In Moments of Chaos: Where Do We Go From Here?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Third Sunday of Easter + April 30, 2017

Reading: Luke 24:13-35

Last weekend I was away at a conference entitled, “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community.” That title came from a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr.; his last book, in fact, written in 1967, the year before he was assassinated. By that time the Civil Rights Movement had seen many successes: a new Civil Rights Act had passed in 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race when it came to hiring people for jobs, ending segregation in schools and other public places, and protecting voting rights for African-Americans and others who faced discrimination. Another victory had come in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which did even more to tear down laws and practices that kept people from the polls based on their race.

And so in 1967 the Rev. Dr. King took one of his few real breaks from the movement, retiring for the months of January and February to an island in Jamaica with only his wife and two close friends and co-workers. No telephone. No cameras. Just time and space to reflect on the state of things in U.S. society. African-Americans still faced resistance to their demands for equality, and they would need to work to ensure that the new laws were enforced. Black nationalism was on the rise, and King condemned its militarism and its cry for black separatism. Poverty was growing among all the races. The Vietnam War was going on and on. There was still so much work to do. His reflections and plan for the future were published in that last book, entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?[1]

 Back in around 33 A.D. Jesus’s disciples may have been asking themselves that same question in the days after Jesus’s crucifixion. They, too, had seen a number of victories during their time with the Jesus movement: They’d seen Jesus heal lepers and blind men and people who had never been able to walk. They’d seen a few fish and loaves of bread feed a crowd of thousands. They’d heard promises of good news for the poor and food for the hungry and God’s love for the least of us, even the most obvious of sinners. They’d seen a wandering preacher from Nazareth enter the capitol city to waving palm branches and cries of “Hosanna!”; they’d seen him enter the Temple, overturn the tables of moneylenders, and call out the hypocrisy and greed of certain religious leaders. They saw in this man the whole kingdom of God setting foot on the ground with them.

And then chaos. The betrayal. The arrest. The mockery and torture. The crucifixion. Hopelessness.

And then more chaos. Stories of a missing body and of angels proclaiming resurrection.

So maybe we can imagine those two disciples of Jesus, walking on the road to Emmaus on the Sunday after the crucifixion and “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Where do we go from here? they may have been asked each other. Do we just go back to our old lives? Is that even an option? Do we try to keep doing the work Jesus started, or is that pointless now? Do we give in to the chaos, or do we try to hang on to our community?

 And that is one of those moments where an ancient Bible story just plugs right into our modern-day lives. The details may be vastly different, but I’m sure we all know what it’s like to face down a moment of chaos. Sitting with our hearts pounding in an emergency room waiting area. Suddenly losing a job, and thinking only “Now what?” Break-ups or divorce or fights with family and friends. We could each make our own lists of the times we’ve thought, helplessly, “Where do we go from here?”

As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus asked those questions, a stranger began walking with them — and though they didn’t recognize him, we know that stranger was Jesus. They told him about the chaos of the last few days, of their hope and faith in the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, and of how their own religious leaders had condemned him to death. Jesus the Stranger let them tell the story of their chaos, and then he turned them to scripture.

There are lots of ways to tell the overarching story of our scriptures. I wonder if at that moment, Jesus told the story like this:

God always creates something good out of chaos. You two may have expected a straightforward story of a savior: the messiah coming like a superhero to right all the wrongs and champion the “little people,” winning a clean, easy victory. But look back at our scriptures. God is always working through the mess of this world.

“In the beginning…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…” and from that chaos God created all this world (Gen. 1:1-2).

God saved the people of Israel from slavery and led them to the promised land; but it was not straightforward or easy; it was through plague and through the sea, through forty years in the wilderness where the people groaned and complained and almost lost faith.

David was God’s chosen king, and God gave him wisdom and prosperity and a great legacy, but even David sometimes cried out in psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).

God’s people were exiled from the promised land and from their homes, but God continued to send them prophets, and the people became more established in their faith and their culture and their community during that exile.

The prophets spoke of both God’s judgement and God’s mercy. And they spoke honestly about how those who were faithful and committed to the work of God would face suffering at the hands of this world — maybe most notably in the haunting words of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,

Stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich,

Although he had done no violence,

And there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:8-9).

Doesn’t all this sound so much like the life and death of your prophet Jesus of Nazareth? “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Can’t you understand that God is still working through the crucified one? Can’t you believe that chaos does not mean that God abandoned you?


Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1628). From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

Of course we can hear those Bible stories and those promises over and over again; we can hear about how God has worked in the lives of others in our own time; and we can believe all of that with all our hearts and minds and souls — and still in our own moments of chaos, it can be hard to actually see God there with us amidst our pain and confusion. It can be hard to see much of anything through the chaos.

The same was true for those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize the risen Jesus when he began to walk with them. They did not recognize him as he spoke with them or interpreted the scriptures for them. It was not until he did that physical act of breaking the bread and giving them that food that they realized he had been there with them all along.

We also need such physical, touchable acts to help us know that God is with us in our moments of chaos. This is why we break bread together here at church each week during Holy Communion. This is why we touch water to our foreheads to remember the promise of our baptism. And this is why we bring meals to one another when we are in mourning, why we visit one another in the hospital, why we reach out to comfort one another with a smile or a hug or a card. This is why we serve and speak up for those Jesus served and spoke up for: the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the sinner. God works through all those actions to remind those who need to hear it most: you are not alone and good will be resurrected from the chaos.

In the midst of our moments of chaos we need to go to our community and to seek Christ in one another. As we confront our chaos and forge our community, we realize that Christ has been with us all along and that God will lead us on.

[1]”Where Do We Go From Here (1967),” Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle, online: Accessed 27 April 2017.

For Good Friday (and the Moments Like It)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 14, 2017

Reading: John 18-19

In 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just 22 years old and still too young to be ordained  — preached these words as part of a sermon:

On Good Friday let us not think right away about the fact that with Easter things were given a new direction. We want to think about how with the death of Jesus the disciples saw all hope dashed. Scattered from each other, they brooded in hopeless sorrow about what had happened. Only when we can take the death of Jesus just as seriously as they did, will we rightly understand what the resurrection message can bring.[1]

So I want us to dwell in this hopeless moment with the disciples for a while. They didn’t know would happen next. We may look back and say: they should have known; Jesus told them he would be raised from the dead. But would we have been able to believe that after the whirlwind of betrayal and violence? All the hopes raised by Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people taking to the streets with palm branches to welcome him, shouting “Hosanna!” — all those hopes shattered just a few days later, after one of Jesus’s closest disciples led the police right to him, after the crowds of Jerusalem suddenly changed their cry from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” It had all changed so quickly, and all the disciples’ dreams of following their beloved leader into a new world hung there on the cross with him, crucified by the same old cruel world that always had been and always would be. The disciples hid themselves away and let that truth dig its hopeless hole inside them: Jesus was dead. It was over. It had all been for nothing.

Good Friday is a holy time to reflect on this moment of hopelessness and the millions of other moments like it. Such times — when all seems lost — are tragically commonplace. We know them from history: people being captured and enslaved; stock markets crashing; boats sinking; trains of people pulling into internment camps; wars being declared and wars being surrendered. We know hopeless moments from the news: shootings; human trafficking; starvation; bombs dropping. We know hopeless moments from personal experience: job loss; a bad diagnosis; injury; depression; broken relationships; death.

And yet as Christians on this side of Easter, even in such hopeless moments, we hold on to hope. We call this Friday, where we remember Christ’s crucifixion, “good.” We believe that God is there in our moments of tragedy. Why do we hold on to hope? How?

We hold on to hope because we know what comes next in this story and in stories like it. We know stories from the Bible: Joseph was left for dead, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned; but then he became a powerful leader in Egypt and saved his family from a famine (Genesis 37, 39-45). Moses killed a man and ran away from Pharaoh’s punishment into self-exile, but during his exile he was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 2-3). We know stories from our own time: John Garrett suffered from a terrible heart condition, but he became a great spokesperson for organ donation. My grandmother was a fairly young widow, but in her widowhood she has learned to drive and overcome her fear of flying and made so many new friends. Your world probably once felt like it was ending, but you made it through.

Jesus was crucified, but the resurrection morning is coming.

As, in the Old Testament, Joseph said to his brothers, so we can say to the moments where hopelessness threatens us: “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We believe that one day we will look back on the darkest moments of our lives and be able to see them as the blessed dirt out of which God grew new life again. Jesus taught us this in the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

The Good Friday moment, which seem so senseless, which feels like it must be an ending, or a pit we can’t climb out of — God will helps us make meaning out of it and find the good on the other side.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a student who going through a time of suffering:

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”[2]

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt hopeless, afraid, left with nothing. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God in that moment. But we believe that God was there, suffering with them in the face of the world’s injustice and sin, but ready to use that evil moment for good. Ready to turn tragedy into a miracle, ready to turn death into new life.

