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?


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.


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



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

A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil: God the Creator

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + February 21, 2018

The theme for our midweek services is “A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil”[1] — a great theme, since the essential purpose of Lent is to prepare for Easter. So on each of these Wednesday evenings we will gather to focus on one of the scripture readings we will hear at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening: readings that are all about how God has saved God’s people over and over again throughout history, until finally we get to hear the greatest story: the story of the resurrection of Jesus.

And I love the Easter Vigil worship service so much that I will definitely be using this as an opportunity to explain some things about it and to talk about how beautiful and awesome it is. Here we go.

At a Jewish Passover Seder, the youngest child sings a question over and over throughout the liturgy of the meal. Following the rules of tradition, she notices how this meal is different than the family’s usual meal: the rituals are different, the foods are different, and everything seems more important. Everything about this meal is special. So four times, the child asks, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” And the older people teach the youngest generation the stories of their people and the saving works of God.[2]

The Easter Vigil might inspire us to ask the same question. It’s a worship service so different from our usual Sunday worship: we begin by gathering outside around a fire; we go through more rituals, and we add more Bible readings; there are more candles in the nave; and everything seems more special, more important. Attending the service for the first time, we might ask: Why all this extra-special stuff? Why a longer service? Why come to church on a Saturday night? “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”

The first song we hear together at the Vigil answers that question. That first song is called the Exsultet or the Easter Proclamation. Over and over again the Easter Proclamation sings “This is the night!”:

This is the night in which, in ancient times, you delivered our forebears, the children of Israel, and led them, dry-shod through the Sea.

This is the night in which the darkness of sin has been purged away by the rising brightness.

This is the night in which heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.

The Easter Vigil takes all of God’s saving works from all of history, and brings them into this moment, right here, right now. We gather in darkness, our nave bare of its usual ornaments after Maundy Thursday’s ritual of stripping the altar, and the somberness of Good Friday’s service hangs around as our last memory of worship here. We gather in darkness, carrying thoughts of whatever evil currently haunts the news headlines or our own lives. And together we celebrate the good news of Easter: this is the night when Christ was raised from the dead. And the idea of time fades to the background as we remember the work of our eternal God. This is the night when it’s all happening, everything God has ever done to save God’s people, all God continues to do for us. This is the night when God creates light in the darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. This is the night.

And then we hear those stories of what God has done. God holding up the waters of the Red Sea for Israel to escape. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones being restored to life, a symbol of what God was about to do for Israel. But the first story we tell is The First Story: God creating the world.

Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

This Creation story explains why we begin celebrating Easter on Saturday night. Some people — and some churches — think of the Easter Vigil as “keeping vigil,” like waiting by the tomb of Christ for him to rise in the morning. The church I went to in high school actually had people dress up as Roman centurions and stand outside the church in shifts from Good Friday evening till Easter Sunday morning. But that is not what we do in the Lutheran church; we celebrate a vigil, like, “Oh my gosh, Jesus is risen! This is so amazing we all have to get together and stay up all night partying!” And we can already say “Jesus is risen!” on Saturday night, we can say “this is the night” when it all happened, because of the Jewish way of keeping time. In the Jewish tradition, a new day begins at sundown. This is because of the Creation story we just read, which says over and over: “And there was evening and there was morning: the first day.” So according to the Jewish way of keeping time, each day begins with God bringing light out of darkness.

And that means that Jesus’s third day in the tomb began when the sun set on Saturday, and sometime before the women disciples discovered the empty tomb during the early hours of dawn on Sunday, sometime in those hours of darkness, God raised Jesus from the dead. Sometime during that night, God again created light out of darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. God acted, and that action was so grand and so cosmically meaningful that it can only be compared to Creation itself. Christ’s resurrection, we believe, is the beginning of God’s re-creation of the whole world.

So we begin our Easter readings with this Creation story because it is the first story of God doing what God does. Creating light. Creating life. Bringing order out of chaos. Making sense of things. Giving food and creating beauty and blessing us.

