Charlottesville

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 10th Sunday after Pentecost + August 13, 2017

Reading: Matt. 14:22-33


I was not thinking about my sermon yesterday. It was already written, printed out and tucked safely inside my worship folder, ready to go for this morning. I was out on Center Hill lake, spending time with one of my best friends before she moves to Texas and enjoying the tranquility of being out on the water.

Then I got back to land. I checked my Facebook while I was waiting in line for food. The first thing I saw was a post by my friend Brandy, who has just started a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Virginia and recently moved to Charlottesville. Her post said: “Thanks for all the checking in y’all. I’m safe (phone had just died).” and she went on to describe first-hand the scene you’ve all probably heard of by now: the clash between supremacist protesters and counter-protesters at a park in Charlottesville, which eventually involved the national guard. How someone purposefully drove their car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring many more. (And by the way, this driving-into-a-crowd-of-protesters thing has been happening for a while; and it has personal impact for me: my friend Peter was hit by a car in Nashville in January while serving as a safety officer for a protest.)

Later I learned more about what’s been happening in Charlottesville: While the “Unite the Right” protest on Saturday had pre-approval from the city, another hate group action, on Friday night, did not.

“At that action, hundreds of White men and women carrying lit tiki-torches [and remember how fire has been used historically by groups such as the KKK)]marched on the campus of the University of Virginia, yelling ‘You will not replace us!’ ‘Jew will not replace us!’ and ‘Blood and Soil,’ a slogan of Nazi Germany. The White supremacists surrounded the campus’ St. Paul’s Memorial Church as an opposing multifaith, multiracial prayer service let out and then violently clashed with a small group of student counter-protesters at the university’s rotunda.” [from Colorlines]

So forgive me if this sermon comes out rather disorganized, but I figured that we need to talk about this.

And just to give this sermon some added context: I have been at St. Andrew for just shy of three years. This is the second time since I have been here that one of our pastors has felt the need to re-write a sermon at the last minute because of race-based violence. That’s in addition to all the Sundays we’ve had time to prepare thoughts beforehand on shootings or statements that have taken over the media. That’s too much for a nation that often thinks it’s beyond all this racism stuff.

Here’s a brief summary of what I was originally going to say about today’s gospel story of Peter and Jesus walking on the water. Peter slides over the edge of that boat and onto the surface of the water, boldly and faithfully walking towards Jesus. But then his fear lurches up inside of him, and his commitment wavers. He starts to back away — or in this case, down, into the waves.

Peter is always doing that — taking a bold stand and then backing away in fear. He boldly and faithfully tells Jesus he would rather die than abandon him (Matt. 26:33-35), and then later that very day he denies even knowing Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75). Boldly and faithfully, he is the first to baptize non-Jewish people and welcome them into the community of the church — he takes a lot of heat for this — but he stands firm (Acts 11). Then later, St. Paul publicly criticizes him for refusing to eat with non-Jewish people because some of the Christians who don’t like that kind of thing are in town (Gal. 2:11-12). Peter backs away a lot.

But what does Jesus do in the story of walking on water? He does the same thing he always does: he reaches out. He reaches out to pull Peter up out of the waves when his faith wavers. Just like Jesus spent his whole life reaching out to people, despite what the people around him think: he reaches out to Zaccheus, the rich tax collector, and the man’s heart is completely changed (Luke 19:1-10). He reaches out to sick people, to lepers whom no one else would touch (ex. Matt. 8:1-4). Even on the cross he reaches out to the criminals next to him and to the very people who are crucifying him (Luke 23:32-43).

Peter is so easy to relate to. We, too, often feel afraid and back down from our convictions. But as disciples we need to practice being more like our teacher: our teacher, who reaches out despite the risk, despite the fear of the doubt or the whatever going on inside of us. We need to reach out to other people, making God’s love and welcome our own, making ourselves living signs of the gospel.

At this time, in this political climate, reaching out is one of the most important things we can do: one of the best things we can do for ourselves, our neighbors, our community, and our country.

Dr. Wes Bellamy, the vice-mayor of Charlottesville, said this in an interview:

“And honestly speaking, if this doesn’t bring us together – people from different nationalities, people from different ethnicities, different races, different ages, different denominations in church and racial beliefs and socioeconomic status – if this doesn’t bring all of those groups together to stand up and stand united against hate, I honestly do not know what will. Someone has lost their life. Thirteen people were ran over and hit.

“These individuals have literally come here and said that they wanted to invoke terror over all of us. And while, again, I’m disappointed and heartbroken that someone has lost their life, I firmly do believe that this will be the opportunity that we need for us to stand up and stand together. […] So if you want to help us, if you want to help us, pray for us or send positive energy, or make a difference and decide to stand up with us and stand together.”

We’re not in Charlottesville, but how can we stand with them — and with all the others facing hate and discrimination — right where we are? In what ways can you reach out — boldly and faithfully?

Maybe you already have relationships that allow you to reach out: to ask a person of color about their experiences, to try and understand another’s point of view. Or to show kindness and understanding to someone with an opposite political view. Or maybe you know who someone who needs help out their fear or their hate, someone with whom you can share the gospel message of love and welcome. Maybe you can try to form those relationships — to put yourselves in groups, activities, situations where you will have opportunity to meet different people, to stand together with others.

And if that’s not possible, maybe you can do your own research, maybe you can reach outside of your own culture and experiences by what you watch or read or listen to: Watch a documentary on black history or the black experience; we watched a great one called White Like Me at last year’s Southeastern Synod Leadership Convocation, and PBS and Netflix have put out some good ones recently. Read books by people of color. Listen to an informative podcast; I’ve been listening to the “On Being White” series from Scene on Radio. Read news articles from across the political spectrum, or from sources run by people of other cultures; the ELCA’s director for racial justice ministries often recommends an online newsource called Colorlines.