And so we can remember in our moments of loneliness and loss, depression and hopelessness: even those moments are blessed by God with the promise of the future.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon in Barcelona for the third Sunday in Lent, 11 March 1928. Quoted in God is on the Cross, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., ed. Jana Riess, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 102.

[2] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

“He Loved Them to the End”/The Circle of Service

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Maundy Thursday + April 13, 2017

Reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”

“…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world…”

What would you do if you knew this was your last night in this world? It’s a question people ask to understand themselves better: What’s really important to you? What would you wish you would have done? What brings you the most joy? What truly has value? When we answer these questions, it can help us get our priorities in line. What would you do if you knew this was your last night in this world?

Today we remember how Jesus answered that question. The Gospel of John says: “…Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He gathered his close friends together, and they ate a good meal. In the other gospels their dinner together was the celebration of the important Jewish holiday of Passover, and it was also the time when Jesus established a new ritual for his followers, which we now call Holy Communion. The Gospel of John instead tells of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and then teaching them his last and greatest lesson: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The Lord's Supper - Matthew 26:17-30

JESUS MAFA. The Lord’s Supper, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is to spend time with people when they know that their hour is coming. Sometimes they, like Jesus, know their time will come in a matter of hours or days; most of the time death could still be years away, but people just realize they are much closer to that hour than they ever have been before. Death feels like a more real possibility than it did when they were in their teens or their 30s or their 60s.

And yes, I know I haven’t been at this work long, but I think I’ve been at it long enough to say that I have seen the pattern. When people know that their hour is coming, they talk about people. About relationships. They tell the story of how they met their spouse, and the story is well-crafted with detail and humor and surprises, and their eyes sparkle when they tell it — even if it’s the fifth time they’ve told me. They tell stories about their friends and their inside jokes and all the support they’ve provided over the years. They share news about their children and grandchildren.

And let me add another detail, just to emphasize that point: a lot of our people have had really interesting careers. They’ve done innovative work for major corporations; they’ve started and saved companies; they’ve lived all around the world. But most people I talk to barely mention those things. Even Mac Sweazey, who worked in the secret service and will regale you with some really great stories, reminds me every time I see him that I shouldn’t forget about the important things; that I should be out making friends and seeing family. And when you ask him who was his favorite president to work for and why, the answer is Eisenhower, and he’ll usually mention in his list of reasons why: “because he threw a party at the White House for all of our wives.”

We humans make meaning of our lives in a lot of ways: through work, through volunteering, through hobbies and time alone and study and play. We need all of these things. But in the end, we tend to tell our life story as the story of relationships.

This is what we see in today’s gospel story. “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” And the great commandment that gets its own holy day calls Jesus’s followers to remember that relationship is the most important part of his legacy: “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And so with the last hours before his arrest and execution, Jesus called together his friends, and even included the one whom he knew was in the process of betraying him. And yet again he set them an example of true relationship. He, the “Lord and Teacher,” tied a towel around himself and took each of his disciple’s dusty, calloused feet in his hands and washed them.

We often think of this as a “selfless” act. And Jesus was showing us an act of relationship without ego or self-importance, where the Lord connects directly with the people, where the devoted leader serves the devoted followers.

But so often when we think of “selfless” acts, we think of something so much less relationship-oriented. We think of a person who has something selflessly giving to someone who needs something. This has become the pattern for how we talk about serving and charity: “we give to help the poor” or “those people need our help.” We end up dividing people into categories of givers and receivers, or of “haves” and “have-nots” — and that’s not relationship. It’s more like a one-way transaction, and that’s not good for either side. The people who give can end up feeling like vending machines, constantly receiving calls for another donation or another three hours of their time. The people who receive can end up feeling pitied or not good enough, and they may feel dependent rather than empowered.

Jesus did not model this one-way-street sort of serving; instead he modeled relationship without self-importance. He did not say to us, “Well, I’m actually fully man AND fully God, so I’m only going to spend my time on earth with the very best of you mortals,” but he also didn’t say, “Well, I’m fully man AND fully God, so just sit back and receive from my greatness.” He formed real relationships with people, relationships where both sides gave and received, relationships where sometimes there was no service agenda, and they could just share a good meal and good conversation (ex. Matt. 11:19).

