What If

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday after Pentecost + July 8, 2018

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 


How would you treat yourself differently if you really believed that God is working through you?

Sometimes that can be a very hard thing to believe. We feel comfortable confessing that God is at work in those really exceptional, saintly people: the Mother Theresas or the Pope Francises. Or maybe we’re willing to admit that God might be at work in people with great skills or expertise: brilliant scientists or inspired musicians. Or maybe we are comfortable thinking that God is at work through the powerful people — surely, we might think, it was God who put them in that position, and for a reason. But God working through me? Well, maybe that will happen one day, when I get better at praying or patience or love.

At the ELCA National Youth Gathering last week we heard lots of speakers who shared a similar theme: that God is at work in us and through us, even when we were are at our least saintly or brilliant or powerful. People who had struggled with eating disorders or drug addiction or terrible diagnoses told us about how they felt and saw God working in them even in the midst of their struggle. God never gave up on them, even when they gave up.

Nadia Bolz-Weber — who is probably the ELCA’s most famous pastor; you might know her as that tall lady with tattoos from the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver — may have summarized the theme most powerfully during her sermon to the 30,000 youth gathered together in Houston:

[There’s a] burden that we carry of always knowing the difference between, like, our ideal self and our actual self…But if you think about it, no one’s ever become their ideal self. It’s a moving target. It’s a false promise. Your ideal self is a lie…Your ideal self doesn’t exist. The self that God has a relationship to is your actual self. The self God loves is your actual self. And there’s a word for this, and that word is “grace.”

Martin Luther taught that God’s grace made us — miraculously — sinners and saints at the same time. Yeah, of course we do wrong things and we’re prideful and sometimes mean and whatever our particular flaws might be. But at the same time, the Holy Spirit is in us, forgiving us, leading us, working through us to build God’s kingdom and share God’s love…even though we’re also going to go on being imperfect and un-ideal for our whole lives. Even the most saintly of us.

As a pastor I might be in privileged position to see how true this is. Many of you share your struggles and your hurts and even your weaknesses with me and Pastor Lippard, and I get just a glimpse of what you are struggling with, where you see imperfections in yourself, what your doubts are, how you feel that things aren’t good enough. I get to know that broken side of you. And then I turn around and see God working through you. You’re taking care of someone else here at church; you’re going to St. Paul’s breakfast or helping with Room in the Inn; you’re helping get supplies to victims of hurricanes. I get reminded all the time that God is not waiting for us to get more perfect to bring us on to God’s mission team: God is working in us just as we are, and making us holier along the way. God gives us on-the-job training.

So, how would you treat yourself differently if you really believed that God is working through you? Would you give yourself more grace? Would you feel more empowered to do the work God is calling you to do? Would you let yourself think that you do have something important to offer this world? Would you recognize what you have to offer — great strengths and little skills and even weaknesses — as holy things that God can and does work through?

And then: how would you treat the people around you differently if you could better recognize how God is working through them?

This is closer to the situation we see in today’s Bible readings. In our Old Testament reading, God warns the prophet Ezekiel that God is sending him to rebellious, impudent, and stubborn people. The great majority of them will not take seriously that God is speaking to them through Ezekiel. They’ll refuse to hear his warnings and deny his wisdom. They won’t recognize God at work in him.

In our gospel reading, we see that the people of Jesus’s hometown could recognize Jesus’s wisdom, his miraculous healings (either genuinely or sarcastically)…and yet somehow they could not believe that these things were the work of God. Wasn’t this the kid they’d known his whole life, the guy who used to be a day-laborer down the street? Someone just like them, not someone special. Instead of standing in awe of what Jesus was able to do, they took offense at him. They would not recognize God at work in Jesus.

And then Jesus sent out his disciples, and he warned them that some people would reject them. They would not see God working in that ragtag group of ex-fishermen and ex-tax collectors and ex-rebels.

