffering under their rule. He fed the crowds who came out be healed and taught. Jesus death on the cross was the strongest example in an entire life laid down for the mission of God and in service to others.

St. Nicholas took the teachings and the model of Jesus seriously and laid down his life for God and for his people, too. When he was still young and his parents died, they left him a sizeable inheritance; and he knew right away he must use that money to help those who were in need. He spent time in prison when the Emperor persecuted Christians. He listened to his people and responded to their needs. He gave away money and food, he stood up for those being mistreated, and he saved those in danger. And he was always quick to point back to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the one who inspired his good deeds, as the true source of the generosity and protection seen through St. Nicholas. As he said to the father of the three brides: “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts.”

As we remember these stories of St. Nicholas, and as we see in them the image of the Good Shepherd, I hope that we, too, may see the opportunities we have to lay down our lives for others, maybe especially in the small, everyday ways – in opportunities to put a loved one’s needs first, or to stand up for those who are mistreated, to protect someone else in body or in reputation or in fair treatment, even just to listen to another person’s story. And I hope that we also pay close attention to notice the ways that others lay down their lives for us, and catch a glimpse of the Good Shepherd at work in our family and friends and even in strangers.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray,that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [6]


[1] “Three Impoverished Maidens or The Story of the Dowries,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/three-impoverished-maidens/

[2] “Where Was Nicholas?”, St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/where-was-nicholas/

[3] “Tax Relief for Myra,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/tax-relief-for-myra/

[4] “Palestine,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/palestine/

[5] From “Around the World,” St. Nicholas Center; information from the particular pages of the countries named. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/around-the-world/

[6] Anglican prayer, “Liturgical Prayers,” The St. Nicholas Center. Online: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/liturgical-prayers/

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Keep Awake

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday of Advent + December 3, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37


This Wednesday I felt like just about every conversation with other human beings started by jumping right into the particularly hot topic of current events right now: the ever-growing list of famous men who have been accused of sexual harassment. Their names came up while I talked with people waiting to see Jolene; they came up while a few of us got to know our new nursery attendant; they came up while we were gathering for our Worship Planning meeting. And then I got home, and a friend came over for dinner, and started the conversation with, “Did you hear about Garrison Keillor?” And I wanted to scream “Yes, I heard, and I know, but I’m hungry and I don’t want to think about all these guys anymore!”

And while some of the particular men being accused may surprise us, or some of the details of the stories of harassment may be particularly gross and shocking, most of the people I’ve spoken with — especially the women — have not been surprised by the high number of incidents or people involved. And that’s because we all already knew that harassment and abuse happen all the time. It’s a fact of life; it’s been a fact of life for pretty much ever, and unfortunately I think most women are used to just putting up with it. Until very, very recently, it was hard to imagine anything changing, even if we did speak up; it was hard to imagine even being taken seriously. For many of us, I bet it’s still hard to imagine any change happening in our own circles. And for those of us who took deeply to heart the childhood lessons to “not be rude” or “not cause a fuss,” it’s hard to imagine actually complaining or accusing, anyway.

In life in general when we feel “that’s the way it’s always been,” or “that’s just how it is,” it’s hard to imagine any change, and even harder to try to be the one doing the changing. And often we don’t even see the need for change, because we’ve only ever known things the way they are. It’s “the water we swim in”; we take it for granted; we don’t think about it. We just live in it.

But we are entering a Church season where we look towards radical, foundation-shaking change. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. This is the season of the church year that leads us to feel our deepest longings: longings for the “way things have always been” to change. Longings for God to send a prophet or messiah to break apart all that tells us “that’s just how it is” and to bring about real justice and real rightness and real peace. Longings for even Godself to disrupt our world: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

As we begin this season of praying that God would come and disrupt “the way it’s always been,” maybe it’s helpful for us to enter Advent acknowledging that we, as a whole, have such a strong tendency to let things go on the way they are going, to let things be “the way they have always been.” There are a huge range of reasons why we do this, from just not thinking about it, to believing we can’t change anything anyway, and all the way to recognizing that we benefit from the way things are and fighting to keep them this way. In any case, we tend to preserve the way things are, to “go with the flow,” even if it’s not good for others, sometimes even if it’s not good for ourselves.

So maybe it’s helpful for us that right now, as Advent begins, our news sources don’t go five minutes without reminding us that we have lived in the habit of overlooking or hiding harassment and assault all this time. Maybe that will help us to notice some of the other things we put up with or let keep on going that we shouldn’t, whether those are other society-wide things, or unhealthy patterns within your friends or family groups, or personal habits you’ve let slide for too long.

Advent is a time to remember that God wants change, that we need change. Things aren’t going to stay the way they are: God is coming, and God is going to shake things up.

In today’s gospel lesson we read of how Jesus told his disciples that the great day was approaching: the day when God’s messiah would come into the world and change everything, knocking away everything contrary to God’s will. Some of the images he used were disturbing: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light…” But at the heart of Jesus’s message here is a promise: God will gather God’s people together. Things seem awful and scattered and violent now, but God will make them okay. The messiah is coming, and he will make things good and right and just.

In the meantime, Jesus said, while you wait, do not go about business as usual. Do not fall into the patterns of the world as it is. “Beware, keep alert…keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

In this passage Jesus reminds me of a character in the Harry Potter series, Professor “Mad-Eye” Moody, and his catchphrase: “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!”

With Jesus it is the promise of God’s coming that calls us to constant vigilance: Keep awake, be on the lookout for the promise to come true. Watch — always watch — for the moment when God does “tear open the heavens and come down,” when God comes to change all the awful ways things “have always been”, when God establishes God’s perfect kingdom. We aren’t living for “the way things have always been” or for the way things are — we are living forward, towards that promise.

