That We May be One as God is One

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday of Easter + May 13, 2018

Reading: John 17:6-19


When I was a teenager, I loved to read this part of the Gospel of John. The passage we just heard comes from a 26-verse-long prayer that Jesus prayed just before he was betrayed, arrested, and dragged before Pilate. In that final hour of freedom, Jesus prayed for his disciples; and not just for the disciples gathered around him in that moment, but for all his disciples, down through the ages. Jesus was praying for us, too. Our reading for today ends with verse 19, but in verse 20 Jesus went on praying: “I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-21a, 23b). That’s what I loved to read when I was a teenager, and I loved to imagine Jesus praying this prayer for me, over my life and my faith and my community.

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Word of Life mural (1964), Millard Sheets, University of Notre Dame. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

Of course, this prayer can also be pretty confusing — especially if you’re just hearing/reading it once, rather quickly, in the middle of a worship service. I felt, mostly, overwhelmed by all those repetitive phrases and explanations: “those whom you gave me…you gave them to me…everything you have given me…I have given them…all mine are yours, and yours are mine…” We might call that beautiful, theological praying…or those of us who feel uncomfortable praying aloud in public might think, Oh, good, even Jesus just kind of rambled his way along sometimes, too.

But whether you find yourself lost in the beauty of this prayer for us or just kind of lost — there are two main points that I hope came across to you. The first is Jesus’s intimate and everlasting connection to God the Creator; the second point is that Jesus wants us to be part of that relationship between the Creator and the Savior and to mirror their connection in our own relationships. Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

The Gospel of John really emphasizes Jesus’s connection to God, Jesus’s one-ness with God. You probably remember that John starts off with that point: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John makes that point over and over again in a way that no other Gospel does. And here, in some of Jesus’s last words among his disciples, Jesus says again and again that all he is doing, all he is, is from God, is with God, is in God, is God. His followers were given to him by God; his work on earth was the will of God; and he was going back to God. Especially when we remember that in this same Maundy Thursday scene Jesus promised to send the Spirit, Jesus’s prayer points us toward the idea of the Holy Trinity: a God that is, somehow, both one and three.

Jesus prayed for us — for the community of disciples — to be one in the way that God is one. God is diversity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and God is unity (one God). Jesus prayed for us to be different and yet to be one, together; to be separate and also realize our connectedness. Jesus said this is how we will show the world that we are in relationship with the Three-in-One-One-in-Three God.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and contemplative teacher, believes that this call for us to be one as God as one is the most important goal of life. He wrote:

The goal of the spiritual journey is to discover and move toward connectedness and relationship on ever new levels, while also honoring diversity. We may begin by making connections with family and friends, with nature and animals, and then grow into deeper connectedness with those outside our immediate circle, especially people of races, religions, economic classes, gender, and sexual orientation that are different from our own. Finally, we can and will experience this full connectedness as union with God. For some it starts the other way around: they experience union with God — and then find it easy to unite with everything else.[1]

This vision of a whole world that is one as God is one is an ideal most of us can get behind, imagining life inside of a Coca-Cola commercial or the “It’s a Small World” ride. But we all know from experience that living together in community can be hard. Getting along together is work. Working through life with just one person — a spouse or a roommate — can seem like too much sometimes. Add in more people, and it can get more difficult to keep relationships in harmony: we’ve probably all been through group projects or work situations or other groups where things just got bad. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes relationships get broken.

And when we try to bring that ideal of community up to social level? Well…we can look far back in history or nearby to today’s newspaper to see a million ways that hasn’t worked.

Human habits like selfishness, greed, fear, and laziness just keep manifesting themselves in all sorts of ways: racism, sexism, and all those other isms, war, unjust laws, political gridlock, prejudice…It’s like the world makes it impossible to realize Jesus’s vision of a holy community.

And yet when Jesus prayed this prayer, he reminded his disciples that we do not belong to the world, just as Jesus did not belong to the world (John 17:14). We are in this world, but we have been claimed and called by another world, into another way of being, into the Kingdom of God.

As we baptized Ivan this morning, we recognized together not only the promises God has made to Ivan, but also the claim that God has made on his life. God said to Ivan, You are my child. You no longer belong to this world; you are part of my Kingdom now. God called Ivan away from “the powers of this world that rebel against God…and the ways of sin that draw [us] from God” and into God’s way of being. (To quote our Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s service of Holy Baptism.)

Ivan’s baptism was an opportunity for us to remember that God has made that same claim on us and our community. We are called away from all that works against God, and we are called into God’s way of doing things; we are called into God’s Kingdom; we are called to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit as the Triune God strives to make us one as God is one.

We’ve admitted that this is hard — this being one as God is one — and that sometimes it seems impossible, at least in this world; but we have also heard that we are called to that vision of holy community, even here in this world, and heard the good news that Jesus himself prayed for God’s help in our relationships.

So, with God’s help and alongside these other disciples, where can you work — or keep working — in your relationships to better mirror the life of God, Three-in-One and One-in-Three? How can you live in our community, in our society, in our world in a way that follows the lead of the Trinity? Where might God be leading you into “deeper connectedness”?

At home, at work, in our public lives, we are constantly being called to live in ways that honor others in their diversity, their different experiences, their different loves, their different sufferings, and that honors our own identities — and that also show how connected we are, that God sees us as one, that God prays for us to be one.

By the way we try to live like the Trinity, when we try to love as God loves, everyone will know that we belong to God, and that God is love (1 John 4:7-12).


[1] Richard Rohr, “The Beloved Community,” Daily Meditations, 8 May 2018, The Center for Action and Contemplation website. Available online: https://cac.org/the-beloved-community-2018-05-08/ Accessed 10 May 2018.