What stopped all those people from seeing God at work in the people around them — people we now revere as prophets and saints and the Son of God? I mean, those guys were doing miracles: casting out demons and curing the sick and revealing divine truths. Was it that they were, aside from the miracles, just ordinary people?

Was it that the rejecters did not like what Ezekiel and Jesus and the disciples were saying? Was it a pride thing — Who are these guys, to think they’re so special?

But maybe the more important question is: What keeps us from seeing God at work in the people around us? Not that they’re all going to have their names on the calendar of saints one day…but God is at work even in imperfect people. Ordinary, boring people; people who make us mad; people who make our food at restaurants; people we disagree with; people who do obviously bad things; I think even in people who don’t “know” God themselves. Of course not everything everybody does is of God, but I think God is at work somehow in all people.

So: how would you treat the people around you differently if you could better recognize how God is working through them? Would you give them more grace? Would you try harder to understand them? Would you look harder for what God is offering through them?

And then: how would you look at the world differently if you could better recognize that God is working in all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, in all sorts of situations?

For a solid period of time Western Christian missionaries believed that their culture was closer to God’s way than the cultures of the peoples of other lands — even the parts of their culture that really had nothing to do with following Jesus: things like dressing in the same style, taking on the same social customs, listening to the same music, using the same first names. As they sought to win converts to Christianity, they demanded that the converts also turn away completely from their native way of doing things and essentially become foreign Westerners.

Individual missionaries had a whole range of personal experiences in their work, and I’m sure that many of them were changed and inspired and grew as Christians through their encounters with other peoples. But at least at the theoretical level — and often at the practical level, too — it was thought to be the missionaries who carried God to others, and there was little to no reciprocation: they did not go out expecting to see God at work in these other lands, did not expect to be changed or challenged back.

In some ways this idea still persists: we often think of mission or outreach work as one group doing the work of God for another group rather than as something more reciprocal and relational. It takes a lot of thought — and probably some real experience — to be able to see the prisoner ministering back to the chaplain or the homeless man providing something to the Room in the Inn host. And, admittedly, it can still be easy for us to think of Western culture and Christianity as one and the same — for some this is unintentional, because it’s what we’re used to, and we need the reminder that God is already at work in other places and cultures, and has been since ancient times. But for some other people the idea that Christianity is Western culture, that’s a creed they hold on to…and that easily becomes harmful to mission work and to Christianity.

But today many missions groups — including ELCA Global Missions — teach that their work is something more interdependent and mutual. Our Global Missions website talks about how our missionaries work with and among the people they travel to, seek to empower them, build relationships, and open themselves to what they might learn from other people and other cultures.  These missionaries go expecting God to work through them and also expecting to experience God working in others, in the midst of different traditions and styles and histories. As one of our Young Adults in Global Mission put it: “You always hear about ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ so that’s not, like, a totally new concept for me…but I’m just really feeling it lived out here.”

How would you look at the world differently if you could better recognize that God is working in all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, in all sorts of situations? What situations would you consider with more grace? What would you try harder to understand? What preconceptions would you have to let go of? What things about the way the world is going would you want to challenge? What new things might God teach you?

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3)

Sometimes we, like these people from Jesus’s hometown, may fall into the habit of limiting God. We might think, “God can’t be here, or there, in that person, in me.” There might be great teachings. There might be great signs. But for some reason, we can’t quite get ourselves to believe God is working in people or places that don’t seem right or holy enough, that seem too ordinary or too strange. Maybe it’s because of our pride or because of our shame; maybe it’s because we’re too comfortable with what we’re used to, or too uncomfortable with a new experience. But what would change if we did see God working in places we aren’t used to expecting?

What if God is working in all those strange and contentious parts of our world?

What if God is working in the people you see every day?

What if God is working in you?

What then, Child of God? What then?