The emphasis in our gospel lesson is on something big and final: that future event we call the Last Day or Judgment Day or the Apocalypse. But Jesus’s command here – “Keep awake!” — doesn’t have to be only about that one day.

Because as we are keeping our eyes peeled open for the messiah’s return, watching out for the signs that it’s finally happening, our constant vigilance will help us catch onto what God is already doing here and now. With our eyes wide open, we might see past “the way things have always been” to the way things could be, the way God wants them to be. We might see the ways God is already here, already pulling apart the things in our world that cause (or allow) suffering and injustice and evil.

God is at work in the testimony of those who are suffering (Listen.); in the efforts of those trying to change things for the better (Watch.); in the little voice in the back our heads that says, “This isn’t right; God wants things to be different than this. Better than this.” (Pay attention.) We need to keep awake, keep alert, so that God can pull us past our habit of accepting the way things are and into a future built on God’s promises, God’s vision for the world.

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“Judgment Day” (painting), Aaron Douglas, 1939. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

During Lent we often choose to give something up or take something on as a way to challenge ourselves for that season: to try and rid ourselves of a bad habit, or encourage a good one; to become more aware of others’ suffering or to make a bigger place for God in our lives.

As we begin Advent, let’s take Jesus’s words here — “Keep awake! Keep alert!” — as inspiration for an Advent practice. From now until Christmas, is there something you can give up that would help you be more aware the need for change in our world and more alert to God’s work around you? Is there a practice you could take on that would help you to know God more or to remember to look for God around you? In the midst of this busy time, full of planning and parties and buying presents and travelling, is there one thing you can do to keep God at the center, to keep yourself grounded in God’s work, to not get distracted or lulled by the ways of the world, but to keep alert for the promises of God?

Think and pray about it for a moment now.

Let us pray.

God for whom we wait and watch: keep our eyes open for moments when you break into our usual way of doing things, moments when you come bringing good news, healing, and salvation. Open our hearts to receive you and the Word you bring, whether it be a word of comfort or of challenge. Strengthen us for service in your mission, until your kingdom comes in full and your will is done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

Multiplying God’s Blessings

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 24th Sunday after Pentecost + November 19, 2017

Reading: Matthew 25:14-30


The last time I preached, the gospel lesson was the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), and so during that sermon I quoted Jesus’s proclamations multiple times: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and, “blessed are the poor.”

As part of our confirmation program our students have to turn in worship notes. Sandy Vollmer gives them worksheets on which they answer questions about the church season and their own faith practices, and, of course, the sermon. One of the questions is, “What’s one thing that the sermon made you think about?” After hearing me repeat some of the Beatitudes over and over Brett Forsberg answered that question with a very insightful — and very challenging — question of his own: “If the poor are blessed, what does that mean for people who are rich?”

When I read Brett’s question, I immediately flashed to all these difficult Bible passages — passages that give us trouble whenever they come up in Sunday school. Like the list of “woes” that follows the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry…” (Luke 6:24-25). Or Jesus’s famous line: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). Even Mary’s beautiful Magnificat song, which we love to sing during Holden Evening Prayer, declares: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

If the poor are blessed, what does that mean for people who are rich? If the lowly are lifted up, what happens to the powerful? If it’s so hard for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom, what are we supposed to do with our money?

Maybe this morning’s parable can be our guide to answering questions like those and to understanding passages that seem to condemn the wealthy. In this parable, a master gives each of his slaves some money, and then he leaves on a journey. When he returns, he wants to see what each of them has made of his money. Have they used it well? Have they multiplied it? Or did they just hide it away, terrified of losing it?

That’s the question for us: What do we do with the things God has given us? Do we bury them, or do we multiply them? Do we keep funneling our wealth back into a cycle of wealth, using it to make ourselves wealthier or more comfortable or more secure? Or do we break that cycle and use our wealth to multiply God’s blessings, to be part of the work of blessing the poor, the depressed, the mourning, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned?

And of course we shouldn’t take this parable so literally that we think only of money. We should reflect on all the riches we individually have: intelligence; athletic ability; good health; patience; artistic ability; a caring nature; our place in society. All these things are riches we can use to multiply God’s blessings.

This parable calls us to ask seriously and creatively: How can we use the gifts God has entrusted to us to multiply God’s blessings?

And as we ask that question, “counting our blessings” becomes more than a mental activity we do to make ourselves feel better. Counting our blessings is a task we should do as part of our discipleship, part of following Jesus, part of working alongside God in the mission of the gospel. We count our blessings to remind us of all that God has entrusted to us.

The problem is that our culture is constantly tricking us into doing just the opposite. Think about how often you see advertisements. Watching TV. Looking something up online. Stuffed into your mailbox (whether you like it or not). On billboards while you’re driving to work. And all these advertisements are designed to make you want. To remind you that there’s something out there that you don’t have yet, that you’re missing, something that could make your life even better.

And in addition to any pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” next door, our TV shows and movies flood our minds with images of lifestyles richer than our own. We take in the power plays of the Underwoods on House of Cards or follow the shiny lives of celebrities or gasp at the houses people buy or renovate on HGTV and our own lives look pretty plan in comparison.

With all of that advertising and that peeking-in to what we don’t have, it can become easy to fall into thinking: well, I don’t have enough. Look at all those people who have enough money to afford all those things I don’t have. Or, look at all those people who are so much smarter or more talented or more powerful than I am. They are the ones who need to be generous and help with the world’s problems — because they are the ones who can.