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Real-izing How Inclusive God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 29, 2018

Reading: Acts 8:26-40


We’re going to start off today with a little interactive sermon time. But those of you who are on the shy side: don’t worry, I won’t make you talk to anybody. All I’m asking you to do is get in touch with all the memories of Bible stories you have stored up in your brain. Think back through whatever ways you have learned the stories of our scriptures: Sunday school and Bible studies; sermons and your own reading; Jesus Christ Superstar and flannel boards and references in Bob Dylan songs. OK, now I’m going to give you a little Bible trivia quiz — but again, don’t worry, you’ll only be answering in your own head, and nobody’s keeping score. And none of these are trick questions: each one really does have an answer. Ready?

Think of a Bible story with a character who is really, really old.

Think of a Bible story with a character who is really young.

Think of a time the Bible talks about someone who is grieving.

About someone who is poor?

Someone who is rich?

About someone who is African?

About an immigrant?

About someone who can’t have children? Or someone who chooses not to have children?

About someone who is in prison?

About someone who has a lot of doubt?

About someone who feels like they aren’t up to the job they are given?

About someone who feels like they don’t fit in?

About someone who feels like they failed?

Given enough time, and access to experts or Bible dictionaries or Google, we can find a Bible reference to just about any life circumstance — so long as that circumstance also existed when the Bible was written. No Bible stories about misplacing your cell phone and having no one else around to call it for you so you can find it. But for all the really important, timeless things humans go through — things like loss and hopelessness and joy and hunger and wonder; even things like poverty and flawed government — we can find something in the Bible that speaks to that situation. We can find an example of a time that what we’re going through now has been on God’s radar in the past. And that can help us feel like we are on God’s radar now.

It doesn’t always feel like that carries over into the church, though. We might visit a different congregation on a Sunday morning, look around, and immediately feel like: There is no place for me here. Everyone else looks like part of a family, and I’m here by myself. Or, It looks like everyone here can afford to dress much better than I can. Some people might not come to church at all because they feel like — based on the church’s reputation, fair or unfair though it may be — that they don’t have the political beliefs or scientific beliefs or total lack of doubt in God’s existence or the infallibility of the Bible that the church requires. It’s often easy to feel like we have to fit a certain mold to even walk through the doors of a church.

And sometimes the church says more explicitly, “People like you aren’t welcome here.” Today in the United States we still have “white churches” and “black churches” — both as individual congregations and as entire denominations — because for so long in American history African-Americans were told “you can’t worship with us,” or, “you can sit in the pews, but you can’t be a leader here,” or “if you are here, the preaching will tell you that slavery or segregation are the way God wants things to be.”

Many of my friends who are gay look for churches that say explicitly that they are welcome in worship, because experience has made them assume that most churches will reject them – sometimes in hostile ways. Some of my female friends who felt a call to ministry have had to leave denominations where they were not allowed to preach or teach. Families with children with mental or physical disabilities might wonder if they will be welcomed or gawked at it, if sudden outbursts will be tolerated, if special needs will be met or just met with frustration. The church is often not nearly as inclusive as the Bible.

The Bible paints us a picture of God’s Kingdom: where poor and rich have dinner together; where the powerful genuinely care for the lowly; where people who have disabilities are vital parts of the community; where the people society calls “sinners” and people society calls “saints” are recognized as equals; where people of all nations and cultures are gathered together into one People of God. It’s a radical vision for the Church to try again and again to get closer and closer to embodying in our own communities. It’s a vision we have to work actively to keep in our minds and to live out in our lives, because if we are not actively working at it, we will slip into existing just like the world around us.

The biblical writer we call Luke — who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts — focused on helping his readers keep the radical, inclusive vision of God’s Kingdom alive in their minds and in their lives. He was always trying to drive home that God’s work included even more people than we would think to include on our own.

Luke emphasizes, even more than the other gospels, Jesus’s care for the poor and the sick and the sinful and the outcast, and Jesus’s teaching that his disciples should do the same. Luke mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry more often than the other gospels. And then in the book of Acts, that same writer tells the story of how the Holy Spirit broke through the Church’s original boundaries; where at first people had thought the Jesus movement was meant for observant Jews, the book of Acts tells story after story of God moving to include people of other nations and religious backgrounds.

This special emphasis of Luke’s, this emphasis on how God’s mission keeps reaching out past human expectations and social boundaries and religious regulations and national borders — this is probably why he included the story we read earlier this morning, where Philip the Apostle is sent to a eunuch from Ethiopia, and this man is so moved by the story of Jesus that he asks to be baptized immediately.

ethiopianbaptism

Stained glass window depicting the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Hendersonville, TN

This one, brief story tells us so much about how far the Holy Spirit expanding the Church. For one thing, first-century Mediterranean people would have thought of Ethiopia as the southernmost edge of their world, so this story shows how the disciples are doing what Jesus said, spreading the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[1] But this Ethiopian eunuch also represents a number of groups of people who have been left out of church life — both then and now.

This man was a foreigner, even working for a foreign government. Being Ethiopian, he was probably black-skinned. Because he was reading the book of Isaiah and had traveled to Jerusalem to worship, there’s a good chance that he was Jewish, though it is also possible that he was a seeker, someone curious about other religions, and had come from a different religious background himself. And the fact that he was called a “eunuch” opens up a huge range of possibilities: he may have been a slave or an ex-slave, as many eunuchs were in the ancient world. And as a eunuch – a man who had been castrated — he definitely didn’t fit the gender norms of his day, probably being seen as not-exactly-male, not a “full man,” unable to have children and pass on an inheritance – which was perhaps an even bigger deal back then that it is now.[2] He would have been an outsider to the early Church in so many ways, and he would still be an outsider in most parts of the Church today, and yet it seems the Holy Spirit went out of her way to include him in the spreading of the gospel.

Many people who see themselves as outsiders in the eyes of the Church hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and find themselves included in the mission of God, welcomed into God’s Kingdom.