B_AshWednesday-medium

“Ash Wednesday,” San Francisco, CA, Feb. 6, 2006. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

 

 

 

Advertisements

“I Know that My Redeemer Lives”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Frankin, TN + 5th Sunday after Pentecost + June 24, 2018

Readings: Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41


Three weeks ago, you blessed a small group of St. Andrew people — mostly teenagers — before we set off for Affirm, a summer youth camp for our synod. We spent the next week at the University of West Alabama with about 200 other people from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Our kids spent most of their time in different units that delved deep into issues of faith and life specific to their age group and interests. But every night all of us came together for worship, which was centered around the year’s big theme: Together. Each day had its own mini-theme — worship, serve, work, and love — and our worship team explored how the Church does all those things “together” with God and one another.

I got to spend most of my time with the worship team, helping high school juniors and seniors craft liturgy, music, and a sermon (usually in skit form) based on study of our daily scriptures and theme. The first theme we worked on was “worship together,” so we began worship planning with a conversation about why it’s important that we come together for worship, even though we can worship God on our own. Each person shared what they found most meaningful about being part of a church community. And it was inspiring. Almost every kid said that their church was a place where they felt like they were welcome just as they were; a place where they could get together with other people who were struggling and help support one another; a place where God worked through all our human messiness to create something better than we could do on our own.

But one teen described church life in a totally different way: he called it “a place of tension.” What he meant was that he spent most of his week out “in the world,” hearing all these different messages and advertisements and judgments — and then when he came to church he heard God’s word. And what he heard God saying through the church was different than what he was hearing in other places in his life. And so church was a place of tension, where he worked to navigate through all those different messages and to figure out how God was calling him to live. The community helped challenge him in ways that wouldn’t happen if he only worshipped on his own.

I’m pretty sure I told him right in that moment that I was going to borrow that for a sermon.

Because I’m sure all of us have felt that kind of tension as we’ve worked to sort through all the different messages we receive in our lives. Often what we are sorting through are all these contradicting moral messages: ideas about how we should behave, what our families and communities should be like, what our priorities should be.

Today’s Bible readings draw us to a different set of messages: messages about how we should interpret our experiences — especially experiences of suffering or fear — and what we might think of God based on those experiences.

Our first reading is from the book of Job. You probably remember the basics of his story: Job was rich both spiritually and physically. He had a big, loving family, a huge, fruitful farm, and lots of servants to take care of things. All these blessings did not make him arrogant or lazy; Job remained “blameless and upright; [he] feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). But suddenly all Job had was taken away from him: goods, servants, family, his own health. He was left to wallow in suffering.

His friends tried to convince him that he must have committed some secret sin to make God curse him so. That was the only way they could make sense of what was happening to Job; if someone was suffering, they must have done something to deserve it. Admit you’ve sinned, they said to Job, confess, and God will make things better for you. Other people tried to convince Job to turn his back on God, to curse God right back.

But Job knew that he has been faithful to God, and he trusted that God was just. Standing firm in that faith, Job begged God to come to him and explain why he was being made to suffer so severely.

And finally God did answer Job. Our reading for this morning is part of God’s answer. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asked Job. Who controls the wild sea, who made the stars, who is Lord over all Creation? In essence, God’s answer came down to: Who are you to try and understand how I run the world?

Ok: taken on its own, that is not the most comforting answer. It’s not very compassionate (how it just downplays Job’s suffering and questions) and it points us toward the mystery of things rather than giving us answers or even much hope. But when we put this response in tension with how Job’s friends responded to Job’s suffering, it is definitely the more hopeful answer. Job’s friends blamed him for his own suffering, rubbing salt into the wound; God assigned no blame, only pointed out that suffering is one of many things that humans cannot understand.

When I was a hospital chaplain, I talked with many patients who were struggling with the question, “What did I do wrong, to earn this disease or this injury?” When people ask that question, coming to accept that their pain is not their fault, but is rather one of the great, infuriating mysteries that we are struggle with…that may actually be the first step towards a better outlook on their situation. And at least it doesn’t make God out to be this scary judge just waiting to get us back for every wrong we’ve ever done; it just leaves us wondering about what exactly God might be up to. That’s the window for hope.