I’ve heard people with more money than I can realistically dream of ever having talk about “those rich people out there” and how “they should give more.” We can get stuck comparing ourselves to people who have it better — or even just to the people around us — and totally miss seeing all that we do have to offer. It’s easy to think of ourselves as not having enough to be generous or to really make a difference.

Today’s parable reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether we have an abundance or barely enough: we are called to use whatever we have been given to multiply God’s blessings.

A few years ago I went to a panel on the question “Should we give money to people on the streets?” On the panel were lawyers and professors who specialized in studying poverty or helping people who are poor. They gave long complicated answers about the social system and the causes of poverty and the resources available to people in need…answers that didn’t really provide an answer to the basic question. The last person to speak was a woman who had just recently gotten settled in a job and a home after years of homelessness. The answer she gave to the question, “Should we give money to people on the streets?” was a story:

She talked about having recently had enough money that she could buy herself a treat. She bought a bag of her very favorite chips: those chili-flavored Fritos. You would not believe how good she made those Fritos sound when she described how much she liked them. Anyway, she bought herself a bag of those chips, then sat down on the bench at the bus stop with her snack and settled in to enjoy the taste of her hard work paying off. Then a man approached her, asking if she had any change to spare for a bus ride. “Well,” she said, “I had a dollar still left in my pocket, so I gave him that. And then I still had some Fritos left, so I gave him the rest of the bag. I figured, since I was so blessed, I better share what I could.”

When we have an attitude of scarcity — thinking over and over, What if I don’t have enough? — we end up like that third slave in the parable: fearfully burying what we do have in hole in the ground. The woman at the bus stop, still very poor by our standards, had an attitude of abundance — Look how much I’ve been blessed! –, and so she saw ways that she could multiply God’s blessings and jumped right in.

So let’s work on that discipleship practice of counting our blessings, naming all that we have, and looking for the opportunities we have to invest in God’s mission to bless the people in need around us.

One of the great gifts of being involved in a church is that it connects us directly to opportunities to use what God has entrusted to us, to multiply God’s blessings in the world.  We can use our financial resources to support the work of this congregation and its partners in ministry. We can give our companionship to men experiencing homeless and loneliness when we host them here at Room in the Inn. We can give our words and our love to the people in our congregation who are grieving or struggling. We can give skills in building or cleaning to help in disaster response; or skills in cooking to provide meals for those who are sick. There are as many opportunities to invest in God’s mission as there are blessings God has given to us. Some seem grand, some seem small, but God uses them all to multiply blessings.

 

Let us pray. God of abundance: You call us to count our blessings and see what you have entrusted to our care. Drive out our fears of scarcity and fill us with faith in your abundance. Help us to be creative in using what we have, whether it’s a little or a lot. Multiply our offerings and our efforts to bless your people and your Kingdom. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.

The Saints All Around Us (People can be “Thin Places”)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + All Saints Sunday + November 5, 2017

Reading: Matthew 5:1-12


There’s an old Celtic saying — or at least the internet says there is –that goes like this: “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even shorter.”[1] I’ve mentioned thin places from this ambo before: thin places are spots on this earth that make us feel that God, the divine, the beyond are closer to us in that spot than everywhere else. Mountains rising up out of the misty ground to break into the sky. The crystal-blue ocean reaching out past the horizon.

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Cathedral of Christ the Light, Omega Window: Oakland, CA. Craig W. Hartman (architect). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

As I looked toward today, All Saints Sunday, I started to think of how people can be “thin places” too; in a moment of interaction or through a lifetime of love and service, they make God feel a little bit nearer. Or maybe they help us realize how near God always is.

If we look back over history, there’s a strong record of the powerful people — kings or high priests and the like — being portrayed as thin places. And maybe we can get into that mindset: imagine living in an ancient or medieval world, with no TVs or photographs to show you a world outside your own, in a peasant village where everyone around you is poor like you. But maybe you don’t even think of yourself as poor, because that’s all you know; this is just how life is. But then this grand figure you’ve only heard about in stories — the king — passes by your village. He’s surrounded by people wearing beautiful colors and shining armor, and he is the shiniest of them all, riding a high horse, the gold crown on his head glinting with light like the sun itself. You’ve never seen anything like it before, and maybe you never will again. It’s a glimpse of a world beyond your own. Maybe you would feel like you’ve caught a glimpse of something a little closer to the divine than your daily life.

At the very least, the powerful have often claimed to be closer to the divine. Kings and queens were said to be chosen by God to rule. And since the most ancient times rulers have declared themselves to actually be divine. This was going on at the time of Jesus, too: Julius Caesar was declared to be a god after his death, and his successor, Caesar Augustus, who ruled during the first half of Jesus’s life, claimed the title “son of god.”

In the modern United States, with our rejection of royalty and the aristocracy and the divine right to rule, with our emphasis on democracy and the power of the people, we may think we are beyond all that. But a connection between God and certain classes of people has taken different forms in our history. To justify racist institutions like slavery and segregation, scholars declared that black people were descendants of Noah’s cursed son, and so they carried God’s curse and deserved to be treated as less than white people; or, more dramatically, some people argued that black people were not descendants of Adam and Eve at all. Through teachings like these, white people were seen as more closely aligned with God.[2]

In other ways God is still associated with the wealthy. People flock to hear the prosperity gospel, which promises that God will give the faithful material wealth. With that worldview it becomes easy to imagine that wealthy people are the chosen people of God. That idea exists in more subtle ways, too: as a culture we idolize wealth and the wealthy, and we tend to look on poor people as being wrong or immoral, somehow deserving their lot in life.

