Stewardship of Law and Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + September 10, 2017

Reading: Matthew 18:15-20

Story #1: Kamaria Downs was an honors student at a small Christian university. In 2015, her senior year, she had to fill out medical forms for her student teaching assignment, and through those forms the college discovered that Kamaria was pregnant. She was unmarried. The college told her she had to move out of the campus dorms and did not refund her the money she’d pre-paid to live there for the year. She had to scramble to find a place to live so that she could complete her degree.[1]

Story #2: Peter courted Sally in the classic way: with flowers and lots of love letters. His charm won her over, and the she agreed to marry him. Almost immediately, Peter seemed like an entirely different person. He yelled at her for things as small as sleeping in on their honeymoon; he drank too much and flew into abusive rages; later, he was violent with their young daughter. When Sally went to the counselors at her church for help, they advised her to forgive her husband and submit to him. “When she [finally] left Peter, Sally also left her church parish, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother.”[2]

Unfortunately, neither Kamaria’s nor Sally’s experience is uncommon.

Today’s gospel reading is a lesson on our stewardship of the Law and the Gospel — in other words, our stewardship of the message “You’ve sinned; you’ve done something wrong,” and the message, “God loves you and forgives you, and we love you and forgive you, too.”

It’s common for us to lean to one extreme or another. To emphasize the need to call people to repentance so that they may receive grace and new life from God and to protect our community from sin and its devastating effects. Or to emphasize the radical acceptance and forgiveness of God to the point where we feel uncomfortable even using the word, “sin.” We often think of whole denominations as leaning one way or the other.

We also tend to fall into communal habits of thinking of some sins as more necessary to call out than others. One of my professors gave an example of this in a very blunt and cynical way: the Church likes to keep arguing about sex so that we don’t have to talk about the more uncomfortable topic of how we use our money.

Jesus’s teaching in today’s gospel reading challenges us to get out of our comfort zone and see the importance of both Law and Gospel, both approaching a fellow Christian whose sin is affecting the community and being a place of welcome and healing for all of us sinners seeking grace.

For those of us who tend to want to speak only of forgiveness, this passage may help us think of reasons why pointing out sin and calling for change may be necessary. It may be good for the one who has done wrong: Martin Luther pointed out that we need to realize that we are stuck in sin in order to see that we need God’s grace and to reach for God’s forgiveness and God’s power to free us and transform us. We see that principle at work when families and friends stage interventions for someone struggling with addiction in the hope that she will accept help and start changing her life for the better.

Calling for repentance may also be good for the community. Telling a friend that they’ve hurt you is the first step toward forgiveness and the healing of the relationship. Though I am by nature and upbringing a conflict-avoider, I’ve come to realize that it’s an act of grace to tell my friend that I’m angry or hurt and why rather than to give her the silent treatment. We can’t reconcile if only half the party knows what’s wrong. In the case of Sally and her abusive husband, it would have been better for the church to help Sally confront him and turn away from him; for her safety; for their child’s safety; and for the well-being of the community. Then, if he was willing, others could give him the help and support he needed to change.

That’s a good segue into talking about what Jesus said to do if you approach someone three times and they still won’t repent. Jesus said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

At first that seems to indicate a total rejection of the unrepentant person: “Gentiles” means “people who aren’t Jews,” and Jews (like Jesus’s disciples) were not supposed to fellowship with those outsiders. Tax collectors were among the most reviled and rejected people of Jesus’s community.

But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to be one of his closest disciples (Matthew 9:9). The gospel book that today’s reading comes from bears that tax collector’s name. Zaccheus was a tax collector, and Jesus invited himself over to his house and changed his life forever (Luke 19:1-10).

And though the gospels do mention times when Jesus specifically excluded Gentiles (e.g. Matthew 10:5), in the one story we have where he meets a Gentile face-to-face, he is so impressed by her faith that he changes his mind and heals her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Later, the still-very-Jewish Church decides to accept Gentiles and to reach out to them with the message of the Gospel (Acts 11:1-18); St. Paul’s main vocation was to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).

So even when we are instructed to treat the unrepentant one as a “Gentile and a tax collector,” it does not indicate that we should utterly reject them and cast them out. Rather, the minute we remove them from the community, they become someone to be invited back in.

So for those of us who might lean towards over-emphasizing the need to remove sin from our community, Jesus’s teaching reminds us that God’s first priority is that all people would be part of God’s family, all people would be forgiven and welcomed. This becomes very obvious when we read Jesus’s teaching in this passage with what’s going on in the verses right before and after it. This lesson is set between two stories that emphasize God’s desire that all people would be forgiven and welcomed into the fold.

Right before Jesus gave the disciples these rules for dealing with sin in the church, Jesus told them a story. It’s that crazy story of the shepherd who loses one sheep, and he leaves 99 sheep behind to go looking for the lost one. Jesus summed up the moral of the story: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18:10-14).

Then he went into, “If another member of the church sins against you…” do this and this and this, and then after all that they still won’t listen, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Peter then asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responded “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” which we generally agree doesn’t mean “count to seventy-seven and then you can stop forgiving him,” but rather, “forgive endlessly.”

Then Jesus tells another story, which we’ll hear in worship next week, about a slave whose debts are forgiven by his master, but who does not forgive other slaves the debts they owe him. The king is furious, and says to the slave, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:21-25).