Lutheran churches hold that the Bible is the “source and norm” for our faith and our life together. Sometimes we have a tendency of taking that in a pretty legalistic direction, focusing on figuring out the “do”s and “don’t”s the Bible lays out for our behavior and our beliefs, and — quite frankly — focusing on what that says about who and what is “out” of the Church life.

But the Bible is more than just laws and teachings. It is also a record of God’s promises to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, a record of God’s love for imperfect people, and a library of teachings and stories about how God’s mission keeps breaking down human boundaries to include more and more people in the Kingdom of God.

And if that is the “source and norm” for our life together — then we should also be paying attention to God’s promises to the poor, the sick, the people who don’t fit our social norms, the immigrant, the widow, the uneducated, the sinner-with-a-capital-S, and all sorts of people we may not think of in our day-to-day lives, and striving to make those promises come alive in our community. Striving to help all sorts of people see that there is a place for them in God’s Kingdom and here in the Church, and striving to help them figure out that place.

And if the Bible is the “source and norm” for our lives as individuals — that means that when the Church fails us, when we feel left out or unwelcome or unforgiven, we can always turn to scripture to find the story of how God is reaching out to call us in to God’s grace, and God’s transforming Spirit, and the mission of God’s Kingdom.

Let us pray.

God of all people: help us to see your Spirit at work even in the places we least expect, even among the people we least expect. Sometimes, when we don’t feel good enough or right enough, that unexpected place is our own lives. In those times help us to hear your word of grace and welcome anew. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.


[1] Demetrius K. Williams, “The Acts of the Apostles,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 226.

[2] Sean D. Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013). Introduction available online.

“When Heaven and Earth are Joined”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Third Sunday of Easter + April 15, 2018

Reading: Luke 24:36b-48


Our culture shares a lot of stories of people coming back to us from the dead in one form or another; maybe they are born out of our longing to feel a connection with the people we miss. Many of the most common stories tell of someone coming back in a spiritual, non-physical form: the voice of a loved one speaks through a medium; see-through spirits remain in the places that were important to them. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi continues to appear after his death in a bluish ghost-like form, giving Luke Skywalker guidance. In all these “spiritual return” stories, a person’s body is gone, but they are still able to reach the land of the living in non-physical ways.

Other stories of the dead returning are more physical. Stories of zombies or vampires seem to tell us of people whose bodies have remained, but whose spirits or identities have gone. In Game of Thrones many characters come back from the dead, bodies and all: some are changed or empty (or ice zombies); but others are raised to be essentially the same person they were before their death. The land of the living gets them back again.

The Bible actually contains a lot of stories of people coming back from the dead; Jesus is not entirely unique in that regard. Lazarus might be the most famous of the people who came back: Jesus raised him from the dead after Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, and even though the people warned him — in the elegant language of the King James Bible — “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” (John 11). Jesus also raised a couple of other people that we know about: a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue leader (Matt. 9:18-26). In the Old Testament, both the prophet Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, raised children from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37), and King Saul used a medium to talk to the dead prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28). My favorite of these biblical stories is when St. Paul preached and preached late into the night, and a young man sitting in the window fell asleep “while Paul talked still longer,” and the young man fell out the window, down three stories, and died. Paul went downstairs, raised the young man back to life, said to the people, “don’t be alarmed,” and then went on preaching (Acts 20:7-12).

The story of Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t really fit into any of these models, though. We can divide these other stories, mostly, into either “spiritual returns” or “physical returns.” Jesus’s resurrection messes up that boundary. In today’s gospel reading, the disciples are gathered together in a room when suddenly Jesus appears among them. And in the story that came right before this one, the resurrected Christ sat at a table with a couple of other disciples before suddenly “he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:28-32). That’s behavior we usually associate spirit-types. And yet in today’s reading we also hear how Jesus ate a piece of fish — something the resurrected Christ also does in other stories (John 21:9-14) — and something that requires a working, physical body.

I don’t know about you all, but that is hard for me to wrap my brain around. Was Jesus’s resurrection physical — did his body return to life? Yes — he even told his disciples to touch the wounds left by his crucifixion. Could Jesus appear and disappear at will, whether or not walls were in the way? Apparently, yes to that, too. How can all those things be true at once?

I decided to check in with the commentary we’ve been reading in our Monday Night Bible Study group. In that book the biblical scholar N. T. Wright suggested that Christ’s resurrected body, which is physical enough to digest fish and yet not entirely bound by the normal rules of a physical body…that resurrected body was at home “in both the dimensions of God’s world, in both heaven and earth. […] If our mental pictures of ‘heaven’ need adjusting to allow for this startling possibility, so be it.”[1]

Christ’s resurrected body was one more, even bigger way that God showed us that in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, heaven and earth came together. That resurrected body was both totally earthly and totally miraculous, revealing to us the nature of Christ. God’s perfect realm and the broken worldly realm, the eternal and the mortal, the divine and human — these things were united in Christ so that we, too, might be restored to unity with God. As the ancient Easter Proclamation says of Christ’s resurrection day: “This is the night when heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.”[2]

People experienced this unity of the divine and the human in Jesus’s life too: they saw this man, dusty from travel, bitten by bugs, hungry like they were, and maybe even he stanketh sometimes too…they saw him heal people and multiply food. In his teachings they heard the clarity of God’s truth. Through his anger at those who mistreated others, they glimpsed God’s justice; through his compassion and forgiveness they felt God’s love and grace. In Jesus they saw God at work.

Jesus’s arrest and humiliation and crucifixion must have called all of this into question. Suffering usually makes us question whether God is on someone’s side, or whether God is there, or whether God is real. The disciples must have questioned if they’d had it all wrong, if they’d been foolish to think that God was there with and in that carpenter’s son from Nazareth. The first thing the resurrected Christ does when he sees them is explain, from the scriptures: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” Of course God had not abandoned Jesus: God had shown over and over, throughout the history of Israel, that God is able to work through the horrible things humans do to one another, that God can bring new meaning and new life out of suffering and even death. Yet this can be so hard to believe — for the disciples, and for us.