Throughout history the divine has been associated with the rich and powerful. After all, they are so obviously blessed, they must be specially connected to God.

But Jesus taught something different: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Or, the Gospel of Luke’s version (Luke 6:20-26), “Blessed are the poor.”) “Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek…blessed are the merciful…blessed are those who are persecuted.” These are the people who live close to God’s heart; these are the people through whom we can catch glimpses of the divine, of a world beyond our own. Not through the rich and powerful and proud, but through the poor and the poor in spirit. Not through those who seem to have been blessed with everything they need, but through those who mourn deep losses. Not through those loved and adored by everyone, but through those who are persecuted and rejected.

Once again, God is popping up in places where we wouldn’t logically expect to find God’s blessing; God is popping up beside and within the people we least expect.

This passage, these teachings of Jesus, have the power to turn our world and our values upside-down. They also have the power to transform our most painful experiences. When we experience loss, we are not being punished by God or abandoned by God; but rather in those times we should look for how God is drawing close to us, to bless us, because we are in pain, and God knows we need that blessing so much. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice in our world, hunger and thirst so deeply that we grow weary with it, we should not abandon hope and believe we are living in a godless world; rather we should believe that God is there with us, blessing our hunger and thirst for righteousness; believing, in the words of our Communion liturgy: “our hunger and thirst for justice is [God’s] own desire.”[3]

At the very least, this teaching of Jesus, these blessings of the unexpected, everyday, even suffering people, should open our eyes to see God in the people around us — to find in our everyday interactions moments where that thin boundary between the ordinary and the divine gets even thinner.

A couple of Sundays ago, Spencer Lau, one of the elementary students in our congregation (you might know him and his little brother, Oliver, as the boys always hugging everybody)…A couple of Sundays ago Spencer was in pain in his knee and in a few other places, and he was hurting enough that he didn’t want have to process in with the children’s choir, and so he sat in the choir loft before worship started, waiting there for the rest of the choir to join him. I passed by him on the way to put on my robe and stopped to check in about how he was doing. I told him I would say his name during the prayers, and he promised me, “I’ll say your name, too.” When the time came for the prayers of intercession, and the assisting minister said, “…and these we name now, out loud or in our hearts,” Spencer and I — without planning this part at all — both opened our eyes, looked at each other across the room, and mouthed each others names. That moment became a thin place for me — a moment where I felt God brush against me through shared prayer with Spencer.

Those “thin place” moments can come to us through another person — not just in church, but any time, anywhere, if we open our eyes to see them. Maybe part of the reason Jesus said that people who are suffering — the poor, the mourning, the persecuted — are blessed is because in their suffering they are so desperate to see God that they have their eyes open as wide as they can go — and they are more likely to see God close by. They are so hungry for God’s touch that they find it in the care of a nurse or the kind words of a stranger on a hospital elevator. May we remember to open our eyes so wide, even in our times of contentment.

All Saints’ Sunday may be a perfect day to begin this holy practice of keeping our eyes wide open to see God through one another. Today we remember the saints of our Church and our lives, especially the people we know and love who have died. These people were ordinary people, like us, and yet as we remember them today, we look back to remember the moments in which they were also saints, the ways in which they made thin places for the rest of us to feel God’s presence in a special way.

We remember Josette Starkey’s gifts of faith, caring, and nurturing — shown in our church in so many ways, including her leadership of the prayer shawl ministry. We remember Thelma Lockhart’s ministry of teaching and Lewis Lockhart’s brave service to our country in World War II. We remember Dominick Santarpia’s dedication to his family and his work. We remember Art Lebahn’s ever-present smile, his inspiring faith, and his service to his neighbors through ministries like Meals on Wheels. We remember Alex Brown’s dedication to researching cancer and to the students he mentored. We remember John Lillie’s years of service to his communities through board leadership and fundraising. Those of us who knew them well remember them in more detail, in specific memories, in the ways they touched our lives in particular. And I’m sure that on this day each of us is reflecting on others gone from this world but still close to our hearts.

Even their memory may be for us a thin place which helps to remember how we experienced God’s touch through them.

Often I end sermons by encouraging you all to go into the world and help others experience God’s love through you. Today I tell you the opposite: when you are sent from this place, go into your week with your eyes wide open, looking for the thin places where God feels especially close. Look for God and God’s blessing even where you least expect it: in the poor in spirit, the suffering, the meek; in a stranger, in someone vastly different from you in look or culture or opinion; in your own moments of hurt. Seek, and you shall find. Amen.


[1] Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html

[2] Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, (New York: Nation Books, 2017).

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Great Thanksgiving option VII. Cf. Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leader’s Desk Edition, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 2006) p. 202. The line comes originally from

Reformation 500: A call to practice curiosity

Written for Reformation Day at Emory University +October 26, 2017

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 8:31-36

[A video of this sermon is available here via the Candler School of Theology at Emory]


As we gather today to remember the story of the European Reformation, we have a number of options for a place to begin. Once upon a time an Englishman named John Wycliffe declared that the Bible — not the Pope — was the best source for knowledge of God, and he translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. Once upon a time a Bohemian named John Huss declared that the people were being exploited by the church through the system of indulgences. Once upon a time a German named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and suddenly mass communication was possible — even when the writings were suppressed.