Do what you can to understand people who are different from you. You don’t have to agree with everything– but it’ll help you reach out in person when the opportunity arises.

Reach out by speaking out against fear, hatred, racism, violence, and the tolerance of violence — even when it appears in smaller, quieter, calmer forms than it did in Charlottesville this weekend. Take that bold risk, even when it’s scary.

We are the body of Christ; we need try our best to do what Jesus would do in every situation: to speak out and to reach out.

Let us pray.

Just and merciful God, we lift before you the city of Charlottesville, especially victims of violence and those gathered in support of peace and equality. By your might, break the bondage that bigotry, hatred and violence impose on their victims and their perpetrators. Help us to always reach out with your fierce love and welcome. May your kingdom come on earth as in heaven; through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for the life of the world. Amen.

[Prayer adapted from the Virginia Synod ELCA’s statement on the Aug. 12 rally in Charlottesville]

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“Fight the Good Fight,” New York City street art photo by Redhope. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

Food Miracles

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 9th Sunday After Pentecost + August 6, 2017

Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21


As I was studying our Bible readings for this week, I came across a reminder: in the Bible one of the most common symbols or signs of God’s care for us is food. Think about how many stories or promises have food at the center. As the Israelites wander in the wilderness, Gods sends them manna and quail. The Promised Land is called “the land of milk and honey.” The Passover is commemorated with a meal; and before Jesus died, he told his disciples to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine. We are given promise after promise of the Great Feast that is to come. Like today, in the reading from Isaiah:

“Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

And of course there’s today’s gospel reading: one of Jesus’s great miracles, the feeding of thousands.

All of these invitations to feasts and miraculous meals, signs of God’s love and care for our bodies and spirits.

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“Hand of God with Loaves and Fish,” United Reformed Church, Brighton, England. Photo by Anders Sandberg. From Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

This made me think of another thing I read this week: at the end of some article I was reading online came an advertisement that said in all-capital letters: “CHRISTIANS WILL BE ASTONISHED BY THIS WEIGHT LOSS SECRET HIDDEN IN THE BIBLE!” That’s, like, the opposite of God’s constant promises of abundant food. And I think the original audiences of the Bible — full of hungry people who worried about drought and famine — would have thought that trying to lose weight was one of the most ridiculous ideas ever.

That advertisement reminded me of how different our culture is from the cultures of the Bible’s original audiences. In the mainstream U.S. culture food has a complicated set of connotations. On the one hand, we really like food; we’re almost obsessed with food. We’ve got multiple TV channels solely devoted to food and cooking and watching people eat until they can’t eat anymore. I think the internet must be half food blogs by now.

But on the other hand, food is something many Americans actively try to avoid. We worry about eating too much, and we are advertised pills and powders that will help us to eat less. We’ve got at least 30 million people with eating disorders that focus on controlling food intake. And we might think about how much food grocery stores, restaurants, and families throw away every day. Yes, we have many people in our nation who wonder where their next meal will come from — about 15 million households experienced food insecurity in 2015[1] — but that’s not what we see reflected in pop culture. For those of us who do have enough to eat, the food problems quickly become problems of over-abundance: How do I resist food? How can we stop wasting so much food?

So I’m thinking that today’s readings don’t hit us with the same power that they did their original audiences. The vast majority of people in those times were poor in a way that is probably totally foreign to us. They had no refrigerators and no fast food; if a crop was lost, it hurt the whole community. Those people knew what it was like to feel deep hunger: the hunger that makes you feel weak and distracted and on edge, with no promise that you’d be able to eat your fill anytime soon. They maybe even knew what starvation looked like firsthand. So imagine how the Bible’s food stories and food promises would have sounded to people like that: thousands of people followed Jesus out into the wilderness, and all of them ate until they were full, and there was still food left over!

It’s really difficult for us to think of things from such a vastly different perspective. We automatically see and feel things from our own experience and culture and expectations. Reading today’s gospel story, those of us who are currently pretty healthy may not even have noticed that the crowds invading Jesus’s private time came begging to be cured of diseases and injuries, and the quick note that, “Jesus had compassion for them and cured their sick.” But for those of us who are hurting or who love someone who is sick or injured, that may have been the most important phrase in the whole gospel reading.

The same goes for our reactions to today’s political happenings: we react to the health care debate in vastly different ways, from firey and opposite opinions to total lack of concern, and our reaction often depends on whether we and our loved ones are healthy or sick; or whether we have secure health insurance through our employer, or are paying huge premiums every month, or have no insurance at all.

We automatically understand things our own way; we have to make a conscious effort to try and see things from another person’s perspective. But the hope is that trying to see another person’s perspective will lead to new and greater understandings, and these understandings will lead to actions that are better for the whole community.

The writer Megan McKenna spent some time reading the story of the feeding of the thousands with people of different cultures and backgrounds in the hope that she would understand more of the good news this story has to offer. She was reading the story with people in Chiapas, Mexico, and they got into a conversation about the baskets that had been used to collect the leftover fish and bread after Jesus’s miracle. One woman told her with certainty that the women in the crowd had brought the baskets. She said, “No woman in her right mind would head into a deserted place with an elderly person or a child or someone who was sick without taking food, drink, diaper changes, the works.”[2] When I think about how the parents of young children in this congregation come for an hour-long service bearing bags filled with crackers, diapers, wipes, toys, crayons…I figure this woman from Chiapas might just be on to something.

And that woman’s observation opens up another way of thinking about what exactly happened in Jesus’s miracle. The gospel tells us that the disciples had five loaves of bread and two fish — probably barely enough to feed themselves. But Jesus took the food, blessed it, and told the disciples to start passing out the food. We don’t have any details about what exactly happens next; we are told simply: “And all ate and were filled.”