As we spend our time this Lent preparing for the Easter celebration, we might reflect on all the ways we still need God to be who God is. The Creator, who gives us light, who helps us make sense out of our lives, who brings newness and life. The Re-Creator, who restores relationships, who forgives sin and makes us new, who works to transform our world. Looking toward the Easter Vigil, we are reminded to claim all that God does in the Creation story for right now. This is the night. This is the moment. God is creating and recreating now, in our lives, in our world. Thanks be to God.

[1] From Sundays and Seasons, Year B 2018, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017) pp. 100-101.

[2] This way of beginning to talk about the Easter Vigil, as well as the basis for much of my interpretation of the Vigil, come from Gail Ramshaw’s The Three Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), kindle edition.

A Glimpse of Glory

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 11, 2018

Reading: Mark 9:2-9

A few years ago I helped lead a group of college students on a service trip to New Orleans. We stayed in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Even seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth bore obvious scars of the natural disaster: injured buildings; FEMA’s spray paint; abandoned houses, reminders of neighbors who left to shelter with family in other cities and never returned.

Our home for the week was the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a warehouse turned into a community center — or rather, turning into a community center. It was clear that a lot of work had gone into the place: walls were painted with bright murals; a garden grew in the backyard; one of the rooms had been converted into a computer lab for the neighborhood’s students. This place was an amazing refuge and beacon of hope for its community. But it was also clear that this was a work in progress: we kept discovering, as we cooked, that the kitchen was missing some basic equipment; one afternoon we saw a rat scurry across the kitchen floor, and we hurried to move ALL of our groceries behind the protective walls of the fridge.

On one of our first mornings, one of the young women described the huge bugs she’d seen in our sleeping room the night before. She said she had kept awake for a while, imagining all the kinds of bugs could be crawling around the floor, crawling up the legs of her cot, wondering if they could be dangerous. Finally, she said, she’d fallen asleep, reminding herself, in all seriousness: “God won’t let a bug kill me.”

I think I kept a straight face when she said that. But inside I was shocked. How can you say “God won’t let a bug kill me” while we are sleeping in a building that once had floodwater rising up over its windows? While all around us buildings are still marked with codes showing whether any deceased people had been found inside? While our neighbors for the week are people who were already poor, suffering from a continuing history of systemic racism and poverty, and then were hit by a disaster, and now are still struggling to recover while most of the rest of their city has gone back to normal?

Saying “God won’t let a bug kill me,” especially in that particular place, with the stories we’d been hearing…it sounded hollow and insensitive and, well, maybe a little ridiculous. But, this young woman was only doing something that we all sometimes do, something we are trained to do by a culture that does not want to face suffering or failure or grief or death. She was using her faith as a barrier against her fear of suffering. She was thinking of God as a powerful, protective figure that will make everything go her way, at least most of the time.

But that is not a promise God makes to us. That is not who God is. And there’s a big danger in that thinking: because — as many of you have already learned all too well — there will come a day when something really bad will happen, something that a god who makes things go our way would never let happen, and we will be left wondering if that god really exists. And if that is the only god we know, we will be left wondering if God really exists, or cares about us.

Today in worship we remember and celebrate the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. And I think this story can seem as unreal and disconnected from our experiences as that false god who only lets nice things happen. Jesus suddenly transforms, his clothes blindingly white, and he speaks with two of the greatest Jewish figures of all time, men who had walked the earth a thousand years before. God’s voice declares from the sky: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”


Transfiguration – Mosaic along the entryway to the Basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

So few human beings in all of history have ever had — or even claimed to have had — such a direct experience of God’s power and glory, such a clear communication from heaven. So we probably come away from this story thinking, “Wow! What an amazing sight that would have been to see!” or “That must really have confirmed for those three disciples that Jesus was the messiah.” Or, if we are feeling cynical or doubtful this morning, “Yeah right, like this one actually happened.” In any case: how do we apply this story to the complications and questions of our life? How does this bright, shining vision of Christ’s glory have connection to our experiences, especially if we’re facing life’s most humbling or devastating moments: illness, death, loss, disappointment?