Jesus formed relationships with people who would have been considered wealthy either in money or in social standing — like some of the Pharisees, or like Zacchaeus the rich tax collector. Jesus also formed relationships with those who would have been considered needy — ranging from people in poverty to people with illnesses to children. And he involved all those people — across the whole spectrum — in his mission for the Kingdom of God. When Jesus fed thousands with just a few fish and loaves of bread, that food came from the disciples, or, in one version of the story, from a boy in the crowd (John 6). Some of the women followers of Jesus helped to financially support Jesus and the twelve disciples (Luke 8:1-3).

There was no “us” giving to “them” — there was just “us, doing God’s work: loving one another and the world.” And today we continue in that legacy, that circle of service.

In our society the church is one of few places where people of different backgrounds and skills and careers and viewpoints come together just to be in community, to be in relationship with one another. And out of that diversity we give to one another according to our skills and resources, and we receive from one another according to our needs. I see it here at St. Andrew all the time: when someone needs a job done, we point them towards someone who has the skills and could use the work, or we volunteer our own time to go change a lightbulb or rake some leaves. We cook meals for people who are going through hard times. We visit each other in the hospital. We share books and trade furniture and drive other people’s kids home from youth group. And we do all this service for one another best when we know one another, when we know what’s going on in one another’s lives, when we know what people actually need or what skills or resources other people have. We do it best when we are all part of that circle of giving and receiving.

How can we extend this pattern of a circle of service beyond our church? How can we get to know more of the people we give to or serve? How can we meet more people who are outside of our usual group — to understand people who are from different backgrounds or going through different things, so that we can better serve them, and so that we can also be served in new ways?

Today we gather to remember that Jesus chose to spend his last night with the people he loved and who loved him. We remember how he washed their feet, modeling a life of service that was humble and intimately relational. With the last hours before his arrest and the last night before his crucifixion, Jesus showed his disciples exactly what he wanted his legacy to be. This is the legacy we have inherited through generations and generations of followers of Jesus: “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Martin Luther on Baptism

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Midweek Lenten Services on Luther’s Small Catechism + March 29, 2017

One of the local organizations which will receive part of our midweek Lenten offering is the Church of Another Chance, a church whose membership is made up of men who are in jail in the Davidson County system, or who have been, and the volunteers who support them.

In the Church of Another chance, having a baptism means dragging a huge rectangular pool (thankfully, it is equipped with wheels) to the front of a room that looks more like an undecorated and unloved classroom than a chapel, then snaking a hose down the hallway from the janitor’s closet to fill the pool with warm water. They push some steps up against the outside of the pool so that the man dressed in a baptismal robe can climb in — with the help of a couple of other guys, since the steps get wet and slippery — and then the man steps down and sits in the pool, the water sloshing up around his chest.

I was in worship for a baptism at the Church of Another Chance once. The whole room felt electrified as the man took his spot in the pool. Pastor Scott stood behind the pool, held one of the man’s hands with one hand and supported his back with the other, and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” then plunged the man backwards and fully under the water.

The man came up out of the water, took in a deep breath of air, and the whole room exploded into applause. And then the man started weeping. He sat there in the pool in the plain room in the jail, his head in his hands, his back shaking, weeping and weeping. He went on weeping after the applause had died down; and he want on weeping as people started shouting encouraging things; and finally someone started singing “Amazing Grace” as the man continued to sit and weep. It took him a verse or two to catch his breath enough to stand and be helped back out of the pool.

How can water do such great things? Martin Luther asked in his Small Catechism. In his Large Catechism he spends a lot of time on this question. Because, he says, water is not a flashy thing. It’s “just” water. It’s everywhere. The act of sprinkling or pouring water over someone’s head, or even of fully immersing someone in a river, does not have the same power to awe as a healing miracle or even the grand authority of a letter bearing the pope’s official seal. But still Christians have held baptism in water as a central ritual for centuries and centuries; and for this simple act of applying water, we attend classes, we gather family and friends from far away, we buy nicer clothes, we throw big parties — and yes, we lose ourselves to smiling and weeping. How can water do such great things?

If we look at the “Holy Baptism” section in the Small Catechism, we can see how Luther answers this question.

The first question Luther asks is simply, “What is Baptism?” His answer is, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.”

Here Luther references the definition of a sacrament: in order for something to be a sacrament it must (1) use a visible, earthly element — baptism uses water; (2) have been commanded for us to do by Jesus; and (3) give to us the promised gifts of God, especially forgiveness. Lutherans across the board celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.

So, to be specific: the first thing that makes the water and the act of baptism holy is that Jesus commanded us to baptize; here in the Small Catechism, Luther quotes Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The command of God means that what’s going in baptism is more important than any old bath.