We can imagine a lot of things happening in that gap between, “the disciples gave [their bread and fish] to the crowds” and “all ate and were filled.” I’ve always imagined that the disciples kept tearing off hunks of fish and bread, and the loaves and fishes just never ended…and then somehow I guess there were more leftovers than when they started. Or we could imagine that one loaf of bread would suddenly turn into two as the people passed them around. Or we could imagine the fish suddenly quadrupling in size, over and over again. We just don’t know exactly what happened.

But the woman’s comment about the baskets points to another possibility: maybe other people in the crowd — besides the disciples — had brought along baskets and food. Maybe someone in the crowd saw Jesus’s disciples sharing what little food they had to offer, and they felt a tug on their heart to stand up and share the supplies they’d brought along to feed themselves. And then someone else saw that and thought, “Well, I only have this loaf of bread to share with my wife, but I guess we could spare a little, too…” and on and on the generosity spread through the crowd, until everyone had enough to eat. At first everyone thought they had barely enough to feed themselves, but it turned out that when the whole crowd pitched in, there was more than enough for everybody.

That’s not the most exciting way of describing Jesus’s miracle of the loaves and fishes. We’d much rather see God’s power proved to us by supernaturally multiplying loaves of bread; people’s hearts and hands opening in generosity barely sounds miraculous at all. But maybe this is the kind of miracle we really need.

Take today’s situation: as a whole world population, we produce enough food to feed everyone. We don’t really need loaves to multiply; we need to get the food to the people who are hungry. The main cause of hunger is poverty: people are unable to buy the food they need. But even when try to give food to people around the world, things get in the way of charity: war and conflict keep food from getting where it needs to go; shipments get stolen or misdirected; people at the borders refuse to move things along without bribes; people use money to feed their addictions rather than their children.[3] So I think even if Jesus went around multiplying loaves, human greed or violence or something would still find a way to keep people hungry.

The real miracle Jesus offers is to change our hearts and minds. To help us be open to sharing; to considering another person’s perspective; to help us love our neighbor as ourselves; to knit us together into community. That is the kind of miracle our families, our communities, and our whole world needs — and thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we can be part of that miracle.


[1] “Hunger in America: 2016 United States Hunger and Poverty Facts,” WorldHunger.org, October 9, 2016. Available online: http://www.worldhunger.org/hunger-in-america-2016-united-states-hunger-poverty-facts/.

[2] Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), p. 24.

[3] “2016 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics,” WorldHunger.org, December 28, 2016. Available online: http://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/ Accessed August 3, 2017.

Longing for God’s Judgment

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday After Pentecost + July 23, 2017

Reading: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


In February of 1986 Paul House received his judgment: he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

Paul was new to Luttrell, a small town northeast of Knoxville, when the investigation began. He had just moved there from Utah — with his criminal record in tow. This out-of-towner with a record was one of the first people authorities brought in for questioning. Witnesses said they’d seen him wiping his hands near the scene of the crime. The police found jeans with what looked like bloodstains in Paul’s hamper, and later an expert testified that blood on the jeans matched the victim’s. The jury took four hours to deliberate, then judged that Paul had committed the crime and sentenced him to death.

That was 1986. Ten years later, in 1996, a new defender was brought to the case to help with Paul’s appeal. He found two new witnesses, who said they’d heard someone else confess to the crime. In 1998 DNA testing pointed to that same confessor. In 1999 a medical examiner deemed that the blood found on Paul’s jeans had gotten there long after the crime had been committed; and because a significant amount of the blood taken from the scene of the crime as evidence was missing from the vials after being transported to the lab with the other evidence (back in the 1980s), his theory was that the blood spilled while evidence was being transported, and that’s how it ended up on Paul’s jeans. In 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that, had the original jury known about the new DNA evidence, they would never have found Paul guilty, and the court ordered a new trial. It was not until three years later, in 2008, that Paul was released on bond, and it took almost another year — and further DNA evidence — for the prosecution to drop the case. Paul spent 22 1/2 years in prison, and at one point he had been just five days away from execution.

Paul House was the 132nd person to have his judgment reversed and be freed from death row in the U.S. since 1973. Now the number is higher than 150.

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

 

“The slaves said to [the master], ‘Then do you want us to go and gather [the weeds and pull them from the wheat field]?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

The first half of Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the weeds points to our human inability to judge perfectly. Paul House’s story and the many others like it remind us that even in carefully-crafted systems, full of trained experts and scientific study and juries and checks and balances…even then our judgment is imperfect. We make mistakes, or we lack evidence, or biases that we may not even be aware of affect our judgment unfairly.

We know this personally, too, this pattern of judging wrongly or unfairly. Sometimes the judgment is quick and has no effect except in our own minds: That guy looks so grumpy; he must be a jerk. That lady cut me off; does she even know how to drive? At other times we act on our judgments, and then later we regret the way they hurt someone else or changed a relationship. Many people carry the burden of being judged unfairly over and over, because of their skin color or their age or their gender or the size of their bank account or their accent. We judge people after one quick expression of their political or religious views, and then it’s hard to see the person over our judgment. We are missing pieces of a story, or we are lied to, and then we accuse a friend who is innocent. We misjudge people and situations all the time.

The parable seems to say we shouldn’t be making the judgments because of that very danger: you’ll pull out the wheat along with the weeds! You’ll outcast good people along with the bad!

But remember: parables always simplify. Aesop’s parable of the ant and the grasshopper teaches us that when we work hard, we will have what we need to survive. A good lesson. But in real life there are complications: some people work and work, and still barely make it by; and if all we do is work, we’ll probably burn out eventually. Jesus’s parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8) teaches us that we “should pray always and not give up” and seems to imply that if we just pray enough, we’ll get what we’re asking for; but we know that in real life the answers to our prayers are much more complicated than that.

This parable of the wheat and the weeds seems to tell us that we shouldn’t judge, because we’ll just mess it up. But we know that we need to make judgments. We need to protect ourselves and those around us from danger. We need to decide whom we trust, and with how much of our selves. We need to call out the sin we see in the hopes that we can stop it. We need to be judged ourselves, sometimes, so that we can make better choices.We need to weed out the misinformation and the lies and the spin from the facts. We want the good to win and the evil to lose. And so we judge — even imperfectly — because we have to. We try our best.