Here’s the thing that helps me: the Transfiguration was weird and out-of-this-world for Jesus’s disciples too. That’s why Peter fumbled around as he tried to react in the midst of all his awe and fear of what he’d just witnessed. This story is an out-of-place blip of shiny glory in a life otherwise spent staring life’s pain in the face. As far as we know, Jesus grew up like just about everybody else in his world: poor. In the years of his life we know most about, he wandered around with a rag-tag group of followers, surviving off of whatever food and shelter someone offered them, sometimes scavenging for their own food. And yes, he performed many, many healings: but those demonstrations of divine power also involved staring disease and death in the face, being surrounded by sick people, touching lepers. In Jesus, the God of all glory entered right into the midst of our suffering: experiencing pain physically and emotionally, spending time with the poor and the sick and the dying and the grieving and the angry people.

The Transfiguration occurred at a time when Jesus was really trying to drive home the point that the messiah, the Son of God, did not come to ward off suffering. The messiah would have to suffer and die. Those who wished to follow him would have to follow him into lives of suffering and sacrifice.

The story of the Transfiguration appears in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in each of those books, it appears as part of the same sequence of events — which doesn’t often happen with stories, since the writers arranged each arranged the stories in their own ways. In all three tellings, the Transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the messiah.” And then Jesus explained exactly what that meant: he would undergo great suffering, be put to death, and after three days, rise again. Anyone who wanted to follow him would have to “take up their cross” (Matt. 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-9:1; Luke 9:18-27). All three gospels link this story to the Transfiguration, saying it was about a week later that Jesus took three disciples up the mountain, where they saw him change before their eyes. As they came down the mountain together, Jesus again reminded them that he would soon be made to suffer.

When they reached the rest of the disciples at the bottom of the mountain, a great crowd was waiting for them. The crowd had brought the disciples a boy who was possessed by an unclean spirit. The disciples had been unable to cast it out. So immediately after that moment of dazzling glory on the mountain, Jesus again came face-to-face with the suffering of the world. Jesus healed the boy, and then went on with his disciples, teaching them, yet again, that he was about to be betrayed and killed (Matt. 17:14-23; Mark 9:14-32; Luke 9:37-45).

We understand the Transfiguration best when we see that it is a glimpse of glory in the midst of a life turned towards human suffering. It’s like a peek behind-the-scenes, a vision of the glorious God present there in the suffering of Jesus; and it’s like a promise of the resurrection that would come after the crucifixion. The divine power in Jesus would not keep him from suffering, but it would bring God nearer to our suffering, right into death, and then the divine power would bring new life. That is the promise of the Transfiguration.

Maybe you have a memory bank of moments like the Transfiguration; memories or stories or Bible verses that remind you that God is with you even when life feels awful, that remind you that God will bring new life even from our tragedies.

We would prefer it if God kept suffering from happening in the first place. And I will always insist that getting angry with God after a tragedy or asking why God “let something happen” is a biblical reaction: there are psalms and whole books of devastated and furious laments in the Bible. Still we must remember what we have been shown and promised: what we see revealed in Jesus Christ is not a god who keeps us protected from all harm, but a God who is right there with us when we are suffering, a God who transfigures our suffering from something devastating to something meaningful (even if still painful), a God who leads us to new life even after death. Our lives may never be the same; but God will use the change for a new creation, a resurrection that — like Jesus’s resurrected body — bears the marks of the pain we suffered even while we begin our new life.

These were the promises that sustained the disciples through their years of persecution and martyrdom. These are the promises that we can lean on today, even when we come to our own times of suffering. Amen.

Listening for God? Listen to Others.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday after Epiphany + January 28, 2018

Readings: Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Our Monday Night Bible Study group has been reading the Gospel of Luke. For months. Very slowly. Very, very slowly. We started back in September, and tomorrow we’ll be reading chapter 10. Well, the first half of chapter 10.

But we’ve been going at such a slow pace for good reason. This gives us the opportunity to really think about each passage: to pay attention to the details of the the story, to trace back to roots in Old Testament passages, to ask any question that pops into our heads from, “What do you think Elijah and Moses said to Jesus during his Transfiguration?” to “Why did Jesus get so crabby with those people?”