But perhaps the most comforting thing we see in Job’s story is Job’s faith in who God is. Job has a vision of a more hopeful future. As Job’s so-called friends accused him and accused him, calling him wicked, trying to get him to admit how horrible he must really be…as Job felt like he was getting kicked around by God and everyone around him (Job 19:21-22)…in that very moment Job uttered the words that we now sing in Easter hymns: “I know that my redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). That Hebrew word we usually translate “redeemer” also means things like “advocate” and “avenger.” So even in the midst of his sufferings Job held fast to his belief that God would, ultimately, show that God was not only just, but also caring, that God would make meaning out of Job’s suffering, that God would redeem that horrible time, that God would make things right. From a human perspective, all of that seems really impossible. Yet Job believed that in the end he would see that God was on his side after all:

I know that my Redeemer lives,

and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;

and after my skin has been thus destroyed,

 then in my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see on my side,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)

And maybe we can find hope in Job’s faith because we see it proved true in Jesus Christ.[1] Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection show us that God does come to redeem and avenge wrongful suffering. Jesus is the redeemer Job prayed for: the face of God on earth, showing us that God stands on the side of those who suffer wrongly or without apparent reason — not accusing them, but standing up for them, standing on their side.

In Jesus we see that great, mysterious, high-above-us God of all Creation that responds to Job: remember how in today’s gospel reading Jesus tamed the storming winds, leaving his disciples wondering, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” That’s the Jesus-is-fully-God thing showing through. And in the person of Jesus God went to those who were suffering — suffering from disease and poverty and prejudice and injustice — and told them God was with them, and helped them.

And in Jesus we also see Job: an innocent man given over to suffering and cursed by people who didn’t understand what was really going on.

And God redeemed Jesus’s innocent suffering; we might even say that God avenged Jesus’s innocent suffering — just not in the way we usually expect redemption and vengeance. God did not answer suffering and death with more suffering and death, by, say, zapping Jesus’s killers with lightning bolts. Instead, God avenged Jesus’s death by raising him to new life. God showed the world that Jesus was not cursed or crazy or wrong; Jesus was God’s chosen one…and even more: that Jesus was God made flesh.

The God we see revealed in Jesus consistently chose to avenge victims of innocent or senseless suffering — and God always avenged them in life-giving ways: by insisting that they were not cursed, that they were blessed and beloved in the eyes of God; by healing them, by restoring them to community; by commanding others to love and care for them, too. And even those who we might say deserved suffering…Jesus forgave them their sins and freed them.

When we are suffering, it’s easy for us to wonder if maybe God is that Watchful Judge out to even the score. The voices of Job’s friends speak in our heads, telling us we must have done something wrong to justify what we are going through. When we see others suffering, sometimes Job’s friends speak up again, making us wonder if those other people must have done something to deserve their suffering: their poverty, their lack of health care, the violence enacted upon them. Often those are the messages we receive not just from inside our heads, but from lots of different places in our world as we try to make sense of the suffering we see and experience.

If we come to church — if we come together with other believers — and have those kind of thoughts inside our head…If we come together wondering if God is judging us, if we are suffering for our sins, if we come judging others too harshly…then I hope the Church is a place where all those ideas are brought into tension with what we know about who God is. I hope the Church is a community that helps us believe that God does not send us suffering because of sins. I hope the Church is a community that holds us as we face down the great and frustrating mystery of suffering. And I hope the Church is a community that helps us hold on to the faith that God will redeem us in the end.


[1] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) pp. 118-119.

But Remember Who God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Pentecost + June 3, 2018

Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6


There are some things that Christians say a lot that are true and important to really remind ourselves of from time to time: God’s ways are not our ways. God knows better than we do. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Being a disciple of Christ requires us to sacrifice.

Sometimes, however, people apply these principles in mistaken ways — ways that lead to harm that is not actually part of God’s will.