We long for perfect judgment as part of our longing for justice and a perfect world. That’s why the stories of a messiah are almost always the story of a judge, the Great Judge, coming to right the wrongs of the world. To, as pregnant Mary sang, “scatter the proud,” “[bring] down the powerful and [lift] up the lowly,” to “[fill] the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:46-55). The hope for the messiah has always been the hope for the one who comes to judge the greedy rulers and the wrongdoers for the sake of the oppressed and the victims, the one who will make those judgments in perfect righteousness.

So this parable sounds frightening at first: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But maybe we can find some good news or even comfort in those words when we remember what they mean: the perfect judge is coming, and his judgments will satisfy our longing for justice and peace and an end to wrongdoing. We won’t have to rely on our own flawed judgments anymore; instead our world will be judged by the God who has all the information, who understands every complicating factor, and who always judges rightly.

And we need to remember what I’ve said already in this sermon: parables always simplify. It sounds so black-and-white to say, “God will separate the sinners and the righteous, and throw out all the sinners.” And that’s a scary thought: Am I a sinner, or am I righteous?

But we know from our own efforts at judgment that separating the sinner from the saint is much more complicated than that. The criminal is usually also a victim. A person who commits one sin might have ten other righteous habits. And even Mother Teresa gets criticized sometimes for the ways she did her saintly work.

As Lutherans we hold the complicated — but I think very accurate — belief that we are all both 100% sinner and 100% saint. We are sinners for the many reasons we all know well, and we are saints because the Holy Spirit is at work in us, directing our hearts and minds toward God, helping us to choose the good, and, most importantly, washing and re-washing us in grace.

So maybe it’s like this field of wheat and weeds is something inside each of us: that God is at work in each of us to separate our wheat from our weeds, and on the Last Day that task will finally be complete.

But however we interpret this parable, it’s most important that we remember that we believe that God does not judge for the sake of judging. The judging is just one part of the movement of grace.

Lutheran teaching says that the Law — the parts of God’s Word that make us feel judged — is ultimately for our own benefit. The Law helps to curb wrongdoing. The Law guides us to live in ways that please God and bless ourselves and others. And when the Law condemns our actions, it reminds us to turn to God’s mercy and grace.

This parable of the wheat and the weeds might at first seem out of place with our usual image of Jesus as the one who came to show love and mercy. But when we remember that we do long for righteous judgment, and when we trust that God is not only righteous and fair, but most of all full of grace and compassion, then we can trust that even God’s judgment will be an act of grace that will bless us and our world.

Let us pray.

O God, we thank you for the promise to one day perfect our world through your perfect judgment and for the ways that you already work in us and through us to build your kingdom here. Guide us as we make judgments, that we would be wise, and that even our judgments would be part of your work of grace, until that great day when your grace is made complete. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Hidden Burdens/Come to Jesus

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday After Pentecost + July 9, 2017

Readings: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Over the last month or so y’all have been involved in a flurry of casting prayers and blessings on members of this congregation as we’ve headed out for youth event after youth event. It started with Vacation Bible School, which was only about a month ago but, to me, already feels like a lifetime ago. This morning, Sandy Vollmer, Pastor Lippard, and a pile of our youth are in a van somewhere between here and Lutherock in North Carolina. In between were other events – Affirm in Alabama, Nights Alive in Nashville. It’s been almost non-stop, and it’s been amazing. You shouldn’t be surprised if you strike up a conversation with me and I eventually start rambling about watching 400 youth dance around to the “holy, holy, holy” song during communion, or how I asked a group of kids what the word “behold,” means, and one little preschooler raised his hand and said, “It kind of means, like, ‘TA-DA!”

Last week Rand Smith and I were chatting before a Worship Planning meeting, and our conversation turned to Affirm: the synod-wide youth gathering that took place a few weeks ago. Rand’s wife, Beth, served on the camp medical staff, as she has for many years, and I’m sure various members of their family have been involved with Affirm for most of its existence. Rand shared with me some of the feedback he’d heard about this year’s Affirm, and eventually he mentioned, “I just learned about ‘Weepy Wednesday…’”

Weepy Wednesday is one of those unofficial traditions at Affirm. According to a conversation I had with Bishop Gordy in the line for the cafeteria salad bar, the Wednesday evening worship service was once intentionally built to be an especially emotional experience, or in Bishop’s words, “They tried to make the kids cry.” But even though that tradition was dropped some years ago, the phrase, “Weepy Wednesday” hangs on – but now it applies to something that happens more naturally but still almost predictably: on Wednesday evening, for some reason, campers will cry.

Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the lesson plans each group follows build to their most intense point in the middle of the week. Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the campers have started to feel safe with their small groups after a few days together. Probably some combination of things: but regardless, it happens.

My first Weepy Wednesday experience felt like it came totally out of the blue. I was on staff with a unit called Bridges, and we spent the week focusing on the differences between people, the things that turn those differences into things that divide us, and how we can “build bridges” over those divides. So from the very beginning we’d been having intense conversations about our own identities and experiences and a lot of tough topics: racism, sexism, stereotypes, violence. I’d thought we’d already been getting deeply personal.  But for some reason when Wednesday evening came, it was like a floodgate burst open. All of a sudden a dozen teenagers were lying on the floor, crying and sharing their deepest, most hidden hurts with one another. My heart broke when I heard the heavy burdens some of the teenagers were bearing.

This year, at least, I saw my Weepy Wednesday experience coming. One of the units, called Exodus, spends the first part of the week focusing on some of life’s toughest issues, like sin and death. Everyone in the unit carries a brick with them everywhere they go; it’s supposed to symbolize the burdens they bear. On Wednesday evening they finally lay down their burdens: they let go of their brick; they write burdens or sins on pieces of paper and watch them dissolve in water; they participate in a service of group confession, and they are given the option of meeting with a pastor for a time of private confession. Later in the evening, they will lie down on the floor, then someone will take their hand and physically raise them up to their new life in Christ. And the next morning is an Easter party.