The second important thing that makes baptism holy is that through this ritual we receive the promised gifts of God. Luther talks about this in the second question of the catechism’s section on baptism. “What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes the promise of Jesus in Mark 16: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

Luther’s next question is, “How can water do such great things?” It’s like Luther is concerned that even after those last two questions and their focus on the Word of God, and even after all the core Lutheran teaching that nothing we do earns us the gifts of God, we still might think baptism is all about one person pouring water on another person. So Luther makes sure to say, one more time with feeling:

“Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a grace-filled water of life and a ‘bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit,’ as St. Paul says to Titus in chapter 3, ‘through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.’

Luther emphasizes this point over and over again. It’s not the power of water that makes Baptism so important. Nor is it the power of a human being pouring water over another, or the power of the human choosing to receive the water, or the power of the the human speaking the words. Like just about everything in the Lutheran faith, the power of baptism does not come from something humans do, but from the Word and action of God. It’s all something God does for us, not something we do for ourselves. That means it doesn’t matter whether we knew what was happening to us when we were baptized; it doesn’t matter if we were choosing to be baptized with a sincere heart, or if we weren’t choosing it at all; it doesn’t matter whether we were baptized in the Lutheran church of the Catholic church or the Baptist church; it doesn’t matter if the pastor who baptized us was a “good person” or believed exactly the right things. All that matters is that God worked through the baptism, because God promised to do so.

And God promises to continue working through our baptism. While we only get baptized once in our lives, that baptism is a daily gift to us. That’s why we “remember our baptism” so often in the church and in our private lives. Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “…a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.”

Here, in the last part of the Small Catechism’s section on baptism, Luther talks about how our baptism is part of our lives every day:

“What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?” he asks, like asking, “But how do this ritual and those old scripture verses actually apply to my life?”

He answers: “It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Luther draws on Romans chapter 6: for this teaching; I’ll read most of that chapter for you now.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Each day Christ’s death and resurrection work in us; each day we are granted another chance to turn from the things we wish we didn’t do and to become more and more the person God made us to be. Thanks be to God for that daily gift. Amen.

The Lord has been/is/will be my Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fourth Sunday of Lent + March 26, 2017

Bible Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23

I’m going to begin this morning by thinking about the first of today’s readings. But I know that you all just heard a rather long gospel reading, and your memory banks may have been maxed out by that.  So let’s remember back to that first reading together: back in ancient Israel, in the days of the nation’s very first king, the Lord had decided that king, Saul, was no longer God’s chosen king of Israel, and so the Lord told the prophet Samuel to go and anoint the next king. Samuel was not a fan of his new divine assignment; God was sending Samuel to commit treason against the king — the same king Samuel had anointed himself not very long ago. “How can I go?” he asked God, “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” But “Samuel did what the Lord commanded,” in spite of his own fears.

The famous Psalm 23 — known as “The Shepherd’s Psalm” — had of course not been written yet when Samuel set off on his mission. According to tradition the young shepherd boy that Samuel would anoint that day would write that psalm years later, when he was known as King David. Still, I wonder if Samuel prayed something very similar to Psalm 23 as he travelled to Jesse’s home to commit treason for the Lord.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures,

And leads me beside still waters.

Of course the Lord was not leading Samuel beside still waters; the Lord was taking Samuel into very dangerous territory, into white water rapids full of sharp rocks.

You restore my soul, O Lord,

And guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.

But was this really the “right pathway”? Setting up a new person to be king, potentially stirring up rebellion, dividing the allegiance of the people?

I’m sure Samuel had a lot of questions for God, and a lot of doubt and fear. Still he moved forward, following God, trusting God even when it must have seemed crazy. On his journey to Jesse’s home Samuel must have been thinking back over all the times God had already been his good and faithful shepherd: God had caused Samuel to be born to Hannah, who had been unable to have children (1 Sam. 1). God had called Samuel by name to be a prophet and leader of God’s people (1 Sam. 3). God had led the Israelite army to victory against the Philistines, and Samuel had been there serving as their priest (1 Sam. 7). And perhaps Samuel thought back on all God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel: leading them out of slavery in Egypt; leading them into the promised land. These memories could have served as reminders, as a foundation to support Samuel’s faith in a difficult, trying moment.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord has been my shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Looking back on God’s faithfulness would have helped Samuel to see God being faithful to him in his present moment. He would have remembered that the same God who had been with him and his people for so long, who had guided them and protected them, was there with him on that strange and dangerous journey to anoint a new king. He would have had faith that God would still be with him after the journey and the anointing, come what may.