The hot topic in America’s Evangelical world right now is the story of Paige Patterson, a pastor and major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently stories have surfaced in which Patterson gave sermons or counseling advice addressing women in abusive marriages. He advised them to stay in these marriages — to stay in these homes, forgive their husbands even while the abuse continued, and even to face more abuse — in the hope of saving their husband’s souls.[1]

I can muster up some generosity and say I think Patterson really was motivated by his understanding of scripture and God’s will in matters like divorce, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. But when his attempts to teach faithfully were causing his parishioners to come to him with black eyes — in a society where 50% of female victims of murder are killed by their husbands or boyfriends[2] — he should have stopped to re-evaluate, to pray, and to study scripture. Would our God who, throughout the Old Testament, sends prophecy calling out kings and leaders for their treatment of orphans and widows and those without power — want women to stay in dangerous relationships? Would our God, revealed in the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ, really ask victims to bear responsibility for those abusing them? Or was there another, more faithful way to care for both the abuser and the abused?

History is full of examples like this, examples of people who were, perhaps, honestly trying to be faithful to God, but whose judgment was clouded by the sins of society or their own personal desires. Americans argued — with biblical arguments — that slavery was the will of God. Politicians argue with pastors who advocate on behalf of people who suffer from poverty, saying, “Well, y’know Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ so this is just the way things are.” (By the way, when Jesus said that, he was referencing Deuteronomy, and that whole commandment says: Since the poor you will always have with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land”[Deut. 15:11].) One of the things that breaks my heart the most is when people are diagnosed with something horrible or injure themselves badly and spend a lot of time wondering, “What did I do wrong, that God would do this to me?” That’s not the God we see in Jesus.

So yes, we need to remember that God is beyond us, that God’s ways are not our ways, and sometimes that’s going to be annoying or hard or require sacrifice — but we also have to balance out that teaching with teachings about who God is, what God desires, what God thinks is important.

I think that’s one of the things Jesus was trying to point out when he challenged the Pharisees on the right ways to observe the sabbath.

Macklin_Vol_6-22-medium

John Opie and William Bromley, The Macklin Bible, “Christ Healing the Woman on the Sabbath Day” (1799). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

But first, a side note: I think it’s worth saying the Pharisees might not have found Jesus’s teachings about sabbath observance all that heretical. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” and he asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” before answering his own question by healing a man on the sabbath.

The Jewish Rabbinic tradition — which grew out of the Pharisees’ movement — actually sides with Jesus on these points. Their teachings from the time of Jesus include sayings like: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it,” and, “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”[3] There’s an overriding principle in Jewish law which says that preserving life is more important than observing other laws.[4] This rule comes from ancient interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, in which God said, “You shall keep my statues and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.”

So, probably, what went down between Jesus and the Pharisees was not exactly a disagreement over interpretation of sabbath law. Rather, the Pharisees had already decided they didn’t like Jesus, and they were trying desperately to catch him doing something wrong so they could publicly accuse him and get those crowds of people to stop following him. But Jesus kept just toeing the line, doing things that were just a little scandalous and daring the Pharisees to say something; but Jesus could also turn to scripture and tradition to prove that what he was doing was right.

I read a webcomic this week where the writer remembered back to being a child, to a Halloween where she was sent to school in a dinosaur costume. And being in that costume — being a dinosaur — made her feel powerful, like the rules didn’t apply to her. So when her teacher told her to sit in a circle with the other children, she suddenly felt that dinosaur-power fill her, and she rebelled. She ran around the room, knocking over chairs and toys, grabbing a handful of pens, and scribbling manically on the walls. Then came the showdown: a moment of stillness while the teacher stared her down and demanded, with all her teacher’s authority, “Give me the pens. Now.”A pause as the child stared back at her teacher, deciding…and then she threw the pens right at her teacher’s face.[5]

I imagine that moment in the synagogue felt almost like that to the Pharisees. Jesus, we’re watching you. Don’t do it. Don’t heal that man. It’s the sabbath. We’re the teachers here, and you know what we say about the sabbath. Don’t do it, Jesus. And Jesus looked them right in the eye, reached out his hand, and healed.