I was asked to be part of Exodus’s Wednesday evening because they needed a female pastor for the time of private confession. So once again I found myself experiencing Weepy Wednesday: teenagers crying and sharing the hurts they hid from the world.

And as, once again, I found myself shocked by the stories these teenagers shared with me, I thought: we just never know what burdens other people are carrying, hidden away so carefully.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul described the burden of his own sinfulness in what I think are some of the most relatable words of the whole Bible (I catch myself thinking them a lot): “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Some of the burdens we bear are like that: Struggles with our own sins, our own tendency to make poor choices, our own bad habits and addictions.  Along similar lines: we might bear the burdens of focusing on our insufficiencies, we might insult ourselves, we might feel like we will never be good enough. We might feel like Paul: trapped and overpowered by something within us.

Sometimes our burdens come from outside of us: other people’s sin affects our lives; in their brokenness, they hurt us; and sometimes the world just turns in ways that injure us – seemingly without reason. We can feel trapped and overpowered by things outside of us, too.

We express this feeling of being trapped by wrong forces within or without in different ways: Christianity has terms like “original sin” and “total depravity,” and in the Bible we often read about people’s “hardness of heart.”

And sometimes we make up complicated rules or formulas for how to escape that feeling of being trapped. If the problem feels so complicated and inescapable, surely the solution must also be complex, some specific set of things that will, like a combination on a lock, click into place and set us free.

Making things too complicated – and being stubborn and prideful and hypocritical about it — what Jesus seems to have been criticizing people for in the beginning of today’s gospel reading. They said they were open to receiving God’s messengers, but when those messengers came, they never fit the bill. First, John the Baptist was too strict and weird. Then Jesus was too lax: he ate and drank too much and hung out with the wrong sort of people.

Next there’s a part of Jesus’s speech left out by our lectionary: where Jesus proclaimed “Woe to you!” to the cities who had refused his message. He did not fit their bill, either.

And then suddenly Jesus switched tone. We hear his prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The idea seems to be: all these people are applying their complicated rules and expectations, but it only leads them to deny me and you. They stay trapped in themselves and in the ways of the world. But really your offer of freedom is so simple, a baby could grasp it.

And how does Jesus say we can get that freedom from our entrapping burdens?

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 That’s it. The big key the messiah offered to finding rest from our burdens and our feelings of being trapped is: Come to me, and I will give you rest.

For us, I think that means two things:

First – and this is probably what you’re already thinking about – is coming to Jesus in that personal, spiritual sense. Coming to trust in a God who cares for you; who offers you forgiveness for your own sin and fights against the sinful forces outside of you. Coming to find peace and rest in giving your burdens to God in prayer, knowing that God will bear those burdens with you. Like in that famous hymn:

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

Everything to God in prayer![1]

 There is also another way we who are weary and carrying heavy burdens can come to Jesus, and this one is more physical and more communal. We remember that the Church is now the Body of Christ on earth, and so we learn to come together. We come to trust one another, to get past our fear or our pride and to share our burdens with one another. We come to find in yet another sense that we are not alone in bearing our burdens. And, like the Affirm kids on Weepy Wednesday, maybe we can find a sense of relief and peace in sharing our burdens with one another.

In coming together, we come to Christ.

Let us pray:

We rejoice, O Christ,
for in your tender compassion
you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.
Give us the strength to carry each other
as you have carried us. Amen.[2]


[1] Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship 742.

[2] From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary prayer resources, Proper 9 (14), Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 9, 2017. Available online: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=149 Accessed July 8, 2017.

Made in the Image of God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Holy Trinity Sunday + June 11, 2017

Readings: Genesis 1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20


There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that is often called one of the best episodes in the whole seven seasons of that TV series. I’m not sure I’ve even seen the whole episode, but still its story sticks with me; I think about it all the time.

That story — translated as well as I can from nerdy language — goes something like this: the crew of the starship Enterprise (aka the main characters of the show) come into contact with a spaceship from another world — Tamaria. Although the beings on each ship speak in what we would call English, they can’t understand one another. The Enterprise crew knows most of the individual words that the Tamarians say, but when those words get strung together, no one can figure out what that sentence is meant to communicate.

For instance: Captain Picard ends up on a planet alone with the captain of the other ship. The other captain says, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and then tosses him a dagger. Picard has no idea what’s going on. Is he going to have to fight this man? What does he want?

Eventually Picard and the crew figure out the key to understanding the Tamarian language. Every phrase they say to one another is a reference to a story from their culture. Every short string of words communicates a whole world of characters and emotions and morals. And so when the other captain said just those five words to Picard— “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” — he was telling Captain Picard so much: he was referencing a story about two warriors who were forced to fight dangerous beasts on an island together and then became friends; and when he referenced that story, he was telling Picard that there was a dangerous beast near them; he was telling him he would fight by his side; and he was telling him that he hoped they could become friends; and maybe he was saying even more — all with just five words.[1]

Maybe you actually have a similar language with family or close friends: a bank of stories you draw on together, stories you can reference quickly but that communicate a history of inside jokes or shared memories and meaning. I notice that we Christians do that a lot with our most well-known Bible stories: making quick references to a snake in a garden or “loaves and fishes” and immediately knowing the whole story behind it.

Stories sometimes explain things better than straightforward language or precise definitions. This week during Vacation Bible School, we taught the kids a verse from the Psalms: “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1). In order to help them understand what refuge means, we could have given them the dictionary’s definition: “shelter or protection from danger or distress.”[2] But instead we told them stories: Here’s a picture of elephants at a place called an elephant refuge. The elephants go there so they can be protected and taken care of. What would that feel like?