Of course I don’t know what Samuel actually prayed or thought on his way to Jesse’s home. But whatever his prayer was, it helped keep him moving forward through a time of doubt and fear.

I think people (myself included) tend to look back on prophets and saints and other “special” people of God and assume that somehow they were more certain than us “regular” people. They were more sure of God’s guidance; they had a greater sense of clarity; they had miraculously less doubt and fear and confusion. It’s especially easy to assume that for stories like Samuel’s, where the biblical accounts seem to tell us that Samuel and God were exchanging audible words, that God was speaking loudly and clearly to Samuel in a way in which we long to hear from God.

But many of the people we hold up as special saints admitted feeling doubt and fear and frustration, admitted feeling like God was silent or maybe even absent.

Many of us admire the pastor and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the faithful life he lived. He chose to stay in Germany during Hitler’s reign there, though he could have stayed in the U.S. or England or any number of safer places. He spoke out publicly against Nazi takeover of the church. When the Nazis suppressed the church that spoke out against them, Bonhoeffer worked underground to train students of the faith. He worked as a spy. After he was caught, he spent a year and half in prison, where he ministered to the other prisoners and continued his writing. He was executed along with fellow conspirators. The story of Bonhoeffer’s death, passed on by a physician who had been an eyewitness, sounds like something out of an ancient book of saints:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.[1]

Bonhoeffer is a renowned example of inspiring faith and action in the midst of terrible times. But Bonhoeffer’s outward faith emerged from a storm of inner struggle and doubt. While imprisoned, he wrote this poem about the difference between how other people saw him and how he experienced his own life:

Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.


Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.


Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.


Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?


Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?


Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.[2]

Bonhoeffer, like other remarkable saints, experienced the feelings familiar to us: loneliness, helplessness, fear, second-guessing. But still he and the other saints threw themselves on God: remembering God’s faithfulness to their ancestors in the faith, remembering God’s past faithfulness to them, they opened their eyes to find God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times. Praying until they trusted more, praying in a way that kept them walking with God and trying to be part of God’s work in world.

Bonhoeffer wrote these words as part of a prayer for himself and other prisoners:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you; I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, but with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me…Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am. You know all man’s troubles; you abide with me when all men fail me…Lord, I hear your call and follow; help me…O Holy Spirit, give me faith that will protect me from despair, from passions, and from vice…Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before men. Lord whatever this day may bring, your name be praised. Amen.[3]  

(You can read the full prayer here.)

 When we gather for worship, one of the things we do is call to mind God’s faithfulness to our ancestors in the faith. We do this when we read the Bible, when we sing hymns, when we give thanks for our baptism, and when we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember in order to give thanks to God, but we also remember so we can hear that God’s faithfulness continues down through the generations and into our own lives. We remember so that our eyes will be opened to see God’s faithfulness to us now.

When you go through your own hard times, practice remembering God’s faithfulness to you and to others. Call to mind your favorite Bible stories or verses. Remember how God has worked in the lives of those you love. Remember the ways you have experienced God at work in your own life. Remind yourself of who God is, and then in prayer practice trusting God, even in the times it feels hard to do so. Maybe through that practice, you will come to see the goodness of God even in those hard times.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord is our shepherd.

The Lord will be our shepherd.

Amen. Thanks be to God.


Painting of the “Good Shepherd” found in a catacomb in Rome; from the mid-third century. (Source: Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition)

[1] Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Quoted in the Wikipedia article “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). Ed. Eberhard Bethge. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972). pp. 347-348.

[3]Bonhoeffer, 139-141.

Bonhoeffer’s Morning Prayer for Fellow-Prisoners

This prayer was written by the pastor, scholar, spy, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer around Christmas 1943, while he was imprisoned for his work against the Nazi party.  I quoted excerpts of it in the sermon “The Lord has been/is/will be my Shepherd” (March 26, 2017) and wanted to provide the full prayer for those who are interested.  

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.

Help me to pray

And to concentrate my thoughts on you;

I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness,

But with you there is light;

I am lonely, but you do not leave me;

I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;

I am restless, but with you there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;

I do not understand your ways,

But you know the way for me.

O heavenly Father,

I praise and thank you

For the peace of the night;

I praise and thank you for this new day;

I praise and thank you for all your goodness and faithfulness throughout my life.

You have granted me many blessings;

Now let me also accept what is hard from your hand.

For you will lay on me no more than I can bear.

You make all things work together for good for your children.


Lord Jesus Christ,

You were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.