A question we come back to over and over is, “What would it have been like to be there?” What would it have been like to see Jesus stand up in the synagogue and declare that he was the messiah promised in the book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30)? Would I have believed him, or would I have been part of the crowd ready to throw him off a cliff? What would it have been like to see fishermen abandon their boats and follow him (Luke 5:1-11)? Was something about him so engaging and powerful that he just drew people to leave their lives for him? Would I have been one of them, or would I have just paid attention from afar?

Our gospel reading for this morning, from the Gospel of Mark, inspires questions along those lines. What would it have been like to be there? To hear Jesus teaching “a new teaching — with authority!” The passage doesn’t give us much detail about how exactly Jesus taught, or even what he was teaching at that moment. How would we have recognized his authority? Was it in the way he spoke and held himself? Was it — like some Bible scholars say —  that he just taught on his own merit, not referring back to “what Rabbi so-and-so” said like the scribes did? Was it — as others say — that he was so amazingly genuine, that he proved his teachings by his actions: by his compassion, by his miraculous healings and exorcisms? The people who heard him that day had not been taught that Jesus was the Son of God. He was just a stranger from down in Nazareth. But somehow they recognized — maybe not that God was speaking to them, but at least that this teacher had authority like they had never seen before. How did they know?

Our wondering about these ancient passages comes from the deep longings of our own lives as people trying to know God, to follow Jesus. What would it be like if I could hear God speaking with authority that directly? How do I know what God is trying to teach me today? I want to know what God wants me to do — but nothing feels clear. What I’d give to have Jesus standing in front of me, speaking with such authority that there is no room for question.

Today we usually turn to the Bible as our in-person source of God’s authority. But even with the Bible, things aren’t so clear. This passage seems to point in one direction; this passage in another direction. Or, I heard one pastor interpret a reading this way, and another pastor tell me it meant something different. We hold the Bible to be an authority for us — but we still need an authoritative interpretation. And maybe that’s why so many people flock to churches that emphasize that they “read the Bible literally,” that they know the true interpretation, that they have a clear picture of what God is telling us and what God wants from us. We want to hear something certain, but we find God to be bigger than a simple answer or a single interpretation. God just keeps being mysterious.

As we tune in to what we do have right in front of us — this mess of questions and readings and interpretations — as we tune in, trying to hear the authoritative voice of God, we face the constant danger of shaping God’s will in our own image, of interpreting God’s Word in a way that kind of fits our own desires or expectations of God or the way we were raised. We may do this on a personal level, and it is really hard not to do it on a group level: interpreting God and the scriptures in ways that match the pattern of our culture or the groups we belong to. Like, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the Bible passages American Christians almost never take literally are the ones about giving all your wealth to the poor or to the community. Just like we tend to interpret the news from within the political or ideological bubbles in which we are comfortable, we interpret God’s will from where we are. It’s what comes naturally — but it can be a problem, something that keeps us from more clearly discerning the God who is bigger than us and our groups.

Christians have been doing this around the world for thousands of years, even right after the time of Jesus. Paul wrote the letter which we just read from a few minutes ago, 1 Corinthians, within twenty years of Jesus’s death. Jesus’s closest disciples as well as others who had seen and heard him teach face-to-face were still alive, travelling throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond, sharing their firsthand knowledge of Jesus. But despite being so much closer to Jesus in time and space, these ancient Corinthian Christians had the same problem of thinking God’s will was pretty similar to who they were, what they thought, and how they wanted to live. And Paul had to keep telling them, No, wait, try to think of things from a perspective outside of your own.

We can see that in today’s reading. A group of Corinthian Christians thought among themselves, We know that some of the meat for sale in the market or served up at our friends’ houses has probably been sacrificed to pagan gods. But we know that those gods aren’t real, so it’s not like the sacrifice actually does anything to the meat. It’s totally fine for us to eat that meat like it’s just regular food. The one true God won’t mind.