When it comes to explaining the important, technical words of our faith, I think stories work better than definitions. After all the stories came first: scholars formalized the words and concepts later. We tell the story of a holy man who fed the hungry and healed the sick and made friends with sinners, who preached things like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” who was executed and raised from the dead. And from that story we get words like grace and salvation, Trinity and justification and sacrificial atonement and hypostatic union. And then too often we trip all over ourselves trying to explain those concepts, or we get into really convoluted arguments with one another, or tie ourselves to the definitions we’ve made, and sometimes the story gets lost — the very story that made us think up all those concepts in the first place, the story that teaches us all those things best of all.

Stories — old stories, new stories — are a better language for learning our faith. Like those short phrases from that Star Trek episode, stories communicate on so many more levels than definitions, and they reach us in a different way.

A theological scholar was once asked to define “grace”, and he said: “Have you ever stared up at the stars on a very clear night. You know how that feels? God’s grace is like that.”[3] That little story is more meaningful to me than any book or essay I could have read on grace.

Our readings this morning bring us a couple of those Christian vocabulary words. First we heard a story of God creating the world; and when it got to the part about God creating humans, we heard: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

“Image of God” is one of those phrases that scholars have picked out of that story and pinned down for examination and definition. How exactly did God create us in the image of God? Does God look like us? Does it mean that God gave us some quality that God has: the ability to create, the responsibility to care for this world, the ability to reason at a higher level than the other animals? There are thousands of years of ideas and debate to inspire us.

I thought of that question — What does it mean that we are created in the image of God? — this week after hearing a story an NPR. It was an interview with Will Bardenwerper, author of a book called Prisoner in His Palace, about the twelve U.S. soldiers charged with guarding Saddam Hussein for the months between his capture and execution.

The interview starts with Bardenwerper explaining how those soldiers reacted when they were assigned to guard “the most wanted dictator on the planet.” He said, “I think one of them just blurted out, we should kill him.” But then Bardenwerper explained how things inevitably changed as they spent time with Hussein. They saw a very private, human side of him: a man under house arrest but still carrying himself with dignity; a man spending his days pedaling a squeaky exercise bike. He would greet them with respect, engage them in conversation, play cards and drink tea and smoke cigars with them.

One of the soldiers developed enough of a rapport with Hussein that when the soldier got word that his brother, back home in the U.S., was about to die, he let Hussein know that he’d be gone for a week and why. “[Hussein] got up and embraced him and said…don’t worry. You’re losing one brother, but I will always be your brother.”

Bardenwerper made it clear that the soliders didn’t suddenly start to think of Hussein as a friend and a good guy. They always wondered how much of his behavior with them was genuine affection and how much was manipulation. They were there to do the job of guarding this prisoner, and that’s what they did. They still knew him as the infamous dictator, they remembered that he was on trial for crimes against humanity; but now they also knew him as a fellow human being.

Bardenwerper said that one of the main themes that emerged from his interviews with these soldiers was how much harder it was to guard someone and then watch him get led away to be executed when you’ve gotten to know him as another human being.[4]

That story told me something about what it means that we are made in the “image of God.” That divine image may be covered up by sin so that it’s hard for us to see in another person (or even in ourselves) —- but still there’s something at the basic level of each human being that we recognize, that we all share, that loves and cries out for love — some part of us that was so obviously created by a good and loving God.

And I think so many of our big Christian vocabulary words — salvation and community and mission and grace — are, in at least one simple sense, about how God helps us to see that divine image in ourselves and in others, how God helps us to pull that “image of God” part of us out from underneath our sin and our guilt and our bad habits and our insecurities and our complexes and whatever else is covering it up— how God lifts that “image of God” in us closer and closer to the surface.

God’s work to lift up the image of God in us is done through relationship: through our relationships with one another, and through our relationship with God. That was obvious in the story of the guards and Saddam Hussein. When we humans really get to know one another, the relationship breaks down our prejudices and helps us see the many layers of each person. It complicates our judgement of one another. It helps us remember that God created each of us and God loves each of us — even the most egregious of sinners. And it is relationship with God that helps to heal and restore the image of God in us.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, and so we are reminded of another one of those big Christian vocabulary words that is endlessly debated and — perhaps more than any other concept — endlessly confusing. But the story of the Trinity is what we’ve been thinking about all along: it is the story of relationship. The Trinity is the story of one God who is, somehow, also three Persons – the story of a God whose very being is relationship.

And that lofty idea of the Trinity was drawn out of the stories of the early church – the stories those first Christians told of how they experienced relationship with God: God the creator, Parent to us all; God the Son, who walked next to them in flesh like a brother; God the Spirit, who spoke in their hearts to comfort and guide them, who prayed with them, who made them always aware of the divine presence.

As the Triune God draws us into relationship, into the divine dance of compassion and loving judgement and never-ending grace, God helps us see the image of that very Triune God in ourselves and in others, and God sends us out into the world to love others and draw them into the “Dance of Trinity” with us. Thanks be to God.


[1] Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Darmok.” Episode 102 (season 5, episode 2). Directed by Winrich Kolbe. Story by Joe Menosky and Phillip LaZebnik. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. September 30, 1991. (Synopsis available online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darmok)

[2] Merriam-Webster.com

[3] Fuzzy memory of a lecture by Elsa Tamez at Vanderbilt Divinty School.

[4] Rachel Martin interview of Will Bardenwerper.“’Prisoner In His Palace’: Saddam Hussein and His American Guards.” National Public Radio Morning Edition, June 5, 2017. Available online: http://www.npr.org/2017/06/05/531536419/the-prisoner-in-his-palace Accessed June 12, 2017.