But since we are calling this year the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we should probably begin like this:

Once upon a time, a German monk felt trapped. Trapped, he would say, by his own sin. Trapped, we might diagnose, by his own anxiety and by certain problems with the church of his day. He spent his days in confession and his nights in penance, putting all his energy into justifying himself before God, making himself righteous, and avoiding eternal damnation. He lived in fear, and he almost hated the God he feared so deeply.

Driven by some mix of that anxiety and dedication to his faith and his call to teach, Luther poured over the scriptures. And as he studied and studied, so the story goes, Luther came to a realization: he could not possibly make himself righteous in God’s eyes; but he also didn’t have to. God had chosen to justify Luther — and all those who believed — through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. That was God’s work, not Luther’s, not any human’s. That was God’s gift.

It was there in Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom. 3:24-25).

It was there in Galatians: “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).

It was there in the Gospels: “They who have believed and have been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).

That great, liberating message was threaded throughout the scriptures (sidebar: yes, it’s in the Old Testament too). But that message was not being heard over the Church’s — or at least some priests’ — emphasis on things like penance, purgatory, hell, and indulgences.

And that was another of Luther’s great epiphanies: it wasn’t Luther who was trapped; the problem was much bigger. Scripture was trapped. The grace of God was trapped. The gospel was trapped. Trapped behind false teachings and abusive, greedy preachers — at least that’s what Luther thought.

Thinking the church would like to see the error of her ways so that she could correct the mistakes and sound the gospel more clearly, Luther nailed 95 theses, 95 arguments, to the door of his church — and soon the Gospel good news was set free over Europe.

One of the Reformation’s central statements of faith is that if people read the scriptures — like Luther read the scriptures — then they cannot possibly miss the truth of God’s will and God’s grace. The law and gospel ring free and clear in those writings and in faithful preaching — and all the false teachings will be swept away by its power. Our annual Reformation Day readings reminds us of that belief:

Today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah seems to promise a clear, direct, and personal understanding of both the will of God and the love of God. “I will put my law within them [says the Lord], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

And we who are Christian confess that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of that ancient promise, believing that by some holy, graceful mystery, Jesus brings us into that intimate knowledge of God; believing Jesus when he said to his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

We read these passages every year on Reformation Day because they point us back to that core Reformation belief: If we can just read the scriptures and just hear the word of God preached in faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible, then we will know God. Then we will know God’s will and God’s great love and forgiveness.1

And yet — Luther’s story of feeling like the Word of God is trapped or confused by the language of scripture or the teachings of one preacher versus another or by our own internal shame or anxiety — that story is still familiar.

Because we look back on the history of the Reformation and we see that things were not so clear and easy once the scriptures were translated and set free. My Reformation professor liked to call 16th-century Europe “the hermeneutical wild west”2 — because as soon as people felt freed to read and interpret the scriptures themselves, there were as many church factions as there were people with strong opinions. We know the Roman Catholic church did not agree with Luther’s interpretation of the scriptures; Luther struggled with other thinkers within his own Evangelical movement; the Anabaptists popped up quickly with their own, even more radical interpretation, and they were persecuted by Catholics and Lutherans alike. This splintering continues today; I remember hearing from a Candler admissions representative that they received applications to the M.Div. program from a brand-new denomination just about every year.

We look back and see that even with all Martin Luther’s world-changing and soul-changing epiphanies, all his intense study of scripture, Luther’s thoughts were still bound by some of the the more heinous teachings of the Church. Lutherans today are still repenting of his terrible anti-Jewish writings, wondering how this liberator of the gospel could also write something so painfully contrary to the heart of our Jewish savior.

We look around us at the arguments that tear at the unity of the Church today. Arguments about who can be ordained or even allowed in the doors of the church; arguments about who is welcomed to the Communion table; arguments about whether Christian hands are permitted to commit violence or bake a cake for a same-sex couple or join together with people of different faiths for prayer. And each side of each of these arguments can open their Bibles and point and read and defend their position.

We look within ourselves — and this may be the most trying task of all. We struggle with our own doubt and confusion. We struggle to differentiate our own opinions and upbringing from the revelation of God. We feel, embedded with us, messages of shame and guilt and unworthiness — messages that run contrary to God’s love and forgiveness, we know, but still we can’t quite shake them.

So, looking back and looking around and looking within, we recognize that God’s Word is always competing against the other messages written on our hearts and in our communities and in our culture. Messages that cloud and confuse and maybe you, like me, sometimes find yourself praying:

Dear Lord, is it really possible for us to know you? “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and some days that mirror is so smudged and foggy that we wonder if we are really seeing you at all or just some combination of other people’s fingerprints and our own reflection (1 Cor. 13:12).

And yet every year we (of certain traditions) gather and look back at this thing called the Reformation. We read these same Bible lessons, promising us that God is writing on our own hearts, that we shall know the truth, and the truth will set us free. And it is a day for us to take a breath and receive anew that great gift of faith: the faith that God is speaking to us even through the debate and the questions and the doubt.

Yes, the Reformation was imperfect. Yes, it — like the Christians that brought it to life — was simultaneously righteous and sinful. It fractured the Western Church, and the factions that splintered off spoke hatred and committed violence against one another. It continued the Church’s horrible history of spewing poisonous words against the Jewish people. (I have noted these things already, but some corporate sins need repeated public confession.)

And yet we can hold all that in hand and still remember how the Reformation did help the gospel ring more clearly again. We put Luther’s face and a big “500” on our church calendars and our children’s coloring books and our coffee mugs because we want to remember and celebrate how the good news of God’s grace seemed to pour out anew over 16th-century Europe. We want to remember and celebrate how so many people heard for the first time that most powerful Word of God given to us, embodied, in Jesus Christ: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). We want to remember how those people, our ancestors in the faith, felt liberated from their paralyzing fear of God’s judgment and liberated for loving God and loving neighbor.