When God resurrected Jesus, God showed once and for all that Jesus was sent by God, was God’s messiah, was God’s Son, was even — as Christians soon came to confess — God made flesh, fully divine and fully human. And the resurrection was a sign that Jesus’s work was not done; death had not stopped it. He rose to pass his mission on to his disciples. He not only explained to them that he was the messiah; he also taught them “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Now the Church was to be Christ’s Body, the people through whom God would continue to touch the earth.

Christians today — we — are still baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and into his mission; we are baptized into the divine-human connection. This morning we welcomed Zack, Keala, Kaydence, Rylan, and Luke “into the Body of Christ and into the mission we share.” With them we remembered that, we too, inherited the purpose Jesus passed on to those first disciples: “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”[3]

The work we do as part of this mission may not be as out-of-this-world as a resurrected body that can both eat fish and disappear. But we do seek to practice repentance and forgiveness; we fill fuel bags to help the hungry children in our community; we support one another in our troubles; we help with Habitat for Humanity builds and make quilts to be distributed around the world; we share our faith with our children and our neighbors. In all these ways that God works through us, the divine continues to touch the earth, just as it did in Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), pp. 300.

[2] From Thomas Pavlechko’s transcription of the “Easter Proclamation: Exsultet.”

[3] From the liturgy for Holy Baptism in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) pp. 227-231.

The End is Only the Beginning

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + April 1, 2018

Reading: Mark 16:1-8


The end is only the beginning.[1]

Because otherwise, this is a really unsettling ending to the gospel reading on Easter morning, right? These faithful women heard the news — “[Jesus] has been raised!” — “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” In the earliest copies we have of the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel written down, that’s it. The end.

But the end is only the beginning.

And maybe that’s part of why the women were so afraid that they “said nothing to anyone.” I mean, granted, I’m sure the main reasons for their reaction had to do with the sheer and otherworldly unexpectedness of what they found at the tomb. The Gospel of Mark tell us that these same three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41). And now they came to his tomb, ready to care for his dead body. That’s the kind of terrible scene they prepared themselves for. But instead, when they get to the tomb, they see that the huge stone has been rolled away already. And what would your first thought be in that situation? They had just seen Jesus arrested by the authorities, the riots at his trial, his public torture and humiliation, and finally his gruesome execution, and now all of his followers were in hiding — so maybe they saw that stone rolled away and could only think in panic: “What are they doing to him now?”

And then they entered the tomb and saw a stranger sitting where Jesus’s body should have been. And he told them that something supernatural had happened: Jesus had been raised from the dead. The man that they had watched die on a cross — they would see him again, alive. And maybe that supernatural message was way too much to take in from a strange man sitting in their dead friend’s grave. It makes total sense to me that they would just go blank with “terror and amazement;” or jump to the conclusion that this stranger was lying to them and yet another horrible thing was being done to them, to Jesus and his followers and his legacy; or that they wouldn’t think at all, just start running as their whole world turned chaotic for the second time in a week.

But even after that initial burst of terror and confusion had settled, there were more questions to deal with. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, how would that affect their lives? Maybe that was a reason to be afraid, too…or at least intimidated.

wom-tomb_detail-new

Bob Quinn, “The Empty Tomb.” Bronze. See more images here.

These three women — like the twelve disciples, like many others — had been following Jesus from Galilee and helping to support his ministry (again, Mark 15:40-41). They had followed him all the way to Jerusalem, about 100 miles. They followed him while he healed people and cast out demons — Mary Magdalene was one of those he freed from demons (Mark 16:9); they followed him while he fed thousands with a just a few loaves of bread and some fish; they followed him while he clarified the ancient laws and taught about God’s love; they followed him while he rioted in the Temple and challenged the authorities; they followed him all the way to the cross. Witnessing his life on earth, they had felt God’s pull to follow Jesus, to support him, to be part of his mission — even though it demanded everything from them; even though it got dangerous.

Jesus’s life had changed their lives — not just a little, but totally. Jesus had changed their priorities, their plans, their relationships. Everything had been transformed by that pull towards the life of Jesus.

And maybe when he died, they felt like their transformation might die, too. In the last day, while Jesus’s body laid in the tomb, had they thought about what they would do next? Maybe they felt like everything Jesus meant had been extinguished. Maybe they were thinking about admitting defeat and returning to their old lives.

But now — a resurrection. Jesus had been given new life. And if Jesus’s “regular” life had pulled them into a new way of being, had so fully transformed them — what would Jesus’s resurrected life demand of them? These women suddenly found themselves called, pulled into something bigger and more life-changing than they could have expected– and maybe that was terrifying at first. Because now this was about more than a prophet, a healer, a wise man of God; this was about even more than another revolutionary — this was about something completely new, something no one could expect, something that reconfigured history and opened up a future no one could imagine. Now this was about death and resurrection: the death of the way things always had been, of all mortal dealings and plans, and the resurrection of God’s future.

The end is only the beginning. The old ways must die, because everything is being made new.

Christians hold that the resurrection of Jesus was a cosmological change. Jesus was the first to be raised to new life, and his resurrection ignited the transformation of the whole world: one day we will all be raised, all of creation will be raised to new life, fully redeemed from the evil ways of the world, “set free from bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21), made whole in God’s future. In the resurrection of Jesus, the transformation has only just begun.

God’s work is as big as the world, as all of history and all the future days: but often it is through our everyday actions that God works the transforming power of the resurrection.

God started with those three women at the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. We know that they did eventually tell the other followers of Jesus what they saw and heard at the tomb. And those followers — the Church — took on the resurrected life of Christ. They healed people; they freed people from guilt and demons; they fed the hungry; they clarified Jesus’s teachings; they preached about God’s love; they challenged the authorities and the status quo when they were out of line with God’s will. God pulled them — even with all their imperfections — into the work of transformation; God called them to die to the ways of the world and to rise into the resurrected life of Christ, into God’s future.