God Wants to be Found

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday of Easter + May 21, 2017

Readings: Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21


A few days ago I attended a luncheon, and the coordinators had arranged a “pastors table” — either so that we could “network” or to keep us contained, like a spin-off on the “children’s table” at nice family get-togethers. Maybe both: because even small talk and networking among pastors tends to hover around some generally unusual topics: all the best Bible jokes from seminary; whether we’d prefer to officiate a wedding or a funeral; memories from visits to our people in the hospital.

In one of those conversations, about visiting people in the hospital, a retired United Methodist pastor shared some of his wisdom with me. The times when people are facing illness or injury, he said, are often the times when we feel most connected to the holy. He told me that a question he liked to ask people while they were going through a difficult time was “How have you seen God during this time?”

He shared some of the answers he remembered, and I thought of some of the ways our people have answered that question, even without me asking it directly. I think the most common answer would be that people feel God working through the special care of nurses, who provide not only information and medical attention, but also comfort and kindness when they are most needed; in fact I heard a nurse described as “an angel of God” just last week. People talk about feeling more sure of God’s care for them as they hear that friends and congregations all across the country are praying for them. People talk about times when someone shared a Bible verse with them, and that verse was so well-tuned to their situation that the gift of that verse at that moment must have been a “God thing.”

In the midst of my conversation with that retired pastor, I thought of one story in particular: one morning, when our late sister Josette Starkey was going in for a chemotherapy treatment, her hope running low, she got on the elevator to find a man with a big box of chocolate-frosted donuts. Donut Guy was the only man on an elevator full of women, all of whom were no doubt in some kind of stress, being in the hospital and all. And it turns out he had more donuts than he needed, so donut guy did the most saintly thing possible: he offered donuts to all those hospital elevator-riders. Josette said, “Oh, I’ve been craving a donut for days! Thank you!” and instantly became the happiest woman in Williamson County. She ate that donut like it was food sent down from heaven, and then she told every other chemo patient, every receptionist, every nurse about that donut as if it were the gospel. Whether he knew it or not, Donut Guy became a bearer of God’s presence that day — just by reaching out to people in a dark place and offering them a little light and a little kindness.

There’s a phrase that comes down to us from the Celtic tradition — “thin places” — which is used to describe the places where the wall or the distance between heaven and earth, between the everyday and the mystical, between the secular and the sacred — where that “between” barrier feels thinner. Places where it feels like we can almost see through into the invisible realm of the holy, where it feels like we could almost reach out our hand and touch God.

One travel writer described the power of thin places like this:

“[Experiencing] thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a ‘spiritual breakthrough,’ whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world…”[1]

“Thin places” was originally used to describe physical locations: mesmerizing places like a mountain peak rising out of the mist at dawn, or the ocean reaching out forever towards the horizon. But, I think, thin places can also come to us: moments when an everyday place suddenly becomes a thin place where we feel God nearer to us than usual. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thin place: there in the pew during worship; at the kitchen sink while praying; in an elevator.

Even painful, confusing, difficult places can become thin places; even hospital rooms and chemo sessions and bedside goodbyes. In fact maybe those painful moments are most likely to become thin places, because in those times we are so desperate for God that it opens our eyes to see God anywhere we can: even in things as ordinary as a phone call from friend or a man with a box of donuts.

I think that God wants to be found so readily all the time. And that seems to be one of the messages Paul preaches to the philosophers of Athens in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

You know how a lot of writing teachers will say, “Show, don’t tell?” Well, Paul shows his listeners that God is available to be found by all people — that God wants to be found by all people. He does this by telling these philosophers how the God he’s been preaching about can be found in their own philosophy and traditions. He says he found an altar in the city dedicated “to an unknown god,” and then he says, “Well, I do know about this God. Let me tell you.”

And even when he’s using that altar to talk about the God that would have been best called the God of Israel or the God of Jesus (especially at that time) — he uses the philosophers’ understanding of the divine, not the Bible or the story of Jesus, to explain who that God is. Many of his listeners would have agreed that the God who created the world was not contained in the idols or accurately described by the old Greek myths; Paul’s listeners were already on board with the idea that God beyond all of that.[2] In fact Paul’s sermon is constantly referencing and quoting a poem by a Greek poet.[3]

So first Paul shows his listeners how God is already there in their own traditions, wanting them to know God; and then Paul says it explicitly: the God I’ve been preaching about is the same God you talk about and think about. Not the God of one specific people, but the God who created all people, the God who hopes that all people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’, as even some of your own poets have said.”

The message I get from Paul’s ancient sermon is that God is not contained somewhere, but rather God is everywhere, among all people, waiting and hoping and longing to be found — calling out to all people.

Of course the frustrating thing about God not being contained — say, in a body we can talk to and audibly hear from — is that it’s much harder to believe God is present when we can’t see God or know exactly where God is. Would we rather have “thin places” and “in [God] we live and move and have our being,” or would we rather be able to approach God in physical form, see God, hear God respond to us, feel God’s physical touch?

As one scholar put it: When Jesus, in his farewell speech, promised the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to them after he died, the disciples may have felt like they were getting a raw deal. Yeah, a spirit who advocates and comforts is great — but we’d much rather have you, Jesus. We can hear you. We can touch you. We can know you.[4]

 That’s why that question from the United Methodist pastor can be so helpful: “How have you seen God?” That’s different than “What do you know about God?” or “Can you feel God in your heart?” or — heaven forbid — “What is the nature of God?”

How have you seen God? — That question makes us think about concrete experiences we’ve had which have communicated God’s presence to us. Almost like sacraments — something physical and everyday that gives us a little taste of God’s love and care — or maybe of God’s guidance or judgement or redirection.

And the stories we tell as we answer that question should remind us of something: God is not contained, but God is embodied — in us. As the Holy Spirit works in us, we become physical conveyers of God’s presence for others. As we care for the sick or the lonely, as we rake someone else’s leaves, as we provide food and a place to rest for people experiencing homelessness, as we share our donuts — we embody God’s presence for one another.

God wants to be found by all people, and shows Godself in all of creation — including in us.