And by remembering that history, we hope for ourselves. We hope with the confidence of that memory; we hope with the confidence of what God has done for our ancestors in the faith. We hope that God will do again for us what God has done over and over throughout history. We hope that the Word of God will pour over us too, that God will write the message more clearly on our hearts and on our communities and on our culture.

So let’s begin telling the story of the Reformation again.

Once upon a time an anxious, imperfect German monk dared to be curious. He dared to question the teachings and traditions that everyone seemed to take for granted. He dared to read the scriptures with fresh eyes and an open heart. He dared to jump into the debates and confusion. He dared to believe that his questions and thoughts were, just maybe, the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

I think that such curiosity is what we need today in order to hear God’s Word more clearly.

Too often we approach confusion about God’s Word with fear. Fear maybe like the young Luther felt: fear of messing up, of doing something wrong, of believing something wrong, and so maybe putting ourselves outside of God’s grace (as if that were possible). And fear can make us freeze and hide, and keep us from sharing the gospel or serving our neighbor. Fear can make us defensive, so we cling tightly to what we believe and refuse to hear other opinions, perhaps missing opportunities to hear a new word from God. Fear is, I think, what is behind today’s shouting matches and Facebook wars and silent glares at Thanksgiving dinners. It’s not a new phenomenon, but, dear Lord, does it feel especially strong right now.

But in the Bible visits from God’s messengers often began with the command, “Do not fear.” Do not fear, but hear what God is saying.

So what if, instead, we approached all that confusion about God’s Word with curiosity? If we let ourselves wonder at different opinions. If we asked to hear about the experiences of our neighbors, if we asked the question, “What’s it like to be you? What do you think and believe?”: in our congregations and in our families; and also of our neighbors on “that side” of town, or living in the Penthouse, or locked up in prison; of our neighbors living around the world. What if we listened, openly and curiously, to those experiences and then returned to the scriptures and to our faith tradition and listened for what the Spirit was saying to us? After all, the assurance of God’s grace sets us free to do such daring things.

I’m going to tell you a story I heard, like, third-hand from Bishop Julian Gordy and then imagine my own ending for it, so I hope that’s okay.

An Ethiopian pastor took his seat on a plane, settling in next to a nice European-American woman who started the customary small talk. When she found out that he was a pastor, she brimmed with excitement about meeting not only an African person, but an African person who was a Christian. Her curiosity was set on fire. She asked him excitedly, “When did your people hear the good news about Jesus?” The pastor responded as politely as possible, “In the first century, madam.”

Imagine what that woman’s ears may have been opened to hear through that conversation. She could hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who heard the word of God so clearly that he begged to be baptized, and she might feel a new sense of connection to that ancient character. She could be disconnected from the false story (told far too often in my culture) of a God working through the white people to save the world — and instead reconnected to God’s story of a dark-skinned messiah and a Holy Spirit that spoke in every tongue and to all nations and through all nations. That one moment of curiosity on an airplane could be a like a boulder dropped into a lake, the water rippling out in all sorts of directions.

God is still speaking. God is speaking to us through the scriptures, through our neighbors, through our own hearts. If we are curious to follow the Spirit weaving through all those things, it will help us to join in what God is doing to continue the work of the Reformation in us: to write again and again, more and more clearly, the Word of God on our hearts and in our world. To unleash the power of the Gospel for us today.

Speak to us, Lord: help our world to know you; help those in need to hear your good news and believe; help each of us to trust that your grace has set us free to be curious. Amen.


1. [In his lecture on the question “Did the Reformation Fail?” given October 26, 2017 at Emory University as part of the Reformation Day events, Bishop H. Julian Gordy (Southeastern Synod of the ELCA) noted that Luther believed that the Bible should still be interpreted by and in the church. However, the idea that individuals could read and interpret the scriptures themselves was one of the fruits of the Reformation, and it clearly holds sway in our time. (I always think of the bumper-sticker-like phrase, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”)]

2. [Paul C. H. Lim, Vanderbilt Divinity School.]

Priorities

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 19th Sunday After Pentecost + October 15, 2017

Reading: Matthew 22:1-14


Fifty-two years ago this month the Queen of England and the British government honored the Beatles for their influence in bringing British music to the world — and of course boosting the British economy with their record sales. Queen Elizabeth invited the four young rock-and-rollers to a formal ceremony at Buckingham Palace, where they greeted the queen and received medals, making them official Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Four years later, in 1969, Britain (like many nations) was involved in a number of military conflicts. Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war with a secessionist state, Biafra, and Britain was supplying their federal government with weapons (mostly, it seems, to protect their oil interests). The Vietnam War continued to escalate.

Meanwhile, John Lennon, the Beatle always most likely to stir up controversy, organized public peace protests, often using performance art to draw attention. He and his wife, Yoko Ono, held a press conference for peace while inside of a giant bag. As part of these protests, Lennon returned his MBE medal to Queen Elizabeth with a note in his usual sardonic style, saying:

Your Majesty, I am returning this in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against [my song] Cold Turkey slipping down the charts. With Love, John Lennon of Bag.[1]

John Lennon returned his medal and his honorary membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire because that was the action that best represented his priorities. He didn’t care about receiving a public honor from his government and his queen — in fact, he didn’t even really care when the Beatles first received the medals; the others had to drag him out of bed for the ceremony — but in the late 1960s he had become passionate about standing up for peace. Rejecting and returning the honor was one more way for him to publicly stand up for his priorities.