And Paul wrote to them: Yes, that all makes sense, but have you considered what you eating sacrificial meat might look like to others? Some of your Christian siblings – newly converted from their pagan beliefs — are so used to these sacrifices being important, so used to thinking that food has been changed now that it’s part of that ritual, that they can’t help but see you as participating in pagan worship when you eat it. God might be ok with you eating the meat, but God’s not ok with you confusing others in the Church, maybe leading them in the wrong direction, to think that going back to their old ways is ok. Actually what Paul wrote was more extreme: “But when you thus sin against members of your family…you sin against Christ.”

In another part of the letter, Paul criticizes the wealthier members of the church for the way they celebrated Holy Communion (which back then was more like a meal). You sit down and eat your food, Paul wrote, which seems fine to you. But did you notice the rest of the church? Others can’t afford what you have. Or they’re still working for their small portion while you’re already free to sit down and feast. So “one goes hungry [while another has so much to eat and drink that he] becomes drunk.” It’s humiliating for those who have so little. And it’s completely ignoring the whole point of Communion: to come together as one body, sharing what the Lord has given.  Again Paul wrote in strong language: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body [meaning the church, the Body of Christ, the community], eat and drink judgement against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

In both of these examples, Paul told subgroups or cliques within the Corinthian church to look to the wider church community to better discern what the will of God might be. By forcing cliques of Corinthians to imagine how another might see things, or feel, or what another person’s life was like compared to their own, Paul helped them see how God’s will might be different than what they could discern from within their bubble. After all, God’s plan, God’s care, encompasses all people — and so God’s will must surely take into account all those perspectives and experiences. Paul reminded them, over and over: You are one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than you realize. And keeping with the understanding of God shown through Israel’s holy stories and prophets and Jesus himself, Paul always assumed that God will would lean toward the needs of those who were more vulnerable, more in need.

These examples remind us of something we easily forget: the Bible is not the only authority left to us now that Jesus has ascended. Jesus’s physical body is gone, but God has given us the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. That doesn’t mean the hierarchy or the rulings of denominations; the Body of Christ means our one-ness in Christ, the holy way that we belong to Christ, and how through Christ we belong to one another in a holy way. Not just the “one another” we experience in-person here at St. Andrew or with other friends; but the “one another” that, in Christ, connects us with the Church around the world: with other denominations, with Black churches, with churches in other countries, with people wealthier and poorer, with people facing famine and war, with people facing racism and sexism, with people facing apathy and self-centeredness.

God has made us one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. God has made us responsible to a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. That responsibility to one another is a voice of authority in our lives, and it is another way that God speaks to us today.

We have to work out God’s will for our lives situation by situation, leaning on all the means God uses to speak to us: the teachings of Jesus, the Bible as a whole, the traditions of the Church, the experiences of our lives, and the Body of Christ. And as we learn to better “discern the Body of Christ,” to consider a wider circle of people and their perspectives and understandings, we will be less constrained by our own image, and better able to discern the Word of the God of all Creation.

The Stories We Pass Around

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 14, 2018

Reading: John 1:43-51

Early in November I went to Houston for a training session for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which will take place there this summer. As part our training we did a practice run-through of our Synod Day worship and activities, and the pastor of a local congregation gave the sermon. I remember one of the personal stories he shared.

It had been a little chilly in Houston in October, well, at least chilly for Texas, and at least before the sun came up, which is when Pastor Jackson liked to go running. So one of those chilly mornings he pulled on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood up to keep his head warm, and went for his usual morning run. As he jogged around the quiet streets of his suburban neighborhood, a police car pulled up beside him, and the officer stopped Pastor Jackson to ask him a few questions. “When the police officer first saw me,” Pastor Jackson said to us, “He saw a black man in a hoodie running around a nice neighborhood in the dark, and that’s why he stopped me. I explained who I was, that I lived in one of these houses, that I was pastor at Living Word, that my accent was from my home country of Liberia.”

I think the point of this part of the sermon was how important it is to get to know one another, to share our stories and to listen to others’ so that we can live in a stronger, more caring community. “He saw me and thought of one story,” Pastor Jackson said, “but when we said good-bye, he knew my real story.”