Of course Jesus chose these moments of rebellion very carefully. He was making a point. He was, for instance, claiming his own authority over and above that of the Pharisees. I know the law as well as you do, and maybe better; I know that what I’m doing is in line with God’s will. Just try and tell me it’s not. He even put himself in the place of King David: as David had a mission that deserved special dispensation, so did Jesus. Claiming that he deserved the same as the greatest of Israel’s kings was a big claim indeed. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to discredit him.

But, to work our way back to my original topic: this sabbath healing was also an opportunity to draw people’s eyes to God’s real purpose for the sabbath law, and to the central purpose of Jesus’s mission — to draw people’s eyes back to what God is like and what God cares about.

Our first reading for today, from the book of Deuteronomy, told us about the reason God commanded the Israelites to observe the sabbath as a day of rest. God said: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” We could sum that up: Remember that God saved your people from forced labor; now enjoy this day of rest. The sabbath is meant as a gift, and as a day to remember God’s gift of freedom, God’s gift of salvation, and to give thanks by celebrating and enjoying the gift.

Jesus’s mission was to bring those gifts of freedom and salvation to even more people.

So one sabbath day, Jesus met a man with a withered hand. A man who either was injured or born with that difficulty; who probably has trouble finding work; who had, maybe, spent a lot of time anxiously wondering what he’d done that made God curse him. So when Jesus met that man on the sabbath, he knew how to best observe the sabbath law: by granting that man the gift of healing and freedom.

And yeah, maybe it was a little scandalous. The man wasn’t in mortal danger; couldn’t you wait till tomorrow to do the work of healing, Jesus? But Jesus’s mission to bring freedom and salvation was too urgent and too important to be so scrupulous about the sabbath.[6]

And what does that tell us about God’s priorities?

It’s really easy for us to focus too much on the idea that “God is above us, we need to just surrender and obey God,” so that we end up making obedience to laws more important than God’s mission to save people and free people. Or, actually: we end up making our interpretation of God’s laws more important than God’s main mission.

God is bigger than us. God does give us commandments that are difficult. God does ask us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things we don’t want to do, to sacrifice, even — sometimes — to suffer. But think of those things as, like…facts about God.

Who God is, is even more important than that. We can’t know what God wants from us without first knowing who God is. And the God we see revealed in both the Law and the Gospel is a God who cares for people, and not just our souls, but our bodies and our minds, too. God cares for our relationships and our societies and our planet.

If the teaching we’re hearing doesn’t seem to match up with who God is — if it harms rather than saves — it’s worth turning back to the scriptures and seeing what the message really is. That’s what Martin Luther would do. And, according to today’s gospel reading, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do, too.


[1] Ed Kilgore, “#MeToo in the Pews: A Backlash to the Southern Baptist Patriarchy,” New York Magazine, 9 May 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/05/metoo-engulfs-southern-baptist-patriarch-paige-patterson.html Accessed 3 June 2018.

[2] Camila Domonoske, “CDC: Half of All Female Homicide Victims are Killed by Intimate Partners,” National Public Radio, 21 July 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of-all-female-murder-victims-

are-killed-by-intimate-partners  Accesed 3 June 2018.

[3] Quoted in Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6”, Working Preacher, 3 June 2018. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667 Accessed 28 May 2018.

[4] Simon Glustrom, “Saving a Life (Pikuach Nefesh),” My Jewish Learning. Online: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/saving-a-life-pikuach-nefesh/ Accessed 28 May 2018.

[5] Allie Brosh, “Menace,” Hyperbole and a Half, 2 October 2013. Online: https://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/10/menace.html?m=1

[6] N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 25-28.