Many others have turned down honors from royalty and presidents in order to stand up for their priorities. Athletes invited to the White House after winning a championship have refused to attend, citing passionate disagreement with a president’s administration; celebrities have refused to perform at inaugurations; and in fact when the Beatles received their MBE honors, some people who had received the same award for military service returned their medals, saying that giving the award to a rock-and-roll band made a mockery of the honor.[2] When a person’s priorities are challenged, they will reject even an honor from royalty.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus told a parable in which some people rejected an honored invitation from a king — though we may question the priorities of their decision. Most seemed to think the wedding of the king’s son was not worth their time; Jesus said “they made light of it” and returned to their daily business. Others must have had serious problems with the king’s reign (and not a lot of concern for their own well-being), because they killed the king’s slaves who had come to invite them.

The king was furious, of course, and punished the murderers and their whole city. We might expect that reaction in such a story, especially knowing that it comes from the days of notoriously violent rulers like Pontius Pilate and the emperor Nero. (Maybe in that point Jesus is not describing God’s character but reflecting the times in which he lived).

The next part of the king’s reaction is more surprising, though: the king sends his slaves out into the main streets to invite everyone, “both good and bad” to the prince’s wedding banquet.

Jesus told this parable as part of a larger conversation he’d been having with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, harshly criticizing them in parable after parable. In that context, the point of this story seems clear: You religious leaders had been invited to the Kingdom of God. You had advance notice. Youve spent your lives studying Gods laws and promises. But now that I tell you the Kingdom is here, youre ignoring it, youre going about your business like usual. And I know youre plotting to kill me. So Gods inviting everyone with eyes to see the Kingdom, even the people you dont think are worthy. Or as Jesus had just told them explicitly: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you, [for they believe]” (Matt. 21:31-32).

We could spend a lot of time talking about those ancient Jewish religious leaders’ priorities and what in the world they were holding on to so tightly that they would miss the chance to follow God’s son when he was right in front of them. But it’s more interesting — and more important — to talk about our Christian priorities today. Is the Kingdom of God our first priority, or are we holding on to something else so tightly that we’re missing the opportunity to be part of Jesus’s mission today?

For example: last week in the lectionary adult Sunday School class, we had a conversation about the things that keep us from doing what God would have us do. As we talked, a few related main habits floated to the top of the list: Cynicism. Apathy. Feeling like we can’t do anything.

We hear about how one charity organization misuses their donations, and we are wary of making any more donations ourselves. We say we want to help the people who are poor, but we wonder if they will just waste it. We ask whether they deserve it. We feel like the world’s problems are too big, so we can’t possibly help — and why even waste energy caring? We get swept up in the 24-hour news cycle, hearing tragic headline after tragic headline, and we feel helpless. Or we decide it’s better to pay no attention at all. Trying to help seems too risky or too pointless.

If we get stuck in those thoughts and feelings, what happens to our priorities? The kingdom of God is no longer our top priority; instead, we hold on to fear and self-protection. Faith and hope are no longer first in our heads and hearts; instead, we give up on the idea that anything or anyone could change for the better — and we hold on to our comfort and routine rather than challenging the way things are. And maybe with all those sorts of feelings rolling around in our heads, we stop looking for the ways God is working to change the world, to help others, to build up God’s kingdom.

At the end of today’s parable there’s that creepy bit, where a wedding guest shows up with the wrong clothes, and the king has him thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And Jesus finishes ominously, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Dear Jesus, that does not sound very Lutheran. Remember how we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works? And certainly not by what we wear.

A lot of interpreters think that this creepy bit is not about being “saved by works.” After all, everyone, “good and bad” is invited to the banquet. Instead it’s about showing up to the banquet like it really matters to us. About accepting that free, graceful invitation into God’s Kingdom and then being ready and willing to participate in it, making the Kingdom the top priority of our lives.[3]

That means that when cynicism, apathy, helplessness, or whatever-it-is holds us back from actively participating in God’s Kingdom, we need to actively choose the Kingdom instead. We need to help and give despite our worry of being used (though we can be wise about it!). We need to care even when it hurts. We need to speak and act even when it feels pointless. We need to be willing to take risks and make people — even ourselves — uncomfortable, because the Kingdom is our first priority.

When the main values of God’s kingdom — things like love, peace, mercy, and justice — are threatened, we need to do whatever it is we can to protect and extend them, even if our abilities seem so small…and we need to have faith that God works through all those things that we do, big and small, to do the world-changing work of God’s Kingdom.

Let us pray. Holy God, give us eyes to see your Kingdom as it grows among us; give us ears to hear your invitation to enter; and give us the faith and courage to make it our first priority. In the name of Jesus, who announces your Kingdom to all people, in every age, Amen.


[1] “Queen’s honours: People who have turned them down named,” BBC News, January 26, 2012. Online: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-16736495

[2] Dave Lifton, “50 years Ago: The Beatles Receive MBEs Amid Protests,” Ultimate Classic Rock, October 26, 2015. Online: http://ultimateclassicrock.com/beatles-mbe/

[3] Karoline Lewis, “What Not to Wear,” Dear Working Preacher, October 8, 2017. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4980

Sharon H. Ringe, “Commentary on Matthew 22:1-14,” Working Preacher, October 9, 2011. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=997

Thoughts After the Las Vegas Shooting: “And much it grieved God’s heart to think what man had made of man”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 18th Sunday after Pentecost + October 8, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46