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when our nation remembers the work of Dr. King and the others who fought for the rights of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember how, eighty-eight years after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after eighty-eight years of Jim Crow laws kept people of color segregated, prevented them from voting, relegated them to schools with poor funding, and backed a host of other abuses, finally civil rights were again legally enforced and protected through things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and the more general protection of the Civil Rights Act.

But even more important than looking back on those important dates and pieces of legislation, we ought to remember the most difficult challenge faced by Dr. King and others who fight for the protection of civil rights and for recognizing the worth of all humans: the harmful stories that get passed along in our culture (sometimes unintentionaly), the harmful stories that automatically come to our mind as we observe and understand our world.

Dr. King and his contemporaries had to deal with these stories in order to affect any legal changes. They had to work to contradict the stories that undergirded the laws and common practices that harmed people of color. Some of these stories were outrightly racist, stories like: People who are black are dangerous; people who are black are less intelligent; people who are black are from an entirely different race and ancestry than people who are white. Other harmful cultural stories were simply apathetic: People who are black are exaggerating; they have all the same rights I do; they just need to work harder; why are they causing all this trouble?


Memphis sanitation workers during a 1968 strike. Via CNN.com

Though much has changed in the United States since 1965, harmful and incorrect stories continue to be passed on in our culture. It’s one of those human-nature things that’s been going on since ancient times.

Jesus had to deal with his own share of cultural stories as he did the work of God’s mission. In church we talk a lot about the various stories some of the Jewish people told in the first century about the coming messiah. The messiah will be a mighty warrior; the messiah will take back the throne of Israel; the messiah will judge us all according the law of God (and make the same judgements I would make). It was hard for Jesus to be seen as the messiah when his work was humble, he stood against the religious leaders, his judgments were either gentle or unexpected, and he won his great victory through public execution on the cross. His story was not the story people expected.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus had to deal with the misguided stories people told about him on a personal level, too. There were people who knew only one or two things about Jesus, and immediately judged him to be lesser, they completely sidelined him. All Nathanael had heard about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, and already he’d put Jesus into the cultural story of what people from Nazareth were like. Maybe he was repeating a common hometown joke when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus had to almost supernaturally shock him out of that story in order to get Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was. People form Jesus’s hometown dismissed him because they did know him, and couldn’t shake the story they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, offended when he starts to teach in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6).

Throughout the gospels we also see that Jesus engaged in the work of contradicting common stories and telling new ones for the sake of other people, namely, those people who are most vulnerable in society. In fact he does this so often that it must have been a major part of his ministry. Some examples: Samaritans were hated figures in Jewish culture, yet Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). When men pointed out to Jesus that the woman in their company was a sinner, Jesus evened the judgement playing field by pointing out that those men were sinners too — aren’t we all? (Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11). When his own disciples said that little children weren’t worthy of Jesus’s time, he encouraged all the adults to be more like children (Mark 10:13-15). While it was seemingly natural to admire the religious and political leaders, with their beautiful clothes and obvious righteousness, Jesus told a different story, calling those leaders hypocrites, pointing out all they did to hurt the poor, and instead lifting up the example of the people who were lowly but faithful as the better examples of righteous living (Luke 20:45-21:4). And of course there are the famous Beatitudes, where Jesus turned our idea of who is blessed upside-down: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep…” (Luke 6:20-26)

Jesus constantly contradicted the cultural stories that did harm and told new stories to help people see the world differently. Jesus called his disciples to be part of his new stories. He wanted them to hear the new stories and also to live those stories. To hear the story that all are sinners, but that God extends grace to all, and then to live it by befriending those society cast out as “too sinful.” To hear that God blesses people who are poor, hungry, suffering, misunderstood, hated, and then to be a blessing to them.

Today Jesus continues to call disciples, to call us, to be part of this work of spotting the harmful stories and telling new stories. We do this when we tell and retell the stories of Jesus, so that his stories are always louder in our minds than the harmful stories of our culture. We do this when we listen to the stories of other people and reflect on them. We do this when we tell our own stories. We do this when we don’t let the harmful stories go unchallenged.

And Jesus calls us to live his stories. To live so that through our actions others may see the truth of God’s story in action: what it looks like in everyday life when every person is valued as a child of God and grace abounds.