Matthew sets today’s gospel story — of confronting someone who has sinned and how to treat them if they don’t repent — in the middle of stories that emphasize how important it is to God that not even one person be lost from the Church, how important it is to God that we forgive one another.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In church tradition, this has been called the “Office of the Keys” or the “Power of the Keys” — the great power given to the Church to bind people to their sins or to free them; to include them or exclude them from the community. To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So let’s be careful and thoughtful with our stewardship of this power and this responsibility. Let’s be careful to help our fellow sinners find their way to God’s grace and to protect and heal our relationships and our communities. But let’s also remember that even the Law is a servant of God’s grace, God’s unending desire that we would be in communion with God and with one another, knit together by the mercy and love of God.

[1] Susan Donaldson James, “Student Changes Christian College’s Policy After Getting Kicked Out for Being Pregnant,” NBC News, September 16, 2016. Online:

[2] Julia Baird with Hayley Gleeson, “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God,” ABC News (Australia), August 10, 2017. Online:


“Overcome evil with good”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017

Reading: Romans 12:9-21

If you were here for worship last Sunday, you probably remember Frank Hale giving a Temple Talk about the Navigators, our men’s group, which meets monthly for breakfast and also coordinates a lot of volunteer work to help people in the congregation and the community. Frank began his talk by mentioning the issue of Time magazine he’d seen sitting on his coffee table; its cover said in big letters: “Hate in America.”

“If we were making headlines,” Frank asked, “what would we want them to say? What about ‘Love at St. Andrew?’ How about ‘Christ is victorious?’”

I love that question. If a reporter were to look at St. Andrew, or at the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole, what is the headline we hope that they would write? If we were living up to our own highest standards of discipleship — or better, put, if we were living as close to God’s way as we could, what would that headline read?

I thought of that as I read this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this chapter Paul set forth the ideal image of Christian life. The introduction to that reading (printed in your bulletin in italics) says it like this: “Love is the unflagging standard of our behavior. When we encounter evil, we do not resort to its tactics but seek to overcome it with good. While Christians cannot control the actions and attitudes of others, we seek to live at peace with all people.”[1]

It can feel like we encounter evil a lot. As Frank pointed out, our news headlines often highlight the evil for us. Hatred, violence, and crime; abuse, discrimination, and infighting; corruption, lies, and terrorism — the news can make it feel like that’s all there is in the world.

And we may experience evil more close to home, in our own personal lives. We suffer from broken relationships, we feel caught in webs of manipulation or defensiveness or anger. Someone may lie to us or treat us unfairly or make us feel betrayed. People we love hurt other people that we love.

Sometimes all that evil seems overwhelming. We want to be part of the good that overcomes that evil, but how do we do that? How do we even start?

A podcast series I’ve been listening to spent its final episode trying to answer the question of how we can help overcome one specific evil: racism. What can we actually do about it? The hosts of the podcast did one of the classic bits: asking random people on the street for their opinion. First they stopped a man named Robby and asked him, “I was wondering what you feel like the solutions to our race problems are.”

At first Robby joked about being asked out of the blue to answer such a conundrum “Oh, just a little, quick question like that. Not anything deep…” But then he gave his actual answer, which made me think of this week’s reading from Romans. Robby said:

I think it’s humility. I think that even when we’re communicating our frustration or our anger, we do it from a very selfish place because I want to feel a certain way, and the fact that you’re not doing something that makes me feel that way, I’m offended by it. So I think selfishness is a huge, huge barrier to us being able to have an open and honest conversation. We have extreme challenges and things that have happened in the past that are absolutely unacceptable. But we bring that anger to the conversation from both sides, and that selfishness that I want to feel a certain way, I think really hinders our ability to move the conversation forward.[2]

As that introduction to our Romans reading reminded us — and as any therapist will tell you — we “cannot control the actions and attitudes of others.” But what Robby’s thoughts and Paul’s teachings share is the encouragement that we do have power over our own actions and attitudes. And as good, orthodox Lutherans we should say, better yet: it’s not us alone trying to change our own actions and attitudes — if you’ve tried to make conscious changes in yourself, whether that’s changing your eating habits or changing the way you treat the people around you or changing your outlook, you know how hard it can be to work transformation even in yourself. But we believe that we are not trying to change ourselves by ourselves, but the Holy Spirit is also working in us to transform us, to bring our thoughts and actions more and more into line with God’s will.

As Paul wrote earlier in this chapter of Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

And when we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” when we — with the Holy Spirit — do change our actions and attitudes, we can have big impacts in our conversations and our relationships.

If we can be a change from the usual way of doings things, if we can break the usual pattern, then the people and things around us have to respond to us and to the change we’re bringing. And at least that opens a door for things to change for the better.

When we do this as individuals, we can bring change to our own spheres. When we do this as a community — as St. Andrew here in Williamson County, and as the Church at large — we can change the world. Our lives can be one of the means by which God overcomes evil with good.

Let’s read the Romans lesson one more time. If you tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might your life change? And if we all tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might our community change? How might our nation change? How might the world change? You might even underline the parts that really jump out at you as we go.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


“Wonders by Their Hands,” Len Matthews (photograph). “Wonders are still able to be done in the city by our hands of compassion, mercy, humility and justice.” [Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition]

[1] From Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2017, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), September 3, 2017, Romans 12:9-21, pg. 257.

[2] John Biewen, “Transformation,” Scene on Radio, episode 45, (episode 14 of the series Seeing White), podcast, August 24, 2017. Available online:


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]


“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.


“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,”, October 9, 2016. Available online:

[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,”, December 28, 2016. Available online: 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.


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: 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:


[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: Accessed June 12, 2017.