You know all man’s troubles;

You abide with me when all men fail me;

You remember and seek me;

It is your will that I should know you and turn to you.

Lord, I hear your call and follow;

Help me.

O Holy Spirit,

Give me faith that will protect me from despair, from passions, and from vice;

Give me such love for God and men

As will blot out all hatred and bitterness;

Give me the hope that will deliver me from fear and faint-heartedness.

O holy and merciful God,

my Creator and Redeemer,

My Judge and Saviour,

You know me and all that I do.

You hate and punish evil without respect of persons in this world and the next;

You forgive the sins of those who sincerely pray for forgiveness;

You love goodness, and reward it on this earth with a clear conscience,

and, in the world to come, with a crown of righteousness.

I remember in your presence all my loved ones,

My fellow-prisoners, and all who in this house perform their hard service;

Lord, have mercy.

Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before men. Lord whatever this day may bring, your name be praised. Amen.

 [found in Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). Ed. Eberhard Bethge. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972).  Pp. 139-141.]

To See the Kingdom of God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Second Sunday in Lent + March 12, 2017

Scripture Reading: John 3:1-17

It was nighttime in ancient Jerusalem, in the days before streetlights or lit-up signs. Nicodemus the Pharisee made his way through the dark streets to find Jesus. This teacher from Galilee had been in the capital city for only a few days, but already he had caused enough trouble to make a bad name for himself: he had stormed the Holy Temple itself with a whip, driving out the animals being sold, grabbing sacks of coins from the moneylenders and pouring them out on the floor, flipping over tables while yelling things about “his father’s house.” Many of the people, many of the other Pharisees, and many of the powerful leaders in the Temple called Jesus dangerous, a troublemaker, a rioter. But Nicodemus couldn’t stop thinking about the signs and miracles this Jesus was doing; he had to speak with him. Still, with Jesus’s reputation, better to do it under the cover of night.

Jesus immediately turned their conversation to the kingdom of God: how to see it, how to be a part of it. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he said to Nicodemus. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Those two statements bring up a lot of questions. Nicodemus focused on the physical questions: How can an adult be born again? That doesn’t make any biological sense. But for me the big questions are: What is the kingdom of God? Why is it so hard for us to see and to be a part of? What keeps us from seeing it and joining in? If we can understand the answers to those questions, maybe we can get a better idea of what Jesus means when he says we need to be reborn in a new way.

I had those questions in my head while I was watching one of my favorite science-fiction shows this week. The episode followed a soldier named Stripe on his first real mission. His team’s main job is to find and kill what they call “roaches,” and we hear about these creatures little by little. They steal food from towns; they commit other crimes; they spread disease; they carry mental and physical problems that are bad for the gene pool; they are the enemy. After all that build-up, we finally we see these roaches: Stripe is searching a suspicious house and pulls back a hanging sheet to discover a group of humanoid creatures with weird, pale skin, sharp teeth, discolored eyes. They shriek in alien sounds and leap out at him, and one of them keeps pointing something that looks like a high-tech pen (or maybe a sonic screwdriver or one of those Men-in-Black memory-wiping-sticks) in Stripe’s face. When he’s taken them all out, Stripe picks up the pen-thing, pushes a button, and an intense green light flashes. He blinks, drops it to the ground, and returns to his troop.

When Stripe goes out on his second mission a few days later, he experiences everything differently. And I mean everything. The colors of nature are brighter: the green of the trees, the blue of the sky. He picks up handfuls of grass and holds it up to his nose, breathing in deeply as he realizes he hasn’t smelled something like that in a long time. The other soldiers wonder if he’s going crazy.

Suddenly his team is under attack. Stripe and one other solider, Raiman, are the only ones left standing. They run for cover, then they head into a farmhouse to find their attackers — and Stripe is shocked when Raiman starts taking out bystanding civilians. Stripe knocks out Raiman and escapes with a woman and her child. When they reach a safe place, the woman, with a mix of fear and hope, asks Stripe, “You can see me as I really am? You don’t see a roach?”[1]

Slowly Stripe discovers that he and the other soldiers have all been implanted with devices that change the way they perceive the world. These devices are supposed to lessen the the trauma of combat: they can’t smell the awful smells of war; they literally see and hear enemies as monsters. The flash of green light from the pen had broken Stripe’s device, changing the way he perceived everything and everyone, turning upside-down the way he understood himself and his job and his world. To use the metaphors of today’s gospel reading, Stripe had been reborn.