God continues transforming the world through each person that feels the pull of Christ’s resurrected life.

In 1960 Lucille Bridges convinced her husband, Abon, that they should let their six-year-old daughter help integrate the New Orleans school system. And so Ruby Bridges became the first African-American student to attend William Frantz Elementary. On that first day the other parents boycotted, rushing into the school to take their children home when Ruby entered. All the teachers refused to teach at a school where a black child was enrolled — all the teachers except Barbara Henry, who taught Ruby one-on-one.

On the second day of Ruby’s enrollment, one parent broke the boycott: Methodist minister Lloyd Anderson Foreman marched his five-year-old daughter, Pam, through a crowd of angry protesters to get her to school. Slowly other parents sent their children back to school, although Mrs. Henry continued to teach Ruby alone for over a year.

Four federal marshals escorted Ruby to school every day, through the crowds of people wanting to put a stop to integration. Some of them threw things at Ruby; some threatened her; one woman threatened to poison her every day, and so Ruby was only allowed to eat food she had brought from home. Yet Ruby seemed undaunted, and even somehow remained cheerful.[2]

Ruby Bridges

Federal marshals escorting Ruby Bridges from school, 1960. Via Wiki Gallery.

Her attitude drew the attention of psychiatrist Robert Coles, and he began to meet with her to try and figure out how a young child could remain so strong while crowds of adults yelled and threatened her every day, while she was ostracized to a separate classroom, even a separate teacher. Mrs. Henry told Dr. Coles that she saw Ruby moving her lips while she came to school every day. So Dr. Coles asked Ruby, “Who were you talking to?”

Ruby answered, “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street. […] I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

“Where did you learn that?” Dr. Coles asked her.

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning and every afternoon when I go home.”[3]

In this one story there are so many people answering God’s resurrection call. Ruby’s parents deciding to send her to integrate this school; and, along with their minister, teaching her to pray even for her enemies. Barbara Henry, choosing to separate herself from the other teachers’ boycott even though she was new in town, and facing danger and ridicule in order to teach Ruby. Lloyd Anderson Foreman, who changed the tides just by sending his daughter to her school. The U.S. marshals who, in doing their duty, helped to usher in a new world. Robert Coles, who helped counsel Ruby and her family, and whose work provided insights that would help others facing conflict. And of course Ruby Bridges herself, who at six years old found herself thrust into a terrifying situation and faced it with courage and grace given by God.

All these people were thrust into a terrifying situation. The usual way of things in the South was dying, but many people were fighting to keep it alive. Still, God was working to transform things, to bring about resurrection and new life, a new way of things. And God called these and many other people to be a part of that transformation — and they answered that resurrection call.

The end is only the beginning. The old ways must die, because everything is being made new. Through the resurrection God pulls us into God’s future.

This morning we meet the strange messenger at the empty tomb. This morning we hear the good news: “Jesus has been raised!” This morning we stare into the empty tomb and wonder, “What does this mean for us? How does this change our lives?”

And maybe that question should shake us up, like the three women were shaken up two thousand years ago. Because the story of resurrection begins by reminding us that we must die to the way things are in this world: we must die to our personal sins and to the webs of sin the world traps us in; we must die to our apathy; we must die to our hopelessness and our fear; we must die to our prejudices and our greed and our selfishness and our idols. The world as we know it must die to its abuses of power and humans and all creation. These things must die, so that God can raise all creation — so that God can raise us — to radically new and unfamiliar life.

God is pulling us into God’s future. God is transforming our lives. God is renewing the world.

The end is only the beginning.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


[1] Taken from a section heading in Emerson B. Powery’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), Mark 16:1-8, pp. 151-152.

[2] “Ruby Bridges,” Wikipedia. Available online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Bridges. Accessed April 1, 2018.

[3] Peter W. Marty, “When Ruby Birdges prayed for her enemies,” The Christian Century, March 24, 2017. Available online: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/when-ruby-bridges-prayed-her-enemies Accessed March 28, 2018.

What Keeps Us Turning Back to God?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday in Lent + March 11, 2018

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21


What’s up with that weird snake story in our first reading?

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Bronze Serpent by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, from Die Bibel in Bildern (1853). Via Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive.

Moses and the Israelites were out wandering in the desert some place between Egypt and the Promised Land — no surprise there; we know that part of the story — and the Israelites were not happy. They were complaining: We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. This miraculous manna stuff is gross.

That part should probably not be a surprise to us, either. The wandering band of Israel complained a lot. In the story of their escape from Pharaoh — which some of you heard on Wednesday evening — they hadn’t even gotten to the Red Sea yet when they started begging Moses to turn the car around: This is dangerous! Why couldn’t you have left us alone, with our slavemasters, where we were safe? And God said, Why are you freaking out? Just keep walking, I’ll part the sea for you. Haven’t you figured out that I’m saving you yet? (Exodus 14:10-18).

Apparently that lesson never did sink in. God had sent plagues on the Egyptians –always sheltering the Israelites in Egypt from all the frogs and the bugs and the livestock diseases — trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. God had shown them that God was with them by sending a pillar of cloud to guide them by a day and a pillar of fire to light their way at night. God had provided them with bread and quail from heaven. But after God had done miracle after miracle to free them and protect them and provide for them, still the people had no faith — no trust — that God’s taking care of them. They just kept on complaining every time something went wrong: We’re hungry; we’re thirsty; seriously, what is this manna even made out of? Why did you take us out of Egypt?

And then there were snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? But this time the Israelites were wiser. Instead of wanting to run back to Egypt, they ran to God. Or rather, they ran to Moses, begging him to run to God: “Pray to the Lord to take away these serpents from us.” And God told Moses to make up a bronze serpent and lift it up high on a pole, and everyone who got bitten by a snake could look up at the snake-on-a-pole and be instantly protected from its venom.