It was Sunday night, before any shots had been fired in Las Vegas, before the news had come pouring in over phones and radio and television. I was watching one of my regular TV shows, and it was getting to be that point in the season where things were really ramping up as some evil plans were thwarted and some reached their crescendo: there was fire, and yelling, and violence, and betrayal, murder. And over all those images one of the characters recited a poem. I caught one line – or maybe it caught me, because it stuck with me even after the episode had ended: “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”[1]

Maybe it caught me because it made me think of this week’s gospel reading: these tenant farmers beating and murdering groups of slaves, then beating and murdering the landowner’s own son. It made me think of how that parable points to the violence humans have inflicted on God’s messengers throughout history: the ridicule and persecution of prophets; the torture and execution of God’s own Son. “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

The next day the news coverage of the shooting in Las Vegas poured in to my ears over the radio: stories from the scene of the violence; reports of the insane amount of guns found in Steven Paddock’s hotel room; the death and injury count rising. “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

And as part of the coverage, reporters recounted the mass shootings of recent years. Pulse. San Bernardino. Military centers in Chattanooga. Santa Monica. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Charleston. The Navy yard in D.C. The movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. The political meet-and-greet in Tucson. Just a couple weeks ago, a church close by, in Antioch, TN. Other shootings which didn’t make such headlines.[2] My friends and colleagues talked about how we didn’t even really feel anything when the news alerts started coming, besides, “Oh, another one,” and how terrifying that was in itself. “…and much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”

At times like this Christians often talk about how God’s heart is grieved at such tragedy. God suffers with those in pain, weeps with those who mourn, knows death with those who die and holds them until they rise to new life. God is the source of comfort, consolation, and even hope. All this is true. Beautifully, powerfully true. Amen and amen.

But this morning’s Bible readings remind us that when God’s heart is grieved, God also gets angry. And hear the way I’m saying this carefully, because I’m not trying to scare anybody: it’s because God loves us so much that God gets angry when we mistreat one another, when we hurt one another.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we see how God spoke in compassionate anger through the prophet Isaiah. The leaders of Israel were greedy and corrupt, ignored the word of God, and treated the people of Israel unjustly (see Isaiah 5:7-24).

Comparing Israel to a vineyard, God said through Isaiah: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down…God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:4b-5, 7b).

God was angry at the leaders not just because they disobeyed God, but also on behalf of those who suffered underneath their rule. And much it grieved God’s heart to see what man had made of man.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shows that same anger. He had just swept into Jerusalem like a one-man riot, overturning tables in the Temple, publicly criticizing and condemning the leaders (Matt. 21:12-13). Those leaders had not believed and repented when they heard the word of God through John the Baptist (Matt. 21:31-32). They belonged to that same line of leadership that had ignored and killed the prophets; they were the ones who would ignore and kill Jesus. Jesus gathered crowds of people and told them that those leaders were greedy hypocrites and that all their religion was only a show. He said their teachings actually hurt people and took them farther away from God (Matt. 23). And much it grieved Jesus’s heart to see what man had made of man.

And in today’s reading, we heard him say angrily to the leaders: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt. 21:43).

This week, as God looks on the U.S. and the tragedy of the Las Vegas shooting, as God looks back on all these mass shootings, I think God is grieved. And I think God is also angry with that same compassionate anger we see in the prophets and in Jesus. Angry at what man makes of man throughout history. Angry at the violence committed over and over again, since the time of the prophets, the violence which God experienced in God’s own human body in Jesus’s torture and execution, the violence that continues to happen over and over again in our world and our country. And angry that we keep making a way for it, like it ought to be the status quo. Angry and hurt, like maybe you are angry and hurt.

But in God’s anger there is always a hope. It is the hope that when God tells God’s people that they are doing wrong, they will repent; they will change their ways; they will do what is right in God’s eyes. That is the hope and purpose of God’s anger: not condemnation, but change for the better. Not punishment, but reformation.

So how do we, as a nation, repent now? How do we break this pattern of violence, and particularly this pattern of mass gun violence? What is the right thing to do in God’s eyes?

I think our hearts — the law and the love of God written on our hearts — pull us towards what is right by the heroic stories we lift up out of the wreckage of this tragedy. People helped others find a place to hide in the midst of the violent chaos. Someone literally gave the shirt off his back to bandage a stranger’s wound. A nurse from right here in Tennessee died shielding his wife. Countless first responders and trained military people immediately started helping even in the midst of the shooting. People used tables as makeshift gurneys and pick-up trucks as makeshift ambulances to get others to hospitals.[3]

We lift up these stories because these are the sorts of acts that remind us of what is true, what is worthy, what is holy. They give us glimpses of the Kingdom of God, built on Jesus Christ the cornerstone: a world where strength is seen in sacrifice, where love of God and neighbor rule the day. A kingdom where idols like pride and greed and fear are left behind for the sake of the true God and the people and the world God created.

How does God call us to help build that heavenly kingdom right where we are?

Gift_of_USSR-medium

“Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares” scultpure by Evgeniy Vuchetich. Located at the United Nations north garden area, a gift from the Soviet Union, presented in 1959. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.


[1] William Wordsworth, “Lines Written in Early Spring.”

[2] “Deadliest U.S. mass shootings, 1984-2017,” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2017.

Online: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/

[3] Amanda Lee Myers and Jocelyn Gecker, “’There was Blood Everywhere.’: Acts of Heroism Saved Countless Lives During Las Vegas Shooting,” Time, October 3, 2017.

Online: http://time.com/4966656/las-vegas-mass-shooting-acts-heroism/

“Las Vegas shootings: Tales of heroism emerge from aftermath,” BBC News, October 3, 2017.

Online: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41478630