Imagining a World Where Love is the Way (a sermon on Bishop Curry’s royal wedding sermon)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Trinity Sunday + May 27, 2018

Reading: John 3:1-17


So today is Holy Trinity Sunday. But I have a lot of things to say in this sermon, and while those things do relate to the Trinity, it would be complicated to keep explaining throughout the sermon how all these things I feel called to say today are also connected to this idea of God being One-in-Three and Three-in-One, even though they really do have a lot to do with that. So I’m just going to do it all here at the beginning.

First — why read John 3 on Trinity Sunday? Well, I figure it’s because it mentions all three Persons of the Trinity: the Creator, the Son, and the Spirit, and it gives us a glimpse of how all Three Persons are doing the work of one God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ — and in us, as we are reborn of “water and Spirit” to see God’s Kingdom more clearly.

But here’s the main point about the Trinity that I want you to take home: the Trinity teaches us about love. This whole Three Persons being One thing — three different Persons who only exist in their relationship together — three Persons whose different identities are not plowed over by their perfect unity with one another — that is, well, complicated and mysterious and hard to wrap our heads around — but it is also an ideal image of love, of relationship, of family, of community. (For more on this, see my last sermon.) So rather than trying to wrap your head around how exactly this Trinity thing works, remember this: the Trinity teaches us about love. Say it with me: the Trinity teaches us about love.

OK, good, you’ve got your take-home knowledge of the Trinity. I’ve done my job for the liturgical calendar. Because what I really want to talk about is the royal wedding. Did you see that dress?

Just kidding. There are enough of you out there who know I have zero knowledge of the wedding, because those of you who have tried to talk about the wedding with me in the last week or so probably experienced something like this:

“Pastor, did you watch any of the royal wedding?”

“Um. Did…that…happen?”

And then — in case any of you want to know what goes inside your pastor’s head — I would internally prepare myself to make small talk about fancy dresses or celebrities or decorations.

But you know what? That never happened. Instead every person I talked to went right into telling me all about the sermon. The first time it happened, I thought, “Oh, that’s just Meredith. Of course Meredith would be excited about the sermon.” But then another person mentioned it, and another, and another. And so I thought, OK, maybe it’s because I’m a pastor and I’m talking to church people, and church people tend to appreciate good sermons — or at least feel like they should comment on churchy stuff to their pastor (who clearly doesn’t bother to keep up with pop culture anyway).

But when I finally went online to watch this famous sermon, I found out it wasn’t just “church people” talking about it. The sermon, apparently, was the most-tweeted-about moment of the ceremony. There were articles about just the sermon in The Atlantic and Time and Brides.com. It got its own moment on Saturday Night Live. People hardly ever remember wedding sermons, but somehow Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church here in the U.S., preached a sermon that stood out even in a royal wedding.

Maybe it’s because he preached a message that people were longing to hear: a vision of a world where love is the way of things. Not fear, not pride, not greed, not apathy — but love.

ACT0064-medium

“Love and Faithfulness Meet,” St. Michael’s Church, Golden Grove, Wales. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

He began by quoting another sermon, one by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “We need to discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”[1] And Bishop Curry went on talking about the power of love — and not just the love between two people, but God’s love, the love shown to us in Jesus Christ, the kind of love the Holy Trinity teaches us about. Unselfish love. Sacrificial love. Redemptive love. The kind of love that can change lives; the kind of love that can change the world.

“Imagine,” Bishop Curry invited us, “imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way — unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.”[2]

At first glance, that message can come off as kind of fluffy and romantic. “At this fairy tale wedding, imagine a whole world where love is the way. Sigh.”

But if we are actually willing to do the work of really imagining what our homes, our businesses, our society would be like if love was the way; what it would be like if sacrificial, redemptive love was the standard at the center of our personal decisions and our public policies — and if we then held up that vision as the model for our actual behavior, our actual everyday conversations, our actual consideration of other people’s opinions and experiences, our actual voting record and civic engagement…that wouldn’t be fluffy at all. It would be complicated and demanding and even, yes, sacrificial — but also, as Bishop Curry said, it would be redemptive and life-changing and world-changing.