[1] Eric Weiner, “When Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html Accessed May 19, 2017.

[2] Riemer Faber, “The Apostle and the Poet: Paul and Aratus,” Clarion Vol. 42, No. 13 (1993); available online http://spindleworks.com/library/rfaber/aratus.htm Updated February 3, 2013; accessed May 22, 2017.

[3] Aratus, “Phaenomena.” Available online http://www.theoi.com/Text/AratusPhaenomena.html Accessed May 22, 2017.

[4] Matt Skinner on Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast (SB541, Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2017).

The Joy of Easter and the Cost of Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017

Readings: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14


What words or images come to mind when I say the word “Easter”?

I’m sure at least a few of you immediately thought, “Bunny!” — and that’s ok. But what else comes to mind? An empty tomb? A resurrected body? Joy and lilies and the promise of new life? Maybe that old song, “Victory in Jesus…”

I’ll hazard the guess that none of you quietly whispered, “Martyrdom,” or “Jesus’s last night on earth.” And yet, this morning, five weeks into the Easter season, in which we especially celebrate Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, these are the Bible readings we are given: the killing of the very first martyr, Stephen, and a brief sound bite from Jesus’s last words to his disciples before being arrested and executed. Weird, right? Yet for some reason, within the last few decades a bunch of bishops and pastors and scholars got together and decided that every three years our churches should read these stories during the Easter season. Why might that be?

Well, your guess is as good as mine: which is to say, you can probably reflect on what these readings have to teach us about living in the time after Jesus’s resurrection and come up with some pretty great thoughts of your own. But for me, the fact that these readings come during the Easter season kind of shocked me into thinking about what we expect from God because of Jesus’s resurrection. What do we expect the Christian life to be like? What does it mean for us that Jesus has won the victory over sin and death? Hows does the resurrection affect our lives?

It can be tempting to focus on the parts of the Easter message that we really want to hear: You are saved! Death is defeated! The victory is won! It can be tempting to think that those messages are the whole of Christianity, and then turn the gospel into something like, “Now we can take it easy, because Jesus did it all.” Or “God will give you so much happiness and success.” Preachers have been getting away with that stuff for a long time.

Today’s readings remind us that part of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that we are raised up to be the Body of Christ. Jesus ascended to the Father; we — the church — are here to represent him, to be his presence for one another and for the world, to continue his mission. The reading from 1 Peter tells us this with some metaphors about being living stones “built into a spiritual house.” In the gospel reading, Jesus says it a bit more straightforwardly: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

And the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in particular reminds us of something that it is easy for us to forget in the comfortable times of our lives as American Christians: if we are the Body of Christ, then we are a crucified body. We are a body who has faced ridicule, persecution, and violence for speaking truth, for staying faithful to our God, for caring for those whom others would rather push away.

Jesus’s first disciples could not have forgotten that, even if they’d tried. Even prior to the crucifixion, they knew they were walking a dangerous path with Jesus. And then after the resurrection they faced trouble and persecution, and almost all of them died martyrs’ deaths. And yes, they preached about all that Jesus gave them: peace, healing, power, hope, a sense of mission, forgiveness, love, a more intimate knowledge of God. But they also did not shy away from the fact that being a follower of Jesus cost them dearly, too, in life and in death.

We don’t hear that preached on too often — at least not so starkly; we usually don’t bring that up when we talk about what being a Christian means to us; we hardly ever sing about it. Yet in the last ELCA hymnal — the green one — there was this beautiful, haunting song that captured that truth perfectly:

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown

Such happy simple fisherfolk

Before the Lord came down

 

Contented peaceful fishermen

Before they ever knew

The peace of God That fill’d their hearts

Brimful and broke them too.

 

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless, in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head-down was crucified.

 

The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod,

Yet let us pray for but one thing–

The marvelous peace of God.[1]

Being people of the resurrection means that God comes into our lives with peace and with purpose. It means that God messes up our lives by making us part of God’s plan and God’s work in the world — which sometimes means we will have to set aside our own comfortableness or our own desires; which calls us to give more and love more and sacrifice more; and yes, sometimes, this may get risky or painful or even dangerous.

Those first disciples — the ones who kept this whole “Jesus” thing going — knew this well. They were hurt. They were imprisoned. They were killed. And yet through it all they continued to call Jesus their savior. They continued to talk about “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” They waxed poetic about their personal experiences of the love and grace of God in their lives. Something about following Jesus made all their sacrifices worth it.

I’ll confess that even though I’ve thought about this weird phenomemon of the Easter joy and the Easter call to sacrifice  a lot (especially in these last few days, as I’ve tried to come up with a nice pretty bow to tie on to the end of this sermon for you), and even though I often feel a sense of joy in the moments where I have felt called to sacrifice as part of my discipleship…despite all of that, what it is about following Jesus that makes sacrifice worth it is hard to put words to. It’s something of a mystery, by which I mean — something I know to be true, but also unexplainable.

Another martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tried to make sense of that tension between the experience of the gift of grace and the simultaneous experience of the cost of following Jesus in this way:

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”[2]

The closest I can come to explaining it, is that it must have something to do with love. I mean, it almost makes sense to us when a mother sacrifices for her children, because of her love for them.

Maybe, in a similar way, it is the love of God for us and our love for God that fills us with all those wonderful Easter blessings: love, joy, peace, meaning, life — and that same love that makes us part of the crucified Body of Christ, and makes us more willing to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult. Maybe there is not a contradiction there, between the gifts of God and the call to sacrifice — maybe it is just part of the mystery of love…that same mystery of love that caused God to take on flesh and sacrifice for us.

Let us pray. Holy God, in the times where we feel mostly clearly your blessings and in the times when we feel most clearly the cost of following you, may we always know your love, your joy, and your peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, our way, our truth, and our life. Amen.


[1] William Alexander Percy, “They Cast Their Nets in Galillee” (1924), Lutheran Book of Worship, #449.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.