More seriously this time: Why did it have to be a snake? Why a bronze snake on a pole? Why not, “and then God scared all the serpents away”? Why not, “and then the Lord God revealed unto Moses the formula for the antivenom”? It almost seems like — in total contradiction to what we learned in the 10 Commandments and in Pastor Lippard’s sermon from last week — God told Moses to make an idol that the people could worship, an idol that could save the people. Was God trying to get them to finally stop complaining by giving into their need for a golden cow or some kind of metal animal to worship, like when a parent finally gives up and gives their crying child a piece of candy?

Ancient Jewish commentaries on this story say: No! Of course not. The snake-on-a-pole was not meant to be an idol or a talisman with magic powers; instead it was a helper, a device to help the Israelites remember to turn to God — the God who told them to make that snake-on-a-pole; the God who gave them manna when they were hungry and water when they were thirsty; the God who parted the sea and saved them from slavery in Egypt. As one modern Rabbi put it: “In the story of the bronze serpent, the people are not sick, but sinful. The serpent is elevated to direct the thoughts of the people upward to God and away from the danger at their feet.”[1]

We sometimes need helpers to turn our thoughts to God, too. After all, how often are we distracted by the snakes slithering around our feet? We, like those ancient wandering Israelites, can forget about the bigger story we are a part of. We forget the story of what God has done for us; we forget the promise that God will be with us; and then we worry about what is happening to us right now as if we were without hope. We forget who God has said we are — a beloved child of God — as we worry about what other people think of us, as we let the media tell us what we should be, as we let the voice in our heads tells us we are not good enough. We forget the core message of the gospel — you are forgiven and accepted — and instead mire ourselves in guilt or regret or isolation.

Maybe even more importantly, we forget the full story of that famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Our individual salvation stories are all part of this global salvation story, the story of God loving the whole world: God showing God’s presence through the traditions of other cultures; God by the side of those drinking contaminated water in Michigan or in Bhutan; God hearing the prayers of mothers who worry their children will be shot in classrooms or on the streets or in war; God’s work being done through people in Haiti and El Salvador and the Congo and Vietnam and Iran.

Sometimes the snakes that distract us from the bigger story are our own refusals: to hear the other side of a story, to climb outside of our politics, to see God in people who don’t look or act like “us.” Sometimes we don’t even know we are being plagued by snakes — we don’t realize we are being distracted from God’s true mission.

So we need something like that bronze snake-on-a-pole to help turn our attention to God. In our times of fear, in our times of hopelessness, and even in the times when we feel fine. We need habits that keep us turning back to God.

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Brazen Serpent, sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni (20th century), Mount Nebo, Jordan.  Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

The cross serves as one helper for us. Our reading from the Gospel of John said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We turn our minds towards Christ on the cross to remember God’s saving work in the world and in us. Many of us wear crosses or hang crosses on the wall as a reminder to turn towards God, God’s promises, and God’s mission.

Coming to worship is another habit that can help us turn our attention to God. Here we come to God in prayer; we hear the promises and the challenges of God through scriptures and sermons; we cross our foreheads with water, we taste bread and wine on our tongue to remind ourselves that God is with us. Here we are forced to see God in ways we wouldn’t on our own, as we hear how other people understand God and God’s work in the world.

How do you keep yourself turning back to God outside of Sunday mornings?

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who lived during the time of Martin Luther, developed a daily check-in system to help him always keep turning to God’s presence and work in his life and in the world around him. His official followers — the Jesuits — call it “the daily Examen.”[2] The Examen has five steps:

  1. Give thanks to God. Look back over your day for any and all good moments, even little things, and thank God for them. This first step is not only about realizing all the good things in life; most importantly it draws us to focus on God.
  2. Ask for grace to know your sins. “Where did you act contrary to your better judgment or to God’s voice inside of you?”[3] Where did you neglect to “see the image of God in others?” The goal is not feel guilty, but to help us realize that we need God, and where we most need God, and to ask for that help to continue evolving as disciples of Christ. Again, the purpose is to help us move closer to God.
  3. Review your day. Run through it like a movie, from start to finish. “Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you be more loving…[Recall your] thoughts, words, and deeds, as Ignatius says. Each moment offers a window into where God has been in your day.”[4] What is God up to in you and around you?
  4. Ask God for forgiveness. This step reminds us of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and never-ending love.
  5. Ask for God’s grace for tomorrow. Ask God for whatever it is you feel you need help with most: seeing God’s presence with you; trusting God’s promises; breaking harmful habits; learning to see God in others.

Maybe you’ll find that steps like these can help keep you turning to God, too.

Today’s reading from John 3 said: “those who do what is true come to the light.” The Gospel of John is full of this image of light: Jesus is the light who has come into the world, revealing God’s presence and God’s love, revealing God’s will and mission, revealing God’s hope and purpose. How can we keep coming into that the light of Christ to help us keep our lives in God’s perspective? How can we keep our eyes on God and our minds on God’s story, so that we could see our place in that story as people who receive God’s promises and share in God’s mission to our neighbors and to the world?

Let us pray.

Holy God, we thank you for your patience with us when we get distracted by the worries of this life, when we turn away from your promises and your mission. Help us to keep turning back to you. Give us faith to trust your promises and give us clarity as you reveal your purpose in our lives. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.


[1] Fred N. Reiner, “Healing by Looking: Seraph Serpents and Theotherapy,” ReformJudaism.org, July 8, 2006. Available online: https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/chukat-balak/healing-looking-seraph-serpents-and-theotherapy

[2] My reference for the Examen is James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), pp. 86-102.

[3] Martin, 89.

[4] Martin, 91.