If love were the way, the way of our lives, the way of business, the way of politics, it would save people. It would literally save people, spiritually and physically save people. It would save people from loneliness and guilt and neglect; it would save people from racism and sexism and all kinds of prejudice; it would save people from poverty and hunger and lack of health care. Maybe it would even save people from violence. In short — it would save people in the ways that Jesus saved people.

But imagining that world where love is the way, making redemptive, sacrificial love the standard — it can seem like an impossible feat. The world just doesn’t work that way.

Jesus said to one of the religious leaders of his day: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” — or, as you’ve maybe heard it translated, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Jesus never said, The Kingdom of God is coming, and it’s perfectly reasonable, and it comes with a gradual, step-by-step five-year plan for implementing God’s will into the current model.

Nope. Jesus said, You can’t even see what the Kingdom of God is about without being totally transformed, recreated, reborn into God’s way of seeing and doing things. You gotta leave the ways of the world behind.

In his royal wedding sermon Bishop Curry tried to help us to get into the spirit of the wedding — and of his preaching on the power of love — by asking us: “…think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved.”

Well, I want you to think about the last time you were mad at someone you loved. I mean really mad. Can’t-see-things-straight, want-to-say-things-you’ll-regret mad. What did you do? Maybe you did say those regrettable things, and then you had to figure out how to make up for it. But maybe you did one of those things wise people are always trying to teach us to do when our emotional temperature skyrockets: Take deep breaths. Count to ten. Take a walk. Journal, call a friend, or just lose yourself in a hobby for a while.

The point of all those things is get yourself back into a different way of being, a less-angry way of being. When we’re that mad, we don’t see things right or fairly or reasonably. We need to get out of the mad moment and re-learn how to be calmer, less defensive, more generous, more loving. We need to be able to see things differently.

Jesus said we need to be re-born from above, re-born of water and the Spirit, so that we can see things differently. So that we can see beyond the normal ways of the world and see God’s Kingdom, God’s way of doing things, God’s more generous, more loving way of doing things. We need to learn to step outside of the way the world works — outside of business-as-usual — and be re-created in God’s image, into God’s way of being and doing things.

There are lots of ways that we can try to take time away from the world’s way of doing things. Going to church should be a time outside of the world’s way; so should studying God’s Word and prayer and summer camp…and imagining a world where love is the way. Imagining homes and neighborhoods and businesses and politics where God’s redemptive love is the standard of doing things — that kind of imagining is an exercise in being reborn of water and the Spirit. And putting God’s love into practice — that is the work of being a follower of Jesus.

This past Thursday Pastor Lippard was in Washington, D.C., and he got to hear Bishop Curry preach in-person. (Well, almost: that church was packed, so he was in the church next door, watching on a screen.) Again Curry preached about the power of love, and of what it looks like when we really put God’s love into action. He said: “Love your neighbor. Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!” And then the whole crowd — Pastor Lippard included — marched silently with candles to the White House to pray and to imagine a world where God’s love is the way of things. In an interview before the march Bishop Curry said: “Our hope and dream is that articulating the vision of a country where we love our neighbor as ourselves will be an appeal to the better angels of our nature.”[3]

We need — we always, constantly need — to take a step back from the way things are going, and give God room to re-create us, so that we can see God’s kingdom, God’s way of redemptive, sacrificial love — in all the parts of our lives. “We need to discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

Friends in Christ, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Amen and amen.


[1] Curry quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” delivered 16 November 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. The full text of the sermon is available online.

[2] Michael Curry, “The Power of Love,” sermon for the wedding of Prince Henry , Duke of Sussex, and Meghan Markle, St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, 19 May 2018. Full text available online.

[3] “Bishop Curry takes his message to the White House,” The Washington Post, 25 May 2018. Online.

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.

touchdown-medium

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.

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.