By Greyson Orlando, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus said that we need to be “born from above” or (in other translations) “born again” or “born anew” in order to even be able to perceive the kingdom of God. The gospels talk about the kingdom of God in a few different ways: in some ways, it is already around us; but it is also still coming, getting closer, growing; and one day it will arrive in fullness. But, Jesus said in today’s reading, we can’t just naturally see that. We can’t see the kingdom as it already is around or as its time of fullness is drawing near without being born anew. Maybe that’s because we can’t automatically see the world as it really is, as God sees it. Like the device implanted in Stripe’s brain, there is something in us and around us that keeps us from seeing as God sees.

The writings in the Bible offer us some ideas about how God sees the world and about what God’s kingdom looks like and will look like. Over and over in the prophets, in the great Old Testament stories, in the song of Mary, and the words of Jesus, we hear that God cares for everyone, desires everyone to have enough, to thrive, to experience the blessings and love of God and others. That means that God and God’s messengers often speak up on behalf of those suffering or being oppressed, the overlooked and the avoided and the misunderstood.

The Bible also tells of a kingdom of God which will be made up of all nations. Rob Bell elaborates: “That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, dialects, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating — multiethnic, multisensory, multieverything.”[3] All those things we see as foreign and maybe uncomfortable…all of it looks familiar to the God who created all people and dwells with all people.

And then, trying to get an idea about the kingdom of God, we might think not only of the way God sees the world but also the way God works in the world. As Christians we believe that God works with a justice that understands all sides, a justice rooted in love and concern for all people. We believe in a God who chooses to be merciful without end, a God of radical grace. We believe in a God who forgives things we could never forgive and loves people even in the midst of their sin. We believe in a God who is bringing both justice and grace to fruition all around us.

And all of that sounds wonderful when we’re hearing it from our pews on Sunday morning. But when God’s kingdom takes to the streets, it can be hard for us to handle, hard for us to see as something coming from God. That’s why Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night: because so many people — especially the people with power or good social standing — couldn’t see the kingdom of God in what Jesus was doing. Wreaking havoc in the Holy Temple? Spending time with prostitutes, with scammers, with obvious sinners? Hanging around lepers and other sick people? Speaking publicly against the ways the government and the religious institution mistreated those in need? Sometimes the kingdom of God comes off as offensive.

So what prevents us humans from seeing the kingdom of God when it’s happening around us? Why do we sometimes just not notice it; why are we — like some of the Pharisees of Jesus times — offended instead of joyful? What keeps us from seeing the world as God sees it?

The Bible talks about sin, about having hard hearts. I think part of it is just that we humans are limited beings. The way we see and understand the world is bound by so many factors, some of them outside of our control; the time and place and culture where we grow up and where we live our lives (think of how often we say, “Of course that person thought that way; they were just a product of their times!”). Our perception is affected by the things other people have taught us, through word and example. Our perception is affected by what we have opportunity to learn and experience. Our perception is affected by our own needs and desires: whether they are for basic things like safety and security or our more selfish wants. So how could we possibly see like the God who is beyond all of our situations and knowledge and limitations?

And yet Jesus says we can, if we are born again, born anew, born from above. If we are born of water and the Spirit.

It was that “being born of water and the Spirit” that Martin Luther relied on so heavily in problems like this. He was the king of saying, “We can’t do anything good on our own” — maybe even to a sort of unhealthy extent. But I can imagine Luther reading this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and saying, “Well, of course I can’t see or enter the kingdom of God on my own!” But Luther believed that the Holy Spirit works within us to transform us into saints who can see and participate in the kingdom of God. Our rebirth — our baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit — works in us daily to remove the things within us that keep us from God and the kingdom, and our rebirth works in us daily to grow our faith, our understanding, our goodness.

The Holy Spirit works in us as we read Scripture, helping us to see the world more like God sees it. The Holy Spirit works in us as we realize God’s love for us, and we share that love with other people. The Holy Spirit works in us as we meet others and try to see the image of God in them. The Holy Spirit moves us to grow in our own understanding, mercy, and love. I see all of these things in this congregation every day, and it helps me believe the Holy Spirit truly is working in us all, helping us to see God’s kingdom more clearly, helping us to enter that kingdom and be part of its work in our world.

[1] Charlie Brooker, “Men Against Fire,” Black Mirror, season 3, episode 5, directed by Jakob Verbruggen, (Netflix: October 21, 2016). Note: This show contains “adult situations,” and some episodes contain more potentially offensive content than others. Use discretion if you decide to check it out…and maybe skip season 1, episode 1.

[3] Rob Bell, Love Wins, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 34.