“…who brought you out of slavery”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + March 7, 2018

Reading: Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21


 

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Crossing of the Red Sea and Miriam dancing and singing, illumination from the Chludov Psalter (9th century). State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

The story we just heard is one of the most important in Israel’s history. It has been told and retold, almost like Christians tell and retell the story of Jesus, as a way to understand God and people, as a way to know what’s right and wrong, and as a source of comfort and hope.

In fact we heard it referenced this Sunday. Our first reading told us the story of how God gave Israel the 10 Commandments. It began: “Then God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:1-3) Many other laws from the First Testament include this reminder that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery.

The book of Leviticus contains commandments like: “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights…I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall keep all my statutes…I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:35-36).

The book of Deuteronomy says: “You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deut. 24:17-18).

Commandments like these use the story of the exodus from Egypt as a reason to be faithful to God, and sometimes they use the history of God freeing the Israelites from slavery as a reason why the Israelites should not treat people unjustly, as the slavemasters did their ancestors, but they should treat people fairly and graciously, as God treated them.

The First Testament recalls the Exodus story in other ways, too: to praise God and to give hope to the Israelites when they need God to save them again.

The Psalms rejoice in God’s power and help:

Come and see what God has done:

He is awesome in his deeds among mortals.

He turned the sea into dry land;

They passed through the streams on foot. (Psalm 66:5-6)

The prophets offer God’s hope to the people of Israel with the memory of God saving their ancestors from slavery. After the Babylonian Exile, when Jerusalem had been conquered by foreign armies and many of its people had been dragged away to Babylon, a prophet reminded the Israelites of who their God is:

…the Lord,

Who makes a way in the sea,

A path in the mighty waters,

Who brings out chariot and horse,

Army and warrior,

They lie down, they cannot rise,

They are extinguished, quenched like a wick. (Isaiah 43:15-17)

That God was still there God, and God would do for them what God did for their ancestors:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…

For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2a, 3a)

In addition to all these reminders, the Bible commands the Jewish people to remember and celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt every year with the Passover meal (cf. Exodus 12).

Telling (over and over) the story of God freeing Israel from slavery is a way for the Jewish people to remember who God is and what God is like. God has chosen Israel to be God’s people; God is the one who saves them and sets them free; God is the one with power to do miraculous things like hold back the waters of the sea. And even beyond the people of Israel: God cares for all those who are being mistreated and oppressed and acts to save them.

The Exodus story also reminds the Jewish people of who they are. They are a people who have known both slavery and liberation, who have known what it’s like to suffer at the hands of other people and known what it’s like to be saved by God through other people and through miracles. And they are a people in relationship with the God who called them and saved them, and they are beholden to God for what God has done for them. In the same way that Luther told Christians that we — with the help of the Holy Spirit — ought to strive to live according to God’s will because we are thankful for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ — in the same way God told the Israelites: remember what I have done for you, and now live as I am telling you to live. Obey these commandments. Care for those who are suffering. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The Exodus story has continued to be hugely important for Christians. Through Jesus we have become part of God’s chosen people, inheriting God’s promises and stories, including this one. The gospels often paint Jesus as a new Moses, teaching God’s will and leading people to freedom; maybe it’s no coincidence that Jesus’s last meal was the Passover celebration, the official day to remember the Exodus story, and that Jesus was crucified and resurrected on Passover weekend. And Christians since ancient times have lifted up the story of the Israelites’ path to salvation through the Red Sea as a symbol for baptism, the Christian path through the waters to salvation.

Christians in the United States have held on to the Exodus story in their own particular ways. In 1630 the Puritan preacher John Winthrop told a ship full of Puritan pilgrims that they were the New Israel, crossing the sea on the way to the Promised Land. European-Americans continued to hold on to that version of the story as they settled new regions, formed a nation, and spread westward across the continent — believing that they were doing this by God’s promise and God’s command, spreading God’s light and building God’s world.

Meanwhile, enslaved Africans converted to Christianity, and they heard the story of the Exodus from the point of view of the slaves waiting for God to free them. They found hope in this story of God hearing the cry of the slaves and leading them to freedom. The exodus story has continued to be a central story in the Black Church, through the time of Emancipation and Reconstruction and on again through various movements for civil rights.

The history of telling the story of the Exodus — both inside and outside the Bible — shows us how this story can preach to us both gospel and law, both liberty and justice, both comfort and judgment. Sometimes the prophets used this story to offer hope to the Israelites when they felt trapped and hopeless; other times the prophets put the leaders of the Israelites in the place of Pharaoh, the ones who were treating others unjustly and needed to change their ways. Likewise, in American history the same story that inspired many of our nation’s founders and leaders could be used to point out that in some ways they were pharaohs, keeping slaves captive and legislating other forms of injustice. Powerful stories have this effect: they can call us to be better people and give us hope when it feels like we are the ones who can’t make it on our own. In Lutheran terms, they speak to us as both full sinners and full saints.

As we read this story during Lent, during our time of preparation for Easter and the celebration of our own salvation and freedom, we may best approach it from both sides. How are we like the Israelites in Egypt, needing God to free us from whatever it is that binds us — from slavery to sin, or hopelessness, or the forces of injustice? How can this story give us hope? But also: how are we like Pharaoh, the one who needs to hear God speaking through the people around us, saying “let my people go,” or “hear my commandments” or “do justice, and love kindness”?

Let us pray.

Liberating God, give us ears to hear you in all the ways that you speak to us. When we do not walk in your ways of humility and justice, when we do not speak your good news, soften our hearts so that we may hear you call us to help you free others. When we get too comfortable in our own chains — in our own sin, or in the ways of world — open our imaginations so that we can hear you call us to freedom and new life. And when we feel trapped or hopeless or helpless, break through our thoughts so that we can hear your promises of forgiveness, freedom, and resurrection. Through Christ our Lord and Savior, Amen.

The Hope of the Hopeless

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday in Lent + February 25, 2018

Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22


I doubt that Sarah had any hope left that she would have her own children when God made this covenant with Abraham, the one we just heard read from Genesis 17. She probably wasn’t even dreaming of children anymore. After all, she was about ninety years old. Her biological clock had stopped ticking a few generations ago. And this was not the first time that God had promised Abraham a child; even last time, Sarah was so certain she would never bear her own children that she suggested Abraham father children with her slave, Hagar (Gen. 15 for the promise; 16:1-4 for Sarah’s idea). Y’know, like in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Sarah and Abraham both seem to have given up totally on having children together. Our reading for today ends with God’s glorious promise: “I will give you a son by [your wife, Sarah]. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” It conveniently cuts out before we can see what Abraham thought of that promise. The very next verse says, “Then Abraham fell on his face laughing, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” And he basically tried to correct God: You must be talking about Ishmael, my son by Hagar. Technically, according to our customs — which will creep out my 21st century descendants — Ishmael is Sarah’s child (Gen. 17:17-18). And later when Sarah overheard the Lord say that she will have a son, she laughed, too (Gen. 18:9-12).

By this point in their lives, Sarah and Abraham had learned to live with the idea of never having children together. Things were the way they were. They had long ago lost all hope for things to be any different.

When do we feel like that? Like there’s no reason left to hope, like things just are the way they are, like we just have to deal with it? There are so many things in our private lives that can wear us down to that level: chronic pain or terrible disease; hurtful patterns in relationships; struggles against our own sin or addictions or bad habits; prayers that seem to go unanswered. There are so many things in our public life together that can wear us down, too: politicians who seem to work for money or power rather than for the people; the age-old struggle to help keep our neighbors from going hungry or homeless; the way prejudices never seem to die, just change forms in each generation; the way our nation spends so much time arguing about what to do about mass shootings, but never seems to actually make any positive changes. It’s no wonder so many people choose to get at least a dose of their news from comedians, who help us to turn our frustrations into laughter, like Abraham and Sarah did.

A few minutes ago we sang David’s words of joy and hope from Psalm 22. But that psalm begins in a dark place of total hopelessness. You might be familiar with its first lines as words Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David continued in the psalm:

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

                        And by night but find no rest…

I am a worm, and not human;

                        Scorned by others, and despised by the people…

I am poured out like water,

                        And all my bones are out of joint;

My heart is like wax;

                        It is melted within my breast.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

                        And my tongue sticks to my jaws;

                        You lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22:1-2, 6, 14-15)

So how does David get from those miserable words to a place of hope and joy in the Lord? According to at least some interpreters, it’s not that his suffering comes to a sudden end;[1] but somehow, in the midst of all that’s happening to him, he grabs hold of a renewed trust in the Lord. And what we can see happening throughout the psalm itself is David remembering what the Lord has done for David’s people:

In you our ancestors trusted;

                        They trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

                        In you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (Ps. 22:4-5)

And we see David remembering what God has done in his own life:

It was you who took me from the womb;

                        You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast since birth,

                        And since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Ps. 22:9-10).

And we see David remembering qualities that are essential to who God is:

For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;

                        Neither is the Lord’s face hidden from them;

But when they cry out, the Lord hears them. (Psalm 22:24)

Remembering what God has done in the past helped David to trust God, and to have hope that God would act again. And, we might imagine the specific stories David could have remembered, the great stories of Israel: Abraham and Sarah conceiving the promised child, Isaac, when they were 100 years old; the people of Israel escaping to freedom after 400 years of slavery; even David himself defeating Goliath or surviving repeated attacks on his life. These are all stories of God coming into a situation that seemed totally hopeless and changing it. These stories reminded David, and they remind us, that there is no situation so hopeless that God can’t transform it; there is no cause so lost that God can’t redeem it.

Remembering the stories of how God has saved God’s people has helped generations of believers keep hoping even when their struggle seemed hopeless. For example:  the people enslaved here in America — many of whom, but some great miracle, came to really believe in the religion of the people who enslaved them — told and retold the story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Their songs are filled with stories of God saving people: Daniel saved from the lion’s den; the three men saved from the fiery furnace; Joshua’s miraculous victory at Jericho. These stories could refuel the enslaved people’s hopes as they dreamed and fought for freedom. As one spiritual sings: “God delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, Jonah from the belly of a whale, and the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace — then why not every man?”[2]

Stories of God’s deliverance are powerful, because the memories of what God has done for hopeless people in the past are tied to God’s promises to always hear the cries of those in need and to act on their behalf. Psalm 34 confesses this faith:

When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,

                       and rescues them from all their troubles.

            The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,

                         and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:17-18)

Responding to hopeless people, transforming hopeless situations — that is an essential part of who God is.

God came through for Sarah and Abraham, and for so many others who were sunk deep into hopelessness. Over and over again, God has worked through situations that seemed totally hopeless to create something unexpected and good. Even Jesus’s story sinks down into the hopelessness of the crucifixion, but God made that hopelessness into salvation. With all these memories and all these promises, our hopeless situations are no longer hopeless. We can always expect God to bring change, to give new hope and new life and new meaning. Even when things are not going the way we want them to go, even when all seems lost — we can always expect God’s action.

That lesson ought to give us the hope we need to keep working for change ourselves, to keep struggling against the harmful and oppressive patterns of our world; the hope we need to encourage those who are running low; the hope we need to keep looking for the bright corners where God’s new day is dawning.

Let us pray.

God of Sarah and Abraham, long ago you embraced your people in covenant and promised them your blessing. We remember the stories of how you saved your people throughout the centuries. Strengthen us in faith, that, with your disciples of every age, we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ to generations yet unborn. Amen.[3]


[1] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Commentary on Psalm 22, The Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] African-American Spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” You can listen to Moses Hogan’s arrangement, performed by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QuTAerbeGA

[3] Amended version of scriptural prayer for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers: Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002), via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resource website: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=72